Capitalizing on the revolution: Post-revolutionary knowledge economies

As I stand in the square, as I walk in the tense streets of downtown Cairo, as I stare at the worn-out and silent faces on the metro, I am haunted by the spectre of a post-revolutionary culture industry and knowledge economy in Egypt. As the exhilarated cries and jubilation approached their climactic finale with the Egyptian Vice President’s abrupt and laconic announcement of Mubarak’s departure, I start envisioning greedy hands reaching for the biggest cut of the revolutionary pie, high-pitched moralizing attitudes and high-brow self-righteousness.

But worst of all, I anticipated the emergence of a post-revolutionary knowledge economy based on the self-serving appropriation of the position of the moralizing hero. Sure enough, many films have been produced using hackneyed footage of large demonstrations and triumphant music. Scholarly and artistic works about the revolution have emerged from institutions where formalized knowledge is produced and circulated.

The American University in Cairo (AUC) is one notable example. The university has announced its latest plans to develop new courses, workshops and seminars on the revolution (as well as various on- and off-curricular programs offered by the School of Business, The School of Humanities and Social Sciences and The School of Global Affairs and Public Policy). These plans raise questions about who exactly are the producers and consumers of this knowledge and what ethical and political stances did they take during the 18 days of the Egyptian uprising.

AUC remained conspicuously silent throughout the revolt, often seeming to care more about the safety of its students and faculty. For years, the university cooperated with the corrupt Mubarak regime that its now feverishly rejects (witness the Suzanne Mubarak conference hall and the annual commemoration of Police Day, amongst other signs). By laying claim to the revolution, AUC now seeks to maintain, and even extend, its legitimacy in the post-Mubarak (and, hopefully, post-authoritarian) Arab world.  This legitimacy is not merely confined to cultural and scholarly recognition. It also has economic and political implications as AUC strives to institutionalize and market knowledge about revolution for scholarly consumption.  

As AUC announces its new program "The University on the Square: Documenting History in Real Time", an educational initiative set up to “capitalize on Egypt's historic developments,” it attempts to erase the memory of its own complicit silence.

On 17 February, I received an email from the Foundation for Arts Initiative offering me a large research grant–for which I had not applied–to “explore [my] own thoughts about contemporary cultural practice in Egypt's transformed environment.” Why do I need funding to explore my thoughts? Is this the same “economy of knowledge” AUC is trying to catch up with? How does one deal with these attempts to appropriate local knowledge of the revolution?

Many would ask what a sincere, non-institutionalized, non-market, non-moralising account of the revolution and its cultural forms would look like. What alternatives exist to the “economy of knowledge” and instrumentalized art production? The answer is that alternatives forms of knowledge and aesthetics emerge when there is no distinction between theory and practice, no professionalized division of labor; and when knowledge and creativity are not instrumentalized for narrowly defined political and market-driven gains.

Cultural forms and modes of knowledge do not need to “catch up” with the revolution; they can emerge from daily, non-institutionalized practices and social relationships. This was a regular scene in Tahrir Square where people invented slogans and came up with modes of public organization to sustain the uprising. This lesson should not be lost upon those who seek to document, narrate and memorialize the revolution in the future.

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