Third Symposium. Doing Genealogy by Telling Tales: the philosopher, the critic and the barber

By · 25 October 2013

Deena Dajani’s paper ‘Doing Genealogy by Telling Tales: the philosopher, the critic and the barber’, presented at the third Oecumene Symposium held on the 24th and 25th of October 2013, explored the possibilities, implications and limits of writing comparative genealogies and the challenges genealogy – as a mode of enquiry that has been mostly developed and conducted in Europe – presents when considering non-European genealogical accounts. 

Dajani’s paper explored an approach that is distinctive from other accounts of genealogy in its experimental, yet responsible, play with the history of genealogy as a mode of enquiry. It aimed to provincialize genealogy’s ‘Europeanness’ and destabilize the ‘east’/‘west’ dichotomy, in order to then conduct comparative genealogies across different cultural spaces and times. Working towards that end, the paper examined the work of Nietzsche, Foucault and Ibn Budayr, a barber from Damascus who wrote a history of his city in the 18th Century, as comparative examples of non-linear and non-chronological multiple points of origin for genealogy.
Dajani first demonstrates that the history that Ibn Budayr writes of Damascus from the margins of the state and academic institutions about the disparities and nuances of everyday lived disorder in Damascus, rejects any linear representation of the past and offers instead a fractured and contingent history that documents the nature of life then as experienced and lived. She then argues that to draw on Ibn Budayr’s work, much as genealogists draw on Nietzsche and Foucault, becomes an act of incorporating the marginalised in the process of thinking genealogically and reconsidering what genealogy means today as a mode of enquiry. It also questions the very possibility for genealogy to narrate a linear history of itself. The paper ties this to larger concerns about understanding how orientalism and post-colonialism affect how we write critical histories and the implications of that for writing comparative genealogies. 
The responses to the paper and discussion that ensued raised several issues. David Owen (University of Southampton) described Dajani’s work as a productive approach to doing reflexive genealogy that aims to de-parochialise genealogy and locate it in a wider transnational and transhistorical frame. He pointed out important questions that the paper raises in relation to differentiating between genres of history, such as ‘traditional history’ as opposed to ‘genealogy’, and between medium and method. William Gallois (University of Sussex) similarly discussed different pockets of history, in which other trajectories of history exist in different forms and functions to traditional history, and with which Dajani’s own work can be associated. He also noted the implications that Dajani’s work has for critiquing and de-Occidentalising the discipline of history, and the questions it raises about the audience it seeks to address and the kind of history it aims to practice.
Several other questions emerged on the position of subjects in writing history, and the limits and boundaries of ‘responsible play’. The discussion also expanded on the relationship between play and struggle/violence; Claire Blencowe (University of Warwick) suggested looking more into violence in play and dark humour, while Alessandra Marino (Open University) suggested drawing links with Foucault’s work on the grotesque. Additionally, Leticia Sabsay (Open University) noted the subversive power of humour that changes its nature from being a space of resistance that exposes violence to a site of violence in itself. From a psychoanalytical perspective, Andrea Mura (Open University) suggested looking at humour in relation to the unconscious as serious, truthful, concealed and momentarily revealed, and points out to the importance of the space in which humour is played out. Others also explored the role of the author as a ‘teller of tales’ who is actively intervening and acknowledging their intervention in the history they relay instead of a ‘storyteller’ or narrator accurately representing the past as it was once was, and the implications these hold for the author’s responsibility or accountability towards their work. Lisa Pilgram asked about the broader connections between the paper’s critical investigation of the past and modern day concerns. The Workshop was concluded by Professor Engin Isin outlining a series of questions that resulted from the discussion such as: is play responsible or irresponsible? Or should we ask whether it is accountable instead? Should one juxtapose foolishness against seriousness? Or is not our intention but to question and reflect on the play of circumstances that produces these dividing practices and destabilise them in the first place? And finally, does that not mean we start with the idea that every critique is foolish? 
Report by Dana Nassif

Oecumene: Citizenship after Orientalism is funded by an European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant (Institutions, values, beliefs and behaviour ERC-AG-SH2).

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