work in progress in social theory and cultural sociology

Names, Mystics, and Consumer Immortality

09.21.2011 · Posted in Uncategorized

(updated 9th November 2012)

Daniel Smith has an interesting piece on vlogging celebrity in which the issue of subjectivity fetishism and, related to this, how what’s in name is quite important in terms how we construct selfhood. I have already put down some of my thoughts about the implications of the subjectivity fetish, referring to Simmel’s idea that the way we are not socialised is crucial for understanding the way we are part of society. Simmel makes an interesting observation with regards of seemingly total absorption in religious experience. In this more or less complete socialisation into a religious community there still is a part of the self or a sense of selfhood that by necessity is not subsumed:

‘The religious man feels himself completely encompassed by the divine being, as though he were merely a pulse-beat of the divine life; his own substance is unreservedly, and even in mystical identity, merged in that of the Absolute. And yet, in order to give this intermelting any meaning at all, the devotee must retain some sort of self existence, some sort of personal reaction, a detached ego, to which the resolution into the divine All-Being is an endless task, a process only, which would be neither metaphysically possible nor religiously feelable if it did not proceed from a self-being on the part of the person: the being one with God is conditional in its significance upon the being other than God.’ (Simmel 1910: 384, emphasis added by me)

What Simmel here sees as an extreme I would account for as a first step towards bourgeois individualism: The self that can seek to lose itself in the divine is already constituted as an individual subject – and maybe we can see this mysticism as a technique of the self, a process of constituting a continuous subject where there were only role identities, masks, positions etc. – but no strong identity of the individual through changes of roles, masks and positions. The name seems to be of particular importance – at least in the Sufi tradition.

That in mind I wonder whether one could not see the use of personal names in Islamic mysticism as a source of individualism in those societies that have a strong Sufi tradition. A Sufi poet would usually mention his own name in the last two lines of the poet to relate himself to the mystic experience accounted for. In Turkey this is the case for the first mystic poet to write solely in Turkish – Yunus Emre (ca. 1240-1320) – to the last Turkish poet one could call a mystic of reputation: Aşık Veysel (1894-1973). Interestingly, both of them have lines in which they not only refer to their proper names, but to the fact of having a name. Here is Yunus Emre (Tatcı, s.a., 32)

Yûnus adun sâdıkdur bu yola geldünise * Adın degşürmeyenler bu yola gelmediler

Süha Faiz (1992: 20) translates

“Yunus, put to death the self, if on the Path you are embarked – Who do not kill the self in Truth are by eternity unmarked.”

That’s a way too liberal translation – and I think it misses an important bit which would confirm what Simmel says: ad is “name” and degşürmek (değiştirmek in modern Turkish) is “change”. So no killing involved here: Yunus’ name is “Friend” (sâdık) – I go along with “if on the Path (yol) embarked), but then it’s simply: those whose names remain unchanged just “didn’t come on to the Path”. Notably – even the change, the loss of self (although this does not really feature in this particular poem – but it is something that is generally aimed for in Sufism), even the abandoning of the personal name holds it present and immortalises it – after all: that’s why we still do know Yunus Emre’s name. Such immortalisation is – despite the pursuit of the same project of unity with the all-encompassing, oceanic divine – is also sought by Aşık Veysel when he opens his most famous poem/song (I’ve linked up to one of the abundant Youtube videos that feature his own voice)

Ben giderim, adım kalır * Dostlar beni hatırlasın

I will leave, my name will remain – My friends shall remember me

The Sufis tried to find eternity of self through self-abandonment in the mystic experience of unification with the One. The romantic consumer seeks infinity in the immortalization of their name in documented consumer activity. Until very recently this outlook was only possible for  a small layer of very affluent consumers as

‘… the predominant ideological thrust of consumers in the upper-middle and lower-upper classes is not toward merely accumulating wealth per se, but rather toward documenting their secular achievements and contributions to society by consuming in a particular way.’ (Hirschman 1990: 34)

With the arrival of social networking and the apparently undeletable memory of Facebook, immortality of a rich personality linked to a proper name seems to be an option.

One question that arises – in relation to the apparent affinity of Turkish mystic Islam and neoliberal capitalism and consumerism – whether this is not partly owed to a grounding of individualistic culture through mystic folk poetry and facilitated through the Kemalist reform of names established European-style family surnames.

Faiz, Süha (1992): The City of the Heart: Yunus Emre’s Verses of Wisdom and Love, Longmead: Element Books

Hirschman, Elizabeth C. (1990): ‘Secular Immortality and the American Ideology of Affluence’, in: Journal of Consumer Research, Vol.17, No.1, pp.31-42

Simmel, Georg (1910): ‘How is Society Possible?’ , in: American Journal of Sociology, Vol.16, No.3, pp.372-391

Tatcı, Mustafa (ed.) (s.a.) Yûnus Emre Dîvânı, T.C. Kültür ve Turizm Bakanlığı, (

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