Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Hezbollah coup

People thought for a long time that a plausible solution to the growing Hezbollah phenomenon would be a political one: that, gradually, and in proportion to its Shii constituency in the south, the Beirut suburbs, and the east of the Biqa valley, the Hezbollah would be offered parliamentary seats and cabinet positions. With such a scenario the Hezbollah would transform itself into a manageable political beast, gradually giving away its stockpile of arms in favor of a common political life. Besides that such a scenario looks at the Hezbollah crisis as something manageable within the already dysfunctional Lebanese parliamentary system, it perceives such a phenomenon in terms of a “political anomaly,” rather than, say, a sociological crisis with deep historical underpinnings. Indeed, such an overt political optimism is part of a Lebanese tradition that perceives groups and parties in terms of political relations at home and abroad. The Hezbollah is thus a combination of Syrian and Iranian proxies, while regional pressures would only come to an end once more equitable solutions are found to the region as a whole, from Palestine to Iraq and beyond.

That Hezbollah thesis of a gradual absorption spectrum within traditional Lebanese politics was indeed an optimistic one. For one thing, it translates an inability to understand phenomena sociologically and historically, with an eye on social structure and its political implications. What is rather sought for is actually just the reverse: that all “anomalies” are an outcome of inside and outside political imbalances. On the other hand, as for the majority of Lebanese the Hezbollah phenomenon is a rather strange aberration, politicizing it would render it more comprehensible. A socio-historical rationalization would simply be out of reach.

But with the Hezbollah coup this past week political optimism has only witnessed its final breakdown—at least we hope so. It’s not the Hezbollah that’s being “absorbed” here into Lebanese politics anymore, but the party of God dictating its own rules to the Lebanese constituencies at large. That sudden reversal could be even compared to the various military coups that were common in the Arab world back in the 1950s: the Free Officers revolution in 1952, the end of the Iraqi Hashimites and the coming of Qasim in 1958, and Syria’s union with Egypt in 1958, all of which marked an abrupt end to the era of bourgeois middle class parliamentarism. Even though the Lebanese middle class is by far more robust, and better rooted and diversified, than its Egyptian, Syrian, and Iraqi counterparts, it is as if the specter of military politics has finally hit Lebanese doors—irreversibly as it seems for now. Not even the long 15-year civil war has brought into the picture what few hours had unraveled in west Beirut last week: namely, the militarization of political life, with a possible end of traditional middle class hegemony. All that happened with over half a century of delays vis-à-vis the likes of Syria, Iraq, and Egypt. That Lebanon has survived that long, notwithstanding its successive civil wars (in particular 1958 and 1975), with a parliamentarian system that was willy-nilly democratic, could be ascribed to two major historical factors. First of all, a strong Christian middle class that held the reign of commerce (and previously land tenure and agriculture). Second, a rapid evolution from an agrarian Ottoman framework to a financial commercialism that was urban oriented. Moreover, what’s remarkable about such an evolution is that the groups that initially had made Ottoman politics, trade, taxation, and land tenure possible, were the same that pushed for its financial and commercial urbanization. So what saved Lebanon from its common Arab fate was the migration between mountain and city that occurred by the middle of the nineteenth century, which broke the common stalemate between poorly capitalized rural and urban spaces. Once the mountainous rural economy reached its zenith in the nineteenth century, in particular with the Egyptian withdrawal in 1840, the traditional élite was already looking for alternatives. The coming to an end of the politics of the notables, in conjunction with steam-boat technology and the growth of trade across the Mediterranean, are among the factors that had contributed to the sudden growth of Beirut by the end of the nineteenth century. By WWI Beirut had outpaced a much deeply seated city like Damascus at all levels.

What we’re therefore witnessing in Beirut and Lebanon right now may well be a delayed turnover to the kind of militarized politics and shut down of the liberal public sphere that swept core Arab countries back in the 1950s and later. Barrington Moore’s well known thesis that failed democracies occur when the interests of a monetized landowning class overlap with those of an urban commercial and financial bourgeoisie may be just about right for our purposes here. Even though the histories of Syria, Iraq, and Egypt, have, in spite of their common Ottoman background, more dissimilarities than a solid common ground, it is nevertheless striking that their landowning classes grew separately from their urban financial and manufacturing classes. The landowning gentry, which protected itself from the commercialization of land thanks to the grant-like Ottoman land tenure system, was too fractured and weak to establish any cohesive “national” politics. In what became the urban political space of the postcolonial states, the interests of tribal chiefs, landowning gentry, and the urban commercial and financial class, mixed together in no coherent order. As they were all seen as remnants of the old order, they were soon replaced by various military régimes from modest rural landowning origins. What comes next is a closed political system, composed for the most part of army officers, landowners, bureaucrats, and remnants of the old urban bourgeoisie whose only left option was a political scene imposed by the military.

Lebanon for its part averted that kind of scenario precisely because its landowning class of central Lebanon (the mountainous areas of Kisruwan and the Shuf) transformed itself by the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries into a vibrant urban class. It’s that kind of self-transformation that gave Lebanon a democratic break for over half a century, which even the fifteen-year deadly civil war could not damage. That self-transformation of the Christian landowning classes, which in the process transformed the Maronite church itself, and thrown the Druze of the mountains and the urban Sunnis into a new unprecedented commercial adventure to which they were poorly prepared, is what saved Lebanon in the final analysis from the poor record of the militarization of politics that had swept the Arab world. In hindsight, the 1958 brief civil war and its aftermath—such as the politically immature and destructive 1969 Cairo agreement, and the 1975–1990 bloody civil war—were in combination tragic events that led the Druze and a majority of Sunnis to shyly “embrace” what they had labeled as the “Maronite state” of Lebanese capitalism and its pro-western tendencies.

But if central Lebanon, and parts of the north, have embraced a westernized turbo capitalism (without a much needed robust judicial system), the south was left pretty much on its own with its landowning and ulama Shii families and clans. The autonomy of the South—or more precisely what’s traditionally known as Jabal ‘Amil—was already there in Ottoman times: besides the tightly controlled port of Sidon by both the Ottoman authorities and the Shihabi emirs, much of Jabal ‘Amil and its surroundings was indeed left to a conglomeration of landed élites, ulama, and local chieftains. In colonial and postcolonial Lebanon the majority of the Shia in the south, north, and elsewhere were left to their ulama and senior families (the Himadehs, ‘Usayrans, As‘ads, and Bayduns, to name only few of the most prominent families) which were supposed to “represent” the Shia in parliamentary affairs and in Lebanese politics in general. As dissatisfied Shiis from the lower rural and urban classes soon began to join the ranks of various Palestinian militias, autonomous Shia movements of the lower classes began to form in the 1970s: that was the case of the Amal movement under the guidance of Musa al-Sadr (the vanished imam). Thus, even though the ulama movement, as was the case in Iran and Iraq, was in sharp decline in the WWI-WWII period and its aftermath, it received its jolt of reinvigoration thanks to paramilitary organizations of the likes of Amal in which the ulama played a key role in the eyes of the lumpenproletariat. Such a rejuvenation of the ulama was picked up by the Hezbollah in the 1980s, amid their reintegration within their militarized bureaucracy. The success of the integration, however, worked mostly in favor of the junior ulama, who managed to bypass the authority of the senior ulama, in a situation that resembles the formation of the Iraqi Da‘wa party back in 1957-59 by dissatisfied and alienated junior ulama (e.g. Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr).

By the time the Pax Syriana became the norm in the 1990s, the Hezbollah had emerged into a full fledged bureaucratic and military alliance of sorts. Its fascist nature stems from a combination of poorly developed groups among Shiis: landowners, overseas immigrants, merchants, ulama, and an uprooted popular urban class, have all come together in a broad and unlikely coalition, while the rest of Lebanon has avoided such a fate and taken a different turn.

Lebanon’s core problem is therefore socio-historical rather than political. We’ll be witnessing, however, in the coming years, constant attempts to solve the Hezbollah problems through political bargains: let’s give them a bigger share in government, let them have a bigger parliamentary bloc, and let them have what they want in decision making. But if the last week has proved anything, it’s that, politically speaking, the Hezbollah immediately hit a wall once its military “successes” were granted from day one. In all logic, the Hezbollah should have pushed further to transform its military takeover with political immunity: take the governmental Seray by force, and intimidate the leaders of the ruling majority of the likes of Sanyura, Junblat, and Hariri, if not force them downright into exile. None of that happened, however. It’s as if the Hezbollah, all of a sudden, could not figure out how to capitalize on its all too sudden military takeover of west Beirut and the Druze mountain: What to do next? The Hezbollah must have asked themselves: could we rule the two-thirds of Lebanon that doesn’t want us and is incompatible with our Islamic beliefs? In real life, however, people do not ponder on abstract questions in all their logical conundrums. As individuals and groups we’re always mourning our pasts, and in that process, the impossibility to coming to terms with our pasts pushes us towards more violence and hatred towards the other.

Saturday, May 3, 2008


The French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, who died earlier this year and whose reputation rests for being the pope of the nouveau roman, published La jalousie in 1957. The title seems to play on the double meaning of jalousie in French: the first is jealousy, and the second refers to a vertical blind, or a Venetian blind, as it’s sometimes called. The nameless protagonist is here simply observing meticulously—every object, every gesture, every shade. Which is precisely what brings the double meaning of jealousy together: meticulous observation is neither free nor disinterested, as it is guided by a sense of obsession and rivalry towards an object, on one hand, and the invisible medium that makes observation possible and lucrative—sort of blind, where the observed cannot see the observer, or where the observer remains for the most part invisible.

L’année dernière à Marienbad, which was scripted by Robbe-Grillet and directed by Alain Resnais in 1961, has now been released in a restored version in the US (and playing this week at the Music Box in Chicago). I saw it for the first time in a ciné-club in the early years of civil-war Beirut, when I was sophomore/junior in chemistry/physics, and didn’t make much of it. But when I had a second look at it yesterday, in its new US release, Robbe-Grillet’s jalousie kept creeping in to my mind.

Marienbad may be complicated or simple, depending on how much you make out of it. But one thing is certain: it is solely narrated from the viewpoint of a single narrator, a handsome middle-aged man with an Italian accent, and designated as X throughout the film. By contrast we hardly know anything of A, a slightly younger woman than X, except for what X phantasizes about her in his monologue. In effect, X’s monologue is obsessive, systematic, and precise in its target: A. X is therefore the observer’s guide: not only is he the one to obsessively observe A continuously, but we observe A, the château and its world, and its aristocratic bourgeois guests, through the eyes—and consciousness—of X. In other words, we’re trapped to the screen through his eyes and consciousness—perhaps more to the latter than the former. In short, the screen is X’s consciousness.

X’s obsessive consciousness runs twofold. At one level, and that’s the essence of the film, he is obsessed with A, her gestures, thoughts, body, posture, and the few things she has to say. One might think that it’s all driven by pure jealousy (hence my connection with jalousie), but, in the final analysis, what really matters is how you come to perceive a jealous act. Jealousy could be perceived as a simple rivalry over a woman, and there’s something to suggest that kind of direction: a mid-aged man, identified as M, positioning himself as a rival-lover-cum-husband, is portrayed as linked to A in some obscure relationship. But even though his relation to X turns sour, it does not seem to guide X’s obsessive lust. Indeed, X’s obsessive gaze seems to suggest that a man’s lust for a woman is jalousie tout court, whether there is a rival lover or not. That’s where jalousie and Marienbad come together: they both portray jealousy the act (feeling) per se, and the process (act) of observing the desired object. The two combined come to represent the consciousness of that main protagonist beleaguerer.

Marienbad is therefore all about seeing, phantasizing, and constructing a selective type of consciousness out of the fragmented images within the space-time continuum. X’s memory is therefore his consciousness, which translates as his obsessiveness with A. X’s gaze reconstructs in his consciousness A’s space-time continuum, as we only get to “know” through X’s jalousie. Otherwise, A’s attitude—confronted with X’s lust and perseverance—is callous at best, as she keeps begging him with the same supplice: “Mais, je vous en prie, laissez-moi!” That kind of leave-me-alone attitude only underscores her indifference, probably finding X’s insistence unattractive, and his character boorish. But whatever that may be, she does not have any memory: not only she can’t remember anything, but there is no “consciousness” of anything in her. Only those infested with that jalousie sickness—that is, who suffer for being who they are, and for falling prey to a beloved object—do enjoy that luxury of memory, and of space-time recollection. What in effect the film portrays accurately—in a documentary fashion—are X’s specific recollections, which are all related to A. Once we step “outside” what A may be doing, feeling, or thinking, we’re into the pure repetition of le même. In effect, X’s recollections of the château, its entourage and clients, are one of sameness: the same gestures, postures, bodies, and utterances, from one year to another. Memory seems here incapable of distinguishing anything—or rather of naming anything with accuracy—hence that infernal sameness: only A makes—creates—the difference. If A is différence (or différance), the others (les autres, including le château) are répétition. At the very end of the film, the château’s massive garden is described by the narrator as “typically French,” that is, without all the natural elements, like flowers and trees, that would make it lively, non-symmetrical, and without the infinite mathematical repetitiveness. In other words, the garden is like the château itself, its endless unpopulated corridors, symmetries, rooms, and guests: it’s all about good manners, mathematical symmetry, and bourgeois obtuse mannerisms. When X engages with M in a public “fight,” it’s through well ordered games like matches and dominoes.

Only X’s obsessiveness with A—his consciousness of her and her time-space—disrupts that enduring mathematical order. It is that obsessive consciousness of the observer who suffers which disrupts that order—in one’s mind—through an act of violence—that of intruding into another’s space-time. There are even few scattered scenes in A’s bedroom—scenes that A herself cannot or pretend not to remember—that do suggest that X was prying on her from an unknown location (through a jalousie? A Blue Velvet kind of voyeurism?): even in that seemingly “private” space it is indeed the suffering observer that remembers in a non-linear non-chronological space-time. As that kind of voyeurism verges on violence, there is a scene where violence is physically perpetrated, when M, the jealous lover-cum-husband shoots A. But, again, such a scene, like many others, is solely from X’s perspective, in that awkward reality-fiction combination that determines the assortment of events in a peculiar space-time configuration (and there’s no point in asking where reality begins, and where fiction ends). What’s interesting about that scene, where A is shot while lying in bed, is the physicality of violence, which in other scenes never moves beyond touching or fondling A. It has been reported that to Robbe-Grillet X’s attitude is that of a rapist, that is, one to which the erotic-sexual gaze receives its satisfaction only through (ritualized) sexual violence. Be that as it may, one can see that X’s type of consciousness is one of lust and suffering, which borders on violence, whether it consummates itself in an act of rape or not. But then X’s order becomes a mathematical order all by itself, like its surroundings, obsessively repeating its own gestures, appearances, and utterances.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Foucauldian musings

In Paul Veyne’s Foucault (Paris: Albin Michel, 2008, no English translation yet), “discourse” comes as a third medium layer between the subject’s individual consciousness and society at large. If most philosophical and epistemological systems have the knowing subject as epicenter (e.g. Husserl’s intentional phenomenology, or the Heideggerian Dasein), by contrast the social sciences took the side of society, ignoring the subject as a flawed subjective entity. What’s missing is that in-between “language” that tells us what to do and not do, and what to say and not say: in short, something that poses limits to our thoughts and makes every discovery rare and precious. That’s precisely what Foucault meant by discourse. Thus, for art, for example, there is the individual artist on one side, and society at large on the other, but what makes a work of art possible is that tertium quid that defines what is possible at a certain time in a particular society. Discourse would not, however, be able to concretely materialize within a spacio-temporal terrain without the apparatus (dispositif) that would make its very existence possible. The discourse of law in a particular society would not be possible without the various apparatuses of justice through which discourse would operate: the tribunals, the judges, experts, lawyers, and all the institutions that would make a legal case possible.

What is interesting in Veyne’s study are his historical and sociological digressions. As a professional historian of the Greco-Roman empire, Veyne is primarily interested, through his Foucauldian musings, in an epistemology of historical and sociological knowledge. As the sociologist Jean-Claude Passeron has argued, in a book that is subject to Veyne’s attention, we’re into, as far as the social sciences and humanities are concerned, a non-Popperian world: that is, we cannot think those sciences within the narrow categories of induction, deduction, and scientific verification. Passeron and Veyne opt for the Weberian ideal-type notion as a preliminary starting point, only to subject it to some insightful tweaks. Thus, ideal-types like feudalism, the Byzantine Empire, or the Tokugawa Shogunate, are semi-proper names (semi-noms propres): they denote something, and beyond that something that they denote, they have absolutely no credibility. What those names denote are the referents that are need for any historical and sociological denotation of social reality. The meaning of those semi-proper names are defined by the endless referents that denote it. We can call that process of documentation as one of indexation of social reality which would make the semi-proper name meaningful and understandable. We can additionally bring Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology into the picture here through the indexation that is implicit in the users’ need to routinely index speech in order to make one another’s utterances comprehensible. The Foucauldian discourse, through its various apparatuses, would therefore act as the medium through which the individual subjective actions achieve meaning.

Once we define historical and sociological epistemology along that line, it becomes more clear that various political idiosyncratic positions would only look for what they really are: as pseudo-epistemologies of the life-world. For example, the critique of orientalism falsely poses itself as a critique of western knowledge, while confusing in one go orientalism with colonialism and imperialism: one would act in conjunction with the other, or they would all act inseparably from one another. But that’s more of an unsophisticated and idiosyncratic political stance than a usefully genuine cognitive epistemological theory.