Beyond the Cosmopolis: A Summary of Étienne Balibar’s ‘Cosmopolitanism and Secularism’

The honeymoon is long over, philosopher Étienne Balibar says in ‘Cosmopolitanism and Secularism: Controversial Legacies and Prospective Interrogations,’ between cosmopolitanism and secularism, and perhaps the taken-for-granted marriage of the two attitudes of liberal nation-states was not so legitimate to begin with.

Witness for instance the heated debates on universal human rights versus respect for cultural, religious difference (Islam), or the severe silencing of foreign, ‘outside’ influence in the interest of economic and ‘humanistic’ policies (the Eastern bloc, China). Have we reached an ideological antinomy and practical impasse? What will be the legacy of globalization in the XXI century?

Balibar insists, first, in order to extricate ourselves from sinking deeper into this mire, we rethink the opposition and antagonism between the secular and the sacred. Secularism, in a self-legitimizing gesture to adjudicate among all forms of recognized expressions on a bias separating politics and religion (and also the public and the private), institutes itself foremost as a theology of the Law. Instead, Balibar calls for a ‘secularization of secularism’ itself where legal systems play a self-critical role but cannot be the sole decisive agents in the arena of national and international relations.

Further, Balibar invokes the proliferation of assemblages and re-assemblages of ‘new religions’ and ‘new traditions’ such as liberation theology, Islamic feminism, stewardship ecology etc that would liberate and harness in new ways the reformatory and revolutionary energies that have become trapped and forgotten in current rigidified, codified, normalized, routinized everyday practices–akin to a sublimation of libido–and as such subject to performative critiques.

Thus, rather than the cosmopolitical, Balibar hopes to call for a ‘planetary construction of the universal,’ around an axis of the imminently reversible poles of the secular and the sacred, beyond the deadlock of cosmopolitanism and secularism.

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