Time and the photographic common

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Time regained

History repeats itself…(Marx)

The French Revolution was a leap into the open air of history (Benjamin)

As old man Hegel had it, history certainly repeats itself. He forgot to add: it keeps on doing so in a variety of registers. We’ve had tragedy–repeatedly–farce by all means, irony to the point of excess. Now we’re in a space of networked plotting, like one of those Iñárittu movies (Amores Perros), where a complex set of incidents converge in a set of violent encounters. In Amores Perros, the spectre behind the scene was the failed revolution of 1968. Today’s revolution is setting its own time, readjusting our clocks and is still in its open space. The Italian theorist Bruno Gulli has asserted: “communism is the liberation of time–not it’s framing in the factory system.”

Thelma and Louise leap into history


The French Revolution (for which read the French and Haitian revolutions) was the exemplar for Benjamin of “open space,” the time epitomized by his dream or dialectical image that leaps “out” of history. When the image is not “in” history, it is not out of time, it is out of that colonial narrative in which the “West” is destiny. As such, it is open to influence and analogy from the past, from that which is to come but can now be seen differently. We have spent much time on the phenomenology of the “image”: is it alive, what does it want, what is its future? This “open space” image should be considered politically: to whom does it belong? what claims does it support? in a world of time-based media, how can it even be seen?

Like Thelma and Louise who “keep going,” or like the cartoon cat inching its way across the abyss, this process requires a certain suspension of belief: things don’t always fall, or turn out for the worst. Sometimes the “impossible” option in one form of everyday reality becomes the new reality. For the present, there is a moment whose frontiers for the nonce are not bounded by what one Tunisian TV anchor called “the policeman in my head”–at which point she stopped relaying government propaganda.

That policeman, or authority, is the internalized form of visuality, which seeks to suture authority to power. Its first modern agent in Carlyle’s view was Napoleon, whose glory was seen as soon as he turned his cannon on the revolutionary Paris crowd in 1795. Here was the “Hero” incarnate, restoring authority for the third time over the “black” revolution. Less noticed was Bonaparte’s failure in Haiti, where revolution was (according to Carlyle) “black beyond redemption.” Or in Egypt, where a combination of local resistance and British naval dominance forced the French to retreat.


Girodet, The Revolts in Cairo (1810)

Here in Girodet’s carnival of Orientalism, the masculine French pile into the swollen mass of “native” revolt, outside the main mosque in Cairo, determined to assert their right to compel the Orient into their modernity. Two hundred years later, Cairo reset its course, leaving Orientalism in ruins.

The Photographic Common
The authoritarian leader (or imperial nation) claimed the ability to so visualize as the source of his “authority.” Insofar as they are taxonomies of the real, visualizations are also  “photographs,” understood here as a division of the sensible (Rancière) that I call “authoritarian realism.” Against this assertion of authority, there has always been the claim of the “right to the real” (Negri) from the point of view of those whose task it is to do the work allocated to them and nothing else (Rancière, interpreting Plato). This right to the real depicts and represents the real from the perspective of countervisuality: we might call it photographic for the time being, while noting that this is a photography of cell-phones and Facebook, not Leicas and Magnum. It is “common” (Hardt and Negri) because the right to look is also “the invention of the other” (Derrida), an oscillation of looks from one to the other in which each invents and is invented.

Authoritarian realism indicated the space that the photographic subject should occupy, a time in which they should be found and a means of locating them.  As Allan Sekula and others have argued, photography in the age of discipline classified and archived the modern in the metropole and the colony.  Such regimes trained and defined the modern sensorium as to what looked “right.” The photographic “common” has always already been present as the counter to authoritarian realism. It represents that part that has no part that refuses to accept the injunction of the police “move on, there’s nothing to see here” (Rancière).

Interfaced with networked social media, this modality of the common has now created a new “people” that has given “democracy” a renewed momentum. I use these terms following Jacques Rancière’s proposition that democracy is always the exception in Western thought that considers it to be the worst of regimes and attempts to separate the people from both philosophy and the real. Thus the photographic common is the invention of the other, when both inventor and invented are out of place, as Rancière would have it, located in a “time…out of joint” (Hamlet/ Derrida), and in defiance of all norms.  Already there where it is not supposed to be, the photographic common allows itself to be seen, to be invented and claims its place in a present that is to come (Derrida). It is to come because the right to the real, which it asserts, does not yet exist and must be claimed in its absence, even though it is no less real for that

The crisis of counterinsurgency

Counterinsurgency, today’s authoritarian realism, is in all kinds of trouble. After the 25 February “Day of Rage” in Baghdad, held in its own Tahrir Square, police followed up with a mass arrest of journalists and intellectuals (HT to Lennard Davis, Huff Post blogger, who has been pushing this story). What happened to “liberated” Iraq and all that? The Unmanned Aerial Vehicle is the prize technology of counterinsurgency with its all-seeing machine eye. However,  The Washington Post has reported that out of 581 deaths caused by UAVs of people designated as “militants” by the CIA , only two were “top-ranked.” Nine Afghan boys aged from 9-15 were killed by a U. S. helicopter, one more in a long string of such accidents. Yet again General David Petraeus heads to Washington to assert “progress” in the war in Afghanistan, even as Pakistan edges nearer to crisis. How odd the heady assertions of the 2006 Counterinsurgency manual now seem: that global counterinsurgency could succeed by a combining imperial “small wars” tactics with information-era intelligence, mediated by the “commander’s visualizations.” Even Thomas Friedman, cheerleader of globalization, has been left wondering quite what $110bn. was spent on, and for, in Af-Pak, as the COIN people like to call the Afghan-Pakistan region.

Before I go too far with the critique of the foreign policy types, let’s take a moment to recall just how wrong-footed the high-spending American universities have been by recent events. Full of bombast about bringing the “liberal arts” to the “region,” Northwestern and above all NYU have invested significantly in precisely the wrong places, like Abu Dhabi and Qatar, while having no presence in Egypt or Tunisia.

The hyphen

Nothing is certain about any revolution. Whether the space it has created stays open will always be a question requiring daily attention. Revolutionary time is exhausting like that. But the mere proposal of a “day of determination” in Tahrir Square was enough to see off the Mubarak-era Prime Minister in Egypt and Tunisia has completed its dismissal of Ben Ali’s loyalists. The political dynamic of revolution has been linked to the sacred calendar so that each Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, becomes a moment of intensification. What’s surprising about this development is that it has not produced any sense that a so-called fundamentalist turn is likely. Indeed, the global right from Sarah Palin to al-Qaeda are the clear losers in the events so far.

Perhaps the sharpest points of questioning is whether the space of the common remains open to women, as it was in Tahrir Square. It was Wael Gonim’s Dream TV interview with Mona El Shazly that is often held to have tipped the balance in Egypt. El Shazly used her Oprah-like prestige as a talk-show host to create the possibility for this dramatic interview. Egyptian secular feminists have opened a discussion with religious women, which opens a new space again. However, the Women’s Day march in Tahrir Square produced mixed results: organizers were pleased that a thousand people turned out, and that serious if intense discussions/arguments followed, but later reports of violence and harassment followed. You know how this goes: it’s not our place to judge vs. the necessary solidarity with those women that seek change. The latter was sullied by the Bush administration’s cynical deployment of “feminism” to justify its invasion of Afghanistan. But one might suggest that from the assault on Planned Parenthood in the U. S. to the niqab ban in France and the Anglo-German assault on multi-culturalism that the best form of solidarity would be to support change wherever we happen to be.


Publication date (from feed): 

Wed, 09 Mar 2011 16:41:11 +0000