Continuities of Culture in the City: Using Accidental Clues to Access London/Turkish Spiritualities in Commercial Cultures

Paper prepared for the Global Studies Association conference 10th to 12th July 2013 at the University of Roehampton

(pdf)

While European leaders squabble about whether or not Turkey does or does not belong into the European Union and in Germany, the main destination of Turkish migration in the second half of the 20th century, Turks remain the target of racist discrimination and blame (Soysal 2013), Turkish London looks like a model case of cosmopolitan co-existence. During the 2011 Riots Daily Mail reading British tourists in Turkey learned in amazement how members of this “Muslim” population played the part of vigilante defenders of British retail, while the Turkish media noted that against the looters London Turks stood together with London Kurds. While celebrations of multicultural success stories need to be taken with a pinch of salt (particularly as they might be used as reproach towards groups considered less well “integrated”), the inconspicuous and under-researched case of London Turcophone ‘ordinary cosmopolitanism’ (Lamont/Aksartova 2002, also cf. Werbner 1999 for working class migrant cosmopolitanisms) deserves attention. At a time when multicultural society is questioned and anti-Muslim hate crimes are on the rise, what makes the apparently unproblematic everyday cosmopolitanism of Turkish London possible?

In this paper I will try to begin answering this question by presenting preliminaries for a study on the intricacies of London/Turkish life, developing from material clues gathered on a single day of preliminary ethnographic research on Kingsland Road and Stoke Newington Road, Dalston/Hackney – showing that already on the basis of very little evidence assumptions about bounded and un-ambiguously identified ethno-religious migrant community can be challenged. Randomly encountered artefacts such as a cartoon character themed yogurt drink from a Turkish supermarket, the grandfather clocks in the prayer hall of a Sunni Mosque, a guide to the ritual prayer (namaz) bought from a Turkish/Islamic book shop or a 17th century “Turkey upholstery” chair displayed in Geffrye Museum of English Interior Design tell stories about how both breaks and continuities in space and time are established through spiritual and commercial practice. Spatial references – between metropolises such as London and Istanbul, and transcendent and immanent spiritual places such as the Âlem-i Misâl , local mosques, cinematic imaginations and the Kaabe in Mecca – intersect and reflect back on each other. As do temporal references – the clues were gathered on the opening day of the London Olympics, the first Friday of Ramazan, market day on Ridley Road. The aim of this paper will be to set out the parameters to investigate continuities of culture in the cosmopolitan metropolis as continuities of time and continuities of space, as lived in practices and coagulated in artefacts whose initial function may have been distinction rather than connection.

Of course – this falls short of the full investigation that London Turkish spiritual and commercial life would merit. While one aim of this paper is to show that even before deeper investigations, clues (Inglis 2010) can destabilise existing preconceptions, even in an observer who comes in with ‘interactional expertise’ (Collins et al. 2006) I am also making a case against a too systematic approach to research as stipulated by the current funding system – a system that nominally favours “innovative” research, but requires researchers to lay out, in advance, very detailed proceedings. In this initial refusal to systematise the field from the outset I follow Çağlar’s (1997) programmatic call for research perspectives that do not start with cultural categorisation, but to find sideways access into everyday life worlds, e.g. through practices of consumption. Küçükcan (1999) has drawn up, and Çoştu (2009) has updated, a very useful map of London Turkish religious and community organisations. But in the end this leads to a categorisation of segments within the London Turkish speaking communities that may be relevant for those centrally involved in those organisation, but less so for the many who use their facilities without deeper involvement. So, while, as Werbner (1997) argues there can be no doubt about the validity of such essentialising of collective identity where it is driven by community self organisation, the symbolic work done by such organisations can only be understood against the background of the fluidity of cultural practice, the ebruesqe nature of identity in a cosmopolitan age (Durak 2006, Varul 2012). While the perspective from organisation unwittingly emphasises boundary construction and maintenance, the perspective from casual observation favours the discovery of connections and lines establishing the continuity of culture which Ingold (1993) asserts. Ingold resolves the seeming tension between the universal possibility of understanding implying homogeneity and cultural variety and diversity which implies an impossibility of such understanding by invoking the metaphor of a landscape:

‘I find it helpful to imagine the world in which people dwell as a continuous and unbounded landscape, endlessly varied in its features and contours, yet without seams or breaks. As we travel across the landscape we move from place to place. Each place is different from the last, each is surrounded by its own horizons, yet these horizons dissolve on approach as new ones loom up ahead – they are never crossed. So how do we describe the particular character of a place? I answer: “By the way the world looks from that place, by the vista it affords to someone standing there”’ (Ingold 1993: 226)

However, unlike Ingold (2008) who in a pronouncedly anti-urban turn dismisses any artificially set boundary as discontinuation of landscape and culture, I will argue that it is, paradoxically, through identity-setting, defining and “othering” delineations (which those artefacts embody) that the possibility of continuity and connectivity is constituted in the first place. Here I take inspiration from both the sociological tradition (mainly Simmel, e.g. 1994) and, as this is about continuity of culture after all, from the Sufi spiritual-philosophical tradition of the communities studied. The notion of “limit” berzah[1] as the divide that connects, as the intermediate between material and spiritual existence which is the realm of the creative imagination, the âlem-i missal,the world of images (Bashier 2004, Chittick 1989, Corbin 1969). [2] The “great sheikh” Ibn Arabi characterises the berzahas follows:

“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.’ (cited in Bashier 2004: 87f.)

This finds a correspondence Georg Simmel’s notion of relation through separation, of – if you like – presenting by absenting:

‘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)

Where Simmel sees separation as precondition for connection, Ibn Arabi (and, it should be said, the Romantics – for a speculation on some parallels between Sufi and Romantic ethics in relation to consumer culture cf. Varul 2013)

While for Ingold (2007) the mapping of a stream as an international boundary is merely an act of violence against the flow of the landscape, for Simmel this wilful misunderstanding of flowing water as a limit or separation is at the same time a stimulus to the imagination and a provocation to build a bridge. In recognising this paradoxical function of reifying identity ascriptions fluidity and hybridity can be exposed without denying the reality of socially constructed and maintained “cultural difference”. Against the Heideggerian-Lukácsian horror of reification (Honneth 2008), the dialectical nature of reification needs to be recalled – as (even though without explicit reference to the dialectical tradition) Silva (2013: 83) does in her empirically grounded assertion:

Reification is always  and necessarily linked not with inertness but with responsiveness; not with detachment but with involvement; not with passivity but with activity; not with a lack of control over one’s products, but with a tighter control over those products and the advantages they bring. In the end, a different view of mastery and control will surface: to regain control and effect change it is not sufficient to adopt a critical stance and come to terms with the “objective” fact that our reified world is after all our own creation, and what we did ourselves we can undo.’

This appreciation of limits and boundaries also entails a methodological break from the idea of unconditional immersion. While, in further research, a high degree of immersion (and what is more, research subject generated content) will be sought, my starting point is one of learned distance, which combines the notion that (against a background of eclectically accumulated familiarising knowledge) every tiny detail found in the field can become a vital clue, with a radical de-familiarisation and alienation that refuses to privilege any knowledge – not even “indigenous” knowledge. To take the detective metaphor of the “clue” seriously, we will follow the abductive approach exemplified Arthur Conan Doyle in his Sherlock Holmes stories as interpreted by Seboek/Umiker-Seboek (1988) in which the imaginative construction of possible connections and relations is the first step. If you like, this amounts to an adoption of the concept of berzah not just for the interpretation of the artefacts, but in the positioning of the interpretative approach itself as one activating the sociological imagination. (Mills)

This paper is thus written from an “armchair” position, rehabilitated by Willerslev (2010: 509) as counterweight to the paradox of immersive anthropology which ‘the more faithful it becomes to ethnographic reality, the more it loses its high function of imagery, namely that of synthesizing and interpreting what it represents’. Needless to say that I am not only resisting the temptation to fully immerse in one of the spiritual outlooks found in the field,[3] the same approach is taken towards “Western” interpretations.

This attitude (which is not a retreat – the necessity of a return to the field is fully recognised here) is, I suggest and hope to demonstrate, also advantageous in finding ways of articulating the meanings contained on the level of ‘iconic consciousness’ which for the immersed observer become inexpressible because:

‘the iconic is about experience, not communication. To be iconically conscious is to understand without knowing, or at least without knowing that one knows. It is to understand by feeling, by contact, by the “evidence of our senses” rather than the mind.’ (Alexander 2008: 782)

To make a first step in articulating the iconic consciousness residing in the objects found on the way learned detachment is indispensable. The adoption of the paradoxical notion of the limit, the berzah, will help accessing the way that iconographic artefacts both presenting and absenting simultaneously, notions which ‘may inform antagonistic philosophical perspectives, but’ as Alexander (2008: 786) asserts ‘are not antithetical in the empirical sense.’ This claim, of course, is one that needs to be validated or at least rendered plausible. in the discussion of the empirical material. If successful this should lead up to a ‘writing against culture’ in the three senses that Abu-Lughod (2006) outlines, by refusing the ‘distinction between ideas and practice’ (2006: 472) – when understanding how the religio-political and the commercial interact on a yoghurt pot whose contents have been consumed by myself –, by making ‘connections and interconnections’ (ibid.), especially ‘national and transnational connections of people, cultural forms, media, techniques, and commodities’ (2006:473), but also between the researcher and the researched, and ‘ethnographies of the particular’ (2006: 473) where single narratives, artefacts, practices reflect, but do not exemplify the general, and thus generalisation is rejected even where a claim to general validity is part of the artefact’s meaning structure.

What I am presenting in the following is only part of my “haul” from a single day of field work in London Hackney, up and down Kingsland Road and Stoke Newington Road – commonly viewed as the centre of Turkish life in the UK. I can highlight only a fraction of my observations – and by doing so am making my point, namely that even a very short and unsystematic observation immediately shatters any notion of reified cultural community and coherence and points to a fractured continuity of culture.

Of course, I will not deny that to make this observations a certain level of what Collins et al. (2006) called ‘interactional expertise’ is necessary. So I came to the field all read-up on varieties of Turkish Islam, equipped with some (basic) knowledge of Turkish language and a history of partial immersion in diasporic Turkish life in Europe. But there was no attempt at a systematic “mapping”. In a very situationistic way, my observations are guided by coincidence (a bit like the idea of exploring one city using a map of another city). I did not plan this field trip properly and would normally have avoided going at the opening day of the London Olympics – which happened to be the first Friday in Ramazan and also market day on Ridley Road. I also did not plan in the weather (after all – this is England), so once I hit Kingsland Road, against all reassurances of the Met Office, it started to rain heavily. I found refuge in the Geffrye Museum, (which I otherwise would have ignored), a museum that, as “museum of the home” set itself the task to ‘how homes and gardens reflect changes in society, behaviour, style and taste over the past 400 years’[4]. Here, due to bad conscience (I was travelling on research expenses) instead of just sheltering, I started to explore with forced interest. After all, to coincide with the Olympics, the museum had a special exhibition on the world at home in London (as symbolised in the giant teapot in the courtyard

 

 

 

What I found in that special exhibition was

an unexpected chair

 

Chair with turkey upholstery, about 1685, Geffrye Museum

 

So this is evidence of London Turkish life without London Turks – an Orientalising adaptation of Anatolian material and artistry for early bourgeois home life in the 17thcentury. Reflecting on this item, lines open both to Orientalist romanticism and Enlightenment rationalism, linking British Imperial notions of cultural superiority with longing imaginaries relating to Turkish lands as magical and luxurious East. Also there are lines into the Turkish notions of progress and Westernisation.

The chair on display clearly is, by design, an ordinary North West European chair and as such (and in contrast to what colonialist explorers found in exotic places… and before them what crusaders and traders found in the East[5]) epitomises Western civilisation in disciplined and self-controlled sitting. This is well documented in the Geffrye Museum. We find chairs arranged around dinner tables and at desks.

Bourgeois living room arranged in the Geffrye Museum

 

Fixating the sitter in the direction of the envisaged activity (supping, debating, writing, studying) and enforcing an upright position, the European chair underpins the self image of the modern European bourgeois as focused, purposeful, rational and diligent whose sitting is elevated from squatting. In the way the seat is set roughly at knee height, the sitting position of the Westerner is made to resemble standing up as closely as any sitting position can possibly be. Standing up, springing into action, requires minimal effort. In a pronounced way the chair does not only ‘afford sitting on’ (Gibson 1977 uses a chair to explain his notion of ‘affordance’), but it affords Western superiority.:

‘The chair, as we know it today, derives from the throne, and the throne presupposes subject animals or human beings, whose function it is to carry the weight of the ruler. The four legs of the chair represent the legs of an animal – a horse, an ox, or an elephant – and sitting in this way, on a raised seat, must be clearly distinguished from sitting or squatting on the ground, which means something quite different. To sit on a chair was originally a mark of distinction. The man who sat rested on other men who were his subjects or slaves. While he might sit, they had to stand.’ (Canetti 1962: 389)

Until today chairs are at the heart of the capitalist economy. As Conrad and Richter (2013: 125) find in their reflection on desks:

‘tables are not only representing the core of corporate culture but also the centres of economic power. Tables are the centre of globally operating corporations where a small number of people are making decisions which affect us all. to make this table visible is tantamount to making economic power visible.’

By combining this piece of furniture with an Anatolian rug, a kilim (which in itself can act as a piece of furniture in that one can sit on it, mostly cross-leggedly – bağdaş), the displayed chair presents as its opposite what it decidedly is not. It presents and absents “Oriental” sitting.

The latter is imagined as reclined, relaxed and either related to the meditative practice of the religious writer or the leisurely hedonist (e.g. drinking coffee and sucking on a hookah, or nargile, as these men in front of a coffeehouse in 1905)

The false generalisation from such practices onto an “Oriental mentality” was introduced in a Romantic fascination with the Islam (Rodinson 1980) which left us with the Turkey-derived concepts of “ottoman” “sofa” and the “divan”.  This chair is an interesting combination alluding to perceived Turkish luxuriousness and Western rational interior design. On the one hand it enforces ideas of Western superiority, the idea of the Occident as purposive and rational – i.e. “masculine” – and the Orient as fatalistic and passive – i.e. “feminine”. On the other hand it represents, by way of consumer cultural transcendence (McCracken 1988 calls it ‘displaced meaning’), escapist dreams of an “Oriental” life of sensuous existence as delicately depicted in Liotard’s painting of two cross-dressing and leg-crossing Westerners.[6]

(Jean-Etienne Liotard (1702-1789): Monsieur Levett and Mademoiselle Helene Glavany in Turkish Costumes (oil on canvas), Louvre

 

The picture shows a friend of the painter and a British businessman – for whom the relaxed, reclined and passive Oriental other must incorporate an unachievable release from the Protestant Ethic coagulated in the “spirit of capitalism”. Oriental sitting (in the European imagination) is passive, inward, un-busy

‘Unlike those who use chairs, the oriental, when he sits, does not parade the fact that he could, if he wished, be sitting on his fellow-creatures. He is like a beautifully clothed sack; everything he owns is inside the sack, and it is this sack that his servants wait on. But squatting or sitting on the ground also implies acceptance of everything which may happen. If he were a beggar, the rich man would continue to sit in the same way and, in doing so, would say in effect that he was still the same man. the posture contains both wealth and poverty, and this, together with what we said about the absence of needs, is why it has become the posture of contemplation, familiar to all who know the East. The man who adopts it has freed himself from the world. He reposes in  himself and burdens no-one.’ (Canetti 1962: 393f.)

 

The upholstery on the chair in the  Geffrye museum does the consumerist trick of incorporating the, in a capitalist society, seemingly unachievable release represented by the imagined Oriental into a quintessentially Western piece of furniture. The “turkey upholstery chair” affords retaining embodied notions of Western rationality in contrast with the Oriental Other (a superiority which is driven home by the ultimate symbol of “possessing” as “being able to sit on”) – and simultaneously long for another, less disciplined and more indulgent life which is dreamt into the Orient. It is a micro-berzah, a distinction that creates, paradoxically, an imagination that may go on to undermine the rigid distinction.

On a much more trivial level I would suggest that it does something else as well: it familiarises with a textile aesthetics and even in Orientalising usage reduces the otherness of the visual appearance and the tactile feel. The knowledge that the material has been imported from Ottoman lands (which in the 17th century certainly would have been understood to be a world power equal to the British Empire), also has the potential to engender imagined journeys, awaking an interest that may set out to (and likely to) confirm preformed ideas of self and other – but at least as a possibility also may destabilise those stereotypes and lay the ground for genuine discovery. It can be expected to reduce the potential of revulsion by complete strangeness – a process that involves all senses. Visual, acoustic, olfactory and haptic aesthetics seep from one place into another, and although they are put to different uses and understood through different systems of meaning (e.g. Coca-Cola on Trinidad according to Daniel Miller 1998), it could, for example, be argued that the cosmopolitan scentscape of consumerist and multicultural London is an unacknowledged facilitator for further global hybridisation. With time the exoticism wears off and it is hardly conceivable any more how, say, a damask rose and musk hand wash in any way makes one smell “Oriental”. What Colin Campbell has described as the ‘Easternisation of the West’  could well be the end product of this sort of wearing-off in what Nava (2007) analysed as market-based ‘visceral cosmopolitanism’ whose vanishing point is the implosion of compass based cultural metaphors.

The relation works both ways. Chair and table have come to symbolise Westernisation in Turkey. In a way this is quite rational in itself, given the affordances of the combination chair-desk, enabling work using multiple sources at the same time, contrasting with the single-focused writing or reading of other arrangements.

As Tekgül (2012) highlights, the Nobel Prize-winning Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk uses this affordance of the chair-and-desk ensemble to symbolise the ambivalences of competition, aspiration and suspicion towards the West and Westernisation when the Venetian slave of an Ottoman grandee convinces him that for his scientific work he really needs – a chair and a desk – which his master metaphorically associates with the death of culture as it evokes the image of a bier in him. Today different dining and sitting room arrangements still carry symbolic (as well as practical) significance, as Henkel (2007: 63) reports:

‘Although all of the homes I visited in Istanbul were furnished “European style” with sofa arrangements dining tables, and so on, my hosts often preferred to sit in front of sofas and armchairs on the floor. On some occasions (e.g. when I was invited to dinner together with my wife) the entire family was seated around the dining table. On other occasions my hosts preferred to take their meals sitting on the ground with the food spread on platters placed on a cloth, rather than sitting around the dining table. Generally only men would partake in these meals. Often, no individual plates would be used but bowls and platters would be shared, with the cloth tucked over the knees of the participants of the meal. Given that, on these occasions, cutlery was normally not used for eating, the role of the right hand as the clean hand was especially conspicuous. Often this  use of furniture reflects personal taste as much as more serious considerations. On several occasions, however, my interlocutors explicitly referred to the sunna or to “our tradition” or the “Anatolian tradition” (another way of referring to the Muslim tradition, adding a distinctly Turkish dimension.) This was given as their reason for preferring to sit on the ground to eat, and, especially, for eating together from the same platters, which they pointedly contrasted to the Western (batılı) style of eating and socializing.’ (Henkel 2007: 63)[7]

Here too we find that the definition of the other through an practical aesthetic artefact also serves to establish the very continuities that it seems to deny in the first instance. While initially the Western chair (with table) is a symbol of the alien and hostile (and increasingly dominant) West, it also familiarises that other on an everyday practical level so that, in the end, microcontinuities are established. When trying to reaffirm a distinctively Ottoman Turkish identity of Istanbul the then mayor (now Prime Minister) Recep Tayyip Erdoğan oversaw the refashioning of the popular municipal Çamlıca cafe in an alaturka aesthetics. However, so taken for granted had the Western way of sitting become that an essential detail was overlooked:

‘While the illustration on the wall stood as yet another insistent effort to verify the authenticity of Ottoman culture by emphasizing historicity and tradition, the actual furnishing of the coffee house had no resemblance whatsoever to the representation on the wall. The chairs and tables in the coffee house were of nineteenth-century French style and were arranged in an orderly fashion, dividing the space so the guests could sit separately, in contrast to the Ottoman divan-style seating, which preserved the singularity of the social space, enhancing communal interaction.’ (Çınar 2005: 132)

On the one hand you could say that “the West has won this” – the world is now further rationalised through the proliferation of chairs. But one could equally say that the chair has been de-Westernised and has thus long lost the power of signification used to have (at least for Pamuk’s fictional Ottoman grandee).

Tiles…

All this forward and backward between Orientalism, self-Orientalisation, Westernisation etc. reminded me of another accidental clue that I had picked up much earlier without giving it much thought. It is an item I have purchased in the British Museum shop a year before.

 

This is a pair of tea/coffee mugs (top) embellished with a pattern taken from an İznik tile (bottom) on display in the Museum’s Islamic collection.

In this early 21st century item we find very similar contradictions of presenting and absenting an “other culture”. Like the turkey-upholstery chair it is a pronouncedly Western item decorated with a conspicuously and explicitly “Oriental” aesthetic surface. This lends beauty to a profane object –beauty of a pattern that due to its use mainly in imperial palaces and mosques carries similar notions of spirituality and hedonistic indulgence as the kilim in its evocation of “Oriental sitting”. And the profane object, too, is one that is closely linked to practices of rational nutrition and work[8] – be it the builders’ tea or the coffee on your desk top that “keeps you going” which are typically drunk from mugs like these. Turkish tea and coffee are typically consumed in different vessels – tea in small glasses and coffee in cups which, on average, are a bit smaller than an espresso cup.

So while I can continue my “Americanised” academic practice of coffee consumption as part of legitimate work routine (cf. Gaudio 2003) I can indulge in handling an object that has “a Turkish feel” to it. This, of course, brings in all the problematic implications of pre-conceived cultural properties (which are also touristically reinforced in that ceramics with İznik pattern are one of the major souvenir s sold to visitors), but again familiarises and de-alienates aesthetic patterns. In highlighting and propagating the İznik tile pattern to an “educated public” the British Museum contributes to a construction of an aesthetically different “Turkish culture” which hence is absented as belonging somewhere else, but also presents this different aesthetics as adequate for the decoration of “own” cultural objects – a border river and a (potential) bridge connecting the so separated banks.

Which leads, finally, to some of the things I actually came looking for. It is not only the British Museum that uses İznik to Turkicise a British artefact. There is a precedent in the first Turkish mosque in London, Aziziye Camii on Stoke Newington Road. This mosque, which is run by the foundation affiliated to the Turkish ministry of religious affairs (Diyanet), is an example of a converted building – which still is the most common case of a mosque in Britain.

Aziziye Camii, Stoke Newington Road, Hackney (Olympic bunting in front)

 

The building is a former theatre, cinema and bingo hall which has been transformed into a conspicuously Turkish mosque not only by the addition of small domes (though not a central dome over the prayer hall as one would expect) and: İznik style tiles on the exterior.

While these do signal that this is a Turkish mosque, it is doubtful that the signalling function is the main motive behind the tiling. If we understand the tiles as iconographic then it makes more sense to say that they give the mosque “a Turkish feel” – which equally caters to the aesthetic/emotional needs of migrant Turkish Muslims. Ever since the 16thcentury, these tiles are seen as the natural choice for decorating a mosque. That the mosque serves not only the spiritual but also the social and the aesthetic needs of Turkish Muslims in London is also manifest in the fact that what looks like the main entrance is actually a shop and butcher. At least in the early stages of the migration experience, reliable supplies of helal meat were an urgent need. But a mosque shop also provides other specifically Turkish goods that migrants have found lacking from the supermarket shelves. The shop also has standard items you would find in every other corner shop. The prominence of a shop that is geared towards religious compliance, profane everyday needs and, at least initially, combating loneliness and estrangement of the diasporic situation (very precisely captured in the Turkish notion of gurbet – cf. Schiffauer 2007, Yazbeck-Haddad 1999)[9] through products – mainly groceries – representing home. It is an important clue as, only looking at the way the building was Islamicised one could be misled to think that the two domes oddly placed where the minarets should be while the central dome over the prayer hall is absent, in combination with the tile patterns “signal” Turkish-Islamic identity. While in practice this may be an effect (especially for those who have purchased that mug in the British Museum…), it cannot be the main purpose – the building has been converted to serve the London Turkish Muslim population, so it needs to speak to them at least as much as it speaks to others. The simple fact is that tiles just belong to a Turkish mosque in the same way as a dome and minarets. The conversion does its best, within the limits that are set by the pre-existing building – to enable the believer to feel at home – and the prominence of the mosque shop – situated where you would expect the entrance to be –  supports this interpretation.[10]

But as far as the İznik tiles cannot help signalling “different culture” they enter a dialogue with the outside. It is now recognised part of the palimpsestical urban landscape that becomes the object of quasi touristical exploration by avant-garde consumers and residents who trickle in to create another layer on Hackney’s aesthetic surface. In an article on Dalston’s ‘growing theatre and music scene, all-night restaurants and multicultural buzz’ the London Evening Standard celebrates Kingsland High Street in terms homologous to a 1970s Turkey travel guide book

On a balmy evening the smoky aroma of kebabs and Turkish pizzas fills the air along Kingsland High Street. The use of pavement seating for smoking shisha pipes and playing backgammon gives the area an Eastern feel (Kasriel 2006)

Reasonably priced lentil soup, pastries and kebabs available inside Aziziye are specifically mentioned – integrating the first Turkish mosque in London into its internal touristic consumptionscape – following a now common pattern across London:

Most tourists still visit the famous sites redolent of the nation’s past but the guidebooks urge them also to sample London’s multicultural diversity and alternative locales. Although Soho wsa already portrayed as an alternative locality within the imperial capital, Spitalfields and Docklands add new themes in the global city. Furthermore, they lead tourists away from the West End and City of London honeypots. A Soho restaurant, a Brick Lane café, and a Docklands pub may be surrounded by the residues of industry and poor working-class housing, but they acquire an image of exciting authenticity. Their dangerous and impoverished past is made safe for the contemporary visitor.’ (Eade 1996: 179).

The official London tourist website visitlondon.com actually did run a promotion of “Turkish London“, informing visitors where to shop, where to eat, where to be entertained.

The difference allows overcoming indifference, translating it into, initially, culinary/touristic interest. The Diyanet mosque has, in this way, paved the way for a much more self conscious and bolder approach by a community not linked to the Turkish government – one that in the literature is rather noted for its reticence and inward-looking nature – the (possibly) Süleymanlı UK Turkish Islamic Cultural Centre (UKTICC)[11]

 

London Süleymaniye

The secretary of the UKTICC actively uses the touristic bridge to invite passers-by to inter-faith exchanges. Interviewed by the local paper he says

‘Thousands of people go to the mosques in Istanbul, but they do not need to, they can come here’ (Hackney Gazette, 28th July 2011)

In a BBC London report on the then  newly opened Süleymaniye Mosque was introduced as aesthetic enhancement (“regeneration”) of Kingsland Road – and located in an area that Londoners will know for the best Turkish food available in the country. While the tourist gaze clearly is one that is charged with inequalities and prone to distortion (Urry), it is here used as an entry point in the hope (whether justified or not cannot be fully assessed here) to open a cosmopolitan dialogue that goes beyond the consumption of cultural difference.

Süleymaniye Camii – as purpose built mosque – comes with all the hallmarks of a mosque as one may find in Turkey, including İznik style tiles imported from Kütahya and minaret with tannoys (although the call to prayer, the ezan,  is only transmitted within the mosque compound and not onto the road, they complete the visual authenticity of the building). It is also ostensibly modern with its steel and glass front.

Süleymaniye Camii (UK Turkish Islamic Cultural Centre), Kingsland Road, Hackney

 

According to the UKTICC, here the aesthetic surface indeed is intended as a message. The combination of Western and Islamic styles is meant to communicate the fact that ‘you can be a good Muslim by living here in Britain and giving benefits to the community.’

Being propelled to the status of a quasi-central mosque comes with a particular expectation of non-sectarian openness (cf. Gilliat-Ray/Birt 2010: 147) – so even though the name and perceived origin point to a particular stream within Turkish Sunni Islam of Nakşibendi Sufi tradition – the Süleymanlı – the presentation of self in its official brochure places the mosque as serving the Ehli Sünnet,[12] i.e. broadly all Sunnis who stand in a Sufi-inspired tradition.  The openness of the mosque is testified not only architecturally by the heavy use of glass, but also by the fact that the UKTICC is involved in a range of interactions with the London political establishment, municipal public life and community exchange. As an unannounced visitor on the first Friday of Ramazan I was asked in and invited to take photos without actively seeking that permission.

Süleymaniye Camii, staircase

 As an architectural artefact London Süleymaniye iconographically manifests cosmopolitan globality in a sequence of presenting absences and absenting presences. It very clearly pronounces Turkishness and Islamicity, but it does so in a way that creates a romantic/imaginative berzah opening lines of topographical (and chronographical) reference which stipulate Simmelian bridgings. The two main references present distant absences – Istanbul and Mecca – in a way that they allow the imagination to travel (under a willing suspension of disbelief uniquely possible in a consumerist society, see Campbell 1987). They absent the presence of London – just as the ezan that acoustically creates an Islamic soundscape (Metcalf 1996: 8) inside of the premises, leaving behind the near constant police sirens that are the most distinctive element in Hackney’s urban soundscape and singular markers of metropolitan hostility and danger;[13] and just as the flowing-together of both sounds at the perimeter of the premises re-presents the absented from both sides of the created separator.

The first spatial orientation that offers itself, in an Islamic place of worship, obviously is Mecca as the orientation, kıble, of the ritual prayer, namaz, towards the Kaaba. Mecca is also presented by the UKTICC’s role in organising annual pilgrimage, haç, packages – constituting Mecca as a place that is to be faced five times a day (and, particularly on Fridays, from inside the mosque), and to be travelled to at least once in a lifetime if at all possible. The direction is marked not only by a niche in the wall, the mihrap, but also by a pattern of prayer mats, seccade, lined towards the kıble. During the namaz orthodox Muslims around the world are united in facing a spiritually and historically meaningful location in Arabia. In fact, as the prayer times are determined by local astronomical data that relate to the turning of the planet, Muslims keep drawing concentric circles around the Kaaba in which they face both Mecca, but also each other on a global scale. In the presenting of the centre of Islam and absenting of London, however, the absent is re-presented by the very practice of absenting in at least two ways. The clues in the below image are the grandfather clocks and the fact that the seccades do not face the East wall in a right angle.

Süleymaniye Camii, interior of prayer hall, facing the mihrap

 

London topography – and in particular Kingsland Road, filters into the exterior from which it seemed to be excluded. In an Islamic city, a mosque would have been oriented towards Mecca – in London the street layout renders this impossible in most cases. The slightly odd angle of the prayer mats is a constant reminder that this is outside what is commonly called “the Islamic World”. The second marker is the acknowledgement of clock time framing the mihrap. In the aforementioned BBC London programme it is explained that these are here because it is important to carry out namaz at the right times of the day (and these times, vary each day since they relate to the movement of the sun.) Traditionally (and in some heartlands of Islam till today), the five prayers are the main orientation points for time keeping (so you could, for instance, agree to meet a friend after the fourth prayer). As the prayers are located in relation to the position of the sun, it is an indirect form using sacralised “natural” time – here solar time – as opposed to “mechanical” or clock time. This submission follows a globally repeated process that has been first rehearsed in the process of British industrialisation (Thompson 1967). The identification of prayer times via a timetable and a mechanical clock constitutes an ironic inversion , a technological secularisation in which the divine mechanism of the firmament is replaced by the human-made mechanism of the clockwork. What is more, there is something very London-centric about these two clock. The time they show is derived from the British imperial assumption that London, and not Jerusalem, Rome or Mecca, is the centre of the world, and hence its meridian is the one that defines world time. Time in London is GMT – time in Mecca is GMT plus three hours.

‘Children educated in London’s schools, like their counterparts in the rest of the Empire, were taught geography from textbooks which were unambiguous about London’s place in the world. In a common school trip, children were (and still are) taken to the Prime Meridian at Greenwich to experience the whole world divided into two between their feet, in the place “where time begins”.’ (Driver/Gilbert 1998: 24)

Note that not only does the post-Imperial metropolis here continues to claim the title of “centre of the world” – there also is a religio-metaphysical undertone in the notion that the beginnings of time lie in London. The two grandfather clocks standing sentry left and right the mihrap have a colonel-in-chief in Big Ben, the great grandfather clock of the British Empire.

The second reference point that deserves attention is one that relates two post-Imperial cities: London and Istanbul. The clue is in the name which reveals an utopic aspect of the building:

‘Of course, not all places are called utopia, but there is a utopic behind every place (alternatively, perhaps, a dystopic behind some as well). Naming is also about valuing and comparing. Arranging is a selective process that includes and excludes. In doing so it allows some to name, to make known, a place as meaning something in particular: my home, the place I was born, a prison, a school, a scientific laboratory. The name of each of these places derives from an ordering that is given by a name that carries with it a utopic, a name implies some sort of meaning to what the place is about, what its purpose is and what it stands for and how that contrasts with places that are not of this kind.’ (Hetherington 1997: 191)

In the first place, for the followers of the Süleymanlı way (who will easily see their last sheikh Süleyman Tunahan honoured in the name) Tunahan’s tomb in Istanbul is a centre of their spiritual geography and they aim at visiting it at least once a year. (Yükleyen 2010: 280) But while this reference may or may not be a valid interpretation (given the absence of an official statement with regards to Tunahan and his order I am reluctant to follow Küçükcan’s and Çoştu’s readings) – there is another much more obvious and, in more than one sense, powerful reference in that “Süleymaniye” is also the name of the largest mosque in Istanbul

Vue panoramique de la Mosquée Suleymanié / Sébah & Joaillier around 1900[14]

 

This Süleymaniye Camii, the Süleymaniye Camii, owes its name to the Sultan under which rule the most famous Ottoman architect of all times, Mimar Sinan, has overseen its building : Süleyman the Magnificent, in 1550 to 1558. A time when the Ottoman Empire was at the height of its power. To call a mosque Süleymaniye is to evoke the building which is the materialisation of Ottoman civilisation not only in terms of religion – but generally culture, learning, and scientific achievement. As Stratton (1972: 125) points out, Süleymaniye in Istanbul is a bold statement of superiority in science and engineering:

‘In 1550, the Sacred Law was fixed as a pure science. The dome of the Süleymaniyé rises and soars. It is celestial, but it certainly does not float upon mysteriously illuminated golden air. It is held up by the law of gravity. In his building Sinan stripped bare all the technical forces at work. He revealed the structural engineering, the masonry walls, the buttresses, the solid stone piers, the granite pillars, the voussoirs of the springing arches, the thrusts and the counterbalancing resistances of the dome and its supporting members. In the Imperial Friday Mosque there is no dialogue between man and God, no space within a space. But there is perfect, and thus infinite, unity. Through tiers and rows and banks of windows, daylight fills the space flowing through the defining masses. In this building, Sinan first worked out his principle that engineering and architecture are inseparable; the one is the other. Therefore, in all his buildings the exterior is the outside of the interior, and the inside is the interior of the outside. As with crystalline forms, the eye looks clear through Sinan’s architecture.’

In a way the glass construction in London Süleymaniye could be seen as much a tribute to this principle as it is to the modern cityscape of London. The name of the original Süleymaniye, makes another claim of Imperial glory as well as of boundless piety. Sulaymân is the Arabic form of Shlomo – Solomon. And as a 1900 British travel guide book relates that, referring to the Hagia Sophia the Christian Emperor

‘Justinian, when he entered his great church, had said, “Solomon, I have surpassed thee”: Suleiman was determined that he would surpass the Christian Emperor’ (Hutton 1925 [1910]: 295).

In referencing the mosque of Süleyman the Magnificent, which competitively relates to Judeo-Christian imperial/sacral architecture from the Temple of Jerusalem onwards, London Süleymaniye creates a distinction that wants to be bridged to another imperial place of worship less than three miles away – the also magnificently domed St Paul’s Cathedral.

‘As Saint Paul’s is Sir Christopher Wren’s, so the Süleymaniyé is Sinan’s monument.’ (Stratton 1972: 255)

If St Paul’s has been the parish church of the British Empire (Eade 2000: 91), Süleymaniye was designed to be the Friday mosque of the Ottoman Empire. In displacing meaning London Turkish Muslims have built up a reference point that allows an encounter on equal footing – speaking from descendant of demised empire to descendant of demised empire. This self-Orientalisation, while playing to recognisable patterns, is evidently of a different nature than the Orientalism of the turkey-upholstery chair in Geffrye Museum. And while a distinction is drawn between what Süleymaniye and what St Paul’s represent the commonalities of the imperial architects’ reference points are also revealed: the cosmopolitan Roman Empire of which both Londinium and Constantinopolis were urban centres as much as the scientific achievement materialised in both (Daniels 1993: 11ff.). Empire breeds (albeit unqual and contorted) cosmopolitanism:

‘The phenomena of cosmopolitanism are the products of empires. They bring diverse peoples together into their urban centres who are engaged in various relationships, economic and political. The association of cosmopolitanism with imperialism is one reason nationalists and fundamentalists have found for denouncing it. The two pertinent empires for the modern history of the Middle East (since the mid-nineteenth century) are the Ottoman and the British, which had important inputs both from French language and culture and German nationalism.’ (Zubaida 2011: 132)

The multicultural encounter in a doubly post-Imperial context may engender a more liberal/democratic cosmopolitanism – particularly against the background of burgeoning commercialism. And the location of St Paul’s in the City of London points us to that aspect. The cross-referenced buildings are not exclusively sacral ones. St Paul’s has been superseded by temples of commerce – much to the chagrin of some observers, among them the Prince of Wales.

‘On the skyline St Paul’s sinks below the office blocks of the City and the Nat West tower now rises impiously above it: “The soul of the City has been conquered by hovering hordes of giants”. While other European cities have maintained their distinctive skylines, London has traded hers: “There is no need for London to ape Manhattan”, the Prince declares, “We already possessed a skyline. They had to create one.’ (Daniels 1993: 13)

And that was before the Gherkin and the Shard. (for a view from the minaret onto the City – see 2:35ff. of this report on Turkish private broadcaster ATV http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m0vg9puxYbA)

The Gherkin[15]

 

London Süleymaniye precedes both, but the fact that Süleymaniye corresponds with both, and particularly with the Gherkin which is about two and a half miles down the A10 in a nearly straight, constitutes ex post validation of its reach into the City. As one lifestyle writer for The Times has it:

‘Kingsland Road, which morphs gently into Stoke Newington High Street, runs the length of Dalston. Glance up it and see the gleaming minarets of the Aziziye Mosque. Look down it and see the towers of the City, reaching skywards like greedy fingers.’ (Barr 2002)

Aziziye, as seen, doesn’t have minarets, but you get the drift. The spiritual and the commercial are being juxtaposed here – and one could expect some hostility towards the centre of mammon that is the City from a Muslim perspective (just as the Prince of Wales formulated it from a Christian perspective). One prominent Nakşibendi Sufi sheikh who for a long time had a strong foothold in London, Şeyh Nazım Hakkani el-Kıbrısi is reported to abhor the City as Satan’s territory.[16] But Süleymaniye’s architectural homology to commercial buildings in the City appears to be a genuine buy-in into the religio/ethno-commercial cosmopolitanism that the City incorporates – a cosmopolitanism towards which Hackney/Dalston contributes the multiculturalist aspect. The relation between the commercial and the religious is unproblematic in Süleymaniye. In a Friday sermon (available on their website) it is emphasised that under the condition of ‘being honest, truthful and fair to other people’ trade is not just allowed but encouraged by Islamic teaching. This becomes not only evident in the fact that I was able to pick up a brochure for Denis Windows in the anteroom of the mosque (which I found intriguing in that it seemed to play to the overarching theme of glass and transparency/openness), but also in the fact that secretary of the UKTICC was involved in bringing to pass culture exchanges in the Museum of London – in the City shunned by Şeyh Nazım and ostensibly introduced as financial centre in the recent article in the local Turkish language weekly Olay Gazete.[17]Thus, Süleymaniye seems to play an active role in completing the post-Imperial/commercial/religious triangle that  so crucial in attracting global business to London

‘The image of a vibrant, open, multicultural Britain was more likely to attract these members of a global business elite than memories of the Second World War and the British Empire. The transnational aesthetics of the City’s new buildings and the modernist formality of the Barbican estate established a local/global identity to which the few remnants of the past, especially St Paul’s Cathedral and the other Anglican places of worship, provided a gloss of authenticity.’ (Eade 2000: 118)

Three sketch maps: Left Dalston, centre Europe between London and Istanbul, right the A10 in relation to Süleymaniye, Gherkin, Shard and St Paul’s

The UKTICC further contributes to the multicultural authenticification of a cosmopolitan Britain by extending the proclaimed quasi-touristic function of the mosque itself and organising the annual Anatolian Cultural Festival which conjures up a historic-folklorist imagery of a traditional Turkey.

Now, as I mentioned, this is not a comprehensive survey of Turkish speaking London. The danger here is to combine the markers of difference, the Orientalising museum artefacts and the partially self-Orientalising architectures of London Turkish mosques (also cf. Metcalf 1996: 3 for a general tendency to gravitate towards stereotypical “Islamic architecture”) into an iconography that affords bridging through the creation of romanticberzahs – but leaves the claimed the notion of culturally determined difference as such unchallenged, subsuming London Turks (and Kurds) under the notion of a Turkish/Muslim population. That there is a strong section of secular minded London Turkish speakers has become clear, lately, when about 10 000 took to the streets of London to show their support of the protests against the current Islamist-leaning government in Turkey (as reported in Olay Gazete 18th June 2013).

I will use the next artefact not just to refracture the image of a culturally defined “London Turkish speaking community” but also to refracture that refracturation.

Heresy on a Yoghurt Pot? Keloğlan Ayran

Not all members of what is one of the largest Muslim communities in London – the London Turkish speaking community – are unambiguously … Muslim. And I am not speaking of the, until recently, dominant discourse of “secular, republican, urban” Turks versus “religious, Islamist, rural” Turks, which as a story of “white/beyaz” versus “black/siyah” Turks was sustained by both the mainstream republican and religious parties in the promotion of, as Houston (2002) put it, ‘fear and loathing in Istanbul’. Houston shows that the metaphor of a black and a white Turkey is not only empirically flawed but crucially, the ‘narrative construction of an opposition between white state and black society ushers in at least three unhelpful generalizations.’ It obscures ‘the self-creation of subjects as different “shades” of “white”’, homogenises ‘black society’ and gives it ‘a Muslim character’ and portrays Turkish society ‘as a passive target of the state’s modernizing zeal while Islamism, as a product of black society, becomes by definition anti-modern, rather than a producer of modernity’ (Houston 2002: 427f.) The strongest challenge to the beyaz/siyahdiscourse is Alevism – a cultural/religious group that is commonly estimated to constitute about 20 per cent of the population in Turkey and that cuts across ethnic divides, i.e. is as Kurdish as it is Turkish. Crucially, although largely secular (albeit not necessarily Kemalist) in political outlook, the Alevis have at least as much claim to a rural Anatolian identity as have Sunni Muslims. While the UKTICC hold annual Anatolia Cultural Fêtes, the London Alevis, too, strongly emphasise their Anatolian heritage, for example stating that ‘Anatolian folk music is mostly based on Alevi’ music, playing to cultural identity as one main source of legitimacy both within Turkish discourse and vis-à-vis European contexts (also see Massicard 2013)

Cover of information brochure picked up at the London Alevi Cemevi

 

The conflict or at least distinction between Sunnis and Alevis has entered my observation in the most profane way possible – on an innocent pot of ayran (a popular yoghurt based drink) which I purchased in TFC supermarket on Ridley Road while getting into the London-Turkish retail experience. Here it is on my laptop.

On the screen there’s a photo I made of TFC supermarket – right next to the Alevi cultural centre and community house, Cemevi. The ayran is named after and has a picture of the fairy tale character Keloğlan (also a TV cartoon series on Turkish state television TRT). I have also included a screenshot of the internet edition of Londra Gazete  – London Turkish Gazette with the news that an extremist Sunni cleric has branded the TV series “Alevi propaganda” and has called for a ban. The arguments may remind one of the Christian fundamentalist response to Harry Potter, but another underlying conflict is that between rationalist/reformist Sunni Islam and allegedly semi-pagan peasants. This can be seen as reverberation of the 19th century urban reformist (Sunni-Nakşibendi inspired) move against what was seen as unruly state of central Anatolia to which the Alevi/Bektaşi were identified to contribute (cf. Ortaylı 1999) – i.e. as part of a symbolic struggle over the rightful claim to a legitimate Anatolian identity. At the same time what this cleric complains about, e.g. the appearance of mystical babas, is not so much testimony to Alevi influence but rather to a Sufi legacy that is shared between mainstream Turkish Islam andAlevis (Yavuz 2004) in which the idea that dervişes can effect “wonders” (often misinterpreted as magic), keramet, is not at all alien.

This instant poignantly complicates and refracts not only the notion of a “Turkish Muslim community” but also the secular/religious and urban/rural divides. It also highlights the ongoing debate about the status of Alevis as Muslims or non-Muslims, which is contested not only between Alevis and Sunnis, but also within Alevi communities. This is of particular interest here as, unlike in cases where a heterodox community is denied the status of co-religionists by the orthodox majority (as is the case with Ahmadi Muslims), here we have a double contestation where some Sunnis recognise Alevis as Muslims and others see them as heretics – and some Alevis view themselves not just as Muslims but as the authentic Muslims, while others don’t see themselves as Muslims at all. According to what I have been told at the Cemevi on Ridley Road and according to the brochure I have picked up there, the position of the UK Alevi Cultural Centres & Cemevi is the latter, even though shared spiritual sources are referenced.

Of course it is hard to deny that Alevism has at least some roots in Shia Islam and in Sufism. The Alevi Bektashis were a recognised Sufi order (tekke) through much of Ottoman history – and in fact they were important as the tekke which catered for the spiritual needs of the Ottoman elite troops, the Janissaries (Yeniçeri) whose demise in 1828 was followed by the suppression of the Alevi/Bektaşi order.

(Janissary prayer and cleaning utensils at Hacıbektaş, Cappadocia, Central Anatolia )

 

On the other hand Alevis, particularly the urban and more educated members of the community, tend to define Alevism as a culture and a way of life rather than as a religious belief system (whereas traditionally Alevis did not only see themselves as Muslims but even as the only proper Muslims)[18]

Recently there have been moves by the Islamist Turkish government to, as it were, invite the Alevis back. And while a I was, as I said, assured by a number of London Alevis that they do not consider themselves to be Muslims, the Hürriyet European edition (one of the main Turkish newspapers with a very strong European presence, based in Frankfurt), carried the news that the AAİB, the Union of Islamic Alevis of Germany (a relative small, but not entirely insignificant organisation) asked the Ministry for Religious Affairs (Diyanet Bakanlığı) for funds to send 200 of its members on the annual Hajj.[19]

Front page of Hürriyet European edition, 27th July 2012

 

What, then, does the ayran pot tell us? For one thing, it tells us how such symbols as televised fairy-tale characters with a semi-religious and folk-cultural relevance present shared legacy in non-sectarian ways on everyday profane objects where they, to the annoyance of extremists, travel unproblematically through screens, supermarket shelves, fridges, restaurant tables, and dining rooms. The contained substance, ayran, can be seen as one of the most Turkish (and Kurdish) of drinks, carrying strong references to Anatolian rurality. But it is more than just a signifier. The reason I have bought it from TFC supermarket was not because of the symbolic significations. It was a hot day and while the reason for entering TFC (as opposed to Sainsbury’s round the corner) in fact was so as to get a glimpse of the London Turkish retail environment, the intent to buy was governed by thirst. Initially heading for the usual fizzies, I went for an ayran as an ideal drink in hot weather, given its light acidity and slight saltiness. In a way it is the perfect illustration of what is meant by iconographic symbolism as it combines meaning with unmediated aesthetic experience. This in turn allows for a tourist/consumerist daydream that equips the Anatolian village world romanticised in the cartoons with gustatory sensuality – a daydream that may either remain at the stage of one-dimensional stereotyping or be disrupted by boundary contestations (and contestations of contestations) as represented by the spat triggered by Ismailağa Cemaati’s statement. The idea that a character like Keloğlan himself would sip on a cup of ayran is perfectly plausible. So while on the one hand the charge of the cleric that Keloğlan is Alevi propaganda is a hurtful reminder of the ongoing discrimination against minorities in Turkey – on the other hand it is a confirmation that Alevism is at the heart of Turkish culture, and the link to ayran reinforces this.

Another way in which the difference to orthodox Islam is expressed – e.g. the assertion that for Hacı Bektaş the human being was the Kabah – comes in an idiom of Islam (Mardin 1989). But I am not trying to play out this history and inner disagreement to corroborate an academic claim that Alevis are indeed Muslims. What I am saying is that the conflict itself, the claim to difference, and the disagreement to that claim point to continuity of culture as much as to difference. Like the jibe against Keloğlan as ‘Alevi propaganda’ (and the challenge of heresy), the insistence on  difference testifies not only to division and confrontation, but also to mutual acknowledgement and belonging. A Hindu would not need to insist that they are not Muslims, and a Muslim would not see a Catholic as a heretic. As Atay (1999) shows for the case of London Nakşibendis, different currents placing themselves inside or outside Islamic orthodoxy, reproaching each other, using each other as negative reference points, also depend on each other. Similarly, we can read various swipes against Alevism as can be found in Sunni artefacts as an unavoidable acknowledgement of shared membership in a discourse universe[20] – without, to emphasise, implying that Alevis are, or are not, Muslims.

In this context, whatever the answer to the question whether or not Alevis are Muslims: While in organisational discourse these difference are thrown into sharp relief, in everyday life the boundaries are much more blurred. And while some Alevis from Germany are joining the annual Haç pilgrimage, I have observed, in the centre of Alevi spirituality, the town Hacıbektaş, a number of recognisably Sunni Muslims showing their respect to this Shiite Sufi saint at the monastery that is one of the sources of Alevism as a spiritual movement originated in the 14th century.

This ambiguity surfaced in the recent conflicts in Istanbul and across major Turkish cities. One point of contention was an insensitive mishap in naming one of the current governments mega projects: a third bridge over the Bosporus which is to be called “Yavuz Sultan Selim Köprüsü”. One of the reasons this 16th century Ottoman sultan was given the title “the stern” (yavuz) is that he crushed an Alevi rebellion and is reputed to have massacred 40,000 people in the process. Given the more recent anti-Alevi pogroms, for example in Maraş 1978 and Sivas 1993, from an Alevi perspective this has a similar significance as a “Cromwell Bridge” in Belfast would have for Irish Catholics. But what has begun as (possibly unintentional) affront against the Alevi community – creating a divide by naming, of all things, a bridge – has turned out to prompt conservative Sunni politicians, intellectuals and spiritual leaders to go to some lengths to emphasise continuities between what has been so openly separated. Fethullah Gülen – politically influential leader of a neo-Sufi movement bearing his name – has a history of emphasising shared ground, projecting the image of Sunni mosques and Alevi cemevis being erected side by side. But so far this could be construed as an attempt to, in the last consequence, re-Islamise Alevism and deny distinctions that are important for conscious Alevis. He has taken the recent conflicts as an occasion to speak up again[21] – but even though he may just be repeating the same message, once a strong distinction has been made in form of outrage at the Prime Minister’s bridge naming, the projected continuity can no longer be imagined as one in which one side is to be subsumed under the other.

 

Conclusion

While very often the emphasis in the study of identity-making is on the notion of difference and separation, I have tried to uncover how markers of distinction by virtue of constructing a relation between what is distinguished create the potential for a (cosmopolitan) continuity of culture which neither homogenises nor commits to fixed and unchangeably different identifications. With reference to a case of Orientalised British middle class domestic items, a case of Turkish-Muslim space-making and identity demarcation within what has been broadly defined as the London Turkish speaking community I have tried to show that in all these cases attempts to separate and distinguish also open an imaginative space that affords communication and bridging. Now fully ethnographic research is required to investigate whether or not (and to what extent and how) the cosmopolitan potential opened by the berzah of everyday multicultural artefacts is realised.

It will be crucial, in order to access the iconographic imagination that spun around Turcophone material culture in London (and elsewhere) to draw on participant generated and reflected content, such as photos (e.g. Holgate et al.2012 in a pioneering investigation into labour relations in London Kurdish businesses) and diaries (along the lines suggested by Latham 2004) to uncover how the material potential outlined above is realised in actual ‘cosmopolitan habits’ (Noble 2013).

 

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[1] I am using Turkish transliteration throughout, whether concepts used are of Turkish origin, Persian, or as in this case, Arabic.

[2] The paradigm of the creative imagination is the Muhammad’s ascension to receive the Koran, the Miraç – which is as important in mainstream Sunni Islam as it is constitutive for Alevi spirituality (cf. Schubel 2002). The idea of travel, i.e. the journey in between places affording ‘religious experience and insights […] of the unseen world (ghaib) while passing bodily through the visible world of illusion’, as Sirriyeh (1985: 96) characterises the travel writing of the 19th century Ottoman Nakşibendi Sufi poet Nabulusi. It is also worth noting that Sufi concepts are equally virulent in Turkish secular discourse and popular culture, with pop artists like Sezen Aksu (who makes an appearance in the Royal Albert Hall on 15thOctober) singing lyrics by Rumi and Yunus Emre.

[3] For instance the adoption of a Sufi notion (berzah), for example, does not require me to accept the ultimate reality of the metaphysical/spiritual ideas behind it Ewing (1994) ponders whether it is not a necessary final step in getting a full understanding of Sufism to let go of the resistance to maintain an outsider status and accept, for example, the validity and reality of her dreams of the sheikh. I fundamentally disagree for the simple reason that in order to give voice to the Sufi experience we do not need anthropologists – as far as it is possible at all to account for the authentic Sufi experience Sufis themselves will be able to speak for themselves. To put it bluntly, the whole debate around “going native” (e.g. Sluka/Robben 2007: 14ff.) can be easily resolved by pointing out the fact that, since the “natives” have mouths to speak there is no point in “giving voice” – what someone “gone native” can say can be said equally well by someone born “native”.

[5] As Marcel Mauss in his 1934 essay on the techniques of the body has pointed out both chairs and tables are far from culturally universal (1950: 379)

[6] In an ironic turn of self-Orientalisation, the Turkish Cultural Foundation uses a detail of the image, the woman pretending to be playing the tanbur, as icon for their section on the history of Turkish music, declaring her an ‘Ottoman lady’ –http://www.turkishmusicportal.org/page.php?id=1&lang2=en

[7] Şimşek-Çağlar (2002) has shown the significance of domestic seating arrangements in the negotiation of

transnational lives in the case of first-generation Turkish migrants in Berlin.For examples of ultra-Westernisation through furniture and kitchen appliances, see Üstüner/Holt 2009

[8] cf. Mintz 1986 for how tea with sugar came to replace vegetable broth in working class diets

[9] NB that the edition of Hürriyet pictured in the last section of this paper carries a short note that European Turks have started a campaign against the notion that they aregurbetçi, i.e. in exile, since many of them now feel quite at home and would rather they’d be referred to as Avrupalı Türk – European Turk.

[10] This case is similar to the misunderstanding of all forms of “Islamic dress” as identity statement. As Werbner (1999: 25) observes: ‘… exotic dress may seem deliberately aggressive: a visual barb. this is, however, to misread the intentionality of our casual Pakistani female stroller. Pakistani women wearing traditional clothes in public are hardly conscious of their dress as an act of identity display. They dress as they do because they regard their outfits as aesthetically beautiful.’ (Werber 1999: 25) Campbell’s (1997) warning against misunderstanding the meaning of dress as a message, fashion as an expressive language, seems to apply equally to architecture.

[11] The ascription is problematic and contested. According to Küçükcan (1999:) and Çoştu (2009)  the association behind Süleymaniye mosque, the UK Turkish Islamic Cultural Centre UKTICC (İngiltere Türk İslam Kültür Merkezi İTİKM) has been founded 1982 ‘by a Süleymanci group’. The Süleymanlı are followers of the Nakşibendi sheikh Süleyman Hilmi Tunahan. In Germany they have been portrayed as socially conservative, reclusive, Sufi-oriented community with little active involvement in political agendas and a strong focus on interiority and private piety and ethical conduct (Jonker 2006) while drawing on authority transmitted through a spiritual link (rabıta) of the community’s leaders to the deceased sheikh Süleyman (Yükleyen 2010)

The information material available from the UKTICC, however, makes no reference to Tunahan or the Süleymanlı community. Instead, they present themselves as aiming ‘to meet the religious and cultural needs of the Muslim community living in Britain’ (BrochureUKTICC London Suleymaniye Cultural Centre Kültür Merkezi, without year (but not earlier than 2011). The brochure is bilingual, Turkish with English translation, page 3) and more specifically characterises that community as Ehl-i Sünnet in the Turkish text and Ahli Sunnah wal Jamaah in the English text.

Although generally the Süleymanlı are portrayed as reclusive, here we have a self-location within not just the Turkish but global community of Muslims who follow a Sufi-inspired Islam (i.e. in the context of South Asian Islam, they would affiliate themselves with the Barelwis practice rather than the anti-Sufi reformist Deobandis)

The notion of being Suleymanli may be actively avoided due to the way the community was presented and misrepresented in the past. According to Gokalp (1990), who uses very little and rather unreliable source material and secondary literature, and also does not gesture to any primary research, the Süleymanlı was affiliated with far right political activism, particularly in diaspora. His claims about connections to the MHP (“grey wolves”, ultranationalists) and a history of pro-Hitler activism sound implausible and I cannot find them corroborated anywhere else. For most observers the Süleymanlı are traditionally distant to political activism and where involved tend to gravitate to the centre right, like, in the late 1980s, ANAP and DYP (Küçükcan 1999: 212ff.). Yükleyen (2010: 282f.) reports that all political involvement was terminated after electoral failure and that there is no active support from the Süleymanlı cemaat for the currently governing Islamic-conservative Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi AKP). It is, however, likely that the AKP would be a preference in terms of voting behaviour for followers of the Süleymanlı path. It is not clear if the UKTICC sees itself in a Süleymanlı tradition at all, but their present political affiliation or orientation in a London context seem to be “liberal” in the broadest sense

 

[12] This entails an appeal also to a wider Muslim community beyond the Turkish and Kurdish constitutents.

‘Ahl as-Sunnat wa Jamaat – mainstream Islam around Sufism, but not self-defining as Sufi ‘defined by Hazrat Allama Pir Faizul Aqtab Siddiqi, a British-born shaykh of the Naqshbanid tariqa, as:

A belief that the Prophet had knowledge of the Unseen while alive and continues to possess a spiritual omnipresence.

Allah is omnipresent, and expressions in the Qur’an which ascribe hands and limbs to Allah or describe Him as sitting upon a throne, must be taken figuratively.

Intercession is normal practice in Islam whether it is through the Prophet, angels or saints. Neither the Prophet nor Sufis are dead in the tomb and prayers can be addressed to Allah through them as they have permission to intercede.

Prayers can be made by the living on behalf of the dead.

It is normal and acceptable to celebrate the birthday of the Prophet (Milad-i Nabi).

Muslims who adhere to those beliefs and practices are better defined under the label of followers of the aqida of the Ahl as-Sunnat wa Jamaat than the more problematic term of Sufi. There is some justification in arguing that the practices and beliefs (to varying degrees) of the Ahl as-Sunnat wa Jamaat are observed by the vast majority of Muslims.’ (Geaves 2000: 76f)

 

[13] As it was the opening day of the London Olympics I had plenty of occasion to watch North American visitors making their way from the accommodation they managed to get hold off wherever to the nearest Tube stations, both fascinated by the cosmopolitan feel of the area and horrified by its seemingly criminal character.

[14] Title: Vue panoramique de la Mosquée Suleymanié / Sébah & Joaillier.Creator(s): Sebah & Joaillier, photographer Date Created/Published: [between 1888 and 1910] Medium: 1 photographic print : albumen. Summary: Exterior view of the Süleymaniye Camii (mosque), showing the Golden Horn in background.  Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ppmsca-03742 (digital file from original) Rights Advisory: No known restrictions on publication in the U.S. Use elsewhere may be restricted by other countries’ laws. For general information see “Copyright and Other Restrictions…” (http://lcweb.loc.gov/rr/print/195_copr.html) Call Number: LOT 13554-2, no. 84 [P&P]Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

[15] Credits Francesco Troina (http://www.phototroina.com)/GovEd Communications (http://www.goved.co.uk) Rights Published under license from GovEd Communications (http://www.goved.co.uk) – See more at: http://jiscmediahub.ac.uk/record/display/023-GEFT08321;jsessionid=E702E9328430DB386C241F6E1EA97D98#sthash.Z6s1fv7K.dpuf

 

[16] ‘A Turkish disciple who often drives Shaykh Nazim when he is in London explained that when the Shaykh travels from the Islamic priory in north London to the mosque in Peckham the most direct route is through the City of London, the heart of the financial and commercial world. However, the Shaykh always insists on a detour as he believes the City to be the undisputed territory of the anti-Christ (al-dhajjal). Apocalyptically he describes the four dragons which guard the entrances to the City of London.’ (Geaves 2000: 151f.)

[17] Further evidence for having no problems with City link: ‘Londra’nın finans merkezi olarak bilinen City’deky “Museum of London” ilk defa mehter marşları ile çınlandı.’ ‘Kuzey Londra’da Pazar gününe kadar devam edecek olan “Anadolu Kültür Festivali” kapsamında gerçekleşen program başlangıcında, Dr Hakan Yıldırım, Büyükelçilik Müsteşarı Fatih Ulusoy, Işçi Partisi Milletvekili Meg Hillier yaptıkları konumalarda, mehter ve sema gibi farklıkültüleri temsil eden gruplarin Londra’da bulunmasından duydukları memnuniyeti dile getirdiler.’ Etc. – Bursa Belediyesi Mehter Takımı and Konya Mevlana Sema Grubu… Olay Gazete, Salı 18 Haziran 2013, s.16

[20] In the Divan of Yunus Emre I have bought in the Turkish/Islamic bookshop opposite Aziziye Camii the question whether Yunus Emre was a Bektaşi is emphatically answered “he is not”. What is more – it is the only passage emboldened in the whole commentary, i.e. a distinction is drawn and its importance emphasised.

But at the same time the fact that a shared discourse universe is inhabited is emphasised by this denial – otherwise the difference would not be worth pointing out at all. Another instance of adversarial construction of shared discursive space is found in the Resimli Namaz Hocası I have mentioned (bought in the same bookshop): The little book contains two poems praising the practice of namaz, i.e the prescribed five ritual prayers – and both are pointedly directed at two groups of non-readers who will not be among the practitioners of ritual prayer. One is by Yunus Emre Dur Erte (Sabah) Namazına (‘Get up (Tavaslı, s.a., 19) – which is directed against the Alevis whose ritual practice does not include namaz, and the other is  by the theorist of the Kemalist revolution, poet, politician and Durkheimian sociologist Ziya Gökalp Namaz Ne Güzeldir (How beautiful is the ritual prayer!).

[21] ‘Cami-cemevi yan yana yapabilir; yeni düşmanlıklar oluşturulmamalı’, Zaman, 19thJune 2013

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Ziya Gökalp, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the two Emile Durkheims

All too often the political divides in Turkey are simplified into a crude division into a secularist/republican (Kemalist) camp and an Islamic/Islamist camp, with the only complication allowed for being the conflict around Kurdish minority rights. What has been long ignored was that both these camps share a set of outlooks that they inherited from the late Ottoman Empire and early Republican period and that they are close enough to lend plausibility to “Turkish Islamic synthesis” with which a group of right wing intellectuals sought to establish as a broad national compromise in the 1980s. What is also often ignored is that in both camps an increased exposure to globalised and cosmopolitan fields of practice has inspired the emergence of a more liberal outlook that found a room for manoeuvre in the interstices created by the deadlock between growing Islamist movements and Kemalist elites. The AKP had managed to secure electoral success not just by connecting to marginalised Islamic populations moving from central Anatolia to the big cities and by support from the new Islamic business elites – they also attracted to votes of liberal Muslims and anti-Kemalist secularists by unprecedentedly pro-European, pro-human rights and pro-Kurdish policies.

For some time now secular and religious liberals have been moving away from Erdoğan, citing an increasingly authoritarian style and morally prescriptive intrusions into personal lifestyles. Is he showing his true “Islamist” colours now? Partly – the intrusions around abortion rights and alcohol consumption certainly are religiously inspired. But the style and mis-understanding of “democracy” is that of his Kemalist predecessors. For post-Islamist Mustafa Akyol the problem is not that Erdoğan is “too Islamic” but that he is “too Turkish” (at 00:15 – comment starts around 00:13), referring to a certain paternalistic/collectivist and anti-liberal pattern that is enshrined in the legacy of Kemalist republican thought as formulated by Ziya Gökalp (and it may not be a total coincidence that it was a quote from a Ziya Gökalp poem that earned Erdoğan a spell in prison).  Erdoğan’s insistence that as elected leader he represents the people’s will and hence can ignore any protests very much is in the tradition of Kemalist principles devletçilik (statism) and halkçılık (populism). As Spencer (1958) analysed, these principles as developed by Gökalp have been inspired by a reading of Durkheim’s sociology – following a misunderstanding that remained common into the 1950s and 60s, namely that Durkheim proposed that in the absence of traditional religious bonds only a strong national identity as new conscience collective can safeguard the continuity of social life:

 ‘But it must be recalled that Durkheim gave complete priority to society and dismissed the worth of the individual. The Turks have retained this concept, and argued that collective action is not arbitrary and is not to be couched in Hegelian dialectic. Statism in Turkey is construed as the manifestation of the collective will.’ (Spencer 1958: 653)

That Durkheim was not only a methodological collectivist but also a political individualist has been too much to digest for most early and mid 20th century readers. But he certainly was, seeing the cult of human rights, a culture of individualistic humanitarianism, as residual religious glue that ideologically holds together a maximally diverse society. So both the masses commandeered by Erdoğan and the masses of protestors for Gezi could be said to be Durkheimians in a way. Which of the two Durkheimisms will prevail in Turkey remains to be seen – my money’s still on a cosmopolitan cult of the individual. One reason is that the powers of collectivist Durkheimism, both among the old Kemalist elites and in the new Islamic elites share Gökalp’s idea of economic/technological modernisation that is to leave the social/cultural core of Turkish or Muslim life unaffected:

‘… Westernization created serious difficulties for the Ottoman Turks, and solutions ranged from the Westernized constitutional guarantees of the Tanzimat era to the policies of resistance and isolation for Abdülhamit II. Ziya set himself the task of providing a sociological rationale for the acceptance of Western ideas by the Turks. The solution he proposed was both simple and naïve: given the organic unity and integrity of Turkish society and the spirit of  Turkish culture, the nation is in a position to accept Western civilization in full. At this point Ziya returned to an application of the distinction of Tönnies. Civilization is not culture, but a supercultural development. Nations can share in the same civilization, as he conceived it, but by doing so they may forfeit their cultural integrity. Hence the Turks must retain their culture, but at the same time take over the benefits of Western civilization (Duda 1948: 99). How this is to be done is not clear from Ziya’s writings.’ (Spencer 1958: 651)

This idea of technological Westernisation paired up with social conservatism has been tried and tested and failed in many places –  it has failed even where the social conservatism was pursued with much more rigour than in the Turkish case – as Elmusa (1997) shows for Saudi Arabia. The microelectronic revolution has sustained a leaderless resistance at Gezi that allowed the collective expression of people who, in the end, only shared the fervent commitment to each other’s individual freedom

 Everyone is enjoying the camaraderie and freedom. No one is being patronizing and everybody is wearing their colours of life free of restraint. While the Anticapitalist Muslims perform their prayers, atheists keep watch around them. The Kurds dance their halay, Alevis whirl in their ritual dance, semah, Turks chant military marches. Socialists, LGBTs, fans of Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray teams roll up their sleeves together, have fun together and keep an eye on each other. Everyone’s freedom is guarded by everyone else.[1]

They are “Durkheimian” in that (like, by the way, old Marx) a) they are intuitively aware that all individuality is a social construct, is only possible as outcome of social interaction – they are collectivist in their methods and b) they are politically individualistic in that they not only care for their own rights of personal development and freedom of expression but that of everybody else as well.

Elmusa, Sharif S. (1997): ‘Faust Without the Devil? The Interplay of Technology and Culture in Saudi Arabia’, in: Middle East Journal, Vol.51, No.3, pp.345-57

Spencer, Robert F. (1958): ‘Culture Process and Intellectual Current: Durkheim and Atatürk’, in: American Anthropologist, New SeriesI, Vol.60, No.4, pp.640-57


[1] Burhan Sönmez: The Aesthetics of Resistance, translated by Duygu Tekgül, orig. in BirGün

Sufi urbanism – Rumi and Marx against the idiocy of rural life…

One of the starting points of my interest in the possible linkages between Sufism and commercial culture was Sultan Veled’s couplet on how the soul becomes ‘a city, a market, a shop‘. Sufism is a thoroughly urban, cosmopolitan phenomenon – The notion that Sufism is a mere expression of rural “folk” Islam is a myth, as Martin van Bruinessen (2008) points out. The role of urbanity in the development of Anatolian Sufism (and possibly the role of Sufism in the development of Turkish urbanity) has been emphasised by Hülya Küçük in her paper on Sufi influences in Konya. Celaleddin Rumi seems to have anticipated Marx’s aversion against what he called, in the Communist Manifesto, the ‘idiocy of rural life’ – though evidently without the Orientalist twist that Marx puts on it:

‘“We are like a pair of compasses: One foot on the Religion of Islam, / the other is wandering around the seventy-two nations.” – This couplet shows that, Rūmī was not afraid of contact with other cultures. In fact the later couplet made him, in the words of a monk mourning his death, a “sun” everyone needs or “bread” that no one can live without. This couplet also demonstrates empathy, a necessary element for urban living and for globalization. In fact, all Sufi orders teach their adherents to have empathy, for empathy enhances solidarity among members. Here it should be reminded that Rūmī always favored urban life and likened rural life to “living in a grave” When he says: “Do not go to the country: the country makes a fool man, it makes the intellect void of light and splendour. O chosen one! Hear the Prophet saying: “To dwell in the country is the grave of the intellect.” If any one stay in the country a single day and evening, his intellect will not be fully restored in a month.”’ (Küçük 2007: 249)

What links Sufism to commercial culture, urban civilisation and globalisation is the creative imagination that sees the world as full of opportunities. Like the empathy seen as a core element of the commercial culture by Adam Smith (Sznaider 2000: 15)  this is not just a skill that helps the city dweller to find their way with people, to trade with them so as to secure their own existence, but also engenders an ethos of tolerant solidarity that can be the starting point of a critique of at least aspects of that same commercial culture.

Bruinessen, Martin van (2008): ‘Sufism, “Popular” Islam and the Encounter with Modernity’, in: Khalid Masud/Armando Salvatore/Martin van Bruinessen (eds): Islam and Modernity: Key Issues and Debates, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp.125-57

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

Sznaider, Natan (2000): The Compassionate Temperament, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield

Hybridity, Alterity and Beyond – A Simmelian Perspective on Ebruesque Identity

Kardeşin duymaz, eloğlu duyar

Hybridity and alterity are concepts that feature highly in cosmopolitan critiques of culturalist (including multi-culturalist) projections of homogeneity in a drive against classificatory thinking (e.g. Çağlar 1997). Cosmopolitanism can be characterised as a universalist-liberal project opposed to a more communitarian multiculturalism. Cosmopolitanism tries to evade the danger of reifying racial, ethnic or religious and political identities, thus leading to alterity rather than difference and hybridity rather than reified identity. Multiculturalism is debated mainly around the collective cultural, religious and political representation of minority communities and ultimately as a question of citizenship (e.g. Modood 1995 – and even in the case of the ‘banal multicultures’ advocated by Amin 2002). Proponents of multiculturalism have therefore resorted to a (partial) defence of “essentialism” (Modood 2000, Werbner1997). While multiculturalism emphasises diversity and difference of identifiable (ethno-religious) cultures (e.g. Modood 2000), cosmopolitanism favours alterity. This concept is understood to denote otherness that cannot be captured as difference of clearly defined identity categories – rather by a noted and confusing absence of such categories (Sennett 2002, also cf. Iveson 2006). Sennett goes back to Simmel’s famous essay on the stranger – and I will propose that Simmel has more to contribute to this idea than just the etymology of this notion.

To illustrate, in his photo essay book Ebru Atilla Durak (2006) presents a series of ludicrously beautiful photographs of people from or in Turkey of different ethnicities (Turkish, Turkmen, Azeri, Kurdish, Laz, Zaza, Armenian, Jewish, German, Pomak etc.), faiths (Sunni, Alevi, Assyrian Christian, Jewish, Nusayri, etc.), location (İstanbul, Kars, Mardin, Van etc.), different age and gender, modern, urban, traditional etc. As he classifies the pictures by ethnicity, religion and location, the book has the feel of an old anthropological catalogue, using a quasi-Linnaean botanising categorisation. At first sight Durak, therefore, could be accused of a painting a picture of ethno-religious cultural diversity for the discerning and knowledgeable cosmopolitan consumer (Hannerz 1996: 103) whose cultural capital feeds on benevolent but nonetheless Orientalist stereotype (e.g. Tekgül 2012 for the consumption of literature), referencing ethnic identities as simultaneously authentic and immutable. For the (still multiculturalist) “cosmopolitan”, Hannerz (1996: 111) says, ‘there is value in diversity as such, but they are not likely to get it, in anything like the present form, unless other people are allowed to carve out special niches for their cultures and keep them.’ For the consumer of diversity the blurring of ethnic identities risks ‘depleting the imaginary resources of the exotic’ (Kaplan, 1995: 59, also cf. Varul 2008).

But the careful selection of texts that accompany these photos and the photography itself(see here for some of them) thematise this as problematic and act as constant reminders that each individual is defined not just by an intersection of collective classifications but by their own personal history and individual experiences within and without the groups they belong to, and their own decisions regarding how they relate to the collective identities they are born into. Çetin (2006), when talking about her discovery of her Armenian heritage and the notion of being a melez/hybrid, protests against a notion “belonging” that she sees as a straightjacket, while vehemently rejecting violations of any components of that hybrid identity. And in the introduction Altınay (2006: 24), drawing on various theorists and using the metaphor of the ebru – the art of water drawing or “marbling”, emphasises the continuity and pervasiveness of hybridisation in which stability of identity is ephemeral, a temporary fixation of something that otherwise is always in flux. He therefore suggests replacing the bounded ‘mosaic multi-culturalism’ with a fluentebruesque one.  – advocating a cosmopolitanism in which – as the Devon based artist Pery Burge introduces her paintings in thermofluids – “the  pattern is new in every moment” .

The idea of hybridity has been surpassed by the concept of alterity, partly because the concept of hybridity can be (mis)taken to imply the recombination and mixture of pureforms, i.e. as implying the very thing it is meant to undermine (as in the consuming “cosmopolitanism” criticised above). But my point here is that not even that fully captures the implications of hybridity as foundation of alterity. It does not capture what some of the texts (e.g. Elif Şafak’s story ‘E’ about a little girls reflections on the Atatürk portrait in her class room) and in fact that photographs themselves imply – and what Simmel declares to be a condition of the possibility of society as such: The fact that there is always some part of the personality that is not fully socialised. And crucially, this is not just a trivial observation about the incompleteness of the socialisation process, it is something that in itself contributes to sociality:

‘Each element of a group is not a societary part, but beyond that something else.That fact operates as social apriori in so far as the part of the individual which is not turned toward the group, or is not dissolved in it, does not lie simply without meaning by the side of his socially significant phase, is not a something external to the group, for which it nolens volens affords space; but the fact that the individual, with respect to certain sides of his personality, is not an element of the group, constitutes the positive condition for the fact that he is such a member in other aspects of his being. In other words, the sort of his socialized-being’ (Simmel 1910: 381)

In other words: in order to be a viable member of a society, one must be less, which ismore, than just a member of society – society is only possible if the individuals have something they can, as it were, “hold back” and in fact, do hold back. This despite the fact that as social beings, according to Simmel, we are constituted and determined by our place in history and our position in the social reciprocities that history has placed us in, we are ‘thrown’ into this ‘being with’ in a way, that makes it inevitable that we are a reflection of those social forces that reflects back on them. In contrast to Heidegger’s (and his postmodern followers’) anti-social aristocratic defiance against the “They”, das Man, the masses that stifle authentic selfhood (cf. Weiner 1992), Simmel shares Marx’s (1953: 6) socialist individualism that holds that as ζοων πολιτικον the human is not just ‘a sociable animal but one that can only indivdiualise within society’.  Simmel goes further than this and sees at least a minimal degree of individualisation as nigh inevitable and sociality and individuality as concomitant:

‘…between individual and society the Within and Without are not two determinations which exist alongside of each other – although they may occasionally develop in that way, and even to the degree of reciprocal enmity – but that they signify the whole unitary position of the socially living human being. His existence is not merely, in subdivision of the contents, partially social and partially individual, but it stands under the fundamental, formative, irreducible category of a unity, which we cannot otherwise express than through the synthesis or the contemporariness of the two logically antithetical determinations – articulation and self-sufficiency, the condition of being produced by, and contained in, society, and on the other hand, of being derived of and moving around its own center.’ (Simmel 1910: 387)

A minimum of individualisation is owed to (as much as it is the cause of) a minimum degree of alienation. As the biological anthropologist and sociologist Helmuth Plessner notes against the longing of the existence-philosophical longing for unreserved encounters of authentic selves:

‘No matter how many times – in accordance with the idea – that ineffable individual uniqueness is comprehended by the ground of being of community and, by all of its members, persons never penetrate through to the ground, as the latter is not definitely determined because it is eternal potentiality. As a being of spirit and soul, humans have the enormous consciousness of the ability to deviate from the path of their own individual law, or, at least, the right to rebel against their own definitions.’ (Plessner 1999: 105)[1]

I will argue that generalised hybridity and alterity are but accentuations of a human condition – hence my reference to the biological and philosophical anthropology of Helmuth Plessner which provides the bridge from Simmel’s concept of necessarily incomplete socialisation to his notion of the stranger (to whose strangeness, Fremdheit, the concept of alterity is much akin – see Sennett 2002). I am also turning to Plessner as the submersion of his work in the 1920s and 1930s illustrates the counter-intuitive character of the acceptance of alienation as condition of freedom at a time of search for authentic selfhood and total (or rather totalitarian) effervescence in real community. A time when the drive for nationalist homogenisation in the Turkish Republic was at its most enthusiastic – and in a place (Germany) where it would become far, far more extreme. The highest philosophical expression of the common intuition that happiness is to be found in rooted and bounded community and that the alienation associated with urbanity, civilisation and commercial culture is a curse, is to be found in Martin Heidegger’s concepts of Being-with (Mitsein) and the They (das Man) already mentioned above. And here we also find the contradictory nature of this intuition, namely that on the one hand authentic selfhood is prevented by the process of socialisation and pressures to conform that come with it – but that on the other hand these pressures are particularly strong where sociality entails distance and indifference.

‘But this distantiality which belongs to Being-with, is such that Dasein, as everyday Being-with-one-another, stands in subjection [Botmäßigkeit] to Others. Dasein’s everyday possibilities of Being are for the Others to dispose of as they please. These Others, moreover, are not definite Others. On the contrary, any Other can represent them. What is decisive is just that inconspicuous domination by Others which has already been taken over unawares from Dasein as Being-with. One belongs to the Others oneself and enhances their power. “The Others” whom one thus designates in order to cover up the fact of one’s belonging to them essentially oneself, are thos who proximally and for the most part “are there” in everyday Being-with-one-another. The “who” is not this one, not that one, not oneself [man selbst], not some people [einige], and not the sum of all of them all. The “who” is the neuter, the “they” [das Man].‘ (Heidegger 1962: 163f.)[2]

This, of course, is a typically Heideggerian sleight of hand in which he situates himself ‘always beyond the beyond, unite and reconcile opposites verbally, in paradoxical, and magical, propositions’ (Bourdieu 1996: 61f.). As mentioned in my previous post: The situation in which the distanced being-with-others implies a danger of falling under the domination of others (and most feared by the proto-antisemitic conservative revolutionaries from Tönnies to Jünger: of public opinion) only because it uniquely affords freedom. It is the non-distant being-with-others, “authentic” community that stifles the anthropological potential of developing an unaffected self behind the roles and its opposite, the existence as a stranger in the Simmelian sense that makes authentic selfhood most likely to occur. Both Plessner and Simmel acknowledge that one can fail to realise the potential of an existence beyond what Heidegger calls the “They”, but crucially, this potential only arises in society – and the abhorred distantiality is functional in this realisation. Again, both acknowledge that there is a price to be paid, the loss of warmth and certainty through alienation. But the prize to be won is individual freedom and opportunities for human development – which is why Plessner calls for an outright heroism in defence of alienated sociability which affirms ‘the entire essential complex of society for the sake of the dignity of the individual and the social whole’ (Plessner 1999: 69f.). He vigorously defends the much reviled alienation and reification (which are unavoidable constituent components of the condition of alterity) as basis of our social nature:

‘Imitation and reification, on which rests the acquisition and use of language, share the same root, namely the human ability to disregard oneself and put oneself into the position of others.’ ‘Humans are able to differentiate their position as “here” from a “there”, which in inverse direction turns from a “there” into a “here”. The ability to separate out one’s own hand or an uttered sound is the basic condition for their instrumental treatment and imitation in fixed artefacts. Reification hence is a legitimate aspect of the human being and not at all a degenerated mode of existence…’ (Plessner 1976: 43)[3]

For Plessner as for Simmel this is a potential that can be realised to different degree – as Simmel puts it, ‘individuals, like callings and social institutions, are distinguished by the degree of that In-addition, which they possess or admit along with their social content’ (Simmel 1910: 382). And different forms of societisation afford the realisation of such different degrees of in-addition. For Simmel, metropolitan life, and in particular the commercialisation of life, the monetary mediation of social relations, is most conducive to this individuality-enhancing alterity (Simmel 1950, Simmel 1990). Plessner links it to the very metaphor of inauthentic social life – to acting in  roles:

‘The role as set of social functions and expectations of a performance is faced by the individual as an objective fact. For this reason, one allows, under the role concept, for a distance between the person and their social existence, which can be consoling: The human being, the individual, never is completely what he or she “is”. As employee or doctor, politician or tradesman, husband or bachelor, member of  a generation or of a nation, he is always “more” than that, a possibility  which does not exhaust itself in such modes of existence or merges with them. The wide range of the role concept, which comprises both the ascribed and achieved status, i.e. that which one is by birth and by circumstance in the social field, and that which one makes of oneself, makes possible the reserve of anindividuum ineffabile, a social sanctum, a sphere of privacy, intimacy and personal freedom. In so far the role concept safeguards respect for the indivdual as individual and shields them from their public existence.‘  (Plessner 1976: 66)[4]

Once role existence is generalised, as it is in the “They” of the modern world, alienation – estrangement – becomes the prevalent condition of social existence. In the city all are strangers in the sense Simmel uses the term – as someone who is simultaneously within and without society:

‘If wandering is the liberation from every given point in space, and thus the conceptional opposite to fixation at such a point, the sociological form of the “stranger” presents the unity, as it were of these two characteristics. This phenomenon too, however, reveals that spatial relations are only the condition, on the one hand, and the symbol, on the other, of human relations. The stranger is thus being discussed here, not in the sense often touched upon in the past, as the wanderer who comes today and goes tomorrow, but rather as the person who comes today and stays tomorrow. He is, so to speak, the potential wanderer: although he has not moved on, he has not quite overcome the freedom of coming and going. He is fixed within a particular spatial group, or within a group whose boundaries are similar to spatial boundaries. But his position in this group is determined, essentially, by the fact that he has not belonged to it from the beginning, that he imports qualities into it, which do not and cannot stem from the group itself.’ (Simmel 1950: 402)

This mode of being can be understood, against the background of the partial non-socialisation as condition of sociality postulated by Simmel and the anthropological constitution of humans as eccentric diagnosed by Plessner, as a mere radicalisation of a universal human potential. Individuals, as Simmel (1910: 382) says, – ‘are distinguished by the degree of that In-addition which they possess or admit along with their social content’, and his stranger is the individual who has managed to maximise their In-addition as far as possible without relinquishing completely their membership in (metropolitan or cosmopolitan) society. The reification Plessner talks about is radicalised into a general attitude of objectivity as detached mode of engagement.

‘Objectivity is by no means non-participation (which is altogether outside both subjective and objective interaction), but a positive and specific kind of participation […] Objectivity may also be defined as freedom: the objective individual is bound by no commitments which could prejudice his perception, understanding, and evaluation of the given.’ (Simmel 1950: 404f.)

So there is a price to be paid for the individual freedom of ebruesque existence in the community of strangers – the loss of certainty and the anxiety that comes with it.  But against this stands the freedom to find each other in new commitments, in self-chosen communities. The kindness of strangers may be less intense and less reliable, but it for many it compares well with the cruelty of one’s own kind. And then there’s the love of strangers. The above mentioned novelist Elif Şafak

‘recounts with some pride being approached at a book signing by an undergraduate girl wearing a headscarf and her very unreligious, urban chic boyfriend. “We met in the pages of your book,” they told her.’ (Finkel w/o. year)

 

 

Altınay, Ayşe Gül (2006): ‘Ebru: Reflections on Water’, in Durak 2006, pp.19-25

Amin, Ash (2002): ‘Ethnicity and the Multicultural City: Living with Diversity’, Report for the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions, and the ESRC Cities Initiative.

Ariès, Phillipe (1962): Centuries of Childhood, London: Jonathan Cape.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1996): The Political Ontology of Martin Heidegger, Cambridge: Polity.

Çağlar, Ayşe (1997): ‘Hyphenated Identities and the Limits of “Culture”’, in: Tariq Modood/Pnina Werbner (eds): The Politics of Multiculturalism in the New Europe, London: Zed Books, pp.169-85.

Çetin, Fethiye (2006): ‘Hybrid Lives, Assumed Identities’, in Durak 2006, pp.58-9.

Durak, Attila (2006): Ebru: Reflections of Cultural Diversity in Turkey, Istanbul: Metis.

Finkel, Andrew (w/o. year): ‘Portrait of Elif Şafak’, Turkish Culture Portal, Turkish Cultural Foundation http://www.turkishculture.org/literature/literature/turkish-authors/elif-safak-258.htm?type=1

Hannerz, Ulf (1996): Transnational Connections: Culture, People, Places, London: Routledge

Heidegger, Martin (1963) [1927]: Sein und Zeit, Tübingen : Niemeyer

Hoggart, Richard (1958) [1957]: The Uses of Literacy, Harmondsworth: Penguin

Iveson, Kurt (2006): ‘Strangers in the Cosmopolis’, in: J. Binnie/J. Holloway/S. Millington/C. Young (eds): Cosmopolitan Urbanism,London: Routledge.

Kaplan, Caren (1995) ‘“A World without Boundaries”: The Body Shop’s Trans/National Geographics’, in: Social Text, Vol.43, pp.45-66

Marx, Karl (1953): Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Ökonomie (Rohentwurf), Berlin: Dietz

Navaro-Yashin, Yael (2002): Faces of the State: Secularism and Public Life in Turkey, Princeton:PrincetonUniversity Press

Modood, Tariq (2000): ‘Anti-Essentialism, Multiculturalism, and the “Recognition” of Religious Groups’, in: Will Kymlicka and Wayne Norman (eds): Citizenship in Diverse Societies,Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.175-95.

Plessner, Helmuth (1981): „Grenzen der Gemeinschaft: Eine Kritik des sozialen Radikalismus“ (1924), in: Gesammelte Schriften V, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp

Plessner, Helmuth (1999): The Limits of Community: A Critique of Social Radicalism, New York: Humanity Books.

Sandıkçı, Özlem/Ger, Güliz (2007): ‘Constructing and Representing the Islamic Consumer in Turkey’, in: Fashion Theory, Vol.11, No.2/3, pp.189-210

Şafak, Elif (2006): ‘E’, in Durak 2006

Sennett, Richard (2002): ‘Cosmopolitanism and the Social Experience of Cities’, in: S. Vertovec/R. Cohen (eds): Conceiving Cosmopolitanism: Theory, Context and Practice,Oxford:Oxford University Press.

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

Simmel, Georg (1950): The Sociology of Georg Simmel, Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press

Simmel, Georg (1990): The Philosophy of Money, London: Routledge

Tekgül, Perihan Duygu (2012): Around the World in English: The Production and Consumption of Translated Fiction in the UK between Cosmopolitanism and Orientalism, PhD Thesis, Sociology, University of Exeter.

Varul, Matthias Zick (2008a): ‘Consuming the Campesino – Fair Trade Marketing between Recognition and Romantic Commodification’, in: Cultural Studies, Vol.22, No.5, pp.654-679.

Weiner, James F. (1992): ‘Anthropology contra Heidegger – Part I: Anthropology’s Nihilism’, in: Critique of Anthropology, Vol.12, No.1, pp.75-90.

Werbner, Pnina (1997): ‘Essentialising Essentialism, Essentialising Silence: Ambivalence and Multiplicity in the Constructions of Racism and Ethnicity’, in: Pnina Werbner/Tariq Modood (eds): Debating Cultural Hybridity,London: Zed Books


[1] „Mag hundertmal nach der Idee das Ineffabile individueller Eigenart vom Seinstgrund der Gemeinschaft und damit von allen ihr Angehörenden mit erfaßt sein, tatsächlich durchdringen die Menschen sich doch nie bis auf den Grund, der gar nicht festliegt, weil er ewige Potentialität ist. Als geistig-seelische Wesen haben sie das ungeheuere Bewußtsein, selbst von den Bahnen ihres individuellen Gesetzes abweichen zu können oder wenigstens des Rechtes, sich gegen seine Definition aufzulehnen.“ (Plessner 1983: 59)

[2] ‚In dieser zum Mitsein gehörigen Abständigkeit liegt  aber: das Dasein steht als alltägliches Miteinandersein in der Botmäßigkeit der Anderen. Nicht es selbst ist, die Anderen verfügt über die alltäglichen Seinsmöglichkeiten des Daseins. Diese Anderen sind dabei nicht bestimmte Andere. Im Gegenteil, jeder Andere kann sie vertreten. Entscheidend ist nur die unauffällige, vom Dasein als Mitsein unversehens schon übernommene Herrschaft der Anderen. Man selbst gehört zu den Anderen und verfestigt ihre Macht. „Die Anderen“, die man so nennt, um die eigene wesenhafte Zugehörigkeit zu ihnen zu verdecken, sind die, die im alltäglichen Miteinandersein zunächst und zumeist „da sind“. Das Wer ist nicht dieser und nicht jener, nicht man selbst und nicht einige und nicht die Summe Aller. Das „Wer“ ist das Neutrum, das Man.‘ (Heidegger 1963: 126)

[3] My translation of „Imitation und Vergegenständlichung, auf denen Erwerb und gebrauch einer Sprache beruhen, haben die gleiche Wurzel, nämlich das dem Menschen gegebene Vermögen, von sich absehen und sich in anderes versetzen zu können.“ „Der Mensch vermag darum seinen Standort als ein Hier von einem Dort zu trennen, welches in umgekehrter Richtung seinen Sinn vertauscht und aus einem Dort zu eiem Hier wird. Die eigene Hand oder den ausgestoßenen Laut als Sache wie in einem Dort vom Hier trennen zu können, ist die Grundvoraussetzung für ihre instrumentale Behandlung und Imitation in fixierten Gebilden, auf die sie zurückgreift und über die sie wie über Dinge verfügt. Verdinglichung ist mithin ein genuiner und legitimer Aspect des Menschen und keineswegs ein entarteter Modus seiner Existenz…“ (Plessner 1976: 43)

[4] My translation of „Rolle als gesellschaftiches Funktionselement[…] steht mitsamt den von ihr ausgehenden und ans sie geknüpften Erwartungen einer Leistung dem Individuum objektiv gegenüber. Daher billigt man unter dem Begriff der Rolle dem Menschen einen Abstand von seiner gesellschaftlichen Existenz zu, der etwas Tröstliches haben kann: der Mensch, der einzelne ist nie ganz das, was er ‚ist’. Als Angestellter oder Arzt, Politiker oder Kaufmann, als Ehemann oder Junggeselle, als Angehöriger seiner Generation und seines Volkes ist er doch immer ‚mehr’ als das, eine Möglichkeit, die sich in solchen Daseinsweisen nicht erschöpft und darin nicht aufgeht.

Gerade die weite Spannung des Rollenbegriffs, die den ascribed status und den achieved status zusammen umfaßt, also das, was einer durch Geburt und Umstände im sozialen Felde ist, und das, was er aus sich macht, ermöglicht das Reservat eines individuum ineffabile, einer sozialen Unberührtheit, einer Zone der Privatheit, der Intimität, der persönlichen Freiheit. Insoweit gewährt der Rollenbegriff Achtung vor dem einzelnen als dem einzelnen und schirmt ihn gegen sein öffentliches Wesen ab. Als ein unbestreitbar anpassungsfähiges Mittel zur theoretischen Bewältigung sozialer Getriebe wird der Begriff damit zugleich zu einer moralischen Erinnerung an das persönliche Reservat des einzelnen, an seine Privatexistenz.“(Plessner 1976: 66)

 

From Consumerism to Socialism

Towards a Consumerist Critique of Capitalism (and a Socialist Defence of Consumer Culture)

update 19th may 2013

slightly improved version now published in ephemera 

Introduction

To suggest a ‘consumerist critique of capitalism’ sounds quite oxymoronic – and even more so a ‘socialist defence of consumer culture’. Consumerism is widely seen as the cultural expression of developed capitalism and Marxist analyses from the 1970s onwards have tried to show how the development of an absorbent market for consumer goods was driven by the needs of accumulation and valorisation in late capitalism (e.g. Mandel 1975). Following Haug’s (1986) Critique of Commodity Aesthetics one could say that, from the point of view of capital, there emerged a very real need for false needs. As Marshall Berman noted – when, of all people, under the supervision of Isaiah Berlin he developed his 1963 interpretation of Marx as admirer of the freedom achieved under and by bourgeois liberal capitalism –  one major obstacle of such a view is that, by the workings of commodity fetishism, ‘the freedom Marx has given with one hand he seems to be taking back with the other: everywhere he looks, everyone seems to be in chains.’ (Berman 1999: 44). Yet with Berman (and, maybe surprisingly, also with Adorno) I will argue that from a dialectical point of view, consumer culture may hold the key to unlocking the potential for human development at the same time built up and held under the lid by capitalism. Referring to a vague prediction on the last pages of Capital, Berman (1999: 51) notes that after the initial period of capitalism that follows a rigid rationality of accumulation, in a

‘“consumer” period the capitalist becomes like other men: he regards himself as a free agent, able to step back from his role as producer and accumulator, even to give it up entirely for the sake of pleasure or happiness, for the first time he sees his life as an open book, as something to be shaped according to his choice.’

In this perspective, socialism is to build on the individualistic hedonism of consumer culture, making it available in the same measure for all. The adequate attitude towards consumer culture therefore would be what Kate Soper (2007) calls ‘alternative hedonism’ – developing responsible pleasure seeking out of the hedonism of the capitalist market society – rather than ‘anti-consumerism’ as an outright rejection of individual pleasure seeking as a capitalism-induced moral wrong. I would go so far as to charge the brand of anticapitalism that expresses itself mainly or solely as anti-consumerism with what in theCommunist Manifesto is termed ‘reactionary socialism’ – an anticapitalism that seeks salvation in the rejection of technology and consumption whose utopia, de facto, tends to be a world of de-technologicalised frugal communities. It rejects the progress in human development available from a capitalist society and tries to re-establish older forms of authentic community, localised solidarities that imply parochialism and paternalism, even if they are, in most cases not the intended outcome.

Although I will not follow Marx in many of his substantive claims, I share his belief that any alternative to capitalism desirable from a standpoint of human development cannot go back on the progress made in terms of individual autonomy and liberty – and that this progress is owed to the dismantling of traditional feudal, paternalistic, and communal relations effected, largely, by the capitalist economy. Marx was convinced that alienation in these terms – the destruction of the highly personal ties of the pre-capitalist world – was above all an act of liberation (Jerry Cohen (1974) speaks of an end to ‘engulfment’).

I will argue that consumerism has entrenched ideas of individual liberty and self development beyond the point Marx could imagine possible within a capitalist society. I will further follow Marx’s figure of thought in which he makes the case that it is not individualism that is the problem in a liberal capitalist society but its inability to realise this freedom fully. Capitalist accumulation creates, inevitably, not only unknown freedoms, but also unheard-of inequalities. Again, following Marx to an extent, I will argue that these inequalities are not in themselves the problem. The problem is that these inequalities translate into inequalities of power (see e.g. Negri 1991, Gould: 157f., Buchanan 1982: 71) and thus impact on the personal freedom that is the central value in capitalist culture. In a nutshell: I think the capitalist achievements embodied in consumer culture need to be protected from what produced them in the first place: from capitalism.

Finally, I will argue that consumerism does not only provide the normative background that makes a successful critique of capitalism possible without recourse on traditional values (communal, nationalistic, religious) – consumerism also provides for a development in the ‘general intellect’ that makes it possible to organise free individuals in a way that does not imply the hierarchical, quasi-military apparatuses that were the parties that carried through revolutions in the past (from the Jacobins to the Communists) and, not least because of their organisational structure, turned uprisings intended as liberation into the beginnings of totalitarian states.

Anti-consumerism as desperation of the left

The initial socialist concern about consumption was not about how it is bad for you – it was how there is not enough of it. The original intent of socialist politics was to distribute the product of social production equally among those who produce it – so everybody, and not just a few – can consume what they need and if possible even more than that. This – although not in a socialist context – is also the central point of Daniel Miller’s critique of the critique of consumerism, when he points out that:

‘We live in a time when most human suffering is the direct result of the lack of goods. What most of humanity desperately needs is more consumption, more pharmaceuticals, more housing, more transport, more books, more computers.’ (Miller 2001: 227f.)

How did we get from there to a situation where concerns like this can be voiced by fair trade consumers?

‘Supporting the arts and crafts of indigenous peoples also provides them with the choice of staying in their homelands, where they can continue with their traditional and anti-consumerist way of life. Yet, I see in Mario Hernandez’s buying his house a limit to this notion. the lure of “the upper world from which advertisements and television and airplanes come…” is strong. Has Mario also joined the massed ranks of consumers?’ (Gould 2003: 343)

Personally, I sincerely hope Mario has been able to join our massed ranks – as in a way that is the whole point of fair trade. But how is a concern for the material well-being of all transformed into a concern about the spread of consumerism?

I would say it all began when revolutionary socialism started to go wrong – when it became clear that the workers were not going to produce the revolution that Marx had predicted they would. In his 1916 pamphlet on Imperialism, Lenin explained the failure of the workers of the industrialised nations to rise up, in essence, by consumerist bribery funded out of the profits of colonialist exploitation:

‘Out of such enormous superprofits […] it is possible to bribe the labour leaders and the upper stratum of the labour aristocracy […] This stratum of worker-turned-bourgeois or the labour aristocracy, who are quite philistine in their mode of life, in the size of their earnings and in their entire outlook, is the principle prop of the Second International, and in our days, the principle social prop […] of the bourgeoisie.’

The discovery of the ‘affluent worker’ by Goldthorpe’s team in the 1960s  – even though they themselves rejected the notion of an embourgeoisement of the working classes (Goldthorpe et al. 1969: 116ff.) – seemed to put a definitive end to any realistic hope for a workers’ uprising.  The idea of self-emancipation, so central to historical materialism, is quickly given up and replaced by the older idea of a vanguard educating the masses (Geras 1986:134). Geras (1986: 140f.) gives us

‘Two examples. The first is Althusser: for whom men are nothing more than the supports/effects of their social, political and ideological relations. But if they are nothing more than this, how can they possibly destroy and transform these relations? The answer is, as it has to be, by the power of a knowledge (Theoretical Practice) brought to them from elsewhere. The second is Marcuse: the working class integrated, manipulated, indoctrinated, its revolutionary potential contained, submitting to exploitation and oppression willingly, and failing to perceive, because unable to perceive, where its real interests lie. It is no accident that Marcuse keeps returning to the notion of “educational dictatorship”, only to reject it each time as unacceptable.’

While for a while educational systems and family structures competed for the part of main ‘ideological state apparatus’, relatively soon a consensus emerged that the agglomerate of consumerism, culture industries and media is responsible for widespread acquiescence to capitalist injustice and for nipping any subversive movement in the bud by means of cooptation (for a critique of this notion cf. Frank 1998, Heath/Potter 2005). A new society can only be formed out of people who have been removed from the stranglehold of consumerism – and hence a new society can only build on a successful anticonsumerist movement. In short: people need to be educated. Anti-capitalism through anti-consumerism, I would put forward, reneges on the idea of self-emancipation. Anti-consumerism – although it hardly ever describes itself in those terms – is a vanguard movement of an enlightened few trying to wake up the intoxicated masses from their addiction to consumption.

In theorists like Baudrillard (e.g. 1970), this turns into all-out culture pessimism with a self-referential system of commodity signs entangling us into an inescapable web of simulacra that deprive us of any access to something deserving the name “reality” – leaving us with no escape whatsoever. For those who still have hope it is no longer, as it used to be, progress in terms of redistribution of wealth, equality of opportunities, and democratisation of social institutions that is the primary objective but stemming the tide of commercialisation and commoditisation which are understood as ultimate weapons in the psychological warfare of corporate capitalism. In this view the alternative is consumerism and commoditisation on one side and community and culture on the other. As Kopytoff (1986: 73) put it:

‘In the sense that commoditization homogenizes value, while the essence of culture is discrimination, excessive commoditization is anti-cultural – as indeed so many have perceived it or sensed it to be.’

Anti-consumerism in the Conservative Revolution

Anti-consumerist sentiment is anti-bourgeois – but in a distinctively aristocratic way. One could say it is part of the self-elevation of the middle classes. The sneer on aspiring working class consumerism as latent in aspects of the fairtrade discourse (Raisborough/Adams 2009, Varul 2011) and openly acted out in the contempt of celebrity culture (e.g. Tyler and Bennett 2010). Contemporary class hatred, as Owen Jones (2011: 8) points out, has a strong anticonsumerist streak:

‘Many use it to show their distaste towards working-class people who have embraced consumerism, only to spend their money in supposedly tacky and uncivilized ways rather than with the discreet elegance of the bourgeoisie’

This is not an entirely new phenomenon. Consumerism in the working classes has been a moral concern throughout the 20th century (Cross 1993) and it was particularly articulate in the proponents of Culture Pessimism and the Conservative Revolution who provided the intellectual and academic background music for the rise of fascism in the 1920s and 30s. Their concern was mainly its alleged “anti-cultural” nature – it is they who are most of the many who sensed or perceived it that way, and they are among the first. What they take issue with, is precisely what Kopytoff points out as danger: homogenisation of value. In a commodity society where everything exchanges for everything else there may be huge inequalities – but the legitimacy of hierarchies and authority (and in the end even of inequality) crumbles away.[1] Ernst Jünger’s (1981: 20) condemnation of bourgeois society, too, takes aim at consumerism – which makes it impossible for it to recognise the ‘wonderful power’ of the unity of ‘domination and service’ because it values ‘all too cheap and all too human pleasures’ too highly.[2] Heidegger (2006: 167ff.) paints his picture of the abhorred inauthentic flight from being in the world in terms that are clearly targeted at the consumerist side of city life: idle talk, curiosity, ambiguity which lead to invidious comparison (2006: 175) and alienation (2006:178). What the Conservative Revolutionaries detested was not only the implication of equality and disappearance of hierarchy – it was also its inconsequential, antiheroic implications. The Catholic/fascist political theorist Carl Schmitt (1987: 66) brings it to the point when he dismisses the spiritual precursors (according to Campbell 1987) of modern consumerism: the Romantics and their dreams:

‘All their pretensions that lay beyond that were merely possibility. […] But the enormous possibilities that they had opposed to reality never became reality. The romantic solution to this difficulty consists in representing possibility as the higher category. In commonplace reality, the romantics could not play the role of the ego who creates the world. They preferred the state of eternal becoming and possibilities that are never consummated to the confines of concrete reality. This is because only one of the numerous possibilities is ever realized. In the moment of realization, all of the other infinite possibilities are precluded. A world is destroyed for a narrow-minded reality.’

What is rejected here is precisely what we (in a liberal-democratic society, in a consumer society) value most highly: diversity, opportunity, possibility over fixed identities and tradition. The reactionary critique of consumerism and its precursors is one of uprooting, estrangement, alienation from folk, from soil, from destiny. Hence, as Sznaider (1998: 46f.) argues,

‘one could say that nationalism and consumerism are opposite principles. But that does not mean that increase in consumption drives out nationalism altogether. The opposite may be true: Consumerism provides nationalism with something it can condemn – often as “Americanisation”, the battle cry of modern nationalists. Project Europe as an anti-nationalistic consumer project has provoked nationalist counter currents in all European countries.’[3]

It is around sentiments of anti-globalisation, anti-Americanisation, anti-consumerism that surprising and uncanny alliances emerge between the radical left and culturally ultra-conservative forces (Littler 2009 for example points out that the Islamist counter-project against Coca Cola: Mecca Cola has become something of an “official drink” at anti-globalisation events.)

The nostalgic nature of anti-consumerism and the partial convergence of left and right on it justify, I think, to understand it in terms of “reactionary socialism” whose “last words are: corporate guilds for manufacture; patriarchal relations in agriculture.’ (in the words of the Communist Manifesto)

Liberty and Alterity

What is the alternative? Is there anything good in consumerism? I suggest that it is precisely the alienating potential that unifies left and right in their rejection of consumerism that incorporates its human potential. In a way this point is not original –Virno (2004: 93) pairs up the despair of Heidegger with the optimism of critical theorist and communist Walter Benjamin:

‘For both Heidegger and Benjamin, those who are curious are forever distracted. They watch, learn, try out everything, but without paying attention. […] the judgment of the two authors diverges. For Heidegger, distraction, which is the correlate of curiosity, is the evident proof of a total uprooting and of a total unauthenticity. The distracted are those who pursue possibilities which are always different, but equal and interchangeable (opportunists in the prior meaning of the word, if you like). On the contrary, Benjamin clearly praises distraction itself, distinguishing in it the most effective means for taking in an artificial experience, technically constructed.’

Virno refuses to decide between Heidegger and Benjamin here – and that is symptomatic. Clearly, Heidegger is turning against the realm of possibilities (following Schmitt’s lead), while Benjamin embraces the pain of uprooting for the opportunities of development and freedom it yields. Monetary mediation implies the universal exchangeability of choices, the seeming reversibility of all decisions, and therefore the possibility to keep re-inventing oneself. Following pioneering consumer icons like David Bowie and Madonna one can complement or eradicate former selves by re-fashioning oneself with the help of new sartorial, musical, spiritual, ethical etc. stylisations. No chosen identity is ever final. If with Mary Douglas (1994: 136) we define cultures as standing ‘on forking paths of decision trees’ where having ‘embarked on one path’ makes it ‘difficult to get back to the choice that would have led another way’ – then consumer culture could be described as arrested on that forking where we decided that there will be no more forking, that there be universal reversibility of choice (Varul 2008). Although there is, of course, no real reversibility to be had – this is precisely what consumer culture aspires to. Not so much to undo what is done, but to gain the possibility of infinite expression (an infinity whose impossibility drove the original Romantics mad). This is one of the reasons why we find death so abhorrent, can no longer understand the very real desire of members of heroic cultures to give their lives in battle or sacrifice, why it is so difficult to understand fully the conclusion of Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim.

Elsewhere (Varul 2009) I have argued that this romantic occasionalism is rooted in the structural romanticism of money. I suggest that it is this romanticism of consumer culture that is a major contributing factor to the 21st century victory of what Durkheim, writing at the end of the 19th century, called the Cult of the Individual – a unifying quasi-religious consensus that the individual person is sacred as attacks on personal freedom and dignity come to be experienced as a desecration – which indicates that the human being is both god and believer in this.

‘Quiconque attente à une vie d’homme, à la liberté d’un homme, à l’honneur d’un homme, nous inspire un sentiment d’horreur, de tous points analogue à celui qu’éprouve le croyant qui voit profaner son idole. Une telle morale n’est donc pas simplement une discipline hygiénique ou une sage économie de l’existence ; c’est une religion dont l’homme est, à la fois, le fidèle et le Dieu.’ (Durkheim 1898: 8)

While sometimes portrayed as opposites – for example by Leslie Sklair (2011) who advocates a socialist globalization driven by a ‘value system’ of ‘human rights and responsibilities’ as an alternative to the ‘value system’ of capitalist globalization revolving ‘around the culture-ideology of consumerism’ – I think it can be plausibly argued that, with the quasi-religious sentiment expressed by Durkheim being institutionalised in the dogma of human rights, that consumerism is its everyday version, its folk-religious practice. Consumerism as a culture contains the imperative of self-expression, self-development, of being all that one can be. And that matches up very well, I should think, with what Marx thought communism should achieve. This has been brought to the point, most enthusiastically, by Marshall Berman when he says that a major

‘bourgeois achievement has been to liberate the human capacity and drive for development: for permanent change, for perpetual upheaval and renewal in every mode of personal and social life.’ (Berman 1983: 94) ‘In order for people, whatever their class, to survive in modern society, their personality must take on the fluid and open form of this society. Modern men and women must learn to yearn for change, not merely to be open to changes in their personal and social lives, but positively to demand them, actively seek them out and carry them through. They must learn not to long nostalgically for the “fixed, fast-frozen relationships” of the real or fantasized past…’ (Berman 1983: 95f.)

True, this human capacity – lived out and reproduced in the sphere of consumption – is often enough recaptured and/or coopted into the new workplace. Subjectivity has become a productive resource and is exploited as such – from the classic case of flight attendants analysed by Hochschild (1983) to the way that “creatives” are roped into the production of aesthetic use value (e.g. Hesmondalgh/Baker 2008). The shift from personnel management and industrial relations to ‘human resources management’ from the 1980s onwards (e.g. Guest 1990) constituted a widening of the definition of what constitutes labour power reflected in new appraisal systems (e.g. Townley 1989). The various instruments of performance assessment give the lie to claims that such ‘affective’ labour is beyond measure (unless one ascribes Fordist assessment methods like MTM an objectivity they simply do not possess). What is measured (and hence: expropriated) just encompasses so much more these days.  Virno (2004) brings this very much to the point when he sums up those studies (and what he knows from involvement with workers movements) by stating how we now sell off to employers our very ability to have a conversation as central element of that thing “labour power”. Which means that we essentially give up to them what makes us human. Thus sphere of capitalist production is alienating in a very different sense from the sphere of consumption: the latter estranges us in that it uproots immediate relations to others and to nature, in that now money transactions mediate between us and objects, creating a distance that was not there before. But in the sphere of production alienation means, in a very straightforward way: you are alienated from what you produce (as you don’t own it) and you are alienated from the means of production which, of course, you don’t own either… and if those means of production include your very ability to have a conversation, to forge emotional bonds etc. – then that no longer belongs to you. Here the person is alienated by and subsumed under capital. If there is a ‘communism of capital’ it certainly is not to be found in the sphere of production. But maybe it exists in consumer culture?

Already when consumption was still much less individualistic than it is now (and in a country where conformity and homogeneity are more highly valued than here) Adorno(2005) – who due to his condemnation of the culture industry and his nostalgia for high culture is often enlisted in an anticonsumerist discourse – defended the sphere of consumption as last bastion of humanity against the machine:

‘Only by virtue of opposition to production, as something still not totally encompassed by the social order, could human beings introduce a more humane one. If the appearance [Schein] of life were ever wholly abrogated, which the consumption-sphere itself defends with such bad reasons, then the overgrowth of absolute production will triumph.’

This is the irony of the expropriation of subjectivity in the workplace: In order to be exploited, it must exist. Human resource managers can select it; it can recruit it; it canreward it – but it cannot produce it. Like all labour power it is produced and reproduced outside labour. The self-expressive creative employees so in demand nowadays need to be given an existence beyond. There they are to construct their authenticity – which then will be expropriated as a productive resource.

‘Being an efficient employee demands that you are more than an employee. Having a life outside work becomes a resource when doing work, not only because of the revitalizing function of having a family, a hobby, or doing sports but because having these non-work activities develop competences and experiences that might help create organizational results.’ (Pedersen 2011: 75)

That is – as much as it craves for it – production cannot bring individual subjectivity completely under its control as such subsumption would necessarily delete it as a resource. The sphere consumption is inevitably unruly and conducive to individualism and liberty.

But this is not just about individuality and liberty – it is also about the possibility of a sociality that can make do without fixed identity ascriptions. It is about cosmopolitanism and alterity. Alterity – as a not very good translation of Georg Simmel’s Fremdheit, strangeness, foreignness (Sennett 2002) – here denotes difference that comes without the need to categorise identities. Because in metropolitan (consumerised) city life we are all strangers in that we are seen to be free to construct and reconstruct and reinvent our visualised identities, a consumerist city can stomach new strangers, ethnic, religious, aesthetic, sexual, etc. difference so much better than any other known form of social life. This is more than multi-culturalism. We have seen multi-culturalism in many forms in the past – but it always involved a strong sense of communal belonging and clear boundaries between communities (usually along ethno-religious lines). Çağlar (1997: 182), arguing from a cosmopolitan perspective against a relapse into such communalism highlights the role of consumer culture in preventing reifying ethnicity, religion and community:

‘A multiculturalism of consumption is a multiculturalism of the market, in which consumers are left to define for themselves who they are, away from top-down constructions by the state or by fictive “communities”. But this implies […] that “culture” and “religion” must be kept entirely out of the public sphere and that citizens should be free to negotiate their own cultural self-definitions through exchange and collective consumption. Such a divorce between community and culture would need to apply as much to the majority group as to minorities within the nation.’

Any alternative to capitalism, if it is not to relapse into the frozen world in which everybody has their place must find a functional equivalent to this alterity-facilitating function of consumer culture. And even the most radically left anti-consumerist movements do have such a tendency to create island communities that are hostile to mobility. This here is Subcommandante Marcos (2001: 565):

‘“Foreigners” in a world “without borders” (according to the promise made by the victors of the Cold War) who suffer xenophobic persecution, job insecurity, the loss of their cultural identity, police repression, and hunger – that is, when they aren’t thrown into prison or murdered. Whatever its cause the nightmare of migration continues to grow.’

Naomi Klein (2002: 3) adopted him as hero of the anti-consumerist movement – a universal avatar for he ‘is simply us, we are the leader we’ve been looking for’. And of course he is absolutely right about xenophobia and marginalisation of large groups of migrants. But anyone who knows a bit about migration will be confident in rejecting the blanket notion of a ‘nightmare of migration’. More significantly, note how the “loss of cultural identity”, a genuine conservative concern, has become something that one now can conjure up as equally devastating as hunger and police repression. Such an attitude condemns people to their ethnic identities (it is significant that Gould above speaks of ‘peoples’, not ‘people’) – while commoditisation offers an exit:

‘Anti-modernists often bemoan that ethnic identities today are no longer “authentic,” but are rather superficial, made up of musical tropes and clothing styles and exaggerated gestures that aren’t passed down from generation to generation, but chosen through the influence of the mass media. But it is precisely this commodification that allows people to choose elements from various cultural traditions and blend them into a new identity. The same process also makes it easier for people to stray from their “original” identities – or in conventional terms, to integrate into society. Uncommodified ethnic identities are closed to outsider, and raise the costs for straying outside their walls: one either is or isn’t.’ (Sznaider 2000: 307)

Nobody knows that better than Subcommandante Marcos himself – hence his engagement in the literary market (he has co-authored a novel with crime writer Paco Ignacio Taibo II in which he gives himself an image makeover – and in which feature a number of revolution tourists from around the world…)

As in all societies, capitalist societies are built on expectations and mutual obligations. But while traditional networks of obligations are first of all entangling webs of very specific normative expectations that can only negotiated to a very limited extent, the capitalist economy entails an anonymisation and generalisation of obligation that allows us to be tied up in a very liberal way.

‘The “reciprocal and all-sided dependence of individuals” expressed in exchange value constantly recalls the fact that one owes one’s very existence to society. In order to justify and maintain that existence one has to offer one’s services (incorporated in a product or directly as labor power) to the owners of exchange value, that is, money. As workers individuals are, as Marx put it, doubly free: free to dispose of themselves as they please, but also free of any commodities whose sale could sustain them. Most of us are forced to sell our labor power as the only commodity we can continuously dispose of. In order to live we must, in effect, serve others. In a generalized and anonymized reciprocity like that of the capitalist market society ideally we can choose who to serve, that is, we are not servants of any particular master. But we have to serve somebody in order to obtain an income that allows us to exist as free individuals outside the workplace. And even if we are in a position to choose our temporal masters (employers/clients), as owners of social wealth (money) each individual master represents the mastership of society as a whole.’  (Varul 2010: 63)

The need to earn money as generalised debt – we owe our existence to society and we need to pay off that debt somehow. But in a liberal capitalist society we are not told how to do this. We are not liberated from serfdom as such, but we are no longer tied to a concrete master and our serfdom to society as a whole is sweetened by the reverse indebtedness of society to us – in the form of money as generalised bills of exchange. Graeber (2010) in a preview of his Debt: the first 5000 years brings the moral implication to the point

“The true ethos of our individualistic society may be found in this equation: We all owe an infinite debt to humanity, nature, or the cosmos (however one prefers to frame it), but no one else can possibly tell us how to pay it. All systems of established authority—religion, morality, politics, economics, the criminal-justice system—are revealed to be fraudulent ways of calculating what cannot be calculated. Freedom, then, is the ability to decide for ourselves how to pay our debts”

Graeber (2011), of course, sees any indebtedness as tied up in recurring relations of violence and violation in which even the balanced reciprocities of neighbourly exchanges of favours, gestures and attention (be it in the British or in the Tiv) become a sinister symptom of repression. But in making his case he cannot avoid to underline the, hitherto, universality of such relations of mutual indebtedness. Assuming we cannot do away with indebtedness as such, the individualistic ethos looks like the best we can get. But of course, there is an obstacle: inequality.

Inequality vs consumerist freedom

Inequality of wealth, as it entails inequality of power, is a threat to freedom – those who don’t have money to spend are excluded from the liberty of consumer culture. Liberty is tied to property – and property, by definition, means exclusion. The freedom which is a reality for the haves and an empty promise for the have-nots in capitalist societies (even where it tends to be above what Jimmy Reid called the “freedom to starve” – and that is, ironically, mainly thanks to labour activists like him). But this freedom is not something to be thrown away because for many it is nothing but an ideological appearance. Its realisation for all is what Marx (2000) had in mind when contrasting the division of labour that culminates in capitalism and the division of labour in communism.

‘For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.’

In essence: Marx thought about communism primarily in terms of freedom – everything else (questions of property, equality etc.) are means to this end: the generalisation and radicalisation of the freedom, that under capitalism is a privilege of private property. (Which is why Engels, in the Prinicples of Communism answers the question ‘What is communism’ stating ‘Communism is the doctrine of the conditions of the liberation of the proletariat.’) If there is evil in alienation then it is that, as Shlomo Avineri (1969: 116) put it, that in capitalist society ‘ the individual by being denied his private property is denied his existence as individual’.

If the issue is liberty – and if equality is mainly about equal freedoms – then the main issue is not immiseration and it also is not alienation. The question is whether freedoms are curtailed by unequal distribution of property rights even if there is some freedom of movement and expression for most. And property, material possession from clothing to newspapers, from Virginia Wolfe’s “room for oneself” to internet access does matter for freedom of expression. Selfhood – individual or collective, egalitarian or hierarchical, eccentric, traditional etc. – always needs to be constituted in material culture. But only in a capitalist consumer society are they to a large extent a matter of choice – hence my concern that an attack on consumerism will hit freedom and hence my suggestion that current consumer culture needs a functional equivalent in a socialist society, if that society is to be one of free individuals.

That negative recognition and negative freedom enshrined in consumerism threatened by the inequalities that the capitalist relations of production that make consumerism possible is of course a contentious claim – neoliberal promoters of negative freedom in the tradition of Hayek reject the notion that less money means less freedom (i.e. disagree vehemently with the notion that equality of wealth is a precondition of equality of liberty). Huei-Chun Su (2009) brings in John Stuart Mill’s notion of liberty against this view. Although Su positions Mill against negative freedom, I think he makes it reasonably clear that Mill is far from subscribing to a notion of ‘positive freedom’ in which more wealth means more capacities and thus more freedom.

‘In general, more wealth implies more choices to exercise the power of satisfying desires, but it does not imply more freedoms in other aspects. If Mill believed that more wealth always leads to more freedoms, exchanging liberty for affluence would not be an issue for him. In other words, in Mill’s view, there is no proportional correlation between the amount of wealth and the degree of liberty. However, for Mill, the idea of liberty cannot be completely cut off from the issue of material conditions either. Due to their physical constitutions, human beings need a minimum level of means to survive. Therefore, they should not be considered entirely free if they face the threat of the deprivation of a minimum level of subsistence.’ (Su 2009: 391)

It is easy to see why Mill is right in his rejection of a proportional relation between freedom and property. Not only is this due to the law of diminishing returns  – property is a social thing that can also diminish freedom (a car in a traffic jam, for example). However, Su is, I think, mistaken to interpret the difference between Hayek’s concept of freedom and that of Mill as one in which Mill allows for some ‘positive freedom’:

‘If we think about the liberty of the weaker members in the same community, Mill’s principle is actually a protection of their positive liberties. In short, Mill’s principle of liberty can be interpreted from the other angle: the purpose of limiting some people’s liberty is to protect everyone’s liberty of life and body’ (Su 2009: 411)

To the contrary – what Mill does is to spell out the concept of negative freedom in a way that makes it easy to see why even negative freedom is curtailed under capitalism. The freedom of the less well off is a much smaller one than that of those with greater spending power. If such a negative concept of freedom implies that its only limit is the obligation of

‘not injuring the interests of one another; or rather certain interests, which, either by express legal provision or by tacit understanding, ought to be considered as rights’ (Mill 1910: 132)

then in a society with hugely unequal property rights the freedom of the poor is squeezed into what little space is left by the liberties taken by the rich. (Varul 2010: 59) Mill provides us with more than his own explicit argument for minimum income – and he does so by not stepping into the trap of positive liberty. With positive liberty you have to define what freedom should be freedom-to – and thus introduce normativity that impacts on negative freedom (not in that it curtails the freedom of the wealthier but in that it prescribes and proscribes what people can do with their freedom). What Mill makes visible is that property (as the only quantitatively limited positive freedom of an individual) curtails the negative freedom of others in that it extends the sphere of one person at the cost of others. Therefore there needs to be a quantitative limit. It is easy to see if we go back to the car: a car takes space – space that others then cannot use. It is therefore reasonable to limit car use so as to protect the freedom of movement of all. But of course these look like relatively insignificant differentials in freedom when compared to the impact that capital accumulation on a larger scale has. Although the range of products has changed since Marx wrote Value, Price and Profit, the fact remains that a small proportion of the population determines a large proportion of demand, and this in effect means that they dictate what kind of work counts as socially necessary and what does not – they have a disproportional say in the definition of social utility.

‘If you consider that two-thirds of the national produce are consumed by one-fifth of the population — a member of the House of Commons stated it recently to be but one-seventh of the population — you will understand what an immense proportion of the national produce must be produced in the shape of luxuries, or be exchanged for luxuries, and what an immense amount of the necessaries themselves must be wasted upon flunkeys, horses, cats, and so forth, a waste we know from experience to become always much limited with the rising prices of necessaries.

Inequality as constantly exacerbated through capital accumulation in the last consequence finds its expression in the social opportunity structure, seriously affecting what counts as valuable in terms of work (and hence education) by exerting disproportionate influence over what counts as valuable in terms of consumption. Capitalism is eating up the liberty that it produced in form of consumerism. If we want to protect the human progress culturally instituted in the sphere of consumption, we need to think about alternatives to capitalism. But is such a move possible at all? Can people perform such an act of transcending critique?

Consumerism and general intellect

The rationale behind the radical turn against consumption, as I have said, is the frustration of revolutionary hopes and the idea that consumerism is part of the apparatus of oppression (or at least appeasement) that lulls the oppressed and creates a false sense of legitimacy by instigating and superficially satisfying false needs (the sort of thing you people are being trained to do…)

I want to suggest a different perspective – which in effect means to reinstate the original perspective of Marx – dialectic materialism. In the German Ideology he says

The only connection which still links [people] with the productive forces and with their own existence — labour — has lost all semblance of self-activity and only sustains their life by stunting it. While in the earlier periods self-activity and the production of material life were separated, in that they devolved on different persons, and while, on account of the narrowness of the individuals themselves, the production of material life was considered as a subordinate mode of self-activity, they now diverge to such an extent that altogether material life appears as the end, and what produces this material life, labour (which is now the only possible but, as we see, negative form of self-activity), as the means.

The effect of this is alienation – expressing oneself, objectifying and realising oneself in one’s product, in work is no longer possible. But this is not only a deprivation, an cause of unhappiness. It is a liberation – a separation of the person from being entirely defined by their productive role – and an opportunity as:

On the other hand, standing over against these productive forces, we have the majority of the individuals from whom these forces have been wrested away, and who, robbed thus of all real life-content, have become abstract individuals, but who are, however, only by this fact put into a position to enter into relation with one another as individuals.

In working (meaninglessly) towards the end of a (meaningful) material existence the alienated individual establishes herself as a person who can – in cooperation with other persons – turn back on the way things are organised and change them. While for Marx there was not much he could bring up in terms of concretisations of such potentials (the individualisation afforded in principle by the alienation through waged factory work had a strict quantitative limit set by the extensive working hours and low pay), today’s material life affords quite a lot of excess individuality.

Consumer culture is geared towards the construction of individual selfhood, the free construction of subjectivity – and over the decades capitalist entrepreneurs have seen a market in that and catered profitably to such needs for self-construction. The combination of digital technology, telecommunication and software for social networking is the pinnacle of this development. The “self-activity” as self-construction has shifted from labour to “material life” (consumption).

In a further twist, capitalist production tries to tap into that new resource (consumer co-production, subjectivity in the workplace, as mentioned before) – but crucially, the curse of accumulation and inequality, and hence domination, persists. In the workplace subjectivity is consumed by capital as a productive force. But in order to do so – and in order to valorise commodities beyond the catering for material needs or traditional luxury – that productive force which is subjectivity must be let loose without too much control in the sphere of consumption.

The great contribution of dialectical materialism was to recognise that if there is to be fundamental change it is not enough that there is a society is unjust and exploitative, but also that this society has produced the possibility (“productive force”) to go beyond itself, both in the sense of an organisational capacity to break up the existing order of things and as a capacity to organise the new society. Both are best capture by the formula of “general intellect” as put forward by Marx in his Grundrisse. While Marx saw it incorporated in machinery as ‘objective scientific capacity’, Virno (2004: 106) sees it, today, ‘presented in living labor’.

‘The general intellect includes […] formal and informal knowledge, imagination, ethical propensities, mindsets, and “linguistic games.” In contemporary labor processes, there are thoughts and discourses which function as productive “machines,” without having to adopt the form of a mechanical body or of an electronic valve.’

According to Virno, the post-Fordist industry builds heavily on the imaginative and communicative ‘intellectually of the masses’ (2004: 107). This intellectuality is crucial.

One important ingredient in any revolution – and the reason why there have been so few in the past… and the reason why most of them were led by intellectuals – is that it takes not only the ability to organise and lead (in the sense of military leadership down the command chain), but crucially: it takes imagination. Virno does not explain where this imaginative and communicative intellectuality emerges from – but whoever knows business organisations from the inside also knows that they are not the places where the imagination is fostered. It comes from the outside – it is a cultural import. And the culture nourishing it is that of consumption.

Colin Campbell (1987: 76) celebrates the consumer’s ability to gain pleasure through cognitive and emotional self-control.

‘In order […] to possess that degree of emotional self-determination which permits emotions to be employed to secure pleasure, it is necessary for individuals to attain that level of self-consciousness which permits the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ [Coleridge]; disbelief robs symbols of their automatic power, whilst the suspension of such an attitude restores it, but only to the extent to which one wishes that to be the case. Hence through the process of manipulating belief, and thus granting or denying symbols their power, an individual can successfully adjust the nature and intensity of his emotional experience; something which requires a skilful use of the faculty of imagination.

In the first instance this liberation of imaginative potential, this autonomous imaginative hedonism does the job of what Haug (1984) portrays as outcome of capitalist manipulation: It creates much needed markets to soak up the output of a senselessly overproducing capitalist industry. But he and other followers of Vance Packard style theories of mind control over-estimate the extent to which advertisers and marketeers can contain the spirits they conjured up. Marshall Berman (1983: 96f.) concludes:

‘Where the desires and sensibilities of people in every class have become open-ended and insatiable, attuned to permanent upheaval in every sphere of life, what can possibly keep them fixed and frozen in their bourgeois roles? The more furiously bourgeois society agitates its members to grow or die, the more likely they will outgrow it itself, the more furiously they will eventually turn on it as a drag on their growth, the more implacably they will fight it in the name of the new life it has forced them to seek.’

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[1] Of course they – and Kopytoff – have it wrong on one count: there may be a homogenisation of value, but not of content and meaning – the qualitative difference of things is the very precondition for their commercial exchangeability (as Marx points out: quantitatively equal exchange value is expressed – and thus depends on – qualitatively unequal use value.)

[2] ‘Zu erkennen ist dies: daß Herrschaft und Dienst ein und dasselbe sind: Das Zeitalter des dritten Standes hat die wunderbare Macht dieser Einheit nie erkannt, denn allzu billige und allzu menschliche Genüsse schienen ihm erstrebenswert.’

[3] ‚Man kann sagen, daß Nationalismus und Konsumverhalten entgegengesetzte Prinzipien darstellen. Aber das heißt nicht, daß ein Ansteigen des Konsums den Nationalismus verschwinden ließe. Auch das Gegenteil kann zutreffen: Das Konsumverhalten liefert dem Nationalismus etwas, das er verurteilen kann, oft in Gestalt der sogenannten „Amerikanisierung“, dem Schlachtruf moderner Nationalisten. So hat das „Projekt Europa“ als anti-nationalistisches Konsumprojekt auch nationalistische Gegenströmungen in jedem Land Europas hervorgerufen.‘