Five years after the Arab Spring: The Implosion of Social Movements?

This post was contributed by Dr Barbara Zollner, lecturer in Middle East Politics, Department of Politics. Here Dr Zollner offers an insight into issues to be discussed at a public colloquium at Birkbeck (“Five years after the Arab Spring: The Implosion of Social Movements?”) on Friday 10 June. The colloquium is run by Birkbeck Institute for Social Research

‘There is no freedom when you are in fear’; so goes the title strip of the song Akher Okhneya (Last Song) by the Egyptian music-group Cairokee. The rap, which is shot on a deserted railway-line in Cairo, echoes the feelings of many young Egyptians. The mass-movement against authoritarianism in Middle Eastern countries, commonly known as the Arab Spring, gave hope to their call for political and personal freedom.

Thousands joined the protest, but subsequently many saw themselves excluded from democracy-building. Fewer continue to dream of revolution today. The view of these shabab (literally, young people, but usually refers to the Tahrir movement) is that Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood ‘hijacked’ the prospect of political change. This led them to side with the Tamarrod movement against President Mursi, which in turn opened the door for al-Sisi’s military coup.

Now, five years after their Arab Spring, Egypt faces another authoritarian military regime under President al-Sisi that uses nationalist overtones to crush any social movement, any contentious politics, any dissent.

‘The beneficiary is the one who controls you, the one who’s making you passive, who’s dictating you where to go, the one who’s predominating you. They imprisoned you inside your mind, the bars are your fear. You are afraid to think free, because you are afraid they might catch you.’ Cairokee, Akher Oghniya

 

The future of democracy looks bleak

Egypt, although an obvious case, is not the only example that the hopes associated with the Arab Spring are crushed by new authoritarianism, civil war, ethnic and sectarian strife. All over the Middle East, whether in Gulf oil-monarchies, eastern-Mediterranean and north-African republics (with perhaps Tunisia as a remarkable exception) and even in constitutional monarchies, the future of democracy looks rather bleak.

Within this turmoil, social movements (SM) are severely restrained in their activities, yet they continue to shout HURIYYA – FREEDOM. It is these movements, that continue a struggle for political reform across the Middle East, that are the focal point for a one day colloquium at Birkbeck.

Despite considerable interest in the current regional crisis, there is surprisingly little systematic research on the responsibility of SMs in successful or indeed failed democratic transitions. The short period of the Arab Spring provides rich material to explore this theme. It allows us to analyse, compare and theorise on specific empirical cases, including Islamist and secular movements that depart from the mainstream focus.

Questions arise such as whether and, if so, to what extent, SMs are responsible for the failure of democratic transition in the Middle East. Moreover, what happened to SMs and SMOs five years after the Arab Spring? Did they simply implode or did they reconfigure their political activism, potentially even turning towards violence?

The one-day colloquium intends to explore these issues. It seeks to bring together Middle East experts with an interest in contentious politics to study how these relate to processes of fundamental political change such as democratic transition, civil war, the rise of extremist movements and counter-revolutions.

“5 years after the Arab Spring: The Implosion of Social Movements?” – a one day Colloquium, run by Birkbeck Institute for Social Research, will be held at Birkbeck on Friday 10 June.

Book on to the colloquium and view the full programme here

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Between the Sheets/In the Streets

This post was contributed by Dr Tara Atluri, visiting research fellow in the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities (BIH) and the Department of Geography, Environment, and Development Studies. Here, Dr Atluri gives an insight into her forthcoming Birkbeck Institute for Social Research (BISR) Methods Lunch on 9 March 2016.

Between the sheets/In the streets event

¿Qué queremos? ¡Justicia! ¿Cuándo? ¡Ahora!

¿Como lograrémos? Luchando! ¿Como lucharemos? Duro, duro / duro, duro, duro!

نظرية المساواة بين الجنسين

In “The Politics of Translation” Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak states “The task of the feminist translator is to consider language as a clue to the workings of gendered agency…”(179) How might this quote be applicable to conducting research pertaining to sexualities in the Global South? How is the language that one uses to ask questions about sex, sexuality, and gender central to the kinds of dialogues that one will have and to their research findings?

One can consider Hijras, female to male transgender persons who have a religious and cultural lineage in the Indian subcontinent that pre-dates British colonialism. Within Western secular language Hijras are referred to as transgender persons. And yet, what is perhaps interesting to consider is how ideas of agency and legal rights structure Western grammars of feminism and sexuality. Being transgender is often conceived of as a secular identity that is tied to Western secular legal and medical categories. However, Hijras have historically been considered to be religious figures who sacrifice their genitals in a religious ceremony and upon doing so become those who are considered by the religious to have sacred powers, often to bless children.

In posing questions about sexuality, desire, gender, and feminism how might one conceive of ways to ask questions and frame research that moves away from the assumption that English language secular Western rights based categories of LGBTQ are universal and beneficial to all? (See Big Think video: “Your behaviour creates your gender”)

About the event

This BISR Methods Lunch will pose questions regarding the theoretical and ideological frameworks that often guide research pertaining to gender and sexuality in formerly colonized countries. We will question the Orientalist underpinnings of approaches to uniform ideas of “Eastern” sexualities and also question the colonial nature of doing research about “others.” The workshop will also offer ideas and possible frameworks for conducting ethical, politically informed, engaged, and philosophically thoughtful research.

Aimed at postgraduate students from across the college, this event convened by BiGS will examine methodologies and approaches to sexuality studies, and their intersection with ideas of development and sexualities in the Global South. This Masterclass will generate training opportunities for postgraduate students in several areas of expertise. This event offers students the chance to learn divergent research methods.

Areas of research expertise that students will explore include: Approaches to sexualities in the Global South, Feminist/Queer ethnography, Qualitative and Quantitative approaches to gender and sexuality, and theoretical perspectives pertaining to sexualities and development, globally.

In leading this seminar, Tara Atluri will draw on research done in the Indian subcontinent following the 2012 Delhi gang rape case and 2013 decision by the Supreme Court of India to criminalize same sex desire. This research culminated in the forthcoming manuscript- Āzādī: Sexual Politics and Postcolonial Worlds. (Toronto: Demeter Press, 2016)

Tara Atluri will deliver the “BISR Methods Lunch: Between the Sheets/In the Streets: Interdisciplinary Sexuality and Gender Studies Research” on 9 March 2016 (12pm-1.30pm) Room 402, Malet Street Main Building. Book your place here

Works Cited

  • Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. Outside in the Teaching Machine. New York: Routledge, 1993.

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Interrogating the Social Unconscious

This post was contributed by Ceren Yalcin, an Intern at the Birkbeck Institute of Social Research (BISR).

The idea of the ‘unconscious’ is undoubtedly at the heart of psychoanalytic thinking.  Unconscious conflict, unconscious desire, unconscious mind, unconscious fantasy, unconscious thought – just to name a few derivatives of the term that can be found in Freud, Klein, Winnicott and other influential psychoanalytic thinkers. Most of these terms refer to the individual psyche, alluding to the existence of ideas that are ‘hidden’ from conscious knowledge but that nonetheless have force and motion (Frosh, 2012). What one barely hears is the term social unconscious.  As a person interested in both psychoanalysis and social theory, I was quite excited to hear about the study afternoon that wore the title “Interrogating the Social Unconscious “. The workshop was held on 25 October 2013 and was part of a series of events around the same topic organised by the Sociology, Psychoanalysis and Psychosocial Study Group, together with the Birkbeck Institute of Social Research. (If you, have missed the first event, like me, you can listen to the podcast).

So, what is the social unconscious ? And if there is the social unconscious does it mean that it is opposed to the individual unconscious? I was hoping to get some answers from the two eminent speakers that were invited to the workshop: Earl Hopper, a psychoanalyst and group analyst and Christopher Scanlon, a consultant psychotherapist and group analyst. To my disappointment, the two speakers had no intentions to provide us with ready-made answers. Instead, we were formed into small groups and got to discuss the concept ourselves. This, of course, was the idea behind the workshop. It gave us participants the chance to get our teeth into questioning, discussing and critiquing the readings we were given a few weeks prior to the event. Topics discussed in my seminar group centred on the question of how categories of the social such as class, culture and ethnicity might inform the unconscious, and most importantly to me as a training psychotherapist, why the social was often bracketed out in psychoanalytic training.

The question that has most intrigued me was concerned with the extent to which the concept of the social unconscious was developed as a rhetorical response to psychoanalysis. Weinberg (2007, p. 309) writes: “The idea of the social unconscious assumes that some specific hidden myths and motives guide the behaviour of a certain society or culture. It also assumes that a large group or society might use some shared defences. In the same manner that unconscious forces drive an individual without knowing it, a group, an organization or the entire society can act upon unconscious forces too”. I find this working definition of the social unconscious quite helpful as it shows the complexity of the unconscious mind. What I don’t like about it is the binary opposition it assumes between the social and the individual. The term ‘social unconscious’ suggests that there is an individual unconscious that is freed from societal, historical and cultural dynamics. I would agree with Dalal (2001, p. 554) who asserts that ‘the unconscious is constituted by the social at every level’. Earl Hopper’s (2001, p.10) definition sheds a different light onto the term: “The concept of the Social Unconscious refers to the existence and constraints of social, cultural and communicational arrangements of which people are unaware. Unaware, in so far as these arrangements are not perceived (not ‘known’), and if perceived not acknowledged (‘denied’), and if acknowledged, not taken as problematic (‘given’), and if taken as problematic, not considered with an optimal degree of detachment and objectivity.” What Hopper makes clear is that the social unconscious does not merely refer to the social aspects of individual unconscious. It is also not the same as the superego, or the Lacanian symbolic order. It is about shared fantasies, repressed memories, traumas and anxieties of a given group. Indeed, Earl Hopper made an insightful comment that afternoon on the fact that many participants were late to the study seminar so that we had to start 15 minutes later than planned. He asked what it was in the group’s social unconscious that had led many of its members come late. Was it the fact that the event, unlike the previous one, required a ticket? Or that the participants were made to work in groups themselves rather than being lectured? These questions give me an idea on what the term ‘social unconscious’ seeks to capture. The answers to the questions remain difficult though – but we might find out in the next event of this series!

References:

Dalal, F. (2001) ‘The Social Unconscious: A Post-Foulkesian Perspective’, Group Analysis 34(4): 539–55.

Frosh, S. (2012). A brief Introduction of Psychoanalytic Theory. New York: Palgrave McMillan.

Hopper, E. (2001) ‘The Social Unconscious: Theoretical Considerations’, Group Analysis 34(1): 9–27.

Weinberg, H. (2007). So what is this social unconscious anyway? Group Analysis, 40(3), 307-322.

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The work of Jane Bennet

This post was contributed by Mayur Suresh, an Intern at the Birkbeck Institute of Social Research (BISR).

The BISR recently hosted a two-day event about the work of Jane Bennet (Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore) organised by Lisa Baraitser (Birkbeck, University of London) and Michael O’Rourke (Independent Colleges, Dublin).

The workshop held on 5 October 2013 around the work of Jane Bennet, was filled with phrases like “object oriented ontology” (OOO for short), “new materialisms”, and “speculative realism”. As a person who has studied law, a discipline obsessed with language and meaning, and whose theoretical approaches in his PhD involves thinking about language and forms of life, all of this was new to me. The idea that material objects could be alive or actively participate in everyday life, seemed like a distant idea.

Yet this is precisely what Jane Bennet’s work argues: that matter has vitality. Maybe the first step is to move away from thinking about language as the threshold of human life. Humans always act within a larger assemblage of other (non-human) bodies. But more than that, things and objects seem to act upon us in a number of ways, and matter acquires a kind of life-force of its own. Actions are not only constituted through forms of human sociality, but by the material bodies in the assemblages that we are a part of.

The workshop took Jane Bennet’s work in several directions. Lisa Baraister’s presentation explored the ways in which mothers experienced the different objects that they encountered in a city: taking their baby buggies through the gates in Underground stations, or navigating busy sidewalks. While some navigated the city with ease, others struggled to find their way in the narrow pathways that the city afforded. In her narrative, the city emerges as a living sieve, which hoarded the various objects that it wanted to keep.

Nigel Clark’s presentation was on the question of time in geography. Geographers and geologists had usually understood rocks, and minerals and the other things that go to make up the earth as usually being inert, unless there was some event like an earthquake or a volcanic eruption. He wondered what would happen if we began to see that minerals and rocks are do not merely sit inertly in the earth, but act over many millennia. Another presentation titled “JB” by Michael O’Rourke explored the theoretical linkages between Judith Butler and Jane Bennet (available here).

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