Youth Citizenship in Divided Societies

Violence, the Intimacy of Memory, and the Future Perfect

It is a time of too many deaths. Bombings in Baghdad, Beirut, Paris, and Bamako. Drone strikes in Syria, Afghanistan. Closer to my home, the brutal murder of a graduate student by her partner. So much death and violence. It affects all of us, no matter where we live or whatever our ages. The most recent bombing in Beirut, however, made me worry about the young people with whom we are working, many of whom we have grown close to. In this midst of this worry, I checked Facebook: the posts of the (admittedly few) youth with whom I am ‘friends’ and of the organizations with which we work make no mention of the bombings. The posts of the young people are, instead, of an environmental campaign elsewhere, weddings, the enjoyment of life, and the launch of a story map that deals, in part, with memory.

In all three of the places in which we are conducting research, the ways that young people imagine the future, and in so doing, deal with violent pasts and presents has been a central concern. When we began the research in 2010, we were thinking of physical, material, and embodied violence as being primarily in the past, although we also wanted to understand the effects of structural and other forms of violence as working through emotions and affect in other timeframes. Indeed, that idea of physical and embodied violence as being in the ‘past’ was challenged in all three contexts. Domestic and partner violence, for instance, is all too real, all too common, and too present to pack away, to discuss in the past-tense. But even so, violence in these ‘post-conflict’ countries is in some ways diagnosed as being a relic or an effect of the past. Activists believe – or at least hope – that the future can be changed, and in all three countries, they worked to bring about that dreamed of future. And they do so, in part, through humour and fun, refusing to be defined or constrained by violence. 

In working toward a different kind of future and enjoying the present, however, our interlocutors are not able to avoid the past, nor do they (entirely or uniformly) wish to. The comments of our story tellers in Sarajevo are instructive. In one way or another, they told us they did not want to tell stories about the war or about the siege of the city; instead, they wanted to tell stories about ‘normal lives.’ They found, however, that they could not tell those stories without reference to the ‘abnormality’ of war and the settlement created through the Dayton Accords. A similar situation prevails in South Africa, where many youth are engaged in struggles for a better future by decolonising the past. Yet calling attention to the violence of inequality and poverty that was not resolved with the formal, legal end of apartheid and calling for decolonisation does not necessarily mean it is easy to articulate a path toward a better, more just future. The path between past and future may pass through the present, but the specific steps – or at least the full set of directions – along the way are not entirely evident or agreed. And the violence – structural, economic, social, and in the case of the protestors who have been tear-gassed and imprisoned, or physically abused – continues.

Sandy Marshall and I have talked about this in terms of the ‘future perfect,’ a grammatical construction in many European languages in which the future is referenced in relation to the past and present. While acknowledging the grammatical and theoretical precepts in the concept, I find it increasingly difficult to imagine the future as perfect. It is not perfect, either in the sense of ideal or in the grammatical sense of completeness. Too many lives have been lost or damaged for that.

Yet, I am reluctant to give up on the concept – or perhaps of the allure – of a future perfect. One way to imagine, or to try to find, the path toward it might be to follow Rachel Pain’s notion of ‘intimacy-geopolitics’ through which we can begin to understand the ways that proximate and distant spaces are entangled through modes of interaction and practices. In this way, we can begin to understand the ways that the acceptance – and even promotion – of violence in intimate and geopolitical relations are only understandable in relation to each other. Politically and emotionally, this is important in beginning to imagine new practices that can traverse sites and scales, fusing ‘small’ actions with ‘broader’ politics and claims. It is in the memory of those killed that we can perhaps imagine and work toward a more perfect future.


Lynn Staeheli - Durham University 

Beirut, Lebanon - 23 November 2015 

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Durham University, Department of Geography
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