Beirut Lab 1975 (2020), Or: again, rubbed smooth, a moment in time__caesura

“Beirut Lab” [1] surveys multiple historical events – the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1991) most specifically – upon which a variety of theoretical and aesthetic work has been done by Beiruti thinkers and artists, all of whom tackle the temporal contradictions of Lebanon as a nation-state and Beirut as its cultural center.

Forthcoming in Where is Art, ed. Sean Lowery, Routledge, 2021.
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Christian Phalange Gunmen in the Holiday Inn Hotel, Beirut, 1976.

By Juli Carson

here and elsewhere (again)

In [a] Gödel universe, it is provable that there exist closed timelike curves such that if you travel fast enough, you can, though always heading toward your local future, arrive in the past. These closed loops or circular paths have a more familiar name: time travel. But if it is possible in such worlds, as Gödel argues, to return to one’s past, then what was past never passed at all.

Palle Yourgrau, A World without Time, 2004

Welcome to the Multiverse. When we look at the world and ask, “Where is art,” we are really pondering, “When is art?” For contemporary space is reciprocally, and inextricably, bound up with historical time. Accordingly, art is always in transit. Not only in its various spatial adaptations throughout history, where we encounter it, but in its temporal apparitions, which are at once past, present and future. Quantum mechanics has a name for this phenomenon: space-time.

For Beirutis, time bends and curves like a Gödel universe. Here, as elsewhere, historical events mirror what semioticians call a sliding signifier, an image unit that floats between the past, present and future, then back again, in one’s mind. Counter-intuitively, Beirut is also a city where particular events function as a kind of collective caesura—an historical blank space—within cultural consciousness. The most prominent of these events is the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1991), which has provoked critically minded artists to engage in a hermeneutic aesthetics of the past.[2] For instance, artists of one generation—ones who were in primary school in the seventies—wrangle with screen memories of the civil war, an event that can neither be accurately remembered nor completely forgotten. Alternately, a younger generation of artists attempt to untangle that which they never knew themselves but which they have inherited as a gap in Lebanon’s state sanctioned national history. That said, this generational schema is already a bit too tidy. For there are those artists in the region whose artwork critically investigate the more general question of memory, history and temporality, precisely by subtending the perspectival positions of the aforementioned generational lines. In this essay I will address the temporal roots of historical minded artwork produced vis-à-vis three interrelated perspectives: the there-then, the here-now, and the aporic space of reflection/projection between the two. This will entail an analysis of how historical and psychoanalytic time are imbricated with contemporary art and political events in both Lebanon and beyond. Concluding my explication, Rania and Raed Rafei’s film 74’ The Reconstitution of a Struggle will serve as a case study for how the space of an artwork’s production and, concomitantly, the type of historical consciousness it seeks to arouse, is inextricably bound up with the producer’s own temporal situatedness. [3]

First, a subjective reflection on Beirut’s time-space continuum.

As a foreign national living in west Beirut’s Ras Hamra district from 2018-2019, I found myself caught within the city’s “picture,” at once temporally positioned and historically implicated. For I was a different (through related) kind of time traveler among my fellow Beiruti time travelers. In 2018 I had embarked upon my future there, having recently departed from Southern California’s own cultural landscape. Upon arrival, I found myself residing in a Gödel timelike universe, wherein my intended future destination turned out to be a past that I shared with my Beiruti neighbors, a past best signified by the year-concept “1975,” which was lobbed back and forth between the two aforementioned generations. This left my dizzy, like a cat whose gaze rhythmically follows a ball in a tennis match, peripatetically identifying with each generation simultaneously; with those past teenagers who still remember growing up in war torn Beirut and with those current teenagers who know this past only as mysterious event existing elsewhere.

Enter Jean-Luc Godard’s canonical film Ici et Ailleurs (Here and Elsewhere) of 1976. Publicly screened in the Spring of 2019 at the American University of Beirut (AUB), the film is imbued with new meaning in the context of post-reconstruction Beirut, wherein the title signifies much more than Godard’s original spatial question: here, the Palestinian fedayeen, there, the Parisian middle-class family. Consequently, while watching the film I could sense the audiences’ individual calculations as to where they were then, contemporaneously, with Godard’s representation of the 1970s: What country was I living in? or How old was I? Alternately, I imagined students pondering: Wow, I wasn’t even born yet. As an American born in 1962, my own calculation was a question of the spatial “here and elsewhere” of California/Beirut vis-à-vis the temporal “here and elsewhere” of 1975/2018. This space-time aporia produced, in my mind, two spatial sites intertwined with two temporal sites—a here and elsewhereen-abyme—in which a multiverse loop hole conjoins the California/Beirut of 1975 to the Beirut/California of 2018. I am not unique in this type of psychic time travel. Just sit in any café in Beirut’s Hamra district and you’ll hear the same temporal-spatial orientation made by self-aware American and European travelers, be they expats living in Beirut semi-permanently or temporary residents like myself.

Hence the contemporaneous site-specificity of Godard’s title cards interspersed throughout Here and Elsewhere that decry all binaries, be they political, spatial, temporal or psychoanalytic: Foreign/National, Everywhere/Nowhere, Space/Time, In/Out, Interior/Exterior, Yet/Already, Dream/Reality, To Be/To Have, Question/Answer, Entrance/Exit, Happiness/Misery, Today/Tomorrow, All/Nothing, More/Less, To Live/To Die. “It’s too simple and too easy to divide the world into two…too simple to say that the wealthy are wrong, and the poor are right,” Godard’s voice over proclaims. These words, which still resonate today, reflect the film’s own historical embeddedness. For upon the film’s release, in 1974, the famed Marxists associated with the French Trotskyite group Socialisme ou Barbarie (1949-1965) – Jean-Francois Lyotard, Jean Laplanche and Claude Lefort key among them – had already shifted towards a post-Marxist, heterodox position, a move aggravating both labor movement communists and Stalin apologists.[4] What was at stake for post-Marxists was the aporia central to both capitalism and communism, such that they had dispensed entirely with the orthodox dialectical configuration of base and superstructure.[5] In a likeminded vein, Here and Elsewhere formulated that capital, in fact, functions in two directions: at any given moment it may add as much as it subtracts. But what is added are zeros, “zeros that represent tens, hundreds, thousands of you and me, the capitalist says, thus in fact they are not really zeros,” Godard declares. What this gives us, then, is the classic 0/1 as a non-binary coupling, wherein each integer signifies more than its numerical function. In this Fregean logic, the concept “zero” may, in fact, be signified by the integer “1.”[6]

Such mathematical paradoxes mirror the new historicist pulse that beats throughout Here and Elsewhere, one defined by the Freudian concept of deferred action that Godard visualizes by way of a hand calculating numbers-cum-years on an adding machine. In accordance with Hegelian logic, rather than the laws of arithmetic, 1917 + 1936 = (the year) 1968, not (the numeral) 3853. Under Godard’s camera eye, it’s therefore the cultural image associated with the numbers “1917” and “1936” that the so-called ‘invisible hand of the market’ so visibly calculates. Hence, Godard’s first voice-over to this calculating hand—“To see for instance that the image of a 17 plus the image of a 36, equals the month of May, the image of ’68” [7]is succeeded by a montage of images of the October Revolution, the Popular Front, Lenin and then Hitler with a flashing title: popular. Immediately, the operation repeats. This time the voice-over—“Whereas, for example, the image of a 17 plus the image of a 36, in the month of September still equals the image of a ’70” [8]is followed by a photographic montage of Lenin, Hitler and now Golda Meier, with the flashing titles: Israel and Palestine. In this Godardian multiverse, as time bends and curves so, do the historical images and ideologies associated with them. If this kind of spatiotemporal sequence—one reified in collective consciousness by any given sequence of historical events, nation-states and the state-heads associated with both—is as cognitively pliable as it is indelible, it’s because traumatic historical events tends to appear, disappear and reappear in any single contemporary moment. In tandem, this entails a projection of any given current moment as an anterior future moment—this will have been—as a means of sublimating historical trauma into political agency if not ideological efficacy.[9]

It therefore occurred to me, sitting in an AUB conference room watching Here and Elsewhere, that Beirut’s civil war story—one written (if only in their own minds) by myriad subjects from heterogeneous perspectives—regularly surfaces, disappears, resurfaces and then submerges, again, within the city’s post-war contemporary art scene. If this is Beirut’s temporal heartbeat, correspondingly, we must further contemplate two metaphysical questions: When in Time is Beirut? Where in Beirut is Time?

peddling time when standing still (parallax)

I rather believe with Faulkner, ‘The past is never dead, it’s not even past,’ and this is for the simple reason that the world we live in at any moment is the world of the past; it consists of the monuments and the relics of what has been done by men for better or worse; its facts are always what has become.

Hannah Arendt, “Home to Roost,” 1975

In support of Arendt’s metaphysical assertion that “the world we live in at any moment is the world of the past,”[10] J.M.E. McTaggert’s “The Unreality of Time” (1908) has renewed currency. McTaggert’s temporal rubric has come to be reflected in, if not refracted by, a group of discordant sectarian players set on historicizing Beirut in ideological terms; the consequence of which is that indeed, the past isn’t dead because it hasn’t even passed.

Enter McTaggert’s universe, in which time is defined by two interwoven strains of perception: the distinction of past, present, and future (A-series) and the distinction of earlier and later (B-series). In the former, we encounter our most intuitive sense of temporality because A-series time denotes what is fluid and dynamic in our first-person experience of the world: a present “now” moving to us from the future and passing by us into the past. In this way, A-series represents the sense of temporal flux, comprising of “a series of positions running from the far past through the near past to the present, and then from the present to the future and the far future.”[11] Accordingly, the present is always ontological. To exist in the past is not to exist at all because the past is forever fixed, while the future remains open, as that destination to which we will someday arrive. Moreover, because A-series time is subjectively in flux, it contains no objective worldwide “now.” With B-series time, on the other hand, we encounter a spatial and objective model, one consisting of the temporal categories of “before” and “after.” This is the temporal sequence comprising calendars, historical narratives and seasonal change. In B-series time, the year “1975” will always and forever come before “2020.” That said, in B-series time one can psychically “move around” its spatial configuration, for time is laid out before us as a kind of meta-temporal map of the known universe’s events, positions and moments, such that I temporally define myself vis-à-vis the sequence of events that have come before me. As opposed to A-series time, the moments in B-series time are thus static and discrete, since what is earlier in time will always be just that. It follows, then, that since B-series time stands outside change or flux, it has come to define what we cognitively denote as Time proper. This led McTaggart to paradoxically conclude: “A universe in which nothing changed (including the thoughts of the conscious beings in it) would be a timeless universe.”[12]

If B-series time is static, then our subjective sense of temporality results from the following philosophical equation: A-series + C-series = B-series. What then is C-series? For McTaggart, C-series denotes that which is only of an order: an alphabet, the days of the week or a numerical system. Accordingly, while C-series lacks a directional mandate, it is ruled by laws of sequence. Meaning, numerically we can say 123 or 321, but not 213. “It is only when change and time come in,” McTaggart explains, “that the relations of this C series become relations of earlier and later, and so it becomes a B series.”[13] Which is to say, “it is only when the A series, which gives change and direction, is combined with the C series, which gives permanence, that the B series can arise.”[14] This is the same metaphysical equation at the core of Here and Elsewhere’s calculation montage. In semiotic terms, the signifier chain, A Series + C Series = B Series, corresponds to the signified chain, Subject + Position = (Historical) Time. In which case, Godard’s equation, 1917 + 1936 = 1968, only makes sense when each year in that equation is comprised within McTaggart’s temporal algorithm. In other words, Godard’s “1917” requires an experiential subject (A-Series), a directional position (C-Series), and an historical field (B-Series) to make his montage have the multivalent signification he sought. Hence we derive the Godard / McTaggart mash-up by which one might better perceive how the metaphysical unreality of time comes to be real in both psychic and political consciousness.

To view McTaggart this way is to deconstruct the A versus B-series dichotomy, because as Sandra B. Rosenthal argues in Time, Continuity, and Indeterminacy, the world as we experience it intellectually – that is to say historically – is erroneously split between what Rosenthal calls A-theorists and B-theorists.[15] The former, privileges a “prereflective” experience of time, in present-tense terms of “immediacy, pure presence.” While the latter privileges a tenseless experience of the world, wherein time—uncoupled from subjective temporal paradoxes—is comprised of a factual succession of discrete real events, ones that never repeat or fold back onto each other. Correspondingly, positivist historians tend to be B-theorists and presentist A-theorists, while those deconstructionists challenging the privileged status of the Now within both B and A logic—either by negation or assertion—might be called new-historicists. Count the materialist time travelers, such as Godard, as the precedent for new historicists, along with a handful of dynamic theorists and artists living in Beirut as Godard’s fellow travelers.[16] Simply, for those Beiruti Godardeans—ones who experience the now by way of an unreconciled parallax view of the past—to engage the world’s historical events entails conscientiously holding A and B-series time in the balance. Otherwise, when time is cognitively experienced as either (A) or (B), we enter into hegemonic time—that temporality of sectarian local politics, on the one hand, and global neoliberal tactics, on the other. Both of these are founded upon mythological narratives of past and future, in service of what the Beiruti artist and theorist Walid Sadek has called Lebanon’s “protracted now,” to which I will turn momentarily. But first, the question “When in time is Beirut?” entails a quick dive into Lebanon’s B series time, that static field in which the nation’s collective consciousness is ideologically embedded.

While Lebanon is over 7000 years old, predating recorded history, the formation of the Lebanese Republic only occurred in 1920. Prior to that, Lebanon was alternately occupied by various empires: Phoenician, Greek and Roman (4000 BC – 600AD), Arab, Crusaders and Mamluks (600 – 1516), and finally Ottoman and French (1516-1943). We should note, further, that although Lebanon’s constitutional republic was founded in1920, the nation-state only gained its complete sovereignty from the French and Syrian Mandate in 1943. Contemporaneously, on November 29, 1947, the United Nations adopted Resolution 181, ordering the division of Great Britain’s former Palestinian mandate into Jewish and Arab states by May 1948, when the British mandate was scheduled to end. Just five years into Lebanon’s national independence, then, came the Nakba—or “Day of the Catastrophe”—when more than 700,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes in Palestine, the consequence of the Arab-Israeli wars from 1948-49 that unilaterally transformed Palestine into the modern day nation-state of Israel. The region’s lingua franca is that the Nakba was ground zero for Lebanon’s Civil War, a kind of primal scene deferred some 30 years later when Lebanon became a sanctuary state for 110,000 Palestinian refugees. But there were other contributing geopolitical factors within that 30 years, most notably the 6-day war in 1967, which established the current Israeli occupied territories of Gaza, West Bank, and Golan Heights, the latter of which lies along Lebanon’s southern border with Israel. As Palestinian refugees traversed that border in larger numbers after 1967, the inter-state tensions increased between Israel, Lebanon and the region at large. This, in turn, fueled intra-state sectarian divisions within Lebanon, culminating in that fated day “that destroyed peace in Lebanon.” [17] On April 13, 1975, Kataeb Party militiamen opened fire on a bus carrying Palestinians through the east Beirut suburb of Ain Al-Rummaneh, killing over 20. This exacerbated the tensions between those inhabiting Muslim and Christian areas of West and East Beirut, respectively. But more significantly, perhaps, it proliferated the politically driven sectarian subdivisions within each pole.[18] Such was the “origin” of the protracted Lebanese Civil War that officially ended with Ta’if Accords in 1989. Henceforth, the nation’s war that dare not speak its name would be the caesura within all historical accounts of Lebanon, its history for all intents and purposes thereby ending in 1943, the birth year of its Republic.

What, then, would stand in for Lebanon’s past – within its historical caesura—on Beirut’s B Series field? As Sarah Rogers observes, “according to archaeologists and urban historians, the large-scale and extremely profitable postwar reconstruction of Beirut’s city center has demolished more architectural and historical ruins than almost two decades of fighting,” such that, “rather than historicize the war, official and popular discourses recall an idealized prewar Lebanon—prompting the literary scholar Saree Mikdasi to ask if Beirut, in fact, is a city without a history.”[19] There were many political and religious players on this field to proffer an idealized prewar Lebanon—politically, spiritually and ethnically. Lebanon might very well personify the law of infinite divisibility—but two meta-ideologies, ones currently butting heads, appear to dominate the post-civil war period. For those aligned with the global financial market, Lebanon’s narrative is calibrated by Solidere, the Lebanese Company for the Development and Reconstruction of Beirut Central District. Founded by former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and incorporated as a Lebanese joint-stock company on May 5, 1994, Solidere quickly rebuilt large portions of downtown Beirut with luxury residential complexes and shopping centers. Under the motto ‘Beirut an Ancient City of the Future,’ Solidere attracted big-name multinational companies to Beirut in order to return the city to its fabled pre-civil war glory as “the Paris of the Middle East.”[20] That was Solidere’s narrative. On behalf of the Islamic nationalist faction there exists Solidere’s other, Hizb Allah. Founded in the early 1980s, at the height of the civil war as one of the many warring militias, Hizb Allah is a Shi’a Islamist militia aligned with Ayatollah Khomeni’s Iranian regime mandate to dissolve the Jewish state. Accordingly, Hizb Allah ‘s original 1985 manifesto was decidedly anti-globalist, with a key objective of eliminating the global, Western-American hegemony. Since 1992, Hassan Hasrallah has served as Hizb Allah’s Secretary-General, doggedly maintaining the group’s cohesive “enemy from outside” narrative, which still largely dominates Southern Lebanon. More recently, Hizb Allah has also been forceful in developing affordable housing in Sahra Choueifat, a district south east of Beirut, which serves the large Shiite community displaced by the civil war and subsequent reconstructive gentrification.[21] On the one hand, then, we have Solidere’s economic narrative—driven by an idealization of Western liberal democracy for those of means—and on the other, we have Hizb Allah’s nationalist narrative—driven by an idealization of regional ethno-religious identity for those marginalized by Lebanon’s neoliberal reconstruction.

That said, binaries are deceptive, just as they are meant to be. The reality is that Solidere and Hizb Allah’s defining ideologies rely on the same presentist notion of time and therefore history. Which brings us back to Walid Sadek’s concept of Lebanon’s protracted now. In “Peddling Time When Standing Still: Art Remains in Lebanon and the Globalization That Was,” (2006) Sadek sees an international art market eager to commodify Beirut’s post-war grand récit while failing to comprehend the temporal aporias at the core of Beirut’s more recent collective conscious. As he argued: “The tense and lingering interface provoked in Beirut—for instance between the film Beyrouth Fantome, which grapples with the absences that dwell in civil war survivors, and West Beirut, which weaves a light fable of war that seems to have happened long ago to folks who may resemble our parents – is totally lost when both are shown abroad.”[22] Those films were distributed in 1998. Subsequently, the local and regional gateway through which those artists entered the global art market collapsed following prime minister Rafiq Hariri’s assassination on February 14, 2005. This collapse was further compounded by Israel’s attempt to annihilate Hizb Allah during the Summer of 2006. As a result, all the aforementioned idealizations were over. First of all, the centrality of Beirut’s reconstruction that nourished artist’s reflection and critique was undone. Secondly, Hariri’s tense but operative truce with the military force of Hizb Allah in south Lebanon, through which he was able to maintain the myth of economic growth during the 1990s, was annulled..[23] A new myth of origin was thus in order.

Filling this lack, the Sunni Future Movement claimed to “represent a Lebanese democratic forefront of a pan-Arab identity, born of its resistance to a dictatorial Syrian Ba’ath regime,” which began with Hariri’s assassination and included others out of courtesy and consortium building. Conversely, Hizb Allah—representing a coalition of parties opposed to Hariri’s Future Movement – strove to “fix the identity of the Lebanese nation, and not the state, through its leading Shi’i model of armed resistance to Israeli military expansionism and American Imperialism.” [24] In support of these ideologies, two chronotopes were devised, each of which was launched with carefully constructed mise-en-scenes.

First the Hariri camp’s “The Truth for Lebanon” campaign, as Sadek recounts:

At the Quntari crossroad in Beirut, an LED day-counter sits perched on a billboard showing a large portrait of Rafiq Hariri coupled with the slogan al-Haqiqa Li-Ajl Lubnan (“The Truth for Lebanon’s Sake”). The lit red digits mark the number of days passes since the assassination of the former prime minister. With day zero falling on February 14, 2005, the counter has duly exceeded 1,300. The cluster of portrait, slogan and counter has become for the Future Movement and its allies the marker of a messianic wait for a promised deliverance by the International Tribunal to be held in the Netherlands following more than 3 years of investigative work by the International Independent Investigation Commission (IIIC) set up by the UN through security council resolution 1595 on April 7, 2005. Between day zero—the assassination—and day one—the announcement of a conclusive verdict by the tribunal—stretches a duration of insignificance. The digits of the day-counter mark an increasing number, but in fact signify a countdown. The assassination of Hariri promises a beginning, logistically delayed, which will eventually release the nation from 30 years of assassinations left unpunished.[25]

This is followed by Hizb Allah’s “Now is the Time” campaign. Again, I cite Sadek:

When on the evening of Sunday, July 16, 2006 the Secretary General of Hizb Allah, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah appeared on television to address the Lebanese for the second time since the beginning of the Israeli war against Lebanon, he chose to end his speech in unequivocal terms: ‘We, willing or not, whether the Lebanese are willing or not, Lebanon now and the resistance in Lebanon are engaged in the battle of the Umma.’ With these words, the Secretary General came to fix the time of the nation in the present tense. Lebanon, and all those in it, will be in the now until further notice. It seemed as if we were forcibly made to mobilize within the domain of one particular time, of a prolonged now, defined by the extreme proximity and imminence of disaster….Yet, when contextualized within local and regional politics, it emerges as a rebuttal and carries hence an alternative conception of time from that dominant in Lebanon since the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. In struggling to overshadow each other, these two conceptions of time mark an exacerbation of strife in Lebanon.[26]

If Hizb Allah’s “Now is the Time” chronotope is thus founded on the ancient Sumerian battle between Lagash and Umma of 2450 B.C., the primal scene’s past constituting a forever entombed now, then Hariri’s “Truth for Lebanon” chronotope rushes us forward, in the messianic manner of a perpetual waiting redemption and truth. Taken together, both cases constitute a perpetual “now” as a static vantage point from which, on the one hand, to look back on what has passed, projecting oneself back there, and, on the other, to look forward, projecting what will have been once we have arrived at the future. But, of course, that past is never returned to, nor the future arrived at because they are merely chronotopes, literally, mythologized tropes of time. While the Hizb Allah model won’t relinquish the primal scene indulging ethno-nationalist melancholia, the Hariri model moves forward too fast, a neoliberal fantasy of the state’s mourning process. But what of a third model? One that lingers upon an erased event, rather than peddling time around it. What might that look like?

reconstituting the event (lingering)

Since the phantom is not related to the loss of an object of love, it cannot be considered the effect of unsuccessful mourning, as would be the case with melancholics or with those who carry a tomb in themselves. It is the childrens’ or descendants’ lot to objectify these buried tombs through diverse species and ghosts. What comes back to haunt are the tombs of others. The phantoms of folklore merely objectify a metaphor active in the unconscious: the burial of an unspeakable fact within the love-object.

Nicholas Abraham: “Notes on the Phantom,” 1987

In “Notes on the Phantom,” psychoanalyst Nicolas Abraham recalls a patient who was plagued by a personal phantom stemming from his father’s illegitimate birth. This illegitimacy was a secret carried to the father’s grave by a complicated piece of fiction that the family maintained: the patient’s bastard father was a descendent of European nobility. By embodying the fictional account of his father’s genealogy, the son had unconsciously internalized the neurosis of being illegitimate even though he lacked a repressed primal scene of bastardization. This internalization indexed a gap standing between the father’s own reaction-formation (the assertion of nobility standing for illegitimacy) and the son’s unconscious perpetuation of the father’s neurotic behavior acted out in verbal fits and irrational claims. Abraham explains how the father’s unconscious is focused on one thought (which gives rise to the phantom): “‘If my mother had not hidden the name of the illustrious lover whose son I am, I would not have to hide the degrading fact that I am an illegitimate child.’ How could this thought, alive in the father’s unconscious, become transformed into the unconscious of his eldest son, everyone’s favorite, and remain so active there as to provoke fits? In all respects and by all accounts, the patient appears possessed not by his own unconscious but by someone else’s.”[27] The difficulty of analyzing the patient thus “lies in [his] horror at violating a parent of a family’s guarded secret, even though the secret’s text and content are inscribed in the [patient’s] unconscious. The horror of transgressing…is compounded by the risk of undermining the fictitious yet necessary integrity of the parental figure in question.”[28]

For a recent generation of Beiruti artists, those born after the Lebanese civil war, a phantom similarly haunts them. In Memory and Conflict in Lebanon (2012), Sociologist Craig Larkin describes a “postmemory generation” in Lebanon that is “best defined as residual type of memory; a recollection of an event not personally experienced but socially felt; a traumatic rupture that indelibly scars a nation, religious group community or family.”[29] The formative primal scene of this generation which has been inherited as a phantom – in the form of an historical caesura—might very well be Lebanon’s Amnesty War Crimes Law of 1991. With the moniker of “no victor, no vanquished,” such agreements retroactively exempted a select group of people – military and government leaders from all sects – from criminal liability for all crimes committed during the civil war. This was all towards the government’s effort to “control the narrative” during the state’s reconstruction in order to vouchsafe against memory, for—as state members argue—to remember is never to heal. Lebanon is by no way unique on this account. A similar route was taken by both Germany’s Adenauer administration after the Holocaust and Argentina’s Bignone administration after their Dirty War of 1976-1983. But such a failed anamnesis, such a forced historical caesura, becomes a tenacious presence for a post-war generation. Because, as Larkin reminds us, “…just as collective memories are shaped by historical evidences—photographs, films, eyewitness accounts, visual recordings and media archives—they are equally predicated on historical omissions and silences.”[30] And where historical memory is erased, identity becomes even more ideologically manipulatable than is conventionally the case.[31]

By way of remedying this crisis of anamnesis, a return to another primal scene—that of the civil war’s overture rather than its coda—is necessary. Let us first, then, engage the civil war’s B-series historical time, establishing the event, followed by the phantom’s A-series subjective time, instanced by the event’s filmic mise-en-scene. Enter AUB’s Student Council, c. 1970.

As Makram Rabah recounts in A Campus at War: Student Politics at the American University of Beirut 1967-1975, AUB’s student movement was exteroceptive—meaning, the university’s physical walls, which were intended to gate off the campus from its surrounding West Beirut neighborhood, were in fact a porous membrane, through which the world’s contentious events bore into the student body’s political consciousness. This was the case from the university’s origin. Established in 1866 as the Syrian Protestant College, the American University of Beirut was renamed in 1919 when it adapted a secular American liberal arts curriculum. And with that, AUB not only became the first American academy of higher education in the Levant, it concomitantly became a power base for a consortium of western interest in the region.[32] Therefore, it is unsurprising that when a cavalcade of regional events occurred in the post-war period—the Palestinian Nakba in 1948, the Egyptian monarchy’s downfall in 1952 and assumption of the Egyptian Republic under Gamal Abdul-Nassar in 1954, the Lebanese mini civil war in 1958 between pro and anti Nassarite factions and subsequent landing in the same year of American Marines in Beirut – AUB would become a kind of political behaviorist lab, wherein the student body would act out these tumultuous events. In the midst of this, AUB’s first Student Council was established in 1969 by AUB president Samuel B. Kirkwood, conceived as a levee, of sorts, to stay of the political tsunami headed their way. As he put it, the Student Council was “the ideal means to contain and regulate the justified rage of the students over their tragic national predicament.”[33] In Kirkwood’s eyes, the Council was thus to concern itself only with student affairs, as “an indivisible part of the University [that is] an educational institution and as such doesn’t not take a political stand” (AUB Bulletin, February 22, 1969).[34]

And yet, to the administration’s chagrin, by 1969-1970 the AUB campus had been transmuted into a microcosm of the Arab world. Two student factions in particular echoed the region’s politics: Fateh, a local chapter of the Palestinian liberation movement that led council 1969-1974, and Rabita, the Lebanese Student League, established in 1958 to oppose the Pan-Arab unity movement led by Nasser. But as Kamal Tannir, a student member of al-Rabita from 1969-1972, put it, Fateh always had the upper hand. “Fateh were like the political Beatles,” she recalls, “[t]here was mass hysteria about them, as all people except the Maronites were with Fateh.”[35] A case in point. Upon the famed Black September conflict in 1970—during which the PLO was violently expelled from Jordan, and concurrent with the Cairo Agreement’s legitimization of Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon—AUB’s student body was further radicalized. Rabita was pulled even further to the right, while Fateh moved further to the left. Four years later, the breaking point was reached when—as a result of the administration’s 10% tuition hike, and under the guidance of Fateh—entire student body rose in protest. On March 5, having delivered a list of demands to change AUB’s students proceeded to march in Beirut to the House of Parliament, clashing with security forces. On March 18, the Student Council convened a General Assembly followed by 1000-person march on campus to chants of “Occupation! Occupation!”[36] Meanwhile, students at the adjacent Beirut University College (BUC) were also occupying campus buildings in reaction to their own 8% tuition increase. Soon thereafter, both universities called upon other institutes of higher learning to march together on the Ministry of Education, swelling the number of protesters to 5000.

We have thus arrived at the constellation of events to which Rania and Raed Rafei’s film 74, The Reconstitution of a Struggle would return some 40 years later. On March 19, students occupying AUB’s buildings further seized control of the Security Office and thus the university gates. With this advance, the tenuous demarcation between “on campus” academics and “off campus” politics were effectively eliminated. The students immediately released the following statement: “We are striking because we do not want to be divorced from the problems of our society. This concern is what the administration calls ‘politicized’. We refuse the ivory towers. We refuse section 214. We do not want help from those who gave 2,2000 million (double-check this amount) dollars to Israel.”[37] The students’ 37-day occupation would end on April 24 when 800 Lebanese security men stormed the campus, arresting 61 students.[38] The student council was suspended on the following day as the administration seized back control of the campus. The administration’s small victory, however, proved only a minor caesura in the context of the larger region’s conflicts. Soon thereafter, Lebanon’s civil war would erupt full force, dividing Beirut in two—Muslims west and Christian east—and, over the decade to follow, even further into sub warring factions until war’s end in 1992. Even still, AUB would manage to function throughout the 15-year Lebanese civil war, which included Israel’s occupation of Beirut in 1982, the attack on the US embassy and an American marine base in 1983, and the assassination of AUB President Malcolm Kerr in January 1984.

back to the future (again)

74, The Reconstitution of a Struggle gives us the improvisational interpretation by seven current-day left activists of AUB’s 37-day student occupation. In so doing, it is a film that neither turns the page on these events in order to move on, apropos Solidere time, nor does it melancholically refuse to let them go, as in Hizb Allah time. Rather, 74 lingers upon this moment, as a means of working through the events of March and April 1974.

In Rania and Raaed Rafei’s hands, improvisational repetition is thus the conceptual device by which a conscious, public display is made of an unconscious cultural phenomenon: the Beiruti collective transference by millennial and post-internet generations onto a primordial cultural event, one which they paradoxically haven’t forgotten because they simply never knew it to begin with. Nevertheless, just as with Nicholas Abraham’s analysand, this generation inherits the transference-neurosis of their parents in that—and there’s no better way to put this—it is transferred to them by way of an actual lack, a blank spot in their cultural past. This is different from the transference neurosis of their parents’ generation, whereby the parent’s repression of an event that they lived through produces a blank spot as a form of amnesia. But this blank spot is the breeding ground for a repetition of the repressed lived event, that is, the transference of it, unknowingly, from the past to the present, where it is inherited, unconsciously by the next generation. In both cases, the unconscious compulsion to repeat something missing is greater than the conscious impulse to confront it. Exemplary of this phenomenon is the urban reconstruction of larger Beirut by every political and religious faction, ostensibly to move on from the civil war but which is, in fact, literally laying the ground for the war yet to come, as Bou Akar Hiba argues in her book of the same name.

As a counter-punch to transference neurosis, the Rafeis’ film instantiates—by way of staged improvisational repetition of AUB’s student occupation on the eve of the civil war—what Freud called meaningful transference. In “Remembering, Repeating, Working Through,” he explains how analysands unconsciously “remember” things that they’ve repressed by way of unknowingly repeating them—by acting them out—in response to the analyst’s prompts. In so doing, the analyst mindfully guides the analysand’s repetition away from unconscious repetition compulsion towards the meaningful understanding of the event(s) that have unconsciously shaped him or her.[39] By inverse analogy, in shooting 74 the actors are prompted by the directors to repeat knowingly those events they themselves never experienced but which have come to color their contemporary activism, with the Arab Spring of 2011 as the real lived backdrop for their improvisational endeavor. As Rania Rafei recalls, “We started working on the project before the events in Tunisia. We said to ourselves, the new generation is dormant. We wanted to call them. With the Arab Spring our film has changed energy.” Accordingly, she adds, “The dialogues…were not written and the amateur actors were invited to improvise. An improvisation guided by the work of funds (not sure what this means but assuming it is a correct citation of dialogue, just double-check) that the whole team carried out over one year, while working on the archives of this time.” As such, the directors did not build the characters alone. Instead, as Raed Rafei recalled, “We built the characters based on [the activists’] inputs and their visions.” Consequently, “through the story of seven characters—the members of the student council heading the occupation—the film presents a side of the Lebanese socio-political context one year prior to the civil war, and reflects the different tendencies and frustrations in revolutionary groups, especially the left, in Lebanon and around the world.”[40] For instance, one of the actors, Molotov, was a member of the Lebanese Palestinian group, while Katiba V. plays the role of Iyad, a Lebanese Palestinian student at AUB “who does not find himself in the pro-Israeli speech of the university. With him, it is a question of the return to Palestine, a problematic always of topicality…The bridge between students of this year 1974 and activists of today is built. It takes all the more weight in the context of the Arab revolutions”[41] Yet another protagonist proclaims near the end of the occupation reenactment that: “One might not call it a great revolution, but I am sure that I am living the revolution with myself!” Meaningful transference indeed!

If 74’ The Reconstitution of a Struggle is therefore a filmic double counter-punch to Solidere’s repressive reconstruction of a city, on the one hand, and to Hizb Allah’s repetition compulsion, on the other, then it is also a counterpart to Godard’s model of time-traveling docu-fiction directed at excavating the gaps within Beirut’s inter-generational collective consciousness. In so doing, a dreamscape is staged wherein a constellation of triangulated signifieds—politics/wages/capital, theory/memory/history and image/representation/art—are condensed and displaced among myriad signifiers, which is to say, historical identities. In Beirut, mining such constellations in search of a deconstructed historical consciousness is the most radical endeavor one can undertake. We have thus derived an answer, then, to our second question, “Where in Beirut is time?” As a young student named Rafik put it while being interviewed by Craig Larkin, “History is very controversial. It’s always going to end up in a fight.”[42] I would argue that in 74 Reconstruction of a Struggle we have arrived at a sublimated version of this fight, one manifested in the hands two directors who publicly take Beirut’s amnesiac crisis to both the practitioners of historical censorship, the state, and its recipients, a younger generation who embody the historical lack by acting it out. Along the way, the Beiruti cultural landscape displayed by the directors is not only a cautionary tale of the kind of exteroceptive sectarianism which leads to civil war, here and elsewhere, it’s an inspirational site for the kind of aesthetic and theoretical time travel that can meaningfully give us the necessary thrust velocity to escape repetition compulsion’s eternal death spiral.

  1. This essay’s title also denotes the two-part exhibition I curated at the American University of Beirut (Spring 2019), and at the University of California at Irvine (Fall 2019), The Irvine component was comprised of an adaptation of the AUB installation, containing an added film program of 30 films, screened over five days a week, for ten weeks. Each day’s grouping—an essay of film essays—pondered the imbricated questions that I put forth here in this essay: When in time is Beirut? and Where in Beirut is time? This essay is thus dedicated to the filmmakers with whom I collaborated on that installation: Basma Alsharif, Panos Aprahamian, Mohamed Berro, Gregory Buchakjian and Valerie Cachard, Ali Cherri, Toni Geitani, Daniele Genadry, Amer Ghandour, Ahmad Ghossein, Ghassan Halwani, Mustapha Jundi, Nadim Mishlawi, Heather O’Brien, Raed and Rania Rafei, Walid Sadek, Ghassan Salhab, Mohammed Soueid, Rania Stephan, and Jalal Toufic.

  2. I am purposely evoking Hans-Georg Gadamer’s term for an aesthetic experience that communes a present moment to an historical event. See: Hans-Georg Gadamer’s “Aesthetics and Hermeneutics,” in The Gadamer Reader. A Bouquet of the Later Writings, (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2007). Gadamer’s hermeneutic concept of temporality, sifted through Jacques Derrida’s deft critique, is the guiding principle for both this essay as well as my recent book, The Hermeneutic Impulse: Aesthetics of an Untethered Past, (Berlin: b_books, 2019).

  3. Two publications, each of which introduced post-civil war art production to the North American and European world vis-à-vis contemporaneous political events, have been influential on my thinking. The special issue of Third Text (no 117, July 2012), entitled Not, Not Arab and guest edited by Walid Sadek, was produced post Arab Spring, six years after the special issue of Art Journal (vol. 66, no. 2, Summer 2007), guested edited by Judith F. Rodenbeck, introduced a first generation of post-civil war artists, two years following the assassination of former prime minister Hariri in 2005, and one year after the Israeli-Arab war of 2006. Meanwhile, the historical embeddedness of my essay here, along with that of a curatorial case study I produced for the American University of Beirut, were conceived in the wake of what I’m calling the “American Summer” of 2016, the eve of US President Trump’s election that currently casts a very large shadow over the entire Middle East.

  4. In Eastern Europe “…there were minorities in a number of countries who refused to regard the Soviet Union as a ‘transitional society’ between capitalism and socialism, as had Trotsky. These minorities considered both East and West to have equally reprehensible systems of exploitation and repression.” Left History 5.1 (1997), Meanwhile, a general return to Italian post-Marxists, primarily through the writings of Toni Negri in the context of 1970s / 1980s Workerism and Autonomia, shores up the lingua franca of critical theory in such prominent cultural institutions as Beirut’s AUB and Ashkal Awan. This branch of academic practice is beyond the scope of this essay.

  5. See Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy and The Post-Modern Condition, the former being the more radically experimental of the two.

  6. For an explication of Jacques-Alain Miller’s Lacanian “suture” with recourse to Frege’s “Fundamentals of Arithmetic – with which this Godardian formulation seems to align—see Juli Carson: “On Critics, Sublimation and the Drive: The Photographic Paradoxes of the Subject,” in Art: Sublimation or Symptom, ed. Parveen Adams, (New York: The Other Press, 2003).

  7. Jean-Luc Godard, Ici et Ailleurs, directed by Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin and Anne-Marie Miéville (Grenoble, France: Sonimage and Gaumont, 1976) 16mm.

  8. Ibid.

  9. This type of psychic time travel is not germane to one kind of aesthetic practice nor political position. When Chibli Mallat—a neoliberal lawyer, law professor, and former candidate for president in Lebanon—penned the manifesto for Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution, he too employed Godard’s historicist numerology. “Fast forward to 2221. What will a historian standing in the 23rd century say about the Cedar Revolution of 2005? When 2221 comes, the bicentenary of the Cedar Revolution will have passed, with many historians’ corresponding flurry of writings, maybe even in the order of the 170 conferences worldwide which were held around the bicentenary of the French Revolution in and around 1989. 2221 is a simple arithmetical equation: 2221 to 2005 is what 2005 is to 1789. The distance represents the historical perspective acquired, and underlines the accumulated knowledge that marks the bicentenary of the Lebanese Revolution and a few years more, 216 solar years exactly. Add 216 to 1789, you get 2005. Add the same to 2005, when the Cedar Revolution happened, you get 2221. Now 2221, or 2205, or even 2021 is a long human memory.” Chibli Mallat, March 2221. Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution. An essay on non-violence and justice. (Lebanon: Gubemare 2007), p. 17.

  10. Hannah Arendt, 1975. “Home to Roost.” In Responsibility and Judgment, (New York: Schocken Books, 2003), p. 270.

  11. J.M.E. McTaggert, “The Unreality of Time” in Philosophical Studies (1908), p. 111.

  12. Ibid, p. 113.

  13. Ibid, p. 116.

  14. Ibid, p. 119.

  15. Sandra B. Rosenthal, Time, Continuity, and Indeterminacy: A Pragmatic Engagement with Contemporary Perspectives, (Albany: SUNY Press, 2000), p. 39-40.

  16. Godard is but one filmic practitioner of this method A/B series deconstruction of meta versus the micro history. In 1970s Germany a related historiography was termed Alltagsgeschitchte, or “the practice of everyday life.” Alf Lüdtke describes it thusly: “In doing the history of everyday life, attention is focused not just on the deeds (and misdeeds) and pageantry of the great, the masters of church and state [B series]. Rather, central to the thrust of everyday analysis is the life and survival of those who have remained largely anonymous in history—the ‘nameless’ multitudes in their workaday trials and tribulation, their occasional outbursts of dépenses. [A series].” Alf Lüdtke, The History of Everyday Life: Reconstructing Experiences and Ways of Life, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), p. 4.

  17. Hussein Dakroub, “April 13, 1975: the day that destroyed peace in Lebanon,” The Daily Star (Lebanon), April 11, 2015.

  18. The key sectarian players of the Civil War were: The Christian Kataeb (Phalangist) Conservative Christian Militia founded by Pierre Gemayel; The Shiite Amal founded by Supreme Islamic Shiite Council Iman Musa al-Sadr; The Christian O (National Liberal Party) founded by conservative Camille Chamoun; The Progressive PSP (Progressive Socialist Party) founded by Kamal Jumblatt, Druze leader; The Palestinian Al-Asifah (Fadayeen) led by Yasser Arafat, PLO. That said, apart from essentialist claims made by each sect’s respective ideologies, sectarianism is an historically institutionalized geopolitical phenomenon that in Lebanon’s case was first transposed into an official governing system as early as 1864, by which the government’s confessional system was divided between Maronite, Druze, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Sunni and Shi’a, in descending order of representation at that time. According to Bassel F. Salloukh et. al., the sectarian system that for two centuries was enforced by the sovereign government but driven by external forces—alternately Syria, Iran, Egypt, France, USSR, UK and US—has, to this day, denied “Lebanese of their existence as citizens with inalienable political and social rights, reducing them instead to unequal members of state-recognized sectarian communities regulated by extended patriarchal kinship groups and clientelist networks. Bassel F. Salloukh, Rabie Barakat, Jinan S. Al-Habbal, Lara W. Khattab and Shoghig Mikaelian, The Politics of Sectarianism in Postwar Lebanon, (London: Pluto Press, 2015).

  19. Sarah Rogers, “Out of History: Postwar Art in Beirut,” (Art Journal).

  20. See: Sarah Irving, “Lebanon’s Politics of Real Estate,” The Electronic Intifada, August 31, 2009. Two experimental documentary films are noteworthy for confronting the utter devastation, if not complete annhilation, of communities (and the memory thereof) which attended Solidere’s reconstruction of Beirut’s central district. Ghassan Halwani’s Erased__Ascent of the Invisible (2018) specifically attempts to trace the 1,000 people disappeared during the civil war and the mass graves that underlie Beirut’s city center – the former “greenline” or no man’s land between east and west Beirut – and its periphery. The filmmaker acknowledges his Sisyphean endeavor with the following voice over: “The persons appearing in this film are made visible only for the duration of the screeniung. When the film ends, these persons will plunge back into their state of invisibility. However, this will not prevent them from existing. They linger silently somewhere beneath the bustle of daily life.” We should note that these disappeared persons are not allowed to be visible – meaning the state perpetually is disappearing them by disallowing their memory – because according to the state their presence (even psychically) constitutes “a threat to national security.” Meanwhile, Nadim Mishlawi’s Sector Zero (2011), shot on site in the “Karatina” district, explains the twofold reason that Solidere erased the sacrad ownership of land plots during Beirut’s reconstruction: 1) there were many claims to each plot, and 2) owners had fled the country to other continents during the war. Their “solution” was to compensate those owners they could find with shares in Solidere. Consequently, ownership over something material (a deed to a land plot) was transposed to ownership of something immaterial (shares in a company). Which is to say, instead of real estate, which had always been ancestral in Lebanon, one now possessed a stock “holding.” Such that Solidere’s Beirut was literally a city-as-future traded on the global stock exchange; its historical past transposed into virtual commodity fetish.

  21. In actuality there are four religious/political organizations in post-war battles over land and access to housing in Beirut’s southern suburbs known as al-Dahiya, a zone that extends south from Central Beirut to its airport, and east to the agricultural fields of al-Hadath and Choueifat. They are Hizb Allah (Shiite), the Future Movement (Sunni), the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP, Druze) and the Maronite Christian Church (Catholic). See: Bou Akar Hiba, For the War Yet to Come: Planning Beirut’s Frontiers, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018).

  22. Walid Sadek, The Ruin to Come: Essays on a protracted war, (Motto Books & Taipei Biennial, 2006), p. 90.

  23. Ibid, pp. 91-92.

  24. Ibid, p. 93.

  25. Ibid, p. 94.

  26. Ibid, pp. 92-93.

  27. Nicholas Abraham, “Notes on the Phantom: A complement to Freud’s Metapsychology,” in Critical Inquiry, Winter 1987, p. 289.

  28. Ibid, p. 290.

  29. Craig Larkin, Memory and Conflict in Lebanon, (New York: Routledge, 2012), p. 10.

  30. Larkin, p. 14.

  31. Again, Lebanon is hardly unique. The U.S. is currently undergoing such manipulation by way of an Administration’s cultural erasure of its civil rights moment, and the constitutional law upon which it was legitimated, in the service of authoritarian white nationalism.

  32. Al Jazeera, “Soft Power: The US and the Middle East,” March 2, 2016.

  33. Makram Rabah recounts in A Campus at War: Student Politics at the American University of Beirut 1967-1975, (Beirut: Dar Nelson, 2009), p. 44.

  34. Rabah, p. 46.

  35. Ibid, p. 49.

  36. Ibid, p. 96.

  37. Ibid, pp. 97-96.

  38. Ibid, p. 106.

  39. Sigmund Freud, “Remembering, Repeating, Working Through (Further Recommendations on the Technique of Psycho-Analysis II),” in: James Strachey (ed.), The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. XIII, London, 1958.

  40. Ahramonline, “Film ‘74’: When Lebanon’s past and present are different yet the same.”

    Marwa Morgan, April 19, 2015.

  41. (No Author), Agenda Culture, “Between documentary and fiction: ’74, the reconstruction of a struggle,’ by Rania and Raed Rafei,” March 20, 2013.

  42. Larkin, p. 62.