Judith Naeff, Precarious Imaginaries of Beirut: A City’s Suspended Now (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Judith Naeff (JN): As an MA student, I took a class at the institut d'études scéniques, audiovisuelles et cinématographique, IESAV, at the Université Saint Joseph in 2008. The class was taught by the performance artist Lina Majdalanie, then known as Lina Saneh. I was very inspired by the range of artists that agreed to speak about their work in class, such as Ghassan Salhab, Akram Zaatari, Walid Raad and Khalil Joreige. At the same time, living as an adolescent in Beirut in 2008, I was overwhelmed by a city ridden with trouble and yet so full of energy. I wrote a PhD proposal about memory and urban space in contemporary arts and literature, but soon realized that there was a sense of weariness with the memory and trauma discourse in the very field I was studying. I remember very well at an event organized in Beirut by Centre Pompidou in 2012 that the atmosphere was tense and participants and audience expressed dissatisfaction. It seemed to me people were searching for another lens through which to look at the city and urban culture. Working within the Cities Project of the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis, I was offered many tools and concepts to explore similar issues from new angles, and the book is really the product of that exploration.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
JN: Precarious Imaginaries of Beirut explores works of visual arts, cinema, and literature that give meaning to the post-war city of Beirut (1990-2015). This means my encounter with the city is one between a reader and a text, or a spectator and an image. The city in the book is not a lived environment to a city dweller, except such as mediated by texts and images. In particular, the book addresses how such cultural imaginaries of the city are informed by a shared experience of time, “the suspended now,” which is a feeling of being stuck in a stretched-out present, the past inaccessible, and the future inconceivable. The book analyses the ways in which this shared sense of time in the city has been given meaning, and traces a gradual shift of understanding the temporality as a consequence of traumatic rupture to understanding it as produced by prolonged precariousness. Judith Butler’s work on precariousness and vulnerability has been very influential in this respect.
Rather than making this point straightforwardly, the central argument is developed through sprawling sections experimenting with many approaches and concepts. Sometimes geography is the central focus, such as in my exploration of garbage dumps or construction sites featuring in literature and visual culture. At other moments discourse or narrative is the main object of analysis, such as the myth of Beirut as a Phoenix, or widespread ideas that Beirut is less authentic or mature than other places. The different sections draw on a wide variety of critical theory, both classical texts and more recent works. When addressing recurrent metaphors of mirrors and identity, for example, the book draws upon psychoanalysis. Exploring notions of squander and escapism in Beirut’s urban imaginaries, the book turns to Georges Bataille’s work on excess. A section on mourning builds upon a set of conceptual essays by Walid Sadek. As for area specialized works, I am indebted to the works of Sune Haugbolle and Lucia Volk on memory in Lebanon, as well as works in the field of literary studies such as Samira Aghacy’s and Ken Seigneurie’s.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
JN: The book forms the fruit of my PhD project, and I wrote it with an academic audience in mind, in particular scholars in the field of urban studies, memory studies, and Middle Eastern studies. I believe the book also speaks to people outside of the academy who are interested in Lebanese arts and culture, or contemporary urban culture more broadly, but the publisher is clearly targeting university libraries with its pricing. I donated a copy to the cultural center Mansion in Beirut, and to the Dutch Flemish Institute in Cairo (NVIC). These are accessible for people without academic library subscriptions.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
JN: I am currently looking at contemporary film and literature that remembers leftist struggles of the 1970s in the Arab world, with a focus on Egypt and Lebanon. I am particularly interested in how such memories intervene in the post-2011 present. This means I have left Beirut’s urbanism aside for the moment, but I am still working on time and temporalities and the ways in which we give meaning to them through images and narratives.
J: How do you see this book contributing to the field of studies of urban issues in the Arab world and beyond?
JN: The book lends itself particularly well to comparative analysis. People often ask me whether my findings are specific to Beirut. I think what is particular is the fact that there never was any majority hegemonic view on what Beirut is or should mean, only competing minority perspectives, which I have not encountered anywhere else. But the anxiety over speculative real estate development, the lingering traces of painful memories in the urban geography and the city’s exposure to recurrent conflict can be found in many other places both in and beyond the Arab world. It would be interesting to see to what extent narratives and images circulating in other cities give meaning to time and space in similar or different ways from the ones explored in my book.
I also hope my book will contribute to opening new avenues in memory studies, especially in the Lebanese context. The argument is expressly intended to open up a conversation with studies that approach similar objects of analysis through the lens of memory and trauma.
J: The main argument of the book seems to propagate a view of Beirut as structurally exposed to harm – the precarious city – rather than an event-based view of the city as marked by ruptures and healing – the transitional city. But if we dispense with the teleology of the latter, or even with its historical linearity altogether, what happens to hope for change?
JN: I found it very important to make ethics part of my argument in the book, but I also struggled with this question. My answer is that there is hope in moments of generosity and solidarity that take place in the present, even if they lack any orientation towards a better future. At the same time, I am aware that politically such presentism is problematic and is at the heart of critique directed at the prefigurative politics employed by movements such as Occupy. We can dislike dogmatic teleological blueprints, but making a statement without political agenda is unlikely to generate actual change, is the main thrust of such critique. I acknowledge that the book is perhaps more optimistic than warranted by the facts. Then again, I do not need to be as pragmatist as political scientists. In cultural studies, we have the duty to insist that the arts offer places of solace, hope and political imagination, even if—or especially when—that is against the odds.
Excerpt from the Book:
From chapter 2, Beirut’s Suspended Now:
Eugène Minkowski distinguished between two orientations towards the future: activity and expectation, which are always complementary, but the proportions of which change over time. In the mode of activity, the subject moves towards the future, in control of events. In the mode of expectation, the future comes towards the powerless subject. Minkowski wrote shortly after World War I that the dominant mode of the trench-war soldier was that of expectation. The same can be said of wartime and post-war Lebanon, where the horizon of expectation can be described as anxious anticipation. The sociopolitical tensions lurking under the relative calm of post-war Beirut are a direct result of the unresolvedness discussed in the previous section. On the one hand, historical knowledge and experience of previous causes and effects, the lack of structural change and continuing tensions have been building up to rational prognoses of renewed violence. On the other hand, familiar images, familiar conflicts and familiar rhetoric have associatively been triggering latent memories of past violence—forgotten or worked-through, individual or collective and generational. At various moments, unexpected or expected stimuli have triggered the structural tensions. Multiple outbursts of violence have confirmed many in their fear for renewed conflict [… and] it is precisely the unresolvedness of local and regional conflicts that produces the volatile present with its radically uncertain horizon of expectation.
One example of an artistic articulation of the imminence of renewed violence is Mona Hatoum’s 2010 installation Balançoires. The work consists of two glass swings each sandblasted with a map of half of Beirut divided approximately along the former demarcation line. The swings are hanging parallel at such proximity that they would smash each other when swinging even slightly out of phase. The transparency and vulnerability of the material and the delicacy of the sandblasting procedure contrast sharply with the thick chains of stainless steel with which the swings are attached to the ceiling. Thus, the city is represented as extremely vulnerable to and dependent on the movement of its power structures, which remain utterly divided into two. Despite this volatility, the city invites to play, no matter how hazardous. Interestingly, convergence is not an option; harmony is to be sought in the perfect synchronicity between parallel subjectivities, permanently brittle and volatile.
Hatoum does not restrict this impression to the city of Beirut. She has made another installation with an entire room full of similar swings imprinted with maps from capitals all over the globe. She called this installation Suspended, evoking both the spatiality of the swings in the room and their temporality of imminent crash. In her Map (clear), she laid out a large world map consisting of transparent marbles. In this installation too, the unstable pattern and the vulnerable material evoke a sense of precariousness and contingency, expressing the fleeting nature of political and geographical boundaries. Commenting upon a similar installation exhibited in Basel in 1998, Hatoum explained moreover that “the marbles made the floor hazardous, because you could slip on the glass balls and fall down. I’ve done quite a few works which destabilize the ground you walk on”. The map is also spectacular, especially in the way it was exhibited in the Centre Pompidou in 2015, with large window panes providing ample daylight to light up the balls and a spectacular view over Paris as a backdrop to the piece. Hatoum’s sensibility to volatility, understood here as a combination of hazard, vulnerability and seduction, are at once a commentary upon the geography of Beirut, and on the larger world of which it forms part.
Ali Cherri’s installation Once a Shiny Morning Puddle shows how this volatility influences the experience of the present, even without imagining a future catastrophe. The installation consists of a screen on which a video is projected of a male body walking around his own axis in endless loops. On the floor in front of the screen is a square pool of water. The loop excludes any sense of progression or change, presenting the present as an eternal or timeless condition, which is not static, but stuck in compulsive repetition. This temporality is enhanced by the repetition of the phrases “yesterday was dramatic” and “today is OK,” which express the foregrounding of the present under acute pressure, as well as the continuing cycle of violence. The latter phrase is projected in mirror image under the first. The present calm thus exists solely as a reflection of the dramas in the immediate past. The refection in the typography at the same time visually relates the text in the video projection to the water puddle in front of the screen. The pool is dark, preventing transparency, and the water is constantly bubbling, as an ominous sign of imminent eruption. The rippling water distorts the image on the screen. Thus, both the space of experience—“yesterday was dramatic”—and the horizon of expectation—the bubbling water puddle—cast their reflections on the present. As a result, today is experienced as an endless loop, a volatile suspended now.
From chapter 3: The Disposable City:
If escapist consumption and violence are two ways in which such built-up tensions are released, consumerism may not be so bad after all. In both Beyritus: Underground City and The Mehlis Report, Rabee Jaber acknowledges the enchantment of consumerism as a source of solace and liveliness in an imperfect world. Butros, the guard in the underground city, one night hears music from the aboveground city. He insists it is not Oumm Kalthoum or any of the classics, but a song from one of those singers whose stardom lasts two months only, and the lyrics of which do not mean anything, the words having been repeated so often that they have lost their meaning, “but then—while I was under the heavy, silent, dark earth—I thought it was the most beautiful song in my life”. Later in the novel, he again hears—or imagines hearing—music and voices, which evoke memories and imaginations of Beirut’s spectacular nightlife. The fact that he only watched the spectacle as a guard, excluded from participation does not prevent him from desiring a return.
In The Mehlis Report, Saman does partake in intoxicated nights out. Although this generally leaves him feeling unfulfilled, he appreciates the liveliness of shops and cafés as a sign of resilience. This appears from the quote above on the ABC mall. Similarly, the Monoprix is described in the period of Ramadan as follows:
Empty cars flock there from the four corners of Beirut and leave filled to the brim with food, more evidence that the Civil War has ended, fifteen years of peace seem inconclusive, but the sight of Monoprix’s kitchen and all the orders coming in during Ramadan, that’s decisive proof.
Such celebrations of consumer culture move beyond Khalaf’s hypothesis of escapism. Without denying that escapism is a widespread strategy in the face of tensions in Lebanese society, I would like to put forward a more nuanced approach to consumerism in Lebanon. Partying in the face of hardship is widely understood among upper-class adolescents as an act of national resistance. Where foreign journalists continue to understand Beirut’s nightlife as a Western thing contrasting with their preconceptions of Middle Eastern culture, many Lebanese themselves frame the parties as a form of resistance against the imminent violence that marks the time-space of the region. However, described by a blogger as the “Hezbollah vs. hedonism connection”, partying in this narrative may resist a more destructive release of tensions, it also perpetuates divisions within Lebanese society. Alternatively, and in line with Rabee Jaber’s approach, consumerist squandering is interpreted as being fully implicated in the precarious city in which it offers liveliness and enchantment as a form of resilience within, rather than resistance against, a system that allows for careless disposal and violence. What appears from his novels is a conscious conviction that it is worth embracing life—which involves unproductive consumption—despite an acute awareness of persistent suffering and inequality, in which such an embrace can only become complicit.
In the end, El-Khalil shows a similar ambivalent embrace. Like Rayyane Tabet, who appreciates the possibilities that are opened up in perpetual decomposition, El-Khalil too, at times cherishes the suspended now itself: “I like that I cannot take anything for granted”. It is precisely the unpredictability of life and the exposure to death which allow for the frenzy of absolute freedom and which make living in Beirut real life. “What is better?” she asks, “to live in absolute chaos or in the New World order?” The reader knows her answer.