“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.


The Right to Look

 counterinsurgency, New media, Visual Culture  Comments Off on The Right to Look
Jun 012011

This post sets up a link to the PDF of my article “The Right to Look” in Critical Inquiry. Please enjoy! and I’d love to hear your thoughts.


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?

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