Saba Mahmood explores the complex ways in which the discourses of embodiment, piety, agency, performativity and subjectivity simultaneously inform the practice of Muslim women. In her ethnographically-poorer, theoretically-thicker book, Politics of Piety (2005), Mahmood basically analyzes the cultivation of piety among Egyptian women members of the mosque movement in terms of agency to speak back to western liberal discourse (i.e. secular/feminist/leftist), which often postulates agency as an act to subvert the power rather than to consolidate it. Before delving into her theoretical engagements with almost entire Western, even some Eastern, intellectual thought, let me summarize her main arguments in a nutshell, by simply referring to her preceding article “Feminist Theory, Embodiment and the Docile Agent: Some Reflections on the Egyptian Islamic Revival” (2001).
Mahmood works with a group of Egytian women who “pursue practices and ideals embedded within a tradition that has historically accorded women a subordinate status, and seek to cultivate virtues that are associated with feminine passivity and submissiveness (e.g., shyness, modesty, perseverance, and humility)” (205). Her ethnography formulates agency, then, not as a resistance to power, but a “capacity for actions” (210). She links agency with performativity, as she describes it as “the specific ways in which one performs a certain number of operations on one’s thoughts, body, conduct, and ways of being, in order to ‘attain a certain kind of state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immorality’(Foucault 1997:24) in accord with a particular discursive tradition” (210). Mahmood underscores women’s agency by delineating their self-initiated attempts of generating a pious selfhood, which has “less a sense of passivity and more that of struggle, effort, exertion, and achievement” (214). Borrowing the Latin term habitus and the Arabic term malaka, Mahmood explains how “moral virtues are acquired through a coordination of outward behavior with inward dispositions” (215). In other words, piety “rises from practice, is perfected by practice, and then governs all actions and practices” (216).
B. HALL OF FAME
One of Mahmood’s scholarly strengths, namely her fluency in social theory, marks unfortunately the very weakness of her ethnography. That is, her fieldwork data is at risk of getting lost among the heavy and long theoretical debates in which she strives to situate (or insert) herself. One, who has indeed no interest in Mahmood’s project, can still consult to this book to review theorists such as Michel Foucault, Talal Asad, Judith Butler, Aristotle, Bourdieu, and Eickelman among others. Firstly, her fluency in theoretical jargon serves to mask her flaws or weaknesses as an ethnographer, which will be addressed towards the end of the paper. Secondly, she cannot make any original argument on her own or in itself, without belaboring the theories of her precursors from Aristotle to Derrida, from Ibn Khaldun to Asad. It reaches to a level that her motivation in the book appears more of an involving in the theoretical debates of different strands, rather than an analysis of her own field data, which eventually serve to explicate too neatly her theoretical framework which basically echoes Foucault and Asad. The remainder of the paper will situate Mahmood (or simply demonstrate how she situates herself) vis-à-vis others in the various arenas of social theory.
Agency & Discursive Formation of Subject:
Foucault, Asad & Mahmood
Mahmood directly borrows Foucaultian concept of agency that refers to the “capacities and skills required to undertake particular kinds of moral actions” (29). This capacity, Mahmood argues, “is entailed not only in those acts that resist norms but also in the multiple ways in which one inhabits norms” (15). Speaking back to the liberal feminist conceptualization of agency, she asserts that agency is “not simply a synonym for resistance to social norms but a modality of action” (157).
However, Mahmood’s recapitulation of Foucaultian agency must not be understood, especially from a feminist perspective, as a pre-discursive individual free will to act. Rather, it is always “ineluctably bound up with the historically and culturally specific disciplines through which a subject is formed” (29). While, on the one hand, Mahmood tries to display the nuanced ways of asserting agency in the women mosque movement; on the other, she denies any power to those women in production and reproduction of the movement. She declares that, “these activities are the products of authoritative discursive traditions whose logic and power far exceeds the consciousness of the subject they enable” (32). As such, agency is yet another “product of the historically contingent discursive traditions in which they are located” (32). Unlike some generative practice theorists, such as Ortner and Barth, who account for the differing concerns, skills, strategies, interests, and capacities of the individual beside the potential slippages, breaks, changes in the generative circle caused by the individual; Mahmood sticks with the Foucaultian idea of the total discursive formation of the self, and maintains that the individual is simply “an effect of operations of power rather than the progenitor of these operations” (33). As such, the task of anthropologist is to “analyze the historically contingent arrangements of power through which the normative subject is produced” (33). The unit of analysis, then, switches from human subjects to their “conditions of possibility,” and the “discourses” that construct those conditions. Echoing, if not copying, Talal Asad, Mahmood stresses the notion “Islamic discursive tradition:”
“An Islamic discursive tradition, in this view, is therefore a mode of discursive engagement with sacred texts, one effect of which is the creation of sensibilities and embodied capacities (of reason, affect, and volition) that in turn are the conditions for the tradition’s reproduction. Significantly, such a concept does not assume all-powerful voluntary subjects who manipulate the tradition for their own ends, but inquires into those conditions of discursive formulation that require and produce the kind of subjects who may speak in its name” (115-16).
The neat close generative circuit, in which discourses produce the subject who in turn reproduce the discourse, obscures completely both the varying degrees of inhabitation of the discourse, and the possibility of any breaks in the all-encompassing circle. Although Mahmood critiques Bourdieu, she as well bypasses the micro-level socialization process of habitus, or discourse.
Epistemology of Mahmood’s Practice Theory:
Aristotle, Kant, Ibn Khaldun, Bourdieu & Mahmood
Mahmood starts with the comparison of Aristotelian and Kantian ethic formation, and then proceeds to situate herself in the later comparative analysis of Aristotle, Ibn Khaldun and Bourdieu.
While for Kant ethics has rational base and is merely a product of the faculty of reason; for Aristotle ethics can only be formulated through outward bodily practices- through what he calls habitus. In other words, in the Kantian tradition, ethics is an “abstract system of regulatory norms, values and principles” (119), whereas in the Aristotelian tradition, ethics is “founded upon particular forms of discursive practice, instantiated through specific sets of procedures, techniques and exercises, through which highly specific ethical-moral subjects come to be formed” (120). Following the steps of Foucault, Mahmood’s builds her practice theory on the model of “Aristotelian behavioral pedagogy of ethical cultivation” (xvi):
“moral virtues (such as modesty, honesty and fortitude) are acquired through a coordination of outward behaviors (e.g. bodily acts, social demeanor) with inward dispositions (e.g., emotional states, thoughts, intentions) through the repeated performance of acts that entail those particular virtues” (136).
Mahmood critiques Bourdieu for missing this pedagogical aspect of habitus, and for delimiting the boundaries of habitus only with class and social position. According to Mahmood, the primary concern of Bourdieu is “the unconscious power of habitus through which objective social conditions become naturalized and reproduced.” (138). She asserts that in every society there are “traditions of discipline and self-formation cut across class and social positions” (138).
Since she is not yet satisfied with her discussion of ethics and habitus in the context of these theorists, she also brings in Ibn Khaldun to come to a full circle. She suggests that the Arabic term “malaka” Ibn Khaldun used in The Muqaddimah can be best translated as habitus rather than habit. She displays the resonance of Aristotle with Ibn Khaldun, according to whom;
“A habit(us) [malaka] is a firmly rooted quality acquired by doing a certain action and repeating it time after time, until the form of that action is firmly fixed [in one’s position]. A habit(us) corresponds to the original action after which it was formed” (137).
Accordingly, in the women’s mosque movement, belief and piety emerges as “the product of outward practices, rituals, and acts of worship rather than simply an expression of them” (xv). Pious dispositions can only be cultivated through ritualistic performance. Ritual acts of worship “serves both as a means to pious conduct and an end” (133).
Methodology of Mahmood’s Practice Theory (Embodiment/Subjectivity/Performativity):
Austin, Butler, Derrida & Mahmood
As a disciple of genealogists like Foucault and Asad, Mahmood starts her theory of “embodied practice” all the way back from the speech act theory of J.L.Austin, and his concept of “felicitous performative.” Similar to Judith Butler, she reads bodily acts as a form of Austin’s speech acts, which aims to perform to make/do a felicitous action. Mahmood also refers to Derrida, who famously reads almost everything as a text, for his conceptualization of the performative as an “iterable practice” (Derrida 1988). Mahmood, in this vein, states that, “it is through repeated bodily acts that one trains one’s memory, desire, and intellect to behave according to established standards of conduct” (157).
Her departure from Butler is subtle but significant. While the “citationality” of the body is the center of Butler’s theory; Mahmood over and over emphasized that she is not interested in the meaning, signification, referentiality of the body; but the “work it performs” (188). She underscores that body should be seen as “a medium for, not a sign of” (166).
One of the provoking comparisons in the book is the ironic juxtaposition of Butler’s drag queen and Mahmood’s pious subject. Although both are resorting to the medium of “performance” in order to achieve their goals; drag’s excellence in her performance destabilizes the normative structure, whereas the pious subject’s excellence stabilizes it. In other words, the “performative” of the pious subject is “felicitous” in the sense that the bodily act does not only signify the norm, but actually creates it. In Butler’s tradition, performance does not necessarily have the pedagogical impetus as it has in the Aristotelian tradition Mahmood adopts.
My own critique of Mahmood is mostly about her ethnography. I am suspicious about her methodology, which she never exposes in detail. I cannot track many signs of a rigorous participant observation. Rather, I feel that she relies too much on the interviews. Any good ethnographer acknowledges that fieldwork is hardly systematic and coherent. There are always ongoing inner conflicts, inconsistencies, discrepancies and certain outliers. The neat picture of the members of the mosque movement portrayed by Mahmood may as well a product of the selective picking in the pool of field notes. The bottom line is that her ethnography is too coherent and intelligible to be true.
Secondly, her motivation to speak back to normative liberal discourses overrides her ethnography. She apparently went to the field with an agenda and certain research questions which demand certain answers in accordance with her theory. Just like Margaret Mead’s ethnograhies, she seems to found whatever she was seeking.
Thirdly, her book is unnecessarily dense and long because of (1) too many repetitions of both theoretical and ethnographical discourses, and (2) overtly inflated abundance of the intellectual accounts that almost shadows her own ingenuity and insightful analyses.
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