Taxonomy for the masses

The pornographic allure of looking at things organised neatly.

A book arrived in the office last week which seemed to have been inspired by a current fashion on the internet. Things Come Apart, by the Canadian photographer Todd McLellan, is a showcase of objects, old and new, disassembled and laid out on clean surfaces like anatomical diagrams. It is divided into small, medium, large and extra large objects: from pens, clocks and electronic gadgets to a large metal snow blower, an upright piano and an aluminium two-seater light aircraft.

There are interesting juxtapositions. A second generation iPod is placed beside a Sony Walkman, the latter boasting 370 individual components, by comparison with the iPod’s slick 80. A mark of progressive design? Elsewhere the trend is reversed. An Asahi Pentax SLR camera from the 1970s - which I was delighted to see, having inherited the same model from a friend’s father after he died - appears next to a 2012 Sony Digital SLR, which has retained roughly the same number of parts (580 to the Asahi's 576), despite having made the transition from film to digital.

Digital SLR Camera, 2012, Sony. Component count: 580. All images copyright: Todd McLellan 2013

For McLellan, there exists a danger in our “locked out” culture. We have become alienated from the objects in our homes. In his introductory essay, “We all have ADHD these days...”, McLellan expresses dissatisfaction with the “exasperating” waste and expense of having to replace everything we buy after a few years' use. It was not always thus, he writes:

It fascinates me that older objects were so well built, and were most likely put together by hand. These items were repaired when broken, not discarded like our devices today.

There is no mention of the word “neat” anywhere in the book. I find this strange because the most arresting thing about the images is the way they impose order upon a large number of connected yet disparate parts. The inner elements of everyday items are grouped and arranged with almost fanatical, geometrical precision. Yet McLellan does not make mention of the aesthetic impact of looking at a piano with all its hammers, pegs, pedals and keys lined up - or a typewriter, its cipher-tipped metal arms and levers arranged to create diametric patterns that leap off the page like a William Morris print.

The effect is both satisfying and superficial. Similar images have appeared online over the last five years, particularly on blogs such as FFFFound! and Things Organized Neatly (perhaps another reason to avoid the word “neat”, though I have no idea who precipitated the movement). At university, I became addicted to scrolling through these sites, feeding my obsessive compulsiveness by forcing an industrial degree of orderliness upon what would otherwise have been an unrecognisable mess. I spent hours clicking from one post to the next in search of the most grand - or minute - or unlikely - disassembly. Technology, matches, motorbikes - even families. The desire to seek out form and meaning in the world is a primary human urge, and the maximalist stratification of deconstructed household objects provides an instant hit that pleases intensely for a second, but is soon forgotten.

Things Come Apart - a slightly clunky adaptation of Yeats’s line in “The Second Coming” - claims to be working against the finished, holistic and pristine. If you look at enough of these kind of images online, their contrivance begins to feel restrictive. Unlike those images of calculated destruction which circulate fairly rapidly following the release of a new must-have gadget, there is no anarchy here. Rather we are witnessing the curatorial effort and surgical design that put the finished product on the shelves to begin with - and they are always products: buyable items. One issue I have with Things Organised Neatly is that its materialism can get to be a little much. The things take over. The most common submission seems to be a sort of Brooklynite starter-kit of leather shoes, stationary, clothes from Urban Outfitters, Apple devices and some kind of weighty SLR camera. It starts to be less art and more “look at all the things that I own”.

A recent post from Things Organized Neatly

Perhaps Wes Anderson is to blame. The miniaturisation and artificiality fundamental to his films makes them at once symbolic and materialistic. He has created doll’s house replicas of mansions, tenements, tents, trains and perhaps most memorably, the research vessel Belafonte in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2009). The American novelist Michael Chabon has noted the uncanny effect of seeing recognisable human events play out amid the palpable fakeness of Anderson’s toybox universe:

That is the paradoxical power of the scale model; a child holding a globe has a more direct, more intuitive grasp of the earth’s scope and variety, of its local vastness and its cosmic tininess, than a man who spends a year in circumnavigation ... When he opens the box, you see something dark and glittering, an orderly mess of shards, refuse, bits of junk and feather and butterly wing, tokens and totems of memory, maps of exile, documentation of loss.

The research vessel Belafonte from The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Image: Touchstone Pictures

Anderson mirrors common experiences in an undeniably contrived way, yet somehow manages to move beyond the artifice and point to something true. But as with TON, there is no denying that aspiration plays an important role in creating the effect. His characters tend to belong to the 1 per cent. They have the money to buy nice things and pursue their eccentricities. The beautiful boxes inside which Anderson frames people and places free us from the ugliness that is the norm. The mess remains off-screen.

Like Todd McLellan, Anderson utilises grids and boundaries in order to make us realise something profound: in presenting order we are confronted by its absense. It becomes a kind of boasting - one which has infected social media. People tend not to post pictures of a half-eaten plate of food or the damp behind the bed on Instagram. It's a version of reality, and in that way a little shallow. A bit like overexposure to pornography: if you keep clicking through it, sooner or later you become aware of the absence of real, fleshy people. Porn is not like people, it is a presentation. Life is not neat. Nor will we ever stop arranging it.

Things Come Apart is published on 3 June by Thames & Hudson (£19.95)

Like a hipster Art Attack: an image from the blog "Things Organized Neatly".

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era