World Congress for Middle Eastern Studies

Barcelona, July 19th - 24th 2010


REREADING THE ''PUBLIC SPHERE'' IN THE MIDDLE EAST: PRINT CULTURE, NEW MEDIA, POP CULTURES - 1/2: Boundaries, Visibility and Hidden Transcripts (083) - NOT_DEFINED activity_field_Panel

· NOT_DEFINED date: TUE 20, 9.00-11.00 am

· NOT_DEFINED institution: University of Copenhagen (Denmark)

· NOT_DEFINED organizer: Sune Haugbolle

· NOT_DEFINED language: English

· NOT_DEFINED description: The 'public sphere' has emerged as an analytical category covering a wide range of social phenomena from a variety of public contexts in the modern Middle East. A growing body of literature has been produced since the 1990s. However, while the term ‘public sphere’ has entered the conceptual apparatus of Middle East scholars, a theoretical discussion of its meaning and application, mirroring larger debates in the social sciences, has yet to emerge. So far, much attention has been paid to the growth in transnational media coinciding with an Islamic awakening during the last twenty years, which in turn has engendered theorizations of (ostensibly new) Arab and Islamic public spheres challenging the monopoly of nation states on opinion making and even politics. In these studies, the notion of a singular public sphere is often invoked as an either hopeful or menacing reality or possibility. Others have written about the emergence of modern public spheres from the late 19th century onwards. Following the cue of recent discussions moving beyond the notion of a singular Habermasian public sphere, this panel proposes to turn the focus on the function of the more malleable notion of ‘publicness’ (arguably a better translation of Habermas' Öffentlichkeit than ‘the public sphere’), i.e. the transformation of social identities as a result of public interaction and the ensuing cultural change. Publicness is not limited to the self-disciplined interaction of credentialed voices geared to discuss the common good, but rather covers the more fluid process of communication that starts at the level of local cultures and popular cultures and often intercepts the marked mediated sphere of ''pop cultures''. Just as important are the less staged, culturally intimate aspects of public culture that shape behaviour ‘off stage.’ This angle circumvents the often debated tension between official publics and counter-publics (or sub-publics) and so facilitates a sharper view of the fragmentation and multiplicity of public life which increasingly characterizes the contemporary Middle East. By turning the attention from abstract ‘spheres’ to actual ways of being and going public, we wish to contribute to devising new directions for thinking about public life, popular cultures and public cultures.

Part 1. Boundaries, Visibility and Hidden Transcripts
Part 1 of this double panel focuses on how the limits of publicness are being made and remade through popular culture. A common theme in the papers is that the notion of disciplined and self-disciplined national publics in the Middle East dissolves when subjected to close analysis of popular culture and media. Rather than looking at a unitary public sphere and asking how it is being challenged by equally unitary counterpublics, the papers suggest that we should be addressing how the boundaries of publicness, the audible and the visible, are constantly renegotiated through the production and consumption of public culture.

Chair: Armando Salvatore, Oriental Studies University, Naples

Discussant: Samuli Schielke, Zentrum Moderner Orient, berlin, Sune Haugbolle

Paper presenter: Sune Haugbolle, University of Copenhagen, I am not an Infidel: Ziad Rahbani and Secular Publicness in Wartime Lebanon

Paper presenter: Jonas Otterbeck, University of Lund, Islamic social cohesion vs. a plurality of lifestyles in Saudi Arabia

Paper presenter: Daniella Kuzmanovic, University of Copenhagen, Putting on Display: Features of the Making of Politics and Political Subjects

Paper presenter: Sarah Jurkiewicz, University of Oslo, Publicness and new boundaries in the Lebanese Blogosphere

In the first paper, ''I am not an Infidel: Ziad Rahbani and Secular Publicness in Wartime Lebanon,'' Sune Haugbolle attempts to rethink the notion of counterpublics by examining the wartime work of Lebanese musician Ziad al-Rahbani. He argues that while the early songs of Rahbani articulate a credo for secular critique which ought to place them squarely in a leftist counterpublic, their wide popularity throughout Lebanon including in ostensibly sectarian milieus, forces us to question established ideas of the boundaries between secular and sectarian subjectivities and ideologies.

The next paper, Jonas Otterbeck's ''Islamic social cohesion vs. a plurality of lifestyles in Saudi Arabia'' addresses Saudi Arabia and Jeddah more specifically as an emerging Arab scene for production and consumption of global sub- and pop cultures, including web-based films, Saudi death metal bands, and mainstream media. Otterbeck examines the interaction of Islamic experts with these new cultural forms and asks to what extent they are introducing a new publicness in Saudi Arabia.

Daniella Kuzmanovic' paper ''Putting on Display: Features of the Making of Politics and Political Subjects'' focuses on how political subjects are constituted through social practices of putting on display. Building on the work of Andrew Shryock, she argues that the political imagination in Turkey, as in most Middle Eastern countries, is defined by ''what is going on behind the scenes.'' Therefore, people's ability to display the hidden transcripts of politics is central to their sense of relatedness to politics. This experience of relatedness yet distance between oneself as political subject and the spheres of political decision-making produces a form of publicness which is far from transparent, but necessitates and feeds on conspiracy theories that find an outlet in a variety of public culture.

Finally, Sarah Jurkiewicz takes a look at ''Publicness and new boundaries in the Lebanese Blogosphere'' Based on ethnographic field work among Beirut bloggers, Jurkiewicz explores the dynamics of publicness in the Lebanese blogosphere, and asks which parts of Lebanon's complex social world actually becomes public in the blogosphere, how boundaries are drawn, and what it means for bloggers to be public.