work in progress in social theory and cultural sociology

Hybridity, Alterity and Beyond – A Simmelian Perspective on Ebruesque Identity

11.16.2012 · Posted in Uncategorized

Kardeşin duymaz, eloğlu duyar

Hybridity and alterity are concepts that feature highly in cosmopolitan critiques of culturalist (including multi-culturalist) projections of homogeneity in a drive against classificatory thinking (e.g. Çağlar 1997). Cosmopolitanism can be characterised as a universalist-liberal project opposed to a more communitarian multiculturalism. Cosmopolitanism tries to evade the danger of reifying racial, ethnic or religious and political identities, thus leading to alterity rather than difference and hybridity rather than reified identity. Multiculturalism is debated mainly around the collective cultural, religious and political representation of minority communities and ultimately as a question of citizenship (e.g. Modood 1995 – and even in the case of the ‘banal multicultures’ advocated by Amin 2002). Proponents of multiculturalism have therefore resorted to a (partial) defence of “essentialism” (Modood 2000, Werbner1997). While multiculturalism emphasises diversity and difference of identifiable (ethno-religious) cultures (e.g. Modood 2000), cosmopolitanism favours alterity. This concept is understood to denote otherness that cannot be captured as difference of clearly defined identity categories – rather by a noted and confusing absence of such categories (Sennett 2002, also cf. Iveson 2006). Sennett goes back to Simmel’s famous essay on the stranger – and I will propose that Simmel has more to contribute to this idea than just the etymology of this notion.

To illustrate, in his photo essay book Ebru Atilla Durak (2006) presents a series of ludicrously beautiful photographs of people from or in Turkey of different ethnicities (Turkish, Turkmen, Azeri, Kurdish, Laz, Zaza, Armenian, Jewish, German, Pomak etc.), faiths (Sunni, Alevi, Assyrian Christian, Jewish, Nusayri, etc.), location (İstanbul, Kars, Mardin, Van etc.), different age and gender, modern, urban, traditional etc. As he classifies the pictures by ethnicity, religion and location, the book has the feel of an old anthropological catalogue, using a quasi-Linnaean botanising categorisation. At first sight Durak, therefore, could be accused of a painting a picture of ethno-religious cultural diversity for the discerning and knowledgeable cosmopolitan consumer (Hannerz 1996: 103) whose cultural capital feeds on benevolent but nonetheless Orientalist stereotype (e.g. Tekgül 2012 for the consumption of literature), referencing ethnic identities as simultaneously authentic and immutable. For the (still multiculturalist) “cosmopolitan”, Hannerz (1996: 111) says, ‘there is value in diversity as such, but they are not likely to get it, in anything like the present form, unless other people are allowed to carve out special niches for their cultures and keep them.’ For the consumer of diversity the blurring of ethnic identities risks ‘depleting the imaginary resources of the exotic’ (Kaplan, 1995: 59, also cf. Varul 2008).

But the careful selection of texts that accompany these photos and the photography itself (see here for some of them) thematise this as problematic and act as constant reminders that each individual is defined not just by an intersection of collective classifications but by their own personal history and individual experiences within and without the groups they belong to, and their own decisions regarding how they relate to the collective identities they are born into. Çetin (2006), when talking about her discovery of her Armenian heritage and the notion of being a melez/hybrid, protests against a notion “belonging” that she sees as a straightjacket, while vehemently rejecting violations of any components of that hybrid identity. And in the introduction Altınay (2006: 24), drawing on various theorists and using the metaphor of the ebru – the art of water drawing or “marbling”, emphasises the continuity and pervasiveness of hybridisation in which stability of identity is ephemeral, a temporary fixation of something that otherwise is always in flux. He therefore suggests replacing the bounded ‘mosaic multi-culturalism’ with a fluent ebruesque one.  – advocating a cosmopolitanism in which – as the Devon based artist Pery Burge introduces her paintings in thermofluids – “the  pattern is new in every moment” .

The idea of hybridity has been surpassed by the concept of alterity, partly because the concept of hybridity can be (mis)taken to imply the recombination and mixture of pure forms, i.e. as implying the very thing it is meant to undermine (as in the consuming “cosmopolitanism” criticised above). But my point here is that not even that fully captures the implications of hybridity as foundation of alterity. It does not capture what some of the texts (e.g. Elif Şafak’s story ‘E’ about a little girls reflections on the Atatürk portrait in her class room) and in fact that photographs themselves imply – and what Simmel declares to be a condition of the possibility of society as such: The fact that there is always some part of the personality that is not fully socialised. And crucially, this is not just a trivial observation about the incompleteness of the socialisation process, it is something that in itself contributes to sociality:

‘Each element of a group is not a societary part, but beyond that something else. That fact operates as social apriori in so far as the part of the individual which is not turned toward the group, or is not dissolved in it, does not lie simply without meaning by the side of his socially significant phase, is not a something external to the group, for which it nolens volens affords space; but the fact that the individual, with respect to certain sides of his personality, is not an element of the group, constitutes the positive condition for the fact that he is such a member in other aspects of his being. In other words, the sort of his socialized-being’ (Simmel 1910: 381)

In other words: in order to be a viable member of a society, one must be less, which is more, than just a member of society – society is only possible if the individuals have something they can, as it were, “hold back” and in fact, do hold back. This despite the fact that as social beings, according to Simmel, we are constituted and determined by our place in history and our position in the social reciprocities that history has placed us in, we are ‘thrown’ into this ‘being with’ in a way, that makes it inevitable that we are a reflection of those social forces that reflects back on them. In contrast to Heidegger’s (and his postmodern followers’) anti-social aristocratic defiance against the “They”, das Man, the masses that stifle authentic selfhood (cf. Weiner 1992), Simmel shares Marx’s (1953: 6) socialist individualism that holds that as ζοων πολιτικον the human is not just ‘a sociable animal but one that can only indivdiualise within society’.  Simmel goes further than this and sees at least a minimal degree of individualisation as nigh inevitable and sociality and individuality as concomitant:

‘…between individual and society the Within and Without are not two determinations which exist alongside of each other – although they may occasionally develop in that way, and even to the degree of reciprocal enmity – but that they signify the whole unitary position of the socially living human being. His existence is not merely, in subdivision of the contents, partially social and partially individual, but it stands under the fundamental, formative, irreducible category of a unity, which we cannot otherwise express than through the synthesis or the contemporariness of the two logically antithetical determinations – articulation and self-sufficiency, the condition of being produced by, and contained in, society, and on the other hand, of being derived of and moving around its own center.’ (Simmel 1910: 387)

A minimum of individualisation is owed to (as much as it is the cause of) a minimum degree of alienation. As the biological anthropologist and sociologist Helmuth Plessner notes against the longing of the existence-philosophical longing for unreserved encounters of authentic selves:

‘No matter how many times – in accordance with the idea – that ineffable individual uniqueness is comprehended by the ground of being of community and, by all of its members, persons never penetrate through to the ground, as the latter is not definitely determined because it is eternal potentiality. As a being of spirit and soul, humans have the enormous consciousness of the ability to deviate from the path of their own individual law, or, at least, the right to rebel against their own definitions.’ (Plessner 1999: 105)[1]

I will argue that generalised hybridity and alterity are but accentuations of a human condition – hence my reference to the biological and philosophical anthropology of Helmuth Plessner which provides the bridge from Simmel’s concept of necessarily incomplete socialisation to his notion of the stranger (to whose strangeness, Fremdheit, the concept of alterity is much akin – see Sennett 2002). I am also turning to Plessner as the submersion of his work in the 1920s and 1930s illustrates the counter-intuitive character of the acceptance of alienation as condition of freedom at a time of search for authentic selfhood and total (or rather totalitarian) effervescence in real community. A time when the drive for nationalist homogenisation in the Turkish Republic was at its most enthusiastic – and in a place (Germany) where it would become far, far more extreme. The highest philosophical expression of the common intuition that happiness is to be found in rooted and bounded community and that the alienation associated with urbanity, civilisation and commercial culture is a curse, is to be found in Martin Heidegger’s concepts of Being-with (Mitsein) and the They (das Man) already mentioned above. And here we also find the contradictory nature of this intuition, namely that on the one hand authentic selfhood is prevented by the process of socialisation and pressures to conform that come with it – but that on the other hand these pressures are particularly strong where sociality entails distance and indifference.

‘But this distantiality which belongs to Being-with, is such that Dasein, as everyday Being-with-one-another, stands in subjection [Botmäßigkeit] to Others. Dasein’s everyday possibilities of Being are for the Others to dispose of as they please. These Others, moreover, are not definite Others. On the contrary, any Other can represent them. What is decisive is just that inconspicuous domination by Others which has already been taken over unawares from Dasein as Being-with. One belongs to the Others oneself and enhances their power. “The Others” whom one thus designates in order to cover up the fact of one’s belonging to them essentially oneself, are thos who proximally and for the most part “are there” in everyday Being-with-one-another. The “who” is not this one, not that one, not oneself [man selbst], not some people [einige], and not the sum of all of them all. The “who” is the neuter, the “they” [das Man].‘ (Heidegger 1962: 163f.)[2]

This, of course, is a typically Heideggerian sleight of hand in which he situates himself ‘always beyond the beyond, unite and reconcile opposites verbally, in paradoxical, and magical, propositions’ (Bourdieu 1996: 61f.). As mentioned in my previous post: The situation in which the distanced being-with-others implies a danger of falling under the domination of others (and most feared by the proto-antisemitic conservative revolutionaries from Tönnies to Jünger: of public opinion) only because it uniquely affords freedom. It is the non-distant being-with-others, “authentic” community that stifles the anthropological potential of developing an unaffected self behind the roles and its opposite, the existence as a stranger in the Simmelian sense that makes authentic selfhood most likely to occur. Both Plessner and Simmel acknowledge that one can fail to realise the potential of an existence beyond what Heidegger calls the “They”, but crucially, this potential only arises in society – and the abhorred distantiality is functional in this realisation. Again, both acknowledge that there is a price to be paid, the loss of warmth and certainty through alienation. But the prize to be won is individual freedom and opportunities for human development – which is why Plessner calls for an outright heroism in defence of alienated sociability which affirms ‘the entire essential complex of society for the sake of the dignity of the individual and the social whole’ (Plessner 1999: 69f.). He vigorously defends the much reviled alienation and reification (which are unavoidable constituent components of the condition of alterity) as basis of our social nature:

‘Imitation and reification, on which rests the acquisition and use of language, share the same root, namely the human ability to disregard oneself and put oneself into the position of others.’ ‘Humans are able to differentiate their position as “here” from a “there”, which in inverse direction turns from a “there” into a “here”. The ability to separate out one’s own hand or an uttered sound is the basic condition for their instrumental treatment and imitation in fixed artefacts. Reification hence is a legitimate aspect of the human being and not at all a degenerated mode of existence…’ (Plessner 1976: 43)[3]

For Plessner as for Simmel this is a potential that can be realised to different degree – as Simmel puts it, ‘individuals, like callings and social institutions, are distinguished by the degree of that In-addition, which they possess or admit along with their social content’ (Simmel 1910: 382). And different forms of societisation afford the realisation of such different degrees of in-addition. For Simmel, metropolitan life, and in particular the commercialisation of life, the monetary mediation of social relations, is most conducive to this individuality-enhancing alterity (Simmel 1950, Simmel 1990). Plessner links it to the very metaphor of inauthentic social life – to acting in  roles:

‘The role as set of social functions and expectations of a performance is faced by the individual as an objective fact. For this reason, one allows, under the role concept, for a distance between the person and their social existence, which can be consoling: The human being, the individual, never is completely what he or she “is”. As employee or doctor, politician or tradesman, husband or bachelor, member of  a generation or of a nation, he is always “more” than that, a possibility  which does not exhaust itself in such modes of existence or merges with them. The wide range of the role concept, which comprises both the ascribed and achieved status, i.e. that which one is by birth and by circumstance in the social field, and that which one makes of oneself, makes possible the reserve of an individuum ineffabile, a social sanctum, a sphere of privacy, intimacy and personal freedom. In so far the role concept safeguards respect for the indivdual as individual and shields them from their public existence.‘  (Plessner 1976: 66)[4]

Once role existence is generalised, as it is in the “They” of the modern world, alienation – estrangement – becomes the prevalent condition of social existence. In the city all are strangers in the sense Simmel uses the term – as someone who is simultaneously within and without society:

‘If wandering is the liberation from every given point in space, and thus the conceptional opposite to fixation at such a point, the sociological form of the “stranger” presents the unity, as it were of these two characteristics. This phenomenon too, however, reveals that spatial relations are only the condition, on the one hand, and the symbol, on the other, of human relations. The stranger is thus being discussed here, not in the sense often touched upon in the past, as the wanderer who comes today and goes tomorrow, but rather as the person who comes today and stays tomorrow. He is, so to speak, the potential wanderer: although he has not moved on, he has not quite overcome the freedom of coming and going. He is fixed within a particular spatial group, or within a group whose boundaries are similar to spatial boundaries. But his position in this group is determined, essentially, by the fact that he has not belonged to it from the beginning, that he imports qualities into it, which do not and cannot stem from the group itself.’ (Simmel 1950: 402)

This mode of being can be understood, against the background of the partial non-socialisation as condition of sociality postulated by Simmel and the anthropological constitution of humans as eccentric diagnosed by Plessner, as a mere radicalisation of a universal human potential. Individuals, as Simmel (1910: 382) says, – ‘are distinguished by the degree of that In-addition which they possess or admit along with their social content’, and his stranger is the individual who has managed to maximise their In-addition as far as possible without relinquishing completely their membership in (metropolitan or cosmopolitan) society. The reification Plessner talks about is radicalised into a general attitude of objectivity as detached mode of engagement.

‘Objectivity is by no means non-participation (which is altogether outside both subjective and objective interaction), but a positive and specific kind of participation […] Objectivity may also be defined as freedom: the objective individual is bound by no commitments which could prejudice his perception, understanding, and evaluation of the given.’ (Simmel 1950: 404f.)

So there is a price to be paid for the individual freedom of ebruesque existence in the community of strangers – the loss of certainty and the anxiety that comes with it.  But against this stands the freedom to find each other in new commitments, in self-chosen communities. The kindness of strangers may be less intense and less reliable, but it for many it compares well with the cruelty of one’s own kind. And then there’s the love of strangers. The above mentioned novelist Elif Şafak

‘recounts with some pride being approached at a book signing by an undergraduate girl wearing a headscarf and her very unreligious, urban chic boyfriend. “We met in the pages of your book,” they told her.’ (Finkel w/o. year)



Altınay, Ayşe Gül (2006): ‘Ebru: Reflections on Water’, in Durak 2006, pp.19-25

Amin, Ash (2002): ‘Ethnicity and the Multicultural City: Living with Diversity’, Report for the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions, and the ESRC Cities Initiative.

Ariès, Phillipe (1962): Centuries of Childhood, London: Jonathan Cape.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1996): The Political Ontology of Martin Heidegger, Cambridge: Polity.

Çağlar, Ayşe (1997): ‘Hyphenated Identities and the Limits of “Culture”’, in: Tariq Modood/Pnina Werbner (eds): The Politics of Multiculturalism in the New Europe, London: Zed Books, pp.169-85.

Çetin, Fethiye (2006): ‘Hybrid Lives, Assumed Identities’, in Durak 2006, pp.58-9.

Durak, Attila (2006): Ebru: Reflections of Cultural Diversity in Turkey, Istanbul: Metis.

Finkel, Andrew (w/o. year): ‘Portrait of Elif Şafak’, Turkish Culture Portal, Turkish Cultural Foundation

Hannerz, Ulf (1996): Transnational Connections: Culture, People, Places, London: Routledge

Heidegger, Martin (1963) [1927]: Sein und Zeit, Tübingen : Niemeyer

Hoggart, Richard (1958) [1957]: The Uses of Literacy, Harmondsworth: Penguin

Iveson, Kurt (2006): ‘Strangers in the Cosmopolis’, in: J. Binnie/J. Holloway/S. Millington/C. Young (eds): Cosmopolitan Urbanism,London: Routledge.

Kaplan, Caren (1995) ‘“A World without Boundaries”: The Body Shop’s Trans/National Geographics’, in: Social Text, Vol.43, pp.45-66

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Navaro-Yashin, Yael (2002): Faces of the State: Secularism and Public Life in Turkey, Princeton:PrincetonUniversity Press

Modood, Tariq (2000): ‘Anti-Essentialism, Multiculturalism, and the “Recognition” of Religious Groups’, in: Will Kymlicka and Wayne Norman (eds): Citizenship in Diverse Societies,Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.175-95.

Plessner, Helmuth (1981): „Grenzen der Gemeinschaft: Eine Kritik des sozialen Radikalismus“ (1924), in: Gesammelte Schriften V, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp

Plessner, Helmuth (1999): The Limits of Community: A Critique of Social Radicalism, New York: Humanity Books.

Sandıkçı, Özlem/Ger, Güliz (2007): ‘Constructing and Representing the Islamic Consumer in Turkey’, in: Fashion Theory, Vol.11, No.2/3, pp.189-210

Şafak, Elif (2006): ‘E’, in Durak 2006

Sennett, Richard (2002): ‘Cosmopolitanism and the Social Experience of Cities’, in: S. Vertovec/R. Cohen (eds): Conceiving Cosmopolitanism: Theory, Context and Practice,Oxford:Oxford University Press.

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[1] „Mag hundertmal nach der Idee das Ineffabile individueller Eigenart vom Seinstgrund der Gemeinschaft und damit von allen ihr Angehörenden mit erfaßt sein, tatsächlich durchdringen die Menschen sich doch nie bis auf den Grund, der gar nicht festliegt, weil er ewige Potentialität ist. Als geistig-seelische Wesen haben sie das ungeheuere Bewußtsein, selbst von den Bahnen ihres individuellen Gesetzes abweichen zu können oder wenigstens des Rechtes, sich gegen seine Definition aufzulehnen.“ (Plessner 1983: 59)

[2] ‚In dieser zum Mitsein gehörigen Abständigkeit liegt  aber: das Dasein steht als alltägliches Miteinandersein in der Botmäßigkeit der Anderen. Nicht es selbst ist, die Anderen verfügt über die alltäglichen Seinsmöglichkeiten des Daseins. Diese Anderen sind dabei nicht bestimmte Andere. Im Gegenteil, jeder Andere kann sie vertreten. Entscheidend ist nur die unauffällige, vom Dasein als Mitsein unversehens schon übernommene Herrschaft der Anderen. Man selbst gehört zu den Anderen und verfestigt ihre Macht. „Die Anderen“, die man so nennt, um die eigene wesenhafte Zugehörigkeit zu ihnen zu verdecken, sind die, die im alltäglichen Miteinandersein zunächst und zumeist „da sind“. Das Wer ist nicht dieser und nicht jener, nicht man selbst und nicht einige und nicht die Summe Aller. Das „Wer“ ist das Neutrum, das Man.‘ (Heidegger 1963: 126)

[3] My translation of „Imitation und Vergegenständlichung, auf denen Erwerb und gebrauch einer Sprache beruhen, haben die gleiche Wurzel, nämlich das dem Menschen gegebene Vermögen, von sich absehen und sich in anderes versetzen zu können.“ „Der Mensch vermag darum seinen Standort als ein Hier von einem Dort zu trennen, welches in umgekehrter Richtung seinen Sinn vertauscht und aus einem Dort zu eiem Hier wird. Die eigene Hand oder den ausgestoßenen Laut als Sache wie in einem Dort vom Hier trennen zu können, ist die Grundvoraussetzung für ihre instrumentale Behandlung und Imitation in fixierten Gebilden, auf die sie zurückgreift und über die sie wie über Dinge verfügt. Verdinglichung ist mithin ein genuiner und legitimer Aspect des Menschen und keineswegs ein entarteter Modus seiner Existenz…“ (Plessner 1976: 43)

[4] My translation of „Rolle als gesellschaftiches Funktionselement[…] steht mitsamt den von ihr ausgehenden und ans sie geknüpften Erwartungen einer Leistung dem Individuum objektiv gegenüber. Daher billigt man unter dem Begriff der Rolle dem Menschen einen Abstand von seiner gesellschaftlichen Existenz zu, der etwas Tröstliches haben kann: der Mensch, der einzelne ist nie ganz das, was er ‚ist’. Als Angestellter oder Arzt, Politiker oder Kaufmann, als Ehemann oder Junggeselle, als Angehöriger seiner Generation und seines Volkes ist er doch immer ‚mehr’ als das, eine Möglichkeit, die sich in solchen Daseinsweisen nicht erschöpft und darin nicht aufgeht.

Gerade die weite Spannung des Rollenbegriffs, die den ascribed status und den achieved status zusammen umfaßt, also das, was einer durch Geburt und Umstände im sozialen Felde ist, und das, was er aus sich macht, ermöglicht das Reservat eines individuum ineffabile, einer sozialen Unberührtheit, einer Zone der Privatheit, der Intimität, der persönlichen Freiheit. Insoweit gewährt der Rollenbegriff Achtung vor dem einzelnen als dem einzelnen und schirmt ihn gegen sein öffentliches Wesen ab. Als ein unbestreitbar anpassungsfähiges Mittel zur theoretischen Bewältigung sozialer Getriebe wird der Begriff damit zugleich zu einer moralischen Erinnerung an das persönliche Reservat des einzelnen, an seine Privatexistenz.“(Plessner 1976: 66)


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