I do want to do something.

Session II. (based on the reading “Every Form of Art Has a Political Dimension”, Chantal Mouffe interviewed by Rosalyn Deutsche, Branden W. Joseph and Thomas Keenan,Grey Room 02, 2001).
March 9, 2008, 6:18 pm
Filed under: The Reading Group

So, right now in Lebanon there is not really a “state”. There is a clear division within the country, a problem of representation, violent social fractures, and bodily reactions developed during the civil war (a sonic sense particularly acute to gun shots/ planes) resurfacing quite naturally. The lack of a centralizing and institutionalized power, of a “state”, renders manifest the different states people (The people? The population?) are in, schematically polarized by either an exalted euphoria or an entropic depressive state.

The state of something/ to be in a state of/ is a set of conditions that makes that particular state definable and singular.

[ “1 The condition or situation of somebody or something. 2a a condition of nervous tension.” (The Penguin English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)]

The nervous tension is something that can collapse at any point, a movement stopped and stretched. It is a set of conditions that can change at any given moment, probably precisely at the moment it is enunciated “If we pause for a moment on the meaning of “states” as the “conditions in which we find ourselves”, then it seems we reference the moment of writing itself or perhaps a certain condition of being upset, out of sorts: what kind of state are we in when we start to think about the state?” (Judith Butler in Who sings the Nation State,2007).

Changing states

The “state” of a nation state is:

7 a politically organized community usu occupying a definite territory. 8 the body politic of such a community.” This body is modeled, amputated, dieted by the state apparatus. Still, underneath the stretched or aging skin, there is a nervous system; when a sensitive spot is touched it can react, on the surface, or even take over the whole body. A state (a nation-state), in order to exist, can’t consider and put into play all the present states it supposedly accounts for.

In “Every Form of Art Has a Political Dimension”, Chantal Mouffe. interviewed by Rosalyn Deutsche, Branden W. Joseph and Thomas Keenan, discusses Hans Haacke’s piece, Der Bevolkerun (To the population), 2000- where Haacke replaces the inscription on the Reichtag, Dem Deutschen Volke (The German People) by Der Belvolberun (the population).  Mouffe argues that the political concept of “the people” can’t be replaced by the sociological concept of “the population”. This would result in a depoliticizing move that would neutralize the struggle at the core of what defines defines/re-define the body of citizen standing for “the people”. According to her, democracy is a practice with a struggle at its core. The struggle responds to an inclusive/ exclusive dialectical relation. Not everybody can be part of “it”, there are some bodies that are not part of “the people”, but part of the population (immigrants, refugees, minorities for example). However, the idea of “the people” needs to be in constant redefinition. Haacke’s piece is interesting in this sense because it points to the gap between the “people” and the “population”. What makes the struggle is the line drawn between what is in and out. The forms of identifications, the passions and the collective imaginary that moves the people (and the population?) is what constantly redefines the line.

This would suppose that  passions need to be canalized and essentialized (in the worse cases, they fall into a love for the nation in a fascist sense). What I’m trying to say is that Mouffe’s struggle does not seem to allow for a multiplicity of states to exist. In the struggle, there must be one cause, towards which affects are mobilized, a symbolic realm where symbols are re-appropriated and actualized (“I want to defend some type of left wing patriotism, some link with the tradition of what it is for a German to be German, or for a French person to be French…” (p.112).

In Lebanon, there are too many passions, to much people arguing on the definition of what Lebanon or being Lebanese is and should be. Too many symbols and histories. In this case, passions can’t be canalized into a constructive debate. They are exclusive of each other in a life/death demarcation line. (can there be a multiplicity of states existing without this violence?) 

So, what do you do when you are an artist and you have to deal with all these passions? What position to adopt, and what “role” can you have ?

Strategic engagements (and a little less love ?)

One phenomena I have discussed in my dissertation on the artist Lina Saneh and her video pieces, I had a dream, mom…, 2006, is the risky institution of an “art sphere” in Lebanon. There is the question of urgency, of not knowing if there is going to be a war tomorrow, of having to take decisions implying nervous breakdowns, taking responsibilities on things that do not depend on you, and having all the work you do vanish in a single moment (This is besides the tragicity of the situation you can be faced with on a more personal level). These extreme conditions render artistic production a Darfour emergency syndrome (to use S.’s expression). You are carried in a whirling movement where all lucidity is lost because it is impossible to keep it (and what lucidity are we talking about? What does it mean to see clearly?). I will have a take on this.

It probably means allowing for things to be questioned, questioning our own positions and the seriouness it implies if we are talking about the intellectual and cultural life in Lebanon. This, I attempt, would mean creating a strategic distance (a little less love ?). It maybe means leaving or stopping. Doing nothing. Doing something that does not follow a fusional and unquestionable logic of engagement, just because interrogating and questioning your own position is not a luxury in this case, but a necessity that could open up other channels, making what is not Darfour, not Darfour.

Going back to Chantal Mouffe, it almost seems that the artistic and cultural sphere, with its emergency status, its Darfour syndrome, might be the first instances of a state in Lebanon?! In the sense that it draws a line, defines a community, institute its activity and allows me to position myself in relation to “it”. Would it be the case that cultural institutions have gained a paradoxical hegemony, and this, by their very fragility?

I don’t know. But I particularly like the lived paradox expressed in the presentation of this year’s Homeworks organized by the Lebanese Association for Plastic Art, Ashkal Alwan. The organization explains its own position in organizing a cultural event in relation to the region’s political instability:

“… it is no longer self-evident to assume that such a platform make for true dialogue and cultural exchange possible. What it allows for however is a productive space in which political, social, economic realities can be explored, reflected, made manifest as visual and verbal articulations that occur with some consistency. These articulations have become our obsession.” (www.ashkalalwan.org).

Obsessions that are reflected upon, thoughts defying reasonable borders, definitions, limits, inebriated critical practices. The questioning of the institutional distance and its role, the fragility of its attempts, is perhaps, a first expression of its consolidation.


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