The aesthetics and politics of rumor : the making of Egyptian public culture
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Whether as a distinct cultural form, or as a problem exaggerated and imagined by a paranoid interpretive bent, “rumor” (al-ishāʿa) claims a place in the writings of many Egyptian intellectuals, littérateurs, journalists, and politicians in the twentieth century that has yet to be adequately addressed and theorized. At the intersection of cultural studies and Arabic literature, this dissertation investigates rumor as a fiercely contested mode of reading and writing public culture in Egypt since 1952. Eschewing the legislative trend in the modern social and clinical sciences that has positioned rumor as an object to be combatted, or reduced it to the mechanisms and motives of mass psychology, I examine some of the many ways in which it generates, animates, or interferes with scenes in the lives of social actors as they move between the centers and peripheries of power. Rumor possesses both affirmative and destructive powers, often inseparably, and in order to theorize its complex imbrications with character, community, and culture beyond the urge to evaluative critique, I develop a host of concepts – such as noise, play, paranoia, and parody – capable of bringing this oft-neglected ambivalence into view. Notoriously resistant to analysis, whether due to is conceptual vagueness or ephemeral phenomenological status, rumor and the scenes it makes require a rethinking of the modes of scholarly writing that dominate the humanities and social sciences. A degree of mobility and eclecticism, drawn from the object itself in its flight across history and culture, imbues the organization and style of this dissertation: rumor is the object, and inspires the mode, of my investigation. Each of the three Parts of the dissertation investigates a different field of public culture in post-1952 Egypt. Part 1 analyzes the rhetoric and interpretive practices deployed by state actors in their confrontation with what they call “rumors.” Three historical events are taken as significant: the rhetorical and dramatic performances of the Free Officers in the early revolutionary period (1952-1954), the social scientific celebration of “planning” (takhṭīṭ) in 1964, and the Mubarak death rumors of 2007. While here rumor comes into view as the object of state discipline and paranoid interpretation, the remaining two Parts investigate its role in the performances of artists, littérateurs, and bloggers. Part 2 analyzes the literary texts of Gamal al-Ghitani, which are unique in their simultaneous recording and performing of rumors in Egyptian cultural politics at the turn of the millennium. Finally, Part 3 examines intersections between play, parody, and the paranoid style of interpretation in cyberspace, including an investigation into the blogging campaign “Mubarak Mat” (“Mubarak has Died,” 2008) and Ashraf Hamdi’s response to rumors spun by the counterrevolution (2011-2012). While rumor, across these many contexts, is deplored as a destructive force, it also, I contend, salvages possibility from necessity, explores alternatives to the status quo, and serves as an unexpected catalyst for innovative cultural and political forms. As noise, it creates disorder and generates a new order. It is at once in public culture, and making public culture.