Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Common Cause and Escaping from Modernity

The way in which identity is discussed, as much as who we are and who we say we are, depends upon our life paths. Writing about identity in a peaceful village in West Yorkshire is bound to raise different concerns to the identity discourse of a Palestinian refugee, or a Chechnyan mother living under Russian tyranny. But despite the fault lines separating the minority who are able to cogitate in comfort over something as abstract as ‘identity’, and the majority for whom physical, psychological and spiritual survival is paramount, both live in a world increasingly dominated by a single logic.

Both identity discourses are forged under Empire. This dominion is quite different from the imperialism of old. It has not driven by princes or parliaments. Instead, the focal points of power are more diverse, more dynamic, more fragmented, but its logic is singular. In this Empire, wealth is created by “biopolitical production” (Hardt and Negri, 2001, p.xiii), in which economics, politics and culture increasingly overlap, and the production of goods and services is subservient to the production of social life itself. It seeks not to rule nations, but to pervade every level of social life everywhere.

Its origins might have been in the United States and Europe, but today Empire is global. It is the new absolute, having emasculated deity, leaving only a personal, literal, subjective God for the hungry spirit of humanity to chomp anxiously upon. Empire is ‘civilization’. All history points towards its fruition, which has already come about and will be forever more. Its mastery of everything is its potential to know everything, including human nature, which it defines and regulates without coercion, even though its boundaries are ravaged with war and violence. This is one of the great contradictions of Empire: it is perpetually soaked in blood, yet dedicated to peace.

Making sense of this Empire and working for its demise is part of my identity quest. As a cultural entity, it is primarily discursive and hence guns and bombs are useless against it. My common cause with suffering humanity is cultural subversion. I am here to help deliver Empire from its subjective gods and whims, reinstate Asma al-Husna as the ultimate expression of deity, and throw open the doors of mosques and synagogues and churches and Gudwaras and temples to those who are oppressed and marginalised through no fault of their own. Allahu Akbar!

The only way to resist Empire is to get out of modernity. The only way to get of modernity is to get modernity out of your head, and replace it with the local alternative. There are thus three stages to getting out of modernity. First, identify modernity inside my head. The second stage is to identify and develop the local alternative. The final stage is to become the local alternative, in thought and action.

What do I mean by the local alternative? This is the local religio-culture that modernist knowledge systems are intent on reshaping in their own image, such as Muslim culture. Like most local alternatives, modernity has succeeded in retarding Muslim development. Seeking to embrace Islam, it sometimes feels like stepping back in history. This is because modernity has abolished history and hence everything that is not modern feels archaic. Developing local alternatives returns them to a history that has a past, present and future, and abolishes the illusion of modernity’s infinitude.

Modernity justifies itself by appealing to an improvement in material conditions, but in reality it has delivered an appalling level of impoverishment and exploitation to the majority of people throughout the world. Its utopia is an economically and environmentally unsustainable embourgoisement that far exceeds the human need for food, clothing, shelter and security. For higher needs, see your local alternative.

Rose (1989) has attempted to explore the genealogy of the modern subject. He defines it as the autonomous subject of choice and realization, its universal logic manifesting itself uniquely in different social spheres, such as war, work, education, parenting and leisure. Once we were humans, now we are consumers. We are born, we consume, we die. Life is a playful distraction from the absurdity of death.

The Muslim subject is a descendent of Adam and Eve, whom God fashioned with Wrath and Mercy, and imbued with spirit, that their souls and the souls of their descendents might move closer to God through love of The One. The Muslim may experience a visceral fear of death and the pain of loss, but her/his existential understanding of death is defined in a life viewed within the path from Creation to Judgement.

Hardt, M. and Negri, A. (2001) Empire (Harvard: Harvard University Press)

Rose, N. (1989) Governing the Soul: The Shaping of the Private Self (London: Free Association Books)

2 comment(s):

  • how can there be poetry without pain? who wants to sing when they can own the music and the musicians, even in facsimile?

    every time i read an argument about empire there's this gap between what is and what is possible. empire is essentially a system where people are convinced to borrow power from their future, in order to gain control and certainty in the present. no one knows what the consequences will be but we put aside our doubts; we agree to believe that human will is constantly weakening reality so that our future needs and our current debts can both be satisfied every new day and every new year.

    "i will one day win the lottery."

    the trouble with fighting this rotten thinking is that the system is so abstracted that to be aware of what is in the pocket and what is not requires very careful accounting - for ordinary people, who carry both duty and money debts, this accounting doubles the work they have to do, so they either nod and continue borrowing power, thinking that it's an attitude not a practice that needs adjustment; or they do the new work sloppily and get sick of it; or they become depressed.

    i believe in the effectiveness of guerrilla resistance when dominion is physical. occupation and invasion require additional infrastructure that can be disrupted. our challenge is that the infrastructure of empire is in the mind; empire is spread by individuals, as is the network that might work against it; and thus the system of false promises is capable of defeating nearly any local barricade of honest assessment that can be established.

    religious ideas that have grown from each other - networks and trees of thought and belief - have been socializing forces that wiped out local ideas and unified populations, often through bloodshed. if what drives empire's spread is something other than religious evangelical fervor, i need to start over with my thinking. but if that's right, then if one says that empire is solved through closer religious study - there are some for which this will have a forceful mental effect, and others for whom the new study will merely shape the clothes they wear while they barter away their existence.

    looking at the course of the industrial development of the americas, i see radicalized monks creatively empowering locals, then slavery, as the external elements of the faith are exploited by the corrupt. successes of this strategy seem more easily explained in having nothing worth taking.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3/01/2006 11:03:00 PM  

  • Salaam Yakoub, this is a very interesting article - would be great to see the ideas further expanded upon.

    But I'm not sure if the empire of today is really all that different from the past -

    "It seeks not to rule nations, but to pervade every level of social life everywhere."

    There is a history of how the land that is now known as America was colonized - and taken from Native peoples... one of the key aspects of that process was to make non-Indian notions of "modernity" "progress" "christianity" prevade the social life of Native peoples.

    The remaking of "education" in many Muslim majority countries in accordance and approval of empire -- is what the boarding schools was.

    It was to re-make the Indian so that s/he was no longer an "Indian" who would necessarily be in resistence - but a docile clog in the wheel of "progress" without history, without culture, and whose religion was either appropriated as in "new age" or attacked as "primitive" and "savage."

    (In present day context of Muslims think: "Sufism" (good Islam - or some on the extreme say - Islam took over "Sufism") and everything else not "moderate" i.e. not falling into service of empire: "fundamentalist" "radical" "firebrand" etc.).

    Malcolm X spoke about decolonization of the mind - Islam prepares one for this very signficant struggle, if we are not to just imitate our oppressors. And the process that you describe in dealing with modernity, is very much of the kind of stages Malcolm himself went through.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3/03/2006 10:18:00 AM  

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