Towards a Critical Theory of al-Nahḍah: Epistemology, Ideology and Capital

In: Journal of Arabic Literature
Stephen Sheehi University of South Carolina

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This articles is an initial theoretical foray into what has become a dynamic burgeoning field—“Nahḍah Studies”—by proposing that literary and intellectual production of the era should not be understood as generative or productive of cultural discourses, social practices or identities. Rather, al-Nahḍah al-ʿarabīyyah is the mark of a violent epistemological wrenching that was instigated by the introduction of capitalist means of production and surplus accumulation during the Ottoman Tanzimat. Using a handful of examples such as Ahmad Fāris al-Shidyāq, Buṭrus al-Bustānī, Ibrāhīm al-Yāzijī and Ḥusayn Marṣafī, the article suggests that literary and intellectual production of al-Nahḍah, like the subjectivities they imagine, are an effect of these transformations, which is first imprinted on language that is charged to organize new systems of signification to make modernity legible and logical. Literary, intellectual and cultural productions, therefore, are an effect of the ideology of modernity that has naturalized the reform movement as a necessary project for social, cultural and political success. The cultural and thought production of al-Nahḍah was not productive of “new” concepts of identity, civil society, economic production and gender as much as it was reproductive of nascent, native capitalist ideology, serving to mediate and make sense of the tensions, contradictions and violence inherent to the reorganization of the society, culture and economy of the Ottoman Arab provinces.

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