Postmodernism & Globalism.
By BRYAN S TURNER. London: Routledge, 11 New Fetters Lane, 1994. 228pp. 0-415-10862.
Max Weber's celebrated thesis that Islam as a religion incarnates a 'warrior ethic' that is 'inherently contemptuous of bourgeois-commercial utilitarianism', Bryan Turner once argued in a pioneering work (Weber on Islam: a Critical Study, London, George Allen and Unwin, 1974), is without any factual foundations. Indeed, in this study, which is Turner's principal claim to an Islamologist's attention, he charged that for all his advocacy of the separation of 'facts' and 'values', the great sociologist was quite lax in checking out his own facts. Significantly, Turner's charge stuck and he was much influential in breaking the spell of Weberian sociology which had enjoyed a canonical status among Orientalists. Turner's subsequent appeal to Marx for the termination of the reign of Orientalism and reconstruction of an alternative sociology of the Middle East (Marx and the End of Orientalism. London, George Allen and Unwin, 1978), was far less successful. The Marxian universalism could not redeem the curse of Weberian historicism and eurocentrism and Turner had to shift his gaze away from the 'arid' landscape of Islamic East to the greener pastures of modern and postmodern sociology.
In the early days of his career, Turner also rubbed shoulders with radical Muslim scholars and even contributed to their anti-imperialist rhetoric, albeit in his characteristically erudite and persuasive manner. Some of Turner's vintage, but none the less seminal, essays that appeared in obscure journals or poorly-edited volumes are luckily included in this collection. One finds here, for instance, the author's quite original and radical reflection on 'Orientalism and the Problem of Civil Society in Islam' that, unfortunately, has not provoked the kind of scholarly debate that it merits, no doubt due to the poor accessibility of the book in which it originally came out (Orientalism, Islam, and Islamists. Ed. by Asaf Hussain, Robert Olson & Jamil Qureshi. Amana Books, Brattleboro, Vermont, 1984). Also part of the present volume are Turner's highly insightful recensions of the writings of classical Orientalists such von Grunebaum and Marshal G Hodgson. These alone should prove to be of immense interest to an Islamic scholar.
Despite its conception as a motley collection of essays, some of them previously published, Turner's present work comes out as a closely-knit volume that makes a coherent theoretical statement. It is not only rich in reflective and analytical resources but also provides the much needed corrective to the liberalist's insufferable hubris, so much in vogue after the departure of the Marxist from the intellectual scene. Neither an Orientalist, nor an anti-Orientalist, Turner looks at Islam through the prism of a social scientist and though he does not yield to the theologian's claim, he displays no prejudices of the imperialist or the missionary either. And the Islam that he presents is contemporary, existential and intelligible and not merely textual, theoretical and esoteric. In short, there is much that is attractive in Turner's perception of Islam as a social phenomenon, even if, it goes without saying, not all of it is palatable to a Muslim. The profounder issues of faith and knowledge, of meaning and transcendence in human existence, for instance, are not part of the sociological discourse. It is the absence of these - and not any poverty of Turner's scholarship and methodology - that renders the sociological vision deficient in the eyes of the Muslim.
The Islam of the sociological discourse is, of course, an immanent phenomenon and not a transcendent ideal. As such, however, it is also an elemental fact of the pathology of its putative other, the Euro-West. No image of the Western self is either comprehensive or comprehensible if it does not include a complementary picture of the Islamic other. Islam is an inexpungable constituent of every past discourse on Western identity, be it religious and premodern or imperialist and modern. 'The Orientalist discourse,' admits Turner, 'was ultimately about the origins of the West, not the origins of the East.' True enough, today's global discourse lacks the impunity, ambition and certainty of yesterday's imperialist epistemology. However, by recklessly canonizing every local narrative, it also turns itself into a non-discourse, a realm of description without the rule of norm! Turner's study relates to this nondescript 'postmodern' scene in a spirit of critical inquiry. In fact, he even attempts a restitution of the universal subject on the basis of a non-relativising modernist consciousness. However, the postulation of a universal cogito, that has become the nightmare of both philosophy and sociology, remains problematical because the sociological self has no transcendent moorings. Without these, it will always remain vulnerable to the reductionist assaults of historicism and relativism. There is nothing in Turner's world-view to suggest that it can acquiesce to the demand of a transcendent basis of the self.
As for Orientalism, whatever its other benefits, the furor over Edward Said's book (London: Routledge, 1978) was instrumental in putting the problem of the Other right at the top of the Western academic agenda. Inadvertantly or not, Said's assault also let the Nietzschean genie of will-to-power out of the bottle of truth. Not only did Said's work thus cast a dark shadow on the meaning of the Western truth, it also unearthed some really sombre secrets about the impossibility of possessing a self-image without the construction of an alter ego. Indeed, a pessimistic reading of his text may lead one to conclude that language is a totally self-referential system and that there is no escaping the metaphoricality of the world. The Other, in short, cannot be represented, only misrepresented. If so, then the problem of the Other becomes as intractable as the problem of evil. For the existence of the Other can either be evaded and disregarded or confronted and terminated. (Such indeed is the verdict of a modern thinker who contends that to the problem of alterity, Western political thought so far offers only two solutions: amnesia or extinction. (Vide: Michael Brint: Tragedy and Denial: The Politics of Difference in Western Political Thought. Westview Press, Bolder, 1991.) Needless to say, what is true of the West is also true of other civilizations!) In sum, without conducting a radical debate on the 'ethic of alterity', the academic critique of Orientalism merely scratches the surface.
It is to Turner's credit that he manages to squeeze together in a single scholarly vision nearly all the current discourses of modernity, postmodernity, orientalism, globalism, sociology of religion, anthropology and so on. (Some of the topics discussed in this volume include: 'The concept of the "world" in sociology'; 'Nostalgia, postmodernism and the critique of mass culture', 'Politics and culture in Islamic globalism', etc.) And he does it with an erudition and critical acumen that is always gratifying, even for the non-initiated Muslim reader. Turner's retort to the anti-relativism of Gellner, for instance, is from a Marxian vantage-point which asserts that 'it is social being that determines consciousness and not consciousness that determines social being.' Gellner's anti-relativism, then, appears to him to be concerned primarily with intellectual and theological problems and not with the social reality of our times where humans, as social beings (read: consumers), can easily cope with the diversity of commodities available to them in a global market. Indeed, the distressing insight is that Mammon not God reigns supreme inside the evil empire of global postmodernism and that it is goods not ideas that undermine religious faith. A Muslim may, however, reject postmodernism precisely on these grounds; that, ultimately, it incarnates a faith in goods and not in ideas; that it worships the immanent god of flesh rather than the transcendent one of spirit. The Islamic stance thus entails not only a rejection of the immanentist metaphysics of postmodernism but also the consumerist gadgetry of postmodernity.
In fact, the Muslim has other, more compelling, reasons for rejecting the postmodernist Utopia. For the postmodern non-discourse does not merely remove boundaries between various academic disciplines, or obliterate divides between philosophy and poetry, it even makes redundant every distinction between excellence and mediocrity, between gibberish and speech, between dialogue and pandemonium. In short, it eliminates the possibility of a qualitative and normative - indeed cognitive and moral - judgement altogether. As such, the Muslim need be circumspect and censorious of the postmodernist claim to relativistic tolerance, for it may conceal the nihilism and will-to-power of the civilization in command.
For ever challenging and demanding, but also for ever stimulating and gratifying, Bryan Turner's critical reflections on 'Orientalism, Postmodernism and Globalism' deserve the reader's fullest attention.