Thursday, November 22, 2012

Speaking for Egypt: Voice and Voicelessness

I’m interested in the question of “who could legitimately claim to speak for Egypt? Who could not?” (Revolution and Counter Revolution in Egyptian Media). This week’s readings raise questions about who can speak and what this speaking actually looks like.  Like previous readings, there is a tension between individual and collective, “I” and “we” and “you.” The protestors said, “We are Egyptians. We aren’t criminals. We aren’t thieves. We aren’t foreigners…. We are educated, non threatening, part of the world community, these posters said, we deserve democracy.” There is a collective voice, a unifying “we.” There is strength in the mass. People are speaking together. And yet much of this week’s reading focuses on the power of bodies gathered together—a voice that appears through collective action, through the mass mobilization of people, and through the physical enactment of this. In “The Cell Phone and The Crowd,” Raphael writes that emancipation “relies on the dense gathering of bodies held in patient anticipation of a clearing and release” (420).

On the topic of voice and voicelessness, Raphael writes, “middle –class accounts of this other crowd regularly made mention of the “voicelessness” of the urban poor. At the same time, these accounts showed a relative lack of concern with actually hearing—much less recording—any distinctive voices. By emphasizing the voicelessness, the middle class in effect redoubled the masses’ seeming inarticulateness; as if the masses, without anything intelligible to say, could only act irrationally at time violently. “Voiceless,” the masses, it was feared, might riot in the streets.” (423) This passage raises a question: to what extent must we hear distinctive voices?  Or, how are individual identities/experiences frozen or subsumed to become part of a mass? To what extent is it powerful to hear one voice representing many? There is danger in both freezing people as unable to speak and being unwilling to hear them. Thus, I am interested in how we read mass action and mass mobilization? How do we hear it? In our guest lecture, we discussed not only how we see and read mass action but also how we record it and transmit it.

Ranciere, I think, deepens this week’s reading, because we must ask not only how we voice or present mass action but also what we are speaking for. I appreciate the way he problematizes democracy and raises questions about fighting for citizenship. Ranciere says, “Or it can be said that the rights of man are the rights of citizens, the rights these latter possess on account of their belonging to an existing constitutional state. If this is the case, then they are the rights of those who have rights, which amounts to a tautology” (56). Indeed, Ranciere points to the problem: we cannot define rights based on the definition the state employs. Citizenship assumes that people with rights are also subjects who must be civilized. Citizenship has consistently been defined by state powers. Ranciere discusses the connection and disconnection between man and citizen. We must ask, what about the men and women who are not considered citizens and who are not recognized by the governments? I am interested in fighting for something beyond citizenship (a historically exclusionary category.) I’m especially interested in this question of citizenship and manhood because I am taking a class on the Haitian revolution and learning about the way that slaves were not demanding  citizenship but were instead asking to be seen as human.  Indeed, we must think through the difference between being recognized as human and being recognized as a citizen. Ranciere writes, “they showed that since they could enact those rights, they actually possessed them” (57). It is this process of enacting—both physically and verbally—that I want to talk more about. 

No comments: