Toward the end of The Crisis of the Arab Intellectual: Traditionalism or Historicism?, Abdallah Laroui, the towering Moroccan thinker, distinguishes Western Marxists from their third-world comrades. If the former were drawn to Marxism for moral or economic reasons, third-world Marxists, who are captivated by overcoming “historical retardation,” are mainly driven by national, cultural, and historical reasons. What draws the third-world intellectuals to Marxism is, in Laroui’s reading, the belief in history’s unity and the capacity to compress historical time. To underscore his point about the seductions of historicism in the third world, Laroui affirms that other Western systems of thought such as psychoanalysis attract “only a few individuals,” who are “unattached to their native milieus.” Laroui is certainly right that the politics of progress in its various ideological shades has influenced generations of Arab intellectuals since the nineteenth century.
The Arabic Freud masterfully excavates the neglected archives of psychoanalysis in mid-twentieth century Egypt, and offers a doubly contrapuntal account to Laroui. Omnia El Shakry examines a minor tradition of modern psychoanalytic Arab thought whose coordinates cannot be plotted on the axis of linear historical progress. Moreover, authors like Yusuf Murad and al-Taftazani, whose works she looks into, articulated psychoanalytic concepts with medieval Islamic treaties. These authors were far from being “unattached” to, or alienated from, their “native milieus.” They moved back and forth between al-Ghazali (1058-1111) and Freud (1856-1939) without any sense of swimming against the gushing streams of empty homogeneous time. To say this is to emphasize that these thinkers inhabited a world of multiple temporalities.
In unearthing this archive, El Shakry makes subtle yet radical displacements—in its lay meaning, not the Freudian one—on two interconnected, but analytically distinct, fronts. First, The Arabic Freud asks us to rethink modern Arab thought outside of its major topoi of modernization and decolonization—in its national (political), socialist (economic), and Islamist (cultural) variants. Second, El Shakry, as I read her, alerts us that this minor tradition cannot be adequately rendered visible without displacing a series of binaries that undergird prevailing ideological dialects, theoretical models, and disciplinary reading practices: a civilizational antagonism between West and non-West; a cultural difference separating Self and Other; a hierarchy in value between originals and copies; and a stark historical discontinuity dividing pre-modern from modern eras.
By exploring the works that mid-twentieth century Egyptian thinkers wove out of conceptual threads from the Muslim and psychoanalytic traditions, The Arabic Freud reveals the ideological contours of our regressive political present. And by this I mean, the hegemony of the civilizational contraption that appropriates intellectual traditions and reifies them to make them one of the many mythologies of an enlightened, secular West that stands in opposition to Islam. El Shakry’s book operates like a de-reification device that brings forgotten works back to life to jam the powerful contraption that mobilizes psychoanalysis on a civilizing mission. This is a major, and much-needed, theoretical intervention.
A distinctive feature of El Shakry’s de-reification device is that it works on displacing both ends of the West/non-West binary. The Arabic Freud complicates notions of Western selfhood that speak of it in the singular and associate it exclusively with a secular nature. It also supplies her readers with multiple interpretations of psychoanalysis’s connections to religion, making it more difficult to reduce this relation to one of antagonism. In highlighting multiple theories of selfhood and the plasticity of traditions, El Shakry complicates the assertions made by Europeans and Arabs that secular selves and psychoanalysis are metonyms for Western modernity.
These initial moves set the stage for an exploration of the works of Egyptian thinkers, which can neither be plotted on a major axis whose origin is taken to be a modern, secular West, nor subsumed under any Euro-American prevalent psychoanalytic theories. For instance, Yusuf Murad formulated a new grammar of the subject characterized by “both autonomy, understood as the creation of a self-actualizing subject, and heteronomy, understood as the proper cultivation of ethical savoir.” This midcentury theory of the subject, which supplemented psychoanalytic notions with virtue ethics, is far from elementary glosses on Freud’s oeuvre. It is also conceptually distant, El-Shakry notes, from contemporaneous postwar Euro-American models such as the instrumentalist subject of American ego-psychology, or the split subject of Lacanian psychoanalysis. On a more general level, these works go beyond a pale imitation of an original Western self, yet are certainly not simply efforts to recover an authentic Islamic self that has been colonized by the West. This new grammar of the subject is neither trying to emulate the West by getting rid of religious difference to reach a secular modernity nor trying to resist the West’s imperial encroachment.
Moreover, The Arabic Freud displaces the predominant models of translation at work in the postcolony. The theoretical works El Shakry interprets for us cannot be understood as mere translations of psychoanalytic concepts (“drive,” “Trieb”) in an Islamic idiom (al-dafi’ al-gharizi) intended to “nativize” them, so to speak. The featured works also escape translations in the other direction, which translate Islamic concepts into a psychoanalytic jargon to make an argument for the contemporaneity of the Muslim tradition, and its compatibility with a particular normative understanding of modernity. You can think, for instance, about the translation of Islamic shura into “democracy” to make a point about the compatibility of Islamic conceptual resources with modern ones, and circumvent the need to import Western concepts.
Of course, translation is not the only game in the post-colonial town. Nativists underscore the incommensurability between self and other and refuse to render the different familiar or the familiar different. Hardcore universalists deny the need to translate since they dissolve the difference between self and other. Islam in this case, would not constitute a difference that needs to be taken into account. Historicists run to catch up with the West, hoping that difference will soon be erased when their ship finally docks on the shores of modernity. In all these cases the West, as a singular formation, is lodged at the heart of works, which try to negotiate a relationship between a self and an other. The Arabic Freud eschews these well-trodden paths to underscore epistemological resonances and elective affinities between traditions. To say this is to underscore that El Shakry excavates a tradition of Arab thought which did not suffer from civilizational—West/Non-West—and historicist—modernity/tradition—anxieties. In doing so, she steers away from re-inscribing the West and its avatars, such as secularism, as the exclusive subject of contemporary Arab thought.
The Arabic Freud foregoes power as the principle modality of relating psychoanalysis to Islam and articulates the encounter instead as an ethical engagement. El-Shakry develops reading practices, which contrast with scholarly works, partially indebted to Foucauldian genealogies, that underscore a stark historical discontinuity between pre-modern and modern Muslim society. This discontinuity is brought about by the economic, military, and discursive powers of European imperialism. Psychoanalysis here is not another name for a Western power/knowledge contraption that wrecks epistemological and ontological havoc on Muslim forms of life. The book’s historical intervention is also very far from histories of the present. If anything the forgotten past it recovers is the counterpoint to a regressive present when psychoanalysis is appropriated by the civilizational contraption. Its critical edge does not lie in providing us with an account of the contingent forces, which made us who we are today, but in showing us that recovering repressed pasts may loosen the present’s grip on us and may activate different possibilities for the future.
What is the significance in our post-Arab revolutions present, which displaced the centrality of the West from Arab mass politics, to excavate the works of pre-decolonization thinkers absorbed by ethico-philosophical questions? Does our present contribute to making these works audible again? In the wake of the revolutions, militants criticized older generations of oppositional intellectuals. The ancient regime, these younger revolutionaries argued, did not only include the ruling nomenklatura, but also particular modes of oppositional politics, which could be dangerously close—say, in their intransigent ideological beliefs—to those in power. I hear distant echoes of this structuralist move, which underscores that those in power and their opponents share more in common with each other than they would acknowledge, in The Arabic Freud. There are intimations, such as in the fleeting discussion of Mahmud Amin al-Alim, of a decolonization fatigue. A stronger claim would put things this way: The major political traditions of contemporary Arab thought were complicit in the repression of the minor ethico-philosophical ones. El Shakry’s theoretical turn toward ethics also intimates an exhaustion with Euro-American post-colonial reading practices that have criticized the discursive backbone of Arab thought for its Western—say Orientalist, historicist, secular—discursive assumptions.
Is El Shakry’s ethical turn an invitation to resume conversations that were interrupted by the politics of de-colonization in the Arab world and sidelined by academic post-colonial reading practices? I ask this because The Arabic Freud, reads, for me at least, like a work operating on a post-post-colonial terrain. Its multiple displacements open up a discursive space to activate minor traditions that do not revolve around the West’s orbit and unhinge modern Arab thought from the autobiography of the post-colonial nation-state.