Where have Palestine's organic intellectuals gone?

elias khoury
Elias Khoury, “His reputation as a novelist, critic, commentator, editor and academic with real political commitment is formidable.” The Independent, November 2005.

The Sadness of Post-Militancy: Some Reflections on Brown University’s ‘New Directions in Palestine Studies’ Conference

By Faris Giacaman, Jadaliyya
April 06, 2014

In late February, just about anyone who ever wrote anything about the political economy of Palestine and the Palestinians descended upon Providence, Rhode Island. They were there to attend Brown University’s much-anticipated conference organized by Beshara Doumani, “New Directions in Palestine Studies: Political Economy and the Economy of the Political.” As a person who has just started in the field, the experience was more than a little surreal. Most of the authors who I have spent most of my time as a student reading were quite literally packed into one room.

This is a series of scattered reflections on the conference. But, in another sense, it is something of a confession. Although the event was, by all accounts, a historic gathering of some of the best experts in the field, and on the whole a positive and exciting development, I could not help but come away from it with a sense of sadness. This has almost nothing to do with the scholarly work of the individuals involved, and much more to do with the political moment in which we currently live. If I could summarize the source of my trepidation in one sentence, it would be that the period we are in represents a shift in knowledge-production on Palestine to an age of post-militants.

Let me explain.

During one of the panels on class, Mezna Qato noted the decline of class analysis in the study of the Palestinian shatat [diaspora] from the 1990s onwards. This stood in sharp contrast to the radical political economic scholarship that appeared in the PLO Research Center’s journal, Shu’un Filastiniyya [Palestinian Affairs]. It was at this point that acclaimed Lebanese writer Elias Khoury made an observation that stuck with me. He started off by thanking Qato for mentioning Shu’un—to which everyone laughed, as they all knew that he used to be its editor at the Center. He then pointed out that at that time there was not much of a distinction between being a researcher and a militant. It was simply taken for granted that academics were, at least in some capacity, also activists.

Mezna Qato reading Edward Saïd

Khoury’s comment, for me, was perhaps the most enduring observation coming out of the entire conference. This is because I think it speaks volumes to the marked shift that has occurred in the study of Palestine between the 1960s to the present period. The conference featured over twenty papers on political economy, yet only two or three of them directly mentioned Marx, without engaging substantially with Marxist ideas. But what stood out the most for me was the fact that not much was at stake beyond questions of an abstract academic nature. Of course, this does not mean that the authors did not see themselves as engaging in important political work, but the theoretical lenses many of them chose to use did not lend themselves naturally to a normative political project. This is where the left has historically been strongest, in its unrepentant claim that “another world is possible” through collective action. Knowledge-production, in this context, was undertaken for the express purpose of figuring out how to realize this emancipatory project.

Anyway, after Khoury’s comment, I revisited several volumes of Shu’un. Khoury and Qato were right. Almost everything I came across was attached to the revolution. The articles, to varying degrees, explored questions of political strategy, tactics, and practice. You could find topics as varied as studies on “Tenets of the People’s War,” “The Palestinian Camps Under the Revolution,” “The Objectives of Our Current Phase,” “The Palestinian Resistance and Social Organizing,” and so on. The intellectuals and academics who wrote for the journal were also revolutionaries, and their allegiance to academic institutions was secondary to their political commitments.

Certainly, I could be accused of overly romanticizing the era of the revolution in this way. This is not really my intention, since the Palestinian liberation movement had more than its fair share of flaws, too many to enumerate here. But I do think the main point stands: for all of its drawbacks, that political moment produced an intellectual culture that centered on thinking with and for the movement. Almost all intellectuals were affiliated in some way to the revolution, or defined themselves in relation to it. The role of research was expressly political. In this sense, it was quite un-academic by today’s standards.

This brings me back to the New Directions in Palestine Studies conference. I should mention that despite my misgivings, I was immensely impressed by the scope and range of scholars it managed to bring together. On the one hand, you had the well established old guard that basically founded the field. On the other hand, there was also a heavy focus on the new generation of young academics, representing the most cutting-edge scholarship on the political economy of Palestine. The attendees were themselves very aware of the fact that this conference was unlike any they had attended in a long while, as they frequently pointed out during coffee breaks in between panels. Many of them had also spent years reading each other’s work but never gotten the opportunity to meet in person. For some, it was like a lamm shamil (family unification). I could not help but feel a strong affinity to those in attendance. Perhaps it was precisely because of this that I came away from the conference feeling conflicted.

The Shift After Defeat, The Return in the Wake of Revolution

It is clear to me that the death of the liberation movement is the main source of the shift away from politics in the sense that I have described above. The revolution gave everyone a node from which all sorts of creative and intellectual innovations could emerge. Class analysis and Marxism was a primary category, though by no means the exclusive one. The decline of the Palestinian revolution—from the defeat in Beirut, to exile in Tunis, to the first intifada’s failure, and Oslo’s advent—meant that people lost their point of political reference. Academics began to call into question the old utopian dreams of mass revolution. This was part of a world historical moment that came about in conjunction with the rise of neoliberalism, the “fall” of communism, and the retreat of the left into the academy. The defeat of some of the world revolutions of the twentieth century, and the triumph of capitalism, brought in new intellectual trends: Foucauldian biopolitics, postmodern criticism of the “grand narratives” of revolutionary movements, subaltern and postcolonial studies, and so on. These fields differed in any number of ways, but they shared a deep skepticism of any ideology emphasizing conscious collective action, especially Marxism as a normative political project.

The new academic trends thoroughly colonized the field of Middle Eastern studies, in which academics who studied Palestine were deeply embedded. Although it has been noticeably more resistant to this skepticism than academics in other areas such as Egypt, given the enduring brutality of Israel and the political upheaval of the second intifada, Palestinian academia was not an exception to this process.

I should mention, however, that this shift was apparent for many of the conference attendees. During the question and answer section of the panel on class (the same one in which Khoury raised his comment on researchers and militants), Joel Beinin referenced the recent debate between Vivek Chibber and Partha Chatterjee concerning the rejection of Marxist analytical categories by the field of postcolonial studies. Beinin remarked that in studying Palestine we have tended to eschew materialist analyses of political economy—a rejection which he thought we should reconsider. He qualified his statement by saying that we should not follow the “crude materialism” of orthodox Marxists, like ideas concerning “base and superstructure,” but that our retreat from material explanations of class dynamics should be revised. Doumani also alluded to this general issue in his reflection on one of the papers, noting the changing continuum between Marxism and postcolonial studies. This marks the cultural turn in academia that shied away from economic and class explanations of social relations.

The panel’s response to these issues was not to my liking, especially concerning the Chibber-Chatterjee debate—although, notably, there was not as much hostility to Chibber’s Marxist critique as I had expected. No one on the panel completely rejected the Marxist position out of hand, and neither did they condemn it as a totalizing grand narrative guilty of Eurocentric biases. But they were not exactly rushing to its defense, either. However, that in and of itself says something. At more than one point, I saw signs of reflexivity, if not discontent, at the current state of the academic investigation of political economy. More broadly, the very fact that we even had a conference on political economy was a formal expression of this discontent, and a tacit recognition that we have strayed too far into the “discursive” realm.

I think the fact that this issue is being raised now is not incidental. The Arab revolts and the return of social movements have led, if only vaguely, to a return to the leftist political categories of revolution. You could see more signs of this throughout the conference: as an addendum to her talk on Palestinian capitalists and the economy, Leila Farsakh called for a return to Marxist categories of analysis; Samia Botmeh’s study on Palestinian women’s labor supply encouraged a heterodox economic approach to studying labor in Palestine and the MENA region, also alluding to Marxism. Sherene Seikaly called for all of us to reconsider who gets to produce knowledge, that perhaps we should broaden our definition of knowledge-producers to include activists, bloggers, and techies. Kareem Rabie, in his study of the planned Palestinian city of Rawabi, advocated that the new academic interest in neoliberalism should be accompanied by a deeper understanding of what capitalism is. Perhaps most encouragingly, Alaa Tartir’s contribution towards developing a “resistance economy” in Palestine was most in line with proposing research projects that are politically motivated.

Militant Researchers

In his remarks during the closing session of the conference, Rashid Khalidi offered a few words of advice to the new generation of scholars on Palestine: on the one hand, they should have a rigorous grounding in the academic discipline, but on the other, all of their work is worthless if they cannot convey it to a wider audience. More people echoed this sentiment during the closing session. Seikaly reiterated her opinion on knowledge-producers, Qato stressed open access, broad audiences, and bringing movements back into our work, and Bashir Abu Manneh remarked that the academic study of Palestine is not particularly interesting without the political compulsion, and the hostility towards oppression that comes with being a Palestinian academic, or even an academic who studies Palestine. All of these comments are significant. In response, I would like to offer a few schematic thoughts on how these suggestions could be developed.

A brief moment during the first intifada, when young Palestinians were leading mass resistance on the streets. Here, in Al-Ram in 1988, the demonstrators run when Israeli soldiers take aim at them. Photo by Jean-Claude Coutausse.

Following Khoury’s comment, I want to clarify that I do not advocate returning to a carbon copy of the intellectual climate created by the Palestinian revolution, although many of its elements are certainly inspiring. The main thing I think we can take from it is the marriage of knowledge-production with political action. But this time around, I think we should keep a few things in mind that our predecessors did not. For one thing, one of the main causes of the defeat of the revolution was the way in which it was structured. The unaccountability of the leadership to the people, the hierarchy of organization, and the elitist character of the armed struggle, meant that the PLO could make decisions in the name of the Palestinians without their active participation. Signing Oslo was just one outcome of this. In this context, one of the roles of academics should be to explore questions of organizational structure: that is, questions having to do with revolutionary practice. Obviously this is just my own particular interest, and there is room for much more diversity. I am particularly persuaded by Marxist and generally leftist approaches, but the bottom line need not be limited to it.

In Argentina, a group of activists and intellectuals called Colectivo Situaciones gave this a name: “militant research.” This group draws inspiration, in part, from the piqueteros movement in Argentina, including the December 2001 insurrection. This was when thousands of people took to the streets of major cities and conducted a series of direct actions, giving way to popular assemblies and fleeting worker control over factories and businesses. Militant research was a way to think “from within” and “by” movements. These researchers, I would say, are actually more radical than the generation of researcher-militants that was part of the armed Palestinian groups. The Colectivo Situaciones emphasizes the role of researchers’ faithfulness to their own ignorance. Their role is not to be “advisors to social movements,” or Gramscian organic intellectuals, but to think with people, not about them. Although the group tends to echo some of the inaccessible jargon for which academia has been criticized, the main message that can be distilled from their proposition is quite compelling. Knowledge is to be produced from within movements, with a tendency to emphasize its practical application.

david graeber David Graeber, anthropologist and political activist

American Anthropologist David Graeber has suggested a similar approach. Graeber’s review of the Art and Immaterial Labor conference in 2008 at London’s Tate Modern museum, The Sadness of Post-Workerism (which was the inspiration for the title and spirit of this review) discusses the decline of revolutionary theory in Italian workerist thought. In it, Graeber traces this shift in the attitudes of artists and academics away from revolutionary politics to the rise of neoliberalism, specifically its logic of fragmentation. Today we live in a world where none of the old revolutionary categories apply. Collective political action is no longer a viable way forward, reality is far more complex, power is diffused, and the only way to subvert it is at the individual level.[1]

More or less, this typically follows the postmodern trend. It is not a coincidence that neoliberal capitalists make variations of the same argument, especially regarding the participation of individuals in the market as the only meaningful way of realizing human freedom. In contrast, Graeber thinks that social scientists are actually quite well-placed to think of revolution. Anthropology, for instance, has often if loosely been related to an ethnographic curiosity in other cultures—that is to say, in alternative ways of organizing society. This is what Graeber means by saying that social science is a theory for utopia[2]: put simply, it can potentially allow us to imagine political alternatives to the current order.

Whether one would like to call it militant research, a theory for utopia, or anything else, the basic theme is fairly consistent. The role of researchers should assume its radical place, outside of the university. Some of this has already started, although gradually, and in piecemeal fashion. Indeed, the very fact that Jadaliyya has become so popular is a product of the Arab revolts, and Jadaliyya’s own stated aim is to bring ideas to a wider audience that does not have access to academic journals. Yet much of what has been written in Jadaliyya, although dealing with politics, has tended to adopt the types of postmodern, post Marxist lenses that are a part of the retreat from political engagement. It is time, I think, to lay them to rest.

Some Concluding Thoughts

What does all this mean in practice to anyone working on Palestine today? Beyond embracing an expressly political approach to research, I can hardly claim to have definitive answers. In any case, that would be against the spirit in which I have written this review. All I can offer are some rudimentary thoughts.

It seems to me that part of our problem has to do with our conceptions of what movements are, and what political action is. The absence of political parties and resistance factions, while important, is not the only metric by which to measure political action or inaction. Dispersed Palestinian communities engage in constant struggles, if partial and fragmented. Tartir referenced the development of resistance economies in Palestine. In my view, part of the advantage of researchers is their access to repositories of information on other movements and revolutionary experiences that were able to take such fragmented acts of resistance and make them into coherent movements, some with defined and formalized political structures, some with more informal ones. We can, for instance, benefit from learning of the experiences of the neighborhood assemblies associated with the piqueteros, the governmental political structures and projects of autonomous economy of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, or the agricultural and labor activism of the Brazilian Landless Workers’ movement—and of course, the myriad political traditions could fill encyclopedias. One place to start would be to narrow down which experiences could be particularly useful for Palestine.

One might accept all I have had to say in principle, but raise one crucial and fairly simple objection: there is currently no noticeable Palestinian movement within which one might engage in the type of intellectual project I have briefly mentioned above. In fact, in sharing some of these ideas with people, I was told that, of course, since there is no movement, the current academic trends are expected. Once political upheavals start up again, the academics will eventually—maybe gradually—snap back into place. For me, this suggestion is more than a little disconcerting. Does it mean that academics, writers, intellectuals, are just always fated to be behind the times, always belatedly catching up to what is happening on the streets?

Maybe that is true. But what if they were to go into the streets as well? Historically, this might be expecting a bit much, and I don’t necessarily mean it literally (though I certainly would not be opposed to it). But I think that the separation between researchers and the objects of their research has contributed to a political distance, not merely an intellectual one. This is the sadness of our post-militant age.

[1] David Graeber, “The Sadness of Post-Workerism,” Revolutions in Reverse: Essays on Politics, Violence, Art, and the Imagination. New York, NY: Autonomedia, 2012. 89

[2] David Graeber “Social Theory as Science and Utopia: Or, Does the Prospect of a General Sociological Theory Still Mean Anything in an Age of Globalization?” Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire. Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2007.

On Not Despising the Present: Some Notes on Faris Giacaman’s ‘The Sadness of Post-Militance’

By Anthony Alessandrini, Jadaliyya
April 17 2014

A Brechtian maxim: “Don’t start from the good old things but the bad new ones.” — Walter Benjamin, “Conversations with Brecht”[1]

You have no right to despise the present. — Charles Baudelaire, quoted in Michel Foucault, “What Is Enlightenment?”[2]

I was quite moved by Faris Giacaman’s recent article “The Sadness of Post-Militance: Some Reflections on Brown University’s ‘New Directions in Palestine Studies’ conference. For a young scholar to call into question the direction of Palestine Studies, focusing on a conference featuring some of the most prominent names in the field, takes no little courage. Beyond that, Giacaman’s larger call to remember the relationship between scholarship and militance, and between knowledge production and revolution, resonated strongly with me, as it no doubt did with many other readers. If, in what follows, I pose a few challenges to some of Giacaman’s premises and conclusions, it is intended in the spirit of moving forward with the larger project that he names as “militant research.” So these comments are intended in the spirit of collaboration and solidarity.

Giacaman’s review of the work presented at the Brown conference stresses the historic nature of this gathering of scholars working on the political economy of Palestine. At the same time, the “sadness” that he evokes in his title (borrowed in part from David Graeber’s observations on what he calls “post-workerism”) has, he writes, “almost nothing to do with the scholarly work of the individuals involved, and much more to do with the political moment in which we currently live.” His overall impression, gathered from the work presented at the conference and from the state of Palestine Studies more generally, is that “the period we are in represents a shift in knowledge-production on Palestine to an age of post-militants.” Against what he sees as the de-politicizing intellectual trends of our time, Giacaman issues a call for a new form of “militant scholarship,” a term that he takes from the work of the Colectivo Situaciones group in Argentina. For him, this means a return to Marxist categories of analysis, and a move away from what he declares to be “the types of postmodern, post Marxist lenses that are a part of the retreat from political engagement”; his sadness stems from his sense that these latter frameworks underwrite much of the contemporary work on Palestine (including work published on Jadaliyya).

I am not certain whether I am necessarily one of Giacaman’s intended interlocutors. I was not present at the Brown conference. I do not work on political economy, as it is generally understood, and certainly would never be mistaken for a political economist. I have written on Palestinian culture and politics, broadly defined, but I would not necessarily fit within the academic field identified as “Palestine Studies.” I have worked occasionally with, alongside, and in the service of activist groups and organizations in Palestine and within the larger Palestine solidarity movement, but I would not be able to comfortably describe myself as an activist or a militant, although my work aims to be in dialogue with the work of activists.

Above all, I might be considered outside the realm of Giacaman’s call because my work draws upon intellectual influences that he sees as part of a supposed “retreat from political engagement,” those “intellectual trends” he names as “Foucauldian biopolitics, postmodern criticism…[and] subaltern and postcolonial studies.” Indeed, a few days before Giacaman’s article was published, I argued for the continuing relevance of post-structuralist analysts like Foucault in helping us to formulate intellectual responses and political contributions to the ongoing revolutions of our time. I would like to think—indeed, it is my purpose here to argue—that the militant research Giacaman calls for has room both for a renewed materialist analysis of the kind that he champions and a continuation of the important forms of analysis developed by those post-structuralist and post-colonial thinkers that he proposes “to lay…to rest.” To be true to the complexity of our present political situation, we need all of this, and more.

Just to be clear: I have no intention of defending post-structuralism, postcolonialism, or any other “post” for its own sake. In the face of the struggle for justice in Palestine (and elsewhere), such academic jockeying is a matter of relatively little importance (which is not the same as suggesting that academic knowledge production itself does not matter). What is important, however, and where I do want to be in dialogue with Giacaman’s important arguments, are the ways we ground ourselves as intellectuals. Another way of describing this is the problem of how we engage with the present, in the form of the struggles for justice that are always ongoing. In other words, how do we, as scholars working in the service of the struggle for social change, orient ourselves towards the present, with an eye towards both the radical past that inspires us and the better future that we are seeking to create? It is in this context, reading his article, that I found myself haunted by the two quotes I cited as epigraphs: Walter Benjamin’s Brechtian call to begin not with the good old things but with the bad new ones, and Baudelaire’s injunction, taken up by Foucault, not to despise the present.

Looking back at the generation of intellectuals aligned with Shu’un Filastiniyya, Giacaman finds scholarly work attached expressly to the Palestinian revolution. Articles “explored questions of political strategy, tactics, and practice.” The authors of such articles “were also revolutionaries” and “their allegiance to academic institutions was secondary to their political commitments.” The role of such research “was expressly political,” he concludes. By contrast, looking at the work of the generation that followed, Giacaman diagnoses several different strands, all of which, he argues, “shared a deep skepticism of any ideology emphasizing conscious collective action, especially Marxism as a normative political project.”

Giacaman suggests that he might be accused of “romanticizing” the earlier generation of revolutionary scholarship, but I think he is quite accurate in his assessment. What is missing, however, is an equally historically grounded assessment of the work that followed—or, to put it in materialist terms, a truly conjunctural understanding of this work. Giacaman sums up the “postmodern trend” that he accuses of moving research away from its earlier political commitments as follows: “Collective political action is no longer a viable way forward, reality is far more complex, power is diffused, and the only way to subvert it is at the individual level.” I want to suggest a different genealogy of what he describes as the “post-militant” generation, a different set of intentions, and most important, a different set of conclusions. My intention is to expand our list of our “good old things”—which, in my telling, includes both Giacaman’s militant generation and the “post-militant” generation—so that we can better draw upon these influences for the more important work of struggling against the circumstances of our “bad new ones.” This involves a recasting of the body of work that is often brought together under the phrase “the cultural turn” (sometimes interchangeably described as “the discursive turn”), seen by Giacaman and others as a turn away from politics.

Let me tell the story a bit differently, beginning with the importance of the work of Antonio Gramsci for what Giacaman sees as the “post-militant” generation of intellectuals. In a recent review of Vivek Chibber’s Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (a book that is a point of reference for Giacaman), Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak reminds us of the specific conjuncture from which Gramsci produced those prison writings that constitute his primary intellectual and political legacy. Gramsci’s writing on the subaltern classes—written, she reminds us, not from within an academic milieu, but from within “the very thick of things”—was quite literally “the last piece of writing Gramsci was engaged in when he was nabbed by the fascists.” At the center of Gramsci’s subsequent writing, which followed upon the work he had done as a leader of the Communist Party of Italy, was the question of what had gone wrong during the preceding decade: “Acknowledging that the General Strike of 1920 had not worked, he was now looking at the possibility of making long-term change.”[3] Gramsci’s focus upon spheres not ordinarily considered “political” in the traditional sense, including the fields of culture and education, was precisely part of this larger process of theorizing an expanded notion of political action that could prove more effective in carrying forward the struggle amidst the dark times in which he found himself literally imprisoned.

Stuart Hall … should have been in charge of the universe. Photograph: Antonio Olmos
Let us now extend this point to a more global level (and I promise this will help return us to the question of Palestine). In the imperial intellectual centers (from which Gramsci rightly saw Italy as slightly removed), during the time period that Giacaman marks as beginning the era of “post-militance,” a new conjuncture, a new set of political contexts, and a new set of struggles gave rise, certainly, to forms of post-structuralist thought. But it also gave rise to new intellectual and political work in cultural studies, embodied by figures such as Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, Hazel Carby, and Paul Gilroy. Through collaborative volumes such as The Empire Strikes Back, and through slow and painful struggles, such work began to recognize the centrality of race as an analytic and political category that could not simply be subsumed by class (perhaps the most famous formulation is Hall’s description of race as “the modality in which class is ‘lived,’ the medium through which class relations are experienced, the form in which it is appropriated and ‘fought through’.”[4]) This conjuncture gave rise to Edward Said’s monumental Orientalism—a book whose framework owes as much to the work of Gramsci and Williams as it does to Foucault—and to a new set of struggles against a category that had thus been named and identified as a field of political action. It gave rise to the work of too many feminist and queer thinkers to even name here, who threw open new areas of intellectual inquiry and political action, fields of thought and action that had always existed but could now be gotten at through new forms of political struggle.

Clearly, none of this was work born of despair, or of the desire to move away from “politics” and towards some form of neo-liberal self-cultivation. In the struggle to create viable forms of militant scholarship in the face of our political present, our job is to continue to value, as both Giacaman and I do, the unsparing commitment of an earlier generation of militant scholars working in the service of projects such as the Palestinian revolution, and at the same time understand the work of the generation that has followed as coming very precisely in the wake of this earlier work. It is work that, at its best, follows Gramsci’s lead in looking back at the previous generation and asking the question of why things didn’t work out as they should have. It thus opens up new avenues, not only of intellectual inquiry, but also of political struggle.

Missing this point about forms of intellectual and political work too easily dismissed as “postmodern,” for those of us dedicated to the struggle for justice, self-determination, and a different future in Palestine, is also to miss the opportunities for comparative work—not just on the intellectual level, but also on the political level (although even rhetorically separating these levels is ultimately false, since the goal would be precisely to unite them). This is a point raised in interesting ways by several of those who have already commented on Giacaman’s article. I will simply note that these political and intellectual connections are being made every day at the level of practice, in the global movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions that has become one of the major political forces of our time.

But addressing this point regarding global connections also means addressing another aspect of our political present: the context through which one might (or might not) continue to think about “national revolutions” such as the Palestinian revolution that is Giacaman’s focal point. This is one more crucial place where, I would argue, a closer look at the “post-militant” generation whose work Giacaman sees as a detour to be avoided is certainly in order. He provides a list of events that he sees as encapsulating the stages of the “decline of the Palestinian revolution”: “from the defeat in Beirut, to exile in Tunis, to the first intifada’s failure, and Oslo’s advent.” This makes a certain historical sense. But we might pause in the moment between what he describes as “the first intifada’s failure” and that of “Oslo’s advent.” Certainly, one way that the first intifada could be described as a “failure” is the fact that it was followed by Oslo, with all that came in its wake. But I would argue that “Oslo’s advent” was hardly an inevitable outcome of the first intifada. Rather, it represents the rise of a particular form of nationalist leadership (or better said, a group of elites that presumes to assume national leadership without successfully obtaining an actual state) that Giacaman rightly describes as unaccountable, hierarchical, and elitist.

This means that an understanding of the Palestinian revolution of today would need to be quite different from that which guided Giacaman’s earlier generation of militant scholars. As compared to a national liberation struggle aimed solely at a colonizing power (together, of course, with all the international forces allied with and undergirding the Israeli occupation), today’s struggle continues to be against these colonizing forces but should be seen simultaneously as a struggle against those national elites who have consolidated their power and position (such as it is) precisely through their willingness to assume the role of “partners” in the Israeli occupation. This is the slow sad story of the “peace process.”

It is also the story, I would contend, that runs throughout the work of those postcolonial theorists who are too often accused of turning away from “real” politics, and who form part of Giacaman’s group of apparently “post-militants.” But running through the work of so many thinkers whose work has come to be grouped together as “postcolonialism,” from Frantz Fanon to the Subaltern Studies historians to the dependency theorists of Latin America, is the problem of how to think about politics in the light of this particular outcome of national revolutions. It is a state of affairs that could rightly (if perversely) be called “postcolonial,” if by this one means simply the crude sense of technical political independence as compared to direct colonial rule. Even in Palestine, one could, post-Oslo, make such a technical claim regarding the post-colonial state of limited autonomy rather than direct occupation, however laughable such a claim might look in considering the violent reality of colonial rule that represents the actual experience of life in Palestine. Faced with the sight of Abu Mazen meeting John Kerry as an example of the “change” wrought by Oslo, it is instructive to remember Fanon’s words regarding the “change” that post-colonialism brought to “independent” Gabon: “In fact the only change is that Monsieur M’ba is president of the Republic of Gabon, and he is the guest of the president of the French Republic.”[5]

Diagnosing this state of affairs as an outcome of the national revolutions of an earlier generation (not the necessary outcome, but one that nevertheless too often followed such struggles) is not the same as “a retreat from political engagement.” It is simply a clear-eyed attempt to analyze the present, in order to contribute to new forms of struggle against this new political reality. Certainly, the “post-Oslo” present of Palestine (like the “post-colonial” present of Gabon) has nothing to do with the vision of true decolonization for which that earlier revolutionary generation fought. The best work of postcolonial studies has involved the attempt, not only to predict and diagnose what went wrong, but to imagine and theorize what comes after the post-colonial—or, in the case of Palestine, what comes after Oslo. To take inspiration from the militant generation of scholars that Giacaman invokes makes perfect sense in this context. But to confuse this with the assumption that the particular political context, and the subsequent political struggles, of our generation will take the same form as it did for this earlier generation is to risk misapprehending the present. Our political present is not a fallen version of that past in which the militant generation carried out their work. It is rather the context within which we have the responsibility to imagine new forms of militancy.

I will end with this point, regarding the importance of the work of the imagination, as a final moment of dialogue with Giacaman’s argument that I would love to carry forward at further length. He notes in his conclusion that he “do[es] not advocate returning to a carbon copy of the intellectual climate created by the Palestinian revolution.” I want to be certain to acknowledge this point, as well as his further point that what he takes as his main source of inspiration from this earlier militant generation is “the marriage of knowledge-production with political action.” I am in total agreement with this. The next question is: What might politically-engaged knowledge production look like in our political present? He suggests that “one of the roles of academics should be to explore questions of organizational structure: that is, questions having to do with revolutionary practice.” I certainly would not disagree with this.

But there is an absence in Giacaman’s piece that is incredibly striking, and it has to do with his invocation of Elias Khoury, following upon Khoury’s intervention at the Brown conference. Khoury is presented to us as the editor of Shu’un Filastiniyya, as a member of that militant generation that Giacaman honors, and as an inspiration for militant research yet to come. He is of course all of these things. But absent here is Elias Khoury in the role through which many of us know him best: as one of the most important novelists of our time. As any reader of his work knows, Khoury’s fiction is deeply inspired by and connected to his work as a political militant, specifically at the service of the Palestinian revolution. But at the same time, like all great imaginative writing, its direct relationship to political struggle—one might say, more crudely, its immediate applicability to the revolution—is highly complex and mediated. To suggest this is not to step away from “real” politics; it is simply to move towards expanding our political vision.

So an admiration for Khoury’s work is one more thing that Giacaman and I share in our mutual dedication to a renewed form of militant scholarship. But in pushing Giacaman’s vision and conclusions a bit further, I suggest that we begin by bringing Khoury’s work with Shu’un Filastiniyya and his work as a novelist together, under the category of “politically-engaged knowledge production.” This is to say, in short, that imaginative work is also political (just as political work is also imaginative). If we are to take just one lesson from Giacaman’s “post-militant/postmodern” generation, it might be this one. To forget the work of imaginative writing in presenting a vision of militant scholarship is to impoverish ourselves, at a time when we need every single one of what Raymond Williams called our “resources of hope.”


[1] Walter Benjamin, “Conversations with Brecht,” trans. Anya Bostock, in Aesthetics and Politics (New York: Verso, 1998), 99.

[2] Michel Foucault, “What Is Enlightenment?” trans. Catherine Porter, in The Essential Works of Michel Foucault, Volume I: Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: The New Press, 1997), 310.

[3] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Review of Vivek Chibber, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital,” Cambridge Review of International Affairs 27 (2014): 193.

[4] Stuart Hall, “Race, Articulation, and Societies Structured in Dominance,” in Sociological Theories: Race and Colonialism (Paris: UNESCO, 1980), 341.

[5] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove, 2004), 28.

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