In the 1966 preface to the third part of “The Origins of Totalitarianism”, Hannah Arendt makes the following observation in regard to the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union: “The clearest sign that the Soviet Union can no longer be called totalitarian in the strict sense of the term is, of course, the amazingly swift recovery of the arts during the last decade”. In her book “The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt”, Seyla Benhabib explains: “What Arendt was calling attention to with this observation was the development of shared spaces – alternative or subaltern publics – in the interstices of these societies as evidence of the loosening of totalitarian rule and the reassertion of the self-organizing power of civil society”.
The most significant manner in which “totalitarian” tendencies appear is when the public space is threatened, and by the public space isn’t necessarily meant buildings and places, but the interaction that occurs spontaneously between fellowmen. French sociologist Henri Lefebvre tells us that social space is a social product that acts as a mediator between mental and social activities; in his view, the social production or manipulation of space by political power can only be served by violence, in the service of economic and political interests. The arduous task of the postwar reconstruction of Lebanon is already a textbook case of manipulation of the social or public space.
Censorship of media, cultural production and publications in Lebanon has played a pivotal role in maintaining the same nationalist enclaves that existed throughout the Civil War. Far from being a monolithic code of rules applied uniformly, it is simply a helpless and ever changing bureaucratic apparatus charged with precisely dovetailing the Lebanese public space in order to accommodate the different actors – political parties, religious communities and private interests – in whose interest it is to maintain Lebanon divided, and hence preventing the appearance of such alternative or subaltern publics or spaces in which reconciliation - and a shared memory - can take place.
A comprehensive study on the practice of censorship in law and the impact on the public space, “Censorship in Lebanon: Law and Practice” is available from the Heinrich Boell Foundation, and the 2011 report on press and cultural freedom by the SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom also warns about the increasing rate of censorship, including banned films and attempts to regulate internet content in a country that after all, is famous for being an ocean of freedom in the Middle East.
The infamous censorship bureau, part of the Directorate General of General Security has come this week under scrutiny with the web-series Mamnou3! (Forbidden) created by Nadim Lahoud with the help of SKeyes’ director Ayman Mehanna, scriptwriter Camille Salame and sponsored by the Samir Kassir Foundation. The series began airing Sunday July 1st on YouTube taking a humorous look at the inner workings of the censorship bureau and relying on real life examples that are all too well known to every Lebanese familiar with the state bureaucracy.
Borges said that censorship is the mother of metaphor, and this doesn’t cease to apply in present day Lebanon where in spite of increasing censorship, the Lebanese have developed a very sophisticated set of cultural codes, meta-languages and symbols to carry their message onto unexpected public and spaces. In Mamnou3 we can see not only that censorship is the mother of metaphor, but that even censorship can become a metaphor.
What Susan Sontag said in 2003 about literature, might well apply here not only to literature but also to films, to art and to media in general: “To have access to literature, world literature, was to escape the prison of national vanity, of philistinism, of compulsory provincialism, of inane schooling, of imperfect destinies and bad luck. Literature was the passport to enter a larger life; that is, the zone of freedom.”
There has been hardly a challenge bigger to the hegemony over the public space in Lebanon exercised by the censorship authorities than Mamnou3, and in this sense, it has proven that even the censors of metaphors – and all culture is but metaphors – can fall prey to metaphors themselves.
Humor is always the most radical form of cultural criticism and self-criticism, and here, it forces people to face the question of why it is important to be free to choose what they hear and see, how they write their history and ultimately, their own standards of truth. The answer to the question is at stake in how the Lebanese public will react to this innovative project, but a partial answer is provided by Hannah Arendt in an interview with Roger Errera in 1973:
“The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather than nobody believes in anything any longer. This is because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history.
On the receiving end you get not only a lie – a lie which you could go on with for the rest of your days – but yet a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such people you can then do what you please.”
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Hannah Arendt, Lebanon