Social Systems have always changed,
essentially and incidentally, throughout human history
and have given way to new systems.
No one would deny it
But has this process reached perfection in the capitalist system
and come to a dead stop?
(Nazim Hikmet: Human Landscapes from my Coutnry. An Epic Novel in Verse. Translated from the Turkish by Randy Blasing & Mutlu Konuk; New York: Persea Books, 2002: 449)
Some time now – and although it is not really a long time that I am here, I kind of settled – knowing at least the basic stuff: how to get to town, how to avoid going to town and get the groceries locally, how to get one of the washing machines working, that one should not to sit in the sun (well, I only learned that locals don’t do it, look for shadow as soon as there is even on a coldish day a snatch of sunshine, but I still love it, enjoy the warmth of this kind of deception, feeling little bit like a cat: striving for independence, expressing my own sense and still clinging to each individual sunbeam, succumbing to nature’s deception) and … how to say günaydın, merhaba, kahve sade, çay and sağ olun, being woeful but pretty certain that there will be not much more in terms of learning this language.
In passing a short note on the learning: Actually, since I gave in and up on this issue: striving to learn, it is getting much easier to pick up things – it may show that I am beyond the stage of learning. We all know children have difficulties to learn systematically, in an enforced setting – but they easily pick up things.
And don’t we know also that older people become like children again?
Well, knowing the basic stuff is one thing; and learning the important things is another matter … – and in any case surely all things come together in some unforseen ways. Leaving the work on the book on precarity and the other on the financial crisis aside (don’t remind me: exam papers are piling up too: done one lot from Cork, sent stuff to Kuopio already and the first lot from Budapest coming in now) – and forgetting some other sideshows – a major topic is for me the work on the book abut Social Policy and Religion. It is only another book I am editing – and the two pieces I will be contributing myself are surely not be the most important. More important surely Yitzhak’s, Mustafa’s and Hurriyet’s. And as exciting these and the other contributions are not least for me, it is especially here, in terms of space and time, the opportunity to talk with Mustafa about the topic, his special topic: FBOs – Faith Based Organisations (Hurriyet is Turkish but lives in Australia and Yitzhak in Bet El – kind of around the corner but still too far away – and actually one of the few people with whom I am against the odds (or due to them?) nevertheless permanently in touch – a virtual world made real.
I frankly admit – I understand at most half of what Mustafa is saying: the different names, the terms not only from Turkish but also from Kurdish, Arab … If there is any Liquid Modernity, as Bauman talks about, is not least a matter of liquid past – of time as container for processes. The one part of it is the simple knowledge – more or less easy to obtain simply by reading. Sure, a lot of reading is required to get a sound knowledge as we finally cannot understand today’s structures without insight into the history also of the Ottoman Empire – and this means to engage also in the history of the entire region. But as much as we read, another part will still be difficult to grasp – the part which Charles Taylor in his book on A Secular Age conceptualises as ‘social imaginaries’. And it runs through social science as permanent topic, employing us under terms as habitus, life regimes, life styles, national character and national Zeitgeist and the like.
To face it, the real difficulty is not so much or at least not only the complexity of the other. Rather, it is that we are ourselves pruned – or at least our ability to open, detached perception is limited.
A seemingly purely academic question – it seems. We need a starting point. And this is the threshold we will and have to use – it begins with language. The simple example is coming from language – simple in both directions. To learn a term in a new language we have to know it in our own language, don’t we? We make then take as example Thank You – one of the basic and simple terms. However, looking at one of the translation websites we know soon that simplicity and language don’t go easily hand in hand:
What are the services being rendered to us?
(1) sağ olun – be healthy, be strong – is used as – thank you – for a service which:
– Was not necessarily needed to be performed.
– for someone who has gone out of his way to help you.
(2) While – teşekkür ederim – thank you – [Lit: a thanking perform I – from Arabic] is used:
– In normal circumstances and receiving presents.
And this is not all we can earn from that website – but surely it makes a huge difference if we say the one or the other to somebody, possibly making the gesture with which we want to show our respect a little bit offensive, suggesting that we see the other as a kind of servant.
All this seems to lead in a Platonic quagmire: we have to know already – quasi ‘from another world’ – what A is to be able to recognise that A is actually A. Or it ends in some kind of nihilism, making us – or at least our educators – even godlike: a tabula rasa which waits to be written on. –
Thus spoke Zarathustra:
Behold, I teach you the overman! The overman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the overman shall be the meaning of the earth!
But before getting trapped in such philosophical questions we are – facing a very basic question: who is the other.
Prejudging – pejorative versus submitting
Part of the solution is that we are indeed all ‘others’ – and as much as we wanted to avoid the trap of Platonic determinism and Nietzschean nihilism we are entering a new trap: doesn’t all being ‘others’ also mean that there cannot be any ‘we’, that there is then no society? Surely a minefield between pure individualism and even hedonism standing now against a fixed identity.
But identity may actually help us further – a matter of The Stranger, eloquently captured by Georg Simmel in his piece which had been published in 1908 as part of his opus magnum on Soziologie. Untersuchungen über die Formen der Vergesellschaftung (Duncker & Humblot, Berlin 1908 [1. Auflage]) –
If wandering is the liberation from every given point in space, and thus the conceptional opposite to fixation at such a point, the sociological form of the ‘stranger’ presents the unity, as it were, of these two characteristics. This phenomenon too, however, reveals that spatial relations are only the condition, on the one hand, and the symbol, on the other, of human relations.
This of course leads to an entirely different stance
The stranger is by nature no ‘owner of soil’ – soil not only in the physical, but also in the figurative sense of a life-substance which is fixed, if not in a point in space, at least in an ideal point of the social environment. Although in more intimate relations, he may develop all kinds of charm and significance, as long as he is considered a stranger in the eyes of the other, he is not an ‘owner of soil.’
So the stranger is indeed everywhere and my contemplation on this topic is twofold: the one the theoretical work on a piece that looks some economic issues: Marxian value theory, its meaning for the middle classes and a new assessment of precarity. The middle class can in that context be very much seen as a ‘stranger in the own society’ – being even less integrated than the worker: the latter, though lacking the property of means of production s/he is at least technically owner, has the power over, the capability of controlling the process. This is something the middle class usually doesn’t have – as Bildungsbuerger – a kind of humble men of letters – the knowledge is removed from practical relevance, as ‘officer’ in the military force or the bureaucracy, knowledge and its carrier is not more than a means of others: a manager, following rules s/he didn’t develop. Or even worse: developing rules that emerge as cage that will later serve as his/her lodging: the golden cage, its floor covered with the Golden Fleece attached to medals obtained for submission under hegemonic rules.
The other side of the stranger is employing me …, in the same way, ut now in the perspective of everyday’s life.
Having said this I am hesitating, asking myself if it is really the stranger or if it is the strange: something that is unknown. And here it is the challenge of understanding the world we are living in, seeing it in some neutral perspective and striving for detachment and disenchantment – the world is not a miracle. It moves without being moved by an eternal and external power as much as it moves without our engagement.
And nevertheless, even if we accept it – moreover because we have to accept this – we have to understand the rules in order to be able to … change it. And the paradox is: in order to understand society – and also in order to understand ourselves – we need distance. And distance always has to do something with enchantment – the inexplicable, something that is seemingly bizarre, that perhaps cannot be understood and that definitely cannot be taken for granted. And nevertheless, it is the distance that actually may allow us to develop an understanding – so that all the excitement may soon be lost. A brute opening in front of us – emptiness of complete knowledge:
Ils sont parfaits, trop parfaits peut-être, enfin, ils m’ennuient. (Stendhal: Le Rouge et le Noir)*
Or the opening for new mysteries – some surely in details, as we had been making leaps of progress: from Newtonian mechanical thinking for instance to Einsteinian thinking relativity to Bohrian Quantum Theory and what followed to rest for a while in Chaos Theory. Did I write ‘in details’? The detail is about predictability – ad as much as chaos suggests at first site a lack of it, it is on the contrary: gaining insight, gaining predictability as we are not satisfied with broad brushes. Rather, we can see the details now and we can get engaged with them – if we find the actual questions rather than trying the impossible: applying the new knowledge (base) in the old fashioned ways (that is what for instance managerialism, organisational learning ad knowledge management are about).
And it is probably the historical tension we live (in), presented in the mentioned book by Taylor (page 269):
Unbelief for great numbers of contemporary unbelievers, is understood as an achievement of rationality. It cannot have this without a continuing historical awareness. It is a condition which can’t onky be described in the present tense, but which also needs the perfect tense: a condition of ‘having overcome’ the irrationality of belief. It is this perfect-tensed consciousness which underlies unbelievers’ use of ‘disenchantment’ today. It is difficult to imagine a world in which this consciousness might have disappeared.
In this sense we may live our life as Hemmingway lived words:
All my life I’ve looked at words as though I were seeing them for the first time.
Sure: Forms are different – but underlying content is very similar
From far away, but still it sounds as if it is around the corner I hear the voice from the mosque – posing a similar question to that we kow from Christianity, asking For whom the bell tolls.
Not less sure: Content changes – and forms are stable, as we can see from the following quote
For both men and women, coffee has been at the center of political and social interaction. During the Ottoman period, women socialized with each other over coffee and sweets. Men socialized in coffee houses to discuss politics and to play backgammon. In the early 16th century, these coffee houses played host to a new form of satirical, political and social criticism called shadow theater of Turkish folklore in which puppets were the main characters (such as Hacivat & Karagoz). Over the years, Turkish coffee houses have become social institutions providing a place to meet and talk.
Finally one can have a coffee just by oneself – my daily breakfast routine: first kahve sade – the spirit and spirits being stimulated already by the smell and the lovely crockery, then çay and günlük simit.
And I will have the kahve sade even when I get back to Cork, where I still have my ‘Turkish coffee maker’, the present I got some years ago from Sibel and Kezban.
Is all this about disenchanted enchantment?
As said in the begining: the first basic questions are answered; and it is time for important questions, time to turn to thinking about the need, or at least usefulness of a philosophy of kerbstones.
But that is for another day – the first of May should be a day of overcoming these borders and get us on the streets.
* They are perfect, perhaps too perfect; finally I find them boring (my translation; PH)