The Culture Industry in Academia: Framing Other Faces within Familiar Spaces

[This essay was delivered at the first conference dedicated to the work of Edward Said, “After Orientalism,” at Columbia University in 1996.]

In 1992 and later between 1994 and 1995, I lived in Morocco in order to study francophone literature, to research texts mostly unavailable to me in the United States, and to familiarize myself with a culture that I thought would inform my own readings of these postcolonial narratives. Very shortly after my arrival, I discovered that the veneer of discourse in which I had been invested—that of francophone literature and ethnography—did not yield representations that revealed Maghrebian culture “as it was,” yet paradoxically, these were, and still remain, the primary discursive strategies for interpreting and representing this culture.  Coextensive with Homi Bhabha’s definition of the “barred Nation”, I experienced Moroccan culture as barred, as a “cultural liminality” which Bhabha defines as “a space that is internally marked by cultural difference and the heterogeneous histories of contending peoples, antagonistic authorities, and tense cultural locations” (p. 299).  For the slippage between the culture signified through the French language, the culture recontextualized by social science, and my own experiences only manifests to me, ultimately, what this culture is  not.  Nowhere within the framework of the language of postcolonialism was I to find the cultural complexities of Morocco.  Nowhere within my experiences could I find this coded space called the “Maghreb”.  I realize that this cultural tissue of the Maghreb is as much a postulate of a larger French literary and anthropological tradition as it is a terrain for reinscribing differences of language and subjectivity as coded, marked, and historicized by the very “radical” postcolonial theories current in the academy.

Edward Said’s Orientalism displaces the “ideological fictions” of history by demythifying the construction of the “Orient” within Western discursive strategies of representation.  Today, the revisionist tactics of curriculum changes in the academy, the creation of various departments to include the study of marginal spaces here in the United States, the inclusion of francophone postcolonial texts within French departments, the creation and expansion of Middle and Near Eastern Studies departments, and the growing publications of the voices of emergent identities and demythified histories, all form part of this space which today we often generically call “cultural studies.”  Yet, despite the various overtures made within the academy to address questions of the other, there is a discernible pattern in which  the non-Western subject is still colonized discursively—through readings which often elide the very ethos of the subject and through the institutional structure which so effortlessly divides a culture by race and language, for instance.  In other words, despite the recent efforts made in emphasizing non-Western studies in the United States, these fields of study are utterly structured by the very philosophical and historical  constructs of Western discourse.

In his book Logiques métisses, French anthropologist Jean-Loup Amselle argues that the Western anthropologist in studying other cultures has “invented” fields of study, such as geographical  region, ethnicity, and cultural difference, so as to limit the subject and the community and to redefine them by the very terms of the anthropologist’s culture :

Given all the philosophies of history and other sagas of human progress, American culturalist anthropologists along with Lévi-Strauss were right to stress the particularist nature and the relative character of the values  promoted by different societies.  But the flip side of this generous attitude is the erection of impermeable cultural barriers that imprison each group in its own singularity…To isolate a community by defining a set of characteristic “differences” can lead to the possibility of its territorial confinement, and its eventual expulsion.  Ethnic labeling and the assignation of differences are self-fulfilling prophecies.  They do not just correspond to the acceptance of cultural specificities, but are also correlative with the coercive affirmation of one identity, that of French ethnicity.  This is why, if we are not mindful of it, the problematic of the multicultural society can lead straight into a state of separate development analogous to South African apartheid—itself a consequence of the misapplication of the notion of culture (p. 35).

Amselle asserts that culture as framed by Western anthropology is a constructed vision, a structured space of appearances, observations, and differences which are, for him, artificial edifices of particularity and comparison.  In this way, I view the uniqueness of cultural examination through both  francophone studies and anthropology in the Maghreb as the factor through which the subject of study is always limited by language in the former and cultural scope in the latter.  More so, I find that these spaces of representation ultimately assume culture as representable at the juncture of a language and discourse.  The same impulse which pushes away the colonial past, fixing it in history, brings forth the postcolonial present, embracing the studies of francophone literature and anthropological studies as fields which are invested in the act of representing culture as it is theoretically conceived and not as it is lived.

My point of entry here is not a diatribe per se against francophone or anthropological inquiry, although I cannot help but question the enormous space devoted to Maghrebian studies through these two scopes.  I would like to suggest here that the unique position of formulating and of representing contemporary Maghrebian culture through both these discourses presents two immediate problems for the articulation of culture.  First,  the subject depicted through socio-scientific means is limited by and predisposed to the constraints of the discourse of epistemolog. Secondly, the concentrated study of francophone literary production elides the very issues which have long been contested by the peoples of North Africa—the heritage of Arabic and Berber language groups and their written and oral traditions.  In addition, there is the problem of constructing representations that far too often critically position the Maghrebian subject within Western discourse in an attempt to understand the Maghreb as singular, tracing the authenticity of identity through European notions of subjectivity, gender, and postcolonialism.

I decided to field the  texts which specifically evolve contemporary studies of the Maghreb in research libraries within the United States.  I found that there are on the average thirty-seven books dedicated to anthropological studies and fifty-two critical studies on francophone literature, the vast majority of which are written in English and French.  Books on Berber  and Arabic orature and literature are virtually non-existent, and the few that are in print are usually translations of stories and proverbs into French and English with little reflection upon their cultural topographies. Coterminously, the data on literacy in Morocco for Arabic and French show that  37% of the population is literate with women over the age of fifteen occupying a 26% literacy rate, bringing the literacy in French far below the numbers these figures suggest (UNESCO, 1990 & British Geological Survey, 1995).  Moreso, the publication of books in Arabic and Berber in the Maghreb outweighs those of French by two-thirds (U.N. Statistical Yearbook 1995).  This data suggests two primary problems in relation to the paramater of cultural studies: first, that we cannot accurately discuss Maghrebian culture without an understanding, at least, of the languages of which Arabic and  Berber, and to a lesser degree French, are integral; and secondly, that in studying francophone literature, we necessarily immerse ourselves in a body of unsettled contradictions vectored by complex issues of class, gender, literacy, and language.  Ironically,  anthropology and francophone literature often focus on the paradigmatic experiences of race, sex, class and gender.

Then, what is the relationship between these two archtypical modes of Western interrogation and the object of study, North Africa?  One could argue that anthropology and literature have simply replaced other forms of cultural intervention in the Maghreb, such as travel writing, memoir, and the novels of Orientalist fantasies from the 19th century.  Yet, I believe there is something much more integral to this question of genre and alterity as it relates to our dissemination of textual inscription.  As “cultural studies” and postcolonial theory has informed the scope of many departments of anthropology and French literature in recent years, we have witnessed the birth of consciousness—or at least a pretense—within the academy which concurs that indeed French writing exists outside France and that the Maghreb is not homologous to the Middle East,for example.  Yet, integral to these projects which ostensibly attempt to widen the scope of study, we maintain the margins of examintion—the genre that is—as rigid and stable fields of inquiry.  Thus, anthropology operates as an interlocutor of difference, opening up possibilities for reading non-literate culture through studies of storytelling and music, for example, through the split subject of the anthropologist who enacts a dual role of the subject, living through a culture, being both object and agent of representation.  Likewise, the study of francophone literature examines texts which represent a culture through the postcolonial narrative space of the French  novel, drama, and poetry, inflecting these readings through current literary and social theories of inscription, subjectivity, and culture.  In both cases, the other is rendered visible only through the West—the West as interlocutor, the West as linguistic contextualization, the West as interpretive strategist.  Through these fields, popular culture is  always arrogated as “anthropological” while literate, bourgeois culture is annexed under the rubric of “francophone literature”.  In other words, popular culture is expressive only on the level of being observed by an intellectual outsider, while francophone literature becomes the only representative genre through which  a Moroccan can write to and for the Westerner or the  educated  North African.  It is then the job of the francophonist to “interpret” these texts, taking on a role akin to that of the anthropologist.  From this antagonistic space of reading culture and text there one wonders if popular spaces ever be represented outside of the anthropological field of study and if the literate class be representable outside of their French literacy?  Moreso, must our strategies for reading culture always obscure the authocthonous traces of identity through the framing spaces of genre, geography, and discourse?

For instance, since the late 1970’s there have been published over a dozen books that focus specifically on women’s “oppression” through the veil and social structure in North Africa, with little reflection upon the writings  of feminist scholars from the Maghreb who write in Arabic and with absolutely no heed to counter-narratives that actually contain polyvalent articulations of identity.  Many Moroccan, Algerian, and Tunisian writers of Arabic expression have developed theories of liberation and democratic reflection regarding North African women’s identity that do not necessarily inculcate the veil as a prison, or  who do not conflate the veil in the Maghreb with issues such as female excision, which is often the case in many Western examinations of Muslim women.  One such writer from Casablanca, Khenneta Bennouna, has written extensively on women and Islam in Morocco, yet I have yet to find a library in this country that carries any of  her articles in either Arabic or in translation.  What I have found, however, are books widely disseminated in the United States, such as Evelyn Accad’s study of francophone literature, The Veil of Shame (1978), which conveys , essentially, a very ethnocentric and reified vision of both the veil  and the Muslim woman’s body as the topos upon which to exert Western epistemology and morality.  Moreover, Accad fails to present any counter arguments, of which there are many,  in defense of the hijab and chooses narratives which painfully fix and homogenize a singular, opaque vision of the North African woman.  Or more recently, there is Winifred Woodhull’s Transfigurations of the Maghreb in which Woodhull claims that Abdelkebir Khatibi’s bi-langue mimics French post-structuralism, thus eliding the cultural specificity of Khatibi’s readings  while negating the possibility that Khatibi’s ideas might have actually contributed to—rather than borrowed from—the production of French post-structuralist thought.  By positing the non-Western subject within Western theories or as a repository of Western knowledge, we create the scene for a more sophisticated hegemonic presence that obfuscates  the cultural and historical specificity of the subjects articulated.

This essay stems from my own study of postcolonial francophone literature and Moroccan culture, as I am myself implicated within Amselle’s argument of cultural confinement.  My position as a researcher living in Morocco admits me into a space of the postmodern colonizer who travels in search  the “margins” along the predicated nodes of literary thought and through the conduits of anthropology enabling me to justify learning Arabic, to take part of marriage ceremonies, or simply to be a passive observer.  Most of the Moroccans with whom I interacted assumed that I was either an anthropologist or a francophone specialist without my ever having spoken.  I was truly vexed by the constant bombardment of assumptions regarding my presence, perhaps because their assumptions were correct. Then upon casually meeting dozens of Peace Corps volunteers and even more numerous anthropologists and francophone literary specialists who were then engaging their own research in Morocco, I began to see the that my contextualization as an anthropologist was a logical assumption or, perhaps, the only venue into which I could enter Moroccan society.  In fact, I began to see few differences between the presence of the Peace Corps workers who both directly and indirectly enacted a role of American developmental politics and “cultural diplomacy” and my own status as an investigator of literature.  This was especially clear given that most Moroccans cannot access French texts of literature or anthropology due to the pervasiveness of Arabization which has positioned French as a medium of expression only for those educated in the private lycée or for those who are raised in families that stress this language at home.

During meals where I was living, I would attempt to discuss everything I had seen that day on the streets, in the libraries, on the buses, and in the cafés.  (Even these spaces are framed for and by me.) Initially, I could not communicate with anyone in the family through French except for the eldest daughter, Ghizlaine, and the son, Mohammed.  I felt out of place, foreign, not because I was from another country,but simply because I spoke through French and cultural theory that could simply not be translated into a communicative and democratic exchange of ideas outside of the university.   I tried to discuss the books I was reading by some of the better known Maghrebian writers:  Boudjedra, Ben Jelloun, Djebar, Khatibi, Memmi, Khair-Eddine, Chraïbi, Mernissi, and Serhane.  Indeed, some of the men in the family had heard of these writers, but no one had ever read them.  The more people I met, the closer I came to realizing that these writers are themselves other within Moroccan culture: Khair-Eddine and Laâbi were political prisoners in the 1970’s and Djebar and Khatibi have spent a large portion of their life in France, undermining any singular notion a “national subject.”  For being a writer or researcher in Moroccan society can consume a space of unitelligibility that is alien to itself from within and legitimate only from the outside, maintaining an iconic status of “respectibility” wherein many of my Moroccan friends and colleagues would around the neighborhood of Agdal, only speaking in French. After returning to Morocco the second trip, the grandmother of my family, Mina, asked me what I undertaking.  I thought that to say I was a researcher might be too vague, so I told Mina that I was a writer.  She stared at me, then looked at Mohamed who told her, “She’s a secretary.” Mina smiled understanding this explanation and said, “You’re rich.”  There was no language with which I could communicate my vested interests in this cultural milieu.  The inaccuracies and miscommunications are somehow more real than the linear narratives that I had formerly read.

Having learned dialectical Arabic, I could finally speak with women and initially I believed that this new language would open up a space that might prove to be less staged, less rehearsed than that of the academy. Yet, most everything I discussed with women contained that cultural “stuff” I had read in ethnographies:  the encounters were already framed by the stories of women’s oppression and veiling that the academy and the media had presented both to me and to a degree, to these women as well.  Having read Khatibi’s articles about women’s body and facial tattoos,  I wanted to experiment with the voices of women, to hear their stories.  I had read Ben Jelloun’s many novels of women’s oppression and homosexual incidents in the hammam, and I wanted to engage these subjects.  Yet, I could not find a space outside the university for discussing my research.  Instead, I found fragments of Morocco emerging as elliptical articulations, at moments wherein interculturalism omits the Western voice and repositions the inside and outside of culture within a space of globalization. The widespread presence in North Africa, for instance, of music from various parts of the Arab world to include singers such as Om Kathoum, Ourda, and Feirouz, and the pervasiveness of Indian cinema serve as witnesses to the expansive field of difference that excludes the Western subject.

Conversely, I also met the same paradigm of otherness when everyday I had to answer questions regarding my identity such as:  Where are you from?  Do you want to have cous-cous in my home?  Have you seen the great mosque in Casablanca?  Do you like Andalousian music? And perhaps, the most difficult problem I encountered after having learned Arabic, was  being addressed only in French since many Moroccans were unaccustomed to foreigners who speak dialectical Arabic.  I eventually decided that I would pretend that I did not know French at all, answering any sentences posed to me in French with “Ma vehemsh,”.  I do not understand. And this scenario continued as I manipulated my position through as false a set of paradigms as those that had brought me to Morocco—through an imaginary space, a fiction of sorts,  that I did not speak French.  I was as much an agent of my own culture as I was a residual factor of Western cultural inquiry.  We have replaced the 19th century  tools of the colonialist—arms, limoge,  and French legal codes—and instead bring with us empty notebooks to be filled, French literature, and an education which predetermines many of our experiences.

Last year while giving a paper at a conference in Rabat on “Women and Discourse” in which essays were presented by speakers of French, Arabic, Spanish, and English, I had lunch with Khenneta Bennouna.  Instead of the usual discourse in French and English, as was common in the academic setting of the university between a Moroccan and a Westerner, Bennouna refused to speak French with me.  I was forced to rely upon my Fusha, and mostly on Derija to converse with her.  I was aware that she understood and spoke French, yet I was obligated to enter her space of language, which for her, is the only resistance to the paradigm of the francophone academic hegemony. I think of Rachid Boudjedra who since 1983 has refused to write in French, as he states:  “For me, an Algerian, I did not choose French. French chose me…” (p. 30).  I question Khatibi’s bi-langue whereby he confirms that French is the language of translation in the Maghreb which transforms the colonial past, the colonial tongue, into an empowering drive for self-reflection, expression, and dédoublement.  Although I agree with Khatibi’s encoding of French as a “repossession” of history, the location of the bi-langue, or rather the poly-langue, is arrogated by French—the language, the colonial history, and the postcolonial interculturalism.  I reflect upon the paradigmatic position of the many Arabic-speaking Algerians, Moroccans  and Tunisians who attended this conference only to be confronted with their compatriots who often did not dominate Arabic well enough to work and write in that language, or who, for reasons of publication or academic departmentalization, used French as a medium of critical expressiveness. The métissage of language, social status, insitutionalization, history, and geography rendered this scene as an ambivalent site  of culture.  I can not distinguish the margin from the center, the hegemonic from the subaltern.  So, there I sat with Khenneta Bennouna, speaking a “foreign” language, feeling much like a student of Arabic forced to have a dialogue with another English speaker in a class drill, speaking a tongue for the sake of practicing conjugations, exercising greetings. Only in this specific context, there was no “game,” only a fleeting attempt to communicate a culture which is only marginal from the perspective of Western  engagement.

Inasmuch as  many anthropologists attempt to represent culture through various “key” traditions of storytelling in public markets, of women in the hammam, of men in café’s, and of Essaoua musicians performing at marriages, I grapple with the texture of the various settings that are encoded as the acceptable space of the Maghreb:  the market, the hammam, the café, the brotherhoods, and women’s roles.  Indeed, in any literary or ethnographic representation of the Maghreb the interstitial spaces of culture that exist between the above geographical and schematic references are virtually unseen, unrepresented.  I saw that my task as a researcher was to map out culture through the same rigidity that natural elements are plotted within  the  chemist’s periodic table.  Paradoxically, the discourse of cultural engagement in the Maghreb has long been set in place and has even been embraced by the tourist industry of Morocco where you can pay a  guide who speaks at least five different European languages to show you around the medina, to see Gnaoua musicians in Marrakesh’s Jmâ al Fnâ, to accompany you to the hammam, to visit Paul Bowles’ and Mohamed Choukri’s house, and even to help you crash a marriage.  Cultural liminality is in such a state of refinement today that I believe Moroccans understand, or perhaps better articulate, our own cultural traditions of observation and exoticism better than we understand their own spaces of social articulation.

Although Said’s work has markedly opened up the critical possibilities for discussing otherness, it has often served as the ground upon which we study “third world faces” within the framework of Western spaces.  To go back to Said’s work is important today inasmuch as it offers a temporal distance upon which to firmly establish a critique of the current situation of cultural studies in the United States.  Yet, we must go beyond repetitive critiques of Orientalism that begin and end in the past tense.  Instead, we should engage some of the more complex issues of identity that non-Western thinkers offer regarding the plurality of language, discourse, and history which simply cannot be understood through a rearticulation of Nietzsche or French literary influences in the Maghreb.  Said’s Orientalism makes lucid that we can never disengage ourselves from self/other paradigms inherent within scholarship.  Nor, I contend, can we resuscitate non-Western identity through a strict reliance on Western discourse.  However,  this process of articulating otherness continues to function as a last vestige of intellectual colonialism.  Engaging the specific historical, literary, oral, and philosophical texts produced within and for varying cultural spheres might better serve as the paradoxical space through which we can understand and engage the particularities of subjects who are constantly renovating and enacting their own spaces of interpretation within particular national, regional, and local communities.  Inasmuch as Ibn Khaldun’s Al moqadima invokes scholars of the fourteenth century to write the particularities of history exorcising the ghosts of dynasties which had long controlled the transmission of cultural knowledge , we too must speculate about our own ghosts haunting the cultural mappings of the academic structure today.  What Ibh Khaldun proposed six centuries ago still serves as a speculative project for Western scholars today entering the twenty-first century, as he warns: “Blind faith in tradition is congenital” (p. 6, translation mine).   Likewise, Said’s questions that conclude his Chapter, “Orientalism Now,” echo this uncertain terrain of intercultural and intertemporal representation:  “How does one represent other cultures?  What is another culture?” (p. 325-327).  I believe these are the fundamental questions we should be engaging today  in order to reevaluate the discursive ghosts within the academy—our tools, our language, our politics, and our cultural paradigms—for our encounters with the other.


Works Cited

Amselle, Jean-Loup.  Logiques métisses:  Anthropologie de l’identit´Ωe en Afrique et ailleurs.  Paris:  Payot, 1990.

Bhabha, Homi K. Nation and Narration.  London:  Routledge, 1990.

Boudjedra, Rachid.  Letters Algériennes.  Paris:  Bernard Grasset, 1995.

Ibn Khaldûn.  Al-Muqaddima.  Beirout: Commission Internationale pour la traduction des chefs-d’œuvre (Collection UNESCO d’œuvres représentatives, 1967.

Said, Edward.  Orientalism. New York:  Vintage Books, 1978.