A Life on the Surface

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Conventional accounts of the Islamic State, like those of any other phenomenon, tend to explain its emergence by looking for deep causes, which may be historical, sociological, or ideological in nature. But this is belied by the rapidity of the ISIS militant’s “radicalization,” the large number of recent converts to Islam who comprise the Islamic State’s forces, and the extraordinary levels of ignorance about Muslim history and doctrine that often characterize them. What if it is not the language of depth and authenticity but surface and superficiality that marks such militancy? This essay argues that the rise of ISIS serves as an extreme illustration of a more general decline of traditional modes of producing subjects through ideology and the making or remaking of their inner lives.