What the Arab peoples signify to us

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This article by Jean-Luc Nancy first appeared in French in Libération 28 March 2011. This translation is by Gilbert Leung of Critical Legal Thinking. Many thanks to Gilbert for allowing us to republish it here.

The Arab peoples are signifying to us that resistance and revolt are with us once again, and that history is moving beyond History. They are doing it, as is appropriate, with all the fortune and misfortune that it involves. At the very least they have sent an irreversible signal whose effects we can expect to see across Africa and in the odious perpetuation of the drama on Canaan’s ancient land. In one of the places where we least expected this revolt to occur, a leader of the gang (officially, of the State) crushes it, ready to liquidate whoever necessary of his supposed people.

Meanwhile, other States strike at their own rebels quite forcefully, sometimes with the help of a powerful Arab neighbour. Benghazi insurgents are asking for help: this is not simple, entailing clear risks, both practical and political. Political responsibility means weighing up and dealing with such circumstances. Is this the time to invoke in pell-mell fashion the collateral risks and suspicion of (more or less) hidden interests, the principles of non-interference and the heavy guilt of a “West” that may, one wonders, include Libya itself, or Saudi Arabia or Syria, not to mention China and Russia?

It is fine for the beautiful souls of the left and the sophisticated operators on the right to sigh or protest; whether in European or in Arab countries: one must know which world we are in. We are no longer just simply in the world of Western arrogance, self-confidence and imperialism. Oh! It is not that the poor old “West” has cleaned up its act: it is simply in the process of melting in the fusion that begets another world, without sunrise or sunset, a world where it is day and night everywhere at the same time and where it is necessary to reinvent the act of living together and, before all else, the act of living itself.

So, yes, it is necessary to keep a close eye on the strikes that are aimed at undermining the vile assassin of the people; sure, it is necessary to strike – him, of course, not the people. We can no longer, with one hand, invoke the sovereignty that, with the other hand, we empty of substance and legitimacy through all the interconnections – the best and worst – of the globalised world [monde mondialisé]. It is up to the people in question and to all others, including us, to ensure then that the oil, financial, and arms dealing game that installed and maintained this puppet (among many others) in power does not start over. It is the responsibility of the peoples, yes: and it is also of course to us, the peoples of Europe or America, that this is addressed.

It is a delicate task. But at stake is what we want to live and how we want to live it, with an acuteness that we are not accustomed to. That is what the Arab peoples are also signifying to us.

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6 Responses

  1. conallg

    April 4, 2011 12:08 am

    What a disgusting article.

    Right from its tortuous opening, which some will forgive as a dilletantist flourish, but which in fact is doing yeoman’s work in defining a narrowly eurocentric perspective on events in north Africa:

    The Arab peoples are signifying to us that resistance and revolt are with us once again, and that history is moving beyond History.

    Nothing that Arabs do can have significance unless it is signifying to “us”.

    Meanwhile, other States strike at their own rebels quite forcefully, sometimes with the help of a powerful Arab neighbour.

    Would be kinda vulgar to name the actors, or give geographical specifics (Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Jordan). I’m poeticizing here!! “Canaan’s ancient land”, that’s my level.

    Benghazi insurgents are asking for help

    Erm, okay, well that was pretty specific, but I can verify: I’ve spoken to most of them, it really is what they want.

    the heavy guilt of a “West”

    White man’s burden.

    It is fine for the beautiful souls of the left and the sophisticated operators on the right to sigh or protest;

    I smell a nineties revival: remember Zizek used this line repeatedly during the bombing of Belgrade? And ended up screaming in caps, “not yet ENOUGH bombs, and they are TOO LATE”? We are in the presence of Euro-geist: it’s sophisticated shit.

    We are no longer just simply in the world of Western arrogance, self-confidence and imperialism.

    Reality refutes this at every point. The most outrageous lie in this piece.

    it is simply in the process of melting in the fusion that begets another world, without sunrise or sunset, a world where it is day and night everywhere at the same time and where it is necessary to reinvent the act of living together and, before all else, the act of living itself.

    Logorrhoea. Nothing intelligible is being said here.

    So, yes, it is necessary to keep a close eye on the strikes that are aimed at undermining the vile assassin of the people; sure, it is necessary to strike – him, of course, not the people.

    Imagining Prof Nancy here, anxiously overseeing the computer monitors at the command control of the French air force, shouting ‘Non, zat iss not Qadaffi’s harem, zat iss a wedding party! Keep going!”

    It is up to the people in question and to all others, including us, to ensure then that the oil, financial, and arms dealing game that installed and maintained this puppet (among many others) in power does not start over.

    Yeah, this time is different. We’re gonna get rid of all that nasty shit. Once the smoke clears.

    It is the responsibility of the peoples, yes: and it is also of course to us, the peoples of Europe or America, that this is addressed.

    Is there anything that happens in this world that is not addressed to ‘us’, in the final instance? Is there anything in this world that doesn’t ultimately demand the response of a West whose sheer depravity and savagery has been demonstrated again and again over several hundred years?

    It is a delicate task.
    Uh-huh.

  2. William Wall

    April 4, 2011 7:27 am

    Wow Conallg, so much self-righteous bile in one response, so many brilliant rhetorical questions. And that brief sketch of Nancy in the computer room. I’m impressed, especially with the subtle way you turn what we all expect to be a Frog accent into a Hun one instead – how clever is that? And the strategy of deliberately misunderstanding – could there be a better one? I particularly love your ending – ‘Uh-huh’. Now that’s what I call specific. Anyone who has watched American TV knows exactly how that is delivered. So cool.

  3. michael burke

    April 4, 2011 8:36 am

    “We are no longer just simply in the world of Western arrogance, self-confidence and imperialism”.

    We are as much in that world now as we have ever been.

    British humanitarian intervention, French peackeepers are oxymorons.

  4. William Wall

    April 4, 2011 10:08 am

    Michael, you need to read that quote more carefully. It says we are no longer *just simply* in that world. The point being made here is that we are in that world still, but there is now another factor. The world dominated by western arrogance and imperialism is fading.

  5. Illan Wall

    April 4, 2011 2:36 pm

    I had read this response from conallg elsewhere, and it infuriated me. It is entirely misrepresenting the piece by Nancy. So let me say a few things.

    Firstly, the classic Eurocentric move is to elide the subject who speaks, because the european subject is supposed to be the universal subject. The ‘us’ that conallg highlights certainly is crucial – it is the very point of the piece, but the reading you provide of it is UTTERLY misrepresenting the point. It is absolutely not that “Nothing that Arabs do can have significance unless it is signifying to “us”.” Quite the opposite. The point is that these events take on a particular sense in the ‘West’, as distinct from elsewhere. What the media in the UK misses is that their sense is not universal. Thus the ‘us’ is precisely what is at issue! What you take to be Eurocentrism is an attempt to shatter their supposed universalism.

    Secondly, when you (and michael) quote: “We are no longer just simply in the world of Western arrogance, self-confidence and imperialism.” and then say “Reality refutes this at every point. The most outrageous lie in this piece.” You miss the point entirely. If “history is moving beyond History” (as you ignore in the opening paragraph – it is dilletantism apparently) then the ‘distribution of the sensible’ or the ‘state of the situation’ or the everyday political constitution of our times are in a moment of surpassing themselves…. put more plainly we are both in the time of western hegemony and its destruction.

    Im not sure I agree with Nancy here, Badiou (cited above) seems to be more persuasive, but Nancy is certainly NOT some sort of imperialist/eurocentric… even a passing knowledge of his work would reveal this.