work in progress in social theory and cultural sociology

in-between-ness, vestibules, rhizomes

10.23.2013 · Posted in Uncategorized

I’ve been collecting notions of in-between-ness and liminality in relation to Sufism and commercial culture, rooted in the Platonic metaxý – from İbn Arabî to Georg Simmel. I have missed two important ones though –Deleuze and Guattari’ anarcho-Platonic/Heraclitean notion of the rhizome as in-between – and El Gazâlî’s notion of the dihlîz – the vestibular space. Here is Ebrahim Moosa’s (2005: 48f.) account of the concept:

‘The dihlīz signifies the space as well as the action of two entries: entry from the outside and entry into the inside. It is the critical intermediate space between outside and inside, between exoteric (āhir) and esoteric (in). And it is also the space that one has to traverse in order to enter or exit, which is the real function of a threshold area. That dihlīz-ian space constitutes a bounded space, a threshold between door (bāb) and house (dār). It is not a useless space, but one that can be used for multiple purposes. Viewed from the house proper, the dihlīz is located on the outside. But viewed from the door leading to the street, the dihlīz is on the inside. […] Unlike a border that serves as a territorial demarcation between sovereign territories and criminalizes improper crossing without authorization, the dihlīz is not a criminalizing space but a welcoming space. Furthermore, it ensures that one enters by the door in a disciplined manner while maintaining the decorum appropriate to the integrity of the occupants of the house and the people of the street. It is neither entirely private nor totally public, but something in between. However, the crucial dimension is the fact that without the dihlīz one cannot speak about an embodied “door” and a “house,” nor can one speak of an “outside” and an “inside.” Even though it is located in between spaces, the dihlīz frames all other spaces.’

While maybe less clearly linked to the creative imagination than İbn Arabî’s berzah, the dihlîz has the advantage of being a more concretely spatial metaphor and puts a stronger emphasis on the connecting quality of the in-between (though İbn Arabî brings out more clearly the paradoxical nature of the connectivity of boundaries) . In a way it is a concretely utopian topos – which at the same time has been turned (unwittingly) into the dystopia of the corridors between the segments of the Matrix. The metaphor can illuminate the imaginative possibilities of a modern society in which in-between-ness as strangeness (El Gazâlî experiences the corridoresque existence in  of the dihlîz in self-imposed exile/gurbet – see Moosa  2005:119f.)  This anticipates Simmel’s notion of the Fremdheit as laid out in his famous essay on the stranger where he outlines what now has been adopted as notion of “alterity” in the study of cosmopolitanism. In the context of cosmopolitan commercial culture and urbanity, the utopian/dystopian metaphor of the dihlîz can be productive in a number of ways. We could use it to regroup the spatial categories normally applied to modern life so that they account better for the nature of the experience they stand for. So the opposition public/private could be, now that thanks to the microtechnological revolution much of private life is carried out in front of an online public, overlaid with distinctions between fields of experience such as paid work, shopping, cultural consumption etc. All these would be connected by an in-between space, a dihlîz consisting of the spatial conduits available to the individual, having its normal centre in the home from which streets, roads, wires and waves reach out into workplaces, social media, schools, bars etc. Redefining the home with all these conduits as avestibular space in-between has both utopian and dystopian dimensions. It may be seen as a reduction of what used to be regarded as the centre of life, ideal-typically family life, to a mere passage way between spaces that are of recognised value, between spheres of production and consumption, between labour and pleasure. A place where you may change your clothes, where you may meet, in passing, the people who once were defined as your significant others and you now only encounter while grazing in the kitchen, accidentally, at the same time – a place where, even while you are in, you are always oriented towards moving on (via your mobile, your screen…). In this view the integrity of the individual as person or as subject is in question and the notion of the individual as multitude of (socially absorbed, heteronomous) personae gains plausibility, someone different in different contexts that are accessed by passing through the corridors of this in-between world. In that respect the home and the conduits connecting it to the various worlds of experience could indeed be accurately described as a corridor of the Matrix which is the Baudrillardian assembly of hyperrealities – even less real than those, a hyporeality which in this role has been anticipated in Parsons’ conception of the nuclear family, but in the meantime even has lost the function as pit stop between social sub systems since repair and recharge is more and more done outside the home. This is certainly how conservative social critics like to see it when they mourn the alleged demise of the nuclear family.

However, with the Sufi philosophers El Gazâli and İbn Arabî we can also see this in-between space, this extended limit between different worlds as the unit that establishes the unity and gives reality to the connected worlds. Rather than being the transitional space where identities are changed alongside clothes it would be the one space where all the potential beings of a person are connected and forged into a consistent personality. This would make family life (in its flexibilised postmodern format – and the life of postmodern family equivalents) not marginal but central to contemporary life and instead of being devalued the home would be put at the centre. While the classical modern nuclear family (especially in its 1950s variety with rigid gender role assignments) has been crumbling away steadily – this does not mean that familial life forms are no longer centrally important for the majority of people. The fact that the most watched TV programmes are very much about familial relations (from EastEnders to Holyoaks…) points in the other direction. And there are good reasons for that,. Niklas Luhmann (1990) has defined family communication as that from which no topic can be excluded, where the whole person is communicated (as opposed to the functionally specific moralisation in other fields). While a lot has changed in family life over the last five or six decades, this notion of full recognition in families (which has been first formulated in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right) still is valid – and the absence of family life or a functional equivalent in that sense is generally felt as a lack, as a pathology.

What we can also take from Al Gazâlî is that the dihlîz does not simply connect different spheres, but spheres of a different nature and spheres of higher and lower order. The dihlîz bridges zâhir and bâtın – outer order and inner spiritual dimension. If we, rather ruthlessly, trivialise these we can think of the zâhir dimensions of modern life as the ritualised and routine aspects of social life (the trivialisation is not that radical: for Al Gazâlî it was his persona as lawyer) – i.e. regular work, school, fitness regimes and the like – and of the bâtın as the imaginative and creative aspects (here the trivialisation is rather shameless: I am reducing Sufi spirituality to, say, cinematic daydreams) which are sustained by engagement with base routines that secure social acceptance, income and the like, but only can be performed by being separated out from those routines. The vestibular space between those aspects is necessary in order to sustain both of them by, simultaneously, keeping them connected and keeping them apart. And its very transitory nature is precisely what establishes the (temporal) stability of identity through constant change. The problem of identity and change has burdened philosophy and then social sciences ever since Parmenides and Heraclites (a much vilified but highly intelligent take is of course that of Karl Popper!)  have put forward their mutually contradicting but equally compelling cases for absolute being and total flux respectively. The first to suggest a solution (sympathetic more to Parmenides but unable to ignore Heraclites) was Plato and the result was the notion of the in-between as the locus of this-worldly becoming. The notion has been developed furthest in the Sufi tradition in that in contrast to Western Gnosticism this Neoplatonic school of thought has been keen to maintain the vital importance of the connecting nature as well as the separating function of the metaxý.

(Given how El Gazâlî and later Sufi thinkers place the notion of exile, gurbet, in all this, there are also very important implications for migration… and also, given El Gazâlî’s insistence on simultaneous unity and separation of his identities as lawyer and mysticist, for professional praxis – more of that in later posts)

 By discovering in-between spaces in contemporary social life we may also find that they do not – as anti-modernists from Deuleuze and Guattari to Ingold suggest undermine and destabilise identity, create flux and indeterminacy. Ingold (2007: 86f.) cites this passage from the Thousand Plateaus:

The middle is by no means an average; on the contrary, it is where things pick up speed. Between things does not designate a localizable relation going from one thing to the other and back again, but a perpendicular direction, a transversal movement that sweeps one and  the other away, a stream without beginning or end that undermines its banks and picks up speed in the middle.’ (Deleuze/Guattari 2004: 28)

As Plato (and then the whole statist and structuralist tradition into the social sciences) have made concessions to the fact of flux but ultimately sided with Parmenides, the postmoderns make the opposite mistake and, while acknowledging that there is (to their dismay) form and stability, structure, in the world, dissolve it into as little order and as much spontaneity as possible. Among theoretical physicists there are preferences for a clearly ordered, completely symmetrical and regular cosmos and for a messier, more chaotic one. They refer to it as the difference between a marble cosmos or a wooden cosmos. For Deleuze and Guattari even wood, trees are to structured, too hierarchical. The prefer the non-hierarchical, sidewaysy structure of fungi, rhizome over the systematic nature of the arborescent. I sympathise with that since my own thinking is, due to a pronounced lack in self discipline, rather rhizomatic. And also because they link the difference they make to the difference between becoming and being – as they make clear in the sentence preceding the above quote:

‘A rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo. The tree is filiation, but the rhizome is alliance, uniquely alliance. The tree imposes the verb “to be,” but the fabric of the rhizome is the conjunction “and … and … and…” This conjunction carries enough force to shake and uproot the verb “to be.”’ (Deleuze/Guattari 2004: 28)

But, unlike the Sufi Neoplatonists they fail to understand that becoming always implies chaos (out of which it becomes) and logos (towards which it stretches). For Plato these two extremes were the starting points – he could not understand that it is becoming, the in-between, that by manner of implication brings chaos and logos about as concepts. It has never been fully formulated that way – but the implicit anthropology of Sufism comes nearly as close to it as the philosophical anthropology of the 1920s, in particular that of Plessner. Building the rhizome as a counterconcept to the arborescent they deprive themselves of the possibility of accounting for how the arborescent (and much more rigid structures than that) enter the world and how they rely on the rhizomatic (which you should be interested in if you want to limit the growth of such structures). They emphasise the rhizomatic structure of the human brain – stating boldly

‘Many people have a tree growing in their heads, but the brain itself is much more a grass than a tree.’ (Deleuze/Guattari 2004: 17)

But they cannot explain, don’t want to explain, how the rhizome can grow a tree! In a way, even the seemingly most anarchic, most anti-systematic, anti-essentialist thinkers are firmly rooted in the totalising tradition of substance-logical philosophy, essentialist in that there always seems to be an “everything is …” somewhere. And be it the Heraclitean “everything flows” or “everything is fire”  – “everything is process”. Both ontology and sociology can only benefit from the insertion of corridors into their buildings, spaces in between spaces that allow for a true multiplicity of levels, areas, principles, structures while, at once, neither enforcing consistency nor allowing complete discontinuity. The reference points of chaos and logos are necessary inventions in order to hold the balance between maintenance of form and resistance against being stifled by formalism.

In his satirical novel The Man Who Was Thursday G K Chesterton mocks the hypostasis of either principle – chaos/anarchy and order/police by pitting them against each other as microcelebrity suburban poets with political/policing connections. In his advocacy for the in-between, what comes out as the locus of sanity and hope is, quite unintentionally I suspect, the proto-consumerist suburb of Saffron Park where the two poets function as vanishing points before they spin out of control…



Deleuze, Gilles/Guattari, Félix (2004): A Thousand Plateaus, London: Continuum

Ingold, Tim (2007): Lines: A Brief History, London: Routledge

Luhmann, Niklas (1990): Soziologische Aufklärung 5: Konstruktivistische Perspektiven, Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag

Moosa, Ebrahim (2005): Ghazālī & the Poetics of Imagination, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press

Simmel, Georg (1994): ‘Bridge and Door’, in: Theory, Culture and Society, Vol.11, pp.5-10

Comments are closed

Skip to toolbar