Donatella Della Ratta, Shooting a Revolution: Visual Media and Warfare in Syria (London: Pluto Press, 2018).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Donatella Della Ratta (DDR): A person known as Bassel Khartabil (aka Bassel Safadi) was the major source of inspiration for this book. Bassel was my best friend and working partner when I used to live in Syria. He was the Syria lead for Creative Commons, an international network that promotes digital sharing and gives the tools to do it legally on the Internet. Bassel had become an icon of the free Internet and sharing culture, as well as of civil disobedience and peaceful resistance in Syria’s 2011 uprising. He was brutally killed in 2015, leaving his friends and family in deep despair. At the time, I was already trying to work on a book on Syria, mostly drawing on the ethnographic work I had carried out for my PhD on the politics of Syrian TV drama. But I was appalled, distressed by the situation ongoing in the country, and I could not find the right focus for the book. Then I realized that the story I really wanted to tell was that of Bassel and of youths like him who gave their lives documenting, informing, and producing evidence of what was happening in their country. Shooting film at the risk of being shot at, shooting at all costs. This became my guiding question throughout the book. Why had Bassel died for this? Why did other people sacrifice their life for filming? And what were the implications of this act of shooting being turned into a continuous life activity, a labor of the everydayness, in which even violent factions, jihadis, regime supporters, etc. had become deeply involved?
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
DDR: The book focuses on the double movement of “shooting”—shooting as in filming and shooting as in killing; filming to (metaphorically) kill; and killing to film, for the sake of the camera. It addresses the aesthetic and material implications of the act of “shooting” as a practice of everyday life, as a mundane activity carried on among other life activities. A life activity that, yet, becomes labor within the infrastructure of the networks where both unpaid and under-paid work, whether produced by peaceful activists or by jihadis, indifferently becomes part of the “sharing” economy of platform capitalism. Shooting a Revolution takes Syria as an exemplary condition of this situation, for it is the first truly networked conflict of our times (post-YouTube, Facebook and all the most famous sharing platforms). Yet, what the book describes is an emerging mode of the visual and the violent nurtured by all the users who participate to the sharing process, indifferently: a state of emulsion, of permanent acceleration of both the conflict on the ground and the media narrating it, that, in my view, will mark future conflicts as well. Therefore, the book equally deals with literature from Middle Eastern studies, Arab media studies, and Syria-specific literature, and with Internet studies, with works that critically reflect on the political economy of digital networks and their dramatic consequences (not only on the actual content production, but specifically on the enactment and reproduction of violence).
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
DDR: This work is profoundly connected with my previous work, both academically and professionally. Academically, as it pushes forward the investigation of the in-depth connections between political power and cultural production that I started with in my PhD work and related publications on Syrian TV drama. Yet, the field is much broader now, and far more complicated than having to deal with an elite of cultural producers who are deeply enmeshed in the soft, seductive, and coercive communication mechanism of the authoritarian state (which I have called “the whisper strategy”). All the users are involved in Internet production, whether violent or peaceful; even we ourselves are involved, when we share, like, retweet, and/or repost Syria-generated content. The subject who comes into play here is more elusive, as it is global and corporate, and apparently not involved in the Syrian conflict, i.e., Internet platform capitalism. Professionally, my five-year long work experience with Creative Commons and the bright minds behind it—Lawrence Lessig, Joi Ito, its amazing community of geeks, bloggers, activist, and artists—deeply connects with the theoretical reflections offered by this book, giving them ground and a robust ethnographic basis.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
DDR: I hope this book will be read by all sorts of people. That might sound too ambitious. It is an academic work, indeed, with endnotes, references, and literature being referenced. Yet, this does not mean that it is sanitized and impersonal. I am a media ethnographer who spent several years in Syria for my PhD research. I hung out with Syrians, made friends there, learned spoken Arabic there. I do not wish to conceal the deep emotional bond that I feel regarding Syria. In fact, it is precisely because of this bond that I was able to develop the theoretical reflections offered in this book into a broader discussion on warfare at the time of the networks. I hope this will be useful to those looking to frame a more informed debate on the current situation in Syria, and also to reflect on networked violence and hyper-visibility. More than anything, I hope this will contribute, even if just a little, to fight the oblivion to which the peaceful uprising risks to be relegated forever, now that Bashar al-Assad is being rehabilitated internationally. As Baudrillard once said, “Forgetting extermination is part of extermination.”
J: What other projects are you working on now?
DDR: I am currently enjoying the bliss of having this book out after so much hard work! The work and energy one puts into writing a book does not end when the book is published; the book is a fragile creature that needs to be accompanied out into the world; it needs to be discussed publicly and collectively. The first scheduled public presentations of Shooting a Revolution, in London, at SOAS on 17 January with Dina Matar, and in Berlin, at the Transmediale Festival on 2 February with Geert Lovink, were particularly important for two good reasons. First of all, Dina and Geert read the book in its early stages and gave me precious feedback. They are friends and mentors, and I am honored that the first public appearance of Shooting a Revolution happens under their blessings. Secondly, SOAS and Transmediale represent the “two souls” of this book and of my personal and professional journey: I am a media ethnographer working on the Arab world, but at the same time I am also deeply engaged with technology, both as a scholar of critical Internet studies and as an activist involved with different net communities, from Creative Commons to our SyriaUntold.
Beside discussing the book in “traditional” ways, through debates and panels, I am also working to present it in a performative format. Last year, together with visual artist Marco G. Ferrari and musicians Giacomo Ancillotto, Igor Legari, Ludovica Manzo, and Luca Venitucci, I created the live performance, The Vanished Image. The Vanished Image offers a lyrical and poetic journey through the forgotten images of the peaceful phase of the Syrian uprising. The private archive donated to me by Bassel the last time I saw him alive offers the opportunity for a journey of poetry, sound, and music inside the forgotten visuals of 2011 (those that were removed by social media platforms, ignored by mainstream media, and that marked a phase in history unfortunately at risk of disappearing forever). My book contains a deep reflection on the tragedy of these once digital commons and on their fate of progressive erasure from public spaces or extreme commodification. Yet, every time we perform The Vanished Image, I find that the music, the visuals, the poetry all together go straight to the point, much deeper than any analysis or explanations. My wish for this upcoming year is to work more on this combination between academic and performative work, and I am hoping to have The Vanished Image featured together with Shooting a Revolution.
Excerpt from the Book:
The shot opens with heavy shootings. We see buildings burning in the distance, smoke rising. More shootings, an ambulance siren, a live-chat message notification are all heard in the background. The camera moves slowly towards a group of armed men dressed in black, probably police or security forces. The male voice behind the camera screams ‘peaceful, peaceful’, while the sound of the shootings gets closer. ‘No, no, I am peaceful, peaceful’, the voice insists. More shootings. The camera shakes, yet the man does not leave or stop filming. ‘The world must see!’, he shouts. We hear another male voice in the background, worried, probably trying to get the man behind the camera out of there: ‘Iyad, Iyad!’ The man filming screams even louder, addressing the armed men: ‘Shoot at me, shoot at me! The world must see what is happening.’
This video was allegedly shot in Daraa, a city in southwestern Syria where a popular anti-regime uprising sparked in March 2011. The anonymous filmer – Iyad? – embraces the camera to document the violence that unknown armed men are likely to inflict on his body, and no doubt on other disarmed bodies too. Yet the invisible man behind the camera would not move – like thousands of other anonymous citizens who have silently, fiercely, defiantly filmed the Syrian uprising. They would stand still, hiding behind the camera, shooting while being shot at, like in Iyad’s video.
In March 2011 Syrian protesters found themselves in this unprecedented situation of being simultaneously victims and heroes. Victims, as they faced repression with bare hands, at the mercy of the armed killers’ absolute will; heroes, as they bravely turned into first-person narrators of their own history, regaining agency through the self-documentation of the events they participated in, even when they took a violent, dangerous form. A defiant, extreme act of filming regardless, that pushed us as spectators to wonder why these anonymous filmers didn’t throw their cameras on the floor and run away when facing death in the shape of a sniper, a militia man, or a police officer. Such a gesture should not be dismissed as the psychotic, narcissistic behaviour of few isolated individuals, but rather understood as a collective endeavour with a large-scale dimension.
The act of filming has become so inherently connected to Syria’s post-2011 everyday life that it was appropriated by a wide spectrum of the country’s citizenry, including its violent components. Security agents, armed groups, torturers, jihadis, all indifferently turned into image-makers, employing the camera to live-document their brutal acts, while also producing the most extreme and obscene forms of violence for the sake of the camera. Every day, everyone films and is filmed in Syria, a country where the visual form has been turned into a device to perform violence, and the quintessential tool to resist it.
The parallel, dramatically intertwined movements of shooting and being shot at, of filming and killing, of filming to kill and killing to film, lie at the core of this book. Shooting while being shot at is the gesture of capturing life events on camera while dying live in front of it and for the sake of it, so as to grant an extension to existence in the immortal form of witnessing and crystalizing the self in the historical document. Meanwhile, it is also the fascination for violence, the pursuit of an ideal visual form for its enactment on the ground. For shooting as in killing shares with shooting as in filming a concern for the aesthetic performance, a preoccupation with the (re)presentation of the act, a compulsive attraction to any visual format offering visibility to the violence, whether in the spontaneous form of shaky pixels generated in moments of anxiety and fear – like in Iyad’s video – or in the orchestrated, cruel beauty of a static, surveillance-like shot properly fixed before the enactment of torture. Yet when filming disappears into everything and into the everydayness, becoming just another life activity among others, framing the question of the image around the aesthetic dichotomy between revolutionary, low-resolution, seemingly naive pixels and the self-declared objective form of ‘caught-on-camera’ torture videos risks divertingattention from the material conditions that allow these visual media to emerge, and from the power struggles they conceal.
Let us not be distracted, entrapped, mesmerized by the ‘pixelated revolution’ or by the ‘cinema of the murderer’. For as Ernst Jünger noticed already in the aftermath of the First World War, the production of the visual in the context of warfare relates much more to labour than to a mere narration or aesthetic representation. This is apparent, more than ever, in post-2011 Syria, where the parallel dynamics of shooting and being shot at, of filming and killing, of making images to preserve life and destroying life for the sake of the image, have invaded the domain of the ordinary and been converted into mundane forms of digital labour on networked communications technologies. The latter have added an unprecedented layer of complexity to the production of the visual and the violent in Syria, as the variety of immaterial labour – paid, unpaid, underpaid, volunteer – involved in generating, assembling and distributing content has fused with the plethora of material subjects – armed and peaceful, pro- and anti-regime, local, regional and international – engaged in the fight on the ground.
Never before in history have these dynamics of violence and visibility been so dramatically entangled, jointly captured and domesticated in the form of routine labour on the networks. Never before have forms of military conduct and forms of visual (re)presentation been equally rendered visible, shareable and ‘likeable’ for the sake of global circulation and consumption. Never before has the seemingly endless multiplication of media and its makers in the networked environment matched so astonishingly with the explosion and consequent disruption of subjects and meanings on the ground: a hyper-fragmentation of digital ‘me’ versions of national belonging and identity that mixes up and confounds with the raw materiality of the armed conflict.
This book maintains that is no longer possible to approach the question of image-making (shooting) or the question of violence (being shot at) in Syria – and more generally in contemporary warfare – without taking into consideration the technological and human infrastructure of the networked environment, where the ‘visuality’ of the conflict gets produced and reproduced as labour. Syria is the first fully developed networked battleground in which the technological infrastructure supporting practices of uploading, sharing and remixing, together with the human network of individuals engaged in those practices, have become dramatically implicated in the production and reproduction of violence. The entanglement of visual regimes of representation and modes of media production with warfare and modes of destruction has exploited and prospered from the participatory dimension of networked communications technologies. The networks have granted the utmost visibility and shareability to the most extreme violence, finally merging the physical annihilation of places with their endless online regeneration, producing a sort of onlife which gets renewed every time content is manipulated, re-uploaded, re-posted and shared, as meanings are combined and recombined in different, clashing versions.
I call this process ‘expansion’. Expansion brings to the surface the dark side of peer-production, sharing economies, remixing and participation, suggesting that these networked practices, as well as enabling creativity and self-empowerment, can also multiply terror and fear. Expansion hints at the participatory dimension of violence that thrives on networked subjects who are both the anonymous, grassroots users celebrated by cultural convergence and remix cultures, and the political and armed subjectivities active in the conflict – each probably overlapping with the other. The plethora of actors, local and international, military and civilian, peaceful and armed, involved in producing the conflict on the ground, is also the social workforce engaged (and exploited) in its reproduction on the networks, with military factions ultimately rendered into multiple forms of digital labour, and vice versa.
The explosion of personalized ‘me’ media, enabled by platforms deemed quintessentially progressive by techno-utopias and digital democracy frameworks, has been matched by an explosion of violence and the expansion of warfare. Everybody seems to claim a right to create and re-manipulate on the networks, as much as the freedom to conquer, occupy and destroy on the ground. Everybody is an active maker, an empowered subject, at the level of both creation and destruction, contributing to reproducing that very destruction for the sake of networked circulation. If it’s dead, it spreads – so Syria’s networked environment seems to tragically suggest, in a bitter remix of Henry Jenkins’ famous motto.
As media production accelerates – with more remixes, more sharing platforms, and the accumulation of layers in a permanent mode of circulation – so does war also accelerate and degenerate, involving more actors and interests at local, regional and global levels, expanding in time and space with no end apparently in sight. The mediated mimics the military, and vice versa. In the networked environment, media messages circulate rather than communicate, embracing a status of ‘constant emulsion’: a permanent, entropic, circular movement that dramatically mirrors the ceaseless bombings, sieges, chemical attacks and humanitarian crises that have unfolded in Syria since 2011. We are far from the abstract media spectacles offered to international publics during the 1991 Gulf conflict: the ‘perfect’ war, marked by a precise beginning and end, carefully orchestrated and performed for the sake of media (re) production and (re)presentation.
The Syrian conflict hints at a new mode of warfare and visibility marked by a sort of ‘neverendingness’, which is also a quintessential feature of the networked environment.