Books

'The Naked Blogger of Cairo' Combines Erudition With Style and Wit

Dwelling on the role of social media in political upheaval risks ignoring the human body, which lies at the root of creative insurgency.


The Naked Blogger of Cairo: Creative Insurgency in the Arab World

Publisher: Harvard University Press
Price: $39.95
Author: Marwan M. Kraidy
Length: 304 pages
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2016-06
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In a virtual world, does the body still matter?

Media coverage of the Arab Spring uprisings, and the bloody and repressive dictatorships and civil wars that have followed, swamps the western media consumer with body counts and deathly statistics: dozens killed in a market bombing in Iraq; hundreds killed in an American drone attack; tens of thousands gathered at an Egyptian protest; hundreds of thousands killed in the Syrian civil war.

French scholar Michel Foucault coined the phrase ‘biopolitics’ to refer to “the kind of power that manages people as ‘bare life’ and decides which are worth continuing and which deserve death.” A result of this is the reduction of politics to numbers; of conflicts to statistics and struggles to body counts. Behind these statistics of bare life and death, however, lurks the struggle to resist such reductionary logics; the desire for something more than bare life, the demand to be counted as an individual worthy of recognition and life.

When Tunisian street vendor Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed al-Bouazizi set himself on fire in December 2010, fatally burning himself but sparking the Arab uprisings that are still raging throughout the region, his was an act of what Marwan Kraidy refers to as ‘biopolitical insurgency’.

“Bouazizi’s gambit to [Tunisian dictator] Ben Ali was as follows: You are the sovereign dictator, and as such you claim the right to decide who lives and who dies, when, and where. I am wresting this power from you by burning myself in protest,” writes Kraidy. This notion was “echoed in the motto of the revolution, ‘If the people one day decide they want life,’ by Tunisian poet Abul Qassem al-Chabbi.”

“Much -- too much -- has been said about the role of digital media in the Arab uprisings, but how technologies interact with the humans who operate them remains unclear,” writes Kraidy in The Naked Blogger of Cairo: Creative Insurgency in the Arab World. He strives to fill this gap in his new study, by exploring the sustained centrality of the human body to the revolutionary politics of the Middle East. “Considering the human body as a vital nexus of physical struggle and virtual communication helps us realize that distinctions between expression and action, mind and matter, the Internet and the ‘real world’ are actually flimsy,” writes Kraidy. Even -- or perhaps especially -- in an era of virtual reality and staggering death counts, bodies matter.

“By connecting ideas and action, perceiving, producing, processing, and disseminating images and feelings, the body is a linchpin of revolutionary change.”

Creative Insurgency and Body Metaphor

A key component of the Arab uprisings -- like mass mobilizations in other parts of the world in recent years -- has been what Kraidy refers to as ‘creative insurgency’. Kraidy uses the term to resist the way in which some scholars and journalists have tried to reconcile the ‘creative’ elements of mass movements -- from graffiti to performance art to hip-hop -- with the intrinsic violence of the struggles in which they are embedded (often by downplaying the violence). Insurgency suggests greater upheaval than the term ‘protest’ or ‘dissent’, while acknowledging that it does not always lead to revolution.

“Creative insurgency combines two types of violence that overlap and sustain each other: the kind of violence inflicted with words, songs, and images and the one wreaked with fire, stones, and rifles, acting in tandem to dislodge dictators,” he writes.

Creative insurgency, as Kraidy uses the term, is defined by several qualities. It’s “willful, planned and deliberate”, not spontaneous. Graffiti and murals take a great deal of work and planning to produce. As do music videos, satirical web series, or blog sites.

Creative insurgency also has real-world impact. It’s not just an aesthetic expression of political ideas, but it also influences and affects those ideas and practices. “It expresses rebellion as much as it shapes it,” writes Kraidy.

“This is fundamental: Creative insurgency gives voice and shape to revolutionary claims as much as it prods insurgents to always reassess their aspirations and identities. As a theory of power, creative insurgency rejects the distinction between mind and body, persuasion and compulsion, symbolic and physical violence.”

Creative insurgency is also a social process, produced not by a solitary artistic genius, but by artists and groups of artists in dialogue with each other and in dialogue with the broader society. It arises out of social interaction, explains Kraidy. In doing so, it fuses “familiar and foreign, old and new. These ingenious activists graft new meanings onto recognizable symbols… It is in the volatile fusion of past and present that creative insurgency flourishes.”

Finally, creative insurgency not only documents political and revolutionary events, but it deepens and shapes the impact of those events. It sustains and shapes public debate; by celebrating victims and martyrs as heroes, or politicians and soldiers as villains, or by complicating the portrayal of both, it inspires and shapes public understandings and debates.

Creative insurgency, says Kraidy, can be either radical (for example, the self-immolation of Bouazizi; he refers to this as the Burning Man mode) or gradual (for example, parodies and memes that push the boundaries yet are sometimes tolerated by those they target -- he calls this the ‘Laughing Cow’ mode, in reference to a long-running brand of dictator-directed animal humour that developed particular resonance in Egypt). Often these two modes -- the radical and the gradual -- are intertwined.

Fundamental to creative insurgency is the human body, he emphasizes. Whether this involves comparing Egypt’s rulers to cows, or the eponymous naked blogger of Cairo -- the courageous Aliaa al-Mahdy, who posted nude photos of herself on her blog in defiance of social norms, and continued her defiance from asylum in Sweden by menstruating on Islamic State flags and Quranic verses, among other acts -- the body plays a central role in imbuing creative insurgency with its power and resonance. Graffiti murals depict dead, dying and tortured bodies in an in-your-face reminder to state and revolutionaries alike; government snipers take aim at protesters’ eyes while graffiti artists paint watchful and defiant eyes on their murals. Military thugs crush the hands of critical cartoonists while hand and finger signals become silent shorthand for resistance.

The exploration of creative insurgency becomes an exploration of the human body and the multitudinous ways in which it assumes meaning in political action. In so doing, Kraidy explores an incredibly diverse range of examples of creative insurgency in the Arab world since the uprisings (also connecting them with their historical roots and precedents), from rappers and graffiti artists to memes and satirical television and web series. He takes the reader on a tour of creative resistance in the Arab states, both bodily and digital, which has by and large escaped mainstream media coverage in the West.

A parting thought: powerful though body metaphor still is to creative insurgency, one can't help but wonder whether it has -- or may one day have -- its limits. At least in North American contexts, but in other parts of the world as well, the use of body-shaming, fat-shaming, and other forms of body metaphors (comparing politicians to animals, for instance) has come up against growing critique from all sides of the political spectrum. This certainly doesn't constrain creative insurgency in its entirety, but one can't help but wonder whether the role of body metaphor in creative insurgency may soon become a more nuanced and fraught endeavor than it is in the situations Kraidy describes.

The Naked Blogger of Cairo is an astonishingly accessible work for one that is also deeply intellectual and scholarly. Credit goes to Kraidy’s clear articulation of ideas and theories. While his scholarship is accessible, a comment deserves to be made on style, a feature that’s far too lacking in contemporary scholarship. Yet Kraidy combines intellectual erudition with style and wit. From the ubiquitous puns to breathtaking metaphors, Kraidy signals that style and elegance is not yet dead in academic writing.

At the same time, Kraidy’s scholarship appears to resist the very colonialism it exposes. Despite the inevitable presence of Foucault and Haraway and other larger-than-life theorists, Kraidy draws heavily on regional theorists and scholars and writers, in lieu of littering his work with western intellectuals. It’s hard to say whether this is deliberate, but it suggests a growing attention on the part of scholars not just to the content of post-colonial writing but to the source and form of this writing as well (Judith Butler, in some of her recent work, adopts a similar approach).

The Naked Blogger of Cairo is a superb and important work not just for scholars but for anyone who cares about the relationships between art, the body, and revolution. Creative insurgency is a phenomenon worthy of all the attention it’s being given, for not only are these methods of creative insurgency certain to stay with us for a long time, as Kraidy notes, but “in these styles of rebellion, human resilience and creativity flourish, and the will to live, despite the specter of death, implores us to be awed, over and again.”

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