minor universalisms, Sohrab Mohebbi

narrator Sohrab Mohebbi
term minor universalisms
published 5 January 2017, Los Angeles, USA

The concept if no doubt an oxymoron, yet the argument here is that there are multiple universalisms parallel to → the subject-centred post-enlightenment conceptualisation of the discourse. The recent interest in Everyday Aesthetics questions the fine arts-centred discourse of aesthetics and its focus on the spectator in Yuriko Saito’s problematisation, and the autoeroticism and inwardness in the words of Byung-Chul Han, of the said discourse. What both of these thinkers and a number of others have in common is that the aesthetic discourse needs to be expanded for it to cover other aspects of life and be interpreted relationally within the social and environmental. Saito quotes David Orr insisting, “what we must do to ensure human tenure on this earth is to cultivate a new standard that which causes no ugliness somewhere else or at some later time”[1]. In other words, while appraising the aesthetic value of a product, an experience or an action, we need to consider the processes, means and methodologies that are integral to the creation of the object of appreciation. To this we can add that it is not only what we do, but also how we do it, even if they have seemingly similar outcomes.


Minor Universalisms include modes of relationality, communication, and social and personal practices that are recognised by different societies and cultures. Examples of such aesthetic/ethical → tendencies include adab or what Hamid Dabashi calls Persian literary → humanism; the South African concept of ubuntu, “I am because you are”; and the Scandinavian Law of Jante, and various other similar/different concepts. While admittedly these notions have disciplinary consequences and application, and are and can be used as nationalist tools of operation, yet beyond the possible political (mis)appropriations they offer different aesthetic → tendencies that expand beyond the limits of fine arts and include the broader field of social relations. Along similar lines, Schiller writes in his Letters that while needs draw man into society and reason gives him “principles of social behaviour, beauty alone can confer upon him a social character”[2].


The concept of ubuntu became prominent through the Zimbabwean and South African → decolonialisation and antiapartheid struggles. While its exact definition is up for debate, its Zulu etymology implies “humanity” or “humanity toward others”, a certain bond that connects all human beings, or in the words of Desmond Tutu “my humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours […] we belong in a bundle of life […] a person is a person through other persons”[3]. The Law of Jante or Janteloven promotes social equality by insisting that no one has any advantages over others, and while different people might have different qualities they also lack in others.


It is suggested that adab (which I am more familiar with and therefore will expand further) is rooted in the Zarathustrian triad of “good thoughts, good words and good deeds”, and in Iran and Iranian literature could be defined as the ideal refinement of the said triad. According to the Encyclopaedia Iranica, apart from a genre of literature, its Persian equivalent is farhang, which roughly implies education, culture, good behaviour, politeness, proper demeanour; thus it is widely believe that it is linked with ethics – it is sometimes an exaggerated form of politeness almost verging on indiscreet discretion in the modern world[4]. Firdawsī’s Shahnameh (The Book of Kings), from the 11th century, is considered one of the main references, and his heroes paid a great attention to the concept in their speech (in their soft-spokenness) and actions (especially in their approach to generosity, which is not unsimilar to the Nietzschean gift that expropriates to give) and set examples of conduct with regards to adab.


In Shahnameh we learn about maxims addressed to the king and his officials during Anoshiravan’s reign that offer some of the manifestations and attributions of adab. The list is exhaustive and includes, directly from the Encyclopaedia Iranica:


honesty; concurrence of heart and tongue, i.e. sincerity; generosity and magnanimity; affability; forbearance; calmness; chivalry; abstemiousness; god-fearingness and trust in God; hope; trustworthiness; abstention from gossip, from fault-finding, and slander; reticence; silence; care not to interrupt; knowing the right time to say and to do things; avoidance of frivolous talk; soft-spokeness; care not to frown and clench the fists while speaking; avoidance of harsh and wounding words, because pain is caused by the tongue; gentleness; modesty; humility, et cetera.[5]


Similar to ubuntu and not unlike jantaloven’s maxims, adab remains always relational, and thus individuals are always aware of another other, the self is as much alien as other people and one becomes relationally self-aware. All of these notions encourage moderation, and adab in particular also promotes proportion. Yet these concepts remain relative and contingent, and in particular with regards to ubuntu and adab, their undefined ambiguous subject whose boundaries are unsettled as its always measured relationally. Thus poison for one might be cure for the other, advice to one is an insult to another.


The question is how to follow such maxims in an institutional setting in contemporary art, where value is produced through scarcity and authenticity through differentiation. If we think about Orr’s paradigm, we can think about practices that reduce their negative aesthetic traces e.g. don’t rely on exploitative → labour practices, have minimum environmental residue if not having a positive impact, don’t replicate the abusive social hierarchies, even and particularly when they are underlining such matters, so on and so forth. It is now a rather cliché example in the art world that a biennial or an exhibition that reflects on the unjust labour conditions of capitalism uses unpaid or severely underpaid workers. We can follow proportion and moderation and to employ an “economy of means”, to quote the artist John Knight, in thinking about material, environment, waste, production, sustainability, to carry out our “modest” – and even immodest – proposals.


Thus, we can follow gestures of generosity promoted in these maxims in artistic and institutional practice and acknowledge the fact that our practice is inextricably bound to others in a → network of → interdependencies. This not only means sharing knowledge, ideas, theoretical expertise, experience and resources, but also how and when to share, under what circumstances or conditions, to what end and with whom. How to give a gift that keeps us (the curators, artists and institutions) accountable to our → constituents and audiences, and holds us responsible for the content we make → common. Or we can think of → self-reflexivity and practicing what we preach and follow adab as the “ability to recognise and give up one’s own bad habits, and to avoid conceit about one’s own knowledge; and care to speak only within the limits of one’s own knowledge; and not to let one’s tongue overshoot one’s ability”. Similarly, the janteloven advocates a self-restrain that advises against believing in one’s superiority toward others.


Arguably adab’s other ultimate book of reference is Saʻdī’s Golestan (1258), “The Floral Garden”, that as they say has flowers of adab abound and offers in Dabashi’s words “the lyrical undoing of the unitary subject”. While here we focused more on adab, what is significant in all three of these concepts, and similar ideas in other cultures, is the subject that is defined vis-à-vis others, socially.


To go back where we started, Minor Universalisms are minor as they are not prompting a grand imperative that applies to everyone, everywhere, equally and at all times. They are universal, as they consider the self in relation to others and in a “bundle” of life that includes humans and nonhumans, the living and the inanimate. They consider a subject that is dispersed, decentralised, diffused, non-knowing and not all-knowing, and perhaps ever more conscious of what s/he is not, than is. A subject who does not create beauty for him- or herself at the expense of ugliness for others. 

[1] David W. Orr, The Nature of Design: Ecology, Culture, and Human Intention (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 134.

[2] Friedrich Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man: In a Series of Letters, trans. Elizabeth M. Wilkinson and L. A. Willoughby (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), 215.

[3] Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness (London: Rider, 1999).

[4] All references to the Encyclopaedia Iranica are from: Dj. Khaleghi-Motlagh, “ADAB i. Adab in Iran”, Encyclopaedia Iranica, Online Edition (1982) (accessed 5 January 2017).

[5] Ibid.