in-between-ness, vestibules, rhizomes

I’ve been collecting notions of in-between-ness and liminality in relation to Sufism and commercial culture, rooted in the Platonic metaxý – from İbn Arabî to Georg Simmel. I have missed two important ones though –Deleuze and Guattari’ anarcho-Platonic/Heraclitean notion of the rhizome as in-between – and El Gazâlî’s notion of the dihlîz – the vestibular space. Here is Ebrahim Moosa’s (2005: 48f.) account of the concept:

‘The dihlīz signifies the space as well as the action of two entries: entry from the outside and entry into the inside. It is the critical intermediate space between outside and inside, between exoteric (āhir) and esoteric (in). And it is also the space that one has to traverse in order to enter or exit, which is the real function of a threshold area. That dihlīz-ian space constitutes a bounded space, a threshold between door (bāb) and house (dār). It is not a useless space, but one that can be used for multiple purposes. Viewed from the house proper, the dihlīzis located on the outside. But viewed from the door leading to the street, thedihlīz is on the inside. […] Unlike a border that serves as a territorial demarcation between sovereign territories and criminalizes improper crossing without authorization, the dihlīz is not a criminalizing space but a welcoming space. Furthermore, it ensures that one enters by the door in a disciplined manner while maintaining the decorum appropriate to the integrity of the occupants of the house and the people of the street. It is neither entirely private nor totally public, but something in between. However, the crucial dimension is the fact that without the dihlīz one cannot speak about an embodied “door” and a “house,” nor can one speak of an “outside” and an “inside.” Even though it is located in between spaces, the dihlīz frames all other spaces.’



benjamin franklin as the ghost of capitalism past, present and future

Obverse of the series 2009 $100 Federal Reserve Note

No one’s face could be more appropriate on a banknote than that of Benjamin Franklin – nobody embodies the spirits that drive capitalism, the ghosts that haunt it and the imagination that transcends it as he does.

To begin with, his advice on how to relentlessly convert time into money, and to reinvest that money in order to make more money – to make money for making money’s sake –features prominently in Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism as expression of the essence of the capitalist spirit. As a worker he anticipates the disciplined and rationalised approach that was to pervade the factories of centuries to come, while his entrepreneurial spirit and inventing mind set the model for the revolutionising process of creative destruction that Schumpeter saw at the heart of capitalist development. Nurturing his imagination through the avid consumption of novels, this money man can also be seen as an exemplar of the romantic ethic of modern consumerism (Campbell 1987), which is sustained by the structural romanticism of money itself.

While very much a self-made man reliant on the fruit of his own labour which he then sets to work for him (i.e. fully in tune with Locke’s conception of legitimate property owning), he is nonetheless involved in the exploitative and violent expropriation without which capitalism could not have taken off the ground so rapidly – the process which Marx called “original accumulation” and which Rosa Luxemburg has insisted is not just something that happens at the beginning of the capitalist era, but is always operative at the edges of capitalist expansion. Franklin was a slaveholder. Yet chattel slavery, profitable as it may be at least in the early stages of capitalist development, collides fundamentally with the moral grammar implied in capitalist exchange (Haskell 1985) – a grammar that relies on the formal freedom, or at least the appearance thereof, of the producers. Franklin went on to become an abolitionist – thus embodying the bad conscience of the bourgeois who likes to think of himself as owing his privileged position to his own hard work and exchange with free people, while not being able to forget completely the fact of violent exploitation that sustains that position. In this he incorporates in immediacy the anxiety of contemporary ethical consumers who are still haunted by the ghosts of the colonial past in which the base of their current wealth was laid.

And finally, Franklin also stands for the way that a capitalist ethos contains a utopian element. Benjamin Franklin, as one of the signatories of the American Constitution, stood for democracy and liberty. Both these principles may not be necessary results of capitalism, but Marx was probably right in suggesting that the formally egalitarian and libertarian nature of money-mediated commodity exchange undermines aristocratic principles of government and is suggestive of liberal-democratic systems. But the inequality and ensuing domination which are the inevitable outcomes of the capitalist process also limit and negate the formal equality and threaten the freedom which is inscribed in its moral grammar. The man whose guidance on money making was to be used over a century later to show up the essence of the capitalist spirit –like later Marx and Engels – takes inspiration from Urkommunismus in search of a cure for the ills of capitalism. In 1783 he relates the account of one native American thus:

‘You know our Practice. If a white Man in travelling thro’ our Country, enters one of our Cabins, we all treat him as I treat you; we dry him if he is wet, we warm him if he is cold, and give him Meat & Drink that he may allay his Thirst and Hunger, & we spread soft Furs for him to rest & sleep on: We demand nothing in return. But if I go into a white Man’s House at Albany and ask for Victuals & Drink, they say, where is your Money? And if I have none, they say, get out, you Indian Dog.’ (Franklin 1998: 318)

Campbell, Colin (1987): The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism, Oxford: Blackwell.

Franklin, Benjamin (1998): Autobiography and Other Writings, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Haskell, Thomas (1985): ‘Capitalism and the Origins of the Humanitarian Sensibility’, in:American Historical Review, Vol.90, No.2, pp.339-61 and No.3, pp.547-66

in-between: Georg Simmel and İbn Arabî

In his short but seminal 1909 essay ‘The Bridge and the Door’ Georg Simmel analyses and celebrates the human habit of differentiating, delineating and separating – and then reconnecting, relating as expressed in the cultural achievements of path-laying, bridge-building and architecture in general. In doing so he anticipates some themes that were to become central features of early 20th century philosophical anthropology (especially in the works of Max Scheler and of Helmuth Plessner)

 ‘The image of external things possesses for us the ambiguous dimension that in external nature everything can be considered to be connected, but also as separate. The uninterrupted transformations of materials as well as energies bring everything into relationship with everything else and make one cosmos out of all the individual elements. On the other hand, however, the objects remain banished in the merciless separation of space; no particle of matter can share its space with another and a real unity of the diverse does not exist in spatial terms.’ (Simmel 1994: 4) ‘By choosing two items from the undisturbed store of natural things in order to designate them as „separate“, we have already related them to one another in our consciousness, we have emphasized these two together against whatever lies between them. And conversely, we can only sense those things to be related which we have previously somehow isolated from one another; things must first be separated from one another in order to be together.’ (Simmel 1994: 5) ‘It is absolutely essential for humanity that it set itself a boundary, but with freedom, that is in such a way that it can also remove this boundary again, that it can place itself outside it. The finitude into which we have entered somehow always borders somewhere on the infinitude of physical or metaphysical being.’ (Simmel 1994: 7)

Now compare the underlying philosophical-anthropological approach of this late 19th / early 20th cultural sociologist with those of the 12th / 13th century Islamic mystic İbn Arabî as explained, here, by Salman Bashier:

 ‘Ibn al-‘Arabī says that differentiation (tafriqa) is the root of all things. This is because through the process of differentiation limits (ḥudūd) are set between things, and except for the limits knowledge would be impossible. There is a paradoxical aspect intrinsic to the activity of defining that consists of differentiating one thing from another. Something is defined through a process in which it is separated from all relations with Other. But difference itself is a relation, indeed, the most unifying of relations, “The closest, most affectionate, and most unifying of relations is one between | Other (khilāf) and its other, from which it is differentiated … Affection (mawadda) between differentiated things prevents each of them from wanting the disappearance of its other from existence. Each desires and wishes that it could become one with its other for the sake of avoiding any difference between itself and Other, so that witnessing becomes only for the one and that the other disappears in it.’ (Bashier 2004: 87)

Just as his Tragedy of Culture constitutes a secularisation of Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit, much of Simmel’s analysis of material culture could be understood as a secularisation of İbn Arabî’s anthropology and theology. How is this possible? I am quite certain that Simmel never read İbn Arabî – his most likely contact with Islamic mysticism might have been its reflections in Goethe’s West-östlicher Divan, for the most part a poetical reflection on Hafiz.

One could go a search for shared roots – and one of those is of course Plato. Here in fact we find a predecessor of the notion of a paradoxical unity of the separated which is owed to the very fact of separation. Ibn Arabi’s concept of the in-between/limit –  the berzah –  which is the locus of the longing imagination correspond to Plato’s méthexis as paradoxical union of separation (chōrismós) and presence (parousía) (Hoffmann 1919). I am sure, if one were to look one would easily find instances in Western philosophy that take up this theme – and which will have made it easier for the philosopher Georg Simmel to formulate his pioneering sociological understanding of material culture. But explanation by shared tradition, by constructing histories of ideas and genealogies of concepts, helpful as it is in understanding where certain ideas come from to be taken up or further developed by those searching for clues and concepts to make sense of the world, does not account for why certain ideas are being found useful at certain times or by certain theorists.

But then: would could possibly be similar in the situation that thinkers as distant in time as Plato, İbn Arabî and Simmel?

I would suggest that all them, Plato included, – and those who followed them: from Plotinus to Hypateia, from Walter Benjamin to Zygmunt Bauman and from the Anatolian Sufis (see Küçük 2007) to Rıza Tevfik (see Zarcone 1993) – were cosmopolitan urbanites. Is it surprising that thinkers who live in and move between cities are likely to develop a taste for the paradoxical unity of the diverse and different?

It may well be that institutions of metropolitan life, such as the cafés of Berlin … and of course Istanbul (Karababa/Ger 2011) act as real life paradigms for the berzah of the creative imagination of the Sufi as much as of the sociologist.

Bashier, Salman H. (2004): Ibn al-‘Arabī’s Barzakh: The Concept of the Limit and the Relationship between God and the World, Albany: State University of New York Press

Hoffmann, Ernst (1919): ‘Methexis und Metaxy bei Platon’, in: Sokrates: Zeitschrift für das Gymnasialwesen, Vol.73, pp.48-70

Karababa, Eminegül/Ger, Güliz (2011): ‘Early Modern Ottoman Coffeehouse Culture and the Formation of the Consumer Subject’, in: Journal of Consumer Research, Vol.37, No.5, pp.737-60

Küçük, Hülya (2007): ‘Dervishes Make a City: The Sufi Culture in Konya’, in: Critque: Critical Middle Eastern Studies, Vol.16, No.3, pp.241-53

Simmel, Georg (1994): ‘Bridge and Door’, in: Theory, Culture and Society, Vol.11, pp.5-10

Zarcone, Thierry (1993): Mystiques, philosophes, et francs-maçons en Islam: Riza Tevfik, penseur ottoman (1868-1949), Paris: Institut Français d’Études Anatoliennes d’Istanbul

Names, Mystics, and Consumer Immortality

(updated 9th November 2012)

Daniel Smith has an interesting piece on vlogging celebrity in which the issue of subjectivity fetishism and, related to this, how what’s in name is quite important in terms how we construct selfhood. I have already put down some of my thoughts about theimplications of the subjectivity fetish, referring to Simmel’s idea that the way we are notsocialised is crucial for understanding the way we are part of society. Simmel makes an interesting observation with regards of seemingly total absorption in religious experience. In this more or less complete socialisation into a religious community there still is a part of the self or a sense of selfhood that by necessity is not subsumed:

‘The religious man feels himself completely encompassed by the divine being, as though he were merely a pulse-beat of the divine life; his own substance is unreservedly, and even in mystical identity, merged in that of the Absolute. And yet, in order to give this intermelting any meaning at all, the devotee must retain some sort of self existence, some sort of personal reaction, a detached ego, to which the resolution into the divine All-Being is an endless task, a process only, which would be neither metaphysically possible nor religiously feelable if it did not proceed from a self-being on the part of the person: the being one with God is conditional in its significance upon the being other than God.’ (Simmel 1910: 384, emphasis added by me)

What Simmel here sees as an extreme I would account for as a first step towards bourgeois individualism: The self that can seek to lose itself in the divine is already constituted as an individual subject – and maybe we can see this mysticism as a technique of the self, a process of constituting a continuous subject where there were only role identities, masks, positions etc. – but no strong identity of the individual through changes of roles, masks and positions. The name seems to be of particular importance – at least in the Sufi tradition.

That in mind I wonder whether one could not see the use of personal names in Islamic mysticism as a source of individualism in those societies that have a strong Sufi tradition. A Sufi poet would usually mention his own name in the last two lines of the poet to relate himself to the mystic experience accounted for. In Turkey this is the case for the first mystic poet to write solely in Turkish – Yunus Emre (ca. 1240-1320) – to the last Turkish poet one could call a mystic of reputation: Aşık Veysel (1894-1973). Interestingly, both of them have lines in which they not only refer to their proper names, but to the fact of having a name. Here is Yunus Emre (Tatcı, s.a., 32)

Yûnus adun sâdıkdur bu yola geldünise * Adın degşürmeyenler bu yola gelmediler

Süha Faiz (1992: 20) translates

“Yunus, put to death the self, if on the Path you are embarked – Who do not kill the self in Truth are by eternity unmarked.”

That’s a way too liberal translation – and I think it misses an important bit which would confirm what Simmel says: ad is “name” and degşürmek (değiştirmek in modern Turkish) is “change”. So no killing involved here: Yunus’ name is “Friend” (sâdık) – I go along with “if on the Path (yol) embarked), but then it’s simply: those whose names remain unchanged just “didn’t come on to the Path”. Notably – even the change, the loss of self (although this does not really feature in this particular poem – but it is something that is generally aimed for in Sufism), even the abandoning of the personal name holds it present and immortalises it – after all: that’s why we still do know Yunus Emre’s name. Such immortalisation is – despite the pursuit of the same project of unity with the all-encompassing, oceanic divine – is also sought by Aşık Veysel when he opens his most famous poem/song (I’ve linked up to one of the abundant Youtube videos that feature his own voice)

Ben giderim, adım kalır * Dostlar beni hatırlasın

I will leave, my name will remain – My friends shall remember me

The Sufis tried to find eternity of self through self-abandonment in the mystic experience of unification with the One. The romantic consumer seeks infinity in the immortalization of their name in documented consumer activity. Until very recently this outlook was only possible for  a small layer of very affluent consumers as

‘… the predominant ideological thrust of consumers in the upper-middle and lower-upper classes is not toward merely accumulating wealth per se, but rather toward documenting their secular achievements and contributions to society by consuming in a particular way.’ (Hirschman 1990: 34)

With the arrival of social networking and the apparently undeletable memory of Facebook, immortality of a rich personality linked to a proper name seems to be an option.

One question that arises – in relation to the apparent affinity of Turkish mystic Islam and neoliberal capitalism and consumerism – whether this is not partly owed to a grounding of individualistic culture through mystic folk poetry and facilitated through the Kemalist reform of names established European-style family surnames.

Faiz, Süha (1992): The City of the Heart: Yunus Emre’s Verses of Wisdom and Love, Longmead: Element Books

Hirschman, Elizabeth C. (1990): ‘Secular Immortality and the American Ideology of Affluence’, in: Journal of Consumer Research, Vol.17, No.1, pp.31-42

Simmel, Georg (1910): ‘How is Society Possible?’ , in: American Journal of Sociology, Vol.16, No.3, pp.372-391

Tatcı, Mustafa (ed.) (s.a.) Yûnus Emre Dîvânı, T.C. Kültür ve Turizm Bakanlığı, (