Weather Permitting…

Introducing the first edition of The Derivative (المشتق)

We are launching the first edition of The Derivative (المشتق) which, weather permitting, will be a bi-annual online publication that emerges out of a necessity to think – and hopefully— feel together. We reached out to three editors, proposing to each of them a 3-letter word, which we are thinking of as compact keys with the ability to unfurl the complexities that surround us. We hope that the intersections of these unfurlings map out a mode to address a series of profound and urgent riddles. For instance, what does it mean to hear a 400-year old echo through the mouth of a 7-year old child? What are the contours of our subjectivities when we organize into collective formations and become indissociable from one another, and what new forms of law and surveillance do we become subject to? How do we think of our bodies when care for our health becomes inseparable from protecting the more vulnerable among us?

1- Arrest 1…….. Face 100

“ما تخلوهن يستفردوا فينا!” “don’t let them individuate us!” this is how protesters warn one another not to drag behind, to stay close together, to avoid being yanked away from the huddle by cops, by army, by regime thugs.

It’s November 16th 2019, Samer is in a mass of people on the Fouad Chehab bridge, also known as the ring. As has become customary, the thoroughfare is blocked by protesters, collectively chanting their refusal to vacate the streets until their demands for a dignified life, free from decades of systemic corruption and extraction, are met. As has also become common practice, police and army intelligence in civilian clothing are lurking about, trying to disrupt the movement.

Sensing that something is not right, Samer and his friend Ali decide to separate from the crowd and make their way home. As they walk a few meters down the street towards the Gemmayze district, they are accosted by army intelligence in civilian clothing and hurriedly shoved out of the line of sight of their comrades gathered on the ring. Soon after they are intercepted, Ali’s back is broken by a run-up kick to the spine while Samer’s face is slammed to the asphalt. This is the beginning of a two-day ordeal where the pair are blindfolded, kidnapped, repeatedly beaten, insulted and threatened with guns. Samer and Ali – but also many others—learn a hard lesson about the real meaning of “strength in numbers.” Indeed, the movement quickly realizes that so long as it remains an indistinguishable mass, it is strong, and when protesters part ways, one by one, or two by two, they become vulnerable.

Regime lapdogs target those whom they are only capable of understanding as leaders: those who take turns echoing chants in the center of the clusters of crowds. Since these individuals are singled out for the power of their collective utterances, protesters amplify the collective voice at every arrest, kidnapping, summoning, questioning. Upon release, the individuals rejoin the crowd, and recount hearing the collective voice through the walls of the police station or the courthouse. They describe how comforting it was for them, and how destabilizing for the authorities, to hear chants that remind that s/he who has been amputated from the huddle belongs to a much larger body: “Take one of us, face a hundred” echoes one chant. “We’re not scared, not at all, go ahead and arrest us all”.

2- Call……..Response

Then we follow other struggles from far and close, struggles that light up our hearts right when we think they might be extinguishing. There are much older struggles, from much deeper, much darker histories of unspeakable subjugation. Not only do they give us hope and courage, but they also make us look at ourselves, at our own shortcomings and blind-spots. We check in with friends across the ocean, and learn valuable lessons from them. Solidarity is not just a word, we have work to do. We have black lives that matter here as well, but also Palestinian lives, Syrian and Iraqi lives.

It’s June 4th 2020, demonstrators march in Brooklyn to protest the death of Jamel Floyd, a 35-year-old black man who died asphyxiated, after guards at the Metropolitan Detention Center pepper-sprayed him in his cell. Seven-year-old Wynta-Amor stands in front of the detention center, her powerful voice exuding from her tiny frame, urging protestors to “Say His Name!” in call-and-response fashion. Inside, detainees begin to knock on their cell bars. “Do you hear all those people knocking?” Wynta-Amor asks, “they want to be free!”

“Say His Name” is a call that refuses to let the countless black persons killed by police die as faceless statistics. But how to reconcile the necessity for singularity — to name every single one of those killed by police brutality, to re-humanize them after they were executed like animals, to keep count of their numbers obsessively— with the fact that every one of these deaths is a life extracted from family and community, a life extinguished by systemic racism, decimated by a centuries-old machine for subjugating black life.

A former Black Panther who was recently released after spending nearly 50 years in prison is deeply moved by Wynta-Amor’s video. “This is 400 years of pain being channeled through this little child” he says.

3- What can we say that is to be said? شو بدنا نحكي لنحكي؟

Talking to the service driver is the fastest way to get your newsfeed. It is certainly faster than getting your news online, even with the fastest internet connection in this city. These days, any human interaction will also do the trick. A walk from my coffee stand to my barber up the block, for example, provides me with the day’s headlines: the price of the dollar, the number of new COVID-19 cases, the items missing from the government’s subsidies list, the maddening frequency of power cuts, and the impossible rise of prices.

The spectrum of violence deployed by the regime is vast as all hell. From humdrum to gory, it drains out your valuable time through traffic or red tape, and it commits mass murder. It fails to provide drinkable water, and it drowns out entire ecosystems to enact yet more land grabs. It holds you in polluted cities too dense for you to breathe, and it defaces ancient mountain chains to extract concrete. It drives you to suicide or cancer, and it shoots you dead on the street for daring to ask for a better life.

But how to speak to this all-encompassing onslaught on human and non-human dignity? How do we address its consequences beyond a compulsive monitoring of the situation, beyond the service driver’s enumeration of painful truths that no longer resonate? How do we account for such a scale beyond resorting to facts and figures? And how do we do so from the specificity of our context, laterally across to other sister struggles elsewhere?

The Derivative (المشتق) experiments with modes of address that grapple with the above questions. With Edwin Nasr, Rayya Badran and Hisham Awad as editors of the first issue, we begin the process with a series of shared readings and collective discussions about the notions of فرد, of صدى, of رقم (individual, reverberation, number). Each editor then approaches five contributors for texts of vastly distinct registers. They also approach an artist (or in the case of Edwin, five DJs) to respond to the theme with artworks that will accompany each text. Ayman Hassan, of studio Zumra, conceived an interface that responds to this unfurling, and has proposed a movement of reading that accommodates for the gradual accumulation of weekly texts, across the various key concepts.

We must destroy and dismantle over and over again. There is much to fight for and defend, despite having so much taken from us. But if we do not build shelters along this long, long path, if we do not create spaces to be together, to think, to inspire and be inspired, and yes, take pleasure together, then we have lost half of the struggle already. This is a humble attempt to put down building blocks for an expanding community, present in spirit via www. for now, until we can come together physically.

The Derivative: A New Publication with No Occasion

The “Derivative” is an online cultural journal that originates from the Beirut Art Center’s continuous engagement and work despite Lebanon’s state of total collapse. Over the last several months, we have been living in a state of emergency. Indeed, no work seems possible outside of this state in this country. This periodical hopes to contribute to the production of thought and knowledge around cultural practices that emerge from, and reflect the current socio-economic reality. On the one hand the journal’s mission is to address the dehumanizing tools of a crushing capitalist system, while on the other, it aims to center on the fortitude of those who rise up against it to insist on a better life.

The biannual online publication will address topics pertaining to social practices, with an emphasis on dismantling the rhetoric of the authorities, and understanding the particularities of our reality in the aftermath of an uprising, an economic collapse, a pandemic, and physical isolation. We will focus on the thorny relations created by these acute factors locally and beyond, whether they are found in a new social contract capable of reflecting an irreparably damaged rapport to the state, its assumed legitimacy and legality; in the relation between the individual and the collective voice of the uprising; or in the relation between the individual with his/her body before, during and after quarantine.

In Arabic, the derivative refers to a word that draws from its verb and maintains a proximity to an external origin. In other words, a derivative has a base from whence it was derived and branched out. There are rules to this branching out, it has guidelines, paths, types: it may be comparative or superlative for instance, it may be simile or metaphor, indicative or derivative. We based the methodology for our publication on this movement. Each issue of “The Derivative” sprouts three axes, from three root words. When words derive from their root, they expand and multiply its meanings, they broaden its critical breadth into cultural discourse and intellectual debate. We use the proposed root words frequently and repeatedly in our rhetoric and argumentation: waste, anxiety, destruction, work, etc…

Our first issue derives from the following three words: number “ر.ق.م”, reverberation “ص.د.ى”, and individual “ف.ر.د”. Three editors will treat each of these axes: Edwin Nasr is entrusted with “individual”, Rayya Badran with “reverberation”, and Hisham Awad explores “number”. Each editor will assign five writers, academics, theorists, and workers in the cultural field, to publish writings around these three roots and their derivatives. The editors will also each commission an artist to create works around their respective axes, in response to the writings of the various contributors. The texts and art commissions will be published on a weekly basis on the platform, over a period of four months. Each week will feature a new episode alternating between the axes.

In political history, numbers are instrumentalized in polls and statistics, affecting notions of racism and identity, profoundly shaping the electoral process, and quantifying and defining crowds. They are the principal metric that caused the collapse of the Lebanese economy. The financial and economic crisis led to a disaster in the social system, and while the opposite causality is just as true, numbers are the main viewfinder for the ruination of an entire population losing its bank deposits. Numbers have become a quotidian burden as we follow government negotiations with the International Monetary Fund, coupled with an acute crisis in living conditions and an ever-fluctuating dollar exchange rate. As numbers and data vacillate between value and price, our daily conversations now center around interest rates and what form the economy might take, between state control and free fall. Entire populations come face to face with numbers, these omnipresent figures that are at the origin of the crisis and its remedy.

Reverberation is sound facing silence facing quiescence facing the void. The inability to hear, but also the lack of sound in public space, is the heightened moment that precedes the explosion. It is the sound of incompetence. Sound is the zeal of crowds, an uprising of the throats — that raises its voice to contest failure, to generate change, and to express objection. The uprising is the intense resonance of banging on metal walls and the rails of bridges. They act as thunderous defiance in the face of the attacking police. Sound compels us to discuss why some protest songs are resonant and alive, while others fall on deaf ears in a revolutionary moment. It brings to the fore questions related to music’s incapacity of keeping up with transformations in the needs of the uprising – although some notable exceptions remain, particularly in the genre of rap music. How does one approach class divides through sound? What are the audible differences between popular and bourgeois environments? Are they discernible in the sounds that echo between architectural elements and the streets? We will delve into the deconstruction of capitalism’s disciplinary attempts to impose oppressive auditory voids.

The individual is caught in the undertow of two major events affecting Lebanon and the world. The pandemic and the economic crisis have drastically reshuffled categories such as the place of the individual subject under the central state apparatus, and the status of foundational democratic values like individual freedoms in the shadow of the pandemic. Discussions have mainly centered on the heightened role of surveillance systems in imposing a lockdown, giving rise to speculations about what is to become of our so-called freedoms post-pandemic. The uprising and the economic meltdown in Lebanon, have made it such that terms like “the crowd” and “revolutionaries” are equated with specific forms of collective social organizations. We think of a mobile mass of individuals in an uprising, or a people confronting the authorities, for instance. With mass protests waning and the crisis intensifying, the individual is jolted back to square one, left to fend for him/herself, alone to face his/her concerns, alone to face of his/her suicide.

The individual, who has become a number in this system, tries to raise his/her voice; but all is echoed back. Perhaps what binds these three words, “individual”, “number”, and “reverberation” is “me”, the self. For it seems to me that every action and every idea, following the October uprising, insists on asking: “Where do I stand?”

As I started to write, I wanted to phrase this question differently: “Where do we go from here? What must we do to stop this massive collapse in Lebanon? Who will pay for the devastation of this country?” But I realize now that these questions do not matter, as my anxiety is no longer a discrete state related to specific time-sensitive problems, rather it has become an all-encompassing existential crisis in and of itself. It is an anxiety that gnaws at so many of us. This is not despair though; but when the state collapses, the individual echoes that collapse with his/her search for salvation, becoming a mere number in it. One individual attempts to survive through immigration, another by joining the crowds hoping social and political actions could distract him/her from the inevitable.

Our bodies demonstrate and are locked up in quarantine. Those same bodies used to go out at night, and dance to the beat of high interest rates. Tik tak tik tak went the bank’s infallible money counting machines. We danced to its rhythm; to the rhythm of an economy of delusional consumerism. The bank manager smiles: “You, too, have benefited from this banking system, haven’t you?” My body takes a step back, weighed down by guilt of what this country has turned into. I am responsible. I am a number among the many who were robbed. I am the echo of the sound of corruption.

I would like to thank the editors, writers, artists, designers and translators who contributed and will contribute to this publication.

Translated and edited by: Saseen Kawzali, Haig Aivazian and Rayya Badran

ف.ر.د (Individual)

By the time this introduction is published, the world will have rehearsed its own flight out of the window for the umpteenth time. Jokingly referring to the recursive extinction-events that unfolded and continue to be felt and experienced this past year alone, a tweet that has since gone viral stated that: “Future historians will be asked which quarter of 2020 they specialize in.”[1] Everywhere we lay our heads, events that hold within them the potentiality to unmake history with a capital ‘H’ are occurring, one after the other, at the speed of light; everywhere we lend our ears to, communities and populations are having to deal with successive crises with profound confusion and in unspeakable grief. Through her interpretation of Karl Marx’s first two volumes of Capital, Amy Wendling warns that “capitalism is a steam engine with a design flaw, a design flaw that will precipitate an  explosion, no matter what anyone does or thinks.”[2] But what happens when the anticipated “explosion” of capitalism proves instead to be an accumulation of successive crises that leave no room for one to catch their breath—both literally and figuratively[3]? What happens when the sea change is impossible to read into, when the mechanisms of everyday life that we’d once complied to are shifting in ways we find ourselves unable to grasp or make sense of?

The task of writing on and editorializing a segment of this online publication by the Beirut Art Center (BAC) is concerned with generating reflections on the immediate present in spite of and in tandem with its abrupt flows and fragments. The contributions commissioned for the occasion are all informed by a commitment to understanding how subjects are negotiated when the usual rhythm of habitus has been severely compromised. They operate from the assumption that regimes of subjectivity that shape our collective consciousness, i.e. the “ensemble of ways of living, representing and experiencing contemporaneousness while, at the same time, inscribing this experience in the mentality, understanding and language of a historical time”[4], are being thrown into disarray and refigured in real time. For this task to take root, then, it should first be inscribed within the space-time, i.e. the general climate, it stems from.

The October 17, 2019 uprising is perhaps a fitting point of departure to think through how a history of the present in Lebanon is being determined. By all means, it was and still is a seismic event of incalculable magnitude. Despite its crushing failure to delink our collective fate from the barbarism of neoliberal governance, the uprising managed to transcend its initial reformist expression toward embodying diffuse and insolent forms of unorganized dissent that spread wherever networks of corruption and fictitious capital had once trod. Whether or not the material conditions necessary for a revolutionary momentum to further develop were present didn’t quite matter. Ultimately, the October uprising was a gesture in worldmaking, a project of unlearning decades of public dissimulation by the rotten corpse of Lebanese sectarianism, and of dismantling the structures and apparatuses that have systematized decades of unbearable economic and psychic violence.

By March 2020, however, things had reached a lull: mass support was waning, and disillusionment set in. Then came the Covid-19 pandemic, and the global health crisis it precipitated, to upend the uprising and make unfeasible the right to assemble, or rather, the act of embodying a singular plural. States imposed martial law and closed their highways, airports, and borders; millions were ordered to self-isolate while workers deemed ‘essential’ to the economy met their deaths in supermarket halls and overcrowded buses; health care systems crumbled under the weight of a patient influx they had not anticipated, and fell short of diagnosing the workings of a novel virus that continues to elude the epistemic framework of modern medicine. Adopting the reverse logic of the Russian Matryoshka doll—where each doll is in fact removed to reveal a larger, more encompassing one—Salar Mohandesi soberingly argues that “what lies before us is not just a pandemic, but several nested crises”[5]. Furthering his claim, he maintains that the catastrophic scale of the pandemic has set off an organic crisis of neoliberalism, itself “linked with a longer-term structural crisis of capitalist social reproduction […] articulated with an even more profound epochal crisis of planetary life itself.”[6]

Where does that leave us, then? Today, Lebanon is traversing its worst financial and economic crises in recent memory. We had ‘known’ for a while that the country was at the precipice of collapsing; after all, it’d been built by cruel design to exist in ruin and refuse. Even so, crisis—and the often-undetermined conditions and symptoms it produces through and against its materialization—tends to expunge the knowable from the public realm. As the Lebanese lira continues its freefall into becoming a failed fiat currency, and as the terrifying threat of insurmountable precarization looms, we are left to scrabble for intimations of meaning and tactics of survival. Marked by an all-too-crippling suspension of knowability, our present conjuncture disallows us from “inventing possibilities for moving through and with time”[7] and squashes emancipatory prospects of “encountering pasts, speculating futures, and interpenetrating the two in ways that counter the common sense of the present tense.”[8]

To this end, and In order to think through a constitutive framework guiding the five contributions being commissioned for BAC’s online publication, I have singled out five different ‘morbid symptoms’, be they pathological or material-ideological, which have, in one way or another, been engendered by these interconnected crises and would need to be addressed with some urgency: contagion, because, within an ongoing pandemic, encounters between subjects and forms of community-making are inherently structured by immunological configurations[9]lumpenness, because, as mass unemployment  increasingly constitutes a dominant aspect of life under late-stage capitalism, the dispossessed are bound to contrive a new revolutionary subjectivity; paranoia, because, wherever epistemic confusion proliferates, doubt and suspicion inform grammars of living and modes of political expression; restraint, because, as the “libidinal surplus”[10] is eliminated from the economy, basic need patterns our collective habits and desires; and illegibility, because, as sovereign power engineers novel modalities of control, once legible sources of information and objects of knowledge are rendered more opaque or forced to the margins[11].


[1] June 9 tweet by David Burr Gerrard (@DBGerrard) – Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/DBGerrard/status/1270134800519700481

[2] Amy Wendling, Karl Marx on Technology and Alienation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009)

[3] see: Achille Mbembe, “The Universal Right to Breathe” (trans. Carolyn Shread), Critical Inquiry (April 13, 2020)

[4] Achille Mbembe and Janet Roitman, “Figures of the Subject in Times of Crisis” in Public Culture, Volume 7, Issue 2 (1995, Duke University Press)

[5] Salar Mohandesi, “Crisis of a New Type”, Viewpoint Magazine (May 13, 2020)

[6] Ibid

[7] Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (Duke University Press, 2010)

[8] Ibid

[9] see: Liane Tanguay, “Imagined Immunities: Abjection, Contagion, and the Neoliberal Debt Economy” in Lateral: Journal of the Cultural Studies Association, Issue 7.1 (Spring 2018)

[10] Keti Chukhrov, “Letter Against Separation – Keti Chukhrov in Moscow: Five Inexplicabilities of the Pandemic”  in e-flux conversations (May 1, 2020)

[11] see: Jane Caplan, “Illegibility: Reading and Insecurity in History, Law and Government” in History Workshop Journal Issue 68 (2009, Oxford University Press)

ص.د.ى (Reverberation)

If they ask you, tell them we were flying. Knowledge of freedom is (in) the invention of escape, stealing away in the confines, in the form, of a break. This is held close in the open song of the ones who are supposed to be silent.

From the Undercommons: Fugitive  Planning and Black Study — Fred Moten & Stefano Harney

Two or three months into the global lockdown caused by the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, I picked up on a recurrent observation (often articulated in the form of a joke or rant)  communicated by people on different social media platforms. I did not register the exact words that were posted but these remarks related how the chirping of songbirds, which people marveled at in the beginning of the lockdown, had become grating or “too loud”. Chirps had composed a seemingly welcome soundscape resonating from the eerie stillness of the world but they soon became too loud to bear and too irritating to ignore. Yet the birds were not chirping any louder than they had been. In fact, they were quieter than usual. They merely reminded us that, for as long as we heard them sing, we had to remain isolated, contained, and stationary. And while the world was still, it was far from silent.

Silence was confounded with the absence of quotidian sounds, but in this “lack”, other sounds were deployed and magnified. As measures of quarantine and containment were undertaken in Lebanon, helicopters whirred over the capital — and broadcast voices urging residents to stay home, ambulance sirens wailed in the empty streets, church masses were conducted on moving convertible SUVs, the generators supplanting the dysfunctional — and now nonexistent — electrical infrastructure hummed ever so loudly. The architecture and urban logic of the city itself plays a significant role in how and what we hear and reveals a complex triangulation between the built environment, politics and acoustic phenomena.

For us, here in Lebanon, the perilous outbreak of COVID-19 coincided with another momentous chapter, which had started only a few months before, in October 2019. In the first four months of Lebanon’s uprising, large crowds swarmed into cities, towns, and villages, hurling sounds from the depth of decades-old anger, frustration, and hurt — all caused by a criminal and corrupt political ruling class. During those first intense months, we occupied the public realm day and night, filling the streets with voices chanting and singing in unison; pots banging in the night; old and new protest music(s) emanating from large mobile sound systems; open air concerts and spontaneous dancing; public fora and discussions; as well as transmitted and live speeches. In those days, the uprising also faced incredible resistance. It deployed a set of weapons such as gunshots, tear gas, water cannons, and other military or police force apparatuses, whose sounds are just as consequential as their aim to squash, maim, and injure. The spaces we occupied were awash with discordant sounds whose reverberations clung inside our ears well after the events, and tuned in to the fervor of our collective refusal and its sonic expressions.

The arrival of COVID-19 was doubly jarring in Lebanon because it converged with one of the country’s most significant popular upheavals and forced thousands of people out of the streets and into their homes at a critical time for the uprising. While these two periods may have appeared distinct as far as sheer volume was concerned, the sonic terrains they both generate, wrestle to exert control — whether by silencing, striking fear, and generating intimidation, or by attempting to overtake the public realm through vocal and musical vibrations.

The five contributions in this series stem from research vectors that touch on the deployment, appropriation, propagation, and resonance of sound and music. The architectural or physical terrain itself is home to vibrations, or, as architect, writer and composer Mhammad Safa defines, in the first contribution of the series, as reverberations that shape our aural perception and sensing of the urban space. This material realm, however, is not limited to the built environment, but continues in the electromagnetic radiations of radio waves. The medium of radio, as well as other non-material sites explored in the contributions of this series, vehicle compelling, and potentially unique, characteristics of auditory culture, both locally and regionally.

In Lebanon, as in Palestine, national radio was first introduced through colonialism. In their first episode of Radio Earth Hold, a broadcast entitled The Colonial voice[1], artists Arjuna Neumann, Lorde Selys, and curator and writer Rachel Dedman, explore how the British Mandate in Palestine transmitted its colonial voice through the realm of radio, and reveal the ways in which Palestinians used the medium as a site for resistance and were repressed as a result. During the recent lockdown period, we witnessed a surge of online radios from the Arabic-speaking world, from cities like Beirut, Amman, Bethlehem, and Tunis. Unburdened by the rule of FM and the state authorities or private companies that control it, these new radios have created invaluable spaces for listening and exchange in a region where physical borders continually control and impede the movement and communication of people. Radio alhara, for instance, broadcasting from Amman, Ramallah and Bethlehem, is one of such radios to spring from the isolation period of the lockdown .

It recently became a site of protest by airing a continuous four day broadcast, entitled Fil Mishmish (which literally translates to “in the days of the apricots”, meaning something along the lines of “when pigs fly”) in response to Israel’s proposed annexation of Palestinian lands in the West Bank. The event gathered musicians and DJs from the region and around the world, and produced a stream of music, field recordings, protest songs, sound pieces etc. The radio became a site of dissidence; it communicated, through sound and music, a collective message that circumvented the pathways of traditional radio channels in particular, and media in general. The migration of protest to the radiophonic terrain gave voice to transnational expressions of solidarity from across the Arabic-speaking world that we started to witness, no, hear, in the streets of Beirut a few months earlier through the appropriations of musics and chants. Perhaps radio, or the transmission and connectedness of sound, of Song, of singing, as performed and articulated in this series, are the sites from which we can harness the constitutive political powers to better self-organize.


[1] The broadcast was commissioned by Qalandiya International IV in 2018 in Palestine

ر.ق.م (Number)

“Arrival”, the first episode of British science-fiction television series The Prisoner, first aired in the UK, on ITV, in September 1967. The opening title sequence is a frenetic montage that starts with a shot of a cloudy sky and a thunderous boom, followed by a shot of a sports car zooming across a runway, manically heading towards the camera. The subsequent rapid-fire shots catapult a suited man across London, as he drives past the House of Parliament and into an underground park. James Bond-like, he walks along a tenebrous tunnel, casting a long shadow, against the now-percussive music. He storms into what appears to be his boss’s office, where the two have a heated, inaudible exchange. The man tosses his resignation letter at his boss, and drives out of the car park, victorious.

The next sequence intercuts shots of the man in his car, tailed by a black hearse, with shots of an unmanned, bureaucratic apparatus, cataloguing the man’s resignation. A close-up of a typewriter imprinting a series of X’s across a photo printout of the man’s face, is followed by a wide shot of a vaulted space with two rows of filing cabinets receding into seeming infinity. An electronic arm carries the print-out, now revealed to be an index card, into a filing drawer labeled RESIGNED. The man then arrives home, frantically grabs his passport and packs his suitcase, but his escape attempt is quickly thwarted when the hearse driver throws knockout gas into his home, incapacitating him. Later, he wakes up in a replica of his study, in the middle of a place referred to as “The Village”. The phone rings, a voice informs him that “Number Two” wants to meet with him at “The Green Dome”.

At the Green Dome, the control room of the Village, Number Two (the chief administrator) addresses the man as Number Six, as he asks him about the motive behind his resignation. Number Two proceeds to threaten the man, and shows him that he has compiled a hefty biographical file on him. But Number Six, our protagonist, stands his ground, refusing to negotiate: “I resigned!”, he exclaims, “I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered! My Life is my own!” Later in the episode he cries out: “I am not a number, I am a person!”, a leitmotif in the series.

The fears of becoming anonymous, indistinguishable, or “just a number”, have long-haunted literary and cinematic forms, but one can argue that they assumed particularly anxious forms in the filmic tales of identity theft, memory wipeouts, body doubles, and brainwashing, of the 1960s and 1970s. The figure of the US army sergeant, brainwashed during the Korean war to infiltrate the hermetic enclaves of Washington politics, in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), by John Frankenheimer, is one example, the middle-aged banker who signs up for a procedure that promises to grant him a new identity, in Seconds (1966) [also by Frankenheimer], is another good one. These films were a reflection of  the rise of middle management with its humdrum office culture, of pinko-hysteria with Soviet moles and infiltrators, and of political scandals with conspiratorial plots. Against this backdrop, the “individual” seemed to be under threat, targeted by these technics of (ac)counting, anonymization, quantification, indexing, erasing, and doubling.

Indeed, what is an individual in a world where processes of identification and quantification, by state and non-state actors, coexist with corporate algorithmic modeling and a calculus of literal self-worth? What is in a name, when perpetual self-tracking, taste-making, and self-fashioning, offer the promise of the boundless permutation of individuality in real time?

In addition to addressing the number as a mathematical object, and quantification qua governance, the theme within the first issue of The Derivative, prompts five artists and writers to think about articulations and processes of number and numbering, and their political dimensions. I have invited the various contributors to respond according to the following five categories: statistics, the crowd, measurement, finance, and rhythm. Over the past few months, many of us have been waking up to two sets of perturbing numbers, or ratios. The first is the exchange rate of the Lebanese Lira to the U.S. Dollar, now in free fall after being pegged at 1,5017 to 1 for over two decades. The second is the number of COVID-19 infections and deaths, city-wide, state-wide, nation-wide, and globally. We look at curves and try to “bend them” or “flatten them”. We try to retrieve numbers that are suppressed, look for ways to resist capture by number, and organize to count, and name, the uncounted and unnamed. The history of numbers, statistics, and quantification, spans multiple geographies and practices, from the colonialist practice of phrenology, to the management of crowds and protest through urban design, from economic barometers as “portraits of the nation in numbers and time”[1], to credit scores.

The world of numbers is vast. Numbers, and the institutions producing them, are met with exhilaration or distrust, throughout the political spectrum. Ancestry tests, essentially a technology of liberal neo-Eugenics, promises to help you “discover you”, by, purportedly, showing your ancestral makeup— an “ethnicity sample” tells you where, and to what percentage, you are “from” (e.g. 54 % European, 28.6 % British and Irish, 0.8 percent Western Asia and North African…). A fashioning of the self via percentage brackets. In a severely misguided political move, Elizabeth Warren, a democratic contender for the U.S. presidential candidacy, earlier this year, even resorted to the test, to “prove” she has Native American ancestors. How, then, do we grapple with the perils and potentials of numbers, and their uses, in a “post-truth” era? How can we begin to move beyond blind adherence to numerical data and its promises, as well as literature from the humanities and social sciences that has, at times, imparted a view of numbers and numerical practices as mere “social constructions”, and as the exclusive property of state control?[2]

This issue does not seek to situate, say, number theory and econometrics, or double-ended bookkeeping and standardized measurement, on the same plane. It does not seek to construct an ahistorical and amorphous master plan of Numbers. Rather, it attempts to identify and analyze some discourses, techniques, and applications of number, and to sketch the historical emergence of numbering and calculation in various domains, such as government, public discourse, and music. It is an invitation, however preliminary, to think about the implications of thinking about, and with, numbers, whether for the purposes of articulating the power of the crowd, and the complementary and antagonistic terms/categories “mass” and “multitude”, or attending to the emergence and critique of the debt-to-GDP ratio as a metric of national economic health. By doing so, it invites contributors and readers to think not only of local and global practices of number in political and artistic production, but also to think of ways of constructing a critical lexicon, in Arabic and English, to make sense of the increasingly-complex world of financial instruments, health metrics, and institutional practices of calculation and ordering.


[1] Slobodian, Quinn. Globalists : The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2018. P.67. For a discussion of “business barometers” and the role of graphic portraits of the economy, see chapter 2: “A World of Numbers”.

[2] For a critique on the limits of the social constructionist view, see: Hacking, Ian. The Social Construction of What? Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1999. For a critique of state-centric accounts of statistical thinking and practice, and a history of  numerical and statistical practices as forming and informing a mode of “public political argumentation” in eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain, see: Deringer, William. Calculated Values: Finance, Politics, and the Quantitative Age. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2018.

Encountering “Allouchi”

Photo taken by Tariq Keblaoui on October 18, 2019 in Riad Al Solh, Beirut, Lebanon.

In Max Weiss’s In the Shadows of Sectarianism: Law, Shi’ism, and the Making of Modern Lebanon (2010), a scholarly exploration of the gradual “institutionalization of Shi’i difference” in Lebanon, Weiss quotes a passage from Lebanese film critic Mohammed Soueid’s interview with Omar Amiralay, in which the late Syrian filmmaker reflects on a childhood vision:

‘I saw a touring bear trainer in Jounieh,’ the coastal city just north of Beirut. When pressed further on the incident, Amiralay hypothesizes, ‘I think he was a Metwellite. Or maybe he was a Gypsy.’ Asked how he had come to that conclusion, he replies, ‘We were told that Metwellites showcased animal acts and roped their goats with bells.’ The interviewer asks, ‘Did you insist on calling Shi’ites Metwellites?’ ‘It was common practice then,’ Amiralay responds. ‘The referent Metwellite did not have a religious connotation in a sectarian mindset. In popular parlance, it referred to people who lived in misery. Before the emergence of Moussa el-Sadr, I did not know there were Shi’ites in Lebanon. In fact, for a long time, I did not even know there were Sunnis and Shi’ites in Islam’[1]

The image of the Metwellite touring with a bear, and its contrast against the glowing urbanity of the city of Jounieh, is engraved in Amiralay’s memory—a “fantastical” juxtaposition between civilization and coarseness.[2] The discursive construction of the Metwellite could lend itself to manifold readings in the filmmaker’s anecdote. It alludes toa supposed desolation, misery, and obscurity of Lebanon’s Shiite communities before their political and ideological mobilization under Musa al-Sadr and the Amal Movement. The story of the Metwellite that Weiss introduces his study with crisply captures the place Shiites found themselves in following the creation of Greater Lebanon in 1920. Thus, situated in its proper historical context, the referent was not far from capturing both the political and economic disinheritance of the Shiite communities of South Lebanon and the Beqaa Valley.

The dreary figure of the Metwellite has since lost its semantic force, instead giving way to contemporary representations shaped by and seeping with excess power. Throughout the course of the October uprising, we encounter an unimaginative one: The figure of “Allouchi”, a figure spouting classist mockery and one that’s almost irksome to reproduce in writing. Not unlike that of the Metwellite, though stemming from a considerably different material reality, this discursive construction would prove to be symptomatic of the enduring hegemony of sectarian discourse in Lebanon, and would come to unveil an imaginary manufactured by protesters unable to escape sectarian relations they’d sought to destroy in the first place.

The election of President Michel Aoun in 2016 inaugurated al-‘ahd (العهد), thereby ending eleven years of axial politics organized around two competing projects embodied in the March 8 and March 14 movements.[3] This period witnessed the incessant grabbing of power by Hezbollah and its Aounist allies, the engineers and sponsors of the pact—who were both, ironically, outside the Taef Agreement—and consecrated the “Army, People, and Resistance” triad. A symptom of the crisis of the Second Republic, al-‘ahd itselfwas not short of co-producing frequent and irregular crises, be they environmental, economic, or political, enough in the first two weeks of October 2019 alone to lead to unprecedented, nation-wide protests. Following its catastrophic mismanagement of wildfires that erupted in the forests of the Chouf district, then Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his governmental cabinet rubbed salt into the wound by proposing a “remedial program” that consisted in a set of austerity measures, the least scandalous of which was a tax on free internet services. On October 17, thousands upon thousands stormed the streets of Beirut to demonstrate against what was dubbed ‘the WhatsApp tax’. The protests spontaneously spread from Riad al-Solh Square in Downtown Beirut to the entire country, and the centrality of the Lebanese capital was soon displaced. In many respects, cities like Tripoli could claim to be the center of the uprising; Beirut would only figure as a city in ebullition among many, and probably by no means the most important one. Even more noteworthy was the participation of cities such as Tyre and Nabatiyeh, long considered to be sect-party strongholds.  A revolutionary process, driven first and foremost by a collective will to de-sectarianize Lebanese politics and social relations, began taking root. At the conjuncture of economic crisis and environmental calamity, the October uprising exposed the etiolated connection between ruling political parties and their partisans. Notably, this would be the first significant, decentralized, and cross-sectarian protests to take place in postwar Lebanon. So much so that, to the onlooker, it seemed the protests would manage to undo the sectarian party machineries that were born out of the post-March Alliances politics.

That is how it seemed, at least,until Hassan Nasrallah, the Secretary-General of Hezbollah, appeared in a televised speech to address the happenings—as had become customary—only a day after President Aoun had himself spoken to the Nation. Nasrallah began his speech by sermonizing the protestors of the uprising, which he termed a “popular movement,” and concluded with turning to the “resistance community” and their allies. Though he initially praised the protests as spontaneous, he ended up accusing them of being externally organized and financed. He then described the uprising as “protests of the deprived”, only to later charge them with being the protests of millionaires, political parties, and financier embassies. He told people to continue protesting, but politely; later, he would explicitly forbid insults and profanities, the destruction of property, and clashes with the Army. Nasrallah permitted the celebrations to go on, but only on the weekends. Blocking roads, he sympathized with, but then prohibited. Finally, he turned to the “resistance community” and asked them to leave the squares.

There was something undoubtedly sinister about the rhetorical devices deployed throughout Nasrallah’s speech, an ominousness shouldn’t strictly be attributed to the elusiveness of his statements. For, Amal and Hezbollah supporters did retreat on that day of October 25. Moreover, within hours of his second televised appearance addressing the uprising—and as if by sheer serendipity—some of the party’s supporters attacked protestors, destroying and burning down their tents. In a sea of sectarian emblems that organize Beirut, these protestors had carved an urban island for themselves within the emptied squares of its Downtown area. At that moment, however, they had found themselves surrounded by both violent counter-protesters and the riot police, trapped between the shabeeha that were inimical to the revolution and the Army guarding the carcass of a disintegrating era. The uprising’s defining slogan, “All of them means all of them,” could now be extended to include the supporters of the Triad.  It solidified the distinction Nasrallah had introduced between the protestors and Hezbollah’s supporters.

The October uprising’s redeployment of the “All of them means all of them” slogan bears witness to the delimitation of a political community that was long perceived to be in the making. Observers were quick to note the lineaments of a new social contract that repudiates the political legacy of the civil war and the logic of sectarianism. Equality and a decent life were to proceed from the right of the individual, as opposed to being mediated through the right of the sect. At the level of the individual, the “All of them means all of them” enunciation necessarily engenders its opposite: “I am not one of them.” By disavowing the ruling oligarchy on the one hand and declaring their extrication from ruling political parties—and by extension their partisans—on the other, protestors committed an act of excommunication. This excommunication gives way to the construction of a community of their own.

Theorizing on political immunology and its relation to community formation, Italian philosopher Roberto Esposito contends that:

[I]mmunity, as a privative category, only takes on relief as a negative mode of community. Similarly, when viewed in a mirror image, community appears to be entirely immunized, attracted and swallowed up in the form of its opposite. Immunity, in short, is the internal limit which cuts across community, folding it back on itself in a form that is both constitutive and deprivative; immunity constitutes or reconstitutes community precisely by negating it.[4]

What is thus being constructed through this excommunication of political parties and their base, is an attempt at a new community of protestors that distinguishes itself from the partisans, infiltrators and shabeeha who threaten to compromise the unity of the revolutionary body. This excommunication that the imagining of a new community has given rise to, has also posited an image of its other in contradistinction to its self-conception, as exemplified by the figure of Allouchi. Commonly a diminutive of the name Ali, it was widely deployed through local media discourse by many protesters and, in some instances, even came to be adopted by counter-protesters. By no means exhausting all other representations, Allouchi is a constructed figure that aims to profile the anti-revolutionary Shiites who left the demonstrations following Nasrallah’s speech; in other words, it refers to male Shiite individuals of a certain class who are hostile to the revolutionary project of the October uprising.

As the diminution of the term suggests, Allouchi is first and foremost a politically immature subject, as opposed to the protestor who has ‘come of age’, so to speak. He is granted political protection, solely by virtue of his belonging to the Shiite sect, and hence can commit lawless acts and continue existing outside of the law. He is unemployed, and drives a minibike, so he is uncultured. According to his opponents, he is both ignorant and compliant. But he can be violent, and that exposes him as a zealot. If he returns to the protest, he is only returning in his capacity as an infiltrator and should be engaged with as double-faced. Of course, he is also sectarian.

In an article published on Daraj, an Arabic-speaking liberal platform, this “caricatural” figure, which the authors recognize as such, is further taken as a paradigm for interpreting social realities.[5] The characteristics and ideologies of the Shiites thus become summarily embodied by Allouchi. The article then further essentializes Shiite communities by attempting a historicization of their political affiliations, and subsequently frames contemporary Shiite political homogeneity as being intrinsic and eternal to the group. This form of reasoning ends up propagating the narrative of Lebanese bourgeois ideology identified by Lebanese Marxist thinker Mahdi ‘Amil, though the article itself slips into confusion as it calls upon none other than ‘Amil to support its claims:[6]

‘Allouchi’ formulates a discourse derived from the heritage of tribal society: ‘If it wasn’t for the Party’s intervention in Syria, Daesh would have raped our women.’ In this environment, where truth is that of religion only, ‘Allouchi’ evokes his kindness to us and our exceptional conditions, in a country drowning in debt and waste but breathing dignity and power.[7]

Allouchi is a morally inferior subject who—in sharp contradistinction to the protestors who lift themselves out of the grasp of sectarian relations—is unable to escape his interpellation by ideology. Embodying the rabble of the “Resistance Society,” the power prescribed to this figure is meant to reflect and signify the power of the leading Shiite political party and militia, Hezbollah. At the same time, it is a unitary figure of a presupposed oneness of the “Shiite Duo,” Amal and Hezbollah, both of which are currently the sole political representatives of the Shiite sect in Lebanon. Allouchi thus encapsulates the militance of Lebanese political Shiism, the reactionary nature of Hezbollah’s politics, the “incomplete nationalization” of the Shiite communities forming a state within the state, and the propensity of Shiites for violence, ever consigned to healing the originary wound of Karbala.

The construction of the figure of Allouchi gestures toward a novel act of differentiation that is not separate, but in fact necessary, for the process of excommunication to take shape. Here, the protestor’s self-conception becomes the function of the image of the other. It seeks to see itself as the opposite of the other: while the opposite is perceived as corrupt, sectarian, partisan,  ideological,  and obscene, it experiences itself as pure, patriotic, unaffiliated, non-ideological, and virtuous. For Allouchi—initially deemed the ‘backbone of the uprising’ in the first few days of the protests, by way of mass participation as well as through acts blocking off roads and leading protestors’ motorcycle processions—to retreat after Nasrallah enjoined him to, supposedly proves his imperviousness to the revolution. The supposed withdrawal of most Shiite protestors on the third day of the uprising threatened to stymie the revolution’s tides. It disrupted a revolutionary imaginary being constructed, that of a community of revolutionaries in the process of freeing themselves of sectarianism.

One could claim that the critiques formulated within the uprising around the inexorably powerful Hezbollah and its reactionary politics inevitably takes the shape of othering, a clear discursive aspect of political immunology.  Glaring was the panic that the so-called infiltrators caused among protestors in Riad al-Solh, after stones came down hurtling at them from within. The designation of “Shabeb al-Khandaq”—or the men of al-Khandaq al-Ghamiq neighborhood, a Shiite and working-class neighborhood that borders central Beirut— became a euphemism for all Shiite men acting independently or by orders to attack protestors and target the uprising. This critique of the Shiite anti-revolutionary takes a new direction: that which has no commitment to a sect but nevertheless participates in the reproduction of a sectarian narrative—that of imaginaries around the figure of Allouchi—as part of the structure of sectarianism. Through that encounter, protestors performing demands for secularism end up reproducing sectarian relations—within and without themselves.

Protestors are here confronted with a problem. Given the current hegemony of Hezbollah over the political structure, they are compelled to reduce the regime to a sect. What are then the possibilities for the production of a non-sectarian political community that would allow these protestors to escape the social relations they are embedded in? How can de-sectarianization operate within these social relations when certain encounters inherently reproduce the logic of sectarianism? To answer these questions, the revolutionary subject should perhaps orient themselves to think through and produce new modes of organization and mobilization. In order to do so, they would look toward the future through a revolutionary lens, i.e. by having something to topple and another to construct. Within the Second Republic and its two pillars, confessionalism and Harirism, the uprising auspiciously recognized what was to be dislodged. However, there is no denying that, at the moment, Hezbollah presents an insuperable opposition to the revolution and its objectives. For one, the uprising’s central slogan, “All of them means all of them”, can be understood to run up against Hezbollah’s clasp on both the Lebanese parliament and cabinet, and to allude to the party’s arms. The perpetuity—indeed, the reproduction—of this regime, is materially conditioned by arms existing outside of it. Even when they continue, saying, “Nasrallah is one of them,” the memory of the “events” of May 7, 2008 still inhabits the protestors’ imagination and incites widespread fear.[8] Yet, al-‘ahd does not constitute the entirety of the regime but a mere instantiation of it. Locating it is more elusive than one could have imagined. How to define such a regime remains a different question altogether and is perhaps beyond the scope of this article; in addition, whether the uprising was able to articulate a full conception of what this “regime” actually is and what it includes would also be worthy of another discussion. Self-defense, while understandable, can be detrimental to the formation of a post-sectarian community. Instead, we are to identify patterns in the regime that help us negotiate Hezbollah’s hegemony—and certainly without unselfconsciously feeding up the party’s own narratives that are strengthening by the day through the partially self-imposed “siege”. But for now, let’s drop Allouchi.

Safa Hamzeh received her MA in Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona. Her current research explores contemporary Shiite mourning rituals. She works at Kohl: a Journal for Body and Gender Research. 


[1] In the Shadows of Sectarianism explores the process through which the Shiites become more sectarian, adopt a subnational sectarian identity by the recognition and institutionalization demands, and are brought into the orbit of the Lebanese sectarian state. See Max Weiss, In The Shadow Of Sectarianism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010), 38-60.

[2] This pejorative representation of the  Metwellite, rendered other times as Métoualis”/ Matawalah or Metoualis, and believed to mean “mata waliyyan li-‘Ali,” was not an invention of the Republic and has been deployed since the 18th century by European travelers, Ottoman bureaucrats, and Lebanese intellectuals to depict the insulation of Shiite communities in Jabal Amil and the Beqaa Valley. Weiss, In The Shadow Of Sectarianism, 40-54.

[3] In Arabic, al-‘ahd translates into the Pact and era. Used in commentary to connote the Hezbollah-Aounist regime/alliance.

[4] Roberto Esposito, Immunitas: The protection and negation of life (Polity, 2011), 9.

[5] Daraj.com. 2020. عن فائض القوة : “علوشي” الذي لا يهزم | Daraj. [online] Available at: https://daraj.com/46017/ [Accessed 10 July 2020].

[6] Briefly, this ideology sees sects and sectarianism in Lebanon as intrinsic to groups, not as a set of social relations, realized, institutionalized and mediated through the State, as ‘Amil contends. See: Mahdi ‘Amil, Fi al-dawla al-ta’ifiyya (Beirut: Dar al-Farabi, 1989).

[7] Daraj.com. 2020. عن فائض القوة : “علوشي” الذي لا يهزم | Daraj. [online] Available at: https://daraj.com/46017/ [Accessed 10 July 2020].

[8] The May 7, 2008 events refer to a political crisis over Hezbollah’s arms that prompted the party to swiftly deploy militiamen and surround West Beirut within the span of a few days. The crisis witnessed armed clashes around the capital’s neighborhoods, and later extended to other cities in Lebanon. It was resolved when the Arab League intervened, resulting in the Doha Agreement. This drove the March 14-led government to rescind its decision to intervene with Hezbollah’s telecommunication network and the ending of an eighteen months long political logjam in the country.

Sonic debris : Rebuilding former spatialities through reverberations

Artwork: Dissolve - By: Sarah Saroufim.

Multiplicity and variety of inflections produce “events,” or vibrations, “with an infinity of harmonics or submultiples.” Movement of a concept that has bearing upon a subject’s impressions of the physical world does not elevate according to a spiral plan, which belongs to philosophy. but radiates or ramifies everywhere in the geography of experience. such that we can imagine movement of light and sound, together, as folds of ethereal matter that waft and waver.

– Gilles Deleuze. The Fold, Leibniz and the Baroque.

Auditory faculties contain an array of potentialities, that are systemically, discursively or physically unrestricted, but that also equalize and evaluate the soundscapes of contemporary urbanization. Not only do these faculties behave in synchrony with visibility but they compete with it in the sensory hierarchy. Listening, as an experience, both senses what cannot be seen and acts as a method to decipher, cognize and reflect on the nature of events. Hearing aptitudes such as vertical and horizontal sound localization, interaural time difference, binaural listening, among others, calculate information related to volume, and geographic coordinates. Sound acts as a “structural base as well as a speculative guide” that unearths socio-political possibilities[1]. In urban contexts for example, the material conditions of these events are outcomes of different political episodes, which are inextricable from neoliberal reforms, financialization, warfare and militarization, as well as logistical and ecological contingencies. Beyond any activity within an urban landscape, psychoacoustic apparatuses — which dictate how a signal reaches a listener’s ears and its neurocognitive processing — are first and foremost sculpted by architecture and translated via containers of sonic memory[2]. Building materials, spatial disposition, directions and density govern the way through which a sonic source asserts its dominance over one’s sonic-spatial domain[3]. The migration and reflection of vibrations within a territory, known as the reverberation of sound, will be explored in this essay as an acoustic phenomenon whose sensing unearths spatial conditions and illustrates their foundations.

In Lebanon, urban expansion behaves in an ostensible yet aleatory manner. It is equipped with the potential to temper the perceptibility and immersion of listening subjects. By examining the interplay between architecture, sound and their respective political narratives, I will evaluate what Beirut’s reverberations reveal vis-a-vis its post-war politico-legal modes of governance. Here, the politics of aesthetics function as “a delimitation of spaces and times, of the visible and the invisible, of speech and noise, that simultaneously determines the place and the stakes of politics as a form of experience”[4]

Sensing Anomalies

Historian Emily Thompson defines reverberation as “the lingering over time of residual sound in a space”[5]. She argues that any soundscape is indistinguishable from the sonic behavior of reverberation, which is inseparable from architectural space. Reverberation portrays a sonic reaction created when a signal is reflected by its surrounding environment, generating a large number of late reflections, until the signal decays as it gets absorbed by the material around it[6]. With the invention of reverberation time calculation, which estimated the time difference between a signal emission and its late reflections, modernist architects apprehended reverbs as anomalies to be eradicated. In order to ensure efficient communication and listening habits in enclosed spaces, they treated hearing like vision by guaranteeing, through their design, the reception of a signal-like clarity without obstructions.[7] Here, sound was slowly separated from its architectural signature.

Karin Bijsterveld explains how noise abatement societies, who were preoccupied with reducing street noise in the early twentieth century, faced substantial contingencies that resisted all efforts to silence cities. Beyond attempts to control the soon-to-come hegemony of techno-logistical networks of transportation and exchange, which saturated ambient noise levels, methods of sound intensity calculations were distorted by sonic anomalies, namely prompted by the reverberant components of urban milieus[8].

What problematizes our sonic cognition of those environments relates closely to a growing contemporary logic in urban spatial expansion. Concretely, I’m referencing a divergence in scales, materiality, porosities, perforations and its relation to street set-backs, volumetric occupation, as well as all the elements’ proximity with public infrastructure. This assemblage of construction, and coding parameters generates an overflow of acoustic calculations (and incalculabilities). By meticulously deciphering these makeups, French electro-acousticians Jean-Francois Augoyard argue that reverberations are ubiquitous in an urban environment that “compressed acoustic space and confused directionality, making it often difficult or impossible to locate sources”[9].

Reverb’s ubiquity taints sonic activities with symptomatic conditions. It imposes a distorted amplification of sound due to an overlap of reflections[10], leakage[11], and most importantly its extension, which occurs only seconds after its initial occurrence[12]. These manifestations equip sound with the potential of invasiveness where the material boundaries between source, listening subject, and their shelters, collapse. Within this experience, ears are sensing a volatile sonic response to spatial parameters. They listen for an anomaly, an irregularity, and a catastrophe, as it extends over time before it dissipates into inaudibility. This extension, however, is indivisible from an ontological definition of any Event that can potentially trigger, materialize, or coerce a sonic condition. Drawing from Deleuze’s theorization of the Event, French philosopher Alain Badiou maintains that the Event cannot be separated from the act of becoming; it is both a continuity and an intensification. It is a sequence of multiplicities that concurs the “limitless of becoming and the singularity of the Event”[13]. Here, I’m referring to both the Sonic Event and its repercussions on architecture.

Architectural narratives for a sonic unpredictability

On July 9, 2018, the head of the Public sCorporation for Housing (PCH), a public institution in charge for the subsidization of housing loans, announced the immediate halt of all funding[14]. In fact, the abrupt cut of loan schemes, whose beneficiaries were middle to low income families, effectively prevented these classes’ access to adequate shelter. This decision may have appeared to be a mere managerial, bureaucratic and strategic policy in a financially vulnerable state, but in fact, it was an intentional move by the ruling class to protract already existing neoliberal policies, which were responsible for deregulating the urban sphere.

Originating in the post-civil war reconstruction project[15], the architectural landscape of Beirut is reflected in policies, which systematically exerted a stronger control over the capital’s most precarious social classes[16]. Solidere’s so-called reconstruction scheme led to a series of forced displacements, disproportionate construction ventures, and a spatialization of wealth disparity[17].

To delineate the inseparability between real-estate politics and their spatial narratives is, above all, to draw a cognition of their impacts and agencies, whereby the latter is perceived when it is juxtaposed with other agencies. Karen Barad’s notion of Intra-action is defined as “the mutual constitution of entangled agencies”, whereby individual agencies only [im]materialize through Intra-action. Barad asserts that “agencies are only distinct in relation to their mutual entanglement; they don’t exist as individual elements”[18].

Baradian intra-actions provide a measurement rationale to “measured agencies” (effect) and “measured objects” (cause). They outline that Events (cause) seep into boundless probabilities, but in intra-action with spatial constraints, the resulting reverberations (effect), highlight the nature of those Events.

Reverberations in Beirut equip us with facts about its urban condition. They are the remnants of an accumulation of building permits issued by the Order of Architects and Engineers of Lebanon from 1993 till 2018. Each peak or drop in the issuing of permits became an index to gage the scope of spatial expansion and its influence on the city’s sonic identity. The oscillations of these data allow us to expound on an array of maneuvers that distorted reverberations.

The first attempt to consolidate a territorial reconstruction policy took place in 1994 when 34,572 square meters of built surfaces were approved for construction in Lebanon[19]. Forced evictions and unlawful land expropriation[20] were funneled by the 1992 rent law[21].  Landlords were now able to displace tenants before demolishing properties to erect buildings with maximized profit. An amendment in these construction laws guaranteed more land exploitation to the newly imposed architectural morphologies[22]. The swift and successive demolitions of decaying structures during the period of reconstruction generated a sonically immersive state. Beside its visibility, the capital’s dwellers sensed the politics of dispossession and displacement when empty reverberant lots were abruptly planted in neighborhoods. Through ubiquitous mists of sonic reflections, hearing was stripped from its potential of localization, where it became impossible to decipher the perfect identity of the sonic source[23]. As their hearing structures modulated, street-level auditors were repetitively deprived from their sense of emplacement[24].

What burgeoned architecturally after those demolitions was an ascending degree of density in concrete, metal, glass facades, perforations and networks of geometric suspensions, matched with discrepant heights. It simultaneously created a convoluted visibility and distorted acoustics. The former was dominated by volumes that act as environmental sensors lodging sonic activities and amplified them through multiple reflections. Through this emergent, stochastic behavior in sound, an asymmetry between the sender and the receiver of a signal restructured spatial cognition. Reverberation became a metric for spatial expansion strategies, their legal counterpart, as well as the state’s subjugation of its disenfranchised population.

Within an unequally distributed real-estate investment and rehabilitation scheme[25], spatial operations and sectarian strategies were favored by a neoliberal logic to administer power upon urban patches[26]. These omnipresent disparities, materialized in what LaBelle defines as “acoustic territory”, the sonorous repercussions of architectural configurations were in fact conditioning subjectivities[27]. Reverberant qualities were gradually — often steeply — modulated in close proximity to the city’s periphery. Sound waves that are reflected through low absorption concrete, were also dampened both by street installations and compressed bodies occupying the public sphere. But in some cases, juxtapositions between dwellings and infrastructure instigated acute sonorous environments.

The Yerevan bridge, for instance, sharply splits, along two kilometers by eighteen meters, significantly populated blocks in Burj Hammoud and Nabaa area, where a large number of internally displaced and migrant population had found refuge since the civil war. It asserted the state’s structural deprivation of Burj Hammoud by isolating it from the rest of the city and its economic flow. The bridge’s extreme proximity with existing buildings produced a cavernous sonic texture on the street level.

In a milieu that bustles with social and commercial interactions, a fly-over, low porosity, concrete structure obfuscated both the penetration of natural light and the leakage of sonic activity occurring within that vital area. Contained sonic reflections, generating what Daughtry calls a resonant acoustic territory, were “amplified, complicated and co-implicated”[28]. As they bounce back to the listener’s ears and bodies, they are processed as sonic-spatial attributes that deepen the division between inside and outside[29]. Through these reverberant peculiarities, ground floors sank into an underground, emphasizing the state’s endeavors to conceal and exclude the existing social strata.

The so-called 2004 real-estate boom extended this spiraling urban condition by shrinking all remaining terrains, and accelerated adjustments in construction laws that increased further land exploitation and building heights[30]. A month-long war in 2006, which substantially erased residential areas and their infrastructures, imposed a reconstruction scheme that coincided with pre-imposed territorial policies. A surge in construction permits totaled 7,719 square meters in 2004 and reached 15,187 in 2010, which indicated that the real-estate boom had increased despite the surrounding geopolitical and security tides.

The financialization of the economy that was hinging on potentials for land exploitation[31], failed dramatically when housing loans subsidies were discontinued. What followed was a sharp decline of an already groundless socio-economic condition that reached its rock-bottom in late 2019.

Listening to these architectural presents of Beirut constitutes an act of witnessing to the politico-legal operations that were deployed by the ruling class over three decades. Lands out of which surpluses were extracted to sponsor a soaring and un-leveraged debt regime, provoked a sharp vertical class discrepancy that is both visible and audible. As such, reverbs are a synthesis of mostly empty, maximal building-to-land ratio towers along with decaying dwellings that resisted the 1992 rent laws. Colossal high-reflection glass facades, embedded within concrete framing, accentuate, oscillate, and bounce back sonic activities into thousands of rays.

Beirut’s stochastic urban combinations sculpted and tuned modes of hearing to conform with its spatial-sonic paradigm, namely its ubiquitous reverberations. It colored neighborhoods where street activity was crucial for its survival and leaked inside dwellings whose crumbling, perforated material failed to obstruct. By deciphering the invasion of urban reverbs, those whose ears have become accustomed to the sensorial manifestations of power structures, resist this enveloping urbanity and quantize the aftermath of spatial violence.


[1] Labelle, Brandon. 2020. Sonic Agency: sound and emergent forms of resistance. [Place of publication not identified]: Goldsmiths PR LTD.

[2] Buali, Sheyma. 2016. The Islamic sonic Social: Interview with Seth Ayyaz. Ibraaz. Ayyaz states that the auditory cortex has a memory and predictive cognitive capacities.

[3] Schafer, R. Murray. 1997. The soundscape: our sonic environment and the tuning of the world. Rochester, Vt: Destiny.

[4] McKee, Yates. 2007. “Eyes and ears”: aesthetics, visual culture and the claims of nongovernmental politics”. Nongovernmental Politics. 327-355.

[5] Thompson, Emily Ann. 2008. The soundscape of modernity: architectural acoustics and the culture of listening in America, 1900-1933. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Tkaczyk, Viktoria. 2015. “The Shot Is Fired Unheard: Sigmund Exner and the Physiology of Reverberation”. Grey Room. 66-81.

[8] Bijsterveld, Karin. 2017. Mechanical Sound: technology, culture, and public problems of noise in the twentieth century. Cambridge: MIT Press.

[9] Augoyard, Jean-Francois, and Henri Torgue. 2014. Sonic Experience: a Guide to Everyday Sounds. Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

[10] Augoyard and Torgue. 2014.

[11] Abu Hamdan, Lawrence. 2017. Aural Contract: Investigation At the Threshold of Audibility. Phd Thesis. Goldsmiths University of London.

[12] www.aljoumhouria.com/ar/news/424806/مدير-عام-الاسكان-يطلب-وقف-قبول-طلبات-القروض-السكنية%0

[13] My emphasis. More in Safa, Mohamad. 2019. Reverberant Territories: Extended low frequency modulations as an account of affective aftermaths. MA dissertation. Goldsmiths University of London.

[14] Roffe, Jon. 2014. Badiou’s Deleuze. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.               

[15] Initially speculated under a nation-wide endeavor “Horizon 2000”, and later contracted to the real-estate company of “Solidere”.

[16] Leenders, Reinoud “Public means to private ends: state building and power in Post-war Lebanon”. 313-315.

[17]  Makarem, Hadi. The Limits of Neoliberal Policies in Post-Civil War Lebanon: A Critical Study of Solidere’s Reconstruction of Downtown Beirut. 20-21, reconstruction schemes also contributed to the formation of a substantial debt policy, and imposed a previously-speculated real estate inflation.

[18] Barad, Karen Michelle. 2007. Meeting the universe halfway quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Durham: Duke University Press.

[19] See archives at oea.org.lb

[20] Ohrstrom, Lysandra . “Solidere ‘Vigilantism under color of law” The Daily Star, 06 August 2007.

[21] el-Achkar, Hicham, “The Lebanese State as Initiator of Gentrification in Achrafieh,” in: Les Carnets de l’Ifpo, July 5, 2012. http://ifpo.hypotheses. org/3834 (accessed on October 29, 2014).

[22] In 1994, the construction law’s additional regulations forced all estates to settle their “illegalities” with taxes and/or abide by the previously amended 1983 building law. 

[23] See Piekut and Stanyek, Technologies of the Intermundane. They term this phenomenon as rhizophenia – or the impossibility of a perfect identity between sound and source.

[24] Daughtry, J. Martin. 2020. Listening to War: Sound, Music, Trauma, and Survival in Wartime Iraq. [place of publication not identified]: Oxford Univ Press.

[25] Harb El-Kak, Mona. “Towards a Regionally Balanced Development,” UNDP Conference on Linking Economic Growth and Social Development, Beirut, Lebanon, 11–13 January 2000.

[26] Bou Akar, Hiba. 2018. For the war yet to come: planning Beirut’s frontiers.

[27] LaBelle, Brandon. 2019. Acoustic territories: sound culture and everyday life.

[28] Daughtry. 2020.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ashkar, Hisham. 2015. “Benefiting from a Crisis: Lebanese Upscale Real-Estate Industry and the War in Syria”. Confluences Méditerranée. 92 (1): 89.

[31] Ashkar. 2015

What Remains is Constant

Artwork: Rhythm - By Hatem Imam.

1.

John Hutchinson (1811–1861) grew up in the coal-mining region of Newcastle upon Tyne, in northeast England, and came from a middle-class family of parish clerks, farmers, and coal merchants. During his lifetime, he worked across the fields of physiology and mechanical engineering, by way of being an assistant physician at the Hospital for Consumption and Diseases of the Chest, a surgeon at Southampton Dispensary, and a physician at Britannia Life Assurance Company[1].

Hutchinson’s interest in the mechanics of respiration, medical statistics, and profitable assessment for insurance policies, directed his research towards the “vital capacity” of the lungs. He described “vital capacity” as “being the largest volume of air which can be displaced by any movement of the living body…” According to Hutchinson, the chest muscles that facilitated the movements of the lungs were under “the control of the will.” Hutchinson’s investment in quantifying vitality reflected the institutionalization of numbers, underway in the nineteenth century, which was being shaped by the prognosis of mortality, for insurance companies, the calculus of risk, the development of precision instruments, and the deployment of theoretical assumptions of what can and should be counted.

Amid tensions being negotiated between science and theology, Hutchinson gave language to vitality that promoted the mechanical functioning of respiration as a dynamic, life-supporting system of the living body. While working as a physician at the Britannia Life office, he developed the spirometer, a technical instrument for the assessment of life insurance candidates, which measures the volume of air inspired and expired by the lungs. With spirometric data, Hutchinson sought to transform vital capacities into graphable truths, organized into statistical tables, and weaponized as tools of surveillance that calculate the risk profitability of the British working class. The spirometer thus gained its epistemic authority[2] via its claim to be an empirically validated scientific object that regulates and reproduces quantitative social facts about the bodily arithmetic.

Furthermore, Hutchinson marshaled occupation as a mechanism to establish a standard of health for the social domain, designating military men and police officers as representatives of the “healthy standard”. He concludes that artisans were “very low in power”, while the bodies of the police are “good specimens with high lung capacity.”[3] Constructing comparison groups between police officers/military men, and artisans/low-income individuals, he demonstrated that the spirometer was capable of performing as a technology of regulation. The administering of fitness, which is both linked to a “healthy” standard and a mode of survival based on the genetic makeup of an individual, was modeled after the authoritarian class of the police and military, which served to regulate, via spirometric measurements, what is a normal value of lung capacity for the social body. This standardization of fitness, echoing Darwinian arguments for hierarchical difference, is one of many systems of quantification subjecting the black/non-white/non-human, gendered, and working-class body to the racializing surveillance of statistical law and biological ordering.

The spirometer allowed Hutchison to identify, measure, quantify, and rank the lungs into four compartments. The compartments were labeled as residual air: the amount of air remaining in the lungs after maximal expiration; reserve air: the amount of air remaining in the lungs after “gentle expiration”; breathing air: the amount of air required for “the ordinary gentle inspiration and expiration”; and complemental air: the amount of air available during strenuous exertion. Hutchinson claimed that reserve air, breathing air, and complemental air were not stagnant, but, instead, the outcome of harmonized mechanical movements of air in and out of the lungs.[4]

The value of one’s vital capacity, especially for the life insurer, is linked to class, occupation, and race. The “gentle expiration” of residual air becomes nothing more than a salvage value of an individual’s capacity to be insured. Shaping his role as a scientist, Hutchinson’s spirometric measurements were prescriptive and normative tools to monitor and manage the population as a whole, establishing normal values for human life. As a physician, his statistical life tables for insurance companies quantified profitable assessments for public health policies. With Hutchinson’s empirical research, and the spirometer’s epistemic authority,[5] the instrumentalization of the natural sciences took shape in the field of statistics.

2.

When Benjamin Apthorp Gould (1824-1896) was not gathering astronomical observations for the National Academy of the Sciences, he fulfilled his duties as an actuary for the United States Sanitary Commission. His 613-page report, Investigations in the Military and Anthropological Statistics of American Soldiers, set the stage for hierarchical notions of racial difference. Quantified data of the head, weight, pulse, and capacity of the lungs were categorized according to the race, age, and nativity of sailors, prisoners, and enlisted soldiers of the Union army. The report was published in 1869, during the era of promised Reconstruction, establishing the mental, moral, and physical dimensions of racial difference, through the use of modern-day precision instruments, including the spirometer.[6] At a time when the field of statistics was increasingly accepted as a knowledge-producing science representative of society, numbers were disguised as evidentiary, value-free data used to quantify the body, producing classification systems that monitored vital capacities to determine who can and cannot receive life insurance.

Gould’s commissioned report ushered in the development of new technology that was capable of measuring specific details of the body. Gould praised the spirometer for its malleability, precision, and aptness for war. The demand for his specialized spirometer to be deployed in the field was propelled by his ambition to exceed Hutchinson’s research, by scaling to a 21,000 samples for his report.

In tabular form, values of lung capacity comparing White soldiers to, in the words of Gould, “Full Blacks,” “Mulattoes,” and “Indians”, exemplify the racist classification system that prevailed in the minds of scientists. Gould’s report indicated that “Full Blacks” had a 6 to 12 percent lower lung capacity than that of “Whites,” and that the lung capacity of “Mulattoes” was .023 percent lower than that of “Full Blacks”.[7]

Gould failed to acknowledge the comparable conditions of labor and life of black soldiers in his survey. Not only did black soldiers live in crowded camps, but they were also subjected to dire medical care in segregated hospitals, which led to higher mortality rates and infectious diseases like tuberculosis and pneumonia, which complicated the respiratory system. Gould intentionally omitted this data because he was aware of, and had faith in, the scientific support for racist ideologies and public policies aimed at evaluating racial differences. Without this specific data of social conditions included in the report, Gould enlisted white lung capacity as the normal standard.

3.

Frederick Hoffman (1865–1946), a lead statistician for Prudential Life Insurance Company, would give precedence to Gould’s study on lower lung capacity thirty years later, in his Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro (1896). This racist monograph was published by the American Economic Association, and gained credibility as an objective knowledge that applied statistical probability, eugenic theory, and spirometry readings to determine that African Americans were uninsurable. In response to state legislation banning any discrimination involving life insurance policy practices against African Americans, Prudential commissioned Hoffman to write Race Traits,to prove, with quantifiable science, that African Americans were bound for extinction based on high mortality rates.[8] He was appointed to the company’s actuarial branch to give technical advice on policy development and assess risk in potential consumers. Since the life insurance industry was partially funded the United States Sanitary Commission, Hoffman gained access to Gould’s spirometric data on lower lung capacity, enabling him to make connections between respiration, lung capacity, and racial inferiority.

The assessment of physiological functions was weaponized as scientific proof, with Gould’s raw data generated by the spirometer confirming Hoffman’s racist ideologies. Risk became a commodity that could be assessed with a precision instrument subjecting the body to statistical law. Racial differences in lung capacities came to be understood as empirical objective observations when presented in tabular formations by Gould. The scientific appearance of Race Traits and Tendencies, facilitated by Gould’s spirometry readings, instituted Hoffman’s monograph as actuarial science.

For Hoffman, racial destiny, and the “race problem”, could be articulated in a statistical narrative that claims African Americans are incapable of modern life outside of slavery, due to the “vitality” they will supposedly lose once they left the plantation. Through employing Gould’s measurements on lung capacity, African Americans were unfit for freedom, biologically deficient for industrial labor, and an economic barrier to progress. This prognosis of the bodily arithmetic of African Americans reinstated the argument for confining them to agrarian labor under white supremacist management.

Preserving the established state, in the midst of industrialization, was attained, in part, by quantitative authority.[9] The cultural enthusiasm for the enumeration of social phenomena, in the nineteenth century, set a precedent for the dispersal of regimented surveillance and management of the body politic.

The knowledge that the spirometer produced could not be divorced from risk-making practices carried out by life insurance companies that participated in the embedding of anti-blackness, classism, ableism, and cisheterosexism, into the architecture of the device. The manufacturing and standardization of prognostic instruments were fused with the life insurance industry’s desire to find regularity in the mortality rates of specific groups of people.[10] Risk analysis was a fatalizing feature of the life insurance industry. It was conveniently objective when the enslaved black body was understood as an insurable property that was justifiably thrown into the ocean when it was afflicted by illness.[11] And risk systems became calculable when Hoffman determined that African Americans were uninsurable based on the statistical representations of their lung capacities.

~

In his essay, The Universal Right to Breathe, Achille Mbembe addresses the threshold of suffocation that has existed before Covid-19:

…Before this virus, humanity was already threatened with suffocation…everything that fundamentally attacks the respiratory tract, everything that, in the long reign of capitalism, has constrained entire segments of the world population, entire races, to a difficult, panting breath and life of oppression. To come through this constriction would mean that we conceive of breathing beyond its purely biological aspect, and instead, as that which we hold in common, that which, by definition, eludes all calculation. By which I mean, the universal right to breath.[12]

A right to a breath that is absent of biased calculation. Or, a right to a breath that is antithetical to the spirometric data that was purported by Hoffman, Hutchinson, and Gould. Perhaps, more specifically, a right to a breath divorced from the discursive effects of science as a regime of truth that has been formulated and practiced in order to preserve and legitimize oppression. To surpass these constrictive forces that Mbembe identifies, one must perform an act of breathing that exceeds its purely biological-physiological capacities.

Is it possible to imagine the biological-physiological process of breathing to be liberated from the structures of capitalism, and/or, can this physical function of the body divorce itself from the systematic formation of a knowledge system that has been founded on calibrating difference?

By no means am I suggesting that science cannot yield essential and egalitarian knowledge about the physical and material world. Rather, my aim is to dislodge historical scientific practices from their constitutive ground of racist-eugenic logic, and political and aesthetic propagation of anti-blackness, classism, ableism, and cisheterosexism.[13] Additionally, my intention is to unbind the structural systems of power that have influenced science as a system of knowledge that constructs difference and determines value.


–An earlier version of this essay was written for the Whitney Independent Studio Program book titled Conjuncture, published in July 2020.

[1] Spriggs, E A. “John Hutchinson, the Inventor of the Spirometer–His North Country Background, Life in London, and Scientific Achievements.” Medical History 21, no. 4 (1977): 357–64. doi:10.1017/S0025727300039004, 359.

[2] Lundy Braun uses the term “epistemic authority” throughout her book Breathing Race into the Machine: The Surprising Career of the Spirometer from Plantation to Genetics (Minneapolis, MN: Univ. of Minnesota press, 2014), to describe the spirometer’s ability to racialize bodies with spirometry measurements, designate hierarchical rankings in society, and produce knowledge in sdifferent domains.

[3] Braun, Lundy. Breathing Race into the Machine: The Surprising Career of the Spirometer from Plantation to Genetics. (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2014).

[4]Ibid, 9.

[6] Braun, Lundy. Breathing Race into the Machine: The Surprising Career of the Spirometer from Plantation to Genetics. (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 34.

[7] Ibid, 37.

[8] Bouk, Daniel B. How Our Days Became Numbered: Risk and the Rise of the Statistical Individual (Chicago: London: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 31-53.

[9] Espeland, Wendy Nelson, and Mitchell L. Stevens. “A Sociology of Quantification.” European Journal of Sociology 49, no. 3 (2008): 401–36. doi:10.1017/S0003975609000150.

[10] Theodore M. Porter, “‘Life Insurance, Medical Testing, and the Management of Mortality,” in Biographies of Scientific Objects (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 226-246.

[11] The slave as an insurable cargo/property. M. NourbeSe Phillip speaks at length about the massacre of sixty African slaves who were thrown overboard by Captain Collingwood because they fell ill and lacked water. She describes in detail the Gregson v. Gilbert case where the ship owners make a claim under maritime insurance law for the destroyed “cargo” in her book Zong!

[12]  Achille Mbembe, “The Universal Right to Breathe,” critinq.wordpress.com, 2020, https://critinq.wordpress.com/2020/04/13/the-universal-right-to-breathe/.

[13] For more on this see Park McArthur and Constantina Zavitsanos, “The Guild of the Brave Poor Things,” in Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2017), pp. 236-254.

Congress of Idling Persons

Unnamed - photograph courtesy of Bassem Saad
Unnamed - Courtesy of Bassem Saad

The races had stopped some months earlier and the horses had been laid off. Most of the owners had private stables, but some horses remained at the horse track, where they roamed around in groups of three, making their demands in sad horse argot before meal time. In the afternoon, their braying sounded, at least to me, as though it betrayed deep vexation at this recent influx and unrelenting presence of humans at the site.

In September, due to whatever whim or affliction, Mezna and I joined the rabble—the groups newly relieved of work duties and those that had always had one foot out of the productive cycle, those with and without citizenship, the ranks of former construction workers, waiters, delivery boys, janitors, porters, schoolteachers, university faculty, students of schools and universities, marketers, call center operators, lab technicians, theater technicians, housewives fleeing domestic arrangements, migrant domestic workers fleeing domestic arrangements and bureaucratic purgatory while attempting to leave the country, a few Syrian refugee families who were not intimidated by the rising hostility directed at them, lower-ranking public sector employees and pensioners, NGO employees of the country’s 2000+ NGOs, bank employees of the country’s 60+ banks, as well as embassy, airport, travel agency, and visa service employees, some of whom were at TLScontact which was right across the street, boarded up and no longer contracted with the Schengen zone embassies. They formed loose associations: the employees of the American University of Beirut Medical Center laid-off en masse; the Ethiopian, Kenyan, Senegalese, and Sierra Leonean domestic workers who had been expelled from their houses and dropped off at their respective embassies; and the Bangladeshi and Indian sanitation workers who had left RAMCO, among others. To say that it amounted to an occupation would be to ascribe unanimous political will and adversarial intent to the congregation,requiring the participants to be in some sort of active alignment or agreement. This wasn’t the case to any extent. There was evidently nothing in the way of shared vision or commitment between those who wanted to return to their home countries as soon as circumstances allowed them to, those who, in fact, didn’t want to return to their home countries, and the nationals who had neither recourse to foreign passports nor exit plans. Most of the people I spoke to could not explain why they were there, and would instead resort to vaguely delineating the misshapen circumstances they had survived in the fallout of the past year. When asked about the pandemic, they either maneuvered into denialism or pointed at their masks. Here they were all in the same open field, biding their time.

Among the activities at the site, the assembled were operating kitchens, setting up tents, climbing trees, playing cards and backgammon, knitting, and having half-serious debates. But, primarily, they were watching the news from the multiple viewing stations set up across the park. No one knew exactly where the money came from, and at that point few cared enough to ask. As was often the case, there were some local benefactors and individuals sending money in US dollar from abroad. There were no plans for the coming winter. In the open air, the screens streamed the little wars: the occasional warehouse explosion, more protests and commemorations, detected activity from Islamic fundamentalist sleeper cells in the north, a mutiny in Roumieh Prison where the prisoners demanding general amnesty uploaded a video making sure to identify themselves as the prisoners at Block A and not at the infamous Block B where the imprisoned Islamic fundamentalist have been kept since the fall of the ISIS caliphate. It’s not that the events were inconsequential, just that they were not the annihilating blow, which had in fact already taken place. In the park, some Scouts or civil society people were still always making a show of cleaning up the trash that everyone else had left behind. The Youth Sector of the Lebanese Communist Party was screening Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.

I met three acquaintances who were stationed around the empty swimming pool of the abandoned Residence des Pins, which was to the west of the horse track. Mezna and I used to run into them at the Medo bar, where they’d either been contagiously despondent or loudly inebriated, as most of us. Now they seemed to sustain a new warmth when speaking, delivering their words swiftly and building each other up, almost to the point of mania. They spent their days making memes. One of them, the Armenian chef, presented me with a personal theory. He said that the city had kind of short-circuited in August, that its two poles were the port and the pine forest, that it was like an open-pit mine where operations had ceased, the manpower had left, and the autochthonous neighbors had come to assess how the landscape had been transformed by centuries of brute force, that it was fitting that the pine forest, the last piece of unbuilt land in the city, was replanted in the 1990s, after the 1982 Israeli invasion and the civil wars left little of Emir Fakhreddin Maan II’s reforestation efforts in the 1600s to revive the ancient forest of Aleppo pine trees described by archbishop and chronicler William of Tyre in the 1100s that was gradually exterminated after centuries of providing timber for the trade and war vessels that allowed Beirut to enter into mercantile activity under Phoenician, Greek, Roman, and Arab rule, and that there was a history to be written in this same plot of land about half the city deserting itself overnight. Mezna, as averse to lofty visions as ever, despite all that had befallen us, said that the chef was stoned out of his mind.

Later, Mezna and I sat among a formation of Roman column ruins where some families were watching the late-afternoon soap operas. A hugely pregnant woman and her elderly parents came and sat close to us. She introduced herself, Nermin, and asked if we could guide her around. She carried a foldable chair because she could not sit on the ground this late into her pregnancy. She and Mezna spoke at length. Nermin was Palestinian, had left an abusive husband some months earlier and moved back in with her parents. She brought them to the park after they could not bear to be inside the house any longer, but they would still be returning home to sleep at night. At some point in the conversation, her father asked where we were from. When I named my father’s village in Aley that I never visited, Nermin took pause. Later, she told us that two years ago she had had a stillbirth. It was difficult to have the child buried in any of the Palestinian cemeteries so her husband arranged to have them buried in his friend’s terraced plot of land, in that same village. She said that she never visited, and that she had almost decided to never become pregnant again, yet here she was. She was not terribly excited about the child being born at this time, but she was making do—exhausted but not entirely unhappy. Nermin’s parents complained that the dubbed Arabic voice of the main character Lamis in the Turkish soap opera they were watching had been changed.

Some members of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party set up a provisional base in the Collège Saint Sauveur school, toward the east. The red Swastika-shaped whirlwind on the black flag was as menacing as it had always been, but they no longer instilled the fear that they did a few years ago, even in the mind of the pedestrian on Hamra Street, where their headquarters were located. At the moment, they stood on imaginary ramparts and feigned self-defense, an anachronism among the living. Who are these genteel people who still look at the map and think, with the exterminating fervor of National Socialists, that so and so peoples and lands are cut of the same cloth and must be sewn back together, and that this is a worthy doctrine and life cause to adopt, against the wishes of almost everyone else involved? Do they inherit the totalizing impulse from zealous fathers? What are their ruling planets? Every Monday they rehearsed a minor military parade, in  khaki pants, black t-shirts, and visibly frayed boots. Some of them were members of the armed wing, the Eagles of the Whirlwind, but no arms were included in the march. They took no part in the exchanges that happened in the area, and were content being left to their performances. Most of the people I knew there simply ignored their presence, passing by the base solemnly and making sure not to dally or let eyes wander.

A few days later, I ran into someone I had yet to see in public or in daylight. His name was Jalal and he was someone I had met through a hook-up app last year, before deciding to become celibate. He had a foot and shoe fetish that he led with when arranging to meet with someone. (There is an oral consensus, at least among my friends, that an outsize portion of gay men in Beirut have foot fetishes, but I have yet to hear a reasonable explanation.) When I met him, he was studying biochemistry at the Lebanese University and working as a lab technician. I recognized the interiors in the photos he sent; he was apparently living in Mezna’s old apartment below the Geitaoui Hospital. To confess, that was a large part of why I decided to go over, even after he accepted to pay a hundred dollars. He said he enjoyed paying for the act and that the transaction was part of the kink. I arrived at the address and found that he had moved out of the apartment and into the building facing it. He said that he had only recently moved out of his parents’ house, that he was earning a decent wage with the amount of overtime hours he was doing. I was unemployed as I periodically was, since well before the rapture and before that was the case for every other person. He was tender in conversation with me, but he also came off as someone who is exceedingly stringent in his personal life. He lay on the floor under the coffee table and asked me to keep my shoes on throughout, as he welcomed all of the city’s dirt into our private exchange, as though he wished to muddy his tongue in retaliation for something.

A year later, reclining on the ground under a pine tree, he appeared unburdened. He recounted how his previous occupations had ended, and joked about how him paying a hundred dollars in cash for sex now, after the local currency collapse, would be unthinkable. Mezna called as I left Jalal: Nermin had gone into labor and was rushed to the Moroccan military field hospital, which was set up adjacent to the Lebanese Military Hospital to the east of the park. The field hospital required no paperwork, but it was neither equipped nor staffed for childbirth. One of the Moroccan nurses was trained as a midwife, and two other midwives who happened to be at the park came to assist. In the October sunset, the sand was red and there was hardly any traffic on the highway. We kept Nermin’s parents company as we all waited. She was expected to have a normal delivery, and four hours later, she did.

“Bodies Are Always Transmitting”: An Interview with Radio Earth Hold

artwork by sarah saroufim, titled Noise Echoes
Artwork: Noise Echoes - By: Sarah Saroufim

Kareem Estefan in conversation with Rachel Dedman, Arjuna Neuman, and Lorde Se-lys.

The broadcast opens with a command from an unknown source, addressed to a confined listener: Lie very still. It is the summer of 2020 and I am this confined listener, absorbed by my headphones, seated at my desk, in the same position I have spent hours, weeks, months, since the spread of SARS-CoV2 placed much of the world under lockdown. You are about to enter an MRI, the voice continues, heightening the sense of medicalized captivity and dread of a feared diagnosis. But the broadcast is not about the COVID-19 pandemic. Its capacity to nonetheless speak to this moment underscores qualities unique to the radio voice: directly addressing you as if from nowhere, it both interpellates you and assimilates into the context of your listening.

Radio Earth Hold 001: The Colonial Voice, an incisive thirty-three minute radio-essay produced collaboratively by Rachel Dedman, Arjuna Neuman, and Lorde Selys for the 2018 Qalandiya Biennial, explores subjects including the history of radio in occupied Palestine, indigenous water protection at Standing Rock, experiences of birth and the womb, and the ways that sound structures subjectivity. Linking together these diverse topics is an inquiry into the philosophical and political implications of what I called the radio voice, above, but which is in fact a more generalized and consequential phenomenon—acousmatic sound, and specifically, the acousmatic voice, the voice without visible or traceable origin. For Radio Earth Hold, this is the voice of authority, the voice of the Biblical God, the voice of settler-colonial, patriarchal power—a kind of sonic analog to and political precursor of the Panopticon. Yet the acousmatic also carries a more ecological and egalitarian potential, manifesting in the interdependent and coextensive sensory experience of a mother and child or in the planetary reverberations of natural radio (low frequencies produced by disturbances within the earth’s atmosphere). “The Colonial Voice” closes with a hopeful challenge to attune ourselves to the sonic fact that, across species and scales, and bridging the subject-object divide, “bodies are always transmitting.”

I recently spoke with the Radio Earth Hold collective about the themes of “The Colonial Voice,” asking them to further explain their political analyses of acousmatic sound. Below is an edited transcription of our Zoom conversation.

Kareem Estefan: In “The Colonial Voice,” you explore colonial and patriarchal authority in large part through your research into the history of radio in Palestine, from the British Mandate–era Palestine Broadcasting Service to the post-Oslo Palestine Broadcasting Corporation. Given your varied individual practices of artmaking, curating, and writing, how did the three of you decide to collaboratively explore social and political histories in relation to sound and radio? And how do struggles around Palestinian broadcasting in particular inform your sense of the political potential of radio?

Radio Earth Hold: Our entry into radio began while Rachel was in Birzeit curating a show for the Palestinian Museum on embroidery, dress, and textiles. The exhibition included a slightly strange object, an embroidered pouch. The collector explained to Rachel that it was a pouch for a transistor radio, which a shepherd would have carried in the fields in the 1930s or 40s and listened to as he was tending his sheep. The woman in his life had embroidered it beautifully, and the pouch was included in a portion of the show about men and their relationships to embroidery.

The three of us had already been discussing questions of international solidarity, colonial legacies, Palestine, and indigeneity since we first met at Ashkal Alwan’s 2013-2014 Home Workspace program, and we shared an interest in sound and the politics of listening. So we found ourselves compelled to further research the historical context for the radio pouch Rachel had come across.

As we began tracing the history of radio in Palestine, we found that in its colonial origins lie the more contemporary manifestations of telecommunications control as part of the infrastructure of the occupation. Radio in Palestine began in the British Mandate, when it was a sort of extension of the BBC. At the time, it was split into Arabic, English, and Hebrew broadcasting and defined by colonial ideology. It was not a place for politics, but a medium to inform and entertain British émigrés and Jewish settlers, and edify some of the “poor Arabs.”

Pirate radio stations immediately sprang up in response, on the Palestinian and Zionist sides alike. There’s a paucity of material on the Palestinian stations, but during the Great Revolt of 1936-1939, radio was likely used as a tool for organizing among Arab workers and fellaheen. Then, after the Nakba, Palestinian radio became decentralized or pushed offshore to Jordan. Palestinians listened more to radio from Beirut, Cairo, and so on.

The use of radio as a tool of resistance, however, has persisted. It was present during the First Intifada, at a time when Palestinians had to wait as many as seven years just for the Israeli phone company to install a phone line in the West Bank. Today, the architecture of telecommunications occupation and resistance continues in different ways. The Oslo Accords gave Palestinians the rights to telecommunicative agency, but placed infrastructure under Israeli control. So the lack of 3G technology in the West Bank until as recently as 2018, and the continued destruction of Palestinian radio stations and phone masts have stymied communication. Palestinians have found creative ways around this, however, and radio, because its technology is so simple, remains a basic tool that carries the potential for communication on a far-reaching level.

KE: Palestinian cultural resistance, through radio or otherwise, is generally met with harsh repression. Likewise, Frantz Fanon wrote that during the Algerian revolution, French authorities were constantly monitoring the frequencies and jamming the broadcasts of the revolutionary Voice of Free Algeria, resulting in a situation that he called “sound-wave warfare.” Can you speak about the ways that Israel has constrained the possibilities for Palestinians to build a national media network in the absence of a state? Has there been analogous sonic warfare in Palestine in recent years?

REH: There’s ample evidence of jamming, disruption, and the active effort to undermine and prevent Palestinian telecommunication freedoms or rights. In “The Colonial Voice,” we sampled sounds of the IDF raiding and destroying Palestinian broadcasting stations and taking down radio masts. The Israeli army also listens constantly to phone lines, as evidenced by extrajudicial house demolitions in Gaza. The “roof knock” of a little bomb that falls to let you know that your house will be demolished is preceded by a phone call telling you to get out. That phone call is enabled by this architecture of power over telecommunications infrastructure. And that sense that you’re constantly being surveilled, listened to, spied on, carries over into Lebanon, where Israel has tried to hack Hezbollah’s Al-Manar network and people’s phones.

The Algerian example is great. In her work on the use of radio during Algerian liberation movements, writer and curator Yasmina Reggad describes a fireside-chat style of listening to the radio from inside one’s house and the intimate relationship that radio sets up within its community. The feelings of communion and kinship that radio produces, all over the world, is particularly charged in contexts of resistance.

KE: A conception of bodies as transmitters recurs throughout “The Colonial Voice.” Can you speak about the relationship between radio and embodiment, as it emerges in your research? What can sound reveal about our bodies, and the interrelations and connections among our bodies, that other human senses cannot? And what do you mean by the concepts of ‘reverb without a cause’ or ‘echo without a source,’ which you describe in terms of the colonial voice, but also in relation to the experience of the baby in the womb?

REH: This may not answer your questions directly, but we became very interested in natural radio, a phenomenon in which sounds of thunder from one side of the planet are echoed back, bouncing against the ionosphere, and then picked up on telephone lines as a distinct sonic signature. In a sense, natural radio works acousmatically, since the origin of thunder is untraceable; we liked the idea that it prefaced all telephone communications, in the sound you hear when you pick up an analogue telephone handset. Prior to fiber optics, all remote communication was engulfed by these planetary acoustics traversing the hemispheres. Each time someone uttered the words “I… I… love… you,” each pause was, and still is, suspended in the acoustic atmosphere of natural radio, the sounds of thunder claps echoing back from outer space, filling those pregnant gaps. It’s so intimate and so vast at the same time.

The concept of “reverb without a cause” comes from studying the acoustic space of the mother and unborn child. The fetus hears both internally and externally, and this is the first sensory experience of most mammals. External sounds of, say, the mother singing reverberate back into the womb, and the fetus simultaneously attributes them to the mother and unborn child (a kind of multiple self), and to an alien or acousmatic sound. As we researched this surprising but universal experience, we realized that our first sensations of the self are much more complex and less individual than classical explanations like the Lacanian mirror phase, which ascribes the severance of the individual from the mother to a function of the eyes. We prefer to emphasize the monstrous, which is to say the multiple being that we all begin life as—both more than one but less than two. While such an experience is alien to Western, individualist notions of birth, in indigenous and radical midwifery practices, a conception of collectivity from birth—and throughout life—is ancient and deeply respected.

In theorizing the colonial voice, we also note that the Genesis story hijacks the fetal experience of sound by representing the biblical voice of God, which is also acousmatic, as issued from some elevated position, and redeploys it as the omnipresent, unquestionable voice of authority—the telephone before the bomb drops, the loudspeaker you can’t reply to, the bureaucratic voice that never leads you to a human. We try to return acousmatic sound to its multiplicity, in the mother-child assemblage and also in planetary natural radio.

KE: How do you theorize authority differently by focusing on the sonic? I’m thinking of how power and knowledge are often conceptualized, especially in Western thought, by association with vision. Ocularcentric models posit the all-seeing as all-knowing. We say that seeing is believing, and we imagine state authority through models like the Panopticon. Since Plato, the written word has been granted primacy over the spoken…

REH: Our eyes are the main emphasis of the Enlightenment project; optical certification and observation are how truths are verified. We are engaging with critiques of the coloniality of ocularcentrism, and for us, sound is more interesting in terms of resistance. Our critique of sight is meant to open space for sound, to ask speculative questions about how we would understand the world differently if the sonic were more central to epistemology.

It is also worth noting that sound is not directional, whereas sight is the most directional sense, and for that reason it is quite predatory. Biologically speaking, our front-and-center eyes define us as predatory, compared to the eyes of prey, which are located on the side of the head to allow a wider field of vision.

KE: In Palestine, in Lebanon, and in other places your research traverses, a host of online community radio initiatives—Radio Al-Hara, Radio al Hay, Radio Karantina, and others—have emerged since the Covid-19 pandemic has enforced difficult periods of isolation. What do you see as radio’s potential at this moment of global crisis?

REH: The lockdown has revived our daily connection to radio and to the online stations you mentioned, which has been a grounding and soothing experience. Whatever the exact technology, the act of broadcasting music, voices, or other sonic content in real time to a more or less distantiated community has an obvious connective effect. You’re in your own body, and at the same time you feel, at some level, as if you are with others—much like dancing. Everyone is feeling certain bass frequencies in their stomach at the same time. There’s a simultaneous, visceral experience of the walls of your stomach and other people’s stomachs reverberating collectively.

The fact that these are internet stations enables radical programming from people all over the world. They enact an internationalism that’s intimate—another instance of radio operating at multiple scales.

You can listen to Radio Earth Hold 01: The Colonial Voice here : https://soundcloud.com/user-854660269-405465536/radio-earth-hold-colonial-voice

Isotype in Moscow

Artwork by Hatem Imam, titled Statistic
Artwork: Statistic - By: Hatem Imam

Consider two visual representations of statistics. The first is a spiral, in which the downward trend of world trade ensnares national economies in a web-like graph (image 1). The graph, as it appeared in 1933, in the League of Nations’ World Economic Survey, registers the contraction of trade in the wake of the 1929 Wall Street Crash and the end of the gold standard.[1] National business cycles now appeared interdependent and governed by global economic forces: the global economy had come into view through its collapse.[2] The second image is a set of pictograms recording the growth of cartels and monopolies in the same period in the United States and Germany (image 2). It is a page from Imperialism, a 1936 Soviet “album of diagrams, maps, cartograms, and schema” for the study of Lenin’s 1917 tract Imperialism: The Highest Stages of Capitalism. A team of designers trained in the new “Vienna Method” of infographics filled the pages with colorful pictograms animating statistical data, from the size of banks to the circulation of steel exports, in an empiricist and materialist critique of the emerging global economy. On another page, a trade spiral appears as a spider web encircling the globe (nearly centered on New York), surrounded by caricatures of J.P. Morgan, Basil Zaharoff, Henri Deterding, and John D. Rockefeller (image 3).

Imperialism was made at Izostat (1931-1940), an institute devoted to importing the Vienna Method, more commonly known as Isotype, to the Soviet Union. In the 1920s, the Viennese sociologist Otto Neurath (1882 – 1945) led “Red” Vienna’s progressive Gesellschafts und Wirtschaftsmuseum (Social and Economic Museum) to develop a standardized means of communicating complex statistical information to working class museum visitors. Working closely with the scientist Marie Reidemeister (1898 – 1986, later Marie Neurath), and a team of sociologists and designers, Neurath developed Isotype in tandem with the city’s progressive urban planning and social reform policies. 

From the outset, Neurath and Reideimeister considered social reform ineffective unless it was understood by its subjects; they treated sociological, scientific, and economic information as a public good. Such data, no matter how complex, merely had to be translated into an accessible form, a “teaching-picture.” As Rademeister would describe in an essay titled “The Transformer,” the task required a team of highly trained specialists able to read and interpret (“transform”) data from any field. Legibility, they determined, required standardization. Early on, Neurath and Reidemester established that time would run on the vertical axis, quantities on the horizontal. A greater number of icons would always represent a greater quantity of the material referent. The flattened icons would be printed without the use of perspective, and three-dimensionality would be conveyed through isometric drawing. Isotype acquired its distinctive appearance under the direction of Gerd Arntz, a core member of the Cologne Progressives. Arntz translated his openly political, signature woodcut prints into a dictionary of over 4,000 bold linocut icons (a worker, a factory, coal). Faceless human figures could be distinguished by gender, age, nationality, employment status, and profession, using simple costume markers. Different pictograms existed for “shoes produced by machine” and “shoes produced by handwork.”

To describe the Vienna Method as a “language” foregrounds its limitations in describing qualitative information. For Neurath, Isotype was meant to supplement other languages, and its strength lay in its ability to clearly convey empirical data and describe current and historical social and economic facts. It was a model of communication freed from psychology and other immaterial baggage. Better than a text, a designer well-trained in the Vienna Method could convey material conditions and processes as non-linear and open-ended (Neurath once told fellow logistical positivist Rudolf Carnap: “I do not accept semantics.”[3])

The idea that Bildung (educational formation or self-cultivation) would drive the improvement of the working class’s position underpinned the team’s work. Neurath, a progressive Social Democrat, advocated for collective ownership and believed in the ability of the built environment to shape a modern ‘Lebensform’ (form of life). But what good was the construction of mass housing, if its inhabitants couldn’t comprehend and discuss the ideas shaping it?[4]

Glancing at the history of visual statistics, a key precedent was the body of infographics made by W.E.B. Du Bois, and a team of Black sociologists, for the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris. Sixty bright (gouache, watercolor, collage) maps, charts, and tables of empirical data told a complex story of Black life in America and the institutionalization of racism in United States’s Reconstruction-era policies.[5] Rather than proposing a standardized method, Du Bois and his colleagues explored the geometric forms data might take. Although it is unlikely Neurath saw Du Bois’s work, both were motivated by the aim to educate widely, and they shared skepticism toward the ability of a photographic display to convey social facts to a broad audience.

After years of contact with the All-Union Society for Cultural Relations (VOKS), Neurath, Reidemeister, and Arntz traveled to Moscow in 1931 to open Izostat, The All-Union Institute of Pictorial Statistics of Soviet Construction and Economy.[6] They arrived during Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan (1928-1932), in the midst of a massive industrialization and collectivization drive (and devastating famines), and heated debates over the “correct” form of Proletarian art and architecture. The government had closed the interdisciplinary art and technical school Vkhutemas in 1930, and would soon replace all existing artistic groups with official, often restrictive, unions. Neurath had met the avant-garde artist El Lissitzky at the Pressa Exhibition in 1928, and, had Neurath’s team arrived a few years earlier, they likely would have had an easier time collaborating with members of the avant garde, many of whom had already fallen out of official favor.

The concept of pictorial statistics predated Isotype in the Soviet Union, where a rapidly expanding print industry in the 1920s propelled experimentation in advertising, book design, journals, and educational and agitational posters and broadsheets. Avant garde artists, including Varvara Stepanova, Aleksandr Rodchenko, and Lissitzky, developed an array of cross-media agitational techniques within the constraints of the flat, printed page. Designer Lydia Naumova (1902 – 1986) adapted two texts by the Russian labor historian S. Sorbonskii into educational posters dense with photographs, text, and statistical data in the form of pie charts, graphs, and other diagrams. In contrast with the linear arrangement of text and history in Sorbonskii’s books, Naumova’s History of the International Trade Union Movement (1926), recently acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, turns the flat space of pictorial representation into a collage of visual techniques as that symbolically “process” information.[7] Naumova carried this forward in her 1929 poster Every Worker Must Keep a Keen Eye on How the Net Cost of Production Is Lowered at Their Workplace, made with architect and designer Elena Semenova, which instructs workers to themselves track their factory’s numbers (a typically managerial task).

Izostat’s primary subject was the first and second Five-Year Plans, including agitational posters for domestic use and books for export abroad. Titles such as Socialism under Construction (Социализм на стройке1933) tracked the increase in workers’ sanitoria, preserved fish, and cinemas. The method appealed especially to ongoing literacy campaigns. In 1938, Izostat hired Rodchenko and Stepanova to design a large-format book publicizing the city’s ambitious reconstruction. In Moscow Under Reconstruction (Москва реконструируется), Isotype narrates urban planning as a spatial and temporal amalgamation of housing, leisure, education, health, and transportation, and Moscow figures as a model for other socialist cities.

Izostat employees were trained by representatives from Vienna, but they departed from the Vienna Method in many ways. Influenced by the shifting dictates of Socialist Realist representation, human pictograms were sometimes given faces and perspectival backdrops. In depicting the first and second Five Year Plans, employees projected unrealized numbers as guaranteed achievements. Moreover, their work participated in the whitewashing of forced collectivization and labor camps, and these publications alone do not provide a full picture of statistics’ prominent role in Soviet planning, including the redrawing of borders and the manipulation of national categories (such as “Tajik”) in Soviet Central Asia.[8] And for reasons that remain unclear, Izostat did not engage in the Comintern’s sustained work organizing with anti-colonialist and communist movements in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, which waned in the 1930s, but would continue after the second World War.

The most striking difference was the intention to make workers produce their own charts. In contrast to Neurath and Reidemeister, who considered the Vienna Method the purview of technicians, lead Izostat designer Ivan Ivanitskii regarded the deskilling of the method as essential to its development in a socialist context. Once simplified, he proposed, any worker would be able to order a standardized grid and ready-made stickers or rubber stamps.[9] In envisioning the production of statistics as mass practice—and as mass participation in the production of history—Ivanitskii also aligned Isotype with movements for the practice of amateur (самодеятельный) art among workers, which have been sidelined in the history of Soviet art. 

In an early proposal for the Gesellschafts Museum, Neurath writes, “It is important to show the whole of the earth’s surface, with its variety of economic forms in different eras, in order to reflect how the capitalist order gradually takes hold of the whole world and eradicates all other forms of economy.” Numbers are narrativized not to simply convey, or justify, the state of a crisis (an economic collapse, a pandemic). Instead, they make a viewer aware of their historical and spatial position. Neurath’s imagined viewer sees capitalism’s construction in all its historical contingency, and, simultaneously, in its global configuration. And this view may prompt them to speculate—to reach their own conclusions as they consider alternative world orders.

Contrast Neurath’s proposal with the view of a capitalist world economy that materialized in dire graphs and charts on pages of economic reports and business cycles produced by newly-formed international institutions. A network of information gathering, it seemed, could be marshaled to supplant the waning political arrangement of empire.[10] Historian Quinn Slobodian has recently argued that, during that period, “neoliberalism was born out of projects of world observation, global statistics gathering, and international investigations of the business cycle.”[11] And we can surmise that access to that information needed only to exist at the level of the specialist or manager, not the employee of a coal mine, the resident of a new mass housing complex, or the unemployed worker seeking to better understand their position. Unsurprisingly, Neurath clashed with F.A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises in interwar Vienna. By the end of the 1930s, Slobodian concludes, neoliberals had turned against the idea that the global economy could be made visible through numbers.

The Vienna Method, a mode of thought that emerged alongside the formation of neoliberalism, was internationalist, not globalist. For those who viewed print media, in particular journals, as an arena for organizing workers across international lines, Isotype promised a standardized system of communication rooted in a materialist understanding of the world. Indeed, Isotype would appear, among other places, in leftwing journals in the United States, at a time of militant class struggle, social activism, and coalition building in connection with the front populaire.[12] Seen in this light, we can revisit Isotype alongside other moments in the history of progressive print design, such as the Taller de Gráfica Popular (Peoples’ Graphic Workshop), founded in 1937 in Mexico City, and the journals of postwar Third Worldist coalitions.[13] If capitalism requires visualization, how might alternatives be visualized? My intention in introducing this episode in the history of graphic design, in the context of The Derivative, is to suggest that historicizing statistics as modes of worldmaking might help us better respond to, and engage with, the data used to justify austerity and crisis.


[1] This spiral was first made by Oskar Morgenstern in 1933 to visualize declining trade in Austria, and was then republished by J.P. Condliffe. See Quinn Slobodian, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018), 59-62.

[2] As Susan Buck-Morss writes in her foundational text on the visualization of capitalism, mapping the economy—in other words, discovering and inventing it—was an outgrowth of navigational maps. “Because the economy is not found as an empirical object among other worldly things, in order for it to be “seen” by human perception it has to undergo a process… of representational mapping.” See Buck-Morss, “Envisioning Capital: Political Economy on Display,” Critical Inquiry 21:2 (Winter 1996): 439-440.

[3] Karl Müller, “Neurath’s Theory of Pictorial-Statistical Representation,” in Rediscovering the Forgotten Vienna Circle (Dordrecht, 1991), 232.

[4] Eve Blau, “Isotype and Architecture in Red Vienna: The Modern Projects of Otto Neurath and Josef Frank,” in Austrian Studies 14 (2006), 233.

[5] In the introduction to the first publication compiling these images, Whitney Battle-Baptiste and Britt Rusert write that Du Bois’s work could prompt people today to imagine “how data might be reimagined as a form of accountability and even protest in the age of Black Lives Matter.” W.E.B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America (Princeton Architectural Press, 2018), 22.

[6] Izostat was restructured to sever ties with Vienna in 1934 and closed in 1940. For a detailed history see Emma Minns, “Picturing Soviet Progress: Izostat 1931-4,” in Isotype: Design and Contexts, 1925-1971 (London: Hyphen Press, 2013): 257-81.

[7] In his perceptive analysis, Devin Fore writes that Naumova’s posters “suggest that under standing the workings of political revolution—its relays, advances, and recursions—demands a mode of thinking that is as spatial as it is temporal.” See “Lydia Naumova,” in Jodi Hauptman and Adrian Sudhalter eds., Engineer, Agitator, Constructor (NY: MoMA, 2020), 97.

[8] Adeeb Khalid, Making Uzbekistan (Cornell UP, 2015), 297-302.

[9] Ivan Ivanitskii, Izobratitel’naia statistika i venskii metod (Moscow: Ogiz-Izogiz, 1932),43.

[10] Slobodian, Globalists, 68.

[11] Ibid., 57-58.

[12] Pictorial statistics would also be used by public health campaigns and other educational initiatives not directly tied to leftwing labor organizing. In many cases, designers borrowed from the Vienna Method without fully adopting its standards, or its grounding in logical positivism.

[13] For more on the latter, see Rossen Djagolov’s excellent new book, From Internationalism to Postcolonialism (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2020).

Restraint: Between Fire and the Labyrinth: Jason Mohaghegh

The Cube, c.1943 - c.1945 - Hans Bellmer
The Cube, c.1943 - c.1945 - Hans Bellmer
[JASON MOHAGHEGH is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature and Philosophy at Babson College. His work explores rising poetic, philosophical, and artistic movements across both East and West, with particular focus on concepts of chaos, illusion, violence, disappearance, delirium, silence, madness, apocalypse, night, and futurity. He has published nine books to date–including The Chaotic Imagination (Palgrave, 2010); Inflictions: The Writing of Violence (Bloomsbury, 2012); The Radical Unspoken (Routledge, 2013); Insurgent, Poet, Mystic, Sectarian: The Four Masks of an Eastern Postmodernism (SUNY, 2014), and his latest volumes titled Omnicide: Mania, Fatalism, and the Future-In-Delirium (MIT Press/Urbanomic /Sequence, 2019) and Night: A Philosophy of the After-Dark (Zero Books, 2020). He is the director of the Future Studies Program; he is also the Director of Transdisciplinary Studies for the New Centre for Research & Practice, co-editor of the Suspensions Book Series (Bloomsbury), and founder of the 5th Disappearance Lab.]

[Dana Dawud is an artist and writer exploring different modes of thought through painting, writing and film. Her current project  “The Pleasure Helmet” is a monthly podcast bringing together the artistic, academic and esoteric in experimental ways.]

Dana Dawud: At this juncture in time, we are faced by an intellectual and spiritual restraint, and are asking ourselves where the road to the road is.  Theories that have called for a totalizable understanding of political or economic systems usually start with erroneous premises and end nowhere; it is precisely why they are in a kind of deadlock.

Envisioning future economies predicated on dualities, such as need versus desire, requires that we first do away with the actual multiplicity of economies that exceed our desires and needs. There are war economies, shadow economies, collapsed economies—and they are distributed in manners that are heterogeneous and mediated by breaks, surges, and ruptures. In your book, Omnicide: Mania, Fatality, and the Future-in-Delirium (Urbanomic, 2019), one of the numerous labyrinths you construct begins with an excerpt from a poem by Mahmoud Darwish: “My heart exceeding my need, hesitant between two doors: entry a joke, and exit a labyrinth.” So, what does it mean to exit a labyrinth?

Jason Bahbak Mohaghegh: Let us begin from the most malevolent element of this premise: that to awaken in a labyrinth means to exist in someone else’s architecture, and thus to be the plaything of preconfigured disadvantages that were designed against its inhabitant. Unlike the figure of the game-master, the riddler, or the puzzle-maker who actually hope that their clients overcome elaborate challenges, we picture instead the delight of an overseer who deploys complexity solely for the sake of condemnation and spectacles of futile wandering. Their wish is either to eternally elongate the failure or to have you die there—amidst surrender, brokenness, exhaustion.

1. The first strategic impulse to surviving the labyrinth is therefore restraint: more specifically, to restrain oneself from the very desire to move and thereby disabuse the panicked reaction toward flight/searching/escape. Instead, one must resist falling further into the labyrinth’s logic of entrapment, where every step sinks irrevocably, and entertain the possibility of the no exit, no beyond, no way out. We learn this lesson from the Minotaur—perfect embodiment of austerity: no friends, no furniture, no titles or decorative embellishments of the atmosphere—who attunes himself to the bareness of flesh and stone alone. This restraint, which forfeits all dreams of the outside, is a fatal affirmation: it gives him absolute dominion over all who enter; it endows him with a rare, lethal focus combining animal instinct with monstrous consciousness.

2. Secondly, we must consider the backdoor relation between restraint and effusion as a tactic of labyrinthine quality. If one studies the ancient rituals of banquets, festivals, or even grand cannibalistic celebrations (indulgence, excess), one notes that the devouring hour is most often preceded by long bouts of fasting (deprivation). The pendulum therefore swings between the starved and the explosive, just like the containment of water or air generates the event of cloudbursts.

To this same end, there is indeed a secret embedded in the depictions of the tranquil warrior in ancient narrative traditions, for these epics often imagine the fighter roaming along desolate beaches or dwelling alone for years in mountain castles. These images of prolonged idleness always precipitate the later rage that shakes universes upon the warrior’s re-emergence. This is not a theory of conservation of energy but rather the accumulation of energetic potential—the hoarding, stacking, and then projection of temperamental intensity—for as one obscure artist once said: “Only density does not lie.” Moreover, it also links restraint to the notion of biding one’s time: in effect, sitting out certain rounds and waiting for the opportune moment to leap/strike (excellence in both wrath and craft). This is not a philosophy of passivity, then, but rather a philosophy of maximized chance.

3. Thirdly, let us follow those ascetic figures—monks, mystics, martial artists—into the far distances where they took vows of silence, poverty, flagellation, or degradation as routes to divine ecstasy. Let it be understood that the most incendiary versions of this practice had nothing to do with piety, modesty, or transcendent worship, but rather constituted wilder gambles toward the pure windfall of a becoming-god. Hence such agonizing codes of restraint—mutilation, hunger, solitude, filth—were nothing less than lottery bets whose stakes reached toward the ultimate turn of fortune, its apotheosis.

With these initial trajectories established, I would only add this final note: that restraint can in various circumstances exercise a profoundly subversive quality in that it stops a repetitive world. More exactly, it halts the tyranny of the same by discontinuing habit (myths of identity fall apart), succession (myths of power fall apart), and causality (myths of reality fall apart). We thus return to those same mystics whose radicalism lie. in the gesture of walking away from the world. Stated otherwise, sometimes to leave the labyrinth one must first abandon/forget the very notion of the labyrinth itself; this oblivion is its own willed restraint.

DD: The trajectories you map to obliterate the tyranny of the labyrinth signal timescapes that mediate the dense stacking of potentialities and the radical throw into chance. What shapes do these temporalities take—are they located somewhere that keeps spiraling into eternal moments of possibility, or are they a parade of presents that push us further into futurity? Moreover, how can a philosophy of chance be understood?

JBM: This question dares us to describe various philosophies of “restrained time”, and to ask paradoxically how certain practices of binding, coalescence, and tightening (criterion of the spell) might open secret temporalities. The first gate to any secrecy is always a vow of restraint.

Let us start, then, by imagining five unique powers held over time and, alongside them, five particular practitioners of these abilities: 1) the one who echoes time; 2) the one who freezes time; 3) the one who ricochets time; 4) the one who carves extra slits within time; 5) the one who surprises time (with untimeliness). Each of these figures must undoubtedly restrain some component of experience in order to gain such exceptional techniques, just as martyrs die young in order to access an alternative immortality, wielding existential contraction in a way that allows them to play the long game of the eternal. We thus ask again: What must one first acquiesce (the restraining price) in order to manipulate each of those concealed temporalities noted above?

To speak of the echo is to engage a timescape of partial resonances, most of which arrive too late and with lost origins. To speak of the frozen is to engage a timescape of suspended animation, where the clock’s slender hands ice over and phenomena mimic states of pure standstill. To speak of the ricochet is to engage a timescape of elastic collision, to subordinate all trajectories to the detour and the deflection, to the supremacy of the angle, as everything moves according to its own chaotic geometry. To speak of the carving is to engage a timescape of miniscule incisions, those that extend events by split seconds and thereby purchase a single stolen breath more in every transpiring instant. And finally, to speak of the untimely is to engage a timescape of irrelevant infiltrations and ambushes, where those deserters who willed themselves posthumously punish each self-important moment with tremors of the unexpected, the unparalleled, and the no-right-to-have-been.

But now, let us wrest these five schools of restrained time from abstraction and unravel them across a visceral axis, known both to the darkest totalitarian settings (the prison) and to the collapsing worlds of failed states (the riot). What do each have to offer those despairing in dank cells or those flung amidst debris? What force of consolation do secret temporalities render to the equally horizonless destinies of the tortured, the ruined, and the displaced? We can imagine the echo as something that smuggles messages into and out of the room of solitary confinement; the frozen as that which allows a captured final glance of a society burning down; the ricochet as a means of turning brutal impacts elsewhere and wherever; the carving as a narrow window to savor, mourn, or curse the passing world-under-siege; and the untimely as a vision that nevertheless accounts for those conceivable unborn worlds that pile up in archives of the hypothetical. For they also have their reckoning, in some silent eventuality.

Hence, it is no coincidence that three of the most iconic authors of the Arab region, all simultaneously withstanding the Lebanese Civil War from their different vantages in Beirut, would compose silhouettes of the damaged city that experiment with such strains of time-disturbance. Mahmoud Darwish writes: “Three o’clock. Daybreak riding on fire. A nightmare coming from the sea. Roosters made of metal. Smoke. Metal preparing a feast for metal the master, and a dawn that flares up in all the senses before it breaks.”[1] Ghada Samman writes: “When dawn broke, we were all staring at each other in amazement, wondering: How did we stay alive? How did we survive that night?”[2] Adonis writes: “Through the years of the civil war, especially during the siege, I learned to create an intimate relationship with darkness, and I began to live in another light that does not come from electricity, or butane, or kerosene. / This darkness, this secret light, can wrench you even from your shadow and can toss you into a focal point of luminous explosion.”[3] These authors are prophets of high restraint, overlooking the touch of catastrophic centuries with a consciousness somehow not of this age; we play eavesdropper to their disquieted words in order to trace the footsteps of such shadow-temporalities.

All of these tactics hold crucial applications in the most devastated places, whether inside the dungeon or on the street. They demand a dire tradeoff of some kind from their subjects, for most often secret temporalities are won by selling away our remaining shares of linear time. Such is the inexorable war between the chronological and our best dreams of delirium/flight, and a reminder that “endurance” (perhaps the most vital concept we can fathom) is itself also a principle of restraint.

DD: The temporality of restraint is one of endurance, and of sacrifice, in the sense where the latter is engaged with as an active force of creation that offers arising subjectivities a form of control over their dwindling fall. Artaud writes: “I no longer wish to be possessed by Illusions. / […] I have had enough of this lunar movement making me name what I refuse and refuse what I have named. / I must end it. […] / I will fall into the Void […]”[4] It is this break with linear temporality and teleological representation that allows the different forces and tactics you have previously outlined to be traversed.

In the same text Artaud speaks of fire. Fire has been a recurring motif in my readings this year, it’s as if I keep encountering it by chance—in books, images, and real life events. There is something about fire which always creates a break in how layers of life are perceived. In

Heinrich von Kleist’s novel, Michael Kohlhaas, the main protagonist, faced by injustice, sets whatever catches his eye into a raging fire. Once fire is introduced in the novel, it engulfs everything; it even takes the place of metaphors and descriptions of different characters’ affects. Everyone speaks the language of fire. Kohlhaas encounters a gypsy woman who is known for her prophecies; she turns her gaze upon him and gives him a paper, telling him it would save his life. When he is caught and is sentenced to execution, right before being beheaded, he swallows the paper and the secret within it. What could fire tell us about restraint?

JBM: This is a beautiful last move to the dance—choreography itself is almost always about negotiating the secret pact between restraint and movement. Consequently, your overture here requires us to keep company with the ancient fire-worshipers, whose priests of the eternal flame would stand guard all night in the temples to prevent it from extinguishing (sacred insomnia as restraint); or to sit in the caravans of old fortune-tellers who offered themselves as vessels of fatalistic bursts, reading incendiary particles of messages encapsulated in their crystal balls or in scattered ashes (oracular inspiration as restraint); or to study with the first pyrotechnic guilds who discovered the capacities of self-contained exothermic chemical reactions, and whose firework displays were near-miraculous manipulations of heat and light (spectacular detonation as restraint). All of these various alliances realized that the setting of great fuses in the world requires patience, neutrality, pressure, and the allowance of a countdown. All of them knew that their likelihood of stealing powers from the infinite, like any Promethean theft, depended entirely on the minimalism of their gestures—subtlety, slightness, anonymity, and the will to imperceptible violations. For one is always careful when playing with fire.


[1] Darwish, Mahmoud. Unfortunately, It Was Paradise, tr. M. Akash, C. Forche, S. Antoon, and A. El-Zein. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003. p. 4

[2] Ghada Samman, Beirut Nightmares , trans. N. Roberts (London: Quartet Books, 1976), p. 2.

[3] Adonis, Selected Poems, tr. K. Mattawa (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), p. 209

[4] Artaud, Antonin. The Death of Satan and Other Mystical Writings, Tr. Alastair Hamilton and Victor Corti, Caldar and Boyars 1974, p. 64

A Loud Voice Never Dies: Songs Across Time and Place

Sarah Saroufim - The Right to Tenderness
Artwork: Sarah Saroufim - The Right to Tenderness

“هاي السنة سنة، مو مثل كل سنة”
عزيز علي —

“Hay el sana sana, mu mithil kul sana”
— Aziz Ali

This year is a year, unlike every year. These words could have referred to the bizarre year that 2020 has been, but they were written over sixty years ago. Iraqi singer and “monologuist” Aziz Ali recorded Hay Elsana Sana (This Year is a Year) in early 1958.[1] The monologue, a form of musical satire, aired on Radio Baghdad several months before the 14 July Revolution. Its lyrics express both hope and despair, wishing for ‘this year’ to be different from the ones before, for future generations to live “without corruption and the corrupt” and during which, perhaps, “we will sing our finest songs.”[2] Led by the nationalist general Abd al-Karim Qasim, the revolution successfully removed the Hashemite monarchy in Iraq from power and turned the country into a republic. Abd al-Karim Qasim became Iraq’s Prime Minister.

Throughout his career in the 1930s and ’40s, the authorities regularly imprisoned Aziz Ali for his fiery monologues. He was outspoken in his criticism of the British colonialists and their Arab supporters[3], and became famous for his elegant and satirical tongue-in-cheek commentary on the political order and the rampant corruption and censorship in society, art, and culture.[4] 

The Iraqi Baathist Party staged their first military coup in February 1963, executing PM Abd al-Karim Qasim. Although they remained in power for a mere nine months, the events and aftermath of the ’63 coup were bloody and violent, resulting in the killings of thousands, among them hundreds of intellectuals. At the time, the Iraqi Communist Party was the only party in Iraq’s political arena that was concerned with the freedom and protection of art and culture. The Baathists equated artists and intellectuals with Communists, and executed people accordingly.[5]

After their ousting in November 1963 and a few years of relative calm and restoration of political and cultural freedom in Iraq, the Baathists seized power again — this time for the long haul — through their second coup d’état of 17 July 1968. In an attempt to repair their vicious reputation since ’63 and uphold a democratic image, they employed a ‘softer’ approach at the beginning of their renewed reign. In practice, they used bribes and extortions for a few months before they resorted to their usual kidnappings, torture tactics and executions.[6]

While Baathists exerted their power to make their opponents ‘disappear’ by any means necessary, it did not lessen their paranoia and fear of Communism, which remained palpable across the republic. Naturally, they prohibited the broadcasting of Aziz Ali’s provocative monologues once more. In addition to banning political songs, writings, and artworks that were openly critical of the government, the Baathists went as far as to censor musical and artistic productions that did not harbor any political goals. Among those was a popular song by singer Maeda Nazhat, released around 1961, whose title The Girl in the Red Dress, was reason enough to ban it.[7]

She left her father’s house,

She’s going to her neighbor’s house,

She passed me without saying hello,

Maybe the pretty one is mad at me.

Talaa Min Beit Abuha, Nazem Alghazali [8]
Baghdad, 1959

The year is 1974 and the song is E Depois do Adeus (And After The Farewell) by Paulo de Carvalho.[9] The occasion is the Portuguese submission for the annual European Song Contest, held in Brighton on 6 April. The lyrics are written from the perspective of a man with a broken heart, who ponders the nature of love itself: “The sea doesn’t bring me your voice; In silence, my love, in sadness at last.” It was the same edition of the contest that launched the spectacular career of Swedish pop-band ABBA, with their song Waterloo winning first place. Portugal came in last. But it wasn’t the song’s final goodbye, as E Depois do Adeus would find its resonance elsewhere.

A little over two weeks later, the love ballad was broadcast on Portuguese radio as a secret signal, marking the start of a military coup that would overthrow Marcelo Caetano’s right-wing government. The coup was instigated by the Armed Forces Movement (Movimento das Forças Armadas; MFA), an organization made up of politically left-leaning officers in the Portuguese Armed Forces[10]E Depois do Adeus alerted rebel captains and soldiers to begin the coup. The second signal followed a few hours later when the radio played Grândola Vila Morena by Zeca Afonso[11], an influential political folk musician whose songs were banned from the radio under the dictatorship. The role of this second message was to signal that the operation was going according to plan.

What became known as the Carnation Revolution succeeded in ushering Portugal’s transition to democracy and led to the liberation of its colonized territories in Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, São Tomé and Príncipe and Mozambique, all within a year.[12] This was possibly the first time in history that a revolution was ignited by a love song.

She left her father’s house,

She’s going to the protest,

She left, she wants freedom,

She left to topple the regime.

Taala Min Beit Abuha, Feminist March [13]
Beirut, 2019

The year is 2019. It is a Monday afternoon. Four days into the 17 October revolution in Beirut, seven days into the Revolution in Santiago, Chile, and four days before the uprisings erupt in Baghdad. I am walking between hundreds, possibly thousands of predominantly young protesters. We are slowly marching from Martyrs’ Square towards Riad El Solh Square. Everyone is singing and chanting at the top of their lungs. Most of the chants are led by a single voice amplified by a powered megaphone through loudspeakers, which are mounted on top of a moving car. The crowds repeat the chants. The march and the car-turned-mobile sound system eventually stop as they arrive at their destination in the centre of the square, surrounded by people as far as my eyes could see. The person holding the microphone utters a phrase in Arabic that still gives me pause, even a year later:

A loud voice never dies.

The crowd repeats the sentence. The speaker mumbles through the microphone and taunts the crowd: “I can barely hear you!” Then repeats, yelling this time: “A Loud Voice Never Dies!” and it works — the crowd is louder. Pleased with the volume levels, the speaker continues the chant (rhyming in Arabic): “And the Revolution is in central Beirut!”. We all respond; our voices growing louder still. Astonished and excited, I check to make sure I recorded everything on my phone.

The year is 2011; it’s September in Zuccotti Park, New York City. A single voice speaks loudly. Each sentence is repeated in unison by the first group of people, seemingly close by, followed by another group of people, who are further away.

Mic check!
(mic check; mic check)

We amplify each other’s voices!
(we amplify each other’s voices; we amplify each other’s voices)

No matter what’s said!
(no matter what’s said; no matter what’s said)

So we can hear one another!
(so we can hear one another; so we can hear one another)

But also!
(but also; but also)

We use this human mic,
(we use this human mic; we use this human mic)

Because the police won’t let us,
(because the police won’t let us; because the police won’t let us))

Use any kind of instruments!
(use any kind of instruments; use any kind of instruments)


The Occupy Movement introduced the use of the Human Microphone — also known as the People’s Mic — as a practical tool to amplify a person’s speech during the daily General Assembly meetings, since protesters did not have permission to use electric amplification in the form of powered microphones and loudspeakers.

The Human Microphone is a form of amplification that does more than turn up the volume to render speech audible. For the device to work, words must be embodied by everyone present, even if the content conflicts with their views. Not only is it a handy tool for analogue amplification, but also an instrument for exercising a radical form of empathy: embodying, echoing, and loudly rehearsing words that are not your own. As for the person speaking, they would hear their own words reverberate through a multitude of voices.

The year is 2020. In the Netherlands, where I am based, the national health association’s current guidelines include a ban on collective shouting and singing. If social distancing measures can be enforced, collective whispering would be allowed during a concert or a soccer match. But you can’t sing out loud.[14] 

Faced with the daunting prospect of muted chants, suppressed cheers, and hushed audiences, I wonder if there is a point for a group to gather in person if they can’t hear others or make themselves heard. Could this “noise cancellation” defeat a collective presence altogether? 

The Human Mic would likely be prohibited under current health guidelines. We are not allowed to amplify each other since it requires loudness and physical embodiment to work. The Mic also offers anonymity by blurring sole authorship: the singular voice cannot be singled out from the collective one. To the contrary, today’s restrictions on loudness aim to isolate voices, keeping them separate, singular, and distant from one another.

In our formerly busy and noisy cities, mass silence was often used as a form of protest. Silent marches, sit-ins, or mournful moments of silence were forms of dissidence. When loudness is the “norm,” silence becomes a powerful tool. But what happens when silence is the status quo?
How does a collective voice sound?

Guevara is dead,

Guevara is dead,

The latest news on the radios,

In the churches,

In the mosques,

In the allies,

On the streets,

In the cafés and in the bars,

Guevara is dead.

The year is 1967, and Che Guevara is dead. The poem, Guevara is Dead, was written by the late Egyptian vernacular poet Ahmed Fouad Negm and sung by composer Sheikh Imam.[15] It remains a powerful and rather devastating example of Global South alliance enacted through speech and song. To hear it is to feel the weight of the news of the iconic revolutionary’s killing, as if it happened yesterday. The song evokes so powerfully the immensity of the catastrophe and the insurmountable loss.

Santiago, composed and sung by Iraqi singer Jaafar Hassan, is another mournful cry. Following a string of fascist murders in 1973, which targeted teacher and singer Victor Jara, as well as writer and poet Pablo Neruda along with countless other intellectuals, Iraqi communists organized several political and cultural events as well as protests in solidarity with their Chilean comrades. One of the most prominent events was the Baghdad Week of Solidarity with Chile, which took place in early October 1973 at the Association of Artists in Baghdad. The week-long event included art exhibitions, theatre, poetry, live music and song.[16]

Iraqi Kurdish political singer, composer and musical arranger Jaafar Hassan had been a member of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) since the early 1970s. Together with his sister Elham Hassan and Kawkab Hamza, he formed a band called Al Ruwwad. During the Week of Solidarity, they performed Santiago; Chile Passes As A Star Through Our Skies, and the internationalist anthem Don’t Ask Me For My Address:

Don’t ask me for my address
My address is in the whole world

Never ever ask me
My home is everywhere

No no no no, don’t ask me!

My father in Moscow is a peasant
My brother is a workshop labourer

My comrade died in Chicago
A professor who stopped teaching

The lyrics also refer to comrades in Palestine; Vietnam; Paris; Angola; Lebanon; Indochina; and others. The upbeat anthem was hugely popular at the concert, with thousands “chanting the refrain in a roaring voice” — so much so that once the song ended, the audience continued chanting and “repeated the song almost in its entirety”. Starkly contrasting this festive mood, but equally resonant, was Santiago, lamenting the tragedy of the Left in Chile.

The Baghdad Week of Solidarity with Chile created a big stir, being one of the first public communist cultural events of this magnitude in Iraq since the political and social defeats of the 1960s. The Week’s events reverberated in Baghdad to such an extent that it prompted the Baathist authorities and security apparatuses to impose “a set of measures against the participating artists so that the event’s profound emotional and ideological effects would not be repeated.”[17]

Up until that point, Jaafar Hassan worked as a teacher and coordinator of the school’s music activities. Unsurprisingly, he was fired soon after his participation in the Week of Solidarity. In the following years, he worked as an editor at Tareeq Alshaab, the ICP’s newspaper. Between 1974 and ’78, he was imprisoned numerous times by the Baathists, typically after his musical performances or when his songs gained prominence among the public. In 1978, as the political situation in Iraq escalated, he was forced into exile, settling in the newly established socialist state of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, or South Yemen. There, he founded a new band called Asheed (formally: Asheed Music Ensemble for Political Song), the central ensemble of the Yemeni Democratic Socialist Youth Union. Hassan remained in Yemen for decades before eventually returning to Iraq in the mid-2000s.

The year is 2017, and it’s the beginning of summer. My friend Santiago is visiting from Spain, so we meet up in Amsterdam for coffee. We attend a performance by an acquaintance, drink a glass or two of dry white wine and embark on an endless conversation. A few days later, I casually mention my friend’s name in passing to my mother. She instantly burst into song:

Santiago, blood on the streets,

Santiago, blood in the factories,

Blood in the homes, and above the ship masts,

Santiago, blood in the stations.

My parents had participated in the Week of Solidarity with Chile. They may have mentioned it to me before but it was the first time I heard about it through song. I asked them to tell me more about what they remembered, and wondered — as I often do — about what happened to this form of vocal allyship, sounding across distances.

Perhaps it was images alienating us from each other all along.

This year is not over. The global lockdown did not separate us from each other. It created a physical barrier between us and our immediate surroundings, but only to draw us ever closer to one another. We are momentarily unified in sound, in electromagnetic waves, and in the written word. Images from elsewhere are just that: from elsewhere. They emphasize their difference and distinctness, challenging the embodiment of the here and now. Images impose themselves. They compete with each other for your attention. Sound, however, is more easily integrated into our daily lives — more readily embodied, no matter where we are and what we may see before us.

Was it images that had been alienating us from each other all along? Alienating localities from one another? Maybe we came to depend on their instant availability, trusting their capacity to inform us. But the Baghdad-Santiago allyship of the 1970s did not need such a constant stream of images. Nor did it necessitate perpetual travel for comrades to be close to one another. Could it be that we have been traveling in circles around each other all this time?

Until we can sing together again, let us rehearse each others’ songs. Perhaps we can invent new ones, simultaneously, with delay, played back, echoed. Whispered, or hummed; melodies resonating through our headphones and loudspeakers. May we learn each others’ songs by heart, and resound the refrains through our bodies. Like ventriloquists, we amplify each others’ voices and resistances. Our voices are not ours alone. They are vessels for others. When we rehearse, practice, and enact a song, our singular voice becomes a collective one. When we speak, we speak as many. In any case, we are already plural. We amplify one another, no matter what.

A loud voice never dies.

Acknowledgements
A Loud Voice Never Dies, is part of an ongoing series of written and sonic essays that look into political songs, sounds and voices.

Earlier works in this series are Against Voices (2020), published as part of The Contemporary Journal’s Sonic Continuum issue, and Lovesong Revolution (2020) published as part of The City Talks Back: Assembly_01. This research has been supported in part by BAK, basis voor actuele kunst in Utrecht, where Shirhan was a 2019/2020 Research Fellow, and by Theatrum Mundi and Onassis Stegi in Athens.

The author wishes to thank Reem Shadid and Radio Al Hara for the invitation to develop and broadcast segments of the research in its early stages (you can listen to the episode in Arabic here). With special thanks to Nebal Shamki and Qassim Alsaedy for their continuous streams of critical references, untold stories and repressed histories.


[1] Aziz Ali – “Hay Elsana Sana” (1958)  عزيز علي – هاي السنة سنة. www.youtube.com/watch?v=P4FYA_twYhE

[2] Al-Allawi, Hassan. Aziz Ali: The Satirical Melody. (Baghdad, 1967), pp. 142-144.
عزيز علي اللحن الساخر –  حسن العلوي

[3] Holes, Clive.“The Iraqi ‘monologist’: ‘Aziz ‘Ali (1911-1995)” in Casini, L., La Spisa P. & Suriano, A.R. (eds.) The Languages of Arabic Literature: Un Omaggio A Lidia BettiniQuaderni di Studi Arabi, N.S. 9, 2014, pp. 229–237. 

[4] Al-Hattab, Jawad. “Aziz Ali: Iraqi artist who called for the ‘Arab Spring’ 70 years ago” in Al Arabiya, 12 April 2013.
www.alarabiya.net/ar/culture-and-art/2013/04/12/عزيز-علي-فنان-عراقي-نادى-بـ-الربيع-العربي-قبل-70-عاماً

[5] Tripp, Charles. A History of Iraq. Cambridge University Press (New York, 2000) p. 171.

[6] Makiya, Kanan. Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq. University of California Press (Berkley, 1989) pp. 58–63.

[7] Maeda Nazhat – “Ya Umm El Fustan El Ahmar” (1961) يا أم الفستان الأحمر – مائدة نزهت.
www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ptYCMrs2Js

[8] Nazem Al-Ghazali – “Tala Min Beit Abuha” (1959) طالعة من بيت أبوها – ناظم الغزالي
www.youtube.com/watch?v=hVBzhvov0w0

[9] Paulo de Carvalho – “E Depois do Adeus” (1974)
www.youtube.com/watch?v=LEoqusKeqxk

[10] “Portugal: The Carnation Revolution”, This Week, Thames Television Productions, 1974.
www.youtube.com/watch?v=36K79SUiRFI

[11] Zeca Afonso – “Grândola Vila Morena” (1971)
www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tx9BZowHxB8

[12] “Portugal had been the first European power to establish a colony in Africa when it captured Ceuta in 1415 and now it was one of the last to leave.” See also: www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Portuguese_Colonial_War

[13] Feminist March Beirut, Lebanon – “Tala Min Beit Abuha” (October 2019) طالعة من بيت أبوها – مسيرة نسويه، بيروت
www.facebook.com/watch/?v=2367951440187448

[14] Beekman, Bas. “Voetbalfan mag bij goal ‘hoera’ fluisteren” in De Volkskrant, 25 June 2020
www.volkskrant.nl/sport/voetbalfan-mag-bij-goal-hoera-fluisteren-dat-kun-je-niet-verwachten-van-supporters~b2f95e0d/

[15] Sheikh Imam – “Guevara is Dead” الشيخ إمام – جيفارا مات Poem by Ahmad Fouad Negm (1967)
www.youtube.com/watch?v=ekPYgAi36C8

[16] Abdul Ameer, Ali. “Jaafar Hassan’s Guitar” in Elaph, 2 September 2006. “غيتار جعفر حسن” .علي عبد الأمير 
www.aliabdulameer.com/inp/view.asp?ID=256

[17] Ibid., my translation.

Crowds and Experts: An Interview with Omer Shah

Crowd - Hatem Imam
Crowd - Hatem Imam

In the following interview, Omer Shah, a PhD candidate in Anthropology, at Columbia University, expounds on the ethnographic work he carried out in Saudi Arabia, in and around the holy city of Mecca, between October 2017 and August 2019. By attending to historical and contemporary formations of the crowd, expertise, knowledge production, and the kingdom’s national transformation campaign, Shah provides an account of the experience, governance, and future of pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia.

Hisham Awad: Your dissertation project, Made in Mecca: Islamic Knowledges, Expertise, and Technology in the Post-Oil Holy City, is an ethnographic inquiry into the knowledge work, technological and urban infrastructure, and ethical and religious considerations shaping the city. Can you give us a brief overview of the project?

Omer Shah: An essential backdrop for my work is the Vision 2030 national transformation campaign.  The Vision 2030 plan seeks to prepare the kingdom for a post-oil future, by diversifying the Saudi economy, but also strives to repair, if, not produce, an image of an increasingly moderate and secular kingdom.  The “vision” of the Vision 2030 campaign is associated with the Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, as well as what some have called “the Ministry of McKinsey”, in reference to the central role this consulting firm has played in imagining the campaign. The plan involves a movement from oil as a “natural resource,” to a new idea of “human resources,” thus demanding al-sa’wadah,or Saudization, of various industries and sectors, encouraging entrepreneurship and intensifying a knowledge economy. But what is often ignored, in discussions of Vision 2030, is a more regional transformation happening around the holy cities and its attendant pilgrimages systems: hajj and umrah. By 2030, Saudi Arabia is planning to increase the number of annual pilgrims from eight million to thirty million. The hajj itself thus becomes another “human resource” for the kingdom.

The project itself is based on two years of ethnographic research conducted largely around Mecca’s university and its plans for a new science and technology park, if not smart city, located on the outskirts of the holy city, just beyond the haram or sanctuary boundary. The outlines of this format should be familiar—the university both escapes from the city, but also attempts to drive a certain urban project. But there is also a unique spatial fix here, wherein the boundary of the haram comes to produce a new urban form, one that allows access for non-Muslim experts, entrepreneurs, and others. The project, known as Makkah Techno Valley, buzzed with a new class of hajj experts and entrepreneurs building new technologies of “smart” urbanism: crowd and traffic management, and logistics. In line with the Vision 2030 plan, the Makkah Techno Valley project was in many ways committed to an “image” of Saudi technology, but the project was still in many ways animated by tech-workers, engineers, and programmers from South Asia.

In my work I thus explore how this university, once deeply associated with the shari’a, becomes essentially a laboratory for hajj risk-management, as the pilgrimage comes to be intensified. I’m also interested in how this project of nationalization encounters the unique grammars of the holy city. It is a way of asking, what does kafala look like in “the sanctuary?” In my work, I document this consistent and ultimately tragic attempt to make Mecca coterminous with the nation and its economy. The hajj and the forms of Islamic belonging it instantiates must now be made to circulate as technologies and techniques of crowd control, logistics, and surveillance. Ritual comes to be described in a language of “crisis” and “risk”, and its attendant solutions of management, standards, public relations campaigns, etc. In all of this, my main argument would seem to be how Mecca’s cosmopolitan logics and histories are dulled, even as hajj and umrah is to be intensified— where the rigor of belonging is traded for the intensity of movement and economy.

HA: The crowd seems to be a figure, question, and historical formation that is central to your research.  Authors such as Gustave Le Bon, Charles Baudelaire, and Siegfried Kracauer, writing at the turn of the twentieth century, were preoccupied with the psychological, cultural, and sociopolitical facets, and powers, of the crowd, as it emerges in and shapes urban modernity. In what ways have these texts informed, interacted with, and clashed against the articulations and management of the crowd you have encountered in your historical and ethnographic work?

OS: This literature is of course both essential to my work, and somewhat extraneous. In part, it hinges upon a determination of when “the crowd” in Mecca is “the crowd.” Reading this new emergent literature on “crowd sciences,” Le Bon and others are absent in terms of a citational practice. There might be tonal references wherein “the crowd” is made to seem mob-like, processing some uncontrollable energies or potentialities. For others, the crowd is more innocent, its failures and collapse being a marker of poor management or otherwise some technological failure. And so, this earlier literature was interested in “diagnosis” while this new literature is much more invested in statistical prediction and the establishment of standards and “best-practices.” And so, more than LeBon, it is anthropologists like Edward Hall who came up with cultural classifications based on notions of “personal space,” or Stephen Pheasant, whose work on anthropometry, ergonomics, and “body ellipses” is often cited towards similar ends, or standardization bodies like the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials that end up being cited.

Ultimately, in my research, I am also interested in excavating Islamic genealogies and grammars of “the crowd”, which, of course, persist. For example, one of the old names for Mecca used in the Qur’an is “Bekka,” which is derived from an old Arabic word meaning “to crowd” or “to gather.” Another name used for Mecca is um al-zuhm, or “Mother of All Crowds.”  A hadith, or saying of the Prophet, reports that when pilgrims are less than six hundred thousand, the angels perform the ritual in their stead. And so the crowd and numbers are completely essential to the holy city. But the crowd in Mecca is not reducible to the image of “the crowd” that has plagued and fascinated Western social theory. In Mecca, the crowd is not necessarily a mob, nor is it an audience tethered to the cinematic apparatus. It offers an alternate and decidedly religious genealogy. And so, in my work, even as I attempt to illuminate the technical administration and arrangement of bodies with the sanctuary, I also take seriously the notion that this is some articulation of the community of believers, or the ummah.  It is onto this language of the ummah that new discourses of the crowd adhere. But of course, since the 1990s, “the crowd” in Mecca has been the scene of horrific crowd disasters and stampedes. The crowd, then, is not only the scene of Islamic belonging writ large, but also, increasingly, the scene of fear, anxiety, and threat. As part of my research, I’ve been reading different fatwas on this issue of crowd anxiety, and the different ways in which Islamic scholars have acknowledged and dealt with this problem, or failed to do so. The shadow of these disasters also vivifies the political gamble involved in hajj management and using “the crowd” as this nexus of Islamic diplomacy and public relations. Now, in this age of Covid-19, and in the absence of “the crowd,” or “that kind of a crowd,” this gamble is all the more explicit, as with crowd monitoring techniques, another opportunity to intensify forms of surveillance and monitoring.

In my research, I gravitated towards a host of diverging scenes, settings, and practices beyond the crowd as laboratory—or ummah for that matter. As an ethnographer, I spent relatively little time in the scene of “the crowd” itself.  Rather, I was more interested in office cultures that purported to manage these formations. I was interested in seeing how “the sanctuary” bled through these new non-spaces and half-built middle-class neighborhoods occupied by university folk. As a result, I came to occupy different kinds of publics and audiences—the university, hajj field offices, conferences, trade shows, “hackathons,” governmental workshops and trainings, etc. In these spaces, I became interested in a different set of collectives, circulations, and practices, like the work of “human resources,” internet rumors and accusations, anxieties about the multiplicity of fatwas on the hajj, the status of an ancient guild, and who gets to be “Meccan,” in this age of secular equality and national suspicion. Running through the project, there is a low-humming interest in what gets done in the name of “the crowd”—the destruction and flattening of Mecca’s mountainous and sacred landscape is compelling to me in this regard.

HA: These spaces you occupy, and practices you trace, point to an epistemological rupture—a rupture with “tradition” and Islamic knowledge and management of Hajj. But this seemingly clear and decisive rupture, between a pre-technocratic pilgrimage, and a technocratic one shaped by managerial logistics, is perhaps misleading.

OS: Right, this is a tension I explore most explicitly in and around my interest in the ancient guild of pilgrim guides, known as tawafaTawafa is an essential Meccan institution, one which, I argue, constitutes a unique set of experiential, urban, and cosmopolitan knowledges, techniques, and etiquettes. Classically, the mutawif would travel the Muslim world, cultivating relationships with potential pilgrims, learning their language, madhab, custom, etc. The mutawif would often times marry into the communities of pilgrims he served. Historically, then, tawafa has engaged the residents of Mecca in forms of global intimacy and ethical care of, and for, foreign pilgrims. Their knowledges included the technical requirements of the hajj ritual—how to approach Mecca, how to exit the sanctuary, the when to be and how. While all this is internal to the shari’a, there is something else beyond it, something like an ethnographic-logistical worldview, one that played no small role in making the Meccan pilgrimage global, and in building something like the global ummah.

HA: How do the mutawif and the new class of hajj experts/entrepreneursoperate, as state actors? What forms does their interfacing take?

OS: With the rise of the Saudi state, tawafa’s formalization into mu’asassat or “institutions”, and the rise of mass pilgrimage, tawafa has changed fundamentally.  Tawafa increasingly operates as a massive bureaucracy, mutawifs’ labor largely executive and unfolding in mass conditions. As one mutawif lamented to me in an interview, “I am forced to deal with them [pilgrims] as numbers.” This sense of ruin is exacerbated by the fact that tawafa is to be made completely public—open to all Saudis, that is, not just Meccans carrying the genealogical mantle of tawafa. The figure of the mutawif is compelling because he or she embodies a different grammar of knowledge, expertise, and work—one that stands in contradistinction to the figure of the “entrepreneur” and the sciences and technologies which exuberantly proclaim innovation, smartness, etc.

Many mutawifs thus insist on the grammars that for long have animated their guild and their broader sensibilities as Meccans. It is one that I see reflected in statements made to me, such as— “we work for the pilgrims, dayuf al-rahman literally “Guests of God”, not the minister.” However, the relationship to the state is much more complicated than these sort of claims might suggest. Grammars of care also slide into grammars of surveillance. For example, the mutawif holds the pilgrim’s passport and is often made financially responsible if a pilgrim under his care attempts to overstay his or her hajj visa. The mutawif is also entangled in operationalizing many of these new smart technology schemes and other crowd management projects, whether it is “smart systems” of vehicle tracking, or convincing pilgrims to adhere to mass scheduling, or tafweej, wherein pilgrims must conduct the ritual according to certain time frames in order to avoid overcrowding and traffic.

While working in Mecca, it became apparent to me that it is necessary to identify and analyze the ways in which these secular knowledges and technologies interact and collaborate with more Islamic forms of “knowing” the hajj, its “crowds,” and its very particular sacred geographies. I’m also sensitive to how more Islamic projects like tawafa, and certainly the hajj itself, become attached to more statist practices. This is something I attempt to deal with in reading deep histories of Mecca and this guild. I also approach more recent histories. For example, I examine the rise of a group of architects and engineers then known as the Hajj Research Center. The group was highly critical of Saudi planning efforts, which, in their view, increasingly apprehended Mecca as a global city, and not as a “sanctuary.” In this, I became interested in their efforts “to plan” a sanctuary. This involved a certain reading of technology, wherein automobility was vilified for being poisonous to the environment and largely disruptive of the “ambient spirituality” the sanctuary requires. But the group also ushered in a world of cybernetic thinking, cameras, and computers. Importantly, the Center was also founded by a mutawif. And so I became interested in how the grammars of tawafa come to be articulated in and through planning, architecture, and infrastructure—but also their limits. More ethnographically, I’m interested in the current work and expertise of the mutawif, but also how tawafa is being remade, and how the urban, intellectual, and cosmopolitan prestige of the Meccan is made untenable in this nationalist age which demands speed, anonymity, and a smooth, secular “equality.”

Omer’s research was made possible by support from the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the Social Science Research Council’s International Dissertation Research Fellowship, with funds provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Hypochondriacal with the World*

Nouvelle iconographie de la Salpêtriêre - Credit: Wellcome Collection

Ill (noun): Old Nors illr “Lost in the mists of time”.  

Sick (adjective): “Ill, diseased; troubled, deeply affected”. “Tired or weary, disgusted from satiety”; “Mentally twisted”; seocmod “infirm of mind”.

What of suffering (noun)?

One time during a pandemic, I felt ill. Really ill for months. They tell me I’m always sick. They tell me I’m a hypochondriac. They tell me it’s just anxiety. Some don’t believe me. Those that do, sometimes don’t. Some disappear. Some reappear. Others are quick with remedies and spiritual balm. This illness felt terminal. An end to end all ends. The inside of my bowels were black and runny like tar. My breath was stunted in my ribcage. My head was hot enough to see all the temperature checks conducted all over cities. Hot and black and runny enough to remember an article out of the thousands circulating, that those could be symptoms. It was hard to tell, after all that we had seen, if this was the pandemic itself hitting me with its potential on day five to turn against me, or turn me against myself. In quarantine, I had obsessions that I would die, suffocate alone in a hospital bed like many. I took my temperature every fifteen minutes, the thermometer broke. My vigilant micro-attention outdoes any thermometer, doctor’s probe, imaging machine, or primitive swab test; I am the probe. And when it can’t outdo, it cracks, it starts to seek like an addict. It seeks the way a lover seeks its object. It desperately needs the confirmation and the confirmation does not come. If the confirmation does come, it is unbelievable, refuted. And it continues to seek.

I drive myself to a Covid-19 PCR test on a dark night in March. For the first time in a long history of hypochondria, my friends are following the developments closely. In KN95, rubber gloves and fake Daniel Hechter large-framed sunglasses (aerosol not sunlight), I arrive disoriented to the testing center. There was no one on the street, no one around, no one to be seen. A comet had hit home, earth, Beirut. It was all still new to us, the apocalypse-horror-genre-cum-15thcentury-plague-aesthetic. Quarantines, curfews, total storefront closures, policed avenues, dark, emptied streets, masked faces, threshold temperature tests, long silhouettes in the distance, utter silence that meant you could hear your breath in a city at night. It was just weird and eerie, this recognizable unrecognizable, and we knew it. [1] I inhale in my mask, my heart pounds. The guy at the desk seductively asks for my phone number. He was wearing the mask the wrong way around. The visor was on the table. What the fuck. I’d begun the vigilante work, well-trained by years of hypochondria. Fuck biopower tech, I was the Covid-19 police; gulags for disobedience. When I went inside, the woman at the other desk told me to step back. That was more like it. Tell me what to do. I felt at home and estranged. I had never seen a full anti-viral suit in vivo before; it was impressive and very white. Yet oh had I been to hospitals, heart pounding, thinking I may die. Later, I would test negative. Three times. I would go on to feel quite sick, like I may die.

In the year 2020 CE, a viral respiratory pandemic is announced by the World Health Organization, the organization someone appointed to manage the body of the world. We witness on newsfeeds, social media apps, and television networks as states lock borders, impose curfews, shutdown cities and towns, squabble over masking equipment and swab tests. Governments are a big deal again. Much is written on the induced naturalness of the biopolitical and economic state measures.[2] And the world has a new viral lingo: lockdown, tier 1, tier 2, PCR, PPE, self-isolate, social distancing, and please, for the love of god, cover your face. Millions lose work; others become very sick because of work. The non-ruling class suffers the cascading side-effects of bringing the supply chains and circulation systems of the body of the world to a halt. Or, quasi-halt because, when were we not suffering?, and because, as one of the only socialist finance ministers in the history of contemporary politics elucidates, the markers of financial markets are pretty, pretty good.[3] The social and economic body had been reeling forever, but it could now be seen again because of the injury posed by a virus and its treatment protocols. The repressed cuts through and brings up what we already knew: the way things are infrastructurally, logistically, simply cannot go on except for the very, very few.[4] So much so that we communists saw glimmers of communism surface in unwitting public realizations. Things can change! Not only the atomized struggle to coordinate, but the coordinating body itself should serve everyone’s existence and everyone’s freedom. (Whilst some rushed into the open arms of their desire for a return to a ‘pre-‘, others remain transformed by the weirdness of the events. The unhomely, which permits the distance to collapse between what we know and how we live).[5]

We were caught breathless, suffocating, turning our heads away from the screen at the sight of George Floyd’s filmed death under a pig’s knee. We get the same physical sensations when we learn that a mother gave her son seawater to quench his thirst before he died en route somewhere. How can remote looking provoke such physical ricochet? Does looking through the eyes make empathy somatic? Neurologists tell you it does this through neurons in the frontal cortex. Via imaging technologies, en apparence, most of us are wired for empathy and mirroring. Michel de Montaigne in 17th century France knew this in relation to the sight of illness and the power of his imagination: “I am one of those by whom the powerful blows of the imagination are felt most strongly.[…] It cuts a deep impression into me: my skill consists in avoiding or resisting it.[…] The sight of another man’s suffering produces physical suffering in me, and my own sensitivity has often misappropriated the feeling of a third party. A persistent cougher tickles my lungs and my throat.”[6] An epigram from the Roman poet Martial quoted by Montaigne reads: “How great is the power of counterfeiting pain: Caelius has ceased to feign the gout; he has got it.”[7] Stories of soldiers feigning blindness to avoid proscription, and realizing de facto they could no longer see. When we were young, our parents told us not to cross our eyes as they may get stuck that way. Feigning then falling. Falling ill. Falling for a trick. Falling apart.

What about falling ill beyond and against yourself? In a split from yourself? You feel thoroughly invaded; or you are protected by symptoms that—you rationalize—keep you whole. Or, you cannot tell the difference. The more successful you become at guessing, winning your way out, the worse you are at the game.

Ida Bauer had a troubled relationship with her father, became hysterically mute, and was the model for conversion disorder. In my family, when not living an on-off civil war, we grew up on an oversized American medical book that we read when we developed symptoms. And for leisure. It had symptom trackers before the internet. I learned how to self-diagnose before I could think abstractly.[8] In fact, diagnosis forged my thinking, abstractly.

Prenom Carmen. Jean-Luc Godard is as an actor who plays a writer in his film. A double of himself, he checks into a psychiatric hospital so he can write – they threaten to kick him out if he does not develop a fever the next day. Each day he says: “Je suis sûr que je vais tomber malade.”[9]

Whilst Europe was engaged in its dark Imperial, and rationalist enlightenment, bourgeois men and women suffered nerves, spells, bouts, sensibility, terror, and despair. In 18th and 19th century Europe is where the hypochondriac lives. In ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, and the worlds inside those, too. The Stoics and the Persians wrote that mind affects body. In 2024, Lauren Olamina develops hyperempathy.[10]

The hypochondrium is nestled under the ribcage, between the belly and the lungs. It is a site. An illness with symptoms-not-imaginary, but a physical malady. The division of functional disease from organic disease in late medical science obliterated the question, ‘what is not a physical malady?’ A subject will find themselves anachronistic. Maladies get banished from the gardens of medicine, even if—or because—the soul is now said to live in the nerve networks of the brain.[11] Inside rib and soul, Hypochondria journeys from the body, where she had historically lived, and is told that her obsession, hope and dread are to be housed in the brain of somatic symptom disorder, or better, latent depression.[12] Perhaps that is what she wanted all along. To be evicted to a home of diagnostics, treatment, and prognosis. Hypochondria brought her future into being. In disavowing her affliction under the new façade of a treatable psychopathology, she was now cured! She could finally deny the topography of her symptoms and the site of her complex grievances once and for all. Her and her sister Melancholy. They could find peace. Peace in norepinephrine and dopamine reuptake inhibitors; peace in learning to stop repeating.

“2024: Prodigy is, at its essence, adaptability and persistent, positive obsession. Without persistence, what remains is an enthusiasm of the moment. Without adaptability, what remains may be channeled into destructive fanaticism. Without positive obsession, there is nothing at all.”[13]

What is the degree of illness that qualifies you as fit to be ill? —and by whom? When, for others, your affliction is a symptom not an illness. When, by consensus, your non-illness serves a psychic purpose, unlike ‘actual’ illness.

In no particular order and for months I could not eat food without my upper right abdomen aching, swelling, hardening, tender to the touch, sometimes even without food; I burped huge bubbles up my trachea, making it hard to swallow. I lost 6 kgs; I could no longer shit except twice a week; I developed rashes around my eyes and bellybutton. I woke in the middle of the night with a tight noose around my chest, and dashed out of bed to the balcony for air. Consecutively, for months, I had a corset around my mid-body, my hypochondrium. I simply could not breathe. And I’ve been unable to breathe or sleep the same since. I had repeat yawning attacks; night sweats and headaches, a deep, sharp beckoning to awake; my vagina hurt on the right side, red and aggravated; I missed my period for the first time since I was 11, or pregnant. I was terrified, obsessive, spontaneously tearful; I developed bruises on my legs; I was shaving in the shower and I found raised lymph nodes. In no particular order of arrival, suspicion, or severity, I diagnosed myself with: Abnormal visceral sensitivity. Hepatomegaly. Coronavirus. Lymphoma. Bile obstruction. Brain tumor. Cluster headache. Small intestine cancer. Multiple sclerosis. Anaphylaxis. Allergies. Heart disease. High blood pressure. Low blood pressure. Paroxysmal nocturnal dyspnea. Restless leg syndrome. Celiac disease. Non celiac gluten intolerance. Vulvar cancer. Early onset menopause. Coronavirus. Cervicogenic headache. Occipital neuralgia. Lymphoma. Asthma. Lung cancer. Mere dyspepsia. MALT.

In no particular order and on a regular basis, I open and check my eyeballs for discoloration; I examine my breasts and under arms; I feel my liver for distention; I take my temperature (before it was en vogue); I sit in warm sitz baths; I inhale hot essential oils; I boil and swallow herbs, roots, leaves, powders, and oils; I drop dark bitter liquids in my water; I gargle with warm salt water; I take shots of concentrated blossom water and chew tree nectar; I check throat and tonsils with my phone light; I measure my pulse; I dissolve salts coated in sugar under my tongue; I use an inhaler, and I dilute collagen in my juice. The top shelf of my fridge is full of remedies I bought on the internet.

“[…] hypochondria has a performative ability to ratify its own testimony, to convert anxious foreboding into self-fulfilling prophecy. Illusion of this sort has the uncanny ability to prove itself true: anxiety generates what it dreads, the fear of falling makes you fall.”[14]

The hypochondriac believes no one. We want to trust because we love to sit in doctors’ offices, in waiting rooms, on dry white sheets, in dark imaging rooms, waiting for answers. We simultaneously retreat, fear, perseverate, disobey science, and question the edicts of the medical establishment. Unknowability is the hypochondriac’s condition of being. Nothing is authoritatively sanctioned, nothing is fully known about anything and certainly not about many an illness. Paradoxically, we know with confident certainty. So hypochondria can say: I know before you that the construct of the body as a system of immunity is a modern invention (E. Cohen); that the scarred body is also the social body (E. Scarry). What I know is that I am sick. Me, and you with me. The I that utters is split in time. One used to hear it, yet one no longer does because it has to travel across centuries. It’s a condition of mutual disbelief—no one believes the hypochondriac and the hypochondriac believes no one.

“Sensation is the enemy of quantification. There is no machine, yet, to which a nervous system can submit sensation to be transformed into a sufficiently descriptive measurement.”[15]

I feel shame when brooding over, or writing about the body, sickness, and death when writers like Anne Boyer, Audre Lorde, Susan Sontag, Kathy Acker, and others were themselves ill with aggressive cancers, subjected to tubes, chemo, and painful radiation therapies. In fact, they all, save for Boyer, died from their illness. They lost their life. After Sontag wrote (against) Illness as Metaphor, she died of cancer. Is the hypochondriac a metaphor? The anxiety and entrapment of being stuck inside a metaphor, whilst trying to make sense of your condition metonymically.[16] Boyer’s book begins with an ode to all the women writers who died of breast cancer, her lineage, her contemporaries. All the unnamed care, all the material history of that stuff they inject into you, your cancer, and everyone else’s. Who are ours? Perhaps they are the mockery of contemporary medical science, which makes the hypochondriac unbelievable, rendered a waste of time or medical resources. Yet, volumes have been written. Hypochondria is illness with etiology. To consider hypochondria is to consider “the nature of sickness in a fundamental sense… What can be called a disease and what cannot.”[17]

A close friend has a tumor. The night she told me, I could not sleep. In fact, I could not breathe; I had an asthma attack I thought would wring me to death. Her cancer is aggressive and unexcepted, as cancer is a lying, stealing companion who eventually tells you the truth too late. What can I tell her other than I love her and I feel with her in the deepest way? Because it is the truth. More than anyone who is not dying more than anyone else (aren’t we all dying?), the hypochondriac’s terror and imagination can make for radical empathy as they embody the pain, the fear, the numbness of illness and imminent death like no other. That is, if not in large part most essentially, their condition. To be in illness as if it were their own. Because in a way, it is their own. (Sooner or later, you have to die of something. Sooner or later, the illness you preempt with wars and alerts, will find you). تعددت الأسباب والموت واحد [18]

“You will die, not because you are ill, but because you are alive; even when you have been cured, the same end awaits you; when you have recovered, it will be not death, but ill-death, that you have escaped.”[19]

Is it possible to have all these diseases and more, all the time, in a series? Is it possible to be sick at all times, combined, in no order? [20] (Isn’t a body a body when it does things? Defends? Fights? Reacts? Maybe a body isn’t a body unless it’s sick all the time). The body defending and/or the body killing. What’s the difference and distance between symptom and diagnosis? Is it impossible to be sick all the time, we asked ourselves after the Lebanese uprising? Is it possible to have debt, crash, Covid-19, lockdown, recession, inflation, and 10% of an atomic bomb, consecutively? Turned out it was. When will it end? Or, as my friend reminds us, we desire, or joke about an end to end all ends, believing that that would put us out of our misery, structuring the denial of the fact that things can get worse.[21] And they do.

I was rarely more quietly melancholic and chronically ill than in the midst of the euphoria of the first revolutionary uprising I had ever lived.

When there is sickness we are in contagion, by metaphor, by imagination, or by verification. They say we are a body politic, corporate entity, corps-d’état, sovereign. Leviathan overlooking many bodies. Allegedly, body loses immunity when its borders, its inner guard is down. The social body caught off-guard, porous, invaded. A body plagued in need of purges and deposals; detox enemas and Triphala, but more bloody. Corporal and military metaphors were plethoric when nation-states pronounced their fight against Covid-19. We also saw a staging of the global imaging of classification: the magnification of our transnational body in the map of the world lighting red, orange and blue at different stages of outbreak and quarantine in one large PET scan.

(Note: Good public health vs. good economy is false. What it does confirm, though, is precisely a capitalist mode of production underpinning the world. An inadvertently avowed historical materialism).

“Because health, like existence, is not a possible object of cognition, we can never decisively determine if we are healthy (the very need to pose the question already suggests that something’s not quite working), and every attempt to answer it not only inevitably begs the question but opens up a raft of new pathologies that extend from the individual to the collective body, and can even toxically blur the distinction between these.”[22] 

“What happens when you see the sight of someone’s suffering?”, my homeopaths asked. “Is there a medicine for that?”, I asked. I was put on a salt. Natrium Muriaticum: “Emaciation, weakness, nervous prostration, nervous irritability […]. There is a long chain of mental symptoms; hysterical condition of the mind and body; weeping alternating with laughing[…]. This will be followed by tearfulness, great sadness, joylessness. She is benumbed to impressions, easily takes on grief, grieves over nothing. Unpleasant occurrences are recalled that she may grieve over them. Consolation aggravated the state of the mind – the melancholy, the tearfulness, sometimes brings on anger[…]. This remedy belongs to hysterical girls. The stomach is distended with flatus[…]. We find fullness in the region of the liver with stitching, tearing pains.”[23]

Hysterikos; of the womb. Hysteron; madness of the womb. Suffocation of the womb. Wandering of the womb. Uterine Melancholy. “In the Eber Papyrus (1600 BC) the oldest medical document containing references to depressive syndromes, traditional symptoms of hysteria were described as tonic-clonic seizures and the sense of suffocation and imminent death (Freud’s globus istericus).”[24]  The pounding in my ribcage woke me from my midnight’s sleep. The air stopped in the upper hypochondrium. I would hold my breath hoping that the inhale would be full. I jittered from fear and lack of oxygen, and rushed for my blue inhaler. My tender abdomen, my racing heart, my tingling body, my itching belly, my stunted lungs drove me to imagine death at all times. To be terrified of it in my midst. Finitude as the end of this one and the goodbyes in my wake. What if I don’t arrive in time? For medical science to rescue me with its needles, cameras and lights, cold, black, plastic leather beds, cotton coats and name tags, ice cold gels and thirst-inducing opiates. Its power to differentiate on my behalf.

The wise woman past reproductive age is a pursued witch burnt at the stake not for her infusions of herbs, shrubs, and bones but because she threatens the division of labor. If you produce that special commodity of labour power, you cannot imagine what could happen if it came to a halt, stopped working. Or if someone stopped it; the way in which the melancholic, maybe the hypochondriac (certainly the hysteric) threatens to: withdrawal, refusal, dejection, angst, rage, disbelief, bottomless doubt. Hark! the new generation.

Class after class I apologize to my students: “It’s my asthma, I’m sorry, I’m not yawning, it’s just that I need air.” On March 3, 1888, M. Charcot gave a lesson at the Salpêtrière and brought forth to the student body the yawning hysterical woman—she would oft yawn 8 times per minute—with a warning: Do not let yourselves be made suggestible, intoxicated. Yawning is onomatopoeic (bâiller, sbadiglio, gähnen, تثاؤب). Don’t look.

Post-viral symptoms are ghostly. The body, in the absence of organic damage, displays sensations as symptoms, as though it is melancholic after illness. Melancholy: The ego is altered through ingestion of and identification with the lost object such that the lost object is no longer the object of loss but loss itself. You don’t let go of the loss, nor of the object and thus internalize them both to obliteration inside you. It is not grief then recovery, it is incorporated grief. It forms part of the machinery of the self in a ghostly manner (G. Agamben). The loss of the object never happened since, not only was it never possessed but its disappearance is already staged internally, to secure full possession. If the loss is staged, this means the object was never really the object but a fantasy, a double object.

Only fools psychoanalyze themselves.

What is the death drive (inversed)? [25] Egoism into altruism, cruelty into pity, intense love and intense hate in the same person for the same object; Freud calls defense mechanisms deceptive forms. Repetitive thoughts and actions of dread of illness a desire for it. Like ‘humanitarian camps’ keeping human refugees and sans papier less than human, and ‘keeping the peace’ as policing is, intrinsically, brutality, my hypochondriac wish for precise, confirmed, eternal health, for immortality, is death drive; is the journey backwards to the pre-individuated. Do I want to annihilate myself in order to return to a prehuman life? To the womb? To Her? The first love, the umbilical cord, the lost way back.

“Even in her mother’s arms she was still alone with her secret disease and alone to puzzle over the loss of innocence and security that accompanied her fearful acknowledgment of death.”[26]

Or, the repressed impulse to a most radical freedom, admonished by the establishment of parenting and turned against itself. When the vocalization really is: I am invincible, I am unalterably free. I am, in fact, immortal. [27]

Hypochondriasis in its social appearance is a deceptive form – an externally learned constraint on an otherwise radical and erotic compulsion. One read, perhaps, in poets and writers that stun, and in the melancholy that leads to the suicide of others. If the death drive has compulsions gone awry, so, writing and death and writing and hypochondriasis become historically woven.


*[This text is comprised of abridged fragments of a manuscript in progress]

[1] Mark Fisher, The Weird and the Eerie (London: Repeater Books, 2016).

[2] See the Coronavirus Pamphlet Series, accessed November 1 2020, https://www.versobooks.com/lists/4893-coronavirus-pamphlet-series. The Politics of Covid-19, last accessed August 2020, https://covid19syllabus.substack.com/archive?sort=new

[3] “Yanis Varoufakis on the Economic Situation,” The Dig Radio, https://www.thedigradio.com/podcast/yanis-varoufakis-on-the-economic-situation/ accessed October 15, 2020. See also Robin Wigglesworth and Sujeet Indap, “Distressed debt investors still await rich pickings from pandemic,” https://www.ft.com/content/ca5fbc8a-61da-4585-9ca4-092255189497 accessed November 7, 2020

[4] By way of illustration: “Covid job losses lead MPs to call for trials of universal basic income,” accessed October 31, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/oct/31/covid-job-losses-lead-mps-to-call-for-trials-of-universal-basic-income?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

[5] Fisher, ibid.

[6] Brian Dillon, Tormented Hope: Nine Hypochondriac Lives (London: Faber and Faber 2009).

[7] Martial. Epigrams vii. 39, book 8, quoted in Michel de Montaigne, “Not to counterfeit being sick,” accessed October 8, 2020, http://essays.quotidiana.org/montaigne/not_to_counterfeit_being_sick/

[8] G.W.F Hegel, “Who Thinks Abstractly,” accessed October 12, 2020, https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/se/abstract.htm

[9] I am sure that I will fall ill.

[10] Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Sower (London: Headline Publishing, 1993).

[11] George S. Rousseau, Nervous Acts: Essays on Literature, Culture and Sensibility (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

[12] American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th ed. (DSM-5), (American Psychiatric Association: Arlington, 2013). See George S. Rousseau, ed., The Languages of the Psyche: Mind and Body in Enlightenment Thought, Clark Library Lectures; 1985-1986 (Berkeley and LA: University of California Press, 1998).

[13] Butler, ibid.

[14] Rebecca Comay, “Hypochondria and Its Discontents, or the Geriatric Sublime,” Crisis and Critique: Politics and Melancholia 3 no. 2 (2016): 41-58, 45.

[15] Anne Boyer, The Undying: A Meditation on Modern Illness (London: Penguin, 2020).

[16] The hypochondriac is a composite of many images, many signs, many figures condensed, like in a dream, to One. Or, the hypochondriac herself condenses real, much more structural anxiety, into displaced ones: her bodily symptoms.

[17] Dillon, ibid.

[18] Causes are many but death is one.

[19] Lucius Anneaus Seneca. “On the Healing Power of the Mind,” accessed September 7, 2020, http://essays.quotidiana.org/seneca/healing_power_of_the_mind/

[20] See, differently, Gilles Deleuze, “The Exhausted,” in Essays Critical and Clinical. Translated by Michael A. Greco and Daniel W. Smith (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 152-174.

[21] Nadia Bou Ali and Ray Brassier. “Hegel’s 250th Anniversary: After too late,” September 9, 2020, Beirut, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dISWecCpAS0

[22] Comay, ibid.

[23] Natrum Muriaticum, https://www.vithoulkas.com/learning-tools/materia-medica-kent/natrum-muriaticum

[24] Cecilia Tasca, Mariangela Rapetti, Mauro Giovanni Carta and Bianca Fadda. “Women and Hysteria In The History Of Mental Health.” Clinical Practice & Epidemiology in Mental Health 8 (2012): 110-119.

[25] Projection, sublimation, displacement, reaction-formation, etc.

[26] Susan Baur, Hypochondria: Woeful Imaginings (Berkeley and LA: University of California Press, 1988).

[27] “It is indeed impossible to imagine our own death; and whenever we attempt to do so we can perceive that we are in fact still present as spectators. […A]t bottom no one believes in his own death, or, to put the same thing in another way, that in the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his immortality.” Sigmund Freud, “Thoughts for the Times on Death and War,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works Of Sigmund Freud Vol XIV, trans. by James Trachey (London: Hogarth press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1957), 275-300.

Tumultuous Convolutions

Neighbors - Sarah Saroufim
Neighbors - Sarah Saroufim

My ceiling fan morphs into a helicopter

My ceiling fan morphs into distant gunshots

My ceiling fan morphs into the dense soundscape of a city in rebellion

Tear gas

Rubber Bullets

Water Cannons

Helicopters

Traffic lights

Street Vendors

Endless construction noise

Church bells

A sonic invasion from the past

The habitual soundscape of the city is disrupted by the recurrent insistence of sirens, preachers, birds, generators, nomadic announcements by the state, and political parties

These sounds become all the more ubiquitous as the city is calmer, as the electricity cuts more frequently, as the pandemic becomes ever more insistent, pervasive, with Easter Sunday on the horizon.

Vicariously living through the sonic intervention of the human, animal, and machinic other, embedded in a city at rest

The ambulance sirens now pierce the air with an unprecedented intensity.

On April 4, 2020, my best friend’s partner burned his hand while cooking a late night snack

A month later on May 4, 2020, I realized that I was not leaving the country for my fellowship abroad.

Two months later on June 4, 2020, I was unable to leave my bed from excruciating menstrual pain.

The nights leading up to July were sleepless, hot and dark. There was barely any electricity. Except for the concrete walls surrounding me, it felt like I was camping in my own home.

On July 4, 2020 I went to the Chouf valley to get some fresh air.

On August 4, 2020 at 2:00 pm, I started recording a voice over for a film with a poet. We shut down all the windows to block out the city noise. We finish at 5.30 pm. She leaves and I order a fried chicken burger. The windows are still shut.

At 6:08 pm, a bomb explodes at the port. It’s 2750 tons strong

Six years in the making, if not thirty

Reverberations

An earthquake perhaps

A rocket maybe

A suspension of the audible

A suspension of time

Vibrations

A shockwave

A suspension of the suspension

A sonic boom

Shattered glass

Alarm bells

Not so distant cries

Hysteria

Sensory deprivation

Sine waves

Lighting up of the sensory cortex

Sensation overtakes information

Fight or flight

Flight

Intricate entanglements

Deafening silence

Brown noise

A hum

A high pitch

Tumultuous

Thunderous

Ear-splitting

Ringing in the ears

Tinnitus.

Ringing of phones

Voices breaking up

Still no information

No sensation

No signal The sight of the ceiling fan never evoked anything until I heard it.

An Appendix for Resonance and Touch

Prismatic reflections of a derebucca - Courtesy of Joe Namy
Prismatic reflections of a derebucca - Courtesy of Joe Namy

NOTES:

The following drum patterns are taken from the passages with time changes, in “the variable” section F, of the score Sonic No. 7 & No. 10, for solo derabucca, written by Egyptian American composer and performer Halim El-Dabh (1921-2017). 

This text is an ekphrasis riff, an appendix to an extended study on the score first written in 2018. The text is meant to be read in the company of a drum, preferably a derbucca, but any drum will do. Hold it close while you read, allow your voice to resonate to the drum.  

The top bar of the staff notates the dominant hand (usually right), and the bottom bar notates the subordinate hand (left). Try to play the rhythm in a repeated loop, at least 10 times, at 180-200 BPM, before reading through the paragraph. If you can’t play, sing the dominant rhythm out loud (drum vocables are written below the notation). 

Test the resonance of your percussion instrument and heart frequently.

Avoid forcing rhythms, as well as “booms” and distorted noises. Treat the percussion instrument and text with extreme sensitivity.

EXERCISE IN 3/8

[ DOOOM TIIIK DAAAA TAAA DAAA TEEEK ]

Fast times. Frozen time. Time changes in odd times.[1]  As a drummer, I’m hypersensitive to time, but, lately, it’s been OTT-OCD. The irregular pace and emotional drama of pandemic-thawra heaviness—days that seem endless, months that fly by—got my internal metronome all discombobulated.  In drum slang, the drummer who can’t keep a steady beat, someone rushing and dragging the tempo, is called a russian dragon (rushin’/draggin’). Out of sync, out of sorts, it’s painful to witness. Keeping bad time hurts life. This seems to be a pretty good description of this past year’s cadence as well. We’re all just struggling to knuckle through until the song’s end. 

What’s proven to be necessary, amidst all this, is the need to create a new relation to time: intervals based on the intrapersonal and interpersonal worlds of affectionate closeness and relativity.  To think about time in this way is to ask ourselves to think deeper about our own relationship with the past, our ancestors, and our place in the world. It also makes me think about the work of Halim El-Dabh, someone who was thinking deeply about time, dreaming up new worlds.  Halim’s career spanned over 8 decades, continuously creating music until his final rest in 2017, at age 96. His wife Deborah told me that, although he was not well enough to play music in his last year, he was still writing new works until the very end.  It was only after he was no longer able to physically write, that he seemed to know it was time to move on. He passed away just a few weeks later. In looking back on his incredible and diverse oeuvre as a musician, creative ethnomusicologist, a pioneer of electronic music, an educator, Pan-Africanist, and one of the most seminal composers of the 21st century,[2] we can identify 3 fundamental constants that formed the foundational elements of his musical cosmology: his commitment to writing music as much as to playing it, his belief in the tremendous power of the voice, and his lifelong devotion to drumming.  I’d like to take a moment to celebrate his relationship to the drum, to rhythm as an embodied practice rooted in cultural, agricultural, and enhanced time-consciousness. 

EXERCISE IN 4/8

[  DAAAAAA TIIIIIIK DAAAAAA TAAAAAA  ]

Last December, I had the chance to visit El-Dabh’s archive at his home, an unassuming bungalow in a quiet, tree-lined neighborhood, at the edge of Kent State University, in Ohio. It was here where Halim helped establish the Department of Pan-African Studies, in 1970 (the second oldest in the US, the first being Howard University, which Halim also assisted in establishing). This was just a few years after setting up the Orchestra Ethiopia in Addis Abbaba, at the behest of Haile Selassie.  Within his archive, amidst a trove of treasures and photos from his world-wide adventures in sound, next to a treatise on his “Color Music” notation system, based on hearing colors, there is a binder labeled “Heteroharmony”, a collated collection of notes around a concept he developed, and which describes, on a macro level “where two music systems operate simultaneously, causing friction. At the micro level it is called hetero-friction similar to hetero-harmony, except it is not two systems but only two tones sounding simultaneously causing friction. Both result in friction, yet are also complementary.” [3] Among his papers, we find sketches of poems, drawings, snippets of musical ideas, and reflections on current events that work towards positioning and defining this concept. Embedded in this mode of research is an approach that creates textual possibilities of inquiry, beyond any sort of individual authority.  

EXERCISE IN 5/8

[  DAAAA  TEEEK  DAAA  TAAA  DOOOM  TIIIK  DOOOOOOM  TIIIIIIK  ]

Our story begins with the Beat, with a capital B EAT, the mother of all Beats, THEE rhythm of the cosmos. If movement holds the key to consciousness, this is the rhythm that makes life dance. This was the beat that Halim tapped into when he dubbed out a zaar ceremony in Cairo in 1944, scientifically engineered electronic music. Although you can’t hear anything that resembles drums in his remix, there were certainly drums in the ceremony he recorded. We know that drumming is a necessary element for the healing energy in this ritual. This power, in the rhythm-activated, synchronized congregation, was, I believe, what Halim was drawn to, and what he spent his life trying to understand. He was 88 when he wrote one of his most iconic works for percussion, Symphony for 1000 Drums (2009), a late style opus that serves as a kind of summary of his life in drums, written with exactness in its brevity (just one page), but infinitely complex in the power and performative gestures embedded in the score, which doubles as a recipe for how to conjure a rainbow.

EXERCISE IN 7/8

[  TLEK  DOOM  DOOM  TLEK  DOOM  TLIK  DOOM  ]

A fragment of a page from Halim’s notes on heteroharmony, reads like a poem:

I think about the meaning of the minus universe. Perhaps, to use sound engineering terminology, it’s a kind of subtractive EQing, whereby fidelity is created by taking away unwanted frequencies, in order to allow for certain voices and harmonies to be heard with more clarity. Or, perhaps, as in politics, this might be thought of as the non-aligned, those who reject established orders, be it religious, neo-liberal or antiquated leftist—all of them means all of them. This elimination requires visualizing the difficult transition from minus to plus, from cancel to council. Or, sculpturally, as in a form defined by a process where the positive is not yet known, but in which exists definitive material conditions that must be subtracted to realize the in-born manifestation of the object. All of these require the delicate skill of shrinking, to reach a point where one can create their own gravity that operates on an entirely self-dependent system of physics, reaching prime energy. 

In rhythmic terms, maybe this is just subdivision, breaking the beat down into the smallest counts, or in the case of this essay, breaking apart a full score to focus on individual bars. A rhythm that might have a long count before repeating, such as the Dawr al Kabir, with 56 beats to the cycle, requires one to continually break it down into counts of 2 or 3 beats. The rhythm above, in 7/8, could be divided into counts of 2 3 2. Just as our day is broken down into 24 hours, every song has its own sun, which it revolves around, with the count as the number of atomic units in that revolution. That is the prime energy which is danced upon -2 feet, 2 steps.

fig. 1 – Diagram  from Halim El Dabh’s “Hand Techniques in the Art of Drumming” (1965)

fig. 2 – A remapping of the drum head constellation.

EXERCISE IN 8/8

[  DOOM  TLEK  DOOM  TA  DOOM  DOOM  TLEK  DOOM ]

We understand the derbucca’s structure in our own image: a body, a neck, a head, skin. And when we play the drums, these parts transmogrify into our own, sounding beyond the body.  The drum is an appendage, a kind of blurry waveform that contains multitudes of cacophonous, cosmic abstractions, which skilled percussionists are able to attune to.  It is a tool for moving, for mourning, for feeling, a tool for finding new selves, new movements, and new forms of joy and pain. The drum calls and congregates. The drum defies and protests. The drum brings us together and transmits energy and knowledge in ways we’re still discovering.  

Halim was a passionate ethnomusicologist. He spent a considerable part of his life travelling throughout Africa and Latin America, at first as an agricultural engineer, in the early 1940s experimenting with sound as a natural pesticide and growth enhancer. During his travels, he would meet with and record local musicians, learning their songs and rhythms that would later inform his own compositions.  It was a process that was unlike common, extractive European ethnomusicology research, in that El-Dabh was sensitive to the value of the exchange.  An integral part of the process was sharing knowledge through the drum—transmission through vibration—both conscious and intuitive, cellular.  

In a lecture he gave at UNYAZI Electronic Music Symposium, in 2005, in Johannesburg, he explained, in his usual emphatic cadence, his experience pirating the Zaar ritual, which he later synthesized into pioneering electronic music in 1944:

“These women were transforming sound, in their own way, coming out of their own bodies. That they knew how to transform elements and change waveform, and change the vibration around their voices. Because, in their ceremony these women were flying, practically, I mean their body was moving out, and they had an enormity of energy, in a sound, basically, a sound characteristic that affects the body, and gives you a kind of healing. I mean, you could be bleeding to death and with the sound they created the bleeding would stop.” [4]

A page from the binder of notes on Heteroharmony (used with permission by Halim El-Dabh Music, LLC)
A page from the binder of notes on Heteroharmony (used with permission by Halim El-Dabh Music, LLC)

EXERCISE IN 9/8

[  DA  DOOM  DOOM  TLEK  DOOM  TA  DOOM  TIK  DOOM ]

Rhythm is time consciousness. We can begin to try and understand rhythm through terms such as meter, accent, duration, and syncopation, but in reality, rhythm is: everything. If time is a thing the body moves through [5], then rhythm is the control mechanism.  A drummer can push and pull time, and we twirl in step. Long before computers, before the printing press, before the written word, before the fluctuation of stocks and financial engineering, perhaps even before spoken language itself, was the drum and its rhythm.

“According to me rhythm is an inception of a sound
Of starlight frictions in the universe materializing to a beat within” [6]

Brought into this earth from distant stars, the drum has been a technology essential for our capacity for complex thoughts, engaging the physical and mental, social congregation and introspective meditation.  Today, as we learn to dance apart, distanced, at the screen as much as away from it, rhythm continues to be a tool for syncing, transmitting, connecting.  When we do congregate, in protest, in celebration, in memoriam, the drum and rhythm is and will always be the engine for a cacophony of steps marching together, fueling our rage and collective vibrations.  

“What a powerful technology it is to hold space for + bear witness to the movement, care, vision, labour, of one another.” – Legacy Russell

A page from the binder of notes on Heteroharmony (used with permission by Halim El Dabh Music, LLC)
A page from the binder of notes on Heteroharmony (used with permission by Halim El Dabh Music, LLC)

EXERCISE IN 12/8

[  TLEK  DA  DA  TLEK  DOOM  TIK  DOOM  DOOM  TLEK  DOOM  TA  DOOM  ]

An important but often overlooked aspect of playing any rhythm, is breath control—when to inhale and exhale, in sync with the rhythmic count. Great disrupters of this rhythm, such as COVID-19, which attacks our lungs and constricts our breathing, such as police brutality and choke holds, are proof that we need to be more attentive to the rhythms that have been passed down to us. To hold them sacred, celebrate them, learn them, proclaim them, and affirm our presence.  Rhythm is a tool that moves us not only in our present bodies, but also connects us to the legacy from which the beat is born out of, for all those who carried this rhythm before us, and to all those who will reflect this starlight into the future.  Halim’s relationship to time was forever shifting, his understanding of rhythm was astronomical, but, above all it was his understanding of the drum as a tool, as advanced technology, that was able to resonate and touch the interpersonal and intrapersonal worlds of affectionate closeness.

Measurement - Hatem Imam
Measurement – Hatem Imam

[1]  Grace and James Boggs, Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century (Monthly Review Press, U.S., 1974). 170.

[2]  Kamila Metwaly, “A Sonic Letter to Halim El Dabh”, https://herri.org.za/4/kamila-metwaly/

[3]  Cynthia Tse Kimberlin, “Who Dared?”: Twenty-two Tegreññya Songs from Mändäfära, Eritrea, Papers of the 15th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies, Hamburg, July 20-25, 2003. Siegbert Uhlig (ed.); Maria Bulakh, Denis Nosnitsin, and Thomas Rave (Assistant eds.).  Harrassowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden, Germany.  452.

[4]  “Halim El-Dabh lecture Unyazi 2005”, filmed by George E. Lewis  https://vimeo.com/443205835 (5:46)

[5]  Fleischmann, T. Time Is the Thing a Body Moves through. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2019.

[6]  Excerpt from a binder of notes labeled “Hetero-harmony”, from the Halim El Dabh archive, date unknown.

WITH CLAPS AND THANKS TO:

Deborah El Dabh, Amal Khalaf, Jo-ey Tang and Beeler Gallery at Columbus College of Art &
Design, SAVVY Contemporary, Kamila Metwaly, Hicham Awad, Beirut Art Center

Can Disaster Be Made Legible? A Conversation with Forensic Architecture’s Samaneh Moafi

Still from Forensic Architecture’s report on Beirut Port Explosion - Courtesy of Forensic Architecture

On August 4, 2020, Beirut’s central neighborhoods were obliterated off the map following the detonation of some of the 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been stored at a port warehouse. Within a two-minute timeframe, two hundred lives were lost, seven thousand individuals sustained mild to life-threatening injuries, and over three hundred thousand were rendered homeless. Though testimonies have since abounded, the where were you?, what did you see or hear?, and who did you lose? of the August 4 disaster remain a blur for most of those who’d witnessed, at a proximity or from a distance, the unfolding of that annihilative event. Certainly, to recount the aftermath of one of the most powerful non-nuclear explosions ever recorded presumes a responsibility towards its countless victims; a task made all the more paradoxical by our rife impotence to grasp the scope of that event and the loss it wrought forth. Three and a half months following the explosions, Turner prize-nominated, multidisciplinary research group Forensic Architecture [hereafter referred to as FA], through a collaborative effort with Egyptian independent media outlet Mada Masr, released a meticulous audiovisual reconstitution of the port incident entailing a 3D model of the ill-famous warehouse. After having “collected and examined images and videos taken by witnesses of the blast and shared on different platforms online”, the  research group’s investigation concluded that port authorities had not respected internationally accepted regulations for storing ammonium nitrate and that the Lebanese state should thus be held accountable over negligence. Those findings are now available online, both in the form of downloadable models and an open-access, twelve-minute long video.

Samaneh Moafi is Senior Researcher at Forensic Architecture, Goldsmiths University of London. She provides conceptual oversight across projects and in particular oversees the Centre for Contemporary Nature (CCN), where new investigative techniques are developed for environmental violence. She earned her PhD from the Architectural Association (AA) School of Architecture with a dissertation on the contemporary history of state initiated mass housing in Iran and the class identities and gender roles it informed. 

Edwin Nasr: James C. Scott’s critique of authoritarian high modernism singularizes ‘legibility’ as a central tenet of statecraft. Scott understands dominant modes of state planning – be it through the building and representation of urban and rural infrastructure or the design of bureaucratic operations – as being predominantly concerned with and engaged in making things legible. One could argue, however, that contemporaneous modes of statecraft hold little to no concern for ‘simplification’; on the contrary, there’s a undeniable investment in obfuscating and abstracting state-sanctioned operations and processes, i.e. in making them inscrutable, untraceable, even illegible. How does FA, in a sense, ‘legibilize’ material evidence within legal processes and public political forums?

Samaneh Moafi: We were all shocked by the destruction of a city we love. With so many friends in Beirut, we wanted to find a way to show our support. We didn’t want to do the work in collaboration with a western media outlet for their colonial history of political meddling in the region, though we were asked. A friend of ours, Ma’n Abu Taleb, had been doing his part within a consortium of journalists closely working in Lebanon. I believe we met him at the Tottenham protests, on the anniversary of the police murder of Mark Duggan which we’d also investigated. He asked us to get involved and put us in touch with Mada Masr as  potential partners. I assembled a team for the investigation, which include Kishan San, Nikolas Masterton, and three Lebanese researchers who wanted to go by the names of Ismael Haidar, Leshla Y., and Leila Sibai. To ensure accuracy, we had to pass the 3D model back and forth between the London and Beirut based researchers for the first couple of weeks. Slowly, the work developed.

The state has its own logic and epistemology. You are right about Scott, though I’m not sure how relevant it is to Lebanon which enacts and performs  a very different kind of statecraft. Lebanese authorities had their forensic team at work and soon manufactured a narrative for  basing the cause of the catastrophe around three Syrian welders. This narrative was then quickly echoed by international media outlets including Reuters, Washington Post and New York Times. Forensic teams from member states such as the United States and France were also granted access to investigate the case, but they chose to remain silent, and in fact, are yet to share their findings even with the bereaved families[1]. Thinking with Hannah Arendt, deception has always been part of the toolbox of politics, just as truthfulness has never been its virtue[2].

In this context, we organized a counter-investigation based on a particular set of resources: citizen’s videos. One of the earliest documentations of the port on that day, for example, was a photograph posted on Twitter. Examining it closely, we could plot the location of the source of the smoke plume, and determine that it was rising from the north east side of the warehouse. The photograph therefore held a situated knowledge of the catastrophe, bracketed by the photographer Nabih’s coordinates in the city, the cone of vision of his phone camera, and the time during which he took the picture. We examined dozens of images and videos like his, and positioned each carefully in time and in space. Painstakingly, we pieced together these situated accounts to find fragments from the truth. Our 3D model was grounded on residents’ visual testimonies. It was ‘poly-perspectival’, if you will.

EN: Following the conclusion of the 1975-1990 civil wars, the country was thrust into a protracted ‘postwar’ temporality[3] that neither held sectarian militia leaders and political representatives accountable nor provided victims with a reparative justice framework. Moreover, around ten years ago, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon was established by the International Criminal Court to carry out the investigation and prosecution of those responsible for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri on February 14, 2005. Though the tribunal issued a verdict finding a Hezbollah official guilty on the basis of conspiring to “commit a terrorist act”[4] and sentencing him to five concurrent terms of life in prison, no direct measures on behalf of the Lebanese judiciary were made to locate the suspect or implement sanctions on Hezbollah. What happens when the context in which FA is intervening refuses the political acknowledgement and legal reception of the very evidence it produces or uncovers in the first place – contexts in which extralegality is an institutionalized state practice?

SM: I’m a student of Lebanon. Ever since I can remember, I’ve found myself admiring and taking lessons from Lebanese novelists, poets, architects, artists, musicians, journalists, queer and feminist advocacy groups, racial justice defenders and  legal scholars—many of whom are also dear friends of FA. Following the August 4 catastrophe, we of course knew civil society groups were taking action on the ground, just as they had been since the October uprisings in 2019. We thought we could contribute to their cause with a small study that would be developed using our FA methodologies. The fight for justice has always been a collective effort, more so when states fail in delivering even the most basic of their responsibilities.

From the cases I’ve worked on within FA, the Grenfell Tower fire is a useful example. On June 14, 2017, an incidental fire in the kitchen of a fourth-floor flat in a council housing tower block close to where I lived in West London accelerated into a building fire that would ultimately claim seventy-two lives—85% of whom were from ethnic minorities[5]. One day after the fire, the British Prime Minister ordered a public inquiry. In the weeks that followed,  survivors shared stories of how people with precarious immigration status experienced fears of deportation and how the state failed in its provision of pro-bono lawyers and translators. The violent racial/class dimension of negligence in the Lancaster West housing estate was a 40 years long condition: the 1980s case of damaged asbestos and the cockroach plague, the 1990s enclosure of public gardens and increased policing, and the recent round of refurbishments to the tower were all part of the same continuum.

It took two years for the report of the first half of inquiry to be published, concluding that the recent cladding system of the recent refurbishment did not meet regulations and was the primary cause of the fire’s rapid spread. The second phase of the inquiry began on January 27, 2020. Emails revealed that several companies involved in the tower’s refurbishment knew the cladding was a fire risk. Sessions were delayed in February as corporate witnesses looked for immunity from prosecution. Today, over three and a half years on, the fight for accountability continues, not only in the court and through the media, but also on the streets.

EN: Many of Beirut’s inhabitants who were in their homes at the time of the explosion reported hearing the sound of Israeli warplanes directly preceding that of the first blast. A video of an aircraft delivering a bomb over the city that had been circulating at the time on social media platforms was debunked a couple of days later by news organization Reuters, who fact-checked the material and confirmed it instead depicted “an earlier incident”[6]. Local media outlets, such as Aljadeed, went on to also provide the public with different variations of security camera footage overlooking the port, all of which did not capture the presence of warplanes or flying engines. Though these clarifications were both widely disseminated, there was a noted refusal to abandon that theory. What if, instead of dismissing that refusal as exhibiting an acceptance of conspiratorial logic, one could believe it to hold a certain potential to unsettle dominant mechanisms of truth production? In other words, while the sound that was heard prior to the explosion was not that of Israeli warplanes, it was identified as such because of inhabitants’ past experience of Israeli bombings, thus inscribing these chains of events within a continuum of violence that constructs its own distinct truth. With that in mind, how would FA generate meaning from forms of evidence that are otherwise inadmissible in a court of law? How would it tend to an ethic of witnessing when human testimony and material evidence stand at odds with one another?

SM: Well, they don’t. In our approach, a video is both a piece of evidence and a witness testimony. It is a documentation of what the camera is pointing to[7]. And it is also a documentation of the subject who is doing the work of recording. I’m thinking through our previous investigations, and this has always been the case: in Palestine, a Gazan farmer takes the picture of a leaf of spinach damaged by israeli herbicide; in Chile, a protester in Plaza de la Dignidad takes the video of a cloud of teargas being fired at an elderly pedestrian; in the oil fields of Vaca Muerta in Argentina, an oil worker secretly takes video of a devastating oil leak, and risks his job in the process.

I remember that, among the videos we examined for Beirut, two were taken from the grain silos building. Given its proximity to the warehouse, they were possibly taken by a dockworker. In the earlier one, he was panning his camera left and right, trying to cover the entire length of the warehouse as well as a heat source on the north east of the building. In the later video, the situation was worse. He filmed the fire blazing out of the windows on the west wing of the warehouse. His hand was shaking. Then he started moving backwards. He stepped out of the shadow and into the sun, and for a split second, he appeared in his own video as the shadow of a figure holding a camera was cast on the floor. Behind him, another shadow appeared. So the videographer had a companion. He continued filming until he was hit by the explosion from the fireworks and his camera fell to the ground lens down. The camera continued filming for another 10 seconds or so. We now know from our investigation that the ammonium nitrate explosion would rip through the port about 25 seconds after the end of his video. After these 25 seconds, the east side of the Silos were turned into rubble.What happened during these seconds? Did the videographer manage to recover from the shockwave of the fireworks explosion? Did he manage to find a safe space? What about the human figure behind him? 

In our investigation, we pieced together testimonies from different and differing witnesses: subjects who had filmed parts of the catastrophe on the day, inspectors who had documented the warehouse months earlier, explosives experts who had observed the storing of ammonium nitrate in other countries, and scientists who had studied the extent of urban damage in Beirut using satellite images. The differences between these witnesses and between their positions in time and space, opened up the possibility for a series of translations, for example between the interior and exterior of the warehouse, the shape and color of smoke plumes visible from outside on the day of the catastrophe and the content and spatial layout of the goods stored inside a few months before. Of course, our 3D model is only one step. It is one step that can be used by researchers and civil society groups investigating the case. As new testimonies come in, the model will be able to do more. 

EN: Going back to the question of and motivation for legibility: FA has uncovered, through its reconstitution of the port warehouse storing the ammonium nitrate, a spatial layout akin to one of a “makeshift bomb” awaiting detonation, as well as storage conditions that are in apparent violation of internationally accepted safety standards, highlighting the “multiple layers of state negligence which led to this tragic explosion.” Scholar Laleh Khalili, on the other hand, warns “that the roots of the catastrophe run far deeper and wider – to a network of maritime capital and legal chicanery that is designed to protect businesses at any cost.”[8] While FA’s findings do provide some legibility to the scene of the crime, what would they want for them to draw a blueprint for? Can – and should – an evidentiary mode of address signal towards a political horizon that entails more than just having a slew of cadres and bureaucrats tried for negligence, at a time when local populations are still embroiled in an insurrectionary process that had set to dismantle the very foundations of the neoliberal sectarian order in Lebanon?

SM: Justice can of course go beyond retribution and vengeance[9]. It can be geared towards reparations which are part of an “incessant labor of repair”[10]. They cannot be handed out by the ruling of a judicial forum, be it a state court or one that operates at an international scale like the ICC. Cultural institutions, media outlets, public spaces, and even protests have a part to play. I think together, our counter-investigation at the scale of the warehouse and Dr. Khalili’s work at the scale of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, open up the possibility for an awareness: The negligence of the Lebanese authorities in their duty of care for the public, and the legal chicaneries designed to protect and care for businesses internationally as being two instantiations of a multi-scalar violent continuum. Identifying, articulating and socializing these cases  is necessary for a shared awareness, one that is rooted in evidentiary materials rather than being ideologically driven. The power of socializing evidence, I think, is that it enables us to ask questions, again and again, together—by all means possible.


[1] “Report on behalf of the victims of the Beirut Explosion of 4 Aug 2020”, Legal Action World Wide (Nov 13, 2020)

[2] Hannah Arendt, Crises of the Republic: Lying in politics, Civil disobedience, On violence, Thoughts on politics and revolution (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972), 4 and 45.

[3] Scholar and artist Walid Sadek terms the protracted now a temporality “maintained by politico-sectarian factions structurally capable, through the deployment of intermittent bouts of violence and tenuous truces, of renewing the conditions of civil war and maintaining their prolonged dominance.” (“In the Presence of the Corpse”, Third Text, Volume 26, 2012 – Issue 4)

[4] “Rafik Hariri tribunal: Guilty verdict over assassination of Lebanon ex-PM”, BBC News (August 18, 2020)

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/aug/01/the-twinned-injustices-of-race-and-class-lie-at-the-heart-of-the-grenfell-tragedy

[6] “Fact check: Video does not show a drone bombing Beirut”, Reuters (August 6, 2020)

[7] The small inquiry that we did for Beirut was visual, but we have shown how sonic testimonies can be evidentiary in some of our other investigations, like the one on the Saydnaya prison.

[8] “Behind the Beirut explosion lies the lawless world of international shipping”, Laleh Khalili, The Guardian (August 8, 2020)

[9] Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003) pp.107-8.

[10] Ariella Aisha Azoulay, Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism (London: Verso, 2020) pp. 565-567.

Have you written anything lately?

It is said that the occurrence of certain events generates vibrations that penetrate the body, meandering through it, never fading away completely.
It is said that this infinite pulsing inhibits the formation of thoughts and memories.
It is said that writing is an attempt to reach out to those echoes, to grasp them, and to make them last.

1.

We fear that writing will evade us and disappear. Why does that always happen, N.?
Do we really do everything in our power to retain the words that vanish?
We sat and spoke of this in the yellow kitchen with the balcony overlooking the sea of Beirut.
We recorded what we said at the time out of fear of forgetting.

Evelyn stands in the kitchen as directed by Ted Fendt, 
silently as if she were listening to us.

I thought the title of this text would be the phrase stretched out on the lower part 
of the image above: Have you written anything lately?
Someone sitting off-screen addresses Evelyn, 
standing in that white kitchen in Philadelphia.
The question is uttered in English and appears on the screen translated in German, 
as I had captured these stills from the Arsenal film archive in Berlin 
in the summer of 2019.
The archive is adjacent to a small cemetery, 
and is part of a cultural space called Silent Green 
which literally translates to al-akhdar al-samit in Arabic.
This name reminded me of what a friend of ours once said 
about the silence of trees and their apathy towards us and our tragedies.
What do you think of translating it as samt al-akhdar: the silence of green?
Can any one text have as many titles as the number of voices it holds?

Evelyn is asked: Have you written anything lately?
She remains silent and says nothing.
As I sat in the small room behind the Steenbeck editing table, 
in the archive which was a crematorium until only a few decades ago, 
I felt as if the question was directed at me.

I wrote in my blue notebook:
21st of July. Because we die, and because things and moments die, 
the films here died a long time ago, 
buried alive in canisters preserved in that crematorium, 
watched over at night, by the cemetery across.

In another scene, Evelyn goes with Cal to the library next door. 
While he brags about what he has written and read, 
speaking in long and complex sentences, 
she inhabits her silence, roaming in it as if it were her only salvation. 
After some time, Cal breaks her blaring silence and asks: 
Do you keep a notebook?

As I captured Evelyn’s silence,
I was taken by a profound feeling of gratitude towards cinema. 
Do you see what I mean, N.? 
Isn’t it surprising when someone else mirrors you, 
someone who exists in a universe parallel to yours, 
and does not even know that you’ve met?

Do you remember, N., that you were the first to see Evelyn? 
It was during the last time we were together in Marseille during the summer of 2019. 
Did you know that Evelyn was the name of my first childhood friend? 
That day, did you sense in Evelyn’s face an echo of both her childhood and mine? 
Is that why you insisted I watch Classical Period 
after you had seen it yourself just the day before?

That morning, after I met her –
Isn’t it wonderful to be in the cinema in the morning?
I wrote a lone sentence in my blue notebook. 
I scribbled a sentence in the dark that appeared jagged and crooked in the light of day, 
like the handwriting of a small child who has not yet learned to write properly:
13 juillet. Evelyn m’est comme un miroir.

After that, you returned to Beirut. 
I travelled from Marseille to Berlin, where something unexpected happened: 
I found Evelyn in the archive again! 
I also found out that Ted Fendt was a projectionist
at the Arsenal’s cinema that is connected to the archive. 
When I met him, I wanted nothing more than to ask him about Evelyn, 
that imaginary friend who had not left my side for a single moment. 
Ted told me that Evelyn lives in New York, 
where she also works as a cinema projectionist. 
I began to tell Ted about everything I loved. 
I told him many things, hoping that he may relay them to Evelyn. 
Finally, before we parted ways, he said: 
Evelyn is inspired by my own notebooks.

Ted had put his own words in Evelyn’s mouth and his silence on her face! 
So what was it, then, that captivated me – Evelyn’s face or Ted’s words? 
As I went back to my small sublet that night, 
suspended in time outside the borders of my own city, 
I had a strange feeling. 
For a moment, it was as if I was in the right place at the right time. 
Have you ever had this feeling, with such intensity?

2.

On the 4th of August 2019
I was lying in the cemetery adjacent to the archive.
I wrote in my white notebook:
August 4, I’ve been lying on the ground in the Urnenfriedhof Gerichtstraße cemetery
for more than an hour, among the dead but still alive.

Whereas you, N., on the 7th of December 2019, you told me:
The transformation of the city will be described in full detail.
It will be described as belonging to the time after, after the explosion.
This film of ours has to record the multiplicity of time.
We have to document all of that, C.,
we have to search for the tools that make it possible for us to document it.

Out of fear of forgetting your words,
I copied them from a notebook whose color I cannot recall
into the green one, our new film’s notebook,
which would tell the story of a secret garden inside the city that exploded.
The explosion scattered its plants astray all across the city,
a city that no longer resembled itself.

Tell me, N., how is it that we are able to be innocent and to predict the future all at once?
Or could these prophecies be explained differently?
Someone wrote a description of the explosion of the port of Beirut,
which blew up the city along, on the 14th of August 2020:
Its echo, that reproduces both past and future in the same instant,
is all of our lives at once.
The life we have lived, are living now and will keep living,
we and many others yet to be born.

After the explosion, we did what we always do, you and me, N.
As silent survivors, we started documenting everything.
I would write down words in my red notebook,
while you would roam the city, photographing its remains.
Because more than anything else,
the two of us are afraid of forgetting.

As for me, I observe every now and then a glitch
in both my past and present memories.
Words are erased, and their traces disappear,
so I find myself searching for them in vain.
Someone said to me that ruptures are created in the self
after an explosion like this.
The echo from the enormous bang continues to reverberate through the body.
“Une sorte de réverbération infinie” as she describes it,
one that does not cease to quiver inside the body.
By doing so, it inhibits the formation of thoughts
or erases memories in a back-and-forth movement
which can only be stopped by parallel motions
more akin to a caress than friction.
Like the wind on branches, it is a motion that never grow weary or tired,
as if fully realizing the stubbornness of this particular echo;
the echo of a disaster at the moment it befalls us.

Someone said that each one of us has her own ability to remember,
and that this should not be an impediment at all,
because each of us reminds the other of things that may have escaped her.
My silence may invite you, N., to speak, and your words may invite my silence.
Or our silences combined might open the space for the words of others to sneak in between us,
as could Evelyn’s words when she speaks to Cal,
finally breaking her silence and her inability to write:

What I need to do now is find a subject.
Something very specific to focus on and follow through with.
I’m all over the place right now.
The other night, I couldn’t sleep at all…

3.

One day, in the summer of 2019,
Helga and I entered the Dahlem Botanical Garden
and walked alongside one another on the paths between the trees and flowers.
That day, Helga seemed to me to be the botanist we had described in our green notebook,
the journal of the new film which would tell the story of Nahla and Camelia,
who wander the city in search of a lynx that went missing after the explosion of the garden,
a feline described by the botanist in her field notes before it disappeared.
That day, Helga and I were particularly joyful,
and I told her about a species of poplar tree that is called le tremble in French,
“the trembler” – a noun that contains its own verb. What a beautiful name!

Then, Helga told me about that leopard she had observed for days and days,
until the shadows of the cage bars fell upon its black and yellow body.
In that very moment, in the heart of Berlin’s zoo
the leopard became a mirror of its own imprisoned self.
Helga filmed the leopard in silence.
When I saw the silent, untamed animal projected on the wall
of Helga’s Raum Für Film (Room for Films) on Danckelmanstraße 55 in Charlottenburg,
the only thing I could hear was the clicking of the 16mm projector
and the sound of the rain falling on the window panes.
At that precise moment, in our shared silence,
I felt that I was in the right place at the right time.

At the end of our stroll in Dahlem Garden,
as the sunlight had begun to dim,
Helga and I talked about the last scene from Carl Theodor Dryer’s Ordet,
the scene with the miracle.
She said, I too cried like a little girl when the mother was resurrected.
Tomorrow they’re screening Gertrud at the Arsenal.
Will you come with me to the cinema in the evening?

I went with her, N., not knowing it would be the last film I was to watch on the big screen.
Helga and I sat next to each other in the dark.
I had never sat next to someone in a movie theater in this way,
for Helga’s silence is unlike any other silence I had previously encountered.
It was as if she were witnessing a sacred ritual.
I sat alongside her silence, a foreigner in two tongues,
as the spellbinding faces in black, white and all shades of gray spoke in Danish,
while the subtitles at the bottom of the screen appeared in German.

After I returned to Beirut in October 2019,
I wrote a long letter to Helga in French.
It unfolded in two tenses:
the time of the enchanting stroll she and I took in Dahlem Garden,
and the time you and I spent in the streets in Beirut.
I placed in the letter a secret sign,
a veiled expression (by the sheer fact that it was in Arabic) that described me in both times:
when I first saw the magnificent leopard on Helga’s wall,
and when you and I, N.,
began to loudly proclaim our revolt on the walls of Beirut,
in an impulse both singular and collective .
I wrote in Arabic next to the word tremble:
It trembles like the quivering leaves of a poplar tree.

And here, N., another title for this text of ours seeps into me.
I have written it down in our grass green notebook:
An echo that trembles like the quivering leaves of a poplar tree.
A title that is both a general description and a precise depiction
of the new state we are in now,
of that reverberation meandering endlessly in our bodies.

4.

We walked for the first time on the road leading to the desolate port at night. We stopped in a dark corner and wrote (because it’s hard to write while walking):

* At this precise moment, the city seems to be devoid of trees
** It is made only of sea and concrete
*** Someone wrote: The sea took its usual cut of all our calamities: 50% of the shock of the explosion
**** The sonic barrier that was broken just before the explosion (and which acted as a warning, enabling us to hide and be spared) will continue to merrily frolic in our bodies
***** There is nothing more violent than silence
****** The city has been emptied of its soul, but it is not menacing in its emptiness. Rather, it looks at us meekly, its head bowed
How do we let things be while also departing from them, when they are sad and inconsolable?
******* Departure has no beginning or end. It is a motion that is both hidden and apparent, as an echo can be
******** The city’s center contains our archive, echoes of what we lived are inscribed on its walls
********* Had Metropolis Cinema and Dawawine still been there, the bomb would have blown them up too
********** A city without cinemas is a city without shared darkness, it is lonely and cut off from the rest of the world
*********** Mohammed Soueid writes about the first film he watched at Cinema Empire in Gemmayze: There, I watched the first film of my life. In its light, my darkness was cleansed. There, I had my first kiss, not knowing it would turn out to be but a farewell kiss.

Then we stopped writing, and you said to me: Can you believe that we now live in a city without cinemas?

1.

2.

3.

4.

5.

Translation: Suneela Mubayi


Films:

Fanderl, Helga, director. Leopard. 2012
Fendt, Ted, director. Classical Period. 2018

Texts:

Abi Samra, Tarek, “The Bomb Will Never Cease to Explode”, Megaphone News, August, 14, 2020, https://megaphone.news/ستستمر-القنبلة-تنفجر/
Soueid, Mohamed, “My First Kiss”, The Institute for Palestine Studies, Issue 124 (Autumn 2020): 161-167, https://www.palestine-studies.org/sites/default/files/mdf-articles/161.pdf

Images:

Stills from Classical Period by Ted Fendt – Courtesy of the director

All remaining images: Courtesy of the authors

Artwork: Couple’s Dinner for One – Sarah Saroufim

Number, Price, and Knowledge

Hatem Imam - Finance

           A century and a half ago, Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq reminded us that Arabic words were formed according to a system of derivation and paronymy. Words decline into other words, all emanating from a root with which they share a conceptual connection. To think about words in this way is to incessantly map out the web of associations that connects them to each other; a paranoid tracing of how language speaks us more than we speak it. Below is an example of this tracing, seeking to draw a link between the etymology of the word raqm, Arabic for number, and the regime of Finance. Here’s how al-Shidyaq’s manner of thought could be put to work. 

***

أَمْ حَسِبْتَ أَنَّ أَصْحَـٰبَ ٱلْكَهْفِ وَٱلرَّقِيمِ كَانُوا۟ مِنْ ءَايَـٰتِنَا عَجَبًا ١٨:٩                    

“Have you [O Prophet] thought that the people of the cave and the inscription were one of the wonders of Our signs?” 18:9

            This verse from the al-Kahf chapter of The Quran, contains one of two instances of the Arabic root r-q-m. Ar-raqīm, translated by most sources as inscription or plaque, reveals a long-forgotten meaning behind our contemporary usage of the word number, رقم. Raqm was neither always nor originally associated with numbering and accounting, but with inscribing and writing. The Doha Historical Dictionary of Arabic dates the earliest known record of the root to the year 75 BH (549 CE) to mean “the embroidery with which a thawb is ornamented and inscripted.”[1] This process of ornamentation, tarqim, also referred to the dotting of letters in a manuscript as an operation of clarity.[2] The word receives its contemporary association with numbering-as-counting from its eventual usage to inscribe prices onto commodities

[وكّذَلِكَ إذا أخذه المُشْتري بِرَقمِهِ، ولوْ لم يعلم ما هو ثمّ علِمَ ما رَقْمُهُ، فَهوَ بالخِيارِ: إن شاءَ أخَذَهُ وإن شاءَ تركَهُ].[3]

In this arbitrage of meaning, wherein a small change leads to a big difference and minor variations derive from a common denominator, it becomes clear that Number (raqm) is inherently related to a regime of knowledge (عِلم).

Financial Ruins

            It is commonplace, if not altogether blasé, to speak of Lebanon in terms of ruins. Even more so, it has become insufferable to read of the contradictions inherent within the country’s social fabric. So much so that being Lebanese is always posited as a problem to be solved: to be Lebanese is to live in an insipid state, with strobes of light-hearted happiness that make the situation livable—as if the wounds of a damaged life under capital are particularly Lebanese, or worse, as if the plurality and multiplicity of identities, affiliations, and orientations are ours alone to live with and from which we alone have decided to suffer. We are so amorphous a nation that we at once defy and demand generality, and, in expected fashion, we have taken this to be both a blessing and a curse, without once resisting the urge to reproduce these cultural clichés. In our quest for a national identity—in our quest to know ourselves—we have reproduced multiple versions of ourselves and each other that further obfuscate what should have been, and could never have been, resolved after fifteen years of civil war. This, more than anything, is the chimera called Lebanon.  

            Perhaps nothing held us together, whether we like to admit it or not, than the peg of the dollar to the lira. Steady since 1997, this peg allowed us to debate in politics, however spurious and fickle these debates were; it allowed us to have a semblance of an economy, however increasingly unequal and punitive this economy was; it allowed us to make sense of the political-economic sphere through a period of growing cultural production, however niche these spaces became. The peg was our allowance. The peg was a formal and abstract identity that everyone could participate in, and which kept us moored in, and beholden to, the global financial system. Yet, this identity of price and numbers was as illusory as our attempts to “know ourselves.”

           Our financial identity and sovereignty were as much a chimera as the shadow play of our sectarian democracy. We may take comfort, however, in the fact that the effects of these chimeras are very much real: an insurmountable public debt on which banks prey and which puts the people in Lebanon, citizens and noncitizens alike, in a situation of risk and precarity. And worse, we are governed by those whose strength is their potent indifference. The Lebanese economy has proven to be an economy at the expense of the people, rather than an economy for the people. In the fallout of the financial collapse, our very social fabric is now at-risk. In contradistinction to those ruins of the civil war that indexed a withdrawn and repressed past, our current financial ruins index shorted futures.

            In the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, the late Randy Martin traced five consequences of the crash: a disruption of the knowledge-price continuum; the collapse of predictive models; the erosion of trust in the rule of experts; the unbounding of the economy as a field of knowledge; a shift in the relationship between knowledge and nonknowledge.[4] We are now in the realm of the unknown, and have been for a while; beyond economics as a general way of knowing and governing society, and towards financialization and risking society for profit. In Lebanon, the crises of the past year and a half have revealed this journey from an economy based on knowledge of a fixed peg, of fixed prices, and of fixed numbers, to an economy based on nonknowledge and the incessant rewriting of the numbers through which we knew ourselves.

Number, Price, and (Non)Knowledge

            Our modern understanding of the word economy derives from the Greek oeconomia, to mean the managing and governing of things and people, whereby this governance is inspired by the natural laws through which God governs the world. In Arabic too, the word اقتصاد comes to signify the process of efficiently and moderately managing the affairs of the household, and, more broadly, the nation.[5] More contemporaneously, the economy emerges as the name for a market system in which knowledge dictates how prices are numbered, set, and written. The management of the contemporary economy is nothing but the precise and predictable science of numbers.

           Faraḥ Anṭūn’s 1903 allegory, “The Three Cities: Religion, Knowledge, and Capital” [المدن الثلاث: الدين والعلم والمال] stages a confrontation between this grand trinity of society. Anṭūn’s allegory tackles the question of correct economic governance through a series of debates between men of knowledge, men of religion, men of capital, and workers. Underlying the text are two assumptions. The first is a providential assumption that, “God exists, and everything in nature signifies and points to God’s existence.”[6] The second is a temporal, and thus secular, consideration, that times change, and so, too, must the governance of social formations: “The concord of our country, between its elements, is not possible unless we give consideration to the new milieu in which we live; the old milieu has changed epistemologically, religiously, socially, and politically, and in this new milieu all sects, orientations, opinions, principles, and thoughts must come together.”[7] Despite this rosy prescription of a way forward, Anṭūn’s allegory ends with an apocalyptic scene in which the heavens and the earth conspire against the three cities,  destroying them along with the people living within them. Anṭūn’s male protagonists are saved by women who they eventually marry, echoing religious episodes of creative destruction such as Sodom and Gomorrah, albeit sans incest.

           Anṭūn solves the problem of a disbanding social fabric with a destructive event that radically changes the underlying context and allows his protagonists to write a different future. While we may not be so lucky to instantiate such creative destruction—so far, we have repeatedly been on the receiving end of violence as a tool against change and for fixing the status quo—we can learn from Anṭūn’s violent flight of fancy, and abstract from his allegory what Elie Ayache calls “The Writing of the Market.”[8] For Ayache, the defining act of the market is the writing of a price, which we may translate to Arabic by digging up and rehabilitating the old word for pricing mentioned earlier: tarqīm: “the market should appear as the only case (a singularity, a miracle) where history and its events take on the appearance of numbers.”[9] Ayache distinguishes probability from contingency: the former is based on a set of already indexed knowledge, found within single a context, while the latter is, like divine miracles and Antūn’s apocalyptic event, a case of a context-change.[10] Suhail Malik follows Ayache in seeing finance as the medium of contingency par excellence. Malik’s contribution is to read the temporal logic of Jacques Derrida’s différance in the derivative markets. He rewrites Derrida in the same way Ayache rewrites Nassim Taleb, and in the same way Borges’ Pierre Menard rewrites Don Quixote, and here I would like to insert a reinscription of my own, with the notion of tarqīm, in the hope that it may function like a worm-word: “constituting itself, dynamically dividing itself, this interval [that constitutes the derivative contract] is what could be called tarqīm [Malik: pricing, Derrida: spacing]; the becoming-price of time or the becoming-time of price.”[11] The derivative, tarqīm, is a writing of futurity that produces a new reality in the present. This is the logic of the derivative.  

Derivatives and Financial Ruins

           The Derivative, not to be confused with the narrow iteration of it in “the derivative market,” names and describes the dominant social logic of a financialized world. Derivatives signal a “transmission of some value from a source toward something else, an attribute of that original expression that can be combined with like characteristics, a variable factor that can move in harmony or dissonance with others.”[12] Yet the signature of this transmission is its very uncertainty: neither the destination, nor the very fact of movement, is certain.   

           When the logic of the derivative slices through an economy, three effects are now familiar to every person in Lebanon: interconnected fragmentation: we are forcefully dispersed into sectarian enclaves and communities that are constantly in a frivolous relationship to a bounded whole, which itself only exists in our national imaginary; volatility: every day we hustle to survive the daily swings of exchange rates, moods, polls, and risk; and finally arbitrage: small changes lead to big differences, similarly to how meaning proliferates through paronyms in Arabic, and to how small tax increases can spark a revolution. The logic of the derivative is with us and here to stay, the better to seek it and coopt it in our own politics and movements.

           In Spanish, derivar a otro lugar spells an idiom that is difficult to translate. It means, at once, to drift to another place, but also to connect to someone else in the course of that drifting. This idiom is a foundational metaphor of the “Precarias a la Deriva,” a militant research collective based in Madrid, whose practice of the dérive is inspired by Guy Debord’s essay, “Theory of the Dérive.” Debord defines the dérive as a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances that involves a psycho-geographical awareness. “In a dérive,” says Debord, “one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action.” People are led by rather than to encounters. The Precarias a la Deriva collective apply the social logic of the derivative to a practice of attentive care. If “capital fragments the social order in order to extract value, we join together in order to elevate it and displace it toward other places.”[13] The fragmentation wrought by the derivative spreads precarity across the social sphere, so that “precarity is not only a characteristic of the poorest workers.”[14] Everyone at-risk in the financial world becomes precarious and indebted.

           A politics of care pays attention to the social logic of the derivative and makes of it a source of moving together, rather than seeking to be an all-consuming and all-translatable politics. In moving together precariously, we repudiate the theoretical purity of infantile leftism, the demand for clear goals and leaders, the delineation of friends and enemies, the hierarchy of professionals and amateurs, and the shibboleths of ethnonationalism. We witness such movement in the joy of dancing dabke.

           Dabke choreography moves laterally and allows a non-existing socialization to occur in a public space.[15] In restaurants, cafés, weddings, and public squares, the dabke invites strangers to hold hands and move laterally in the same direction around a shifting center. It involves just three simple moves that increase and decrease in intensity according to the rhythm of the music. Its simplicity makes it easily learned, memorized, and allows people to improvise complexity onto its basic pattern. In Anton Shammas’ novel, Arabesque, the dabke, when performed by Palestinian villagers, is an example of the logic of the derivative:

And thus they stood, the soldiers of the Jaish El-Yahud on the one side and the inhabitants of Fassuta on the other, until from somewhere a mijwez was whipped out and to its strains the men who had come back from the fields arranged themselves in a semicircle and their feet responded as if of their own accord to the rhythm of the melody. They broke into the “Dabkeh Shamaliyeh.” A wild Galilean dabkeh, which had in it something of the joy of those who had been passed over by a fatal decree, and something of the pleasure of submission by the weak, and something of the fawning before the stranger, and something of the canniness of the villager who draws the most unexpected weapon at the most unexpected moment. It also had in it just plain capriciousness and frivolity. One way or the other, by the time the feet tired of the dance and the capriciousness of the defeated had cooled down, all those present in the ceremony were covered with a thin white layer of dust, and as is the way of all dust, it did not distinguish between the conquering soldier and the conquered villager. After which the official part of the ceremony began, and the celebrants were gently commanded to hand over to the army any weapons in their possession, including the ones concealed in the haystacks and the ones stashed in the fields.[16]

           The Dabke functions here to involve multiple modes of being and knowing, between survivors, the weak, the strangers, the ones who surrender, and “the villager who draws the most unexpected weapon at the most unexpected moment.” This unexpected weapon at the most unexpected moment evinces a rupture in the existing social divide, recasting the order of “the conquering soldier and the conquered villager.” A dance troupe manages to change reality in front of an army troop, and a different horizon of possibility opens from the ruins of the present.

Now, it is our time to dance so that we may be able to write and number our future.


[1]  .الوَشيُ الَّذي يُزيَّن بِهِ الثَّوْبُ وَنحْوُه.

[2] .كتاب مَرْقُوم أي قد بُيِّنتْ حروفه بعلاماتها من التنقيط

[3] .محمّد بن الحسن الشّيبانيّ، تح: محمد بوينوكالن، وزارة الأوقاف والشؤون الإسلامية، قطر، ٢٠١٢ م. ٤٦٢/٢. من موقع: https://www.dohadictionary.org/dictionary

[4]. Randy Martin, Knowledge LTD: Toward a Social Logic of the Derivative (Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 2015), 23.

[5]. For a fuller genealogy of the theological and aristotelian usage of oikonomia,  consider Giorgio Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government, especially the appendix, in which Agamben traces the “subterranean connections that might link the economics of the moderns to the paradigm of the theological oikonomia and the divine government of the world” (278) and shows how the modern discipline of “political economy is constituted, in other words, as a social rationalization of providential oikonomia” (282).

[6]. Faraḥ Anṭūn, Al-Muʾalafāt al-Riwāʾiyyah, Ed. Adūnīs al-ʿAqrah, (Beirut: Dār al-Ṭaliʿah lil-Ṭibāʿah wal-Nashr, 1979), 74. In Arabic: كل ما في الطبيعة يدل عليه ويشير إليه، ولا ينكره إلا الأشرار الذين يخافون عدله

[7]. Ibid, 79-80. In Arabic: الوفاق في بلادنا بين عناصرنا لا يمكن إلا بمراعاة الوسط الجديد الذي صرنا فيه؛ لأن الوسط الماضي قد تغيَّر عمليًا ودينيًا واجتماعيٍّا وسياسيٍّا، وهذا الوسط لا بدّ أن تجتمع فيه جميع المذاهب والآراء والمبادئ والأفكار.

[8]. Elie Ayache, “The Writing of the Market,” in Collapse Volume VIII, ed. Robin Mackay (Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2014), 517-602.

[9]. Ibid, 530. Can the market replace the social? When everyday life is financialized, and neoliberalism’s war against labor is won, then the social recedes and every aspect of the social becomes marketized.

[10]. Consider Elie Ayache’s tome, The Blank Swan: The End of Probability (John Wiley & Sons, 2010), 5-10.

[11]. Suhail Malik, “The Ontology of Finance,” in Collapse Volume VIII, ed. Robin Mackay (Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2014), 691.

[12]. Randy Martin, Knowledge LTD, 51.

[13]. Precarias a la Deriva, “A Very Careful Strike – Four Hypotheses,” in The Commoner, (issue 11, spring 2016), 36. 

[14]. Ibid, 39.

[15]. I learn again from Randy Martin’s reading of the social logic of the derivative in hip-hop choreography, extreme sports, mosh-pits, and skateboarding, which are all part of what he calls decentered social kinesthetics. See especially the third chapter of Knowledge LTD: Toward A Social Logic of the Derivative (Philedelphia, Temple University Press, 2015).

[16]. Anton Shammas, Arabesque, translated by Vivian Eden (University of California Press, 2001), 121-122.