The following is a pair of Muslim saints’ lives, included in a biographical compilation (Luṭf al-samar wa qaṭf al-thaman) by an early 17th century Ottoman author from Damascus, Najm al-Dīn al-Ghazzī, the scion of a prominent family of ‘ulama, and one of the more prolific Damascene authors of the first part of the 17th century. His biographical histories include many saints’ lives, with a special emphasis on holy men with whom he or his saintly brother Shihāb al-Dīn al-Ghazzī had contact. Perusing the pages of these collected lives, a veritable ecosystem of sainthood and sanctity comes to life, populated by individuals of striking piety and of often controversial actions and behavior. Sainthood was and is a deeply social phenomenon, particularly in the Ottoman world wherein no ecclesial or political authority offered canonical guidance in the question of who was and was not a ‘true’ friend of God. Rather, something of a consensus among devotees would emerge, often alongside challenges from other directions, concerning a given person’s sanctity and closeness to God. In the first life which I have translated here, we meet an enigmatic majdhūb, or possessed saint, who displayed seemingly erratic and irrational behavior, interpreted by those around him as the manifestation of jadhb, or divine attraction. Like many such majadhīb, he seems to have come from a rural environment, and in lieu of complex doctrinal teachings, he manifested his sainthood through strange, even shocking actions. And like many such possessed saints, he deliberately transgressed social boundaries, in particular, strictures on gender segregation and contact. His companion, Dervish Ḥusayn, was also marked by his transgressing of social norms, in his case, through living for a time an extremely hermetical life, even refusing to speak directly to most pious visitors. Yet before we imagine a gulf between such ‘transgressive’ forms of sanctity and the scholarly ‘ulama class from which our author hailed, al-Ghazzī also describes the ties of members of the ‘ulama with these two saints. Dervish Ḥusayn, for instance, made an exception to his hermit’s life to discuss religious matters with al-Ghazzī and his shaykh.

Finally, these two lives, in addition to revealing aspects of the ecology of sanctity that animated the Ottoman world- not just Damascus, obviously- is also a poignant look at a natural disaster that hit the city and took the lives of both saints. The seventeenth century was a period of intense climatic flux across the Ottoman world, and indeed across Eurasia and North America. For already marginal ecologies and landscapes such as that around Damascus, the intense weather patterns often associated with this period of climatic instability could be quite tragic. Indeed, al-Ghazzī ends his life of Dervish Ḥusayn with a note of sorrow, a rather rare intrusion of emotion in a genre known for its workmanlike nature more than its emotional depth. Lives of holiness could generate social bonds among people otherwise quite distant, bonds whose emotional traces could live on long after the physical death of the holy person.


Ḥasan al-Sayyid al-Majdhūb, the believed in. It is possible that he was from one of the villages outside of Damascus. He entered Damascus and dwelt near the Umayyad Mosque, by Bāb al-Ghazāliyya, for two years, being provided for from the unknown realm of God (min ghayb Allāh), from what the people gave him as charity, they believing in him. Then he moved to the Yalbagha Mosque, below the Damascus Citadel, and dwelt near it. Then there was a day in which a man from the Mevleviyye, from the faqīrs of Molla Hunkār, sat near him. A cat came and received something from the hand of the Mevlevi, who then killed the cat. So Sayyid Ḥasan stood up and killed the Mevlevi! Then he was turned over to ‘Ali Ḥasan Pasha ibn Muḥammad Pasha the Vizier—who was then the nā’ib of Damascus—who asked him: ‘Why did you kill this man?’ He answered: ‘Because he killed my cat!’ So he released him due to his jadhb.

After this he moved to a garden, in the area of Arza, that was part of cultivated lands. A group of people from this area reported to me that in the wintertime the snow would not touch him when it fell, nor would it affect the place in which he was. He was not harmed by either heat or cold, summer and winter. The people sought to visit him here, come to him with food and drink, sometimes perceiving from him mystical unveilings. Next, he moved to the summit of Mount Qāsiyyun, dwelling in the Grotto of Scarcity, between the Grotto of Blood and the Cave of Jibrīl. Shaykh Ḥusayn al-Rūmī associated with him—he used to worship in that wadi before him for some two years—as well Shaykh Abu Bakr al-Dabbāgh, though he died before the other two of them, they remaining after him. The people, men and women, went up to visit the two, with many women believing in him. Sometimes they would unveil their faces and he would touch them, they receiving blessing through his touch. Sometimes women would seek him out in order to fulfill some need of theirs and it would be fulfilled. He was immersed, he neither rationally understanding nor being rationally understood. Disapproval from many fell upon him, the main object of the disapproval being the unveiling of women before him.

On Monday, the 13th of Ṣafar, in the year 1018 (May 5, 1609), the 8th of May (Ayyār), before noon, a cloud-mass came in which were roaring winds, strong thunder, and sheets of lightning. Then its clouds heaped up and grew denser, then great strong hail began to fall, the size of musket-balls, at three or four different points in time, concentrated on the Ṣālaḥiyya [Neighborhood] and the Mount, mostly on its western flank, much of it on the city of Damascus itself, to the point that courtyards and alleyways were filled with hail. The valleys of the Ṣālaḥiyya began to flood from the storm, particular the valley in which is the Grotto of Scarcity, the flash-flood sweeping along houses and tombs, many among the living dying, a group of buried dead being brought forth as if resurrected from the dead. Due to the force of that flood a deep channel was gouged out in that area, and great rocks were dislodged. Among those who were swept up and buried by the flood were Sayyid Ḥasan—the subject of this entry—and his companion the dervish Ḥusayn al-Rūmī. Sayyid Ḥasan was pulled out on Tuesday, the 14th of Ṣafar, the aforementioned year of 1018, and a massive crowd of men and women attended his funeral procession, the women being more numerous than the men, because they made up the greatest number of his devotees. Among those present were Shaykh Muhammad ibn Shaykh Sa’d al-Dīn, and his son ‘Īsa and his brother Sa’d al-Dīn. I prayed as imam for him and for the woman who died with him under the destruction brought down by the aforementioned deluge. Later that day, the dervish Ḥusayn was extracted, and was buried the following day in accordance with what will be mentioned in his biographical entry.

Ḥusayn al-Rūmī the Dervish, dweller on Mount Qassiyūn for two years. He came to Damascus as a young man, devoting himself to acts of worship. He frequented our shaykh, Shaykh al-Islam Shihāb al-Dīn al-‘Aythāwī, and would ask him about matters of religion. Then he secluded himself in a little cave near the Grotto of Scarcity on Mount Qassiyūn, retreating to it, narrowing its entrance upon himself. He would not go out to anyone who intended to visit him, so people would pay visitation to him from behind a veil. Our shaykh—God be merciful to him—used to make visitation to him, I with him, and he would come out to us and discuss various matters with the shaykh, asking him of religious matters that occurred to him, and he would give him indications in various sorts of acts of worship, our shaykh thus giving him instruction.

There was upon him the luminosity of obedience and the traces of sanctity. He remained in that state for two years, then Shaykh Abu Bakr al-Ḍabbāgh gathered to him and dwelt in the Grotto of Scarcity, the two coming together for acts of obedience to God. Then Shaykh Ḥusayn got married, and lived with his wife in a little house built for him nearby his cave, Shaykh Ḥasan the aforementioned joining with him subsequently.

When the flash-flood, mentioned in the entry on Sayyid Ḥasan, came, on Monday, the 13th of Ṣafar, in the year 1018, it picked up rocks of the valley, carrying them along and engulfing the house in which he lived, he and Sayyid Ḥasan being in the house along with a woman, the sister-in-law of Shaykh Husayn’s wife. They all perished under the rubble. Sayyid Ḥasan and the woman were pulled out Tuesday morning, and I prayed over them together as previously mentioned. Dervish Ḥusayn was not seen, only being found in the evening of the day, and pulled out. The next day, Wednesday, he was washed and shrouded, and our shaykh went forth for the prayers over him. It was not easy for me to be present at his funeral due to the love between him and I and my belief in him. He was buried alongside Sayyid Ḥasan on the summit of Mount Qassiyūn. God be merciful to him!

Najm al-Dīn al-Ghazzī, Luṭf al-samar wa qaṭf al-thaman, j. 1, 402-405, 416-417



The dome of al-Shāfi’ī’s tomb in Cairo, Egypt, with its distinctive and somewhat mysterious boat perched atop. Source.

When once [‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Sha’rānī, d. 1565] was hindered from making a visit to [the tomb of] Imām al-Shāfi’ī, God be pleased with him, he [al-Shāfi’ī] came to him in a dream-vision and said to him: ‘O ‘Abd al-Wahhab, I am censuring you for your paucity in visiting me!’ ‘Abd al-Wahhāb replied, ‘Tomorrow I’ll come and visit you.’ But the Imām said to him: ‘I won’t release you until I go with you to my place.’ So he took him by the hand, until he ascended with him upon the back of his dome (qubba), underneath the boat (markab) that is upon it. He spread out for him a new mat and place before him a dining-cloth upon which was tender bread, cheese rounds, and split open for him an ‘abdallāwī melon. He said to him: ‘Eat, O ‘Abd al-Wahhāb, in this place which kings of the earth now departed desired to eat!’

Muḥammad Muḥyī al-Dīn al-Malījī, Tadhkirat ūlī al-albāb fī manāqib al-Shaʻrānī Sayyidī ʻAbd al-Wahhāb


A symbolic depiction of Ukrainian nationalism, c. 1920

While the world probably doesn’t need any more commentary on the recent American election, I’d like to offer some anyway, though in a way that looks at happenings beyond the US to the rest of the world, where we see related patterns unfolding according to local particularities and conditions. While the US is its own case, it is also part of an interconnected world, the ties of global capitalism, human movement, globalized classes, elites, and political structures, and other things working to move American realities in directions broadly congruent with other, often quite different, parts of the world. My thoughts here—which are reflective of the halting directions my political thought have been taking as of late, but should not be interpreted as final or fully coherent—are springing off an article by Jonathan Haidt from back in the summer, but which is rather prescient and worth reading in its own right. What follows here, then, are three interlinking thoughts precipitated by, but in some cases sharply diverging from, Haidt’s article.

One, while right now the dominant options are either liberal ‘cosmopolitan’ globalism or some form of nationalism, within the framework of nation-states (whether more autonomous or more directed from supra-national entities being at question) and of some form of globalized (if not globalist) capitalism, those are not in fact the only options. To give but one example, the recent resurgence of indigenous American assertion and resistance, symbolized and embodied in the Standing Rock movement, presents a form of anti-globalism that is not ‘nationalist’ (or ‘rightist’) in the conventional sense, but embraces and draws upon particularity, a form of ethnic solidarity, respect for and continued use of tradition, and respect for place and collective past, without aspiring to possession of a nation-state, the rituals of nationalism, or the temptation of xenophobia. We could point to any number of indigenous movements around the world, or inter-related struggles for peasants’ rights, food sovereignty, and the like, most of which are grouped under a ‘left’ rubric but are in fact more complicated than that. While they may ‘speak’ some of the language of liberalism and of universalisms, they also speak in indigenous registers and traditions, out of an attachment to place, ‘tribe,’ and ‘particularity,’ against the forces of both nationalism and globalism. Dismissing these movements and peoples as ‘reactionary’ or ‘backwards’ not only betrays a lack of empathy but, more importantly I think, a lack of imagination for what is possible once we begin thinking past the confines of existing political philosophies and cultural configurations.

Second, one of the reasons for the enduring, indeed seemingly irrepressible nature of nationalism over the past hundred and fifty plus years, is that it is in general explicitly closer to human reality than are internationalist and globalist ideologies (something Haidt suggests in his article). That is not to say that nationalisms do not depend upon abstractions, constructions, and all manner of schemes to create, regularize, and defend the abstractions within them. They do, and scholars have spent a great deal of time dissecting and detailing the ways nation-states do this work. The nation-state is a construct of power and a construct of imagination. But—and this is the crucial point—while a given nationalism might have mythical abstractions, and even universalist pretensions in its ideological genetic material, those abstractions and pretensions do tend to recognize certain fundamental truths about human beings, truths that globalists also embody (in different ways) but do not, or cannot, so explicitly recognize, often seeing them as obstacles to ‘progress.’ Humans are embodied, contingent creatures. Humans build social relationships through face-to-face interactions, and are predisposed to care more for other, often related (whether through blood ties or fictive kin formations) human beings than for abstracted groups or ‘humanity’ at large. Humans inhabit particular places and form their psychic landscapes through those places. For most of humanity, including in the present, ‘home’ is a concrete, spatially fixed location in the world, with its own cultural dynamics, ecological systems, and sets of human relationships, regulated by unspoken custom. Human relationships are strongest within a certain numerical limit, and humans find it easiest to relate to people similar to them. While industrialization and the rise of the nation-state have introduced immense changes and disruptions to how humans experience the world and their home, or homes, in it, much of that basic reality remains, even as it has become transmuted into new and different and often decomposing forms.

Now, it should go without saying that nationalism maps but imperfectly onto those human realities. In fact, it must often struggle against many of those facts of human nature, but it does so with a close and open eye to them, to integrating the psychic drives and bodily formations into the needs of the nation-state. Nationalism must always strike a balance between preserving, and appropriating, attachments to real particulars—home, family, locale, landscape, linguistic practices—and subsuming or even destroying those particulars in the national project, particularly when localized identities refuse to congeal into the ‘nationality’ under construction. The construction of ‘race’ is one such construction, ultimately abstract and indeed empty, but lining up with deeply embedded and embodied human ways of being and doing, even if its potency requires reinforcement and locating within a nation-state project. Unlike, for the most part, globalism, nationalism ‘knows’ to speak human languages and to at least project the appearance of human scale. It must maintain its ties to the human and particular, it must always draw upon the concrete, the personal, the customary, even if in the process all of those things are reduced to so much rubble. Globalism, on the other hand, while it has its own particular language and customs, either tends to reduce cultures outside the metropole to romantic artefacts or cooks them down into legible and regulated ‘identities’ that may exist under globalism through the rubric of ‘diversity.’ But it cannot appeal to particularities and local ties and ‘parochial’ concerns in the way nationalism can, and this makes it weak outside of those spheres economically and culturally representative of globalism and cosmopolitanism. A liberal globalist might confront ‘Islamophobia,’ but he is unlikely to actually defend Muslim gender constructions or valorize Islamic forms of devotion.

Finally, it is important to recognize that globalism and the ‘cosmopolitanism’ that underwrites it are not in fact truly ‘global’ or ‘cosmopolitan,’ but expressive of, and expressed in, particular situations and places, supported by economic and political force—something that has been true since colonial times and continues to be true today (and there is a vast literature on the paradoxes and resources to violence that earlier forms of liberal ‘cosmopolitanism required and expressed).  In fact it would be better to speak, as with nationalism, of plural globalisms, unified analytically by shared traits and tendencies—mutually intelligible registers and dialects of one language, perhaps. The cultural-social ‘homes’ of these globalism(s) are almost overwhelmingly in major cities and their ‘satellites,’ particularly universities, but also, and increasingly, online—a ‘place’ of a different sort, but still a place with many of the same functions and contours as literal socially-conditioned and created spaces. While liberal globalists might find contingent allies in many places—particularly among migrant members of ethnic minorities—the core inhabitants of the liberal globalist ‘world’ tend to be middle-class and up, often of European descent but not necessarily so, ‘secular,’ and spatially mobile within limits. While they may move from London to New York, or from Princeton to Portland (and may have their natal origins almost anywhere), there are clear ‘tracks’ of localities along which the ‘global citizen’ moves and recognizes herself. Just as there are geographic routes, there are also clear and recognizable ideological and cultural routes, overlapped with practices and beliefs that are shared among all permutations of liberal globalists. As with any broad analytical grouping, globalists are heterogeneous, even as they aspire to universalism and abstraction (a unifying characteristic, even if they vary greatly otherwise). They can afford not to feel threatened by immigration for two reasons beyond ethical or ideological considerations: one, by its nature ‘global’ citizenship assimilates people from every background (like many imperial or quasi-imperial systems in the past), provided they accept the dominant tenets and cultural practices of the particular subgrouping into which they assimilate. Two, globalists occupy the upper echelons of economic life, which translates into cultural and socio-geographic stability. While their political power might fluctuate, since America and Western Europe remain committed to albeit weak forms of democratic governance, their economic and cultural situation has so far evaded any serious assaults, even if the penetrative power of globalist hegemony is unlikely to extend much beyond its economic-geographical enclaves.

In conclusion, both ‘nationalism’ and ‘globalism’ are in their own ways quite strong and quite entrenched. Right now nationalisms are pretty clearly ascendant politically, though things could change from one place to another. Globalisms are not going away, of course, and as long as global capitalism—the economic envelope that makes all forms of globalism possible—continues to be the strongest and most viable form of economic organization, globalisms will also thrive in their native habitats. But the liberal universalisms espoused by globalists, and the political forms enacting them, are probably going to continue to run into interference, particularly as globalists find themselves locked in battle with nationalists—a situation that is not actually a necessary one, as Haidt suggests in his article. Globalists must have recourse, if they are to win political fights, to at least some of the languages of nation, particularity, and so on, mixed with the appeals to abstract and universal values that are more native territory (nationalists, too, it should be noted frequently have appeal to universal values and beliefs—the difference being more one of emphasis and centering than of mere matters of inclusion or exclusion). But such appeals, even if they reflect the social reality of globalist life, tend to undermine the stated ideological foundations, and anyway mostly work best on insiders (just like nationalist language). A better solution, though, I have to admit, for now a less likely one, is to explore possibilities outside of this dualism, outside of the givens of nation-state, global capital, liberal hegemony, and centralized power.

Political ideologies are deeply toxic, psychologically destructive things. Their function is fairly simple: they allow people to navigate the contours of states and industrial economies, and they offer the surest routes into the ‘core’ of such entities. They map the terrain. But in so doing, they also preclude all other terrain. Modern ideologies, even when they incorporate ‘extraneous’ elements, reduce all other forms of identity and meaning and value into a homogenized, internally bound whole. When these ideologies encounter insurmountable incongruity, or outright collapse, the damage to individual psyches and emotional well being is enormous, as all the erasures of identity and personality come to light in the gaping wound left by epistemic collapse. The subject is left confused and troubled, anxious to rediscover the surety that was there before.

In the American context, liberalism—here understood in the American vernacular rendering, though the broader sense should be kept in mind—is the primary, or perhaps, strongest vehicle of this totalizing effect, of this subsumption of all else into one overriding, all-structuring political and ideological identity and generator of meaning and social value. Conservatism by its very nature lacks systematization, and requires the existence of other values, other traditions, other forms of life, to give it meaning—even if all those other things are themselves deeply deformed and distorted by the effects of modernity (and in the American case this is especially true). Over time, it is true, many of the identities and traditions and forms of life which flow into conservatism have themselves become artefacts of ideology, integrated into the logics of the state and its political, value, and linguistic systems, albeit in often erratic and unpredictable ways (the current political disruption being one such effect). But the multiplicity of identity and meaning among conservatives remains, if only in tatters—not necessarily healthier or less damaging psychologically, but perhaps with slightly more openings out. Perhaps.

For liberals, however, everything tends to be reduced to political identity, and hence to the fortunes of political power and influence, and the coherence of the ideology as a historical, ‘progressive’ force.  The gaps in the liberal mythos, the epistemic problems, are usually safely obscured by effective propaganda, which becomes internalized and reflexive. But sometimes it all breaks down. These last few days in America have seen such a break-down—even if, rationally speaking, there is really very little threat to the liberal order of things (which depends far more on deeply embedded structures of state and economy than on electoral epiphenomena), at least for now, with the recent revolts against the liberal episteme and order being more on the level of peasants’ uprisings or early attempts at dislodging European colonialism—reactive and often disorganized, ultimately subsiding back into the status quo, or devolving into scattershot violence. But that is another tale. If in fact the ‘real’ threat to the ‘concrete’ liberal order is rather tenuous, that is not to say that the threat to the identity generated by the liberal order has not been very real and very deeply felt—because clearly it has. The shock of the unexpected, of an event that simply was not possible according to the liberal episteme and rendering of history, has had immense physiological, and even physical, effect upon people. While it will adjust in time, the therapeutic propaganda and forms of socially generated meaning that usually ’solve’ incongruities and threats have all failed and have not yet found the grounds for re-adjustment. They will, of course, eventually re-congeal, though perhaps in a weaker, less self-assured form, or, equally possible, in a retrenched, more closed and more assertive form. But in the meantime this particular toxicity of modernity has risen to the surface, and has caused very real harm to people, compounding the harm that the entire ugly dialectic of combating identities has caused overall. This is not, it should be said, to deny that a given political event or disruption will not have very real effects, including the current disruption in American life. Rather, it is to point out what more such disruptions do beyond the level of calculation and analysis, what they do to identities and structures of meaning, apart from any ‘concrete’ effects in the ‘real world.’

It almost goes without saying that such ideological renderings of identity have a socially corrosive effect—one which can, ironically, threaten to undermine the stability of the very states that help to generate them. Totalizing political identities preclude grounds for dialogue with others, because they take potential common grounds—cultural activities, academic pursuits, religion, shared spaces, economic struggles—and enfold them within the totalizing political narrative, and in so doing tend to generate reactions across the divide. One is no longer a ‘Christian’—one becomes a ‘liberal Christian,’ which generates ‘conservative Christian’ opposite it. And so on, with different permutations depending on the dominant ideological structures, which of course vary from one nation to another. On a further ironic, and indeed tragic, note, this social corrosion often works against some of the very stated goals and moral positions that a given ideology embraces, be it a desire for social justice or national unity and cohesion.

None of these identities are invulnerable, and no ideology, political identity, or indeed any artefact of human society is static and totally enclosed. Everyone contains healthy tensions and heterogenieties to some degree, and there is always hope for even the most thoroughly propagandized and integrated person. That said, there is no simple route to liberation or reconstruction. It is not enough to undermine a given ideology, because in so doing the very identities and meaning of individuals are also being undermined, down to the very foundations. Besides the possibility of devolution into mere cruelty for cruelty’s sake, simply undermining an identity or ideology often has the reverse effect of leading to its regeneration, often in a worse and more entrenched form. Rather, I think that it is kinder, and more practical, to work at opening up cultural and personal spaces that purposely evade or work against totalizing ideologies. Such spaces—which can be manifold—can have the effect of introducing heterogeneity, of other possibilities, other renderings of the world and of meaning, to people whose lives are otherwise heavily structured by dominant, dominating ideologies and political identities. Making genuine encounter among differently politically structured people is absolutely necessary, if also very difficult. Simple refusal to see people within different ideological blocs and structures as enemies or as ‘incurable’ is absolutely necessary, if also difficult. And above all, we must work within given realms—religious, cultural, academic, economic, and, yes the political—to liberate them from the totalizing structuring effect of state and capital, in ways that do not simply reproduce new forms of totalizing domination and pyschological captivity. And we must be realistic. So long as structures of state and capital exist in their current forms, all that I have described here will exist in some form, and the toxicity and alienation and impoverishment will also continue. No one is to ‘blame’ for all this, because what I am describing operates at levels far above any given political struggle or even ideological rendering. Rather, we should see it as part of the panoply of unintended effects of the modern, industrialized world we inhabit, effects we might not be able to supersede, but which we can, at the very least, seek to ameliorate through thoughtful strategy and the hard work of patience, empathy, and kindness.

The following are some thoughts and outlines of theory that aim at encapusalating some of my developing thought on human social order, the dynamics of historical change (particularly in the modern world, as we call it), and so on, which do not really ‘fit’ into my own academic work, but which lie behind how I think about the pre-modern world and my role as an observer and shaper of historical knowledge, which is always knowledge intimately tied up with the present. These are quickly assembled thoughts-out-loud, but I hope they prove of interest and use to the reader who takes the effort to navigate them.

1. On Discontinuities and Disorder: One of the problems that particularly marks our age—by which I mean the last half century or so, though with extensions backwards through the era of Western industrialization—is the problem (which is also a potent problématique) of radically discontinuous time scales within conjunctive social, political, economic, and ecological systems and processes. While technical advances and developments, be they in socio-political organization, economic systems, or actual technology, have moved many aspects of life on this earth into incredibly high-speed trajectories, they have been unable—and are most likely necessarily unable—to effect such transformations across the board. In fact, many of the most salient and vital processes, systems, and exigencies remain on time scales similar to or the same as during any period of post-agricultural revolution human history, and in some cases—particularly ecological and geological aspects—pre-human time scales. If our technics allow, for instance, for rapid, unpredictable socio-political disintegration, it is not clear that they encourage symmetrical forms of re-integration and re-formation, processes which are slow and unsteady, and which tend to require periods of relative stability and, crucially, extended time scales. One of the results of these discontinuities, I think, has been the rapid cyclical processing of global history, with periods of incredibly rapid formation and development along many metrics, followed by equally incredible periods of collapse and destruction. The succeeding periods of re-integration and re-building tend to automatically have the seeds of their dissolution built into them, accelerating the cycle. Of course, different societies have had very different responses to this process due to vastly differing historical circumstances and contingencies, but all societies have been subject to it, and it is possible that we are seeing, in this very historical moment, convergences towards a single unitary period of dissolution, with no clear route forward afterwards. Technics are growing more and more integrated and rapid, obliterating many quotidian time scales, yet proving incapable of shoring up or replacing many of the social systems, ecological processes, and interpersonal relationships that they are helping to either obliterate or destabilize. We are faced with a situation in which stable, resilient systems are necessary more than ever, but the tools and exigencies at our disposal increasingly trend in the very opposite direction.

2. What I am Trying to Do: The sort of theoretical position, the philosophical-political vantage point I am seeking in what I think and write, is a stance that seeks, first of all, to background my own ethical or other concerns, at least for the moment, and to instead to try to understand the composition and movement of human life within existing historical spaces—particularly, in a contemporary political context, the space of ‘modernity’/modernity (see below for the logic of this bifurcation). At the same time I am necessarily engaged in critiques of existing orders and structures, to be sure—the very need for critical discourse implies as much—but I must aim for not so much an objective stance as once that is open across possibilities and that is aware of, to put it hyperbolically, everything.

Such a stance could not hope to rid itself of ideological traces and ethical concerns, of course, but it must strive to first foreground them in awareness and then to place them aside, while being aware as far as possible of their traces on one’s self and one’s observations and analytical conclusions. Also, one might point out—and she would not be inaccurate in the observation—that such a theoretical stance is also a political stance, and that it is a political stance of some privilege, or at least of displaced ethical and political necessity or duty. Not all people can, or are able to, afford themselves the pleasure of observation at a certain distance, of trying to background their ideological drives, which are often borne out of very real and pressing exigencies of daily life and struggle. Yet, I would counter or suggest rather that even the most existential struggle (and sometimes struggles that present themselves as existential in fact are not…) needs the benefit of displaced observation, of attention to what is possible, to what is actually existing, and to the dynamics of human action and situation described without the distortion, at least for the moment, of explicit ethical or ideological configuration.

Human life unfolds within multiplicity, with divergence, displacement, disorder, from the biological level on, all constituting and being constituted in the human person in and through the relationships that each human person, and all persons en toto, form and are formed by. The work of the both each person and of larger societies (and inter-workings of societies, the enfolding of cultures and structures and systems of order and coordination) is to coordinate and to make orderly these seemingly infinite ‘inputs,’ conflicting claims of order, sense datum, discourses, and possibilities. The goal of the theorist observer is to locate the logics—usually un-perceived and un-known to the agents themselves—the strategies, the processes, the rejected possibilities, which humans use and are used by in structuring order into the potentially destructive heterogeneity of life. The best theorists will sense in all of this great wonder: the wonder at the seemingly miraculous continuance of life, the ways in which humans come to structure their lives and multiplicitous relationships even, perhaps especially in, the midst of forces of disorder and destruction, be they extra- or intra-human. It is in this wonder that the border between the work of the social theorist and observer and that of the philosopher proper and theologian is met, I think, a border that is certainly porous (and which is traced elsewhere in the theoretical landscapes in which we labor, borders tending to be not merely etchings in one spatial or imaginal-theoretical place, but visible and reproduced across the landscapes they mark), but which has a defensible ontological basis. If we on the social science side of the humanities are given the task of understanding the workings of the human world (and, increasingly, the non-human world), and of the dynamics and logics underlying those workings, we are still left, at this boundary of wonder, with the metaphysical, as it were, underpinnings of all that we survey. If we become aware of the creative drive, the self-organizing principle, or whatever we wish to call it, that is manifest up and down the cosmos, including our human worlds, then we may wish to identify it and to explore it. But the other side of the border, while we in other capacities may investigate, is terrain not ours to claim. We must have the humility of recognizing the limitations of our particular science, the places to which our investigations can come, the gaps and absences and barricades we will encounter. This is not to say they are unknowable (though some perhaps are, at least for us), but that the technics for knowing them, the epistemic routes, are otherwise.

For our attempts at knowledge are themselves a part of the great mesh of the world, in which being and coming into being structured and animated by multiplicity and unicity are mixed up in our constituting and our very observations. This goes without saying, yet we tend to forget it, deliberately sometimes, more often in the breach.

3. The Contradictions of ‘Modernity’/Modernity: Underlying modernity, as one of its key structuring ‘logics’ or rather contradictions (to wrest Marxist language away for my own use here) is the contrast between egalitarian, leveling, often libertarian impulses, ideologies, and sentiments, on the one hand, which reject hierarchy, social, class, and other forms of differentiation, alongside the sorts of political-social structures that also mark modernity and whose generation and sustenance—but also undermining and mutation—are paradoxically bound up with and conditioned by the very sentiments of egalitarianism, social leveling, and personal liberty (themselves not entirely cohesive approaches or sentiments, of course) they are often meant to express and defend. Of course, there are many other logics that give rise to the extreme structuration, hierarchical division, subordination, centralization and monopolization of power, and so on, that characterizes so much of modernity, many of them largely unrelated to the egalitarian and liberal sentiments and ideas that also animate and flow within the body of modernity as it is actually realized in the world. No theory or political ideology or plan of action has been able, or is likely to be able, to resolve this fundamental contradiction, a contradiction which tends, over time, to vitiate every political organization, every ideologically principled platform, regardless of which ideological tradition of modernity it stems from, or under which economic structure it is expressed. Hierarchy inevitably re-emerges, differentiation of power and status not only does not diminish but in fact tends towards acceleration and rigidification and reification, only to provoke a reaction on the part of people and political movements inculcated with a desire for leveling, for the egalitarian, in short, for all the promise of the animating ideological creatures of our age, be they liberal democracy, communistic socialism, anti-colonial nationalism, and so on. Even as the political expressions of these ideological constructions (though construction is probably too strong a word here) transform into socio-political structures and traditions of governance and economic order, their very success in inculcating anti-hierarchical, libertarian, and egalitarian concepts and sentiments and desires in the governed populace tends to ensure their undermining and replacement in time.

This cycle of reaction is not predictable, however, for the simple fact that ‘modernity’ (and here the marking off by quotes is most applicable) is everywhere and always met with deeply heterogenous situations and penetration, its localized and historically contingent manifestations never fulfilling the sort of theoretical neatness and demarcation an observer might desire or an ideologue might strive for. The ways in which discourses of egalitarianism or liberation or individualism are actually expressed and realized in given peoples at given times will never quite match the sort of theoretical, heuristic rendering I have just given. But, because the theoretical construct of ‘modernity’ is not simply heuristic but points to very real, if fluid and heterogeneous, structures, processes, bounded discourses, and traditions, we can identify general tendencies and trends, cyclical (or at least cyclical-seeming) patterns that manifest across historical circumstances. The logics of the modern state, for instance, tend towards reproductability across circumstances, even when those circumstances do not in fact lend themselves to such a reproduction. Codified and hierarchically ordered knowledge and practices have the ‘benefit’ of being, or at least appearing to be, transferable, giving a certain stability to what we call ‘modernity,’ even as the cultural practices and distributed social arrangements and ideological configurations tend towards greater fluidity and less cohesion. Economic structures as well, which are bound up with the political and the ecological, tend to have a stability and reproductability that makes them strong carriers of discourses and practices of modernity.  Finally, in any given circumstance modernity/‘modernity,’ with its paradoxical pairing of egalitarian impulse and hierarchically ordered centralization, is not the only operative discourse, or even the most powerful, but tends to be in competition and hybridization with many other discourses, some predating it, some having arisen (or being in the process of generation) concurrent with it, in its orbit but not subordinate. The current locus classicus for this facet of modernity is the rise of Islamic reformism and Islamism, where the discourses and technics of both statist, rationalizing modernity and its egalitarian, leveling twinned impulse, meet within the powerful discourse of Islamic reformism, a discourse with genealogical roots other than those of modernity (at least in the immediate sense—both ultimately can be traced to the dual inheritance of Judaic and Hellenic religion and culture). One could reproduce this example across the globe, each instance taking its own configurations, these shared contradictory impulses and structuring principles appearing again and again, with similar political and social results.

This ‘complex’ of contradictions appears in these very words I have typed: I am simultaneously deploying my individual power of analysis, my self-authorization (or so I and my reader might assume or want to assume), on an ostensibly ‘democratic’ technical platform, open to all (in theory) and open to critique from anyone and everyone. Yet at the same time, in making my argument from a position of personal authority, authorized by my society’s insistence on individualism and egalitarianism, I am also deploying highly structured, highly hierarchicalized discourse—the sorts of words I use, the ways in which my arguments are built, the ways in which I reference or do not reference others and the traditions in which I inhere, and so on. Hence my critique, or my critique presented as an observation, is structured by and indelibly marked by the traces of the very discourse I am critiquing, and it has, so far as it has any power effect at all, a similar effect within the configuration of relationships within which my fragment of discourse exists. Hence the power of ‘modernity,’ and the difficult of speaking it and around it and beyond it. I suspect that it is the very heterogeneity of modernity, and the ultimate limitations of its hegemony, that provide the openings, as it were, for critiques such as this, even as critiques operate very much from within, if not entirely within. There is always a plurality of discursive space, no matter the situation, no matter how seemingly fenced in and hegemonically determined.

As a child I would for hours crouch along
The gentle rise of that old refuse pile, its last discarded
Entry from well before the Depression. Rhizomed grass and dropped leaves,
The archivists. I delved gently into the covering soil,
Turned black and loamy with the century past, and worked
Out bits of blue-and-white, medicinal bottles, metal melted back
Into elemental shape, and met the roots
Of the nearby sweetgum piercing the far more ancient sky above.
Beyond the daylilies nodded, following the sun. And so
I began to learn what it is to feel, rough and dark and smooth and giving-way, all,
The traces of the lives of others past, welling, up from the mothering ground.


Stars’ embers on almost endless delay, reach us,
Their light caught in these faded folds of the hills,
Where old oceans rolled, then rivers wound, palimpsests tracing,
Old houseplaces now under ground set round by heavy limbed
Oaks, settling. The waters move on to the living sea.
The stars flame out in the infinite distance.
Somewhere a kettle boils, steam clouds shimmer by the kitchen window
In someone’s eyes for the last time before they will close in death.

Lines for Epiphany

The voice of the Lord is over the waters
And the water’s voice also speaks
Of the hidden mystery of all things in their suchness.
Out of the veil of the six dusts, swirling about the Feet
The Baptizer was not worthy to unshod.
Out of the blood spilled by a brother on the thirsty
Ground, dried, eternally heavy.
His voice rises, warm and steady.
Not with water, but with Fire…