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DHUM 1025A - Sacred and the Profane: Critical Perspectives on Power, Ecstasy, and Violence (The)

Type d'enseignement : Elective

Semester : Autumn 2017-2018

Number of hours : 24

Language of tuition : English

Voir les plans de cours et bibliographies



Course Description

The sacred and the profane are categories which demarcate spiritual, social, and political life. Although taken for granted as being natural or sui generis, they remain rubrics of contestation and form the ground for a series of highly charged debates in contemporary intellectual and political history. Religion always returns and so too the sacred. Nonetheless, the sacred functions also a means of being religious without being religious – a sacred after religion. In addition, while the experience of the sacred can be deeply personal, the concept can also be deployed as an explicit political structure or means of thinking about social cohesion and community. This course will genealogically examine the various manners in which the sacred/profane distinction has been shaped and constructed in the modern and the post-modern thought as an ideological and imaginary structure, as an alternative locus of power and ethical life, and as a means of talking about society and its ills. We thus examine the sacred and profane distinction from a series of critical perspectives including inter alia, the phenomenological (limit-experiences, transgression, the body and sexuality), sociological (the sacred as the social/social fact), materialist (the sacred as meta-politics or a politics of politics), epistemological (the sacred as a type of knowledge or space of “knowing”) and the cosmopolitical (rethinking the sacred in terms of global transformation, and new religious movements). In addition, politics has never simply been about good governance, institutions, and administration. It is also a site of affect, feeling, and “belief.” Thus, we will also explore the dialectic of the secular and the sacred and also attempts to secularize the sacred and sacralize the political. Following from this, we study the category of “profanation” and examine various forms of iconoclasm, symbolic inversion, and corrosive critique. Melding together critical theory and case-studies, we engage with the sacred as not simply a “thing,” but rather a dispositif wherein one finds myth, ritual, sacrifice, festival, material culture , magic, collective memory, and violence. We will also study the political bifurcation of the sacred and the profane and how this “religious” dualism has been recoded into the spectrum of left and right and how the sacred has been appropriated for both conservative and progressive political ends. Moreover, we will explore the so-called “return of religion” and various manifestations of the “post-secular” sacred and critically examine the implications of asking: “What is the modern counter-part to the sacred?” We will also address recent debates concerning the return of “sacred politics,” terrorism and symbolic violence, the relationship between temporal and spiritual power, and New Age “second religiosity.” The sacred is an object upon which is projected the political fears and hopes of a given society. This course therefore traces how the sacred/profane distinction is a space of possibility and also deep fear concerning the possibility of collective life.


MUKHERJEE, Sondip R. (Enseignant UNESCO)

Course validation

Continuous assessment


Expected Outcomes • Develop a critical approach to the study of religion and the sacred which stresses context, discourse, and historicism. • Introduce students to the key debates in the study of religion and method and theory. • Demonstrate an awareness of the contours religious phenomena and their intersection with the larger complex of globalization and the political. • Demonstrate the ability to locate and utilize appropriate sources and research tools, and to document those sources/tools appropriately. • Demonstrate the ability to write effectively and to use evidence and logic in presenting appropriate scholarly concepts.

Required reading

  • Emile Durkheim, the Elementary Forms of Religious Life
  • Roger Caillois, Man and the Sacred
  • René Girard, Violence and the Sacred
  • Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane
  • Slavoj Zizek, On Belief

Additional required reading

  • Marcel Mauss, The Gift
  • Ed. Denis Hollier, The College of Sociology (1937 – 1939)

Plans de cours et bibliographies

Séance 1:  Introduction: The Sacred or Religion after “Religion”

  • Methodology, Critical issues, and Theoretical Genealogy

Politics of the Sacred/Sacred Politics
Focusing on the larger question of “The Republic and the Sacred,” we examine the sacralization of the political/the politicization of the sacred and ask how the political comes to sacralize itself through ritual, the symbolic, and material culture. This leads to a new interrogation of the historical problem of civil religion: civil religion would appear to refer to the empowerment of religion and belief, not for the sake of religion, but for the sake of enhanced citizenship -- “a state has never been founded,” as Rousseau famously claimed, “without religion serving as its base.”  The Republic emerges as a space of agôn, between the sacred unconscious of the political and its iterations In various discourses of bourgeois reason, neutrality, and the juridical. And if civil religion or the sacred be bound to laïcité (which is paradoxically a-religious), we must ask whether civil religion qua the political sacred is the condition for religious pluralism or an antagonist in a field of competing absolutes and competing universalisms.

Séance 2: The Sacred and the Social: Republican Transcendence and Civil Religion

  • Emile Durkheim, from The Elementary forms of Religious Life pp. 8-9, 33-39, 99-111, 191-200, 205-216, 412-416.
  • Selections from Ronald Beiner, Civil Religion
  • Selections  from Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract

Séance 3:  Symbol, Icon, Allegory: The New Transformations of Marianne

  • Bronwyn Winter, “Marianne Goes Multicultural”
  • June Hargrove and Neil McWilliam, “Nationalism, and Representation, in Theory”  in Nationalism and French Visual Culture, 1870 – 1914

Alterity and the Other
Beginning with Marcel Mauss’ celebrated theory of the Gift, we look at how primitive gift societies created sacred modes of exchange that continue to function as a means of imagining alternatives to late capitalism. We then go on to re-read the gift in terms of NGO cultures and sustainable development: we explore how development actors function as new missionaries and hyper-modern mendicant orders. Yet, the gift is never free and the construction of the other as underdeveloped and always-already dependent has a series of ethical consequences on geopolitical framings of aid and care. In counterpoint to this eirenic rendering of the other, we then explore how the categories of the sacred and the profane have been, from colonialism to the present, used to construct others as clean and dirty, civilized and barbarian, ordered and disordered. We ask what political work is done through maintaining these forms of alterity and how they re-emerge in contemporary debates on migration and the sacrality of national sovereignty etc.

Séance 4 :  The Gift : From Primitive Economies to Sustainable Development

  • Marcel Mauss, from The Gift : The Form and Reason from Exchange in Primitive Societies pp. 1-18, 65-83 R. Kowalski, “The Gift : Marcel Mauss and International Aid”
  • Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri, Selections from Empire

Séance 5 : Left/Right, Pure/Impure : Abjection and the Other

  • Robert Hertz, from Death and the Right Hand pp. 89-113
  • Mary Douglass, from Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo pp. 1- 6, 159-179
  • Selections from James Ferguson, “Expectations of Modernity”
  • Analysis of Media Depictions of Refugees and Migrants

Profanations : Blasphemy and Iconoclasm
Religion alwas presupposes its own blasphemy, just as the sacred presupposes the profane. Here, we examine how the politics of religious diversity and accomodation are exploded by various iterations of critique, “freedom of speech,” and the “sacred rite to profanation.” The Charlie Hebdo tragedy placed in relief the stakes of this debate and also brought many to ask “is religion special,” “should it be treated differently than other systems and speech acts” and “what are the limits of tolerance?” In a dialectical inversion of sorts, we then go on to explore ISIS’ propaganda as a space of transgression, shock, and perversion and look closely their own politics of iconoclasm particularly in relation to their highly mediatized destruction of cultural heritage.

Séance 6: “Je Suis Charlie” - Blasphemy and Hate Speech

  • Saba Mahmood, “Religious Reason and Secular Affect: An Incommensurable Divide?,” in Is Critique Secular?: Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech, The Townsend Papers in the Humanities, No. 2, Berkeley, University of California, 2009, p. 75
  • Christopher Hitchens, “Cartoon Debate: the Case for Mocking Religion” Slate, February 4th,

Séance 7 :  Terrorism, “New Gifts,” Propaganda, and Iconoclasm

  • Jean Baudrillard, “The Spirit of Terrorism” pp. 1-15
  • Omur Harmansah, “ISIS, Heritage, and Spectacles of Destruction in Global Media,” Near Eastern Archaeology, Vol. 78, No. 3, pp. 170-178
  • Steve Rose, The Isis Propaganda War, The Guardian, October 7, 2014

Global Thresholds of “Belief”
In the wake of the Pope’s encyclical, a debate has emerged concerning what role religion has to play in addressing climate change and how religious actors marshal sacred texts to tell the story of the environment. Yet, the nexus of religion and climate change is not delimited to “traditional religions,” but also the province of inter alia, green spiritualities, Gaian cults, and neo-eco-pagans. The ultimate question here is whether these currents can sacralize and re-enchant nature or whether the anthropocene as the potential end of humanity is also the end of religion. Yet, one need not be so apocalyptic and indeed, it may be technology, progress, and science which mitigate environmental change and usher in an epoch after the anthropocene, thus leaving us to wonder (and worry about) or post-human futures. Beginning with the chiasmus of science and religion, we ask what future for religion in a world where we may become immortal, whether technology will become a new spirituality, and, in a larger sense, what becomes of the very notion of “spirit?”

Séance 8 : Sacred Natures : Climate Change and Religion

  • Kathryn Yusoff, “Excess, Catastrophe, and Climate Change,”
  • John Gray, Selections from Straw Dogs
  • Pope Francis, « The Gospel of Creation, » from Encyclical Letter – Laudato Si, pp. 45 – 74

Séance 9 : Religion and Technology : New Gods and Post-Human Spiritualities…?

  • Nick Bostrom, “Why I want to be a Post-Human when I Grow Up,”
  • Ray Kurzweil, Selections from The Age of Spiritual Machines

Spiritualities, New Religious Movements, and the “Return of Religion”
The absoluteness of the Enlightenment narrative which suggested that civilization was coterminous with liberation from religious superstitions is currently being radically problematized by what has often been referred to as the “return of religions.” However, this return is not necessarily a return to organized religions or religious institutions, but rather the revenge of “the spiritual” and a host of D.I.Y. faiths that syncretically assemble new systems of ritual, bodily life, diet, and lifestyle.  Yoga, a million dollar industry, figures as one prominent example and one which, moreover, unleashes a series of controversies concerning cultural appropriation, neo-orientalism, and the future of Hinduism. Yet, “the spiritual” also destabilizes normative notions of religion tout court and brings us to reflect on secular mythologies and new cults of commodity fetishism, spectacles of celebrities, and superheroes – all sites where the sacred, as some argue, is being recast.

Séance 10 :  Yoga – From India to California

  • David Gordon White, “Yoga, A Brief History of an Idea,” pp. 1-22
  • Slavoj Zizek, On Belief, pp. 12-15

Séance 11 : Post-Modern Myths and New Economies of Religion

  • Selections from Bruce Lincoln, Theorizing Myth
  • Selections from Mark Taylor, Economies of Faith in Virtual Culture
  • Selections from, Gary Laderman, Sacred Matters: Celebrity Worship, Sexual Ecstasies, the Living Dead and Other Signs of Religious Life in American Culture

Séance 12 : Conclusion : Secular/Post-Secular – Religious/Post-Religious

  • Yolande Jensen, “Laïcité, or the Politics of Republican Secularism,” pp. 475-493
  • Jürgen Habermas, “Notes on a Post-Secular Society,” pp. 17-29