[This article is drawn from a discussion by the author at the Vulnerability, Infrastructure, and Displacement Symposium held at University College London on 12-13 June 2019, as part of the panel on “Networks and Circulations: Waste, Water, and Power.” Click here, here, and here for the specific presentations and articles of the same panel.]
I would like first thank the convenors of the meeting for their invitation to discuss the papers about circulation and vulnerability. Until recently, this was a gap in research, particularly so for Lebanon and the Middle East. These presentations demonstrate the rise of a new generation of researchers addressing this issue from different angles and opening up avenues for thought. I would like to thank and congratulate all three presenters for their stimulating and interesting papers.
The three papers document and highlight a kind of circular movement. They all start with massive infrastructural undertakings taking place in the current context, showing to what extent the quest for profit is driving them. This results in artificializing the environment: roads, buildings, and riverbeds transformed into culverts (Jabri); new dumpsites, not at all sanitary landfills, encroaching on the coast (Mansour); and the entanglement of electric wires mesh onto the wall, through the sky, and over the streets of Shatila camp (Abi Ghanem).
But at the same time, the presentations also show how the cracks and failures of infrastructural circuits allow for the gradual contamination and harming of human bodies, because of the circulation of matters/electrons that permeate bodies: electric shock causing the electric martyrs; the carcinogenic and toxic waste and leachates; the polluted water in Saida’s streams.
The way we look at the city in Lebanon, and beyond, is shifting. For years, researchers looked at the city as made of land appropriated by different social and political groups—very frequently reduced to sectarian belonging, and separated by more or less hard physical limits and borders. These presentations shift away from this kind of gaze and look at infrastructure as circulation conduits, and focus on what circulates in them. Even this shift departs from the classical discussion in infrastructure studies. For instance, the famous Splintering Urbanism, by Graham and Marvin, which are interested in the access to/the supply of the services in the context of neoliberalism and how this process produces exclusion/inclusion, hence inequality in the city.
This move is made possible by new conceptualizations such as the assemblage (Abi Ghanem) or the permeability between humans and nonhumans (Mansour), which blur the binary between resource and more generally nature and society and human artefacts. This dimension of circulation is may be less addressed in Jabri's paper and I would like to ask her if stressing more strongly the circulation and/or the disconnections or breaks in the circulation of water and green along the water channels in Saida, as well as on the dimension of health, could be relevant for future avenues of research on this topic in Saida. In Abi Ghanem’s paper, one notices another shift worth delving into. The Group and the local committee in Shatila seem to widen the scope of their intervention from servicing people with electricity to ensuring safety. Beyond the dimension of supply, the highlights the danger inherently associated to the circulation of electrons. The vulnerable infrastructure makes space for infrastructure as making people vulnerable.
This leads to another question that comes up in relation to this shift is the question of politicization, which Hanna Baumann raised in her introductory talk. One of the consequences of addressing infrastructure as circulation of matters between human and nonhuman is that it may relegate political questions to the background. Hence the question of agency and of the unequal resources available for the actors emerges. It is present, but at very different levels, in the papers.
Mansour evokes the doubts expressed by engineers who nevertheless comply with what they are expected to do. The paper points to the agency of Capitalism with a big C. But it leaves in the shadow the sociology of the group of entrepreneurs behind the transformation of the dumpsite and the generation of contamination. The issue is difficult to answer because the pollution probably also is the result of dumping during the civil war, by people unrelated to the current firms. It raises then questions about the continuity and the changes in the political regime of Lebanon, something that labelling it Capitalism might more obfuscate than explain.
In Abi Ghanem’s paper, a way to address the question of agency and politicization is to think about the differences between the hosts (Palestinians) and the Syrians finding shelter in the camp, which is not present in the text right now. Do Syrians claims for a better service in the camp? How and with whom?
In Jabri’s paper, in contrast, political economy is central and explains the mechanisms of marginalisation of popular groups in the face of local politicians that derive their power from their involvement in the regional and global circulation of capital. This opens another question. The Lil Madina group promotes the reshuffling of local and more ecological circuits of production, using traditional channels of water to grow local crops, as an alternative to capitalist transformation of the agricultural plain. These ideas strongly and symbolically re-connect citizenship to the local ground. But cities everywhere prosper by articulating local and wider circuits – resources, goods, people, money. The question hence is also to rethink connections to other places and probably not only re-grounding the economy.
Beyond the case of Saida, one lesson we draw from this panel is the need to think beyond the sole individual circuits of infrastructure, or better, to think politically about the scales of infrastructure to address Lebanese cities’ vulnerabilities.