Platon, Lego und der Prosumkapitalismus

DSC03019Varul, Matthias Zick (2015): ‘Kreative Zerstörung als Rückkehr genialer Gewöhnlichkeit LEGO, die Kulturtragödie der Exzellenz und die Expropriation des Brickolariats’ (Beitrag zur Plenum 9 »Die Krisen des Mittelmaßes« – organisiert von Anne Waldschmidt und Hans-Georg Soeffner) in: Stephan Lessenich (Hg.): Routinen der Krise – Krise der Routinen. Verhandlungen des 37. Kongresses der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Soziologie in Trier 2014.

Die Krise des Mittelmaßes – der call for papers nimmt indirekt auf Aristoteles Bezug, auf sein Ideal der Mäßigung (σωφροσύνη), nach dem tugendhaftes Verhalten immer in der Mitte (μεσότης) zwischen zwei Extremen liege. Und Aristoteles, mit seiner Vorstellung des guten Lebens, des Strebens nach Glück statt Gewinn, sinnvoll-tätiger Muße statt sinnlos-geschäftiger Arbeit, scheint tatsächlich wieder aktuell angesichts eines ständig überhitzten, sich krisenhaft zuspitzenden Kapitalismus – ein Kapitalismus, in dem die Hybris des leistungssteigernden Perfektionsstrebens einerseits zu ausufernder Arbeitslast führt und anderseits zu weitgehender Sinnentleerung angesichts der Lächerlichkeit des Exzellenzkults. Der Rückfall auf das Ideal behäbig-bürgerlicher Mäßigung ist daher durchaus verständlich. Aber es gibt noch einen anderen klassischen Begriff der Mitte – und der hat erstaunlich wenig mit Ruhe und Gelassenheit zu tun, ist aber, das ist meine These hier, für das bürgerliche Selbstverständnis wie für die Dynamik kapitalistischer Entwicklung um einiges relevanter. Für Platon war die Mitte eine prekäre Position. Das Abgleiten nach ganz unten, ins totale Chaos, ist nur durch beständiges Streben nach ganz oben aufzuhalten. In einer Welt, die nach Heraklit nicht nur in Flammen steht, sondern geradezu aus Flammen besteht (Popper 1998: 15ff.), geht es nicht darum, sich vorsichtig zu bewegen, um das Bestehende nicht zu zerstören: Was immer an Form da ist, muss beständig reproduziert, erneut hergestellt werden, damit es Bestand hat.


substantiell erweiterte englische Version


in-between-ness, vestibules, rhizomes

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

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



in-between: Georg Simmel and İbn Arabî

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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