Sunday, May 15, 2016

Part 9 (The Social Self and God)--Dialogues on a Philosophy for the Individual: The Social Self


(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2016)

Flora Sapio (FS), Beitita Horm Pepulim (BHP), and I (LCB) continue our experiment in collaborative dialogue. We move from the individual to the social self as we work toward a philosophy of the individual. While at first blush this appears to be well worn ground--who hasn't, over the course of the last 5,000 years, in every civilization with a recorded history NOT spent vast amounts of time thinking about the social self? But much of this thinking starts at the social and works through the issues of control, management and socialization of the individual. That is, they start from the core premise that the individual is the object of a project for which the social serves as an instrument and as an ends. In the spirit of the emerging philosophy of the individual, we propose to invert the conversation--to start with the individual and work through the issues of control, management, and individuation of the social.

But we move from the individual in herself, to the individual as subject and as symbol, as something which, when observed and transformed from itself to the idea or symbol of itself, assumes a quite distinct, and useful, position for the organization of selves--and for the structure and operation of the law of the social. To that end our conversation will likely flow around and through the following:

1--the social self as the reflection of the mother
2--the social self as a reflection of the family
3--social self as a reflection/result of one's ancestors
4--the social self as a reflection of God
5-the social self as a refection of the state
6--the social self as terrorist
7--the social self as orthodox
This conversation, like many of its kind, will develop naturally, in fits and starts. Your participation is encouraged.

In this post Flora Sapio (FS) responds to earlier comments (Part 4) and speaks to the social self as a reflection of the family and Larry Catá Backer responds.

Contents HERE.

FS: Dear friends, I am resuming this dialog after a month or so of silence.

This far, we have been playing with the Relational, and the signification of the individual through various words, mechanisms, and functions – the Mother, the Family, the social, and the societal. I have tried to follow some order in discussing the various topics we chose but, this time I am jumping straight to the topic of “the social self and God”. This is perhaps the most intricate part of our dialog. Man, a friend recently observed, is a story telling animal (Mac Intyre). Therefore, rather than approaching the social self and God in the usual way, which would be the most reasonable thing to do, I want to tell you a story.

I have chosen a story from the Islamic tradition. I am not a Muslim, but I have found the story of the Martyrdom of Mansur al-Hallaj deeply fascinating since I first read it in 2003. During his lifetime Mansur, who was known “the wool carder” (al-Hallaj) was perhaps the most controversial of sufi saints. He traveled wide and far, from the mountains of India to the plains of China. Along his journeys, he reached the city of Baghdad. There, he met his friend Junayd, who prophetized to him: “The time will soon come, Mansur, when you will stain a piece of wood red." Junayd meant that he believed al-Hallaj would eventually be executed for speaking the truth. Al-Hallaj was known to be prone to moments of mystical rapture, where he would suddenly shout out the words “I am the Truth!” (Unal Haqq).

To us, the utterance “I am the Truth!” if made by a wanderer wool carder, may seem little more than the blabber of a madman. But, to Islamic jurists who lived around 900 AD, this utterance had a very precise meaning. According to the Islamic tradition, God has not one, but ninety-nine names. The number 99 can to be understood either literally, as Islamic orthodoxy did, or as a metaphor for an infinite number of attributes and possibilities. Each one of the names may stand for an actual attribute of God, for a function God plays in the world, or for a possibility. It is also believed that utterance of any of the divine names will provide he who recites this name with its inherent powers, faculties, or possibilities. The act of uttering a divine name is an act anyone can perform. Schooling by an imam, or an Islamic proselytizer, is not needed. Knowing how to correctly pronounce the Arabic word that stands for the relevant attribute, or function, or faculty is sufficient to utter any one of the ninety-nine names. To orthodox Islamic theologians who lived in the 10th Century AD, this fact was deeply destabilizing, as it went against their conviction that they were the only holders of truth. Whereas to the Sufi, singing the divine names and other similar practices were the norm.

As the story goes, one day in a a moment of rapture al-Hallaj shouted the words “I am the Truth!” in public. In so doing, his destiny was sealed. According to the scholars and jurists of the day, among whom there was his friend Junayd, who had disrobed himself of the Sufi vestments to don the jurist's cloak, al-Hallaj had violated the dogma of divine unity. The True (al Haqq) was, in fact, one of the 99 divine names which – taken together – made the essence of God. By proclaiming “I am the Truth!” the wool carder had meant that the “world in their hearts” (Ecclesiastes 3:11) was manifesting in himself, and he himself was manifesting as God. Even worse, he had meant that there existed a fundamental unity between God and man. Even more heretically, by shouting “I am the Truth” al Hallaj had meant to say that God may have been one, yet had many different faces.

The implications of al-Hallaj's utterance are many. Was his statement a call for what today we would call “pluralism of values”, a call he made using the language available to him, and which everyone could understand in 10th Century Baghdad? If so, then there was no reason why his utterance should have been considered as a violation of religious dogma. That God had many different names, many different manifestations in the world, and that al-Hallaj's proclaimed 'I am the Truth', did not mean a denial of the the divine unity. 

On the contrary, if “God is a substance of infinite attributes expressed in infinite ways, everything that is possible finds existence at some point in this world”...included Truth, al-Hallaj, and al-Hallaj-shouting-I-am-the-Truth. The ways in which what is possible finds its existence on the plane of immanence are characterized by those possibilities that, at any given point in time, exist in the immanent realm. In a market square of 10th Century Baghdad, the Truth could proclaim itself only through al-Hallaj the Wool Carder, and so it did, testifying to its own infinite ways. Had Truth proclaimed its existence in any other way, no one would have recognized it as Truth...but even so only few could see the Truth in al-Hallaj's utterance.

Al-Hallaj shouting “I am the Truth” meant that God - however Baghdadi scholars/jurists of the day imagined him or her to be - was dead a few centuries before Nietzsche wrote his epitaph. And so al-Hallaj had to be put to death, and his execution order had to be signed by his friend Junayd, who was an eminent Islamic scholar. Wasn't al-Hallaj's death a tragic and revealing parallel to the death of an artificial idea that had limited “infinite attributes expressed in infinite ways as infinite possibilities” to the views of 10th Century imams?

A description of al-Hallaj's martyrdom can be found in Farid ad-din 'Attar's Memorial:
“Al Hallaj's hands and feet were then tied to the stake, and with a single stroke of his sword the executioner severed Hallaj's hands. As the blood spurted out from his wrists it was seen to form the words 'I am the Truth' (Unal Haqq) as it poured onto the wooden boards of the scaffold. (...)

Al Hallaj's tormented body was left to bleed as he merged slowly into death. At the time of evening prayer the executioner cut his head off with a single blow, releasing his soul unto Almighty God. As the blood pumped forth from his trunk it uttered the cry 'I am the Truth' (Unal Haqq). Then suddenly every dismembered part of his body began to take up the cry, 'I am the Truth'. Throughout that night his trunk, limbs and sensory organs kept up the constant repetition of 'I am the Truth (Unal-Haqq).”


(This folio from Walters manuscript W.650 depicts the hanging of Mansur al-Hallaj)

LCB: The story you have related, Flora, is indeed moving.  And sad. You are right to note its implications--and the semiosis that produces parallel streams of meaning that identify and manage power within society.  And it does so through the disciplinary power of Truth--that exists everywhere and in all things.  And irt exists nowhere no forcefully than in death--of the individual, and not much later of the Arabic Caliphate at the hands of another sword of Truth--the Mongol horde.  The story is in this sense both subversive and cautionary.  It is subversive in the sense of its implications of the Truth coursing through the very body of the martyr.  And it is cautionary in the sense that such truth must be wary of and may have to hide its light in the face of the societally constructed truth of the apparatus of the institutional religion and the administrative apparatus of the state. Thus understood, the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Mansur, surnamed, al-Hallaj, is as relevant for 21st century Westerners living in an ostensibly freer society as it was for the residents of the 10th century Caliphate.

But for me this marvelous story raises somewhat distinct thoughts, thoughts that return us to the problem of the self and the mother, and ultimately to the self and the family--where one moves form the social to the societal self. Let us consider again the martyrdom of al-Hallaj from slightly different perspectives.    

First, on the meaning of truth.  Al-Hallj can to meaning through a process of self-reflection.  But that self-reflection was bounded within and drew from the social context in which he was situated.  Al-Hallaj understood truth and the relationship of truth to himself only within a social context in which he could both distinguish himself from Truth and draw himself as a being apart. The poetry of the physical dismemberment that only drew more tightly the unity of Truth is quite beautiful in the story.  But it suggests a Truth that is of consequence only to al-Hallaj. It represents an internalization of context that forms the self--but only in relation to the tangible and intangible world world within which that formation is possible.  Al-Hallaj is made up of truth as surely as his body is the sum of his physical parts. These truths derive their meaning from their relations with each other--truth then is the sum of the relations that make a thing coherent.  But that does not go to its meaning only to its form.  In a sense, and from the perspective of the social creation of the self, al-Hallaj wasa quite literally correct--he is the truth, for that is necessarily how he constructs himself, not from out of himself but form out of this social and quite intangible thing he calls "truth". Truth is, in the sense I have been thinking about this--very much al.-Hallaj's mother. Which of course leads us back to the truth form which he is constructed, from which he sees in its reflection his own form.

Second, the relational meaninglfulness of Truth.  Yet it is precisely that social context that can produce tension when one moves form the social to the societal. What was meaningful to al-Hallaj can be quite meaningless to the ummah (أمة‎). Here is the core of the difference between the social and the societal self. The social self is instructed form those relations between the self and her surrounds.  And it is shaped by those elements through which the self can attach meaning.  For my purposes the mother--first. Al-Hallaj can be understood as a saint, even by our own terms, in the sense that this social self grew in complexity and sophistication to the point where his construction of himself, that is his relational autonomy, could be said to embrace the world (as he related to it). He became the truth of himself in himself--but a truth drawn from himself in the world (not beyond it).  And that was good--as far as that went. And it went as far as his body and mind could take him (and thus the emphasis of the truth of and in his limbs and of and in his head--even after the societal organs of thew community in which he found himself exercised a power to sever them--and him--from society. Still, that he was the truth of himself does not speak to his relation to the society in which he finds himself.  That society also has a truth.  It can as truthfully say, "I am the Truth" and mean it.  This is a truth that may start with al-Hallaj's Truth, but  it is meaningful only as it constructs Truth for the purpose of managing people.  It requires the construction, not of the social self, but of a societal self, one whose inter-relationships and self knowledge is restricted and bent  to the "truth" of the societal organism that it perpetuates.   It is in this sense that the inversion of Junayd to al-Hallaj's statement makes sense: It is related that Hallaj met Junayd one day, and said to him, "I am the Truth." "No," Junayd answered him, "it is by means of the Truth that you are! What gibbet will you stain with your blood!" [MASSIGNON 1982: 127]

Third, the consequences of those relations in a context of power.  Such truths can be threatening to those who seek to guide the ummah and protect it from the devi.  This devil ios not un-truth, but rather a truth that disturbs the societal organization, the coherence, of an operating community by undermining its own self conception. It is in this context that heresy is far more powerful than fancifulness--for heresy is also truth, just one that has the power to unmake a societal organization and re-make it in quite a distinct image.   Al-Hallaj was punished not necessarily because of his belief, or because of their verities.  He was punished in effect when he sought to move his social construction into societal space.  That is he was punished when he sought to challenge one orthodoxy-- the world construction of societally structured Truth--the another.  And in that process, the issue of power, of human relations beyond truth, were implicated.  Here we understand Truth in a wholly different way--as the manifestation of power and power relations necessary to form and hold together a coherent social order.  In this sense, the state is also Truth--as is the priesthood that protects its theological orthodoxy.  This is a truth made up of a set of limbs, much like the physical parts of al-Hallaj himself.  The body of the state and its systemic qualities is well known.  It is a physical organism that is the construction from out of its own truths.  And it remains coherent only as long as the societal expression of those truths is believed--and enforced. 

Fourth, and thus to God.  In whose image is Truth created?  It is the notion of imagery that is the most beautiful and the least appealing.  God here serves as a residuary, as the thing within or beyond the self to which one can point for authority to engage in the hardening of self or societal reflection that becomes the basis of not merely self discipline bit also the disciplinary assaults of the societal being.  Who is God in the martyrdom of al-Hallaj--perhaps it is that manifestation of omnipotence that took the form of Junayd al-Bagdadi, who stands as the bridge between the social self of al-Hallaj and the societal construct of the al-Hallaj's obligations to a theocratic order in which his public declarations of private self, posed a danger to the truth on which the societal space was organized.  God in the construction of the social stands everywhere--affirming the social construction of the selfness of al-Hallaj through the imagery of the dismembered body, and affirming the power of orthodoxy in the elaborate imagery of an execution designed to highlight the separation of al-Hallaj from the body of the ummah. And thus to the autonomy of the social self, and its implications for the construction of a societal self, that I take up next.

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