Of Death and Dominion – Interview with Mohammed Bamyeh
Mohammed Bamyeh’s 2007 book, Of Death and Dominion: The Existential Foundations of Governance, was translated into German in 2020 and released by Turia + Kant. We spoke with the author about his research process, how death played out within historical power structures, and the role of mortality in contemporary society.
Tod und Herrschaft is the German translation of your study, Of Death and Dominion, published in 2007. What made you write this book?
The seed of this idea had emerged during my earlier exploration of the role of existential questions in histories of religion, which I had carried out in my first book, The Social Origins of Islam. In Of Death and Dominion, I shifted my perspective in two ways. First, I was no longer thinking strictly about Islam, or even religion in general, but about underlying ideas: why we venerate a past we have not known, worship absence, glorify distant heroes, and idealize experiences we do not empirically possess. That is to say, why do dead things live on, and specifically as part of our socio-political imagination?
Second, and influenced by a desire to experiment with what we today call “decolonial” knowledge, I wanted to tell a global story. That added to the difficulty of writing this text, although it made it more enjoyable. It would have been more customary, if your topic is death, to, for example, write a book about Heidegger; to confine yourself to some clearly recognized tradition within some religion; to focus on cemeteries in one country; or to pick a specific historical period in one world region. None of those choices would have been wrong. But the question for me was: If death is universal, then how do we tell at least one part of its universal story, with universal tools, a universal perspective, and universal empirical materials?
The structure of my argument did not take shape until I began to explore all those issues. As the project formed, I was delighted to discover how source materials from around the world, from different historical periods, and belonging to different genres of knowledge, seemed to speak with each other, even without knowing each other. The conclusion became clear: The universality of death created the basis for a universal conversation – a conversation that only needed to be organized and thus rendered audible. That is what I think the book has accomplished.
Could you tell us more about the topics, issues and the particular perspective of the book?
One thing I learned in The Social Origins of Islam was that death, while a universal fact, was more of a concern for some social categories, and less so for others. The general principle seemed to be that those who had more, that is, had more power or prestige, had more to lose in death than those who had little. The former built monuments, the latter left no trace. The former announced their continued presence after their death, the latter we had to look for and excavate from under the rubble.
Death, therefore, was made to play a role in political life, which consisted in answering the following question: If we have an unequal society, in the sense that some have power and others are at its mercy, how do those holding power interpret the equalizing claim of death? The book identifies four main types of answers to this problem, corresponding to four different types of societies: the small-scale, self-enclosed polis; the world-oriented empire; theocratic political systems centered around the idea of salvation; and technocratic systems of governing mass society.
I do not regard these to be simply historical systems, although the book is structured in the form of historical progression. But this was only to clarify the presentation. At the end, I remind readers that today we have all of the above. We have empires or designs at empires; we have theocracies, attempts at theocracies, or imagined theocracies; we have small patrimonies that seek to remain self-enclosed and independent within a large world set on consuming them; and of course we have mass societies. And within each, we have different political orientations towards death coexisting in the same system. The historical perspective provides the advantage of clarity, but it may obscure the fact that we are rarely talking about just history, especially considering – as is the case with death – that we have not escaped the problem.
Another significant issue of perspective in this book was how to tell the story in a truly global, that is to say, decolonial, way. This proved to be a worthwhile task, not because I forced it, but because in the process of research, it quickly became evident how meaningless categories such as “the West”, “the Orient”, and so on are. The book demonstrates, I think, that such categories clarify no fundamental questions. To the contrary, they stand in the way of understanding universal questions of humanity.
The book argues that death has had a great impact on the thinking of governance throughout history, right down to our day. Could you give a tangible contemporary example for that? And, apart from theory, how would you outline the effects of certain concepts of death in terms of social and political practice?
A few weeks ago, a ruler of an important country (whose name I will not mention), expressed to his advisors his frustration at the fact that not enough investors were interested in a huge project whose real value was unclear for those prospective investors. “But I want to build my pyramids!” he reportedly complained. In this case there is no question that he was looking at posterity, at how he would live on as a great noise reverberating throughout world history after he himself had turned to dust. Grand, useless projects are often driven by this thought: “I am ruling others, which is already evidence of my greatness. How is it possible that all this greatness will suffer the same fate as that of a pauper on the street?”
The case above is obvious enough, but I think that there are less insane rulers who harbor the same thoughts, albeit with less amateur justification. I discussed Charles de Gaulle and Kemal Atatürk, for example, whose technique of survival consisted in inserting themselves into what they defined to be immortal national projects. De Gaulle in particular wanted to present himself as the model that would tell future generation how they should be governed. In the United States, it is rare to encounter a president who does not express concern about his “legacy” and about what “history [meaning: the future] will say” about him.
In addition, one interesting aspect of the problem, more visible in modern mass society, concerns how ideologies such as nationalism sometimes provide the small person, the otherwise invisible individual citizen, with an opportunity to become “great”, precisely by identifying with a great, presumably immortal nation. Thus, we are not talking about schemes of overcoming finitude that are experimented with only at the summit of society – although that is where the equation is most visible and where the data is most abundantly available.
For me, the alternative practice to all of the above was to move away from the costly, disaster-laden and largely symbolic death-oriented politics, and into life-oriented politics. If governing too many others invited the kind of politics that teemed with illusions of grandeur and pompous irresponsibility, then governing no one would be the ultimate expression of a life-politics – that is, politics as negotiations among equals, and not as a constant struggle to govern all, including those who oppose you.
You’ve been publishing on a broad range of topics, like the social origins and lifeworlds of Islam, the end of globalization, or the concept of anarchy. How does Of Death and Dominion connect to your previous and subsequent works?
Underlying all my work is a concern with the nature of power: how it is built up, justified, accepted, transformed, and resisted. This interest was born with explorations of anti-colonial movements, first in Palestine, but eventually throughout the Global South, and gained a more academic and interdisciplinary dimension with time. The idea of uncoerced, voluntary associational life seemed to me to embody the noblest hopes of human emancipation. That was the theme I sought to explore systematically in my work on anarchy, to which I turned my attention after Of Death and Dominion, and which, like this book, I approached as a global idea and transhistorical experiment, rather than as a modern political ideology born in 19th-century Europe.
Mohammed Bamyeh is a sociology professor at Pittsburgh University and, as of April 2019, a chair of the board of trustees of the Arab Council for Social Sciences (ACSS). He was a EUME Fellow in 2018/19. Previously, he taught at, among other places, New York University, Georgetown University, and the University of Massachusetts. He is also the editor of International Sociology Reviews. His publications include: Lifeworlds of Islam: Pragmatics of a Religion (Oxford 2019); Social Sciences in the Arab World: Forms of Presence (ACSS 2015); and Anarchy as Order: The History and Future of Civic Humanity (Rowman & Littlefield 2009).
Citation: Mohammed Bamyeh, Of Death and Dominion – Interview with Mohammed Bamyeh, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 12.08.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/30539