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Against the Flow: Impassive Modernism in Arabic and Hebrew Literatures

  • Author(s): Alon, Shir
  • Advisor(s): Hochberg, Gil
  • Gana, Nouri
  • et al.

Against the Flow: Impassive Modernism in Arabic and Hebrew Literatures elaborates two interventions in contemporary studies of Middle Eastern Literatures, Global Modernisms, and Comparative Literature: First, the dissertation elaborates a comparative framework to read twentieth century Arabic and Hebrew literatures side by side and in conversation, as two literary cultures sharing, beyond a contemporary reality of enmity and separation, a narrative of transition to modernity. The works analyzed in the dissertation, hailing from Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Egypt, and Tunisia, emerge against the Hebrew and Arabic cultural and national renaissance movements, and the establishment of modern independent states in the Middle East. The dissertation stages encounters between Arabic and Hebrew literary works, exploring the parallel literary forms they develop in response to shared temporal narratives of a modernity outlined elsewhere and already, and in negotiation with Orientalist legacies.

Secondly, the dissertation develops a generic-formal framework to address the proliferation of static and decadent texts emerging in a cultural landscape of national revival and its aftermaths, which I name impassive modernism. Viewed against modernism’s emphatic features, impassive modernism is characterized by affective and formal investment in stasis, immobility, or immutability: suspension in space or time and a desire for nonproductivity. The impassive literary forms unearthed in the dissertation propose a host of metaphors for an alternative politics grounded in passivity rather than activism, and in weakness rather than force.

Chapter One, “There Is No Event Whose Mark Has Not Gone before It,” explores the difficulties of the Arabic or the Hebrew text to be read as modern. I demonstrate how Arabic writer Mahmud al-Masʿadi and Hebrew writer S. Y. Agnon stage encounters between Orientalist and literary modes of readings in their mock-classicist texts, and envision a timeless, universal literary realm in which literary periodization plays no role. Chapter Two, “Scratching at the Surface: Predicaments of Settlement and the Poetics of Disgust,” concerns the politics of settlement in the novel al-Jabal (The Mountain) by Egyptian Fathi Ghanem and in the story “ʿAtzabim” (Nerves) and the novel Shkhol ve-khishalon (Breakdown and Bereavement) by Hebrew writer Yosef H. Brenner. It identifies an impassive mode of settlement in the works of both authors, embodied in the gesture of scratching, and countering models of productive settlement within a national context. Chapter Three, “State Time: Gendered Genres of the Everyday in Sonallah Ibrahim and Yishayahu Koren,” identifies an anti-evental aesthetic in the work of both authors, which dismantles literary and historical logics of liberation and radical rupture. Chapter Four, “Impassivity: Resistance to Analysis in Post-Oslo Palestine” examines two impassive genres developed in the works of Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman and writer Adania Shibli in relation to crisis ordinariness: the boring joke and the frustrating snapshot.

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