Panoptic encompasses a number of analogies between city and psyche, comparable to the analogy Freud makes between what he called “the ego” and “the Eternal City” in the opening pages of his Civilisation and Its Discontents (1989, first published in German in 1930). [open endnotes in new page] In this late work, Freud returned to his fascination with memory and forgetting as psychosomatic processes. Written in Europe in the wake of the First World War, and consequently carrying a pessimistic aura, he employs the analogy of the city as a site of sedimented layers to claim that memory traces in the psyche are never destroyed, but remain “preserved,” and “in suitable circumstances…can once more be brought to light.” He alludes to a sense of “excavation,” and “archaeology.” I quote the longer passage:
“Since we overcame the error of supposing that the forgetting we are familiar with signified a destruction of the memory-trace—that is, its annihilation—we have been inclined to take the opposite view, that in mental life nothing which has once been formed can perish—that everything is somehow preserved and that in suitable circumstances (when, for instance, regression goes back far enough) it can once more be brought to light.”
No doubt, for Freud, “brought to light” involves a number of complex processes. However, for my present purposes, it is important to note that what is “preserved” consists not only of certain incidents and events, but a person’s emotional response to incidents and events. Indeed, such responses take on a life of their own, played-out in a subject’s further relationships and life scenarios.
By the late 1920s, Freud had established a critical repertoire of the psyche in which memory-traces are processed as modalities of ego formation, whereby prohibitions are incorporated and socially exchanged as specific “accomplishments” (as Judith Butler says), specific traits of character. While he didn’t quite use the term modalities, what he was getting at was that mannerisms, ways of speaking, decorous conduct, public comportment, jokes and slips of the tongue, involve orientations to self and world, linguistic and cultural repertoires, histories of personal and social interaction, influencing capacities for self-constitution.
More locally, specifically concerning cinematic style, Eid has been influenced by the creative documentaries of Mohamed Soueid. In his films, such as the so-called civil war trilogy—Tango of Yearning (1998), Nightfall (2000), Civil War (2002)—he tends to depict personal idiosyncrasies in tandem to social quirks, demonstrating the pathologies incorporated by modalities of public decorum. In Civil War, for example, he focuses on the rising fashion of camouflage army fatigue, as well as the increasing rates of tooth decay among people in Lebanon. As Marks perceptively observes: “‘Subjects’ in Soueid’s films are knots of tics, bad habits, and accommodations that allow them to deal (not without flair) with impossible situations.” This phenomena has more to do with political culture than psychological disposition: “They are not so much psychological subjects as knots in a political field, their individual neuroses the manifestations of political traumas.”
Panoptic maintains the analogy of city and psyche. Early in the film, Eid observes that Beirut is petrified, as the city’s inhabitants have become “paralysed,” incapable of rendering memory a more proactive undertaking of discussion. “With time,” she says, “the city itself calcified.” We learn that after her father’s death, Eid herself is diagnosed with otosclerosis, a middle-ear condition that gradually leads to a loss of hearing, and potentially, dementia. In her voiceover, she says that she had surgery to avoid becoming deaf.
This personal disposition is connected to thematic references to the city, Beirut, whose occupants, she observes, have lost their capacities to hear the acoustic pulse beats of a pathological condition. As Eid articulates further in her voiceover, still addressing a public hearing for interpolating:
“If I hadn’t done the operation, I might have gone deaf, and my head would have become calcified, paralysing me. But I wouldn’t die. With time, the city itself became calcified, trapping its inhabitants above and below the ground.”
In Soueid’s films and, as I am suggesting, Panoptic, neuroses are divided and shared through relational knots of personal comportment and political culture. For both filmmakers, political and social wounds are incorporated as afflictions, though directed towards a critical view of the pathologies of self and circumstance. By the same token, Soueid’s subjects—Bassem in Nightfall, the late Mohamed Doaybess in Civil War, and himself in Tango of Yearning—are eccentric to the extent that they fail to live up to predominant expectations of conduct, fail to conform to conventional mannerisms and demeanours. They are, in a sense, misfits, leftovers of a political culture compartmentalized into confessional allegiances (demographically and electorally), and otherwise informed by the symptomatic spasms of opportunistic forgetting. In Panoptic, the subject of neuroses is Eid’s own relationship to the history of violence and political culture in Lebanon, though sieved through her relationship to her late father, a former army general.
While introducing the Murr tower, Eid speaks about its resemblance to the mythological giant Argus Panopte, who apparently had a hundred eyes, half of which never closed, and whose job entailed keeping watch. To be sure, the film’s title, Panoptic, refers also to the work of the French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault, especially his notion of the subjective introjection of surveillance. Eid has mentioned the work of Foucault as a “main reference for her film.” Foucault’s central point concerns circulations and distributions of power that produce docile subjects ever on their guard against their own potential transgressions. He adapts the idea of a lookout building, gleaned from Jeremy Bentham’s notion of a panoptic tower that functions as a mechanism for an introjection of surveillance.
If Freud’s outlook and conclusions in Civilisation and its Discontents are pessimistic, then Foucault’s are even gloomier. Power doesn’t take place between adversaries, but rather becomes a fateful modality of self-constitution. Indeed, for Foucault (at least in his Discipline and Punish period—mid 1970s) there seems to be no escape:
“He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection (my emphasis).”
For Eid, the point is that the Murr tower’s many windows appear like hollow eyes, and had the panoptic effect of subjecting people to a “field of visibility,” controlling how people comported themselves, internalizing fear and surveillance as a condition of livelihood during the long years of violence.
Her further point, which she draws attention to in her film, is that such subjective orientations and emotional modalities of comportment were not so much abnormal or extraordinary, but rather part and parcel of everyday life. Indeed, for many people during the civil war, what at times transpired as out of the ordinary were periods of relative calm, when basic services and goods became accessible for brief interludes. Such access implicates ways of comportment that were just as ordinary as they were extra-ordinary. As Sara Ahmed says, capacities to inhabit place implicate certain practices by which subjects “reach” out toward their circumstances, by which subjects are “shaped” by this relational orientation. Thus, capacities to meaningfully inhabit an environment and circumstance depend
“on the ways in which the world is available as a space of action, a space where things ‘have a certain place’ or are ‘in place.’ Bodies inhabit space by how they reach for objects, just as objects in turn extend what we can reach.”
With its haunting depiction of the Murr tower, Panoptic, I want to emphasise, is designed to draw critical attention to the longevity of this haunting and its accompanying modes of comportment.
Where Foucault concentrated on the visual field, for Eid it is more a question of being subjected to spheres of acoustic and aural resonances. However, similar to Foucault’s productive notion of power, while telling the story of her relationship to sound, Eid draws attention to soundscapes as a dense materiality affecting the capacities of people to inhabit their environments. I have been suggesting that the trajectory of Eid’s personal and professional relationship to sound informs the pulse beats of her film, construed through a manifold entwinement of thematic reference, cinematic style, and personal disposition.
Her personal plight, composed as an aural address to her deceased father, is entangled with more general symptoms of public paralysis. This paralysis encompasses a psychosomatic disposition by which memories of violence—concerning, in the main, the years of war and civil violence between 1975 and 1990—remain difficult to discuss as a public issue.
Since the civil war (as I mentioned in my opening remarks above), documentary in Lebanon has made a considerable contribution to memories of war and civil violence. For the most part, documentary has fashioned an experimental style marked by stuttering narratives of discomposure, characterisation betraying a fragmented sense of self. Having no trust in narrative continuity and temporal closure, filmmakers of Rana Eid’s generation are nevertheless driven to gather shards of experience and fashion them into styles of cinematic production.
The fragmentary, episodic style constitutes a compelling interweaving of performative and referential modes of association, betraying a distrust of ideological explanations.
Particularly after the Israeli occupation in 1982, violence between the various militias became increasingly opportunistic, shorn of any moral compass. In leftist circles (Arabist, Marxist, Maoist), as historical trust and hope lost their ideological moorings, cultural production became attuned to a shattered political landscape, in the midst of which the nafsiyya of characterisation transpires as a remnant or left-over of history. Like post-civil war literature in Lebanon, narrative style in film, especially documentary, became episodic, mesmerised by what we can refer to (to borrow a popular Arabic phrase when describing someone who has lost their wits) as a fall into time, by which I mean a loss of temporal moorings with which to look forward with modicums of confidence—capacities to simply look forward. In this next to final section of my essay, I want to discuss an intergenerational prism, whereby for Eid’s particular age group looking-forward became almost impossible.
Like two other notable filmmakers in Lebanon, Nadine Naous and Eliane Raheb, Eid is part of what can be called a civil war generation, whose childhood is entangled with the resonant, inexplicable force of war and armed violence—a resonance that was not so much abnormal, but indeed part and parcel of their surroundings. Their parents’ generation had experienced the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s as a period of trust in political ideals. Across the Arab world it was a time of independence from colonial rulers and, to some extent, imperial influence. Pan-Arabism, Arab nationalism, and movements for Palestinian liberation promised social and political renewal, steered through progressive pulse beats of hope. I want to emphasise that this Nasserist generation embodied political, social, and cultural hope as a hermeneutic modality of orienting oneself to the fractures brought about by the civil war years. In other words, for the Nasserist generation, the civil war could be hermeneutically digested as a disappointment, as a failure to live up to expectations of political and social hope.
By contrast, Eid, like Naous and Raheb, had no embodied sense of ideological trust or political hope. Consequently, their experience of civil war could not be made sense of in terms of political failure or disappointment. All three filmmakers were born in the early 1970s, and became aware of their world as one of actual and impending violence, or else intermittent periods of relative calm. In her film Home Sweet Home (2014), Naous refers to the formal end of the civil war in 1990-91 as “turning everything upside down.” Raheb has made similar remarks. In an interview in Cairo in 2013, where she was showing her film Sleepless Nights (2012) at the Panorama European Film Festival, she refers to the post-civil war period as one of inexplicable public silence. She tells her interviewer, Hannah Dimashq, that the public silence and political amnesia motivated her to make her film, to reference war and violence as themes of public address. In this way Raheb could work on her sense of the meaninglessness of the immediate postwar period, as well as transform her embodied sense of actual and impending violence and non-violence into a hermeneutic of distinction between normal and abnormal.
At just under halfway into Panoptic, against a visual scene in Martyrs Square of national festivities and celebrations of the Lebanese army, Eid returns to her father:
“I dreamt of the dragon, while you dreamt of Pan-Arabism and Palestine. I was scared of my dream, while you believed in yours. But you’ve gone, and so have the dreams, and common causes, while the wars have multiplied, and we’ve lost sight of the enemy.”
To an accompanying sombre musical refrain, the hand–held camera moves forward through a narrow corridor of the inside of a building, as a news report announces an outbreak of militia clashes on the streets.
Remarkably, considering that Panoptic was released in 2017, the lack of political/public hope informing the film goes somewhat against the grain of the activist mood of anti-government sentiments and protests. In the second half of 2015 a large opposition movement emerged around the failure of the Lebanese government to adequately collect waste and otherwise provide basic services in an equitable and affordable manner. The current protests, initially sparked by the government’s decision to tax WhatsApp phone calls, emerged in October 2019, involving, in the main, a non-aligned youth intent on wresting their future livelihoods from the corrupt strangleholds of the political elite.
Against this contemporary background, while Panoptic may not share the future oriented spirit of these protest movements, the film does maintain the significance of more adequately dealing with the relation between personal and public memories of the civil war.
The political elite I just referred to includes current political figures responsible for acts of violence during the civil war, who passed the General Amnesty Law in 1991, so as to spare themselves from incriminating redress and accountability. In her film, Eid refers to this amnesty as a watershed event bringing about amnesia. When asked, in an interview, about the tendency to repeat history because of a failure to critically discuss memories of violence, she responds:
“Of course. For me what the general amnesty did in 1991 to the country and how the Lebanese people accepted it is a general amnesia. We forgot everything. So that’s why I feel Lebanon is not going to be stable ever because we didn’t solve anything. That’s the Lebanese mentality, we put layers on top of other layers and we hide the reality. We hide everything and we put it underground and it’s been calcified.”
The final image of the film reproduces the distant earlier image of the Murr building, shrouded in a sombre twilight, its stubborn immobility contrasted be the cars curving along the foregrounded highway, their lights becoming stronger as the light fades to near-black.
Eid’s main achievement with her film concerns how she directs attention to the way in which sound is manifold, multilayered, and relational. While conventional fields of vision often involve outlines that serve to define distinct substances, which helps to compartmentalize people and things, separating them off from their interrelations, sound is much harder to contain, always overflowing attempts to box it in (a wall, for example, can serve to block off sight, whereby sound has a capacity to go through a wall).
In Panoptic no sound is singular or distinct, but interwoven with any number of sounds, echoing through underground chambers, or else reverberating as urban soundscapes, such as the opening scene when the noise of traffic is interwoven with hollow voices and insect-like screeches. Sound is interwoven with noise, its distinctness never quiet setting itself free from the immersive resonances of environments, both above and below ground. Refusing any compartmentalization of sound and noise, with her film Eid has managed to provide a compelling approach to soundscapes of cinematic style.