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Theorizing the Revolution: Stammering Articles From SOAS And Fellow Travelers

October 25, 2012

The Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication has published a special issue entitled “‘Theorising’ the Arab Revolutions.”

The special issues seeks to respond “to descriptive and facile interpretations of the ‘Arab Spring’, that have failed to articulate the revolutions beyond their chronometric eventfulness.” Instead, the authors (who are mostly affiliated with the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) of the University of London) hope to “develop a coherent and systematic theoretical response to political processes that saw the fall of some of the most powerful Western-backed regimes in the region under relentless pressure and opposition from highly mediated and highly visible modalities of politics that shook the foundations of authoritarian and repressive rule.”

Two of the articles focus specifically on Egypt; all reference Egypt and Tunisia.

In the first article, entitled “Arab Uprisings: Geopolitics, Strategies and Adjustment,” Dina Matar, a former Middle East news correspondent who is now senior lecturer in Arab media and International Political Communication at the Centre for Film and Media Studies at SOAS interviews her co-editor of The Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication, Gilbert Achcar, who is Professor of Development Studies and International Relations at SOAS and the author of the widely read The Clash of Barbarisms (2006, Paradigm Press).

 Achcar describes the role of “Washington’s return to playing the Islamic card: the good Muslims versus bad Muslims discourse.”

The good Muslims, or the new good Muslims, or the good again Muslims, are groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, with whom the United States had a close collaboration in the time of (former Egyptian president) Gamal Abdel Nasser. There are now attempts at renewing this kind of collaboration, as these groups have the advantage in Washington’s eyes of having a real popular influence, unlike Washington’s traditional friends of the past decades.

And he points out that Al-Jazeera’s close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Brotherhood’s economic ties to Qatar, serve as agents for this process.

“The Arab Revolts, Islam and Postmodernity” by Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, Reader in Comparative Politics and International Relations at SOAS, contextualizes the revolts within what he sees as a new stage in Islam. By contrast, most media accounts are structured by what he calls the “clash regime.” rooted in an Islamophobic discourse that constructs Islam as the ultimate “other” to the “West.” Here’s the abstract:

The article deals with the political and cultural context of the Arab revolts and the representation of Muslim politics in the `west’. It evaluates the changes that the current events have already brought about and how Islam as politics and imaginary has entered a new phase and trajectory that is very different from Islamist concepts in the Qutbian tradition. What we are experiencing, it is argued, is the emergence of a `post-modern’ Islam that is diffuse, decentred and almost post-ideological in its political syntax..

In an article entitled “Gendering the Arab Spring,” Nadje Al-Ali, Professor of Gender Studies at the Centre for Gender Studies at SOAS, and a founding member of Act Together: Women’s Action for Iraq. (www.acttogether.org), examines the extent to which women play central roles in both revolutionary and counterrevolutionary efforts in Egypt and elsewhere in the so-called “Arab Spring.”

The article discusses the gendered implications of recent political developments in the region. It argues that women and gender are key to both revolutionary and counter-revolutionary processes and developments and not marginal to them. It explores the significance of women’s involvement, the historical context of women’s political participation and marginalization in political transition. Theoretically, developments in the region point to the centrality of women and gender when it comes to constructing and controlling communities, be they ethnic, religious or political; the significance of the state in reproducing, maintaining and challenging prevailing gender regimes, ideologies, discourses and relations; the instrumentalization of women’s bodies and sexualities in regulating and controlling citizens and members of communities; the prevalence of gender-based violence; the historically and cross-culturally predominant construction of women as second-class citizens; the relationship between militarization and a militarized masculinity that privileges authoritarianism, social hierarchies and tries to marginalize and control not only women but also non-normative men.

 Mohammed Bamyeh, Professor of Sociology at the University of Pittsburgh, and the editor of the International Sociology Review of Books (ISRB), offers an article entitled “Anarchist Philosophy, Civic Traditions and the Culture of Arab Revolutions” Here’s the abstract:

An exploration of the most common theories and methods used in the ongoing Arab uprisings suggests that their roots lie in ordinary and familiar civic ethics, rather than in any conscious ideological project preceding the revolutions. This article explores the hypothesis that the revolutions have been facilitated most by long-standing traditions of self-organization that are usually ignored in scholarship of social movements as well as by organized social movements themselves. Both, after all, tend to see political mobilization as a result of either clear structures such as organizations or leaders, or as a function of explicit ideological commitments. Arguing against this way of seeing social movements and especially revolutionary processes, this paper explores the history of certain Arab civic traditions and popular propositions that possess what might be called anarchist features. These already familiar traditions and propositions came to the fore in the Arab revolutions. The article focuses on three of these broadly familiar anarchist styles of thinking and organizing that were central to the Arab revolutions: 1) the notion of the simplicity of truth; 2) the dialogic nature of the revolutionary process itself; and 3) the leaderless conception “the people.“ All three features are argued to have emerged out of a merger between long-standing civic ethics and a more recent historical memory of previous revolutionary experiences.

Filmmaker, photographer and  film studies scholar Haim Bresheeth, of the University of East London, contributes “The Arab Spring: A View from Israel.” Here’s the abstract:

The Arab Spring is one of the most complex and surprising political developments of the new century, especially after a decade of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab western propaganda. While is too early to properly evaluate the process and its various national apparitions, it is important to see it in a historical context. This article places the Arab Spring firmly within the history of pan Arabism, and the threat it posed to the west and Israel in its earlier, Nasserist phase. The work of Amin, Marfleet and others, is used to frame the current developments, and present the limited view offered from an Israeli perspective, where any democratisation of the Arab world is seen as a threat. This is so despite the obvious influence the Arab Spring had on protest in Israel in Summer 1011, a protest which has now seemingly spent itself; it is fascinating to note that the only protest movement in the Middle East not involving violent clashes with the regime it criticised, is also the one which has not achieved any of its aims.

An Iranian perspective on the revolutions is offered by Gholam Khiabany, who teaches in the School of Media, Film and Music at the University of Sussex. In an article entitled “Arab Revolutions and the Iranian Uprising: Similarities and Differences,” the author of Iranian Media: The Paradox of Modernity (Routledge, 2010), and co-author of Blogistan, with Annabelle Sreberny (I.B.Tauris, 2010), looks for answers to a question posed by many Iranians: how come the tactics of mass protest worked in Tunisia and Egypt but not in Iran?

A year and a half after the Iranian uprising in 2009, the unprecedented popular uprisings in several Arab countries at the beginning of 2011 provided some of the most evocative moments when power met its opposite, in decisive and surprising ways. In a matter of weeks, some of the most powerful hereditary/republican regimes in the region, such as Tunisia’s and Egypt’s, crumbled under relentless pressure and opposition from highly mediated “street politics“ that shook the foundations of authoritarian and repressive rule, undermining hegemonic structures and configurations of power within nation sates and between nations. Technology, as in the case of Iranian uprising, emerged as one of the main explanations on offer to make sense of this new wave of revolts against tyranny. The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt in particular, inevitably drew some comparisons with the Iranian uprising of 2009. The most significant question for many Iranians was how come that the two revolts in Iran and Tunisia which immediately and rather simplistically labelled as `Twitter revolution’ had a totally different outcome? Many in Iran started raising such searching questions: “Chera Tunis Toonest v ma natoonestim?“ (Why Tunisia could and we couldn’t) or “toonestan az Tunis miad“! (Capability comes from Tunis). So how can we compare Arab Revolutions with that of situation in Iran? What the different outcomes tell us about the similarities and the differences, and what lessons can be learnt? This paper takes a broader comparative frame, beyond technology, to explore the issue of power and revolutions and to examine the similarities as well as the differences between Iran and the Arab World.

My favorite piece is an article entitled “The Revolutionary Body Politic: Preliminary Thoughts on a Neglected Medium in the Arab Uprisings” by Marwan M. Kraidy, Professor of Global Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication and the Edward Said Chair in American Studies at the American University of Beirut (and author of Reality Television and Arab Politics).

Beginning with the Alaiaa El-Mahdy scandal (she posted nude photos of herself to a social media site, and these were taken as emblematic of the moral and political chaos engendered by the revolution, he unpacks the roles played by bodies, and especially female bodies, in the ongoing social drama of the revolution in Egypt. Here’s the abstract:

When Aliaa al-Mahdy, a 20-year old student in communication at the American University in Cairo, posted nude photographs of herself on a blog she called “A Rebel’s Diary,“ she unleashed one of the most heated polemics to come out of the Egyptian revolution that began on January 25, 2011 and deposed Hosni Mubarak less than one month later. This essay, written in the days after the scandal broke in November 2011, raises preliminary questions about what responses to Aliaa’s defiant act might reveal about revolutionary politics. In the essay I argue that the polemic surrounding Aliaa can be understood in the contexts of other incidents of the Arab uprisings, beginning with Bouazizi’s self-immolation, that invite us to consider, explore and theorize the human body as a vital medium in the Arab uprisings.

A short, ambitious article by Dina Matar entitled  seeks to historicize accounts of media use while simultaneously deconstructing historical accountsrooted in the modernization narrative. The article is entitled “Contextualising the Media and the Uprisings: A Return to History.” Here’s the abstract:

The 2011 Arab uprisings have called into question the assumptions and questions that have defined much of the scholarship on the media of and about the Arab world and its various publics. Much of this scholarship remains largely shaped by the `political’ agendas of the dominant analytical paradigms prominent in the 1970s, including the modernisation paradigm. Furthermore, many studies consider mediated cultures as being of the `here’ and the `now’ rather than a product of ongoing historical processes and conjunctures. This short intervention calls for rethinking the broad assumptions about the role of media in the ongoing protests. While not ignoring the role of media, it suggests broadening our conceptual and research agendas to incorporate a historical perspective that would also seriously consider the material and immaterial `geneaologies’—particular histories of nation-states, religion(s), capitalist class formations, national, regional and international politics as well as cultural and discursive formations.

Equally ambitious is “On Historicism, the Aporia of Time and the Arab Revolutions,” an article (he calls it an “intervention” by Tarik Sabry, senior lecturer in media and communication theory at the University of Westminster and co-founder and co-editor of the Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication that characterizes the revolutions as fights for modernity in postmodern times.”

The most interesting part of his article is his critique of scholarly responses, which he places in four categories:

  1. mute: academics so overwhelmed by events they never saw coming, and by the realization that the paradigms on which they built careers are outmoded, that they have nothing to say.
  2. stammering: academics overwhelmed by complexities and uncertainties, trying to find a new theoretical language with which to theorize and describe events.
  3. chronometric: academics who focus on unfolding events as a way to avoid having to contextualize and theorize causes and outocmes.
  4. subaltern: descriptions and theorizations that stay close to the voices and bodily practices of the peoples actually carrying out, and suffering the consequences of, the revolutions.

Here’s his abstract:

The proposed intervention is borne out of intellectual frustration and dissatisfaction with facile and largely descriptive chronometric analyses of the `Arab Spring’, that have failed to articulate the revolutions beyond their chaotic, unfolding eventfulness. Focusing on and grappling with key themes such as history, historicism, modernity, post-modernity, technology, art and poetics, this intervention describes key responses to the Arab revolutions and asks what it means to fight for modernity in post-modern times?

Finally, there is an article called “It’s Still About the Power of Place” by Helga Tawil-Souri, Assistant Professor in Media, Culture and Communication at New York University. Tawil-Souri argues, using descriptions of Egypt, that in spite of the uses of social media (and other media) in the revolutions, space, place and bodily practices remain crucial to political action. She writes:

Against the claim that the uprisings in Egypt were driven by social media, this article argues that territorial place continues to be a fundamentally important aspect of political change—even within the realm of media. Two key arguments are made: first, that territoriality and place are integral to media networks and infrastructures themselves; and second, that media studies needs to give greater importance to such a geography. The author argues that while the uprisings displayed a shifting spatiality, it is nonetheless one that is rooted in real places and embodied practices.

These articles are heavy on theory but often fall into the trap one of my mentors, Dr. Phyllis Chock, always warned me about: never theorize without data. Half of them take place in an abstract real where it is meaningful to speak about “the Arab Spring” rather than specific activities taking place in particular fields through particular embodied agents. They are, to use Sabry’s term, “stammering” efforts at finding languages to describe the revolutions (no disparity there–this whole blog could be subtitled “stammerings on the Egyptian revolution…”)

Nonetheless, all of them are thought-provoking and a couple (Kraidy’s and Sabry’s) are a(n intellectual) pleasure to read.

References:

Adib-Moghhaddam, Arshin. 2012. The Arab Revolts, Islam and Postmodernity. Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 5(1): 15-25.

Al-Ali, Nadje. 2012. Gendering the Arab Spring. Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 5(1): 26-31.

Bamyeh, Mohammed A. 2012. Anarchist Philosophy, Civic Traditions and the Culture of Arab Revolutions. Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 5(1): 32-41.

Bresheeth, Haim. 2012.  The Arab Spring: A View from Israel. Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 5(1): 42-57.

Khiabany, Gholam. 2012. Arab Revolutions and the Iranian Uprising: Similarities and Differences. Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 5(1): 58-65.

Kraidy, Marwan M. 2012. The Revolutionary Body Politic: Preliminary Thoughts on a Neglected Medium in the Arab Uprisings. Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 5(1): 66-74.

Matar, Dina. 2012. Contextualising the Media and the Uprisings: A Return to History. Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 5(1): 75-79.

Matar, Dina and Gilbert Achcar. 2012. Arab Uprisings: Geopolitics, Strategies and Adjustment. Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 5(1): 7-14.

Sabry, Tarik. 2012. On Historicism, the Aporia of Time and the Arab Revolutions. Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 5(1): 80-85.

Tawil-Souri, Helga. 2012. It’s Still About the Power of Place. Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 5(1): 86-95.

(you will find these and more than 200 other references on the Egyptian revolution in the Bibliography)

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