Have you ever tried to cross the street in Cairo? If so, then you certainly know what I am talking about: It is all about timing and embodied knowledge. Cairenes obviously have the specific skills required to navigate—to cross the streets of Cairo—reaching their desired destination alive. Cairenes follow the flow. This is the movement of the collective body. In the middle of the Cairo street, there is a necessity for an embodied knowledge that includes an awareness of when to stop and let one rushing car after another pass by. This motion resembles that of navigating a slalom slope; it requires the movement and skills of the individual and the collective body.
The new paradigm of materialism teaches that the object and observer are not separate (e.g., Ahmed 2006; Goodman 2010). What can be easily observed when the residents of Cairo are crossing their city streets is the inseparability of technology and ontology, of perception and epistemology. However, the political moves of today’s Egypt are much more fragmented and indefinite, leading us to the imagined future of Egypt. What kind of future do Egyptians conceive for themselves in relation to the coming presidential election? How will Egyptians navigate, how will Egyptians cross the street into the unknown future—as a body (including the transmission of affect [Brennan 2010])? Theoretically, what happens when we inquire about how materiality changes the body and extends the body? How have the forces of affects and materiality—for example, the sounds (cf. Kapchan forthcoming; Labelle 2010) of helicopters and weapons, or the feel of teargas—altered Egyptians since 2011?
My own experiences of the summer of 2013 in Cairo demonstrate that the silence during pitch-black curfew nights and the sounds of war became embodied, socially shared experiences that did something to us (Malmström 2014a, 2014b). To further understand the role of materiality and affect, we need to take into account the increasing national fatigue, and also must go back in time: Since the beginning of 2011, intense forces of affects have been moving in and out of the bodies of Egyptians in an unfamiliar way (cf. Bergson 2007). I assert that all intense, frightening, and violent happenings, as well as cheerful and peaceful ones, have deeply affected and transformed Egyptians’ political bodies since 2011 (cf. Deleuze and Guattari 1987; Massumi 2002). The outcome of the current shifting landscape and elections remains unknown. Is it possible to find stillness in the movement?
Film and the Analysis of Politics in Egypt
The senses shape human beings’ interaction with the world. By using the senses instead of words alone, one may be able to grasp what is beyond language in language. “The senses are multiply related; we rarely if ever apprehend the world through one sense alone” (Connor 2004, 1; cf. Potter 2008; Hsu 2008). Furthermore, exploring the body as a medium for the (collective) self has political consequences (cf. Navaro-Yashin 2002; Mahmood 2005). The body has the ability to act, to tell a larger story, to be evidence and to be de/re-formed, as other scholars have written (Scheper-Hughes and Bourgois 2004). The body may also signify contradictions, since it is capable of both reaffirming and transforming forms of domination. Embodied political experience is an important field to examine given that political actions are expressed and acted out through the body.
This ethnographic film has been made with the ambition of pushing the limitations of scholarly production, where textually oriented scholarship is still perceived as of primary academic significance. We are still to a high degree looking through the lens of humanity—anthropocentrism. But in the new paradigm, it makes sense to ponder the relation of objects and the way in which the anthropocentric phenomenal apparatus falsely centers materiality (cf. Coole and Frost 2010; Navaro-Yashin 2009). The intention of this film is to force viewers to use several senses at the same time—with the help of visual images of movements and sound that are filled with metaphorical interpretations about the speed of political events in Egypt and their effects on the citizens—than they might use when encountering text alone.
My goal is not just to provide an ethnographic account of Egypt’s current transformation; it is also to make a theoretical attempt to broaden key analytical concepts in social science thought about uprisings and politics in flux and to introduce the materiality of affect in North Africa. In order to understand social transformation, it is necessary to analyses how public affect creates the material conditions for living-in-common, as well as how it may un-do those same conditions.
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About the Author
Maria Frederika Malmström holds a doctorate in Social Anthropology from the School of Global Studies, Social Anthropology, University of Gothenburg. She is a Senior Researcher for North Africa in the Conflict, Security and Democratic Transformation cluster at the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala, Sweden. She is also a visiting scholar at New York University, working from 2010–2012 in the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality, and from 2012 in Performance Studies at the Tisch School of the Arts. Malmström worked previously as a Senior Lecturer at the Department of School of Global Studies at University of Gothenburg, Sweden, and at the Department of Cultural Studies, University West, Sweden. Additionally, she is a gender consultant for UNFPA and UNICEF and a member of several academic and policy networks. Her fieldwork experiences in Cairo, ongoing for more than a decade, have allowed her to experience both continuity and change during these years.
Cover image: From Mohammed El Soukkary's "5 Things Egyptian Traffic Reveals About Us," Scoop Empire, May 19, 2014.