Arabic Glitch: On the Negotiation of Digital Space for Hegemony and Resistance
RoundTable II-3, 2023 Annual Meeting
On Thursday, November 2 at 5:30 pm
The concept of Arabic Glitch challenges the once dominant narratives about the relationship between technology and political agency that center Silicon Valley, as well as the study of digital art (specifically glitch art), the study of online social movements, and area studies of the Arabic-speaking Middle East and North Africa. It instigates interventions by demonstrating that twenty-first century resistance movements are grounded in the 2011 Arab uprisings; showing how social media stage confrontations between state and resistors; introducing the valuable concept of data bodies, which keep the body and analog experience in digital knowledge production; and promoting software literacy. While “glitch” in popular parlance is typically understood as an unwelcome error, an Arabic glitch functions as both a visual artifact and conceptual “tear” in technologies and institutions--a tear that creates an opening for social change. The argument interweaves ideas from artistic practice with discussions of historical and social movements while considering technoculture in the Arab world through the framework of “glitch.” Technology’s many glitches--literal and metaphorical--have created opportunities for activists to enact social change, and this is the lens through which Arabic Glitch presents its subjects: people who have found openings in typically closed hegemonic systems in which they not merely resist but create something new. Arabic Glitch makes three demands on our contemporary lived realities: that there be “no divide between the virtual and real;” that “one must have procedural literacy to identify and understand how data bodies exist, how media systems work, and how glitches intervene;” and finally, with that insight and literacy, we have the tools to reimagine and reconfigure systems of power. This roundtable invites several scholars from different disciplines across media arts, art history, and anthropology (among others) to interrogate this concept and its primary value in shaping how we understand spaces digital and analog spaces of incongruence and resistance. Participants in the roundtable will consider the concept of "Arab glitch' as a framework in their research and practice.
My contribution to the roundtable focuses primarily on the role that disruptive digital actions constitute an artistic mode of expression that not only challenges the hegemony of the status quo, but appropriates its vernacular, styles, formats, aesthetics and expressions to produce often disfigured afterlives of original works. My own research on memes and viral user-generated art in the Egyptian political literacy online is a precursor to Arabic glitch in that it often attempts to destabilize the same structural and discursive spaces. However, where glitch is unique and most pervasively impactful is in its emphasis on dysfunction rather than productivity and functionality. In my comments during the roundtable, I hope to discuss the contribution that Laila Shereen Sakr makes in her most recently published volume under the title of Arabic Glitch to the literature about counter-hegemonic discourses and revolutionary politics in Egypt. In an environment where the mere mention of revolution can be incriminating let along participating in such political action, the only place left for one to protest the current circumstances is by "glitching" the current output of the state-business-military-industrial nexus.
In a necessary dive into questioning the currencies of the procedural method, affect, embodiment, and data streams, Arabic Glitch develops the intensity of research and practices with conceptual diagramming, a continuing feminist and cyberfeminist attunement, and expression as art as social practice and as code. It offers the critical potential for new protocols, networks, and coding that rethinks boundaries and hierarchies. Arabic Glitch sings and embraces pluralversalities that reconsider the local manifestations of hidden labor by mothers and cyborgs and the powers of global glitches that disturb each of the above enclosures and lines of flight. By firmly applying a techno-feminist approach, Arabic Glitch's engagement with having theory hit the ground and framing social media data uses the slippery activation of the glitch to reconstitute the flows of transmission of power and social media. In my contribution, I will articulate three demands: that there “no divide between the virtual and real;” “one must have procedural literacy to identify and understand how data bodies exist, how media systems work, and how glitches intervene;” and finally, with that insight and literacy, we have the tools to reimagine systems of power.
I will share and celebrate how, in "Arab Glitch," Laila Shereen Sakr and her avatar, VJ Um Amel, embrace the glitch—clouds of unknowing, slippery loops, cracks and failures of systems—to better see the materiality of technology, power, and revolution. Mother, cyborg artist, researcher, “Arab,” Sakr engages collectively and transnationally with other Arab data bodies and their trans-local cyber activism through hashtags, algorithms, desire, and design. A radical data-centric research method as procedural literacy, Sakr aligns theory and practice, installation and performance, to mobilize media art and digital activist scenes across the Middle East, North Africa, and the internet. This praxis, and Sakr's writing about it, provides critical models for our bodies, movements, and research in an internet and its world view that holds us out (and in so doing, lets us in, through the glitch).
My contribution to this panel will look into the interface between the urban and virtual in Laila Shereen Sakr’s Arabic Glitch. Taking her general approach to glitch as disruption, the duality between the physical and virtual dissipates as one becomes the extension of the other: disruption of physical infrastructure by a state can interrupt virtual communication and expression, but also, virtual agitation can trigger protests that disrupt the flow of cities and the functioning of a state. In the roundtable discussion I hope to raise this and other questions related to the urban dimension of Laila Shereen Sakr’s contribution to the discourse around technopolitics as they pertain to contemporary urban developments and political history in the Arab region.