Monday, July 13, 2015

Ghassan Hage “On Viability: Urban Jouissance in the streets of Beirut” By Noah Tamarkin

Blog Post: Ghassan Hage “On Viability: Urban Jouissance in the streets of Beirut” By Noah Tamarkin By the time Tuesday morning’s session rolled around, we were increasingly well-versed in thinking through the manufacture of happiness in a range of affective, economic, political, and embodied registers. In his talk “On Viability: Urban Jouissance in the Streets of Beirut,” Ghassan Hage offered a take on happiness that was routed through Western philosophical theories of viability and ethnographic encounters with friends and interlocutors in Beirut, Lebanon. Here happiness emerged in a space of joyful inventiveness fostered by uncertainty and the absence of law, both conditions entwined with four decades of histories of violence in Lebanon including the civil war (1975-1991), the war against Israeli occupation (2000), political assassinations by the Syrian regime (from 2005), Israeli bombing (2006), and ongoing tension and conflict that have characterized the subsequent years. Hage’s Western philosophical viability and non-viability archive included Hegel’s theory of recognition, Althusser’s subjectification via interpellation, Lacan’s fantasizing subject, Spinoza’s joy, Heidegger’s homebuilding, and the communal viability of Durkheim, Mauss and Hobbes alongside Nietzche’s anti-community. This archive suggests that we might locate the viable self explicitly in community, and furthermore that viability is deeply contingent on not only intersubjective recognition but also the possibility of joyful belonging. With these conditions of possibility in mind, Hage guided us through a series of gleeful accounts of urban disorder. ‘Ma fi nazam b’hol balad!’ (There is no law and order in this nation!) one friend exclaimed—and here it is tone and context that makes the point. This and other similar comments were not spoken in resignation or despair but rather in playfulness: this was the language of urban jouissance. Two examples that were especially illustrative involved traffic and sandwiches. First, traffic: driving in Beirut might be characterized by the absence of rules, where drivers navigate their cars however they choose. This same state of affairs can also be framed positively: here driving, Hage explained, is like navigating a galactic ship, dodging cars imagined as meteorites and given nicknames like “the destroyer,” “the ambivalent one,” and “the wayward one.” In this framing, driving in Beirut is an adventure of galactic proportions, and the rest of the world is missing out on the fun of playing the game and having the opportunity to masterfully display one’s skill. Here jouissance is a measure of one’s attentiveness to unpredictable others. This framing pokes fun at traffic laws as absurd—picture the lone car, obediently stopped at a red light in a deserted intersection, waiting for nobody and enacting an entirely imaginary scene of safety. Hage’s mobile interlocuters inspire us to ask: against the sterile stupidity of false senses of safety, what kinds of viability might emerge from acknowledging unpredictability and attending so carefully—and joyfully—to others? Next, sandwiches. Another interlocutor explained how much he hated the European convention of standing in line, waiting for one’s turn to buy a sandwich. He relished rubbing shoulders with other sandwich-seekers, all pushing to get to the counter for the sandwich that subsequently somehow tasted better for the effort. “Queuing is for assholes!” he exclaimed. Like the unpredictable wayward drivers, the sandwich seekers enacted an intimacy that was sorely lacking in spaces of order, predictability, and ultimately social distance. Perhaps only assholes queue, but then again, perhaps queuing produces assholes. In both of these examples, Beirut emerged as an improvisational space that fostered a navigational skill that was contingent on intimate recognition of and engagement with others. This was viability as urban jouissance, against the cold lifelessness of rigidly rule-governed Western urban spaces. For Hage, the fact of comparison was critically important. It marked his interlocutors as particularly classed, mobile subjects: migrants with the privilege to view themselves otherwise, as travelers who choose where and when they circulate. Equally critical, however, is that what Hage calls “the diasporic condition” is not limited to those who travel. Rather, he argued, diaspora is the culture of Lebanese modernity, shaping the subjectivities of all those who are born into it, whether they themselves become migrants or not. Hage further argued that the diasporic condition is becoming more and more the condition of life, and as such we need to theorize an anthropology of diasporic culture that is attentive to lifeworlds. For Hage then, diasporic culture encompasses not only those who migrate but also those who do not, and it is a way of being in and of the world through which movement, transnational pastiche, and frameworks of comparison combine with surprising results. Space matters here, but not only in relation to movement. In the diasporic condition, space becomes inherently comparative and compressed: in one example, Hage emphasized that you can’t look at the mountain in front of you without also seeing, or being haunted by, that other mountain in another place that you hold as part of who you are. Suggesting that the diasporic condition can be characterized by the internalization of the space of viability, Hage left us with the intriguing notion that “the diasporic subject is not someone who asks a question, it is someone who inhabits a question.” How do we then theorize diasporic culture as a space of viability that might open up into the possibility of happiness? Hage suggests that we might do this through attention to an ethics of happiness, characterized by negotiation, intimacy, and forms of sociality. These are characteristics that are demanded of those existing outside of the law, and they point to the possibility of an existence, marked by happiness, outside of the power of the nation-state. While Hage’s vision of viability and urban jouissance were certainly compelling, his account also raises a number of questions, some of which were posed during the question and answer period. First, to what extent is the urban disorder of Beirut consistent with the absence of law, and what do we gain analytically from such binary distinctions (rule of law/absence of law)? Second, how might closer consideration of the lifeworlds of differently situated diasporic subjects, especially in terms of gender and class, shift this account of the joyfulness of urban jouissance? Third, how might we productively put this account of the diasporic condition routed through Beirut in conversation with diaspora theory and ethnography that is routed through and in relation to Africa? Finally, how might various anthropological archives on diasporic culture and theories of viability further clarify and push Hage’s conclusions? Noah Tamarkin Ohio State University

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