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How has a globalised cultural economy affected the production of contemporary visual culture in North Africa and the Middle East?

Tsolin Nalbantian
30 May 2013

In Serving Created Culture

It stipulates in my working contract as a professor in Middle East history at Leiden University that I must participate in 'media outreach'. This means that I must either seek out media outlets and contribute to a particular conversation about the Middle East, or, if contacted by a media representative, should pursue the request, offering my professional opinion on a given subject.  

When first reminded of this responsibility, I shrugged it off. I did not, and still do not to a great extent, feel comfortable contributing to a public discussion whose parameters are set by the media. In another words, my intervention becomes just that – an intrusion into their discourse. It is less about what I feel are the important issues to consider or discuss, but more of what I think the media should be reporting about. It's a defensive encounter. At best, my participation acts to correct the media's trajectory. Yet my counter to their narrative also inevitably reinforces their power, as it is the medium of the media that establishes the conversation.


In addition to setting the boundaries of the conversation, the media attaches an additional meaning to my involvement. My voice becomes expertise. Accordingly, my understanding of a particular situation transforms into a meaning of an event, a person, or an experience. And yet, how can I represent a protest, a demonstration, or the moment both are met with the brutality of a local police and military force? We 'expert' commentators participate in a discussion that we can only really conjecture about. We then end up circumventing the subject at hand, creating meaning for the actions of people and talking to other commentators and journalists rather than actually engaging with those who we are speaking about and, inevitably, for.


How can we participate in a critique without reinforcing the parameters that the media constructed in the first place? Can we challenge the limitations of the discussion? More importantly, should we engage in that type of action? Is that our role? Can we participate as actors and not monopolize the discourse at hand?


I think these questions, along with the role of academics in the proliferation of information, must be considered, especially given that the ongoing Arab uprisings continue to dominate the news webpages, newspapers, television, and radio programs. This topic is in a constant state of transformation – and maybe even mutation – as counterrevolutionary forces consolidate their power. And historians generally avoid making statements and declarations about such events. I feel like I am consistently preempting someone's analysis with the familiar refrain of 'it's too early' or 'we'll have to wait and see.' In a way, I certainly feel this way. It is too early, we do need to wait and see.


But then I wonder: do we use these refrains earnestly? I mean, do we say: 'it's too soon to tell' because we are responsible researchers, or because we actually are avoiding positioning ourselves – or making a stand so to speak – vis-à-vis what we 'study?' Are we actually irresponsible in not engaging in these questions? By not taking part in the media's parameters, do we just merely avert taking a position – rather than upholding some moral and ethical one?


While my questions are self-reflective, they extend to all of us in the 'field', and I define that term quite broadly. To what extent are critics of culture a product of the business of culture – be it international relations, private foundations, patronage, and public institutions? Are they, like myself, functioning within a parameter created by a business and not by the actors they attempt to engage with? In this case, not media moguls but art ones?


And yet I'm concerned that if I fail to address what's going on in the media, I miss an opportunity to actively engage and explore these current happenings and ignore these incredibly exciting and inspiring events in the region. We must confront the actions of tens of thousands of people continuously taking to the streets and airwaves to demand, defend, or even work against change, regardless of how uncomfortable it makes us as eyewitnesses of such events. And perhaps this discomfort is related to our own complacency. Do these images – on television and in print – make us uncomfortable because we are forced to confront thousands of people who actually 'doing' what we lecture on, read about, and study?


The same holds true for the world of contemporary art. Should we shun what patrons designate as art because of their sponsorship? And in so doing, do we not demonize those who have been 'discovered' while fetishise those artists that happen to not match a suitable donor?

We must expand – to the point of shattering – the parameters of the conversation so as to more sincerely include the actors of which we speak. A critical re-conceptualization of the conversations between the various sponsors of our professions will challenge and change the narrative. Otherwise we are in danger of speaking to each other, tautologically building upon our various 'expertise.'

Tsolin Nalbantian

is an Assistant Professor of Contemporary Middle East History at Leiden University in the Netherlands. As a historian, she focuses on the relationships between state and society in Syria and Lebanon in the 20th century. Tsolin's research interests include examining the roles minorities have played in the construction of both the nation-state and nationalism; the interactions of diasporic populations with other populations and the state in the Middle East; and the politicization of identity. She is currently working on a book entitled Fashioning Armenians in Lebanon, 1943-1960.

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