Academic journal article Framework

At What Cost "Theory"? an Economics and Poetics of Uptake

Academic journal article Framework

At What Cost "Theory"? an Economics and Poetics of Uptake

Article excerpt

I'll start with a vignette: a coffee break during some academic event or other. A number of us who teach Arab cinema are discussing our syllabi, sharing tips on readings that have excited our classes. "Have you noticed," remarks one of our cluster, "how everyone's using Rancière?" It's an observation we all corroborate, not just those of us based in the French philosopher's home continent of Europe or in North American institutions, but also faculty from various Anglo- or Francophone universities in the Middle East. We joke that the critical apparatuses of scholars working in English and French favor Jacques Rancière over and above most Arab writers, or once-resident comrades such as Frantz Fanon. There has been a Rancière reading group in Cairo. While we focus on the histories and cinematic production that hail squarely from one region, the philosophies used to analyze them originate from elsewhere. Mohamed Zayani, one of the few scholars to address this phenomenon in media education, confirms that, "for the most part, the tendency is to use Western media theories and methodologies and to fall back on foreign analytical frameworks to examine internal dynamics, an endeavor which does not sufficiently heed to interpretative challenges posed by various media developments in the Arab world."1 Speaking from within the discipline of Comparative Literature, Alexander Key observes how, "Even though our current theoretical conversation, with its roots in Europe, is now a creature of the whole world, shaped by global literature, inclusive thereof, and trained to be aware of the problematics of power, core, and periphery therein, Arabists are still in no position to advocate for the inclusion of Arabic thinkers on our departments' theory reading lists."2

The goal of this essay is to look deeper into how and why this has happened. I do not intend to glibly berate any one French thinker-or film theory of the Global North at large-for their unsolicited uptake by Arab cinema scholarship. Instead, my concern is with the economic as well as epistemological ramifications of this centrality. It is less by chance or merit that figures such as Rancière become touchstones, nor, clearly, on account of the incontestable applicability of their ideas. What I hope to make apparent is a set of geopolitical forces at work within the region and its study that favor certain modes of thought to the obfuscation of other, often local, ones. To do so requires an examination of how models of largely privatized and foreign-language education collude not only with foreign policy interests in the region, but also their advance of particular brands of global capitalism. While film theory might aspire to function at metalevels, usefully of service wherever its ambition is sought, it could be argued that this very universalizing aspiration, when delivered from a distinct geographical provenance, unwittingly counteracts the often leftist bids for equality for which theory is so often celebrated.

This is not a call for some lonely regress to an impossibly Arab-only body of thought. Media scholar Tarik Sabry wisely warns us against how, "discourses of ta'sseel (authentication) seem to have, unfortunately, overtaken as the main intellectual objective, leaving little space for self-reflection and critique."3 Such a move would also discredit some of the most stimulating philosophical maneuvers to stem from the nahda (Renaissance) tradition in Arab thought. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and into the present day, Arab scholars have strategically absorbed, critiqued, and transformed French political philosophy and practice in particular, and with efficacious irony, for the purposes of national liberation.4 Muhammad Kurd 'Ali, speaking in 1923, summarizes and justifies a long-held respect for France:

If we, Eastern peoples, especially the inhabitants of the Near East, say that we have taken from Western civilization, we mean French civilization, and more accurately, the civilization whose rays emanated from Paris . …

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