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Rethinking “Discourse:” New Frequencies for Political and Social Analyses in the Middle East

Session VII-03, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, December 3 at 8:30 am

RoundTable Description
Written and spoken language have long held pride of place in discourse analysis, such that embodied, material, or seemingly “inert” components of cultural, political, and social phenomena fade out or seem to appear irrelevant. Yet aesthetic regimes of visibility, everyday technologies, infrastructures, human design of space, mass media, natural forces, sounds, and physical actions produce and structure the conditions of social engagement—even as spoken language itself cannot be fully divorced from mediating forces. These factors have long shaped both the history and the contemporary realities of the Middle East. Drawing on studies from North Africa to the Gulf, this roundtable brings together scholarship centered on “new frequencies,” highlighting unusual or unexpected forces that shape cultural, historical, and political debate in their respective contexts. Our work in this roundtable builds on insights from Essex School scholars such as Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, and others who consider non-verbal and extralinguistic phenomena equally constitutive of discourse, opening space to understand social and political interactions that take shape at the intersection of language, formal social and political engagement, and the broader material world. To wit, in Saudi Arabia, government and society have embraced their country’s rich musical tradition for the first time since the 1970s, creating a flourishing scene whose creative eruptions and mass music events have drawn attention to key issues facing the Kingdom today–ones that have been overlooked in other contexts. The “new frequencies” of discourse arising in the Saudi context overlaps analytically with diverse agentive forces that may be found in the rich history of Arab-Israeli relations, explored in this roundtable via a discussion of the radio broadcasts in Palestine and their impact on nationalist modernities, as well as open air defense broadcasts managed by the Israeli military and State in relation to the conflict. The significance of these hybrid material-linguistic discursive phenomena are considered further in relation to the nonverbal, performative aspects of formal political speeches, on one hand, and the semiotics of political and urban futures embedded in the ways colonial rulers reconfigured planning based on aesthetic regimes of visibility in protectorate era Tunisia. In foregrounding the interplay between material and semantic forces, and bringing their respective field-based experience to bear on distinct case studies, the roundtable participants debate the limits and opportunities of alternative approaches for discourse.
International Relations/Affairs
  • From Weddings to Wasla: Music, Society, and the New Saudi Dream Over the past three years, government and society in Saudi Arabia have reembraced the Kingdom’s rich musical tradition, creating a flourishing musical scene. Anghami, an Arab music streaming platform with deep ties to the Kingdom, regularly debuts Saudi artists, where they often do better than on YouTube. The success of Anghami and Saudi musicians generally represents a sea change for a society that treated music as taboo, and where Muhammad Abdu and others were banned from performing except at weddings. Those events, a Saudi DJ noted, were once our only “dance clubs.” In 2022, the Kingdom could not be more different, with music festivals, such as Wasla, featuring leading Saudi and foreign DJs and singers, attended by over 200,000 people at a time. There, young men and women freely associate with one another on a scale unimaginable a few years ago, listening to music that touches on a host of themes and issues facing the Kingdom today—ones that are frequently overlooked by academics, journalists, and other cultural leaders. Indeed, Soundstorm, a musical festival held in 2019, is seen as an event on par with how many Americans look at Woodstock. Notably, Saudi officials, eager to promote Vision 2030’s goals of creating a post-oil economy, are investing in the music industry and national music hubs. Today, these officials talk openly about transforming the Kingdom into a global musical superpower. In early 2022, a music teacher, who works for the first of these music hubs and who is writing a national classical music curriculum for grade schoolers in the Kingdom, recently noted to me “I never imagined one day that…I would work in what I have been dreaming about for years.” My work explores why music has emerged as an essential component of daily life in a Kingdom that is part of the fastest growing regional musical market in the world. It builds on the ideas of the Essex School of linguistics along with the recent works of Sean Foley, Mark Levine, and others on the creative class in the Arab World and Saudi Arabia. It also seeks to understand what music offers Saudis and what types of discourses emerge in music, especially electronic and other genres of music that lack clear lyrics. What does this tell us about music generally and in the Kingdom in 2022?
  • "“Sensory Discourses: How Ambient Atmospheres Structure Political Possibly” Abstract: Should the social sciences concern themselves with sensory and embodied forms of cognition and data? In this roundtable discussion, I suggest that the sensorium represents a distinct site of political engagement that can deepen understandings of a variety of political and social phenomena we see unfolding in the Middle East today. As such, the senses merit explicit attention, even as they require a distinct lens and analytic. Attention to the material, biological, and social senses can help establish empirical particulars that underly theories of action and belief, allowing scholars to make more specific claims about a body’s operation in politics without foregoing an assessment of the mediating effects of aesthetic stimuli. The paper I will be discussing makes a case for conceptualizing the sensory as a site of power, relying on case studies in Israel and Palestine related to the sonic environment and the interrelated processes of hearing and state-based sound production to reveal how sensory discourses take shape and come to influence political and social spheres. In Israel and Palestine, sound is being used both offensively and defensively to control population and territory. On the one hand, a state-made civil air raid defense siren keeps a border population in place by making life liveable in what would otherwise be a dangerous zone; on the other hand, sounds are used to effectively drive other populations out (or failing that, to make them stay inside their homes and off the streets). Sound, in these examples, effectively becomes a nonhuman participant in the discourse of conflict and intergroup relations. The paper presents a framework for thinking about how the senses might be fruitfully conceived and operationalized in empirical social science research. Studying the senses necessitates bringing insights from the natural sciences into conversation with interpretive approaches that recognize the limited nature of truth claims and are skeptical about the possibilities of prediction in social science. Thus, the paper concludes by addressing the possibility (or desirability) of reading across literatures from different epistemological orientations in an attempt to convince scholars of diverse methodological and epistemological persuasions that the senses represent an important and understudied domain of real-world politics.
  • This roundtable contribution begins with the fundamental questions that we ask when thinking about past practices of radio broadcasting and listening: First: What was broadcast? What people and what institutions decided what was broadcast? What technical, political, economic, and social-cultural factors influenced their decisions? How did they broadcast, and from where? And second: What did people hear? What did they decide to listen to, and what technical, political, economic, and social-cultural factors influenced their decisions? How did they listen? Where were they when they listened? What were they doing, and who were they with? Using two interwar Arabic-language radio stations as case studies, and considering both entertainment and news broadcasting and listening, this contribution reflects on how radio producers thought about sounds and how to use them in broadcasts. Entertainment and news broadcasts tended to have the same technical staff and moved quickly from one genre to the next. Radio broadcasters and writers might have shared common ideas about narrative – did a news story need a beginning, middle, and end? Did a recorded music broadcast need a particular musical arc? – and about oratorical styles of speaking. Turning to listening, this contribution begins with the recognition that listeners often tuned into the same station or stations regularly, and thus developed particular kinds of attuned expertise to specific broadcasters’ styles, as well as particular expertise with specific programs or genres. Listeners may also have tuned into different stations for different reasons, and with different tolerances for audio quality issues. Those tuning in for pleasure – to listen to a radio play or live music – may have chosen stations with minimal static, perhaps their national station, on medium wave. Those tuning in to hear news of a critical political situation might have chosen stations they considered more likely to have accurate news, despite higher static due greater difficulty in tuning or jamming, perhaps on short wave. Drawing upon interwar journals and memoirs; period newspaper and magazine program guides, program descriptions, and listener reviews; musical recordings; broadcasting and receiving technology; and station archives, this contribution will help participants reflect on the layers of aural and oral discursivity that characterized the world of interwar radio broadcasting and listening.
  • One of the most persistent images of rogue ungovernable spaces that haunts Tunisia’s post-revolution future is that of popular neighborhoods, spaces built on previously agriculture lands on the periphery’s of Tunisian cities which defy urban planning regulations. In metropolitan Tunis, the 2011 revolution spread from one such popular neighborhood in Kram, sandwiched between two wealthy localities. To the images of lawlessness, poverty, decay, and backwardness associated with these neighborhoods, the revolution also added danger and fear of their potential rebellion. In this roundtable presentation, I revisit the colonial roots of these images. I draw on archival records from 1922 to 1941 to explore the regime of visuality that kept French colonial authorities attached to the problem of “nomadism”, a problem that had little to do with transhuman Bedouin tribes and was instead a problem of labor mobility and the creation of alienable property. I follow colonial authorities’ obsession with “nomadism” in petitions by landowners complaining about nomads who settled in their vicinity, reporting that their neighbors’ insalubrious living conditions were injurious, in municipal council meeting minutes complaining about the unaesthetic sights of the city’s periphery littered with gourbis, in policy documents comparing the noble nomad tent to the filthy barracks, and in correspondences between various departments within the French bureaucracy about whose problem it is to make disappear from the urban milieu such visual nuisance. I show that in colonial times, a regime of visuality competed with, and sometimes superseded, factual statistics and mapping of these neighborhoods and the populations who inhabited them. In this way, the visual came to stand for a politics of difference that created different modes of territorial rule calling forth the bureaucratic apparatus meant to govern it.
  • Meanings and Mixed-Meanings: An Overlooked Frequency in Arab-Israeli Relations Standing in front of the Egyptian House of Representatives in 1977, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat made a startling statement - “I am ready to go to their [Israelis’] house – to the Knesset itself and negotiate with them”. In an era of simmering Egyptian-Israeli tensions and only four years removed from the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, one would have expected his audience to have responded with surprise and even intense anger. Instead, his speech received sustained applause from his entire audience, including Yasser Arafat, the most important Palestinian politician of the era. How did Sadat’s words generate such a favorable response? I argue that it was not Sadat’s actual words that counted as much as his tone and body language. Throughout the speech where he announced that he was ready to negotiate with the Israelis, he used a fierce tone and aggressive body language—both of which projected strength. That projection of strength more than made up for his words, which, on their own, signaled his willingness to accept a key Israeli demand that Cairo negotiate directly with Jerusalem. While the importance of non-verbal communication has been long discussed in the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy presidential debate and in other contexts, it has been overlooked in the literature on Arab-Israeli relations, especially on Saudi views of Israel. There, Saudi officials have frequently mirrored Sadat’s approach, often balancing frequent calls for peace and cooperation with fierce statements demanding Israel respect Palestinian and Arab rights. The aim of my work is not to focus on what is communicated but how this fluid and non-verbal forms of communication function. To do this, I incorporate the Essex School of Discourse Analysis, which lends itself to a wide reservoir of theoretical and conceptual premises that theorize and explain how the simultaneity of meanings occur. Once I engage with the concept the Essex School offers, the paper will then display how tones have functioned as a fluid frequency of meanings that balances between audiences and strategic goals. By looking at this frequency, we can deduce that Saudi willingness to normalization relations with Israel is not something new, contrary to the analysis that ensued after the signing of the 2020 Abraham Accords. Rather, peace and cooperation on many fronts have been communicated by the Saudi Ruling Elite for decades - albeit in a particular way – in a particular frequency of communication.