“What that hair look like?”
Andreas Kirchner’s post raises a number of important questions. I shall, in this first reply, only touch on his initial comments on Mona Haydar and her account of wearing the hijab as a spiritual practice. This issue can itself be divided into several sub-topics. It is (1) a matter of personal concern, prompting Mona Haydar to write and perform (2) a highly successful rap song. Both of these aspects will be bracketed in my response, which approaches the phenomenon from a philosophicl angle. Haydar’s account touches some vital metaphysical issues deserving careful scrutiny.
Mona Haydar proposes a strong secular motive to wear a hijab, namely the pervasive burden consumer society imposes upon its members. “Everything has a price” has become its guiding principle. Women’s bodies in particular are exploited by a number of agressive strategies. Refusal of this kind of coercion is an entirely understandable move. Italian catholics are fighting a running battle against tourists mistaking their churches for a beach, admonishing visitors to wear “respectful clothes”. A “home of God” is to be set apart from areas of commerce, just as a hijab may designate the dignity of a woman by impeding the unconditional (visual) availability taken for granted in Western societies.
Similar considerations can be found in secular movements against, for example, eating animals, submitting to conventional medicine or destroying the rain forest. Global captitalism’s encroachment on the means to lead a decent and sustainable life are manifold. Should all similar movements therefore be regarded as motivated by a comparable motive? Well, there is one important difference between my examples and Mona Haydar’s action. Whereas those examples are, in one way or the other, concerned with protecting and enhancing human bodily existence, Haydar’s “act of resistance” [2. All Hyadar quotes refer to A. Kirchner’s transcription of her Youtube clip on Hijab as a Spiritual Practice]. is primarily directed away from the body. “I am so much more than just a body.” (M.H.) Not “just a piece of meat walking around in the world for anybody to consume.” (M.H.) It’s not just frantic economics that is at stake here. This particular sign of resistence, Haydar’s hijab, indicates an extra-physical realm.
It is a remarkably double-sided gesture: using a tangible tool like the head scarf to mediate a dramatic switch to an intangible insight:
I am beautiful as I am and I am not just a body, but also a mind, a heart, and a soul, that is ineffable that lives inside of me and is beautiful, and pure, and perfect just the way it is. (M.H.)
Catholics might call this kind of external sign of an internal reality a sacrament. “Ego te absolvo”, the formula of absolution, restores the believers soul to its original purity. M. Haydar’s account does not include a religious community. Her’s is an auto-katharsis reminiscent of the mystical tradition. Here is a narrative by the pagan philosopher Plotinus:
Many times it has happened: Lifted out of the body into myself; becoming external to all other things and self-encentered; beholding a marvelous beauty; then, more than ever, assured of community with the loftiest order; enacting the noblest life, acquiring identity with the divine …[2. Enneads IV.8.1]
“Self-encentered” (Plotinus), “… the way I express myself as a soul” … (M.H.) Beautiful and pure and perfect.
One may wonder about the source of this perfection. Mystics have given different answers regarding the provenance of their experience. Haydar’s Youtube report should not be overburdened by philosophical exegesis, though. One may be satistfied with her charming avowal: “For me this just happens to be what makes me happy …” (M.H.) Yet, the philosophical challenge remains. Looking at the performative drama facing the reader one particular feature catches the eye. Beauty, purity and perfection stand in an inverse relationship to the all-encompassing negative power of “consumerist society, where our bodies literally can be bought and sold” (M.H.) One is reminded of Friedrich Hölderlin’s verse
But where is danger,
A rescuing element grows as well.[3. F. Hölderlin: Patmos]
This is the sublime side of the inverse relationship; there is a more problematic side too. The exalted stance is a backlash against a state of affairs that is painted in the darkest possible colors. Could it be that a vilification of the status quo serves as a stepping stone enabeling the upturn?
(3) Down to Earth
My remarks are not intended as a criticism of M. Haydar’s description of her spiritual practice. They try to spell out a feature common to, if I may say so, consumer Platonism, i.e. the employment of the dualistic framework of matter against spirit in guiding one’s everyday pursuits. Not that there is something wrong with this approach. (It’s not the kind of conduct that a person can, in the ordinary sense, be right or wrong about.) My aim is to emphasize an unescapable tension inherent in this kind of setup. If, in a first step, the transition from “a piece of meat” to a pure form of existence is regarded as a qualitative jump, a problem arises on the way back. One option is to stick to the dichotomy, in which case reversing the direction amounts to backsliding into an oppressive state.
The second, more congenial, option is to revise the strict dualism once the sublime stance has been obtained. Reconsiderung the initial position may consequently change one’s assessment of the body involved. It can be seen as a medium to express a sublime experience. Rejecting materialism does not preclude the discovery of a transfigured body as the bearer of extra-physical qualities. What started as the point-blank rejection of a substantial grievance can then become an enlightended re-integration of the components previously ripped apart.
Negation of the status quo is turned into a re-negotiation of this point of departure. This, however, comes down to working with discounted versions of beauty, purity and perfection.