Peter Snowdon, The People Are Not an Image: Vernacular Video After the Arab Spring (London/New York: Verso, 2020).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Peter Snowdon (PS): The book stems from the same impulse as my film, The Uprising (2013), which is a montage of online videos produced and posted to the Internet by the frontline actors of the Arab revolutions of 2011 to 2012. In both cases, I wanted more than anything to celebrate these videos as complex and powerful aesthetic gestures—“aesthetic” not in the sense of being conventionally “beautiful,” but in the sense that they work on our sensations, and thus reshape our sense of what it is possible to perceive (and do).
I wanted to celebrate them as much as to try and understand them. I understood them as being, in any case, inexhaustible. Both the book and the film, on one level, have the same underlying message, which is: “Look at these videos!” Just take the time to really look at them! They deserve that kind of attention, and they will repay you for it, even—perhaps, especially—if you are used to thinking online video is important mainly for what it shows us, and not for how it shows it.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
PS: The core of the book is a series of close readings of eight particular videos from five different countries (Tunisia, Syria, Egypt, Libya, and Bahrain). Each video is described in some detail, the dialogue (if any) transcribed and translated, and then from there I try and unfold the different layers of potential that I see in it—often by adding successive redescriptions of what it shows us, as well as by “interpreting” it in more conventional ways. My chief concern throughout is to bring the reader back to the video again and again, and to show that it is more complex and more rewarding to watch, and to think with, than we might at first suppose.
In the first half of the book, I focus on teasing out what this complexity might suggest about the emergence of new forms of subjectivity in the revolutionary moment. I argue that these videos engage our kinesthetic sense of what it is to have a body and to move through space in ways that open up a kind of performative plurality within the singular subject who made them, and between that subject and the viewer. This plurality abolishes the apparent contradiction between the individual and “the people” who are the subject of the revolution. It also radically transforms the individual’s relationship to death, and the representation of death.
In the second half of the book, I turn to the question of how these videos circulated on the Internet, and how they formed new assemblages there. I argue that what happened during that moment in 2011 to 2012 was a kind of “Occupy YouTube” by anticipation—the creation of a temporary autonomous zone where people’s own practices of uploading and re-circulating images briefly overwhelmed the algorithmic and extractive logic of these commercial platforms. And these assemblages, like the individual videos involved, have their own particular forms and rhythms, and redistribute agency in unexpected ways.
I situate these proposals in relation to two main bodies of work that might be called “theoretical.” On the one hand, I relate them to writers who have helped me think about what political change might look like here where I live in Europe—whether they are philosophers like Jacques Rancière, Giorgio Agamben, Judith Butler, or Gilles Deleuze, or pamphletists and propagandists such as Agustín García Calvo, Jaime Semprun, Tiqqun, or the Invisible Committee. And on the other hand, I also refer extensively to the work of Arab intellectuals and artists who helped me understand dimensions of the revolutionary experience of 2011 to 2012 that I would otherwise have missed—writers such as Mohammed Bamyeh, Ayman El-Desouky, Ahdaf Soueif, or Taher Chikhaoui, along with people who have engaged in forms of image-making adjacent to the videos I discuss, such as the collectives Mosireen in Egypt, or Abou Naddara in Syria.
But I am not trying to reduce these videos to the illustration of any existing theoretical or political or even aesthetic position, wherever or whoever it may come from. And I am not trying to validate them by appealing to some independent intellectual authority. For me, these videos embody their own reflections on the process of their making, and elaborate their own theories—of filming, of viewing, and of revolutionary action—which often run ahead of anything that has previously been thought or written. By placing these texts in resonance with these images, my aim is not to use the written word to try to control or contain the videos, but rather to see how each may be deepened and complicated by proximity to the other.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
PS: This is my first book. I started writing it while I was still working on The Uprising. Originally, The Uprising was not meant to be a film, but simply an anthology of videos, unedited, placed one after the other, with minimal intervention on my part. But I could not get the project to function in those terms—not in a way that would have enabled it to reach out beyond a narrow audience of cinephiles and other intellectuals. And the only way out we could find, with my collaborator Bruno Tracq, was to edit the videos so as to make them talk more directly to one another by articulating them into a narrative.
The more we found ourselves cutting the videos, reducing them, reshaping them, the more I felt the writing start to function as a way of reaffirming my loyalty to their original unedited forms. It gave me a space where I could return to what had been my original experience of them, and reassert the singularity of each of these unique blocks of space-time.
On a more mundane, but also quite essential level, both the book and the film first emerged in the context of a practice-based PhD in visual art at PXL-MAD School of Art in Hasselt, Belgium. I want to acknowledge the support I received from my colleagues there, and the liberties I was allowed to take, without which neither the film nor the book would ever have come to fruition.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
PS: I hope that, beyond film and media scholars, and students of these revolutions, the book might also reach a wider audience outside academia. That it may help people who are engaged in making media in support of radical political change think about how the politics of their actions depend quite deeply on the formal and aesthetic choices they make, and not just on the voices they lift up, the messages they consciously project, or the causes they support. And I guess, in my most wildly ambitious moments, I would like it to be recognized as a contribution, however modest, to thinking through the political potentials (and limitations) of the present, and not just a book about video making, or about one particular set of historical events, however important those events are.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
PS: I spend so much of my time these days in Zoom, I have started thinking about how I might make a film there, too.
J: How did you come to be watching these videos in the first place?
PS: From 1997 to 2000, I lived and worked in Egypt, where I was a journalist with Al-Ahram Weekly. When I moved back to Europe in 2000, Cairo remained the center of my social life for at least the next decade. It is still where many, if not most, of my closest friends are. So, when the revolution broke out in Egypt, and all the direct lines of communication were down, I went looking for my friends, many of whom were journalists, on Twitter. I found them—and then I found the videos. And I was just blown away by what I saw.
When I watch these videos, I often feel as though I am seeing someone—the filmer—who is coming alive, as if for the first time, in the moment of filming itself. Next to that, the whole canon of international art cinema just drops away: it seems, simply, irrelevant. These people filmed these events in precisely the way I would have wanted to do if I had been there—and they did it better than I ever could have done, because this was their history they were living and making, not someone else’s. Everything I have done since then is just my attempt to take their work seriously, to learn from it, and to honor them for it.
Excerpt from the book (from “You have no idea what this feels like!,” pp. 29-31, 37-38)
In this short clip, we hear more than we see a man walking up and down along a main artery (“the avenue,” as he calls it) of a North African city. As he walks, he improvises a poetic panegyric in honor of the people of his country and the freedom they have won for themselves. Yet the people of whom and to whom he speaks are nowhere to be seen. Indeed, as the clip progresses, it may seem that he is less assuming their existence than trying to conjure them into being. His entire performance seems designed either to make appear that which does not yet exist or to prevent or defer the disappearance of that which had briefly and provisionally emerged—or perhaps some combination of the two.
Nowhere is this hesitation between the actual, the potential, and the past more poignantly felt than in the complex use of alternating pronouns to figure “the people” whom he celebrates. Sometimes he identifies with or includes himself in “the people” (“We won our freedom ourselves!”); sometimes he excludes himself from the people by objectifying them as independent of himself or any other external party (“The Tunisian people made their own freedom!”); and sometimes he addresses himself directly to the Tunisian people despite their apparent absence. The fact that when he does so for the first time, he resorts to a kind of tautology (“O free men of Tunisia, you are free!”) suggests not only an elation that at times outruns the spontaneous verbal imagination, but also a real, if disguised, uncertainty as to whether those who are already free really are free, or whether they do not need to claim their freedom again (and again) in order to be sure of it.
Read in this way, the performance that lies at the heart of this video could be seen as less an act of certainty and completion than as a sign of the people’s persistent failure to emerge fully, even in this the hour of their hour of triumph. The apparent emptiness of the street around this improvised orator would thus function as an ironic counterpoint to his triumphant words: as if the Tunisian people had chosen the moment of their greatest victory simply to disappear under cover of darkness. Yet, as he tries to populate the night with the shadows of a people whose existence he has glimpsed only for it to escape him, his solitude is both underscored and disrupted by the presence of the camerawoman who made this video and her companions, and in particular by their complex reactions of withdrawal from and participation in the drama unfolding below their window.
This distance between the people at the window and the man in the street who proclaims the people is underscored by the interjections from the audience to which we, the viewers of the video, are party, but of which its protagonist knows nothing (as yet). As the man in the street below invokes the people of Tunisia, one of the women watching tells a friend over her cell phone: “There are three guys out on Avenue Bourguiba . . . .” And a few moments later, she both singularizes and amplifies her claim: “There’s a happy man talking in the street. You have no idea what that feels like!” This scene is received as, in some sense, a miracle—but one that initially moves the women at the window as spectators rather than participants.
Yet, while the happy man’s performance of his happiness may be more complex and ambivalent than it first appears, it nevertheless remains a moment of great joy. It is not undermined by the apparent absence of the people it invokes, to which it lays claim, and which it seeks to encourage into a more permanent existence than the fulgurations of that day’s events might in themselves seem capable of sustaining.
If this is so, perhaps it is because there are more people present in this video than just the three men in the street and the three women watching them from their window. And we are given a clue to the nature of this multiple presence very early on, when the first woman murmurs: “How many people died that this day might come!” The people who make it true that the people exist are not exclusively, or even primarily, the living people who are or are not out in the street tonight. They are the people who have given their lives, not just over the past weeks but over the many preceding decades—who have paid the price of refusing to submit to the sequence of authoritarian regimes that have ruled the country since before it ceased to be a French colony. The really existing people of Tunisia, those who are most obviously and most irreversibly free, are not those who are sheltering indoors, watching emotionally and nervously from their windows: they are the martyrs of the pre- and post-independence regimes and of the uprising that had begun three weeks earlier, on December 18, 2010.
These three minutes that are “not” a film, that are “just a bit of video,” provide a statement about the Arab revolutions, their emancipatory potential, and the almost overwhelming obstacles that they have faced, that is as complex, as ironic, and as poignant as any feature-length movie that I know. And they do this, not from the point of view of the individual artist—not, that is, from the point of view of the orator Abdennacer Aouini down in the avenue, who remains oblivious right until the last moment of the presence of the women who are watching him from their window—but from the point of view of the people themselves.
From down in the avenue, the people remain invisible. Cloaked in darkness or hidden behind closed doors, they are resolutely hors champ. Yet despite this absence, in this video shot from the window of these women’s apartment, the people do in fact appear. And they do so in such a way that we know that they are not just “yet to come” [a reference to Gilles Deleuze’s interpretation of the Third Cinema of Glauber Rocha, Lino Brocka, Yilmaz Güney, and Ousmane Sembene as showing us “the people who are yet to come”, i.e. the peoples announced by liberation struggles in the Third World] but were in some sense there all along, even before they take voice and declare themselves in public. But when they appear to us they do so not as a figure or an object seen from a safe distance that can be identified, represented, and reified, but as a multiplicity of voices, bodies, points of view, which yet seem to be traversed by a single subject—a presence, in short, that is too close to us, too complex, too physical, too real, too irrevocable, for us to see it or ever pin it down.