The Arabic Critical Discourse – Between the heritage integration and the horizon of interpretation by Dr. Khalid Slaiki

“However the problems of reading do not stop at the limits of exploring the meanings in their historical contexts but rather exceed this in an attempt to reach the modern ‘significance’ of a heritage text, in any cognitive domain. Also, I do not think that to reach the ‘significance’ is a matter of choice, since reading – as a deed – is realised in the ‘present’ with all its cultural, historical and ideological existence, and a determined cognitive horizon and experience.”
(Nasr Hamid ABU ZID, the problematic of reading and interpretation mechanisms. The Arab Cultural Centre 1992-pp 6)      

There is a deep intellectual debate in the Arab intellectual public for over two decades over the methods of criticism, and the best ways of thinking that are able to make an approach to the Arab literary and intellectual system, and hence, the cultural system that constitute our heritage with all its elements. It is a debate that shows a right sign. That it is the first step, which the research of better methods for this purpose are instituted. This debate was behind the appearance of signs of liberation of the system of the link with the past, and this is a requirement necessary to any criticism to start, and to which researchers and intellectuals, from different schools and currents all over the Arab world, have contributed . Because we are before a growing and changing critical discourse, which still looks for a way out to its crisis both at the cognitive and methodological level, and we are before a concept that is considered, in the Arab modern thought, as one of the most ambiguous and perplexed concepts. That the heritage question comes of the link that relates us with the knowledge heritage, in general, and the cultural heritage, in special. The heritage is surely present, and returning back to it is something crucial on the light of the cognitive reality in which the critical discourse live. That the heritage is present in our cultural deed and in our behaviour. The discourses, however renewed, still carry heritage data, to which it enters in a way or another “this heritage, in its medium existence, at the time of reading, within the formation of the conscience of its reader and independent of it at the same time, from a cognitive perspective, is the feeling of this reader and his outside as well, therefore, it is – anthologically – a reality ‘here’ in what he reads ‘now’, and a reality ‘there’ in his private past at the same time, at the time of reading that mediates between the self and the subject, the present and the past, and links between both of them, at one time.”

If we recognise that heritage has a continuous efficiency, does it then provide us with a method in study or does it lack a method to be studied? In other words is heritage a method or a knowledge material?

Research in the Arabic heritage and its manifestations, within the modern critical discourse in general, is like a research in the lost theory of criticism. Therefore, our study was an approach to “the form heritage in the Arabic poetic critical discourse”, as a recognition of the importance of the presence that heritage constitutes in the modern theory of criticism.

Thus, we can reach two basic questions that will constitute the backbone of our study:
 First – that the reality of the Arabic criticism is living a knowledge crisis that concerns the method in the clearest way.
 Second – heritage has a knowledge authority that is practised on the cognitive discourse with all its manifestations.
Within these two questions is our study as our view of heritage that falls within the frame of the view which becomes current among researchers who contributed into the establishment of what we may call “the Arab modernism” either this is related to the researchers in the Orient or to those in the Maghrib.
It seems that the question that remains, always, present is the question of acculturisation in one hand and the question of the Arab modernist project on the other hand, as it spreads in the Arab world a new current concerned with the search of the critical roots and the learning from which through returning back to the Arab heritage. Thus was the new attempt that aims to establish a firm critical modernism working on two levels: learning of the western civilisation heritage and the return to the Arab heritage, reread it and recall some theories to reproduce and reformulate so as to develop them.

Therefore, if we verified the first level, we would find that “among the prominent manifestations of the Arab-western acculturisation, in the literary domain, is to subjugate some researchers and critics of the classical and modern Arabic text to the methods of reading and modalities of analysis that draws most of its concepts from the methods of western criticism prevailing this century. We also claim that the same project of textual modernism, announced in the last two decades in some Arab nations, especially in drama and narration – has profited from the beginning and new experiences in the western literature, though this project hided under the tendency to deepen its practices on the Arab heritage ground and get back most of its excellent oeuvres.”  

Of this comes the necessity to talk of a heritage as the knowledge and cultural modern Arab context determine. Therefore, talking of the heritage as an element that comprise, in its depth, talking of how it was read and received. That’s why, the search for it will be as talking of the aspects by which we treat the heritage discourse and how it is manifested, which we may call: the search within the unsaid in the discourses and methods of reading heritage.
This pushes us to think of the project of Arab modernism of a different point to what some researchers try to propagate, as we see that “this project of Arabic modernism is only a miscopy of the western experience, based on non assimilation and nonsense. While literary studies have changed due to some of our critics to a hotchpotch of terms and concepts, sometimes taken out of their methodological and knowledge roots and relating in so much aberration to the Arabic text, and sometimes mixed with confusion and misunderstanding, and a last time changed into ready receipts and slogans, allowing so many excess.”
If this was the reality of the Arab criticism in all fields of literary studies, then this will not stop our attempt in searching into the structure of this discourse, and we can get that only via a critical practice coming out of the concept of reading; “we do not encounter a text outside he framework of time and space, but rather we encounter it within determined conditions. We do not encounter the text with a silent openness but rather with questioning.” , and thus is determined the conscience of heritage of the angle and reading methods that the studier practice.

The period through which passes this discourse is a period with its own characteristics, and hence any approach to this discourse will help us face two principal things:
The first thing is manifested in the return to heritage which became unavoidable, within the modernism project, through creating a cognitive link with the past.
While the second thing is related to the analysis of this discourse as it produces significance and influences the receiver, since the critical discourse influences via concepts and specific ideas.
Though there is a difference in the methods adopted by every studier and the difference in the cognitive systems that control each method, most studiers believe that there is one thing which is their returning to the western references and all its theories and methodological concepts to analyse the literary discourse.
“The experience of the methodological modernisation in the Arab criticism reveals a balance between a literature of special trend and an adopted criticism of another trend. It is difficult, unless in limited areas, to say that there is a real interaction that happened between the two and this is the problematic of the modern Arab criticism. This problematic grew with time because the modern Arab culture was not concerned with asking questions derived of their context and references. It is then normal to affect that criticism to the very core to adopt borrowing for the other without being able to produce its own vision.”

The crisis is not of searching for a ready alternative or import western tools, it is a crisis of knowing the basis and the relation that links the Arab critical discourse and its old heritage. Arabs have a rich heritage in the field of criticism of poetry, and this is something no one can deny. However, what concerns us in all this history of the modern criticism, which started with the Arab renaissance era, is the discourse that remained in touch with its heritage after having established a special links with it. We do not want to make the history of the link between the Arab critical discourse and its heritage, but rather we seek to study and dissect the system of a discourse that returned back to heritage after it has absorbed the prevailing western methods and has kept its methodological spirit, seeking to deepen many theories. The difference between this system, which started prevailing in the eighties, and the “system that was prevailing during the period between the two world wars is – precisely – the difference between the changes of the literary criticism, starting from the period of revival through the individualist tendency till the structuralism. This difference affirms the mutual link between the tool of reading the critical heritage and the tools of literary criticism in general.”  

Thus, we would have determined the time framework, and implicitly the critical discourse we were working on. Therefore, our research will not be free of adventure and difficulties, since we find the lack of studies concerned with criticism of poetry (during the eighties); and hence the reader of what is published of research and studies will also note the dominance of the studies concerned with romance creativity, while poetry’s share remains so weak, unless we except the achievements in the university scientific research, and even this creates a problem for us. This new relation with heritage is still relatively new.
And since our job is a search in the link between the Arab poetic critical discourse and heritage on the one hand and a search in the link between critical heritage and the western critical discourse on the other hand, we sought to determine a set of cases that result of this link, via restricting an entry to talk about the structure of Arab criticism, which fluctuates between two referential authorities: the western referential authority that was behind all its changes, due to the applicational tools it provides with to reread its project and a heritage referential authority, view all what heritage represents of a deep presence within the critical web.
Therefore, “what is heritage?”, “why heritage?”, “why its reading?”, and in other words “how heritage is read?”. These three questions represent a necessary entry to approach the heritage case, which represent one of the main problematic that, not only the critical discourse but the modern Arab thought as aforementioned, posed. Most studiers, who worked on the concept of heritage, remained away from the circle of these questions that represent, in our view, one of the important falls on Arabs today, we can also say that the existence of an Arab people is linked to determining our standing point and our view of these questions, especially that time has proved that western culture “has not changed into an activist that nourish the Arab culture with new questions, but it has included it in a trend of subordination, then dissolution, and it preserved a part of it under the illusion of absolute privacy and resistance. Within globalisation, the two things are aggravating.”  

The case of heritage starts by determining the concept of heritage, starting from the time limits, then comes the “case” of the aim behind returning to the old knowledge, and finally the methods of reading the heritage in which is included what we have called “reading systems”, for which we devoted the first book which, in itself, is divided into three chapters according to the reading systems which we got from the set of critical discourse. The first chapter talks about the ancestors’ reading; the second chapter is devoted to the historical reading, while the third chapter is to discuss the interpretive reading as a reading system that concerns us is this study.

If the Arab modernist project, which is linked to the criticism of poetry, has devoted a large part of its project to the search of how to function the heritage, as it s found with Mohammed MIFTAH, Jabber ASFOUR, Mohammed BENNIS, Mohammed EL OUMARI, Hammadi SAMOUD and others, then we have to search for the methodology by which the heritage was functioned within the Arab poetic criticism, and then the search in the aims of this functioning?
It was then natural to devote the second book to approach the Arab critical discourse, which is concerned with the questions of poetry in an attempt to practically study the nature of interpretive reading and the methods of how to function it to the aims of heritage. Via our study to this system of interpretive reading, we reached the distinction between two acts:
a.    The persuasive act which aims at directing reading on the basis of a firm demonstration. Its model in that was that of Mohammed BENNIS’ “the Modern Arabic Poetry: its Structures and Interchanges”
b.    The interpretive act which aims at searching for the meaning and a discursive strategy. We focused on the project of Mohamed EL OUMARI, especially his two books “the Analysis of Poetic Discourse: the Phonetic Structure in Poetry” and his book “Arab Rhetoric: its Roots and Extensions”.
Therefore, the concept of analysis which we tried to employ in this study aimed in the basis at a subjective description as it is a structure composed of elements that each of which have its characteristics and functions within the general system it form.

What are then the strategies that control the set of the critical discourse, or rather control the Arab modernist project linked with poetry? Does it have other openings? Then does it result of different methodological and theoretical horizons?
History does not constitute a time elevated on the human conscience, but rather it is a set of human experiences, in addition to that it does not have an independent existence of our conscience and the horizon of our present experience, because the present existence cannot be separated of the past, since it has influence on it. The human existence if historical and modern at the same time, and it will be difficult to surpass its right horizon to understand the historical phenomenon, since wit cannot go back to the past to anticipate in it and understand it objectively . Therefore, “the relation with history is built on controversy and dialogue and not on negative listening, and also the reception of artistic work is a controversial operation based on the posed questions that constituted its existence. History is, like any artistic work, an intermediary in which one can participate to understand it.”

Hence, talking about the Arabic legal critical discourse calls us to talk about the problematic of reading, especially that reading a text calls for its interpretation. Thus, we are obliged to say that reading is an interpretation, and interpretation is a search in the possible meanings which a text can present. This operation is by which there is the testing of the force and depth of a text, since the multitude of its meanings means that it is uncontrolled by time and its historical process. It keeps its truth as a text as when written and as has been written, which makes no space to deviation or loss. It remains present elevated on time, and it is present as an organised writing that has its own system and cultural process. That’s why the treatment of heritage was as a written text because of the characteristics of written texts is that it is determined as an identity, meaning that writing gives the text its identity. But, in the case of oral texts, the studier faces many identities and unlimited number of texts.

Since texts are not written because of a cognitive richness but rather because it wants to cognitively burden the latters. Hence, it is necessary to study it because it is the motif behind developing our concepts and theories and it is also behind the controversy which results in the traditional knowledge. Meaning is more than the limits of text, since this latter is a world of meanings which grow more and more whenever the studier become near to it. Every reproduction is then an interpretation and, therefore, the reproduction becomes an understanding . Interpretation is realised only via a deep understanding of the text and it also seeks to become a tool to understand texts under study.
Therefore, heritage texts pose the case of time distance that separates it of the studier. As the studier gets far from it as texts become more ambiguous and require a new reading because a text, which content to one reading, stops of evolution and renewal and this is what happened in readings that were related to the surface of the text. Explanations and elucidations remain one and do not promote to the level of reading and interpretation, and the understanding and interpretation of a text does not constitute the domain of science only but they also draw experience that man creates with the world.

In this way, some of the Arab studiers and critics led by Mohammed El OUMARI, Mohammed BENNIS, Hammadi SAMOUD and Jabber ASFOUR have attempted to interpret texts from the studier’s contemporary era, i.e. “the current present” not “the past present”, account being taken of the general context in which the text was produced, for interpretations cannot be made at the expense of the reality of a text, but they should rather examine the text and seek for its constituent parts. It is also necessary to look for what the text tells by referring to its particular contextual cohesion, the semantic patterns which form its reference as well as to what the addressee finds while referring to the particular semantic patterns of the text  . For this reason, it was obligatory for these studiers not to stick to textual surface so that heritage would not be studied for its own sake and thus turn into a dead text. What is most significant about all heritage texts is their silent level and the untold in them, especially as the text goes through a constant process of hiding and displaying due to its realm of regular and pre-fixed symbols. It is subject to meditation and research and bears an awareness seeking to transcend the stage. In fact, according to Umberto Ego, heritage texts contain gaps or holes that need to be filled during the process of reading , hence the vital importance of the action of reading and interpreting. From here comes our conviction that any one wishing to understand a heritage text should hold a project . This means that approaching this kind of texts which have specific characteristics requires at bottom a modernizing project. From here too comes the rightfulness of our choosing these two examples, i.e. Mohammed BENNIS and Mohammed El OUMARI.
From this perspective, it will be possible to deal with the heritage component as a discourse formed within a specific cognitive / cultural context having its particularities, system and power. Thanks to this selfsame point, heritage becomes a power affecting the Arab contemporary critical discourse.

There are, therefore, two forms of the presence of heritage in the Arab contemporary critical text: the first is direct and we can perceive it through the apparent references and elicitations made by the studier; the second demands that we follow it up by means of the network of critical discourse because it lies there without being aware of  and without revealing itself clearly and directly, so long as it appears only through an archaeological process during which those interred layers of discourse are dug out. Indeed, this presence is what prompted us to use the concept of discourse and to deem the critical heritage a central part of modern discourse or say congruent with it.

The heritage starts functioning since the very moment when the action of reading starts questioning and examining texts, as well as revealing their backgrounds and guides. For reading is both display and actualization, that is the study of a heritage text of any kind entails deconstructing it, shedding light on its inner-structures as well as observing its movements and the modes of its functioning. This process is not an end in itself as much as it is a means through which the studier of heritage is able to understand the text and its mechanisms. Besides, reading calls for the action of interpretation. What are then the mechanisms that were employed in the interpretation of heritage texts?
If understanding is the attempt of the studier to discern the meanings and connotations of a text, it always requires a historical reconstruction of “the past”, to which the present work is a contribution. There shall always be in the process of comprehension an awareness of common belonging to this world . This is due to the fact that the more a text belongs to an age other than ours the more assiduous the studier will be in deconstructing and examining it so as to come close to understanding it. Therefore, the process of understanding seeks really to comprehend the text and fathom its truth in its plurality because looking at heritage from a historical angle does not bring about a sense of understanding .    

When the Arab studier went back to heritage, he proceeded with a particular comprehension in which the elements of its general context interact. This means that he remained dominated by an expectation horizon which is formed with the nature of raised questions and issues. As a result, every moment of reading involves a controversy between a void future horizon needing to be filled and a horizon that has become real, but does not stop fading away .In fact, we can not talk definitely about the possibility of taking away the present while going back to the past. This cognitive state of affairs could benefit the Arab studier as a historian writing history with the eyes of the present and from the perspective of its issues, that is by means of the cognitive tools and methods of his era to which he resort to understand his heritage realistically and not just abstractly. It is an understanding which is far above the claims of scientism and positivism that separate written heritage from awareness and the claims of a selfish tendency that separate written heritage from its era .

Accordingly, heritage is neither the past nor “the present” belonging to a past period, but it is rather one of the levels of modern awareness. It is not realized until it is displayed and actualized through reading and understanding, which make the text current, but do not turn the present current in the past.
Furthermore, the power and significance of a text are evaluated according to its ability to be current and enrich modern knowledge. The reader’s strategy is based only on a yearning for actualization . Therefore, in the course of reading, the present and the past keep on meeting and manifest themselves clearly to the extent that the dynamic perspective becomes the expression of the text as a web of relations in the conscience of the reader . The importance of the dynamic fashioned by this perspective resides in the fact that it enables the reader to show the text in the plurality of its perspectives .    

Accordingly, comprehension is the essential element of the reading process. To understand a text always means to make an interpretation. Thus interpretation is the apparent form of understanding . For comprehension, reading and interpretation are multiple faces of one coin; each one calls for the other and the precedent paves the way for the following. Comprehending a text and understanding its language imply success accomplishing a task required by the text. To achieve this goal, the text should be understood  in its cognitive background along with its historical process because understanding heritage demands a historical horizon . Also, this understanding means to define the characteristics of the text, including language, genre and style and to place it in a specific historical context. Further, the attempt to comprehend entails an attempt to get to the modern meaning of a heritage text. Understanding this meaning is not optional as reading is realized in the present, with all the implications of the term including an ideological, cultural existence as well as a definite cognitive horizon and experience . This contributes to search for interpretations and meanings of texts from outside the given linguistic image.
In this respect, the text becomes a texture of numerous sounds as well as a web of cognitive and historical relations that intersect within open semantic relations. This results in the emergence of gaps that need to be filled by the reader / receiver. This process is, in its part, subject to the cultural context in which the reading is performed, i.e. the evolving present. As a matter of fact, heritage texts can not be read and interpreted but only as old texts carrying a historical load that is renewed thanks to its openness. The concern about heritage, research in its texts and its interpretation do not stem simply from the fact that it is past. Through approaching the project of Mohammed El Amri in particular, we come to the conclusion that the importance of the past lies in seeking to grasp it. In order to achieve this aim, three conditions should be met:
–    Heritage knowledge itself is to rest not alone on repetition and copying but on intellective knowledge as well. It sought to understand and deconstruct the raised issues. Hence, it presents some truth which calls for research.
–    Considering heritage as a past (or rather our past). Accordingly, it shapes our own experience and conception, in an unfinished stage that is still in the process of formation and interpretation. The present is part of us and the horizon of the present can never come into being without the past . Besides, the past is the axis and essence of the present.
–     Looking at heritage as a power having influence on the modern cognitive discourse.

By virtue of what precedes, understanding and interpretation constitute the most essential mechanisms used by the interpretive trend, which seeks to establish a project for critical modernity in the action of reading and they represent the hidden aspect of this latter. Consequently, interpretation is operating within the framework of hermeneutics . In this connection, the action of reading and the ends to which it comes constitute a fertile field that enables us to return back to our cognitive heritage at large and our critical heritage in particular. This is a systematic return which works within two axes: understanding a text/heritage in its historical dimension and context, and reading it from a modern perspective that stems from the concerns and problems of intellectual discourse as being present in terms of both time and cognition. These two steps enable the studier to grasp heritage thoroughly and they also contribute to creating an intellectual modernity of which modern Arab knowledge is in dire need.

If we acknowledge the fundamental pillars on which interpretive reading is generally based, it will be necessary to reconsider most of the reading modes which dominate the studies interested in Arab criticism. We should also avoid the methods that deal with heritage as one and big text where we can move without any reserve or question. For reading critical heritage as being part of a whole project for reading the Arab heritage cannot advance unless the reader manages to get aware of the distinction between subject and object to such an extent that he becomes able to meditate himself vis-à-vis the facts of the read heritage and the way he perceives these facts. He, therefore, comes to realize that the system of his reading has unveiled, in the text, a meaning that is significant in the historical context and time horizon of both the text and the reader himself . So what value does heritage have if it is unable to contribute with a qualitative – not a quantitative – knowledge in the current present that differs in terms of its context and issues from the read textual context? And what value does reading have if it does not enrich the modern critical discourse while studying it?

       Interpretation is an essential process and represents a fundamental basis in reading texts. It contributes to a greater extent to the their actualization and understanding in their historical context, that is in the context in which they were produced and the context in which they are read, especially as any text, regardless of its nature, remains field for a multitude of readings. Also, texts characterized by their semantic openness remain open to an unlimited number of possible interpretations  given by the reader/studier.

Accordingly, each reading has a cognitive memory through which a text is deconstructed and interpreted and each text has a defined strategy that subjects it an internal system and cohesion. This strategy is what makes dialogue with the receiver possible and draws the lines which it should not transcend. For stressing the openness of the (heritage) text does not mean that it does accept all interpretations or that it can provide an answer for all “questions” raised by the modern receiver. This is due to the fact that a text is a system of interrelations which actualize some possible relations and disregard others. Texts often say more than what their writers want to say, but considerably less than what many readers want them to say .    
Perhaps one of the most important conclusions of this study is that heritage is a field capable of being studied and actualized by means of the action of interpreting and searching for its various meanings as a read written material. Hence, it can be inferred that reading and the interpretations it allows are only the manifestations of a heritage discourse which has been constantly dominating and evolving and that this reading is an attempt to shed light on the limits and bases of the power of this discourse.

All these questions we have raised so far remain dependent upon the evaluation of the fitness of the used operational concepts: do these concepts accord with the specificities of this discourse, are they projected concepts trying to subjugate these texts, are they final or non final concepts and do they take from Arab cognitive facts?   

These are, therefore, the sum total of the issues subject of this research which we have meant to approach the problem as being posed by the modern critical discourse in relation with heritage and which has led us to come up with many conclusions, which we summarize as follows:
1-    Heritage is a discourse having power on our present. It exists in our subconscious and experience. Thus, its power comes as a result of organizing, subjecting and controlling.
2-    Critical modernization faces a number of obstacles, particularly the modes of reading the critical heritage. For this reason, it is ought to be read from the bases that promote knowledge depending on the available equable methodological and scientific capabilities.  In fact, the development of knowledge is not accomplished but through going back to early origins where the Arab knowledge was founded, basing on its own capacities and facts. Therefore, heritage is a civilisational necessity required by any establishing process aiming to keep up with its reality and its presence in order to boost its knowledge towards renewal in the future.
3-    Going back to heritage and reading it stem from such force or energy which we can derive from. If we are considering our predecessors as referential stations for us, then it is because they knew how deal with the issue of the articulation between freedom and history, which they inherited from their ancestors, despite the limited capacities of their era. By the same token, the demarcation between freedom and history is not possible . There is freedom but it is associated with history. This historical association is only with heritage.
4-    The critical movement in the Arab world is one of individuals not groups, which makes the issue more complex. As matter of fact, it impossible to talk about schools or full theories whose precedent constitutes the basis for the following.

The Arab criticism is today called upon to correct its relation with the past through rereading and criticising it, as well as the determination and exploration of the values’ patterns that are hidden in our culture and life. This is a project that equally takes into consideration the criticism of the reality and its symbolic manifestations called literature. It is not important for a project like this one (which has been launched by Mohammed BENNIS, Mohammed El OUMARI and others) to acknowledge what it does contain and come up with, but what is especially crucial for it is to be a key that can contribute to opening the rusty locks which prevent an easy entry to the past world and present world alike.

Dr. Khaled Sliki                                  

  • Abdullah IBRAHIM; debates in the theory, the method and the practice, Afaq – No.2002-67 – pp 79.
  • Jabber ASFOUR, a new reading in our critical heritage. AIBAL editions – pp 158.
  • Dr. Rachid BENHADDOU, the literary text from production to reception/terminological approach pp 14.
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