Tuesday, August 29, 2017

sharīʿa scripts


Brink Messick’s long-awaited Sharīʿa Scripts is finally out at Columbia University Press:


Multi-century approaches of the sharīʿa have regrettably transformed law into a banal history of ideas without much connection to practice. Messick’s Sharīʿa Scripts takes the sharīʿa right from the economy of the local, that of central Yemen, and places research at a micro level. Historical anthropology makes possible the tracing of genealogical lines of power relations, and the depiction of narratives and discourses in relation to local practices. This book, which takes the logic of texts and their practices to new heights, stands out as a masterful contribution to sharīʿa studies worldwide.

Brink Messick’s book-manuscript on sharia discourses in modern Yemen comes as a welcome change to a literature predominated by studies of long durations of “Islamic law” and the sharia. Messick’s main contention that the sharia is only meaningful as a “local enterprise” (212) in the space and time of a particular territory and political economy is a major endeavor to understand the sharia in all its concreteness as a discursive reality within a régime of truth. Thanks to Columbia University Press for publishing the manuscript in its integrity, without major cuts or changes. This is a much needed book that will open sharia studies to new horizons, and would serve as reference for scholars and students. Even though Messick’s preoccupation centers on “legal” practices and discourses, the book could nevertheless serve as a template for an understanding of Islamicate societies in terms of micro-discursive genealogies of power and régimes of truth.

For years I have been using Messick’s Calligraphic State in my seminars as a must-read reference to understand how sharia texts in all their diversity are constructed in a space and time of competing discourses—Bakhtin’s chronotope model of a space-time configuration of competing pretenders. Messick’s present book provides an even more refined optic for reading texts as x-rays of the power-relations in the archival layers of historical formations to which they belong. This new optic of reading texts in their space and time dimensions demands refined micro-hermeneutical techniques for the power relations to come fully to light, as neither space nor time as categories of knowledge are privileged, since they are utterly interdependent.

Most studies of Islamic law take as their point of departure the postulate that the sharia binds together fifteen centuries of rules and regulations for the societies that are governed under such precepts. In this multi-century approach what is favored, besides the overall coherence of the enterprise of the fiqh (the interpretations of the sharia, which are distributed into a multitude of madhāhib, or law schools), is discourse over practice, or theory over the contingencies of the terrains that are governed by sharia law. Such approaches, which predominate the research in Arab and Islamicate societies and in the West as well, leave us with all kinds of problems and unsolved issues. First of all, they assume that our understanding of sharia law is limited to (or predominated by) the doctrinal level, that is, the discourses that are generated in the libraries of the fiqh manuals across centuries, which in their totality have a level of coherence that cannot be achieved in practice. Second of all, the archival material, whenever available (in particular for the Ottoman centuries), is supposed to be an application of the grand theory as generated by the various madhāhib. There is thus undeniably a “precedence” of the doctrinal over the archival, in the same way that there is a “precedence” of the written text over the oral, or what is said over the seen.

Brink Messick’s book on Yemen in its pre-Republican period comes as a much needed enterprise that challenges the precedence of the doctrinal over the archival, or the library of the fiqh over the archive, or the universal concept over the regional. This is a rare and sophisticated endeavor which points at how much work and patience are needed once we move from the macro to the micro-historical in all its textual complexities (322). Messick has already outlined his method in his Calligraphic State, published in 1993, and if the present manuscript on sharia scripts in Yemen took so much time to materialize it is because micro analysis is more demanding in its execution than anything that the multi-century approach would dare to accomplish.

To begin with, Messick operates within a broad division that places the fiqh manuals in a “library” framework, which stands on its own in the face of the various “archival” materials. The latter are comprised for the most part of the texts produced by the sharia courts and what the parties in conflict or in a notarial act keep in private in the sanctity of their own homes as evidence that a transaction has been accomplished. Such documents therefore “register” the contractual act that the parties must attend to.

However, Messick is not satisfied with such broad division of “library” and “archive” on its own. Following Mikhail Bakhtin he conceptualizes three levels of textual practices (or discursive practices). There is one that is “primary” and which consists of all those document-texts that are kept in the “privacy” of their holders, followed by the “secondary” material of the sharia courts and other “public” instances, and, finally, the “tertiary” level (sphere) of the fiqh manuals in their various genres (tafsīr, shurūṭ, and fatāwa). Those various levels are obviously not separate, they are mutually interdependent, and rely on each other’s existence for their overall organization. Thus, the “library” is the “tertiary” sphere following Bakhtin’s classification, while the “archive” is formed by the “primary” and “secondary” texts, or the “private” and “public,” following a modern civil-law classification. There is no “primacy,” however, of one level over the other. Thus, if the fiqh happens to be the “tertiary” textual discursive level (312), the implication here is that it does not necessarily feeds itself on the practices of the courts, nor are the courts obligated to use the “upper” doctrinal corpus as their framework of reference; what they in fact do in most instances is allude to the doctrinal works rather than cite them directly, even though this possibility is, of course, not to be excluded. For example, when it comes to the practice of writing fatwas, which is commonly assumed to be the most “practical” aspect of sharia law, “there is no such direct connection between local fatwā-giving and court processes” (159). Yet, the fatwas are somehow “needed,” a need that remains elusive at best, particularly in pre-Republican imamic Yemen where the presence of an interpreting imam roots the fatwa in a régime of truth—and provides it with a much needed legitimacy—though of a much higher symbolic authority than that of the mufti in Sunni Islam.

Because in the interplay between writing and the oral and aural, there is no primacy or formal hierarchy (hence an absence of logocentrism which would have pleased Jacques Derrida), “documentary evidence does not stand by itself” (134). Presenting a document as evidence is a complex program of “inscribed writing” (144), which goes through the various stages of dictation (imlāʾ), witnessing, oral reading, prior to creating an authoritative form of oral and aural transmission (130). For instance, dictation involves on its own, first, a retention of the dictated text in memory, and, second, the inscription of a transformed version in writing, both of which constitute a form of “knowledge.” What is therefore at stake in oral reading and dictation is memory, the material trace, and expression (133). I look at the latter as various topoi of practice, which bypass the rigidity of formal hierarchies, and which make the analysis of discourse possible. The traditional macro studies of the fiqh corpuses, which tend to bracket practice (which by definition operates at a micro level in relation to a territory and political economy), are unable to analyze the fiqh texts as discourses—the latter would eo ipso assume their operation only in relation to certain practices.

We thus have a multitude of juxtaposed texts and archival formats operating at different discursive levels with no primacy as such, which makes Bakhtin’s classification of primary, secondary, and tertiary, which in this instance translates as notarial documents, courts processes, and fiqh doctrinal corpus, a bit problematic, even though it serves at delineating discursive series that could be viewed as autonomous in their own right. What in effect Messick is attempting is a direct immersion in practice, without the need to make false delineations like theory versus practice, or the doctrinal versus the court practices. For example, when in Chapter 10 contracts are examined, the question of contact-law versus contract is not portrayed as operating within a formal hierarchy, say, that a contract drafted in court must obey clauses of contract-law. The reason for this absence of a formal hierarchy is that once we establish practice—hence discursive practices—as our main entry into the system, the traditional hierarchies, which generations of scholars have been operating with, receive a new meaning, if at all. We may also not need them at all. For example, when it comes to contracts and the laws derived from the fiqh, Messick avoids the rigid dualism and operates instead in terms of composition, modeling, and models (340). Practice here means “understanding the textual properties” (299) of a text which could be a document emanating from a sharia court, a Zaydī fiqh manual, or an official bureaucratic document. Moreover, this approach has to account for evidential texts that could be written or spoken. What is crucial here, when it comes to the written and spoken, is, again, there is no primacy of one over the other. The same could be said about the spoken and the seen: the say is not to see, parler n’est pas voir, as Foucault would say, following Maurice Blanchot.

By taking practices and their discourses as his entry point, Messick is able to extract from the various discursive layers under analysis themes (or topoi) that may not have been apparent at face value. Of particular importance in this regard is the theme of custom (understood as ʿāda or ʿurf), which traditionally receives the treatment of an “outside” to written law, that is to say, how much of the latter has been “affected” by, or acknowledged as, custom or customary law? What kind of margin does written law tolerate within its corpus as far as custom is concerned? Messick’s approach in contrast looks at the place of custom “not outside, but inside such textual formation” (240), which implies an attentiveness to the “internal duration to the act” of drafting documents. To elaborate, in the grand division between the abstract non-historical “model” texts which serve as ready-made templates, on the one hand, and the historical documents which have been drafted by notaries, judges and their scribes on the other, it is indeed custom that plays on that internal duration to the act of writing (which in turn is an outcome of the oral and aural); hence it is custom that configures the historicity of a document (361).

The immersion into practice is demanding, first of all because it operates primarily and makes sense at a micro-level, and second, because a genealogy of texts is necessary. In other words, unlike the multi-century-macro approach which is historicist, in the sense that it is a general history of ideas that sees each text the product of its own period (even though the roots to this period in relation to practice remains by and large unexplored), genealogy in contrast goes further than that, as it looks at texts as operating in clusters. In the case of the Zaydī fiqh, for example, the late fourteenth-century Book of Flowers was still operative in the pre-Republican period, thanks in part to the interpretations and commentaries in the 1930s and 1940s, of what became The Gilded Crown, with the nineteenth-century interlude of the predominantly critical work of the “Sunni” Shawkānī in between the original matn text (which represented the condensation of the views of the five early imams) and the subsequent tafsīr and sharḥ.

What is crucial here is the awareness that a twentieth-century work like The Gilded Crown is itself a work of previous centuries—a product of archeological layers under different historical formations. The other side of genealogy is an attention to the author–writer paradigm, which Messick borrows from Foucault.

14–15: Where library discourse embodied a set of culturally and historically specific “author-functions,” archival discourse, in contrast, comprised distinct writer-functions. I adopt the plural both for Foucault’s well-known term and for my proposed archival counterpart to account for the distinct genres that existed within both the library and the archive. Following Foucault, both conceptions should be understood as defining functions that provide a basis for what he termed “a typology of discourse.” In this discursive sense, but in different genres, it was possible for the same individual to be both an author and a writer.

I want to question the author-function which is attributed to the library discourse (the fiqh doctrinal manuals). The assumption here is that both library and archive are practices and discourses (or discursive practices): should we then limit the archive to a writer-function, while the library is endowed with the “privilege” of the author?

There are all kinds of writing roles in those texts, the library and archival material: that of author, writer, editor, narrator, signatory, but they are not all present in one text. For example, a contract has a guarantor, but not an author; a letter has a signatory, but not necessarily an author. But a letter drafted by a Zaydī imam has an author, because it could be inscribed within a broader corpus, hence could be disseminated and quoted on the basis of its authorship, due to the status that this particular imam enjoys within the community of scholars. The idea here is that for a text to have an author it must be inscribed within a broader corpus, say, the œuvre of a particular author as the totality of his works. A court verdict signed and sealed by a judge has a writer but does not have an author on the basis that the judge cannot attach his text to a broader “work” of his own making. In Islamic courts verdicts do not serve as precedent as they do in common law, hence a decision by a judge remains localized without authorship. Doctrinal texts in contrast have that authorial quality, because each work is attributed to an author who is more than the writer of the text. Moreover, besides being attached to an author, say, a Zaydī imam, a fiqh manual is part of a larger ensemble of texts belonging to tradition. Messick is right when he traces the genealogy of the “texts that matter” in pre-Republican Yemen to their fourteenth- and nineteenth-century roots: it is such genealogy that makes both discourse and authorship possible. What is probably unique about this kind of authorship where the “school” (madhhab) is predominant is the system of cross-referencing among the “authorities” of the madhhab which spans across many centuries. In the scientific and literary European genealogies analyzed by Foucault, the discovery of common discursive layers is much harder, due primarily to an absence of direct cross-referencing.

I find a limit to this argument, in particular when it comes to the “library” of doctrinal texts. Not that there is anything wrong with attaching authors to such texts, but I question whether the fiqh manuals are intended to be referred to specific authors in the first place. Let us recall the tripartite division which is borrowed from Bakhtin, where “primary” and “secondary” coincide with the archival materials used by individuals and courts alike. Besides that such “archival” material is timely, it operates only by attaching names, signatures, and seals to a document. Moreover, the concerned parties and their witnesses are the names that matter, not the writer of the document. The library texts—the tertiary level—share an a-temporality which dissociates the text from its nominal writer-author.

15: Such usage separates a named author or writer from a discursive function, historical agency from textual form. For library texts, this is to distinguish attributions to (and also in-text citations of) specific authors from the patterned avoidance of the proper name. By the same token, the possibility of dating a book or an opinion is distinct from the a-temporal nature of its textual discourse. Among archival texts, in contrast, we enter a realm defined by identified handwriting and the signed name of the court or notarial writer and, in certain periods, a personal seal. Yet the discourse of the proper name that was characteristic of an archival text pertained not to such third-party secretaries or notaries, who in fact wrote and signed, but rather to the principal parties, the individuals who entered litigation or a contractual undertaking but who (usually) did not sign the resulting documentation.

What I find of value in this claim is the “separation” between author and discourse for the library doctrinal texts, but we need to find out why this is the case. The other matter of contention is whether between library and archive there is another “separation” regarding the proper name attached to the text.

Messick follows a close reading of Foucault on the notion of the author, but he misses a distinction that could be useful between statement (énoncé) and sentence (phrase). A text is obviously composed of sentences which refer explicitly or implicitly to a grammatical “I,” even if the text is drafted in a third-person mode. This “I” which stands on behalf of the writer, and could as well refer to an author, is what brings the text together. When a series of texts are juxtaposed together as belonging to a school of thought or way of thinking it is by virtue of their homogeneous nature. Because anyone can attach the grammatical “I” to a sentence, the claimed authorship is an external variable.

Foucault’s main contention is that statements are different in this regard. First of all, statements are rare because they straddle between several heterogeneous discursive layers. Statements make discourse possible precisely because they are based on intrinsic variables. If the phrase derives from a subject of enunciation (sujet d’énonciation), the subject that pronounces it, the statement by contrast does not derive from its subject: it is indeed the place of the subject that derives from the statement (le sujet de l’énoncé). The place of the subject is in turn an anonymous “we” (le “on” anonyme). In sum, we need to distinguish between a subject of enunciation for sentences and phrases, and a subject of the statement, which tends to be anonymous.

Which brings us back to the doctrinal fiqh manuals. There is a common perception that the fiqh manuals are only nominally authored, since they represent “compilations” (tajmīʿ) of well-known opinions from previous generations of scholars. Each generation compiles and re-arranges according to the relevant criteria of the period: one has to be faithful to the tradition of the madhhab, but at the same time one has to adapt to new situations, as new problems arise which would trigger the hermeneutical circle. The author-faqīh becomes therefore a “compiler” who re-interprets and re-organizes the old texts, which become “his” own, as well as belonging to the madhhab, based on the criteria needed for his period. The notion of “compilation” is at times looked upon condescendingly, as if it is uncreative, lacks authorship, leading to an infernal repetition of the same, hence to a disconnect with the social and economic reality of the time. This is particularly true, we are told, of the Ottoman period, as researchers typically shun the doctrinal manuals in favor of the more “real” sharia courts and other bureaucratic documents.

Messick’s book is a direct response to such condescending views: all discursive levels have realities of their own, and those realities overlap and share languages and grammars, albeit they play different roles. However, in light of the above proposals, we can reframe our take on the various discursive levels a bit differently. Compilations do not in their essence refer to an author or a subject of enunciation (sujet d’énonciation), but to a position of the subject (sujet de l’énoncé). They are therefore, together with the primary and secondary levels, embedded into an archive within a particular historical formation. The latter is inscribed within a diagram of power-relations which produces the institutional apparatuses of knowledge. Strictly speaking, therefore, I would argue that the primary, secondary, and tertiary discursive levels, in their institutionalized organization between library and archive, are all “archival,” whereby the “archive” is inscribed with stratified historical formations. They are all discursive practices with nominal authors and a collective “we” as reference.

Which brings me to my last point, regarding the presence (or lack) of a third-party adjudication in the Zaydī system and in the fiqh at large. By this I mean the presence of a universal process that would accommodate any person as member of the community (or “nation”) irrespective of religion, rank, and status. When the delivery of truth by any member of the community is accepted for what it is, seeing becomes of primordial importance in the process of verification and validation of witnessing. That’s the kind of transition that Yemen went through—a process that is by far from over—when the Zaydī imamate, as a polity, was over in 1962 and the country became a civil-law republic. In a civil-law political economy, where the reference to imamic traditions is not anymore the norm, labor becomes finite, as its reference is a competitive market economy where the traditional notions of equity and fairness are not normative, at least not predominantly so. The modes of truth that produce knowledge are based on a process of verification where the market economy serves a reference.

Even though Messick’s book is mostly devoted to pre-Republican Yemen, it nonetheless prepares us well for the transition that Yemen has been going through since the Zaydī imamate was lost. To wit, a hidden key notion in Messick’s analysis is the concept of governmentality, or gouvernementalité, understood as the “mindset” (mentalité) of “government”—not government in the strict Anglo–American sense of the term, but as the management of relations of truth and verification, and the power relations that they generate in the space of a political economy. Under the Zaydī imamate, and in contrast to the land tenure systems of the Ottomans, land was mostly private (milk), and the document of sale-purchase, known as baṣīra, was predominant (345). The wager here is to follow up such contracts under civil law when the régimes of truth and governmentality are altered. Maybe this could be the topic for another book which is already implied in this one.



Zouhair Ghazzal
Professor of history and social sciences
Loyola University, Chicago

Saturday, November 12, 2016

from sykes-picot to civil war


From Sykes–Picot to civil war: the delusions of American power

There are various ways of doing a history of the present, or a history that follows the tracks of a theme of relevance to the present. In the short time that I have I want to trace the genealogy/archeology of the theme of the middle eastern nation-state, as it has emerged in the space of a century in US domestic and foreign policy since the dismemberment/demise of the Ottoman Empire, up to the present. I want to argue that the nation-state has become the forgotten concept, having been replaced by national security and the constant threat of terrorism and the fear of terrorist groups in particular in Islamic societies. Defeating so-called terrorist groups has given precedence over concerns as to what stands as a modern nation-state in those disturbing and disturbed times. But what if defeating jihadic groups is the biggest fallacy of all times? I want to narrow down that line of reasoning to specifically presidential campaigns in particular in the aftermath of September 11.

The failure of the middle eastern nation-state and the rise of jihadic groups represent a case of historical and material restrictions on what is said and in their relations with the exercise of power, which goes beyond the classical divisions of left versus right, democrat versus republican. I am interested in what is said, how what is said is framed within a discursive reality at a specific historical juncture. We want to examine things that are said, how they were said, and the occasion that made such statements possible. There were rules or “regularities” in what is said at a given time and place, and that these rules govern not just the kind of things that are talked about, but also the roles and positions of those talking about them.

This summer we’ve celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Sykes–Picot agreement which divided what is now the East of Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan between British and French zones of influence, versus zones of direct control, colored on the map as zones A and B respectively. Sykes–Picot is usually read in terms of the borders that were imposed, not so much the borders of the 1916 agreement, but the actual borders of the 1920s, which turned out very different from those anticipated barely a decade earlier. There has been so much in the century since Sykes–Picot on the “fairness” of the borders, and whether they made sense, or whether they were justified at all.

What I want to propose in my brief intervention is that it is not so much how the borders were mapped, but to question the genealogy of the nation-state. I want to argue that various administrations, in particular in the aftermath of WWII, have erred from placing a priority on the nation-state, and the difficulty of such requirement. What has replaced the nation-state are concerns regarding security and US or NATO interests, where the fight against terrorist jihadic groups took precedence.

The American response to Sykes–Picot came rather rapidly within the framework of the King–Crane Commission in 1919, in the aftermath of WWI and the Paris Versailles peace conference attended by Woodrow Wilson.

In his fourteen-point address to Congress in January 1918 Wilson promoted self-determination. The twelfth point concerned the Ottoman Empire:

The Turkish portions of the present Ottoman Empire should be assured a secure sovereignty, but the other nationalities which are now under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development, and the Dardanelles should be permanently opened as a free passage to the ships and commerce of all nations under international guarantees.

What matters in such statement, notwithstanding “secure sovereignty,” is the concept of “nationality.” What does this mean?

When it comes to “Syria” and the “Syrian people” the King–Crane Commission spoke of a Mandatory Administration that would take hold of the newly formed territory for the sake of a “democratic state,” and “the development of a sound national spirit.” And the text adds: “This systematic cultivation of national spirit is particularly required in a country like Syria, which has only recently come to self-consciousness.” Self-consciousness is what would ultimately lead to self-government (p. 21 in The Israel–Arab Reader, fifth edition).

What we can retain thus far from the awareness of the Commission apropos the uniqueness of a historical situation of the formation of “nationalisms” that have only recently come to self-consciousness is that the newly formed nation-states are fragile and always in danger. The process of their coming into being could be aborted for the simple reason that they are “imagined communities,” as Benedict Anderson would say, which implies the formation of a vernacular culture in support of nationalism.

What happened in the decades following the demise of the Ottoman Empire and the end of colonial rule is the establishment of nation-states that for the most part are autocratic at best. How to deal with troubled nation-states—or the existence of states with “nations” divided among many ethnic lines and loyalties—is what has preoccupied US foreign policy since WWII and without much success. The problem has only gotten worse with “states” and “nations” falling apart since the Arab revolts in 2011–12. Not only the nation-state has become an impossibility, but the hyphen between “nation” and “state” seems irreversibly lost. The situation is new, but also as old as the problems that have emerged with the fall of the Ottomans and colonialism.

There are several chapters that are worth exploring in this regard, beginning with Israel’s declaration of independence in May 1948; the Free Officers’ revolution in Egypt in 1952; the overthrow of Moṣaddegh in 1953; the nationalization of the Suez canal and the tripartite war against Egypt in 1956; the Iranian revolution and the hostage crisis at the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979–1980. One could add other episodes, in particular the coming of the Baath in Syria and Iraq in 1963.

In the 1950s as the United Kingdom was reluctantly acknowledging the end of empire, the US was filling the vacuum in the Middle East. But while the British had an 80,000-man garrison in Suez, the American method of influence was no troops on the ground. More importantly, the US supported any ruler that could bring order at home, leaders as diverse as the Shah of Iran, Nasser, Saddam Hussein, or Syria’s Asad. There was that attitude of accommodating oneself to such leaders, as long as they were not overtly hostile to US interests, in an era when terrorism was not there yet. There was no concern at the time, nor is there any concern in the present, as to what kind of nation-state was in the process of formation. As the concept of Realpolitik became fashionable in the 1970s, dictatorships could be “authorized” as long as they kept order and civil peace inside. Nor was the existence of the Israeli “model” of nation-state, which stood side-by-side to other hostile state formations, scrutinized in terms of its originally western political roots: it was rather a fait accompli that could be useful for the stability of the region. The US became distracted by the issue of the “fairness” and legitimacy of Israeli existence, and the parallel issue of Palestinian rights, both of which were projections from neighboring Arab states. With the stability of the region perceived in relation to “full” Palestinian rights for an autonomous state, if not the right of full return, the US took it for granted that a stable peace means overall stability.

But now, with the excitement of the Arab Spring behind us, such concerns seem not only out of hand, but we’re back to where we had originated with the fall of the Ottomans, namely, the question of the nation-state. It is impossible to understand the “success” of the Israeli state since its inception without looking at how the ideology of “Jewish labor” was formulated in the 1880s and later at the turn of the century.

In the last century, since Sykes–Picot and the King–Crane Commission, we can detect the following discursive formations in US foreign policy towards the middle east. I understand discursive formation in relation of what things could be stated under specific circumstances. Discourse is a space that organizes language at a historical juncture. It tells us how things are linguistically structured, and how such structures have been historically shifting.

In US middle eastern foreign policy several topoi have emerged since WWI:

Self-determination and the emerging nationalisms have become prominent with the dismemberment and demise of the Ottomans. The coming of nationalisms assumes autonomous nationhood and statehood, jointly understood as the formation of an autonomous nation-state. Autonomous in the aftermath of WWI means that the nascent nation-state should be free of western (or other) “tutelage” or colonialism or imperialism. The King–Crane Commission for one forcefully argued that in the transition from Ottoman rule to autonomous nationalism there should be a Mandate and a Mandatory power that would ease the process of self-determination (which should be taken in relation to an international right of national existence). What remains uncertain was the concept of “nationalism,” used in the context of “Syria” in its plurality as “nationalisms,” without any further elaboration as to what stands as “nationalism” in a context of multiple ethno–nationalisms, as we refer to them today. Should the Kurds, Armenians, Christians, Druze, Alawis, etc., be considered different brands of “nationalisms” that should “melt” into some kind of political “Syrian” entity? [Careful examination of the text of the King–Crane Commission versus Arab texts: the Syrian delegation in Paris.] Self-determination is the discourse espoused by Woodrow Wilson and his administration: it simply states the melting-pot of empires has ceased to exist and that nationhood has emerged all over the world and is not anymore the privilege of the rich and the powerful. Beyond that, self-determination is remarkably deficient at elaborating on transitions—from empire to nation-state—and even more so on the melting of “nationalisms”—or ethno-nationalisms—into one coherent nation-state. This was a question that was a left-over, and over which British and French had to struggle with in their respective Mandates over Iraq, Palestine, Transjordan, Syria, and Lebanon.

That was the kind of discourse maintained by the US until WWII. By that time, the above countries had gained their independence, and new problems began to emerge. When the Truman administration recognized the state of Israel in 1948, as the former Soviet Union did, US foreign-policy discourse was still operating under the banner of self-determination, but with a twist: the western and eastern Jews which constituted the bulk of the population of the newly formed Jewish state were not for the most part an outcome of the demise of the Ottoman political framework. As they “competed” for nationhood with the “native” “Palestinians,” they were able to formulate their own Jewish nation-state. With the Truman administration, therefore, the novelty consisted at giving “privileges” to a particular nation-state: one that was to be democratic and prosperous, and western friendly. [cf. Balfour declaration]

The real challenge, however, was not placed in the Israel’s declaration of independence, nor in the Israeli–Palestinian–Arab conflict for that matter. What in the Woodrow Wilson era was aptly labeled “national self-determination” became more of a reality in the 1950s with post-colonialism and the end of the British empire. Neither Eisenhower nor his fervently anti-communist secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, understood this transition from British to American hegemony in strictly geopolitical terms. However, national self-determination was the beginning of a long and confusing line of biased politics. It took several decades, with the Camp David agreements, to finally acknowledge some form of national self-determination for the Palestinians. The US successfully plotted in 1953 to overthrow the democratically elected Muhammad Moṣaddegh in Iran who was undermining the shah’s authority; yet at the same time it saw credibility in Nasser’s emerging pan-Arab nationalism.

The roots of America’s Mideast delusion are not so much in having taken sides by recognizing the existence of Israel under the Truman administration, but at an inability to see what the likes of Nasser were fermenting across the region. Nasser’s politics consisted at capitalizing on the logic of civil war in countries that were weak on the rule of law and civil society, and where social networks, which were kin based, were meant to protect “society” from an obtrusive state. It was not the logic of pan-Arabism that Nasser was asserting as norm, but rather a hegemonic rule where weak states were held hostage to more assertive ones. In the ill-fated Union with Syria, for example, what became the “northern province” under the Union saw its political and military infrastructures undermined in favor of the “southern Egyptian province.” By bargaining on civil war and weak states, Nasser created the practice of ruling by weakening the adversary. The real opponent wasn’t so much the state of Israel as the other Arab states, in their failed attempts to create normative post-Ottoman and post-colonial polities.

At first sight, it seems incomprehensible that the US would undermine the authority of Moṣaddegh in Iran, while favoring Nasser as a hero of self-determination. The truth dawned—but slowly. When Nasser executed his master stroke, nationalizing the Suez Canal in July 1956—Egypt’s declaration of independence—Britain demanded that Washington join it and France in what became the tripartite Suez war against Egypt. Eisenhower demurred, thinking that he would alienate Arab public “street” opinion, only to realize that Nasser was the big beneficiary of the war, and began purchasing weapons from the Russians.

The Nasser episode, his so-called pan-Arabism, nationalism, and self-determination, the fiasco of the Suez war, not to mention the “restitution” of the shah’s authority over that of Moṣaddegh, would in toto point to the imbroglio that American foreign policy would find itself into up to presidents Bush and Obama. With nationalism and self-determination waning in the background, the US would stand with the “strong man,” even if that implies inconsistent policies.

Other episodes come to light here: the six-day war; the Iranian revolution; Lebanon’s civil war and Israel’s intervention in 1982; the Camp–David agreements and Sadat’s assassination; etc. Perhaps it is too easy to speak of inconsistencies. In all those chapters (failed or successful) US intervention, whatever its merits or failures, was done off-hand from a distance. That is the major change with Afghanistan and Iraq.

I want to explore such inconsistencies in the chapter on Afghanistan, which is the forgotten episode of the current presidential election.

Let us divide US foreign policy into four periods based on the economic performance of the US.

1.     from Sykes–Picot and King–Krane to WWII and the recognition of the state of Israel in 1948.
2.     from WWII to 1973 and the Yom Kippur war. This is the 30-year period which for the US and Europe and probably the world at large has witnessed the ultimate economic prosperity fuelled by rebuilding economies after the massive war destruction. The changes were infrastructural due to a redirecting to the war industries to civilian ones.
3.     from 1973 and the Iranian revolution up to 9/11.
4.     from 9/11 and the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Arab uprisings, and the coming of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

What are the advantages of a periodization that looks at US foreign policy in the middle east (and the world at large) in relation to US internal growth (development) and economic performance?

The first period witnessed a collapse of the financial and monetary system and the recession of the 1930s which saw the coming of the new-deal. It was WWII that finally turned the economy over. This was the aftermath of Sykes–Picot, when British and French created the borders of the middle east and the emerging economies of the nation-states. Like all emerging economies it was a period of robust growth in spite of the recession in the US and Europe, which was propelled by urbanization and the growth of public services. Middle Eastern societies would remain however by and large overwhelmingly agrarian, with all kind of industrial plans that will have a hard time to take off. With British and French colonization, the US had little to propose politically and economically. The recognition of the state of Israel in 1948 should not be overestimated and looked upon as ushering a new era in foreign policy. It rather comes as an attempt to fill out the vacuum left over by the British in the aftermath of their withdrawal in 1947.

The second period is more interesting politically and the most prosperous economically, but it also marks all the impasses and accusations of American-centrism, racism, and colonialism that US foreign policy has stepped into. That’s when the US finally takes over from British and French colonialism and establishes itself as a world power in the cold war era. Unprecedented productivity growth around the world made the Golden Age possible. In the 25 years that ended in 1973, the amount produced in an hour of work roughly doubled in the US and Canada, tripled in Europe and quintupled in Japan. Unemployment in industrial countries was unknown.

It was in this period of prosperity that confronted middle eastern countries in their postcolonial experience. Postcolonialism is more than a time frame denoting national independence, as the national élites were still operating within the framework of colonialism, of societies that were hostile to the emerging states, of economies that were subdued to the world order, and of stumbling industrialization plans. The stability and prosperity of the industrialized world is faced with turmoil on the eastern Mediterranean and the middle east. This is the era where the colonial national élites were to be run over by military dictatorships, beginning with the free officers in Egypt in 1953; Iraq in 1958; Syria in 1963; Libya in 1969; and the Iran in the aftermath of the revolution of 1978–79. Not to mention the Yom Kippur in 1973 which marks the end of three decades of western prosperity. Both the Iranian revolution and Yom Kippur went “unforeseen” by the CIA and other intelligence agencies.

The US took side with the shah of Iran against the democratically elected Moṣaddegh. It then forced its hand on the shah in 1963 in what became known as the “white revolution,” whereby the long awaited agrarian reforms meant distributing land to lower classes and peasants from the small group of large landowners. Such reforms were already under way since the late 1950s in Egypt, Iraq, and Syria. The militarization of the régimes in such societies did not seem to have much troubled the US. Indeed, there are many that the US “encouraged,” if not fully supported, the first military coup in Syria in 1949; that it saw in Nasser a populist “national” much better rooted than the defunct monarchy that he overthrew; that even the pro-British Hashemite monarchy in Iraq did not merit much praise. What has emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, the first two decades of American power, is probably not much different from the kind of discourse that became predominant in Latin America in the same period and later: namely, there was that submission to right-wing military “populist” dictatorships, on the basis that they would stop any possible communist threat; maintain a neoliberal economy; and fully open up to the industrial west. More specifically, in the case of Arab countries bordering Israel, populist military régimes would also accept the existence of the Jewish state. Such beliefs, however, would not stand for a long time. Nasser for one was staunchly anti-communist (even in his brief tenure on Syria under the Union), but this did not prevent him to buy arms from the former Soviet bloc and become one of their many allies. From Nasser to Saddam Hussein the US has learned how to be disillusioned: those were dictators that were neither popular nor western friendly, nor did they implement liberal strategies. They were simply good survivors, who locked all communists and other activists at home, but nevertheless bought all their weapons from the former Soviet Bloc. Needless to say, it is the collapse of such order, which the US did not create, but which it de facto accepted, that sits at the heart of the current uprisings.

Nasser had duped Eisenhower. “Nasser proved to be a complete stumbling block,” Eisenhower confided to his diary as his Arab–Israeli peace efforts failed. “He is apparently seeking to be acknowledged as the political leader of the Arab world.” He has concluded “he should just make speeches, all of which breathe defiance of Israel.”

Herein lies one of the biggest misplaced fallacies of American politics, namely, the thought, which comes from Arab leaders and their militarized régimes in the first place, that the Arab–Palestinian–Israeli problem constitutes the prime conundrum in middle eastern politics; finding a solution to the “Palestinian state” would undermine all kinds of hurdles in the Arab world, perhaps bring social welfare and equity at a larger scale on the long run. By the time the second Bush was president, and in the wake of 9/11, such “optimism” gave way to something much more radical. The problem is not the absence of a Palestinian state (its very existence could pose more problems), nor is it Islam, but nation-building, failed economies, and the radicalization of Islam for specific purposes. Nations have to be built from the bottom up, with their social institutions carefully monitored for the sake of more egalitarian political institutions. The financing of the new wars, in their military and civil portfolios, is an offshoot of the transformation of the international financial system in 1971 when overseas military spending forced the US dollar off gold. US Treasury bonds had become a proxy for gold, which were supplied by the US economy running a balance-of-payments deficit.

The 1973 oil crisis meant more than just gasoline lines and lower thermostats. It shocked the world economy. But it wasn’t the price of gasoline that brought the long run of global prosperity to an end. It just diverted attention from a more fundamental problem: Productivity growth had slowed sharply. The economic crisis of the industrial world has opened up national frontiers to globalization. The cultured financial and industrial élites would seek projects beyond their national and nationalistic borders in favor of capital accumulation worldwide. This non-commitment at the national level would institute an inside rift between a populist streak at home and successful international business. Right-wing movements (some of which are plainly xenophobic) which have become more common in Europe in the last decade and in the US as well, are hangovers from the 1980s decline. Neither Carter’s pessimism not Reagan’s optimistic supply-side tax cuts will bring post-war productivity levels. It is such atmosphere of great depression that the US will live the Iranian debacle, Lebanon’s civil war, the unpopularity of the Camp David agreements, and, last but not least, September 11.

In spite of the dot.com boom of the 1990s, George W. Bush became president at a time when neoliberalism was experimenting in various ways to catch up with post-war productivity, while deregulation, privatization, lower tax rates, balanced budgets and rigid rules for monetary policy, have become normative for the industrialized nations and the world at large, imposed by the likes of the IMF and the World Bank as the sine qua non for international loans and to indebted nations.

It was in such atmosphere of strained productivity and growth that president Bush would risk two major wars abroad. Even though Bush Sr. had already broken the golden rule of a hands-off approach towards the middle east in the liberation of Kuwait, it was indeed the younger Bush that will usher a new ground with the full occupation of two sovereign countries.

Obama’s failed legacy in Afghanistan

With the emergence of ISIS and the battle of Mosul (and possibly Raqqa) in the foreground, not to mention the Syrian wars, Afghanistan is hardly mentioned these days—not even in the presidential campaign. Even “smaller wars” like Yemen and Libya have eclipsed the American involvement in Afghanistan to the point that what is going on over there, after over a decade of investment, hardly matters at all.

The legacy in Afghanistan, like Obama’s foreign policy record as a whole, is troubled at best. At points he had the elements of the right approach—more troops, more reconstruction assistance, and a counterinsurgency strategy—but he never gave them the time and resources to succeed. Obama came into office rightly arguing that the war was important but had been sidelined, and promised to set it aright. Yet Obama’s choices since 2009 reflect a more conflicted stance, and it is not clear he ever settled on a coherent strategy. He deployed more troops than needed for a narrow counterterrorism operation, but not enough for a broader counterinsurgency campaign. He initially increased reconstruction funding because he believed, rightly, that effective Afghan governance was an essential condition for victory, but quickly second-guessed himself and subsequently reduced civilian aid every year thereafter. Most damagingly, Obama insisted on the public issuance of a withdrawal deadline for US troops, undermining his own surge—which eventually became so obvious that he finally reversed himself. Obama’s belated decision to sustain a small force of some 5,500 troops in Afghanistan beyond his term in office is likely to keep the Afghan army in the field and the Taliban from outright victory—but this is at low bar compared to what Obama once hoped to achieve there.

The good war: 2007–09

Before leaving office president Bush argued in a favor of a report for a more counterinsurgency effort, including more troops and civilian resources.

The report found a receptive audience because Obama had been making the same case from the earliest days of his campaign. He wrote in Foreign Affairs in 2007, “We must refocus our efforts on Afghanistan and Pakistan—the central front in our war against al Qaeda—so that we are confronting terrorists where their roots run deepest.” In July 2008, in a major speech on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he rightly noted the situation in Afghanistan as “deteriorating” and “unacceptable.” He promised, “As president, I will make the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban the top priority that it should be. This is a war that we have to win.” He pledged to deploy at least two additional brigades and spend an additional $1 billion in civilian assistance every year.

It is no surprise therefore than when he took office Obama pledged in March 2009 “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda and its safe havens in Pakistan, and to prevent their return to Pakistan or Afghanistan.” His policy explicitly committed the US to “promoting a more capable, accountable, and effective government in Afghanistan,” which required “executing and resourcing an integrated civilian-military counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan.” In light of this, he ordered 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan, quadrupled the number of US diplomats and aid workers, and increased civilian assistance by an impressive $2 billion from 2009 to 2010.

The turn: 2009

In summer 2009 violence worsened dramatically, as insurgent attacks increased by a staggering 65 percent compared to the previous summer, and that year 355 US soldiers were killed in Afghanistan, more than double the previous year. Add to this the mistrust and disrespect that the Obama administration nurtured towards Afghani president Hamid Karzai.

But the event that had the most dramatic impact on the new Administration’s view of the war was the initial assessment of the new Commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), General Stanley McChrystal, in August 2009. He warned that the current situation will undermine US credibility and embolden the insurgents. He called for 80,000 more troops to maximize chances of success; or 40,000, with medium risk. He also developed a third option: deploying just 20,000 more troops and abandoning counterinsurgency in favor of a leaner counterterrorism mission with high risk.

McChrystal’s report, his request for more troops, and the cost of the war appalled the Obama Administration and triggered a major reassessment. But it is unclear why Obama reacted the way he did. The crises of 2009 would not have unsettled a more experienced Administration.

Obama’s attempt was only to compromise, which only led to strategic incoherence. First, he ordered another surge, this time of 30,000 troops, bringing the total to more than 100,000 by mid-2010—far more than required for a narrow counterterrorism operation. Afghanistan, the third-largest military operation since Vietnam, had definitely become Obama’s war. But Obama deployed far fewer troops than McChrystal recommended for a counterinsurgency campaign. In contrast to his campaign rhetoric, Obama spent the rest of his presidency carefully avoiding saying that the US aimed to “defeat” the Taliban or “win” the war. The aim was narrower than resourced counterinsurgency or nation building. It wasn’t until May 2014 that Obama finally set a deadline—by the end of 2016—to withdraw all US forces from Afghanistan. According to an account by Bob Woodward, Obama stated in an internal deliberation that “I can’t lose all the Democratic Party… And people at home don’t want to hear we’re going to be there for ten years… We can’t sustain support at home and with allies without having some explanation that involves timelines.” Obama was right about one thing: The Democratic Party solidly opposed the surge and supported the deadline. By 2011 Obama decided to exit even if the job was far from complete, even if there was no guarantee that gains made in the past decade could last.

The surge worked. Fatalities of US troops began to decline in 2011, and the number of Afghan civilians killed in the war declined in 2012 for the first time. Poppy cultivation appeared to be holding steady well below its 2007, while opium production plummeted in 2012. However, by the be beginning of 2013, the withdrawal was well underway: There were 65,000 US troops in Afghanistan at the start of 2013; 40,000 in 2014; and just 9,800 in 2015.

We will take out ISIS

Iraq represents another one of those missed opportunities, even more aggravating than that of Afghanistan. This is a country with more resources than Afghanistan, with an oil wealth and an urban and educated population. Women are an important part of the labor force, and have more freedom in public. Yet, it is very much divided along sectarian and religious and regional lines. American occupation, like that of Afghanistan, involved the ambitious operation of nation-building. But to keep up with his campaign promises, and in order not to alienate the Democratic Party any further, Obama withdrew all US troops by December 2011. With the surge of ISIS in 2014–15 and its control of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, American special operation forces are back as “partners” to the Iraqi army, police, and security forces. The number could be around 5,000.

There is a reason why the Afghani war, and the advances of the Taliban, have no place in the current presidential campaign. We’ve seen Obama avoiding in his two-term as president the language of “winning” a war against the Taliban, not to mention nation building, which has dropped from usage in the Obama administration. Instead we have a more diffuse language of a status quo ante, of simply letting the survival of the Afghani régime, its army, police, and security apparatuses as they are. Nothing more, nothing less.

When it comes to Iraq in the grammars of the current presidential campaign, the language now is to “win” the war against ISIS, but nonetheless without much deployment of US troops there.

Watch Hillary Clinton discuss her plan for Iraq in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks in November 2015.
Mrs. Clinton said that “to be successful, airstrikes will have to be combined with ground forces actually taking back more territory from ISIS.” But, mindful that her 2002 vote to authorize force in Iraq largely contributed to her loss in the 2008 Democratic primary, she was quick to say these should be local Sunni troops, and “we cannot substitute for them.”
“Like President Obama, I do not believe that we should again have 100,000 American troops in combat in the Middle East,” she said.
Similarly, she called for more air power, but only in cooperation with Persian Gulf allies. And she acknowledged in a question-and-answer session that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had halted their air attacks on the Islamic State to focus instead in Yemen.
The 100,000 figure seems revealing: that was the number in troops in Afghanistan by mid-2010, and Obama began their withdrawal in 2013. Clinton not only seems to be in line with Obama on possible troop deployment, but she also consolidates a dogma of the DP on the mission of Americans abroad. There is a war to be “won”—a vocabulary that was dropped regarding the Taliban—and this could be done through “partnership” with the Iraqi, Iranians, Russians, and whoever wants to join in—as long as there is this common enemy called ISIS. The unsaid has more importance than what is actually said: no one knows for sure how the “liberated” territories will be “governed” once the war is “won.” How can a “coalition” of “partners” with different agendas and economies form a system of “governance” in the aftermath of ISIS. But a more intriguing question is, Will there be an aftermath to ISIS? There could be a linguistic rollover from the Taliban to ISIS: sooner rather than later we could witness a wavering to the claim of “winning” over ISIS. If ISIS is not simply an organization of terror, but a dense nexus of social relations, can ISIS be “defeated”?

Does the expression “defeating ISIS” means anything?

The debate we are not having in the campaign, we will continue not to have, how to foster a modern state that doesn’t metastasize corruption, cronyism, élites helping themselves? That would bring us away from defeating presumed “enemies.”

The debate on the Iraqi disaster usually lingers on that other disaster—Syria. Iraq and Syria now look “connected” for no other reason but their common Islamic State rule. But here the Obama’s presidency is total passivity. Since the early years of the war, particularly in 2012–13 when the Asad régime began using an air-technology known as explosive barrels, various opposition groups and humanitarian agencies have requested that the US and NATO begin implementing a no-fly zone at least in the north, in the Idlib and Aleppo provinces.

Clinton in November 2015, based on the NYT
Expanding on her previous call for a no-fly zone, Mrs. Clinton said it should be limited to northern Syria, where Turkey has proposed a buffer zone to protect civilians, and enforced by many countries. That, she said, “will confront a lot of our partners in the region and beyond about what they are going to do.”
She took a particularly hard line against Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations who she said had been complicit in the rise of the Islamic State. “Once and for all, the Saudis, the Qataris and others need to stop their citizens from directly funding extremist organizations,” Mrs. Clinton said.
The core of Mrs. Clinton’s argument for a faster, more aggressive military operation was her contention that it would reinforce Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomatic effort to negotiate a cease-fire, and ultimately a political solution, in Syria. Administration officials said it closely resembled the arguments Mr. Kerry has made to Mr. Obama — but Mr. Kerry has not yet persuaded the president, who remains hesitant about the risk of being sucked into a ground war.
Asked whether Mr. Obama had underestimated the Islamic State when he referred to the group as the “J.V. team,” Mrs. Clinton said, “I don’t think it’s useful to go back and replow old ground.”
But in a new break with the administration’s stated policy, Mrs. Clinton declared what some White House officials have privately said for months: that the fight in Syria is no longer about ousting President Bashar al-Assad.
“We had an opportunity, perhaps,” for a regime change, Mrs. Clinton said. But given the current circumstances, she added, “We need to get people to turn against the common enemy of ISIS.”
In saying so, Mrs. Clinton seemed to align her strategic approach more closely with those of Russia and Iran, who are backing Mr. Assad, though she criticized both nations in her speech Thursday.
Let us note a couple of things in this regard. First of all, in what seemed back then in November 2015, in the wake of the Paris attacks, like a campaign promise to get tougher on Syria, is already obsolete. Back then the Russian involvement was only a few months old and aimed at “maintaining the Asad régime,” as the reference to the “Syrian state” goes. But since then the Russian (not to mention Iranian) involvement has gotten much deeper to the point that eastern Aleppo has been annihilated, and the small Russian naval base in the Mediterranean city of Tarṭūs is being expanded into a permanent base. So, ironically, for the Russians too it is not longer a question of ousting Asad or maintaining him—that’s the common ground with the Americans—but it’s about Russian power in Syria and the middle east at large. US passiveness was a conduit to Russian expansiveness. The fact that ISIS is our common enemy and that Russians and Iranians are with us on this one is pure nonsense. What is never enunciated is what kind of state and society are at work in those civil war countries.

In the second presidential debate Clinton reiterated her position.

We’re making progress. Our military is assisting in Iraq. And we’re hoping that within the year we’ll be able to push ISIS out of Iraq and then, you know, really squeeze them in Syria.
But we have to be cognizant of the fact that they’ve had foreign fighters coming to volunteer for them, foreign money, foreign weapons, so we have to make this the top priority.
And I would also do everything possible to take out their leadership. I was involved in a number of efforts to take out Al Qaida leadership when I was secretary of state, including, of course, taking out bin Laden. And I think we need to go after Baghdadi, as well, make that one of our organizing principles. Because we’ve got to defeat ISIS, and we’ve got to do everything we can to disrupt their propaganda efforts online.

The entire logic when it comes to ISIS and al-Qaʿida, and previously the Taliban, is that they’re presented as a cancer that metastases “outside” society, so that we can killed them and kill their leadership too. But that’s the kind of language that was adopted for the Taliban and then was dropped under Obama. Will ISIS follow?

In the same debate Trump responded the following.

Well, first I have to say one thing, very important. Secretary Clinton is talking about taking out ISIS. “We will take out ISIS.” Well, President Obama and Secretary Clinton created a vacuum the way they got out of Iraq, because they got out — what, they shouldn’t have been in, but once they got in, the way they got out was a disaster. And ISIS was formed.
So she talks about taking them out. She’s been doing it a long time. She’s been trying to take them out for a long time. But they wouldn’t have even been formed if they left some troops behind, like 10,000 or maybe something more than that. And then you wouldn’t have had them.
Or, as I’ve been saying for a long time, and I think you’ll agree, because I said it to you once, had we taken the oil — and we should have taken the oil — ISIS would not have been able to form either, because the oil was their primary source of income. And now they have the oil all over the place, including the oil — a lot of the oil in Libya, which was another one of her disasters.

Trump’s strength is on the “getting out” of Iraq, but to do this, he’ll have to constantly deny that he ever requested any US involvement in Iraq, in spite to contrary evidence. But the whole debate on whether either candidate endorsed the occupation in 2002–03 or later is a misplaced argument. What matters is that the withdrawal in December 2011 should not have happened at all, in spite of the fact that staying in Iraq would have been unpopular for both Democrats and Republicans.

Notice here for both candidates the “taking out” of ISIS and their leadership (and also the Qaʿida and Taliban). The logic of the bipartisan discourse of “taking out” so-called terrorist groups, be it the Islamic State, the Qaʿida, and the Taliban (in their distinct metamorphoses between Afghanistan and Pakistan), which has the power image of a surgical operation which can separate cancerous cells from their healthy background, does in fact suggest that terrorist groups can be indeed separated from their background. Such discourse tends to isolate, in the case of ISIS, for example, how the group came into being in Iraq (before expanding to Syria) in the middle of a failed and struggling US occupation of the country, when the Iraqi army and its intelligence services have been totally disbanded in order to reshape all security apparatuses into something more robust and cohesive, something that would make more sense for a modern state. In short, is it possible to understand the likes of the Islamic State without going over the troubled history of Iraq from the end of Ottoman rule, to the Hashemite dynasty, and the various military coups from 1958 and on that undid whatever the monarchy attended to do. What is crucial for our purposes here is the suppression of Shiʿa politics and political parties under the Baath, and then the coming of the groups from their exiles once the Americans occupied the country. It is not enough to claim, however, that the coming of the likes of Zarqāwī and Baghdādī was an “outcome” of the disbandment of the Iraqi army and its intelligence apparatuses. The claim that “the Americans made the Islamic State possible” comes with own pretensions and fallacies. What needs to be examined is the infrastructure of the Iraqi state under the Baath in relation to the (predominantly) Sunni groups that it had fostered and others it had suppressed, Sunni opposition, Kurds, Shiʿa, or otherwise.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

the real in montage


We want for our purposes to distinguish between three periods in the evolution of cinema as art in relation to what constitutes the “real” in the process of montage.

The first period is that of silent (speechless) cinema, when sound was not there yet: the 1920s and 1930s. Germans and Russians and Americans had made great contributions before the addition of sound effects. The Russian Sergei Eisenstein and the American Griffith come to mind here. In the case of Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein (1898–1948), he became known for his montage techniques in The Battleship Potemkin (1925), a commemoration of the Russian Revolution of 1905, which is celebrated for its pioneering use of montage. To think of montage is to think of cinema in relation to images and imagery. In silent movies language is introduced through frame-captions which carries dialogue, monologue, descriptions, or the ruminations of a chorus-narrator.

The second period—the 1940s—when sound cinema becomes the norm. Montage is not enough; narrative becomes predominant; but such predominance is only achieved through the work of the camera: reality appears as such in the way it is framed. Hence rather than pure imagery we’re into realism, or the absorption of reality into the work of the camera. This is the period that stretches from Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, and the adoption of the depth-of-field, to that of Italian neorealism. The 1940s and 1950s witness a rapid maturation of the realist style.

Claims of various New Waves in particular among the French (nouvelle vague) and the Germans has proven a bit premature, as there is no radical break between what the 1960s have achieved and the previous decades when sound was introduced in the 1930s and 1940s. We’ll therefore contextualize the new waves in terms of continuities rather discontinuities.

The third period has to be postponed to the 1970s. The irreversible death of Italian neorealism (marked by the premature death of Pasolini in 1975) which comes hand-in-hand with the predominance of a Hollywood revamped style of narration in the likes of Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, The Conversation), Martin Scorsese, and George Lukas (the Star Wars series). This comes in conjunction with the eclosion of artistic filmmaking beyond its traditional niches in Europe (Italy, France, Germany), Russia, and the United States of America. Filmmaking would expand to developing countries like Iran, Romania, Thailand, Turkey, Argentina, Korea, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, and Portugal. There is therefore a universalization of film-as-art far beyond its traditional restricted European and American frontiers. Indeed, as European cinema has become provincialized, the American cinema has maintained its world hegemony, only to be challenged by marginal styles of resistance from Korea to Iran and beyond.

Since its inception, cinema works with images. An image represents things—a reality—in a two-dimensional pane (in the last decade a three-dimensional perspective has been added). But the image itself is not a representation per se: the image is the representation that has been added to the represented thing. The represented object (being) is represented in a particular manner through framing, depth of field (or lack thereof), the distribution of light, color (or lack thereof: black-and-white photography), the décor and the makeup and dress outfits of the actors (whether professional or not). We’ll refer to all this as the plasticity of the image, by which is meant the power of the image to represent things through a system of representations that holds representation in relation to the represented being.

Besides the image, the second element that makes a film possible is the montage. By this we mean the organization of the imagery, as defined above, within time-space sequences. It is such time-space organization that creates meaning for the spectator: the spectator reads a film through its montage; whereby she would discover meaning in montage itself. In the same way that the novel as a literary device is organized around plots, characters, and one or more narrators that would shape its general narrative and sub-narratives, the narrative of film (a film’s narrative) comes to light through montage.

A film typically consists of frame-sequences, which could be short (just few seconds long), or long (long takes that could last for minutes without a single forced cut), and the montage is precisely the very organization of those frame-sequences into something meaningful. It is such organization that creates meaning for the spectator. The spectator-as-subject discovers his subjectivity in the very act of creating meaning from the process of montage. What is at stake here is the subjectivity of the spectator: how such subjectivity affirms itself through the process of montage. How the spectator reads certain scenes individually, assembles them into a bigger meaning: a process of power-knowledge unfolds; knowledge consists of discourses that document how things are done, and the subjects who do them. The film-montage assumes a place (space) for the subject; the subject whose capacity is to read the montage and find meaning. The ability to read, to discover and create meaning, is like other artworks (the closest of which is undeniably the novel), an infinite process which is rooted in the subjectivity of the spectator. The spectator, however, is enmeshed in power-knowledge relations; relations that are mediated by discourses and discursive formations. The spectator finds himself as subject through such discursive formations. The latter do not necessarily emanate from a subject, but create a space (location) for the subject-as-spectator.

How does the spectator read? In the fragmentation of time-sequences, the only purpose is to create meaning from the materiality of the image, its logic, and dramatis personae of the characters. The image does not show the event; it is only pointed at, or at best alluded to. Meaning is not created from an objective content (assuming such a thing does exist), but from the organization of the elements-events, which are only alluded to in the first place. The meaning is not inside (within) the image, but in what is done to the image, that is to say, the process of montage. What is important in the image is not what it adds to reality, but what is revealed through montage. Each frame is constructed through a narrative-discursive hub: from the basic framing, the depth-of-field, the light, the actors, to elaborate narratives. The key point is to understand the construction of imagery and montage through the narrative-discursive complex and the place of the subject in interpretation (hermeneutics of the self).

In sum, we want to explore montage as a discursive and non-discursive practice. There are several practices at stake here, all of which constituted within the political web of power and knowledge. To look at montage as practice means that we are looking at montage as politically constructed: how montage is made in the process of working with images. It is how the work of images is concretely practiced that reveals the political edge of montage as a web of power and knowledge relations and as a mode of subjectivation and form of governmentality.

By the time sound comes into the picture silent cinema had already matured into an nascent young art, as it had already mastered the combination of working with imagery and montage. The period between 1930 and 1940 will for its part witness the first wave of mature sound movies in particular in the USA, France, and Germany, followed by a second wave in the 1940s and 1950s. What is of interest to us in this regard is a new look at reality, in particular in Italian neorealism as pioneered by the likes of Vittorio de Sica and Roberto Rossellini.

The 1940s and 50s have undeniably witnessed another age of maturity in filmmaking, not only in relation to the silent era but also from the perspective of the 1930s. We want to examine one style in particular which evolved in postwar Italy known as “neo-realism.” What is the “real” in neo-realism, and how does that real introduce new elements of construction in the art of montage and imagery?

The real in Middle Eastern Cinéma

Documentary vs. fiction. The Iranian films have blurred the classical distinction between “documentary” and “fiction.” The post-Fascist era of Italian neorealism, beginning with Rossellini’s Rome Open City, has famously introduced “documentary”-style shooting in scenes incorporated within larger fictional narratives. The so-called “documentary” style consisted on a reliance on non-professional actors, genuine locations (e.g. street scenes), and long takes with fixed or hand-held cameras. It also implied, albeit very partially, the non-existence of a fully developed scripted narrative. Either narratives would be very sketchy, or else “action” per se and the chronology of events would be relegated to a secondary role. But by the time neorealism had matured, it had everything into it but the “documentary” claim. Thus, both Antonioni’s “existential” ennui style, and Pasolini’s thematic abstractionism, had foregone much of the documentary aspect of neorealism. It is well known that Antonioni, who had in the past filmed documentaries, repeatedly stated his sense of the inadequacy of such formal structure in its neorealistic vision, which in Italy had found in Rossellini its most inventive representative. The reason why I bring the dilemmas of Italian neorealism in relation to contemporary Iranian cinema is because of similarities in the documentary versus fiction paradigm. On one hand, Iranian cinema introduced long shots (often with digital hand-held cameras) that look like mini-documentaries within broader fictional accounts. The street-based long-camera takes are in particular notoriously hard to embrace, as they cannot be cut and edited—they have to be repeated rather than edited (e.g. Panahi’s opening in the Circle). Herein lies their force: because they cannot be the subject of a traditional cut-and-paste editing, they place the spectator in an uncomfortable position of different expectations, while they breathe a fresh air into film. On the other hand, those mini-documentaries are not as “improvised” as it might first appear. As Kiarostami’s 10 shows, they could be as well crafted as films within traditional narratives and could even require more off-stage lengthy preparations with actors and camera equipment. In the final analysis, the major breakthrough might not be the “documentary” versus “fiction” dilemma, as much as a new way to practice montage. As the French critic André Bazin had already noted, the failure of montage lies in its decision to pre-interpret, through the syntagmatic order it elaborates, every narrative fiction. In other words, the essence lies in changing the rules of montage, and providing a fresh alternative to classical editing, while forcing the viewer to look differently (e.g. a long uninterrupted take, or when two people talk, the camera would hesitate to directly frame them, but frame something else—hors champs).

At a deeper level, some of these films (Kiarostami’s ABC Africa and The Wind Will Carry Us) recapitulate aspects of questioning the relationships that the filmmaker nurtures with his material, in particular the portrayed characters or the issues at stake (AIDS, suicide, the status of women). There is a moral, if not ethical and political, tension in some of these films between what ought to be shown, and what is expected to be depicted within the frame. For example, The Wind Will Carry Us portrays media people from the city arriving in a remote and impoverished village to wait for villagers to die. The moral dilemma, if any, of the main protagonist-cum-engineer in terms of what to show, what to conceal, what we can or cannot understand of the Other, are simultaneously those of the filmmaker himself who nurtures similar doubts as to the “viability” of his own enterprise—the very possibility of making a film about people he knows nothing about, and whose life style is so different from his own. Indeed, such questioning is not portrayed abstractly, as if could be read within the boundaries of each frame: what is inside the frame, and what remains excluded, concealed, hors-champs. There is that nagging feeling that it’s pornographic to show too much of whatever does not need to be shown, namely, that showing “too much” human suffering for the sake of it could imply gratuitous voyeurism. What is therefore at stake here is that the narrative process incessantly questions itself, and its own right of existence as narrative, from the inside. To elaborate, at times it is the very breakdown of the narrative into a non-narrative which provides a fresh opportunity for the viewer to question the possibility of narration as a linear coexistence of incompatible elements—to question what we see, and how we see. Says Kiarostami in relation to his minimalist approach in 10: “There are basically two kinds of storytelling. One’s direct, very eventful, like a serial. The other’s about looking at something and finding something in it for yourself…not a story, but something more…” (quoted in Geoff Andrew, 10, London: BFI, 2005, 57). Ultimately, the aim would be to think this film through the image—how the image works; how the film writes itself through the image—rather than through narrative and discourse. The critical tools, whereby the filmmaker distances himself from his work, are set within that work through the image, rather than in the narration itself. What is more than the story line, except for the writing of the image?

Narratives and micro-histories. The issue of “narratives” (or lack thereof) hence turns into a crucial topoi in conjunction with the documentary/fiction issue: Do Iranian films, as pioneered for instance by the likes of Kiarostami and Panahi, have any “narratives,” or are they constructed on other types of narratives? (The same questions could be raised in relation to the Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan, in particular Distant [Uzak, 2002].) I think that the issue of narrative may be as misleading as that of the documentary-style montage. In effect, the strength of Iranian films lies less in the structure of their narratives, or their presumed documentary style, than in the montage itself. It is, indeed, the montage that would promote particular scenes within a syntactic arrangement. For example, Jafar Panahi’s White Balloon is entirely constructed from the time framework of a small girl who is completely focused on recovering the object that she had lost that same day. In this case, the novelty is that the time of the movie coincides with the action’s real time—a couple of hours within the consciousness of a small girl. As everything is constructed from the eyes of a single protagonist, the spectator is left with no other perspective but that of the girl herself, which requires perhaps a different level of concentration and focus. Reliance on non-professional actors, in conjunction with a quasi-documentary style, improvisation and hand-held (digital) camera techniques, all give that whimsical impression that there is no constructed narrative. But that’s, I think, an illusion of montage. Actually, as witnessed in Kiarostami’s And the Wind Will Carry Us, and 10, there’s a great deal of formalisms deployed in the combination of narrative structure, acting, framing, and editing, all of which point to more premeditated than improvised techniques.

Political and social prohibitions. It is well known that since the 1978 revolution the Iranian cinema has operated within all sorts of constraints: women must wear a scarf or chador (“veil”), intimate/sexual scenes are forbidden, and the heritage of the Islamic revolution cannot be critiqued. Yet, in spite of all such political and social constraints, there is a great deal of freedom and experimentation in Iranian films. What is more paradoxical is that, by all accounts, the Iranian cinema has witnessed a golden era in comparison to the 1950s and 1960s first New Wave when Iran was under the “secular” régime of the Pahlavis. It seems therefore that Iranian cinema managed to operate even better—if not more freely—within its more “natural” setting of Shi‘i Islam. In other words, it is precisely the prohibitions imposed by an authoritarian Islamic régime that transformed Iranian cinema into a critical apparatus, far more trenchant in its observations than its more liberal Turkish or Israeli counterparts.