Consumerism as Folk Religion?

(presentation at the workshop “Critiques of Capitalism: Christian and Muslim Voices“, Exeter 2nd and 3rd June 2014)

[update 13th November 2015: now published with some piques against St Augustine and Guy Debord in Studies in Christian Ethics, Vol. 28, no. 4, pp.447-60]

When talking about consumerism in the context of religion and critiques of capitalism, the standard approach is to portray it as some sort of adoration of a golden calf. Both theologians and critical social scientists are quick to liken consumerism to religion – and they are equally quick to point out that it is a false religion, a trivial fetishism that yearns for salvation in the form of absolute wealth, replacing spiritual aspirations with materialistic greed. I don’t buy the story of consumerism as mere capitalist idolatry.

I am going to argue that consumerism is the folk-religious manifestation of the now dominant civil religion which Émile Durkheim (1899) has called the “cult of the individual” and whose high-church version is the human rights discourse. What is more, it provides for the trivial everyday experience that cements the plausibility of the otherwise quite abstract notion of “human rights”.(for a discussion of Durkheim’s notion of the “sacred” and its secular expression cf. Pickering 1990)

 

Consumerism, I claim, does have a spiritual and an ethical dimension which is inspired by its Romantic/Protestant heritage, and sustained by the structural romanticism of money. I will argue that this ethos of consumerism collides with the realities of capitalist processes and relations of production where they are felt to infringe on individual self-expression and self-development.

To begin with I have to clarify that here I am not talking of conspicuous consumption, the consumption of status goods which Thorstein Veblen (1994) has portrayed in his Theory of the Leisure Class and which Scott Fitzgerald has so vividly illustrated in The Great Gatsby. This “consumerism” is one that always has been around – even before capitalism – and is nothing but a reverberation of an aristocratic habitus that has undergone a degree of generalisation. It is significant that, as Chris Rojek (2000) has pointed out, this pattern is applicable mainly to societies like Saudi Arabia (and as it happens, Theeb al-Dossry (2012) found that there it is fuelled mainly by a dynamic of tribal competitiveness, obligatory generosity and the agonic gift exchange that is traditional Arab hospitality).

This also is not about sheer greed – the unfettered satisfaction of bodily desires (which, as we know from the warnings in religious texts, must also be a phenomenon much older than modern consumerism)

What I am talking about here today is the consumerism of the images and the imagination which Colin Campbell (1987) had in mind when tracing its roots in the Romantic movements of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. I am talking about the consumerism that began with the avid devouring not of novels and developed into a desire for goods and services that cater for what could be called a “cinematic experience”.

If we are to liken consumerism to a deviant religious practice as castigated in the Scriptures, it is not a cult of the golden calf or Mammon, it is that of the Serpent who alerts humans to the fact that they share in the divine creative imagination (or from an atheist perspective: that the creative imagination has always been their own).

Transcendence

Thomas Luckmann (1967) identified the interpretation of the transcendent nature of human existence as the central function of religion. By transcendence he meant not just the absolute beyond, the out-of-this-world which may help us understand what is going on within this our world. Transcendence here denotes the fact that humans do not just live in the here-and-now but are temporally and spatially extended into where and when they are not (no more, not yet). Unlike Nietzsche’s famous cow in the Second Untimely, humans have a past and a future – that they are their pasts and their futures. The transcendent is relevant for the immanent. Luckmann notes that in an ever more fluid world the interpretations, the holy cosmoi constructed by institutionalised religion, which tend to undergo a process of ossification after their initial charismatic phase, are less and less able to offer satisfactory answers to problems of transcendence as they are posed in people’s everyday lives.

That does not mean the problem of transcendence, which in its most immediate and profane form is one of identity construction through time and space, goes away. To the contrary, where occupational structures are becoming more individualised and life paths more a matter of choice, it becomes more pressing – especially during adolescence. Luckmann saw popular culture taking the place of interpreter and mediator here, constituting an “invisible religion”. But he is not too specific about how this works, how consumerism can take on such a task – a task that, I think, can be characterised by the catholic-romantic proto-hippie Gilbert K Chesterton’s (2001: 2)quest for disenchantment or remagification:

“How can this queer cosmic town, with its many-legged citizens, with its monstrous and ancient lamps, how can this world give us at once the fascination of a strange town and the comfort and honour of being our own town?”

In other words: how can we be at once here and not-here, now and not-now, immanent and transcendent?

Here the work of Colin Campbell (1987) on The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism is enlightening. Campbell traces the heritage of contemporary consumer culture back to its roots in the Romantic movements of the late 18th and early 19thcentury…           and beyond that links Romanticism back to the Reformation and the turn towards inner life and imagination which it had triggered.

In this perspective consumerism is hedonistic, but not in the traditional sense of a search for satisfaction of bodily needs and desires. Such traditional hedonism, he argues, could not explain the insatiability of demand on which capitalist accumulation depends – stomachs can only be filled once in a while. He contrasts this with what he calls “autonomous imaginative hedonism” – a mentality and skill that he sees as strengthened and promoted by the Romantics and subsequently adopted by the consuming masses (in the first instance demonstrated by the writers of poems and, more importantly, novels and then learned by their readers).

The imaginative hedonist still needs material objects, but they no longer act just as direct/immediate stimulus to the senses (as a soft cushion, a delicate perfume, a distinguished bottle of wine etc.) but as triggers or rather launch pads and staffage for autonomously induced emotional states in daydreams.

‘Modern hedonism presents all individuals with the possibility of being their own despot, exercising total control over the stimuli they experience, and hence the pleasure they receive. Unlike traditional hedonism, however, this not gained solely, or even primarily, through the manipulation of objects and events in the world, but through a degree of control over their meaning.’ (Campbell 1987: 76)

This is not the invention of a completely new spiritual skill (there always have been virtuosi of the imagination – often finding niches in religious traditions as visionaries and mystics). But it is liberation and democratisation.

This democratisation can be illustrated by the difference between the traditional and the Romantic fairy tale. The latter is distinguished by the (bracketed) knowledge that they areinvented (Kunstmärchen) and therefore could take different turns – and that it could be you. [of course there have been precursors here, and I’d regard the story of Sindbad as one of them]. We can here also see the elective affinity with the capitalist market economy. [Sindbad was a trader…]

Money as radically empty incorporates all possibilities equally – due to its ‘lack of any content of its own’ it is ‘the tool that has the greatest possible number of unpredictable uses’ (Simmel 1990: 212). Qualitative barriers are torn down – everything that is psychologically possible becomes socially possible. In the modern fairy tale, fantastic novel, movie, video game etc.; all possibilities are open to all – you don’t need to be born a princess to end up married to a prince. “Only” quantitative ones are left (but of course, as with money, there is a quantitative barrier even after the removal of the qualitative ones… more on that later). Daydreams are thus “realistic” in the sense of the realism of character in novels (Alter 1989: 49; Currie 1998: 173)

They may be unrealisable in practical terms, but they are no longer complete impossibilities. They need to be consistent and plausible in terms of character, self-identities. And this, I would claim, is what makes them applicable to everyday problems with transcendence – makes them a likely candidate to fill in the gap left by religious institutions that, in North Western Europe at least, have become ever less relevant.

[as a footnote: in consumer cultures where religious organisations (such as the U.S.A) have managed to remain relevant they have done so by adapting to and even adopting the imaginative hedonist mind set – Chris Smith and Melinda Lundquist (2005: 163ff.) speak of a “moral-therapeutic deism”.]

Everyday problems of transcendence can thus be processed through the construction (or adoption) of individual styles that structure choices (and not only purchasing choices) creating meaningful links between past and future selves to create/maintain what Luckmann has called a “morally relevant biography” where a socially accountable identity is maintained through temporal change.

Georg Simmel in his 1905 “Philosophy of Fashion” unfolds how the modern fashion cycle with its dialectics of uniformity and difference, continuity and change affords support to maintaining individual and social identity not only despite continuous change but, in effect, by continuous change.

Another example – cigarettes (just because, as Richard Klein (1993) has noted, they have been noted to be “sublime”): purchasing, carrying around, smoking, offering Gauloisecigarettes a student can cross-reference geographical links (Paris, Rive Gauche, for example), developmental stage (claim to daring adulthood), future trajectories (setting out to becoming an intellectual), equate and differentiate herself from others with similar and/or differing projects, allegiances; keep that facet of her personality alive later on when she hasn’t become an author after all but a lawyer, but “only” a lawyer, but one who has an intellectual side to her… through what Grant McCracken (1988: 110) has called “displaced meaning” in which

‘goods help the individual contemplate the possession of an emotional condition, a social circumstance, even an entire style of life, by somehow concretizing these things in themselves. They become a bridge to displaced meaning and an idealized version of life as it should be lived.’

As such autonomous imaginative hedonism (especially as presented by Colin Campbell) may be seen as a solely individualistic way of coming to terms with the minor and major existential crises we all experience not only due to our mortality but the finiteness that is inscribed in the very notion of action. But the imagination which can (Campbell cites Coleridge) “under willing suspension of disbelief” construct alternative scenarios, alternative universes, different societies, has also a socially utopian potential. Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke (2000: x) once pointed out

‘By mapping possible futures, as well as a good many improbable ones, the science fiction writer does a great service to the community. He encourages in his readers flexibility of mind, readiness to accept and even welcome change – in one word, adaptability.’

This ability can be turned from mere consumption to focus on the conditions of production. Bandi Mbubi, for example, in his campaign for fairtrade mobile phones, to end the scandalous exploitation of labourers in the tantalum mines, makes use of consumer technologies (… mobile phones, social networking sites…) to project alternatives.

So there is ethical potential in the consumer imagination – especially when combined with the fact that for the autonomous imaginative hedonist it is easier to empathise, to place themselves into situations of distant others and get a sense (although of course not the full experience) of the suffering it may involve. Natan Sznaider (2001) has pointed out that the humanitarian sentiment is closely linked to this aspect of capitalism.

But before the emotional implications there is a more compelling (although less obvious) ethical dimension to the imaginative-hedonist response to the problem of transcendence. This becomes visible when we link back consumer romanticism to the structural romanticism of money, i.e. supplement Colin Campbell’s approach with that of Georg Simmel. Money as empty tool refers to an open horizon of possibilities. Even when spent it keeps representing the absent, not chosen choices as not-yet-chosen options. Consumerism is a culture of open horizons, a culture of open possibilities. As a culture of choice the one thing that is abhorred most in consumerism is irreversibility, final commitment.

Now, how could that possibly be a basis for an ethical maxim?

The Catholic/Fascist legal theorist Carl Schmitt (1986: 66) mocked this attitude which is now generalised in small-r romantic consumerism in the original Romantics as their political/moral occasionism – the refusal to commit to any of the projects, dreams, identities constructed in the imagination. As he says here

‘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’

If you consider how easily the dreamers of the absolute on the Right (Carl Schmitt himself, Martin Heidegger and many others) committed to Nazism and how easily the dreamers of the absolute on the Left (Ernst Bloch, Georg Lukács and many others) committed to Stalinism, you may accept that there may be some virtue in avoidance (which is why, whatever Adorno says…, totalitarianism is anti-consumerist – consumerist daydreamers don’t make good soldiers, they don’t take to the idea that there’s a cause worth dying for).

But of course a reluctance to make final commitments cannot be in itself ethical as it gets in the way with forming the most basic social bonds which are indispensable for the continuation of any given society: the commitment to the next generation. A problem highlighted by Christian critics of consumerism.(e.g. Williams 2000: 23; Clapp 1998: 194).

One aspect of the religious interpretation of transcendence is the dynamics of probation inherent in the finiteness of existence and freedom of choice (Oevermann 1995). This is a central theme in the story of the Fall from Paradise whose anthropological essence is captured here by John Milton in Paradise Lost:

‘Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall,

Such I created all th’ Ethereal Powers,

And Spirits, both them who stood and those who failed,

Freely they stood who stood, and fell who fell.

Not free, what proof could they have givn sincere,

Of true allegiance, constant Faith or Love,

Where onely what they needs must do, appeard,

Not what they would? what praise could they receive?’

We can only be judged if we are free – we are set free to succeed or fail, so that we can be judged. We are free to choose, but we only have limited time. We need to be able to account for our action in light of the lost alternatives. Traditional insitutionalised religion (as opposed to freer forms of heroic individual searching that we find throughout history) used to help us here by providing us with rules and exemplary stories to guide our action, to limit the horizon of the possible/legitimate so as to relieve us from the burden of too much freedom (Dostoyevsky’s Great Inquisitor explains that to Jesus in great breadth…).

Consumerism as a culture of choice presents us with a bit of a problem then.

‘…we might describe contemporary society as materialistic, as a pecuniary culture based on money, as concerned with ‘having’ to the exclusion of ‘being’, as commodified, as hedonistic, as narcissistic or, more positively, as a society of choice and consumer sovereignty.‘ (Slater 1997: 24f.)

Consumerism accentuates that problem by detraditionalisation, deregulation and broadening of choice. And given that we use choices to construct identities – choosing the wrong jumper, the wrong toothpaste, the wrong newspaper etc. may undermine our personal integrity.

To an extent we are able to cop out, since, as the former archbishop rightly pointed out, we can lull ourselves in the illusion of general reversibility – of infinite opportunities to recreate, reinvent ourselves (as creative occasionsists).

Consumer culture makes a commitment to the irreversibility of reversibility. But that implies an interesting ethical turn. It is a cultural, a collective choice – and we are obliged to respect the reversibility, the open potential, the creative expressivity in others as much as we feel ourselves entitled to our own. What Émile Durkheim (1898) has called a cult of the individual is not pure egotism, it implies a duty to safeguarding the individuality of others as well as one’s own

‘Whoever infringes on a man’s life, a man’s freedom, a man’s honour, inspires in us a sense of horror which is, in every respect, parallel to that which a believer feels when seeing his idol desecrated. Such a morality is therefore not simply a matter of healthy discipline or wise economy of existence. It is a religion in which Man is at once believer and God.’

I think we can now see how the reluctance to commit as problem is cancelled out by the obligation to safeguard developmental potential – especially in children.

The way we do not abandon children but, historically unique given the ease with which in North-West Europe children used to be chased away, make them the centre of family life (as well as of our financial planning), can be explained by the fact that they incorporate potentiality:

‘Children’s capacity for imagination and fantasy is central to their sacralization’ (Langer 2002: 73)

The anti-heroism, the equally historically unique aversion against killing, can be explained in a similar way. To kill is to delete potential, to cut off development. The classic hero, as he reverberates in Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim could be said to yearn death on completion of mission as all is done and to live further comes with the risk of reversing achievement, to be dishonoured. The consumer hero, as incorporated here by Dr Who wants to live forever and live through many different scenarios. In a way the consumer of stories does that in the imagination (and may find ways to come to terms with their own finitude  in “real life” through this)

Attacks on the imagination thence become preludes to attacks on life itself – as the Romantic Heinrich Heine famously stated in 1821

“Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings.”

In this sense consumerism forms the everyday experience that makes human rights (as religio-ethical codex) intuitively plausible. This is why the reaction to book burning and its equivalents is similar to that once evoked by blasphemy. It is blasphemous. And that includes both secular and religious vehicles of the imagination – be it Pokémon cards in Egypt, Harry-Potter books in the US or the burning of the Qur’an by some mad preacher, they are all violations of something secularly sacred. Relating to novels, Salman Rushdie (1990) says:

“Literature is the one place in any society where, within the secrecy of our own heads, we can hear voices talking about everything in every possible way. The reason for ensuring that that privileged arena is preserved is not that writers want the absolute freedom to say and do whatever they please. It is that we, all of us, readers and writers and citizens and generals and godmen, need that little, unimportant-looking room. We do not need to call it sacred, but we do need to remember that it is necessary”

I would say: From a sociology-of-religion perspective, we should call it “sacred”!

Consumerist anticapitalism

The autonomous imaginative hedonist is bound to get into conflict with the realities of capitalism. Born out of, and maintained by, the capitalist economic system, consumerism’s ethos must create dissatisfaction with the constraints, inequalities and cruelties produced by the relations of production and the accumulation of capital.

Inequality – which is increasing unabatedly – is not just inequality of wealth, inequality of opportunity – it is inequality of power, it results in relations of domination. The needs, desires and dreams of the rich determine the demand in the labour market – and the demands on labour are increasing with the inequality that goes with the dynamics of capital accumulation. The dissatisfaction with one’s own grey existence is a thorn in the side of capitalism that cannot be pulled out since it cannot exist without consumerism.

“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.” (Adorno, 2005)

Let me illustrate this with what I think is one of the cleverest commercials of this year.Meet Thomson Holiday’s “Simon the Ogre” – who both highlights the dissatisfaction with capitalism… and the religious tone of consumer-capitalist responses

In this little clip we’ve got it all summed up. The clear sense that there is something wrong with capitalism (it dehumanises you – turns you into an ogre unable to relate to significant others, most importantly your children). It offers a therapeutic escape that clearly is formulated in spiritual/religious terms (you undertake a heavenly journey to re-establish your true humanity, to re-establish lost unity, sealed by full-immersion babtism).

And, significantly, it is very clear that it’s all lies. My point is that it is there to be seen. To begin with, it is clear that this salvation is one that is only temporal (it is to be paid for by the very dehumanisation it offers an escape from), the salvation is also one that isfunctional for the sphere of production (one of the reason the ogrified Simon needs a holiday is that he’s no good at his job anymore – he needs to de-ogrify in order to go back into the grey world he escaped form) – and of course there is the question about the humanity and/or ogreity of those who have to make a living by helping Simon with his de-ogrification.

Of course this does not mean that the revolutionary potential will ever be actualised – only that it is there as: a potential. In the meantime, of course, consumerism as it culminates in the tourist experience, works as an ideological veil.

Capitalism is boring and bland and consumerism is the attempt to escape that boredom of a one-dimensional existence. Not as a soteriological event finally realising some eternal truth, but rather as an immanent realisation of the infinite flight of the imagination that the original Romantics developed, using the new liberties brought by the capitalist market – only to find themselves stifled by the emerging eternal monotonies of factory production and bureaucratic administration.

Their project, whose anti-capitalist impetus is maintained in consumerism as anti-producerist appearance, is indeed an occasionist one in more than just the polemic sense Carl Schmitt used in its defamation. It is a promise to recreate the world differently from moment to moment to escape the permanent boredom of the eternal recurrence that are the routines of capitalist reproduction. An occasionism that strangely resonates with the theological occasionism of one Ibn al-‘Arabi

‘ “Were it not for the renewal of creation at each instant, boredom would overcome the entities, since Nature requires boredom. This requirement decrees that the entities must be renewed. That is why the Messenger of God said about God, “God does not become bored that you should become bored.” So the boredom of the cosmos is identical with the boredom of the Real. But no one in the cosmos becomes bored except him who has no unveiling and does not witness the renewal of creation constantly at each instant and does not witness God as Ever-creating perpetually. […]”’ (Chittick 1989: 105)

Where an Islamic consumerism is, as is the case in Saudi Arabia, built on the permissibility of excessive hedonism of the traditional type and status consumption we have just that –non-occasionist, unromantic boredom. I would relate this to the fact that the imaginative, the story-telling, the, if you like, romantic aspect of Islam has been stamped out by the religious authorities of the Kingdom in an effort of hyper-rational modernisation. Rules and regulation.

Where Sufism has survived attempts to suppress it and (as in the case of Turkey) has been, under the selective pressures of explicitly secularist regimes, been interiorised and to a degree privatised, the elective affinity to market romance can surface. This can be channelled (as in the self-declared “Islamic Calvinists” of MÜSİAD, the independent tradesmen’s and businessmen’s association), into a neoliberal producer capitalism as seen in the Anatolian boom under Özal and Erdoğan. But it is also conducive to a self-expressive, individualising Islamic consumer culture that we have seen arising soon after said boom.

And both young Muslim and secular consumer citizens are increasingly frustrated by the dominance of anti-imaginatively capitalist Islamist and secularist elites that keep clipping away on their wings. I would dare to claim that the creativity and the tolerance of the protesters are owed in part to the fact that – although the thing that triggered it all was a shopping mall – they are children of a consumer revolution. While the communist and Islamist anti-capitalists of old were of an ascetic persuasion, we are here dealing with a generation of what Kate Soper called “alternative hedonists” who resent capitalism for the restrictions it lays on the free development of people’s potential to be, at least in their imagination, all they could be.

References

al-Dossry, Theeb (2012) : Consumer Culture in Saudi Arabia, PhD thesis, University of Exeter

Alter, Robin (1989): The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age, London: Simon & Schuster.

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

Chesterton, Gilbert Keith (2001): Orthodoxy, New York: Doubleday 2001.

Chittick, W. C. (1989) The Sufi Path of Knowledge, New York: State University of New York Press

Clapp, Rodney (1998): ‘The Theology of Consumption & the Consumption of Theology’, in: R. Clapp (ed.): The Consuming Passion. Christianity & the Consumer Culture, Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.

Clarke, Arthur C (2000): The Collected Stories, London: Gollancz

Currie, Gregory (1998): ‘Realism of Character and the Value of Fiction’, in: Jerrold Levinson (ed.): Aesthetics and Ethics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.161-181.

Durkheim, Émile (1898): ‘L’Individualisme et les intellectuels’, in: Revue Bleue, No.10, pp.7-13

Klein, Richard (1993): Cigarettes are Sublime, Durham NC.: Duke University Press.

Langer, Beryl (2002): ‘Commodified Enchantment: Children and Consumer Capitalism’, in:Thesis Eleven, No.69, pp.67-81

Luckmann, Thomas (1967): The Invisible Religion, New York: Macmillan.

McCracken, Grant (1988): Culture and Consumption. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Oevermann, Ulrich (1995): ‚Ein Modell der Struktur von Religiosität.‘ Monika Wohlrab-Sahr (ed.): Biographie und Religion, Frankfurt am Main: Campus.

Pickering, W. S. F. (1990): ‘The Eternality of the Sacred: Durkheim’s Error?’, in: Archives de sciences sociales des religions, Vol. 69, pp.91-108

Rojek, Chris (2000): ‘Leisure and the Rich today: Veblen’s thesis after a Century.’ In:Leisure Studies, Vol.19, No.1, pp.1-15.

Rushdie, Salman (1990): Is Nothing Sacred?, London: Granta.

Schmitt, Carl (1986): Political Romanticism, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press

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

Simmel, Georg (1957): ‘Fashion’, in: American Journal of Sociology, Vol.62, No.6, pp.541-58.

Slater, Don (1997): Consumer Culture and Modernity, Cambridge: Polity.

Smith, Chris/Lundquist Denton, Melinda (2005): Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Life of American Teenagers, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sznaider, Natan (2001): The Compassionate Temperament. Care and Cruelty in Modern Society. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Veblen, Thorstein (1994) [1899] The Theory of the Leisure Class, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Williams, Rowan (2000): Lost Icons. Reflections on Cultural Bereavement, Harrisburg: Morehouse Publishing.

 

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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

Le nez rouge de Durkheim

It’s Red Nose Day again soon  – which comes as a reminder of just how closely the quasi-religious culture of celebrity and consumer sainthood and the discourse of humanitarianism and human rights are interlinked (see Goodman 2009). In an earlier post I have suggested that we can see the discourse of human rights as quasi-theological and high-church version of what Durkheim’s ‘cult of the individual’ that forms the residualconscience collective of modern society – and consumerism as its folk religious cultural basis that provides it with an everyday plausibility. Durkheim (1898) claimed that modern individualism is more than just an egoistic pursuit of self interest, and nor is it just a cultural facilitator of the workings of the division of labour in capitalist societies – rather it is a proper religion. This central statement cannot be quoted often enough:

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 – Whoever infringes on a man’s life, a man’s freedom, a man’s honour, inspires in us a sense of horror which is, in every respect, parallel to that which a believer feels when seeing his idol desecrated. Such a morality is therefore not simply a matter of healthy discipline or wise economy of existence. It is a religion in which Man is at once believer and God. (my translation , MZV)

It is easy to see how this relates to the discourse and practice of human rights within and across nation states. Elliott (2007 sums up the status that human rights have in today’s global culture as follows:

‘… the normative content of human rights standards points to a global environment where the individual is widely regarded as fundamentally sacred and inviolable, and therefore the locus of rights that must be guaranteed by legitimate global actors. Not unlike the apostolic mission of Christianity, for example, the human rights movement sees no boundary to its activity of securing temporal salvation for each and every individual regardless of race, gender, nationality, religious affiliation or sexual preference. Reminiscent of the Christian notion of the soul, human rights are deemed to be inherent in every person as fundamental, ontological features. And just as salvation in the Christian faith is closely linked to the heavenly fate of souls, recognition of and respect for human rights is believed to be integral to the fate of humanity on earth.’ (Elliott 2007: 350)

But what is the link to consumerism? My point would be one of exclusion. If, as Elliott plausibly argues, the human rights discourse not to be explained with rational choice approaches or perspectives from activism (the latter quite obviously not, since the human rights activism presupposes the self-evident legitimacy of human rights) – it has to be seen as embedded in a world culture (2007: 347). But what other world culture is there save consumerism? This is not to suggest that the sources of the human rights discourse lie in commercial culture – although there is something to be had from such a genealogy, as Sznaider (2001) shows. Elliot (2007: 351) suggests multiple sources in ‘ancient Athens, Jerusalem or Rome’ but gives most credit to Christianity. While I am not so sure about that (in fact – I would include non-European sources as well as the devastating experience of totalitarianism), what is more interesting is the question how human rights became to be such an integral part of world culture that we could see their institutionalisation in human rights law and international human rights courts as high theology and church of the cult of the individual.  Similar to Weber’s and Campbell’s arguments about the Protestant and Romantic roots of capitalism and consumerism respectively, even if the genealogy should be correct (and in the case of human rights I am more doubtful than in with respect to the capitalist and consumerist spirits), the question arises how the ideology is sustained after the demise of its source (e.g. among Western secularists) and beyond its confines (e.g. in Japan or South Korea). Elliott suggests that the institutionalisation of human rights in international organisations. This falls short, I think, of the scope of his suggestion that the discourse of human rights is anchored in world culture. That would imply some globally shared set of everyday practices and/or beliefs that have attained the status of taken-for-granted and self evident part of social reality. I can think of only one such culture – and that is the culture of consumerism. Institutions such as human rights law, of course, will be important in reinforcing the idea of the sacredness of the individual – but they are not really present in everyday life. And where they are, they are often enough ridiculed – as they are when less obvious and plausible cases brought before national and international high courts are ridiculed in the popular press. I think when we consider global culture we cannot get round consumerism – even if the link is, at first, not that obvious. See here for my case that this link is so strong that, ironically, it puts a question mark behind the legitimacy of the economic system that produced it, making possible what I have called a ‘consumerist critique of capitalism’.

Durkheim, Émile (1898): ‘L’Individualisme et les intellectuels’, in: Revue Bleue, No.10, pp.7-13

Elliott, Michael A. (2007): ‘Human Rights and the Triumph of the Individual in World Culture’, in: Cultural Sociology, Vol.1, No.3, pp.343-63

Goodman, Michael K. (2009): ‘The Mirror of Consumption: Celebritization, Developmental Consumption and the Shifting Cultural Politics of Fair Trade’, in: Geoforum, Vol.41, No.1, pp.104-16

Sznaider, Natan (2001): The Compassionate Temperament. Care and Cruelty in Modern Society. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

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Pokémon, Islam, Consumerism, Israel, and the Cult of the Individual (in no particular order)

Whenever I come across any work on consumerism and religion – and particularly consumerism and Islam – I check whether it confirms or otherwise my own more theoretical piece on religion and consumerism. I am currently putting together a research proposal under the working title “Shopping for Turkish/Muslim Spiritualities, Identities and Ethics in the UK”, so I come across quite some literature that gives me occasion to reflect…  So far I’ve been able to stick to my ideas about the transformative effect that consumer culture has on religiosity, but some there are some points emerging from my engagement with the growing literature on the diverse Islamic consumer cultures (a reflection on Simmel, the hijab and blue jeans will follow soon).

A couple of deficits in my approach have just been revealed to me by reading Mark Allen Peterson’s fascinating and insightful article ‘Imsukuhum Kulhum! Modernity and Morality in Egyptian Children’s Consumption’ in the latest issue of Journal of Consumer Culture. Writing on consumerism and Islam tend to gravitate towards the hijab debate – the best so far being on the Turkish case of a new tesettür fashion (e.g. Kılıçbay/Binark 2002; Navaro-Yashin 2002; Sandıkçı/Ger 2006). This literature is as important as is fashion in the order of consumer goods. Other fields are less researched than just registered to assert that Muslims – including Islamists – are not necessarily (and increasingly even: unlikely to be) anti-consumerists: They do not only imbue practices of veiling with a sense of fashion but also develop  eclectic tastes and preference patterns in which traditional Islamic music, Islamic pop and mainstream pop music are mixed (e.g. Saktanber 2002: 259f.) – and there is no problem whatsoever with modern consumer electronics, imported white goods etc. All these are cited to support the point that, as Sandıkçı and Ger (2002: 149) put it:

‘Today’s Islamist consumptionscape is characterized by pluralism and difference, and cannot be explained as either rejection of consumerism, capitalism and globalization or resistance to modernity. Struggle over identity between secularists and Islamists as well as among different groups of Islamists is strongly implicated in the domain of consumption and is constantly transformed as a result of various local and global dynamics and forces. Similar to their secular counterparts, different groups of Islamists, located in various habituses, seek to construct distinct identities for themselves by adopting or rejecting particular consumption practices.’

There are some notable exceptions – in particular Kenan Çayır’s (2002) illuminating paper on the transformation of the Islamist novel in the 1990s, for example, is a crucial contribution to an understanding of the impact of the romantic ethic of consumerism (Campbell 1987) on the expression of Muslim identity and spirituality (more on this below).

Peterson studies items that are less conducive to a consumerisation of Islamic identity but rather a focus of resistance against a perceived external threat: he looks at the impact of Pokémon to highlight central rifts within Egypt’s developing and contested consumer culture.  He opens with an account of a game scene in which a bunch of middle class private school children play a Pokémon-based game – but without using decks of cards. Instead they use smaller children to incorporate various characters and negotiate the outcomes of their battles.

‘In creating their game, the girls disembedded elements of Pokémon from their usual contexts of use, creatively transformed them, and pragmatically put them to work in a new context, toward an immediate, practical and very social goal. Meagan and her sister were American, Alicia was Canadian, the remaining girls were American, Egyptian and Korean. As a transnational commodity of truly global reach, Pokémon was part of the language through which girls could communicate across age and cultural boundaries. At the same time, because Pokémon is a global phenomenon, it is subject to the ebb and flow of transnational discourses that attempt to define it, comment on it and evaluate it. These discursive flows, like the commodities they describe, cross boundaries, and can be pragmatically employed to frame and assess Pokémon consumption and play in local and immediate contexts.’(Peterson 2010: 234f.)

This leads me to my first correction as in my paper  I stated:

consumerism certainly does not constitute a coherent cultural system in the sense in which one normally speaks of a ‘national’, ‘regional’ or ‘class’ culture. Take, for example, what could be seen as elements of a global Islamic culture: these would encompass forms of relating to each other as brothers, certain forms of greeting and reciprocating that greeting, certain standards of respect, certain patterns of the day and the year, etc. Although they do not forge Islam from Indonesia to Morocco, and from Bosnia to the USA into one homogeneous cultural system, they nevertheless provide ways for Muslims all over the world to relate to each other through established cultural forms. It would, in contrast, be most difficult to find patterns of meaningful behaviour, rituals etc. that have uncontested plausibility for all denizens of consumer society. (Varul 2008:243)

Looks like I’ve got to eat a few of my words here… Clearly there are now at least sub-cultures of consumption providing codes that can be activated to communicate and interact. I did, however, argue that consumerism is conducive to at least a liberal/tolerant attitude as it firmly commits its denizens to an ethos of choice – an ethos of choice that amounts to a quasi-religious respect for a person’s right to self-constitution and self-determination which finds its limit only in the commitment not to violate that right in others. [1] This is rooted as much in the Romantic genealogy of contemporary consumerism as in the structural romanticism of the money economy itself (as I arguehere.)

This sentiment is prophetically captured in Émile Durkheim’s notion of the Cult of the Individual – the absolute collective commitment to individual freedom of expression, dignity and right to life. It is widely seen to anticipate the current dominance of Human Rights as discourse of legitimacy – but while this codified and internationally institutionalised version of the Cult of the Individual can be seen as a high-church version, arguably consumerism can be seen as its folk-religious variant. For both the self-expressing and free individual is the sacred:

‘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 )

Durkheim sees that such individualism is more than just the pleasure-seeking homo oeconomicus cut loose of all obligations but an obligation in itself. It does stipulate mutuality, cooperation, solidarity. At the most basic level, the sanctity conferred to one’s own individuality comes with an obligation to recognise that of the others. Above that there is a stipulation of universal solidarity:

En définitive, l’individualisme ainsi entendu, c’est la glorification, non du moi, mais de l’individu en général. Il a pour ressort, non l’égoïsme, mais la sympathie pour tout ce qui est homme, un pitié plus large pour toutes les douleurs, pour toutes les misères humaines, un plus ardent besoin de les combattre et de les adoucir, une plus grande soif de justice.’ (Durkheim 1898: 9)

It is this part I omit in my account of consumerism as quasi-religion. Durkheim rests this positive individualism on Enlightenment philosophy (mainly Kant and Rousseau) and its political expression in the various declarations of the rights of man (… just “man” back then…). Consumerism, in contrast, knows nothing of that enlightened rationalism – if at all it flows from an intellectual movement that took issue with Enlightenment rationalism: Romanticism.  Clearly Consumerism as contemporary folk-religious variant of the Cult of the Individual is not committed to superiority or inferiority of choices on the basis of a shared value-rational framework of reference. It is only committed to the sanctity of choice (and excludes certain choices because of their final character – anything leading to death, addiction, irreversible commitment).

But there nonetheless is evidence that consumer citizens are not only less intolerant than their ancestors, they are also more universally caring and sympathetic. The question whether all that sympathy actually does make the world a better place aside – the increased concern for distant others outside one’s own community is relatively new and beyond what universalistic religions such as Christianity could produce for a long time (after all: adherence to the religion of universal neighbourly  love did not prevent wars, colonisation and racist oppression – and often enough was used as justification for such violations).

It is not very plausible to assume philosophies and declarations that only relatively few are really familiar with behind changed popular attitudes. Natan Sznaider’s suggestion – based on Simmel, Goffman, and Adam Smith… – that the key is, as always, in everyday practices… and those practices now are commercial (Sznaider 2001: 15; 61). The ‘sympathy’ cited by Durkheim is rooted in practices of exchange that require  role-taking and perspective change – even more than that it is boosted in cultural practices of romantic consumption that require and refine the skills of the “autonomous imaginative hedonist” (Campbell 1987) to daydream oneself into alternative existences (also see my previous entries hereand here). Another effect of the inculcation with the skills of the autonomous imaginative hedonist is an ability to operate in a globalised, cosmopolitan society, to cooperate outside the narrow confines of one’s culture of origin. So endorsing Pokémon and similar expressions of global consumer culture can be a quite utilitarian act.

‘Soraya represents one important strand of the Egyptian middle class, which embraces liberalization and who seek to prepare their children for social futures in an increasingly globalized world of work. For such parents, global children’s fashions like Pokémon and Harry Potter are not merely significant forms of social capital in the social field of the school, but have important long-term significance for the children’s continued social mobility as they move into university and work. Moreover, their choices for their children reflect the commitments to Westernized modernity they and their parents made – such as women’s professional labor and commitment to work in the private sector – and the important contributions these make to intergenerational social mobility.’ (Peterson 2010: 245)

Peterson here portrays Soraya’s attitude as expression of a cultural commitment to Westernization, to global consumer culture and liberal capitalism. But equally significant is the notion that Pokémon prepares ‘their children for social futures in an increasingly globalized world of work’ – as a game in which it is crucial to anticipate the opponent’s choices, as well as to have the ability to transpose oneself into fictitious (social) worlds does in fact prepare for a cosmopolitan setting in which self-assembled identities of choice not only co-exist but are actually able to cooperate productively. As Huizinga (1955) argues, play takes place in a sphere that is defined as separate,  inconsequential for social life outside it. It thus offers the opportunity of trying out courses of actions, interactions etc. without the risks that normally come with trying the untried in social relations.  Play is separate from “the real world” – but it prepares the player for it. Put in a Durkheimian frame: If you want organic solidarity to work – a solidarity that relies on people cooperating within a complex division of social labour in highly differentiated and “liquid” societies – then you need at a population that is trained in imaginative play. As Huizinga states, play is the source of culture – and different cultures flow from different forms of playing. Organic solidarity in a global, cosmopolitan civilisation requires people who are able to play out complex plots (be it in actual role play – with cards or computers – or “in their heads” using movies and novels as templates for daydreams).

As I’ve already brought in Sznaider and since he’s done work on a neighbouring country – looking at the situation in Israel he argues that commodification of identities (and what else is consumerism?) facilitates integration without homogenisation (… organic solidarity, then);

‘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 outsiders, and raise the costs for straying outside their walls: one either is or isn’t. It’s a big decision. But the more it becomes accepted that identity can be adequately manifested through symbolic gestures, that one can throw out large parts of tradition and still be accepted as part of the group, the more people are free to experiment without risking being cut off from their roots. These new ethnic identities are not necessarily weaker than the old ones. But mix and match identities are by definitions easier to mix and match. They are wholes that can interpenetrate each other through the choices of individuals that belong more than one.’ (Sznaider 2000: 307f.)

And in the consumer society of 1990s Israel this contributed to a climate that was conducive to the Peace Process by making absolute dichotomies of collective identities both implausible and uncomfortable:

‘In today’s Israel, being an Israeli can mean that one reads Russian papers, goes to a Russian theater and listens to Russian rock music. But being an Israeli can mean equally that one takes one’s Jewish Oriental identity seriously and, paradoxically thanks to the influence of Western multiculturalism, rejects everything Western. And being an Israeli also means that non-Jewish Israelis, Palestinians with an Israeli passport, can claim cultural autonomy for themselves. These a just a few examples that demonstrate how ethnic one relations are becoming more plural through consumer goods—and how people are turning into ‘‘citizen shoppers.’’’ (Sznaider 2000: 307f.)

However, not everybody likes this sort of plethora of partly inherited, partly chosen identities that quite evidently involve quite a lot of imagination. The more existentially committed one is to the imagined community (Anderson 1991) of a nation, a religion, a movement – the less one is prepared to concede that it is an imagined community. But it is not just traditional commitment in itself – much more of a threat to consumer cosmopolitanism is the one inner contradiction that consumer capitalism cannot solve on its own terms: social inequality and the persistence of real existential questions that cannot be evaded.  In the case of Israel Sznaider highlights the tension between the non-negotiable Jewish character of Israel as a nation state and the thus problematic status of non-Jewish Israeli citizens and, of course, the yet unresolved issue the establishment of an independent and viable Palestinian nation state whose inevitability is both a threat to and a consequence of the non-negotiability of the Jewish character of Israel. These issues render existential commitments to faith and ethnic groups much more plausible than they are in a fully established liberal consumer culture. While consumer culture can hold the balance with ethno-political and religious claims as such,  what tipped it is that consumer capitalism is not, of course, without its own inner contradictions. The central one is that while in cultural terms there is an inbuilt ethos of universality in consumerism – as cultural expression of a capitalist economy, there is inbuilt inequality of access and hence always the problem that parts of the population are excluded from the cosmopolitan world of consumption and thus have good reason to resent it. And it took little so that:

‘In 1996, a very slight majority of the Israeli electorate preferred the candidate of the Right over the continuation of the old government and the peace process. Voters that felt short-changed in the marketplace of Israeli life combined with non-Western and religious groups that disliked both the government and the social classes that underpinned it. They responded by flocking to ‘‘communitarian’’ parties which combined political organization with outreach in education, social services, welfare, and religious counseling. In short, the peace process increased consumption for people with money, and their desire for more consumption reinforced their support for the peace process. But increased consumption also increased the divisions in society, and made them increasing visible. And when the ‘‘have-nots’’ acted on their resentments, they opposed the whole Weltanschauung of the ruling parties of old: Westernization. The obvious result was a change in government, and a dramatic slow-down in the peace process.’ (Sznaider 2000: 308)

Going back to the Egypt (and narrowing the focus on Pokémon once again), even in the middle classes there are economic rifts deep enough to work against the integrating power of playful consumerism:

‘In the case of Pokémon, for example, there was a clear distinction between those who collected and played the card games or owned GameBoys, and those who collected and played tāzū, the colorful plastic disks given away inside bags of Lay’s potato chips. While everyone collected and played tāzū, only those of higher economic backgrounds could share interest in the cards. With imported Pokémon cards | running at a price of 20 Egyptian pounds or more per packet, card collectors clearly have parents either with higher incomes or with very different ideas about how to spend their limited money on their children, or both.’ (Peterson 2010: 240f.)

Petersen notes that the resentment against Pokémon did not only come from those whose resources were overstretched by their children’s insatiable hunger for cards and tokens, but also those for whom such wastefulness is morally objectionable in the face of widespread poverty. It is no surprises, then, that Islamist and other anti-cosmopolitan propaganda seized on the issue with relish:

‘While the mainstream Egyptian press, such as Al-Ahram, and the English language upper class magazines almost failed to notice Pokémon […] popular magazines published articles accusing Pokémon of being a threat to the morality and cultural purity of Egyptian children. Some claims were modest, such as the claim that children were buying chips for the tāzū, then throwing them away. Others were not. In rapid succession, it was put forward that Pokémon was Jewish, then Satanic, then poisonous. Pokémon’s Jewishness was mainly supported by the claim that one of the symbols on the cards, a stylized asterisk, has six points and therefore is ‘really’ a Star of David, and thus a symbol of international Zionism. Satanism and Judaism are often linked in such accounts, not directly but indexically, by | co-association.’ (Peterson 2010: 242f.)

Peterson gives an account of how one parent – a concerned Islamist doctor who devotes much time to charity – takes matters in her own hands:

‘In the spring of 2001, the entire fifth grade class at MLS was invited to the home of their classmate Yusuf for a “Pokémon party”. About half attended. For nearlly an hour, the children showed their various Pokémon paraphernalia. One girl showed her collection of some 200 Pokémon tāzū. One boy showed his collection of expensive imported game cartridges – yellow, red and blue.

When they were finished, Yusuf ’s mother Dr Reem gathered them in a circle and read two magazine articles aloud. The first described the fatwa against Pokémon issued by the Grand Mufti of Mecca on the grounds that the game taught children behaviors incompatible with Islam, specifically gambling and evolution. The second article asserted that Pokémon was part of a Zionist conspiracy. Pokémon’s colorful characters and fascinating story lines were designed by professional psychologists to seduce Arab youths into buying it, the author claimed. But every pound spent on Pokémon was ultimately used to buy guns to kill Palestinians. The children listened with growing shock, dismay and horror.6 When she had finished reading the children the articles, Dr Reem led them outside, where a bonfire had been prepared. Under the urging of Dr Reem and one or two other parents, the children consigned their Pokémon materials to the flames. After the immolation, food and drinks were brought out, and the children celebrated their liberation.’ (Peterson 2010: 246)

I would lie if I said that the described scene made me cringe the same way a book burning would make – but equally I can’t deny that (as much as I myself as a parent found the whole P’mon business deeply annoying and overly costly) it evoked similar feelings, albeit in lower intensity. It is, in short a minor outrage, a small sacrilege going vaguely into the direction of the cardinal sacrilege against the Cult of the Individual. As products and processes of the imagination, books and play are quite intimately related. In his 1990 essay “Is Nothing Sacred” Salman Rushdie writes:

‘Literature is the one place in any society where, within the secrecy of our own heads, we can hear voices talking about everything in every possible way. The reason for ensuring that that privileged arena is preserved is not that writers want the absolute freedom to say and do whatever they please. It is that we, all of us, readers and writers and citizens and generals and godmen, need that little, unimportant-looking room. We do not need to call it sacred, but we do need to remember that it is necessary’ (Rushdie 1992: 429)

I do think we should call it: “sacred”. As one of the deepest and most meaningful forms of expression of individuality and its potential novels (which we normally mean when saying “book”) are, in fact, the most holy object we have today. That doesn’t mean the material object itself is imbued with such sanctity – which is why most people do not pick up fallen books ruefully to then kiss them. The horror of book burnings does not come from an immediate injury done by the violation of a material object, but through the display of intent that it conveys: the annihilation of plurality, dissent, imagination – and in the last consequence of those who dissent, who imagine. As the Romantic poet Heinrich Heine commented in his play Toleranzstück – indirectly referring to the burning of books by German nationalist students 1817 on the Wartburg:

“This was only an prelude. Where one burns books / In the end one well burn men as well.”

In the play this is said by one Hasan on occasion of the burning of the Qur’an by Christian knights after the reconquista of Granada- part of an Islamic civilisation that was, at least when compared to its Christian neighbours, a host to freedom of thought and expression.

It is safe to say that other consumer items are probably less holy than books – which makes Dr Reems burning of Pokémon material much less of a sacrilege. Still – given the symbolic function of the cards, tokens and comic books for childhood identities and networks of exchange – it is an attack on the Cult of the Individual and for those who are committed to it. As becomes clear from the antisemitic conspiracy theory conjured up to justify the burning of the Pokémons it is the cosmopolitan nature of the cultural practice that causes offence.

With Bryan Turner one could argue that a sharp reaction against a culture of play and imagination is only to be expected from an Islamist stance that is, even though it seeks its legitimacy in the Golden Age of Islam, the Age of the Prophet and the early Caliphs, thoroughly modernist in outlook – seeking salvation in homogeneity, unity, an ultimately rationalist ideology in which the secret “voices talking about everything in every possible way” must appear as symptoms of a threatening madness, spread by consumerism:

‘While Islam responded to modernization through the development of an ascetic ethic of hard work and discipline, contemporary Islam has responded to postmodernity through a fundamentalist politics of global community and through an anti-consumerist ethic of moral purity based upon classical Islamic doctrine. These processes involve an apparent paradox: the emergence of a global system of communication made a global Islam possible, while also exposing the everyday world of Islam to the complication of pluralistic consumption and the pluralization of life-worlds. While the Abrahamic faiths successfully survived modernization, there are profound problems for religious absolutism in the area of postmodernity. In epistemological terms postmodernism threatens to deconstruct all theological accounts of reality into mere fairy tales or mythical grand narratives which disguise the metaphoricality of their commentaries by claims to (a false) authorship. These threats of deconstruction emerge out of the pluralization of lifestyles and life-worlds making perspectivism into a concrete everyday reality. Postmodernization of culture is a significant issue at the level of consumption and everyday lifestyle […]’ (Turner, 1994: 92)

Durkheim saw the Cult of the Individual filling in the gap that an inevitably receding conscience collective opens up. The more differentiated and complex a society becomes through increasing division of tasks the less scope there is for universally committing tenets of belief, the similarity of consciousnesses that formed the assumed bedrock of earlier and simpler societies. Modernist ideologies – under which Turner subsumes Islamism alongside communism, nationalism etc. – come to terms with the felt absence of a unifying consicence collective by substituting it with imagined collective identities. In this sense Durkheim is anything but a “modernist”. Durkheim’s modernism already is a pluralist one; his emphasis is on the heterogeneity of modern societies, not on the goosestepping homogeneity anticipated in horror by Horkheimer and Adorno and celebrated by the likes of Ernst Jünger and Carl Schmitt. One can only read him, as some did, as a proto-fascist if he had mourned the loss of mechanical integration – that, however, he did not. What he did postulate was that uniform and obligatory manifestations of collective consciousness, “religion” in his terminology – which must include modernist ideologies of the sort Turner has in mind, are irreconcilable with the Cult of the Individual – so the meeting of the two is an agonic struggle to the death:

‘A mesure que toutes les autres croyances et toutes les autres pratiques prennent un caractère de moins en moins religieux, l’individu devient l’objet d’une sorte de religion. Nous avons pour la dignité de la personne un culte qui, comme tout culte fort, a déjà ses superstitions. C’est donc bien, si l’on veut, une foi commune ; mais d’abord, elle n’est possible que par la ruine des autres, et par conséquent ne saurait produire les mêmes effets que cette multitude de croyances éteintes. Il n’y a pas compensation. De plus, si elle est commune en tant qu’elle est partagée par la communauté, elle est individuelle  par son objet.’ (Durkheim 1930 : 147)

Generally speaking, secular cosmologies based on science cannot deliver compensation for what was lost in terms of transcendent meaning. But consumerism can make spaces and offer means for the exploration of transcendences and has done so from the beginning. Luckmann (1967) identified much of popular culture as substitute and compensation for religious meaning; there since have, under the title of “New Age”, emerged distinctly consumerist religious practices – there is no reason why traditional beliefs should not be able to transform themselves in ways that they can speak to the individual under the umbrella of commitment to Individualism through commodification. As I mentioned that there a great many empirical studies showing that what he portrays as a nigh impossibility actually is happening: the development of an Islamic consumer culture, postmodern Islamism. Sure: Islamist consumerism is by no means unchallenged – and the objections voiced seem to confirm Turner’s analysis – as in the Turkish case studied by Sandıkçı and Ger (2001: 148f.):

Some Islamists condemn these developments, arguing that they indicate the lack of a thorough internalization of Islam and, hence, the lack of true faith. For instance, observing that heavily made-up models who are famous for displaying sexy lingerie or swimsuits also display tesettür clothes, a female Islamist sociologist comments that Islamic fashion shows do not Islamicize fashion, but rather turn Islam into a show (Yeni Şafak 1999, p.8)[1] . According to a columnist writing in an Islamic newspaper, Vakit, the fashion shows are approved by Muslims “ who [have] submitted to the hegemony of capitalist relations of business” and “if you were to knock the consumerist practice of fashion shows over, the capitalist building would be destroyed.” (Özdür 1994, p.4)[2] In the 1980s, the Islamists sought to differentiate themselves from the secularists by adopting a uniform Islamic dressing style and making it increasingly visible in the public domain. At the core of the distinction was, and still is, the opposition between religious sensitivity and secularist immodesty. Now, however, the initially homogeneous Islamic identity appears to be fragmented, as various segments of the Islamists attempt to differentiate themselves from each other. Symbolically enough, the struggle for difference finds its loudest expression in the creative and eclectic world of fashion.’

So, religious fundamentalists agree with the deeply secularist Durkheim (as well as with their Durkheim-inspired Kemalist enemies). Both sides do not acknowledge the accomodating power of consumerism. And both postulate a concept of religion that is monolithic and non-liberal. For both religion cannot be at individual disposal. But what if we accept that there is religiosity that is not based on the uniformity of collective belief and practice, but rather on the formation of a many-voiced discourse that references a shared tradition without imposing it? While there are Muslims  (just as there are Christians, Hindus, followers of other beliefs… or secular ideologies) who want to burn down the house of secret thoughts and voices Rushdie describes (and the author with it), there is also an Islamist contribution to that house. And it is the engagement with the expressive means that consumer culture provides them with (and the freedom to use them guaranteed by the Cult of the Individual) that brings about this transformative turn. Kenan Çayır looks at the development of the Islamist novel as a genre in Turkey. In the 1980s – in the wake of the Iranian revolution and the upsurge of Islamist movements all around – agit-prop style “salvation novels” dominate the field – novels which normally described the protagonist’s conversion to the true path of Islam and their rejection of a sinful, westernised lifestyle. But the reflective effort of writing (and actually also: reading) novels exerts a fundamental transformation:

While the heroes of the salvation novels were devoid of personal content, the new novels represent characters in their daily lives and with individual problems. Through the search for their interiority, the characters of the new novels resist typification or general labels. The integrity of the individual in earlier narratives has disintegrated in the new novels. To put it differently, the epic wholeness of the Islamic subject disintegrated in the 1990s, since the unity of the governing ideology is undermined by the hero’s interiority. Rather than simply suggesting the emergence of new Islamic subjectivities in the new novels, it is more plausible to argue that a crucial tension developed between the internal and external Islamic subject and as a result the subjectivity of the individual became an object of experimentation and representation in the 1990s. In the novels, the epic characters tend to introspection and epic truth is subjected to re-evaluation.’ (Çayır 2006: 220)

Contrary to a commonly held misperception, consumer culture (whose ancestor and still lively core novels are) does not produce or even encourage one-dimensionality.It encourages increased interior complexity, while it also allows the preservation of variety of traditions and so:

‘New novels provide Islamic actors with a rhetorical means in negotiating both individual and collective identity rather than suggesting prescription for an Islamic community. They seem to be narratives of “culture in contact”, rather than “culture in conflict”. By re-interpreting the “rejected/distorted tradition”, by questioning their ideals by questioning their ideals, by questioning their inner conflicts between the homogeneity of faith and the heterogeneity of practice and by establishing horizontal relations and different experiences with the “other”, the characters of the new novels represent a potential hybrid Muslim identity.’ (Çayır 2006: 222)

The question is whether the Islamist critics of such hybridity do not have a point in saying that  faith is compromised by such hybridisation and Islam subjected to the Individualism. What Çayır’s observations show is that engaging in the romantic culture of consumption makes it impossible to maintain the imagination of a homogeneous and fully integrated identity of the type that modernist projects such as radical Islamism (and most of the other modern -isms)  try to create and uphold.

Despite his verdict earlier in the Division, later on Durkheim emphasises that religion (at least Christianity) is not fundamentally opposed to the basic tenets of Individualism, and that, in a way, the Cult of the Individual could be seen as a logical consequence of Christianity. The point of the Cult of the Individual is not to claim supremacy over religious faith, not the stipulation of atheism or agnosticism – if we assume that it has a “function” it is to enable social cohesion while preserving the legitimate option to believe (or not believe) without being ruled in by an official orthodoxy. That must not only suit Muslims living in non-Muslim societies, it also offers an opportunity to preserve and in fact revitalise the intellectual and cultural wealth of Islam against attempts to simplify and homogenise it. After all, as Akbar S. Ahmed (1992: 36) insists:

‘ … Islam is not really about bombs and book-burning. This is a media image, one which has almost become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the Islamic injunctions for balance, compassion and tolerance are blotted out by it. The holy Quran has emphasized “You religion for you and mine for me” (1989: Surah 109: 6) and “There shall be no compulsion in religion” (Surah 2: 256). For Muslims, God’s two most important and most cited titles are the Beneficent and the Merciful. This is not only forgotten by those who dislike Islam but, more importantly, it is forgotten by Muslims themselves.’ (Ahmed, 1992: 36)

References

Anderson, Benedict (1991): Imagined Communities, London: Verso.

Ahmed, Akbar S. (1992): Postmodernism and Islam: Predicament and Promise, London: Routledge

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

Çayır, Kenan (2006): ‘Islamic Novels: A Path to New Muslim Subjectivities’, in: Nilüfer Göle/Ludwig Ammann (eds): Islam in Public: Turkey, Iran, and Europe, Istanbul: Istanbul Bilgi University Press, pp.192-225

Durkheim, Émile (1898): ‘L’Individualisme et les intellectuels’, in: Revue Bleue, No.10, pp.7-13.

Durkheim, Émile (1930): De la division du travail social, Paris : Presses Universitaires de France.

Huizinga, Johan (1955): Homo Ludens, Boston: Beacon.

Kılıçbay, Barış/Binark, Mutlu (2002): ‘Consumer Culture, Islam and the Politics of Lifestyle: Fashion for Veiling in Contemporary Turkey’, in European Journal of Communication, Vol.17, No.4, pp.495-511

Luckmann, Thomas (1967): The Invisible Religion, New York: Macmillan.

Mill, John Stuart (1910): Utilitarianism, Liberty, and Representative Government, London: J. M. Dent.

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

Peterson, Mark Allen (2010): ‘Imsukuhum Kulhum! Modernity and Morality in Egyptian Children’s Consumption’, in: Journal of Consumer Culture, Vol.10, No.2, pp.233-53.

Rushdie, Salman (1992): Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991, London: Granta.

Saktanber, Ayse (2002): ‘”We Pray Like You Have Fun”: New Islamic Youth in Turkey between Intellectualism and Popular Culture’, in: Deniz Kandıyoti/Ayse Saktanber (eds):The Everyday of Modern Turkey, London: Tauris, pp.254-76.

Sandıkçı, Özlem/Ger, Güler (2001): ‘Fundamental Fashions: The Cultural Politics of the Turban and the Levi’s’, in: Advances in Consumer Research, Vol.28, pp.146-50.

Sandıkçı, Özlem/Ger, Güler (2006): ‘Aesthetics, Ethics and Politics of the Turkish Headscarf’ in: Susanne Küchler/Daniel Miller (eds): Clothing as Material Culture, Oxford: Berg, pp.61-82

Sznaider, Natan (2001): The Compassionate Temperament. Care and Cruelty in Modern Society, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Sznaider, Natan (2000): Consumerism as Civilizing Process: Israel and Judaism in the Second Age of Modernity, International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, Vol.14, pp.297-314.

Turner, Bryan S. (1994): Orientalism, Postmodernism & Globalism, London: Routledge.

Varul, Matthias Zick (2008): ‘After Heroism: Religion Vs Consumerism’, in: Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, Vol.19, No.2, pp.237-

Varul, Matthias Zick (2010): ‘Reciprocity, Recognition and Labor Value’, in: Journal of Social Philosophy


[1] This is most succinctly formulated by J. S Mill in his essay on Liberty. Of course, such commitment cannot be kept in a fully meaningful way within a society running on an economic system in which inequality in income and wealth is rendered an inevitability. As I argued earlier: ‘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)


[1]‘Herkes Tesettür Defilesinde’ Yeni Şafak, 3 July 1999, p.8.

[2] Özdür, Atilla (1994): “Birbirimize İslam Satacağız,” Vakit, November 11, p.4.

update 20th July 2010

BBC reports Saudi ban on P’mon March 2001:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/1243307.stm

It’s not only Muslims who object. Here is a Christian verdict authored by Berit Kjos of Kjos Ministries which by the looks of it is an Evangelical, pro-Israeli one – so this one has to do without the antisemitic conspiracy and goes over without this little detour to classing P’mon as outright satanic. And just in case you wonder:

Why would Satan influence a game like Pokemon?

Well:

It opens up players to the demonic realm, channeling (a power some of the pokemon characters have), and possession.

Commenting on the motto “gotta catch them all”

The last line, the Pokemon mantra, fuels the craving for more occult cards, games, toys, gadgets, and comic books. There’s no end to the supply, for where the Pokemon world ends, there beckons an ever-growing empire of new, more thrilling, occult, and violent products. Each can transport the child into a fantasy world that eventually seems far more normal and exciting than the real world. Here, evil looks good and good is dismissed as boring. Family, relationships, and responsibilities diminish in the wake of the social and media pressures to master the powers unleashed by the massive global entertainment industry.

Interestingly, “role playing” as such seems to be objectionable:

Psychologists have warned that role-playing can cause the participant to actually experience, emotionally, the role being played.

I always thought that was the point… and it is exactly how role playing equips us with the moral faculty of sympathy: putting us into someone else’s place, feeling their joy, anxiety, pain, suspicion etc. that is crucial to understand the moral consequences of our actions. It also makes it difficult to divide the world into Good and Evil – it places us firmly beyond the heroism of Schmittian friend/enemy approach to the social world….

update 5th August 2010

… imaginative hedonism as civilisational achievement – and survival skill… I’m (very) slowly edging my way forward through Arthur C. Clarke’s Collected Stories (all of them, from 1937 to 1999 – I’m just past 1942). Here’s an insight from the foreword (Clarke 2000: x):

By mapping possible futures, as well as a good many improbable ones, the science fiction writer does a great service to the community. He encourages in his readers flexibility of mind, readiness to accept and even welcome change – in one word, adaptability. Perhaps no attribute is more important in this age. The dinosaurs disappeared because they could not adapt to their changing environment. We shall disappear if we cannot adapt to an environment that now contains spaceships, computers – and thermonuclear weapons

Clarke, Arthur C (2000): The Collected Stories, London: Gollancz