The PLO’s culture work- culture capital and activism in the making of a revolutionary movement

By Dina Matar
Submitted to Session P4409 (Palestine: Capital and Material Culture, 2016 Annual Meeting
Media Arts
All Middle East;
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
This paper addresses the complex and changing face of the Palestine Liberation Organisation at the end of the 20th century and its investment in cultural capital to promote a politics of liberation and attract support across a swathe of Palestinian society. Focusing on the period 1968 to 1974, the paper traces the PLO’s active investment in diverse forms of communication, media, film, literature, poster art and other cultural platforms to disseminate and normalise a politics of liberation as a political consciousness that would draw on particular symbols, tropes and mythology and that would attract cultural producers, activists, intellectuals and artists from diverse classes in Palestinian and Arab societies. Drawing on archival research as well as interviews with cultural producers and media personnel, the paper addresses how PLO elites actively occupied and created cultural platforms and strategically used popular culture to mobilise support and transform itself into the most potent contemporary social and political movement in the Arab world in the period under consideration. As part of the campaign, the PLO’s revolutionary vanguard, led by late chairman and Fatah leader Yasser Arafat, deployed diplomatic, political, military and other tools for mobilisation, and used popular culture – media, film, poetry, songs, poster art and performance – to mediate the revolution’s politics and secure legitimacy. Running hand in hand with military and political actions, social and welfare services, the mediation of the revolution/liberation in language, symbols, icons, rituals and affective language would help the PLO maintain overwhelming levels of popular identification despite military and political set-backs. This paper address how the PLO’s culture work constructed new subjectivities centred on radical understandings of what it means to Palestinian, and mediated the ‘Palestinian revolution’ as an aesthetic revolution that resonated with Palestinians’ lived realities and aspirations at the time and that evoked enduring affective identifications with the revolutionary impulse despite several defeats and political setbacks. This paper addresses how the PLO’s investment in cultural capital helped it become a touchstone for diverse projects in local and global cultural and political rebellion and create a new transnational class of political and cultural subjects attracted to its revolutionary impulse. The paper suggests that paying attention to the PLO’s cultural activism – its active investment in creating and sustaining culture allows us to address how cultural capital becomes materialised through the circulation, adoption and adaptation of significant tropes and symbols.