Knowing and Unknowing the Egyptian Public

“One of the greatest obstacles to any fruitful theory of genre has been the tendency to treat the genres as discrete. An ideological approach might suggest why they can’t be, however hard they might appear to try: at best, they represent different strategies for dealing with the same ideological tensions”

–Robin Cook, 1977 essay, “Ideology, Genre, Auteur,”

I’ve been thinking about Jay Rosen’s piece on “The ‘Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators’ Article,” in which he defines articles like this, this, this, and this, as a genre by reference these formal markers:

1.) Nameless fools are staking maximalist claims.
2.) No links we can use to check the context of those claims.
3.) The masses of deluded people make an appearance so they can be ridiculed.
4.) Bizarre ideas get refuted with a straight face.
5.) Spurious historicity.
6.) The really hard questions are skirted.

Rosen has the beginnings of an answer as to why the genre has an appeal:

…here’s a guess: almost everyone who cares about such a discussion is excited about the Internet. Almost everyone is a little wary of being fooled by The Amazing and getting carried away. When we nod along with Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators we’re assuring ourselves that our excitement is contained, that we’re being realistic, mature, grown-up about it.

I think this is right, as far as it goes. But I begin with a citation from Robin Cook’s fairly canonical argument about cinematic genre because he’s emphasizing the importance of placing generic formations in their broader discursive context, and I think this is precisely what we need to do with this brand of writing, now that we‘ve (Rosen) identified its formal characteristics. Its coherence is linked to the problem it seeks to solve and how, the work it takes as its project to do.

Cook’s argument, for example, is that a Film Noir like The Big Heat and a Western like Rancho Notorious are not only part of the same conversation — which he argues here, for example — but that the position they take in that conversation (how they resolve the problems they raise) is at least a partial function of the narratives encoded in the generic structures they employ. To oversimplify: while the Western and the Film Noir are talking about the same kinds of social tensions, anxieties, or contradictions, the position they take on those questions (the answers/resolutions they give) are distinctly organic to their particular generic forms. Context, then, is key: we understand the relationship between Western and Noir (and the function of those generic markers) by placing them as different dialogic parts of a single conversation.

The goal of doing so would be to liberate the concept of genre from its purely formal characteristics. By attacking “the foolishness of regarding [genres] as discrete and fully autonomous on the grounds of their defining iconography,” as Cook puts it, he wants us to see that the Western or the Noir are coherent ideological structures, not simply a set of clichéd forms. You know it’s a Western, in other words, not because of the simple presence of railroad, lawman, cowboy, Indian, etc, but because of the narratives that these motifs are being used to put forward, the particular kind of story the Western tells about history, progress, gender, and race.

My version of Rosen’s argument, then, would be this: it is a fantasy of a particular kind of credulousness, which is then so soberly refuted (by sober debunkers) that the overriding impression left for the audience is only of the performance of seriousness itself, and of the credulous enthusiasm which has been dismissed.

Take this bit of rhetoric — much derided — from Malcolm Gladwell:

…surely the least interesting fact about them is that some of the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another. Please. People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the Internet came along. Barely anyone in East Germany in the nineteen-eighties had a phone—and they ended up with hundreds of thousands of people in central Leipzig and brought down a regime that we all thought would last another hundred years—and in the French Revolution the crowd in the streets spoke to one another with that strange, today largely unknown instrument known as the human voice. People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other. How they choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place.

The assertion of eternal verities (people will always) alongside controlled contempt (Please.) and the repeated invocation of what is and isn’t “interesting” all adds up to an argument from an authority derived from the seriousness of his rhetoric: we know he’s a serious guy because he sounds serious, and because the people he’s criticizing are saying things that go against eternal verities, and because they cause a serious person to need to control his contempt (and we know they are contemptible because he is serious). It’s a recursive tautology; what you get is a blank stage in which there are two actors, the twitter-utopian and the debunker, and the staging and background (and object of debate) left insubstantial, immaterial. The rhetorical foreground fills up the camera while the historiographic background is left out of focus.

Rosen suggests that this allows the “really hard questions” to be skirted, and that’s true, but I think it also accomplishes something else through the blankness of the absent backdrop: the Western generalist (Gladwell) gets to retain Serious Authority. The man who knows nothing about Egypt still gets to Seriously Know, precisely because it‘s only a dialogue between two Western speakers. And this, I think, is the real key. It isn’t just that really “hard” questions get skirted; it’s the fact that Egyptians are driving this narrative — and that if we want to understand it, we have to know something about Egypt in its particularity – that makes these people nervous.

After all, the question of social media will, in the end, always turn into a question of the particular social reality it’s mediating. Which is why I would add to Rosen’s list another generic trait: the invocation of “people will always” as an explanation, something that always strikes me as a sign of a weak and unadventurous mind. People don’t “always” do anything. People are unpredictable. But they don’t do strange and unexpected things because they‘re irrational; people get called “irrational” when their rationality is not as apparent to us as we’d like to think it is. People always do what they do for a reason, but when we don’t know what that reason is, calling it irrational is a way of papering over the fact that we don’t actually understand.

In this case, for example, the idea that “People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other” is flatly inadequate. Egypt had a grievance for three decades, yet they only started finding a way to communicate and coordinate with each other (on a massive scale) in the last few years. The Egyptian uprising happened when it did for good reasons, and eternal verities about what people will always do give us less than no purchase on that problem. But to even have the conversation about social media starts taking people like Gladwell way out of their comfort zone.

In other words, to understand why the Egyptian revolt happened when it did, we’d have to learn something about Egyptian history, about the Kifaya movement, and about how Egyptians were actually using blogs and facebook. Which would mean that a generalist intellectual about everything (and nothing in particular) like Malcolm Gladwell would suddenly find himself having to listen to a specialist like Charles Hirschkind, or even — ye Gods! — Egyptians themselves. But it’s less about who as what; the source of Hirschkind’s knowledge about how blogs were used to lay the foundation of the Egyptian revolution is, ultimately, not his own Deeply Serious intellect, but the fact that he’s been studying the formations of publics in Egypt for decades now. It’s the fact that Egypt is particular and similar only to itself (and that he’s been paying attention to it) that allows him to weave together this narrative, for example:

What was striking about the Egyptian blogosphere as it developed in the last 7 or so years is the extent to which it engendered a political language free from the problematic of secularization vs. fundamentalism that had governed so much of political discourse in the Middle East and elsewhere. The blogosphere that burst into existence in Egypt around 2004 and 2005 in many ways provided a new context for a process that had begun a somewhat earlier, in the late 1990s: namely, the development of practices of coordination and support between secular leftist organizations and associations, and Islamist ones (particularly the Muslim Brotherhood)—a phenomenon almost completely absent in the prior decades. Toward the end of the decade of the 90s, Islamist and leftist lawyers began to agree to work together on cases regarding state torture, whereas in previous years, lawyers of one affiliation would almost never publicly defend plaintiffs from the other.

Gladwell can’t take part in this conversation, except by dismissing it. Which is why he must dismiss it: to deal with it on its own terms — a topography of knowledge defined by a meridian set in Cairo — would lead him away from his ability to speak about all people all the time. It would prevent Western Authority from having a monopoly on the truth of all people.

Let me push this even farther. Rosen writes that “everyone is a little wary of being fooled by The Amazing and getting carried away,” and this, again, seems right to me, but I think the fear runs deeper than simply a desire to not look foolish or of being wrong. Revolution is scary because it’s unpredictable. Hell, democracy is scarily unpredictable. And respect for democracy will require accepting that the Egyptians might do things we wouldn’t do if we were in their place, choices that may seem — to us — irrational, but only because the source of their rationality is unavailable to us. It will mean accepting the legitimacy of political rationalities we may not share, and which dismissing as “irrational” would only reveal us to be crypto-colonialists, willing to allow them to have democratic choice only between the options we’ve chosen for them.

Note, for example, how many Western commentators have demanded guarantees that a democratic election in Egypt will produce a government we like. And the assertion that if democracy leads to Islamist rule (of any type), then obviously Egypt isn’t ready for democracy. The colonialist assumption of privilege that underpins that kind of thought process is staggering, as is its explicitly anti-democratic preference: before we can accept Arabs making choices for themselves, we have to know what those choices will be. Only choices that have already been vetted in Washington are to be allowed. And thus: only we get to have democracy.

To return to the conversation about new media, one of the pitfalls of dubbing this a “facebook revolution” would be if we allowed the social topography in which facebook is used to disappear. The straw man that people like Gladwell invent are doing this, turning Egyptians into tools of their media tools. But this is also precisely what Hirschkind is not doing when he places blogs and facebook in their socio-political context: it is precisely because of pre-existing political problems — the fact that Islamists and secularists were not talking to each other — that blogs and other online organizing platforms, like facebook, could become so useful. Conversations that could not be had in person could be had online, which then led to face-to-face conversations, which then made collaborative action possible.

To build on what seemed to be the consensus of Berkeley’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, the importance of social media is particularly to be found in the sense and performance of Egyptian public identity that it enabled, both the identity and political rationality which were suddenly seen to widespread. Routine state terror has been omnipresent for decades, but what we heard over and over again was that a facebook page like “We Are All Khalid Saeed” could became a means of rendering that experience — which so many people silently had in common — something which could be publicly knowable as a common experience. This move — taking something privately experienced, and making it publicly knowable — is a powerful thing.

As Edward Said put it in Permission to Narrate (in a quote I was reminded of here):

Facts do not at all speak for themselves, but require a socially acceptable narrative to absorb, sustain, and circulate them. . . . as Hayden White has noted in a seminal article, “narrative in general, from the folk tale to the novel, from annals to the fully realized ‘history,’ has to do with the topics of law, legality, legitimacy, or, more generally, authority.”

Before the recent past — goes this interpretation — state terror in Egypt was ubiquitous, but it was not so easily and widely known to be ubiquitous. So however common it might have been, each fact and incident of torture and state violence was mostly knowable as isolated, particular. Which makes sense: in a country whose media was tightly controlled by a dictatorial apparatus, there were few available socially acceptable narratives which could absorb, sustain, and circulate them. Moreover, even if everyone knew that state terror was ubiquitous, they didn’t necessarily know that everyone else knew it too: they might have known that they — and anyone — could suffer the fate of Khalid Saeed, but they didn’t know, for sure, that everyone else knew this as well. In other words, Egyptians might have been united by the fact of being vulnerable to be tortured to death by their government, but the internet allowed them to see and understand that they all understood themselves to be this, that all were united in disgust and rage. This is the fertile seed-bed for revolt: knowing that if you stand in front of a tank, you will not be alone in doing so.

And this is what I think the main function of the “Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators” article, and the ideological function that defines its genre: the disappearance of Egyptian social consciousness as the prime driver of events. Against the straw-man of techno-determinism, someone like Gladwell is enabled to argue that this has nothing to do with what Egyptians think of Egypt, nothing to do with a century of accumulated thought, emotion, identity, and narrated experience — most of which is unavailable to Gladwell, and which most Americans find strange and foreign. Instead, it is something safe and easy, something we, in the West, can safely opine and claim authority over: ourselves. The French revolution, the fall of communism, and Universal Western History. In an implicit — but constitutive — dialogue with those who would tell us that this is about Egypt, it comes along to tell us that it’s not.