‘Migrants in the Profane: Critical Theory and the Question of Secularization’ by Peter E Gordon reviewed by Hans G Despain

Migrants in the Profane: Critical Theory and the Question of Secularization

Yale University Press, New Haven CT, 2020. 208 pp., $35 hb
ISBN 9780300250763

Reviewed by Hans G Despain

About the reviewer

Hans G Despain is Professor of Economics and Department Chair at Nichols College, Massachusetts. He …


The development of capitalism was simultaneously the secularization of society. Religion dulled, reason shined. The young Karl Marx declared religion to be ‘the opium of the people.’ Based on this idiom, Marxism seemed to embrace atheistic secularism. But Marx was critical of the secularization of society itself. According to him, religion was a protest against secularization: ‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions,’ and ‘a protest against real suffering.’

Marxism’s relationship with religion is a Hegelian unhappy consciousness, divided within and against itself. Marxists sometimes recoil from religion and other Marxists understand religion as dialectically necessary, ‘the soul of soulless conditions.’ For some Marxists, religion, or at least the metaphysics of theology, is necessary for emancipatory hope.

In a new and extraordinary little book, Migrants in the Profane: Critical Theory and the Question of Secularization, Peter E. Gordon wrestles with Marxism’s unhappy consciousness towards theology. The book meditates on the philosophical and religious issues surrounding secularization as a ‘conceptual gesture’ in the work of Frankfurt School critical theorists, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno. Gordon shows theological thinking is crucial for overcoming the horrors capitalism and the emptiness of mass industrial culture.

If secularization means the development of science and truth and a movement away from superstition and falsehood, secularization is a powerfully positive force of history. But, according to Benjamin, Horkheimer and Adorno, secularization seems to leave modern society ‘with a fatal deficit in normativity’ (8); they laid special stress on the secularization ‘conception of history as permanent catastrophe’ (73).

In the Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno set out to explain why humanity’s enlightenment had failed to achieve a truly human state and instead sunk into ‘a new kind of barbarism.’ Enlightenment turned out to be ‘mass deception.’ ‘Enlightenment’s program was the disenchantment of the world,’ resulting into a radiant ‘triumphant calamity.’ The so-called enlightened world has become overly ‘rationalized,’ losing ‘nearly all the normative potentials that would point’ to its redemption (75).

During the economic crisis of 1930s and the horrors of World War II, Horkheimer and Adorno grew skeptical about the possibility of social emancipation. The enlightenment generated political authoritarianism, fascism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism (73). The rationalized world’s austerity toward normativity needed reversal. The normativity deficit required redemption. Horkheimer started his career as a great critic of metaphysical philosophy, believing metaphysics to be antagonistic to the emancipatory project of Marxian materialism. Early in the enlightenment process, atheism was a sign of inner independence and a badge of courage (89). The horrors of the twentieth century, according to Horkheimer, had ‘assigned to religion a crucial role as the original source of normativity and meaning’ (77). By the twentieth century, atheism had become a doctrine of internal despair, aligned with dominant powers generating the normativity deficit. Religion expressed the hope ‘that earthly horror does not possess the last word’ (68-9) and the ‘longing for something other than this world’ (89).

According to Gordon, Horkheimer and Adorno interpret the emergence of Judaism as the transition from superstitious mythical prehistory to a disenchanted modernity in their Dialectic of Enlightenment. However, ‘Judaism is Janus-faced: it has the power to wrest humanity from myth even as it subordinates humanity to a new more forbidding authority’ (87). Thus, Judaic religion ushers in a critique of domination along with a potential new form of domination, idolatry. Analogously, Horkheimer worried natural sciences had metastasized into something far more ominous that now pushes out alternative modes of thought (93). Science is Janus-faced: its emancipatory aspect is knowledge and material prosperity, but simultaneously creates a normative deficit.

Adorno was also sensitive to both the normative deficit of modernity and wanted to avoid a retreat into theology. He insisted on a migration into the profane (9-10), a theoretical analysis of a capitalist cultural industry. Adorno’s philosophical position aimed at understanding secularization while retaining theological conceptual space for that which what transcends immediate capitalistic conditions.

For Adorno theology is a metaphoric stance or ‘conceptual gesture’ (129), enabling a radical critique of capitalist cultural forms of music, literature, advertising, movies, television, education and politics. These cultural forms become, what Georg Lukács called, humanity’s ‘second nature’ (84). This cultural ‘second nature’ emerges a new form of domination. Whereas Horkheimer saw science as Janus-faced, Adorno contends that the cultural industry promotes desires, motivations and actions that come to dominate social being. The seemingly secularization and disenchantment of cultural forms may be better characterized as mis-enchantment, or the worship of money and commodity accumulation.

The inspiration of Adorno’s position is Marx’s notion of commodity and money fetishism. The exchange-value of commodities comes to dominant philosophical notions of value, and money becomes a cultural absolute spirit. Adorno’s critique of capitalistic idolatry reveals the frivolousness of modern life and ‘the poverty of moral-political resources in modern life’ (141).

For Adorno theology does not necessarily provide the ontology of the metaphysical, but provides the critical energy to reveal the normative deficit of modern life (142). Gordon contends that Adorno’s philosophy persists in dialectical suspension between the sacred and the profane (112).

Walter Benjamin had convinced the Frankfurt School theorists to take the importance of religion and theology far more serious. He employed ‘a secular miracle’ to metaphorically illustrate the relationship between historical materialism and theology. The secular miracle was a mechanical chess game from Turkey and brought to Vienna royal court in the eighteenth century. The mechanical chess game was a trick; a human being was hidden inside the apparatus. Benjamin’s analogy is that inside the seemingly secular historical material theoretical apparatus was a hidden or implicit theology.

For Benjamin this was neither a trick nor mistake. Rather, theology is necessary to address the catastrophes of history that had discredited the enlightenment project’s philosophical merits (27). Workers of world had not united, emancipation from capitalist social relations were increasingly more doubtful, and the normative deficit was tending toward a increasingly authoritarian social development. For Benjamin a crucial problem of modernity is the capitalistic notion of time. Here, time is experienced by automatic measures of clocks and calendars associated with the working day, pivoting on the production of exchange-values.

Benjamin’s theory of time draws heavily from Marx’s notion of labor-time in commodity production. Labor and commodities are exchangeable because they can be treated as equivalent and identical units of time. According to Marx, capitalist value as exchange-value and capitalist time measured through abstract labor creates a ‘fetish’ of the commodity. This is because the exchange-value of the commodity can be turned into money, and money is what sustains life and reproduction in capitalism. Thus, the retroactive basis of the commodity fetish is a money fetish.

The commodity and money fetish are deeply rooted in Marx’s early notion of alienation. But the fetish expresses something beyond alienation. The fetish is a type of ritual worship. Benjamin repudiated capitalistic time as homogeneous empty time; quite literally one minute is one minute, one hour one hour. Additionally, the tasks associated with capitalist production are repetitive and monotonous. Capitalist workday turns life into a Sisyphean existence, analogous to pushing a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down to be pushed back up the hill again and for eternity.

Homogeneous empty time gives rise to a theory of history as progressing automatically toward a teleological end, implicit within neo-classical economic growth and prosperity and as an automatic development of human freedom, expressed by Right Hegelians and theorists of the end of the Cold War, such Francis Fukuyama. It further gives rise to a conservative politics as justification of the unique destiny of national groups and the importance of conserving institutions. Social change in this tradition is seen as ‘evolutionary’ and strictly reformist.

According to Gordon, Benjamin wants to disrupt the alienating notion of capitalist time, reject history as automatically progressive, and denounce the overly triumphant politics of ‘evolutionary socialism’ exemplified by Eduard Bernstein (28).

Benjamin does this by redefining the ‘secularization’ of social being, not as a Weberian disenchantment of social being, but as a ‘concealment’ of theology (35). Against Weber, Benjamin argues capitalism did not evolve into Protestantism, but capitalism itself is a religion, more accurately a cult, parasitically attaching itself to contemporary theology.

After first reducing all human value to exchange-value and abstract socially necessary labor-time, capitalism colonizes all of human time as a day of worship, i.e. work. The capitalist cult is also based on guilt and blame. Not to work is to be guilty of blasphemy. Low income and unemployment is blamed on individual as a lack of faith. To avoid guilt and blame is to work and have a career. Money becomes Mammon, or the ultimate end of capitalistic meaningfulness.

Benjamin believed that the critical power of historical materialism needed to be emancipated from the dogma of historical progress (38). History marches forward blindly. Its sole compass is normative awareness which, in capitalism, is overwhelmed and dominated by capitalist time and commodity fetishism.

Benjamin’s way forward was not to merely recommit to theology as our best hope for a normative compass. Rather, he pointed out that there exists messianic time within capitalist homogenous empty-time. Messianic time is not to propose a pre-modern religious notion, but is a modernist experience of the sublime. Messianic moments interrupt homogenous time, for example the birth of child, the death of a loved one, beauty of art and nature, and the mysteries of theological wandering.

Messianic time is discontinuous and fragmentary time, a force that ‘only dramatizes,’ rather than resolves, the paradoxes of the meaninglessness of commodity fetishism. It challenges our notion of self-identity and points to the possibility of difference and other-worldly-ness (55). Fragmentary force of messianic time holds open to Benjamin that within every mundane instant there is the possibility or potential for a radically new perspective, hence the potential for emancipation and a new beginning.

In the socio-historical processes of capitalist development, disenchantment seems dominant. However, commodity fetishism is capitalist enchantment, or better mis-enchantment, while messianic moments remain pervasive. The messianic moment is itself unstable and empty of any ethical ideal or religious goal; it leads to a total passing away. Humans are left with the profane after merely glimpsing the sublimity of messianic moments. Nevertheless, capitalist empty time and the messianic moment leave us with dialectical tension, inspiration and hope.

Benjamin’s attempt to demonstrate the dialectical presence of theology has remained highly controversial. What Gordon brilliantly demonstrates is that Benjamin’s inspiration deeply informed the cultural criticism of the Frankfurt School theorists. The theological insights of Benjamin helped to initiate important cultural criticisms, whereby messianic experience elevates religion as an ‘unwanted tradition’ to assume ‘the role of an indispensable but hidden core of a historical materialism that can effect a revolutionary break with capitalism’ (145).

Gordon decisively demonstrates that critical theory remains urgently relevant. Theological concepts, not as new dogmas but as a dialectical icepick clinging to the frozen empty social tundra, may provide normative strongholds to help navigate the emptiness of secular culture and the confusion of modern politics. The twenty-first century has been riddled in catastrophe, three economic global crises, a pandemic, an environmental cataclysm, and trade and military wars. The normative deficit persists, the haphazard happenings of history warn of real dystopia. The Frankfurt School tradition provides penetrating cultural criticisms. Gordon has accomplished a dialogue between reason and faith. He contends that theology provides normative insights without violating the proviso that theological values can be subjected to criticism. In the spirit of Horkheimer, the dialogue between reason and faith helps address the normative deficit generative of capitalism and its cultural industry. Peter E. Gordon’s migration into the profane with critical theory offers a very promising new normative beginning.

27 February 2021

Make a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *