The enlightened city
ScienceDirect Publication: Political Geography
My purpose is to address the arguments for what I call the enlightened city.1 Taking issue with Critchley’s (2007) philosophical and political disappointment, I address his anarchism of responsibility characterizing the crisis of secularisms and the related inexorable slide towards various forms of theistic thinking (see also Critchley, 2012). My advocation of the enlightened city in all its multiplicity shares Critchley’s passion for Dostoyevsky’s Christian existentialism with anarchist, non-violent tendencies, and Levinas’ encounter with and responsibility towards “The Other” (Levinas, 1961; Critchley, 2015). My ideas tend towards a blend of select elements of critical theory and decolonial thought to emphasize a higher unity despite radical differences first explored in The Routledge Handbook of Postsecularity (Beaumont, 2018; Beaumont & Eder, 2018; Beaumont et al., 2020; Mendieta & Beaumont, 2018; Sutherland et al., 2021).
The Covid-19 pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests, deep divisiveness in Trump’s America, and the current humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan following Biden’s withdrawal exemplify several of these disappointments. For Keenan (1997), overcoming ethical and political indolence in the absence of unalterable universal foundations may not be easy, but necessitates a revival of proper responsibility towards others. Fukuyama (2018) reminds us that the undermining of post-war universal recognition — based on a class-based singularity — by narrower individual identities forged on religion, sect, ethnicity, gender, race, and so on have given rise to hateful “blame-the-victim” identity politics. This valorization of people’s specific demands in the context of globalization and the scaling down of ethics and politics below the nation-state shows the outer world having to confirm to people’s inner sense of authenticity, dignity, and respect.
The continuing crisis in the institutions of liberal democracy compounds this challenge, with Brexit a powerful reminder of the difficulties including insurgent far right extremism. Mouffe has long argued for the return of the political to correct the democratic deficit. Her most recent work (2018) argues that the way out of the post-political morass is to turn right-wing, reactionary, and xenophobic populism around. By utilizing a “populist moment”, leftist populist movements can confront the current predicament through collective striving for equality, social justice, and the recovery of democratic values. Similarly, Latin American, and Black Radical intellectual and artistic transnational politics (Mahler, 2018) can illuminate a racialized, anti-oppressive, and decolonial resistance to reactionary politics.
There are three broadly defined arenas in the literature appealing to this line of thought. First, new geographies of religion, postsecularity with implications for decolonial urban theory and the urban commons critically extends Holloway’s (2013) “politics between the religious and non-religious”, Cloke and Beaumont’s (2013) “spaces of postsecular rapprochement”, and Sutherland’s (2016) “theography”. Continuing in this vein are key studies on “postsecular geographies” (Williams, 2014), “infrasecular geographies” (della Dora, 2018), “epistemology of religiosity” (Kong & Woods, 2017), “geographies of postsecularity” (Cloke et al., 2019), and “postsecularities of care” (Cloke et al., 2020), all enriching disputes about “democracy” (Barbato, 2012), “activism” (Cloke et al., 2016), “feminism” (Braidotti, 2008), “geopolitics” (Gökarıksel & Secor, 2015), and “postcolonialism” (Ratti, 2013). New decolonial impulses challenge the implicit Euro- and Western-centric epistemologies and power imbalances of colonial modernity (Radcliffe, 2017; Barker & Pickerill, 2020), critiquing colonialism’s norms regarding modernity, race, and theory but also the tendency towards religiously-quietist secularism. New postsecular activisms raise questions for urban theory including a more fully inclusive commons (Cloke et al., 2019; see Derickson, 2015, 2017), psychogeography (Debord, 2014), and right to the city (Harvey, 2019). Understanding and practicing ontological humility and intellectual generosity across standpoints might result from the crossovers between these ways of reconceiving the political.
Second, Frankfurt School-inspired messianic critical theory, reflexive secularization, and decolonial urban postsecularity suggest links between debates on postsecularity and the urban (Beaumont and Eder 2018a; Mendieta & Beaumont, 2018; Beaumont et al., 2020). Drawing upon Habermas’ postmetaphysics and genealogy of faith and knowledge (2006; 2008; 2019), alongside Beck et al.’s (1994) “reflexive modernization”, postsecularity requires reflexive engagement with conflictive processes unleashed by the secularization of the state and respect for people’s right to faith. Megaurbanization in the Global South requires viewing postsecularisms from below and how planetary urbanization reaches towards wholeness. Such inquiries value a decolonial “postsecular sensibility”, or for Mendieta “consciousness” (Mendieta, 2018), to grasp the meaning of reflexive secularization. Underlying these inquiries would be Giorgio Agamben’s writings on destituent power, form-of-life, and neo-monastic habitus (Agamben, 1998, 2013). His recognition of the bare life, or life in full autonomy from the law, plus a theory of “use” (Heiden, 2020), speak to Critchley’s neo-anarchistic, non-violent hopes between atheistic denial and theistic embrace, through Rousseau, Badiou, and Heidegger. Agamben’s arguably tends closer to a messianic nihilism and “colonization of society by the logic of the concentration camp” (List, 2021) that dilutes the more positive blend of the Jewish Kabbalah, Western esoterism, and historical materialism in Benjamin’s (1991) political theology. His later more optimistic potenza destituente (“destituent power”) (Agamben & Wakefield, 2014), like Hardt and Negri’s (2012) Declaration, approaches what might constitute the self-governing authenticity of the enlightened city.
Third, reflexive humanization, perceived “impossibility” of wholeness, and critical discourse on the Anthropocene confront debates on decolonial urban postsecularity with recent perspectives on human interventions and their negative impacts on the Earth’s biodiversity and species extinction. Geographers have long theorized the Anthropocene (Elden, 2013; Castree, 2014; Ernstson and Swyngedouw, 2019). One strand identifies with the pluriverse of situated human/non-human actor-networks, “more-than-human” accounts, indeed with posthumanism, multispecism, and anti-human exceptionalism more generally (Tsing, 2015; Haraway, 2016; Latour 2017; 2018a). Limitations of an “outdated” modern humanism have led “us” to the current predicament. Not only was Enlightenment humanism and belief in scientific progress misplaced. The inevitable decentring of the human subject results from this renunciation. Discarding humanism has entailed a belief in the impossibility of wholeness, or metanarrative, that would have bound everyone and everything together. I agree with the need to disavow humanism in the guise of rational scientism. The enlightened city discourse looks to recover “reflexive humanization” as subjectivist epistemology that befits the all-unity aspirations of postsecularity while respecting counter-Enlightenment thought (Adorno & Horkheimer, 1997). If we have never been modern, we have also never been entirely secular. Latour (2018b) demonstrates how different modes of knowing (scientific, ethical, or political) co-create space. Haraway and Tsing’s “Plantationocene” implies critical race theory, which, alongside decolonial thought, critical urbanism (Derickson, 2018), and the “Urbanocene” (Mendieta, 2019), all emphasize the subjective value of humanism.
I first explore a series of analytically salient points from selective illustrative material. Following that I present some thoughts on what might constitute the enlightened city. Then I address postsecularity across the social sciences and humanities, with reference to debates on the postsecular in the Russian context with all-unity aspirations. I conclude with a discussion in the spirit of decolonizing urban postsecularity and the impact of the intellectual history of all-unity thinking on political geographical scholarship.