116th Annual Conference - Bellingham, Washington
Friday, November 9 - Sunday, November 11, 2018

Mutiny on the Bellipotent: Melville's Quarrel with Secularism

Sarah Buchmeier, University of Illinois at Chicago

Postsecular critics habitually describe secularism in vaporous terms and have been curiously silent regarding the Secularist movement of the postbellum era. Reading Melville’s Billy Budd, I argue that this omission signals both Secularism’s successful escape from definition in the twentieth century and postsecularism’s inadequacies as a critique of the secular. 


The recent emergence of postsecular criticism has opened up new avenues for cultural and literary studies by questioning the veracity of the secularization thesis and challenging its ubiquitousness. Yet postsecular critics almost uniformly fail to include in their critiques an account of the Secularist movement that was active in the United States in the latter half of the nineteenth century. As Tracy Fessenden has argued, much of the work done under the name of postsecularism falls into the same pattern of thought and works under the assumptions about society produced by secularist ideology, privileging versions of religious faith that are compatible with secularist claims.  In this paper, I expand Fessenden's critique by showing how postsecular criticism's continued treatment of secularism as an atmospheric condition, rather than an historical movement, contributes to its inadequacies as a critique of the secular. I situate Melville’s final novel Billy Budd, Sailor as a rebuttal to the Secularist movement, putting the novella in context with cultural ephemera surrounding scientific ethics, the Nine Demands of Liberalism, and the Christian Amendment campaign. In my reading, the scene of Billy Budd’s execution functions as a staging of the reification of secularism as a nonsectarian, universal default. A character like Vere, who seems to embody the morality inherent in the laws of the state necessarily implicates his embodiment of Secularist principles, and as such the character of Captain Vere must be read as not just the embodiment of the state (as he traditionally has been) but the embodiment of Secularism. My paper gives evidence to the pivotal moment in which the Secularist movement became the atmospheric condition we grapple with today and advances postsecular criticism’s ambition to get out from under the secularist assumptions that govern our discourse.