In his comparative reading of Mallarmé’s “Un Coup de dés” with a pre-Islamic ode, Alain Badiou summons two poetic voices “born in the recognition of a radical collapse.” In both texts, “the defection of the place” and the “defection of language” call upon a master “to confer a poetic chance upon a truth” while overlooking nothingness, the desert, the abyss of meaning and time.
Following this reading, Badiou concludes that Western modernity and the very essence of capitalism are both maintained by a transcendent master who makes “choice and non-choice equivalent.” The immanent master of the pre-Islamic ode comes to embody the rejection of modernity and becomes, as such, the very condition and guarantor of that which it will never understand, enter, or adhere to.
Besides their function as potent cultural tropes—reductionist and misleading as they may be—sea and desert represent two different historical trajectories of military and religious conquests, which have defined the Arab East and the European West and provided a spatial ordering for their respective old and modern imperial pursuits.
Towards the end of The Poetics of Space, Bachelard concedes his lack of immediate experience of seas and deserts compared with his intimate knowledge of drawers, rooms, homes or forests. He also finds empirical and immediate experience of seas and deserts superfluous and generally indicative of “bad literature.” The poetics of vast immensities “does not come from the spectacle witnessed, but from the unfathomable depths of vast thought.”
In the end, this promising encounter of Badiou’s “spatial collapse” with one of Bachelard’s philosophical categories of reverie—whereby the vastness of space attests to the vastness of thought—did not err further than Kipling’s ‘Ballad of East and West’. In many respects, Badiou’s transcendent and immanent masters reproduce and maintain, albeit in a more sophisticated way, the absolute heterogeneity of imaginary dichotomies against the background of the same homogenous smooth space and in the no-place of spatial and verbal collapse.
However, while it may be perfectly accurate to deduce the transcendent master from Mallarme’s dice throw, the odds of meeting the immanent master of the pre-Islamic ode are very slim. The defection of the place and the word are difficult to establish in the Arabic language. What is at stake here, is a problem of translation of not just words, but of an entire structure of feelings partly informed by the primacy in the Arabic language of what Walter Benjamin calls image-space (bildraum).
Words such as شعب (people), which conjures up a visual representation of the labyrinth and narrow mountain pass, or ثورة (revolution) expressing an action through the mental picture of the bull, are indicative of the complex montage of image, space, bodies, action and words which characterizes the Arabic language. A more careful reading and a better translation of such key words may lead to a better understanding of the structure of feelings which informs the cultural context of the protest movements in the Arab world.
Al-Sharaa [الشارع] is the Arabic word for street and at the same time means the one who begins something or enters upon a project. Its root verb sha-ra-a [شَرَعَ] literally means to undertake or enter upon a legal action. The word as such already combines a reference to: a place, an action, a third person subject and the idea of legitimacy.
Rhizomatic off shoots of meanings grow and multiply around this root word. Its lines of flight are structured following a complex map of references signposted by a set of symbols known in Arabic as shakl, meaning forms or shapes. In their grammatical function such symbols punctuate letters and words. It is worth noting that at the level of sentences, the Arabic language knows little or nothing of punctuation. Sentences are usually linked with ‘and’ [و], something that, in a different context, Deleuze recognized as an indicator of the superiority of Anglo-American literature over its French counterpart.
With the strike of a little symbol known as shadda (which holds and doubles a letter) for added emphasis, sha-ra-a becomes sharra-a [ شرّعَ] meaning to legislate, to set the law and to make legal. Add a letter here and another one there, the word’s meanings change from a religious to a mundane and secular register, from the sacred law of shariia [شريعة] to the human project or mashrou-u [مشروع]
Interestingly, when a small zero-shaped symbol (known as the silencer or Sokoon) is added to one of the letters, the word’s meaning shifts to divine law [شرْع] and only when punctuated with another small symbol, which looks like a dash, also known as ‘opener’ (fatha) the word once again loses its divine connotation and becomes a human action (project) and a human space (street). When punctuated by a dash-like symbol placed below the letter also known as Kasra (meaning break or smashing up), the word shi-raa now means sail [شِراع].
However, the Arabic word for street translates as ‘public opinion’. The meaning of its root verb and its various punctuations and the mental representations they conjure up are bound to remain the misrecognized or repressed punctum in the televised spectacles of the Arab protests.
Despite the fact that popular protest is largely recognized as an unalienable civic right in many liberal democracies, the actual act of marching on the streets is never conflated with, or reduced to public opinion. More importantly, the impersonal street is a site of circulation and movement rather than action or projects.
The legislative power of the street as evoked by the word in Arabic seem to be radically antithetical to a long intellectual and cultural tradition in Western thought which associates the occupation of the street by protestors, crowds or idle loafers with lawlessness, violence, excess and with such numerous unpredictable and irrational outcomes. The suspicious act of occupying the street by the unoccupied voyou, to use Derrida’s word in Rogues, does not set the law and neither does its subject enter upon a legal action. It rather “initiates an inquiry and prepares prosecution before the law.”
The Western street represents a complex set of repressed libidinal forces. It is the death drive that allures Shakespeare’s Cinna the Poet against his own “will to wander forth of doors.” In the street, Cinna the Poet is mistaken for Cinna the conspirator and is put to death by four random citizens he encounters on his way. As such, the man on the street is always prone to become a suspect ‘person’ when the crowd occupies or marches on the street.
Such was the fate of 47-year-old newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson on April 1st in 2009. Ian was on his way home at the end of his working day, seemingly “drunk and in his own world.” Had he walked past a police van or among a motely crowd on any other day, Ian Tomlinson would have remained the anonymous citizen, the unassuming passerby he’s always been. On that fatal day, though, he was not in the street, but in the middle of a G20 protest.
In Badiou’s recent lighthearted philosophical dialogue with a fictional street philosopher (Liberation, 29 March 2011), the events in Libya are described as a global conflict whereby the whole world is “taken over by a planetary banditry.” A helpless citizenry is caught up in the crossfire of the “civilized godfathers” and the rogue bandits that they have created and nurtured in the less civilized parts of the world. There is no revolution in Libya. Just a few “desert oil wells” and a “desert colonel boss” fighting “little groups going round in four-wheel drives brandishing submachine-guns… and riding pell-mell through the desert to seize townships that no one defends.”
The people’s protest that only a few weeks ago Badiou recommended that the West needs to listen to and learn from has already exhausted its revolutionary potential. It is worth noting though that neither Badiou nor his interlocutor, the street philosopher, had anything to say about the motley crowd of Yemeni protestors in head-rags and flip-flops who have been occupying the streets and public squares day and night for over a month now in a Mexican stand-off with their resilient septuagenarian president. Perhaps the Yemenis, like their public square, are not as telegenic as their Egyptian counterparts.
In a different context, Badiou’s ‘planetary banditry’ resonates with Derrida’s voyoucracy qua a “principle of disorder… a threat against public order.” But unlike Badiou, Derrida identifies new spaces and misrecognized opportunities within both language and the place at the very moment of their collapse. A voyoucracy, Derrida says, “institutes a sort of counter-power or counter-citizenship. It is… a milieu.”
The protest of a quarter of a million in the streets of London on March 26 would have been deemed a success, had it not been hijacked by a small minority of anarchists. Such is the media narrative of events and the political response to it. The success of the march would simply mean that nothing happened and nothing will happen. The emptying of the street (from action, the law and the third person subject) is the ‘spatial collapse’, which in Badiou’s words summons a transcendent master who confers a poetic chance on some truth, on an impossible choice.
Is the radical distinction between street and public opinion, street and reason, street and the law, street and action symptomatic of the defection of language and the defection of the place in Western politics? Is this double defection an instance of what Benjamin describes as moral metaphors of bourgeois language? This language, Benjamin says, is incapable of bringing about change.
The language Benjamin was trying to recover in various textual fragments and montages is one where words and images “come about through action”. Images and words “are action” which takes place in the Messianic time of the now and the present. The protest movements derived their legitimacy and energy from the Arab street rather than from a holy book or a divine command. According to Tunisian psychoanalyst, Fethi Ben Slama, Islamic discourse is symptomatic of modernity as that moment of crisis which engenders totalitarian ideologies. This discourse in its recent alliance with the discourse of science and technology “presents itself as the end that returns to the beginning, a new beginning that makes origin infinite. This closed circuit makes messianism impossible.”
The protests which have lead the Arab Minotaur across labyrinthine streets are perhaps an affirmation of the NOW, a present which has erupted within a history of deferred dreams trapped between an oppressive past of lost glories and the crippling uncertainties of a utopian future.