Cairo is a booming center of the global south whose inhabitants conservatively number 20 million. It is not known for its silence, absence, or lack. Noise, density, and abundance are far more likely objects of inquiry, which the city duly throws up for scholars to inspect. Yet, beyond every observable fact and phenomenon to be collected, sampled and recorded here, lies an unruly excess that escapes scholars’ concepts and practices. Appropriately then, the recently held conference “Excavating Absence: Histories of the (Im)material” revolved around a productive and generative paradox: How does one listen to silence and make tangible something as fleeting and formless as the emotion of historical actors or their cosmology? In other words, how does one know what is not there and, more importantly, what are the politics of that knowing?
The city served as an important inspiration and resource for the organizers Ananya Chakravarti and Hakem al-Rustom, professors of History and Anthropology at the American University of Cairo and founders of the Theory and Practice in the Humanities and Social Sciences Workshop. The two wanted Cairo to be more than the arbitrary location of an academic conference that could be held anywhere. They wanted to make it the setting to think through, with, and against theoretical and practical knowledges from both “West” and “South,” there on the border of that mediatized theater of the 2011 Egyptian social revolution, Tahrir Square. One can’t stress the appropriateness of this situating of the conference. The square was once characterized by a suspension of the quotidian by a massive occupation of people living, struggling, and deliberating together. Now, it is largely an empty space marked by the traces of past battles: charred walls, barbed wires, cement barriers and a tank or two. What was once “Liberation Square” is now where you pass through as quickly as possible or where you park your car. The Tahrir parking lot is an effective metaphor for the banality that settles in after the drama of counter-revolutionary erasure.
On the border of Tahrir in a large hall at the American University of Cairo, Chakravorti invoked the still pressing memory of the popular protests, emphasizing the “ambiguity of the legibility” that networked technologies provided for people on the ground. New technologies offered a mode of resistance to power. Yet, they also allowed for power to be reconfigured through newer and more effective modes of surveillance. In the face of this ambiguity, Chakravorti asked if silence was not the only logical response. Instead of thinking of silence as a mark of the oppressed, she suggested that it might be the beginning for new conditions of liberation.
This proposition is certainly provocative. It gives those of us who think professionally something more to contemplate. It meets that common-sense requirement that an idea or a practice be productive. How many papers could be written and talks given that claim to listen to silence and see the invisible? What profits could be speculated and livelihoods sustained by claims of giving voice to the voiceless and seeing those unseen? As conference participant Françoise Vergas pointed out, this economy of addition characterized by “filling gaps” or adding the “missing chapter” participates in capitalism’s own politics of recognition, that rendered those we call silent silent in the first place. The celebration of such silences, therefore, risks reproducing the very same hegemonic discourses of a capitalist modernity.
Still, I am sympathetic to Gayatri Spivak’s methodological imperative of “measuring silence,” 1 which seems to be at the core of the conference’s project even as I am unconvinced of it as a precondition for liberation. I rather much agree with presenter Zerrin Biner, for example, whose research on haunted heritage houses in Turkish Kurdistan found that the alternative modes of historical retelling in the form of djinn and ghost stories are less critical discourses than a different archive that captures a history of repressed memory. The content of that archive, however, does not challenge the state archive in and of itself; it merely provides an addendum to the corpus of facts. What is required is a scholarly practice that combines the modes of interpretation implied by measuring silence along with the modes of observation and description conventionally associated with the social sciences. For it is through the relationship of the present and the absent that silence becomes significant.
It is here that Ann Stoler’s keynote address on the “patterned contortions” of colonial studies struck a chord. Differential and relational histories, she argued, are needed to capture the multi-dimensionality refracted from the recursivity of historical perspective. What this means is that the conventional task of colonial historians has been to show the originary duress of some colonial violence, the disappointing durability of a colonial practice, or the ongoing duration of the effects of colonialism in our so-called postcolonial present. The notorious “arbitrary borders” critique of Africa is a case in point, as is the oft-mentioned artificiality of the state of Iraq. How many conflicts and resource wars are supposedly explained by reference to a colonial land treaty or imperial map? It is as if recognizing the “arbitrariness” of borders absolves the need to interrogate how the logics organizing space and distributing resources were applied and contested over the course of the twentieth century. Yet, this is no more the case than it is for an African migrant on the verge of deportation who wants to argue that the borders of the European Union are a fiction.
The persistence of colonial remnants and imperial aftermaths are largely inevitable precisely because of the colonial concepts operating within the documents produced by and stored in vast repositories of the colonial state’s apparatus of security and surveillance. These documents became the seemingly neutral and objective sources for writing history when they were christened national archives upon independence. In an attempt to address this problem, Stoler suggests thinking in terms of colonial absences and presences instead of colonial aftermaths – an initial move to capture occlusions and recursions of history and the historiographical record. It’s not that the colonial can be avoided in either the present or the past, but rather that we should assess how and under what current political conditions colonial histories reconvene colonial and imperial presences. In this vein, Stoler questions the near structural exclusion of Israel from colonial studies since the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism, explaining the lapse as being “too political to think.”
Accordingly, the conference and Stoler’s intervention are well-timed, coming as they do in a moment when the erasure of historical traces in the Middle East and West Africa associated with violence by radical Islamists serves as the pretext for the continued presence of imperialism. The assault on cultural heritage, especially when conflated with the universal history of civilization, precipitates a superficial movement. It makes the past relevant, but only so far as to render the material objects of history as arguments for violent intervention in the present. As Elliot Colla has pointed out, reports of the burning of manuscripts, smashing of statues, and leveling of tombs contribute to a process of image-making whereby groups are labelled barbarians against whom civilization must be defended. These representations circulate easily but information about the acts of demolition themselves or any understanding of the practices of iconoclasm that underlie a wider political project do not travel past the checkpoint of condemnation.
Benjamin reminds us that this business of civilizational heritage is always suspect: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” 2 The barbarians are not those who do not possess artifacts, monuments, or manuscripts that would signal their belonging to civilization. The mark of the barbarian is the triumphal procession of cultural treasures, that ritual whereby the spoils of war (whether of nations or classes) are transmitted in an endless chain of accumulation. Therefore, the smashing of the idols of universal history must be held with as much “cautious detachment” as the cultural treasures themselves.
It is here, that we hit the limit of what is “too political to think” in our own present: not that silence or absence is a condition of liberation, but that the act of erasure as a part of a comprehensive political project is.
Wendell Hassan Marsh is a doctoral student in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies and the Institute of Comparative Literature and Society. His work lies at the intersection of the history of Islam in Africa, Arabic written culture, and postcolonial theory. His research interrogates the intellectual history of Arabic literature of the Western Sahel.
Marsh, Wendell Hassan. “Politics of an Always Vanishing Present.” CSSAAME Borderlines, 27 June 2015.politics-of-an-always-vanishing-present
Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Illuminations. New York: Schocken, 1969.
Spivak, Gayatri. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Edited by Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, 271-313. University of Illinois Press, 1987.
——–. A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.