Heinrich Blücher on Laozi (Mystic Weber)

There is a strange and largely unnoticed return of Orientalism into the social-scientific debate. The anti-rationalist turn against what often is perceived to be a continued stranglehold of Cartesian mind-body dualism now often seeks to ally itself with ‘Eastern thought’. The most startling precedent of poststructuralist Orientalism of course is to be found in Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s Thousand Plateaus early on when they confront the abhorred tree that is to stand in for all that’s wrong in Western civilisation (ossified rationalistic structures of states, sciences, culture) with the indeterminate, freely associating and dissembling rhizome at the heart of the aspired poststructuralist nomadism:

‘It is odd how the tree has dominated Western reality and all of Western thought, from botany to biology and anatomy, but also gnosiology, theology, ontology, all of philosophy … : the root-foundation, Grund, racine, fondement. The West has a special relation to the forest, and deforestation; the fields carved from the forest are populated with seed plants produced by cultivation based on species lineages of the arborescent type; animal raising, carried out on fallow fields, selects lineages forming an entire animal arborescence. The East presents a different figure: a relation to the steppe and the garden (or in some cases, the desert and the oasis), rather than forest and field; cultivation of tubers by fragmentation of the individual; a casting aside or bracketing of animal raising, which is confined to closed spaces or pushed out onto the steppes of the nomads.’ (Deleuze and Guattari, 1984: 20)

I am not challenging their condemnation of the dominance of arborescent thinking (e.g. when classifying populations in a racialised lineage of descent – which finds its parallel in the way that religions and languages are grouped in a way that glosses over the rhizomatic hybridity of important languages like Ottoman Turkish or, for that matter, English). But is it not fascinating how one of the holy scriptures of poststructuralism manages to engage in an openly Orientalist assignment of everything that is ‘rational’ and rigid and organised (masculine?) to the ‘West’ and everything that is fluid, dissolving, undirected (‘feminine’?) to the ‘East’ – and gets away with it. That they were told off (severely) by Gayatri Spivak did not cause much of a dent in their popularity with the various post-isms (with the exception, maybe, of post-colonialism). (more…)

Names, Mystics, and Consumer Immortality

(updated 9th November 2012)

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

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

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

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

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

Süha Faiz (1992: 20) translates

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

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

Ben giderim, adım kalır * Dostlar beni hatırlasın

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tatcı, Mustafa (ed.) (s.a.) Yûnus Emre Dîvânı, T.C. Kültür ve Turizm Bakanlığı, (http://ekitap.kulturturizm.gov.tr/dosya/1-128452/h/metin.pdf)

Consumer eccentricity and subjectivity fetish

As I am gearing up to re-working my paper on Plessner’s notion of eccentricity and Campbell’s analysis of romantic consumer selfhood I notice that a reference to Sennett’s Fall of Public Man is not quite contemporary enough to highlight the concerns about the dissolution from ceremonial division of (mostly public) roles and the (mostly private) person behind the mask of the roles (which appears as the authentic subjectivity behind and constrained by the roles – but in fact is the realisation of an opportunity afforded by the existence as mask-wearer, role-performer).

The existence online, the more or less public display of authentic selfhood in social networking sites which – as Daniel Smith shows – culminates in the public existence of the celebrity vlogger: a persona who seems to exist, entirely, as presented and constructed for his or her audience on YouTube and whose (social as much as commercial) value is determined by the number of hits and subscribers.

My response to the concerns (not the phenomenon itself) around this consumer virtuality as de-civilisation and collapse of the difference between role and person was as follows:

Ceremonial roles are insufficient in an individualistic culture – they remain necessary! – there is a shift to prestige in a trivialised artistic, creative existence:

‘The rigid masks of an arbitrary and interchangeable office, which imparts to the most different personalities the same aura, gives way here to a counter-picture appearing in the unique work brought to permanent form of the person who created it.’ (Plessner 1999: 141).

Such objectification (e.g. as a Facebook entry) necessarily creates a distance – and hence establishes a subject that is not to be defined by the sum of their performances. The struggle for prestige as “struggle for a true face” hence still constitutes an “unrealisation” – the true face just as another role. This is not a repetition of the medieval situation where “man never was alone” – it is a performance of a private self that is detached from and thereby constitutes a subjectivity ‘behind’ the private self, thereby realising even further the potential that lies in the anthropologically given eccentric positionality. This implies a higher degree of integration of self in style, not as alternately bemoaned and celebrated, dissolution into “multiple personalities”.

But of course the potential loss of eccentricity is not to be dismissed out of hand. A well constructed authentic selfhood nowadays can be as important as functional role-specific capabilities. The presentation of individual selfhood in social media can have economic consequences when employers check applicants’ or current staff’s Facebook pages. Political scandals that thrive on the erosion of privacy – such as the MPs expenses claims scandal in the UK 2009 – are further signs of such a collapse of the separation of the mask of the role performer and the performer as a person (Thompson 2011). It can be argued that it is the importance of this difference as argued by Helmuth Plessner that makes it a matter of concern for so many. As Thompson (2011: 64) puts it:

For it is precisely because we continue to value this distinction, precisely because what is made public and kept private really does matter to people, that the blurring of the boundaries has become the source of such intense concern. The ability of individuals to exercise control over the territories of the self and to restrict access by others is constantly challenged and in some contexts  compromised, by the capacity of others to avail themselves of new means – technological, political and legal – to gain access, acquire information, exploit it for their own ends and, on some occasions, make it public. the shifting boundaries between public and private life become a new battleground in modern societies, a contested terrain where individuals and organizations wage a new kind of information war, using whatever means they have at their disposal to acquire information about others and to control information about themselves, often struggling to cope with changes they did not foresee and agents whose intentions they did not understand, a terrain where the established relations of power can be disrupted, lives damaged and reputations sometimes lost.

Something is at stake here – personal autonomy. The paradox of individualism: that being different is to be socially recognised (Popitz 1987: 642), seems to move from recognition of the fact of difference as such to recognition of a specific, desirable difference. While postmodern writers used to speculate about the coming of a multiple personality as norm, the danger here is that we are witnessing a re-centring of the subject around the advertised personality performance. A wide consensus in exists not necessarily among students of consumer society, but among the liberal media analysts that there is a cult of the self that seeks expression in consumption and now primarily in social media. Bauman condenses this view to a formula of commodification of subjectivity.

‘“Subjectivity” in the society of consumers, just as “commodity” in the society of producers, is (to use Bruno Latour’s felicitous concept) a faitishe – a thoroughly human product elevated to the rank of superhuman authority through forgetting or rendering irrelevant its human, all too human origins, together with the string of human actions that led to its appearance and was the sine qua non condition of that appearance. In the case of the commodity in the society of producers, it was the act of buying and the labour capacity of producers that, by endowing it with market value, made the product of labour into a commodity – in a way not visible in (and hidden by) the appearance of an autonomous interaction of commodities. In the case of subjectivity in the society of consumers, it is the turn of the buying and selling of the tokens deployed in the construction of identity – the allegedly public expression of the “self” which is in fact Jean Baudrillard’s “simulacrum”, substituting “representation” for what it is assumed to represent – to be effaced from the appearance of the final product.’ (Baumann 2007: 14f.)

Now it is important to insist that this idea of the subjectivity fetish is overstated in the same way in which, at least in the Baudrillard-informed reading, that of the commodity fetish is. As Rosen (1996) has forcefully argued, the interpretation of the commodity fetish as a complete and inevitable distortion in which people cannot see that commodities are products of human labour is just absurd. Only very deluded individuals do not know such things as that clothes are made in factories (and most likely by underpaid workers in Bangladesh, India, Turkey etc.). And even less does production disappear as completely as suggested by Baudrillard. Similarly, I would argue, the commodification of subjectivity may well be a fact (or rather: an apt metaphor), but that does not mean that the denizen of the world of material and virtual consumer goods falls for the illusion of authenticity of the selfhood on display. To the contrary: the general suspicion is that people are not really as they present themselves on Facebook. Facebook is not the Matrix.

The artistic performance of individuality as a role in itself, the aesthetisation of self in the pursuit of a consistent style still is a role performance, be it one twice removed. The self itself becomes a mask – and a mask affords the non-identity of its wearer. Of course – as Plessner says, this is only an opportunity and the wearer does not need to realise this potential. So just as there indeed were and are one-dimensional persons who manage to achieve nigh complete identity with the ceremonial roles they perform, so there will be an performer who is not identical with the performed, exceeds the personality on display and takes incommensurability to a new level.

If the individuality/subjectivity that exceeds one’s roles is transformed into something that is displayed rather than something that is lived out in the retreat of a Habermasian Lebenswelt, then the question emerges if not a new level of agency behind that performed individuality role which now has become a subject to recognition. The person maintaining their Facebook profile from their bedroom or kitchen table will carefully control what kind of information about their everyday activities makes it onto the Wall or is tweeted away. Just as the diaries of 19th century novelists must not be mistaken as revelation of unfiltered private life because the authors wrote them with posthumous publication in mind, so of course it is only the not quite savvy user of such sites who will fail to make a difference between the person typing away and the person presented online. And thus, of course, there is now a much wider awareness that authentic subjectivity is produced rather than a natural given to be expressed. The difference between the presented/represented and the presentation/representation remains – and it is not at the cost of the former. Baumann suggests just that (and expresses a common sentiment):

‘In the carnivalesque game of identities, offline socializing is revealed for what it in fact is in the world of consumers: a rather cumbersome and not particularly enjoyable burden, tolerated and suffered because unavoidable, since recognition of the chosen identity needs to be achieved in long and possibly interminable effort – with all the risks of bluffs being called or imputed which face-to-face encounters necessarily entail. Cutting off that burdensome aspect of the recognition battles is, arguably, the most attractive asset of the internet masquerade and confidence game. The “community” of internauts seeking substitute recognition does not require the chore of socializing and is thereby relatively free from risk, that notorious and widely feared bane of the offline battles for recognition.’ (Bauman 2007: 115)

This of course is highly contestable – the prediction of a society of loners glued to the screen has not materialised and the myriad of (social-network induced) rendezvous, raves, riots and revolutions indicates that face-to-face is a thing of the past.

Throughout the anthropological fact of eccentricity remains – it is impossible to capture or trap human subjectivity for long. As the collapse of totalitarianism has shown, “greedy” sociality cannot even be enforced for very long even with the most violent and ruthless means. And it can also not be achieved through entrapping authentic expression in a consumer society. The eccentric consumer moves behind the publicised private persona. The persona becomes a mask in its own right (but a more elaborate one) and the subject exceeds their social existence even further. As Simmel emphasises: every socialisation produces a way in which the members of society is not socialised, beyond society – and the way that they are not socialised co-determines the way they are socialised  (Simmel 1992: 51).

Baumann, Zygmunt (2007): Consuming Life, Cambridge: Polity

Popitz, Heinrich (1987): ‚Autoritätsbedürfnisse: Der Wandel der sozialen Subjektivität‘, in:Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie, Vol.39, pp.633-47.

Rosen, Michael (1996) On Voluntary Servitude. Cambridge: Polity.

Simmel, Georg (1992): Soziologie, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp 1992

Thompson, John B. (2011): ‘Shifting Boundaries of Public and Private Life’, in: Theory, Culture & Society, Vol.28, No.4, pp.49-70

PS (21st September 2011)

The slightly uncouth translation of Simmel’s statement on the non-sociality within the social in the AJS has:

‘Another category under which men (Subjecte) view themselves  and one another, in order that, so formed, they may produce empirical society, may be formulated in the seemingly trivial theorem: – Each element of a group is not a societary part, but beyond that something else. That fact operates as social apriori in so far as the part of the individual which is not turned toward the group, or is not dissolved in it, does not lie simply without meaning by the side of his socially significant phase, is not a something external to the group, for which it nolens volens affords space; but the fact that the individual, with respect to certain sides of his personality, is not an element of the group, constitutes the positive condition for the fact that he is such a member in other aspects of his being. In other words, the sort of his socialized-being’ (Simmel 1910: 381)

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

Selbstbehauptung durch Selbstaufgabe: Arbeit und Subjektivität in der Reflexiven Rationalisierung – ein Versuch, Vereinnahmung zu erklären  



I.) Einleitung

II.) Klärung der Begriffe.

II.1.) Arbeit und Subjektivität

II.2.) Rolle, Identität, Individualität 

II.3.) Selbstbehauptung und Würde

II.4.) Herrschaft als Herrschaft über Bedingungen.

II.5.) “Verdinglichung”: Der Schein von Gesellschaft ohne Subjekt 

III.) Fordismus und Reflexive Rationalisierung. 

III.1.) Fordismus: Verdinglichung der Arbeit 

III.2.) Reflexive Rationalisierung: Der Fordismus wendet sich gegen sich selbst 

III.2.1.) Die “Fragilität” der Reflexiven Rationalisierung.

III.2.2.) Reflexive Rationalisierung als Bewegung.

IV.) Verunsicherung und Inklusion

IV.1.) Verunsicherung

IV.1.1.) Verunsicherung durch panoptische Kontrolle

IV.1.2.) Gruppenarbeit: Verunsicherung durch Nähe

IV.1.3) Qualifizierungsimperativ: Verunsicherung durch permanente Unzulänglichkeit

IV.1.4.) Verunsicherung durch diffuse Beurteilung

IV.2.) Maßnahmen der Inklusion

IV.2.1.) Selbstbehauptung als Motiv

IV.2.2.) Auslese

IV.2.3.) Vergemeinschaftung

IV.2.4.) Zeitliche Vereinnahmung

IV.2.5.) Konsens statt Kompromiß.

IV.2.6.) Vertrauen.

IV.2.7.) Rituale.

V.3.) Resümee. 

V.) Schluß.


“Alle weit getriebene Arbeitsteilung bedeutet die Lösung des Subjekts von seiner Leistung, diese wird in einen objektiven Zusammenhang hineingegeben, sie fügt sich den Anforderungen eines unpersönlichen Ganzen, während die eigentlichen subjektiven Interessen und inneren Bewegungen des Menschen sozusagen eine Privatexistenz führen. Bestünde diese psychologische Möglichkeit nicht, so wäre unsere Kultur nicht nur unerträglich, sondern von vornherein unmöglich.”