IIAS African Studies Lecture | Beyond the Secular: Jacques Derrida and the Theological Political Complex



On the afternoon of March 29, 2023, the Sub-Saharan African Studies Research Group of the Institute for International and Area Studies (IIAS) of Tsinghua University hosted the first lecture of the 2022-2023 spring semester via Zoom. Themed “Beyond the Secular: Jacques Derrida and the Theological-Political Complex,” the lecture was delivered by Andrea Cassatella, Senior Research Fellow at the Makerere Institute of Social Research, Makerere University in Uganda, whose upcoming book has the same title as the theme of the lecture. The lecture was presided over by Gao Liangmin, assistant professor at the IIAS. Close to 40 IIAS faculty members and doctoral students, scholars and students at home and abroad, and others interested in the topic attended the lecture.

The lecture consisted of three parts. The first part introduced the background of Professor Cassatella’s thoughts. The second part focused on linguistic and epistemological issues and their impact on political thinking. The third part addressed the meaning of “beyond the secular” and the possibility of reflecting on colonization based on Jacques Derrida’s philosophy.

At the beginning of the lecture, Professor Cassatella introduced the global phenomenon of “return of religion,” as reflected in the September 11 attacks and the subsequent anti-Muslim legislation in Europe and the U.S., and the massive expansion of Pentecostal denominations worldwide. Professor Cassatella noted that the “return of religion” has become a major issue in political life, prompting people to contemplate the relationship between theology and politics in modern secular discourse. As a political language, modern secular discourse is inextricably linked with the concept of “religion,” as the operation of modern secular discourse is inseparable from a particular understanding of religion that, influenced by the Reformation (Western Christianity) era, regards religion as a general term covering all religious phenomena. In fact, traditional secularism believes in a pure and detached relationship between religion and politics, but with the growing importance of religion in the public sphere, a new understanding of “religion” requires breaking down the separation between religion and politics. Therefore, Jacques Derrida argues that the theological-political nexus is beyond secular paradigms. Professor Cassatella pointed it out that Derrida’s thought is deeply influenced by his personal experience, which, based on the margin of the European model, softens but does not completely dismiss the logic of colonial epistemology, nor does it have Islamic standpoints overstep the former. Derrida makes his point on the legacy of coloniality in secularism, inspiring people to look at the theological-political relationship from a historical perspective. Professor Cassatella also defined the aforesaid relationship as a “theological-political complex,” which breaks the binary thinking centered on the West and instead, emphasizes the theological relevance and political urgency of examining the relationship in a new light.

In the second part of the lecture, Professor Cassatella took a look at Derrida’s metaphysical “white mythology” and combined Derrida’s criticism of philosophy with racial overtones with the “quest of origin” and “modern discourse of religion” to prove that the philosophical roots of secular discourse are marked by racism, and to illustrate its ties with colonialism and post-colonialism. Professor Cassatella then analyzed how racial issues course through conceptual language and epistemology, and how they influence political thinking. Language and translation are an important topic in the debate over contemporary secularism. The academic community is divided over the definition of “translation,” and a mainstream view defines translation as a process of transmitting the message on the basis of equivalence. However, this view ignores the stable relationship between words, meanings and objects as highlighted in philosophical understanding, and philosophy itself pursues the singularity and clarity of such relationship. Derrida questions this characteristic of philosophy. He argues that language can be construed as both a medium and translation, and from the perspective of translation, metalanguage does not exist, and all languages are fundamentally equal. Derrida stresses that no translation can be absent from the “untranslatability” underlying the source language, and the process of translation results in the reorganization of the relationship between words, meanings and objects, which is influenced by the rules, political interests and political forces of the target language. For example, translation today is being impacted by secular globalization.

Next, Professor Cassatella gave an overview of Derrida’s theory of time and political thinking. Derrida questions traditional perception of time, thinking of time as a linear continuum of the present, past and future, the three elements that can be grasped in a unified way. His perception of the linearity and unity of time is based on a computational understanding of reason. When it comes to reason, Professor Cassatella stated that the religion Derrida talks about is religion within the limits of reason, which refutes the fundamental logic of Derrida’s thought of the relationship between reason and faith. Based on this logic, Derrida concludes that religion cannot be excluded from the social, political and scientific realms.

Professor Cassatella then explained how language, translation and time influence political community in Derrida’s thoughts. Derrida considers political community through the lens of “democracy to come.” Historically, the forms of democracy have diversified with the deepening of political practice, and the “future” in Derrida’s thoughts features definite openness. Therefore, “democracy” is not a prediction of the future, but an affirmation of the historicity of a political community. Professor Cassatella said that Derrida’s thoughts have inspired a lot of thinking about the future of political communities, especially those related to Islam. Derrida himself takes religion and democracy together when studying Islam. What does the term “Islam” mean? What actions that are taken in the name of Islam can be considered “Islamic”? How does Islam participate in the process of globalization? Derrida raises a series of questions from the two above-mentioned perspectives, and points it out that Islam’s refusal to separate theology from politics is beyond the secular. To be exact, what Islam rejects is not secularization that separates religion and politics, but that separates religious authority and political authority.

In the final part, Professor Cassatella pointed it out that Derrida’s thoughts have disrupted the conventional paradigm of studying the contemporary relationship between religion and politics, inspiring people to examine the issue in a way “beyond the secular.” As Professor Cassatella sees it, going beyond political and non-political perspectives and Christian secularism and casting off the shackles of modern discourse of religion can provide innovative ways to further decolonize research and explore the meaning of human life.

During the Q&A session, Professor Cassatella had a lively exchange with the scholars, students and other participants regarding Derrida’s theories on sovereignty, danger of religion, deconstructionism, translation and colonialism.