The Derivative is a bi-annual online publication launched in October 2020, in the midst of unprecedented political, social, economic, and environmental collapse in Lebanon. It is an attempt at building collective vocabularies, registers, and practices able to account for and run against the systemic onslaught we are faced with.

The Derivative is a student of the uprising of Oct 17, 2019; it is first and foremost a rhizomatic object around which to mobilize a diversity of praxes. Experimenting with collective editorial models, each issue is above all an excuse to think and make together and a way to expand and strengthen networks of friends and allies through divergent modes of address, thought, and action.

Every issue of The Derivative starts with three guest editors, each assigned a theme in the form of a three-letter root word (جذر) in Arabic. Each editor then collaborates with five contributors to help unfold the various facets of each theme, as well as an artist contribution responding to each text.

Restraint: Between Fire and the Labyrinth: Jason Mohaghegh

[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

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Congress of Idling Persons

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 :

Isotype in Moscow

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).

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 “fantastical” 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 to a 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 introduces Weiss’ study, crisply captures the place in which Shiites found themselves 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. We encounter one such representation throughout the course of the October uprising: 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  unimaginative 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 polar politics organized around two competing projects embodied in the March 8 and March 14 movements.[3] During those years, Hezbollah and its Aounist allies –both incidentally  excluded from the Taef Agreement—  consistently gnawed away on a bigger share of power. The two parties would eventually engineer and sponsor the Memorandum of Mar Mikhayel, consolidating their pact, and consecrating it on the “Army, People and Resistance” triad. A symptom of the crisis of the Second Republic, al-‘ahd itself had no shortage of 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 of Amal and Hezbollah.  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 subsequently accused 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 that they could continue protesting, so long as they did so 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 not strictly attributed to the elusiveness of his statements, especially when seen in conjunction with “the sahsouh”, an informal campaign of intimidating and assaulting those party followers who dared criticize the Party directly.  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] 2020. عن فائض القوة : “علوشي” الذي لا يهزم | Daraj. [online] Available at: [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] 2020. عن فائض القوة : “علوشي” الذي لا يهزم | Daraj. [online] Available at: [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

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.


[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

[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


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.


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.


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,”, 2020,

[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.

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:

[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 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, Laure de 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.

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 live

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