August 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’ve copied in the text of a presentation i gave back in March, largely puns and paraphrase. It begins after the break. I’m posting it here because it seems to come from a more hopeful time, before some of the darker and weightier news from Damascus. The part on “the asecular” at the end comes quite close to how APS discusses the “generic secular” here.


“The Contested Simplicity of Asecular Revolution”

March 7, 2012

at the Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations in the Midst of Revolution Graduate Symposium

Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, University of Toronto

As I begin I want to note I’m fending off a bit of a cold, so I ask your forbearance on that front. I also depart somewhat from the course promised in the abstract: contrary to the impression given there, I’m not here to report on the results of some research programme. I don’t have the disciplinary authority, historiographic or ethnographic or otherwise, of many of you in this room. This presentation is far more speculative; I’m just going to talk about a couple of things I find interesting as I read through some of the commentary and debates surrounding the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, and so on. This presentation begins by winding through some general questions about the term Arab Spring, as a word used to describe and discipline events. I then touch very briefly on the approaches of some continental philosophers to the Arab revolutions, and specifically the question of religion.

At some point, the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and so on became “the Arab spring”. The term is now ubiquitous: one media analytics company announced that “The Arab Spring” is in fact the top phrase of the English language of 2011. (I’m not entirely sure how they decide these things, but presumably it has something to do with math.) The term itself however was first used in 2005 in a Le Monde editorial and by conservative commentators in the US to describe democracy movements in the Middle East. Elements of that “Arab Spring” heralded by the same commentators include the invasion of Iraq and Lebanon’s “Cedar Revolution”, in which candle-bearing young men and guitar-playing young women, their long hair blowing in the spray of the Mediterranean, were said to gather in Beirut’s Martyr’s Square to sing out the pro-Syrian government. Six years later, on January 6, 2011, the term was used in a post at the Foreign Policy blog wondering whether the disparate uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, and Algeria warranted comparison to the 2005 protests in Beirut and elsewhere. Eight days later, on January 14, 2011, the Christian Science Monitor opened its editorial with a question: Arab spring? Or Arab winter? It addressed various themes, including the repressive governments of the Arab world and democracy’s auto-immune structure in the spectre of a democratic Islamist takeover, and employed the hydraulic vocabulary of simmering tensions exerting thermodynamic pressures with nowhere to go. Something had to give. Eleven days later, on January 25, 2011, Muhammad al-Barad‘i gave an interview to Der Spiegel in which he said, “perhaps we are currently experiencing the first signs of an ‘Arab Spring’ (e.g. similar to the so-called Prague Spring of political liberalization in Czechoslovakia in 1968)…. I hope my country will be one of the first in which freedom and democracy blossom.” The organicist language is clear: freedom and democracy bloom like delicate flowers in the desert, to be watered and nurtured and protected with all the power of our hope—and this happens in Spring. At this point too he had to explain the reference to the Prague Spring: it wasn’t yet a self-evident term.

The term “Arab Spring” works at two different registers, on the one hand citing antecedent historical events; on the other, drawing on a set of poetic archetypes. These come together to peculiar political effect. Those same American commentators who were using the phrase in 2005 wondered “whether the Middle East today [meaning: then] is Europe 1989 or Europe 1848.” In either case, the “Arab Spring” of 2005 was said to mark a point from which there is no turning back, as the democratic aspirations of “the real Arab street” were said to vindicate George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda” to disseminate freedom across the globe. The term “Arab spring” was there mobilized to reinstate an image of the United States as the city on the hill, the beacon to all nations, seeking to foster fragile democracy movements abroad. I’m obviously not saying that the term is suspect because it was these sorts of commentators who first used the term in line with their neoconservative imperial sentiments. There may well be some analytic benefit in comparing these uprisings to the Prague Spring, and rhetorically the word “spring” is certainly fruit-full. Northrop Frye’s classic 1957 Anatomy of Criticism lists the mythos of spring as one of the four great mythic archetypes: comedy. The paradigmatic career of comedy (in which blocking characters—in this case, likely Hosni and Suzanne Mubarak—are recognized as usurpers and ousted, hero and heroine are united, and a new society crystallizes around them) is associated with spring in that the latter symbolizes the defeat of winter and darkness. The term Arab Spring also lends itself to seasonal allochrony: we can say today that the date palms of the Nile are growing new leaves but next door red Mount Qasyoun is still covered in snow or buffeted by bitter winter rains. It isn’t clear where the West stands in this: does it enjoy the romance of deep summer (the summer kingdom, fertility, great battles between light and darkness) or is late liberalism another name for its long autumn? Comedies are inhabited by heroes, imposters, buffoons, and rustics. They also yield a deeply conservative politics, at least dramatically, in that this new society is said to recall a past golden age. Drawing on Frye’s theory of archetypes in his 1973 Metahistory, Hayden White likewise describes the mode of ideological emplotment consonant with comedic narrative form as “conservative”, in that the reader is left to contemplate the coherence of the historical field as something that is completed, finished. But the revolutions are resolutely not “finished,” and their contours so far reject this kind of narrative emplotment. In August, Lebanon’s Daily Star ran a column that argued the term “Arab spring” dissolves the agency of those participating, making the ousting of tyrants a function of the season and refusing to admit the fearsome thought of Arabs determining their own polities. Instead, we should use the terms used by the activists themselves, that is, revolution, thawra. In the same month, but for different reasons, the CIA announced it would start referring to the events of the year as the “Arab transition” instead of the “Arab spring”, given that their seasonal trajectory, their promise of summer, seemed less and less certain.

In November, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threw his weight against the protestors in the Middle East, arguing that these upheavals were resulting in an “Islamic, anti-western, anti-liberal, anti-Israeli, undemocratic wave.” Similar dire diagnoses are spring-ing up across various media outlets. I said earlier that I didn’t think the term Arab spring should be suspect just because of the way it was first used. But the ease by which the “Arab spring” is very cleverly counterposed to an “Arab winter”, as evidenced by the Christian Science Monitor in one of the first deployments of the term—the frequency with which the Arab spring is said to be threatened especially by the forecast of an “Islamist winter”, should give us pause. Meteorological prognostications are of course notoriously untrustworthy—as we should know, given climate change and the remarkably underwhelming winter we’ve had here in Toronto!—but here they masquerade also as figures for political analysis. Arab Spring or Arab Winter? From an Arab Spring to an Islamist Winter. Arab Spring Leads to Chilling Winter for Christians. Arab Spring Freezing Christians and Atheists; Jews Left Out in Cold. (I made that last one up, but the headlines practically write themselves.) In accounts opposing Arab springs and winters, the critical hinge on which the weather turns, the wind gauge, if you will, is often the place of religion and specifically the future of Islam. This has been perhaps an over-lengthy segue into the question of religion in these revolutions, but I think it’s important because it demonstrates some of the different forces acting on the terms we take up. More generally it is an example of the narrative reification of the concepts we assume, their contested simplicity.

When the uprisings started they seemed to take commentators off guard. As in the Buffalo Springfield song, they were pretty sure there was something happening there, but what it was wasn’t exactly clear. Crucially, these uprisings upset the established economy of stability versus freedom in which the Middle East (excepting of course Israel) seemed fated to circulate. The prior equation, the one brutally enforced by the Mubarak regime and relied upon for its international legitimacy, had been simple: the more democratic freedoms enjoyed by Egyptians, the more risk of Islamic fundamentalist rule. Regional “stability” and its necessary condition, that is, a certain secularity, could thus be bought by various freedoms. The question of religion or secularism determines the political future. In their articles in the most recent issue of American Ethnologist, Hussein Agrama and Charles Hirschkind address one of the most striking features of the Egyptian uprising: the extent to which it defied precisely this religious–secular binary. It’s not just that the various mobilizations brought together Islamists and secularists, though it did, nor that the properly political demands of the protestors were somehow outside the religious–secular binary. Rather, they each variously argue, the mobilization itself “unfolded without the question ‘secular or religious?’ ever imposing itself on the expressions of popular sovereignty.” That is, the Egyptian protest movement forged a practice of political solidarity indifferent to the secular and religious polarities that had structured the space of political possibility in Egypt.

Because the Egyptian revolution refused this economy, among other reasons, it exceeded the established framework of political analysis and its categories. Hence the widespread anxiety in the West over whether the Egyptian revolution was or is secular or religious, a question whose answer for many commentators also decided the events’ world-historical status. For some, the uprisings lacked any genuine revolutionary potential, and, without any properly evental quality, were testament only to political frustration: revolt without revolution. Slavoj Zizek’s now-infamous August article in the London Review of Books, for instance, declared that, “Unfortunately, the Egyptian summer of 2011 will be remembered as marking the end of revolution, a time when its emancipatory potential was suffocated. Its gravediggers are the army and the Islamists.” Among the losers, he continued, will be “the true agents of the spring events, the emerging secular left that has been trying to set up a network of civil society organisations, from trade unions to feminists.” Against the Western cynicism that militant Islamism is the only end of popular upheavals in Arab countries, Zizek insists one remain “unconditionally faithful to the radical-emancipatory core of the Egyptian uprising”—a core that is determinedly secular.

Alain Badiou, to his credit, refused these kinds of simplistic binaries, on February 18, 2011 publishing a lyrical piece excoriating Western attempts to dictate the shape of the unfolding revolutions. For Badiou, these uprisings are a pure form of “movement communism”, that is, “the joint creation of a collective destiny.” The common here denoted has two features: it is generic, representing all humanity in one place; and it overcomes all the major contradictions which the state claims only it can manage: intellectuals and workers—we might say, in memory of Shaykh Emad Iffat, shuyukh—, men and women, the poor and rich, Muslims and Christians. “Thousands of new possibilities concerning these contradictions rise up at every moment, ones that the state—any state—is completely blind to.” The uprisings represent the return of emancipatory universalism.

To my knowledge, Giorgio Agamben himself has not written about the Arab revolutions—he’s likely quite busy planning more volumes for his ever-expanding Homo Sacer series. He has on occasion however written about analogous events, and we can infer how he might respond from passages such as the following, taken from his 1990 essay “Marginal Notes on Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle” and largely replicated in The Coming Community. I quote at length: “what the state cannot tolerate in any way is that singularities form a community without claiming an identity, that human beings co-belong without a representable [that is, uniting] condition of belonging). (…) The coming politics will no longer be a struggle to conquer or to control the state on the part of either new or old social subjects, but rather a struggle between the state and the nonstate (humanity), that is, an irresolvable disjunction between whatever singularities and the state organization.” He continues, “what was most striking about the demonstrations of the Chinese May [i.e. of 1989], in fact, was the relative absence of specific contents in their demands. (…) In Tiananmen [or we might say Tahrir] the state found itself facing something that could not and did not want to be represented, but that presented itself nonetheless as a community and as a common life (and this regardless of whether those who were in that square were actually aware of it). (…) Wherever these singularities peacefully manifest their being-in-common,” he concludes, “there will be another Tiananmen and, sooner or later, the tanks will appear again.”

Of the three theorists summarily touched on, it is Agamben’s work that I find most provocative in thinking these revolutions. Zizek’s insistence on the secular truth of revolutionary promise is unhelpful in thinking about the nuances of religious protest against the state, while Badiou’s refreshingly anti-colonial approach to these revolutions still finds itself ultimately able to dispense with the specific forms of protest and activism they witnessed. Among other commentators who have found Agamben’s work helpful in thinking these revolutions, some contributors to Jadaliyya have reconsidered the figure of “the people”, al-sha‘b, undertheorized but familiar from the echoing refrain al-sha‘b yurid isqat al-nizam (“the people demand the fall of the regime”), with reference to Agamben’s 1995 essay “What is a People?” The Arab revolutions can thus be understood as reprising an originary division of the concept “the people” into a political signifier on the one hand and the excluded on the other, a division prior even to that between friend and enemy, marking and binding the concept of “the people.” Ebrahim Moosa has drawn on Agamben’s famous Homo Sacer to describe Muhammad Bouazzizi’s suicide as an “act of tragic sovereignty” that “unzipped” the sovereignty of the Tunisian state to become what Moosa calls a “secular martyr.” (I’m not entirely sure Moosa’s reading of Agamben works—but that’s a matter for another time.) More interestingly, in a paper presented in September at a conference on critical legal theory, Tom Frost reads Muhammad Bouazzizi’s self-immolation not as a gesture of sacrifice, nor as a programmatic approach to human freedom, but as a political act that could not be reduced into a logic of political belonging intelligible to the state—that rather exposed the way of being, the ethos, of what Agamben calls whatever-being. Finally, and this is the case I’m going to spend the rest of the presentation on, Agrama has drawn on Agamben and Talal Asad to describe the Egyptian protests as a form of “bare sovereignty,” a form of power that “breaks through” state principles of justification and exception.

I’m going to step back a bit to lay out Agrama’s argument, mostly quoting from his post at the Immanent Frame. He argues that “secularism itself constantly blurs together religion and politics, and that its power relies crucially on the precariousness of the categories it establishes.” The power of secularism is not the power of the norm, for Agrama echoing Agamben echoing Schmitt, but the power of the question and of the sovereignty that decides it. That is, the question of whether Egypt is a secular or a religious state is a question that is itself a “manifestation” of this power. Since state sovereignty ultimately decides the question of religion and politics, importantly, state power stands prior to both (although this does not mean it is indifferent to them). The protests witnessed something very different: “from the vantage point of the tradition of democratic legitimacy,” Agrama writes, “the protests were a manifestation of pure popular sovereignty”: bare sovereignty. (I should note that Jean-Luc Nancy uses the term ‘bare sovereignty’ in a slightly different way in Being Singular Plural, though Agrama doesn’t cite him.) “Like state sovereignty, bare sovereignty stands prior to religion and politics. Unlike state sovereignty, however, this bare sovereignty is utterly indifferent to the question of where to draw a line between them. It stands apart from the modern game of defining and distinguishing religion and politics, and does not partake of it. Not surprisingly, the protests expressed every potential language of justice, secular or religious, but embraced none. In the sense that it stands prior to religion and politics, and that it is indifferent to the question of their distinction, the bare sovereignty manifested by the protest movement stands outside what Agrama calls the problem-space of secularism. In that sense, it represents a genuinely asecular power.” (Unlike other terms like “postsecular”, “asecular” is not a temporal marker; it denotes a situation not where norms are no longer secular, but where the questions against which such norms are contested are no longer seen as necessary.) Following Asad, Agrama goes on to argue that asecular, bare sovereignty teaches us that we need not make a principled distinction between religion and politics to express an ethos of democratic sensibility.

For our purposes, though, I just want to note that Agrama describes the asecular as a situation where we can be genuinely indifferent to the question “secular vs. religious” and its stakes. As a result, he says, such asecular moments open up spaces for us to think beyond our current predicaments. Agrama’s indifference sounds very much like what Agamben throughout his work calls a “zone of indistinction” that suspends the economy of potential and actual, secular and religious, sacred and profane, law and life, particular and universal. This indifference marks liberation from a signature, theological or otherwise. In another scholar’s paraphrase, for Agamben, “To exist with indifference to common forms of belonging, falling neither into the singularity of identity nor the emptiness of universalism, is the condition of the being that will usher in the coming community.”

Hirschkind argues that the unique political sensibility of the Egyptian uprising has a distinct intellectual genealogy within Egyptian political experience. Likewise, the U of T’s own Mohammad Fadel has argued that the Tunisian and Egyptian Revolutions must properly be understood against the background of Islamic modernist political thought. On the one hand, then, Agamben gives us a vocabulary to consider the protests in terms of bare sovereignty; on the other, and even as it exceeds its historical context, the specific shape of that sovereignty must be understood against its intellectual genealogy. This means that the Egyptian articulation of bare sovereignty can dialectically speak back to Agamben as well. Taking these revolutions seriously, that is, admitting both their oppositional structure and their reworking of different strands of political thought, means also that Agamben’s “coming community”—characterized by nothing so much as its genuine indifference to divisions of identity and open to its originary political structure—is itself contested in its apparent simplicity.


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