January 18, 2019
University of Toronto
Mahshid Zandi and Khalidah Ali
Interview with Charles Hirschkind
Mahshid Zandi: You engage with concepts such as religion, secular, and state by bringing into light what these conceptual categories have excluded.
Khalidah Ali: For instance, the Islamic counterpublic in Egypt involves a public moral discourse that does not follow the logic of liberal public discourse, and in Spain you look into the ways in which laws themselves originating in Church law are married to secular laws, thus revealing the entwinement of religion and the state.
MZ: How do you think the exclusionary nature of such categories can be addressed epistemologically—dealing with supposedly homogeneous definitions that have been exhausted—or ontologically—attending to the conditions of possibility for the processes through which such categories are constructed, contested, permeated, and reconstructed?
Charles Hirschkind: It is important not to take those categories as natural, but to explore the ways in which those concepts construct the worlds we find ourselves analyzing. This is different than simply understanding the meaning of those terms; it means an attentiveness to the performative work they do, beyond their functionality as analytical categories. This can be traced ethnographically, but also by exploring how those concepts construct the objects that are available to our analyses.
So, when you go into the field, around the category of religion, one has to think: What work is this category doing in the context that I am looking at and how has the history of that concept shaped the ways in which people understand themselves? This also involves thinking about questions of translation and how the central categories of European modernity have come to acquire the force they have, both in colonial and postcolonial contexts. One has to try to register the force exerted by those categories and the institutions that mediate their circulation in delimiting the available options that people encounter.
MZ: Has your use of these categories shifted from Egypt to Spain?
CH: An important part of my early work, with the questions about religion and secular, has been both trying to recognize what these categories are doing, and to show aspects of life in Egypt that these very categories render difficult to see.
I went to Spain not really knowing what I was going to do. What drove me there was an interest in the debates about Islam in Europe: the precarious position of Islam, the question of the compatibility of Islam with European values, the first headscarf affair, etc. I had written a couple of things broadly on political theology. I thought it might be valuable to explore some of those questions from a very particular standpoint, one in which a Muslim presence in Europe had deeper historical roots. So in terms of the categories, it turned out the most of the categories central to my earlier work were no longer useful. I didn’t work on media at all. Even the categories of religion and secular played a more minor role. The Spain project led me to think about questions of history and memory, though, quite unexpectedly, what I found in the end did have a strange echo of the earlier project. The question I ended up with had to do with a tradition from the late 19th century among a broad array of Spanish people in Southern Spain. This group insists on the importance of the Al-Andalus, as a period that has been neglected, denied, and effaced from Spanish life and culture. This group was motivated by the idea that for Spain to confront the problems of modernity, it had to embrace that lost past.
This movement is called Andalucismo, and these who promote it, Andalucistas. From the standpoint of mainstream historiography, these people are seen as romantic Orientalists, appassionati who created an idealized image of a wonderful harmonious Medieval period of cohabitation. As I explore in my work, these people found themselves summoned and recruited by the past; they found that this past spoke to them in a very powerful way and they attempted to shape themselves to better perceive it by exploring the Muslim and Jewish inheritances that they saw still evident in Southern Spain. I don’t think this engagement with the past can be grasped through a problem of Romanticism as it is commonly understood, as marking a particular style—and an erroneous one—of interpreting history. It posed the question to me of how the past speaks to us. We don’t just invent the past; we find ourselves interpellated by the past and how we respond to that call is an ethical question. The Andalusicistas found themselves hailed by this past and sought to recognize its presence in their lives. So, my new book explores music, politics, history, and art as four areas in which this recognition has been pursued and elaborated.
There is a temporality to human existence; we find ourselves already articulated within a temporal structure and we respond to that in a variety of ways. The modern liberal stance denies this temporality, saying “we are free agents to create our lives as we want, and we are not constrained by our embeddedness within longer historical frames.” This is the standpoint of much of mainstream history. It relies on a presentism in which history is an absent part of who we are insomuch as our lives are understood by what we do in the present. Andalucistas reject this presentism. They assert, to the contrary: “no, actually we are historically constrained and the only way we can fully recognize this is to passionately engage it.” So to grasp the significance of this heritage, in their view, requires one to be moved by the very Andalusian landscape, by its poetry. What I’ve said here was all a preface for talking about the relation between the projects: I came to look at the way in which people attuned themselves to hear a past that hailed them and to think and live ethically and politically in light of what they heard.
MZ: Is it an attunement to/being called by something sacred?
CH: Yes and no. The Andalucistas did not see it as sacred necessarily, but they saw it as making passional demands on them, and also as something transcendental, and of universal significance. In the book, the first thing I say is that I am not going to use the language of ghosts. I think that is the wrong language, because it presupposes an idea that derives from mainstream history that [claims] the past would not haunt us if we had an adequate relation to it. Then it would truly be past and we would no longer be haunted, and we would be free to be living our present. Behind this idea, once again, we see a presentism, the notion that our lives are construable as existing solely in the present. Therefore, when the past haunts, it is because there is a problem that has not been resolved. But what if you start with the premise that the shape of human life already has a historicity to it and it is already connected to, not all but some aspects of the past? Then the question of the past and the present is not one of an inadequate relation, as it is in haunting. The question is: What are the different possible relations to the past that I find myself inhabiting?
KA: Do you do an ethnography of the contemporary Muslims in Spain?
CH: Each chapter starts in the 19th or early 20th century and then moves, in the second half, to the present. So each chapter focuses on a historical figure and a contemporary one. However, most of the people I focus on are not Muslims.
KA: In The Ethical Soundscape, you talk about the ethical structures of the counterpublic and how they are intertwined with the politics of the state in Egypt. The radical shifts in the politics of the state in recent years in Egypt would in that case change the quality of the counterpublic. How have politics under President Sisi impinged upon structures of moral life and ethical discourses and practice of the Islamic counterpublic?
CH: I think there are interesting things to explore, but at the same time, one has to recognize there are longer temporalities that are not simply undone by short-term political turmoil. The practices I described [in The Ethical Soundscape], I don’t think they have disappeared, but are instead taking different forms. For example, Amira Mittermaier tells me that among the so-called secular-oriented youth who participated in the 2011 uprisings there are those who have now turned to religion and are exploring questions like “what is God?” and are joining Sufi tariqas. Back when I was in Egypt, none of those activists would have imagined joining a tariqa. But now there seems to be a religious yearning that is finding new expressions. So how does one write about that? One can think about the longer term and can look to the intellectuals in the sixties and seventies who came out of Marxism, gravitated to Islam and became leaders of the Al-Sahwa Al-Islamiyya [The Islamic Awakening] – they also found themselves compelled to take up certain theological, doctrinal, and religious questions. That’s part of a longer trajectory which is embedded in features of Egyptian and Middle Eastern societies. It is important, therefore, to capture the newness of these forms while not losing sight of these longer histories.
KA: In “Granadan Reflections” (2016) you argue that a common conception of Granada is that of a “phantasmic” city, that the “Islamic past only speaks to and inhabits its present in the modalities of romantic fantasy, myth, or nostalgia” (p. 215) and this is in the academy and in popular Spanish opinion. But there is an asymmetrical relation between material space Islamic monuments occupy versus how much imaginal space they occupy in the national memory of the Spain. What are the means through which these macro-narratives have been established and policed and how has the Islamic history been so successfully relegated as “Other”?
CH: After the final defeat of Granada in 1492, the last Muslim Kingdom in Iberia, there was a systematic attempt by both Church and Crown in various ways to eliminate the Muslim and Jewish dimensions of Spanish society. There were attempts to remove it from the language, attempts to remove it architecturally, musically, restrictions on dress, and so on. This religious and political attempt, not only to eliminate people but eliminate the remnants of the society they had helped to produce, has been ongoing, if in changing ways. Of course, these efforts have not been entirely successful, as is obvious, for example, with the Spanish language, where aspects of Arabic remain. Spanish historiography, we might say, has a unique position in relation to these efforts. On one hand, recent generations of historians have done much to bring the period of Muslim rule into visibility, greatly enlarging our understanding of the complex societies of medieval Iberia. On the other hand, the discipline has often taken on the role of unmasking claims about the ongoing relevance of the Andalusian past as nothing more than falsehoods in the service of political ideologies. That is, historians seem to enact a double role regarding the past they oversee, inviting that it be recognized and appreciated, while also ensuring that it bears no relevance for today.
KA: To be able to relegate the past to mere “fantasy” or to paint Al-Andalus as a mere interruption of a European trajectory of Spain would require a practiced response by individuals and a vigilance around the narratives that define this European border with Islam. Are these affective responses to the sensorium of the Islamic past a kind of cultivation of a European or Christian subjectivity and sensibilities?
CH: The Andalucistas certainly attempt to cultivate and promote a certain sensibility for the presence of that past. They call attention to it in language and gesture; or they explore the way certain Christian rituals bear the imprint of earlier Muslim and Jewish traditions. In this effort, there is an attempt to attune present generations to the ongoing presence of this past. There is also a counter-effort, as I describe just above, to teach Spaniards that they have nothing to do with these earlier traditions [of Al-Andalus], and that also is carried out through the honing of what might be called a historical sensorium. If originally this project went under the name of creating a fundamentally Christian space, it is ever more, with gaining momentum, a project of creating a fundamentally European space, and that again, especially in this moment, means an evacuation of the continent’s Islamic history.
KA: In your discussion of Mezquita-Cathedral of Cordoba, you reveal secular and ecclesiastic entanglements in the discussion of rights of ownership, thus unsettling secular claims and arguments around Spanish identity and the Muslim presence. What work does revealing and unsettling do for understanding and speaking to the Spanish and larger European narratives and politics of identity?
CH: The tradition of life and thought of the Andalucistas has effectively been circumscribed and dismissed as a symptom of romantic nationalism by most conventional scholarship. In other words, a tradition that powerfully throws into question the notion of a Europe whose formative history is entirely its own—is shown to be entirely European, the machination of a now suspect nineteenth-century European knowledge. That move [by mainstream scholars] is symptomatic, in my eyes, of the anxiety over the boundaries of Europe. In my view, the movement is not simply a product of a 19th century romantic imagination, but actually has to do with a lived response to history. Even if it idealizes some moments, even if it selectively emphasizes some aspects of the past over others, and even if it interprets some parts of Andalusian history through a particular lens, that doesn’t mean it is a falsification of history. It is a way of inhabiting aspects of the past and making them part of one’s present. I see my work as attempting to re-open the challenge posed by this movement to our present. Importantly, this is not because I see the movement as any kind of political antidote to the problems we face today. There is no singular political stance embraced by Andaluscista. Indeed, many adherents of this movement were, in the 30s and 40s, supporters of fascism and Spanish colonialism, though today most are left-wing activists. As I see it, their work allows for a rethinking of the boundaries of belonging and identity in Europe today, but not in a way that prescribes one political answer. If they don’t offer solutions, however, they do provide tools that enable us to reformulate the questions, a very important thing given how hard it is to think outside the boundaries given to us by a certain political theology. In short, Andalucistas have held all sorts of views about Spain and Europe’s entwinement with North Africa, and that let them conceptualize (aesthetically, politically, geographically) the world in ways that might be useful for us to think about.
MZ: And finally, any reflections on the Connaught event and on the themes sovereignty and sanctities that Connaught tries to engage with?
CH: As we noted in the Connaught conference, the major problem with political theology is that we are forced to think within a certain framework where it becomes difficult to imagine what other forms of political life are available to us. It seems very hard to think outside those Schmittian frames about forms of cohabitation and cooperation that can be imagined within the political-theological spaces defined by the modern state. If you think about this conference, no one questioned the state, for example. We asked a lot of questions about political theology, which presupposed a certain context of modern states. We presupposed, in other words, a certain stable background defined by the state in order to ask other questions. While the state is certainly important, the very concept we presupposed lacked some of the coherence and centrality that we ascribe to it. I think the Connaught project’s aim in foregrounding a notion of theopolitics is to open a space to think of developments that, while not outside a Schmittian frameworks, are not derivable from it. And maybe that is a starting point from which we can explore constellations of practice that are not simply subservient to that logic, even if they are, to a certain point, subject to it. I am very sympathetic and appreciative of the idea of theopolitics that Valentina, Simon, and Carlotta are pursuing, and to see how we might reengage terms like sanctity and sovereignty in its light. Additionally, it would be interesting to speak more on the directions that governmentality might open up by putting into question or setting limits to the Schmittian inheritance and of the problem of sovereignty. At least in one reading of Foucault, the problem of sovereignty is not overcome, but displaced and relativized in relation to processes that do not necessarily depend on, or are not reducible to, a sovereign or exercises of sovereign power, but articulate a different kind of power. So it would be interesting to think that also in relation to theology and forms of religiosity or sanctity.