Postscript to ‘The War is Going to Ignite’: On the Anticipation of Violence in Lebanon
It has been four years since the publication of “The War is Going to Ignite.” People in Lebanon continue to wait, anticipate, and think of their future as certainly unstable and war torn. War isn’t always at the forefront of their minds. Life goes on, real estate developers build, entrepreneurs open businesses, and people go about their days. But waiting for war does lie beneath the surface, rearing its head to inform their work, their thoughts, and their days.
When I began to think about the anticipation of violence some years ago, I considered that it would have implications for people in places experiencing protracted conflict, but the scope of those places seemed rather limited at the time. I had imagined that the U.S. “war on terror” would create a global state of constant anticipation of violence, as the boundaries of this war were undefined. I recall thinking this feeling was not yet pervasive; it seemed there were still places to hide.
Certainly, the underprivileged in any state are always living with precarity, a subjectivity that speaks about a violent future in the uncertainty that it impresses on the present. However, it seemed that there was a marked difference between this type of classed violent future and one whereby everyone, irrespective of class, anticipates war and political violence, even if said violence may impact people differently.
Today, four years after publishing this article, the region around Lebanon feels as though it is disintegrating in ways I had not anticipated when I first began this research. Syria is mired in a chimeric civil war that has produced one of the worst refugee crises in modern times. Iraq continues to be torn apart by gruesome suicide bombings and sectarian war. Yemen and Libya lie in ruins. The United States continues to violently reshape the region, and the Islamic State in the Levant threatens our future by terrorizing us into some idyllic fictional past. In Lebanon, while people in Beirut might be waiting, in other parts like the Bekaa Valley, arms are proliferating and the bang of gunfire has become part of the daily melody. The regional situation feels even more bleak than this and the list of conflict places and instability too long to recount.
In this sense, trying to understand the various facets of how the anticipation of violence operates is more important than ever. Thinking about how practices of anticipation might look in other places—and how all these practices might be classed and gendered—would be immensely useful and would fill gaps in this project. It is crucial to also keep in mind that political violence is systemic: it may intensify and subside, but to a large degree it is always already present. The anticipation of war, of further violence, occurs from within this context.
While anticipation is certainly future oriented, I was very much invested in people’s present time. The future was haunting the present and folding back to impress on the present what had yet to be. Yet, the future never stands all alone ahead of us, untouched and pure. It is constantly being informed and shaped by our past. It is an imagined time—what would or could be, never what really will be. In my fieldwork, the past and future were meeting in the present, and, I argued, anticipation was a way to form some certainty in our everyday lives in what was a fundamentally uncertain time and space.
What also emerged from the article were reflections on the notion of the event versus the ordinary. I’ve continued to think about this point and some further insights appear (self-promotion warning) in my forthcoming book, War is Coming: Between Past and Future Violence in Lebanon (Spring 2017). In the book, I argue, borrowing partly from Badiou, that incidents are defined as events versus being mundane reflexively, as they gain or lose intensity of subjective energy—the way people come to feel, desire, think, make visible or remember a specific occurrence. Thus, the event is never fixed and always threatening to become mundane. We might feel incidences that happened in the past or that we anticipate in the future as eventful, yet in the very present they can often be folded into our daily lives. Alternatively, a violent act, such as a bombing, might feel very eventful in the present only to lose intensity with time, remembered as mundane. The intensification of subjective energy partly determines whether an incident becomes an event or remains ordinary.
Anticipating future political violence plays not only a role in how we come to think about the event, but also about the ruptures caused by events.
I have argued that anticipation is meant to help us deal with these ruptures of before and after. People try to paint some certainty into their future, and I think this is the case in whatever context one might be, but the conflict zone makes this particularly acute. This painting of certainty is meant to give us a handle on the rupture when it finally does rear its head, and make it so that it isn’t felt as rupture. Anticipation is meant to make the event uneventful. In many ways, people in Lebanon do this with some success, and it is the reason that supposed violent events get folded into daily life very soon after they occur.
Finally, I ended on a note of hope, and I do not suspend that hope now. Not because things haven’t gotten progressively worse regionally, though seemingly more of the same locally, but because we must not allow ourselves to imagine futures and continue to live the present without hope. Doing otherwise would be nihilistic. The challenge remains for us to figure out how to act rather than to just hope. In the absence of action, hope can simply serve as a mask for despair.
Sami Hermez is an assistant professor in residence of anthropology at Northwestern University in Qatar. His research focuses on the everyday life of political violence in Lebanon, and his broader concerns include the study of social movements, the state, memory, security, and human rights in the Arab World.