Autonomy and/or Caliphate?

I enjoyed reading S. Sayyid’s Recalling the Caliphate and am following the current book event on it at AUFS. That said, I don’t really know how to enter into or better engage the thinking or implications of the book. While some of the critiques certainly register, I have only impressions of its possible impact. This could simply be for lack of understanding but I also wonder if I am simply not in a position to get what is going on here. In this way I was struck by what seemed to be a contrast in the conclusion of Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi’s recent book Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide. In many ways this is a more intelligible account, a more Western account in which Beradi mounts a somewhat erratic but still convincing picture of the suicidal machine that is global semio-capitalism.

Both Berardi and Sayyid are working on global scales.

Sayyid writes,

The caliphate is a polity which represents a global Muslim subjectivity. The caliphate is not merely an historical institution but rather an overdetermined ensemble around which questions of the governance of the ummah and the relationship between Muslim biographies and Islamicate histories are played out. The caliphate is a concentration of meanings about how the venture of Islam fits into the world. The ability of Muslims as a ‘collective will’ to make their own history, to project themselves into the future, to elaborate and enrich their sense of who they are and who they wish to be rests upon the possibility of the caliphate. (179)

This posture strikes me as very different from Berardi who wrote the book because he is looking for “for an ethical method of withdrawal from the present barbarism.” Is this a necessary move for westerners? Is this what is needed to then be able to properly see and support real forms of decolonization? Berardi does not think there is anything to do. His last chapter is ”What Should We Do When Nothing Can Be Done?” Berardi does not qualify this as a western posture and therefore negates Sayyid who appears to have something to do.

Berardi concludes,

So what can be done when nothing can be done?

I think that ironic autonomy is the answer. I mean the contrary of participation, I mean the contrary of responsibility, I mean the contrary of faith. Politicians call on us to take part in their political concerns, economists call on us to be responsible, to work more, to go shopping, to stimulate the market. Priests call on us to have faith. If you follow these inveiglements to participate, to be responsible – you are trapped. Do not take part in the game, do not expect any solution from politics, do not be attached to things, do not hope.

Do not belong. Distinguish your destiny from the destiny of those who want to belong and to participate
and to pay their debt. If they want war, be a deserter. If they are enslaved but want you to suffer like them, do not give in to their blackmail.

You will die anyway; it is not particularly important when. What is important is how you live your life.

Finally, don’t take me too seriously. Don’t take too seriously my catastrophic premonitions. And in case it is difficult to follow these prescriptions, don’t take too seriously my prescriptions.

Irony is about the independence of mind from knowledge; it is about the excessive nature of the imagination.

There is a certain rhetorical flourish here that I take is supposed to jar or liberate(?) but it appears to work in contrast to Sayyid. What is at stake in the difference? Is Berardi simply unable to see and account for the possibilities of the caliphate as Sayyid expresses it? Is Berardi’s process necessary for such understanding?

I just wanted to register that contrast and my experience with Sayyid’s book to see if anyone else following the event had similar struggles.


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