Making Sense: Affective Research in Postwar Lebanese Art

By Westmoreland, Mark R. | Critical Arts, December 2013 | Go to article overview

Making Sense: Affective Research in Postwar Lebanese Art


Westmoreland, Mark R., Critical Arts


Abstract

Based on long-term research with contemporary artists in Lebanon, who utilise documentary practices to advance experimental forms of evidence, this article explores the generative possibilities enabled by crossing disciplinary borders between anthropological and artistic modes of social inquiry. In the wake of an unresolved civil war in the country (1975-1990), a vibrant art movement emerged with a set of critical aesthetics aimed at identifying and working through a postwar crisis of representation. Although typically consigned to artistic engagements with the archive, the work of Jayce Salloum, Walid Raad and Akram Zaatari elucidates a motif of research curiously under-examined. Because they each have systematically grappled with the epistemological and methodological aspects of researching the war, their oeuvres provide a germane triptych for assessing alternative forms of evidence. By closely examining the way their work rethinks the taken-for-granted modes of knowledge production, this article argues that their experimental visual practices poignantly critique the politics of representation, redefine the codes of documentary evidence, and 'make sense' of the war on an affective level. Although these artists express antagonism toward traditional anthropology, the article contends that their minority perspectives, research methodologies and practice-based accounts work as alternative ethnographies of Lebanon. Drawing upon recent anthropology, film and art theory, this article demonstrates how disciplinary differences serve as 'productive irritants' (Schneider and Wright 2006b) and provides glimpses of different forms of knowledge.

Keywords: affect, catastrophic, knowledge, Lebanon, research, visual

Missing targets

I open with a scene from Missing Lebanese Wars (Part 1), an 85-second video by Walid Raad. We are at the racetrack during the Lebanese civil war. In a jumble of close-up shots, we peer over the shoulders of men, trying to catch a glimpse of the dirt track. A young but resonant male voice provides a commentary, a narrative that gives meaning to these disjointed images: 'It is a little-known fact that the major historians of the recent civil war were compulsive gamblers during the war period. It is said that they met every Sunday at the track; Marxists and Islamists betting on races one to four and Maronite nationalists and socialists betting on races five to eight.... ' As the narrative continues, we learn that the men were betting not on the ponies, but on the accuracy of the photo-finish.

According to this piece, as well as installation and text-based versions of the project, a prominent Lebanese historian, Dr. Fadl Fakhouri, kept the details of this game of chance in a notebook. Each page has a newspaper cut-out of the photofinish, replete with diagrammed notations in Arabic that measure the distance from the horse's nose to the actual finish line, as well as initials indicating the particular wagers made by the different historians. In effect, the narrative introduces us not to historian Fadl Fakhouri per se, but to the details of his research on the mundane betting practices of this ideologically divided group of historians. While Fakhouri's observations at both sets of races render his political allegiances unclear (or gesture to an objective neutrality), his role in this narrative foregrounds the significance of a research motif.

This idiosyncratic manner of researching Lebanon's political turmoil stems from Fakhouri's driving question: 'How do we make sense of the experience of the civil war in Lebanon?' (Raad 2004: 45). In such scenarios, the notion of 'missing Lebanese wars' deserves some concerted attention, as it can take on different types of significance. Notions of physical absence or longing certainly provide apropos interpretations, but I argue that there are more productive readings to explore here. In the case of the horse races, perhaps the gambling historians are missing the point of the races, which are based on the predictability of horses to win, place or show. …

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