I listened with a great interest to the podcast episode “Sunday in the Park with Theory.” This is a brilliant introduction to Jason Ānanda Josephson Storm’s third book Metamodernism: The Future of Theory (University of Chicago Press, 2021).
My own academic works have been inspired by Storm’s deconstructionist spirit. My first English book The Category of Religion in Contemporary Japan (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), for example, was my own modest attempt to follow the footsteps of Storm’s 2012 book The Invention of Religion in Japan by extending the critique of ‘religion’ to the contemporary Japanese context.
In the interview, Storm stresses that ‘religion’ is not the only problematic category, and other master categories have been deconstructed in similar ways to ‘religion’ within a number of academic disciplines in human sciences. These include the categories of ‘art,’ ‘culture,’ ‘the political,’ ‘history,’ ‘society,’ ‘science,’ etc. Given this, he claims that Metamodernism is “the first book to line up all those critiques” (20:14).
Here I slightly disagree with Storm. We should note that, for example, Timothy Fitzgerald’s 2007 book Discourse on Civility and Barbarity had already been “concerned with the category ‘religion’ as it operates in relation with other categories” (Fitzgerald 2007: 44), such as ‘politics’ and ‘economy.’ In more recent years, the list of categories under Fitzgerald’s critical investigation includes ‘politics,’ ‘religion,’ ‘secular,’ ‘nation,’ ‘state,’ ‘political economy,’ ‘economics,’ ‘science,’ ‘progress,’ ‘nature,’ ‘modern,’ ‘Enlightenment,’ ‘culture,’ ‘society,’ and ‘history.’
Storm might have misunderstood what ‘critical religion’ means. It is “shorthand for the critical historical deconstruction of ‘religion’ and related categories” (Fitzgerald 2017a: 125). I agree with Storm that there is a tendency in “a deconstructive turn in critical religion” that “we could spend all of our time just telling people that the category religion doesn’t apply anymore, that the category is fraught, that it is fundamentally problematic, etc., etc., etc.” (18:01). This is, however, not always the case.
As a practical way forward for human sciences after deconstruction of their master categories, Storm proposes the idea of process ontology. He suggests that we should conceptualise our own academic disciplinary master categories, not in terms of fixed substances, but in terms of processes. He explains this by using the examples of ‘art’ and ‘religion.’
Although he probably discusses much further in his book, at this point, I found that conversation did not develop to the extent I would like to see. For me, there are at least two ways which stem from deconstructive critique. (I discuss these in my second English book ‘Religion’ and ‘Secular’ Categories in Sociology: Decolonizing the Modern Myth [Palgrave Macmillan, 2021].)
First, in the academic discourse of human sciences, while master categories should only appear as objects of analysis (see Fitzgerald 2000), scholars should use more specific terms for description and analysis. Naomi Goldenberg applies this principle to the category ‘religion’:
One practice I have adopted is to avoid the uncritical and rote use of the terms on which I am commenting. For example, instead of citing “religions” as if the word named a distinct genre of phenomena, I identify the traditions and ideologies that pertain to the particular issue I am discussing. I refer to Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism even though I realize that these terms are also problematic generalizations. Whenever I can, I attempt to be even more precise: Lutherans, Evangelicals, Catholic, Baptists, Hasidic, Lubavitch, Sunni, Shiite, Theravada, Hindutva, etc. Perfection is impossible. I acknowledge that all words are to some degree ambiguous—as those who want to surrender to our field’s usual vocabulary tirelessly explain to me. Yes, of course. The practice I am advocating does not aim to completely dispel the nebulae which surround all meanings. By naming groups more specifically as Jews, Catholics, and Hindus, rather than as “religions,” I momentarily stop propagating the idea that “religion” exists as an abstraction of which there are only examples. The more specific the name of the group, the greater will be the gesture towards particular histories, behaviours and polities. (Goldenberg 2018: 92)
I would like to argue that the same principle should be applied to other master categories, such as ‘politics,’ ‘economy,’ ‘science,’ ‘culture,’ ‘society,’ etc.
Second, after deconstructing disciplinary master categories, we should examine the process in which all these categories constitute a self-referential system of meanings. In Fitzgerald’s (2017c) words: “These categories operate like signs in an automatic signalling system.” This system produces and reproduces our ‘modern’ consciousness.
Here I use the term ‘modern’ in the sense that ‘modernity’ is “the epistemic assumptions common to all areas of knowledge established in the Western world since the European Renaissance and through the European Enlightenment” (Mignolo 2018: 106). The master categories of academic disciplines constitute modern categories of understanding, which “have a common history of emergence since the 17th century, and now appear as if they are ‘in the nature of things’” (Fitzgerald 2017b). They are building blocks of the mythology of modernity which authorises the ways of thinking, being, and doing in the North Atlantic world. Michel-Rolph Trouillot (2003) calls this “North Atlantic fictions.”
I am not using the term ‘fiction’ in a negative sense as opposed to ‘reality.’ Fiction-making is the defining characteristic of us Homo sapiens. This is the fundamental of what Storm calls ‘mind-dependent’ or ‘social’ kinds, that are the subject of human sciences. Here I am echoing Yuval Noah Harari (2011: 27):
Many animals and human species could previously say, ‘Careful! A lion!’ Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens acquired the ability to say, ‘The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.’ This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language.
Then he continues:
fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states. Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers. (Harari 2011: 27)
Harari’s category of fiction also includes such entities as currencies, banks, corporations, nation states, and the like. They are all what Storm calls ‘mind-dependent’ or ‘social’ kinds.
Deconstruction of master categories is the starting point for the study of the fiction that we live by. It helps us to realise that ‘reality’ is a collectively internalised fiction, that authorises a specific classification scheme, thus reifies various mind-dependent entities, and normalises certain forms of behavioural patterns. Master categories of academic disciplines are essential constituents of the classification system that naturalises the modern fiction. Deconstruction of master categories forces us to provincialize our ‘modern’ consciousness as just one of many other fictions. Thus, it clears the space for other fictions to exist. In other words, it would allow multiplicity of being, thinking, knowing, and doing to co-exist.
In human sciences, as Storm argues, critical deconstruction of master categories has been acknowledged in many academic disciplines. I argue, however, these critiques tend to be evolved into subdisciplines within the existing disciplinary framework. In this way, the status quo of ‘modern’ academic knowledge production remains unchallenged. In contrast, by lining up deconstructive critiques of multiple master categories in the forefront, I believe, Storm’s Metamodernism makes a significant counterattack to resist the domestication of deconstructive critique of master categories by the existing classificatory norms. For the further development of human sciences, critical deconstruction of master categories of modernity should form a movement standing on its own transcending all existing disciplinary boundaries. Storm seems to be up for this challenge.
- Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2000. The Ideology of Religious Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2007. Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2017a. “The Ideology of Religious Studies Revisited: The Problem with Politics.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion: Working Papers from Hannover. Leiden: Brill, pp. 124-152.
- Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2017b. Abolishing Politics, Forward, pp. 1-16. The Center for Critical Research on Religion 22 May 2017. Available at: https://criticaltheoryofreligion.org/timothy-fitzgerald-abolishing-politics-foreword/
- Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2017c. Abolishing Politics: Categories as Signs in an Automatic Signalling System. The Center for Critical Research on Religion 19 September 2017. Available at: https://criticaltheoryofreligion.org/timothy-fitzgerald-abolishing-politics-categories-as-signs-in-an-automatic-signalling-system/
- Goldenberg, Naomi. 2018. Forgot about Defining “It”: Reflections on Thinking Differently in Religious Studies. In Brad Stoddard ed. Method Today: Redescribing Approaches to the Study of Religion. Sheffield: Equinox, pp. 79-95.
- Harari, Yuval Noah. 2011. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. London. Harvill Secker.
- Mignolo, Walter. 2018. “What Does it Mean to Decolonize?” In Walter D. Mignolo and Catherne Walsh. On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analytics, Praxis. London: Duke University Press, pp. 105-134.
- Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 2003. Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World. London: Palgrave Macmillan.