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On Not Despising the Present: Some Notes on Faris Giacaman’s 'The Sadness of Post-Militance'

[Detail from the cover of Elias Khoury, [Detail from the cover of Elias Khoury, "White Masks." Image via Wikipedia Commons.]

A Brechtian maxim: “Don’t start from the good old things but the bad new ones.” — Walter Benjamin, “Conversations with Brecht”[1]

You have no right to despise the present. — Charles Baudelaire, quoted in Michel Foucault, “What Is Enlightenment?”[2]

I was quite moved by Faris Giacaman’s recent article “The Sadness of Post-Militance: Some Reflections on Brown University’s ‘New Directions in Palestine Studies’ Conference.” For a young scholar to call into question the direction of Palestine Studies, focusing on a conference featuring some of the most prominent names in the field, takes no little courage. Beyond that, Giacaman’s larger call to remember the relationship between scholarship and militance, and between knowledge production and revolution, resonated strongly with me, as it no doubt did with many other readers. If, in what follows, I pose a few challenges to some of Giacaman’s premises and conclusions, it is intended in the spirit of moving forward with the larger project that he names as “militant research.” So these comments are intended in the spirit of collaboration and solidarity.

Giacaman’s review of the work presented at the Brown conference stresses the historic nature of this gathering of scholars working on the political economy of Palestine. At the same time, the “sadness” that he evokes in his title (borrowed in part from David Graeber’s observations on what he calls “post-workerism”) has, he writes, “almost nothing to do with the scholarly work of the individuals involved, and much more to do with the political moment in which we currently live.” His overall impression, gathered from the work presented at the conference and from the state of Palestine Studies more generally, is that “the period we are in represents a shift in knowledge-production on Palestine to an age of post-militants.” Against what he sees as the de-politicizing intellectual trends of our time, Giacaman issues a call for a new form of “militant scholarship,” a term that he takes from the work of the Colectivo Situaciones group in Argentina. For him, this means a return to Marxist categories of analysis, and a move away from what he declares to be “the types of postmodern, post Marxist lenses that are a part of the retreat from political engagement”; his sadness stems from his sense that these latter frameworks underwrite much of the contemporary work on Palestine (including work published on Jadaliyya).

I am not certain whether I am necessarily one of Giacaman’s intended interlocutors. I was not present at the Brown conference. I do not work on political economy, as it is generally understood, and certainly would never be mistaken for a political economist. I have written on Palestinian culture and politics, broadly defined, but I would not necessarily fit within the academic field identified as “Palestine Studies.” I have worked occasionally with, alongside, and in the service of activist groups and organizations in Palestine and within the larger Palestine solidarity movement, but I would not be able to comfortably describe myself as an activist or a militant, although my work aims to be in dialogue with the work of activists.

Above all, I might be considered outside the realm of Giacaman’s call because my work draws upon intellectual influences that he sees as part of a supposed “retreat from political engagement,” those “intellectual trends” he names as “Foucauldian biopolitics, postmodern criticism…[and] subaltern and postcolonial studies.” Indeed, a few days before Giacaman’s article was published, I argued for the continuing relevance of post-structuralist analysts like Foucault in helping us to formulate intellectual responses and political contributions to the ongoing revolutions of our time. I would like to think—indeed, it is my purpose here to argue—that the militant research Giacaman calls for has room both for a renewed materialist analysis of the kind that he champions and a continuation of the important forms of analysis developed by those post-structuralist and post-colonial thinkers that he proposes “to lay…to rest.” To be true to the complexity of our present political situation, we need all of this, and more.

Just to be clear: I have no intention of defending post-structuralism, postcolonialism, or any other “post” for its own sake. In the face of the struggle for justice in Palestine (and elsewhere), such academic jockeying is a matter of relatively little importance (which is not the same as suggesting that academic knowledge production itself does not matter). What is important, however, and where I do want to be in dialogue with Giacaman’s important arguments, are the ways we ground ourselves as intellectuals. Another way of describing this is the problem of how we engage with the present, in the form of the struggles for justice that are always ongoing. In other words, how do we, as scholars working in the service of the struggle for social change, orient ourselves towards the present, with an eye towards both the radical past that inspires us and the better future that we are seeking to create? It is in this context, reading his article, that I found myself haunted by the two quotes I cited as epigraphs: Walter Benjamin’s Brechtian call to begin not with the good old things but with the bad new ones, and Baudelaire’s injunction, taken up by Foucault, not to despise the present.

Looking back at the generation of intellectuals aligned with Shu’un Filastiniyya, Giacaman finds scholarly work attached expressly to the Palestinian revolution. Articles “explored questions of political strategy, tactics, and practice.” The authors of such articles “were also revolutionaries” and “their allegiance to academic institutions was secondary to their political commitments.” The role of such research “was expressly political,” he concludes. By contrast, looking at the work of the generation that followed, Giacaman diagnoses several different strands, all of which, he argues, “shared a deep skepticism of any ideology emphasizing conscious collective action, especially Marxism as a normative political project.”

Giacaman suggests that he might be accused of “romanticizing” the earlier generation of revolutionary scholarship, but I think he is quite accurate in his assessment. What is missing, however, is an equally historically grounded assessment of the work that followed—or, to put it in materialist terms, a truly conjunctural understanding of this work. Giacaman sums up the “postmodern trend” that he accuses of moving research away from its earlier political commitments as follows: “Collective political action is no longer a viable way forward, reality is far more complex, power is diffused, and the only way to subvert it is at the individual level.” I want to suggest a different genealogy of what he describes as the “post-militant” generation, a different set of intentions, and most important, a different set of conclusions. My intention is to expand our list of our “good old things”—which, in my telling, includes both Giacaman’s militant generation and the “post-militant” generation—so that we can better draw upon these influences for the more important work of struggling against the circumstances of our “bad new ones.” This involves a recasting of the body of work that is often brought together under the phrase “the cultural turn” (sometimes interchangeably described as “the discursive turn”), seen by Giacaman and others as a turn away from politics.

Let me tell the story a bit differently, beginning with the importance of the work of Antonio Gramsci for what Giacaman sees as the “post-militant” generation of intellectuals. In a recent review of Vivek Chibber’s Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (a book that is a point of reference for Giacaman), Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak reminds us of the specific conjuncture from which Gramsci produced those prison writings that constitute his primary intellectual and political legacy. Gramsci’s writing on the subaltern classes—written, she reminds us, not from within an academic milieu, but from within “the very thick of things”—was quite literally “the last piece of writing Gramsci was engaged in when he was nabbed by the fascists.” At the center of Gramsci’s subsequent writing, which followed upon the work he had done as a leader of the Communist Party of Italy, was the question of what had gone wrong during the preceding decade: “Acknowledging that the General Strike of 1920 had not worked, he was now looking at the possibility of making long-term change.”[3] Gramsci’s focus upon spheres not ordinarily considered “political” in the traditional sense, including the fields of culture and education, was precisely part of this larger process of theorizing an expanded notion of political action that could prove more effective in carrying forward the struggle amidst the dark times in which he found himself literally imprisoned.

Let us now extend this point to a more global level (and I promise this will help return us to the question of Palestine). In the imperial intellectual centers (from which Gramsci rightly saw Italy as slightly removed), during the time period that Giacaman marks as beginning the era of “post-militance,” a new conjuncture, a new set of political contexts, and a new set of struggles gave rise, certainly, to forms of post-structuralist thought. But it also gave rise to new intellectual and political work in cultural studies, embodied by figures such as Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, Hazel Carby, and Paul Gilroy. Through collaborative volumes such as The Empire Strikes Back, and through slow and painful struggles, such work began to recognize the centrality of race as an analytic and political category that could not simply be subsumed by class (perhaps the most famous formulation is Hall’s description of race as “the modality in which class is 'lived,' the medium through which class relations are experienced, the form in which it is appropriated and 'fought through'.”[4]) This conjuncture gave rise to Edward Said’s monumental Orientalism—a book whose framework owes as much to the work of Gramsci and Williams as it does to Foucault—and to a new set of struggles against a category that had thus been named and identified as a field of political action. It gave rise to the work of too many feminist and queer thinkers to even name here, who threw open new areas of intellectual inquiry and political action, fields of thought and action that had always existed but could now be gotten at through new forms of political struggle.

Clearly, none of this was work born of despair, or of the desire to move away from “politics” and towards some form of neo-liberal self-cultivation. In the struggle to create viable forms of militant scholarship in the face of our political present, our job is to continue to value, as both Giacaman and I do, the unsparing commitment of an earlier generation of militant scholars working in the service of projects such as the Palestinian revolution, and at the same time understand the work of the generation that has followed as coming very precisely in the wake of this earlier work. It is work that, at its best, follows Gramsci’s lead in looking back at the previous generation and asking the question of why things didn’t work out as they should have. It thus opens up new avenues, not only of intellectual inquiry, but also of political struggle.

Missing this point about forms of intellectual and political work too easily dismissed as “postmodern,” for those of us dedicated to the struggle for justice, self-determination, and a different future in Palestine, is also to miss the opportunities for comparative work—not just on the intellectual level, but also on the political level (although even rhetorically separating these levels is ultimately false, since the goal would be precisely to unite them). This is a point raised in interesting ways by several of those who have already commented on Giacaman’s article. I will simply note that these political and intellectual connections are being made every day at the level of practice, in the global movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions that has become one of the major political forces of our time.

But addressing this point regarding global connections also means addressing another aspect of our political present: the context through which one might (or might not) continue to think about “national revolutions” such as the Palestinian revolution that is Giacaman’s focal point. This is one more crucial place where, I would argue, a closer look at the “post-militant” generation whose work Giacaman sees as a detour to be avoided is certainly in order. He provides a list of events that he sees as encapsulating the stages of the “decline of the Palestinian revolution”: “from the defeat in Beirut, to exile in Tunis, to the first intifada’s failure, and Oslo’s advent.” This makes a certain historical sense. But we might pause in the moment between what he describes as “the first intifada’s failure” and that of “Oslo’s advent.” Certainly, one way that the first intifada could be described as a “failure” is the fact that it was followed by Oslo, with all that came in its wake. But I would argue that “Oslo’s advent” was hardly an inevitable outcome of the first intifada. Rather, it represents the rise of a particular form of nationalist leadership (or better said, a group of elites that presumes to assume national leadership without successfully obtaining an actual state) that Giacaman rightly describes as unaccountable, hierarchical, and elitist.

This means that an understanding of the Palestinian revolution of today would need to be quite different from that which guided Giacaman’s earlier generation of militant scholars. As compared to a national liberation struggle aimed solely at a colonizing power (together, of course, with all the international forces allied with and undergirding the Israeli occupation), today’s struggle continues to be against these colonizing forces but should be seen simultaneously as a struggle against those national elites who have consolidated their power and position (such as it is) precisely through their willingness to assume the role of “partners” in the Israeli occupation. This is the slow sad story of the “peace process.”

It is also the story, I would contend, that runs throughout the work of those postcolonial theorists who are too often accused of turning away from “real” politics, and who form part of Giacaman’s group of apparently “post-militants.” But running through the work of so many thinkers whose work has come to be grouped together as “postcolonialism,” from Frantz Fanon to the Subaltern Studies historians to the dependency theorists of Latin America, is the problem of how to think about politics in the light of this particular outcome of national revolutions. It is a state of affairs that could rightly (if perversely) be called “postcolonial,” if by this one means simply the crude sense of technical political independence as compared to direct colonial rule. Even in Palestine, one could, post-Oslo, make such a technical claim regarding the post-colonial state of limited autonomy rather than direct occupation, however laughable such a claim might look in considering the violent reality of colonial rule that represents the actual experience of life in Palestine. Faced with the sight of Abu Mazen meeting John Kerry as an example of the “change” wrought by Oslo, it is instructive to remember Fanon’s words regarding the “change” that post-colonialism brought to “independent” Gabon: “In fact the only change is that Monsieur M’ba is president of the Republic of Gabon, and he is the guest of the president of the French Republic.”[5]

Diagnosing this state of affairs as an outcome of the national revolutions of an earlier generation (not the necessary outcome, but one that nevertheless too often followed such struggles) is not the same as “a retreat from political engagement.” It is simply a clear-eyed attempt to analyze the present, in order to contribute to new forms of struggle against this new political reality. Certainly, the “post-Oslo” present of Palestine (like the “post-colonial” present of Gabon) has nothing to do with the vision of true decolonization for which that earlier revolutionary generation fought. The best work of postcolonial studies has involved the attempt, not only to predict and diagnose what went wrong, but to imagine and theorize what comes after the post-colonial—or, in the case of Palestine, what comes after Oslo. To take inspiration from the militant generation of scholars that Giacaman invokes makes perfect sense in this context. But to confuse this with the assumption that the particular political context, and the subsequent political struggles, of our generation will take the same form as it did for this earlier generation is to risk misapprehending the present. Our political present is not a fallen version of that past in which the militant generation carried out their work. It is rather the context within which we have the responsibility to imagine new forms of militancy.

I will end with this point, regarding the importance of the work of the imagination, as a final moment of dialogue with Giacaman’s argument that I would love to carry forward at further length. He notes in his conclusion that he “do[es] not advocate returning to a carbon copy of the intellectual climate created by the Palestinian revolution.” I want to be certain to acknowledge this point, as well as his further point that what he takes as his main source of inspiration from this earlier militant generation is “the marriage of knowledge-production with political action.” I am in total agreement with this. The next question is: What might politically-engaged knowledge production look like in our political present? He suggests that “one of the roles of academics should be to explore questions of organizational structure: that is, questions having to do with revolutionary practice.” I certainly would not disagree with this.

But there is an absence in Giacaman’s piece that is incredibly striking, and it has to do with his invocation of Elias Khoury, following upon Khoury’s intervention at the Brown conference. Khoury is presented to us as the editor of Shu’un Filastiniyya, as a member of that militant generation that Giacaman honors, and as an inspiration for militant research yet to come. He is of course all of these things. But absent here is Elias Khoury in the role through which many of us know him best: as one of the most important novelists of our time. As any reader of his work knows, Khoury’s fiction is deeply inspired by and connected to his work as a political militant, specifically at the service of the Palestinian revolution. But at the same time, like all great imaginative writing, its direct relationship to political struggle—one might say, more crudely, its immediate applicability to the revolution—is highly complex and mediated. To suggest this is not to step away from “real” politics; it is simply to move towards expanding our political vision.

So an admiration for Khoury’s work is one more thing that Giacaman and I share in our mutual dedication to a renewed form of militant scholarship. But in pushing Giacaman’s vision and conclusions a bit further, I suggest that we begin by bringing Khoury’s work with Shu’un Filastiniyya and his work as a novelist together, under the category of “politically-engaged knowledge production.” This is to say, in short, that imaginative work is also political (just as political work is also imaginative). If we are to take just one lesson from Giacaman’s “post-militant/postmodern” generation, it might be this one. To forget the work of imaginative writing in presenting a vision of militant scholarship is to impoverish ourselves, at a time when we need every single one of what Raymond Williams called our “resources of hope.”


[1] Walter Benjamin, “Conversations with Brecht,” trans. Anya Bostock, in Aesthetics and Politics (New York: Verso, 1998), 99.

[2] Michel Foucault, “What Is Enlightenment?” trans. Catherine Porter, in The Essential Works of Michel Foucault, Volume I: Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: The New Press, 1997), 310.

[3] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Review of Vivek Chibber, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital,” Cambridge Review of International Affairs 27 (2014): 193.

[4] Stuart Hall, “Race, Articulation, and Societies Structured in Dominance,” in Sociological Theories: Race and Colonialism (Paris: UNESCO, 1980), 341.

[5] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove, 2004), 28.

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