Patterns of Revolt: On Global Uprisings and Revolutionary Imagery

Begum Özden Firat

Assistant Professor, Sociology Department at Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University, and image theorist

Masses confronting security forces face to face, trying to cross the line that is not to be crossed. A water cannon approaches, crowds disperse, some stay. David vs. Goliath. In urban confrontations, water cannon are always followed by tear gas. Some protestors throw gas canisters back towards the police line, some try to make them ineffective. A woman approaches the police calmly, courageously, ridiculously. A policeman approaches a woman violently, cowardly. A naked man stands: “this is how fragile we are.” A super hero emerges: “we have secret powers.” A roaring crowd, seen from above, covering the urban landscape like ants. A square. Where are we? Is it Syntagma in Athens, Puerta del Sol in Madrid, Tahrir in Egypt, Taksim in İstanbul? These images blend into one another and construct a kaleidoscopic panorama of a global social and political unrest, a new cycle of revolt initiated in late 2010. 

“Without language in common, the global public sphere will have to rely heavily on images,” writes Susan Buck-Morss (2001). What do these revolutionary images convey? Have they spoken already? What do they say? How do we remember those moments of political contestation from the perspective of the present? Would images help us rethink the emancipatory potentials of the revolutionary tide that swept the whole world?

The wave of protests triggered first in Tunisia and then by the so-called “Tahrir Moment” in 2011, today seems to be at an impasse, to say the least. This wave, mostly called the Occupy movement, shook the world system, from the US to Yemen and Hong Kong, Brazil, Armenia, Israel, Turkey, Spain, Greece, Syria, Ukraine, Canada and Venezuela, to name just a few. Immanuel Wallerstein (2001) declared that the end of the modern capitalist world system was approaching and the new system to be established would depend on the strength of the current political and social movements. It was either barbarism or a different world. Today, together with the world system, a global family of movements is facing a crisis. Wherever they have emerged, these movements shook the existing political systems and sometimes brought them down, yet they did not prove to be powerful enough to change the system as a whole. At this moment, it seems these movements are in general crisis. They are unable to rely on familiar political forms such as ways of organising, language of protest and repertoires of action. They are also incapable of re-voicing growing grievances against neoliberal authoritarian regimes.

No doubt, revolts in Egypt and Turkey and occupations of squares in Greece and Spain are not the same thing. They are different from one another in complex ways but they are also bound together in the global procedures of a neo-liberal order. But, at the same time, they are bound together by a common imagery, or a visual language, if not an ideology. As The Invisible Committee poetically put it: “Revolutionary movements do not spread by contamination but by resonance. Something that is constituted here resonates with the shockwave emitted by something constituted over there. A body that resonates does so according to its own mode. An insurrection is not like a plague or a forest fire, a linear process which spreads from place to place after an initial spark. It rather takes the shape of a music, whose focal points, though dispersed in time and space, succeed in imposing the rhythm of their own vibrations, always taking on more density” (2009: 12-13). 

Hence, what makes the tide of revolt global is, in a sense, a resonance of imagery and the resonance between images of revolt. It is through such resonance that we came to apprehend the universality of particular revolts taking place in their specific historical, social and economic contexts. However, there is something in this cycle of revolt that makes it specifically Mediterranean. It erupted in Tunisia and resonated in Egypt, Libya, Greece, Spain, Turkey, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Israel, Syria, and with smaller events taking place in Portugal and Italy. It seemed for a while that the Mediterranean had become a zone of promise for the end of neoliberal capitalism.Urban squares of the so-called “garlic economies” and the crowds spilling out from the “oriental street” gazed at each other across the Mare Nostrum. The Mediterranean, whose geographical borders expand along a network of roads, passes, sea routes, ports, flows of goods and humans, this time stretched along a network of squares in revolt. Along this network, revolutionary images and salutes were being exchanged. The Spanish greeted Tahrir Square and whispered softly in order “not to wake up the Greeks”, the Greeks heard the whisper. In Israel a new slogan was invented: “Tel Aviv, Cairo, it’s the same revolution”, while protesters in Istanbul declared that Taksim was now Tahrir and Syrians wanted the fall of the regime. A common geography was emerging with a new sense of coevalness. The region which has come to be regarded as the historical, cultural and political other of Europe was now sharing a “time of the now” and images determined its rhythm.

No doubt, these uprisings have transformed the socio-political configuration of the Mediterranean. However, the ways in which the region is imagined has not yet changed accordingly. During the heyday of the revolutionary process in Egypt, Slavoj Zizek wrote that “one cannot but note the ‘miraculous’ nature of the events in Egypt” which, for him, felt like as if “a mysterious agency [….] intervened to pronounce the eternal idea of freedom, justice and dignity.” “The uprising was universal,” he said, “it was immediately possible for all of us around the world to identify with it, to recognise what it was about” (2011). Similarly, Hamid Dabashi (2012) argued that the Tahrir moment declared the end of post-colonialism and that a new geography of universal hope was under construction. However, the ultimate “outcome” of the revolutionary tide, it seems, confirms the “rule” of the political predicament of the Mediterranean: the military junta in Egypt, Greece surrendering to the European Troika, a dictatorial regime being established in Turkey, NATO intervention in Libya, civil war and an imperialist intervention in Syria and, finally, ISIS terror.

The Predicament of Revolts in Images 

We can see the photograph of a demonstrator being brutally beaten by security forces in Tahrir Square in December 2011. It is now called “the woman in the blue bra” or sometimes, with belittling and eroticising undertones, the “blue bra girl”. The image was cropped from a video, shot by an anonymous witness, during a demo protesting the rules imposed by the generals on elections held after Mubarak’s resignation. After being serviced by Russia Today, the image went viral. It not only documented the violence committed by the security forces but also symbolised the failure of the revolution for many Egyptians (Peters, 2017). The woman wearing an abaya falls down as she tries to run away, and she is eventually caught by the military. She lies in the middle of the street as if she were dead, surrounded by soldiers beating her with sticks, stomping on her bare chest. As her abaya slips open the blue bra she wears is exposed. Soon, enlarged and cropped versions of this image were printed as posters and carried in protests. A graffito appeared on Tahrir Square with the blue bra as an element of a Superwoman costume. Endless stencils of the blue bra found their way to the walls of Cairo. By then, it had crystallised into a symbol capable of summarising the entire situation.

In 2013, on what later became the second day of the Gezi uprising, a photo of a woman refusing to back off while being sprayed with tear gas at Gezi Park appeared in a newspaper. The woman was wearing a red cotton summer dress, necklace and a white bag was slung over her shoulder. Hence the image deserved to be called the “woman in red”. The image was chosen most probably because it was thought to represent the middle class profile of the protestors, a new generation of activists, feminine dignity and the violence of the security forces, all in one single image. It soon became the symbol of the uprising. It was embraced by the protestors and reproduced on many different materials from stencils to journal covers.

Then, in 2015, images of Syrian women arriving on the back of trucks in Rojava, from an ISIS-occupied zone, appeared on social media. The images, captured from video footage, were tweeted by a journalist and serviced by MailOnline. One of them stood out: a woman tearing off her black robe, revealing her bright, primary-coloured dress underneath. Next to her, a man lifts his one arm, probably giving a victory sign, and with his other arm he holds onto the little boy next to him. A family portrait? No. The journalist gave a caption to his tweet. It was called the “freedom portrait.” It was freedom from ISIS terror, and nothing else mattered. This was what freedom looked like. Hence, it deserved to become iconic as a global symbol of freedom.

Eric Hobsbawm argues that in the 18th and 19th centuries, “the revolutionary concept of republic or liberty […] tended to be a naked, or more likely bare-breasted, female.” According to him, the role of the female figure “diminishes sharply with the transition from the democratic revolutions of the 19th century to the proletarian and socialist movements of the 20th.” It was, then, the male torso leading the revolution (1978: 124). As Agata Lisiak (2014) also suggests, the beginning of the 21st century marks the end of such masculinisation of revolutionary imagery Hobsbawm talks about. And yet, when it comes to women this time, what they wear seems to become what they represent. We see a pattern here: pieces of garments, a bundle of colours, and repetitive designs come to metonymically represent the predicament of the revolutionary situation. Each of these images contains certain dichotomies in itself: violent/non-violent resistance, oppressor/victim, veiling/unveiling, and finally man-in-action and woman-just-being what they are… But when read, diachronically, these images represent certain stages of the tide of revolt: the beginning, the middle and the end. A woman in red stands up for her rights as a citizen, is beaten while her blue bra is revealed and finally is rescued by an imperialist military intervention from the dire situation she has caused. The images seemed to point at the predicament of the people revolting in the Mediterranean. 

New Beginnings and Melancholia

Yet, back in the days when everything was new and happening, the iconic slogan of the Gezi uprising declared: “This is just the beginning, the struggle goes on.” Even though no one knew what exactly had begun, the slogan implied a new beginning whenever and wherever it was chanted. A well-known wall writing that appeared in the early days of the uprising stated: “Nothing will ever be the same again! Dry your tears.” Costas Douzinas, calls this sort of expression [the] “stranger in me”. He recounts Sarah, an Egyptian, telling her mother after spending time in Tahrir Square: “I am not myself. I am somebody new that was born today.” He also recounts a youth who took part in the Athens December 2008 insurrection saying: “I had been in demos before but never participated in a riot. It was something like an initiation for me and I have to admit I felt liberated. It made me feel like I regained control of myself” (2014: 79). These expressions, Douzinas contends, refer to “an extraordinary metamorphosis shared by people in different parts of the world, which has changed them from obedient subjects of law to resisting subjectivities.” 

Yet, the present is the time of the counter-revolution. It is a genuine Thermidor. And, as Daniel Bensaïd (2001) states, every “recurrence of Thermidor has always bolted the door of possibility whenever it has been opened just a fraction.” As that door of possibility is being closed, a sense of defeat spreads. Something has been lost, something is missing, something has become “the past”. An emergent yet familiar “structure of feeling” is shaping up: melancholia and political depression, the feeling of an impasse, the inability to start something new. Walter Benjamin associated this situation with what he called “left wing melancholy” (1994). It is the attitude of the “leftist” who is attached more to a particular political analysis or ideal than to seizing possibilities for change in the present. Today, the melancholia of those who revolted stems not only from a sense of defeat but also from not having an ideal that would fail to begin with. 

In Left-Wing Melancholia, Enzo Traverso states that “rather than a regime or an ideology, the lost object can be the struggle for emancipation as a historical experience. And that experience deserves recollection in spite of its fragile, precarious, and ephemeral duration” (2017: 146). In this perspective, melancholy means memory and attentiveness of the potentialities of the past. We need to give our fidelity to the emancipatory promises of revolution, not to its unintended consequences, Traverso argues.

Can images help us recollect that lost object Traverso talks about? Do images congeal the fragile, precarious and ephemeral experience of the process of emancipation? While the present consequences of the contemporary wave of revolt seem to culminate into a counter-revolution, can the global gallery of iconic images help us to recollect that of the momentary experience of emancipation? 

Revolts in Images

The tide of protests was initiated by a single act. Mohammed Bouazizi, a street vendor assaulted by security forces, set himself on fire. Or was it initiated when an amateur video footage capturing an angry crowd gathering in front of the government ministry went online? The act was over; yet the anger was recorded. Images of varying quality, amateur and professional, live or uploaded on social media, moving or still, were crucial for uprisings to “go globally viral”. The occupied Tahrir was being broadcast live 7/24, and so was Gezi. Protestors filmed every second of the revolutionary situation with their mobile phones, to the extent that they sometimes even recorded their own death in Syria, as Rabih Mroué (2013) argues. People watched themselves protesting and they watched themselves being watched. Any sort of footage was immediately archived on the spot by database collectives such as Moisreen in Tahrir or Video Occupy in Gezi. A massive amount of personal and public visual material created a sort of image spam, coming from different sources, individuals or news agencies and constructed the insurrectionary events as visual phenomena. 

Revolts unfolded in images. An excess of revolutionary images circulated globally, yet it was not a revolution of the image. Alissa Lebow’s documentary Filming Revolution, a project that initially attempted to understand whether the revolution created an aesthetic rupture in filmmaking, testifies to such an argument. Lebow contends that since the revolution in Egypt is neither over, nor can it be declared successful to radically reorganise the ruling regime, there has been no opportunity to craft a new approach to cinema in line with the new reigning ideology (2016: 279). In the absence of such aesthetic rupture to narrate the revolutionary struggle, we are left with those of the iconic images, which imply a pattern of revolt, casting a certain aesthetic experience. 

Ariella Azoulay argues that the universal discourse of revolution constructed in the 18th century understands “the revolution as a limited event, a temporary matter, an interim phase, a transition on the way to establishing a new regime” (2011: 2) Against such understanding, she proposes seeing revolution as a civil language, different and separate from and against that of the sovereign power. Like any language, it consists of a set of signs, some bearing their own meaning, while that of others is derived from the syntax of phrases in which they are articulated. The language of revolution, then, is comprised of a vocabulary of gestures, a grammar, rules and the possibilities of improvisation. Azoulay contends that, since it is a language of gestures, photographs are its writing paper. She lists “several statements which, used repeatedly, have created a new local idiom: dumpsters lying upside down in the street […], hands raised in the victory sign, singing with strangers, throwing stones, graffiti on flags, uprooting existing power symbols, climbing on top of tall buildings or cars […] the civilian use of military strategies, setting fire, damaging portraits of rulers, giving testimony about the acts of the governing power and so on” (2011: 2). For Azoulay, these gestures, combined with others, are articulated in a civil syntax. We will look for remnant of such civil syntax in contemporary uprisings.

W. J. T. Mitchell argues that the occupation movements of 2011 reproduced an “anti-iconic, non-sovereign image repertoire” given the leaderless and horizontal organisation of the movements (2012: 9). He is right. These movements indeed did not have a “face”, except perhaps the Guy Fawkes mask. Anonymity lay in their foundation. Yet, the movements fabricated two iconic and sovereign perspectives of vision representing the anonymous mass. First is the omnipotent drone perspective constructing those who are protesting as a political entity; that is, “the people” as the creators of universal history. The second one, the street level perspective, captured people in action, producing “the people” as a social relation. This is the people as the creators of a new social life. I argue that it is in between these two complimentary and contradictory perspectives that the language of the revolution can be reconstructed. It is where we may find the emancipatory promises of that revolutionary language under construction. 

Thousands gathered in a square, be it Taksim, Puerta del Sol, Syntagma or Tahrir… A shot taken from an omnipotent God’s perspective showing what there is to be seen. Most of them are drone images. Initially, a military surveillance technique, the use of drone images migrated to recording and reporting contemporary protests, used by both sides: that of the protestors and the state. Such a bird’s eye view prevents any sort of identification with figures on the ground. Drone cameras seem to present the scene of revolt as an objective fact. It shows what the eye could see, as far as the eye can see. 

Yet it is an affective image. You see a roaring crowd, a sea of people. You think you’ve seen this image many times before, you know what it is. It moves you, you want to be this image, you are already in this image. What is going on? What does this image show? It is “the People”: “the only […] creators of universal history,” as Alain Badiou suggests (2011). While the revolution was unfolding in Egypt, Badiou passionately wrote that “once a threshold of determination and courage has been passed, a people can indeed concentrate its existence in one square, one avenue, a few factories, a university […]. The whole world will be witness to this courage, and especially to the amazing creations that accompany it. These creations will stand as proof that a people is represented here” (2011).

The Drone Imagery and the Monumental People

One can differentiate between such images of Tahrir and Taksim only through the geography of the square (and perhaps through a giant flag if it is present): a circular formation of a hurl of people on Tahrir, a rectangular carpet of thousands in Taksim. What does a people do? You could imagine hearing the slogan Al-sha’b yurid isqat al-nizam [The people want the overthrow of the regime] regularly chanted in Tahrir square. Or perhaps you could hear them shouting Bu daha başlangıç, mücadeleye devam! [This is just the beginning, the struggle goes on], a slogan that became the mantra of protests in Taksim. Other than that, you cannot imagine the crowd doing anything. From such a point of view, the people do not do more than being present. They just occupy space. It is pure presence that is being captured here. The representation of the people concentrated in the square, seen from such an omnipotent perspective testifies maybe not so much to numbers but to appearance. It is the people’s materialisation, or apparition if you will, captured in the concreteness of an image. Jeffrey Charles Alexander argues that “the iconic is about experience, not communication. [Hence] to be iconically conscious is to understand without knowing. It is to understand by feeling, by contact, by the ‘evidence of the senses’ rather than the mind” (2008: 782). These iconic images help one to experience a sense of participation in something fundamental whose fuller meaning eludes our comprehension: People! History! Revolution! Equality! Freedom! 

In each local square with its unique history and in its particular language, the people acted upon the notions of freedom, justice, equality, as acts of universality. By so doing, they become a political subject, or a subject of the political. The act of occupation of the most monumental historical spaces of “the nation” such as Tahrir and Taksim, is a performative event. Judith Butler reminds us that ‘‘this performativity is not only speech, but the demands of bodily action, gesture, movement, persistence” (2012) Such a performative event of “the assemblage of the people” is counter-monumental. It is an act that puts forward a certain aesthesis through oppositional social practices and movements. These practices bring about new “heterogeneous experiences of sensuous perception embedded in the fabric of life,” which are otherwise repressed by the political aesthesis of monumental transmission, as Meltem Ahıska (2013) suggests.

The iconic images of the apparition of “the people” as a political subject, on the other hand, is monumental. The aerial perspective of the drone, resembling God’s perspective, transforms the people into a monument of universal history. It is an ode to the people in “non-action”, as a disembodied presence. This image is recently added to the quasi-universal gallery of revolutionary images that consists of the iconic moments of past events. The drone imagery of the people is so monumental and commanding that it makes us think that we have seen it before. John Berger argues that ‘‘an instant photographed can only acquire meaning insofar as the viewer can read into it a duration extending beyond itself.” He says, “when we find a photograph meaningful, we are lending it a past and a future’’ (2016: 122). The monumental image of “the people” has such an effect of rearranging the meaning in the imaginary gallery of revolution. It makes us re-imagine 1789, 1848, 1917 or 1968 even though no such event or vantage point ever existed in such revolutions. The people have never been seen in such an image from such a perspective before. They perhaps never will be again. Yet, the drone perspective taints the imagery of future revolutionary episodes: from now on, no less than such materialisation is enough for a revolutionary situation. The global iconography of revolution has shifted and not so slightly.

While the omnipotent drone perspective re-shuffles the gallery of revolutionary images, it also calls for another materialisation of “the people.” From 30 June 2013 until it was dispersed by security forces on 14 August, the Rabaa and Mahda squares hosted sit-ins in support of Morsi’s presidency and the rule of the Muslim Brothers. The two squares were now where the people materialised, the protestors argued. That people were massacred by the security forces in the name of another “people”. As Hanan Sabea (2014: 67) recounts, around that time, Ali Al-Haggar, a famous Egyptian singer, released a song entitled We are a people and you are a people. The opening lines reads: We are a people, and you are a people / What moved our hearts never moved yours / God is one; but we have our God, and you have your God.”

During the Gezi uprising, Prime Minister Erdoğan called his supporters the 50 percent and asked for a gathering to show everyone who the real people were. That “people” fully materialised, in 2016, in Yenikapı. As a native and national mass, it signified the unity of the nation protesting the coup d’état against the government. 

The monumental image of the revolutionary people demanding universal values was countered by yet another monumental image of the people demanding the rights of the nation. It called for a war of images struggling for the true representation of the people as a political subject.

Street-level Perspective 

If the drone imagery perspective gives us the people as a monumental political subject, the images taken from the street perspective give us a glimpse of what that subject does; that is, the people acting out. In these images we find “a hybrid interplay between iconic and ephemeral elements” (Westmoreland, 2016: 250). Street-level perspective images have a specific grammar and can be ordered in sequences as follows 

First, small groups of people gather, many others join them, leading to a mass confrontation with security forces (man facing a water cannon in Tahrir; the battle of the Nile bridge; people crossing over the Bosporus Bridge in Istanbul; people surrounded by clouds of tear gas-throwing gas canisters and the like). Second round of images consists of carnivalesque ones representing celebration and togetherness (such as a piano being played on Taksim Square, screenings of Tahrir cinema). Then there are the images representing the resolving of established political differences and dichotomies (these include republicans hand-in-hand with Kurds and nationalists at Gezi, the Quran and the Cross held together at Tahrir; a row of Christians standing in order to keep watch over the Muslims bent in prayer at Tahrir, the same being repeated at Gezi). 

Even though these images give us a glimpse of what people do in a revolutionary situation, they leave out a crucial dimension of revolutionary acts: the routine, exhausting, enduring and cyclic collective labour that supports and sustains the revolutionary event. We may call it the everyday life of a revolutionary situation. Alain Badiou gives us a hint about what that everyday might consist of as follows: “In the midst of an event, the people is made up of those who know how to solve the problems that the event imposes on them. It goes the same for the occupation of a square: food, sleeping arrangements, protection, banderols, prayers, defence fight, all so that the place where everything is happening, the place that has become a symbol, may stay with its people at all costs. […] Solving unsolvable problems without the help of the state, that is the destiny of an event” (2011).

Solving daily problems on the square so that people may stay there at all costs is not so much related with revolution imagery. Activities such as cooking, cleaning, making tea, sleeping, talking, listening, discussing, caring for the injured or just caring for the one next to you, arranging logistics, taking security turns and the like were the daily acts that generated the rhythms of the occupation both in Tahrir and Taksim. Ultimately banal, routine, sometimes dull, this form of labour concerning social reproduction is historically tied to a gender regime and related with housework and female labour. It has been held inferior to other forms of human interaction, namely production and political action. Both in Tahrir and Taksim, the organisation of life from food to care giving intricately related with the private sphere, was acted out in public (Butler, 2012). These acts not only sustained and supported the revolution but were themselves revolutionary as they were organised outside the state and the market. Images of that sort are plenty but they proved to be ephemeral and easily forgettable.  

The only exception is the images of people cleaning up the squares. Following the resignation of Mubarak, people gathered in Tahrir square, this time to clean up the square, collect the tents and blankets and pick up garbage. As Jessica Winegar (2016) recounts, with large black plastic bags brought from home, they collected food and drink containers, old newspapers, empty cigarette packages and other remnants of the tent city. It was an “earnest and vigorous cleaning” with obviously a symbolic meaning representing, untimely and unfortunately, the fall of the regime and the end of occupation. Images of people of all ages cleaning the square became viral. The act induced theatricality. It was acted out in a manner that cleaning was not articulated as a social practice anymore, but a political statement being staged. It was such theatricality which gave the images their iconic status.  

On the other hand, cleaning and garbage collecting was a daily routine in Gezi. Every day early in the morning, volunteers would gather all the garbage, obsessively down to every single cigarette butt. Garbage bags would be lined up one next to the other and then transported away via a human chain. This was an intimate yet obsessive event, performed and acted out showing not only solidarity but also the purity of the protestors. It was also an act of becoming a responsible citizen reclaiming public sphere. It reminded the protestors who they were, an engaged social being: the people.

Butler emphasises bodily needs (hunger, the need for shelter, medical care, protection from violence, etc.) as crucial to politics. She argues that “we have to not only bring the material urgencies of the body into the square, but make those needs central to the demands of politics” (2012). The iconic images of people “taking the trash out” no doubt, rendered other ordinary acts of people invisible. Yet, at the same time, by becoming iconic, they inserted the common gestures of the people, which would have otherwise remained imperceptible, in the historical iconography of revolution. It was a subtle yet significant shift in the gallery.

Here, I want to return to my initial question of whether the global gallery of iconic images helps us to recollect the momentary experience of emancipation. I have sketched out the two perspectives of vision shifting the language and imagery of revolution. The monumental image of the people as a political subject, as true creators of history and that of the people as a social relation performing ordinary acts that support and sustain the revolutionary moment. I believe that the momentary experience of emancipation lies in between these two contradictory and complementary perspectives. In Vertovian film theory, this “in between” of the two perspectives would be called “the interval”. An interval is a passage between two consecutive images, referring not to their distance but to a correlation between images that are distant. It is where filmic thought and meaning sparkles. The act of montage shows the relevance between two different images not on the basis of similarity and uniformity but of complexity and difference. What we need is an act of montage to capture the “movement”: the ephemeral, the precarious, the fragile experience of emancipation cannot be represented in one image but rather as a resonance between images. The angle between the two perspectives resonates in what Chantal Mouffe has argued: “The frontier between the social and the political is essentially unstable and requires constant displacements and renegotiations between social agents. Things could always be otherwise and therefore every order is predicated on the exclusion of other possibilities.” We have to come up with an act of montage that would make us ponder about the otherwise, about other possibilities that would sparkle with meaning in these dark times. 

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