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