Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 June 2011
Issue No. 1052
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Starting up

In the cultural if not the mainstream press, revolution might have prompted installing a new OS altogether, writes Youssef Rakha ; it has barely suggested a restart

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Once again I am perusing the cultural press and once again I am distressed. It is partly the same old disappointment in frivolous topics being overblown and muthaqqaf (or intellectual) responses to ideas and events being, as if by definition, politicised. It is partly the persisent perception of "the intellectuals" -- for which read, very simply, agents of cultural activity of any kind -- as something over and above what they do or more often fail to do adequately: the madness of presupposing that, irrespective of the nature or extent of their work, intellectuals are not only producers of discourse but also, and perpetually, agents of transformation, "the role of the muthaqqaf " -- and the Poet in particular -- standing in for that of the Sage or the Superman, if not the Ruler then the Prophet. But current distress resulting from perusal of the cultural press is mainly a matter of a revolution having taken place: a predetermined idea, in my own mind, about the positive effects of the events of 25 Jan-11 Feb on "intellectual" consciousness -- no such luck!

Whoever came up with the idea that poetry can change the world, I don't know (God forgive Jean-Paul Sartre for his theory of engagement, though I doubt it has much to do with this in context), but three months on, "revolution" is an occasion to rethink not only the haloed topic of "the relationship of the intellectual to authority" but also modern Arab-Muslim history as a whole: the actual role of the intellectual in its unfolding. In 18 days, no more than one tenth of the population managed to dislogdge an abominable, prehistoric president. Of those, less than a tenth handed over power to the army, admittedly without much resistance from anyone. But it is the remaining nine tenths (who had nothing, factually, to do with either the protests or the intellectual force behind them) who have been crying Revolution ever since.

Counterrevolutionary discourse to the effect that the events were a foreign conspiracy, however absurd, is gaining ground; but it is cooption and subversion that remain the principal lie. People cry Revolution even despite there being no tangible change in the way the country operates or the vision of the powers in charge of it -- themselves an extension, however distorted, of a half century-old "nationalist" project which, existing nominally for the People, has tended consistently to sacrifice people to a more or less abstract (if not wholly phony) greater cause. Consciously or not -- all things considered, it hardly matters -- intellectuals have abetted this process. The real-life narrative of the "indpendent" Arab state has in fact involved fewer intellectuals than figures of authority or picaroons, not to mention preachers; and many intellectuals, whether or not they preached ideologies while they did so, doubled as picaroons or figures of authority.

Now that I have witnessed the cold-blooded murder, with public funds, of a sizable portion of the very People in whose name Arabs and Muslims had endured so much immoral autocracy and mind control, unnecessary backwardness and underdevelopment, indignity and -- increasingly -- mafia-style corruption, it is easy to see why even with the best intentions, generations of patriotic and "nationalist" intellectuals contributed to perpetuating vicious circles of political untruth: glory and unity meaning defeat in the time of Nasser, victory meaning Cold War-style Islamism and unchecked capitalism in the time of Sadat, development meaning phenomenal nepotism and the systematic syphoning of money out of the country in the time of Mubarak.

Considering that for the longest time patriotism and nationalism have been preconditions of intellectual legitimacy -- even well-meaning supporters of peace with Israel were methodically and effortlessly cast out of the intellectual community -- it is easy to see how limited the role of the intellectual had to be: an intellectual could only oppose practises, not ideas; she could only criticise actions, not values; however oppositional she sought to be, however many years she spent in prison, an intellectual could only ever exist as part of an overriding national project whose attendant discourse, thanks in part to that intellectual herself, was increasingly, irrevocably divorced from reality.

The issue has less to do with helping Palestinians, for example, than it does with liberating Jerusalem -- a task whose failure is as yet a forgone conclusion. It has less to do with improving living standards than replacing a non-alignment strain of nationalism with a socialist or communist one. It has less to do with endorsing freedom of worship than implementing a totalitarian vision of "the Islamic state" (whatever that means, and however much pandering to liberal democracy it requires). By the same token, culture has less to do with engaging the people than speaking in their name, contributing to an ever more discourse-bound narrative of hopes, intentions and abstractions. It has less to do with creativity and the intellect than blocking out and maintaining a meaninglessly politicised group of people -- popularly known as "the communists" -- who are neither trusted nor popular, and whose work seldom makes it past the block they occupy.

Now that I have witnessed cold-blooded murder on the streets, it is easy to see how maintaining the kind of discourse with which the intellectuals have been identified or allowing it to maintain itself -- how speaking, again, of the role of the intellectual, of enlightenment and moderation as opposed to secularism, for example -- is an integral part of the problem. And it is distressing to see that, notwithstanding all that happened on the streets of Cairo, notwithstanding all that became clear as a result of it, the discourse of the cultural press has not changed in the slightest.

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