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.

  2 Responses to “Visuality falling”

  1. Nick, you write “The right to existence, or the claim to look and be seen, has become a visualized form, as in the YouTube call to demonstrate.” But I am not sure the right to existence is the same as the claim to look or be seen. Or are you saying it is ancillary to? If the first is your claim, perhaps in a Lacanian sense (or Winnicottian?) how does that almost instinctual right relate to the groudned (even political) claim of self-representation: quite different than being seen by another however they choose to see you. So, perhaps ancillary is best, the claim is larger than merely being seen and seeing, it is being seen as one wishes to be seen, it is controlling seeing as well as the conditions around it (what you mean by countervisuality). Yet, I continue to wonder about how such countervisual images mean as they move across screens, willy nilly, and cultures, contexts: what is counter in Egypt plays like MTV here.

    • Alex, this is a really interesting set of ideas. So my sense of the ‘right to existence’ is as the foundational instance of the right to look. That is, if ‘authority’ is the goal of visuality, ‘autonomy’ is the goal of the right to look. By the same token, then, if the capacity to buy and sell ‘slaves’ is the attribute of authority (philologically speaking), then the right to oneself, to existence, is that of the right to look.

      Also, the claim for a new form of ‘existence’ was widespread in Egypt–unlike the word democracy (meaning ritualized elections as we have). I take existence here to mean a way of life that is not subject to autocratic authority–I don’t think it’s yet worked out into a set of institutional forms and so much the better.

      I don’t do much with Lacan in the book–I tend to follow the decolonial line that the subjection of the gaze is colonial by nature, and even Lacan agreed to that under pressure in ’68.

      What I do suggest, following Derrida, is that the right to look is the ‘invention of the other,’ a process that I see as a mutual and constantly ‘refreshing’ form of constitution in which I allow myself to be found and invented by you, just as you allow me to do the same. I think we’ve seen significant instances of this in Egypt, such as the remarkable invocation by a Sunni cleric ‘O Christians, O Muslims’, replacing the standard ‘O Muslims.’ [Imagine a Christian preacher doing the same here just after the congressional elections last December]

      All that said, there’s so much to do in learning from Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and now Libya. I’m just trying to track my responses, keep a record as they form and morph. Thanks for pushing me on this:)

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