19 October 2011

Thoughts on Political Space

There is a typically provocative piece by Rebecca Solnit here at TomDispatch.com. As she tends to do, Solnit ranges widely, drawing parallels and inferences that may not immediately seem apparent, but that actually coalesce into a persuasive pattern. All in the service of peddling of what she calls 'hope in the dark.' And there is a video here at Al Jazeera about the role of images and new social media in fomenting and sustaining the 'Arab Spring.' The various amateurs interviewed for the video bring to mind the phrase a democracy of images that became the title for the post-9/11 exhibition in lower Manhattan. The phrase travels well.

To their credit, the reporters who constructed the video strive to impress on viewers that the revolution was made by real bodies - courageous and vulnerable - in the streets and not just by images. Indeed, both Solnit and the Al Jazeera video reminds me of what Allan Sekula wrote in the preface to his series of photographs "Waiting for Teargas: White Globe to Black" where he wrote of the WTO protests in Seattle - "something very simple is missed by descriptions of this as a movement founded in cyberspace: the human body asserts itself in the streets against the abstraction of global capital." Solnit forms her essay as a letter to the young vendor Mohammed Bouazizi whose self-immolation ignited the Tunisian revolution and much else by extension. And the videographers have their subjects - the individuals who filmed crucial episodes in the protests in Tunisia and Egypt - acknowledge the heroes in the streets, risking life and limb against the security forces. Yes, images and social media are new tools, but what they depict and disseminate are real agents taking real actions in dangerous situations. So while Sekula's phrasing is oddly passive - "the human body asserts itself" - I think he is on to something about the power of actual embodied protesters asserting themselves and being caught in the act.

This is the basic message I find lacking in this otherwise interesting recent piece by Michael Kimmelman in The New York Times. He is right, of course, about the power of place and especially about the importance of public space to politics. I can hardly dispute that sort of claim given what I've written here in the past. But I think Kimmelman neglects the conflict and contestation involved in how political agents must occupy and act out their freedom in public. The Al Jazeera video depicts just that process.

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