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The Human, Non-Human and Dystopian Representation

Panel VII-29, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
  • This paper analyses non-human or posthuman ontologies in Saudi Arabian novels as an expression of the petromodern subject, through an in-depth examination of cars and roads. Across the writings of ʿAbd al-Rahman Munif (al-Nihāyāt (1977; Endings, 1988) and Mudun al-milḥ (1984–89; Cities of Salt)) [1], Rajaʾ ʿAlim (Ṭawq al-ḥamām (2010; The Dove’s Necklace, 2016)) and ʿAwad Shahir al-ʿUsaymi (al-Muharrib (2022, The Smuggler)), my analyses shift from the “technological encounter” that occurred during the initial phase of extractive industry to the twenty-first century, when automobility had become entrenched as a mode of circulation. Taking Max Weber’s concept of disenchantment as a point of departure, this paper traces in Munif how communities invoke the supernatural to interpret technology that seemingly defies the natural order. It argues, building on the scholarship of Karim Mattar and On Barak, that spectral readings of machines manifest the tangled skein of temporalities that constitutes so-called petromodernity. In the later novels, drawing on Pascal Menoret’s Joyriding in Riyadh (2014), Paul Virilio’s concept of “dromology,” a theory of speed as the constituent of reality, and Anna Tsing’s writings on the “damaged planet,” this paper then analyses how earlier tropes are appropriated and inverted to critique extant power structures embodied by the car as a central technology of the state apparatus. Through vehicles, a performative violence of speed, one that relies on theatre and spectacle, is enacted, while phantoms are replaced by cyborgs, biomechanical hybrids that project new subjectivities. This paper argues that Saudi novelists grapple with the inherent instability and precarity of a society built on oil wealth by evoking modes of being that reach beyond the contemporary and reflect the complex ontological and epistemological entanglements of oil itself. [1] Munif is often classified as a Jordanian-Saudi or transnational writer. His father was Saudi, but he spent most of his childhood in Baghdad. He was deprived of his Saudi citizenship because of his political activities. I include him here because Mudun al-milḥ is a roman à clef of the kingdom.
  • This paper examines the gendered nature of surveillance and its effects on individual agency and bodies in the acclaimed, timely novel al-Ṭabūr (2013; The Queue, 2016) by Egyptian writer, psychiatrist, and activist Basma Abdel Aziz. Written in the tumultuous aftermath of the 25 January Revolution of 2011 in Egypt, this novel is part of a recent burgeoning of Arabic science fiction and dystopian literature, particularly since the “Arab Spring.” Set in an unnamed Arab city, al-Ṭābūr presents a critical dystopia of a fictitious yet familiar society that lives under the seemingly omnipotent, authoritarian regime referred to as “the Gate” (al-bawāba). The novel follows the lives and thoughts of several characters as they wait vainly for months for required documents in the kilometers-long queue extending from the Gate, which closed following the “Disgraceful Events” (a thinly veiled reference to the 2011 uprisings) and likely will never re-open. With ties to corrupt corporations and Islamic fundamentalist groups, the Gate maintains control of society by regulating participation in public life through intense surveillance of citizens via invisible observers, extensive phone taps, and peer monitoring, and when that fails, through violent suppression of dissent. Within the growing field of surveillance studies, there are still few studies that examine surveillance cultures in Middle Eastern and other non-western societies, and even fewer that also critically consider gender. This paper contributes to this expanding field and to Arabic literary studies by bringing together scholarship on Arabic dystopian literature and science fiction (e.g., Campbell, Moore, Bakker) and scholarship from surveillance studies, particularly works that engage with feminist theory (e.g., Lyon, Dubrofsky, Magnet, van der Meulen, Heynen), to investigate how surveillance functions within Abdel Aziz’s novel. I pay particular attention to narrative perspective and the motif of in/visibility and analyze key moments of traumatic interactions between named characters and the Gate to show how gender norms inform and are recreated by surveillance structures. I argue that it is the gendered differences present in the various types of surveillance that lead to different, harsher consequences for female and other non-normative characters. While the Gate demonstrates successful, though distinct, control over male and female bodies, it is the well-educated, female characters who suffer loss of agency at emotional and cognitive levels, as well, thereby distorting their sense of self and reality and impeding their participation in collective action.
  • In the past few years, environmentalist approaches to the study of the Middle East have grown, with studies looking at the general state of the environment (Mikhail 2012) to those discussing the greenwashing of settler colonialism (Makdisi 2022). Development has also taken place in waste studies, with many critical works exploring the implications of waste in the region. Whether it is the study of literary litterscapes (Olszok 2019), waste as siege infrastructure (Stamatopoulou-Robbins 2019), or waste as bound up in notions of national identity and nation-(re)building, waste is becoming a central actor in the modern Middle East. Drawing on these studies, this presentation aims to show that waste is critical to the understanding of contemporary issues in the region, focusing in particular on marginalized bodies, or “wasted lives” (Bauman 2004): the poor, refugees, the undocumented, migrants, the disabled, and the dissident. In particular, the presentation focuses on three films to discuss garbage as a physical, obstructive boundary marking spatial marginalization and social and political disempowerment: Yomeddine (dir. Abu Bakr Shawki), about a Coptic man who had leprosy as a child, and so was abandoned to live in and off a garbage dump; Costa Brava, Lebanon (dir. Mounia Akl), about the establishment of a landfill in the mountains of Lebanon, a location that problematizes space-based myths of Lebanese identity rooted in Mountain Romanticism; and Capernaum (dir. Nadine Labaki), which highlights the lives of the poor and documented who live off the debris of the city. Waste, as non-human agential matter, eludes responsibility, and so the garbage, dirt, and debris that are inextricable from one’s abode emphasize disempowerment, lack of accountability, and evasive responsibility. In such an environment, the question of what is left for such “wasted lives” lurks in the unsatisfying ending of each of the films. Bauman, Zygmunt. 2004. Wasted Lives: Modernity and Its Outcasts. Polity Press. Makdisi, Saree. 2022. Tolerance Is a Wasteland: Palestine and the Culture of Denial. 1st ed. University of California Press. Mikhail, Alan. 2012. Water on Sand: Environmental Histories of the Middle East and North Africa. Cary, UNITED STATES: Oxford University Press USA - OSO. Olszok, Charis. 2019. “The Litterscape and The Nude: History Escapes in Mansur Bushnaf’s Al-ʿilka (Chewing Gum).” International Journal of Middle East Studies 51 (1): 1–19. Stamatopoulou-Robbins, Sophia. 2019. Waste Siege: The Life of Infrastructure in Palestine. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.
  • Aristotle discusses in his zoological writings, especially the Generation of Animals (ii.8), which animal species in general can interbreed and generate animal hybrids as offspring. Most of them can again procreate themselves (second-order hybrids), with the mule being the hallmark exception to this rule, which Aristotle elucidates at length. This discussion found its way by translations also into Arabic zoology and influenced several authors, among them especially Ibn Sīnā, but also al-Jāḥiẓ. From a philosophical perspective, this question is also connected with the issue of eternity of the animal species and possible origin of new species, such as by way of evolution. A similar consideration is likewise found in the Book on Animals (K. al-Ḥayawān [ed. al-Ḥarbī, Baghdad. 2008]) of the zoological philosopher Ibn Abī l-Ashʿath (d. 975 CE). However, it is, as the paper will show, less influenced by Aristotle, but, rather, by Galen, upon whom he also composed some commentaries. For even though the Aristotelian mule example as that of an infertile hybrid offspring is included, the argumentation is different, as recourse is taken to Galenic temperaments for explanation. Also the Galenic centaur example is discussed, where, besides temperaments, a “natural aptness” is employed as argument for its non-generation. Due to a lesser leaning on Aristotle, the initial question which animal species can interbreed, can only be answered with some incertainties. For, as the Aristotelian requirements for the parent animals such as sharing in a genus, nearness in species, and similarity in both duration of gestation as well as bodily size are either not upheld at all or at least not explicitly mentioned, Galenic temperaments take over this causal role. The results arrived at, though, may be similar, the paper will argue. The paper will finally address whether the minor influence by Aristotle in comparison to Galen necessarily has to be explained by still a direct reception (the Arabic translation of Aristotle’s biological works would have temporally be available to him) or, as will be argued for, rather by assumption of an indirect reception by way of Galen only.