By Brian Stanley
Beyond the Binary of East and West However hard it tries, scholarship in world Christianity does not find it easy to escape the grip of the long-standing historical binary of East and West. The Christianities of Asia, Africa, and even … Continue reading →
By J.N.C Hill
The start of the Arab Spring has raised numerous searching questions about the study of the Maghreb. Scholars of the region are grappling with an intriguing and largely unacknowledged paradox: that the theory that arguably did most to blind them to the onset of the unrest has regained much of the relevance which led to its earlier pre-eminence.
By the time the Arab Spring began, North African studies was heavily influenced by the theory of authoritarian resilience which seeks to explain the longevity and endurance of the region’s various dictatorships. As a result, much of it paid insufficient attention to either the causes or possible consequences of the protests, focusing instead on why these regimes were able and likely to survive.
Since then, North African studies has re-engaged with a wider range of theories. In so doing, it has not only reduced the influence of authoritarian resilience, but opened itself up to other ideas and explanations. Yet despite these benefits, this move has occurred at precisely the moment when authoritarian resilience has the most to offer: to explain the survival of the Maghreb’s undemocratic regimes.
Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania are all ruled by the same leaders and elites who held power when the protests began. Libya has broken free of Gadhafi only to become mired in a civil war which shows no sign of abating anytime soon. And Tunisia, the one country to have successfully made the transition to democracy, is at risk of backsliding, of succumbing to old practices and personalities. The failure of the Arab Spring to usher in either the type or scale of political change that many in the region and beyond initially hoped for has drawn fresh attention to the perennial question: why are authoritarian leaders and practices in the Maghreb so resilient?
When addressing this issue, there are considerable benefits to using and applying Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way’s model for explaining regime transitions. Initially developed to account for the competing trajectories of the world’s undemocratic regimes in the aftermath of the Cold War, their thesis has two great strengths. The first is its subtlety. It makes no assumptions about the direction of political travel but recognises that regimes can remain in and move freely between any of the three conditions (democratic, competitive authoritarian and full dictatorship) that it identifies. And the second is the safeguards its adoption offers against the re-establishment of the authoritarian resilience paradigm as the pre-eminent approach within North African and Middle Eastern studies.
Yet using Levitsky and Way’s model is not entirely straightforward. While the fact that it has never been applied to this region before presents original and exciting research opportunities, it also speaks of some of the functional challenges that need to be negotiated. This adaptation and application has begun already. In my latest book – Democratisation in the Maghreb – I draw on Levitsky and Way’s model to chart and compare the political development of Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania over the past decade. I believe that the benefits of doing so have been manifold. In addition to casting new light on why four countries which seem to share so much in common have been affected by the Arab Spring in such contrasting ways, it develops Levitsky and Way’s thesis thereby facilitating its application to a new tranche of hitherto excluded regimes in North Africa, the broader Middle East and beyond.
And in the longer term, I hope that my book has sufficient accuracy and nuance to account for the region’s ongoing political development. The criteria that Levitsky and Way establish provide clear guidance on likely regime outcomes. By identifying and monitoring particular pressure points, insight can be gained into the trajectories of these countries, their respective directions and speeds of travel over the coming years.
- Democratisation in the Maghreb is now available in hardback. Visit our website to find out more
J.N.C Hill is Reader in Postcolonialism and the Maghreb in the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London. He is also an Associate Member of the Institute of Middle Eastern Studies at King’s College London and a Visiting Fellow of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is a member of the Board of Advisory Editors for the Middle East Journal and a Fellow of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies. He is author of Nigeria since Independence: Forever Fragile? (2012) and Identity in Algerian Politics: The Legacy of Colonial Rule (2009).
By Gabriel Rockhill
Theory is a particular type of practice, with its own set of rules, rituals and sanctions. To participate in its more institutionalised and prominent forms, it is necessary to engage with these norms and to negotiate one’s relationship to them. Far too often, this is done implicitly and non-reflexively, meaning that thinkers more or less automatically perpetuate the ‘normal theory’ of the practices in which they participate. They do philosophy, political science, sociology or literary theory – to take but a few examples – precisely as these disciplines are to be done. Their objects of analysis, methodologies, rhetoric and argumentative strategies conform to common practice and are thereby immediately legible as works of a particular discipline.
Let us call this type of intellectual activity interpretation. It works within the guiding parameters of an established theoretical practice. Interpretations can, of course, be more or less daring in the moves that they make, and they commonly seek to bring forth new perspectives or results. However, their activities always operate squarely within the rules of an extant social game. The central conundrum of interpretive work is how to abide by the norms of disciplinary practice while also producing original results. Whereas rote interpretation will be dismissed as old hat, novel interpretation will be lauded as saying something new (without however changing the grammar of the practice itself).
An intervention, by contrast, calls into question the rules of the game and their institutionalised customs. Unlike an interpretation, it is not immediately intelligible, and it often raises a series of troubling questions: ‘Is this philosophy?’ ‘Is this anthropology?’ The guard dogs of interpretation will almost inevitably lay claim, as vociferously as their institutional power permits, to the territory that defines their right to existence. How dare someone not play by the rules of the game (which is particularly disrespectful to those who have succeeded at precisely these games)? Institutionalised repression and marginalisation tend to be the academy’s interpretation of interventions.
This is in part because theoretical interventions seek to do what has not been done. They advance into uncharted territory, raising deep structural questions regarding condoned practices and authorised practitioners. It is not only that they are undisciplined, in every sense of the word, it is that they are capable of undertaking a counter-cultural archaeology and ethnology of contemporary intellectual work, raising the crucial questions: ‘what has been done?’ and ‘what is to be done?’ They frequently unearth the profound social and political stakes of established theoretical games and their privileged actors, as well as their cultural exclusions. They overturn the stones of Eurocentrism, phallocentrism, classism, institutionalised racism, compulsory heterosexuality, transphobia and the international division of intellectual labour.
Interventions have the capacity to develop new and different games. They are much riskier and even incendiary endeavours, and they are certainly more laborious and time consuming. Whereas one can be relatively quickly equipped for interpretive work, and many of the parameters that are in place favour this, interventions require cutting across disciplines, geographic regions, cultural milieus and distinct practices. This is not simply intellectual trespassing or transitory rebelliousness for it ultimately requires a profound reworking of the systems in place. In extreme cases, where interventions succeed in gaining traction, they reconfigure the very field of the thinkable. Michel Foucault’s poignant description of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud as ‘founders of discursivity [fondateurs de discursivité]’ might be taken as a potential example. Throwing off the harness of well-disciplined interpretive work, they both sought, in different ways, to intervene in order to create alternative theoretical practices, which have had a far-reaching impact.
In the current theoretical conjuncture, in which interpretive work remains the order of the day and interventions are rare or sometimes tenuous, it is imperative to raise the question ‘what is to be done, with theory?’ The answer of interpretation is to do what has been done (although perhaps with slight surface improvements). That of intervention is that theory itself needs to be redone. It opens a perilous path beyond the well orchestrated moves of disciplined and cultured work, which is at once more arduous and devoid of immediate gratification or even guarantees. It might be a path that leads nowhere, at least insofar as the destinations and aspirations of intellectual work are generally predefined by the interpretive-disciplinary matrix. Yet, in spite of the imperatives of our conjuncture and its institutions, can one not help but wonder if it is not precisely our time that is ripe for intervention?
Gabriel Rockhill is a philosopher, cultural critic and political theorist. He is an Associate Professor at Villanova University and the Founding Director of the Atelier de Théorie Critique at the Sorbonne in Paris, France. He is the author, most notably, of Counter-History of the Present: Untimely Interrogations into Globalization, Technology, Democracy (forthcoming), Interventions in Contemporary Thought: History, Politics, Aesthetics (Edinburgh UP), Radical History & the Politics of Art (Columbia UP, 2104) and Logique de l’histoire: Pour une analytique des pratiques philosophiques (Éditions Hermann, 2010). Follow on twitter: @GabrielRockhill
|Interventions in Contemporary Thought: History, Politics, Aesthetics is available now in hardback and ebook from Edinburgh University Press|
By Enda Duffy
Professor of English, UC Santa Barbara
Fredric Jameson may be the world’s most distinguished literary and cultural theorist living today. His influence since the 1980s on materialist, cultural and literary criticism, from the U.S. to China, has been enormous. He has provided a bridge for Anglo-American criticism from the critical theory of the Frankfurt School: translating the uncompromising mandarin Euro-critique of the ‘culture industry’ of Adorno and Horkheimer into an American critical idiom flexible enough to cover film and pop culture as well as Proust, Wyndham Lewis, and Conrad. He steered the ‘cultural studies’ and ‘new historicist’ movements on to the firmer ground of materialist, not to say, post-Marxist, critique. His has been the most influential reading of ‘post-modernism.’ He has all the time kept the faith with Benjamin’s observation, which he quotes in the epilogue to The Political Unconscious, that “Cultural treasures […] owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” He unites his own high aesthetic appreciation for the most rarified high-art productions in any number of genres—music, science fiction, film, architecture and photography as well as literature—with a tough-minded awareness of the contradictions of capitalism. He is an aesthete, and a Marxist. Jameson, for almost half a century, has been the brilliant standard bearer of materialist critique in the humanities.
The question is, whither that critique now? On the one hand, the final end of an already thoroughly discredited ‘actually existing communism’ caused a shock from which late-Marxism is still trying to recover. On the other, the end-game of any number of sixties movements in the west—anti-racism, feminism, gay rights, and some versions of class struggle—have meant a vastly expanded awareness and acceptance of the fruits of what Paolo Friere called ‘conscientization’ and Althusseur ‘ideological critique.’ So the scale of the problems seems to have shifted: from the nation (and anti-imperial nationalisms), to the north versus the south (the days of ‘the third world’) to the planet itself (our current moment of ‘the anthropocene’). ‘Class struggle’ appears to be trumped by the nightmares of planetary armageddon dreamed up in the past only by science fiction writers and nuclear-war generals. Jameson as a theorist has always been more at home with the intricacies of the dialectic of enlightenment than he has been with the practicalities of class struggle. Not for him the declarations of allegiance with the workers that are a feature of some writers from countries with strong union traditions. Can such theory, focused in the first instance on reading cultural productions, matter in the era of the anthropocene?
My answer: we need Jameson now more than ever. The poor still cannot represent themselves, and must be represented, especially because, as any Marxist critic can easily grasp, it is they who will be the first victims, and the most thoroughly victimized by every change in climate and levels of pollution. The millenarianist tone of some ecological thinking begs to be confronted by the hard edge of class analysis and materialist critique. The urgency of ecological thinking has, paradoxically, been comforting for some scholars as it allows them to forget the reality of class differences. And Jameson’s work, even at its most mandarin, never allows us to forget such differences. At the same time, in its own ability to anticipate the new turn in critique to a planetary scale, Jameson’s most important writing challenges us to think beyond traditional versions of class and capital in ways that make it a particularly useful tool for thinking about how to deal with the anthropocene itself.
I’ve recently been rereading Jameson’s central book, the Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (1981). At its publication, and since, the book was both praised and attacked for its claim that a Marxist or materialist reading of any work of culture was always necessary because it was the only one which could be a total reading, that is, the only one that could see and judge the work as expressive of the whole society from which it came. By appealing to the power of totality, and implicitly to the need for total change or none at all, Jameson might appear to be the most mandarin of Marxists, who will never be content with the small, incremental changes fought for by an activist. But au contraire; what the insistence on totalizing critique allows Jameson to do is to escape the ideological critique, and the identity-politics, that had been the strong point of ‘Western’ (i.e. European) Marxists since Gramsci. Jameson appears to jettison a post-Althusserian ideology-critique in favor of a more materialist one. This brings his critique closer to matter—which is, after all, the concern of the environmental theorists of the present. His work wants to be a materialism of matter, or, if you prefer, of nature (and an analysis of the surprising extent to which nature is culturally formed). How nature—especially human nature—changes, how it has a history, is very much his topic. And he achieves this, I suggest, because the most riveting parts of the book are his repeated engagements with the work of French theoretical experimenters with different versions of history, firstly Foucault, but especially with Deleuze and Guttari. As a shorthand, I’ll call this Jameson’s Deleuzianism. (He has since confirmed his interest in Deleuze in his article, “‘Marxism and Dualism in Deleuze’, South Atlantic Quarterly 96.3 (1997), 393–416.)
Jameson’s Deleuzianism is the result of his quest for a new materialism. Now, when ‘new materialism’ of the neo-vitalist kind advocated by Jane Bennett, and, in a different way, by such figures as Brian Massumi, and even by the new ‘speculative philosophers’ and ‘object oriented ontologists’ is being adopted by ecological critics as a useful philosophy of matter, the influence of Deleuze on humanities discourse in particular is entering a new phase. In brief, ecological thinking about the planet has need of a materialism that thinks of matter in vitalist terms. Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, for example, celebrates apparently inert matter as changing, and—in the grand scale—organic. Ecological thinking on how to deal with the problem discerned also needs a theory of how disparate groups can coalesce in order to bring about change that in different ways will be beneficial to all. Deleuze’s vitalist influence, which he develops from Bergson, and, further back, from Nietzsche and Spinoza, is ideally positioned to help think each of these projects. The centrality in Bergson’s conception of matter of flux and change (as in his term ‘creative evolution’) means it works for thinking of a history of matter itself, and thinking of how it has been worked on by humans. Bergson’s ‘flux’ clearly differs radically from the Marxist notion of ‘the engine of progress,’ and from the idea of revolution: it cares much more about the contingency of matter itself. At the same time, the account of how people change, and how they come together in rhizomic and intense coalitions, provides a useful set of categories for thinking of a coalition-based politics that might include class solidarity. Jameson’s search for a flexible materialism, beyond the prevailing accounts of ideology, led him, I argue to an early engagement with Deleuze. Jameson’s Deleuzianism might be just what we need now, when we have to think at once of global wealth disparities and global ecological disaster.
Enda Duffy’s article is available in Modernist Cultures 11.2:
The Occupation of Germany is a unique field for comparatists to explore given the fact that in this period five major world cultures – American, British, French, German and Soviet – were literally rubbing shoulders in Germany.
I’ve recently co-edited a special issue of Comparative Critical Studies in which the essays explore literature, music and culture alongside politics, international relations and military history. Some are concerned with charting and assessing the dissemination and reception of foreign cultural figures and products (Morley, Anderton and Feigel) or foreign powers shaping home-grown ones (Warkentin) for political and/or ethical purposes in the context of post-war Germany. Other essays assess the roles played by culturally and politically complex organizations and groupings in fostering international understanding through cultural means in the immediate postwar years: the Kulturbund zur Demokratischen Erneuerung Deutschlands which was funded by the USSR but concerned with German culture, the Congress for Cultural Freedom which was funded by the US but operated in Germany, the more international UNESCO, and a number of international conferences (Brockmann, Peitsch and Wiemann, and Morley). Given that these cultural organizations and groupings were not limited by national, cultural or linguistic boundaries and that they actively sought to promote cross-cultural engagement, it is sensible that their work be considered by comparative cultural studies.
The collection of essays also draws attention to the uneasy divide between cultural diplomacy and cultural relations, where the latter refers to activities which occur independently of state involvement. The essays raise questions about whether it is ever really possible to be independent of the state and, conversely, if it is possible for writers and artists, though salaried to a state, to suppress their own individual interests and convictions and serve those of the state exclusively. Are the activities of individuals and groups funded by states any less valuable or interesting as vehicles for fostering cross-cultural exchanges in contrast to those cross-cultural constellations which allegedly occur ‘organically’?
This volume spotlights the five years after the war as a moment when culture mattered far more than it had in previous decades. Whether or not the attempt at cultural transformation by these actors was successful, the attempt itself was crucial, as was the widespread sense that the arts, through becoming more politically engaged and more international, could play a major role in fostering peace and reconstituting a society.
*Extract adapted from my Introduction to Comparative Critical Studies, Volume 13.2
Elaine Morley is Research Fellow at King’s College, London. Her previous publications consist of comparative studies of twentieth century British and Germanophone literature. Current research projects include explorations of the roles of international cultural organizations in the Anglo-American cultural reconstruction of Germany after the Second World War and of the concept of Europe in the writings of twentieth century thinkers, including Elias Canetti, T. S. Eliot and Ernst Robert Curtius. Her next book, also a comparative study, examines the politics and poetics of a cast of internationalist Anglophone writers working between 1920 and 1950.
“There are Muslims in China? I didn’t know that.” Yes, indeed, there are—possibly as many as 25-30 million souls—and they constitute a fascinating segment of two vital world entities, “China” and “Islam.” Almost half of them speak Chinese as their native language, belong in the local Chinese culture of their native places, and may be considered “people of two cultures,” like German Jews or Canadian Buddhists. In this book, we call them Sino-Muslims—they are usually called Hui in Chinese—to indicate their bicultural heritage. The other Muslims in China, not considered in this volume, speak Turkic, Persian, or Mongolian languages and are not generally participants in Chinese culture, though they are certainly citizens of China. Among these, the Uyghurs of Xinjiang are the most numerous and best known.
Because of the difficult languages involved and the vast physical and cultural distance between China and the Muslim heartlands in the Middle East, most Islamicists do not include China when they think about Islam. Nor do most Sinologists consider the Sino-Muslims when they think about China. That is, scholars tend to see the Sino-Muslims as occupying marginal positions in both of their cultural worlds, but that does not make them irrelevant or inconsequential. To the contrary, their histories and modern evolutions can serve to illustrate the rigidities and flexibilities, the range of possibilities within both “China” and “Islam.” By examining the edges, places in which presumed cultural packages—Chineseness, Islamic religion—are not singular and exclusive, we may learn surprising new things about both. We thus wrote this book to describe both sides of the Sino-Muslims’ culture, both the Chinese and the Islamic, hoping that readers interested in one might take into account direct connections with the other. In Dr. Papas’s words, we welcome you to “a world of discussions, where the Prophet speaks Chinese while ideograms interpret concepts imported from the Middle East.”
The contributors to this new EUP volume, Islamic Thought in China, belong to a small but thoroughly international cohort. The eight of us come from six countries—China, France, Italy, Japan, Poland, and the USA—and connect to a worldwide network of scholars. We share Chinese and English, but we were educated in diverse academic cultures, with their different questions and methods. Writers have been engaged with this field for well over a century, and its topics range from ancient inscriptions in Chinese, Arabic, and Persian to the production and consumption of halal Chinese food. For this book, we have chosen intellectual history, a subject that has generated consistent scholarly enthusiasm in both China and the Islamic world. We invite readers interested in China, in Islam, and in cultural frontiers to join us in thinking about this conjunction of two great world civilizations.
Jonathan Lipman taught East Asian history at Mount Holyoke College (Massachusetts, USA) from 1977 to 2015. His publications focus on Islam and Muslims in China, including Familiar Strangers: A History of Muslims in Northwest China (1997).
- Islamic Thought in China: Sino-Muslim Intellectual Evolution from the 17th to the 21st Century – the new book edited by Jonathan Lipman