The Middle East
Our regional focus is the Middle East, which for the past two decades has been a lightning rod for anxieties about the reality of conceptual boundaries. In the wake of Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) the very idea of a Middle East has come under suspicion. For some the Middle East as a cultural entity is a prime example—perhaps the prime example—of how European discourse created the definitively non-Western and thereby defined the Western by distinguishing it from an opposite created by political and social convention. Area studies programs are a postwar manifestation of this kind of logic, and consequently, in the wake of Said’s critique, Middle East–oriented projects—and to a much lesser extent area studies in general—are often frowned on. By adopting this particular regional perspective, we are not trying to revive a much-criticized analytic framework. However, the Middle East, precisely because of the passions and ambiguities it evokes, is an ideal forum for considering the role of mass media in both creating and transcending the boundaries that define scales of social action. A quick perusal of the volume’s contents shows that the area focus ranges from Pakistan (Richard Murphy) to Dearborn (Andrew Shryock)—not the Middle East of cold war era area studies—and that all the chapters make reference to relations that go beyond their immediate environs. Framing the volume around such a disputed entity as the Middle East helps to draw attention to the issues of scale, cultural conditions (modernity, or for some, postmodernity), and contemporary history. This is all to the good; it is precisely the volume’s purpose.
But in another sense one perhaps ought to question the ongoing deconstruction of this region. There is an institutional politics of analytic scale that has to a great extent delegitimized the Middle East as a regional analytic framework. This delegitimization is based on a false presumption that in a larger academic context the area concept is dead—allegedly superseded by more robust global comparative approaches, which are institutionally based in academic disciplines or international studies centers rather than the old area studies framework. But, in fact, the area concept is alive and well for some. In the past decade those who have written about Latin America, Africa, or Asia have benefited from institutional investment that is massive compared to investment in Middle East–oriented knowledge. African, Asian, and Latin American specialists can criticize the area studies framework now axiomatically disparaged as the critique of Orientalism steadily hardens into orthodoxy. But they can do so while enjoying a steady supply of area-specific jobs. Of course, academics who study the Middle East would also like to be able to have their cake and eat it too—to acknowledge the limits and insufficiencies of the area concept without having to participate in a rhetoric of dissolving the institutional framework within which they work. In contemporary academia one should be able to engage in both cross-regional comparison within a discipline and cross-disciplinary comparison within an area studies framework. Disciplinary and regional perspectives are by no means mutually exclusive.
Nonetheless, the past two decades have been increasingly marked by an anti–area studies rhetoric, though it is often informal rhetoric and it has never been followed to its logical conclusion on the institutional level. The critique of area studies occurred in the context of a gradual crystallization of transregional analysis, now often conflated with “globalization.” This happened in conjunction with a clear pattern of institutional shift toward identifiable area specializations other than the Middle East. “Area studies” became a stick used to beat Middle East specialists in particular. If connections between power and the production of knowledge are truly a prominent academic concern, it would seem imperative to ask whether the recent shift in institutional backing of area specialties was entirely due to intellectual priorities. What role do interests shaped by national criteria play in the reshaping of academic institutions? Surely a very substantial one. This is not to say that there is a neat correspondence between national interest and institutional priorities. The point is that the politics of presence and absence at the institutional level are closely tied to the politics of the nation-state. A growing institutional interest in transnational phenomena is not necessarily even connected to scales of interaction at the “global” level; it is quite clearly connected to interactions that affect the United States. These interactions vary in character and intensity. What ties them all together is the nation-state as an analytic and practical framework.
For example, one might speculate that commercial interest in Latin America and Asia—currently areas of intense academic interest—is obvious. Latin American and Asian markets and, increasingly, productive capacity are important to the economic future of the United States. Although commercial interest need not be strictly national (and probably never was), the congruence of national ethnic categories, commercial interest, and institutional response to precisely these interests and categories does not suggest the imminent irrelevance of the nation-state. American academic interest in Africa is more complex. African resources and markets are clearly on the horizon of commercial interest, but the main impetus to increasing interest in African studies is, in many cases, less the importance of Africa than the politics of relations between African-Americans and the dominant population of European descent. Whether increased attention to Africa stems from the efforts of African-Americans to put their concerns on the intellectual agenda or from a growing appreciation for the commercial potential of African markets, it would be deceptive to think of institutional attention to Africa as the product of global or transregional forces to the exclusion of national considerations.
Of course, the United States has commercial interests in the Middle East as well. But from a national policy perspective—regardless of any considerations of such issues as human rights or sound economic development—U.S. Middle East policy could not be more successful than it is now. The price of the oil so crucial to our consumption habits is at a historic low. Money spent on oil is conveniently recycled into the metropolitan economy by cooperative Arab states. The large and influential constituents of American society who see the Middle East through the lens of Israeli politics observe a continuing occupation of Palestinian territory that goes virtually unchallenged on an international level. Both Iraq and Iran are preoccupied with trying to break free of American-sponsored economic and political embargoes; both states provide continuing pretexts for maintaining an American military presence in the region. With the demise of the Soviet Union, American backing of Islamic insurgency directed from the Pakistani frontier can be conveniently forgotten. In the Maghreb a simmering Algerian civil war threatens no vital “American” resources, and thus the conflict, for all practical purposes, does not exist in the American media. On the domestic front there is no effective Arab-American or Muslim-American pressure to put any other Middle Eastern issues into the political discourse.
One could plausibly argue that the Middle East absorbs the lion’s share of American foreign policy attention. What is increasingly difficult to argue is the notion of a strong academic institutional connection between imperial ambition and the exercise of power. Making the power/knowledge nexus so crucial to Said’s Orientalism into a “seminal event” (Hajjar and Niva 1997, 4) for Middle East specialists has been a Faustian bargain. If academic scrutiny of the Middle East helps to construct the cultural basis for imperial domination, we should now be witnessing a diminution of American interference in the region, and of course nothing could be farther from the truth. Middle East particularism as an institutional construction is on the wane (to the benefit of Asian, Latin American, and African particularisms). The withering of academic interest in the Middle East has often been abetted by the field of Middle East studies itself, a substantial portion of which embraced the idea that the very existence of a discipline of Middle East studies in the United States was antithetical to the interests of those living in the region. That portion of the field has gotten its wish. But the result is that precisely the “expertise” deemed dubious by left-leaning academics interested in the Middle East has been privatized and removed from the scrutiny of academics. As institutional commitment to the production of academic knowledge of the Middle East wanes, openly partisan private foundations designed to influence Middle East policy flourish. Universities were the institutions most likely to hire individuals who questioned the political status quo vis-à-vis the Middle East. As Irene Grendzier put it, “The mainstream [of Middle East studies] has never been the only stream, nor the one in which the most creative, insightful and urgent intellectual work is to be found. Generally speaking, however, those who have resisted the canons of orthodoxy have not been the ones to shape the dominant motifs of research” (1997, 11). A mainstream reduced to a trickle is even less likely to produce a critical mass of scholars who oppose the canons of political orthodoxy.
Commercial interest, although not the only element structuring Middle East studies in the United States, could still conceivably revive the fortunes of Middle East studies. But with matters running so smoothly in the Middle East (from a purely cynical perspective of national interest), there is little potential for intensification of U.S. commercial exploitation of the region, hence little incentive for increased institutional investment in studying it. In Latin America, Asia, and Africa, where prospects for intensification of commercial activity are far greater, U.S. institutional investment is correspondingly higher. But whether or not local knowledge is necessary to promote commercial or national interest depends on how interests are defined. It is no coincidence that the one region of the world in which the United States has recently gone to war is also an area of decreasing institutional importance in academia. The Gulf War was first and foremost a conflict to defend national interests, whether or not one agrees with the way those interests were defined.
In the end we have nothing to gain from accepting globalization as the logical antithesis of either a national or a regional focus. Even some of the prominent figures in globalization discourse are less hostile to the area concept than many Middle East specialists who are encouraged by contemporary institutional realities to steer clear of obvious manifestations of area interest. For example, Arjun Appadurai, an early advocate of transnational approaches to cultural studies, is well aware of the dangers of throwing the area studies baby out with the post-Orientalist bathwater:
The Middle East, a charter member of institutionalized area studies, and more recently the scapegoat for those who oppose it, is now a serious candidate for marginalization. The Gulf War and ongoing American threats of military action are not a product of dubious area expertise but of general, willful, ignorance. Middle East exceptionalism truly is a danger, but casting an area focus as a choice between a myopic outdated antimethodology and complete surrender to globalization is no way to remedy the situation.
Left-wing critics of area studies, much influenced by the important work of Edward Said on orientalism, have been joined by free-marketeers and advocates of liberalization, who are impatient with what they deride as the narrowness and history fetish of area-studies experts.…Bedeviled by a certain tendency toward philology (in the narrow, lexical sense) and a certain overidentification with the regions of its specialization, area studies has nonetheless been one of the few serious counterweights to the tireless tendency to marginalize huge parts of the world in the American academy and in American society more generally. (1996, 16–17)
Mass Mediations therefore fills a general need for continuing a viable regional literature situated in relation to more generalized intellectual and institutional concerns. The intellectual agenda currently most prevalent points toward a global analytic framework thrown into relief by various forms of interaction at more localized scales but explicitly not at the level of the nation-state. This intellectual agenda, however, does not correspond to institutional priorities. It is our own national framework—cultural, political, and economic—that dictates the institutional presence or absence of regional studies and the shape of academic disciplinary discourses. The chapters in this volume help to qualify and focus debates over scales of social interaction and their significance to our analyses. On the whole they suggest that global/local tensions are the crucial frame of analysis if one decides to make them so. But the decision to make them so is as embedded in institutional and power relations as any other discourse.
This volume also answers a more specific need to address the effect on Middle Eastern societies of mass media and related phenomena such as mass consumption. This inevitably requires attention to connections between the Middle East and metropolitan societies. We therefore hope to capture something of the complex transitions between scales of social interaction without, however, taking globalization rhetoric as a universalizing master narrative. This is because globalization is part unfinished agenda and part sociological reality.