Aug 10, 2020

During one of our virtual sessions for ITP Camp this summer, we hosted artist and scholar Bassem Saad. Bassem’s work explores objects and economies that distribute violence, pleasure, care, and waste; in particular relevance to our organization, Bassem’s prior work has engaged with the circumstances and responses to Beirut’s waste crisis.

To prepare for this talk, Bassem asked us to read the following pieces, which informed his own thinking on this topic:

“Genealogies of Resilience” begins to unpack the history and use of the term “resilience”, which now commonly appears in civic discourse for issues ranging from coastal infrastructure to financial investment schemes. Walker and Cooper note: resilience requires us to not predict or prevent disaster, but merely adapt to its eventuality and aftermath. The article traces the lineage of this term, from its start in complex ecological systems to its present applications in security by the likes of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the World Bank, and the IMF. It specifically points to the scholarship of C.S. Holling, an ecologist, and Friedrich von Hayek, a philosopher, whose contributions ultimately shaped modern neoliberal strategies for regulation and crisis response. Tracing their influence through sustainable development practices in the Global South, W&C find that a logic of resilience is also “a tacit recognition that ‘development’ for the post-colonial poor now consists not in achieving first world standards of urban affluence but of surviving.” This realization crystalizes another: if resilience as espoused by second-order cybernetics cannot critique the injustice of a complex adaptive system perpetuating old modes of power, it is necessarily in collusion with its agenda.

“Hopeful Resilience” looks at the indoctrination and combination of both modern structures of resilience and technology within high-tech computational infrastructures, and “smartness” of cities and technologies. This combination creates a form of “preemptive infrastructural governance” that normalizes and “naturalizes” violence, loss of human rights, and environmental sacrifice as necessary for the economic model the world thrives under rather than a set of politically driven options set in place by a small number of individuals. The author compares West Bengal with New York City as seemingly different from each other but both containing exploitative bodies under these specific modes. The future can be seen as a financial instrument in which we recognize our codependence on each other. A new future asks for a different relationship between how we understand financialization, ecology, habitat, and environment.

The piece ties together work from scholars such as C.S. Holling, Melinda Cooper, and Randy Martin, to make the case for examining finance, environment, and habitat for future world visions.

This, of course, brings us to Bassem’s own works – the three that were most prominently featured in his talk are featured and summarized below:

“No Entropy Cassandra 2020” introduces us to the realities of the 2015 waste crisis in Beirut, Lebanon.. Bassem articulates a framework of “Entropy Cassandra” based on Tiqqun’s Cybernetic Hypothesis–systems are not pure and in fact exist in a state of insular degradation–along with a history of Beirut’s waste infrastructure, and civil unrest. He conceptualizes a (counter) theory of “resilience” to both imagine and examine Beirut of the present and future. He is primarily interested in two properties of a system: resilience and entropy. Entropy reveals what resilience may mask. So, we must ask: what may be the role of the artist and the protestor facing systems that privilege resilience? And what would it take to avoid becoming an Entropy Cassandra and instead to move to a “different plane” while continuing to protest and care for the most fragile within society?

“Kink Retrograde” is a 19-minute speculative film that opens with the text: “Filmed inside a landfill whose legal status is as disputable as the legal status of our bodies inside it.” The visuals dance with the themes of toxicity, life, and promise–often presented in playful juxtaposition. Bassem, in his words: “Toxicity is seen as an existential and political condition arising from governance that normalizes crisis and prescribes resilience.” His protagonists, must therefore, devise a new way of being, one that is “aware of its own abjectness, risk, and deviance — one of total kink.” An excerpt of the film is available on his website.

“Abrasive Things,” though unpublished, presents the most urgent and relevant vision of what kink can teach us about existence in a world mired in economic collapse, a global pandemic, and a perpetual carceral state. In the wake of the August explosion in the port of Beirut, Bassem’s words–“molecular violence inflicted differentially on bodies in specific geographies”–ring especially clairvoyant. He is emphatic to note that the social contract that exists between parts of the citizenry that disportionately bears the weight of systemic risk and its government is deeply broken. Risk-aware consensual kink tells us that new modes are possible, with greater vigilance to the reality of current conditions (though remaining shy of fatalism). Bassem examines the history of strategies leveraged against the constant and pervasive hum of crisis–from theological to technocratic–and notes, with alarming self-awareness, that all exits are ideological ones.

We are very grateful to have been able to host Bassem this summer, and encourage all discard studies enthusiasts to follow along with his work.