Sunday, September 23, 2018

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Body as a tool of insurgency

Shelley Walia

It is often maintained that revolutions in the days of the internet will not be fomented and theorised in libraries, but will be spurred through the agency of social media and television, “beamed directly into our heads”. However, in this book Marwan Kraidy, professor of communications and the Anthony Shadid Chair in Global Media, Politics and Culture at the University of Pennsylvania, surmises that social media like Facebook and Twitter are not front-line revolutionary agents but more like tools used to transmit the message of dissent to the masses. It is argued that the role of social media in the revolutionary movements has been exaggerated. Though media giants like Twitter and Facebook are the result of game-changing technology that enables them to spread the call to action to millions instantaneously, revolutions are created by way of far more profound thought and action than the mere digital proliferation of the messaging. It is this creative process, through art that leads to radical events of far reaching human significance. 

Central to the book is the human body which moves not only to barricade doors or roads but also is the impulse behind creative insurgency. Kraidy divides this into two parts: The radical which violently opposes the state as in the case of acts like the self-immolation of the Tunisian street vendor Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi who puts his very body at stake; and the gradual insurgency which is through the use of dissent, the “incremental and cumulative” impact through subversive art such as graffiti, videos and satire or imaginative slogans, murals, stencilled images, video. “Creative insurgency combines two types of violence that overlap and sustain each other: the kind of violence inflicted with words, songs, and images and the one wreaked with fire, stones, and rifles, acting in tandem to dislodge dictators,” writes Kraidy. 

Through his focus and keen study of the Arab Spring movement, Kraidy explores the relationship between revolutionary activism and art with the human body as the central metaphor of expression. It was this interplay that acted as a strategic means for fighting tyranny, especially during the insurrection in Egypt. “This is where you are saying, ‘I’m willing to risk my body and my life for a cause that’s bigger than myself,’” says Kraidy. He writes of the young men and woman who sacrifice their bodies: “Heroic bodies tend to be young, but some are not, though compared to dictators gone to seed, they look youthful indeed”. His main thrust is that “creative insurgency uses the body as a physical medium and a symbol to separate the biological body of the dictator from his political body…. Once you do that, you lower him down from a pedestal and turn him into an ordinary person, therefore no longer dangerous or deadly.” Once the struggle is normalised to the level of the body, the revolutionary field is levelled. The body is agnostic to political status, with one just as valuable or potent as the other. Armchair digital activism has to be rendered into a political movement through other channels of substantial human creativity; in an era of virtual reality and incredible death counts, bodies certainly matter.

In November 2011, post Mohamed al-Bouazizi’s self-immolation, Aliaa Elmahdy, a communication student from the American University in Cairo, posted a naked picture of herself on her blog, A Rebel’s Diary, inciting death threats by the fundamentalists as well as a critical debate on the naked body as “an acknowledgment of revolutionary (gendered) selfhood?” The event was buried under the plethora of critical material produced in the wake of the Arab Spring, but Kraidy successful resurrects her act of defiance as the fulcrum of his book, the single most vital move by a woman to bring all attention to the physical body. 

Though he does minutely examine web-based parody like Top Goon, from Syria caricaturing Assad, or highlights the critical relevance of Ammar Abo Bakr’s murals of martyrs on Mohammed Mahmoud Street, and Mubarak’s image as a Laughing Cow, Kraidy is more attentive to creative insurgency through emphasis on body politics and its conspicuous absence in the entire range of insurgency studies. 

To substantiate his thesis of the ‘gradual insurgency intertwining with the radical’, he closely analyses a self-published picture of Elmahdy menstruating upon a Daesh flag. This act of baring one’s body in public is aptly compared with the monk setting himself on fire in Vietnam or the hunger strike by the Irish rebels, enabling Kraidy to transform his canvas of study from a limited geographical location to a global all-enveloping thesis that illustrates the centrality of body politics or ‘biopolitical insurgency’, including all acts of resistance and the reality of torture and rape becoming vividly etched in the minds of the rebellious masses. 

Graffiti murals containing dead, dying and tortured bodies give a hard blow to the state and the insurgents alike; while government marksmen target the protesters’ eyes, graffiti artists depict alert and defiant eyes.

“The exploration of creative insurgency becomes an exploration of the human body and the multitudinous ways in which it assumes meaning in political action….It expresses rebellion as much as it shapes it,” writes Kraidy, emphasising the relationships between art, the body, and revolution through “styles of rebellion, human resilience and creativity, and the will to live, despite the spectre of death,” leaving the reader in perpetual surprise and admiration. Kraidy has indeed presented an engagingly accessible and razor-sharp analysis of contemporary struggles in the Arab world and the tangible contribution of young avant-garde artists in Egypt and elsewhere, who faced the critical moment head-on, staking their entire beings for a transformative opportunity by freedom-loving people to rise against torture, inequality, hunger, corruption and unemployment.


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