Doing Things with Lists: Philology as Cultural and Social Critique

By Christian Junge

How can philology turn into cultural and social critique? What are the epistemic and aesthetic functions of its word lists? And what was the role of Arabic philology in the global nineteenth century? My book ‘Exposing Words: Al-Shidyaq’s Literary Word Lists as Cultural and Social Critique in the Nineteenth Century’ (Die Entblößung der Wörter. Al-Shidyaqs literarische Listen als Kultur- und Gesellschaftskritik im 19. Jahrhundert) (Reichert, 2019) focuses on the Arab-British-Ottoman cosmopolitan Aḥmad Fāris al-Shidyāq (1804-1887), one of the most dazzling and controversial intellectuals of his time. Being constantly on the move, he published in 1855, in Paris, his literary-philological opus magnum, al-Sāq ʿalā al-sāq fī mā huwa al-Fāriyāq (Leg Over Leg, or, The Pigeon in the Tree, The Fāriyāq What Manner of Creature Might He Be), a landmark in modern Arabic literature, which confronts the reader with numerous word lists. From the perspective of Literary and Cultural Studies, my book approaches al-Shidyāq’s lists as a fundamental social and cultural critique of his time. It develops a set of analytical tools to describe the epistemic and aesthetic dimensions of ‘exposing words’, and to make sense of the plentiful, but often neglected, word lists found throughout Arabic literature. In the framework of the ‘return to philology’ (Edward Said), my book reads al-Shidyāq’s experimental ‘language thinking’ (Jürgen Trabant) as a radical social and cultural criticism of the global nineteenth century. This sheds new light on the Nahḍa, the Arab renewal movement during the long nineteenth century, and its role in an entangled ‘world philology’ (Islam Dayeh).

Drawing on fresh sources, my book starts by describing al-Shidyāq’s concurrently central and eccentric position within Ottoman-Arab and European discourses. In particular, it traces the literary and philological fields in Paris in the 1850s, focusing on al-Shidyāq’s coup of publishing al-Sāq in Paris with publisher of the Société asiatique, while polemicizing in his work against it. Compiling almost endless errata lists of European Orientalists, it ‘writes back’ (Bill Ashcroft et al.) and refutes with a remarkable postcolonial awareness their assumed philological supremacy concerning the Arabic language and literature (chapter two). Reading al-Sāq in a larger historical context, my study shifts the analytical focus from ‘reading narratives’ to ‘reading language’. In doing so, it focuses on enumeration as both an epistemic practice of philology, as well as a didactic and aesthetic device of literature (chapter three). Taking up Fawwāz Ṭarābulusī and ʿAzīz al-ʿAẓma’s notion of ‘exposing language’ and developing it into a larger set of analytical tools, this study treats al-Shidyāq’s literary lists as a critique of gender, pleasure and language. Based on Sabine Mainberger’s concept of ‘enumerative games’, it especially focusses on the performative function of enumeration: How does literature and philology do things with lists of words?

In the context of contemporary Nahḍa debates on the ‘new woman’ in society, al-Sāq offers a sharp-witted, eloquent female protagonist, who simultaneously unveils and subverts the complicity between patriarchy and language. In dialogue with Hélène Cixous’ concept of écriture féminine, my study analyses the female revaluation and reappropriation of the classical Arabic language. This proto-feminist philology empowers the protagonists to deconstruct the misogynist Arabic lexis, to imagine new father roles and to criticize Victorian gender identities (chapter four).

While the Nahḍa debates insist on disciplining the body and its pleasures, the classical Arabic language offers the protagonists a different understanding of corporeal and somatic pleasures. By collecting the ‘words of women’, al-Shidyāq reconstructs, and reinvents, a different body for Arab modernity. Relying on Roland Barthes’ concepts of plaisir and jouissance, I identify forms of knowledge derived from the body, and consider how they unsettle contemporary understandings of society and culture in the Ottoman-Arab and European discourses (chapter five).

The Arabic Nahḍa debates are deeply concerned with producing a language suitable for contemporary ‘civilization’ or modernity. While some of these debates dismiss the classical language’s archaisms and synonyms as obstacles to progress, al-Sāq regards them as both a developed mode of thinking, and an important archive of culture. Using Aleida Assmann’s different modes of cultural memory, my study investigates how the text makes use of words as cultural archives, and how, in the field of nineteenth century philology, these compilations reappropriate the prerogative of interpretation from European Orientalism (chapter six).

To summarize, ‘reading language’ in al-Sāq is a way to uncover its literary and philological experiments, and unearth its radical social and cultural critique. Readdressing al-Shidyāq’s ‘critique of his time’ (Zeitkritik) in a wider social and material context, the study’s conclusion suggests an essential concept of critique, which takes the social habitus and material conditions of the nineteenth century, as well as the author’s agency and idiosyncrasies, into account. Moreover, by elaborating and systematizing al-Shidyāq’s device of ‘exposing words’, the study provides a rich set of tools with which to analyse literary texts that combine linguistic contemplation and socio-cultural criticism – a device which, as the comparative prospect shows, can also be found throughout postmodern literature (chapter seven).

Finally, to facilitate access to unpublished or rare sources, the book’s supplement provides Arabic, English, French, German and Hungarian paratexts from the nineteenth century, which are seminal for an understanding of al-Shidyāq’s language thinking and its role in the nineteenth century world philology.


Christian Junge. Die Entblößung der Wörter. aš-Šidyāqs literarische Listen als Kultur- und Gesellschaftskritik im 19. Jahrhundert. Mit historischen Paratexten im Anhang. Wiesbaden: Reichert, 2019, pp. 394. Free E-Book: https://doi.org/10.29091/9783954906246


Christian Junge is Lecturer and Research Assistant (Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter) at the Center for Near and Middle Eastern Studies (CNMS) at Philipps-University Marburg, Germany. He studied Arabic Studies, Literature and Comparative Literature in Berlin, Paris and Cairo. Christian is member of the Arab German Young Academy, co-director of the program Arabische Philologien im Blickwechsel, and founding member of the project Für ein lebendiges Wissenschaftsarabisch: Halqa arabiyya at the CNMS. His current research interests include affect and emotion in postmodern Egyptian literature, literature and philology in the Nahda of the long 19th century, and postcolonial language critique.


Citation: Christian Junge, Doing Things with Lists: Philology as Cultural and Social Critique, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 28.02.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/23066.


You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.