Crisis of Representation: Experimental Documentary in Postwar Lebanon
This dissertation investigates the social world of contemporary filmmakers in the Middle East and the way they use visual media to re-imagine existent forms of identity, envision new modes of social agency, and transform public culture in the face of dramatic instability. In the wake of the Lebanese civil war and through the tenuous postwar period, video art and experimental documentary have critiqued the politics of representation and negotiated the theoretical and structural difficulties in representing the war. These artists have activated intersections where experimental media has generated a vibrant visual culture by both building on local notions of cosmopolitanism and by participating in transnational sites of postcolonial representation. Methodologically, I employ ethnography to grapple with the public culture of Beirut as a site of avant-garde experimentation, but also to examine the city as a contested site affected by periods of rapid growth, intense violence, and urban reconstruction. To explain this cultural phenomenon, I advance the idea of 'post-orientalist aesthetic' to describe a mode of intellectual critique and artistic style that goes beyond Edward Said's critique to give greater attention to self-representation in the post-911 period. This aesthetic interrogates western representational practices and also develops a localized critical analysis of Middle Eastern visual culture. This aesthetic informs a better understanding of postwar subjectivity, particularly in the way memory and lived experience becomes mediated through the materiality of objects, images, and architecture affectively inscribed with destruction and violence. The notion of the archive or the personal collection becomes of particular interest here; especially in the way these artifacts embody personalized narratives and testimonials that push back from abstracted notions of a monolithic historical narrative. Drawing on visual anthropology, media ethnography, and nonwestern film theory, this text examines the way these artists challenge realist modes of representation by utilizing both ethnographic and artistic approaches to grapple with the experience of everyday violence. In order to explore methodologies for conducting visual research in conflict zones, I conclude with an experimental auto-ethnography that appropriates these aesthetics in an effort to interrogate my positionality as an American researcher in the Middle East.
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