Published by Jadaliyya on April 11 2011, Rabab el-Mahdi’s “Orientalising the Egyptian Uprising” precipitated a spirited discussion both in online comments on the article and offline discussions among Jadaliyya readers. While it is impossible to do justice to the article and the debates it has generated, the crux of el-Mahdi’s argument is that the Egyptian uprising – as distinguished from revolution – has been “orientalised” by international and local media, academics, politicians and the local elite. El-Mahdi argues that the “grand-narrative” of Arab Awakening, through which the aforementioned groups are narrating the uprising, does not differ fundamentally from the previously dominant orientalist narrative of Arab Exceptionalism. Both narratives are equally orientalist as they are both grounded in the same “bases of representation” and supported by the same “fundamental pillars”: “othering,” which el-Mahdi defines as the simultaneous construction of the categories of “us” and “them” and the normative privileging of the former, and “romanticisation and exoticisation,” defined as the construction of the oriental other (i.e. the “they”) as “mystical and mythical.”
The article proceeds to illustrate the manner in which the uprising has been thus orientalised through, most noticeably, representations of its participants and tactics. El-Mahdi argues that the construction of the uprising as a non-violent revolution of educated, “westernised” youth in which social media (especially Facebook and Twitter) played a decisive role is emblematic of its orientalisation. For el-Mahdi, this representation is based on the orientalist binaries of “traditional” and “modern” and “East” and “West,” and as in all orientalist discourses the latter categories are taken as the “normative standard.” As a consequence of this “orientalisation” the uprising is misrepresented; its narration, “cannot include the use of molotov hand-bombs which is ‘violent-traditional’ (read: Oriental) alongside with facebook, which is ‘peaceful-modern’ (read: Western). The ‘educated’, ‘Western’, and ‘exposed’ cosmopolitan Egyptians who are portrayed as the sole agents of this ‘revolution’ cannot torch police-stations, and those who did – the subaltern – should be and are excluded from the picture.”
What I have described above illustrates, I think, both the fundamental insight and weakness of el-Mahdi’s argument. There is something seductive about the argument. It begins to articulate some of the sentiments that have been occupying many of us. It speaks to the nagging sensation that, as one commentator had put it, “what we are seeing is not the whole picture” (and this applies regardless of what, and whose picture we are seeing, and who the “we” that are seeing it are). At the same time there is something unsettling – and difficult to pinpoint – about the manner in which the argument is made. As another commentator suggested, the article “started out strong, but lost its focus.” It is this that was, I think, a source of frustration for some readers – the potential of the argument was left unfulfilled.
In Colonising Egypt Timothy Mitchell wrote the following: “Orientalism…was not just a particular instance of the general historical problem of how one culture portrays another, but something essential to the peculiar nature of the modern world.” Mitchell’s statement directs us towards a critical engagement with modernity and the ways in which it structures how modern subjects understand themselves, others and the world they inhabit. Mitchell proposes to interpret Orientalism not as the inherent or instinctual manner in which individuals or communities attend to others, but as contingent on the peculiar nature of the modern world. This proposal can serve as a basis for interpreting the dominant narratives of the revolution as products of the conceptual categories fashioned and made dominant by the Enlightenment. I would like to suggest that by conceiving of these narratives as products of the logic of the Enlightenment, as opposed to reflections of Orientalism, the critical potential of el-Mahdi’s argument can be fulfilled. What follows is neither a defense of el-Mahdi’s argument, nor a vindication of her critics. It is an attempt to think through the “peculiarities of the modern world” that condition the ways in which we make sense of it, and a provocation to think otherwise.
The critical contribution of el-Mahdi’s piece is the insight that the seemingly distinct narratives of Arab Exceptionalism and Arab Awakening are in fact constructed on the same conceptual foundation. As previously mentioned, for el-Mahdi this foundation is Orientalism, characterised by the logics of “othering” and “romanticisation and exoticisation.” As one of her interlocutors suggests, el-Mahdi’s characterisation of Orientalism does not do justice to Edward Said’s path breaking concept. What is more, and what is more important from the perspective of this article, is that Orientalism is not the most suitable analytical lens through which to read narratives and representations of the revolution. As a result, el-Mahdi’s argument ultimately falters, and she at times ends up reproducing the orientalist logic of which she is critical. Exemplary of this, as one of el-Mahdi’s interlocutors points out, is her perhaps unwitting coupling of tradition and violence, or modernity and non-violence. Or, as in the statement cited in the second paragraph of this article, the implication that it is the “subaltern” that engage in acts of violence such as the burning of police stations.
I will return to the aforementioned statement later, but would like for now to attend to the conceptual foundations of el-Mahdi’s argument, namely, the common grounding shared by the narratives of Arab Exceptionalism and Arab Awakening. I would like to suggest that while the narratives are indeed constructed on the same conceptual foundation, the conceptual foundation is provided not by Orientalism but by the Enlightenment. Orientalism and orientalist-ways-of thinking are themselves products of the Enlightenment and Enlightenment-ways-of-thinking, but this does not mean that the narratives of the revolution are necessarily orientalist. Orientalist narratives and narratives of the revolution are, to use el-Mahdi’s words, “constructed on the same bases of representation” and supported by the same “fundamental pillars.” Thus, while one is not reducible to the other, both are grounded in a common episteme – that of the Enlightenment.
As characterised by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment, the episteme of the Enlightenment conditions us to conceive of the world as comprised of things that are essentially or fundamentally the same (despite the appearance of difference) and things that are wholly and irreconcilably different. Perceiving or distilling the former (i.e. unity or identity in what might initially appear as different) engenders a sense of tranquility; discerning the latter (irreconcilable, unintelligible difference) produces anxiety and fear. For Horkheimer and Adorno, the episteme of the Enlightenment is in fact emblematic of the Enlightenment’s failure to fulfill its fundamental promise – the promise of autonomy. The instrumentalisation of the Enlightenment within a capitalist economy “ruthlessly…extinguished any trace of [the Enlightenment’s] own self-consciousness” and with it, its potentiality. Its grounding promise was not only left unfulfilled, but became its own antithesis – knowledge, through which emancipation and autonomy were to be realised, was deployed as a technology of subjugation. Knowledge – in freeing men from the fear of the unknown and thus from the power of myth, magic, and those who commanded them – was supposed to usher in an era of individual autonomy. Instead, by equating incomprehension with fear, it ushered in an era in which fear is always already fear of the unknown, and an era in which that which is unknown or different is always already that which is antithetical and feared. What is more, the legitimation of knowledge whose essence is technology as Knowledge (for Horkheimer and Adorno, another consequence of the coalescence of enlightenment and capitalism) means that what does not “reduce to numbers, and ultimately to the one” becomes either suspect or an illusion.
This ontological and epistemological drive – to either reduce multiplicity to an essential or underlying unity or to declare differences antithetical, irreconcilable and thus suspect – is what grounds Orientalism. It grounds Orientalism because, as Mitchell implies, Orientalism is itself a product of the episteme of the Enlightenment and modernity. It is, thus, the Enlightenment episteme (as the more fundamental conceptual structure) that ultimately conditions our perceptions and representations of the world as inhabited by “us” and those “like us” and “them,” or those wholly different from and antithetical to “us.” The discourse of Orientalism is, in this reading, a particular manifestation of the conceptual structure inherent in the episteme of the Enlightenment. It is the Enlightenment episteme, then, that grounds the assortment of perceptions and representations of the Egyptian revolution that el-Mahdi enumerates. Grounded in the assumption that the world is comprised of things that are essentially or fundamentally the same (despite the initial appearance of difference) and things that are antithetical and irreconcilably different, the revolution becomes either a revolution of those who are “like us” or a revolution of those wholly different from “us,” whose interests and tactics are completely antithetical and incomprehensible. It is narrated as either a revolution of the educated, English speaking youth, the “middle-class,” those whose interests are compatible with “our” interests, and whose strategies (non-violence, for instance) are compatible with “ours”, or a revolution of the “radicals,” the “Islamists,” the poor, the uneducated, the “violent.”
If we return to the examples that el-Mahdi offers of the ways in which the revolution was narrated the following, I think, becomes clear. The narratives of the revolution were indeed grounded in the episteme of the Enlightenment, in the sense that the revolution was generally narrated as either the revolution of those essentially “like us” (despite their seeming difference from us), or those wholly “unlike us” (whose interests are antithetical to ours, who are unintelligible to us, and who should be feared). Its leaders and participants were either those like us, those to whom we could relate and who we could trust to have interests and aspirations like ours – the educated, the middle-class, the cosmopolitan, English-speaking youth – or those entirely unlike us, who are unintelligible to us, who we cannot trust, and who we should fear – the radicals, the Islamists, the uneducated, violent and unpredictable masses. As one of the El-Mahdi’s interlocutors rightly points out, the revolution was not, as el-Mahdi suggests, exclusively chronicled as a non-violent revolution to which “we” could relate. Various media outlets at various points in the revolution seemed to make a concerted effort to focus on its violence. Keeping with the same conceptual structure outlined above, the revolution was chronicled as either “violent” or “non-violent,” depending on the perspective of the narrator.
It is this binary logic – which admits only the existence of identity or antithesis – that we must attempt to deconstruct whenever it presents itself as representing the essence of existence. In the case of the Egyptian revolution, this logic reduces the inherent multiplicity and plurality of the people, interests, and tactics of the revolution, forcing them – like square pegs into round holes – into either the rubric of “same” and thus to be lauded, or “opposite,” and thus to be feared. This process is, of course, one through which not only is the category of the “other” or the “they” homogenised, but a process through “we” are also constructed as “one” and “same.” The plurality and multiplicity on either side of the binary is thus obfuscated while an unbridgeable gap is constructed between them. Thus, while the subjects and objects that fill either side of the binary may change, the tendency to simultaneously distil difference to an underlying unity and sameness or posit it as antithetical and unintelligible makes it difficult to render the revolution in a manner that keeps intact all of the complexity, contradiction and plurality – in short, multiplicity – that inheres in it.
El-Mahdi is right when she argues that it is difficult to narrate the uprising as one that includes the use of molotov cocktails and Facebook, or make comprehensible the torching of police stations by the “educated,” “Western,” and “exposed” youth. This is because the episteme of the Enlightenment continues to be effective in structuring how we see ourselves, others, and the world we inhabit. It is not, as el-Mahdi seems to imply, because it was the “subaltern” who engaged in the violence, and neither the “subaltern” or violent tactics fit into an orientalist narrative of the revolution. Yet it is also not, as one of el-Mahdi’s interlocutors argues, because representation of Egyptians as “like us” is a triumph of solidarity rather than Orientalism. Both arguments are grounded in, and confine themselves to working within the binary logic that sustains much of modern thought. It is necessary, I think, to try to step outside of this framework by challenging the episteme that establishes such binaries as given. This involves the interpretation of the world as comprised of a multiplicity that is in constant flux, and that therefore never ossifies as that which is essentially the same or inherently antithetical.