Tahrir and performances of space

EgyptianRevolutionManual (dragged) 1

An update to my post earlier this week on Tahrir Square and the Arab uprisings: I’ve now (at last!) added the manuscript version of my essay, ‘Tahrir: politics, publics and performances of space’, forthcoming in Middle East Critique, to the DOWNLOADS page.  As always, I’d welcome any comments or suggestions.

The image above is taken from a 26-page pamphlet circulated in Cairo in January 2011, ‘How to protest intelligently’: you can download the whole thing here and find a side-by-side English and Arabic version of some of the pages here.  I discuss the significance of all this in the essay.

Tahrir Squared

I’ve been putting the finishing touches to the extended version of my essay on Tahrir Square and the Egyptian uprisings, which focuses on performance, performativity and space through an engagement with Judith Butler‘s ‘Bodies in alliance and the politics of the street’ essay/lecture (originally delivered in Venice in 2011).

Tahrir Square (Mohamed Elshahed)Much of the existing discussion of Tahrir treats performance in conventional dramaturgical terms, and owes much more to Erving Goffman‘s classic work than to Judith’s recent contributions, so that spatiality is more or less reduced to a stage: see, for example, Charles Tripp, ‘Performing the public: theatres of power in the Middle East’, Constellations (2013) doi: 10.1111/cons.12030 (early view).  Others have preferred to  analyse the spatialities of Tahrir through the work of Henri Lefebvre: I’m thinking of Ahmed Kanna, ‘Urban praxis and the Arab Spring’, City 16 (3) (2012) 360-8; Hussam Hussein Salama, ‘Tahrir Square: a narrative of public space’, Archnet – IJAR 7 (1) (2013) 128-38;and even, en passant, W.J.T.Mitchell, ‘Image, space, revolution: the arts of occupation’, Critical Inquiry 39 (1) (2012) 8-32.

None of these seem to me to convey the way in which, as Judith has it, the presence of bodies in the square becomes the performance of a new spatiality through which people

‘seize upon an already established space permeated by existing power, seeking to sever the relation between the public space, the public square, and the existing regime. So the limits of the political are exposed, and the link between the theatre of legitimacy and public space is severed; that theatre is no longer unproblematically housed in public space, since public space now occurs in the midst of another action, one that displaces the power that claims legitimacy precisely by taking over the field of its effects…. In wresting that power, a new space is created, a new “between” of bodies, as it were, that lays claim to existing space through the action of a new alliance, and those bodies are seized and animated by those existing spaces in the very acts by which they reclaim and resignify their meanings.’

I see a similar conception at work in Adam Ramadan‘s emphasis on Tahrir as at once a space and an act – a space-in-process, if you like – of encampment: ‘From Tahrir to the world: the camp as a political public space’, European Urban and Regional Studies 20 (2013) 145-9.  I’m drawn to these formulations partly because they connect performance to the possibility of performativity through space-in-process, and partly because these ideas, attentive as they are to ‘space’, also pay close attention to ‘time’ (or rather space-time) (for a suggestive discussion of the temporalities of Tahrir, which I think have been marginalised in too many ‘spatialising’ discussions, see Hanan Sabea, ‘A “time out of time”‘, here.)

These comments are little more than place-holders, I realise, and I hope my reworked essay will clarify them; I’ll post the final version on the Downloads page as soon as it’s ready – in the next day or two, I hope. [UPDATE: The manuscript version, to appear in Middle East Critique, is now available under the DOWNLOADS tab: ‘Tahrir: politics, publics and performances of space’]

In the meantime, if you’re interested in the Egyptian uprisings, there’s an excellent online bibliography at Mark Allen Peterson‘s equally excellent Connected in Cairo here; Mark also provides a listing of documentary films here (including YouTube feeds).

Tahrir Squared

Part of my discussion addresses the imbrications of the digital and the physical, the virtual and the visceral.  For a quick overview, see Mohamed Elshahed here (from whom I’ve borrowed the wonderful image at the head of this post), but for a remarkable online platform that, amongst other things, seeks to ‘multiply the Tahir Effect around the globe’, capitalising on the transformations from the digital to the physical and back again, try Tahrir Squared:

‘T2 is a one-stop shop for reliable and enlightening information about the Arab uprisings, revolutions and their effects. It combines both original content by leading analysts, journalists and authoritative commentators, and curated content carefully selected from across the web to provide activists, researchers, observers and policy makers a catch-all source for the latest on the Arab revolutions and related issues through an interactive, virtual multimedia platform.
 
Unattached to governments or political entities, Tahrir Squared is concerned with ‘multiplying the Tahrir Effect around the globe’: an Effect which reawakened civic consciousness and awareness. An Effect which led to neighbourhood protection committees, and created those scenes in Tahrir of different religions, creeds and backgrounds engaging, assisting, and protecting one another. 
 
That Effect still lives inside those who believe in the ongoing revolutions that called for ‘bread, freedom, social justice and human dignity’. This website is a part of that broader initiative, seeking to provide people with the knowledge and information to assist and stimulate that process of reawakening, through the provision of reliable news reports, thoughtful commentary, and useful analysis.

Butler and Bodies on the Street

Judith Butler‘s Wall Exchange ‘Bodies on the street’, delivered at the Vogue Theatre in Vancouver last year, has now been posted on YouTube:

And a Q&A the following day with UBC faculty at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies is here:

You can access the text of an early version of the lecture here and here.

The intoxications of geography

Adam Gopnik writing in the New Yorker discusses the revival of what he calls ‘geographical history’.  He starts with the prospect of a ‘history of spaces’ moving us beyond the intimacies of the sort of ‘place history’ displayed in Le Roy Ladurie‘s mesmerizing Montaillou, but then shoots over the cliff and into the waiting arms of Robert Kaplan.  Is there no escape from the man? And yet it turns out that Gopnik’s not as enthralled as he first appears:

Important as geography might be, the idea of geography’s importance seems still more important. Though geography is offered as a sobering up after the intoxications of end-of-history ideology, it soon reveals itself as another brandy bottle, with intoxications of its own. See, the Chinese are making a pincer move there, and—look!—the Indians are once again seeking to dominate the Gurdaspur-Kathiawar salient. Kaplan luxuriates in phrases of this kind: “Some years back I was in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, from whose vantage point Tehran and Mashad over the border in Iranian Khorasan have always loomed.” It’s the same language that you find in John Buchan novels of the Great War era; the Chinese are on their way here, Russia is probing the hinterland, the Germans conspire with the Balts. “I have reports from agents everywhere—peddlers in Samarkand and bullion dealers in Cologne” is the way Buchan might put it.

And then we’re off, following a ‘cartographic turn’ into a ‘space history’ – not exactly the spatial history lovingly demonstrated in Paul Carter‘s wonderful Road to Botany Bay, but still – before hurtling into Timothy Snyder‘s chronicle of the calculated murder of 14 million people in the borderlands between Berlin and Moscow from 1944 to 1945, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin.

And yet, ultimately Gopnik votes for intimacy over distance – in a smooth rebuke to Kaplan, he insists that ‘conversation shapes us more than mountains and monsoons can’: you can almost hear the third, this time affirmative “M”, Montaillou, suspended in the silence – and so returns his ‘history of space’ to the history of place:

‘[T]he argument for the primacy of geography is always an argument about trains. It’s always about technology, and the question of whether new machines make modern times different from all other times. Modern productivity is technology applied, and technology is, among other things, a repudiation of geography: it’s a way of insisting that the limits of the planet are not the limits of our lives. A train, or a telegraph, or a jet or a rocket ship, not to mention the Internet, collapses space and terrain. Flying machines get us over very high mountains. Borders disappear to bombers…’

It’s a wonderfully vivid image, but technology doesn’t ‘collapse’ space, still less ‘repudiate’ geography: these processes of time-space compression have their own geographies and produce their own frictions of distance. As I’ve noted before, contrary to Thomas Friedman‘s nostrums, the world isn’t flat – even for the US military.  What interests me most, though, is precisely the historical curve of the entanglement of distance with intimacy, particularly in times of war and especially in the bloodlands/borderlands – the leitmotif of my ‘Deadly embrace’ project…