Pre-Post-Humanism… something humanistic on artefacts from an “Eastern” perspective (Ali Âşık Paşa on the built environment and its human soul)

Among proponents of post-humanism, of an “ontological turn” in the social sciences, anti-representationalism and what-have-you it is popular to put down humanism as “Western rationalism”. That makes reference to “Eastern thought” attractive. I leave aside the obvious observation that such reference is a bit of a poisoned compliment sent right down the compass – as the absence of the sin of rationalism is just another valuation on the Victorian observation that “the Oriental” is not rational… i.e. cannot think properly. E. J. W. Gibb, who otherwise deserves credit for his pioneering history of Turkish poetry, keeps pointing out the alleged lack of rationality in the Sufi thinkers, such as the 14th century follower of Haci Bektaş, Ali Âşık Paşa. About the systematic presentation of ideas in hisGarîbnâme he says that

‘while his work may […] acquire an external semblance of orderliness, an artificial and fantastic arrangement such as this must, even were there nothing else, render the expression of any true sequence of ideas an impossibility. When I speak of a true sequence of ideas I speak from the modern European point of view, but in considering such works as this Gharíb-Náme we must ever bear in mind that they were not written for modern Europeans, that they were not written for modern Europeans, that they were written by Oriental mystics for Oriental mystics, that is, by and for men whose mental attitude is very different from ours.’ (Gibb 1900: 184)

So when the “Oriental mystic” Âşık Paşa speaks about the built environment, architectural artefacts, post-humanists should be in for a treat. Surely he’s not the man for some mind-body dualistic nonsense. And indeed:

(Extract from Gibb 1909: 12 – apologies for handwriting… –  transliteration by myself – translation draws on Gibb 1900: 195, but closer to literal meaning, sacrificing all poetry…:)

 The buildings that there are in the World / Know, Father, that they are the World’s Life/Soul / With those buildings the world is kept alive / Were they not, it would become a lifeless form at once

But then he goes on to reassert the central role of humanity in all this – putting in a reminder that even as an “Eastern” thinker you can think that the reason why artefacts matter to humans is because they are human creations (or at least human adaptations), because they are maintained and used by humans. They may have a life, but not a life of their own.

(Extract from Gibb 1909: 13 – transliteration by myself – translation draws on Gibb 1900: 196, but closer to literal meaning, sacrificing all poetry…:)

 Although it is the buildings that keep the World alive / In turn it is Humanity that keeps them alive / Their soul/life is the Form of Humanity / Hear this Wisdom and plunge into wonder / Each building in which there is no Human / Know that it will produce nothing / Because any place that is abandoned/deserted / Know such that it turns immediately into a dead body.

Which reminds me of an instructive debate in the early twentieth century philosophy of the social sciences around Simmel’s concept of a ‘tragedy of culture’ (for an overview and reflection on the argument, cf. Skidelsky 2003). Not very often acknowledged as such, Georg Simmel was one of the first social theorists to acknowledge the role of artefacts and objects in social life (thinking about things like the agency of wardrobes, the social role of dinner plates, the aesthetic significance of handles on decorative vases…). While artefacts originate as expressions of human life, and while human life can only express itself through the creation of objects, by objectifying itself, those objects then develop a life of their own – and start getting in the way of further expression.

‘Dem vibrierenden, rastlosen, ins Grenzenlose hin sich entwickelnden Leben der in irgendeinem Sinne schaffenden Seele steht ihr festes, ideell unverrückbares Produkt gegenüber, mit der unheimlichen Rückwirkung, jene Lebendigkeit festzulegen, ja erstarren zu machen; es ist oft, als ob die zeugende Bewegtheit der Seele an ihrem eigenen Erzeugnis stürbe. Hier liegt eine Grundform unseres Leidens an der eigenen Vergangenheit, an den eigenen Phantasien.’ (Simmel, 1986: 199) ‘… the vibrating, restless life of the creative soul, which develops toward the infinite contrasts with its fixed and ideally unchanging product and its uncanny feedback effect, which arrests and indeed rigidifies this liveliness. Frequently it appears as if the creative movement of the soul was dying from its own product. (Simmel 1968)

Consequently, the expression of life becomes a struggle with the legacy of earlier expressions, culture as assembly of objects. Ernst Cassirer later held against this, basically saying that Simmel goes too far and is too one-sided in his argument. It has often been observed that Cassirer misrepresented (or at least overstated) Simmel’s argument and that he himself did not radically reject the tragedy-of-culture thesis – but what goes mostly overlooked is the killer-blow he deals to all reification theory.[1] Cassirer points out the fragility of artefacts, the fact that the hardness of cultural objects (from poems to buildings) is owed not to the fact that they have been created and are thus objects external to their creators – but that they keep being created and re-created by those who use them, consume them, live in them, live through them, repeat them etc. Artefacts have agency, put up resistance, facilitate, etc. only as far as they are in use as mediators between human actors:

‚Denn wir, die Aufnehmenden, messen nicht mit den gleichen Maßen, mit denen der Schaffende sein Werk mißt. Wo er ein Zu Wenig sieht, da bedrängt uns ein Zu Viel; wo er ein inneres Ungenügen empfand, da stehen wir vor dem Eindruck einer unerschöpflichen Fülle, die wir uns nie völlig aneignen zu können glauben. Beides ist gleich berechtigt und gleich notwendig; denn in eben diesem eigentümlichen Wechselverhältnis erfüllt das Werk erst seine eigentliche Aufgabe. Es wird zum Vermittler zwischen Ich und Du, nicht indem es einen fertigen Gehalt von dem einen auf das andere überträgt, sondern indem sich an der Tätigkeit des einen die des anderen entzündet. Und hieraus erkennt man auch, warum die wahrhaft großen Werke der Kultur uns niemals als etwas schlechthin Starres, Verfestigtes gegenüberstehen, das in dieser Starrheit die freie Bewegung des Geistes einengt und hemmt. Ihr Gehalt besteht für uns nur dadurch, daß es ständig von neuem angeeignet und dadurch stets aufs neue geschaffen wird.‘ (Cassirer 1942: 121) ‘For we who receive it do not measure with the same criterion with which the author measures his work. Where he sees too little, we are overwhelmed by too much; where he perceives an inner inadequacy, we stand before an impression of inexhaustible fullness, which we will never be able to completely master. Both judgments are equally justified and equally necessary; for it is only in this genuine relation of mutual dependence that the work first achieves its immediate task. It becomes the mediator between I and you, not by transporting a finished content from one person to another, but by kindling in one what exists in another. And with this we also realize why the truly great works of culture never confront us as a thing absolutely fixed and | unchanging, shackling and stifling the free motion of the spirit in their fixity. Their content has being for us only by virtue of the fact that they must be continually possessed [angeeignet – so that’s appropriated…]anew and hence continually recreated.’ (Cassirer 1971: 193f.)

… which sounds very much akin to Âşık Paşa’s notion that the uninhabited building (as all unused artefacts) is dead and will disappear.

I’m not saying that this means that post-humanists really don’t have any claim to Eastern philosophy – just pointing out that “East” is quite a big place with quite a variety of philosophies, religions, sciences. You could reclaim the Sufis as quasi-Westerners – pointing out (as Gibb and other 19th and early 20th century Orientalists were prone to do) that it’s Islamic Neoplatonism, basically. But then again the Eastern influence on Platonism has also been pointed out occasionally, strong parallels have been established between Ibn Arabi and Zen Buddhism… and maybe this whole East/West thing doesn’t make sense after all. At least not when it comes to things like “mind-body dualism” – the most radical form of which had once spread over the then known world, including the Chinese and Roman Empires: Manichaeism.

Cassirer, Ernst (1942): Zur Logik der Kulturwissenschaften. Fünf Studien, Göteborg: Elanders Boktryckeri Aktiebolag

Cassirer, Ernst (1971): The Logic of the Humanities (transl. by Clarence Smith Howe), New Haven: Yale University Press

Gibb, E.J.W. (1900): A History of Ottoman Poetry, Volume I, Cambridge: Gibb Memorial Trust

Gibb, E.J.W. (1909): A History of Ottoman Poetry, Volume VI, Cambridge: Gibb Memorial Trust

Simmel, Georg (1986): ‘Zur Philosophie der Kultur’, in: Georg Simmel: Philosophische Kultur: Über das Abenteuer, die Geschlechter und die Krise der Moderne, Berlin: Wagenbach, pp.195-252

Simmel, Georg (1968): ‘On the Concept and the Tragedy of Culture’ in: Georg Simmel: The Conflict in Modern Culture and Other Essays (transl. K. Peter Etzkorn), New York: Teachers College Press

Skidelsky, Edward (2003): ‘From Epistemology to Cultural Criticism: Georg Simmel and Ernst Cassirer’, in: History of European Ideas, Vol.29, pp.365-81


[1] I shall write more on the unfortunate resuscitation of that theory by our contemporary Frankfurt School doyen Axel Honneth extracting it from the perversions of Simmel’s theory as created by the totalitarian philosophers Lukács and Heidegger.

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