December 6, 2017, 5:30pm
Neoliberal Orientalism
Presenter: Rayya El Zein
Location: Stiteler Hall B26, 208 South 37th street, 19104 Philadelphia

In discussions of art and cultural production in and from the Arab world, neoliberal orientalism structures a set of expectations and a framework for political representation. This talk recognizes a systemic political pattern of representation that makes Arab artists objects of desire and the places they call home exotic spaces of experimentation. Neoliberal orientalism can be found in international art circles, academe, mainstream journalism, among humanitarian players, and in the cultural programming of government agencies. It is particularly prominent in the expectation that a form of music, performance, or art express or enact a particular kind of creative, non-violent resistance. This celebratory expectation of resistance strips emergent politics out from creative political expression or experience and substitutes instead liberal and neoliberal narratives of political change. That is, neoliberal orientalism and the discourses of resistance it employs depoliticizes Arab artists and musicians and their work while celebrating what seems like exciting political content or voice. The exuberant enthusiasm in recent years about so-called hybrid artistic expression and cultural production in the Arab world – like Arabic rap and hip hop, graffiti, or street art – is a concrete archive of this attempt to tame emergent and unknown politics by putting them in familiar and non-threatening frames.

Neoliberal orientalism offers students of Arab culture, art, media, and politics a specific deepening of the framework Edward Said made popular with his landmark 1978 text. Tracing discourses of resistance that correspond with the shift in globalizing markets associated with the rise of neoliberalism, this talk illustrates patterns of the construction of Arab and Muslim others that are less attached to geographic location (West/East) than they are affiliated with economic class and other assemblages of material access. In this way, the orientalization of class emerges as an important cross section through debates about political struggle and cultural representation in the art and activist centers of the Global South and Global North alike.

Rayya El Zein is a a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Advanced Research in Global Communication (CARGC) at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania. Her research concerns processes of live cultural production, popular culture and media, and audiences in urban Arab contexts and diasporas. In her work, she examines the political economy of consumption and leisure as an important part of the politics of reception and spectatorship. Ongoing ethnographic projects supported by the Winner-Gren Foundation, the Palestinian American Research Center, and an IIE Fulbright center on live music and the media representations of hybrid cultural phenomena amid patterns of neoliberal growth in the Levant. Her writing has appeared in Lateral, the Journal of Palestine StudiesTheatre Journal, Ethnomusicology Forum and on the e-zine Jadaliyya. She holds a Ph.D. in Theatre from the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

The Middle East Center at University of Pennsylvania