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Inviting our future: liberal de-culturalization and the Paris attacks – Part One

Date:11 February 2016
Author:Religion Factor
A street memorial in Paris following the November attacks. Source: Wikimedia. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
A street memorial in Paris following the November attacks. Source: Wikimedia. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

After a brief hiatus, today we continue our series of reflections on the broader meaning and consequences of events such as the attacks in Paris in November late last year. In today’s post, which is the first of a two-part blog, Ton Groeneweg reflects on the structures that create and sustain the image of superiority of liberal values and positions, supposedly under threat by the attacks in Paris. This image appears to be caught in a self-blinding mechanism that, in refusing to see its own specific cultural biases, threatens to further alienate and exclude those who do not conform to its implicit norms. In the second part of the blog, he will also briefly respond to the earlier contributions of Erin Wilson and Joram Tarusarira to this series.

In his comment after the November 13 events in Paris,[i] Olivier Roy, French scholar of politics and Islam, pinpointed the social location of the attackers.[ii] They are either second (not first, and not third) generation migrants from the Maghreb (and not from Turkey), or young converts to Islam from French origin (“de la souche”). Their estrangement from French culture and society may have different backgrounds, what is common to them, according to Roy, is that Islam provides a legitimization rather than a cause for their radicalization. “It is not about the radicalization of Islam, but about the islamization of radicalism,” he writes pointedly. The real cause should be looked for in a phenomenon that Roy calls ‘deculturation’. In continuation of an argument in his book Holy Ignorance,[iii] he points out that it is precisely a deculturated ‘pure’ form of Islam, an “islam de rupture”, which attracts young men from these precise social groups. The banner of ISIS offers itself readily to be attached to the flagpole of their radicalism. They are deculturated in the sense that they no longer belong to the Islamic culture of their parents (the first generation migrants, still carrying the culture from which they came), and not yet to the Islamic culture that has taken root in France (the third generation of youth seemingly fully at home in French culture). Not being in a position to completely judge the validity of Roy’s argument, I would nevertheless like to take up his notion of ‘deculturation’ and develop it in a slightly different way. This will initially take us away from the immediate context of the Paris attacks, but bring us back to them, albeit in a more generalized sense, in the second part of this blog.

In her book on the deceitful mechanism of liberal tolerance, Regulating Aversion, the American political philosopher Wendy Brown develops an argument that comes close to the same issue of deculturation.[iv]Even if she does not use the term explicitly, she frequently utilizes and explores its more active positive counterpart, ‘culturalization’. Yet her argument is as much about either side of the coin as about their intricate connections. To be precise, the contradictory nature of ‘culture’ within the socio-political realities governed by liberalism is a key part of Wendy Brown’s argument. Within liberal societies, she argues, culture is simultaneously embraced, enforced and rejected, banned as a constitutive part of liberal political rationality. As she states: “liberalism simultaneously claims and disclaims culture; culture is part of the greatness of the West and also that which liberal individuals have thrown off in their movement toward maturity and freedom”. This ambiguity reveals a “deep and fundamental bind” (249) in the project of modern liberalism itself. In the following, I intend to take up this profound assessment of liberalism’s ambiguity towards culture and develop it in the direction of its relevance for the events that concern us here. In order to mark both the difference from Olivier Roy’s terminology and to stress the more active component in Wendy Brown’s analysis, I henceforth prefer to use the term de-culturalization instead of deculturation.

Liberal culture is geared towards the liberation from culture in its binding and defining character. The individual freedom that liberalism aspires to is, at least partially, constituted as the freedom from being dominated by the pressures of a particular culture. This freedom implies that we should be able to freely adopt and enjoy cultural expressions, but likewise shed them and change them for something else, as we like. So already in a slightly contradictory sense, liberal culture is a culture that is freed from the constraints of traditions and customs of any culture in a particular sense. Such limitations are precisely what prevent specific cultures from becoming ‘culture’. Real culture, in the liberal sense, is the free engagement with rituals, expressions and artifacts without being controlled or governed by them. This is in stark contrast to how liberalism sees other cultures, the culture of its ‘others’. Here culture is subjecting and binding, if not enslaving and debilitating. Individual freedom is governed or at least restrained by bonds of tradition, family ties and/or religious affiliation.[v] Other people, other peoples are subjected to culture, while we freely enjoy it – which is the only right way to entertain it. As Wendy Brown pointedly summarizes this position: “we have culture while they are a culture” (151). There is a strong normative aspect to this, of course. In liberating itself from culture in the binding sense of the word, liberal culture emancipates culture from what is not proper to it, and projects itself as the ideal of culture for a liberated humanity.

It is not a big step from this paradoxical notion of culture in liberalism, to the equally contradictory notion of modern liberal culture as a project of de-culturalization. Liberal culture is the culture that is able to constantly overcome the defining constraints of its own culturalizations. Its extreme flexibility, diversity and ability to infinitely renew itself – to always find new markets – is its distinguishing mark. The unbound and unbinding character of liberal culture thus becomes a strong impetus of the project of liberalism itself. It is the access to liberal culture, to the free enjoyment of it, that as such contains an emancipatory promise. This is how liberal culture distinguishes itself from others. [vi]

Now of course this elevated notion of culture as an infinite process of de-culturalization (of culture overcoming itself) is at best an ideal and at most a theoretical construction within specific cultural settings, even liberal ones. It is not in any way how liberal culture operates in practice. Even if all its products can be seen as transitory, temporal solidifications of a process of cultural renewal (and here we could ask what other culture is different in this sense, even if most non-liberal cultures have a slower turnover than contemporary Western culture – though even here it could be questioned if this is due to its cultural specificity, or rather to the demands of the market for ever new cultural commodities) the actual shape and content of these products is in no way devoid of substance or cultural specificity.[vii] In a very complex, rich and diverse way (nobody denies the richness of liberal culture, although there is a certain irony in the double sense of richness as diversity and affluence here), the artifacts of liberal culture are invested with a particular ideal of the human and of human culture, embodied in the faces, the habits, the preferences and customs of a particular tribe – that of modern liberal culture. The materials, the images, the ideals that liberal culture produces, are coined by the culture that propels itself as the global standard. It draws its defining icons from a particular culture in which liberalism thrives. The astonishing presence of white faces in the artifacts of global advertising is only one example of this. And even where liberal culture becomes critical of itself, which it fortunately still is in many forms and instances, this again becomes a distinguishing mark of its superiority.

And how could it be otherwise? No cultural artifact would make any sense, literally, if it doesn’t in one way or the other resonate with and appeal to certain cultural specificities. It has to stick itself to some ideas, affections, sensations that are prefigured by a form of culturalization, in order to affect us at all. We inevitably ‘mirror’ ourselves (in infinitely diverse and complex ways) in the cultural artifacts that we appreciate, that enrich and give us pleasure, that even make us think.[viii] The fact that liberal culture is determined to suppress the formative mechanisms underlying such prefigurations is another aspect of its self-image as a liberated and liberating, ‘free’ and universal form of culture. The de-culturalization in liberal culture is also a fierce denial of the manifold ways in which we are bound to specific culturalizations. Without this illusion of being freed from them, or at least the promise to become liberated from them, it would be very hard for liberalism to operate. As it would be for the market to operate without the illusion of ‘free choice’ opening us to the unrestrained offer of commodities.[ix]

There is a certain self-fulfilling, self-generating mechanism inherent in liberalism, through which it projects itself as superior in its particular forms and manifestations, by dissimulating this strategy through the appeal to neutrality and universality. Liberal culture raises itself above all other cultures because it simultaneously claims to be beyond culture, the neutral ‘default option’ of all cultures. Thereby it fulfills the promise inherent in any ‘true’ culture of being freed from the oppressing, binding, immature aspects of any particular culture. It is the admirable accomplishment of Wendy Brown’s book to have exposed this strategy of liberal conceit in precise detail. Elsewhere she develops the same argument in a more concise way with regard to the strategy of ‘secular conceit’.[x] And indeed the mechanism through which secularism raises itself above the contested field of religious differences, whether or not as its neutral arbiter, is very similar to or yet another version of this liberal procedure. By presenting itself as neutral or common ground, from which all religious beliefs or convictions deviate in their own particular way, secularism hides the fact that its own position (in specific cultural settings) is also determined. The specific features of its position, however, are concealed by this very claim to neutrality and are to a certain extent ‘universalized’. This explains, amongst other things, why secularism cannot easily be disqualified as ‘yet another form of faith’.

The self-fulfilling operation underlying the dominance of liberal culture hence emerges like this: as it makes the overcoming of cultural specificity into its distinguishing mark, liberal culture veils the specificity of its procedures and artifacts precisely by associating them with this ‘universal’ project of liberating culture from its specific cultural bonds. It elevates itself into the ultimate goal of human culture by the promise – infinitely outstanding, infinitely unfulfilled because haunted by the ‘stickiness’ its own artifacts – of emptying itself out of its particularities. The promise contained in this operation is an unbound relationship with culture – released from the ties and traditions that limit the free enjoyment of culture by the individual.

What this means in the limited context of this blog, starting out from the position of radicalized Muslim youth, is that those not fitting the standards of the de-culturalized dominant norm, have actually very little to gain by trying to associate themselves with liberal culture.[xi]No matter how hard they try, they will always fail to meet the mark of what is considered as real cultural maturity. As we know very well from socio-economic and demographic figures, their treatment as equal citizens, having equal rights and opportunities, is only nominal. Their actual access to the enjoyment of full citizenship is everything but equal, as long as the standard according to which this equality is kept up remains implicitly stamped by a cultural norm that refuses to acknowledge its own biases. Within the same logic, the failure to catch up with this norm becomes a further confirmation of it, because those who deviate from it do so precisely as a result of their cultural specificity. ‘They are a culture, while we (and they should) merely haveit.’ The very fact of their cultural specificity marks them as falling short of the norm that de-culturalizes itself by setting itself apart from all specific cultures. In her book, Wendy Brown describes this logic by comparing it to what befalls sexual minorities, when they “appear as more thoroughly defined by their sexuality and hence less capable of participation in the universal than are heterosexuals, just as Jews, Catholics, Mormons, and Muslims appear more relentlessly saturated by their religious/ethnic identity” than others (186). So cultural minorities will always be presumed to be marked and dominated by their culture, and thus not free from it, as the de-culturalized majority culture supposedly is. This self-fulfilling and self-replicating double bind hides itself from view by the peculiar blindness of the liberal self-image. As this self-image is constituted by being free from cultural domination, it sees itself as entirely open, culturally neutral and universal. Hence it is unable to see and acknowledge its own biases.[xii]

In the second part of this blog, I will explore what consequences this might have for the liberal self-image and its own limitations, or even unfreedom. This will eventually lead to the suggestion of possible opportunities that the present conflicts, either with regard to Islamic radicalism or the refugee crisis, might have to offer beyond the apparent threats that they pose.

Ton Groeneweg works as Policy Officer Religion & Development at Mensen met een Missie, and is a fellow of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain at the University of Groningen. His personal blog can be found at


[i] Different from earlier contributors to this series, and for reasons that will become clear very quickly, I limit myself to comments on the events in Paris here. The fact that the Paris attacks show a certain specificity in their European setting, does of course in no way imply that the assaults in Beirut or Iraq (and by now, of course, it should be added: Istanbul, Jakarta, Ouagadougou and other places), do not offer their own sets of regrettable particularities, or should in any way be considered as less severe.

[ii] See Olivier Roy: ‘Le djihadisme est une révolte générationnelle et nihiliste’ (Le Monde Idées, 24-11-205).

[iii] Oliver Roy: Holy Ignorance. When Religion and Culture Part Ways. Translated by Ros Schwartz. Oxford University Press: 2013. (Original title: Sainte Ignorance (Paris 2008)).

[iv] Wendy Brown: Regulating Aversion. Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire. Princeton University Press: 2006.

[v] Hence also the deep discomfort of liberalism with religion: there is something inevitably binding in it – even in the word (re-ligare).

[vi] The word ‘distinguishes’ may be understood here as a reference to Bourdieu’s notion of distinction, which is of course never far from the issue of cultural dominance within liberalism.

[vii] Although, interestingly enough, this is precisely the claim of the romantic, ‘autonomous’ notion of art: its transcendence of the specificity of its material shape is what defines its artistic nature, and henceforth ‘universalizes’ it as a unique artifact. I cannot go into this here, but the deep affinity of liberalism, secularization and the romantic notion of the autonomy of art comes to the fore here. And we still live under the spell of it. A classic (and indeed very liberal) elaboration of artistic autonomy as secular transcendence is given by the American New Critics in the 1940’s and 50’s, drawing heavily on romantic practice and theory of art. For a more recent exploration of this same topic see Arnold Heumakers: De esthetische revolutie. Hoe Verlichting en Romantiek de Kunst uitvonden. Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Boom 2015.

[viii] It is hard to give a specific reference here, but a whole range of traditions, from phenomenology (Maurice Merleau-Ponty) to psycho-analysis, Marxist and modern media theories have explored the intricate dynamics between the material, embodied features of art and their social and political dimensions.

[ix] This myopia with regard to the embodied nature of our cultural (and political) preferences, as well as its consequences for liberal culture, is well analyzed by William Connolly, a.o. in his book Why I’m Not a Secularist (1999). The resulting biases (seeing it in others, not in ourselves) lead to a rejection of the more open or even conscious deployment of embodied structures, e.g. in practices of religious discipline. See (with direct reference to Connolly’s notion of ‘visceral modes of appraisal’) a.o. Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety. The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton University Press 2006.

[x] Wendy Brown: ‘Civilizational Delusions: Secularism, Tolerance, Equality’. In: Theory & Event: 2012, 15-2.

[xi] As eloquently phrased this week by Nadia Ezzeroili in her ‘Nederland en ik, we gaan uit elkaar’ (de Volkskrant, 30 January 2016).

[xii] There is a growing reflection and debate on how Western liberal culture uses the language of universality, and everything attached to it (human rights, secular humanism) to continue its claim to cultural superiority, and everything attached to that, including political dominance and economic privilege. For me, this is one of the more important intellectual and political debates of our time. Wendy Brown lists a whole range of authors who have addressed this issue from different perspectives, among them Edward Said, Talal Asad, Saba Mahmood, Ashis Nandy and Judith Butler. But also, in a more general and perhaps fundamental sense, Jean-Luc Nancy, Emmanuel Lévinas, Luce Irigaray and Jacques Derrida (page 250, note 40).


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