the city through the eyes of the documentary evidence of its actors

The two-year Fulbright project (2003–05) on the city of Aleppo (Halab), funded by the council for foreign exchange in Washington DC, developed out of a simple idea, whose origins go back to a contentious argument with Durkheim’s sociology: rather than study, as the old master once famously claimed, the social facts as things (les faits sociaux comme choses), the alternative would be to look at them as practices. Put simply, it means that it is what social actors do in real-life situations that matters the most from our perspective. The bulk of historical analysis, the humanities, and the social sciences, are still operating within a Durkheimian perspective—that of transforming practices into factual evidence—as things that could be objectified, and exchanged in scientific communications as statements that would be empirically verified and acknowledged within a Popperian line of reasoning.

How do we look at social facts as practices? A social fact usually projects itself into some form of objectified normative reality, the kind of reality that helps people come together and act under the constraints of a set of normative values and rules. The latter become acknowledged either for their sheer practicality, hence are out there as an outcome of a set of historical conjunctures, or else share binding moral values. Institutions typically constitute that kind of objectified reality, as their very being consists at reminding people of the existence of normative rules to which they should abide. Institutions are therefore there simply to have their norms followed, and being both visible and highly structured entities, their success hinges on their ability to adapt to change, social moods, and deep structural transformations. But practices lie for the most part outside institutional networks, and for that very reason would need some form of organization: in short, they need to metamorphose into objectified artifacts, so that they would become things around which a web of activities would coalesce. A lab experiment, for example, could be conducted either within a research institution, or else privately, in one’s garage or backyard. But in either case, however, the experiment poses itself as a thing, or as an objectified artifact whose “language” expresses what the team is working on. Such a language could be used by a multitude of individuals either in the lab where the experiment is being conducted, or in other spaces once the outcome of the experiment gets published and circulates. In all cases, however, it is indeed the mesh of infinitesimal practices metamorphosing into objectified artifacts that constitutes the experiment-as-thing, enabling it to be shared by an infinite number of individuals (at least in principle). A third category of practices must be added to the previous two, that of practices that do not receive any form of institutional legitimation, or at least are not objectified as things. In the daily conduct of our lives, for instance, we rely upon an infinitesimal number of gestures, which for the most part we do not even reflect upon, and which are neither necessarily contained in institutions nor visible enough to be objectified as artifacts. In one of his latest books, Erving Goffman proposed the notion of “frame” to understand daily interactions. Setting an action into a frame is like placing an actor into a theater, a constructed space where the action is looked upon by other actors-cum-spectators: actors therefore set their actions into frames and key them so that they could be valued and become meaningful.

For researchers it would be a gross error to limit observation to the objectified part of practice—the Durkheimian principle—while bracketing off the intricacies of practice itself, all that concrete world of daily experience and its web of relations. Reaffirming the practicality of relations de facto implies looking at their “thingness” in a new light—that of descriptive evidence versus the more common factual evidence. Consider, for example, how the judiciary works in a society. If we limit ourselves to the “rules of law,” we’ll be touching upon a very thin layer of descriptive evidence: rules simply propose to people what they ought to do (or not to do), and in the case of the rules of law, a punishment may be around the corner for every failure to abide by the rules. But that grossly overstates the role of rules, as it does not say much on the essential: what do actors do with such rules, and how do they use them? Once we begin the process of looking at what takes place in the depositions and interrogations of witnesses and suspects, the police and investigative judges’ memos, the reports of lawyers, doctors and psychiatrists, the courts hearings, and the final rulings, another reality emerges, one where the rule of law is not anymore the centerpiece for evidence, but where the rule takes shape through the documentary evidence provided by the participants in a case (suspects and witnesses, lawyers, judges, doctors, psychiatrists, and police officers). If the bulk of the legal and jurisprudential literature today looks so thin, surely it’s because it limits itself mostly to the rules of law, and at times, to the final rulings. But what it completely misses, however, are all the intricacies of a case—all the descriptive evidence provided by participants to narrate a crime scene or a civil litigation. It is through such a process that a crime scene or civil litigation metamorphose into a thing—an objectified artifact with its own set of rules and regulations, and into which actors pour in their descriptive evidence while following the rules of the game. Were it not for such a metamorphosis, a crime scene or civil conflict would have remained enmeshed in “reality,” without that quality of thingness that would objectify a set of practices into a theater of confrontations among participants. Once a “real scene” metamorphoses—through the judiciary apparatus—into a constructed artifact with its own rules and regulations, it transforms itself into a judicial case with a numbered dossier, hence becoming a reference for present and future use: participants come in with their descriptive evidence, sharing their views of the conflict in question.

What we just proposed regarding the judiciary could be expanded further and encompass the city as-a-totality: the city through the eyes of the documentary evidence of its actors. Photography would then pose itself as the perfect medium-tool for such a process of reconstructing documentary evidence, since by its very nature it sets as its mission framing the smallest and most elementary fragments of reality. The person-camera-mirror projects into the world—through the objectified photographic frames—fragments of that world, which in turn constitute that person’s world-view. By proposing them to others for inspection, the photographer is waiting for a feed-back: waiting what the others have to say, hoping that through their feed-back he would improve his system of documenting and representing the world at large. As Heidegger once noted, the revolutionary side of modernity, and which distinguishes it from previous periods and other non-European civilizations, is the representation of daily experience. The ideal of modernity would therefore be that of every person transforming him-her-self into a camera-mirror, projecting their inner worlds into the outside.

copyright all texts and photos © 2005 by zouhair ghazzal

original project

syrie au présent

droit et société

anthropologie du droit

writing insanity

legal responsibility

avowals and confessions

zones illicites

suq al-khamis

mashhad al-husayn