Expressions of Arab Modernity: Thought Processes and the Political

28 February, 2021

The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies has published Abd al-Salam Al-Masdi’s Expressions of Arab Modernity: Thought Processes and the Political, addressing issues arising from the functions of the public intellectual. It spotlights dedication to societal problems – as against currying favor to an employing authority through an obligatory neutrality and circumvention regarding the ruler and ruled. For any academic researcher, specialized scientist, or creative writer, such “neutrality” necessarily obviates the attribute of public intellectual.

In the first of the book’s eighteen chapters, Al-Masdi enumerates types of intellectuals: those who benefit from authority and whom society continues to recognize as intellectuals, and those who are affiliated with the authority, about whom society remains divided, with some people attentively attending to them while others turn away. There is the public intellectual who has no desire to oppose the authority; or the one who gratifies the masses, securing their support through opposition to the authority. Then there is who flirts with authority behind the public’s back; or who volunteers to fluctuate between interpreting the misgivings of the ruled to deciphering the intentions of the rulers, deeming it honorable to turn alternatively from creation of texts to penning marginalia, and so forth.

The second chapter takes up, inter alia: writing that addresses non-contemporary times; the question of the emergence of despots; and the theoretical debate that gave way to establishing a theory of the just despot. Al-Masdi asks: Do people manufacture their own tyrants, or do tyrants tame their people to obeisance and submission? Who makes whom? As he sees it, political despotism is a complex, intertangled and intermeshed phenomenon, described and analyzed by experts but with diagnosis usually only undertaken externally. Hence, the importance of individual testimonial through autobiography. When does an awareness of the phenomenon crystalize? How is a people’s consciousness of it formed? Why should any such consciousness be absent? The supremely critical question then is: upon becoming aware of the violent clash between their thought processes and political views, how does the public intellectual determine her own responsibility?

In the third chapter Al-Masdi posits that the accumulation of information – however manifold its sources or varied the outlets for its incorporation, information does not in itself represent an absolute value in the covenants of knowledge. Chapter Four describes how “the intellectual’s tragedy” begins with the conviction that the country’s system fulfills all the requirements of securing access to the institutions of civil life, with fair, equal weight accorded to thinkers and people who may be the decision makers. But the intellectual goes on to confront a stark, unnerving (and all too real) nightmare that all is oppression.

Chapter Five recounts how the sway of error in the realm of political action is much greater than in erroneous cultural reflections, intellectual achievement, or the production of knowledge, with far greater consequences. Discourse in the non-political realm is distinct from action generating an event. In Chapter Six, Al-Masdi contends that in the developing world, culture has always been a sacrificial lamb in the face of economic inconvenience, to the point that it is now abandoned at the slightest hint of international political conflict. Thus, the cultural realm shoulders the burden of the politic, becoming a locomotive driving incorporation of human identities within a new pre-emptive identity – one which is fundamentally a non-identity.

Chapter Seven discusses how free thought flourishes in a loop of exchange between the cultural and political realms, with freedom in this tentative overlap defined by the lack of a partisan harness; critical thought is neither subject to the dictates nor in the service of ideological sectarianism. In the following chapter, Al-Masdi discusses the concept of responsibility that derives its formative origins from spiritual wellsprings that religions have restricted to the binaries of reward and penalty fused in the concept of punishment. In Chapter Nine, Al-Masdi argues that ‘the intellectual in our Arab nation’ is entrusted with following political events and placing them under critical inspection; they plead for this trust to be carried out along committed, organic and critical intellectual lines. However, human development in its current trajectory of modernization has ended up assimilated - willingly or unwillingly - into globalized human society.

The tenth chapter deals with “Arab thought,” a concept typically ill-defined. For Al-Masdi, Arab thought means that the associated intellectual content was formulated in the Arabic language, engendering a civilizational-cultural affiliation through a “covenant” of linguistic engagement – notwithstanding all other possible criteria deriving from the attribute of “Arab.” Chapter Eleven addresses modernity, observing that in Western thought, substance and subject meld, with language serving their abundant – and occasionally exorbitant – productivity. In Chapter twelve, the author posits that the tragedy of language is not that human beings hold it to blame. Rather, the calamity is the human tendency to disregard the fellow human beings against whom we conspire – and in so doing divest language of its natural and unambiguous innocence, burdening it with overtones of deceit.

In chapter thirteen Al-Masdi asks how knowledge as the unadulterated product of science will meet with new global human realities taking shape on the political front and adapting to the economic map – and intellectual screen. He asks who is worthy of this task, what is the impact of knowledge on public cultural awareness, and culture’s imprint on one’s personal epistemic awareness. The fourteenth chapter takes up discussion of autobiographical writing, claiming that Taha Hussein’s al-Ayyam is a shining example of autobiography that comes to record a milieu’s history through an individual’s passages within it. In the fifteenth chapter Al-Masdi says that the value of memory appears in undifferentiated epistemic codification of knowledge’s journey through geography and history. The problem is that consequently people are overwhelmed by a cultural delusion which they persist in conceiving to be inviolable certainty.

In the sixteenth chapter, the author posits that any writing of the history of Arab modernity in the humanities and social sciences depends on establishing a transferable bridge between linguistics and rhetoric, the latter encompassing the sciences of text, poetry and prose. Chapter seventeen reiterates the virtues of the institution over the individual Arab intellectual. Finally, Al-Masdi concludes that writing autobiography is “arduous,” particularly if the critic “enjoys” an obsession with autobiography as a genre.

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