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“Wake Work” and Revolution: Dilemmas of Mourning, Memory, and Contested Futures

Panel III-9, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
Southwest Asia and North Africa have long been home to generations of revolutionaries. Among and alongside them are those who live or have lived in the wake of revolution. Their situation brings to mind “wake work” (Christina Sharpe 2016) that spans mourning for loss; a heightened state of consciousness; living in the aftermath of being uprooted; and living with consequences of violence. Sharpe explores wake work as the experience of blackness after chattel enslavement. The aftermaths of racialized chattel enslavement and revolution are significantly different; yet the notion of wake work as living in the aftermath of all-encompassing events that redefine social experience raises searching questions for scholars of revolution: what forms of wake work arise after recent and historical revolutions, or after key moments in ongoing revolutions, and with what consequences? Revolutionaries and former revolutionaries have navigated uprooting, in forms such as radical social change or exile, as well as structural and physical violence. As movements have met authoritarian backlash, counterinsurgency, and dilution into neoliberal reform, militants and former activists at home and in exile have mourned for and commemorated lost companions, ideals, and connections. How does uprooting, mourning, and commemoration shape intersectional political, economic, and social identities, as well as inter-personal relationships? What are the consequences of these shifts, such as for nationalism, citizenship, partisanship, and the pursuit of alliances? Ruling authorities and militant groups, whether supportive of or opposed to revolution, generate evocative narratives that aim to highlight and silence different aspects of revolution, as well as cultivate heightened states of consciousness among target audiences. How do different groups seek to mobilize or contest the benefits and costs of these narratives and states of consciousness? As current and former activists take stock of their past and current predicament, what kind of sustainable futures do they imagine and seek to create? Experiences across the region call for a heightened consciousness among scholars, activists and others toward the enduring legacies of revolution. Ethnographic and detailed empirical studies from North Africa to Turkey, Rojava and the Arabian Peninsula, such as this panel brings into conversation, highlight how these aftermaths shape the personal and collective trajectories of multiple generations who live with, create, and contest revolutionary legacies. Wake work opens up political possibilities for former revolutionaries, researchers and wider audiences: it excavates and foregrounds visions that dominant political framings of social reality too often foreclose.
  • Marlene Schäfers -- Presenter
  • Dr. Huseyin Rasit -- Presenter
  • Dr. Sophie Chamas -- Discussant
  • Dr. Alice Wilson -- Organizer, Presenter
  • Dr. Charis Boutieri -- Presenter
  • Prof. Eray Çaylı -- Chair
  • When a revolution ends in military defeat and repression, what possibilities exist under hostile authoritarianism for the unofficial commemoration of former revolutionaries? When unofficial commemoration emerges, what are the consequences of performing it, and acknowledging it, for understanding both commemoration and contested political identities? In the Sultanate of Oman, where a colonially-backed counterinsurgency defeated Dhufar’s revolution (1965-76), official silence has hung since then over episodes of past insurrection, including the Dhufar revolution. Meanwhile, official commemoration in the country is sultan-centric. Despite official silence about Oman’s revolutionary past, critical re-interpretation of historical sources, paired with ethnographic fieldwork among Dhufar’s former revolutionaries forty years after their military defeat, traces counterhistories that challenge conventional histories and narratives. Many Dhufaris, it transpires, first experienced state-led commemoration under Dhufar’s liberation movement and its commemorative activities. Explanations of the post-1970 rise of Oman’s sultan-centric commemorative culture should therefore address the contributing pressures of the Front’s earlier commemorative culture. The Sultan’s government strove to overcome its rival in the field of commemoration. After the liberation movement’s dissolution, Dhufaris tracing revolutionary histories generated alternative, new resources for the unofficial commemoration of the revolution. These range from everyday experiences of space, written and oral texts, jokes, euphemisms, funerals, and ritual hosting for former revolutionaries. In the context of Omani authoritarianism, quotidian forms of unofficial commemoration were necessarily subtle. This creates questions, rather than certainty, about the kinds of identities and solidarities that unofficial commemoration generates. However ambiguous its implications for identities, loyalties, or resistances, unofficial commemoration nevertheless illuminates the commemorative “wake work” (Sharpe 2016) of revolutionary afterlives. Unofficial commemoration creates possibilities for passing on to future generations knowledge and appreciation of an officially silenced revolutionary past. In doing so, unofficial commemoration contributes significantly to the work of providing resources for imagining alternative futures.
  • Dr. Charis Boutieri
    Writing about the various trappings of the work of commemoration of the May 68 protest in France, Kristin Ross (2002) singles out sociological analysis and individual biographical accounts as the most dangerous dilutions of the radical revolutionary project that unfolded during that period. In the wake of the 2011 revolution, and as the Tunisian public sphere transformed through the lifting of 60 years of state-imposed censorship and repression of political dissent, a group of leftist revolutionaries who were active from the late 1960s to the early 1980s experience similar dilutions. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork conducted between 2013 and 2016, this paper follows them in the various forums they negotiate their former trajectory. It traces the discursive mutations, and political distortions, of their revolutionary aspirations and actions in the emerging – predominantly liberal – Tunisian public sphere. Specifically, the group chafes against projects of new memory making that disentangle it from the landscape of global radical politics and enfold it in a purely national framework as a distinct sociological category. The group also struggles with transitional justice initiatives that individualize their communitarianism and remold its members into the more generalizable category of victims of state repression. The paper explores the simultaneity of consciousness raising with the losses that this liberal translation entails for the group in question. It argues that the double bind of recognition through liberal translation limits our understanding not only of the 2011 revolution, but also of the Tunisian democracy that ensued from it.
  • Dr. Huseyin Rasit
    After the initial heightened stages of mobilization and disruption, revolutions usually face emerging challenges and opportunities for survival from both internal and external actors. The revolutionaries in Rojava find themselves today in such a precarious situation. Capturing the attention of a wide range of international actors with its successful fight against the Islamic State and its gains in the struggle for a radical political alternative, the Rojava Revolution faces an increasingly hostile environment. While the Turkish government keeps Afrin and other regions under occupation and constantly threatens the Autonomous Administration (AANES) with further destruction, the Syrian government and its benefactor Russia appear reluctant to strike a deal with the AANES on its own terms. Under these circumstances, the AANES has found itself reliant on the presence of the United States and its forces in the region as a deterrent against invasion. Yet the United States has acted as the guardian of the global capitalist system at least since the World War Two and consistently attempted to stifle any radical alternatives. The reliance of a revolutionary movement on the imperial policeman of the very system it seeks to transcend thus creates a contradiction. Although the revolutionaries cannot be blamed for shunning diplomacy with other actors, this contradiction, as well as the geopolitical situation in the region, has the potential to inflict significant damage. Drawing upon interviews, observations, and documents collected during the fieldwork of my dissertation research, the paper analyzes this contradiction while accounting for the geopolitical reality within which the revolution is situated. In doing so, it attempts to think with the revolutionaries themselves and focuses on questions that are imperative for struggles elsewhere, such as how to sustain a revolution under unfavorable circumstances or how to conciliate concrete conditions with ideals.
  • Marlene Schäfers
    What happens when what Christina Sharpe calls “wake work” moves online? How do digital networks and algorithmic imaginaries shape forms of commemoration and mourning in the face of ongoing revolutionary struggle? This paper tackles these questions through ongoing research on the digital commemoration of fallen guerrilla fighters celebrated as martyrs by the Kurdish liberation movement. These fighters, the movement insists, do not die; they attain immortality. Digital spaces have emerged as crucial sites where such immortality is constructed and perpetuated but also doubted and contested. Drawing on both quantitative and qualitative analyses of a dataset of several thousand Tweets as well as ethnographic research in online spaces, this paper inquires what kind of afterlives fallen fighters acquire thanks to the specific affordances of digital media. A rapidly growing body of literature on digital death and mourning has heralded a return of the dead to our everyday lives thanks to digital media ranging from Facebook walls and email bots to avatars and mind cloning. But there is little investigation of what this means in contexts of ongoing revolution and political contestation. How do digital media allow the restless, violently killed, and contested dead to make an appearance in the lives of the living? How do the living mobilize the specific qualities and affordances of these media to make not only the lives but also the afterlives of these dead matter? If digital media have the capacity to animate the dead, this happens in partial, fragmentary, networked, and iterative ways. These specific qualities of digital animation, I suggest, frustrate attempts to develop cohesive and singular narratives around Kurdish martyr figures. Instead, digital media allow for the constitution of new martyrial choreographies that are less anchored in grand narratives of national liberation than in everyday, mundane, and intimate interactions. Rather than monumental commemoration, this paper argues, the digital emerges as a space of engagement where what Sharpe describes as logics of redaction and annotation allow defending and resurrecting the dead in always partial yet no less potent ways.