Representations of the secular: neutrality, spirituality and mourning in Australia and Canadian cultural politics

Sophie Sunderland

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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[Truncated abstract] This thesis explores the ways in which 'the secular' is represented in contemporary Australian participatory art, screen, and print cultures. Secularisms are currently the subject of analysis in a broad range of disciplines within the humanities, and this thesis intervenes upon the field by focusing on the cultural politics of representations of embodied, spatialized secularisms. The secular is commonly defined in opposition to the 'religious,' and can also be extrapolated to the division of public and private spaces. Thus, by considering the occlusions and violences inherent in the ways bodies negotiate and are constructed through space, this thesis argues for the fluidity and porosity of these oppositions. By drawing from Janet Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini's notion of secularisms, understood as specific, situated narratives of the secular, as well as Talal Asad's and William E. Connolly's conceptions of the secular, this thesis identifies 'neutrality' and 'spirituality' as two key narratives of the secular around which questions of language, embodiment, affect, and subjectivity are set in motion. Here, a regime of representation that constructs 'religious' subjects as outsiders to an imagined Australian national identity is critiqued and reconsidered in terms of anxieties about remembering and living with difference and loss. Rather than defining 'the secular,' this thesis seeks to maintain focus on the context and contingencies of enunciation. Thus, firstly the conflation of secularism with 'neutrality' and 'objectivity' is explored through a discussion of 'defining' secularisms, alongside critique of representations of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). By identifying the ways in which this 'everyday' text signals exclusions through the privileging of British Protestant Christianity in its contents, colonial history and usage, I consider how 'neutrality' is made contextually and contingently. ... . Here, secular mourning is a suggestive concept that foregrounds 'affective economies' of loss, grief, and mourning alongside openness to the ways in which identity is made and lived relationally, and differently. Given that the representations of Australian secularisms I identify are made by locating 'the religious' elsewhere, this thesis reflects upon this process by including a contingent comparative study of representations of Canadian secularisms. Participatory art including the Secular Confession Booth (2007) in Toronto and The Booth (2008) in Perth, news media debates about secularism in Ontario and "reasonable accommodation" in Québec, as well as Nalo Hopkinson's speculative fiction novel Brown Girl in the Ring, offer provisional and yet compelling sites for reflecting on the ways in which secularisms intersect with narratives of national identity. Further, this study places the limits and conceits of Australian representations of the secular into sharper relief. Thus, this thesis contributes to studies of critical whiteness, spatiality, critical mourning, and affective economies of relationality, as well as Australian-Canadian studies and cultural studies, to offer a reading of how critical secularisms, including secular mourning, set in motion possibilities for living multiple modes of potentiality and difference.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Publication statusUnpublished - 2009


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