Thursday, April 17, 2014

Why confuse gibberish with knowledge?

Now and then something drops into your in-box that makes you wonder. In my case, the email in question was a press release for a new book titled “Min Fami: Arab Feminist Reflections on Identity, Space and Resistance.” If someone wanted to spoof the postmodernist craze in academia today, he – or I hasten to say she – could not have come up with a better title.

What is the relationship between identity, space and resistance? One turns to the press release for some illumination – to no avail. We are told the book is “an anthology that cradles the thoughts of Arab feminists, articulated through personal critical narratives, academic essays, poetry, short stories and visual art.” I never realized anthologies could cradle anything. Nor does it do much good for the theme of the book to associate the thoughts of Arab feminists with, most familiarly, babies.

The press release goes on to inform us that the book is “a meeting space where discussions on home(land), exile, feminism, borders, gender and sexual identity, solidarity, language, creative resistance and (de)colonization are shared, confronted, and subverted. In a world that has increasingly found monolithic and one-dimensional ways of representing Arab womyn, this anthology comes as an alternate space in which we connect on the basis of our shared identities, despite physical, theoretical, and metaphorical distances, to celebrate our multiple voices, honour our ancestry, and build community on our own terms, and in our own voices.”

Now, I must confess that as I read this I wasn’t quite sure if the misspelling of “women” concealed a profounder meaning or was merely a typographical error. Looking at my keyboard to see if the “y” was near the “e” (and noticing it wasn’t), I surmised that spelling women as “women” might have merely replicated the monolithic and one-dimensional ways in which Arab women are portrayed.

The editors of this work are two young ladies (heavens, have I said something wrong again?), named Ghadeer Malek and Ghaida Moussa. Malek is “a Palestinian feminist activist, aspiring writer and spoken word poet.” That must mean she never writes her poetry down, I speculated. But then, when I saw that she published in something called Shameless Magazine, I assumed it meant her verse was filled with colloquialisms.

It was Moussa’s biography that had me truly transfixed. She is reportedly “a scholar, educator, and dj” and someone who “has been devoted to translating anti-colonial notions onto dance floors, thinking through ‘home’ in the cracks between anchored locations and collective memory, and practicing pedagogy from the heart in the classroom and in alternate spaces of education.” An egghead with a turntable, I thought, while conjuring up images of Fred and Ginger doing a paso doble in keffiyehs.

There is nothing original in making fun of the linguistic gibberish permeating deconstruction-influenced academic works, deriving from a belief that language can conceal deeper social and cultural constructs. As Christopher Hitchens once wrote on the topic, “Not surprisingly, the related notions of objective truth or value-free inquiry are also sternly disputed; even denied.”

This was most famously expressed by the Palestinian intellectual Edward Said, who in the introduction to his book “Orientalism” wrote “Orientalism is a Western style for dominating, restructuring and having authority over the Orient.” In other words texts on the Orient, what Said referred to as representations of the Orient, by misrepresenting its realities and reflecting Western prejudices, facilitated its domination by imperial powers.

In effect, language came to advance political control. That is perhaps why so many of Said’s followers seem incapable today of expressing themselves in language that is even vaguely comprehensible.

Said had a destructive impact on a whole generation of earnest students, who were convinced that some of the great scholars of the Middle East and Islam were mere facilitators of a Western hegemonic project. This was terribly stifling. Robert Irwin, who wrote a devastating critique of Said’s book in his “For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and their Enemies,” observed that a disadvantage of “Orientalism” is that the ensuing debate on the subject was largely defined by parameters set by Said.

Yet what brings together the late Edward Said and two young Arabs whose book has a publicity sheet that reads like a parody? Blaming Said for all the ills of cultural and gender studies is surely unfair. But one can yet see the old man’s shadow behind Malek’s and Moussa’s use of the words “resistance,” “exile” and “decolonization,” behind their denunciation of the tendentious portrayal of Arab women. And stylistically, Said helped make obscure language acceptable (though he was far clearer than his imitators), launching a thousand unfathomable books.

Why should this matter? Because, as Irwin implies, Said’s legacy has endured in today’s classrooms and still shapes the debate. That’s not to say that alternative views do not exist; quite the contrary. And books such as Malek’s and Moussa’s are destined to chase away those in search of knowledge rather than manifestations of intellectual pretentiousness. But there is still too much of their nonsense going around and too many academic fields still blighted by impenetrable curriculums.

In his classic essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell wrote the simplest of truths: “[The English language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” Clear language makes for clear thoughts, “a necessary first step toward political regeneration.”

That’s about right. It’s a sad reality that there are many slovenly practitioners of the English language floating around, who are earning degrees from respectable universities. Rather than helping to regenerate us politically, or socially and intellectually, they want to imprison us, as they are imprisoned, within high walls of incomprehension.

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