A non-event?

Fascinating interview with Mehdi Belhaj Kacem, one of the bright new things of French philosophy, on the Tunisian revolution. He’s very rude about Badiou and Zizek’s pronouncements on all this: ‘It’s obvious that Badiou and Zizek, who reacted very late to the first positive event of historical and global scope of the twenty-first century, know absolutely nothing about the situation’.

What do ‘media’ do?

Following my post on the reporting of events in Egypt, Alex Marsh sent me a link to this think-piece by BBC correspondent Paul Mason, Twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere, which seeks to draw some general lessons from recent protest events in places as diverse as Greece, Ireland, North Africa and the UK. The piece has since been published in The Guardian, and has attracted some attention, not least as indicative of a BBC policy of encouraging journalists to engage in more detailed discussions via blogging.

Mason’s piece treads between a focus on ‘technology’ and a more interesting discussion of some of the sociological aspects of this range of events – the emphasis on the role of young, relatively highly educated people is surely correct. There is an inevitable journalistic emphasis on the newness of all of this, and the default assumption remains that this is really a story about how ‘technology’ transforms the conditions of political action. The geographer Tim Unwin has a list of various reports that address what he himself calls “the agency of mobile ‘phones and the use of social networking environments over the Internet” in shaping political upheaval in Tunisia, Egypt,  and beyond. His last comment is important: “Much research needs to be undertaken on the real role of ICTs in these ongoing political processes.  What seems apparent, though, is that many participants do indeed believe that these technologies are helping them achieve their objectives.” A certain view of the potential of digital communications is no doubt an important part of the ‘spontaneous philosophy’ of contemporary activism. Likewise, Mason’s think-piece refers in passing to how “activists have read their Chomsky and their Hardt-Negri”. I’m not so sure this necessarily means “they have a better understanding of power”, but in so far as it is true, it does certainly mean they are likely to have a particular, well-formed view of how power operates, for better or ill. But it seems to me that both of these aspects of activist self-understanding – of ‘communications’ and of ‘power’ – are more interesting if they are understood as internal dimensions to this form of organisation, without requiring anyone to affirm the ‘objective’ validity of either of these views of how political action unfolds. The focus on the importance of new media in much of this reporting and commentary allows a narrative framing in which politics is rooted in a generalised but unformed sense of ‘grievance’ rooted in ‘poverty’ and ‘oppression’ which is then given expression by new communications opportunities – Manuel Castells neatly summarises this narrative in his comments on all this.

In short, there is a particular concept of the mediating work that ‘media’, old and new, perform in much of the commentary on the role of social media and digital technology in contemporary politics – they can be ascribed so much importance by virtue of being attributed a merely mediating function. Amongst other things, what disappears from view from this perspective is the different practices that different communications technologies help to configure – twitter and facebook are playing different roles in contemporary events in the Arab world to that played by Al-Jazeera. While much of the commentary out there is about how new media changes how politics is done, my sense is that the real imperative behind much of this kind of commentary is the attempt to understand the changed conditions under which news is made, and indeed, the changed conditions under which academic expertise about complex situations can be articulated in real-time (and there might be interesting elective affinities between certain self-understandings of activism and the focus of media reporting on individualising effects of new media).

For an antidote to some of the more detached commentary on events in Egypt and Tunisia, there are some interesting debates going on amongst anthropologists, which provide much more depth of understanding than is found in much of the technology-focussed discussion. There are a couple of more circumspect reflections on the role of media in these political eventsOne of these pieces makes the point that the focus on the new mediums of political change is a recurrent feature of reporting and commentary on these types of dramatic political events: “This is an evergreen story…The interest that’s focused on social media now, ten years ago was focused on web portals, before that it was focused on email and list-serves, before that it was television.” And in this respect, there is an interesting archive of reportage and commentary on the protests around the contested Iranian election in 2009, described by some as a ‘twitter revolution’, which two years on is an interesting case-study of how the global news narrative of politics as technological expression unfolds and then unravels over time.

Democracy Live

I came across an interesting theory blog the other day, called GonePublic, which belongs to Noelle McAfee, and focuses on links between philosophy, political theory and contemporary public life. She has a new book out, which I had not come across before, called Democracy and the Political Unconscious, which I haven’t yet read, but which sounds interesting in its emphasis on the relationships between collectively felt trauma and the challenges of building and sustaining democratic cultures. Her site also has a link to a recently published collection, Democracy in What State?, which includes contributions by some of the grandees of ‘continental-style’ political philosophy – Ranciere, Zizek, Badiou, Agamben, Nancy. Should make interesting reading, given the decided ambivalence about ‘democratic’ values one might impute to at least one or two of these thinkers. And while I am on the subject of things I haven’t read properly yet, there is also an interesting looking essay in Political Studies by Andy Dobson on Democracy and Nature, that thinks through the relevance of Latour’s provocations about nature and democracy by emphasising the importance of practices of listening as well as the well-trodden emphasis on speaking in recent democratic theory.

I stumbled across these references a week or so ago, and remembered them this week while finding myself watching a lot of day-time television, in that zonked-out, sleep-deprived way that one does in the first few days after the birth of a new child. We have sat glued to images of protest and violence in Cairo and other Egyptian cities. I wonder which, if any, of them would be most helpful for understanding what is going on there. Between them, these theoretical works look like they cover the shared terrain of cutting-edge democratic theory these days, which revolves around a couple of intertwined issues: how best to think of the mediums of inclusive democratic politics – in terms of deliberating, representing, and/or other modes of more or less embodied action; and how to square these images of how democratic politics should be best practiced with a more worldly acknowledgement that democracy is rarely founded democratically, but is shaped at its origins often by violence, trauma, and suffering. Of course, there is a style of theorising about ‘the political’ that presents these two sides as standing in a starkly contradictory, or aporetic relationship, so that democracies are always tainted at source by foundational violence. This serves as a way of reconfiguring some quite old-fashioned images of messianic revolution with ideals of democratic politics. Alternatively, there is an Arendtian vision in which the sorts of street protests going on in Egypt this last week or so are examples of a mode of collective, public action that is constitutively opposed to violence and yet is the very source of democratic energies.

Now I don’t know very much about Egypt, and am not inclined to over-interpret events there just for the sake of theoretical point-scoring. But watching these events, distracted by more real personal events and from a distance, I have been struck by how at times like this what you really want is contextual, social-scientific forms of analysis rather than interpretative political theory.  And, it’s also useful to have some sense of how things might be theorised by those more familiar with these contexts than the usual theory-suspects.

One of the riffs this past couple of week about Egypt, and before that about Tunisia, has been about the importance of social media like twitter and facebook in coordinating the protests and collective mobilizations that have shaken authoritarian regimes. To a large extent I think, this sort of emphasis is really an index of a culture of journalism that doesn’t know very much about the places where dramatic news events often take place, and is therefore forced to fall back on a familiar narrative line. Malcolm Gladwell has a neat little blog post on this theme here, in which he points out that the fact that the fact that events in Egypt have been partly shaped by the use of new media might be far down the list of relevant factors worthy of attention. His point is that the fascination with the mediums through which contemporary collective action is made possible, with the ‘how’, tends to distract attention from the content, from the ‘why’ of such action. There is a kind of flattening effect of this sort of news narrative, in so far as it makes political revolutions in Tunisia just another version of half-hearted online petition exercises led by government in the UK or the latest smart viral marketing campaigns of this or that underground pop song. The focus on the medium is not only exaggerated, as Gladwell suggests, but tends to obviate the need for any deeper analysis of why political events like this take place at all – I have actually learnt very little about Egyptian politics after a week of watching blanket news coverage from there.

Of the things I have had time to read on this issue, I enjoyed this piece on why the narrative that paints Egypt in 2011 as potentially a re-run of Iran in 1979 doesn’t hold up really helpful, precisely because it provided a basic outline of the social and organisational context in which these events are unfolding. It reminded me too of an old media studies analysis of the importance of tape cassettes to the Iranian revolution. Maybe each political revolution has its own  iconic ‘new media’ technology?

And the cassettes example isn’t as old sounding as it may appear. The anthropologist Charles Hirschkind has a detailed ethnographic account of the importance of taped sermons in shaping contemporary Islamic public spheres, in The Ethical Soundscape. One reason why this account resonates is that it reminds us that there is more to ‘media’ than just communicating – the ongoing importance of this media technology, in Hirschkind’s account, lies in the practices of self-sustained by a culture of listening, of being devout, of cultivating a particular spiritual and public ethics of life.

Hirschkind’s account of the practices of contemporary public life in Islamic societies like Egypt and Iran suggests a much more nuanced understanding of ‘public space’  than one often finds in spatial disciplines like geography or urban studies, which have a tendency to fetishize ‘real’ public spaces. I suppose the centrality of Tahrir Square to the events in Egypt in the last week might seem to confirm this emphasis. But I wonder. This seems to be an example of a struggle of over a specific site, as a symbolically important location rather than a site of real power, the control of which projects or reaches beyond its coordinates in space. A year or so ago I listened to a talk, at a workshop in Rome on political agency, by the Egyptian academic and activist Heba Raouf Ezzat, who talked about the vibrant but furtive quality of the political public sphere in Egypt. She recommended the work of Asef Bayat, who has written about new ‘post-Islamic’ social movement politics and the ordinariness of political action in the Middle East. Bayat has also written about the figure and reality of ‘the Arab street’, which he reconstructs as a complex of ideas and practices about the force of popular opinion, the fragility of state power, and the calibration of formal political processes to material conditions of life (what Africanist political theorists might call ‘the politics of the belly’). Bayat has updated this analysis of the new Arab street in the last week in relation to events in Tunisia and Egypt.

Between them, these sorts of analyses of the spaces of  political action are helpful in indicating the extent to which democratic energies might be understood as urbanized in certain respects without forcing one to fetishize a particular romantic image of the city as the scene of political life. There is an urbanity to the movements for change in Egypt, Tunisia, Iran and elsewhere, it seems – in so far as they are peopled by labour activists, and professional classes, by women’s organisations, as well as by varieties of religious activism which are resolutely modern in their concerns and maybe often even ‘secular’ in their form. And it seems too there might be something resolutely urbanized about the ‘conjunctural’ factors at work in these recent events – the central importance of economic grievances over unemployment and food prices is indicative of the interplay between spatially extensive infrastructures of provisioning upon which contemporary urban living on the scale of a city like Cairo depends; and more contained, lived and shared experiences of stunted citizenship.