[Presented at the Chicago MLA Conference, “Francophone Thinkers and Postcolonial Theory,” chaired by Françoise Lionnet]
In the introduction to her book, Transfigurations of the Maghreb, Winifred Woodhull elucidates Abdelkebir Khatibi’s notion of the bi-langue as a space which works against the hegemonic monolith of the French language, literature, and culture through its resistance to the limits of dualism and binaried identities. Yet, as liberatory this discourse provides for a postcolonial reading of culture, the bi-langue, according to Woodhull, fails to recognize ‘intractable difference’, the plurality of identities which stretch far beyond any universalizing national or linguistic boundaries. Woodhall claims that the recent current of French post-structuralism in North African literary criticism has resulted in the representation of Maghrebian identity through a theoretical rather than through a historical or cultural vein. Ultimately, as I read Woodhull’s very cogent analyses of Maghrebian literature, I am nonetheless confused by her repeated use of the term “intractable difference” which she claims to borrows from Jean-François Lyotard. For what begins as a critique of French post-structuralism and Maghrebian scholarship, ends up evolving a method of isolating theory from history and culture, of distinguishing “Western” discourses from “historically” or “culturally” informed discourses–as if post-structuralism is not discursively informed by culture and can be merely excised geographically, or as if non-Western cultures do not already maintain certain discursive practices many of which might actually evoke cultural articulations similar to that of post-structuralism. Woodhull states:
The problem is that, in Cixous’s writing as in Khatibi’s, the “link between the ‘libido of the other’ and writing” is made in such a way as to obscure or even obliterate the difference between various manifestations of intractable difference, with the result that various figures of otherness–femininity, Arabness, Jewishness, blackness–circulate indifferently in a space of “immemorial bewitchment” divorced from the particular intersecting histories of these groups…I worry that, in the name of affirming the resistant poetic force of Maghrebian writing in French, critics have developed a habit of reading this body of work in strict conformity with the current French philosophical and literary norms as a way of “elevating” it (p. xxiii).
And later Woodhull reiterates that these texts have “taken a postfeminist approach…analyzing “woman” as a textual marker of intractable difference without considering its relation to women’s historical and material reality” (p. 1). Woodhull spends much of her critique examing the long-elided issues of women as historical subjects in Maghrebian literature using as her framework feminist analyses from an array of theorists from Judith Butler to Fatima Mernissi and various literary texts, many of which autobiographically dissolve any danger of aspecificty or fluid ambiguities.
Yet, her analysis seems to engage the very indifference to the multiplicity that she accuses Khatibi of eliciting in his readings of Maghrebian culture. For Woodhull simply avoids post-structuralist theory by maintaining a feminist reading of the texts at hand. In short, Woodhull offers her readers feminism as a “culturally informed” discourse, since, according to her, post-structuralism is not. In fact, there is a moment when discussing Djebar’s writing when she states: “Without question, Djebar’s novels are feminist and are highly critical of women’s situation in Algeria” (p. 79). What does “feminist” entail as a discursive model for reading a text? Is feminism demonstrated only within any text which critiques women’s position in certain Maghrebian societies? And to which women’s situations is Woodhull referring since there are distinctly very different visible socio-religious practices of Islam among women of upper and lower classes, for instance? And, of course the most obvious question would be to ask upon whose feminism is Woodhull relying? I cannot help but reject many of the arguments that Woodhull proposes regarding her historical and cultural interpretations of Maghrebian literature since what she names as feminism is no more culturally or historically informed by the Maghreb than the spectre of French post-structuralism which she ardently battles. Woodhull’s resistance to French literary theory merely engages a mélange of North African cultural images combined with American and French feminism—as if feminist theory were immune to criticism of hegemonic interpolation or inclusion amidst a popular current of reading these texts.
Although I admire Woodhull’s desire to bring an ethnographic and historical voice to the fore, it seems to me that she elides any discussion of the current discourses of gender, culture, and nationality as argued by Maghrebian scholars today which are still of major concern in North African cultural politics. We can see this demonstrated in the work of Traki Zannad, Fatima Mernissi, Fatna Ait Sabah, Hanneta B’nouni, and Abdessamad Dialmy, just to name a few. In fact, it is this very intersection of Woman/Nation/Islam which serves as the juncture for current feminist discussions in North Africa, sometimes steeped in Islamic theory, other times, in post-structuralist, and often, a combination of the two. Yet, one could hardly argue that feminism is somehow a less appropiated or appropriating theory than post-structuralism. When Woodhull refers to feminisms emerging from the Maghreb, she calls them ‘latent’ or ‘protofeminism[s]’, as if there is a diachronic progression between European and Muslim feminisms, or as if there is only one stream of feminism produced in the West and re-produced in North Africa.
Woodhull begins to discuss certain legal restrictions for women within the Maghreb and she stops at a very brief mention of the Shari’a and certain interpretations of women by fundamentalist groups in Algeria such as the FIS. However, to take modern day Algeria and to represent the current situation of women could be useful to understand the recent political and social position of Algerian women, but would be admittedly hyperbolic to describe the experiences of women in the Maghreb in general, of women in Tunisia or Morocco, and of women in certain privileged social classes. In fact, I find that Woodhull’s book, more than demonstrating the very complex issues of feminism and women in the Arab World, reveals the aporetic climate left when the Western “feminist” ethos becomes displaced by the fluidity of many of the newer Muslim based feminisms, many of which would argue that women are empowered by the hijab, for instance. How then can we resolve the dilemma of favoring certain theories over others, of supporting certain feminisms as “true” and others as “regressive”? How can we confront the limits of our own academic traditions of examining other cultures and literatures through the very same discursive apparatus through which we view and critique our own? Or perhaps a better question might be, are we capable of undertaking investigations of feminisms without utilizing Western feminisms as tools of social moralizing or discursive hierarcharizing?
The text that Woodhull criticizes most vituperatively of Abdelkebir Khatibi’s is his Maghreb pluriel. In this text, Khatibi advances the notion of the bi-langue as a domain in which Western and non-Western discourses interact, review and recast the traditionally dichotomized notions of gender, sexuality, language and culture without reformulating a new, stagnant identity. For Khatibi, the bi-langue evidences the process of decolonization of the Maghreb through a perpetual analysis and consideration of both Western and non-Western texts. The bi-langue presupposes the fluid space of destruction, reflection, and recreation in which writers and critics of both the “East” and the “West” must interact and participate critically. Khatibi’s theory sets out to subvert the hegemonic practices of linguistic and cultural domination by advocating “poetic language” as a force through which one can welcome the foreign, or the other, which, according to Khatibi, exists in every language, nation, culture, and every subjectivity. Khatibi’s reading of Maghrebian texts gives rise to the possibility of reexaming the epistemological constraints that Western theory has commonly manifested in examining non-Western practices and literatures while still accounting for the many contributions that have, to a large degree, enlightened his analyses.
Ironically, it seems that much of what Khatibi examines—for instance, the cultural aspects of literature—is exactly what Woodhull claims to undertake in her book. Yet, they diverge at the moment when Khatibi’s construction of polymorphous sexualities, genders, and bodies appears to Woodhull as a masking of individual faces, of individual experiences, and perhaps the specificity of the woman’s body. However, I do not read Khatibi’s work as an attempt to name women’s experience as singular, but rather as an effort to forge a poetics of “other-thought” through which post-colonial identities are formed, or rather, through which identities might be formed. The fluidity of the somatic for Khatibi does not manifest a totalizing obfuscation of identity, but instead offers intractable difference as an option for uprooting Western hegemony wherein the post-colonial subject might reconstruct himself. Unlike Lyotard’s definition of “intractable difference” from where Woodhull also draws her discussion, I do not view Khatibi’s bi-langue as a space which pervades representation. Instead, the bi-langue is a sphere which enables expression and movement, destruction and construction, and where conflicting possibilities might meet, revealing new struggles, manifesting new possibilities for discussing identity that are not encoded as universal or obligatory. Identity for Khatibi is a tricky maneuver—a dédoublement of sorts—in which poetic language and the body become scenes of locating oppression while simultaneously incorporating the possibilities of escaping the very oppressive definitions or roles that language and the somatic have heretofore maintained. Identity engenders a persistent shift, an unrelenting unearthing of differences–languages, nations, bodies, sexes, and genders-—which the mimetic force of language and performance seek to uncover while attempting the draw these differences into a sphere of similarities, into places of seduction and subversion.
It is in Amour bilingue, where Khatibi establishes the act of seduction (fitna) as the space of understanding the complexity of Maghrebian identity. As we know from Fatima Mernissi’s work and much Islamic scholarship, fitna is a term long employed in describing women in the Q’oran and many haddiths. Fitna is beauty, charm, and creation, while it is also the antithesis of these characteristics—fitna is seduction, war, sedition, disorder, and revultion. Fitna is used in a haddith by Al Bukhari to describe the war led by the Prophet’s widow Aicha when fighting against the Fourth Caliph, Ali Ibn Abi Talib, after the assassination of the third caliph, ‘Uthman (Mernissi, pp. 4-5). It is also repeatedly used in the Koran to refer to a woman’s power over man blocking him from God’s light, dismantling his reason, or embodying a stronger power of beauty or seduction. Although fitna has historically marked women’s politcal potential and danger , fitna has simultaneously represented the possibility for empowerment, for subverting the homogenizing narratives of language, nation, and gender. For Khatibi, fitna is the poetic and somatic totality of war and seduction, that which draws one into disorder as well as into the search for paradise. Fitna embodies both the impossibility of putting a full-stop to language while suggesting the end of sterile, monolithic definitions of identity. Ultimately, fitna is a term which has long maneuvered women’s space in the world, positing her as simultaneously powerful and weak, sexually active and pure, imprisoned and free. The space of liberation lies not in the definition or representation of a particular posture, but rather rests in the impossibility of locating one specific identity as either paradigmatic or enigmatic.
Likewise, post-colonial Moroccan identity can be best read in relation to fitna—identity is charged with simultaneous contradictions, conflicts, and restructurings. Discussing Moroccan identity today depends upon the ability of understanding divergent cultural realities, various national and colonial histories, and of course, many linguistic traditions. Obviously, this has been argued and widely achieved, but unfortunately, at the expense of the very culturally informed readings which writers like Khatibi have maintained through the use of both Islamic and North African theories as well as French thought. Ironically, Maghrebian cultural theory embraces the same discursive drive to understand these binaried structures of identity as does “Western” post-structuralism. In fact, we could say that Khatibi vindicates himself in asserting that the West is still casting its own intellectual hegemony onto the rest of the world. For Khatibi’s writing—despite the fact that he focuses on Middle Eastern and North African history, Islamic thought, and Moroccan cultural theory and literature—is still understood by Western critics like Woodhull as an “appropriat[ion] of deconstruction for third world peoples…and cultural politics” (Woodhull, xi) rather than being recognized as a reworking of Islamic thought and North African identity through theoretical currents. Perhaps we should examine the discomfort presented by the critical reception of such discourses which locate a poetics and politics of liberation for women that does not coincide with ‘our’ Western ideals of such liberatory issues? Perhaps we should reevaluate what we so easily label “Western” and attempt to investigate to what extent colonialism has necessarily influenced French thought, for instance, and to what extent post-structuralism is as much a symptom of French culture as it is a product of France’s long involvement with Moroccan, Tunisian, and Algerian cultures? And finally, maybe we ought to look back to Maghrebian cultural theory, most of which—contrary Woodhull’s assertion—does not offer extreme or subversive tactics or poetics as solutions for reshaping the social climate. Instead, we might find new ways of reading older texts, older bodies, in order to create newer spaces for newly born subjects. I think that North African women and men are all too conscious of the limitations involved with the various politics of “subversion” and, as a result, often attempt to locate their resistance within a more stayed, even a seemingly more tame, identity politics. The fact that Khatibi’s poetics of resistance neglects to ensure the ideals now fashionable in Western cultural theory, does not signify its failure as a project. It may, on the other hand, reflect the nature of our cultural proclivity of reading a politics of despair into any discourse which fails to resonate the same theoretical conclusions that have “succeeded” in the Western academic scene or which have failed to reproduce similar social paradigms of oppressive and liberatory acts.
Several months ago, I gave a paper at a feminist conference at the Université Mohammed V in Rabat. Days before the conference, I was informed that everyone’s paper had been cut down from twenty minutes to ten minutes since the Princess was to give an speech and conduct the opening ceremony for the conference. Frankly, I was outraged that a feminist conference could even begin with a princess opening it—imagine, a conference about women beginning with the very symbolic images of patriarchal desire and power. But I was not half as upset as when I showed up the morning of the conference and, along with another fifteen speakers, was made to wait several hours for Princess Asma’s arrival. Princess Asma finally appeared and into the lecture hall poured her assistants, bearers of flags, honored guests, privileged members of the faculty, friends of the royal family, and a slew of reporters. There was not an available seat in the room for any of the students or conference participants. All of the Moroccan scholars took this scene lightly, and before long they had me laughing at the whole situation.
For months I kept thinking of this whole scenario as ironic. And it is—from a certain cultural and theoretical perspective. And yet, others could justly dismantle any claim of irony. The contradictions which I read into this feminist conference were merely the effect my own empirical values disagreeing, as it were, with the outer logic of the occasion, the cultural specificity of the event which I framed within my “local knowledge”. The fact that I understood feminism as a discursive drive to free certain subjects from certain structures of power, was completely displaced and forced into a speculative posture. For participating in this and other similar conferences only compelled me to question my own culturally and theoretically hegemonic baggage which so easily incurs the use of words that many of us in American institutions so unhesitantly and repetitively use as a code of agreement and as monolithic forums of engagement and consensus. We must persistently question, who are the subjects which certain discourses enunciate? Whose freedom are we surveying? And finally, whose feminism are we employing? It is all too easy to discuss other cultural paradigms as we stand ready, holding the golden rod of liberatory discourse. It is all too facile to speak of feminist thought as a universally sanctioned narrative. At what point does our academic tradition in the United States begin to inflect a neo-colonizing hold over other, “falsely informed” narratives? I believe that we should begin to recast our criticism towards our own academic tradition which tends to blur the cultural specificity of cultures, of differences within culture, and of the very language with which we use to evoke cultural readings. Perhaps we should go back to Ibn Khaldun’s Al Moqadima, wherein he warns us about the interconnectedness of taqlid and tarikh, culture and the writing of history, stating: “Blind faith in tradition is congenital” (p. 6, translation mine).