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On the Geopolitics of Sex and Translation in Walid Raad's Hostage: The Bachar Tapes
Walid Raad's 1999 Hostage: The BacharTapes (#17 and #31) is ostensibly the result of a collaboration between Raad, a Lebanese American artist, Souheil Bachar, "the only Arab man to have been detained with the Western hostages kidnapped in Beirut," and the Atlas Group, an organization established "to research and document the contemporary history of Lebanon." In the opening sequence, Bachar is shown seated with his back against a wall, looking directly out at the camera. Through the mediation of a voice-over translation, Bachar reveals the intimate details of the time he spent in captivity with five American hostages held in Beirut during the 1980s (figure 1.1). His testimony initially focuses on the neurotic personal habits of the other men, resulting from their prolonged cohabitation in a small room. The hostages, it seems, were almost pathologically afraid of touching each other and had also convinced themselves that the Arab guards in the adjoining room were having sex. After a few weeks, the Americans grew accustomed to the physical contact, but they maintained a very different relationship to Bachar.
He singles out one incident that exemplifies his anomalous position as an Arab hostage surrounded by white men:
They were clearly disgusted with my body but they touched me all the time. I remember one night in particular, one very hot summer night when the room was filled with the stench of our sweat. As usual we were all on the floor sleeping or trying to sleep. I felt someone's ass rubbing against my crotch. Someone was rubbing himself against me. I became hard and I don't know why, but I pressed myself up against his ass. It felt good. Seconds later, he punched me in the groin, as if my hard on had provoked him. I stayed quiet.
Bachar's revelation, however exemplary it may be in some ways, is complicated by the uncertainties of translation. One key aspect in this episode concerns the small but highly significant discrepancy between the Arabic and the English version of events. Although it is not clearly audible on the soundtrack, Bachar says in Arabic, "[I] felt someone pushing their penis into my ass," while in the English voice-over his words are misleadingly transcribed: "I pressed myself up against his ass." Intentional or not, the translation inverts the order of subject and object. Instead of being the passive recipient of the other man's sexual advances, Bachar is cast as an active participant. Far from clarifying matters, then, a more faithful translation of the Arabic serves only to complicate the power dynamics at work within this scene.
This chapter argues that the meaning of Bachar's actions, or more precisely the meaning his actions take on in relation to the other hostages, exists only in translation. That is to say, translation in Hostage does not serve simply to transpose a preconstituted set of meanings across heterogeneous media. Rather, translation is itself the medium by which the relations in captivity are constituted. In emphasizing the performative dimensions of translation, Hostage demonstrates how relations of force establish themselves first and foremost through symbolic practices, including how we as readers interpret the translations offered to us. This leads to a second claim that is central to the argument of this text: if translation describes processes of dislocation and displacement, both within and across the languages in question, then the subjects caught up in its terms cannot be said to stand outside of its unsettling effects.
Translation is generally thought of as an instrument in the service of the communication of meaning or of a message. Taken in this sense, the aim of translation is to make a text written in one language understandable in another language. In a highly suggestive reading of Walter Benjamin's essay "The Task of the Translator," Samuel Weber alternatively defines translation as a "tangential encounter of two different languages," one that "involves the interplay of the different possible meanings of the original text and of the translation. That interplay results not in one single meaning but rather a difference of meanings of the original text and the translation which, like a difference of opinion, signifies precisely through its disunity." This conception of translation is useful not only because it acknowledges the interplay of meanings within every act of translation, but also because it understands that interplay in agonistic terms. The present experience of translation, as Homi Bhabha has argued, is that which resists any "consensual continuity" between the languages involved. What is played out in Hostage is not just a difference of opinion over what happened in captivity, but a no less important dispute concerning the translatability of those experiences. To put this another way, what the translations in the video represent is not a neat equivalence between the two languages being translated, but the irreducible difference between what they mean and the ways in which they each make their meanings. That the key moment in the video in which translation becomes most decisively a problem is also a scene of interracial sexual contact is surely significant. In Hostage, both sex and the languages used to give meaning to it function as terms of difference and indeterminacy. As such, they signal the limit to and the enabling condition of translation.
Walid Raad is part of a generation of Lebanese artists who grew up watching the civil wars as young adults and whose work remains inextricably tied to the memory of that formative experience. Between 1989 and 2004, Raad produced work under the banner of the Atlas Group, an "imaginary foundation" of historians, writers, and artists who assembled artifacts relating both to Lebanon's recent past and to its political present. Reportedly based in Beirut and New York, the Atlas Group Archive included notebooks, videotapes, and photographs that Raad exhibits in mixed-media installations, academic publications, public lectures, and online. Although many of the documents in the Atlas Group Archive were taken from genuine historical sources, they were often attributed to an imaginary author or linked to an event that never took place. Even when the accredited author was a real person, it may be that Raad had invented the document in question. As much as Raad's project was a project of historical documentation and preservation, it was also an attempt to investigate the sorts of agencies and institutions that are charged with authorizing history. By conducting archival research, unearthing ephemeral artifacts, and collecting eyewitness testimonies, Raad asked his audiences to consider how and in whose interests historical memory is constituted. Like his Lebanese contemporaries, he has sought to resist an iconography that reduces the experience of war to the spectacle of violence. His work can also be seen as part of a shared critical inquiry into the evidentiary status of images in Lebanon, particularly those produced under the pressure of war.
Hostage is in many respects typical of this body of work. It consists of three distinct but intersecting narrative lines that span the gap between the public and private dimensions of captivity: video testimonies made by the Western hostages while in captivity, the television coverage of the Iran-Contra Affair, and the postcaptivity video testimonies made by Bachar. The retelling of the Western Hostage Crisis, alongside the apocryphal story told by Bachar, sets up a tension between the official representation of the hostage ordeal and the unauthorized experiences that have been censored from mass-media images of captivity. As such, Hostage asks us to think of the Western Hostage Crisis not as a unified event that can be fully reconstituted but as a set of discourses that are unevenly distributed and subject to competing interpretations and ideological claims.
In structural terms, Hostage is divided into several sections, each framed by cues or markers of pseudohistoriographic documentation. In the prologue, for example, text appears on screen listing the title, file type, document number, and production data, as well as a summary that offers some brief background information on Bachar, the extent of his collaboration with the Atlas Group, and the number of videos they have made available to audiences outside of Lebanon. Significantly, the tapes are categorized not as the actual hostage videos made during captivity, but as records of detention made several years after the fact. This is an important distinction that is often overlooked by audiences of Hostage, who mistakenly view the work as a direct transcription of a historical event rather than a secondary elaboration on its documentation.
Live screenings of Hostage, like screenings of many of Raad's works, are often followed by audience questions that evidence an unquestioned belief in the historical veracity of the information presented in the video. This reaction is surely proof of the power of video to compel conviction. The credulity inspired by Hostage is also linked to the aura of authenticity that surrounds Bachar in his triple role as native informant, witness, and survivor. As Elliott Grunner has noted, the ex-hostage is, upon release, "elevated into a higher level of existence and power which affords him a privileged voice." It is this voice that makes the ex-hostage an object of popular fascination and awe.
For all its apparent immediacy, then, Hostage is a video that insistently calls attention to the practices of signification — acts of selection and exclusion, the editing of accounts together, the building of an account into a story, the use of particular types of exposition — that are used to construct hostage testimonies. More specifically, Hostage approaches the Western Hostage Crisis in terms of the discursive structure of the captivity narrative: How does this genre make its meanings, and what kinds of speaking positions are made possible by it? At stake in this line of inquiry is a recognition that the images and stories of hostages in Beirut are fundamentally shaped not only by the technological parameters of video and the programming constraints of television, but also by the cultural codes of the captivity narrative, particularly as they relate to the power dynamics of prolonged interracial and homosocial confinement.
Before I can begin to explore these questions, however, it is necessary to return to the limits of existing scholarship on Raad's work, which I outlined in the introduction — specifically the critical writings that foreground questions of trauma and fiction, and the relation of both to the larger problematic of documentary representation in contemporary art coming out of Lebanon. In the same manner that the insistent reference to trauma functions to depoliticize the archival dimension of Raad's practice, the almost uniform alignment of his work with tendencies of documentary fiction in contemporary art avoids questions concerning its politics of truth. In his essay "Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?," Bruno Latour remarks on the increasing ways in which the theory of social construction — that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we always speak from a particular standpoint — has been co-opted by neoliberal conservatives "to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives" so that, for example, arguments for global warming are today attacked for their lack of scientific certainty. For Latour, this realization necessitates that we fundamentally rethink the concept of critique: "The danger would no longer be coming from an excessive confidence in ideological arguments posturing as matters of fact — as we have learned to combat so efficiently in the past — but from an excessive distrust of good matters of fact disguised as bad ideological biases! While we spent years trying to detect the real prejudices hidden behind the appearance of objective statements, do we now have to reveal the real objective and incontrovertible facts hidden behind the illusion of prejudices?" This is not to argue for a return to the facts themselves, as if they could be neatly extracted from the political struggles that surround their interpretation. Rather, it is to insist that the recourse to strategies of fictionalization does not free us of the responsibility of attending to the effects of power at work in particular regimes of truth. This covers not only the types of discourse that a given social order accepts and makes function as true, but "the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true."
No doubt for Raad and other politically engaged artists of his generation, the use of fiction has an important critical dimension that cannot be overlooked. First, fiction serves to counter the reification of representation enacted in the corporate mass media. Second, fiction creates a space in which an audience is invited to enter into a performative relationship with the document. As Jacques Rancière has argued, fictualization enacts ways of thinking and ways of feeling that are otherwise foreclosed in traditional forms of documentary realism: "making 'fictional archives' of the war, fictionalizing the detournement of a surveillance camera to film a sunset, or playing with the sounds of mortar shells and fireworks, and so on. This very constructed, at times playful, relationship to their history addresses a spectator whose interpretive and emotional capacity is not only acknowledged but called upon. In other words, the work is constructed in such a way that it is up to the spectator to interpret it and to react to it affectively." Following Rancière, it has become commonplace by now to say that the Atlas Group problematizes traditional methods of historical description and explanation. Indeed, much of what has been written about the Atlas Group outside of Lebanon has tended to focus narrowly on the problematic conjunction of fact and fiction in the work. Typical in this regard is Janet A. Kaplan, who, in reference to Documenta 11's "flood of straightforward cultural documentation," argues that "Raad's inventions of characters to whom real photographs are attributed, of actors employed to perform historical fictions and of imaginary narratives that explain real events all served to quietly undermine uncritical belief in the veracity of historical presentations." Similarly, Sarah Rogers puts forward the now-standard claim that Raad's mimicry of the archive "transforms fictional into historical narration, consequently dismantling the opposition often built between the two forms of telling and retelling."
Raad's fabrication of history, together with his use of multiple and often contradictory authorial positions, undoubtedly serves to undermine the conventional binary of fiction and nonfiction, a distinction that he sees as both reductive and false. As he explains in a 2002 interview with Alan Gilbert:
I say different things at different times and in different places according to personal, historical, cultural and political considerations with regard to the geographical location and my personal and professional relation with the audience and how much they know about the political, economic and cultural histories of Lebanon, the wars in Lebanon, the Middle East and contemporary art. I also always mention in exhibitions and lectures that the Atlas Group documents are ones that I produced and that I attribute to various imaginary individuals. But even this direct statement fails, in many instances, to make evident for readers or an audience the imaginary nature of the Atlas Group and its documents.
The crucial point that needs to be made is that Raad is not simply exposing truth as an ideological fiction to do away with the concept of truth altogether. Instead, fiction becomes the basis for a new form of representation whose veracity consists not in any assumed relation to a prior reality, but in the production of a new political reality. That is to say, the people and events documented in the Atlas Group Archive may not be real, but they can still have very real effects. Michel Foucault's remarks on fiction are particularly suggestive in this regard: "I have never written anything other than fictions. For all that, I would not want to say that they are outside truth. It seems possible to me to make fiction work within truth, to induce truth-effects within a fictional discourse, and in some way to make the discourse of truth arouse, 'fabricate' something which does not as yet exist, thus 'fiction' something. One 'fictions' history starting from a political reality that renders it true, one 'fictions' a politics that doesn't as yet exist starting from an historical truth."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Posthumous Images"
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Table of ContentsList of Illustrations ix
1. Captive Subjects: On the Geopolitics of Sex and Translation in Walid Raad's Hostage: The Bachar Tapes 27
2. Resistance, Video Martyrdom, and the Afterlife of the Lebanese Left 55
3. Latent Images, Buried Bodies: Mourning Lebanon's Disappeared 93
4. Suspended Places: The Void and the Monument in Post-Civil War Beirut 131
5. Images of Futures Past: The Lebanese Rocket Society 159
Coda. Time Bomb 177
What People are Saying About This
“Chad Elias's thoughtful analysis of artistic activity under 'state-sanctioned amnesia' in the Lebanese context is eye-opening and a source of inspiration for anyone interested in the long-lasting effects of imperial violence. The Lebanese Civil War and the amnesia it continues to generate are not assumed as a background against which Lebanese art is studied, or as a source of an un-presentable trauma. Amnesia is conceived as orchestrated by the state and integral to an entire economy of violence, desires, and mistranslations. Elias ingeniously shows art to be both a product of and a medium for this economy, but also a form of resistance to it.”
“Offering a compelling overview of contemporary Lebanese art, Posthumous Images is a welcome addition to cutting-edge scholarship on the Middle East, critically addressing the relationship between media and performance, and the formation of experimental memory cultures following periods of state violence and military conflicts.”