Hazem Saghieh

The War on Gaza: From Descriptive to Prescriptive?

The matters addressed here are not novel, but they have resurfaced with unprecedented clarity since the war on Gaza broke out. That is because the milieu of Arab intellectuals seems, once again and more than ever, highly inclined to describe and extremely reluctant to prescribe.

Here, prescriptive culture does not refer to the technical interventions of “experts,” nor giving advice directed at political authorities and politicians. What it does refer to is breeding free ideas and using them to find a way out of this current situation.

First and foremost, that means ending the death and destruction, thereby opening the door to a viable solution that gives rise to alternatives that are more just and more compatible with the desires of the human victims. This is not a substitute for demanding an immediate ceasefire. However, it does not freeze and ossify at that point, seeking richer answers that help bring a ceasefire about, present a plan of action for what to do in the event that there is no ceasefire, or address what happens after a ceasefire in the event that the effort to reach one succeeds.

Mainstream Arab political culture is broadly ill-prepared for this task. As for the reasons for this, there are many. One is the weakness of independent media and research platforms and websites. Another more deep-rooted factor is that our societies’ social ties are fragmented and disconnected, preventing any structure from influencing any other. That creates an overwhelming impression that intellectual culture is “talk” and “theorization,” while influence and action come from somewhere else that is closed-off and deaf.

Mainstream political culture, paradoxically enough, is thus disinfected from politics or incapable of engaging with it. Of course, added to all of this is the climate of despair and repression created by the rhetorical consensus on renouncing criticism and distrusting critics. We add nothing new in saying that the current state of emotional saturation, which Israel’s acts of brutality - the latest of which was the “flour massacre” - have sharpened and intensified, hinders the emergence of prescriptive ideas, especially since they necessarily imply cold analysis that deals only with solutions, settlements, and the balances of power.

In the face of these severe impasses, we could see intellectuals presenting a kind of obituary to the world become prevalent. That would be understandable, given the intensity and weight of emotion, which is coupled with a sense that nothing an intellectual does could have an impact. The world may indeed be putting its worst possibilities on display today, but until our finite lives end, we will have to deal with the world, this world, as the only one we live in, and recognize that we cannot escape the implications of this fact.

Accordingly, we are currently faced with the fact that making proposals is now being left to politicians - both regional and Western - alone.

Following the wounded conscience that our culture speaks to, their prescriptions will continue to be rejected, either because they are taking part in the assault, because they are favorable to it, or because (and this is a particularly commonplace accusation today) they are silent about it.

In addition to this, there is the mere fact that they are “strong,” which makes them inherently susceptible to the deep skepticism of the weak. As a result, a sharp division of labor has emerged. Putting proposals forward is left to the politicians, with some Western and Israeli intellectuals standing on the sidelines.

Meanwhile, description is left to our culture and intellectuals. Description entails sentiments and condemnations: if every prescription necessarily implies some sort of description, not every description necessarily implies prescription, except for the “prescription” of maximalist solutions that do not align with the existing balance of power and that the realities on the ground render untenable.

Amid this state of affairs, satirical epithets flourish in our culture, repelling all else. Although Israel deserves most of the epithets directed at it, quantitative increases of characterizations do not engender a paradigm shift in our understanding of it.

Moreover, the descriptive content currently in fashion does not significantly add to the Arab satirical lexicon that took hold with the Nakba of 1948. This lexicon has been fully developed since then, and all the “discourse” that followed was merely a variation of that foundational beginning. As for the terms that new developments bless us with, it would not be difficult to identify their great-grandfathers in the terms that preceded them.

This repetitive description serves, among other things, to make discourse totally ineffective, to say nothing about how it undermines its vigor and undermines what linguists call rhetorical eloquence. Some descriptive factions often polish their description by, for example, borrowing the slogan “They shall not pass” from the Spanish “pasionaria”, Ibarruri, or brandishing Picasso's Guernica.

However, the outcomes of past attempts to refine contextualization in this way can only leave us more pessimistic about what our own attempt will achieve and heighten our despair at the proliferation of lazy imaginations.

Worst of all perhaps, restraint in description and the aversion to prescribing solutions reconnects our culture to a longstanding and copious tradition which posits that this culture moves ahead of the world as any army or as applause for an army, and a visionary appeal or a celebration of a visionary appeal, but bears absolutely no responsibility and makes no contribution to any kind of meaningful change, however slight.