Towards a Phenomenology of Civil War: Hobbes Meets Benjamin in Beirut


Based on interviews with Beirut intellectuals and architects, this essay endeavours to trace the contours for a phenomenology or anthropology of civil war. Thomas Hobbes serves as a guide, with his idea of civil war representing a relapse into the ‘state of nature’; as absence of sovereignty resulting in a ‘war of everybody against everybody’. The effects of ever‐latent civil war in Beirut are far‐reaching: the fragmentation of urban space and the disappearance of public space, the loss of memory and the fragmentation of time, even the reification of language. In the collective imagination and in the arts, Beirut appears as a ghost town, a spectral city with a spectral civility. What we discover is a city, its inhabitants, its social behaviour, but also its art and literature, in the grip of post‐traumatic stress syndrome. From all this, we take home two things: first, any city can (at least in principle) relapse into a similar state of nature — Beirut can become a paradigm of latent civil war; and second, the traumatic modernity of Beirut mirrors the traumatic artistic expressions of modernism — the shock of modernity is also always a modernity of shock.