Many of the folks I know in academia have been circulating Talal Asad’s recent interview with Ayça Çubukçu on “Jadaliyya” concerning the present situation in Egypt. In many ways it’s an exceptionally erudite and thoughtful piece, and it certainly outpaces much of the drivel that gets shoveled out by “experts” in Arab politics on Egypt. I witnessed a particularly unsatisfying account of the Egyptian revolution in 2011 based on some trivial analysis of the penal system. One reason that the work seemed so thin was that it did not engage with any Egyptian, let alone Arab, thinkers – philosophical, anthropological, sociological, political, historical, or otherwise. It seemed like an abstract and neatly packaged presentation of a perfectly understandable society, not at all reflecting the pace, history, and intricacy of the developments in Tahrir.
I want to be clear that my only concern with Asad’s analysis is pretty shallow — that things like what he discussed have been thoughtfully sketched out by sources that remain totally unacknowledged. That problem is much more serious in other work, but that’s better saved for another time. It was an interview after all, so I’m merely noting the absence of something that’s endemic to a genre of academic work. I don’t know anyone who speaks in citations, but reading the interview made me reconsider some of those concerns, so I decided to write about them here in order to give them some kind of form. You may totally disagree, as Asad probably would.
I’ve been reading Elizabeth Suzanne Kassab’s excellent “Contemporary Arab Thought: cultural critique in comparative perspective” (2010) so as not to replicate this kind of blatant oversight. So you can’t say I learned nothing from that thin penal system narrative. I have been especially struck by her analysis of Sadeq Jalal al-Azm’s trajectory as a critical thinker. I’ve never read his “Self-Criticism after the Defeat” (1969) or “Critique of Religious Thought” (1970) but am certainly putting it on my to-do list. He, along with Hisham Sharabi, Abdallah Laroui, Samir Amin, Bassam Tibi, Abdelkebir Khatibi, Nawal Al-Saadawi, and Fuad Khoury form a powerful and robust theoretical infrastructure for analyzing the Arab Spring in general… but I’ve yet to see any of them cited.
The politics of citation are a persistent issue in anthropology, a discipline which more than any other should respect the widest possible range of opinions and interpretations. Instead, otherwise nuanced (and some not so much) takes on social phenomena are churned through the “Black Box” of some non-anthropological theoretician’s abstract ruminations on a topic and the outcome hinges less on hard-nosed investigation and more on isolating the right series of facts to produce a story that most closely resembles that theoretician’s expectations. Needless to say, the white, male, and privileged social status of the theoretician is never put to question.
To be clear, I’m in no way arguing for the inclusion of Arab social scientists and thinkers simply on the basis of diversity. Rather, the reason to include them in our theoretical parsing of the Arab world is and should be only based on their studied insight into Arab society. So much of what I read in the first half of Asad’s interview could (should?) have been attributed to al-Azm’s, Sharabi’s, and Khouri’s social criticism since the 1970s. Many of the issues Asad and Çubukçu highlighted should be closely related to these scholars’ analyses of Arab socio-political culture over the past few decades, especially in light of Sharabi’s “Neopatriarchy” (1992). This is also not to say we ought to imagine all Arab social science is totally innocent of the idiocy we sometimes see in Euro-American social science — see Omnia El-Shakry’s brilliant “The Great Social Laboratory” (2007) to instantly dispel yourself of that notion. Why, though, are these sources so routinely ignored? Or am I just wrong? Is this common in research on other countries or regions? Do scholars of contemporary post-socialist states so routinely ignore Soviet anthropology?
One reason for this tendency could be that none of them are “magic bullets” – indeed, many are so unabashedly structuralist or essentialist that they are hard to swallow. Khouri’s “Tents and Pyramids: Games and ideology in Arab culture from Backgammon to Autocratic rule” (2000) is a good example of the structural tendency. If you don’t accept structuralism in Euro-American social thought, you’d have no compelling reason to take Khouri’s work as anything other than another flawed replication of it. Sharabi deploys a psychological reading that may be objectionable to those who find that tendency oversimplified, etc. They are dismissed out of hand as members of a literature that has already been “proven wrong”. One strange exception to this is the continued usage of 14th-century scholar Ibn Khaldun’s strong functionalist account of social change in the Arab world. Ibn Khaldun’s success has to be partially construed as part of its intelligent scholarship, the intense interest in his work via Ernest Gellner and his genealogy, and current trends in functionalism with regards to studying power relations.
There should be no hesitation to engage with these works based on the internal weaknesses of the patterns of thought upon which they are based, which is a burden that any social scientist based in any paradigm needs to carry. There is no monopoly on accuracy, critical rigor, or anthropological knowledge in Euro-American social science.
What to do? First, clearly a strong engagement with scholarship from outside our own milieu is necessary, treating it with neither kid gloves nor feigned interest. To do so, we need to recognize and destabilize the construction and consolidation of authority on “other cultures” in the American university. One ethnomusicologist who is truly an excellent example of this tendency is UCLA’s Jacqueline DjeDje, who expresses her thoughts on the subject in her 2006 article in PRE, “Scholarly Authority“. I don’t think this means we abandon expertise or authority, but we should recognize authority not in individuals but in ongoing and rigorous research avenues that are shared amongst a community of scholars.
One way I imagine our generation of scholars pressing the inquiry of social science forward is by taking advantage of global interconnections and digital publishing to create more multi-lingual and multi-typographical publications and increasing our interest in translating current non-European language works (admirably undertaken by HAU (mostly European languages, still) and Jadaliyya, for example). I’m sure we can do it. In a related but separate note, we should also seriously commit to making the US a site for research for foreign scholars — think about it — when was the last time you read about a foreign scholar writing on the culture of the United States?