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Losing One’s Reason(s): Political activism as moral conversion in contemporary Jordan

flyer image of event abstract and speaker bio
Date and Time: 
Monday, April 26, 2021 - 12:30 to 13:30

Department of Anthropology
VIA Zoom


Postcolonial scholars have started to note that contemporary uprisings and social movements in the Global South are taking place under norms of self-determination quite different from those dominant during the era of decolonization and Third-Worldism. Changes in international law since the 1990s have shifted the debate around self-determination away from the problem of empire (i.e. “external” self-determination) and toward the question of the internal political form of regimes holding state power (i.e. “internal” self-determination). Under the conditions of this liberal “end of history,” emancipatory political movements today take as their primary target corrupt and authoritarian regimes which they see as usurping popular sovereignty.

This talk tackles these historical shifts from the perspective of Jordan, where a grassroot movement emerged in the wake of the Arab uprisings in 2011 focusing on widespread corruption. Through an ethnographic account of the movement, as well as the biographies of individual activists, the talk explores how, under current conditions, activism is first and foremost a project of ethical self-transformation or conversion whereby the ‘the patriotic self’ is the prime locus for political struggle against ‘the regime.’ Activists strive to formulate new ways of being and acting patriotically when past forms of patriotism have ceased make practical sense in the present. In doing so, they strive to live a life in which they are the agents of political power rather than its instruments. Their ethico-political project, I argue, demands a simultaneous disavowal of past patriotisms and the reaffirmation of the ends of patriotism.

Theoretically, the talk brings into conversation linguistic anthropological literature on the semiotics of self-presentation and social interaction with moral philosophical literature on human action, intentionality, and virtue. It suggests that paying attention to changes in moral-evaluative frames provides a more fruitful framework for studying contemporary revolutionary moments than an instrumental focus on the formulation and attainment of political demands.


Yazan Doughan is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the LSE. His work straddles the linguistic and socio-cultural branches of the discipline, with close engagements with social and legal theory, conceptual and social history, and moral philosophy. His research on protests and activism in Jordan grapples with the paradoxical status of ‘the rule law’ as both the mark of post-Cold War emancipatory projects for social justice, and the condition of possibility for various kinds of injustices.