The Arab Minotaur: A People Deferred

by | 17 May 2011

A deluge of articles, statements and comments on the peoples’ protests across a region defined in imperial geopolitical and cultural discourses as the Middle-East or the Arab World have so far been driven by two main questions: ‘how it happened?’ and ‘what will happen next?’ The ‘how’ and ‘what next’ are impossible questions at times like these, because they make impossible demands on what happened and misrecognize the fact that it is still happening. The event—regardless of how it is currently referred to: uprising, unrest, crisis, revolt, or protest—will not reveal itself as an object of thought and study precisely because it is mindless and acephalic. Both the domino-effect thesis and the snowball thesis are narratives and speculations after the event and the latter image seems particularly out of place across a region where snow falls on few of its remote mountaintops and does not register with the vast majority of its 300 or so million.

Both the course and ultimate outcome of the people’s protest are neither to be determined nor defined precisely because they are a-topical, without a place where they can be situated, posited, imposed, reposed, deposed or even ex-posed, for it would be a major mistake if they are seen as a remote spectacle without deafening resonances closer at home. This is perhaps where time and place, history and space have parted ways; but have they? And then what’s an event anyway? In all that has been said and is bound to emerge, there is that same persistent rhetorical paradigm of universalisms (commodified, romantic, liberal or revolutionary) from Fukuyama to Richard Branson, from Zizek and Badiou to Chomsky and Roudinesco. Lesser-known orators and speculators will come forward and speak their minds. We will hear from those who shall soon be commissioned to write essays and books on the subject, as of from, no doubt, all sorts of other ambulance chasers.

It’s September 11 all over again, except that this time the Free World is on the wrong side of the equation and if anything its leaders are no longer the conquerors but may well be the conquered, no longer the preachers of freedom and democracy, but perhaps its force-fed recipients. Once more, the event has ‘called off its strike’ (assuming that it has ever went on strike) and both ‘history as well as the conditions of analysis are disrupted.’ At times like these, Baudrillard once called for a Taoist attitude: ‘when events speed up, one must slow down’. The ‘how’ and ‘what next’ are not just impossible questions; they are also and essentially the wrong questions to ask in the first place. Europe and the United States were largely absent from the Tunisian events. True, perhaps this may not be the case at the level of agencies and institutions of foreign policy makers and strategists, but the harrowing silence of Western media about the most important episodes of the protest movement in Tunisia have already written off their come-late engagement with it and with all other subsequent instances of protest movements across the region. By the time the Western media woke up to the magnitude and scope of what has just transpired in Tunisia—that part of the world, which gave its original name to an entire continent—it was already too late; but late for what and for whom?

Both Western media and politics are now running breathless after stories and events in a desperate effort to make up for lost time. But the initial silence, the initial attitude of denial which in some ways persists with regard to media coverage on, for instance, Yemen as opposed to Bahrain are symptomatic of an endemic problem that one needs to ponder over in a separate piece. Where were the media when the death toll among Tunisian protestors kept rising by the minute? The answer is both simple and cynical. The Arizona shootings were more newsworthy. But also so was the New York City’s annual No Pants Subway Ride event. Mistakes kept accumulating on the French side from French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie’s request to send protest police and equipment to support Ben Ali in his efforts to kettle protestors, to the ill-informed appointment of a new ambassador, a close friend of Sarkozy, a young man rushed from Baghdad to Tunis when technically there was no Tunisian government to accept or reject the appointment of France’s ambassador in the country.

While the whole world was busy localizing Tunisia on the map and marvelling at the story of its educated street vendor who set himself on fire because he lost face over a female officer’s slap, Egypt took central stage. This time around, the presence of both the media and the United States were impressive. The most obvious thing to say is of course that Egypt is a bigger country, that the stakes are higher with respect to the United States’ and those of its allies’ interest in the region. But that reading will fall short of understanding the underlying logic, which is fomenting these protest movements. The real force behind this relentless sequence of events is oblivious to Western interests and Western logic and for that matter alone it would be a serious mistake if it is judged by the very logic it is oblivious to in the first place. The Sheikh mentality, the ages old attitude of western adventurers in the ‘Orient’ which singles out a leader of the pack to conduct their wheeling and dealings with, has by no means changed. This time around, though, calls on specific individuals to come forward and reveal themselves as potential future leaders have fallen on deaf ears. Even worse, no one is interested in a coup-d’état. Why? What happened? Have they lost their appetite for thrones and leadership?

The inability to figure out what has happened, what is still happening and what will happen next have been prominent in politics, in the media and even more so among intellectuals and writers. But is this difficulty dictated by the unprecedented and exceptional nature of events or does it refer to empty thoughts for which the Western mind is yet to invent some content, and blind intuitions onto which Western ideologies and values are trying to graft some concepts? Perhaps we don’t speak the same language, after all; and even less, we are not all inscribed in the same historical or theoretical fantasy of Fukuyama’s evolutionary pattern of a ‘universal history’ of liberal democracy.

Three key words have been prominent in these protest movements across national boundaries. They have been translated as ‘people’, ‘street’ and ‘revolution’, which is fine up to a point. But that is not exactly what they mean. They are of course ultimately untranslatable, but the word translated as ‘people’ is ‘shaab’ in Arabic (???), which evokes among other things spatial images of labyrinthine entanglement and narrow passages. It is into this labyrinth that the Arabic ‘people’ are taking the world. In becoming aware of these differences that disrupt the roadmap of correspondence and references structuring most of the comments on the mediatised spectacle of the Arab street, we may discover that a different revolutionary path of deferred dreams is being taken. While popular unrest was spreading inside out towards the Mediterranean coastal cities of Tunisia, Alain Badiou was half way through his seminar uncannily titled “What it means to change the world”.

According to Badiou, permanent or continuous ‘change’ has to be measured against fixed landmarks lest it becomes perpetual movement without a ‘witness’. Unlike the idea of the Universe, the World or monde is multiplicity without a synthesis. It obeys what Badiou calls ‘ontology of invariance’, a non-world of worlds working against the principle of perfection and the ideology of progress. Neither Heideggerian nor Spinozist, and even less so Deleuzean or vitalist, the Being (One) Badiou sought to ‘localize’ as the ultimate guarantor of the ontological invariance which bears witness to ‘changing the world’ is a ‘neutral’ category that can be defined, he says, only in mathematical terms. Badiou’s idea of pure and neutral ‘multiplicity’ will also have to remain unrealized and unrealizable by way of avoiding the oppressive totality of Kantian or Hegelian philosophies. A World, he concludes, is that which is always already engaged in the process of ‘localizing the Dasein of pure multiplicities’ like the dêmiourgos of Plato’s Timaeus.

The stark contrast between the beautiful Action of Plato’s divine craftsman and the ugly Idea of the victorious outcome of the Tunisian ‘riots’ was not lost on Badiou in his January 19 seminar. The Platonic invariable and eternal Idea seems to have parted ways with the action it is supposed to measure, moderate and restrain. The violence of the ‘emotive’ and rioting crowds (hence his insistence on using the word émeutes), remains, according to Badiou, ‘fundamentally illegal’. In a broader sense, Badiou prescribes the global contemporary propensity to rioting and taking to the streets in what he calls ‘intervallic period’. For Badiou, the ‘intervallic period’ comes between a ‘sequence during which the revolutionary logic is elucidated and defined as a clear alternative’ to a given condition, and a third revolutionary sequence (which links up with the first one) where the initial revolutionary alternative once again gathers momentum.

In other words, the in-between of the revolution must neither be mistaken for a revolution in its own right nor perceived as a sequence with independent outcomes. In that sense, the Tunisian riots are contingencies within the wider scheme of a revolutionary logic that does not only predate them but is necessarily bound to surpass them as such. A month later, in a journalistic piece addressing the reading public of Le Monde, Badiou flaunts the Tunisian events in the face of Western complacency and its endemic ‘colonial arrogance’. The West, he says, is perhaps re-entering the twilight of its Dark Ages and should listen to its ‘pupils’.

In a different context back in 1983, Derrida used this pun on the French word for ‘pupil’ in “Les pupilles de l’Université” to reflect on academic responsibility with respect to the paradox of foundational principles, which fail to guarantee their own (invisible and unthinkable) foundations. Far from reiterating the aporias of the Derridean pun and more in line with the essentialist tenets of his philosophical project, Badiou was wishing for the pupil’s ‘black’ circular opening in the center of the eye (of the Arab revolt) to pass some light to the ‘dusky’ retina of the West. One of the ‘pupils’ of the French university and former student of Badiou himself, Tunisian-French philosopher Mehdi Belhaj Kacem describes Badiou’s nostalgia for hierarchy and discipline as a symptomatic position of the ‘radical chic’.

The ultra-leftist discourses of the most quintessential contemporary philosophers of the West, says Badiou’s pupil, are incapable of understanding or commenting on the Arab revolution. It is no random coincidence that Zizek’s audience meets in the comfort of the lecture venues of Europe and the United States rather than in those of Cuba or North Korea. Under Maoist China, M.B. Kacem adds, ‘Badiou would be at best a gardener, and in the worst case scenarios a man doomed to end up with a bullet in his head.’ As for Agamben, apparently, ‘there is little difference between taking a casual metro ride around Paris, and boarding a train to Auschwitz’.

In reality, such seemingly reactionary and anecdotal comments of M.B. Kacem on the intellectual legacy of the ‘radical chic’ predate the Tunisian events and reiterate positions discussed in very specialized philosophical terms in his recent publications from Événement et Répétition (2004), prefaced by Badiou himself, to L’esprit du nihilism (2009). It is however, La Psychose française (2006), which presciently warned against the lack of viable intellectual or political discourses to account for, or deal with the disenfranchised youth of the Parisian banlieues. Unwittingly, the ‘radical chic’ joined forces with governments greasing the wheel of the free market in writing off the revolutionary potential of their cities’ pariahs.

Badiou’s ‘intervallic period’ is a time of ‘unstructured discontent’ without a shared idea. The cri de coeur of the Tunisian street: ‘dégage’ (clear off) which was later relayed by protestors in Egypt with the chanting chorus “Irhal” (leave), are according to Badiou acts of pure negativity. Riots, he predicts, will be the only form of collective action the masses can engage in during this interlude, this in-between of the revolution. After the first two (African) Arab dictators have been removed, the reality on the ground in both Tunisia and Egypt refutes Badiou’s predictions. A self-organized citizenry policed the streets and neighborhoods. In Yemen’s ongoing sit-ins, the people are overseeing the practical civic needs in terms of security, food, information and such other tasks traditionally performed by the ‘State’. It is the collective action of Tunisians and Egyptians on the borders with Libya, which is currently dealing with the extraordinary number of immigrant workers fleeing Libya.

A revolution is either a conceptually undetermined yet-to-come, an Idea for the future of action and for a future action; or an aftermath, an outcome whose extent and scope will only be measured in purely historical terms. In a different usage of the term, a revolution is a cyclical return of a moving object to a given point within its orbit. The latter etymological reference of the word evokes a predictable sequence of events that seldom veers from its course. If the elusive image of the labyrinth and the literal meaning of the narrow mountain pass are lost in translations of the Arabic word for people, such semantic blind spots are even more prominent in the word revolution. To Arab ears, the word revolution bears a completely different resonance. It evokes a different set of affects, which are totally excluded from Badiou’s mathematical metaphysics. The Arabic word for revolution,thawra refers explicitly to the bestial image of thawr, which literally means a ‘bull’.

Far from suggesting any explicit connections with the Minotaur of Greek mythology, the image of the bull links the region of the ‘Middle East’ and ‘North Africa’ with a pre-Islamic past. The original word of this pagan deity for ancient Semite tribes or the Carthaginians has been preserved in modern usages of the word for male partner, head of family or husband (baal) in Arabic and Hebrew. No wonder then, many Arab commentators found the idea of a ‘jasmine revolution’ rather insulting. Their Western counterparts (in the media, in politics and in the wider arena of public opinion) have been left with two options: either dismiss the ‘bull’ of the Arab street or resign themselves to take the bull by the horns and look into the pupils of the Arab revolt.

In his comparative reading of Mallarmé’s “Un Coup de dés” with a pre-Islamic ode, Alain Badiou summons two poetic voices “born in the recognition of a radical collapse.” In both texts, “the defection of the place” and the “defection of language” call upon a master “to confer a poetic chance upon a truth” while overlooking nothingness, the desert, the abyss of meaning and time. Following this reading, Badiou concludes that Western modernity and the very essence of capitalism are both maintained by a transcendent master who makes “choice and non-choice equivalent.” The immanent master of the pre-Islamic ode comes to embody the rejection of modernity and becomes, as such, the very condition and guarantor of that which it will never understand, enter, or adhere to.

Besides their function as potent cultural tropes—reductionist and misleading as they may be—sea and desert represent two different historical trajectories of military and religious conquests, which have defined the Arab East and the European West and provided a spatial ordering for their respective old and modern imperial pursuits.

Towards the end of The Poetics of Space, Bachelard concedes his lack of immediate experience of seas and deserts compared with his intimate knowledge of drawers, rooms, homes or forests. He also finds empirical and immediate experience of seas and deserts superfluous and generally indicative of “bad literature.” The poetics of vast immensities “does not come from the spectacle witnessed, but from the unfathomable depths of vast thought.”

In the end, this promising encounter of Badiou’s “spatial collapse” with one of Bachelard’s philosophical categories of reverie—whereby the vastness of space attests to the vastness of thought—did not err further than Kipling’s ‘Ballad of East and West’. In many respects, Badiou’s transcendent and immanent masters reproduce and maintain, albeit in a more sophisticated way, the absolute heterogeneity of imaginary dichotomies against the background of the same homogenous smooth space and in the no-place of spatial and verbal collapse.

However, while it may be perfectly accurate to deduce the transcendent master from Mallarme’s dice throw, the odds of meeting the immanent master of the pre-Islamic ode are very slim. The defection of the place and the word are difficult to establish in the Arabic language. What is at stake here, is a problem of translation of not just words, but of an entire structure of feelings partly informed by the primacy in the Arabic language of what Walter Benjamin calls image-space (bildraum).

Words such as ??? (people), which conjures up a visual representation of the labyrinth and narrow mountain pass, or ???? (revolution) expressing an action through the mental picture of the bull, are indicative of the complex montage of image, space, bodies, action and words which characterizes the Arabic language. A more careful reading and a better translation of such key words may lead to a better understanding of the structure of feelings which informs the cultural context of the protest movements in the Arab world.

Al-Sharaa [??????] is the Arabic word for street and at the same time means the one who begins something or enters upon a project. Its root verb sha-ra-a [??????] literally means to undertake or enter upon a legal action. The word as such already combines a reference to: a place, an action, a third person subject and the idea of legitimacy.

Rhizomatic off shoots of meanings grow and multiply around this root word. Its lines of flight are structured following a complex map of references signposted by a set of symbols known in Arabic as shakl, meaning forms or shapes. In their grammatical function such symbols punctuate letters and words. It is worth noting that at the level of sentences, the Arabic language knows little or nothing of punctuation. Sentences are usually linked with ‘and’ [?], something that, in a different context, Deleuze recognized as an indicator of the superiority of Anglo-American literature over its French counterpart.

With the strike of a little symbol known as shadda (which holds and doubles a letter) for added emphasis, sha-ra-a becomes sharra-a [ ?????] meaning to legislate, to set the law and to make legal. Add a letter here and another one there, the word’s meanings change from a religious to a mundane and secular register, from the sacred law of shariia [?????] to the human project or mashrou-u[?????]

Interestingly, when a small zero-shaped symbol (known as the silencer or Sokoon) is added to one of the letters, the word’s meaning shifts to divine law [????] and only when punctuated with another small symbol, which looks like a dash, also known as ‘opener’ (fatha) the word once again loses its divine connotation and becomes a human action (project) and a human space (street). When punctuated by a dash-like symbol placed below the letter also known as Kasra (meaning break or smashing up), the word shi-raa now means sail [?????].

However, the Arabic word for street translates as ‘public opinion’. The meaning of its root verb and its various punctuations and the mental representations they conjure up are bound to remain the misrecognized or repressed punctum in the televised spectacles of the Arab protests.

Despite the fact that popular protest is largely recognized as an unalienable civic right in many liberal democracies, the actual act of marching on the streets is never conflated with, or reduced to public opinion. More importantly, the impersonal street is a site of circulation and movement rather than action or projects.

The legislative power of the street as evoked by the word in Arabic seem to be radically antithetical to a long intellectual and cultural tradition in Western thought which associates the occupation of the street by protestors, crowds or idle loafers with lawlessness, violence, excess and with such numerous unpredictable and irrational outcomes. The suspicious act of occupying the street by the unoccupied voyou, to use Derrida’s word in Rogues, does not set the law and neither does its subject enter upon a legal action. It rather “initiates an inquiry and prepares prosecution before the law.”

The Western street represents a complex set of repressed libidinal forces. It is the death drive that allures Shakespeare’s Cinna the Poet against his own “will to wander forth of doors.” In the street, Cinna the Poet is mistaken for Cinna the conspirator and is put to death by four random citizens he encounters on his way. As such, the man on the street is always prone to become a suspect ‘person’ when the crowd occupies or marches on the street.

Such was the fate of 47-year-old newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson on April 1st in 2009. Ian was on his way home at the end of his working day, seemingly “drunk and in his own world.” Had he walked past a police van or among a motely crowd on any other day, Ian Tomlinson would have remained the anonymous citizen, the unassuming passerby he’s always been. On that fatal day, though, he was not in the street, but in the middle of a G20 protest.

In Badiou’s recent lighthearted philosophical dialogue with a fictional streetphilosopher (Liberation, 29 March 2011), the events in Libya are described as a global conflict whereby the whole world is “taken over by a planetary banditry.” A helpless citizenry is caught up in the crossfire of the “civilized godfathers” and the rogue bandits that they have created and nurtured in the less civilized parts of the world. There is no revolution in Libya. Just a few “desert oil wells” and a “desert colonel boss” fighting “little groups going round in four-wheel drives brandishing submachine-guns… and riding pell-mell through the desert to seize townships that no one defends.”

The people’s protest that only a few weeks ago Badiou recommended that the West needs to listen to and learn from has already exhausted its revolutionary potential. It is worth noting though that neither Badiou nor his interlocutor, the street philosopher, had anything to say about the motley crowd of Yemeni protestors in head-rags and flip-flops who have been occupying the streets and public squares day and night for over a month now in a Mexican stand-off with their resilient septuagenarian president. Perhaps the Yemenis, like their public square, are not as telegenic as their Egyptian counterparts.

In a different context, Badiou’s ‘planetary banditry’ resonates with Derrida’svoyoucracy qua a “principle of disorder… a threat against public order.” But unlike Badiou, Derrida identifies new spaces and misrecognized opportunities within both language and the place at the very moment of their collapse. A voyoucracy, Derrida says, “institutes a sort of counter-power or counter-citizenship. It is… amilieu.”

The protest of a quarter of a million in the streets of London on March 26 would have been deemed a success, had it not been hijacked by a small minority of anarchists. Such is the media narrative of events and the political response to it. The success of the march would simply mean that nothing happened and nothing will happen. The emptying of the street (from action, the law and the third person subject) is the ‘spatial collapse’, which in Badiou’s words summons a transcendent master who confers a poetic chance on some truth, on an impossible choice.

Is the radical distinction between street and public opinion, street and reason, street and the law, street and action symptomatic of the defection of language and the defection of the place in Western politics? Is this double defection an instance of what Benjamin describes as moral metaphors of bourgeois language? This language, Benjamin says, is incapable of bringing about change.

The language Benjamin was trying to recover in various textual fragments and montages is one where words and images “come about through action”. Images and words “are action” which takes place in the Messianic time of the now and the present. The protest movements derived their legitimacy and energy from the Arab street rather than from a holy book or a divine command. According to Tunisian psychoanalyst, Fethi Ben Slama, Islamic discourse is symptomatic of modernity as that moment of crisis which engenders totalitarian ideologies. This discourse in its recent alliance with the discourse of science and technology “presents itself as the end that returns to the beginning, a new beginning that makes origin infinite. This closed circuit makes messianism impossible.”

The protests which have lead the Arab Minotaur across labyrinthine streets are perhaps an affirmation of the NOW, a present which has erupted within a history of deferred dreams trapped between an oppressive past of lost glories and the crippling uncertainties of a utopian future.

Hager Weslati, Kingston University & the London Graduate School

With thanks to The London Graduate School’s ThoughtPiece


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