Sunday, April 29, 2007
truth is that whether you know it or not you have probably heard the voice of natacha atlas. a genuinely international musician who has recorded music in arabic, french, spanish and english; she has accompanied a wide variety of singers on various albums. she joined sarah brightman on "arabian nights" from the album harem (on which a post is forthcoming), she appeared on the indigo girls come on now social, on the track "faye tucker", she was hired to provide the vocals on cirque de soleil's sound track for verekai, and also provided music for the sound track of the orlando bloom movie, the kingdom of heaven. these among many other international projects means that it would be hard for someone to avoid her.
given earlier posts it is natural to compare her work with that of arabian pop queens nancy ajram and elissa. but even a cursory glance reveals that despite very contemporary sounds from all the artists involved, atlas moves to a very different groove. while elissa, for instance, portrays herself and her music as extremely cosmopolitan despite her deep roots in the levant, atlas, who is nomadic (an egyptian muslim with some distant jewish roots, growing up in a moroccan suburb of brussels and then in the uk, etc.) emphasizes her north african identity both in her sound and in her appearance, even as she maps that identification on a variety of cultural forms. the rhythms of rai, salsa, north african folk music, etc. permeates everything she does, even when she does not perform in arabic.
we offer, as an introduction, three songs from the 1990s. the first two are a narrative pair (though, to be clear, atlas videos do not possess the narrative quality that we have come to associate with ajram's work): the first in english, the second in french. in "one brief moment", she mourns the man she has (not even yet) lost as she apathetically changes clothes in front of the taxi driver while they drive through london. in the second, having arrived at the location where she is to perform, she covers "mon amie la rose" as men look on with desire and as the dramas of love (and its lack) unfold among the dancers, only to leave as distant and unmoved as she arrived. "mon amie la rose" was an important hit for establishing her french audience.
Natacha Atlas, "One Brief Moment", Gedida (1999)
Natacha Atlas, "Mon Amie La Rose", Gedida (1999)
only yesterday you were admiring me
tomorrow i will be dust forever
[and then in arabic at the end...]
my friend the rose
told me something
during the night...
the final song, "leysh nat'arak" is a regal march from her first solo album that reveals her confidence and her embrace of her egyptian roots. she also makes clear that her musical choices have political consequences and motivations in a way that entirely sets her apart from elissa and nancy ajram. she has referred to herself as the "the human gaza strip", divided and torn between worlds, and she does not hold back on this powerful song.
Natacha Atlas, "Leysh Nat'Arak" ["Why Are You Fighting?"] (1995)
why are you fighting?
crossing borders in the desert heat
the stories in the rocks and stones
signatures of time written on every face
the syncopated heartbeat of arab and jew
a song that keeps saying remember
if you are cousins why are you fighting
listen to your hearts and the truth will be clear
it's written on your bones
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
Irena Korosec, "Kurds, Forgotten by God" (2004)
let the blood be on our hands, and on the hands of our children
one can only turn the holocaust into a unique event, a sacrosanct atrocity, by a stubborn and studied act of forgetting: a forgetting of history, a forgetting of a history of blood, a forgetting of murder; and this forgetting is itself a form of murder. genocide is a political crime because it divides us by some party, some ethnos (some genos). but by grouping us genostically one has already begun the process of dehumanizing the other so that one can kill more easily. murder is much more the unthinkable – it puts the blood on my hands and makes the killed my responsibility: one i am forced to address by their first name, their good name – the stranger is made my neighbor when there are no nations to reduce the address to a tribal identity. personal crimes – the only crimes against humanity. politics is always already such a crime.
The Vatican ambassador to Israel threatened Thursday to boycott a Holocaust memorial ceremony next week over a museum’s portrayal of Pope Pius XII’s conduct during the Nazis’ killing of Jews in World War II.
Archbishop Antonio Franco said he had written to the director of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum asking for the revision of a caption suggesting the wartime pope had been apathetic to the Jews’ plight.
The caption, quoted in the Israeli press, says Pope Pius XII “abstained from signing the Allied declaration condemning the extermination of the Jews” and “maintained his neutral position throughout the war."
Jacques-Louis David, "Nude Study of Pope Pius VII" (1805)
In other news the Vatican has declared that the trial and execution of Joan of Arc will from henceforth be called "A Few Brief Questions" and the Crusades will be renamed "our vacation in Palestine".
I am sorry, but the suggestion that Pius XII 'did all that he could do for the Jews' is simply absurd. Can one even begin to imagine the legitimacy the Vatican would have on the issue of human rights, as a voice for peace in the middle east, etc., if Pius XII has signed the declaration; if he had risked losing the Vatican; if he HAD lost the Vatican because he had stood up for what was good.
That the Pope remained "neutral" out of fear of losing his position, out of fear that the Church would be undermined if the Pope were either arrested or forced to flee is understandable. BUT it is NOT "all the Pope could do".
Can one imagine the history between Catholics and Jews after World War II had Pius XII risked his crown, St. Peter's, etc., had he lost it all to Mussolini, had he been martyred? There were Christian martyrs during the war. Pius XII was not one of them.
I am not saying choosing martyrdom is an easy choice; I am not saying I could make that choice myself (I don't like sweating, let alone pain). I am saying don't tell me how beautiful the Pope's clothes are!
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
Bryan Larson, "Just the Beginning" (2001)
in the end, dalí proved to have a better grasp of surrealism and what it was than did breton and the others who were at the origins of the movement. they fantasized it as a force of liberation to be aligned with communist political aims. to breton and the others, surrealism's attempt to thematize the unconscious, to bring to light those dark drives which were hidden from humanity, was going to somehow free that humanity.
but as dalí saw, when others did not, the unconscious was not a haven of paradise where the edenic humanity could be rediscovered in all its natural glory. the irrational was not salvation from an increasingly rationalized world, rather, what was being uncovered by surrealism was the anglo and continental unconscious (for lack of a better term) which was never absent from the conscious drives of technological expansion and domination of the world (both as industrialization and colonization), was never absent from any act, no matter how mundane, decadent or benevolent. thus the surrealists were not showing the way to the future, but were merely revealing the truth of the present: the unsaid in everything that persons, society, and culture did.
it is not surprising, then, that freud was impressed by dalí upon meeting him. dalí alone of the surrealists had understood him: this was freud's assessment; and it was dalí alone who could make him reconsider surrealism as something more than art without understanding.
dalí's understanding has indeed been vindicated by the fact that the anglo and continental culture was able to absorb surrealism so easily and make it part of its cultural currency. and dalí was glad to be its superstar, while never forgetting that he was merely returning our own shit to us for us to enjoy: the scatological innards of that which the ego always presents with a clear and shiny face.
Salvador Dalí, "The Visage of War" (1940)
Memory says: Want to do it right? Don't count on me.
I'm a canal in Europe where bodies are floating
I'm a mass grave I'm the life that returns
I'm a table set with room for the Stranger
I'm a field with corners left for the landless
I'm accused of child-death of drinking blood
I'm a man-child praising God he's a man
I'm a woman bargaining for chicken
I'm a woman who sells for a boat ticket
I'm a family dispersed between night and fog
I'm an immigrant tailor who says "A coat
is not a piece of cloth only" I sway
in the learnings of master-mystics
I have dreamed of Zion I've dreamed of world revolution
I have dreamed my children could live at last like others
I have walked the children of others through the ranks of hatred
I'm a corpse dredged from a canal in Berlin
a river in Mississippi I'm a woman standing
with another woman dressed in black
on the streets of Haifa, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem
there is spit on my sleeve there are phonecalls in the night
I am a woman standing in line for gasmasks
I stand on a road in Ramallah with naked face listening
I am standing here in your poem unsatisfied
lifting my smoky mirror
Adrienne Rich, #10 from "Eastern War Time", An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems, 1988-1991
Edward Hopper, "Cape Cod Morning" (1950)
Monday, April 16, 2007
mama patel gave me my first extensive exposure to indian food: a steady diet of samosas of various sorts and desserts which ought to have been served with insulin injections, they were so sweet. she was a warm woman and her house was always open to me.
at some point i found out that mama and papa patel had met only by a parentally arranged marriage and, being american and a boy in his early adolescence, i somehow tactlessly and shamelessly asked whether or not they didn't resent that. didn't they want to have love before they got married, etc.
papa patel was a very quiet man, a relative stick of a figure. the most words i ever heard him speak in one afternoon came during a badminton tournament held on the base during which he did quite well: he would talk to himself very sternly every time he made a mistake. needless to say i got my answer from the round and much more effusive mama patel.
he was an engineer getting ready to move to america when they got married; her parents convinced her that this was the opportunity of a lifetime. and she said, that indeed, she did resent and regret much during the early years of their marriage. they were total strangers to one another suddenly forced to live together and trying to make sense of the habits and desires of the other person. she laughed when she told us that her mother had told her 'that is marriage, but you get used to it'.
she got pregnant a little over a year after they got married and had hiren and manisha in relatively quick succession. she said at that point she had something besides her husband to focus her attention on, and while she may not have loved him at that point, she ceased having time to resent or regret decisions. she had two children to raise.
love came, she said, as the children left infancy and began to become interactive members of the family. she saw him as the father to their children, that he was a good father to them, and she began to cherish him for the way in which he loved and nurtured their children. her love for him arose out of the shared love they had for their children. and now, she said, she could not be more grateful to her parents, nor could she be more in love with a man than she was now. papa patel sat beside her all the way through the story, silently, his arm around her shoulder, proudly smiling.
and when i remember back, 15ish years now, to our own decision to marry, i believe i too would have to tell that rude little boy living in that villa in saudi arabia, that we were children when we got married. we did not know ourselves, let alone one another and could not even begin to comprehend what love really was. how She put up with that person over the first years of our marriage is a mystery. but here we are all these years later and i could not be more grateful...with still so much more to learn.
Saturday, April 14, 2007
new in her beauty her skin her lashes her lively body:
Race, class...all that...but isn't that all just history?
Aren't people bored with all that?
She could be
myself at nineteen but free of reverence for past ideas
ignorant of hopes piled on her
Adrienne Rich, from "Inscriptions", Dark Fields of the Republic (1994)
Ambrogio Lorenzetti, "Suckling Madonna" (1330)
the question asked here is whether or not christianity will live up to its promise? one of the most significant groups contributing to the spread and success of christianity in late antiquity were women. they embraced the message of christianity that they need not be owned by a man, and that christianity would mean freedom for them. and so the question remains now: are women fully human, and does the reconciliation promised by christianity apply to them in full, or must women, and consequently all of humanity, turn elsewhere because the promise that in christ there is neither male nor female has been broken?
had the child of mary been a girl, would she have been any less the voice of Reconciliation? but would the world have heard her voice? do we hear her now? the promise must be fulfilled.
Marjorie Kramer, "Self-Portrait Breastfeeding Raloon, After Ambrogio Lorenzetti" (1976)
Western women are not able to discard completely and forget our personal, cultural or religious Christian history. We will either transform it into a new liberating future or continue to be subject to its tyranny whether we recognize its power or not. Feminists cannot afford such an ahistorical or antihistorical stance because it is precisely the power of oppression that deprives people of their history.
Elizabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza, In Memory of Her (1983)
Thursday, April 12, 2007
"It fixes itself in the mind."
-Romaine Brooks, on Ida Rubinstein's face, after their break-up
Romaine Brooks, "La Venus Triste" (1914)
And then I dreamt that you and I were no longer who we were. Not myself, I did not know you, and passing you on an otherwise empty street, I did not recognize you. Without your words of greeting, the creation of that space we have inhabited for so long together, the warmth of a home created by that nightmarishly absent rejoinder, you were nothing to me, or more appropriately, without your words to tell me who I was, I was as nothing to me, and in my traumatics, I could not, upon not seeing you as you on an otherwise empty street, do anything except violence. I hurt you to be who I am, to constitute myself as self, to make, to find again the home we had made in a once upon a time (the confusion of dream for reality and reality for dream – I was no longer sure I was not awake). By destroying you, by seeing you no longer as you, I had a dream I would be me again, home again, warm again, not exhausted by the ceaseless wear of not-being-real.
So I attacked, negated and finally annihilated you, so that I could be home again. But still I was left with not being myself and the more desperately I destroyed, the deeper I was lost in the nothingness of who I had become – wide awake now in the dream of not-being. You as not-you reappeared at every turn and this time I thought – I knew – that your subjection would mean my completion. But each time your annihilation did not create space for me but expanded the terror of not-being without escape. Until finally, you were gone and not having recognized not-you, I finally was gone in the spaceless prison of my own indistinction, unable to slumber in the abysmal reality I had created in my dream.
Romaine Brooks, "Le Trajet" (1911)
I had a dream that we were reborn, you and I: you no longer you, and I no longer I. To be reborn, it is a dream; to be caught up, not in the consciousness of desire, where I would consume you and destroy you, but that we be made something new by something more holy, more damning, but oh thereby more deifying than fire. I had that dream, that we were reborn, and all our struggles, the many violences that we waged against one another, wars to conquer the space of peace that we brought one another, were ended: our bodies beaten into plowshares and our tongues prophesying only for one another.
Romaine Brooks, "Spring" (1912)
I dreamt we were reborn, you and I
Caught in the torrent; raindrops dancing on the ground
Water running past our feet, frenetic past our ankles
Hard into our face, stinging into our eyes
Until we were pulled under and washed away
Who we were, now completely past
Lost in the river of life
Beyond a flood, a force more than mere drowning
And behold, all things are new
I dreamt the rain, dancing all along, called out to us
Constantly speaking but one name
Romaine Brooks, "La France Croisée" (1914)
I awoke with a prayer for rebirth on my lips
But every invocation is an evocation,
and the solicitude of slumber is lost at the first sign of waking
I am trying to capture stars for you
Walking to the moon
But the very prayer I speak creates the impossibility of its fulfillment
I am Eleazer with censer in hand: strange incense!
As always I seek only the instantiation of my own dreams.
Forgive me: can I ask that out without demanding,
setting out the terms of your internment, the limits,
the how and why of your actions, attempting to hold them in my hands.
Forgive me/ I will make you mine
Help me/ I know what I need
Romaine Brooks, "Esquisse d'Ida Rubinstein" (1912)
Monday, April 9, 2007
Matthias Grünewald, "The Resurrection" (1515)
the resurrection ought not to be understood as a miracle, but as the actualization of what we have always understood to be the idea of existing. to exist (ex-sistere) is simply to transcend one’s moment toward another, rather than remain unmoved by the flow of time, which is nothing like existing or even living. to exist is the inability to remain content with what one is and the need to exceed nature.
existing at its most basic takes place in the moment to moment. one lives in an intentionality towards that which is other, towards the next event. but this view is only partial and fails to grasps the wholeness of human existence. to refer to “ex-sisting” recognizes that humanity is more an ek-stasis than a hypo-stasis (sub-sisting). subsistence is to be below the level of life, to dig deep into the animal to find something unchanging, something impervious to time and History, to find something already dead. the very idea of human ex-sistence is to pass beyond itself in the totality of its being: refusing the idolatrous submission to life and death, being and non-being, as if they were the All. resurrection is to realize the intentionality of humanity toward the Beyond.
Sunday, April 8, 2007
John William Godward, "Dolce Far Niente" (1904)
In the earliest days of recorded music, the goal was to produce something perfect, something better than reality. Thus the old joke where a veteran pianist is invited to come hear a new and promising talent play as the youngster records a piano concerto. Over the course of numerous takes the task is completed. As they sit and listen to the playback at the end of the day the veteran pianist turns to the younger colleague and says, "That is a beautifully played piece; don't you wish you could play like that?" The fear then was that the finite would pretend to more than it was, that the experience of time, the guarantor of our 'mere' humanity, would be circumvented. The so-called democratization of consumption, the ability to reach a mass audience with arts that had once been available only those of privilege, whether through radio or recording, would lead to a democratization of production as well, so that the true possessor of artistic gifts would be lost in a sea of mediocrity. Finally there was the worry that the new media, with its illusory perfections would invite people to flee reality. The arts would become a source of fantasy and escape.
But now we have gone full circle, and the media, having penetrated every aspect of life, has left nothing real. Recording media no longer aspire to fantastic perfection; this is in fact achieved with increasing ease and consumed readily, but no longer with any suspension of disbelief: everything from pop vocals to the action thriller is seen to be the nothing that it is by the public that consumes it. The escapist aesthetic of the Enlightenment and instrumental reason, here, reaches its culmination in a sense of universal meaninglessness, as persons gradually are made aware of the extent to which life is art. In order to compensate, the media, whether one talks about film, writing or music, etc. attempts to manufacture an experience of spontaneity and even reality for those who have forgotten what that is. 'Imperfections' are themselves very carefully planned in order to give the feel of reality (e.g., Eminem telling us he can't hear his snare; inviting you to feel like you are there when he was recording; the very thing the pianist in the earlier example was trying to avoid). Reality t.v. tries to turn everyday life, the very thing from which humanity once needed to escape, into something to be solved, like a puzzle, stressing the priority of instrumental reason in all aspects of life: one ought no longer to think one's work hollow and unfulfilling, since the business-rationality is no different from that which is present everywhere. We are entertained, comforted by the brutal monotony of it, the hollow 'sponteneity', which assures us that those last vestiges of the Real – the work place, love/dating/sex, friendships, etc. – are all vacuous, commodifiable, and need not be taken too seriously.
Saturday, April 7, 2007
Sharon Sprung, "Folding Chairs" (2006)
Flannery O'Connor identifies two sins of art: sentimentalism and pornography. Pornography has several characteristics, but the one that draws the most attention from her is the breakdown of the public/private split. But perhaps one should reformulate this in a couple of ways; pornography can invoke at least two distinct strategies. First, it can proceed covertly, allowing the consumer (and porn is packaged for consumption; it lives on hunger and its own ability to depersonalize the product so it can be devoured) to indulge the desire which has been defined as illicit, while allowing the conscience to comfort itself by ultimately reaffirming the taboo that is the basis for the desire, and punishing the illicit behavior. A vast majority of crime drama functions precisely in this way – enticing the consumer through access, often, to sexual fantasies, especially of violence against women (e.g., the Nicholas Cage film "8mm" to a vast majority of the episodes of 'Law and Order: SVU'). This violence/sexuality at once titillates and entertains (all the hallmarks of classic porn), but always with the expectation, and ultimately fulfillment of, the criminal's punishment: the law of masochism! In this way the consumer is allowed to explore what is a very real desire (there would not be an audience if in fact no one was entertained), given a peak into a sexual world that is not "normal", is "taboo", but reassured that they are better off without the reality (and to be clear, this is not limited to sexual entertainment – e.g., "Terminator 2" founders helplessly in this tension). In this way it offers the virtual as an escape, secretly constituting the Real as flat and empty, and thereby deflecting desire.
But more explicitly, and traditionally, pornography is the use of the Real itself for entertainment. In this way, once again, the Real is emptied of depth and made into a commodity. Yet, this is, precisely, the very basis of the capitalist understanding of labor: the belief that human actions can be disconnected from the real life of a person, abstracted and consumed. And so the extension of pornography into the work place (e.g., reality t.v.) and other areas of life is unavoidable. Capitalism is pornography – the packaging of life for sale on the basis of the old theatrical/liberal/transcendental lie that we are not what we do: the disection of life into easily digestible, disconnected and meaningless moments.
What disgusts about the pornographic – or perhaps better to say, stigmatizes those associated with it – marginalizing or re-pulsing them to a state of social exile – is that they confront, unabashedly, the founding truth of the social-economic organization of this historical moment and present it naked and undeniable; there is nothing so intimate that it cannot be sold, nothing so interior to who we are that it cannot be commodified, marketed and consumed. The pornographers (or whatever one wishes to call them), the prostitutes: these are to contemporary society what the hangman was to a previous era: the stark image of the violence on which the society secretly thrives.
Let the one without sin throw the first stone.
Friday, April 6, 2007
LoA: Why is that dear?
She: I know how to use power tools, I build work benches, I plaster the wall when you knock a dent in it with the vacuum cleaner....
She: I am like the son he never had.
Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed.”
-Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics
I have spent much of my academic career in that borderless space known as Political Theology, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the differences between philosophy, theology and political theory. This will be a work of Political Theology. Yet I am nonetheless venturing out of my depth and so I must provide some sort of apologia, both in the technical sense and in the more colloquial sense, since it is not a work of Christian political theology, but Islamic.
First a defense: The idea of writing such an article arose out of a prior discussion concerning the establishment of an Islamic state. In this discussion I was merely a reader and critic, pointing out what I saw to be flaws in the proposal and questioning, in particular, the legitimacy of any State that did not have freedom of speech and the press. Without those, claims to legitimacy would have to be accepted entirely on the authority of those whose interests were most at stake. I was then asked my thoughts on the possibilities of a liberal Islamic state. What follows will constitute my reply.
Second an apology: This article is in danger of being the voice of yet another non-Muslim telling Muslims what Islam ought to be. This is not my intent. And, in advance of offending someone of faith due to gross errors of fact, my complete and utter lack of knowledge of knowledge regarding the tradition and the long history of its interpretation (which I am not even going to discuss), and the history of the political life of the Islamic faith, I wish to make clear that I am not prescribing what Islam should be. I wait with anticipation to see what Islam will become. All I wish to do here is outline what I (and who am I after all?) see as a possibility open to Islam in the present historical moment. I find it an interesting possibility because, as I will mention further in a moment, it is not a possibility that is open to Catholicism.
Political Liberalism emerged in an attempt to overcome certain social tensions, particularly religious tensions, that were present in various states, and presented itself as a way of subsuming and managing those tensions without completely evacuating or nihilating the differences out of which the tensions arose. This meant that social and political peace could be purchased without having to eliminate the contending parties. Instead, differences that had been politically decisive were reinscribed as civic divisions that did not extend into the public political sphere. In this way the divisions remained, but were demoted in importance, or rendered unimportant from the standpoint of the law.
Two key ideas were indispensable to this reinterpretation of previously political categories into civil categories. The first was abstract justice, or what Rawl’s terms ‘justice as fairness’ or the priority of Right over the Good. Abstract Justice is doctrine that all citizens are equal before the law. This is an abstract claim because it does not address equality in the day-to-day lives of its citizens. Instead it says that in the eyes of the government all the citizens are of the same importance and will be treated the same. Justice is blind. The other side of this is that everything that divides one person from another is allowed to remain at the level of civic discourse and practice: Jew or Greek, Rich or Poor, Male or Female; the divisions that structure private life are of no interest to the political entity.
The second important idea was that of negative freedom. For most of theological, philosophical and legal history, it had been assumed that the freedom to choose was really the least important understanding of freedom and the lowest kind of freedom. True Freedom was about the ability to do the Good. Even in figures such as Kant, whose politics are entirely liberal, one sees this idea persist in his account of autonomy. Autonomy is present when the will acts in accord with its own principles, and is not guided by outside forces which would enslave it. This meant that questions of the Good were inseparable from the establishment of freedom. It led to some of the grossest violations of the human person, embodied in the Inquisitorial dictum that “Error has no rights”.
Negative freedom is the freedom from constraint. The State would allow, inasmuch as it was possible, for persons to pursue whatever Good they saw fit. The State would be indifferent to this. The State would simply provide the framework within which persons were safe to pursue their freedom and did not live in fear of having their freedom arbitrarily violated or constrained by other citizens or the State itself.
Since the wars of religion provide such an important mythological underpinning, even to this day, for the justification of Political Liberalism, I will simply use religion as an example of the way in which these two doctrines served to eliminate political unrest. First the State became blind to the professed religion of its citizens because of Abstract Justice. In a court of law, if and where one attended religious services, or what one believed was irrelevant to one’s standing in the eyes of the law. This likewise meant that the law itself could not be written in such a way as to promote or protect one religious body over another. Secondly, people were then allowed, on the basis of negative freedom, to pursue whatever religious affiliation they desired as a civic or private matter. The question of the Good was left to individuals and to voluntary civic organizations to work out as they saw fit, as long it did not disrupt public order.
In all that has been said in this section thus far we have simply presupposed the State, but let us say one final word about the Political. Liberalism, taken on its own, is at least super- if not anti-political. The claims of Liberalism concerning the Rights of Humanity arising out of the abstract equity that has been described and its ability to exercise its freedom independent of the interference of others conceptions of what ought to be done, is universal. Nonetheless, the turn to the Political recognizes the need for some body capable of providing the public order within which freedom might be pursued and a power capable of rectifying the situation should one’s freedom be violated. This political body can only be legitimate if it provides the necessary conditions of the possibility for individual persons to live out their freedoms and thus does not violate their inherent equity. As long as the Political provides this, to violate the laws of the State would be to violate one’s own person because one would be undermining one’s own freedom and equity.
A Liberal Islamic State?
Let us make a quick and clear distinction between elections and liberalism. The choosing of governments by elections is a secondary phenomena and is not of itself Liberal. Government’s based on elections, whether they be democratic or republican, etc., are not necessarily liberal. Nor does State need to have elections in order to be meaningfully Liberal, though elections are a handy way of allowing the people to ritually express their solidarity with the government which represents them. There is no inherent contradiction between democracy and the Islamic state. Recent elections in the Middle East should be ample enough proof of this.
Nonetheless I am going to argue that there is a contradiction between Liberalism and an Islamic state. Interpreted in a manner that is most benign, Liberalism misinterprets the nature of religion. It treats religion as if were merely a matter of the human spirit which is internal and private. Freedom of religion becomes simply a subdivision of freedom of conscience. Since the state deals in the material of human actions and religion deals with the internal human spirit, than can, by definition, be no conflict between the Political and Religious. Likewise, the religious institution is interpreted by Liberalism as a purely civic and voluntary society. Its actions do not and cannot, by definition, extend beyond the civic sphere. Its attempts to address social issues must act within the framework already provided by the state. Political life is, in no way, religious.
This in turns shows a rather fundamental anthropological misinterpretation on the part of Liberalism. Liberalism treats religion as if it were not a matter that concerns the human person in the whole of its being. Religion is merely one activity among others: one is a Muslim, a Girl Scout and a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. In fact, important Liberal theorists call anyone who allows their belief in God to underlie the totality of their actions a fanatic and insane (e.g., Rorty’s treatment of Ignatius of Loyola; or the Rawlsian discussions of how to interpret the Amish and why the government does not suppress them).
This error shows up in a more fundamental way even at the point at which Liberalism is closest to granting religious belief its full determination. Religion is a question of how human beings will pursue the Good. But by making it a private matter, Liberalism likewise reduces religion to an individual matter. Even if we do come together in some sort of voluntary society, e.g., the mosque, to ask the question together, the answers that might be given are denied to have any ultimate importance or address humanity at the level of its universal destiny. The determination of human beings according to the doctrine of negative freedom essentially denies that humanity has, as such, a purpose or goal beyond what the individual arbitrarily chooses to take up as a task. Understood this way, any claims that Islam tried to advance within a Liberal setting about humanity in its universality, about the orientation of humanity in the fullness of its being towards God, or that all are Muslim by birth, must inevitably be viewed as mere opinion and gross fanaticism, even if it is allowed as a matter of free speech.
Interpreted more perniciously, this is to say that Liberalism only allows religions insofar as they further the goal of Liberalism itself. Liberalism tolerates religions because for Liberalism the religions are Liberal institutions aimed the formation of good private citizens: thus the reduction of religion to morality that is characteristic of Liberal discourse. They direct the citizen toward particular types of social activities and deal with problems in the civil sphere which can not be easily addressed by the Political. Religions and other voluntary institutions are the ways in which Liberalism organizes and forms its citizens through everyday activities.
Pushed even further, Liberalism cannot allow the interpretation of Islam or any other religion to bear upon the totality of the human person, to raise questions of Ultimate or transcendent concern because Liberalism is itself an alternative religion. Liberalism itself is that which sets the terms for the totality of the human being. While it claims to allow human beings the free pursuit of private goods, the fact is that religious pursuits in the private sphere must conform to the preconditions set by public order: they must conform to the formal definition of being human that is already given at the level of the Political and which the Political enforces since any breach by the private sphere is condemned as an encroachment upon the rights of others. If this is true than it is not the case, as with the benign interpretation, that Liberalism is unable to address the totality of human existence. Instead, Liberalism does address the totality of human existence and considers the questions already answered. Liberalism is itself a form of religious dogmatism.
This interpretation is reinforced once one realizes that the public/private split that is enshrined by Liberalism is a mirror of the Protestant division between works and faith. Public works are not important to the salvation of the human spirit. Works are meant merely to conform to the law. What works one does is a matter of indifference before God, God only cares what is in the heart. Understood this way, Liberalism is a form of Neo-Protestantism or post-Christian Protestantism.
The Hegemony of Liberalism
Yet, one might still say that if there is to be an alternative to Liberalism and its constant companion, Capitalism, the only place that one can look for it, in the present moment, is from within Islam. I expressed this idea once before, though, as I said at that time, I find it highly doubtful that it will be able to organize itself into such an alternative. But doubt is not the same as impossibility, and I do think it is imaginable. So I will briefly outline certain seeds that might allow one to think an alternative.
Normally I argue that there is no outside or beyond with regards to the Liberalism-Capitalism complex. This does not ignore that there remain segments of the globe that have not been fully integrated into that complex, but says that this lack of full integration is indicative not of the incompleteness of the hegemony of Late Capital, but of the way in which those segments which are not yet integrated lag behind from a production standpoint. But this only means that they offer ripe territory for the expansion of Capitalism as the Liberalism-Capitalism complex are driven by its constant need to create new markets.
That supposed alternatives have not offered real resistance is becoming increasingly clear. One can see this especially with respect to the (former-)Soviet Union and with China. Neither the USSR nor China represented Marx’s dream of what a revolution should look like. In neither case did Marxism arise as the revolutionary overthrow of an industrialized society, but instead it arose in these largely rural societies as an expression of frustration by the peasant class against corrupt and decadent rule. Soviet Marxism especially had to engage in a kind of apologetic to explain how it was indeed possible to skip over Capitalism and arrive at the Worker State, while the Chinese Cultural Revolution unapologetically sent its urbanites out into the country-side for re-education. The truth was that the new order was not post-Capitalist at all, but was instead a way of beginning to overturn outdated feudal economies and begin to incorporate industrial power. They were playing economic and political catch-up. This process continues in Russia and China, each in its own way: perhaps more smoothly in China where the government has gradually brought its economic apparatus into contact with the world markets and thus also gradually introduced Capitalist and Liberal reforms.
One might make similar observations about Chavez, for instance. Once again one is looking at a region which does not have the economic apparatus in place, nor the political and cultural infrastructure, to avoid being swept up in the rush of Capitalism and so, in the name of socialism and populism, Chavez is using temporarily available financial resources to try to protect his country from untimely incorporation and act as a buffer against Capitalism and Liberalism. One must likewise recognize that the Venezuelan economy, even more drastically than the Soviet and Chinese economies that came before it, is not sophisticated enough to maintain this resistance for any length of time.
I see two reasons to hold out some hope that Islam will stand and offer a real, progressive, alternative to Liberalism-Capitalism. The first lies in the power of Islam itself. Islam is a rich and complex tradition that is the heart and soul of millions of people world-wide. This is not a Marxism that was thrust upon large populations who suddenly had to re-write their entire histories in order to understand the new ideas. State incarnations of Marxism have always been, to a certain degree, the attempt to create a cultural identity from scratch. Islam on the other hand carries with it a long history of discourse about the nature of being human, an understanding of justice and mercy, freedom and law, etc. which are capable of extension and explication in very diverse ways, and thus of adapting themselves to new and unforeseen circumstances.
Second, Islam is the dominant cultural force in parts of the world which are either under-Capitalized or resistant to Late Capital. At one level, one can express suspicion that much like South America and the pseudo-Marxisms of Russia and China, these are regions which are trying to adapt their modes of production in such a way that they can at once protect themselves against advanced Capitalist economies and catch up to them. I will return to this idea in the conclusion with some sympathy. But one must note that they do stand in an interesting position nonetheless. The center of gravity in Islam has always been Arabia and it is difficult to foresee this changing soon. The Middle Eastern economy (and allow me to include Iran in this picture) has largely been a mono-economy based on oil. Egypt is an excellent example of the struggle faced by Arabian states without significant oil reserves. Yet such a mono-economy is endangered. Technology is eventually going to push beyond fossil fuels and that future is probably none-to-distant. Second, oil is itself a dwindling commodity. Even if technology does not overtake these economies, time will very soon. The time is coming very soon when the Arabian economy is going to have to reorganize itself in a massive way or face complete devastation (this quite frankly is one of the major instances of short-sightedness in the United States’s plan to reduce its reliance on foreign oil; and in the massive waste of money that one finds especially in Saudi Arabia). This will be a moment of social and economic redefinition. Assuming that this is done with some foresight, that the Saudis and Kuwaitis, the Emirates, etc. still have significant cash reserves at the moment in which this begins, assuming that they can break free of a client-patron model of relationship between the state and its citizens, then they will have the opportunity to reorganize themselves in a truly progressive way. Unlike China or the Russians, the imminent and foreseeable demise of the Arabian mono-economy provides the motivation to undertake such a large scale project.
The Possibility of a Modern Islamic State
What we are envisioning then is not a Liberal Islamic state, but nonetheless a thoroughgoingly modern one. By modern we still make reference back to the tradition of Continental Philosophy. Negative Freedom was not the only doctrine of freedom to arise out of the modern period. Negative freedom was simply one doctrine in an era fascinated by the idea of human freedom. Many recognized the limits of negative freedom and continued to advocate an idea of freedom that saw an intrinsic relation between freedom and the human Good.
Much of what the Muslim world resists in the spread of Liberalism-Capitalism is the inability of Liberalism to judge the good, the inability of its people and culture to evaluate the values of their projects in any other language than that of Capital. In short, they do not experience the encroachment of the Liberal tradition as being liberating because they see no connection between it and their centuries long reflection on the relation of humanity to God. Thus far the response to the spread of Capitalization and Liberalism has been reactive. It has brought about a rigidifying of old forms, a kind of cultural ossification. Religious authorities have attempted to resist the invasion by holding tight not only to power but to forms of life that pre-date the encounter with Capitalism and Liberalism.
I implore Islamic leaders not to make that mistake. This was likewise the path chosen by Catholicism in resistance to the spread of modernity, Liberalism, Capitalism and the growth of freedom. As a result they lost their legitimacy as the voice of freedom. Moreover they created a situation in which they drove their members, who looked to them for guidance, into the waiting arms of Liberalism-Capitalism because they refused to come to terms with the changes and only reacted with condemnations and anathemas against the new. By the time Rome was willing to enter into conversation with modernity, some 300 years after the fact, modernity had lost interest in the conversation and Catholicism is now left trying to situate itself a socio-political world in which it is a marginal voice and in which Christianity has largely been absorbed into the mainstream of Liberal society with all the implications mentioned above.
The Modern Islamic State then would be a place in which the people of the State would understand the purpose of the Political to be communal quest for that which transcends the Political. One could not avoid, of course, supplying the basic needs and comforts as well as security for the people, but having done that the people will not understand the State to have fulfilled its purpose, but merely to have laid the foundations for its role. Following those basics, the discussion can begin among the people concerning the nature of the Good and how that Good will be sought in the contemporary context.
The Ummah, the nation, is not then a closed entity. This is true on a number of levels. First the Ummah is capable of embracing the totality of humanity and it seeks and promotes a Good that is not limited in its scope. Further the universality of the Ummah points to the manner in which the State is not defined by a particular culture, set of customs or race. Islam is capable of rich embodiment and harmonic constructions of society. As a project of pursuing the Good it does not view Muslims as abstractly equal, but instead sees the equity of humanity to exist in the concrete particularity of their being. Thus it does not have to pretend everyone is the same in order to deal justly or fairly. This means it is capable of sustaining a wide variety of practices and traditions which it is nonetheless able to interpret as a common and universal project.
Since the Ummah is a communal project that interprets humanity in its totality as directed toward God, the Islamic state must not fall into the dogmatic political-fundamentalism that is characteristic of Liberalism-Capitalism. Liberalism-Capitalism assumes a universal and ahistorical human nature. Thus it believes that all humanity can be satisfied by the expansion and repetition of timeless government which is inherently desired by all. This dogmatism drives Liberalism’s colonialist attitudes and leads of its very nature to the consumption of that which it comes into contact with until all that is left is the abstract, cultureless and inchoate humanity on which Liberalism thrives. The Ummah, precisely because it is a not-yet completed project must remain open to hearing the voice of God anew. The Ummah will have to wrestle with its tradition and treat it as something living. It cannot look solely to the past, but understand the past to be the foundation of an as yet unforeseen Future. The Ummah is in motion.
Here, two mistakes must be avoided at all costs. One cannot treat the tradition as if it contained a deposit to which one merely needs to return. A deposit is dead. The God of the Qur’an is a God who speaks. God’s revelation is not the possession of anyone; it does not belong to humanity. To claim to have revelation in one’s hands is to claim to hold and contain God: it reduces God to a thing. Instead the Islamic state would be one which recognized that its existence is an attempt to hear God anew. It is not the possessor of the Word of God, but it continually awaits the Word of God and together listens to the Word which God speaks through the Qur’an and through the tradition. Anything less than this denies the very essence of the Islamic state because it makes God into the possession of the State instead of the State the possession of God. It means that, since the State holds the revelation of God, humanity lives for the State instead of living together a life toward God. It means the State blasphemously makes itself into a theocracy, thereby identifying State power with God, instead of a self-giving in which humanity surrenders itself over to God.
Moreover one cannot under any circumstances stifle free speech. This has been a temptation on the part of States throughout history, especially those that believed their purpose was to direct humanity toward the Good. Partly this was because the State often mistook itself for a direct embodiment of divine power. But more fundamentally it understood dissent to be damaging and a threat to the faith of the people. One must counter on two fronts. First, the only way that the State is going to fulfill its mission as the place in which, together, the people pursue the Good, make worship their common project, is if the people are able to engage in a discussion concerning the nature of the Good.
Second the quashing of dissent is not what is a danger to the faith. Instead, it is the stifling of dissent that is the greatest danger to faith because it suggests that the Truth is somehow unable to withstand critique. That which can be critiqued is not the Truth and therefore deserves criticism. The State which bans dissent mistakes itself for God, and becomes, thereby, worthy of even greater criticism. To allow dissent is to trust that the Truth wins out. God, who is Truth, is impassible: i.e., God is that which cannot be critiqued, divided, or threatened by any power. If something falls to criticism, then it was only a relativity in any case. This is part of what it means to insist that the Ummah is a project. To say this in another way, one must recognize that while the liberal freedoms are, in the end, the most trivial kinds of freedoms, they are nonetheless an essential part of freedom.
This leads us finally to the question of religious freedom. One must say that insofar as one is willing to participate in the Ummah and its project, the pilgrimage of the State toward God, one will be Muslim. Those other voices, whether they be Christian, Hindu, Liberal or atheistic, which will no doubt be heard in the public square, will, if they are untrue, find themselves in a marginal and uninfluential position. This is to say they will for all practical purposes exclude themselves from the common political life of the people. To set aside one’s dissent and enter into the political life of the community is also to declare common cause, a common faith. This may perhaps, in certain settings, mean the incorporation of certain goods that one finds among those who wish to make common cause. This brings us back to the rich, complex and universal nature of the faith. There is nothing good which is foreign to the Islamic state and which it can not appropriate.
I have attempted to outline a vision of the State that exists in a living relationship with the God who speaks, as it is understood within Islam. This thought experiment is an offering in which I envisioned a future for Islam that does not contain a repetition of the mistakes that Catholicism made over the course of the previous three centuries: ally itself with the powers of social conservatism and religious ossification.
But I end with a challenge; and this gets to the issue of why i do not ultimately believe there is an outside-Liberalism-Capitalism. The question is what will an economic alternative to Capitalism look like. Without this Liberalism will inevitably continue its hegemony. Such an alternative will also have to find its roots and practices, it will have to find its possibilities already present within the historical moment. It is this that I fail to see anywhere present. Where are the roots of an other-economy to Capitalism? Where in Capitalism does something new already appear? Or is there, already within Islam, some habit of economy waiting to emerge into explicit and self-conscious rational economic being?
It is for these reasons among others that I maintained in an earlier text that "We are trapped in a conversation with Liberalism which we cannot escape."
And God knows best...
Thursday, April 5, 2007
Alan Feltus, "Melancolie" (1993)
you took me with such high hopes
your hope of forgetting that we were two
you stripped and stripped believing this was the way of intimacy
your hold on me was filled with desperation
you held us so tightly that neither could breathe
- was this your plan, it changes nothing-
you took pleasure as if it were yours to own
your ecstasy to rip out of me
as if you could plunge a hand into me, take hold of it
as easily as you push yourself into my body
somehow you never knew you had to fail
the pleasure you took could not satisfy
the hunger is something i cannot feed
and so as you crashed roughly downward
wasted and impotent, lost and still all alone
into the never-ending darkness of what i am
you now know the shame of your own being
the clear nakedness of what you are
a shame you have pressed upon me for so long
the shame of not being able to escape the name you gave me
so when you turn away in disgust
sick at the sight of me, your cheeks flushed
with wasted passion and anger
i will know the truth: nausea is internal
i felt it long enough to know its every move inside me
more intimate to me than you will ever be
the revulsion is in you, dying to get out
you look that way at me now because i could not be your escape
you are riveted to yourself, lost
in the shame of not being able to escape your own name
so as you powerlessly shudder in the darkness of the other room
believing that i am the nausea that grips your body
trying to wash the taste of me from your mouth
purge the failed conquest from your every pore
-you were happy to leave your stain on me
but can no longer tolerate the way my scent continues to call you-
i will remain, wrapped in my sheets of otherness, alien and unfathomable to you
infinitely complex and opaque
your rage: that you can never strip me enough so that i am transparent to you
your failure: that only modesty is erotic
Wednesday, April 4, 2007
LoA: The Department Head
She: What did he want?
LoA: He was telling me the classes they wanted me to cover in the fall.
LoA: *sighs* Sexual Ethics.
She: What did you do to piss him off?