Formations of the Contemporary : Islam, Globalization and Art

Madani, Adnan. 2016. Formations of the Contemporary : Islam, Globalization and Art. Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London [Thesis]

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This dissertation aims to describe a contemporary Muslim subjectivity as it is formed in response to globalization, universalism and secularism. The central theoretical focus is Jean-Luc Nancy’s deconstruction of Christianity, and its claim that secularism and globalization are connected to the internal form of monotheism. Where Nancy accords a special privilege to Christianity as the most autodeconstructive of the Abrahamic faiths, he also sees it losing its specific contours, as it becomes the naturalized form of the world through globalization. I set this thesis alongside narrative descriptions of my own experience as a cosmopolitan artist, theorist and traveller, to discover to what extent Nancy’s philosophy can satisfactorily account for a Muslim experience. Talal Asad’s examination of the complex genealogies of secularism, and his strong refusal of any necessary historical link between Christianity and modern secularism are contrasted with Nancy’s use of the term. Since both Asad and Nancy refer repeatedly if unsystematically to Wittgenstein, I show how his thinking on culture and religion informs the two very different thinkers. I proceed by examining four different histories of the idea of ‘universalism’ in contemporary philosophy: in the writings of Judith Butler on Hegel, Alain Badiou on Paul the Apostle, Akeel Bilgrami on Gandhi, and Louis Massignon on al-Hallaj. A recurrent motif within Christian universalism is Paul’s distinction between ‘circumcision of the heart’ and ‘circumcision of the flesh’, which I examine in Badiou’s philosophy and in the context of my own Muslim experience. I then examine the roots of a certain identity struggle in modern and contemporary art from Pakistan, linked to its emergence as a country founded in the name of Islam, but with the forms and traditions of 19th century European liberalism as well. Through a reading of one of my own art works as well as those of some of my contemporaries, I illustrate and expand on the nature of this conflicted identity. Finally, I suggest a rereading of Nancy that might incorporate Asad’s critique, and allows the possibility of rehabilitating ‘exoticism’ as a model of global encounter.

Item Type:

Thesis (Doctoral)

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The thesis is subject to an indefinite embargo due to the presence of third-party copyright material.


Jean-Luc Nancy, Talal Asad, Secularism, Islam, Pakistani Art, Wittgenstein, Muslim, Subjectivity

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Visual Cultures


31 August 2016

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

09 Sep 2016 15:29

Last Modified:

07 Sep 2022 17:12


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