Looking at images of revolution

The scene is being recorded from a balcony in the adjacent building, overlooking the main street below. It looks like an overpass, with barriers on both sides. At first, all you can see through a hazy screen of smoke is the rubble littering the full length of the street, punctuated by improvised but sturdy-looking barricades and a tuk tuk here and there. Suddenly, the camera zooms in and sweeps across to one end of the overpass, as a wiry looking kid is seen darting across to one of the barriers, a mane of wild hair trailing behind him. He disappears for a split second behind the barrier with his friend, before reemerging with a fresh teargas canister and flinging it over the barrier, probably in the direction of the unseen assailant. The two casually walk back to their post behind one of the barricades, and the camera zooms back over to the other end of the overpass where, amidst a heap of rubble, three young men are immersed in a game of checkers, seemingly unperturbed by the sudden activity on the bridge.

A little farther on, one of their comrades is manning the outermost set of barricades, and seems to be overcome by either boredom or audacity as he waves a flag above the sheet of corrugated iron. It takes a second before the sound of a gunshot is heard booming in the distance, forcing him to duck. It’s a quick reflex: he’s familiar with this game.


A different scene. It’s a self-recording. Draped in an Iraqi flag and waving in hand a teargas grenade, the man addresses himself to the Prime Minister. ‘Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?’ he exclaims. ‘This is expired: If you’re going to gas us using our own money, we want these brand new.’ The clip ends with a burst of tired laughter from protesters out of view.


Another scene, back at the overpass. He’s sprinting at full speed, leaving a trail of teargas in his wake. A crowd of his fellow protesters disperses to make way as he lunges forward and hurls the active canister in his hand. It flies across the full length of the bridge, trailing its poisonous fumes, and lands on the other side of the barricades. The young man saunters back with swagger, and a tuk tuk rushes up to meet him, delivering tissues and water – or is it a Coke? In the meantime, his friends resume kicking around a soccer ball in the space available among the rubble.


These are scenes of other-worldly courage and heroism, sutured inextricably to scenes of riotous and unbridled joy. Scenes of a defiant affirmation of life in all its quotidian and radical valences: or maybe an affirmation in which the quotidian and the radical become indistinct, as they perhaps should be. Powerful scenes. Extraordinary, but not exceptional. Despite media blackouts and curfews, our digital unconscious is now flooded with photographs and footage from the revolutions in Iraq, Lebanon, Chile, and elsewhere. There’s no shortage of images that can leave you speechless.

But maybe they shouldn’t. Maybe images should do more (or less) than stun us into silence. Maybe we can afford to be inspired into saying all that there is to say and even more. To say what isn’t or can’t be said.

The visual historian Jose-Marie Mondzain tells us that images can be either incorporated into the regime of visibility, or they can become anarchic loci for the liberation and production of the invisible. Historically, this has manifested in conflicts over icons and symbols. It’s a history of the fetish that is at its apotheosis today. Either we see in the images and scenes before us a realisation of what already is and cannot be otherwise, or we allow them to move and transport us beyond what is given-to-be-seen – to dare to unsee the world as it is and to see in the image the unimaginable.

Images can be a guarantee of our collective desires – desires to be, to want, to have – and our capacity to put these desires into speech and thought; or they can be a gag order, a warrant to silence and acquiescence.

But what more can we possibly say about images that speak for themselves? Under what pretense do we speak about that which already speaks in the millions of voices of those who fight not only for our world but for countless others, past and future? A bloated industry of pundits and self-styled experts is already churning the same meaningless and derivative froth about revolutions and their discontents. To the eyes and mouthpieces of capital, this world and its possibilities is just a bad investment, the returns of which are but ever shrinking and diminishing variables of the same-old. It’s a world that is entirely transparent, subject to the paranoic gaze of the market, whose clergy busy themselves in prophesising, anticipating, and securing against novelty as ‘risk’. If their prognostications are derivative, it’s because what they see in the scenes unfolding before their eyes is precisely that: a means by which to trade and bet on risk. The image to them is a financial mechanism, through which capital’s imagination finds surety.

Within the paranoic and ‘sociopathic indifference’ of capital’s imagination, no correspondence with the image is possible. The image is silent, mutely pointing to that which is already obvious and transparent to the onlooker. The protesters have either no clear set of demands, or, where the Left is concerned, their demands are all too clear. For the image and those in it, there is nothing left to say, except insofar as they’re ventriloquised by the ‘observer’.

Against the referential, where does the relational take us? Can we allow the image to speak and allow ourselves to correspond with it? If so, then we can’t afford to presume to understand or know all that it’s trying to say. In place of transparency, we have to make room for opacity, and in doing so, we have to let the image look back at us and put us on display.

This might be easier for some than it is for others. For those of us in the diaspora, it’s impossible to look at these images and see only the masses, the revolutionaries, or the wretched of the earth. It’s impossible to see fictionalised, fetishised caricatures, because we also see ourselves, in one way or another. We see ourselves in those we look at. We imagine being there, but we also imagine having always been there.

We imagine having never left, or having never been forced to leave. We might hear the Arabic – usually relegated for us to the private or the polite, as a mark of alienation – and we imagine it instead booming, exploding, bursting out of our chests in expressions of a collective, militant self. We might see thousands filling the squares, reciting in guttural chants the holy scripture of insurrection, and we imagine inhabiting one of those bodies: a body that doesn’t feel constantly at odds with its environment, that is woven seamlessly into it, moving and dancing to its rhythm, accepting and giving back what it has to offer, and gladly playing conduit to the electric currents and raw energy generated by the mass of bodies all around. We see ourselves, and imagine being otherwise.

Or rather, we see others and they allow us to see ourselves and our world differently. Better yet, we don’t look at others, but look to them. In recent months, I’ve found myself in conversations with other ‘diasporics’ in which we’d lament what feels like an absolute loss of direction: no guidance, no elders or mentors to show us the way. No well-trodden paths, just pitfalls and a sense of having been waylaid. That anxiety should be such a prevalent condition; indeed, a veritable epidemic, for many of us is in keeping with this situation. As Joan Copjec puts it in terms of its specifically modern permutation, anxiety is not just the experience of being cut off from one’s ancestors, but also of finding yourself alone with something that doesn’t clearly manifest or articulate itself. The corollary is that this is also an ‘experience not of a loss that has happened but the experience of awaiting some event, something that has not happened.’

Since the beginning of October, something has in fact happened, but it was unlike anything we could have imagined. Nor did it involve any omniscient elders or mentors. Instead, there are wily teens who deceive parents and evade teachers, skipping school to set up and man blockades. There are young medical students, climbing the metal rails and supports of monstrous and heavily militarised bridges to reach the other side where comrades require aid. There are tuk tuk drivers, many of them children and teenagers, expertly navigating among crowds, rubble, and volleys of teargas canisters and sniper fire to ferry the wounded and the martyrs to safety. Existing for years as a maligned, scapegoated, and criminalised underclass, this Marxless proletariat is now hailed as a symbol of perhaps the most remarkable event in Iraq’s modern history. There is the entire post-war generation of young men and women, inheriting a system that seems to promise them nothing, neither a past or a future in which to see themselves. Now, they’re poised to give and take everything in turn, ex nihilo.

There are no elders or mentors here, and no roadmaps: just roadblocks and barricades, a landscape as confusing and uncertain as it is replete with possibilities, and one that is all the more joyful for it. This is the kind of joy or ‘enjoyment’ that goes beyond pleasure, the kind that Copjec and other psychoanalysts would like to call jouissance: an experience of our ‘being’ that takes us beyond our ‘self’ and its certainties, and to the uncertainties of a shared becoming. Whatever name we give it, it’s what happens when our pasts and losses become ‘a potential and not simply a limit’.

Imagine as we might having always been there, it’s impossible to unsee in those images our not-being-there. Yet while nothing can fill this absence, our relationship to it can be different. Until the first of October, ‘looking back’ was concomitant to ‘feeling seen’. Half-formed and fantasmatic memories of the past are almost always accompanied with some degree of shame and guilt. Looking for guidance, for the way forward, is in some sense a looking for the way back – a way back to before it all went wrong, before we became unworthy: unworthy of what we have, unworthy of what we lost, and unworthy of what we want. But looking at these images in which young men enjoy the same old pastimes amidst the chaos; in which a young woman gazes at her reflection in a tuk tuk’s side-view mirror, applying lipstick before marching to the frontline; in which pots and pans are used simultaneously to drum up a beat and to deflect grenades; in which every delicious morsel of the desire for life is preserved and enjoyed to its fullest, one dares to imagine that we’re worthy of this world and everything in it, not least each other. Looking at these images, we need look no farther: not to imaginary elders and mentors, not to sleazy pundits and soothsayers, not to rapacious kleptocrats.

‘No masters, and no gods’, writes in exquisite calligraphy Syrian artist Mounir Al-Shaarani. No guarantees, either. These images of a different world, bequeathed and gifted to us by its future custodians, remain opaque, as they should be, since their secrets can never be fully divulged. They can never be fully put into their poor substitute that is language, they rightly compel us to strive to articulate the unintelligible and to imagine the unimaginable in them. We can only try, and fail, to remake ourselves in these images. So here’s to failing better.


Image: Detail of a painting by Iraqi artist Saad Al Tayeb of the Iraqi woman who distributed napkins she was selling to the protestors in Baghdad. 



Faisal Al-Asaad

Faisal Al-Asaad is an Iraq-born writer, researcher, and educator based in Tāmaki Makaurau, Aotearoa. He is primarily interested in critical theories of race, settler colonialism, and racial capitalism.

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