Producing the public in Arab societies

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More news from Paul Amar about the inaugural research program launched by the Arab Council of Social Sciences (headquartered in Beirut; more at Jadaliyya here) on ‘Producing the Public in Arab Societies: space, media, participation.’

Formulating new understandings of public life in societies within conditions of twenty- first century globalization is an urgent priority for the social sciences. The insecurity of global and national financial systems, the increased violence and securitization of social and political life and the new modes and practices of making collective and social/cultural claims require rethinking concepts such as the “public sphere,” “public culture,” “public institutions,” “public access (e.g. to information)” and “the public good.” In addition, calls within some disciplines for the importance of “public knowledge” (e.g. “public sociology” and “public anthropology”) means that the social sciences themselves are part, and not only observers and analyzers, of re- conceptualizing public life. Knowledge production in general is integral to the development and maintenance of a vibrant public sphere in which different opinions, identities and political positions can be explored without recourse to violence. At least this is the hope embedded in these reformulations.

In this context, the Arab Council of the Social Sciences (ACSS) is launching a research program entitled “Producing the Public in Arab Societies,” that will enable projects to examine political, social and cultural issues in relation to one another while focusing on specific topics. This multidisciplinary program will explore the new possibilities, spaces and means for political action and practice in different Arab societies that bring to light, and create, new publics. The political and social imaginaries that are being produced not only open up new futures but also reread histories and reconfigure relations between different groups and actors in society, including the relationship between the intelligentsia and the rest of society. The retaking and remaking of the state, the new modes of inclusion and exclusion and the role of diasporas are among the issues raised by this research program. All these processes have profound implications for the societies in question but also for the social sciences in general.

The Program will consist of three Working Groups, one focusing on space, another on media, and a third on participation. These three Working Groups will be relatively autonomous, but will engage in regular dialogue with each other, occasionally come together for joint meetings; and they may develop cross-cutting research collaborations or products. In addition, there may be opportunities for cross-regional collaboration with researchers in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Paul will co-ordinate the working group on Space, Tarik Sabry the working group on media, and Sherene Seikaly the working group on participation.

Producing the public in Arab societies

Here is the summary prospectus for the Space working group:

“Producing the Public: Spaces of Struggle, Embodiments of Futurity” This Working Group will research public spaces and spatializing embodiments that reverse class, sectarian, and gender segregation, foster social equalization, revive previous intersectional public subjectivities, and/or create future utopias. Our research will explore the context and legacies of the “Arab Spring”-era events; but we will largely (but not exclusively) focus on countries identified more with war and counterrevolution rather than with the triumphant social uprisings of 2011. Thus we aim to bridge gaps between analyses of spaces of war and armed intervention (in Syria, Libya, Iraq, Bahrain, etc.), and embodiments of future hope, inclusion, and justice across the Arab region.

Very exciting work has been done in the last generation shedding critical light on regimes of power, cultures of fear, and technologies of planning that have transformed public spaces. This work has focused on deconstructing neoliberal policies and discourses, exposing the techniques and economies of war and occupation, and articulating the spatial dimensions of postcolonial moral, ethno-sectarian, and religious regimes. This generation of scholarship has asked: How have social classes have been polarized by new kinds of space and public morality; how have built forms and spatial performances exacerbated sectarian divisions or even “invented” them; how have regimes of public-space regulation instituted regimes of puristic or pietist morality; and how have shifting norms of public-versus-private space restricted gender identities and issues of sexuality to an ever-narrowing private sphere where consumer and patriarchal values dominate. However, this set of research innovations have tended to neglect the kinds of spatial practices, movements, public embodiments, and policy regimes that can reverse or generate spatial alternatives that counter these segregatory dynamics and territorialization practices. In this light, “Producing the Public: Spaces of Struggle, Embodiments of Futurity” aims to produce a new body of comparative case studies. This Working group will be oriented explicitly toward positive alternatives, even in the most fraught contexts, and will offer new analyses of spatial and historical relations of power, war, control, and subjectivation.

Paul is particularly keen to include scholars working on Libya, though anyone who meets the critera (below) is welcome to apply.   Questions about the Space working group to Paul at amar@global.ucsb.edu and about the program in general to grants@theacss.org.

Working group meetings start in September; those participating will receive full support for travel to and accommodations at all research workshops/group meetings, which will be held twice per year (usually held in the Arab Region or perhaps in Cyprus or Turkey), together with around $10,000 in research funds.  This is a marvellous and rare opportunity, and so not surprisingly the criteria are stringent:

1) Due to the specialized mandate of the ACSS itself, all applicants must be either (1) a current or former citizen of one of the member states of the League of Arab States; OR (2) of Arab origin or part-Arab descent (or of any other ethnic, national, sectarian or minority “identity” within any Arab League country). Applicants who meet the above criteria and are living in the Arab region are encouraged to apply. Those living outside the Arab region are also welcome to apply, but they should demonstrate that they spend a significant part of each year in the region, engaged substantively with publics in a particular site, and be fully committed to public movements, cultures, and organizations in the region.

2) Applicants for the “Space” Working Group must be either in the final stages of receiving their PhD (“ABD” or prospectus finished), or be a professor or lecturer in the first seven years after completing their PhD. Applicants should have a social science degree, or a degree in a field within the “humanistic social studies” such as history, cultural studies, legal studies, etc.

3) Applicants for the “Participation” Working Group can be practitioners, media workers, journalists, techies, and scholars engaged in participatory work that both critiques and engages social sciences in the Arab world. 

4) Applicants for the “Media” Working Group should have a degree in the ‘humanistic social sciences’. They will need to have published and conducted research in the Arab region, focusing on the relationships between media, culture and society. They will also be expected to think beyond disciplinary boundaries by engaging critically with scholars specializing in different fields of the humanities and the social sciences, including anthropology, media studies, cultural studies and philosophy. They must also be fluent in Arabic.

5) All applicants should be proficient in Arabic as well as English and/or French. Much of the readings and some of the conversations will be conducted in English, due to the overwhelming use of English in the relevant academic, political, and technical literatures. However ACSS encourages and permits writings and publications in Arabic, French or English. And each group will, of course, constantly engage public expressions, leaders, and research meetings in Arabic.

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Incidentally, anyone who finds the idea of ‘producing’ the public an unfamiliar one should read Michael Warner‘s classic work, The letters of the Republic: publication and the public sphere in eighteenth-century America; you can also find a snappy essay by him, ‘Publics and counterpublics’, at Public culture (2002).  As this suggests, so many of the available models and substantive treatments of these issues traffic in the public spheres of Europe and the shadows of Habermas, and it will be exceptionally interesting to see what happens when the focus and language of the discussion travels beyond these too familiar waters and also addresses the formation of transnational public spheres.  And I’m also drawn to the way in which Paul’s working group will move the research frontier towards sites of war, counter-revolution and resistance.  Do contact him if you’re interested.

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