Commodification, voyeurism or collaboration? Approaches to seeing the revolution.

This is  a really important article by Mona Abaza:

I agree with the spirit of it. There are 3 things happening in the “Western” response to the revolution. I know Said cautioned against using blanket terms like “the West” and here I’m using it to mean the segment of Anglo-Euro-American society and politics that sees the North African-Levantine-Islamic world as fundamentally “different.”

The 3 things are:

1. Commodification of the revolution. I blogged about this a while ago, protesting the UK sale of “Tahrir” T shirts via a national newspaper, during the dreadful days of rage and killing on the Egyptian streets in Nov 2011. I was appalled that while blood was flowing on the Cairo streets, we were offered celebratory t shirts. I shudder to think who offered them, and who would buy them. The first  cynical beyond hope, the other naive, but probably not beyond hope.

2. Revolution envy. This is the kind of people who did not dare leave their house when the London riots were on, or who did not go to any of the Occupy events, and so have no desire to have any active engagement with their own context, but who eagerly buy every hastily published book and attend every fake “Arab Spring” exhibition (all made or facilitated by Westerners with their own agendas), and love to sit and watch films about the revolution  and pontificate endlessly on what it means, but of course having no clue and no actual personal investment. By participating in someone else’s revolution voyeuristically, they satisfy their own desires the same way that a pacifier soothes a baby. While this is in itself harmless, it’s a bit silly.

3. Academic “tourism” of the kind  Dr Abaza describes. Dr Abaza describes a situation where underfunded Egyptian (in this case, but I am sure it’s going on all over) scholars find themselves, instead of getting on with their own work,  “cater[ing] for the service of our Western expert colleagues who typically make out of no more than a week’s stay in Cairo, a few shots and a tour around Tahrir, the ticket to tag themselves with the legitimacy and expertise of first hand knowledge.” Dr Abaza notes that “many belonging to our scientific community have recently felt somehow “misused” through being overwhelmed by Western tourist-revolutionary academics in search of “authentic” Tahrir revolutionaries, needing “service providers” for research assistants, for translating, and newspaper summaries, for first hand testimonies, and time and again as providers of experts and young representatives for forthcoming abounding conferences on the Arab Spring in the West. ”

Now this IS dangerous, more dangerous than the stupid commodifiers and the sad voyeurs. I am all for academic research of the revolution and even more for “eastern” and “western” collaboration in this research. But it has to be collaboration. In this time, it is anti-knowlege to continue to practice this kind of Orientalist approach. Like the Orientalists of old who saw everything at a self imposed coloniast remove, and read many fascinating but utterly untrue things into what they perceived, the “drop in” scholars of the revolution really cannot expect to get much out of a week or so of popping into Tahrir then repairing to the nice hotel and having some good dinners in the latest chic restaurant.  As for using the local scholars to “assist” –  this is a waste of opportunity. Really, full collaboration, in the form of transparently shared research and – crucially – research grants, is the only way for anyone not on the ground to produce any useful research into what is happening in the region. Not “employing ” the locals to assist you – in fact you, the Westerner, can only assist them – to  get their research out to wider audience es perhaps or to facilitate with finance and critical perspective. I know this is itself a revolutionary suggestion, but how about sharing your research grant? Small though it may be.

I have been in this position as an artist. When I developed my site specific work (esp. in Russia) I was very clear that the objective was always to go and work alongside artists in the locality, never “parachuting in” to make work “about” the place, but always in clsoe collaboration with those on the ground. Where there was financial inequality, and there often was, I would try to rectify that by openly acknowledging it and then working together with my fellows to  ensure that we worked out a way that everyone had an equal access to what was needed, and there was no advantage to being from the “privileged” sector.

It does come down to individuals, seeing the situation and making those choices. And if you genuinely seek knowledge, then you will be eager to do this, and you will know it’s the only way.

collaboration with Russian artists, Kronstadt