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The Invention of the Savage: Colonial Exhibitions and the Staging of the Arab Spring

[An image from [An image from "The Invention of the Savage" exhibit in the Quai Branly Museum in Paris depicting a Zoological Garden of Acclimation. Image by the author.]

Watching a popular uprising in real time was indeed a dramatic experience. As viewers tuned in (or streamed in) to the violence, courage, and uncertainty of events in North Africa this year, many of them had the impression of witnessing the “actual” events, free from the framing tactics and analytical bias often found on the six o’clock news. A host of new media celebrities became household names as they reported live from Tahrir, and news outlets such as Al-Jazeera saw an unprecedented rise in viewership. Spectators were made to believe that a return to the event “itself” was once again possible after decades of being locked into what Jean Baudrillard called the hyper-real. The revolution in-and-of-itself seemed to unfold before our eyes, creating a fetish for real-time revolt.

A current exhibit at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, entitled “The Invention of the Savage,” may seem to be an odd lens for a commentary on the staging of the Arab Spring. Yet the exhibit, curated by the colonial historian Pascal Blanchard, along with French soccer superstar turned anti-racist activist Lilian Thuram, provides a series of links between the construction of difference and the exhibition of the other, both of which marked colonial history. The various displays—which include scientific/anthropological commentary, traveling human zoos, “gardens of acclimation,” and popular performances of “exotic” culture—offer a window into the mechanisms by which “the world is divided between those who are exhibited and those who spectate.” From the monstrous to the exotic to the abnormal, the exhibit traces the trajectory of racial thinking starting in the fifteenth century, when European travelers first started bringing human “specimens” from their voyages back to the metropole. In the shift from elite curiosity to scientific racism and then to popular fascination, the exhibit highlights the way difference is displayed, classified, and performed. 


[A current exhibit at the Quai Branly Muesum called “The Invention of the Savage” analyzes the ways in
which human difference was staged from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century. Photo by the author.]

According to the curators, the “other” is a concept that “crystallizes the fears and fantasies of a nation as well as its aspirations of domination.” Although the last colonial fair was held in 1958, to suggest that performances of difference or logics of domination have also met their final curtain is either naïve or delusional. How then, should we read the Arab Spring as a commentary on the “other,” especially when the rules of solidarity insist (in either their glib or thoughtful examples), that the protests “over there” are linked to struggles “over here”? What insights can we glean about the staging (or mise en scène) of popular struggle in the Middle East, especially at a time when the role of live-and-direct media seems to indicate that such mediation is no longer relevant? 

Three Principles of Mise en Scène: Narration, Spectacle, and Characterization 

Mise en Scène usually refers to the aesthetic production of a piece of art, often denoting “the contents of the frame and the way that they are organized."[1] It includes not only narration (the arrangement of characters and logic of the plot), but also the aesthetic valence of the performance (spectacle) and the ability of the actors to convincingly transform themselves in the roles given to them (characterization). While the contents of these principles have radically changed over the past century, the relationship between mise en scène and the depiction of the “other” remains relevant in analyzing the Arab Spring.

For example, the logic of civilization versus barbarism is enacted through two classic symbols of modernity that the Arab Spring is continuously asked to uphold and protect: women’s rights and elections. Clearly neither activity is to be discarded, but we should ask why these signs continue to be privileged markers of civilization, especially when both are embedded in a complicated history of social and political contest. Instead of looking at the ways in which women’s bodies have been a site of struggle among competing ideological and sociological factions, the “Arab Spring” is feared to be ushering in an “Islamist winter” (hiver islamiste) in which women will once again be subjected to the pre-modern fundamentalism of Islamic extremists.  

 
[A cartoon characterizes the difference between the “Arab Spring” (on the left) and the “Democratic Autumn” (on the right).
Image taken from http://gillesjohnson.wordpress.com/2011/11/02/printemps-arabe-hiver-islamiste/]

The question of family law and individual liberties is a serious one, and my intention is not to dismiss the precarious position of struggles by and for women in the region. Rather, my point is to highlight how an attack on women’s rights is deemed to be coterminous with Islamic barbarism, as if secular (read “modern”) regimes weren’t themselves capable of daily and institutional violence against women.

Indeed, we are constantly hearing about the state of women’s bodies in public spaces of protest. A typical example is an assertion that “women flocked to rallies—wearing veils, jeans, and miniskirts.” Besides protesting, the other location that incites a fashion commentary is the election booth. In an article on Tunisian elections the Guardian tells us that “Women in headscarves rub shoulders with others in tight jeans and loose hair.” Never mind that the electoral process has been deeply flawed in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, the narration of the Arab Spring has followed a predictable logic by insisting that certain liberal values (elections being equivalent to democracy, the presence of women being equivalent to feminism) must accompany any civilized movement. The images of women free to choose between jeans and the hijab, and of citizens lining up to cast their ballot, systematically elide the deeper, more radical meanings of feminism and democracy. Again we find ourselves not so far from the colonial exhibition which served “to ‘construct nationalist feeling,’ to build a sense of identity, of pride, of national unity” and which “displays the negative counterpart of the European image, an image that reassures the visitors of their modernity and ‘normality.’”

From BHL to Qaddafi: Redefining the Spectacle

What role does the stage play in defining the “other”? How did colonial zoos differ from the “itinerant villages” that took “Algerian Arabs” on a tour to over twenty countries? As the exhibition at the Quai Branly makes clear, certain mediums permitted specific forms of circulation and fashioned particular understandings of difference. While the “stage” in 2012 is certainly a more diffuse site of images, the ability of the spectacle to identify and control difference remains powerful. For example, as the Arab Spring unfolded in Libya there were two poles of attraction. On the one hand, there was BHL’s hyper-mediatized image as the philosopher/humanitarian who spurred France and NATO’s invasion of Libya. On the other hand, the gruesome photos of Qaddafi’s death became an international obsession, shocking newsstands all around the world. In both cases, these images formed a stage on which, as in the colonial exhibition, the spectacle “functioned simultaneously as propaganda tools, scientific investigations and a means of entertainment,” ultimately “shap[ing] the Western world’s vision of the other.”

Bernard-Henri Lévy (known in France simply as BHL) might be called the French version of Christopher Hitchens, who was also known less for his academic credentials than for his unavoidable media presence, his humanism that often called for military intervention, and his close links to political insiders. Other commentators have compared him to more overtly colonial figures, such as Tintin or Lawrence of Arabia. BHL was crucial not only in NATO’s decision to intervene in Libya, but also in convincing Sarkozy that the National Transition Council was, in fact, the legitimate representative of the Libyan people. Along the way, he published a book on his experiences in Libya as his photograph appeared in countless news articles.


[BHL stands with members of the NTC in Tripoli. Image taken from
http://www.rue89.com/2011/11/07/bhl-en-libye-sur-les-traces-de-lawrence-darabie-226276]

BHL was nothing less than a one-man spectacle, who both controlled and starred in the French media (he sits on the board of directors of the influential French paper, Le Monde). Along the way, he has always understood the importance of two props when being photographed in the desert: a crisp white shirt and smiling Libyan soldiers. 

Compare this with the battered corpse of Qaddafi, or Qaddafi’s son Mo’tassim, which was also put on display. If BHL ardently supported the occupation of Afghanistan, he did it with an elegant pair of sunglasses and a degree from the extremely prestigious École Normale Supérieure. When Qaddafi staged his cultural capital, it was often with traveling tents and memorable attire. As Time magazine entitled one feature: “The emperor had some crazy clothes.” Both the French Philosopher and the Brother Leader were staged as spectacles by the media, the difference being that the two aesthetic sensibilities were cultivated to very different ends. To be attracted to the pensive smile of BHL is to spotlight the fruits of the civilizing mission (rather literally, as he is of pied noir heritage). In contrast, to be attracted to the image of Qaddafi’s corpse is to normalize the fact that a barbarian in life remains so in death, and that it is only by slaying the savage that one can open the country for civilization (not to mention western investment).

Insurgents, Cyberactivists, and Islamists: Characters in the New Colonial Zoo?

 
[An image from the exhibit depicting a Zoological Garden of Acclimation. Photo by the author.]

Perhaps the most striking aspect about the exhibit at the Quai Branly is the extent to which the colonial “objects” played the roles that had been scripted for them. Of course we will never know the daily lives and struggles of figures such as Josephine Baker or Venus Hottentote, but the fact remains that when they were on stage they offered a performance in which they adopted their allotted roles. The negro savage, the submissive Indian, or the depraved indigene—these are categories which we recognize immediately, and which the subjects themselves seemed to adopt. According to the exhibition, “Everywhere, the savage is regarded as a character-type, whose codified attributes are recognised by all. Zoological gardens—where displays of humans showcased along animals are advertised through striking posters—become a ‘must’ in popular entertainment.”      

Which character-types has the Arab Spring scripted for North Africa? In what ways are they being adopted or characterized by actors in the region itself? A few figures seem to have emerged. First, the Islamist, who is called to enact an authenticity that is a hegemonic, self-evident package deal. Take, for example, the repeated debates about the role that sharia will play in the post Arab-Spring Maghreb, with Islamists as well as media pundits treating sharia as a singular formation that can be adopted wholesale, and abstracted from historical and social factors such as cultural norms and state formation. From a recent article in Le Monde that begins by asking “Charia, ou pas?” [Sharia, or Not?], one would not have the slightest idea that sharia is a “flexible vocabulary of a ‘moral economy’ of claims and counter-claims between classes and factions."[2] Islamists themselves echo this misreading of Islamic Law, often using the question of sharia as a means of entering a political battle that centers on tradition and authenticity rather than jurisprudence.

Other archetypes also come to mind: the “moderate” Muslim who tries to convince the West of his/her moderation (in Libya Ali Sallabi claimed that his political hero was George Washington, while political rivals insisted he was hiding his true colors). There is also the cyberactivist, who is often attributed an enormous importance that overlooks the limited availability of internet in North Africa, as well as the possibility that social networking allows regimes to monitor and track potential threats. According to the New York Times, “[The cyberactivists] fused their secular expertise in social networks with a discipline culled from religious movements” and relied on “marketing tactics borrowed from Silicon Valley.” While technology and innovation are coupled with secularism, religious movements are associated with a strict discipline. Lastly, there are the figures of the insurgent and the militia fighter who, unfortunately for many political pundits, seemed to be ultimately indistinguishable in the case of Libya.

These categories are quickly becoming the forms of difference that are most recognizable in the characterization of the Arab Spring. While the museum exhibit triumphantly proclaims that the human zoo is finally extinct, this does not mean that we have seized to script categories for the “other” to enact. If “Racial theories, colonialism and the belief in Western superiority acquire a great deal of legitimacy” through colonial exhibitions, it is worth asking what concepts are being legitimated by the current staging of the Arab Spring. 


[1] John Gibbs, Mise-en-scène: Film Style and Interpretation. London: Wallflower Press, 2002, 5.

[2] Sami Zubaida, Law and Power in the Islamic World. London: I.B. Tauris, 2003, 11.

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