Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Joel Gordon reviews Leaks, Hacks, and Scandals

Tarek El-Ariss, Leaks, Hacks, and Scandals: Arab Culture in the Digital Age. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2019. 217 pp.

Review by Joel Gordon

Leaks, Hacks and Scandals is a bold effort to redefine Arab literary and cultural studies in the contexts of social media and the digital information age. The world of lettered cultural production, asserts Tarek El-Ariss, has been upended, or at least “recoded.” The classic print novel has not vanished, but it has been refashioned, and it has competitors. And authors are besieged by lawsuits from “disgruntled readers” and facing a world of cultural “decentralization” (p. 6) with the increasing shift of literary prizes to the Gulf (not unlike the cinema world, reminiscent to me of earlier critiques of conservative takeovers).  

Under El-Ariss’s gaze, Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning warrant as much theoretical import as Barthes or Derrida. His story starts in 2006, “a watershed year that marked the advent of a constellation involving political developments, digital activism and new writing practices both in the Arab world and beyond” (p. 17). This was also the birth year of Wikileaks, the Encyclopédie of the new Enlightenment, and the upload onto YouTube of the first video from an Egyptian torture chamber by Wael Abbas. These dissident actions, El-Ariss asserts, referencing Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, fundamentally redefined the meaning of “knowledge” as the validation, via “concrete data” of what we already “presume to be true” (p. 19). 

Al-Ariss recodes the language of literary criticism to help us comprehend a new literary land/speak scape. He does so by suggesting multiple readings of classical terms––fadh, the public announcement of scandal; ijtihad, the invocation of independent, learned reason; even adab, traditional codes of civility, and its counterpart, the derogatory street slur qalil al-adab, implying that one is ill-mannered, uncultured.  As well as evocative renderings of current lingo: leak here entails both the spilling of bodily fluids as well as imparting concrete data, and as a last resort; hacking can be an act of stealing an author’s Twitter identity (faux Salman Rushdie) or an author endeavoring to retranslate a work into English (in the case of Rajaa Alsanea) in order to “sanitize, if not weed out cultural and linguistic specificities” (p. 133). Arabic-English-Cyberspeak is constantly turned on its head. Who are more unmannered, the police thugs or those who record and upload their horrors, creating a scandal by confronting the state with its own “violent and vindictive fiction” (p. 54)?  

El-Ariss repeatedly dangles the idea that the digital age has spelled the death knell for the nahda, the Arab Renaissance project, born in the late nineteenth-century print media revolution, still for many the framework for gauging cultural fluorescence––and for bemoaning stagnation or vulgarity (see his 2018 edited volume, The Arab Renaissance: A Bilingual Anthology of the Nahda). What he actually suggests is a new nahda, a potentially revolutionary reinvention of language and its interconnectedness to new technologies and modes of communication and media of broadcast. In this light, his suggestion that we recast Edwards Said as the primordial whistleblower, “hacking and leaking out its [Orientalism’s] manuals and codes and making a scene of its fantasies,” (p. 178) is, like the rest of this work, provocative and ultimately sublime.