Discourse in Praxis: Political Struggle as the Living Site of Interpretive Delimitation

By Omar Zahzah
Submitted to Session P4392 (Hey you, precarious worker: Are you afraid of BDS? Graduate students, untenured faculty, and the politics of political commitments, 2016 Annual Meeting
North America;
Arab-Israeli Conflict;
Edward Said’s Orientalism is often invoked as the premier scholarly work to challenge the premise of cultural production as operating independently from the machinations of empire. Yet although Orientalism, as with scores of Said’s other texts, makes reference to the author’s experience as a Palestinian living in exile, its connection to Said’s role in the Association of Arab American University Graduates (AAUG) remains lesser known. With the 1967 Six Day War inaugurating both the consolidation of the US and Israel’s imperial collaborations and a modern phase of essentializing depictions of Arabs and Muslims within the US, identifying and countering key anti-Arab and Islamophobic tropes became a crucial aspect of organizations like the AAUG’s efforts. As demonstrated by scholars like Sarah Gulatieri and Andrew Rubin, Said’s work for the AAUG in this regard reveal the early stages of what would become the driving arguments behind texts such as Orientalism. Struggles over politically driven depictions and representations that were ostensibly external to the academy thus inspired the formation of a new intellectual tradition whose aim was not so much to upset the epistemological foundations of modern cultural production as to reveal their strategic influence. The nature of the backlash to which members of the AAUG and related organizations were subjected for their work is another key component of these phenomena.

Relatedly, as scholars and students presently contend with what the legal organization Palestine Legal has referred to as “the Palestine Exception to Free Speech””—which includes officials' attempts to redraw the boundaries of academically "acceptable" speech through policy—the notion of the academy’s insularity from larger geopolitical contingencies is revealed to be a myth. Drawing on a combination of critical and literary sources as well as personal experiences of repression of Palestine organizing at various levels, this presentation argues that the current clampdown on campus pro-Palestine speech and activism is part of a wider context, and that the prospect of institutional toleration of the question of Palestine poses serious implications not only for the individual careers of students and scholars, but the very limits of academic discursive convention.