GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

October 15, 2006

On Conversion

Filed under: GA — adam @ 9:01 am

Islam has been making steady headway in increasing its numbers in the West not only through a higher birthrate but through conversion, which has apparently accelerated since 9/11.  I would present, as a useful hypothesis, the likelihood that the emergent alliance between the Left and totalitarian Jihad will be “consecrated” at some point by substantial conversions among Leftists to Islam.  Why not?  Islam is undoubted the stronger, ascendent party and whatever secularist, Enlightenment scruples the Left once had are incompatible with postmodern White Guilt; anyway, the radical left in particular has always been confronted with the dilemma of how to communicate with its “natural” constituency (the “masses”) who, according to leftist (especially Marxist) theory itself are inevitably in thrall to all kinds of “reactionary” (nationalist, sexist, etc.) ideologies–one solution to this dilemma has always been to “speak in the language of the people” and conversion to Islam would simply be a somewhat more consistent version of this strategy. Not to mention that Islam is in many ways the religion most compatible with various positions of resentment within the West:  some sectors of the poor, racial minorities, prisoners, etc., who desire a religion that demands of them commitment, conformity and sacrifice while preserving and refining the intensity of their resentment for the normal bourgeois world. 

What, then, is the answer on the part of us members of the anti-White Guilt coalition, those who want to make the world safe for firstness?  I will suggest here that we should ourselves adopt “conversion” as a model of political and moral communication, one which is far more effective than models of “persuasion” which, to paraphrase Eric Gans on metaphysics, assume that the answer to one declarative statement is another declarative statement which in turn (here is the part generally left unexplained) somehow produces a third, significantly different declarative.  If such change takes place, though, it is because the ostensive has entered somewhere, and if the ostensive has entered it means a new sacred object has been indicated, leaving us with the question, how does one represent such an object to someone who embraces another mode of sacrality?  This seems to me to be a better, and more originary question, than those regarding which reasons people might find more convincing (which already presupposes a shared sacrality).

The answer to Islamic conversion, then, is a missionary spirit of our own.  I do mean this in the most literal sense: first of all, a primary pivot of our foreign policy should be insisting upon (first of all) the rights of Christians to proselytize and the rights of Muslims to convert.  Second, though, we should hope that Christians and even Jews take up (or where appropriate, intensify) the project of converting others–we should all be trying to convert each other, in other words.  At the same time, I present this proposal as a thought experiment, to indicate the kind of cultural transformations that would be necessary for us to possess and project a genuine civilizational self-confidence.  To the rather too obvious (and, of course, true) objection that people trying to convert you are inevitably obnoxious and the urgency invested in missionary activity necessarily subverts personal interaction–if you believe that Jesus and only Jesus saves (or–fill in the blanks), and all boundaries relegating this belief to certain areas of life are removed, what prevents you from becoming terminally intolerable and relations between co-workers, colleagues and even family members from becoming impossible?  Well, the answer is new conventions and norms of politeness–what interests me is the general possibility that conversations could at any point turn toward conversion if they attain the right level of seriousness and trust, not that it actually happens according to any preferred schedule or degree of regularity.  The removal of this taboo, at any rate, need not lead to an orgy of the kind of behavior we fear will raise the level of resentment on both local and global levels.  Our ability to sustain relationships which need not take such possibilities off the table will be an index of our freedom and culteral maturity (and a useful reminder that any religion supportive of habits required for modernity will have to be self-consciously chosen–which further helps us to counter the tendency to absorb religion into the “ascriptive” categories like race, gender and ethnicity, a mere source of victimization rather than an argument about the sacred).

Even more, I am contending that the notion of conversion needs to encroach upon secular territory, where it is already far more relevant than we might imagine:  think, for example, of how you came by your own political commitments and opinions–if they weren’t inherited from your family, then I would argue that you probably had, at some point, what was in effect a conversion experience:  such as being affected by the radiant example of some icon of resistance to injustice, or some violation of sacred principles by members of your own grouping so unforgivable that the principles are themselves irremediably tainted.

So, I will conclude with three points for further discussion:

First, a pillar of our foreign policy must be an open market in faith everywhere, but especially in the Muslim world.

Second, that conversion be seen as a broader, even privileged way of understanding subjective transformation in GA:  we move from one scene to another, drawn by the greater sacrality at its center (which leaves open for inquiry, of course, what makes one sacrality greater than another at a given point in space-time).  Not the only way of understanding subjective transformation, of course:  in fact, moving toward something like an originary psychology, we should want a catalogue of possibilities (another one, I would suggest, being “seduction”).

Third, we should see our own commitments to market society and constitutional order as something to which one converts, in the wake of being granted a revelation regarding the inadequate deferral capacities (the fragility of the scene) constituted by various “Big Man” models of order, attempts to return to a primitive egalitarianism, and so on:  our efforts at persuasion, then, can become the establishment of scenes rendering such revelations more accessible.  And this doesn’t mean PR efforts aimed at showing Western society in an unrealistically positive light:  rather, its a question of arranging in a spectacle all aspects of our society.  And, by the same token, we would thereby be devising tests to determine whether nominal commitments to freedom and democracy are merely that.


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