Re: The Geopolitics of Emotion

Dominique Moïsi has written a well-read and generally well received book titled The Geopolitics of Emotion: How Cultures of Fear, Humiliation, and Hope are Reshaping the World (Doubleday, 2009). It argues emotions can and do drive world politics in much a similar way that culture, religion, nationalism and “civilizations”. It sits as a challenge to Samuel Huntington’s frequently maligned “clash of civilizations” theory. It is a book worth reading, generally; it accurately describes many trends in world politics through a lens that is somewhat original — especially the trembling that Asia’s (read: China’s) rise inspires in many westerners. Like many books of its kind, this is what it is good for: an interesting look at the world in broad, general terms. Here is a general overview of this blogger’s sense of the book followed by a brief nitpicking session (after the jump).

Moïsi’s overall argument regarding the “clash of emotions” (hope, humiliation and fear, each of which, he argues, characterizes important cultural and political trends in Asia, the Middle East and Euro-America respectively) is reasonable, though not wholly satisfactory because of its boringly simplistic treatment of Africa and Latin America. Like most traditional geo-politicians, Moïsi puts these regions in the periphery — Eurasia and North America are where the action is at. So Brazil (which gets more attention than all the rest of Latin America) and the African states get only the broadest generalities in The Geopolitics of Emotion. But Moïsi avoids writing in inherent great-power conflict or setting up these regions as testing grounds for future geopolitical ascendency. Still, overall paradigim is sometimes frustratingly simplistic and reductive but its core demand is for readers to mind “the Other,” to overcome Fear of the Yellow Peril or immanent decline. It allows for greater societal agency than many similar works and his focus on political psychology sets it apart from much of the declineist literature circulating today. The psychological perspective on world politics and proper respect for agency are often missing in popular writing and Moïsi provides this in his discussion of the great northern powers.

In this it is particularly effective, though one is still troubled by pronouncements such as: “Africans must create hope in their own homelands, not search for it elsewhere.” Moïsi praises Paul Kagame and other African leaders as potential African Le Kwan Yews, “benevolent autocrats,” “strong but humane” managers capable of mobilizing hope. Where Brazil is concerned there is “hope” — “energy, dynamism and optimism” but social cleavages are a hindrance (pg. 134). His view of the leftist tendency in Venezuela and Bolivia is dim; Chile and Brazil maintain hope as their “dominant emotion.” In his discussion of Africa and Latin America Moïsi’s vision is at its most limited.

This is, though, a blog about North Africa and its geopolitics in regional and global terms. Moïsi’s narrative with respect to North Africa, therefore, is of special interest. In a section titled “Arab Cultural Decline,” Moïsi writes:

The mostly political and social sources of humiliation are reinforced at a cultural level with the decline of the Arab language and culture. While Islam as a religion may be expanding, Arab culture is not thriving. With a few notable exceptions, such as the Egyptian novelist and Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz and his countryman the playwrite Kateb Yacine, Arab literature, music, and movies have little currency outside their homelands. At the same, the flow of Western literature into the Arab world via translations into Arabic, while evidently increasing in recent years, is still weak, a reflection of the relative isolation of the Arab world from global culture. Even within the Islamic world, contemporary culture finds little encouragement — often the reverse. It is dangerous to be an intellectual or an artists in an environment where despots and fundamentalists have shared interest in curbing the free expression of creativity. Thus Algerian Kabyle singer Lounes Matoub was assassinated in 1998 for the “crime” of advocating freedom for the Berbers, as well as for the “sacrilegious” nature of his songs. (pg. 74)

Moïsi goes on to mention that the Arab world is particularly “isolated” from global culture relative even to other parts of the Islamic world giving special reference to Turkey.  The passage quoted above is especially problematic for technical reasons. (One might also object to describing Arab culture in terms of “decline” for more than one reason and in multiple directions, as Moïsi almost totally neglects contemporary, ground level culture favoring high culture and because “decline” happened some time ago where Arab elite culture is concerned.) They are likely of little interest to those beyond this blog.

  1. It misidentifies Kateb Yacine as an Egyptian as well as the character of his work, much of which was in French, not Arabic, though some was in Darja (and his great contribution was to Francophone Maghrebine literature especially). Many of his greatest French works were translated into Arabic (and Berber). He was also not an ethnic Arab — he was Berber (a Chaoui), though one can argue that he embraced the hybrid Arabo-Amaizgh culture that dominates Algeria generally. The identification of both Yacine and Mahfouz puts Moïsi’s grasp of the current problem in Arab culture into question: he does not even mention, for instance, the great Mahmoud Darwish. In fact, he mentions no writers besides Mahfouz who actually wrote primarily in Arabic. His point is perhaps that the Arabs have not produced writers of quality worth translating or discerning carefully (a point that is often made though somewhat unfair; where Arab culture is concerned generally there are bigger problems). Here one sees the limitations of judging a “culture” by criteria such as the nationality of Nobel winners (which in categories like literature and peace of highly questionable and seemingly arbitrary especially where non-westerners are concerned). To his credit Moïsi does discuss more objective social and economic criteria in this context.
  2. It misidentifies the motivations for the assassination of Matoub Lounes. Matoub was killed not as much for his expressions of Berberism as for two factors: (1) fact that his music was contrary to the regime at large (its pseudo-Arabism, its repression, incompetence, etc.) and enjoyed a wide audience — whose dissidence it egged on (if one believes he was eliminated by the regime); and (2) his music was overtly and aggressively anti-religious (see: “Allah Wakbar“), and his political leanings were part of a counter-narrative that was in many ways contesting political space with the Islamist hard-line (if one believes he was eliminated by Islamists). One should be careful not say that Matoub’s death had nothing to do with his Berberism but the problem was not really one of “freedom for the Berbers” but one of “freedom at all.” Matoub’s assassination is still a good example of the problem facing ethnic minorities in Arab states though the element Moïsi is referencing is as well summarized by the example of another Algerian killed during the 1990s, the secularist writer Tahar Djaout (d. 1993). This instance is more debatable and far less egregious than his treatment of Arab literature.

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