The Roundabout Revolutions

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In ‘Tahrir: politics, publics and performances of space’ (DOWNLOADS tab) I tried to sketch out a preliminary analysis of Tahrir Square as a spatial instantiation of the Arab uprisings – it was, in part, also an attempt to work with Judith Butler‘s ideas about performative spaces in “Bodies in Alliance”. Now Eyal Weizman‘s latest extended essay puts all this in a wider context but a similar spatial frame: The roundabout revolutions from Sternberg Press.

One common feature of the wave of recent revolutions and revolts around the world is not political but rather architectural: many erupted on inner-city roundabouts. In thinking about the relation between protest and urban form, Eyal Weizman starts with the May 1980 uprising in Gwangju, South Korea, the first of the “roundabout revolutions,” and traces its lineage to the Arab Spring and its hellish aftermath.

Rereading the history of the roundabout through the vortices of history that traverse it, the book follows the development of the roundabout in Europe and North America in the early twentieth century, to its subsequent export to the colonial world in the context of attempts to discipline and police the “chaotic” non-Western city. How did an urban apparatus put in the service of authoritarian power became the locus of its undoing?

Today, as the tide of revolt that characterized the Arab Spring seems to ebb, when nations and societies disintegrate by brutal civil wars and military oppression, the series of revolutions might seem like Dante’s circles of hell. To counter this counter-revolution, Weizman proposes that the immanent power of the people at the roundabouts will need to find its corollary in sustained work at round tables—the ongoing formation of political movements able to enact political change.

The sixth volume of the Critical Spatial Practice series stems from Eyal Weizman’s contribution to the Gwangju Folly II in 2013, an exhibition curated by Nikolaus Hirsch with Philipp Misselwitz and Eui Young Chun for the Gwangju Biennale. Weizman and the architect Samaneh Moafi constructed a folly composed of seven roundabouts and a round table in front of the Gwangju train station, one of the central points in the events of May 1980.

There’s a review by Pranav Kohli over at Warscapes here:

Weizman’s description is reminiscent of Michel Foucault’s theorization of power. Foucault theorized power not as something that is hierarchically exercised but as a force that circuitously flows and passes through individuals, networks and organizations. Weizman recognizes the emerging character of power as a circle, describing the concentric arrangements of crowds as a “political collective in becoming.” These concentric crowd circles can be seen as a diagram of the fields of power emanating from the roundabout, with the roundabout itself becoming a beacon of a newfound people’s power.

Weizman’s analysis has a special focus on the Arab Spring and in a later section he returns to this idea of an interconnected collective while describing the protestors at Tahrir Square. They are linked not only by physical space and communication technologies but also by “an “Internet of things”—a form of connectivity that entangles organizations, individuals, material objects, and urban spaces such as roundabouts together: sites and websites, proximity and distance, remote solidarity and physical corporality” …

Weizman locates the true reason for the revolutionary turn in the roundabout’s history, within the spatial peculiarities of the roundabout itself. The roundabout’s attraction lies in the fact that it is an expansive public space that serves an integral function in the city’s infrastructure. In this sense, the roundabout can be seen as one of the last remaining public spaces where large crowds can gather in the congested modern city…. Weizman doesn’t regard the occupation of the roundabout as the moment when the public reclaimed public ownership of the republic. In his view, it was when the protestors at Tahrir Square began cleaning up the square, shortly after Mubarak’s deposition, that they truly assumed public ownership of the roundabout, and thereby the republic.

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