The Derivative: A New Publication with No Occasion

Ahmad Ghossein

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