Examining the work of Ernest Renan in relation to thinkers confessing Arab and Islamic affiliations in the Ottoman fin de siècle allows us to understand how Orientalist scholarship has used decadence as the figure through which its positivist scientific claims were redistributed as performative speech acts. At the site where language, race, and religion–the positive symptoms of decadence–are knotted together, Renan describes a political theology of the color line. The supposed “truths” about Oriental decadence became distributed among the objects of its study (“Orientals”) within the terrain over which it sought textual (and ultimately, political) authority (“the Orient”). It was the dissemination of the truth of what Edward Said called the “Semitic object” outside of Europe that allowed Orientalism to facilitate the fragmentation and degeneration it only claimed, at one level, to describe. In contrast to Renan, the thinkers and writers of the Arab nahda, or “awakening,” examined here–Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi, Farah Antun, and Ahmed Faris al-Shidyaq–devised their texts at ground level, shifting their tactics on a dynamic field of operations in response to the rapidly adapting strategies of imperial geopolitics and ideology. While many writers of the Arab nahda imagined an Arab historical subject awakening to a past defined in terms of the kind of authenticity defined by Orientalist scholarship, al-Shidyaq’s novel Al-Sāq ‘alā al-Sāq radicalizes both decadence and philology, demonstrating how the past might erupt in the present through language that forges ambivalent links to a lived relation with the past.
David Fieni; French Decadence, Arab Awakenings: Figures of Decay in the Arab Nahda. boundary 2 1 May 2012; 39 (2): 143–160. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/01903659-1597916
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