In writing about visuality, I learned one major lesson that I keep having to re-learn: visuality is a colonial technique and it is best understood from the places of it application–the plantation, the colony, the neo-colony–looking back at its metropolitan sites of deployment.

As nuclear counterinsurgency continues, it is time to consider how an atomic countervisuality might be developed and from where. For the paradigmatic tools of GCOIN are now being used in Japan, where Global Hawk Unmanned Aerial Vehicles have been flown across the destroyed reactors of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, while they are also directing aerial observation in Libya.

The Global Hawk UAV

The Global Hawk is designed, as the name suggests, for extremely long-range missions and is capable of circumnavigating the globe. It has no standard equipment for radiation detection but is a surveillance and/or targeting platform, using synthetic aperture radar, infrared and other systems.

It was striking to me that the Global Hawk over Japan was launched from a U. S. base in Guam, the major military outpost in the Pacific.  Guam was recently rebranded as the “tip of the spear” in GCOIN operations, after troops had to be relocated there from Japan, following recent elections. Here, then, is one “atomic”  location from which we might counter the increasingly odd fusion of nuclear politics with counterinsurgency. In countering the fission of the nuclear with the singularity of the atomic, I hope to map the complex “entanglement” (Achille Mbembe) produced by nuclear counterinsurgency, linking the Second World War, the Cold War, nuclear weapons, decolonization, the global war on terror and climate change.

Whatever the Global Hawk missions revealed has been kept secret. At the same time, so-called experts are advising that the “safest way to deposit radiation is in the ocean.”  It seems that residents of Oceania, including  those in U. S. territories like Guam– and other nearby island nations operating under the Compact of Free Association with the U. S., like Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia–are once again invisible to Western and Japanese eyes alike.  The “plume” of radiation that is said to have no chance of reaching the mainland U. S. will certainly reach those islands, especially now that it has become clear that large quantities of iodine-131 and caesium-137,  highly carcinogenic isotopes, are already in the sea.

Bikini Atoll 1946: Operation Crossroads Baker

Perhaps it is just assumed that there is so much residual radiation from the 67 above ground nuclear weapons tests conducted by the U. S. from 1945 to 1962 in the Western Pacific that a little more is neither here nor there. Or perhaps the scientifically-accredited but nonetheless magical view of the period that it “seemed logical to believe that water would cleanse Bikini” of radiation is still operative. In fact, the former residents of Bikini Atoll (above) are still in exile, 65 years after the tests that irradiated their island in the interests of discovering whether naval ships (visible in the photo above) could survive nuclear attacks–answer:  yes, but in so radioactive a state as to be unusable.

Bikini islanders leaving in 1946 Today in exile on Kili

The disastrous but forgotten history of these people from the expropriation of their homes to their emiserated exile, radiation-induced cancer epidemic and sustained marginalization in the name of some greater good may indicate what is in store for Northwestern Japan.

The islands that are being used to launch the UAVs are most at risk from the rising sea levels caused by anthropogenic climate change. At the same time as 20,000 troops are being redeployed to Guam, the Army Corps of Engineers–the people who brought you Hurricane Katrina–are busy building sea walls to try and hold back the ocean.

A newly-built sea wall on Guam is already at risk

As this photo taken in August 2010 shows, the walls are barely keeping out the rising tides. Scientists have shown that the rising sea levels in the Pacific have been concentrated in the Western half of the ocean for contingent reasons of tide and wind patterns. At an IPCC meeting in Kolkata that I have not seen reported here,  Rajenda Pachauri attributed the severity of the tsunami to the  additional water mass caused by climate change.

There is, then, a further irony that the U. S. and its allies are using Western Pacific islands as counterinsurgency prisons. Five Chinese Uighurs, formerly detained at Guantànamo Bay, have been relocated to Palau, an independent nation whose budget entirely depends on revenue from the Compact of Free Association with the U. S. These islands were mandated to the U. S. at the end of the Second World War, after Koror had been for some thirty years capital of the Japanese empire in the Pacific.

View of the district of Koror where the Uighurs now live, August 2010

Living in a house in downtown Koror, whose location is known to all locals, the Uighurs are the subject of some resentment because they do not work but spend most of their time in religious observance. A few hundred meters away, Koror floods on a regular basis at high tide.

Flooding in downtown Koror, Palau

This less-than-secure location was presumably selected as a prison because it is so “remote” but it is only a two-hour flight to the Philippines. Elsewhere in the region (broadly defined–see the map below) the Australian government detains over 2,000 asylum seekers on Christmas Island, some 350 km south of Java. Held in facilities designed for several hundred people, the detainees rioted on March 17 and one person recently committed suicide there.

Xmas Island and Palau

Here, then, are a set of “invisibles” from post-war histories, and forced exiles, radiation, detainees, sea level rise, climate change to aerial surveillance that a countervisuality needs to bring into view as a tactic to displace the hegemonic logics of nuclear counterinsurgency. I am well aware that they cut across academic disciplinary lines, perhaps exceeding individual competences (including of course my own). I’d be curious to hear your thoughts about how (and indeed if) such tactics might be developed in the current crisis: comments are open and all will be approved



Counterinsurgency TV

 counterinsurgency, television, watching  Comments Off on Counterinsurgency TV
Mar 272011

After nine days of warfare, President Obama has deemed the new war worthy of our attention with a broadcast on Libya on Monday at 7.30 EDT. We have so many wars going on, it seems there isn’t even time to get on TV and announce the newest one. I’m drafting this review  ahead of the actual speech because it’s not too hard to guess what will have been said. Really, once the speech is announced, there’s almost no need to give it.

President Obama addresses the nation

Obama will talk in the overly rapid way he uses on these occasions, intended perhaps to convey “man of action,” but revealing more clearly that he’s just rattling through to the end, performing a task he’d rather not have to do. When he speaks in public, he takes his time and makes good use of pauses. He’ll also use a strange little chopping gesture with his left hand, no doubt focus-grouped to demonstrate decisiveness. It distracts from what he’s saying and you end up waiting for the next one.

There will be bromides to “our brave men and women in uniform.” Not to challenge the personal courage of these people in any way, but this mission is one where the “Allies” get to play bully in the playground. We will hear of “progress,” measured by the news that Mafeking has been relieved, I’m sorry, make that Ras Lanuf or one of the other small Libyan towns very few of us knew existed ten days ago.

Then it will be stressed that the mission is “limited,” but that the dictator al-Khalifa, I’m sorry, Gaddafi must fall. It will be emphasized that the U. S. has as good as left, before it even officially arrived via Presidential broadcast. In short, this is not a war but if it was one, it’s already over. Except if by any chance it isn’t, then NATO are running it, and we all know how independent NATO is from the U. S.

A quick shout-out to Hillary Clinton–remember the women’s vote in 2012!–and then it’ll be off for a world tour of the other wars, which will be going just fabulously well. A mere eight years after intervening in Iraq for a lightning quick regime change, the U. S. will be about to leave. Or have we already left, I forget? Afghanistan! we’re as good as out of there, because we know that the Pakistanis know where Osama is, and they know that we know, and so that’s ok.

For all the satire, this unwatched and unoriginal broadcast serves to reinforce the imperial dimension to global counterinsurgency (GCOIN) that had seemed vulnerable in the wake of Afghanistan’s palpable failure. The benefit of the Libyan mission, as GCOIN boosters from John McCain to David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy were quick to see, is that here the “Allies” can play Afghanistan Light. A “failed state” subject to the dominion of militia groups organized via personal obligations and hierarchies can, it is hoped, be quickly subjected to domination from the air, using digitized machines. The aspiration is a re-run of Gulf War 1991, an easy techno-triumph to restore the luster, not of the New World Order touted by Bush 41, but of the “Global Counterinsurgency.”

Feel free to scorecard these predictions in the comments section (which will all be approved, BTW, it’s moderated only to keep the spammers out). More serious remarks on atomic countervisuality on Tuesday.


The revolution intensifies

The Caesars are on the march once again. But the revolutions are not over. And just as Hurricane Katrina revealed to us certain truths about the war in Iraq and state power, so too has the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami highlighted the interface of energy and power and the need for new forms of both. The revolutions have intensified to the point where the lineaments of a different economy are visible, provoking the autocracies to demonstrate that their power is in fact simply a correlative of their ability to use force. In Bahrain, the al-Khalifa autocracy have taken the injunction “move on, there’s nothing to see here” so literally that they demolished the entire roundabout at Pearl Square.

Pearl Square (March 18): "move on, there's nothing to see here"

So taken with Rancière were the Bahraini authorities that their spokesperson indicated that the motive for the demolition was to “boost traffic,” which would now presumably be allowed to drive straight across the roundabout. Such is the dark comedy of autocracy.

Counterinsurgency redux

At the same time, seeing its game about to disappear, counterinsurgency has also made a play. From the gloomy shadows emerge  McCain–Lieberman–Kerry, the Praetorian guards, who annoyingly refuse to go into that good night. They’ve persuaded their former Senatorial colleagues Obama and Clinton that a no-fly zone will work, as long as we call Gaddafi a terrorist. The realpolitik that said we can do (oil) business with autocrats has here been replaced by the counterinsurgent mantra of the “pariah state.” The message is “the West will not stand for state violence against citizens”: except when it does, and those occasions seem strangely linked to oil reserves.

The nuclear division of the sensible

At the same time, the disaster in Japan has saddened and now terrified us all. Radiation is so unsettling both because of its invisibility and because it is the ultimate expression of the security state. There’s nothing to see here: but it’s here nonetheless.

Japanese citizens being scanned for radiation

Absolute submission is required from all, making all citizens into children faced with the apparatus that will index their status.

Surrendering to being monitored

In a truly surreal moment, Japan wheeled out its reclusive Emperor Akihito for his first televised address during a moment of crisis, as if to indicate the imperial connotations of nuclear power.

The nuclear state has always been present as a rhetorical justification for counterinsurgency, even as it has retreated from its centrality in the Cold War. Now its peculiar rhetorics are back. When Gaddafi threatened to go “crazy” if there was intervention by the West, he was not speaking clinical language, but the vocabulary of Mutually Assured Destruction: MAD.

The crisis of Caesarism in North Africa and the Gulf and the atomic disaster in Japan are further linked by the energy imperatives of neo-liberal growth. Note that the energy hungry BRIC block (Brazil, Russia, India and China) abstained in the Security Council vote on Libya. Why, after all, did Japan build six not very well designed G.E. nuclear reactors close together on the coast in an earthquake zone, if not out of the conviction that energy was indispensable? The decision was taken in the aftermath of the 1973 oil crisis, leading to a determination that independent energy sources were indispensable.

The rioting atom

In this sense, the metonym of the current situation was the scene on Thursday when Japanese police riot control trucks sprayed water on the spent-fuel containment ponds at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. It was as if the radiation was an insurgency but, lacking a direct target, the gesture appears to have been mostly futile. And is that, after all, the only option that can be found, the more-or-less random hurling of water? Once again, as we saw after Hurricane Katrina, a natural disaster has become a human-made catastrophe.

A once and future slogan: Nuclear Power? No Thanks!

Of course, like everyone, I am in complete solidarity with those suffering in Japan and willing to risk their lives fighting Gaddafi. My point is that these developments are not the end of the revolution but its intensification. There’s a reason everyone (mis)remembers Marie-Antoinette saying “let them eat cake”–although, apparently, she didn’t actually say it. The very first chant used by the January 25 movement in Egypt was “they are eating pigeon and chicken, we are eating beans all the time.” That is to say, food justice and sustainability were at the beginning of this moment of countervisuality as they have always been. It has been the imperatives of the nation-state for cash and cash-crops that has always been given priority from the French and Haitian revolutions to the present. Already, Japanese milk and spinach are showing contamination from radiation, just as milk from the Chernobyl area caused the epidemic of thyroid cancer after the 1986 disaster at the nuclear plant there.

The nuclear power plant at Fukushima

This, above, is the nuclear state’s version of sustainability. Even now, hitherto obscure regulatory bodies and administrators insist that more nuclear power is the only way to deal with climate change and increased energy demands. But here the point is that we can no longer have our cake and eat it. Insanely dangerous and authoritarian power of all kinds needs to be replaced by other, sustainable means.

The following through of the “great ‘undoing'” (Gramsci) of the popular revolt is this conversion of the (food) economy to imperatives of sustainability and equal distribution. The “bread and land” part of “peace, bread, land” was what made it resonate in 1917. If this is hard to imagine, harder to visualize, that’s a measure of the long hegemony of visuality that has made leadership into a synonym for vision but renders sustainability into the impractical and the ideal.

Update 3-19

French warplanes are in action over Libya–presumably the first French military action in North Africa since the defeat in Algeria in 1962.


Time and the photographic common

 2011 moment, photography, revolution, Theory  Comments Off on Time and the photographic common
Mar 092011

Time regained

History repeats itself…(Marx)

The French Revolution was a leap into the open air of history (Benjamin)

As old man Hegel had it, history certainly repeats itself. He forgot to add: it keeps on doing so in a variety of registers. We’ve had tragedy–repeatedly–farce by all means, irony to the point of excess. Now we’re in a space of networked plotting, like one of those Iñárittu movies (Amores Perros), where a complex set of incidents converge in a set of violent encounters. In Amores Perros, the spectre behind the scene was the failed revolution of 1968. Today’s revolution is setting its own time, readjusting our clocks and is still in its open space. The Italian theorist Bruno Gulli has asserted: “communism is the liberation of time–not it’s framing in the factory system.”

Thelma and Louise leap into history


The French Revolution (for which read the French and Haitian revolutions) was the exemplar for Benjamin of “open space,” the time epitomized by his dream or dialectical image that leaps “out” of history. When the image is not “in” history, it is not out of time, it is out of that colonial narrative in which the “West” is destiny. As such, it is open to influence and analogy from the past, from that which is to come but can now be seen differently. We have spent much time on the phenomenology of the “image”: is it alive, what does it want, what is its future? This “open space” image should be considered politically: to whom does it belong? what claims does it support? in a world of time-based media, how can it even be seen?

Like Thelma and Louise who “keep going,” or like the cartoon cat inching its way across the abyss, this process requires a certain suspension of belief: things don’t always fall, or turn out for the worst. Sometimes the “impossible” option in one form of everyday reality becomes the new reality. For the present, there is a moment whose frontiers for the nonce are not bounded by what one Tunisian TV anchor called “the policeman in my head”–at which point she stopped relaying government propaganda.

That policeman, or authority, is the internalized form of visuality, which seeks to suture authority to power. Its first modern agent in Carlyle’s view was Napoleon, whose glory was seen as soon as he turned his cannon on the revolutionary Paris crowd in 1795. Here was the “Hero” incarnate, restoring authority for the third time over the “black” revolution. Less noticed was Bonaparte’s failure in Haiti, where revolution was (according to Carlyle) “black beyond redemption.” Or in Egypt, where a combination of local resistance and British naval dominance forced the French to retreat.


Girodet, The Revolts in Cairo (1810)

Here in Girodet’s carnival of Orientalism, the masculine French pile into the swollen mass of “native” revolt, outside the main mosque in Cairo, determined to assert their right to compel the Orient into their modernity. Two hundred years later, Cairo reset its course, leaving Orientalism in ruins.

The Photographic Common
The authoritarian leader (or imperial nation) claimed the ability to so visualize as the source of his “authority.” Insofar as they are taxonomies of the real, visualizations are also  “photographs,” understood here as a division of the sensible (Rancière) that I call “authoritarian realism.” Against this assertion of authority, there has always been the claim of the “right to the real” (Negri) from the point of view of those whose task it is to do the work allocated to them and nothing else (Rancière, interpreting Plato). This right to the real depicts and represents the real from the perspective of countervisuality: we might call it photographic for the time being, while noting that this is a photography of cell-phones and Facebook, not Leicas and Magnum. It is “common” (Hardt and Negri) because the right to look is also “the invention of the other” (Derrida), an oscillation of looks from one to the other in which each invents and is invented.

Authoritarian realism indicated the space that the photographic subject should occupy, a time in which they should be found and a means of locating them.  As Allan Sekula and others have argued, photography in the age of discipline classified and archived the modern in the metropole and the colony.  Such regimes trained and defined the modern sensorium as to what looked “right.” The photographic “common” has always already been present as the counter to authoritarian realism. It represents that part that has no part that refuses to accept the injunction of the police “move on, there’s nothing to see here” (Rancière).

Interfaced with networked social media, this modality of the common has now created a new “people” that has given “democracy” a renewed momentum. I use these terms following Jacques Rancière’s proposition that democracy is always the exception in Western thought that considers it to be the worst of regimes and attempts to separate the people from both philosophy and the real. Thus the photographic common is the invention of the other, when both inventor and invented are out of place, as Rancière would have it, located in a “time…out of joint” (Hamlet/ Derrida), and in defiance of all norms.  Already there where it is not supposed to be, the photographic common allows itself to be seen, to be invented and claims its place in a present that is to come (Derrida). It is to come because the right to the real, which it asserts, does not yet exist and must be claimed in its absence, even though it is no less real for that

The crisis of counterinsurgency

Counterinsurgency, today’s authoritarian realism, is in all kinds of trouble. After the 25 February “Day of Rage” in Baghdad, held in its own Tahrir Square, police followed up with a mass arrest of journalists and intellectuals (HT to Lennard Davis, Huff Post blogger, who has been pushing this story). What happened to “liberated” Iraq and all that? The Unmanned Aerial Vehicle is the prize technology of counterinsurgency with its all-seeing machine eye. However,  The Washington Post has reported that out of 581 deaths caused by UAVs of people designated as “militants” by the CIA , only two were “top-ranked.” Nine Afghan boys aged from 9-15 were killed by a U. S. helicopter, one more in a long string of such accidents. Yet again General David Petraeus heads to Washington to assert “progress” in the war in Afghanistan, even as Pakistan edges nearer to crisis. How odd the heady assertions of the 2006 Counterinsurgency manual now seem: that global counterinsurgency could succeed by a combining imperial “small wars” tactics with information-era intelligence, mediated by the “commander’s visualizations.” Even Thomas Friedman, cheerleader of globalization, has been left wondering quite what $110bn. was spent on, and for, in Af-Pak, as the COIN people like to call the Afghan-Pakistan region.

Before I go too far with the critique of the foreign policy types, let’s take a moment to recall just how wrong-footed the high-spending American universities have been by recent events. Full of bombast about bringing the “liberal arts” to the “region,” Northwestern and above all NYU have invested significantly in precisely the wrong places, like Abu Dhabi and Qatar, while having no presence in Egypt or Tunisia.

The hyphen

Nothing is certain about any revolution. Whether the space it has created stays open will always be a question requiring daily attention. Revolutionary time is exhausting like that. But the mere proposal of a “day of determination” in Tahrir Square was enough to see off the Mubarak-era Prime Minister in Egypt and Tunisia has completed its dismissal of Ben Ali’s loyalists. The political dynamic of revolution has been linked to the sacred calendar so that each Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, becomes a moment of intensification. What’s surprising about this development is that it has not produced any sense that a so-called fundamentalist turn is likely. Indeed, the global right from Sarah Palin to al-Qaeda are the clear losers in the events so far.

Perhaps the sharpest points of questioning is whether the space of the common remains open to women, as it was in Tahrir Square. It was Wael Gonim’s Dream TV interview with Mona El Shazly that is often held to have tipped the balance in Egypt. El Shazly used her Oprah-like prestige as a talk-show host to create the possibility for this dramatic interview. Egyptian secular feminists have opened a discussion with religious women, which opens a new space again. However, the Women’s Day march in Tahrir Square produced mixed results: organizers were pleased that a thousand people turned out, and that serious if intense discussions/arguments followed, but later reports of violence and harassment followed. You know how this goes: it’s not our place to judge vs. the necessary solidarity with those women that seek change. The latter was sullied by the Bush administration’s cynical deployment of “feminism” to justify its invasion of Afghanistan. But one might suggest that from the assault on Planned Parenthood in the U. S. to the niqab ban in France and the Anglo-German assault on multi-culturalism that the best form of solidarity would be to support change wherever we happen to be.


Visuality is not yet fallen but it is falling. A countervisuality is rising. And on the horizon, coming into view, is something else, a reconfiguration of the political and the everyday. I say this because of the current conflict in Libya, not despite it. It is the most significant crisis for visuality since the Second World War.

Visuality is the means by which authority is sutured to power. It is authority that is being revolutionized across North Africa and the Middle East. The old Cold War distinction between US-friendly “authoritarian” regimes and Soviet-friendly dictatorships is falling. The construction by which authority means the promotion of a police state by a centralized and censored media in combination with the military is falling.

Gaddafi on Libyan TV from "an undisclosed location"

The techniques of visuality are falling. Having read so many op-eds saying that Egypt will never fall, it will never spread, Gaddafi is unchallengeable, and so on, let’s not fall into the trap of saying what will happen next. Here’s what’s happening from the point of view of countervisuality, the right to look.

  • Visuality has three component techniques: classification, segregation and aesthetics.

In flagrantly reductionist terms:

  • Classification: for or against the regime (ties of family, ethnicity and/or religion).
  • Segregation: between those so classified by the classic means of “the barracks and the police station” (Fanon).
  • Aesthetics: an “aesthetics of respect for the status quo” (Fanon).

Reduced to this formula, it’s clear that visuality is falling.

  • Across the region, the slogan is “the people demand the fall of the regime.” There is no classification within the people, only one between the people and the regime. The performance of “the people” has constituted a new political subject that refuses to see or hear the regime, except when it resigns or falls.
  • The mobilization of the army against the police in Tunisia, the popular resistance in Egypt against the police, and the contest in Bahrain for Pearl Square have now culminated in the war of the state against the people in Libya in order to sustain the authority of the autocrat.
  • Whether or not these struggles are ultimately successful, no one believes in the status quo. It is no longer right, it no longer commands assent. It can be enforced but it will be a long time before it is once again invisibly “normal.”

The auctor was the person in Roman law authorized to buy slaves, land and other property. His (always) authority did not derive from this set of permissions but from the ability to interpret signs, to decode the patterns of visuality from the noise of mere events. As Rancière puts it: “the auctor is a specialist in messages.” The strange late-night TV broadcasts to camera by the autocrats, and their state TV propaganda denying what everyone can see to be happening, are patent evidence that this authority has gone.

Countervisuality rising

The forms of countervisuality that the revolutionary moment has forged are being watched and implemented.

  • The right to existence, or the claim to look and be seen, has become a visualized form, as in the YouTube call to demonstrate in Morocco on February 20:

While such form is conventional MTV fare, that was precisely the point. The Moroccan monarchy claimed that the video must have been made abroad because Moroccans could not have done it. Something’s happening here, and you don’t know what it is, do you, King Mohammed VI?

  • The takeovers of the main square in Benghazi, Libya; in Sana’a, Yemen; and that of Pearl Square in Bahrain were clearly modeled on that of Tahrir Square. In Tripoli, Gaddafi has sent his mercenaries to Green Square, hoping to prevent the revolution taking form there.

Pearl Square takes revolutionary form (2-19)

An unknown person in China was arrested simply for placing a jasmine flower–symbol of the Tunisian Revolution– in front of a McDonalds, until the assembled crowd forced his release.

The Political and the Everyday

The 2011 revolutions are reconfiguring the places of the political and the everyday. There has been a radical reconfiguration of the attributes often associated with the private to the public–peace, security, a sense of belonging and the absence of fear. In Yamina Bachir’s 2002 film Rachida, set in Algeria during the “black decade” of the civil war, a doctor diagnoses Rachida (scene begins at 2 mins 45) the lead character (Djouadi Ibtissem), with “post traumatic psychosis.” And then she adds: “the whole country suffers from it.” So it has been very striking to see participants across the region talk about losing their fear, stressing that the act of taking to the streets was the decisive step in that process.

The “square” in Cairo and elsewhere has come to represent “home” for the decolonial subjects in revolution. People have expressed this both verbally and in the action of caring for the “square” by cleaning and other apparently “domestic” activities. Caring for the “square” represents a politics of the everyday in which visibility is no longer a trap but a safeguard. By contrast, authority speaks of the “homeland,” as both Mubarak and Gaddafi have declared that they will die there, as if anyone cared.

In no longer being strange or uncanny but rather domestic and “peaceful” (to reiterate the Egyptian slogan), the the revolutionary form takes on its most subversive potential yet. Keep watching.


The revolution is watching. That is to say, the revolution is watching us and we are watching the revolution. It is also to say that there has been a certain revolution in watching, although the casual use of “revolution” in such contexts is less convincing now. Nonetheless, despite all injunctions to the contrary, to watch is a form of action.

This writing is determined by the mood of the Day of Departure (February 4, 2011), a carnival of the oppressed that has created a new moment in the revolution. It has opened a space of possibility at the center of the State of Emergency. This form, a demarcation of space and time, will survive whatever transpires in Cairo and the rest of Egypt as moment of revolution.

Rancière has recently defined such moments in his essay in The Idea of Communism:

A moment is not only a vanishing point in time. It is also momentum: the weight that tips the scales, producing a new balance or imbalance, an effective reframing of what the ‘common’ means, a reconfiguration of the universe of the possible…If something has to be reconstructed in the name of communism, it is a form of temporality singularizing the connection of those moments. Now this reconstruction entails a revival of the hypothesis of confidence in that capacity.

This is one such moment: we are in the interim, perhaps the interregnum. An interregnum (the gap between monarchs) was considered a state of exception. In this interim moment, there is also an interplebs, the in-between people, or people coming-into-being.

A Chartist meeting at Kennington Common

The nineteenth-century Chartists, accused of being a mob opposed to the nobility, adopted the term “mobility” to describe themselves as this interplebs. It is this mobility that we are now again trying to (counter)visualize.

The revolution is watching us. It wants to see whether or not the “West” can overcome its sense that places such as Egypt should be ruled by men that do the bidding of the West. To quote Marx, as later requoted by Edward Said in Orientalism (1978): “they cannot represent themselves, they must be represented.” The January 25 movement has represented itself and a possible Egypt far better than any of the colonial and dictatorial regimes imposed on the country.

We are, of course, watching the revolution, avidly. This is a watching that has had its effects. When Mubarak sent out his secret police to dislodge the movement from the square, they were in disguise as “pro-government demonstrators.” No one was fooled, even if certain Western media at once took up the “balanced” posture of talking about “pro and anti government” forces. Without our watching, is there any doubt that firearms would have been used?

The revolution is watching. It is a watching that demands to see and be seen. It has formed a new distribution of the sensible to allow for the emergence of a new political subject, a mobility whose characteristics are constantly updating. This watching has evolved a set of forms, which I shall try and describe. Some echo, whether consciously or not, other modes of revolutionary watching. Some are new. Taken in the context of a distributed, networked and live means of circulation, it is at once specific, new and alive, a new realism.

In Watching Babylon (2005), I sketched the possibility of a “vernacular watching,” a combination of the feminist analysis of television and modernist theories of distraction. So watching involved all the things that can be done while “watching” television, from cooking, to talking on the phone, doing laundry, eating, child-minding and so on. At the same time, following Anna McCarthy, I stressed those moments of drift, whether zapping channels on TV or idly web-surfing at work, in which the attention was not fully engaged, epitomized by the place of televisions in waiting rooms. Such watching was the affect of the condition highlighted by Rancière: “move on, there’s nothing to see here.” As we circulated around the web, cable TV, the mall or the suburb, it felt like we were always waiting for something.

In The Right to Look, I explore a set of countervisualities that insist that there is something to see and that we should not move on. Egypt has produced one of those moments, dividing contemporary watching into a different distribution. What we had was the condition that can be called “watchful waiting,” often used in the medical context, but which I am generalizing to mean the sense that we are expected to watch while waiting. This watching looks not at the situation itself but waits for new developments that might finally lead to action. Such passive watching is the course recommended by Western powers in Egypt, and it can cause people to presume that all watching is equivalent to inactivity.

However, after two weeks of the Egyptian revolution and now six weeks of revolutionary situation across North Africa, there is also the possibility of “wakeful watching.” This is an active form, wide-awake, concentrating and alert with intent. It is not the agent of the attention that generates value, as identified by Jon Beller. It is at once the wakefulness required by those in Tahrir Square, the watching by the movement of Mubarak, Clinton and Obama as they maneuver to sustain the regime, the waking up in the middle of the night to check on developments. It is simply that sense that something has snapped into focus for the first time in ages. This watching is live and alive–it is of the present but an expanded present in which certain moments are again alive, not as specters or echoes, but as actors in the new network.

Here are some forms from my wakeful watching:

1. The Lantern

On July 14 1789, the French Revolution began in earnest with the storming of the Bastille. A radical popular justice ensued, using the mirrored lights, or lanterns, installed by the monarchy to illuminate the city as a form of gallows. The Lantern became a form of popular hero in prints of the day.

Here it pursues a general wanted by the revolutionary populace:

General Alton Pursued by Patriotic Lanterns, 1789

Soon, the Lantern came to be a way of seeing in and of itself:

The Lantern's View, 1789

The Lantern’s view is the view of the newly constituted “people” and that of revolutionary justice. It was an appropriation of the perspective view of power, just as the 1789 revolution had appropriated the sovereign rights to determine between life and death.

The form and viewpoint of the Lantern can be seen again in Tahrir Square, an uncanny legacy of the French colonial presence.

Tahrir Square, February 4 . Photo: Sean Smith.

Not missing the opportunity to create some revolutionary symbolism, the Lantern has once again become the place of symbolic justice, using the popular figure of the effigy, well-known to eighteenth-century crowds.

An effigy of Mubarak hanged from the Lantern. Photo: Sean Smith.

What produced the “great fear” among the ruling classes in France was the possibility that sovereignty, the right to decide who may live and who must die, was escaping them. The January 25 movement uses the chant “Peaceful” to its opponents and to itself. For a regime accustomed to living by means of fear, casual and state endorsed violence, and political charade, “peaceful” is something other. The right to look, the invention of the other.

2. The Right to Look, the Right to be Seen.

In moments of revolution, the right to look is the right to be seen and vice versa. The new mobility demands to look on that which was held to be out of sight and to be seen to be doing so. While visuality is not a regime of images, the revolutionary political subject has often visualized itself by means of images. This tactic is aware of the transience of change, the likelihood that the best hopes of a moment will not be realized and the persistence of forgetting. Making a formal image, attesting to one’s presence as an actor, demanding to be seen–this is dangerous but it keeps the moment alive.

In 1862, the photographer Timothy O’Sullivan, best-known for his work in the US Civil War and later with the Geographical Survey of the West, was in the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina. Newly-liberated by Union forces in one of the first actions of the Civil War, the Sea Islands became a key destination for many of the estimated half-a-million enslaved, who simply abandoned slavery and moved to the North. For W.E.B. Du Bois, this was a “general strike” against slavery, the cause of its defeat. O’Sullivan recorded the presence of the general strike, while the people in his photograph were still technically “contraband,” guilty of having stolen themselves.


Timothy O' Sullivan, Untitled , 1862

Across the Atlantic, in the last of the Atlantic revolutions, the Paris Commune of 1871 responded to this call. The Central Republican Committee of the 20 Arrondissements redefined authority as autonomy: “Citizens: in this supreme danger to the homeland, with the principle of authority and centralization being convicted of powerlessness, we have hope only in the patriotic energy of the communes of France, becoming, by the very force of events, FREE, AUTONOMOUS and SOVEREIGN.”

The Central Committee organized elections and stepped down from power, declaring “You have freed yourselves. Obscure a few days ago, obscure we shall return to your ranks.” From this place of obscurity, they had watched “the most grandiose popular spectacle that has ever struck our eyes and moved our souls…Paris is opening a blank page in the book of history and is writing its powerful name therein.” Rather than Carlyle’s visuality of the hero, the Commune deployed from obscurity a popular spectacle that attempted to rewrite history not as the biography of great men but as the actions of autonomous Paris, a collective name for the diverse populations of the city.

Not content to stay obscure, the new political subjects inscribed themselves on those pages by means of photographs:

Workers during the Paris Commune, 1871

It is not likely that many of these people survived the repression of the Commune by the self-titled “Party of Order” in May, 1871, when some 25,000 people died. Given that they were surrounded by a largely hostile nation, itself occupied by a foreign power, they must have expected such an outcome. The photograph was intended as a testimony to their moment.

The outcome in Egypt is uncertain. The Day of Departure did not lead to Mubarak actually leaving. But he is no longer live.

They are.

Tahrir Square, February 4, 2011. Photo: Sean Smith.

3. Tahrir Square: “Free Egypt”

The revolution spontaneously invents new forms. The space of Tahrir Square–Liberation Square in English–has become that form. The square has transformed one of the banal “public” spaces of the 30 year State of Emergency and transformed it into a site of emergence, whose form is now that of the revolution. The “square” is not, in fact, square. It consists of a polyhedron, shaped something like a hatchet, with a central circle and a large gathering space to the right in the diagram. The entrance is via a checkpoint on the Kasr al-Nil bridge, won in combat with the police on January 29.The movement calls it “Free Egypt.”

The form of the revolution

Friday February 4, the Square echoed to chants of “these are the Egyptian people.” Food, medical care, and civility were all provided. The poor, the destitute, the middle ranks of business, academics, lawyers, filmmakers were all able to recognize each other. The guards, who greeted each new member of this emergent Cairo commune, following the Commune of 1871, wore improvised helmets made from kitchen bowls, labeled “the government of the revolution.”

Tahrir Square is becoming an alternative city within the city, a rival source of affiliation to the nation state. People now live there, and treat it as a place of belonging.

In this video, people are enacting wakeful watching. They move around, circulate and are very aware that there is something to see here. People read newspapers, talk, rest, but above all they are present: alive, in the present, attesting to their presence, refusing to depart, actors in the new network.

The secret police retort that their prisons are Egypt. All government and indeed international efforts, are devoted to persuading the revolutionaries to leave the square, restore “normality” and return “home,” where they can receive a visit from the secret police at 3 a.m. Quite apart from the political calculus, the mistake here is that those in the square are more at home than they have ever been in the uncanny, febrile atmosphere of the US client state.


These photographs were sent in response to my last blog post from Tahrir Square. All were sent by Cairo based artist collective and artist HR. [Names removed to protect photographers], who suggested the title “Made in the USA,” derived from the gas canister in the first photograph below.

I’m putting them up as is without commentary: a piece on the impact and problems of “watching” the revolution (whether from the USA or elsewhere) follows on Monday.

Made in the USA

Tahrir Square

Tahrir Square

Tahrir Square

Tahrir Square


NETWORKED REVOLUTION: Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt after 30 days

The revolution will not be televised. It is being networked and it is live. January  2011 has been a month of watching al-Jazeera’s English channel streamed live on the Internet and following Twitter #sidibouzid and #jan 25 as we watched first Tunisia and then Egypt undertake networked revolutions. This is a networked visuality that counters the realpolitik of the Cold War and its legacies in counterinsurgency. This post goes up one week into the Egyptian uprising that began on January 25, 2011 and one month into the North African revolution. It is 1989, it is 1956, it even recalls 1848. This time the spectre of revolution has returned with a difference. It is not a spectre hidden in Roman dress, behind a winding sheet, or in the battle armour worn by Hamlet’s father. It is live.

Complexes of Visuality

A parenthesis on visuality: In The Right to Look, I identify a series of what I call “complexes of visuality.”

Complexes of Visuality diagrammed

Let me quickly note some caveats: the dates are indicative not a hard “break”; no complex has disappeared but each has its hegemonic moment; and each complex has two modalities, its ordinary state and a later “intensified” form.

In the chapter that considers the transition from the intensified form of the imperial complex, namely fascism under the Carlyle-inspired Duce and Führer, to the military-industrial complex and its global counterinsurgency, I concentrate on Algeria as the metonym of such a transition. There are many “Algerias,” places at the interface of decolonization and globalization. Those contradictions are what we are now seeing working themselves out, challenging long-standing paradigms of power. I’ve built a multi-media exploration of this theme in the new Scalar software being developed by the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture at USC (I hope this will go live soon). It uses the model of a demonstration with feeder marches and detours to explore the place of “Algeria” in what I hope is a comprehensible but non-linear form.

The street actions that began in Algeria and have spread first to Tunisia and now Egypt constitute a rather striking interface with the project, confirming my sense that it was only by considering visuality in its places of application as a technique of slavery and colonization that I could properly understand it. Now it seems that that places in which counterinsurgency was first applied, as visualized by Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic film The Battle of Algiers (1966), are making clear the possibility of a sustainable counter-counterinsurgency–which cannot be insurgency– that I am going to call “networked visuality.”

To a Networked Visuality?

Of course, it’s way too soon for conclusions. The protestors are still out in the streets in Tunisia and Egypt alike. In Tunisia, the dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali is gone but his shabby deputy remains as prime minister, although many of dictator’s old cronies have been driven out. On January 29, in a revolutionary journée to recall the street conflicts of the past, from the 1789 French Revolution to the October Revolution and 1968,

The battle for Cairo between the security police and the people

the Egyptian popular forces drove the militarized police force off the streets, burned their stations and the headquarters of Mubarak’s “party.” The dictatorship has played the reshuffle card that failed in Tunisia. It has more troops at its disposal but faces a larger, better connected populace. The whole world is still watching. Let’s be optimistic, in full realization of the realities and with every respect for the many dead and wounded in Egypt.

Whether or not the revolutions will have been fully successful–and no-one has really defined that success–there is a palpable and electric sense of change, not just in North Africa but globally. The events have revealed that there is already a network for change and how it has worked. One tweet widely circulating from Egypt outlined the method: “Facebook used to set the date, Twitter used to share logistics, YouTube to show the world, all to connect people.” The dispersed co-ordination shows that the network has learned from Iran that social networking can also be used by the police to track down activists. Mubarak tried to cut off all Internet access, hoping that this would quell the street actions. Facebook went first, followed by Twitter, then all connections. It was a revolution watched on social networks, but acted in the streets.

When the disconnect failed, Mubarak attempted to shut down al-Jazeera television on January 30 and the next day saw brief arrests of al-Jazeera staff and confiscation of their equipment. Security forces have been tweeting under aliases  to request information on the whereabouts of “missing” protestors–until one of the “missing” tweeted back that it was a scam. The place of media–old and new–in the networked revolution is being worked out as we go. Let’s be clear that these media themselves are not the revolution.

It’s perhaps already been forgotten that the first flickers of revolt failed because they so quickly succeeded. In Algeria, popular protests against price rises in basic foodstuffs were so vehement that the ruling FLN (Front de Libération Nationale), the fossilized remains of what was once a decolonial revolutionary party, backed down. In Tunisia and Egypt as well, it’s the fundamental decline in opportunities, combined with a nearly twenty per cent rise in food prices, that formed the possibility of a revolt. Neo-liberal capital has been able to constantly relocate its labor to lowest bidder since the end of the Cold War. It got complacent and assumed there was no longer any need to placate the dispossessed. But climate change is driving up the price of food and no amount of circus makes up for the lack of bread. Demonstrations returned to Algeria on January 29th.

One person has come to epitomize the network revolution. His name was Mohammed Bu’azizi, a twenty-six year-old fruit seller in Sidi Bouzid–it was widely said that he was a college graduate but this turned out not be the case. After a government official imposed a fine on him for selling without the required but impossible to obtain permit–and according to some versions, slapped him to boot–Bu’azizi went to protest. Dismissed by the bureaucrats, he stunningly immolated himself as a terminal insistence on his right to be seen. Demonstrations of support began in his locality, which were picked up by al-Jazeera and on Facebook. Over a month of rising militancy followed, for three weeks of which Bu’azizi remained alive with terrible burns. In Egypt this one person was Khaled Said, whose death at the hands of security police in June 2010, was caught on cell-phone video that subsequently went viral.

What We Can See Here

Soon after his death, a network of revolution was accomplished. It relies on a series of relays beginning with the embodied affirmation of the withdrawal of consent to be ruled in the streets, live. Next comes vernacular visual and textual reporting from those places; their distribution via social networks like Facebook and Twitter that also served as points of aggregation for information and resources; a broader dissemination via globalized cable television news that made the spectacular repression of the traditional colonial state impossible; and finally, corporate television and print media. Interspersed among all these were the “hacktivists” (combine hacker and activist), who came to media prominence with the Wikileaks disclosures, which gave clear evidence of the long-standing assertions that Egypt routinely uses torture and violently suppresses all dissent.

In an interview published January 30, Julian Assange interestingly argued, referencing an old Microsoft slogan, that: “We [Wikileaks] called their bluff regarding how much ‘universal connectivity’ the political system really wanted after the cold war.” The North African revolution is, in this view, part of a working out of the contradiction between Cold War rhetorics of the open society and democracy and its practices of secrecy and surveillance. Practical connectivity comes from groups like Anonymous, who set up ways for people in Egypt and Tunisia to get cell-phone and Internet access when their governments were trying to cut them off, and those distributing pamphlets via email on how to protest.

The result has been the now-characteristic “leaderless” revolutions, as the Western media have depicted them, as if expecting new Castros and Lenins to materialize. Unable to comprehend networked change, those working in hierarchical companies are already writing banal opinion pieces predicting the collapse of the revolutions for lack of the very kind of leadership that provoked the uprisings. Should the revolutions fail, it will be following the combination of local state violence and globalized governmental and corporate hostility. Israel and Saudi Arabia found an unusual point of agreement in opposing the Egyptian revolution, while stock markets plunged on January 29 as it became clear that the revolution was not going to be crushed. Oil prices hit $100 a barrel on January 31, the usual profiteering from democracy. Israel has begun leading a movement to support Mubarak for fear of the unknown.

By the end of the first week, Mubarak was playing the standard autocratic theme of “order” versus “anarchy,” using his security police to create disorder, while keeping the ordinary police off the streets. The revolutionaries formed a popular front with Mohammed el-Baredi as a figurehead. Their next tactics are the general strike, largely in effect on January 31, and the mass mobilization set for February 1 of the iconic “one million people.” The ability to mobilize such numbers may become a key test of the popular front strategy and the regime has responded first by closing the railways and  by calling a counterdemonstration of their loyalists and security forces. In anticipation, the army has declared that it will not open fire on the people.

What the networked revolutions have already demonstrated is that an alternative is possible. In Tunisia, a police state where there was one police officer for every forty people, Internet access was censored and television carefully controlled, no such event should have been possible. Certainly none of the traditional white men with cameras and hotel reservations, known as foreign correspondents, predicted it. With more than half its population under thirty but with little sense of opportunity and a long-standing autocracy, Tunisia is typical not only of the region but many countries in the global South. Quick confirmation of the viability of the Tunisian “model” elsewhere came from China where the ever-diligent web censors removed all mentions of Egypt from the Sina micro-blogging service, used by over 50 million people.

In an October 2010 interview with Jon Stewart, President Obama changed his slogan from “yes we can,” to “yes we can but…” as he succumbed to the right-wing backlash from the Tea Party. In 2011, the networked revolution has changed the terms. There will not be a transformatory leader but there can be transformation. So although I’m using the phrase “networked visuality,” what’s critical here is that we’ve moved beyond a visualization by a heroic leader to something else. The decisive and symbolic conflict in Cairo on January 29 was between the people and the police for the control of the Kasr-al Nil bridge. As I have been writing for years, following Rancière, the police say to us “move on, there’s nothing to see here.” Only there is, we know it and now we know how to get to see it.

The network is live, the revolution is live. The energy that causes the network to circulate stems from the great performative moments in the streets, but it can be intensified as it passes through the network, as it was when “Egypt” watched “Tunisia.” This is a performative watching that reverses the long-standing deployment of visuality as a weapon against civilian populations by the Psy-Ops brigades and the ranks of the secret police .

Who’s watching Egypt? What about you?Are you live? What’s your next link?

Why I started this project

 Theory, Visual Culture  Comments Off on Why I started this project
Jan 202011

It’s quite common for authors to report that it was only after finishing a book that they realized what it was really about. In my own case, I never really knew exactly what my 1995 book Bodyscape was about but its readers seemed to work it out for me. WJT Mitchell has told how it was a review of his Picture Theory that generated his next project What Do Pictures Want? In this case, the process has been different.

I finished The Right to Look in June 2010. Months of image permission work and other busy work on the MS followed, while I was also completing an article for Critical Inquiry based on the book and preparing to give a set of lectures in India: in other words, I had no time at all to reflect or look back on the book. In India, after I had given three lectures I got an unusual question from Parul Dave Mukherji, dean of the School of Art and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi (where there is a pioneering program in visual studies). She simply asked, having heard so much of the project, whether what I was doing should still be called visual culture or whether it might not be something different.

The question at once resonated with me. It had been a similar question that started the book project in the first place. Someone, I’m not now sure who it was, asked me where the word “visuality” originated. I gave an answer referring to Hal Foster’s collection Vision and Visuality (1988), feeling sure that was not right. I headed to the library, looked it up in the OED and there was a reference to Carlyle’s On Heroes. Realizing that “visuality” was not a progressive, critical theory term analogous to textuality, but the key attribute of the autocratic Hero, was the starting point for what became The Right to Look.

Visuality is presented in my book as a regime of visualizations, not images, of which images may or may not be a part. Further, the visualizer is, or claims to be, autocratic, precisely because of his (always) capacity to visualize. By the same token, visuality’s claim to authority rests on our (the non-heroic multitude) inability to perceive it. So one way to think of the present is as a crisis within visuality as it attempts to reformulate itself. Their crisis is our opportunity.

Certainly, I am not “against” visual culture! But I have a strong sense that something new is in the making, which has already led to the Media Commons collective project The New Everyday. There I have noted that “the new everyday” is something of a placeholder, opening a field of investigation more than it seeks to define it. I often wonder if the convergent forces of globalization and digitization, supplemented by the need to really learn how to think globally in relation to climate change, might not require not just a different visual culture but a different humanities.

Given the financial crisis in Anglophone universities, it seems that this realignment is upon us, whether we like it or not. Perhaps there is an opportunity to think how the various “studies” (ethnic, gender, cultural) might engage with this convergence. Can the convergent digital technologies offer qualitative as well as quantitative means for such a convergence?

So this is going to be the place where I write to see what I think about this. I’m not going to boringly try and link each and every post to the overall theme but it will be working its way in the background. At this point I have no idea whether an “answer” will or should emerge or how long this might be necessary/desirable to do. I am, of course, aware that the last thing the world needs is another blog but I hope some of you might find it not entirely devoid of interest.


Welcome to this blog.

© 2012 For the Right to Look Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha