The Roundabout Revolutions


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.

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.

Storming the castle

More on the politics of the New Aesthetic – though he doesn’t put it like that – and on the materialities of the virtual (and what he does call ‘a new way of seeing’) in an exquisite essay from Andy Merrifield on Kafka, Occupy and the ‘Enigma of Revolt’.  

Andy’s point of departure is Franz Kafka‘s The Castle. This celebrated novel is itself an enigma: Kafka started work on the text in January 1922, it’s unclear whether he intended to finish it, and it famously ends in mid-sentence.  After Kafka’s death in 1924 his friend Max Brod edited and reworked it for publication.

Andy’s essay artfully draws out the spatial politics of K.’s attempt to breach the castle (remember that K. is described as a surveyor):

Where K. goes astray, and where his quest borders on the hopeless, is that he’s intent on struggling to access the castle’s occupants; he wants to penetrate the castle’s bureaucratic formalities and the “flawlessness” of its inner circle. K. struggles for a way in rather than a way out. Using all the Cartesian tools of a land surveyor, he confronts the castle on the castle’s own terms, on its own ostensible “rational” frame of reference. K.’s demands, consequently, are too restrictive and too unimportant, too conventional and too self-conscious. He wants to render the world of the castle intelligible as opposed to rendering it unacceptable.

Andy juxtaposes this with a radically different spatiality by moving from the occupants to Occupy, where

… if protagonists occupy space somewhere, these spaces of occupation are curiously new phenomena, too, neither rooted in place nor circulating in space, but rather an inseparable combination of the two, an insuperable unity that is redefining what a 21st-century public space might be, could be. Squares like Tahrir in Cairo or Zuccotti Park in Manhattan are urban public spaces not for reason of their pure concrete physicality, but because they are meeting places between virtual and physical worlds, between online and offline conversations, between online and offline encounters. That is why they are public: because they enable public discourses, public conversations to talk to each other, to meet each other, quite literally. They are public not because they are simply there, in the open, in a city center, but because these spaces are made public by people encountering one another there. The efficacy of these spaces for any global movement is defined by what is going on both inside and outside these spaces, by the here and the there, by what is taking place in them and how this taking place is greeted outside them, by the rest of the world, how it inspires the rest of the world, how it communicates with the rest of the world, how it becomes the rest of the world.