“Mic check!”

General assembly, sparkly hands, consensus, concern, temperature check, block, process: this is the vocabulary and embodied performance of occupy theory. Each word has an equivalent embodied gesture, which is the means of indicating how you’re feeling about a proposal: fingers up for feeling good, horizontal for not sure, down for against.

The strongest sign is raised, crossed arms for a block: an ethical or safety concern over a proposal that might cause you to leave the movement. Proposals are “consens-ed” by facilitators so that a clear majority approve. It’s not always quick but it is always interesting. It’s occupy theory.

Don’t make the phrase into a noun: it’s not a theory of occupation. Occupy theory is what you do as you occupy. It is the process that has become in some sense the purpose of the direct democracy movement, known by its signature instance Occupy Wall Street, or #ows.

There have been a variety of star theory people come to Zuccotti Park, where Occupy Wall Street is based, and to Occupy Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village from Zizek to Spivak and Andrew Ross. Given the performative nature of occupy theory, it’s not surprising that—to judge from the Twitterstorm and Facebook frenzy—it has been Judith Butler who best captured the moment.

She presented a set of demands for the impossible, echoing the Situationist slogan “Be realistic: demand the impossible.” Seen in printed form, in which the line breaks represent a pause for the “human mic” that has become a signature of the movement, Butler’s talk is a prose poem.

So what is this occupy in occupy theory? While occupation of public and private spaces is a long tradition of industrial protest movements, there have been concerns from indigenous and Palestinian groups about the term “occupy.” In New Mexico, they have neatly re-rendered the term as “(Un)occupy.” So somewhere between occupy and un-occupy—or more exactly oscillating between them—is occupy theory. It’s the latest version of what I have called the “right to look,” which is at once the invention of the other and the consent for the other to invent you.

The first claim of the right to look is the right to existence, the right to be seen to exist. The people posting on “We Are the Ninety-Nine Per Cent,” a collaborative blog, have used the webcam format to have their stories told and made visible. These assembled self-portraits together present a set of claims. The individual self-photograph transforms a data point within the statistics of debt, unemployment and insurance disaster into a person. This person is not performed for the sake of pity or charity but as a constituent member of the emerging “people.” As Rancière has put it, “a ‘people’ of this kind is not an assemblage of groups and social identities. It is a polemical form of identification that is drawn along particular lines of fracture, where the distribution of leaders and led, learned and ignorant, possessors and dispossessed is decided.” That is to say—we are the ninety-nine per cent.

Nor is the performative expressed by “Occupy Wall Street” quite as simple as it seems. The occupation is not on Wall Street but round the corner at Zuccotti Park. Named for the director of Canadian conglomerate Brookfield—the company hoping to bring tar sands oil to the U. S.—Zuccotti is occupied because it is a private-public park, a zoning variance that has the requirement of permanent public access to a generic piece of urban landscape in exchange for extra height to a building or other such one per cent goodies. Much as New York City Mayor Bloomberg is itching to expel the occupiers—and he may yet succeed in finding a way—he has no legal recourse at present. Washington Square Park, as city property, is always closed between midnight and six a.m. so the occupation there cannot be permanent. Occupying is being done in the variant space between the security-regulated public commons and the deregulated zones of the neo-liberal private market.

This suggests by extension that one reason that Facebook and Twitter have proved so oddly instrumental in the global “movement of the squares” from Tunis to Manhattan is their private-public status.[1] Both are private companies, but committed to being online without interruption worldwide, whereas a public company like Google has been willing to self-censor in China. Google then found its own private-public zone of variance in Hong Kong. These spaces are clearly not the “state of exception” of which so much has been heard of late. Perhaps it could be that these are spaces in which people struggle to preserve that everyday life in which citizens ordinarily may be active. To be clear, I am not arguing that market forces preserve liberties: to the contrary, it’s the fact that these spaces force regulation on the market that gives them a variant form.

The concerns of the occupations with food, cleanliness and above all their own process suggest that, as in Tahrir Square, a new form of public-private institution is emerging within the occupation itself. Here those occupying reclaim the public space as private in the sense of domestic. Disputes must be resolved “peacefully” in the language of Tahrir, or by “consensus” in that of OWS. As was reported from Tahrir, OWS is a place where you don’t feel afraid. It’s oddly easy to talk to complete strangers, which I never do in New York, or even to speak at the General Assembly. The repetition of your words gives you time to think, keeps it to the point and is strangely reassuring. For some it feels like church—I wouldn’t be able to comment! The confirmation of the domestic nature of occupying comes in the justifications now being advanced to end it: the occupiers are messy and their music is too loud. Not for the first time, authority presents itself as a parent. In the self-aware fashion of the modern teenager, OWS refuses to fight on these terms.

There is, of course, another way to read “occupy theory,” which would suggest that we should occupy whatever theory might be. Insofar as “theory” has become a default set of readings used in scholastic fashion in the curriculum, as many whisper that it has, perhaps some occupation is in order. Ironically, much of the canon was produced in response to the failure of the last such planetary pushback in 1968. Perhaps theory should have been pre-occupied for a long time with what this occupation has turned out to be. I don’t find myself overly worried about that any of that now. As we occupy theory, we’ll find out what it is that we need to learn.

[1] An idea that occurred to me in response to excellent papers by Lisa Nakamura, Mobina Hashmi and John Cheney-Lippold at the #2011ASA in Baltimore.

OWS #Oct15

 2011 moment, Occupy Wall St, Oct 15, Visual Culture  Comments Off on OWS #Oct15
Oct 152011

Right Here All Over (Occupy Wall St.) from Alex Mallis on Vimeo.

Alex Mallis


United for Global Democracy

Occupy London Oct 15

Occupy Sydney Oct 15. Credit: Marianna Massey


Occupy Rome Oct 15


Occupy Ottawa Oct 15


Occupy yourself.

Occupy your ideas.

Occupy your body.

You are too big to fail.

“The Condition of England” 2011

 2011 moment, New media, television, Visual Culture  Comments Off on “The Condition of England” 2011
Aug 112011

It was perhaps inevitable that the 2011 crisis of visuality would returned to its source. With the collapse of social order in England, the authority that visuality seeks to make palpable, necessary and right is in crisis where it was first named. As has become typical over the course of this tumultuous year, present-day events appear to be composed of an amalgam of past and present, to use Thomas Carlyle’s famous tag.

Layer one: the decayed “condition of England” (Carlyle).

On 9 August, Duke University Press tweeted Carlyle’s 1838 letter to his wife Jane, highlighting this line: “The distress of the country at present seems beyond expression. There will almost infallibly be riots and bloodshed before long.” In 1839, he published Chartism, stressing the “deep, dumb distress” of the working classes requiring not redress but leadership. So in On Heroes (1840), Carlyle called for heroic leadership, evidenced by “clear visuality,” which the mob could then follow.

Under Thatcher in the 1980s, there was much speculation as to what level of unemployment might make the country ungovernable–one, two and three million went by and, while there were uprisings in Brixton, Toxteth and elsewhere, there was no sense that authority was in danger. With over one million people between the ages of 16 and 24 alone now unemployed in the UK, there is a permanent underclass. The map of London disturbances (to use the carefully neutral term) makes that class briefly visible:

Google mash-up from the Guardian (8-9-11) showing recent incidents

This is neither fashionable London, where the media folk and politicians live, nor the old working-class East End. It’s a mix of inner and outer borough linked by blight, neglect, poverty and rule by police. All Middle England wants from these people is that they, somehow, go away.

Layer two: pre-and post-panopticism

Carlyle’s detestation for all “Benthamee [Benthamite] constitutions” and liberal responses to crime was extreme in 1840 and mainstream by 1865. Thatcherism’s distaste for the poor as moral failures was similarly extreme in 1975 and is now standard. In response to the disorder, Prime Minister David Cameron epitomized the attitude of Middle England in saying “there are pockets of our society that are not just broken but are frankly sick.” He continues in High Tory fashion to deny any link between social injustice and street revolts.

Carlyle wanted those he saw as unreformable deported to the colonies. Cameron blusters about young people being tried as adults. An 11-year-old was detained overnight in the cells yesterday for allegedly “looting” a wastepaper basket.

Panoptic surveillance was not going to reform the criminal in Carlyle’s view, one now shared by British police who use the world’s most extensive CCTV camera network for detection only, not prevention. The cuts in numbers of police will go ahead, despite the unrest, because of the continued faith in this technology.

Pictures from Birmingham CCTV cameras circulated by UK police

In watching this YouTube video of an electrical store being looted in Manchester, several aspects of the events are apparent.

People are not out of control here. There are more spectators than participants. What’s happening is vandalism and theft: it’s not the end of civilization. Notably, there’s no police presence here, as in so many cases. Ironically, Manchester police had been sent to London to keep the peace there, a seemingly endless stream of police vans being shown on British TV.

Although 16,000 police were deployed in London, the normal “move on, there’s nothing to see here” condition failed to refresh. It was only on the fifth night that events petered out, from a combination of mass policing, street exhaustion and perhaps a sense that there was nothing left to take.

Layer three: social media

Print culture was crucial to the emergent radicals of the nineteenth-century from the newspaper to the radical pamphlet and the Captain Swing letters.

A bill advertising a reward for the capture of "Swing"

While there has been much outrage about the possible usages of social media, especially Blackberry BBM messages, there’s no real evidence yet that these messages were in fact instrumental in directing actions on the ground. The BBC and other media have nonetheless lost no time in relaying any violent sounding message they can find.

What was equally and undeniably visible across Facebook, Twitter and comments online was a palpable hatred from Middle England for their underclass.  The word most often used was “feral,” echoed in the tabloids, where rioters were called “wild beasts.” The nineteenth-century fear and disgust for the “dangerous classes” has returned, perhaps reinforced by the sense that there is no political threat from the underclass unlike the once-organized working class.

“Looters are Scum” read a much-photographed homemade T-shirt worn by Clapham music promoter Hayley Miller woman on one of the cleaning-up brigades.

As published in The Sun, Hayler Miller in Clapham, London

Across social media there were calls for the use of plastic bullets and water cannon–they worked so well in Northern Ireland after all. As things quietened, comments turned to calls for those involved to lose their housing and benefits–again, it’s hard to see how having a new, utterly impoverished homeless population would help.

For many of us, this attitude was epitomized by BBC broadcaster Fiona Armstrong shouting down Darcus Howe, nephew of CLR James, editor of the journal Race and Class and, as he says here, a 68 year-oldgrandfather:

Like Darcus Howe, I’m not trying to condone or excuse what happened in England this week. I’m saddened by all of it, the fact that people felt this was the only way they could get noticed, the lack of a political direction to what they chose to do, and perhaps above all by the vitriolic response.

For shouldn’t the fact that the only things those who took to the streets could think to take were televisions, cigarettes and alcohol in itself give us pause? No one stole a car. Or a Paul Smith suit. There was a lot harrumphing that Waterstones bookshop chain was one of the few shops not vandalized. But that’s exactly the point: cars, suits, books and the like don’t interpellate (call to) the structural underclass. Over thirty years of neo-liberalism that has made London the most divided city in terms of financial wealth worldwide has produced a neo-colonial imaginary in which the Orientalized underclasses have, in a very British way, their place properly designated and they recognize it: watching TV, while having a drink and cig.


May 082011

After the killing of Usama bin Laden, there has been a palpable desire for something to see. Having decided not to release photographs of the operation itself, the U. S. government released an assortment of video clips to the news media today, as if to serve that need. While much attention is being visited on bin Laden’s rather routine flub of his lines for a video recording, it seems from one of the other clips that bin Laden was better networked than we were previously told. Given the large satellite dish visible in pictures of the compound, it’s not surprising that he had TV.

bin Laden choosing channels

In this still, I can clearly read channels like al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya but also BBC World and BBC Arabic, Dubai TV and so on. The TV was linked to some kind of modem:

bin Laden's TV set up

Any techies out there know what that is? He certainly made some interesting viewing selections in the clips we have been shown. It appears that he watched the U. S. Congress, as the screen appears to show the House of Representatives in the manner used by the networks when a vote is in progress. And he seems to have watched Hillary Clinton at work:

Here’s the screen in detail:

Hillary Clinton on bin Laden's TV

I can’t be sure it’s her, but it certainly looks like it: it might be quite an old clip, as it looks as if she’s chairing a Senate committee, so it would be before 2009, when she became Secretary of State.

Finally, in this brief but rather remarkable video, we can see that bin Laden had access to reasonably modern computer equipment, like this flat screen monitor:

A computer in bin Laden's compound

The fact that whoever took these pictures wanted to show clips of bin Laden watching himself, as stressed in the media, is open to many interpretations: it may be that this is what bin Laden liked to do, or it may have been a setup for the video shoot.

Taken together, all of this suggests that even the most recent assertions that bin Laden was isolated in his compound seem highly dubious: whether he had direct Internet access or not, he was clearly part of the contemporary communications world. As anyone who has cable knows, there must have been several visits to set up and later update the equipment. All of which suggests that the idea that the entire world was shocked to discover where he had been for the past six years or so cannot be true.

Watch this space:)


It’s Not Over

 2011 moment, counterinsurgency, television, Visual Culture  Comments Off on It’s Not Over
Apr 292011

It’s not over. What isn’t? Neither that which we’d like to be over, nor the things we want to see flourish. The conjunction of the the U. S. reconfiguration of counterinsurgency, with the Palestinian regrouping in the face of the popular revolts, and the denouement of the Birther fiasco made for a remarkable global media day on Thursday 27 April.

Recalling Gen. Petraeus to DC and sending Leon “Drone” Panetta to the Pentagon amounts to an official statement that the “surge” mode of counterinsurgency, with massive costs and troops on the ground, is giving way to the UAV model of remote-controlled robot assassination, in order to keep the lid on insurgencies and budgets alike. Even the war in Libya was turned over to Predator drones this week, which launched yet another unsuccessful attack on Gaddafi’s compound.

Counterinsurgency has completed its turn away from the spectacular “image wars” of Shock-and-Awe vintage to the “invisible” war of UAVs, no-fly zones, satellite monitoring and so-called “Black” ops. The Wikileaks Guantanamo files made it clear what this means: those named by  desperate people in detention under extreme duress become targets for elimination. We are so far from the Panopticon that not only is there no intent to reform anyone, there is no legal possibility to even put them on trial. U.S. prosecutors could imagine only 20 cases being brought. So the remaining detainees linger in colonial limbo.

This is not, however, to say that counterinsurgency is simply in the ascendant. With the revolutionary ferment spreading to Syria and with Yemen on the brink of regime change, the Palestinian factions reconciled rather than face revolt from below. It was Egyptian diplomacy that made this change possible, making it clear that, while there is a great deal to be done, the fall of Mubarak was not simply cosmetic. The jailing of the Mubarak clan has resonated around the region–ironically, the Panopticon is, however briefly and instrumentally,  the tool of the “people.”

In the U. S., events seem curiously isolated from global change. The fiasco in which the President had to produce his long-form birth certificate was eloquently condemned by the comedian Baratunde Thurston on YouTube, a post that quickly went viral.

Thurston described his sense of being “humiliated” by this moment, evoking as it did past poll taxes, literacy tests and other demarcations that African Americans were not considered citizens as of right. My (mostly white) students echoed the sentiment, finding it “embarrassing” and “ridiculous.” Trump has gone on a national celebration tour because depressing our side is what this is all about. In this country, it seems that the image war is still on.

So it’s not over: not the revolution, but also not counterinsurgency, and not yet even the image wars. I think we should find this hopeful: if it’s not over, then intervening can make a difference. Hope was sold in 2008 as easy, an immaterial commodity that could be obtained by pressing a lever or clicking a link. We’re finding out how hard it is, but how critical it can be.


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.

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