Living a Revolution

When I started my research on the revolutions of the 18th century a few years ago, I was guided by the intuition that revolution is not an event but a special type of language—replete with its own syllables, sentences, sounds, images, movements, gestures, silences, intervals, etc. This intuition was based on my reading of images from the late 18th century to the present—images of people interacting in public space. From the moment in 2010 when people took to the streets in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Yemen, Mexico, the United States, Spain, Israel, and elsewhere, it became clear that their language was a continuation of a language used in other places at other times.

Since its invention in the 18th century, and except during moments of grace, the civil language of revolution has survived mainly as a dead language, one in constant need of revivification by new interlocutors. Early statements, gestures, formulations, and utterances in this language reside in photographs. Accordingly, photography today takes an active part in reviving this language, sharing it, keeping it alive. Reading photographs for more than their “news” content is part of learning this language, of interiorizing and honing it, writing its inner grammar, collecting, preserving and expanding its vocabulary and its forms of usage, and creating new possibilities of thinking the future through it.

The recurrence of the same gestures over a long period of time and under various regimes—monarchy, communism, democracy, fascism, dictatorship—raises the question of what those regimes have in common that gives rise to this often unavailable language whose inspiring traces nevertheless fill the archives. The repetition of similar idioms and gestures across time and space require the re-conceptualization of revolution as a language, and in today’s context, a consideration of this language’s universal and regional features that both transcend and undermine contemporary geopolitical borders.

Creating an archive of the civil language of revolution was a methodological decision, a way to minimize the role of iconic images that symbolize only unique moments and interrupt the flow of revolution as a language, and a way to shape new modes of relating to images other than as representations. Through the creation of this archive, images emerged as the “written” form of a language practiced by the governed across the world. Like any other language, the language of revolution is learned in the environment of its speakers as well as from its written traces—that is, images.

Bank protestors in Naples.

The daily congregation of masses of people in different places around the world since 2010—scantily reported by the mainstream media—is not reducible to a series of merely external “events” taking place “out there,” whose significance is given and clear. From day to day, people learn more of this language—its vocabulary, syntax, and grammar—and elaborate their use of it, creating their own unique idioms and shaping its regional dialects. Thus, for example, in 2012, groups of people across the world entered their local banks and performed, in various ways, their exploitation and impoverishment by those banks, thereby shifting the perception of statements such as “the banks exercise violence,” or “we were left with nothing but our underwear,” from political provocations to literal descriptions. The recent occupation of banks in Spain marked the rising up of Spanish citizens in self-defense against the banks’ violence of foreclosing on their properties and throwing them out of their homes—a form of violence fully supported by the state. If, in 1910, the ruling powers were able to frame the smashing of windows by British suffragettes as wanton violence, today, through the pervasiveness of civil dialects, the widespread impoverishment of people and denial of human rights—as well as the exploitation of the earth—appear and are articulated as state violence.

Egyptian protesters face anti-riot policemen in Cairo on Friday, Jan. 28, 2011. The riots escalated throughout the day. Victoria Hazou / AP.

To understand these kinds of public gatherings solely in terms of protest against X or Y is to ignore the performance of these discursive practices, the layers of common ground they create and the modes of deliberation and consent they establish. The language of revolution differs completely from the sovereign language, imposed as a norm since the 18th century, through which all the variations of a differential body politic are constituted as the proper order of things. The differential body politic is the basis of what I have elsewhere defined as “regime-made disaster,”1 a type of disaster that dispossesses the whole governed population of its potential power by dividing it into separate, often hostile, populations. Distinct identities and implied conflict between these groups prevent them from imagining themselves inhabiting and sharing the same world. The expansion of the Occupy movement—its diversity, persistence, and worldwide presence—has created new conditions for the flourishing of the language of revolution and for the possibility of speaking it with numerous interlocutors.

Thus, for example, when residents of the mid-Atlantic seaboard of the United States were warned to stay home in the face of the advance of Hurricane Sandy—a so-called “natural” disaster—hundreds of people seeking to end the “climate silence” rushed to Times Square, demanding that the link between extreme weather and anthropogenic climate change be acknowledged.2 Shifting from statements that characterize events such as Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy as natural disasters that “happen to us” to statements that recognize these disasters as partially shaped by human action is not simply a matter of choice between two competing positions within the same discourse. It is, rather, a total shift from one tongue to another, from the language of ruling or sovereign power to a civil language. Performing this shift requires not merely a semantic difference but a radical change in the pragmatic level of discourse and a re-articulation of its components in a way that transgresses the constraints and priorities, the syntax and rules imposed by capital and the sovereignty of nation states, and which account for a shared world and dissentient ways of living. Again, this kind of action is not a protest directed at a certain political body, but a literacy lesson in which people practice a civil language that exposes what is construed as “natural” or “unavoidable” as the outcome of a policy and misconceived priorities, as negligence, as the exploitation of natural and human resources for the sake of capital.

A sovereign democratic regime cannot tolerate its citizens speaking a civil language and, hence, it reduces the language of revolution to a series of local events with discrete beginnings and endings as well as specific causes and effects, after which order—sovereign order, of course—is restored. Isolated instances of police brutality and the use of excessive force against citizens practicing their citizenship have been reported since the end of the 19th century. In the last couple of years, such incidents have become increasingly common and, because reported by other citizens on the spot, are immediately available to others throughout the world. Their accumulation and widespread visibility change the conditions of their reception, shifting perception of them from discrete, isolated events—the way the ruling power and its proxies try to make them appear—to a worldwide phenomenon.

The arrest of Desiree Joy Frias.

An example was recently posted on Facebook in October 2012, by Desiree Joy Frias, an Occupy Wall Street protestor, whose case, after a year of hearings, finally went to trial:

I was brutally arrested […] in front of Foley Square. Six male police officers dragged me by my legs and clothing, removing most of my skirt and leggings in front of 2,000 people. They flipped me over and my face hit the concrete. They then placed me in metal handcuffs and dragged me up the stairs.

Needless to say, Desiree Joy Frias was not the real target of police violence and brutality; clearly, in arresting her, the police had not captured the most dangerous criminal in town. Rather, they were targeting the language she was speaking and its power and resonance in public space. The application of these police methods throughout the world has nothing to do with the actual conduct of participants in the Occupy movement. It is the persistence and coherence of this movement, which marks it as a real alternative in the eyes of increasing numbers of people around the world, that the ruling powers are attempting to destroy.

Another example: the threat of pollution by a paper mill’s wastewater pipeline project brought thousands of protestors, alarmed by what they contended would be a disaster, into the streets of Qidong. They refused to consent to the production of disaster by the ruling power. They not only claimed their right to clean water but also asserted their right to refuse to consent to the destruction of the environment and its natural resources—a consent that, if given, would reduce them to victims, collaborators, or perpetrators. The citizens of Qidong acted and established themselves as “concerned citizens” in a way far different from that defined by the sovereign power. This is no doubt why some of them were beaten, but it is also why we can see many of them acting together as co-citizens rather than as citizens quietly compliant with the ruling power.

Times Square protestors.

The language of sovereign power and civil language are universal, though opposed, and their rivalry is discernible in revolutionary moments. The sovereign language usually manages to subdue the inner syntax of civil language so that it is interpreted mainly as a series of goal-oriented actions whose meaning is construed to lie within the hegemonic political language. By restricting our understanding of revolution to national contexts, by associating it directly with well-defined goals and particular results, history, and political discourse since the end of the 18th century has delayed the emergence of a civil language according to which revolutionary history could appear as a single, albeit interrupted, campaign. Only in the last two years, when this civil language has become omnipresent on a global scale, has this language passed beyond what might be an irreversible threshold.

28/7/12 Police beat a protester outside the local government offices in the coastal city of Qidong, near Shanghai, in the eastern China province of Jiangsu. Courtesy Getty Images.

Instead of identifying turning points in history, then, we must highlight spatial patterns through which it becomes clear that these two languages are engaged in serious battle, face-to-face and in public. In a photograph from Cairo, those speaking the civil language can no longer be perceived as rioters. They are numerous, powerful, and full of energy, vigor, and zeal. They will not—cannot—be silenced. Removing them from public space would require more violence than could be justified within the limits of legitimate “protest dispersal.” Shortly after encounters between citizens and the forces of state power took place, soldiers and policemen began to refuse to exercise violence against their fellow citizens; they began to desert the state and join them. Once this threshold is crossed, the police, while they might target individual protestors such as Desiree Joy Frias, risk being surrounded and resisted by other citizens who are no longer willing to be bystanders to state violence.

Once revolution is understood as a language that people speak in public, we can begin to speak about civil revolution: masses of people, unaligned with existing political designations, most of them strangers to one another, taking to the streets. Their voices and demands, legitimate and irrepressible, cannot be silenced, and they create a counterweight to the governing power’s ability to determine public discourse. In other words, when two opposing modes of power confront each other in public, and the sovereign power, established as the law, is not able to maintain public acceptance of its authority and its exclusive hold on the legitimate use of violence in public space, we are living a revolution.

1. See Azoulay, “Regime-made Disaster–On the Possibility of Nongovernmental Viewing,” The Visual Cultures of Nongovernmental Politics, Eds. McKee and McLagan (New York: Zone Books, 2013).

2. Realizing that people would not be in the streets a couple of hours before Sandy was predicted to hit the East Coast and would not, therefore, directly encounter their message, the people who congregated in Times Square designed their banner in such a way as to be photographed by the helicopters hovering overhead in order to document the hurricane’s imprint on the earth.

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Ariella Azoulay

ARIELLA AZOULAY is the author of Civil Imagination: Political Ontology of Photography (Verso, 2012) and coauthor with Adi Ophir of The One State Condition: Occupation and Democracy between the Sea and the River (Stanford University Press, 2012).