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“A Monster Was Born”: Notes on the Rebirth of the “Corrupt Intellectual”


In the late nineteenth century, a monster was born. This monster did not know what it was exactly. It knew that it needed to articulate, describe, prescribe, and communicate. It knew it was supposed to play a public role in the birth of a new historical order. It knew it had a precise function in the articulation of power within the transforming social order. This monster was a speculator of knowledge, a peddler of identities, a fantasist, a cunning operator, an extrovert with a bloated ego, a necessary structural regulator.

Almost a century and a half later, I now call the direct descendant of this figure the “corrupt intellectual.” It is not a very accurate term. However, I like it because it is polemical, because it describes and judges at the same time. After first using the term while speaking on a panel at Art Dubai, in 2010 I wrote an essay titled “In Defense of the Corrupt Intellectual” in which I wrongly assumed that this figure was almost dead, and I saw value in resuscitating it as a counterweight to the forces of a market that consciously presents itself as ahistorical, a cycle of circulation where the spectacular becomes both currency and function. The defense I mounted was grounded in a loose analysis of Egyptian intellectual history and was an attempt at understanding the role and meaning of that figure in the formation of a social order. I now, due to the events of the past three years, clearly recognize that I was wrong to defend this figure. This essay is an attempt to rewrite a position without completely disavowing it. I still lean strongly on my previous analysis, although with the new recognition that calcified power structures are not as easily dismantled as I first imagined. This essay looks at the role of this figure in cementing, reaffirming, and producing a regime of power and subjugation. It attempts to provide some historical context, as well as to analyze the tools and methods of those I label as “corrupt intellectuals.” My intention in this essay is not to condemn this figure (although this figure is to be damned), but rather to chart out the stormy territories we are forced to navigate on a daily basis in our present reality. Needless to say, this moment of transformation involves a committed attempt to comprehend the complex and dangerous present as well as to sincerely propose possibilities.

The appearance of this figure is deeply entwined with the emergence of what is known as “the modern Egyptian state,” which most historians agree was formed over the long forty-three years of Khedive Mohamed Ali’s rule over Egypt (1805–1848). The years under Ali’s reign saw a concerted effort at creating a bureaucracy that organized and managed what it perceived as assets more efficiently. What implicitly marked that state as “modern” was in fact a side effect of the creation of its bureaucracy: the relationship between the population and its administration became more intimate and intrusive, and with time it became impossible to distinguish the border between them. The process of constructing this new relationship demanded a new discursive order that would help explain and locate the subject and the regime. In the second half of the nineteenth century, with the weakening of the Alawiyya Dynasty and the increasingly complex character of the state under British occupation (and then protection), the state apparatus began focusing on the production of a new asset: “Egyptian identity.”

The story of how this asset was managed, regulated, sold, and bought over the following century is a tragic and complex one that I will not delve into here. However, it might be useful to roughly sketch out the present iteration of this construction, and the mechanisms through which this insidious strain operates, as it is indicative of a wider cultural malaise. Less specific and more dangerous than a local corruption, it contains something endemic to the idea of systems themselves.

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