Contemporary Arab Thought: Cultural Critique in Comparative Perspective

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9780231144896: Contemporary Arab Thought: Cultural Critique in Comparative Perspective

During the second half of the twentieth century, the Arab intellectual and political scene polarized between a search for totalizing doctrines―nationalist, Marxist, and religious―and radical critique. Arab thinkers were reacting to the disenchanting experience of postindependence Arab states, as well as to authoritarianism, intolerance, and failed development. They were also responding to successive defeats by Israel, humiliation, and injustice. The first book to take stock of these critical responses, this volume illuminates the relationship between cultural and political critique in the work of major Arab thinkers, and it connects Arab debates on cultural malaise, identity, and authenticity to the postcolonial issues of Latin America and Africa, revealing the shared struggles of different regions and various Arab concerns.

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About the Author:

Elizabeth Suzanne Kassab is a research fellow at the German Orient Institute in Beirut. She has studied in Beirut and Fribourg, Switzerland, and has taught in Lebanon at the American University of Beirut and at the University of Balamand, and in the United States at Columbia University and Yale University. She is the author of The Theory of Social Action in the Schutz-Parsons Debate.

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Introduction: Cultural Malaise and Cultural Identity in Twentieth-Century Western, Postcolonial, and Arab Debates

Arab thinkers, artists, and activists have been engaged for almost two centuries now in intensive debates about cultural identity, cultural decline, and cultural renewal. Questions of the cultural self have dominated conferences, publications, and political gatherings. From one turn of the century to the other, questions of cultural anguish have persisted: How are we to define ourselves? Are we Arabs or Muslims in the first place? What does Arabhood mean? How is Islam to be understood? Why have we lagged behind while others in the world have progressed? How can we change and modernize without becoming westernized and losing our souls? How can we recuperate our past glory, our dignity, our pride, and our previous political, military, scientific, economic, and cultural might? Is religion the cause of our decline? Should it be the source of our renaissance? Is secularism what we need? What kind of secularism? Has political oppression been the cause of our cultural crisis, or has our culture produced consecutive despotic regimes? Why haven't we been able to establish Arab unity? Why have we been incapable of instituting democracy? Why haven't we been able to vindicate our cause in Palestine?

These questions have been constant preoccupations of Arab debates on culture and politics. In spite of their apparent redundancy, they have solicited different approaches and changing attitudes in the course of the past century. Most Arab thinkers agree that the defeat by Israel in 1967 was a turning point in Arab popular and intellectual consciousness. It was a political and intellectual crisis that called for a reassessment and a revisiting of the modes of thinking that had prevailed as well as of the political and intellectual struggles that had hitherto been adopted. It necessitated an urgent reflection on the liberation and decolonization movements that had failed to achieve their goals. It led to the radicalization and polarization of two major trends: on the one hand, the search for totalizing doctrines, especially religious doctrines after the demise of the Left and of secular nationalism, and, on the other hand, the radicalization of critique. The first trend was the result of a deep yearning for a holistic vision that could offer an indigenous, nonalienating worldview and mobilize the necessary forces toward a way out of the humiliation and the oppression. The second was the outcome of a painful confrontation with the limitations and dangers of holistic views as well as of the growing realization of the vital need for critique in the face of multiple forms of oppression. Although numerous studies have been devoted to the rise of the ideological doctrines, especially the Islamist ones, very little has been written on the less noisy and less spectacular, but important growth of critique. Yet the latter is as much part of the Arab social and intellectual scene as the former, and this book aims at redressing the balance by devoting due attention to it.

Like in any other society, whether in the West or elsewhere, this critical trend in Arab society represents a vulnerable but no less significant minority trend, especially in the region's volatile political and economic conditions. It is at the heart of the self-reflective turn of contemporary Arab thought. Unfortunately, it has not been sufficiently recognized by Arabs themselves, who often seem to be raising questions of culture from scratch, with nothing to build on. Many Arab thinkers have complained about this lack of continuity and accumulation in transgenerational intellectual work. This book takes stock of this recent critical effort and assesses its strengths and weaknesses, challenges and promises.

The twentieth century witnessed the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled over the area for about four centuries, and the first attempts at replacing it with a united Arab state. The Western powers, mainly Great Britain and France, animated by vested interests in the fall of the Ottoman Empire, supported these attempts, albeit ambiguously. They promised to support the creation of a united Arab state but did not keep their promise. Their intervention resulted in the division of the region into British and French mandates and in the thwarting of a united Arab state project. These mandates' official aim was to "help" their populations reach maturity and then independence. A wave of national struggles eventually achieved at least formal independence in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. These independent states were ruled first by the old established notables and monarchs. In the aftermath of the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and especially after the 1967 defeat of the Arab armies by this state, the 1960s and 1970s saw these established rulers replaced by revolutionary, often secular regimes that promised to adopt a more dedicated patriotic line. Most of these regimes turned out to be repressive ones, however. Those in power played the two oppositional forces, the Left and the Islamists, against one another, causing the collapse of the Left and effecting an intense power struggle with the Islamists. Finally, the last three decades of the twentieth century witnessed the increase of neocolonial and neoliberal pressures on the area, culminating in the two Persian Gulf wars and the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

It is against this sociopolitical and historical background that critical Arab thinkers have been reflecting on their societies' major concerns. This background is far from being homogeneous across the Arab world. In fact, the Arab east, North Africa, and the Persian Gulf -- constituting what is designated as the "Arab world" -- are very different from each other. Within every subregion, the socioeconomic, political, historical, and cultural givens differ from one country to another and from one society to another; moreover, many of these societies are multiethnic and multireligious. Nevertheless, the debates taking place in these diverse countries and societies show basic connections that affirm their belonging to a common, general universe of discourse.

Questions of cultural malaise, cultural critique, and cultural identity have not been the concerns of Arabs alone. In fact, they have been central themes of preoccupation for other postcolonials as well. They have also been major topics of discussion for Europeans and U.S. Americans in the course of the twentieth century. They have become prominent at particular historical junctures and have embodied a whole array of moral, political, and epistemological concerns. Discourses on cultural selfhood have expressed complex motivations, preoccupations, and intentions. They have often been confusing mixtures of descriptive and normative statements about what one "ought" to be on the basis of what one in essence "is" and "has always been." They have been founded on selective constructions of history that have often been presented as "natural givens" of history or metaphysics or both. They have invariably been shaped by power elements that determine who enunciates these discourses in a given community, at what given point in time, under what circumstances, through which mechanisms, and for what purposes. Exercises of cultural self-identification have acquired particular significance in times of crises and in times of ominous threats and changes, both in Europe and outside Europe.

In Europe, discourses on "Europe" held by European thinkers proliferated with the growing malaise of the turn of the twentieth century, then with the shock of World War I, the unrest of the 1920s and 1930s, the rise of fascism between the two world wars, the devastations of World War II, and more recently the formation of the European Union. Thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Max Weber, Ernst Troeltsch, Georg Simmel, Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Max Scheler, Karl Jaspers, Albert Schweitzer, Paul Valéry, Denis de Rougemont, Emmanuel Lévinas, and Jacques Derrida -- to name but a few -- offered conceptions of and reflections on European culture. Their discourses presented analyses of the specificities of European culture and often at the same time exhorted their societies to return to their foundational cultural values. In the 1990s, Derrida deconstructed the prevalent pattern of "thinking Europe" among these thinkers, calling it the "semantico-archeo-teleological" scheme of thinking Europe. He critically analyzed the assumptions made about a clearly "given" entity called "Europe," about the original arche serving as its foundations (Greek philosophy, Roman law, Judeo-Christian legacy) and about the telos toward which this Europe is believed to be inexorably progressing (enlightenment, reason, progress). On the whole, these twentieth-century European discourses on Europe are self-referential; that is, their authors address what they consider to be their own culture in terms of that same culture, even when contrasting it with other cultures, such as the "Oriental," the "primitive," or the U.S. American culture. In places dominated at some point or other by Europe—that is, much of the rest of the world—discourses on cultural matters have had Europe at the center of their elaborations, both as addressee and as reference. Given Europe's overwhelming impact on these societies, colonial, anticolonial, and postcolonial discourses on culture have been fixated to a great extent on political and cultural Europe.

By postcolonial, I mean the time following the end of official colonialism and formal independence -- a time, as we know, not free from unofficial or even official forms of external hegemony and occupation, whether political, military, or economic. By official colonialism, I mean both the occupation of lands and the subjugation of peoples by regular armed forces and official administrations in Africa, India, and the Middle East, as well as the colonizers' settling of lands and the enslavement of the indigenous an...

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Descrizione libro Columbia University Press, United States, 2009. Paperback. Condizione libro: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. During the second half of the twentieth century, the Arab intellectual and political scene polarized between a search for totalizing doctrines-nationalist, Marxist, and religious-and radical critique. Arab thinkers were reacting to the disenchanting experience of postindependence Arab states, as well as to authoritarianism, intolerance, and failed development. They were also responding to successive defeats by Israel, humiliation, and injustice. The first book to take stock of these critical responses, this volume illuminates the relationship between cultural and political critique in the work of major Arab thinkers, and it connects Arab debates on cultural malaise, identity, and authenticity to the postcolonial issues of Latin America and Africa, revealing the shared struggles of different regions and various Arab concerns. Codice libro della libreria AAZ9780231144896

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Descrizione libro Columbia University Press, United States, 2009. Paperback. Condizione libro: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. During the second half of the twentieth century, the Arab intellectual and political scene polarized between a search for totalizing doctrines-nationalist, Marxist, and religious-and radical critique. Arab thinkers were reacting to the disenchanting experience of postindependence Arab states, as well as to authoritarianism, intolerance, and failed development. They were also responding to successive defeats by Israel, humiliation, and injustice. The first book to take stock of these critical responses, this volume illuminates the relationship between cultural and political critique in the work of major Arab thinkers, and it connects Arab debates on cultural malaise, identity, and authenticity to the postcolonial issues of Latin America and Africa, revealing the shared struggles of different regions and various Arab concerns. Codice libro della libreria AAZ9780231144896

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