Visions of Beirut: The Urban Life of Media Infrastructure

by Hatim El-Hibri

Visions of Beirut: The Urban Life of Media Infrastructure
Visions of Beirut: The Urban Life of Media Infrastructure

Recently, Professor El-Hibri was interviewed by Jadaliyya about his new book Visions of Beirut: The Urban Life of Media Infrastructure*. Professor Hatim El-Hibri is an Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies at George Mason University. Prior to joining GMU, he was at the Media Studies Program at the American University of Beirut. He earned his PhD in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University.


Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Hatim El-Hibri (HEL): This is a first book, and like many academics, it grew out of questions that I started asking in my dissertation but could not set aside. I have always been interested in finding critical perspectives on the relationship between media, space, and regimes of power. I quickly became fascinated by the manner in which Lebanon, and Beirut in particular, embodied a set of contradictions in the relationship between images, infrastructure, and the unevenness of everyday life. Digging into the historical layers of Beirut’s media circuitries was the best way I knew to pursue the goal of putting Middle East Studies and Media Studies in dialog. Many of the questions that I had when I first conceived of this project (the later 2000s) started to seem more rather than less urgent as time went on. The political economic situation of that time led to a sense of foreboding and a systematic deterioration that persisted through the 2011 uprisings and was always present during my three years at the American University of Beirut (2014-2017). I now think of research as a process whereby you start out with a set of questions, but rather than finding satisfying answers to them, per se, you wind up with unexpected connections and insights that have to be shared.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

HEL: Visions of Beirut examines how the production and circulation of images has been a part of the shaping of the spaces of the city. I argue that rather than a straightforward story about the powerful using images to misrepresent issues to the public, or directly shape spaces and subjectivities (an instrumentalist notion of media), images are better understood in terms of the infrastructures that they help create. Those media infrastructural conditions in turn shape the visual culture of the city, in a recursive manner. Infrastructural functioning is better understood not as an off/on binary totality, but as a type of event of its own duration. Each chapter of the book focuses on a type of image, and the first two of the book’s four chapters show how media, infrastructure, and images have been a part of the production and contestation of the city and its peoples.

The first chapter engages with critical cartography and urban history, analyzing maps, aerial photographs, and urban plans in the management of the city from the French Mandate through the civil war (1920-1990). The second chapter examines images of before/after in the financialization of postwar construction, showing how this visual form did important work in corporate boardrooms and the public arena. These first two chapters allow for a more nuanced understanding of how infrastructure, visual culture, and urban space became intertwined before the contemporary moment.

Chapters three and four turn to the question of live media, offering a theory of mediated concealment by reflecting Hizbullah’s Al Manar satellite television channel, guerilla tactics, and the Mleeta museum. By concealment, I refer to a set of practices and techniques that aim to keep people (and sometimes places and infrastructure itself) hidden from military surveillance. The third chapter focuses on the materiality of the Al Manar signal in the 2006 war, and considers how live broadcasts exist in infrastructural antagonism with Israeli military targeting, but also the spectacle of surreptitious guerilla activity which was itself sometimes recorded by Hizbullah camera units. The fourth chapter analyzes the (hypermasculine) embodied pedagogy of the Mleeta museum to show how concealment, like other mediated forms, is not any more liberatory than the political project it is a part of. If the book begins in archives in and of the city, it ends at a tourist site defined by its location in the South, long pulled into the city’s political orbit while being is putative outside.

This book shows how media, embodied mobility, the circulation of images, archives, and urban geographies and histories are bound together in ways that precede what we now think of as digital technologies. Giving an account of media in everyday life and regimes of power in Lebanon and the Middle East meant pursuing paths of inquiry across disciplinary boundaries and critical traditions. I was in the final stages of manuscript revision when the October 17 revolution began in 2019, and so that event, the pandemic, and the catastrophic blast at the Beirut Port on August 4, 2020 now feel like a historical bookend to the period the book deals with.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work? 

HEL: This is my first book, and came out of my deeper interests in media, power, space, aesthetics, images, and technology.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have? 

HEL: Visions of Beirut is primarily in conversation with media studies, visual culture studies, and urban studies, but is also in dialog with television studies, infrastructure studies, urban history, media and communication theory, and critical cartography. My hope is that scholars of Lebanon will find this book to be a unique addition to the literature, and that it can help fuel the growing interest in media and visual culture within Middle East studies. This book also offers scholars in media, communication, and cultural studies a distinct theorization of images, space, and infrastructure that is grounded in the particularities of Beirut but will also, I hope, be generative for other contexts. This book’s contribution to urban studies is inflected by this interdisciplinary synthesis. If nothing else, I hope this book allows for a broadening of the range of questions that can be asked about media in Lebanon, and of media from the region. As I have been fortunate to have found remarkable support and inspiration from mentors, friends, colleagues, students, and anonymous reviewers, I hope that this book makes good on the gift that has been their time and presence.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

HEL: I am in the earliest stages of a new project on a media history of the “Arab street” (heavy use of scare quotes there!). I hope to present a genealogy of the spatial practices, expressive cultures, and mediated forms that shaped this way of conceiving, experiencing, and policing political passions in public in the long twentieth century. It will show how the notion of the “Arab street” emerged at the nexus of modern social theory and developmental conceptions of “the people,” and the governmental techniques deployed to manage (or elicit) its imagined excesses. I will also show us how this notion was informed by the specific media historical formations that reported, echoed, pictured, and scaffolded its affective tensions—from film reel of revolts in the 1920s and 1930s, to Abdel Nasser’s facility with radio audiences, to the Palestinian Intifadas, and up through the imbrication of social media in the Arab Uprisings.


Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 1-4)

Media start us in the middle of things. In this way, they are not unlike events—large and small, personal and political—that assert themselves through the everyday. By the time we are aware that something is an event, it tends to already be in motion, to have accumulated a momen- tum whose directionality has only just become perceptible. When I visited Beirut late in December 2006, I was already aware of the sit-in demonstration organized by Hizbullah, the Lebanese political party and militia. The group had emerged in the 1980s during the Lebanese Civil War (1975–90), at the nexus of Shi’ite social movements that predated the start of the conflict, and with backing from post-revolutionary Iran. Hizbullah had fought a war with Israel in the summer of that year, which the party termed a “Divine Victory.” They denounced the stand- ing government, organized by an opposing political bloc affiliated with Western and Saudi interests, as not representing the true interests of all Lebanese. The call for protests came soon after. When I visited the sit-in demonstration that resulted, it had been ongoing for the better part of three weeks, and had effectively shut down large portions of the historic city center, and also the site of Parliament. The area had been badly damaged during the Civil War, and in the early 1990s was placed into the hands of a private company for development.

The atmosphere that prevailed that night was a stark contrast with what the heavily policed space was typically like—oriented exclusively to high-end shopping, luxury apartments, banks, and govern- ment offices, and empty when compared to other parts of the city. Major thoroughfares were closed, people smoked hookahs in parking lots con- verted to gathering spaces, and informational booths set up by the party and its allies had been established in Martyrs’ Square, a large open space that was an important historical site of protests seeking a national stage (as it had been just a year earlier). Street vendors—ordinarily not allowed in the neighborhood—sold street food, party-branded memorabilia, coffee, and cotton candy from carts and impromptu stalls. While taking in the disrup- tion to the typical order of things, I soon noticed another modification to the space. The demonstration’s organizers had set up large screens near the Parliament building and at Martyrs’ Square (where there was also a stage for nightly performances), onto which was projected Al Manar, the television channel affiliated with Hizbullah. What was striking about these screens was that on more than one occasion, what appeared both on screen and in the space was live coverage of the demonstration at the demonstration. I was eventually able to figure out where the on-scene and on-screen reporter was by walking around and glancing at the screen while keeping a lookout for the lights of the camera crew.

The circularity of such an image was part of what initially stood out, because of the novelty of seeing the mise-en-abyme created on location, particularly as it was a spectacle of public disruption harnessed to the agenda of a major political party. The demonstration, operating in this key in its initial weeks, capitalized on perhaps the most made-for-spectacle part of the city. It occupied a square that had been both city center and protest center since the late Ottoman era, albeit in the incarnation taken by postwar neo- liberal construction with all its nostalgia for the French colonial style. This experience left me with questions that have led to this book. What history of images in and of the city might contextualize this event? What role have images played in attempts to manage, shape, and contest the spaces of Bei- rut? If the visual vectors of that night drew attention to the act of looking itself, how might these specificities offer a perspective on how media condition urban space and everyday life? What is the context in which these im- ages, and media infrastructural conditions, make sense? This book grapples with these questions so as to investigate contemporary visual culture, and the role of infrastructure in shaping how that public and that space were brought into being. It gives an account of shifting topologies of power, and of contingent techniques and infrastructural alignments as they congeal in Beirut’s radius.

Infrastructure, Incompleteness, and Mediation

Our ability to grapple with the political stakes of infrastructure depends on a precise understanding of its spatial and temporal qualities. This is in turn a question of the entanglement of urban space with the images that animate it. The opening paragraph of Edward Said’s Orientalism discusses commentary by a French journalist about the damage done to downtown Beirut in the first years of the Civil War. Said shows how this expression of regret reflected an outsized fascination for the East, which in turn produced a very particular kind of disappointment in the place itself.Such imaginaries clearly continue into the contemporary moment. Yet alongside this cultural register, there is a less examined media history of techniques of visualization in support of endeavors such as urban planning, real-estate investment, and military surveil- lance. The history of the space of the city—fundamentally bound up in the politics of the creation of its geographic outside and periphery—is also historically intertwined with the media infrastructures that circulate such images. Considering the uneven and contested nature of visual culture from Beirut allows a productive perspective on the politics of the circulation of images. It may often be that infrastructure is defined by its overlooked place in everyday life—not noticed within our daily rhythms and media habits because of its continuous, smooth functioning. The aesthetic experience of infrastructure may encourage a common-sense view of it as a finished and distinct thing, or even a sublime totality. But in places like Lebanon—as it is in many parts of the Global South—the everyday is itself defined not by whether water and electrical cuts may hypothetically happen, but by how predictable those cuts become.

There is an incompleteness intrinsic to infrastructure, a spatiotemporality that requires maintenance sometimes beginning before construction is even completed, and which perhaps by definition is always ongoing. Em- barking on infrastructural projects can have a certain evidentiary utility for elites who wish to perform development—wherein the completion of public works is secondary to the exchanging of money and favors. Yet infrastructure would seem to be defined by its essential incompleteness—not simply in the sense that roads also crumble in wealthy neighborhoods or the metropole, or that life persists unevenly in imperial and neoliberal ruination. The study of infrastructure from the perspective of maintenance and repair has allowed for a sense of the politics of its temporal duration, and of modifications that take place within its path dependencies. This incompleteness can be mobilized toward ends that are sometimes less obvious and more politically ambiguous. A similar perspective emerges if we trace the spatiotemporal relations of mediation itself—or, as I explore in chapter 3, the relationship of multiple, conflicting visual vectors allows an eventful understanding of visual culture. If infrastructure is the relation between things—which is itself something like a definition of mediation—then many kinds of mediation are also incomplete. To investigate mediation means to consider the verb form of media, or, those processes that media do. Considering mediation in Beirut brings the incompleteness of infrastructure to the foreground. The contradictions of incompleteness appear there in ways that can be dramatic, mundane, or mundane in their drama.


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