Dr Claire Launchbury, School of Advanced Study’s (SAS) research fellow in French and city studies in the Institutes of Modern Languages Research (IMLR) and Historical Research (IHR), discusses her research into Beirut’s memory cultures and how buildings and streets inform artistic projects, film and literature.
Prior to joining SAS, I was a lecturer in French and cultural studies at Australia’s University of New South Wales, and from 2011 to 2013, held a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship in the School of Languages, Societies and Cultures at the University of Leeds.
I would say my home discipline is French studies and my broad research area is the francophone Middle East and its urban centres. That said, I have a very interdisciplinary approach to my research and indeed a background in musicology, so work across cultural studies and postcolonial studies with an interest in literature, film, theatre, projects and all sorts of cultural texts. I’m a critic, essentially, and my analysis is informed by theorists such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, especially their thought on the archive, as well as psychoanalysis since I’m fascinated by memory and desire.
Currently I am writing a book entitled Beirut and the Urban Memory Machine for Amsterdam University Press so thinking a lot about post-conflict Lebanon and how cultural memory operates as a counter to state-led amnesia about the civil wars of 1975 to the early 1990s. Of particular interest is Beirut’s memory cultures and how buildings and streets inform artistic projects, film and literature. I am also co-editing a couple of essay collections, one on trans-Mediterranean francophonies and the connections between urban centres across that region, and working with Professor Charles Forsdick (James Barrow professor of French at the University of Liverpool, and a specialist in the fields of travel writing, slavery, postcolonial literature and French colonial history), on what I hope will be a very exciting collection on transnational French studies. This means reflecting a lot on developments in my discipline and how it is responding to new ways of thinking about cultures. I’m especially intrigued by border zones such as those where the postcolonial meets the transnational and the cultural flows that follow, or perhaps don’t, capital ones.
Beirut and Lebanon have not really received a great deal of attention in francophone studies, certainly not in Britain, so I am very lucky to be able to open up a new field or francosphere and it is an immensely rich one. I think the way culture responds to acute crises – conflict, violence, catastrophe, genocide – is of vital importance to how we learn to think about society, our relationships with one another and how representations of memory inform our understanding of the present.
I am in the process of developing two new projects. The first takes its cues from PostCapitalism written by Paul Mason, the award-winning Channel 4 news journalist, and looks to the Lebanese contemporary theatre scene as a case study for what post-capitalist theatre might be. The second is a larger project which looks at francophone expression of revolution, resistance and dissent in the Machrek region (Lebanon, Syria, Israel-Palestine and Egypt). I’m organising two conferences this year, one on Airport Cultures at the IMLR in April for which we have received some really interesting proposals from all over the world, and another on Beirut and struggles over space and public utilities. In addition, I am working with Michigan State University colleague Najib Hourani, to start looking at neglected city spaces in the Arab world, such as Aleppo, Damascus, Gaza or Tripoli, taking Beirut as a paradigm for post-conflict reconstruction.
As an undergraduate, I always felt a bit of an unconventional student at a rather conventional university and really didn’t enjoy it much at first. But I was very taken with research and the elaboration of ideas and knew that being in the academy was somewhere I wanted to be. Although registered at Royal Holloway, I spent my time as a PhD student in Paris which was just tremendous and think it was through the encounters there — on café terraces as much as the seminars I attended — that really formulated my identity as a scholar. It was where I discovered psychoanalysis, left-bank cinemas, a love of urban derive, and idle flânerie, all of which in some way informs my research now.
Dr Claire Launchbury is a research fellow in French and city studies at the Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR) and the Institute of Historical Research (Centre for Metropolitan History). She serves on the School Research Committee and on the French subject panel of the London Arts and Humanities Partnership. Her research concentrates on francophone cultures, expression and dissent in the Middle East, with a particular focus on Lebanon.
Featured image: Beit Beirut, an urban cultural centre in development