Leaks, Hacks, and Scandals: Arab Culture in the Digital Age

By Tarek El-Ariss

When looking at the Arab world since 2010, we experience both exhilaration and complete despair. Whereas the Arab uprisings initially brought about great hope with the initial fall of dictators, they soon led to foreign military interventions, civil wars, refugee crises, the entrenchment of authoritarianism, and tribalism and fundamentalism. This social and political uprising and collapse coincided with a breakdown in systems of knowledge, disciplines and genres, and cultural models that were shaped by the legacy of modernity and centered on the nation-state. New models of critique and conceptual tools are needed to explain these radical transformations that are not only centered on the Arab world but are fundamentally transnational.

Today, the grim state of the Arab world seems to have crossed its borders in the form of refugees but also as in what appears as a political regression embodied in the rise of nationalism and populism. The intertwinement of entertainment culture and politics, fiction and reality, truth and fake news that are increasingly threatening the liberal democracy in the West as well require models of interpretation that account for new formations of political subjectivity, and the emergence of new art, writing practices and forms of dissent. These are precisely the phenomena and the kinds of intertwinement that my book, Leaks, Hacks, and Scandals: Arab Culture in the Digital Age (Princeton University Press, 2019) examines. Drawing on literary studies, media studies, and digital humanities, and focusing on the Arab world in a transnational context, the book examines the radical transformations affecting the way stories are told, dissent is expressed, and canons are produced in the new millennium.

The coinciding of momentous technological and political transformations and the emergence of new writing genres and aesthetics have a history that both explains the uprisings in the Arab world and the unraveling that has occurred there, now visible beyond its squares and battlefields. The first Gulf War (1990), which roughly coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union, marked the advent of neoliberalism in the Middle East, undermined traditional leftist and pan-Arab movements and co-opted large swaths of the Left into new cultural institutions and media platforms, from newspapers to TV channels. The second Gulf War (2003) brought about the material dismantling of the Arab nation-state and its institutions in Iraq, unleashing sectarian tensions into a full-blown explosion ending with ISIS. With the advent of the internet and the decentralization of literary production, a generation of dissidents and cultural agents filled a critical void, practicing new forms of writing and contestation that played key roles in precipitating the Arab uprisings that started to emerge in the new millennium. Thus, the years 1990, 2003, and 2011 mark the acceleration of foreign intervention and sectarianism at the political level, thereby eroding the already beleaguered modern projects of the nation and of the subject, that could be traced to the Nahda or the project of Arab modernity starting in the nineteenth century and that took different shapes and forms, from Nasserism to Baathism. The events I examine in this book result from an alignment of various historical, economic, political, technological, and cultural phenomena that created the necessary conditions for a new way to understand culture and politics in the digital age.

The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 not only toppled a dictator but also put in question the viability of the nation-state as a political and social model emerging from the project of Arab modernity. This material and symbolic collapse of the Arab nation mirrors another symbolic collapse at the heart of the liberal democracy tied to the enlightenment project in Europe and what to which Habermas traces the rise of the public sphere, incubator and sustainer of democratic practices and institutions. A new generation of transnational dissidents, who considered this invasion an example of shameless and vindictive imperialism beyond the purview of international law, sought to expose the abuse and violations of this war and its effects on the citizens of the liberal state. Figures such as Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning, and organizations like WikiLeaks and Anonymous, practiced new forms of contestation, seeking to expose a corrupt and excessive political power but also to restore, in some instances, a lost liberal ideal and social contract that could be traced to the eighteenth century.

Emerging from the Middle East yet shaped by and shaping global transformations, the events I examine in this book take 2006 specifically as a watershed year that marked the advent of a constellation involving political developments, digital activism, and new writing practices both in the Arab world and beyond. This was also the year in which WikiLeaks was founded, partially in response to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, and the year in which the first torture video in Egypt was leaked and uploaded on YouTube by activist and journalist Wael Abbas. Both of these events inaugurated a new form of activism confronting authoritarian regimes and governments skirting international laws. They were launched by people who entered the political arena from traditional modes of organization but also through portals and platforms in cyberspace. These two events happened independently of each other and involved different actors and practices, scopes, and technologies. Yet they unleashed hacking and leaking practices that embarrass, shame, and expose, and, in doing so, engaged a transnational public with accounts of political abuse and scandal as it unraveled online and in major newspapers. Tied to hacking and scene-making, the leak as forbidden text and as information, as political drama and tell-all fiction, exposes a new relationship between the aesthetic and the political that took on a new meaning and relevance with the Arab uprisings from 2010 onward. These leaking and hacking practices have given rise to a new author and activist—a “leaking subject” who intervenes and writes consciously and compulsively, drawing thousands of followers online and fomenting protest on the street to shame, expose, and subvert established hierarchies and power structures. Yet this “leaking subject” is susceptible to reversal and manipulation wherein the power of the dissident could be subverted by those in power.

Approaching hacking, leaking, revealing, proliferation, and exposure and scene-making as writing and protest genres as well as conceptual tools for understanding Arab culture in the digital age, Leaks, Hacks, and Scandals explores contemporary writing practices and activism against the backdrop of new media developments and the political transformations that gripped the Middle East starting with the First Gulf War and into the new millennium. Moving beyond the “codes” of modern Arabic literature, culture, and politics, it theorizes a new intertwining of aesthetics and politics by exploring affective forms of protest, incivility, digital consciousness, hacking and cyber-raiding, and knowledge and fiction as leaks and scandals that contain great revolutionary potential yet are susceptible to forms of cooptation as we are witnessing today both in the Arab world and beyond. Breaking with the study of modernity and its emphasis on the novel and the nation state or on religiosity and secularism, the book examines the intersections between the digital and the subversive in Arab culture, tying the internet to the street, writing genres to affective performances.

The book starts with a theoretical history, reading leaks as a form of embodied release of data and stories that conjures up classical storytelling genres to capture a bewildered audience that follows online and votes at the poles as we are witnessing in places beyond the Middle East today. In this context social-media platforms become stages for literary texts and live performances that introduce new models of participation but also reproduce the traditional cafés of Arab storytellers. I explore Arabic registers of leaks and scandals as they shape and are shaped by transnational contexts and new media technology, and by the classical tradition as well. I tie in Twitter to scandal fiction and the classical genre of akhbar (news, anecdotes, lore), and examine hashtag campaigns as forms of cyber trolling and tribal mobilization that call on followers to partake in a scene of archaic violence. Tying leaking and hacking to Arab practices of fadh (exposure, scene-making), and contemporary leakers and hackers to mystics and jinn, I examine throughout the book the intertwinement of and the mimetic relation between fiction and digital culture, the Arab tradition and cyberculture, online exchanges and street protests, and the local and the global. The focus on the Arab world in dialogue with hacking and leaking scandals and the history and theories of leaking and scene-making makes the Arab world not so much a case study but rather a framework to reflect theoretically on new definitions of literature and culture, on their relation to the political and the digital, and on their genres and critiques in a transnational context.

Tarek El-Ariss, Leaks, Hacks, and Scandals: Arab Culture in the Digital Age. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019.


About the Author

Image result for Tarek El-Ariss

Tarek El-Ariss is Associate Professor and Chair of Middle Eastern Studies at Dartmouth College. Working across disciplines and languages, his research interests include contemporary Arabic culture, literature, and art; new media and cyber culture; digital humanities; Nahda literature, language, press, and literary theory; travel writing and the war novel; film and television studies; sci-fi and utopia studies; 18th- and 19th-century French philosophy and literature; gender and sexuality studies; and psychoanalysis, deconstruction, and affect theory. In 2012/2013 he was a research fellow of Europe in the Middle East—The Middle East in Europe (EUME)


Citation: Tarek El-Ariss, Leaks, Hacks, and Scandals: Arab Culture in the Digital Age, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 05.02.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/17765.


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