On beginnings, centring collective agency, and the highlighting of alternative selves and histories. Exploring the dynamics of building collective human agency

The scholar activist


Cherine Hussein

If I had to choose one thing that I have learned from Edward Said that has kept coming back to me again and again, as an eternal piece of grounding wisdom in my work—it is that everything we research, everything we write, the very analysis we are able to see or piece together on a particular topic, is shaped by where we choose to place our point of beginning.

This of course applies to where we choose to begin a story or an analysis historically and contextually, but—in the case of knowledge production on the politics of resistance—it also crucially applies to whose knowledge, whose geography, whose practices, languages and struggles we choose to begin with when trying to engage in conversations about the political; about human agency; about the alternative worldviews of social and political relations that matter, and those that are made invisible, or sidelined as utopian. It applies to the collective human self who is empowered to narrate; whose thoughts and ways of conceiving the world are produced as hegemonic; who is centred as ‘raceless’; who is universalised as the norm and not seen as a racialised ‘other’—to the collective self whose ways of being in the world are often charted to us as a ‘neutral’ point of beginning.

Echoing Toni Morrison though, no community or collective is in fact ‘other’. For, as she emphasises in the Tanner Lectures on Human Values: “We have always been imagining ourselves… We are the subjects of our own narrative, witnesses to and participants in our own experience, and, in no way coincidentally, in the experience of those with whom we have come in contact” (1988). We are choices, and to begin with us is “to choose to examine centres of the self and to have the opportunity to compare these centres with the ‘raceless’ one with which we are, all of us, most familiar” (1988).

In many ways, I consider this choice to be at the core of my research interests, writings and decolonial methods revolving around exploring the dynamics of building collective agency in the Arab World—a choice to examine the human self by beginning from within, or empowering, the history, life experiences, self-understandings, geographies and conceptions of the world of a particular community of people. A counter-hegemonic community that I would consider myself to belong to—to emerge, experience and witness the world from within. I write to highlight and imagine our agency; to examine our history; to explore our worldviews and document our presence; to remember; to return; to compile an inventory; to chart my beginning of the excavation of the human experience, and of ‘the political’, from within; and, ultimately, to disrupt hegemonic places of beginning that are painted to us as ‘natural’, while disempowering us as marginal, utopian, backwards, or ‘exotic’.