Collaboration, Criticality and Crisis: Producing Knowledge in and on the Arab Region
Session IX-05, 2022 Annual Meeting
On Saturday, December 3 at 3:00 pm
Special Session Description
This session continues an institutional collaboration between MESA and the Arab Council for the Social Sciences (ACSS). It examines possibilities for, and challenges in, how ‘criticality’ is understood and put into practice in a context of continued crises. Collaboration, between individual researchers and research institutions is key to co-constitute imaginations of the future, and conceptualizations of the past in relation to the present.
The decade after the continuing Arab Spring events, and the relentless attack of Covid-19 opened up new questions about the state of “crisis” in the Arab region. Some countries in the region claim “stability” and restoration of social and political order, others are experiencing stalemate, yet others are in protracted conflicts, or open dissent. Palestine, for one, continues to suffer settler colonialism and occupation with no openings in the horizon. Crisis can be deeply structural, enduring and unfolding slowly as with sectarianism, gender inequalities, class divisions, displacement and increasing securitization and militarization of all aspects of life. This underlines the importance of conceptualizing “Crisis” not as a momentary or passing situation, but as an ongoing condition. This means that “Crisis” itself becomes an object of analysis and knowledge production while it also reshapes processes of knowledge production in fundamental ways.
The session addresses the implications for organizing and carrying out research in/of such contexts. It reflects on the current challenges to higher education and research institutions; new possibilities emerging from new actors, interstitial collectivities, and thought-communities; the emergence of new audiences for new types of knowledge, and the changing connections between academia, activism and policy. Finally, what are the possibilities for constructive and ethical collaboration between researchers based in different locations – in the MENA region, in diasporic spaces, in the Global South, in the Global North?
Over the past decade, the Arab Council for the Social Sciences (ACSS) has produced several reports and datasets on Arab knowledge systems. These reveal a complex ecosystem of knowledge, teeming with significant opportunities and challenges. This presentation revisits some of the main findings concerning problems that remain to be addressed, and places them in the context of current debates about decolonizing knowledge. In addition, the presentation highlights the role of expert knowledge in the context of the ongoing social movements in the region. It pays particular attention to broad calls in recent movements for replacing political elites with “experts”—specifically, technocrats. Overall, the presentation explores the opportunities for new forms and structures of knowledge, especially in the contexts of a surrounding social environment of contestation, as well as some of the legacies of the Enlightenment project in the region.
What are the possibilities for activism and collaborative work created by examining knowledge production in and on the Middle East within a contrapuntal framework that embraces the politics of crises as an analytical framework for both the US and the Arab world? The structural and historical roots of the political crises in the US and MENA region are different, but both crises are generated in part by social and economic upheavals, popular uprisings, and the fallout of America’s imperial projects. Scholars and activists in the North American academy work within increasingly culturalist authoritarian local and national political landscapes that contain dissent and muzzle the ability to teach critically on topics that include, among others, race, slavery, class, and gender. Drawing on the example of scholar activists on Palestine and Turkey in the North American academy, I explore if and how the activism of these scholars shapes the parameters of knowledge production and how such activism opens the possibilities of innovative collaboration between scholars in the North American academy and scholars in the region.
Let's consider, on the one hand, that the crisis is multi-layered, in relation with reengineering of neoliberalism, renewed modes of authoritarianism, technological and ecological seizures accelerating the fragmentation of society, and unthought about traces of the past conditioning present-day lifestyles and expressions. Let's note that, while Indian, Latin American, South African, and Sub-Saharan thinkers, philosophers and scholars have launched and phrased the effort of self-knowledge with a critical distance towards imported frameworks and theoretical gazes and in relation with alienated / alienating local post-colonial elites, as "decolonial", North Africans have done so in scattered and undocumented ways. In an unprecedented way, and as pointed out to by various Maghrebi figures from within (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia) and from without (France, UK, United States), time seems ripe to elaborate alternative epistemologies in North Africa, to think otherwise, beyond traps of nativism and essentialism, unbalanced social, political, and economic relations, as anchored in unresolved and uncovered colonial logics. It is hence time also to rediscover counter narratives, legacies, oralities, marginalized by Islamic, Western, or Nationalist ideologies, that help in the process of decolonizing thought, imaginaries, and practices.
Can crises that have mushroomed in various domains of the Arab region be cracked? Or at least can spaces of/for cracks be practiced without presuming an end to crises, but rather reshuffling the pack in the hope of producing other possibilities? Can critical engagement with knowledge production offer a different narrative and imagination of crises and potentially different paths for living amid crises? In this contribution I draw on two different instances of translating knowledge – one entailed offering critical social science readings to emerging journalists and writers, and the second a collaborative translation lab of social science and humanities texts. Young men and women mediated such practices to raise questions to a world that is difficult to inhabit, to say the least. Both were undertaken outside the walls of the academe, itself perceived by the actors as complacent in the reproduction of crises and maintaining the normalcy of the prevailing order. The spaces and “infrastructure of commons” (Berlant) that these collectives produced and simultaneously have been constituted through, offer the potential for effecting cracks through imagining that life is still worth living, even though these practices sometimes also produce the impossibility of living itself. There is no guarantee, the time of guarantees has lapsed. But there is only hope for an ethics of collaboration to make cycles of normative reproduction more difficult to persist.