Gil Z. Hochberg

Becoming Palestine: Toward an Archival Imagination of the Future

Duke University Press, 2021

208 pages


Reviewed by Haley Eazor

Gil Z. Hochberg’s Becoming Palestine: Toward an Archival Imagination of the Future explores the potential of imagining Palestinian archives as acts of ‘becoming,’ offering an alternative articulation of archives as futuristic, liberatory, and anticipatory. Hochberg begins by noting that the archive question is also always a question of origin, of dominant modes of knowledge formations, access, and state power. Palestinian archives, in particular, grapple with colonial modes of archival violence, evoking questions of loss and recovery, destruction, and restoration. To untangle Palestinian archives from colonial modes of power and knowledge formations, Hochberg argues that there must be space to become: for imaginative and recontextualized archives to formulate a new future. For Hochberg, all political actions are grounded in and preceded by the imagination, and by locating an origin in the imaginative, he embraces the artistic cognitive landscape as a site in which one can “imagine a livable life made of new collectives yet to become.” In identifying Palestine as a collective, cultural memory, existing both in the past and in the imaginings of the future, Hochberg draws a correlation between the act of becoming—temporally unbound somewhere between now and the to-be—and belonging—spatially unbound in the imaginative—to promote a collective that is outside the boundaries of citizenship and nationality.

In orienting us towards the potentiality of the imaginative, the stakes of Hochberg’s argument remain throughout the book—and seek to remain throughout—ontologically open to the process of becoming, to the malleability inherent in speculative political futures. In defining the archive, Hochberg moves away from understanding the archive as solely past-oriented, alternatively arguing that the archive is constantly being “made and unmade.” In its making and unmaking, the archive “tells us something about the present in relation to both potential histories (histories that did not come about, but could have) and potential futures (becomings that in the present exist only in the form of a fantasy or science fiction).” In line with this potentiality, Hochberg coins the term ‘imaginative archives’ to explore the archive as a site of ‘social anticipation,’ or a ‘yet-to-come’ future that exists outside teleological understandings of dominant historical narratives. Rooted in this understanding of archives as ‘future-oriented’ landscapes of ‘political becoming,’ Hochberg turns to Palestinian artists and activists working in various mediums to offer a lens to understand embodied, affective, and textured ways of coming to know Palestinian archives.

Connected through their engagement with real and imagined archives, Hochberg divides his five chapters into analyses of various contemporary Palestinian artists and activists. Chapter One, “Revisiting the Orientalist Archive,” outlines filmmaker Jumana Manna’s experience of attempting to recover early twentieth-century Palestinian music only to be led to the archival records of Robert Lachmann, a German-Jewish ethnomusicologist. Here Hochberg begins to trace the culmination of Manna’s project of recovery, her 2015 film A Magical Substance Flows Into Me, which walks through not only her archival findings of Lachmann but also works to highlight, as Hochberg notes, the limitations Manna faces as a Palestinian artist searching for Palestinian archives in the sites made available to her: Israeli State Archives. Here Hochberg introduces the term ‘minor archives,’ which looks to the edges and corners of archival work to remember what is ‘marginal’ or ‘eccentric,’ establishing Manna’s work as a minor archive through its simultaneous exploration of the past and playfulness with the potentiality of the future. Hochberg notes how the film lingers in the ambiguities of available archives and, in remaining open, marks a way to imagine “what may still become” (emphasis his).

In continuing with the theme of imagining alternative archives, Chapter Two, “Lost and Found in Israeli Footage,” echoes Chapter One in its path through colonial archives as a way towards imagining alternative futures. Through an analysis of Kamal Aljafari’s three essay-films The Roof (2006), Port of Memory (2009), and Recollection (2015), Hochberg reveals sites of material ruins to be not only reminiscent of and haunted by colonial violence, but also sites of imagination and speculative futures through Aljafari’s collage of footage from “the colonial Israeli cinematic archive.” By recycling and repurposing footage from Israeli archives to re-center Palestinian narratives, Hochberg explores the potential for found materials to serve as frameworks for inspiring new political futures.

Chapter Three, “Suspended Between Past and Future,” marks a shift in the book’s approach, moving away from the repurposing of colonial archives and towards archeological archives. In establishing archeology as a national archive that is often naturalized to confirm hegemonic narratives of historical claims, Hochberg considers its role in archival imaginings through a reconceptualization of archeology not as disclosing ‘reality’ but ‘re-representing’ the past. Hochberg draws a theoretical connection between archeology and psychoanalysis as supposed epistemologies that unearth, dig up, or excavate the past. To elucidate this point of connection, Hochberg turns to the 2016 film In the Future They Ate from the Finest Porcelain. Cowritten and codirected by Sansour and Soren Lind, In the Future is categorized as “sci-fi dystopia,” visually structured with images—often biblical imagery alongside futuristic cues—and paired with a voiceover dialogue between a patient and a psychoanalyst. The crux of Hochberg’s argument lies in both his analysis of In The Future as a film capable of blurring the boundaries between “fiction and history, and between science fiction and politics” and the impact of Israeli archeologists curating and creating “the criteria of what is considered an authentic historical account.” As both blur distinctions between what is real and not real, Hochberg works to undo settler-colonial temporality and establish a ‘pessimistic futurism,’ a term borrowed from Justin Louis Mann’s 2017 article “Pessimistic Futurism,” which argues for a pessimistic understanding of the present while allowing for an imagined, “radically different future.”

Building upon the work done in Chapter Three, Chapter Four, “Face to Face with the Ancestors of Civilization,” continues the discussion of archeology as a national archive through a digital lens. Drawing upon theories of performance, the everyday, and ruins, Hochberg discusses Palestinian artists Ruanne Abou-Rahme and Basel Abbas’s installation And Yet My Mask is Powerful, created between the years of 2016 and 2019 as a performance that opens the way towards “excavating the future.” In considering how archives are a kind of practice towards political becoming, Hochberg argues that Benjamin’s conception of ‘now-time’ opens the possibility for “time that is felt” (emphasis his) and unfolds the possibility for time that produces affects that exist outside of linear, colonial time.

Continuing this move towards the liveliness and performativity of the archive, Chapter Five, “Gesturing toward Resistance,” analyzes dance performances of dancer and activist Farah Saleh to consider the body as an archive of the present and the choreopolitics involved in tactile forms of knowledge. Highlighting the potentiality for embodied and somatic epistemologies, Hochberg explores Saleh’s choreography as an ‘archive of gestures’: a term that suggests without being definitive and serves to signal the weight and violence of the past while lingering in the possibilities of new future connections and collectives. In the afterword, Hochberg returns to the concept of political becoming and the possibilities within imagining otherwise. Emerging as an ontological and imaginative reflection on the acts of becoming and archiving as acts “of and for the future,” Hochberg grounds us in the present moment while still opening the way towards the potentiality of futures as a movement towards political action.