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Representing Violence, Mediating Bodies

Session VIII-21, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, December 3 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
  • Post-Zionist thought defines a broad agenda for critique by exploring the erosion of Israel’s founding hegemony across society. This hegemony is variously identified as Ashkenazi, secular, socialist, militarist, and/or hyper-masculine. My paper will argue, firstly, that in post-Zionist analyses of Israeli popular culture, there is a general tendency to view the disintegration of a Labor-style hegemony as the optimal path toward redressing the coercive and exclusionary aspects of the Jewish nation-state project. In this view, critique serves as both evidence and aspiration, pointing toward an egalitarian horizon – a state of equitable political and cultural representation for those victimized by Israel’s founding elite, such as the Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern origin), women, the ultra-Orthodox, the far Left, and, above all, Palestinians. But through my study of recent portrayals of political violence in Israeli television, I will argue that this post-Zionist “consensus” has become outmoded, ill-equipped to critique present conditions. I suggest that the dissolution of the Labor Zionist hegemony has not led to a deconstruction of Jewish hierarchy and exclusivity. My close readings of the television dramas Our Boys (2019) and Fauda (2015-) focus on the ways that ascendant narratives of identity – those that aim to replace the collectivist statism of the Labor hegemony – have produced a new Israeli subject that is at least as chauvinistic, paranoid, and resentful as anything that came before. In these dramas, individuals from once-marginalized groups pointedly exit the bounds of Israeli state sovereignty in order to perpetrate violence on Palestinians in a manner the characters explicitly intend to be “unprecedented.” These television programs dramatize a shift from violence as an expression of hierarchical military strategy (with its rationales of state power, “deterrence,” etc.) to violence as an anarchistic expression of kinship (i.e. blood vengeance). This parallels a transformation in the bonds defining group affiliation: from a collective identified with the state to an individual who identifies with smaller units of belonging, such as family or religious cohort. Our Boys and Fauda, both based on real events and personas, issue awful warnings about the nature of Israeli violence in a post-hegemonic reality. They depict nihilistic subjects who reject the norms of the state – even at the cost of their own life – in order to release the full power of asymmetric violence onto a Palestinian figure. Accordingly, my readings suggest the need for revision to certain mainstays of post-Zionist cultural analysis regarding ethnicity, religion, and ideology.
  • The late Mizrahi documentarian filmmaker Eli Hamo completed very few works but nevertheless was a dynamic documentarian, collecting an enormous amount of footage that he never edited into films. This unfinished, fragmentary condition of Hamo’s archive is one aspect of his utopianism. He persistently kept producing the future possibility of something—a film, or a radically different political order in Israel/Palestine—that hasn’t materialized. This paper is based on ethnographic and archival methods, including over 25 interviews with Hamo’s friends, collaborators, and fellow activists, many hours of his footage, his notebooks, scripts for two films which were never produced, and other documents. The paper will focus on critical transformation of borders in Hamo’s work. Hamo lived between Jerusalem, Tucson, Tel Aviv, and New York. He grew up in housing blocks that were built in south Jerusalem as part of the Zionist practice of marking the national territory by populating Mizrahi immigrants at its borders. In his last decade, Hamo documented drummers that were gathering at another border, this time an invisible one, between what is now south Tel Aviv and the area in which the Palestinian quarter of Manshiyyah was located in the past. I will suggest that the aesthetic and political perspective through which Hamo explores this area makes the border present again. Nevertheless, this recreation of the border also transforms the territorial and violent border of Hamo’s childhood into a relational border between Mizrahi Jews and Palestinians. The evocation of memory—of the dimension of time—disrupts the spatial-territorial distinction and allows Mizrahi Jewish and Palestinian displacements to coexist at the margins of the national order. The paper will further describe Hamo’s connection to the media technologies that his archive consists of. Hamo made his living from his skills in video and audio technologies, that, moreover, mediated his utopian counter-Zionist politics. Nevertheless, the economic aspects and progressive development of media technology put Hamo’s living in jeopardy. I will analyze these conflicted temporalities and potentials of media technology at the tension between progressive technological development and the mediation of a utopian non-linear perception of time. This non-linear temporality of Hamo’s work, I will suggest, makes possible the combination of postcolonial structural criticism and traditional Jewish tropes of exile. I will conclude by a political diagnosis of Hamo’s premature death: Hamo died as a utopian border subject under the ever deepening national and global dichotomies.
  • Images of pain and deformation are central in two works from the 1960s that emerged from the Beirut-based journal Shi‘r, and are utilized as metaphors signaling an alternative mode of creation. The first is Lan, Unsī al-Hājj’s first collection of prose-poems, published in 1960 by Dār Majallat Shi‘r. The second is Sittat rusūm, a series of black-and-white illustrations by Kamāl Bullāṭa, published in Shi‘r’s 35th issue (Summer 1967). This paper attempts a visual reading of Lan using themes evoked by Sittat rusūm as guideposts. Bullāṭa’s depictions of the human body in mental and physical agony subvert iconic scenes from Christian iconography and are repurposed into a visual metanarrative of the Palestinian plight post-1967. Tension between roundness and linearity, anxiety over sterility and unknown progeny, violence and fear are visual iterations in Bullāṭa that echo Lan’s parataxis, erraticism, and formlessness, themselves symptoms of de-formation begetting innovation. My argument builds on al-basariyya al-shi‘riyya (poetic visuality) borrowed from Muṣliḥ al-Najjār (2020), a useful comparative concept that enables a more comprehensive reading of modern Arabic poetry by thinking visually with images evoked by words. I argue that poetic visuality is at work in late modernist Arabic poetry in its interplay with structural elements of visual arts and in cross-pollinations of visual consciousness among poets and artists, which grew horizontally across forms and media exemplified in Shi‘r’s experiments. More generally, I argue that experimental poetry relies predominantly on the image; the logic of composing images can unlock a poem once it dispenses with conventions of rhyme, meter, and musicality. Working with theories of physiological and psychological pain and their representations in art and poetry as elucidated by Elaine Scarry in The Body in Pain (1985) and Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), I read instances from both works that speak to each other in their urge to destroy inherited forms of representation that can no longer adequately capture subjective experience. Lan’s reception is thus incomplete without visual perception. My work expands upon Laurie Edson’s method of relational reading across cultural mediums by making a case for poetic visuality across modern Arabic cultural production. Reading modern Arabic poetry intersectionally, in relation to adjacent works of visual art, unpacks valences despite attempts to alienate the reader. In both works, we're presented with a vocabulary of pain and production supplied in picture form, highlighting the notion that experiences of pain and deformity inevitably trigger alterity.