Interviews – Ella Shohat

Posted: July 31, 2015 at 4:18 pm, Last Updated: August 7, 2015 at 11:52 am

Interviewed by Basak Durgun

What does it mean to bring Cultural Studies and Middle East Studies together? How do you see the relationship between Cultural Studies and Middle East Studies as fields that motivate critical scholarship flourish?

When Cultural studies emerged as an academic field at the University of Birmingham it crucially modified classical Marxism and its base/superstructure axiom. However, over the past three decades, Cultural studies has also been critically engaged by diverse scholars on the left, especially in the emerging fields of critical race studies, gender/sexuality studies, postcolonial studies, and transnational studies. Such scholarly work has assumed the path and the insights provided by this interdisciplinary intellectual work, and absorbed its confluence of diverse disciplines, but at the same time it has also transcended and transformed cultural studies itself. Today, we can speak of the transdisciplinary space of Cultural studies, which is producing exciting works characterized by multi-axis analysis and intersectional perspectives. The impact of the critical methods of Cultural Studies is now clearly visible in a wide array of scholarly work within the humanities and the social sciences. At the same time, the metanarrative for cultural studies as having one genealogy in Birmingham could be transnationalized itself. Robert Stam and I , in this sense, have argued for de-Eurocentrizing a Cultural studies that tends to be focused only on the Anglophone world. We also suggested that outside of the English-Speaking zone many authors and texts could be seen as practicing “cultural studies” avant la lettre in terms of their method and radical thrust.[1]

Whereas Cultural Studies, like the post-Civil Rights formations of Ethnic studies and Women’s studies, emerged and took form “from below,” the various Area studies, as we know, were institutionally formed as a top-down endeavor during the Cold War era. However, Dependency Theory, World-Systems Theory, and Third World Studies, produced cracks in this cold war institution and its neocolonial ideology. Anti- colonialism became a kind of lingua franca in progressive circles. And this noticeable critical corpus was soon joined and engaged by the interventions of poststructuralism and postmodernism. And a critical Cultural Studies has now become a presence in some forms of Area Studies, especially in Latin American studies, Africana studies, and today, quite vitally, in American Studies. It has also impacted the various “nation/language studies,” e.g. “French Studies,” “German Studies,” etc. The traditionally separated disciplinary practices of (some) Area Studies are now transformed universes, not only politically but also methodologically. Scholars of diverse disciplinary backgrounds have challenged the hegemonic academic quarantining of the disciplines. They have generated dynamic intellectual transdisciplinarity work that can fuse for example textual analysis with discursive deconstruction, along with materialist engagement, bringing on board within a multi-perspectival approach, the insights for example of literature, history, ethnography, geography, and cinema/media studies.

Within Middle Eastern Studies, especially since the 1970s, Marxist analysis has provided the critical edge, and challenged the recruitment of scholarship in the service of imperial policies.

But traditional Marxists have tended to treat the post-Marxist field of Cultural Studies with suspicion largely because the category “culture” is seen as the fuzzy realm of “superstructure.” Yet, the critical study of culture, as we know, is embedded in, and not outside the materialist- political process. Cultural Studies offers a critique of “culturalism” (with emphasis on the “ism”) as an essentialist projection of geographies and histories. Instead, it is invested in cultural politics conceived from within an intellectual paradigm where culture and politics are mutually constituted, in and through each other. In contrast to the changing landscape of other Area studies, the position of Cultural Studies in Middle Eastern Studies has remained rather ambivalent. It has tended to be misunderstood and resisted by a variety of ideological forces and disciplinary guardians. “Cultural anthropology” for example has often tended to be, at best, skeptical toward this new interdisciplinary approach to the study of “culture,” which did not adhere to the familiar scientific methods of field-study research and quantifiable empirical data gathering. Even when the subject at hand may overlap with Cultural Studies, the anthropologist, or the historian, who study “culture” usually deploy different research skills and analytical methods. Middle Eastern Studies has been under the disciplinary regime of segregated disciplines, neatly defined as literature, history, anthropology, political science, etc. Therefore, given the long institutional history of the organization of the disciplines, Cultural Studies has had to fight for its legitimacy within Middle Eastern Studies. The decades old question, “Who’s afraid of Cultural studies?” I believe, is still relevant today to Middle Eastern Studies. Scholars across the political spectrum have in fact shared an investment in the prestigious elite-lineage and the “cultural capital” of the disciplines. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that in the U.S., Cultural studies programs have flourished largely in institutions that allowed interdisciplinary experimentation, and “from below” interrogation.

If we take the still ambivalent reception of Edward Said’s Orientalism as evidence, we may learn something about the state of Cultural studies, and its concomitant related field of postcolonial studies within Middle Eastern Studies—a subject I addressed at the plenary session for the book’s 30th anniversary at the Middle East Studies Association.[2] It is not too difficult to understand the attack on the book from the Orientalist quarters of Bernard Lewis, and the ardent believers in the “clash-of-civilizations” thesis. Said’s book– along with the work of his precursors, most notably Anouar Abdel-Malek, A.L. Tibawi, and Maxime Rodinson– is recognized as having generated a kind of an epistemological crisis. However, within Middle Eastern studies there has been lower-grade resistance to Orientalism, simmering even within anti-Orientalist circles. Many may applaud Said’s critique of Orientalism but they also may not feel attuned with Said’s method of reading. The endorsement of Said’s Orientalism within anti- Orientalist Middle Eastern studies has tended to reflect a shared ideological critique, but usually not a methodological one. Middle East scholars who share Said’s anti-Orientalist political position have considered the book problematic, expressing dismay from an “academic” standpoint. These sympathetic critics of Orientalism, usually from the disciplines of history, anthropology, or political science, are ill at ease with the “coverage” of divergent geographies and histories as well as with the engagement of various texts, genres, and institutions.

However, I would argue that it is the Cultural studies method of Orientalism that has led some of our colleagues to shake their heads with disbelief at Said’s text. Although the book invokes many historical issues, it is not a work of “History” per se; rather, it performs an analysis of historically-shaped discourses about how regions and communities are narrated, arranged, and sequenced through an (often) unacknowledged and assumed set of doxa and axiom. Said’s method, as a Cultural Studies text par excellence, entails both the constitution and the reading of a discursive corpus—in this case Orientalism. Cultural Studies has assumed the various structuralist and poststructuralist “turns;” the linguistic turn (Saussure), the discursive turn (Bakhtin and Foucault), and the cultural turn (Jameson). Within Middle Eastern Studies, the critique of Said as a deficient political scientist or historian, or anthropologist, however valid from specific disciplinary perspectives, at the same time sidesteps the book’s main concern with the problem of representation, in terms of rhetoric, figures of speech, narrative structure, and discursive formation. Surely, it is legitimate to point out that Orientalist discourse is not as homogenous as Said suggests, and that it manifests historical and national specificities. At the same time, the construction and the critical dissection of a discourse has been productive, precisely because the analysis discerns, beyond the “trees” of the differences from text to text, the “forest” of the discourse, exposing recurrent leitmotifs manifest across styles, genres, and historical contexts. It is not a matter of choosing “discourse” over “history” – obviously discourse itself is historical and history is discursive; rather, it is a case of highlighting a multi- perspectival approach to the analysis of knowledge production. Whatever the pitfalls of poststructuralist protocols of reading (and critics are certainly right to point them out), such readings can illuminate dimensions that other grids might miss.

Within Middle Eastern Studies the interrelated fields of investigation of cultural studies, postcolonial studies, and transnational studies, have often been seen through the prism of a rather gendered tropology of “soft” and “hard” knowledges. The heated debates over Said’s Orientalism have focused on “hard” knowledge, i.e. ideology and politics. It is as if the study of the politics of culture is viewed as marginal to the “real” debate over Orientalism, i.e. the ideological – political debate. But Said’s critique bears precisely on the inextricable nexus between the supposedly “hard” institutional power and the supposedly “soft” power of culture. Said’s political critique cannot be detached from his cultural critique. Indeed, the assumption that politics and culture are thoroughly imbricated forms the cornerstone of that post-Marxist field of Cultural studies as a field that deploys Gramsci to reconfigure the base/superstructure relation, within an intellectual paradigm where culture and politics are mutually constituted, in and through each other. The interdisciplinary space of cultural politics offers opportunities for an expanded notion of the very geography of “the Middle East” to view it transnationally. Increasingly, a vibrant and growing field of scholarship has taken on board such questions as the new technologies that instantaneously link the globe and the back-and-forth movements across borders of commodities and communities. Such work addresses neo-Orientalism not only in relation to the Middle East per se but also in and around it; for example through work on the transnational reception of Middle Eastern literature, cinema, music and visual arts, and its impact on the “self-Orientalizing” of Middle Eastern cultural production; on the politics of translation of novels and memoirs within gendered Orientalist paradigms; on globalized digital technologies as actively mediating and shaping of identities beyond national boundaries. Taken as an ensemble, such work analyzes cultural formations and practices as at once national and transnational, local and global.

For those of us engaged in the ongoing project of deconstructing the essentialist paradigms undergirding knowledge production about the Middle East (and for that matter about any other geography) the critical dissection of Orientalism is far from over. In fact, Middle Eastern Studies departments and the Middle East Studies Association have themselves been subjected to the panoptical gaze. Scholars critical of Orientalist rhetoric and policy have been watched on their campuses. In this tale, Said’s corrupting influence marks the beginning of a downward spiral for the field of Middle Eastern studies. The critics of Orientalism are subjected to reductivist caricatures, widespread in the public sphere. And especially since 9/11 an old/new Orientalist moment, this time largely channeled via Islamophobia, has forcefully targeted academic freedom of the so-called “tenured radicals.” The recent case of the firing of Steven Salaita from his tenured position suggests that even tenure for those critical voices of “imperial reason” hardly offers a safe haven. One key issue for cultural studies has indeed been the examination of academic institutions, and the ways in which this arena is managed and regulated. For example, to generate knowledge that looks into the analogies and links between the ways diverse indigenous peoples are treated, represented, and studied, transgresses a taboo. What cultural studies, and the concomitant fields of postcolonial, transnational, indigenous, and diasporic studies has made possible– is to illuminate the linked analogies that tends to be obscured by traditional academic formations. Bringing Cultural studies methods to bear on Middle East studies therefore remains a crucial task because it demands a historicized study of the politics of culture; it requires that we disentangle the binarist notion of “here” and “there” in an effort to transcend a ghettoized mapping of the diverse regions of the world by highlighting what could be called “inter-Area studies” perspectives.

If we may be looking for reasons for optimism, then, I would say it is to be found in this vital growing trend of producing of transdisciplinary work that lies in the interstices between the various Area studies. The study of cross-border movements through “inter-Area studies” approaches de-territorializes regions as stable objects of study, and offers new angles on the ongoing critique of the essentialist fixity of East-versus-West and North-versus-South in work that audaciously continues to challenge the so-called “passé” critique of Orientalism. The nexus of “culture” and “politics” remains foundational for what can be called “Middle Eastern Cultural Studies.” The intersectionality of regions and cartographies of knowledge allow us to redraw dynamic maps of scholarly terrain, stretching and broadening the field. It allows us to forge reciprocally haunting connections between divergent yet historically linked zones, in order to demonstrate the potentialities of cross-border mutual illuminations. The nexus of “culture” and “politics” is foundational for discussing the Middle East, and for that matter all regions. The decolonization of knowledge begins by deconstructing Eurocentric epistemologies as well as by interrogating nationalist and essentialist analytical frameworks; ideas must be situated within multiple points of entry and departures. Such a transnational, relational, and diasporic reading forges reciprocally haunting connections between divergent yet historically linked colonized zones, in order to demonstrate the potentialities of cross-border mutual illuminations. Ultimately, it is not a question of migratory demographics, of merely following a population from its originary base into new geographical zones. Instead, it is a question of taking seriously what could be called the “diasporic turn,” of thinking all regions, including the Middle East/North Africa itself, in a profoundly diasporic manner, where each geography constitutes not a point of origin or final destination, but rather one terminal in a transnational network.

In your talk, “The Question of Judeo-Arabic(s): Itineraries of Belonging”, you suggested to transnationalize the discussion of narratives of belonging. The case you are working with and your position is a strong challenge to the mythology of nationalism as an emancipatory strategy. Building on this critique, how can we think about anti-colonial struggle today trans-nationally?

My work on “the question of Judeo-Arabic” attempts to continue my reflections on “the question of the Arab-Jew,” but this time explored through the lens of dialect/language. Against the conceptual binarism that mandates that “Jew” and “Arab” be antonyms, I argue that the linguistic/cultural question of “Judeo-Arabic” is inseparable from the ethnic/religious concept of the “Arab-Jew.” I inquire into the genealogy of the term “Judeo-Arabic language,” and its current wide circulation and axiomatic ontology. Considering the elastic designations used by Jewish speaking-subjects to refer to their various speech/dialects, I ask whether we should regard the notion of “Judeo-Arabic language” as “natural” and normative or as reflective of conceptual paradigms developed under the twin influence of post-Haskala (or Enlightenment) Judaic studies and Jewish nationalism. While recognizing some of the specificities of the Arabic(s) written and spoken by Jews, I want to interrogate the view of “Judeo-Arabic” as always-already belonging to the (relatively recent) category of “Jewish languages.” The idea of a “Judeo-Arabic language” is ultimately premised on its severance from its contextual “linguistic family”– Arabic. What is posited as the uniqueness associated with “Jewish languages” could be better reformulated as a broad range of overlapping specificities to be examined within a cross-border and relational perspective, through the accommodating prism of differentiated commonalities. Highlighting the continuity between Judeo-Arabics (with emphasis on the plural) and their ambient regional Arabics, I suggest that “Judeo-Arabic,” like the Arabic of which it forms a part, is polyphonic and hetreoglossic; it is host to multiple accents and regional dialects.

Highlighting multiple relationalities between Judeo-Arabic and a number of related languages and similar Arabic dialects (and not solely linked to other Jewish languages), I deploy the notions of “Jewish languages” and “Judeo-Arabic” as concepts under erasure, using the terms while simultaneously deconstructing them. I raise the question about the etymology of the notion “Judeo-Arabic language” itself, and position the textual dislocation of Arab-Jewish documents — specifically the 19th Century scattering of the Egyptian Geniza from Cairo to Cambridge and other academic and cultural institutions — as anticipating the physical/demographic dispersal of Arab-Jews themselves in the wake of the partition of Palestine, the establishment of Israel, and the Arab/Israeli conflict. I then detail the way in which, with the Enlightenment, the Haskala, and later with Zionism, the Orientalist schema began to be projected exclusively toward “the other” Semitic figure — “the Arab” — with the Arab-Jew coming to occupy an ambivalent position. Judeo-Arabic was categorized as a language separate from Arabic, a “Jewish Diaspora language” to be “disappeared” given the Zionist resurrection of the Jewish national language– (Europeanized) Hebrew. As a result it have been relegated to the position of a lost object to be recuperated by academic study. Against this history, I examine communication across dialects and with multiplicities within languages. Instead of an Arabic / Hebrew polarity, I try to mine the residues of Arabic(s) in Hebrew literature and simultaneously stresses the imaginary aspect of “Judeo-Arabic(s)” as both rejected and desired in the wake of its dislocation from the Arabic- speaking world. In contrast to the nationalist premise that informs the notion of “Jewish Languages,” I try to transnationalize and relationalize the discussion, illuminating the ways in which the notion of “Judeo-Arabic” has been conceptualized as “distinct” from Arabic while also being linked to a historically recently invented category of “Jewish languages.”

I pointed out that on its long list of languages Fulbright categorizes “Arabic” and “Judeo-Arabic” as separate languages. Apart from the variety of Arabic dialects spoken by Jews, Fulbright does not offer a similar separate linguistic status to many various Arabic dialects. In this sense the Zionist metanarrative of separating Jewish expression in Arabic from the wider Arabic culture has “travelled” to the U.S. But by critiquing the Zionist metanarrative my point is not to produce Arabic ethno-nationalist essentialism. As a situated utterance, the notion of “Judeo-Arabic” must be used conjuncturally, as always-already in flux and under erasure, to be simultaneously deployed and deconstructed. Despite a history of rupture and discontinuity, Judeo-Arabic (or more precisely “the Arabic(s) deployed by Jews”), remains intimately linked, even across the Israeli/Arab divide, to a living and variegated assemblage of variations on an Arabic theme. I therefore cast doubt about the premises of the “endangered language” discourse, which refuses to make links across national borders. In fact, I ask: could it be that the recovery project reproduces the very same conceptual binarism that produced the disappearance of “the language” in the first place? Pointing to living similar Arabic vernaculars across the borders suggests that even “disappearance” is a product of Hebrew nationalist fear of Arabic. The “Judeo” in “Judeo- Arabic” tends to enact a kind of severance from the realm of Arabic. The examples of Arabic dialects spoken by Jews in Israel, the U.K., etc, indicate that Arabics have been “infiltrating” modern Hebrew along a broad cultural-discursive-mediatic spectrum that includes literary texts, popular songs, films, and everyday speech; which is why I tried to highlight the persistence of Arabic-Hebrew syncretism. I traced the presence of Arabic(s), for example, within Hebrew literature. In other words, despite a history of traumatic discontinuity and rupture, Judeo- Arabic(s) continue to live on in literary writing, music, performance, and within multiple virtual sites. I stressed the phantasmatic dimension of “Judeo-Arabic” as a linguistic entity simultaneously rejected (due to its Arabic affiliation, a language that belongs to the presumed arch-enemy) but also desired (especially by those who crossed the border and forced to abandon it). Thus despite dislocation from Arabic-speaking cultural geographies in the wake of colonial and national practices, belonging must be understood transnationally. The case of “Judeo- Arabic” suggests that the persistence of essentialist and reductivist ethnonationalism has affected every realm, including scholarly definitions and academic projects. And my purpose was to destabilize the fixed categories, to highlight cultural syncretism, to diasporize the notion of “national culture,” and altogether to transnationalizing the discussion.

Nationalism in the service of colonialism could be defined as regressive, and at the same time could be seen as progressive when used in the fight against oppression, especially given the lack of power symmetry between the nationalism of colonial powers and the nationalism of anti- colonial movements. But to critique colonialism and imperialism can avoid the pitfalls of essentialist ethno-nationalism even when— understandably — used as weapons of the weak. It is one thing to critique colonialism; it is another to (re)produce homogenous nationalism, which often has ended up excluding, oppressing, and displacing communities within post-independence nation-state. Already with the fall of the Ottoman Empire redefinitions of identities and massive dislocations began to take place. After World War Two, with decolonization and partitions, the process has only intensified, and life shifted for many communities, with population transfers that resulted in numerous transmutations of identity. Some have been for decades shorn of citizenship (such as ’48 Palestinians in refugee camps, displaced over and over); while others (like the Arab Jews) partake of a citizenship that does not necessarily correspond to the complexity of their cultural identity. But apart from the realpolitik of forming nationalist movements and nation-states, the question of the very idea of nationalism and nation-states has been deeply interrogated– rightfully so—by diverse scholars, examining the invention of traditions, imagined communities etc. To think transnationally is to go against the grain of nationalism as a “natural” phenomenon, and to historicize the emergence of this formation. But it is also a mode of producing analytical grids that transcend nationalist and nation-state conceptual frameworks. The transnational prism can account for the connectivities between diverse cultural geographies, and inform the ongoing critique of today’s neo-imperialism. It would probably be safe to say that all nations are, on one level, transnations, existing in a translational relationality of uneven interlocution. Instead of discussing belonging, culture, and intellectual works in terms of clear nation-state boundaries, we can highlight the transnational interconnectedness of ideas. Even the ideas of nationalist thinkers proliferated in borrowings, indigenizations, and adaptations. Paradoxically the “us-and-them” discourse betrays the co-implication of histories and geographies, and blur the lines between “inside” and “outside.” Nationalist ideas were not produced in a national vaccum; and they can be defined as “transnational” avant la letre. In Race in Translation, Robert Stam and I argue that the movement of ideas is multidirectional, with diverse points of entry and exit. Nationalist ideas too, formed part of a multi-directional flow connected to cross-border circuitries. The anti-colonial and postcolonial critique is also a site of a plurilogue across multiple locations. The diverse critical race/coloniality projects have drawn on a range of discourses not reducible to a national origin, especially given the post-colonial dislocations of many of the intellectuals themselves. Ideas are in transit; they are reaccentuated as they circulate through various zones in a back-and-forth that transcends an idiom of origin/copy, native/foreign, and export/import, within narratives that foreground the in-between of languages and discourses.

To critique today’s forms of neo-imperialism within a transnational approach we have first to go beyond the notions of “us and them” and “over there”/ ”back here.” The “us and them” is supposed to mean that all Americans and Middle Easterners, for example, are of one mold and of one mind. But in fact all nation-states are multiple, of many minds; each cultural geography is a conflictual field of debates and questions and power struggles. Despite the current Islamophobia, the “us/them” dichotomy does not apply in relation to Arabs and Muslims, the ultimate “other” of our times. “They” (Middle Easterners) not only live among “us,” “they” also often share (whether living in the Middle East or in the U.S>) the same human values and aspirations. The construction of the Arab/Muslim Middle East as fundamentally alien is largely a product of neo- Orientalist books by Bernard Lewis, Samuel Huntington, Thomas Friedman, Francis Fukayama, Richard Perle and David Frum, all of whom claim, or imply, that the Islamic World, which they project as homogenous, is inherently incapable of adjusting to globalized, democratic “modernity.” But in fact “we are them” and “they are us.” First, Islamic fundamentalism, like Christian fundamentalism and Jewish (especially nationalist) fundamentalism, could be seen as a product of Modernity, even while invoking millennial past. Second, some of “us” are indeed Muslims and/or Arabs, just as some of “them” (i.e. Arabs) are Christians and Jews. In the end, there is no “them,” only “them-ization;” no exotics, only exoticization; no “others,” only otherization.

Just as neo-imperialism operates globally, its critique has to be formulated transnationally. The border between “us” and “them” is often blurred and constantly shifting, more a mirage than a wall. At the time of the Spanish Inquisition, it was the Christians against the Jews and Muslims, united culturally and in their common victimization, but today, the Christian right pits the Christian and Jews (at least up to a point) against the Muslims. Even the quintessential present- day “them,” the Islamic Jihadists, were not always a “them” for the U.S. In the 1980s the Jihadists were highly respectable, openly running CIA-supported recruiting centers in Brooklyn and training in US camps. Sylvester Stallone offered a pop-culture version of pro-mujahideen discourse in his film Rambo III, where the Vietnam Vet lonely-cowboy vigilante fights with Afghan Muslims against the Communists. Although in the aftermath of 9/11 George W. Bush claimed that the jihadists “hate our freedom,” Ronald Reagan, two decades earlier, called the Jihadists “freedom fighters” combating “the Evil Empire.” In 1985, on the White House Lawn, Reagan introduced the mujahideen as “the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers.” Thus “us” and “them” have an uncanny way of changing places, since who could be more “us” than the Founding Fathers? Are “they” not the very quintessence of “us-ness?”

In Flagging Patriotism, Robert Stam and I argued that the fictive idealized “we” of the imagined togetherness of a nation is almost always forged with and against other nations.[3] At its best, this process of comparative self-definition produces individuation and national maturity. At its worst, it denies all sense of commonality and shared humanity to become a ritual process of projectively scapegoating, whereby animosity toward “others” provides, or appears to provide, a unifying “glue” for a fractured society. Yet in another sense nations always define themselves as qualitatively different from and in partial opposition to other nations. For example, the U.S. and France have historically defined themselves “against” their neighbors and victims and enemies. Official France has historically defined itself against the Muslim world (Charles Martel and the Crusades), against Great Britain, Germany, and even at times the United States, at the time of the Iraq War. Official United States has defined itself with and against Native Americans internally and externally against Great Britain (the Revolutionary War), Spain (the Spanish-American War), Germany and Japan (the World Wars), the Soviet Union (the Cold War), and now the Islamic world (the War on Terror). National mythologies provide warm and fuzzy fables of unity to “cover over” what are actually extremely conflictual histories. The educational systems of most states propogate these myths for the benefit of schoolchildren. Montesquieu mocked this kind of provincial arrogance in his famous satirical question — “How can one possibly be Persian?” – which implied an amazement that any other society might ever choose not to do things exactly as we do them, or to not think exactly as we think.

One of the key issues for intellectuals engaged in the politics of culture is to highlight the ways in which such dichotomies are misleading. Nationalism also creates fictions of virtue, but in fact it is safe to say that all modern nation states have been born in violence. Their very foundations involve suppression and mandatory forgetting. In the case of the Zionist masternarrative and Arab-Jews, I addressed it as “taboo memories,” and highlighted the counterpoint of “diasporic voices,” calling for “diasporic reading.”[4] The prism of the transnational helps us expose neo- imperial fictional inventions, which often undermine the complexity of cultural geographies and the relationship between them. Anti-colonial critique must not be built on purist narratives of belonging; which is why I believe transnational and translational cross-border perspectives are vital. The critique of neo-imperialism has to expose pernicious forms of nationalist exceptionalism, and also not succumb to “causey” essentialist ethno-nationalist explanations. Nation-states are complex, conflictual, and multiple. In Flagging Patriotism we argued that alongside the internal scapegoating (gender / sexuality, class, race, etc.) within nations, the external form of scapegoating has to do with foreign policy and military budgets. After victory over real enemies (the Axis Powers) in World War II, what Eisenhower called the “military- industrial complex” in the United States became more and more powerful, and more and more in need of enemies as a justification for the enormous expenditures of the military budget. For almost half a century, the Cold War served this purpose; huge expenditures were necessary because of the Soviet threat. With the demise of the Cold War, and the military/political establishment’s reluctance to pay the American people the much-promised “peace dividend,” the search was on for new enemies, for “new axes of evil” which might justify expenditures exceeding those of any other nation, indeed beyond any other combination of nations. Bin Laden, and now the variety of Islamicist ideologies, stepped into this vacuum, and provided a perfect rationale for endless war and endless expense, all part of the “military Keynesianism” of the “corporate warriors” and the ruling oligarchy. Scapegoating, the demonization of enemies, and the inflation of threats by now form an integral part of the process of political manipulation, a constellation of strategies which serve to justify the draining away of resources into the bottomless pit of military-corporate desire especially when the government gets taken over by a group of neo-cons calling for preventive wars against a long list of “rogue states.”

The same people who hyped the Soviet threat during the 1980s, even at very moment that the Soviet Empire was about to implode, and who were hyping the danger of “rogue states” on the eve of the War on Iraq, have been hyping the dangers of terrorism, even as their policy of “the War in Iraq” – at least in some ways– generated the terrorism. The catastrophe has caused ongoing Iraqi suffering with colossal dislocations of all communities, with people who have been massively raped, wounded, mutilated, and killed. Iraqis of diverse backgrounds are faced now with daily battles for survival in the face of economic chaos, political corruption, and sectarian violence; they face illnesses due to devastated infrastructure (health, education, electricity, sewage, etc.) and environmental disaster that has resulted in polluted water, land, and air— all with little end in sight. Sinan Antoon’s novel The Corpse Washer offers a powerfully moving requiem for post-2003 Iraq.[5] The protagonist of traditional Shi’ite family of corpse washers, who wanted to become a sculptor joins Baghdad’s Academy of Fine Arts during the Saddam Hussein era, but violence in the wake of 2003 invasion that unleashes sectarian violence, forces him back to washing and shrouding corpses. Through the protagonist’s point of view, the reader is shuttled back-and-forth between the nightmarish dreams and the nightmarish reality that leaves the reader in a no-exit situation, just like the corpse washer protagonist; and just like the ultimate protagonist– the devastated Iraq. As in Antoon’s earlier novel I’jam, the reader has sometimes to determine the status of an interior monologue– is it inside the protagonist’s mind or outside?[6] And ultimately it matters little since it all flows into one stream of a hellish existence. But even in death there is no solace or peace. As one of the character in The Corpse Washer says: “If we the living are worthless then what are the dead worth?” Hell is on earth, as the Existentialists used to remind us, but here ironically it is located in the very mythical Mesopotamian site of paradise. The ritual of preparing the corpse — or the mutilated body parts– for the next world is gradually emptied of its Shi’a specificity, becoming a metaphor for the country’s burial as a whole. Mosques, museums, libraries, monuments, statues, books join the civilizational rubble. And yet even in this macabre space, daily acts of kindness and generosity across the sectarian divide makes life possible for the many who have experienced one traumatic loss after another with no end in sight. Humorous exchanges also underline human complexity, and take us away from news sensationalism– of “suicide bomber” or “siyara mufakhakha.” I found utterly beautiful the novel’s delicate portrayal of the alphabet of love, care, and respect in the face of unspeakable acts. The protagonist may speak of a drained heart but the novel’s heart palpitates with empathy. And this solidarity is precisely the vehicle through which the novel offers transcendence of Iraq’s “us and them” sectarianism, and by implication any scapegoating on a global scale.

Internal and external forms of scapegoating are intimately woven together. In the U.S. what Dubois called the “color line” runs through both forms. Both the internal scapegoat and the external enemy are as likely as not to be black or brown or of “Middle Eastern appearance.” The shrinking of civil liberties in the post 9/11 period was first tried out on Americans with Muslim names or of Muslim religion. And since the end of the cold war, the face of the external enemy as well is likely to be brown or yellow, not only because of the bad colonial habit of racialization, but also because “brown” countries – Grenada, Iraq, Afghanistan – are weak, “attackable” “doable” countries, just as on a domestic level, blacks and browns, as we know from watching any “Cops” show, are abusable, while corrupt executives are not. The massive world-wide protests against the Iraq War, including within the United States, the immense success of the “Social Forums” held in Porto Alegre and Mumbai, along with many satellite Forums elsewhere, including in the U.S., point to the fact that millions believe that an alternative to unilateral militarism is possible; that globalization from below is necessary. In a performative act ISIS stood on the border of Iraq and Syria, and symbolically erased the lines drawn by the Sykes–Picot agreement. We must challenge the ideology and violent methods used by modern fundamentalists. And at the same time, continue to question the legitimacy of the colonial drawing lines in the sand. As students of cultural politics our role it to persist providing multi- axis analysis and multi-perspectival understanding of history, which would help think through the interwoven and intersected factors, and also through “the dissonant polyphonies” in political solidarity when contradictions and fissures are inevitable.[7]

 

[1] Ella Shohat / Robert Stam, “De-Eurocentrizing Cultural Studies: Some Proposals” in Internationalizing Cultural Studies: An Anthology, Ackbar Abbas and John Nguyet Erni, eds., Blackwell Publishing, 2005, pp. 481-98; And also Race in Translation: Culture Wars around the Postcolonial Atlantic , New York University Press, 2012, pp. 1-363.
[2] See Ella Shohat, “On the Margins of Middle Eastern Studies: Situating Said’s Orientalism,” Special Section: On Orientalism at Thirty, in Review of Middle Eastern Studies (published plenary session lecture, MESA 2008), 43:1 (Summer 2009) pp. 18-24. See also Evelyn Alsultany / Ella Shohat eds. Between the Middle East and the Americas: The Cultural Politics of Diaspora, The University of Michigan Press, 2013, pp. 1-348.
[3] Robert Stam / Ella Shohat Flagging Patriotism: Crises of Narcissism and Anti-Americanism, Routledge, 2007, pp. 1-378.
[4] See both Ella Shohat’s Israeli Cinema: East/West and the Politics of Representation (first published in 1989, pp.1-248), New Edition with a new extensive Postscript Chapter (pp. 249- 319), London, I.B. Tauris, 2010, pp. 1-377; and Taboo Memories, Diasporic Voices, Duke University Press, 2006, pp. 1-406.
[5] Sinan Antoon The Corpse Washer, Yale University Press, 2013.
[6] Sinan Antoon, I’jam: An Iraqi Rhapsody, City Lights Books, 2007.
[7] On the negotiation of contradictions within solidarity spaces, and on the notion of “dissonant polyphonies,” see Ella Shohat, “Introduction” to her edited volume Talking Visions: Multicultural Feminism in a Transnational Age, the New Museum, MIT Press in collaboration with the New Museum, 1998, pp 1-575.

 

Write to Jon at cultural@gmu.edu

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