The Imperialists New Clothes

Twenty is a nice round number. In human years, twenty is sufficient a time to feel one has amassed enough experience about a thing that one feels these experiences count for something. It is also a point, in human years again, where one can look back as much as one can look ahead, especially when one is reminded of the Prophetic narrative, related by Abu Hurairah:

أعمار أمتي ما بين الستين والسبعين – “The age of my Ummah is between 60 and 70 years…”. Al-Nawawi relates it as hassan.

Hadith methodologies aside, standing so close to the 40 year mile marker, I look back on my twenty years as a Muslim with an increasing amount of introspection. And what I fear most for the future of Islam in America is not anti-Shari’ah legislation or hate-related attacks, but the continued cultural imperialism and colonization of the American Muslim mind.

There are two major areas of concern for this cultural imperialism: the hegemony of western academia over the definition (and thus potentialities) of what constitutes Islam (this being labeled more specifically intellectual imperialism) and the domination over Islam’s definition by legacy Muslims (what some might call immigrant Muslims), what I would call cultural imperialism. Both of these forms of authority present serious challenges to the growth and development of an indigenous, prosperous and autonomous Islam in America.

There can be little doubt as to the power that western academia has wielded over the definition of Islam. Names such as Montgomery Watt, Arthur John Aberry and Bernard Lewis come to mind. Non-Muslim contributions to Islamic scholarship aside (think Bruce Lawrence, Miriam Cooke, John Esposito, etc.), these authors have primarily been an outside group looking in. I say this not to dismiss their scholarship or critiques, but in being an outside group that wields an almost exclusive authority which supersedes Muslim scholarship and sensibilities, you have a scenario which makes it difficult for Muslim scholarship to be respected even concerning itself in western academic circles. In fact, this whole genre, which formerly fell under the title of Orientalist studies, held much of traditional Islamic sciences and scholarship to be suspect if not unreliable. The method of this authority is quite convenient considering that so-called Orientalist studies were themselves an advent of western academia and never a term applied by Muslims themselves (for more on this topic I recommend readings on Max Weber’s application of essentialism). From this vantage point, non-Muslim scholars of Islam (particularly western) have enjoyed a perch which favors them the definers of what is and isn’t Islam and Islamic scholarship. This ranges from the structure of Islamic studies in the western canon to the essentializing of an Islamic aesthetic, all of which have been based on their own provincial understanding of texts, with cultural observations coming in a distant second.

All this has often led western non-Muslim scholarship to the conclusion that it and it alone, knows what defines “true Islam”. And hence, with western scholarship enjoying the position of disseminating from the position of colonizer, many Muslims have adopted the very same vernacular in an attempt to seize this “true definition” from the grasp of the western usurper, and define for themselves (and for all other Muslims, too) what “true Islam” is. So in fact what see more today has less to do with Samuel P. Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations and more to do with a clash of narcissisms. Being that modernity is reluctant to administer any recognition of truth (let alone, truths), western scholarship has set the tone for the battle over norms, a battle it is still currently winning. It is for this reason Islam can easily be rendered a bewildering collage of non-sensical images, and just how and why Islam (and by proxy, Muslims) can never truly match up to western aesthetics of beauty or “the good” (even if those Muslims are themselves western!).

Likewise, many American Muslims suffer from a lack of self-esteem and autonomous authority due to the self-inflicted head wound that rendered all American sensibilities concerning Islam suspect. For this reason you will see American Muslims abandon their own modes of dress in favor of those which are deemed to be “Islamic”. In one such exchange, I asked a young man as to why he chose to wear a thobe, or a Middle-Eastern style one-piece clothing. His response was that it was closer to following the “Sunnah” or established habit of the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم. When I asked him to unpack his claims and to provide clear proofs that the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم wore a thobe out of a sense of religious devotion, and not out of say, cultural normalcy, he had difficulty in doing so. In fact, I pointed out a verse from the Qur’an that spoke of women wearing thobes as well:

والقواعد من النساء التي لا يرجون نكاحا فليس عليهن جناحا أن يضعن ثيابهن غير متبرجت بزينة “As for women who have passed child-bearing age or have no hopes of marriage, then there is no sin upon them if they remove their *thobes* so long as they do not flaunt their adornments,” [Qur’an, 24: 60].

The point being, the Qur’an clearly uses the word *thobe* as a general term, for it is well accepted that the Prophet Muhammad would never dress like a woman unless that item of clothing could be considered categorical (shoes, hats, shirts, etc.). And yet despite this, many American Muslims continue to dress in a manner, claims of ostentation aside, which alienates them from the rest of society. But what is at stake here is more than simply modes of dress, it is about the very potentials of Islam, the ability to be and live and express oneself according to one’s cultural norms, so long as they do not infringe upon the principles of Islam. Interestingly enough, Shaykh al-Islam, Ibn Taymiyya, often regarded as a “hardliner” and ultra-conservative, was against Muslims dressing in such a way that it either brought ridicule on Islam or ostracized Muslims from their cultural and social context (see Taymiyya’s Futuwwa).

If Muslims in America are to have any hopes of navigating their future here in America, it will necessitate the establishment of bona fide Muslim intellectual rigor as well as cultural confidence. Such intellectual rigor will need to be able to stand up to the challenges of Orientalist scholarship that is not at its center hostile, but seeks to put forth its own equally valid interpretations and postulates as to what Islam is (in essence, making “true” somehow plural). It will also require American Muslims to feel confident enough to walk around in their own skins (and clothes) such that, moral requirements withstanding, American Muslims look like, if not verbatim, their non-Muslim American counterparts. This will require the above two forces to come together (the intellectual and the cultural) and chart a new course, one that leads not simply to survival, but to a flourishing American Muslim population and culture and ultimately, to the pleasure of God in the next life.

At least that’s what the 20th mile marker is tell me when I look down the road.

Art As Ideology – Notes On Bourdieu

Marxist analysts of culture, as well as sociologists, have always struggled with the problem of how to explain the social nature of art without making art into an appendage to ideology, that is, an expression of “class interests”. Most Marxist art historians agree that reflection theory, i.e. artistic works are a reproduction of the norms and values of a social group – such as the Boston elite for example – is a rather crude way of defining the relations between artistic production and social surroundings. Reviewing various Marxist approaches Janet Wolff tries to find a more subtle approach.

Wolff asserts that all art is ideological, in a broad sense, in that it is socially and historically situated, related to people’s material conditions.

“Works of art (…) are not closed, self-contained and transcendent entities, but are the product of specific historical practices on the part of identifiable social groups in given conditions, and therefore bear the imprint of the ideas, values and conditions of existence of those groups, and their representatives in particular artists” (49).

Marx himself has left ambiguous, contradictory statements on the relation of art to society. In The German Ideology, he affirms that ideas reflect material or class interests; that culture is a representation of the bourgeoisie’s, the ruling classes desire to organize society according to its interests. In Grundrisse (the draft version of his critique of the political economy), he explains the paradox that Greek art, though created by an economically backward people with a slave economy, still sets aesthetic standards and gives us enjoyment. Marx never wrote systematically on the topics of culture and art.

Cultural critics inspired by Marxism, e.g. Georg Lukacs, Raymond Williams, John Berger, Lucien Goldmann, related art more or less directly to the dominant ideology or to the ideology of a social group. Thus, Lukacs, in his Studies in European Realism, explained the French novel of the early 19th century as a progressive literary genre, because it expressed the social and philosophical aspirations of a still revolutionary bourgeoisie. In the first half of the 19th century, the bourgeois class was still embattled with the remains of aristocratic privilege. Writers such as Stendhal and Balzac thus voiced the concerns of a class speaking for the whole of society. However, after 1848, progressive writers could not express bourgeois ideology anymore, as in the 1848 revolution the bourgeois class had crushed the propletariat and henceforth was not any longer the champion of universal values (liberté, égalité, fraternité), but represented only their self-interest. In Lukacs’s view, writers had therefore to critically distance themselves from their own class or openly take sides with the working class.

The English critic John Berger, believes that certain art forms are directly linked to the ideology of the bourgeois class. Oil painting is a case in point. Oil painting developed during the Renaissance, with the rise of the new merchant and manufacturing classes. It gives all objects an alluring surface and corresponds to the desire to acquire and to possess, thus expressing the middle class self-identification with material success. Berger develops this idea in e.g. his analysis of Gainsborough’s “Mr. and Mrs. Andrews” having their portrait taken in a setting that displays their possessions; or Holbein the Younger’s portrait of the two ambassadors in the midst of all the paraphernalia of their privileged and cultured life. According to Berger, the genre of the female nude in Western painting is directly related to oil painting, allowing for the representation of women as possessions.

In France, Lucien Goldmann attempted to overcome this kind of reductionism by defining great literary or cultural works in terms of “world vision”, the intellectual outlook of a social class or group within wider society. He identified the 17th century Nobility of the Cloth, administrators in the king’s service whose social and economic status was threatened. Members of this social class became attracted to a very austere variety of Jansenism, a Catholic sect strongly influenced by Calvinism, which interpreted life in dark terms. Two members of this group, Blaise Pascal and Jean Racine created one a tragic philosophy and the other a series of brilliant tragic plays. Goldmann wanted to show that an exceptional individual can crystallize the world view of a social group and transpose it into art or literature. Thus, between ideology and the individual writer/artist, there is the mediation of the group; there is no direct link between the dominant ideology and an individual work of art. In principle, with Goldmann’s theory, it becomes possible to describe different social groups and their outlooks that could crystallize into a world vision, however, there are not many of these stark visions around.

Another French critic, Pierre Bourdieu, would give no credit to the Marxists’ attempts at defining a more complex relation between artwork and society. He dismissed all Marxist criticism as reductionism, what he called a “short circuit effect”: linking an art work directly to social and ideological structure without explaining its complex existence in the artistic field. Bourdieu charges Lukacs and Goldmann with attributing the genesis of cultural works to world views, ideology, or patronage of specific social groups or classes. Instead, one has to analyze a complex set of relations existing between social groups, artists and society. Artistic production is imbricated in a whole network and field of artistic production. In The Rules of Art, Bourdieu explains that for Lukacs, bourgeois society is a totality, that is, the capitalist mode of production and the social class in whose interest material and intellectual culture is produced form a coherent whole. The artist either reflects these values or else he must distance himself personally from the bourgeois class in order to keep Enlightenment values of universal freedom and progress alive. In either case, Lukacs cannot account for the diversity of cultural production, he has to exclude, disregard, or discard most of 20th century literature as pessimistic, psychological and subjective, i.e. non-humanist, and non-progressive.

Bourdieu affirms with Max Weber that capitalist society is less of a coherent entity under the undivided rule of the bourgeois class, than a highly differentiated society. Weber believed that modern capitalism develops into complex structures of specialties, into spheres that each produce their own experts, specialized knowledge and language; culture is one of them.
Bourdieu’s concept of cultural field explains culture in terms of a highly complex and diversified activity. The cultural field produces experts that testify to the legitimacy of cultural practice (museum curators, gallery owners, historians, critics, journalists, specialized reviews, journals and events; schools, academies; mediators, facilitators, etc.) Thus, there exist – between the level of economic production and consecrated art – a whole layer of complex structures. Each section of cultural activity is ruled by its own laws of legitimacy, defended by gatekeepers. Bourdieu sees the relation between those who belong to the field and those who strive to gain access as a fierce struggle between social actors who defend their privileges and others who dispute them. According to him, the definition of a field can be contested – as the Dadaists attacked the legitimacy of painting – its rules can be questioned and redefined, but a field cannot be destroyed.

Nevertheless, class as a defining factor has its place in Bourdieu’s theory. The study Photography. A Middle-brow Art constitutes an attempt to define a hierarchy of cultural activities in a democratic system. Bourdieu distinguishes three spheres:

a.The Sphere of Legitimacy with universal claims that the cultivated classes will favor: classical music, painting, sculpture, literature and theater, art practices legitimized by the Academy and the university;

b. The Sphere of the Legitimizable which comprises working class and middle class activities and tastes : cinema, photography, jazz and chansons, fought over by competing authorities of legitimation, such as critics, clubs, and specialized journals; c. The Sphere of the Arbitrary with relation to legitimacy: fashion, design, decoration, cookery etc. and which produce their own, not generally recognized authorities.

Bourdieu’s theory is an advance over Marxism inasmuch as art forms are not evaluated in terms of class tastes or ideological contents, but rather in terms of the conformism of art works to the rules that govern each field. Art is thus accorded a certain autonomy.

Even so, Bourdieu’s theory does not escape the reductionism he was eager to avoid. For instance, in his analysis of amateur photography, of the everyday photographic practices of the working and middle classes, he finds that the laws that govern photography happen to be a “conventional system which expresses space in terms of the laws of perspective” (73), and happen to coincide with the ethos of these classes. He develops a correspondence theory, claiming that the mechanic art of photography invites the social uses to which it is put by the middle classes. The middle classes do not choose artistic photography – though they are aware of it – but the conventional type of photo. The latter is characterized by a perspectivist, central viewpoint, it is legible. It is chosen for its capacity to record, to fix a moment. Thus, what is important here is frontality, striking a pose, taking decent pictures of people, respecting their dignity, etc. The aesthetic of the working classes is derived from their ethics: photography is not considered an art by them, as it is the product of an object, an apparatus and not of an individual, a painter.

Bourdieu recalls the idealist German philosopher Immanuel Kant who distinguishes between that which pleases and that which gratifies; who separates disinterestedness and contemplation from the interest of Reason, the Good. Only that what pleases in a disinterested way can be considered true art. In other words, art has no practical purpose. Adopting this principle, Bourdieu points out that the aesthetic judgment of working class people always refers to a system of norms whose principle is ethical. To take useful pictures is important to them. Thus, the photographic taste of the working classes is in Kantian terms “barbarous taste” (90), as it objects to the meaninglessness of the image, and rather bases appreciation on the informative, the tangible, and the moral interest. The image is subordinated to a function: the family photograph, the souvenir, the document. The working and middle classes are aware of the fact that there is a different aesthetic code in photography, however, they claim the purely artistic photograph is not for them. For instance, they would not do close-ups of a leaf, pebbles or a wave…

Still, even though Bourdieu acknowledges the existence of an artistic photography (Man Ray, Brassaï, Cartier-Bresson) he pretends that it has been unable to develop an aesthetic of its own, that it is totally dependent on the rules that govern painting. He has never explored the particularities of artistic photography, nor has he inquired about the mutual influences of painting on photography and photography/film on painting. We briefly looked at a few paintings by Jacques Monory, based on American B-movies.