Three Keynotes, Three Political Sentiments: Reflections on Anthropological Engagements with Revolution

By Kaya Uzel • PhD Social Anthropology

“After the Event: Prospects and Retrospects of Revolution”. Organisers: N. Ansari, M. Lamrani, C. Loris-Rodionoff, and K. Uzel. UCL 15-17 May 2019 (Kaya Uzel 2019)

As one of the organisers of the conference ‘After the Event. Prospects and Retrospects of Revolution’, which took place in the anthropology department in May, I thought it would be fun to share some reflections on our three keynote talks. Mirroring the wide range of scholarly perspectives present at the conference, the three talks distilled three political sentiments that characterise not only distinctive anthropological approaches to revolution but also have direct conceptual bearing on how we understand our present political moment.

I. Possibility

On the first morning of our conference, our keynote speaker Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi set the tone for the following two and a half days with a thought-provoking talk in which he proposed a novel way of thinking about revolutions beyond notions of linear progress and historical necessity. Predicated on his understanding of the Iranian Revolution, he put forward the notion that one can productively think of revolution as ‘an emergency break’, ‘a moment of creative pause’, and ‘a radical disruption to the cyclical political order’. Invoking the poetic language of Walter Benjamin, Ghamari-Tabrizi likened revolution to a ‘leap into the sky of unlimited possibilities’.

Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi delivers the first keynote lecture, entitled The Perils of Progressive Politics. Revolution, Historical Possibilities, and the Perils of ‘Progressive’ Politics. (Yasser Kamaledin 2019)

The Iranian Revolution in its distinctively Islamic fashioning was a singular event, whose distinguishing feature was precisely that it defied all modernist expectations.  It did not advance secularism in Iran, it did not make the East look more like the West, it did not pose a choice between the shrines and the streets. As Ghamari-Tabrizi emphasised, the revolution was ‘neither Eastern nor Western’; in its immediacy it was a project of radical transformation ‘the outcome of which needed to be negotiated in practice.’

That the events of 1979 remain important today emerged very clearly in the last part of the talk. Analysing the language with which the ‘Arab Spring’ was covered in the news, Ghamari-Tabrizi contended that the very labelling of the events in these terms inscribed them into the familiar political narrative of Western liberal democracy. The Arab Spring was predominantly read as exhibiting ‘a desire for the West’. Accordingly, as soon as the religious vision that was part of the revolutionary imagination in Egypt became manifest, what had first been perceived as a revolution could no longer be made sense of as such. It threatened to mutate into the very opposite of revolution, into reaction, regression, or quite simply, a second Iran.

II. Realism

Moving away from a conceptual analysis of revolution towards an assessment of the political urgency of scholarly engagement, Alpa Shah in our second keynote focused very much on the ‘realpolitik’ of academic production, the implications of academic freedom and unfreedom around the world. Highlighting the extremely concerning developments in a range of countries, from India to Turkey and beyond, Shah opened with an empathic enumeration of the names of senior academics that have been persecuted or arrested in India in recent times. 

Alpa Shah is taking audience questions after her keynote entitled Why I Write: In a Climate against Intellectual Dissidence. (Yasser Kamaledin 2019)

The picture painted by Shah is a frightening tableau of corporate take-over, hegemonic interests and unbridled state power. It outlines a concerted attack on the humanities and social sciences, a well-coordinated attempt to reign in on academic freedom, on the cultivation of the critical faculties on which so many of the political achievements of the last 60 or so years depended.   

Against the backdrop of these names, lives, and stories, Shah posed a number of searching questions regarding the political economy of academic writing, focusing mainly on its political purpose and the relationship between activist commitments, analytical demands, and scholarly fidelity. Shah proceeded to sketch out some answers to these big questions with reference to her most recent book Nightmarch: Among India’s Revolutionary Guerrillas, a narrative-driven account of her fieldwork experience living among a Maoist guerrilla movement in the rural hinterland of Jharkhand.

Adivasi women in Lalgarh village in Jharkhand, a region long seen as a stronghold of the Naxalite movement. (Wikimedia 2007)

Shah referenced her book, which portrays the movement’s genuine quest for a more egalitarian social order without smoothing over its internal contradictions, to bolster her call for a novel mode of academic engagement that departs from narrow scholarly debate, in favour of a more inclusive and accessible form of scholarship. Rather than debating methodological and epistemological issues that are mostly of relevance to people with the discipline, she would like to see anthropology return to a place of greater political relevance to the wider world.

III. Longing

David Lan during his keynote entitled Late Reflections on the Chimurenga – What goes around, comes around. (Myriam Lamrani 2019)

In our final keynote, David Lan, one of Britain’s foremost theatre directors and producers, returned to his ethnographic material from the early 1980s on the Chimurenga, the Zimbabwean anti-colonial liberation war. He provided a profoundly sensitive account of the hopes and fears his Shona interlocutors placed, under the banner of a Maoist-inspired guerrilla movement, into their armed struggle against the colonial occupiers. 

What was at stake in the Chimurenga was a revolution in the technical sense of the word, a full 360-degree turn. A return to the way things should have always been, a return to a precolonial past where the bond between the people and their ancestral lands was still intact, where the moral validation of the ancestors became manifest in plentiful rains and the fertility of the land.

The medium of Nehanda bequeaths the authority of the ancestors to the first prime minister of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe. Cloth designed for the independence celebration in 1980. (Reproduced with permission of David Lan)

Lan intimated that his Shona interlocutors’ desire for continuity with the precolonial past, a time before white men came and took the ancestral lands, is an expression of a sentiment that is not unique to 1980s Zimbabwe. The longing for cosmological grounding might be even more pronounced today in a world that is seemingly running away with itself at the moment. The ethnographic context of the Chimurenga where political legitimacy depended strongly on the endorsement of powerful spirit mediums does indeed appear a world away from post-Brexit Britain in 2019, marked by nascent nativism and nationalism. Yet, Lan’s Shona interlocutors’ longing for a past where people and places coincided, spirit kingdom and political territory were one, sound all surprisingly relatable in view of the resurgent populist nostalgia for a past that never was. I am of course not implying a moral equivalence between young Shona struggling against colonial violence and injustice of word-historical scale, and the bourgeoning populist movements of today. I am merely suggesting that we would be well advised to take seriously the emotive powers of such diffuse political sentiments as the longing for an imagined past of quasi-cosmological contours.

Epilogue: The Warped Temporality of Political Sentiments

It is maybe no coincidence that the three political sentiments I have identified in our keynotes correspond to the temporal domains of future, present, and past. Revolutions put into sharp relief that these domains are not as separate from each other as we sometimes seem to think. As Ghamari-Tabrizi’s talk has illustrated, the way we think about the past has a meaningful impact on how we think about the future. It is only by recognising the transformative effects of past revolutions and their refusal to fit pre-existing schemas of interpretation that we can preserve the possibility of revolutionary futures, however unexpected and unlikely they might seem from our contemporary vantage of almost complete political disillusionment. 

Women protesting in Tehran during the Iranian Revolution in 1979. (Wikimedia 2014)

As David Lan reminds us, a similar interplay is at work in the relationship between present and past. While, in the case of the Chimurenga, the ancestors encompass the living, and the past encompasses the present, it is also true that it is the living who remember and remake the dead, and that ultimately the present writes its own history of the past. As we can currently observe in our political landscape, it does so not in a disinterested, neutral fashion, but from the point of view of the exigencies of our current predicament. 

Lastly, we should note the somewhat paradoxical neglect in the study of revolution of this current predicament, of the ‘here and now’, the historical present that is unfolding before our very eyes. Alpa Shah’s impassionate appeal for a more accessible anthropology that brings today’s hidden revolutions to the attention of a wider audience serves in this regard as a welcome corrective. Only by acknowledging the political stakes of academic production in the present moment can we hope to prevent dissident voices from being written out of history and futures from being foreclosed by the loss of the very capacity to imagine that things could be different.

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