Biopolitics and Humor in Revolutionary Times
The human body is so much more than just some flesh and blood, held up by bones. It is a metaphor. It is a projection. It is a medium. And, perhaps most importantly, it is an instrument, used to perform politics. The body is at the center of political actions such as hunger strikes, and it was at the center of the self immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi.
Despite this, commentators around the world seemed to completely forget about the body in the wake of the Arab uprisings, and instead over-emphasized the role of social media. This observation led Marwan Kraidy to write his forthcoming book, The Naked Blogger of Cairo (Harvard University Press).
Prof. Marwan M. Kraidy holds the Anthony Shadid Chair in Global Media, Politics and Culture at the Annenberg School of Communication, University of Pennsylvania, and is also director of the Project for Advanced Research in Global Communication (@PARGC on Twitter), and an advisor to MENA Tidningen. In May, 2015, he visited Stockholm to hold lectures and seminars about the research underlying this book, which will be his third single-authored book.
These lectures, which went under the working title of the book Burning Man and Laughing Cow, shed light on two modes of revolutionary activism; the biopolitical, such as self-immolation and nude blogging, and the transgressive, such as political humor – for example the charicatures of Mubarak as the “laughing cow.” In both of these modes, the body is at the locus.
The Naked Blogger of Cairo is set to be published by Harvard University Press on May 9th, 2016, and MENA Tidningen got in contact with Prof. Kraidy to ask a few questions. Here is the result of our correspondence:
What made your write this book?
Kraidy: For someone who grew up in the Arab world and who has written about Arab media, politics and culture for the last twenty years, the Arab uprisings were a momentous series of events. So at one level, this is my attempt to make sense of the upheaval to myself. But like Reality Television and Arab Politics (2010) was born from a contrarian streak that awoke as a result with the disproportionately intense focus on al-Jazeera, the genesis of The Naked Blogger of Cairo resides in my initial suspicion of the exaggerated claims that arose about the role of social media in the Arab uprisings. Finally, the stories of the revolutionary figures I tell in the book moved me deeply, and this is my attempt to reflect their humanity beyond the Arab world and its political struggle. Using the body as central organizing principle enabled me to address universal issues while keeping them grounded in concrete and local struggles. Finally, I hope non-specialists and even non-academics read this book.
What is your aim with this book, what do you hope to accomplish with it?
Kraidy: Some of my aims are: first, write a comparative, transnational, communication-grounded account of the Arab uprisings that is not fully or primarily focused on social media and digital communication. Second, focus on primary textual, visual and audio-visual sources, ranging from graffiti to digital video. Three, show the important role that political humor and animal symbolism plays in revolutionary times. Four, and perhaps most importantly, focus on fundamental dynamics and modalities of political action, hence my interest in the human body. Finally, broaden our understanding of what we mean by “media,” by showing, concretely and in multiple contexts, that the body is an important medium.
How does this book relate to your previous work and how does it depart?
Kraidy: This book represents a major shift in my own work on the nexus of Arab culture, media and politics. Clearly, it is different from Arab Television Industries (Palgrave Macmillan and British Film Institute, 2009), which described structures of production, transmission, consumption and regulation in Arab and pan-Arab television. The Naked Blogger of Cairo: Creative Insurgency in the Arab World (2016) exhibits continuities and divergences with Reality Television and Arab Politics (2010). The continuities reside in a now more pronounced focus on the body, and continuing elaboration of a contentious-performative model of the public sphere, and the transnational-comparative approach.
Kraidy: There are three divergences: first, whereas Reality Television and Arab Politics (2010) explored patterns of public contention about religion, politics, and sexuality—addressing what people do with commercial media— The Naked Blogger of Cairo probes how people, in life-threatening situations, create rebellious art and media, attract attention, and conjure up new political imaginaries. Second, this new book is arguably more interdisciplinary and comparative than the first. It asks questions such as: What do French Revolution pamphlets and Iranian revolution cassettes tell us about manifestos of the Arab spring? How may previous self-immolations (Thich Quang Duc in 1963 Saigon, Jan Palach in 1969 Prague, Malachi Ritscher in 2006 Chicago) shed light on Bouazizi’s? Can the aesthetic sensibility of Delacroix’s La Liberté Guidant Le Peuple help us grasp Aliaa Al-Mahdy’s and Amina Sboui’s political nudity? Third, the style and mode of address of this book, not to mention its organization in approximately forty very short chapters, make it more appealing to general educated readers.
— Marwan M. Kraidy (@MKraidy) February 15, 2016