Research in a Time of Unbounded Flux

Submitted as a paper for the BRISMES Annual Conference 2012

For the last few years I have been undertaking doctoral research on civil society in Syria. When I started my thesis I began from a standpoint of relative positivity – exploring the developments that were slowly taking place in numerous areas of Syrian society and investigating the possibility of a more free, active and vibrant civil society within it. It was well known that corruption in the government and its various arms was wide spread and deep rooted. Freedom of expression, in any of its forms, was almost inconceivable. Political participation too was an area that few ever seriously considered in light of the domination and exclusivity of the Baath party with Syria’s single party rule.  Poverty, increasing costs of living and unemployment were problems that were faced by the majority of Syrian people.  Nevertheless, even with these tremendous limitations, things appeared to be moving – after decades of stagnation. However, those years of stagnation finally took their toll and the Syrians are now in the second year of their uprising – living every day in uncertainty as to what is to come next.

This uncertainty in hand bleeds into nearly every aspect of my research. I am certainly not comparing my academic dilemma with the traumatic situation in which the Syrians currently find themselves. Nonetheless, I am left with having to alter my position and reformulate the focus of my thesis in light of the situation. This has forced me to confront the question of how research can be framed and conducted when the consequent effects and outcomes of such a situation are so uncertain and volatile. Indeed, conducting research on any contemporary social or political phenomena will inevitably have its limitations in the face of a world that is in a state of perpetual flux. However, from this Heraclitean doctrine which stipulates all sensible things are ever in a state of flux’ we cannot assume as Aristotle did that this would consequently lead to our inability to have knowledge of any of these things – since knowledge can only arise surrounding objects that are permanent and unchanging.  Instead, we as academics must remain always flexible and adaptable if we are to attempt to analyse the contemporary phenomena we find ourselves immersed in. We must at the same time be able to reflect on this very fact – that we ourselves are part of this constant state of flux – and while we may endeavour to remain objective, we cannot escape the fact that this is rarely possible within the limitations of our own beliefs, values and judgements, that too are changeable.

In addition to this, we are limited even further by the fact that any change in general is difficult to predict and this is even more the case when it comes to the extraordinary. The events that erupted across the Arab world over the last year make this palpably obvious. Ilan Pappe in his paper The Expert’s Defining Moment: The Revolutionary Middle East 2011’ which he gave in last year’s BRISMES conference, spoke explicitly about the inability of the academic or intellectual to foresee the occurrence of such defining moments and events and who realistically should not be expected to do so. Such events arise as a result of a plethora of emotions – fear, passion, courage to name just a few – and more often than not the intellectual ignores or at least neglects to seriously consider human reality. All the uprisings in the Arab world were founded on “the categorical rejection of an intrusion that [was and still] is considered intolerable.”[1] This in hand, as Camus puts forward in his book The Rebel, carries with it a number of issues that we cannot overlook when attempting to analyse the potential resolutions and outcomes of such events.  A genuine ‘rebellion’ is not merely an act of rejection of the absurd but is simultaneously an acceptance and an affirmation of another value; the importance of the rights and the ‘worth while’ nature of individual existence and of humanity as a whole. The sublime worth of this value is clear according to Camus by the rebel’s willingness to risk everything – “if he prefers the risk of death (and we can say of any other punishment…) to the negation of the rights that he defends, it is because he considers these rights more important than himself … he is acting in the name of certain values … which he feels are common to himself and to all men.”[2] In this way, when we are to consider the outcomes of such events, we must contemplate not just the actions of the governments in question or the international community, but also the commitment of those within the rebellion.

What has certainly emerged as part of these rebellions or uprisings is what Gramsci referred to as the organic intellectual[3] of the revolution. While it is commonly purported that it was the blogosphere and social media that began these revolutions, it would be more accurate to see them as having more of a symbiotic relationship. While in certain instances these entities aided in the organisation of people and the dissemination of information, it is clear that these revolutions, to a great extent, allowed for the emergence, or rather the prominence of these organic intellectuals. As a result of the nature of these events and the restrictions on the flow of information, particularly in Syria, it is these intellectuals that provide many of us, including the media, with information about what is currently taking place. This in hand puts even further restrictions on our ability to effectively conduct research when one of our main sources of information are bound to be riled with subjectivity. This is not to say that we should see their presence as a negative; on the contrary, it is the widespread organic intellectual activism and agency that has been needed in the Arab world for so long. Instead, if we are to use them as a source of information, we must be honest as to who they are and what they are able to contribute to our own research – taking us once again, away from any chance of objectivity – if that were ever a real possibility in the first place.

As I previously mentioned there is an unquestionable need for flexibility in our work and while the overarching theme of my thesis remains the same, if not even more pertinent today than ever before, an adaptation of the research questions are necessary. This, I have found, is not something I can force, it must emerge organically from the situation itself. In this way, it is worth considering the possibility of frontline research even with the limitations that we find within the current climate. Having recently been in Damascus only a few months ago it is possible to get an idea of the opinions and sentiments of the average person, whether directly involved in the uprising or not – they are all directly affected. It is invaluable to be able to immerse oneself in the situation in order to get a greater understanding that is not mediated through either new or mainstream media. Overwhelmingly the sentiment is the same, a desire for the atrocities to end, an acknowledgement that the events have reached a point of irreversibility and a realisation, from experience, that things are unlikely to end well – at least not without the continued fight – which could potentially last for years.  This uncertainty, not just of the possible outcomes but also of the inevitable consequences – to the economy, society, politics and foreign policy – has created a tremendous anxiety amongst the Syrian people.

When attempting to shed some light on how to approach research that is based around a subject that is still largely coming to fruition, in addition to the factors that have just been outlined, it may be useful to reflect upon previous research and writing that emerged during other extraordinary events in history that are comparable to the events that have erupted across the Arab world over the last year. In light of the limitations of this paper I will focus on one particular individual’s work that stands out when it comes to dealing with the issues that a large part of the Arab world is facing and that is the work of Vaclav Havel. The prominent playwright, poet, essayist and dissident who was inspired by the Prague Spring and who later became the last president of Czechoslovakia (1989-1992) following the Velvet Revolution and then the first President of the newly formed Czech Republic in 1993. For Havel living under a totalitarian regime created an inevitable societal paradigm in which citizens were forced to ‘live within a lie’ created and enforced, directly and indirectly, by the regime itself. “Because the regime is captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything. It falsifies the past. It falsifies the present, and it falsifies the future… It pretends not to possess an omnipotent and unprincipled police apparatus. It pretends to respect human rights. It pretends to persecute no one. It pretends to fear nothing. It pretends to pretend nothing.”[4] In this way, the “fundamental pillar of the totalitarian system is the existence of one central agent of all truth and all power, an institutionalized ‘rationale of history’, which becomes, quite naturally, the sole agent of all social activity.”[5] This in hand leads to what Havel described as the destruction of ‘historicity’ and of the ‘story’. The idea and the importance of the ‘story’ is based around its significance in providing society and those within it the ability to narrate their own lives and all the events that may begin new stories which develop as a result of any given situation, relationship and/or conflict and which contain an array of encounters, dialogues, interactions, ideas and truths. As we all know, any good story is filled with unforeseeable events, mystery, an unknown future and ending. However, when it comes to life under a totalitarian regime, everything is predetermined and controlled. Public life… becomes no more than the manifestation and fulfillment of the truth and the will of this single agent… and where everything is known ahead of time, the story has nothing to grow out of.”[6] From this, we can use to our advantage the fact that we are confronted with the reality of a time of unbounded flux in the Arab world. With the uncertainty, unpredictability and the mystery of flux we are privileged with the freedom of allowing the story to develop autonomously, to develop its own structure, direction, meaning and truth. The people on the streets have made this possible. They have “shattered the world of appearances”[7] that the system created and they have exposed it to the rest of the world as a lie; they have made the fundamental threat to the system and as a consequence have been suppressed and punished most severely.

This idea of the importance of history and narrative is certainly not exclusive to Havel, Pappe too discussed this in his BRISMES paper – outlining the experts’ commonly narrow historical perspective and the need for, and allowance of, varied attempts at reconstructing the narrative of the past. He also encourages a more holistic approach that extends to literature, poetry and the arts rather than simply focussing on the traditional routes of academia – whose aim must be to return something to society instead of continuing its arrogant intellectual war on “the story, history and thus on life itself.”[8] A number of Arab thinkers are also in agreement on this point of the importance and value of literary expression and discourse. According to Muhsin Mahdi, it is essential to be able to explore the “literary expression that [are] more popular and less elitist in content, sentiment and language”[9] as they provide a deeper understanding of social and political life in the Arab world – for while political discourse is “ephemeral and goes with the wind”[10] it is literary discourse that forms part of the collective memory and consciousness of a culture or society. In an Arab world that has been dominated by authoritarianism it has been common practice to attempt to repress the imagination and critical thinking and instead promote pessimism, negativity and an almost nihilistic intellect.  In this way, it is from the writer, the artist, the poet that a challenge can be made to the system, they are able to upset the power structure by tearing apart what holds it together”[11] while at the same time reminding the reader that there is the “possibility of the existence of a better world.”[12] It is often the clandestine nature of the arts that provides them with their unrivalled power in these situations, for as Mario Vargas Llosa states “Let those who doubt that literature not only submerges us in the dream and happiness but alerts us to every kind of oppression – ask themselves why all regimes determined to control the behaviour of citizens from cradle to grave, fear it.”[13]

It is for this reason that it is vital when attempting to explore the current situation in the Arab world and their uprisings that we do not simply focus on the political dimension of the situation. Instead we must look towards the social and cultural dimensions that provide a far greater insight into the events that have unfolded around us and a far greater understanding of the conditions of possibility that lead to the rebellions of the intellectual and the layman alike. We should begin to look towards the varied narratives that are beginning to emerge out of these revolutions which are attempting an exploration of alternative possibilities through deeper and more free thought, expression and discourse.


[1] Camus, A. (2006). The Rebel. Penguin Classics, UK.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Gramsci, A. (1992). The Prison Notebooks. Columbia University Press, USA.

[4] Havel, V. (1978). The Power of the Powerless.

[5] Havel, V. (1987). Stories and Totalitarianism.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Havel, V. (1978). The Power of the Powerless.

[8]   Havel, V. (1987). Stories and Totalitarianism.

[9]  Mahdi, M. (1996). On Ibn Rushd, Philosophy and the Arab World (Interview). Journal of Comparative Poetics. No.16, Averroes and the Rational Legacy in the East and the West.

[10] Wasini al-A’raj in Znaidi, A. (23rd Feb, 2012). The International Symposium of the Arab Spring Through the Eyes of Arab Novelists. Jaadaliyyah.com

[11]  Havel, V. (1978). The Power of the Powerless.

[12] Francesco Leggio in Znaidi, A. (23rd Feb, 2012). The International Symposium of the Arab Spring Through the Eyes of Arab Novelists. Jaadaliyyah.com

[13] Mario Vargas Llosa’s 2010 Nobel Lecture in Znaidi, A. (23rd Feb, 2012). The International Symposium of the Arab Spring Through the Eyes of Arab Novelists. Jaadaliyyah.com


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