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.


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