STOP CALLING THINGS "RELIGIONS"
What is the German word for objecting to one piece of a person’s writing while still admiring their work and overall vibe immensely? This is the word I’d use it in regard to Patricia Lockwood’s recent piece about David Foster Wallace, whom I will never not think is a Great and Serious writer with the additional merit of being extremely fucking fun to read. The most remarkable thing about Infinite Jest, in my estimation, is how approachable it turns out to be. It’s mythologized as some kind of chore, but really, it’s a total riot. Anyway! I think Lockwood is excellent, but I also think she is extremely wrong about DFW, and I initially intended to procrastinate by trying to articulate my reservations about the approach she takes in the piece. (“Probably we would feel differently about David Lynch’s darkness if actual ears kept turning up in his backyard,” she writes. Would we? Really and truly, I think it depends; I need to hear more about how the real ears are related to the art-ears.) But then I decided to save this otic polemic for a much longer essay I’ve been meaning to write about the “aesthetic turn” in criticism, and whether it is in fact underway, what I think it should look like whenever it gets underway, and how we should conceive of the relationship between aesthetics and ethics. (Spoiler alert: I do not think the two are unrelated, or that it’s always illicit to evaluate an artwork morally. In fact, my first and maybe last peer-reviewed academic publication argues that the moral quality of an artwork often depends on its aesthetic quality, so don’t saddle me with some effete art-for-art’s-sake type view.)
Instead, I find myself asking, what’s the German word for seeing an article you know will enrage you and, as if in a dream, finding your fingers clicking the link? The first German word I dreamed up—the one about disliking one piece of an oeuvre, but liking the general project—is the one I’d use for Harper’s, as a magazine. It’s so good, so much of the time. The editors are so smart. The second fictional German word—the one about rage-clicking, and the one that might just be “masochism”—is the one I’d use for whatever inner demon compelled me to navigate to this piece: https://harpers.org/archive/2023/07/protestant-ethic-and-the-spirit-of-wokeness/?utm_source=substack&utm_medium=email. Why did I read this, instead of reading the book I am reviewing next week? Reader, the human psyche is fecund with mysteries. But read I did.
“Writing about “Woke” has at least two pitfalls,” the piece begins. “One is that any criticism of its excesses provokes accusations of racism, xenophobia, transphobia, misogyny, or white supremacy. The other problem is the word itself, which has been a term of abuse employed by the far right, a battle cry for the progressive left, and an embarrassment to many liberals.” The third problem is that you will probably say something boring that has been said 100000000 times before.
Is there something wrong with ‘cancel culture’ or whatever? As I’ve said before, I think there is. (What exactly is wrong with it, and what exactly it even amounts to, is a topic for another day.) Is the crude Robin-DeAngelo-esque way of thinking about race, (and the equivalent way of thinking about gender) facile and juvenile and all-too-prevalent? Yes and yes. Are those cheesy yet depressingly ubiquitous in-this-house signs extremely cringe-inducing? Yes I said yes I will Yes. Should Ian Burama have been unhelmed as NYRB editor? In my opinion, no, actually.
But….does all of this mean that it’s forgivable to use “Woke” as a noun? And does the fact that White Fragility is nonsense mean there is any good justification for subjecting people to another jeremiad about how “Woke” is “a religion”? I simply cannot stand this lazy and tired idea that, because something is fervently believed by many, it is therefore “like a religion.” Surely the bar for being “like a religion” is higher than “many people believe it,” or “many people are passionately invested in it,” or “many people are passionately invested in it to the point of trying to get other people to believe it, too.” By this standard, most popular beliefs are religions. The belief that murder is wrong is a religion. The belief that penicillin cures diseases is a religion. The belief that the Holocaust happened is a religion. The belief that the sun will rise tomorrow is a religion. The belief that Infinite Jest rules is a religion.
What is a religion, anyway? I myself do not know what makes something a religion as opposed to, I don’t know, a fad, an ideology, a philosophy, or merely a moral conviction, but surely someone does, and surely we should at least provisionally tender a definition before saying that all and sundry are religion-like. (Maybe McWhorter does define religion in his book, which I haven’t read. But if he does, his definition does not make an appearance in this piece.)
The idea in the piece is that Woke is not just a religion, but a Protestant religion. (You know a discourse is beginning to resemble an academic subfield when meaningless and pedantic distinctions are presented as major advances.) The evidence is that (1) Woke often demands that transgressors make public apologies, (2) that it promotes “doing the work” of ongoing self-improvement, (3) that it is dogmatic, and (4) that it (not clear whether it is supposed to be agential) nominates (or non-agentially conspires to create?) an Elect of Virtuous Right-Thinking people who occupy positions of power (now we are getting downright conspiratorial). I’m not sure whether it actually does all these things (I remain confused about what Woke even is, and it would help if anyone Woke were quoted), but for now the issue is whether all these things are the unique preserve of religions. In short: no. You know what else involves public apology? Truth and reconciliation commissions. What else involves doing work? Getting a PhD in classics. What else involves dogmatism? Being a secular pig-head. Being a conspiracy theorist. And who else believes that virtuous people should be in power? Most people. Is there anything besides Protestantism that has all these features at once? Yes, any number of secular ethical systems that aren’t descended from Protestantism, many of which have origins that pre-date it.
The more interesting question, I guess, is why this comparison is so irresistible to people, why there is a cottage industry of wokeness-is-a-religion heads ! (Inevitably someone will compare it to the designs of global Jewry soon, if someone hasn’t already.) Are they aware that you don’t have to compare something to a religion to criticize it? You could, you know, simply criticize it on its merits. Indeed, I think the strongest critiques of something adjacent to “Woke” have been the ones that attack the substance of particular positions, for instance critiques of Robin DeAngelo specifically, or of standpoint epistemology specifically. The more narrowly targeted critiques are better, because “Woke” refers to everything and nothing, whereas Robin DeAngelo and standpoint epistemology are actual things, with actual demonstrable commitments attached to them. And perhaps this is why the claim that Woke is a religion is so appealing—because the rhetorical move of simply likening “Woke” to a religion and going home for the day absolves the people who make it of having to actually engage with the substance of “Woke.” It’s not really an engagement with Woke, it’s a meta-engagement with Woke. Instead of getting into what Woke actually is, you zoom out to a thousand feet and comment exclusively on the structure of Woke. The move people making when they say “Woke is a religion” or one of the thousand permutations thereof is fairly similar to the move they (often the same people) make when they say they are in favor of “free speech,” as a way of avoiding discussion of why the particular speech they favor should be permitted. As I argue here, given that no one is in favor of all speech all the time, meaningful debate about “free speech” is about which speech to exclude from a given arena and why. But a lot of the handwringing about free speech as a general matter skirts this interesting and difficult issue. The Woke Is a Religion heads are doing the same thing. It’s as if they’re reviewing a novel by counting the chapters without ever quoting the text.