ف.ر.د (Individual)

Edwin Nasr

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)