By : Miriyam Aouragh and Adel Iskandar
In April of 2013, the Arab Media Center at the University of Westminster`s CAMRI hosted its annual Arab media studies conference under the title of “New Media, New Politics?” At a critical juncture in the progress of the region’s uprisings, the common denominator at the event was (the need for) a prevailing dialectical understanding of the Arab revolutions, namely as a process demonstrating important, and often intractable, contradictions. As some forms of knowledge production are challenged by this paradigmatic shift, others are fostered and furthered, therefore making these dramatic transformations difficult to understand at the levels of theory and practice.
Studies of the Internet have clearly proliferated and are offering a rich field in the study of politics and culture. However, the field is extremely dispersed and there is not one particular genre or methodology from which one can derive clear answers.
Taken together, both the political context and the disciplinary fragmentations complicate critical analyses of the relation between new media and the enormous political developments witnessed in the Arab world since 2011.
The Search for Nuance
The social implications of the Internet have many associative correlations: gender, economy, race, and politics. By way of example, political activism, has inspired uncountable writings and debates in scholarship on the Arab world where new (or electronic, or online, or digital) media and political change are so intricately and intractably intertwined. The number of academic articles, books, conferences, public-diplomacy foreign-funded projects, and of course journalistic writings are very telling. The Arab revolutions have become tokenistic, and in some cases even caricatures, of this kind of focus.
Thankfully, besides the sheer quantity there is also a fascinating shift in a qualitative restyling. While the debates and empirical approaches are shaped by the enormous events themselves they, in turn, push, challenge and provoke certain paradigmatic shifts as well.
Research about new media is also rooted in epistemological traditions and certain “acquired” intellectual tastes that have come to seem natural. Social movement theory is probably the strongest discipline rising above online activism, defining the “multitude” of conceptual genres. The “field” has become rooted in the sociological focus on networks bears what resembles an obsession with “platforms,” “networks” and “nodes.” This confirms that existing political desires, our dominant language and methodological tools are the product of a particular “ontological selectivity.”
We are slowly moving away from the adverse (postmodern) and alienating jargon that has fatigued academia, and offered a less Euro-American and a more diverse outlook that we see entering with the ranks of a generation of academic experts. With this we observe a growing mindfulness that the response to orientalist positionality need not be regional exceptionalism, dogmatic nativism, nor the indefensibly uncritical posturing for local injustice. This growing space for epistemological nuance is a direct outcome of the coming of age of ontological contestations on the region
Principles of Roundtable
This roundtable proposes several guiding principles as a symbolic compass to help ground our work in such a critical yet concrete and realistic manner. A dual-approach that links politics and media helps us contemplate what other media and communication technologies in past experiences tell us about the present. This assists us to rethink and refresh our theoretical legacies but also to in due create spaces to learn from. This includes, specifically what the everyday utilization of new media entails in different demographic (race, gender, age etc.) and geographic (urban/rural, center/periphery) realities and relations. It becomes even more important that we question how analytical interventions are framed and to overcome its biases. There is a necessity to separate between the different dispositions of the Internet as reflections of journalistic hype or public diplomacy outreach. The imperial logic of Internet capitalism is clearer now that the optimistic dust has settled and a deepening of the revolutionary phase started. The will and ability of the capitalist nation-state to control and monopolize our means of communication are transformed into a crucial nexus of power.
But what do these deconstructions actually tell us? It is important to acknowledge that the uprisings happened and spread due to prominent objective conditions far beyond the Internet. But it is also important to recognize that these events did not occur in 1848, 1917, 1979, or 1989 and we are faced by the particularities of the technologically mediated contemporary environment without which the revolutions cannot be understood either. The really interesting question is: what defines the “technological difference?” The starting point when answering this question should be the people who have the actual agency; the transmitters of power to and through technology, not the other way around. The actors in these uprisings who tap into subversive online spaces are those who provide the content or consume it and subsequently build new relations or widen their network. The shrinking of the public sphere is the other side of the same coin. So the Internet is for all, for those who want a revolution and those who want the status quo. The special address by Jillian York demonstrates that the circle of political alternatives is increasingly narrowing on activists, the Internet is also reducing their choices in strategies and tactics, but it is not completely closing in on them. The roundtable articles that deal with Syria and Bahrain show a rather strong determinacy to continue the struggle because of rather than despite of this.
In our critique we should not throw away the baby with the bathwater. It is simplistic to conclude that the replication of political struggle and rhetoric reverberating via blogs, Facebook, Twitter, or even hackers’ collectives like Anonymous are nonsensical compared to “real-life” struggle. The above-sketched contradiction highlights the revolutionary dialectics at their sharpest.
A virtual political presence mediates a desire to take sides and there are many sites of contestation online that begin to show us this dynamic. We have seen a trend of memes and mash-ups, or creative reproductions where people take snippets and convert them into new meanings and statements that eventually morph into multi-layered messages, as Adel Iskandar’s paper illustrates. Online narratives are fed by an enormous diet of subversive visuals, chronicling a messy yet archetypical construct of the on-going revolutionary struggle. The accelerating digitization of political culture reshapes the way social movements operate and calculate their politics in more intense ways than seen before.
Work empirically grounded in “locale” is capable of analyzing this paradox and can teach us about the “embodiment of technologies,” for instance mobile phones signifying someone being alive or death at moments of heightened protest, as Kira Allmann discusses in her contribution.
The materiality and political geography of Internet mediation is easily interpreted as unique, motivated by the adjective “new,” but the internet is part of an evolutionary process. Above all, digital media encapsulates the content, the infrastructure, the messenger, the receiver, the wires, the words…and the human costs. This certainly assumes that digital media thrives on the accumulation of capital as Christian Fuchs shares with us in his presentation and hence, we could say, bring back the theories illustrating the constant switching between base and superstructure, partly discussed by Rob Jackson in his analysis of Gramsci’s classic theories of revolutionary mediation.
Eventually, the intention of this roundtable and the conference that made it possible revolves around self-emancipation. The research we are doing is part of an extremely difficult trajectory in both research and activism. Yet, we are but a miniscule drop in an ocean of transformative deliberation and serious engagement. It is with due humbleness that we salute those who are still sacrificing all to see these crucial changes through in their respective societies and our collective experiential world. As was the case with the Westminster conference which brought together a stellar roster of speakers who traversed the world, we are using an equally communal open-access platform in Jadaliyya to further dissolve these barriers by disseminating the papers, essays, and recordings, rendering this a self-examination through practice on “new media and new politics.” As is the case with most interventions of this kind, we are hopeful that the expressions brought forth by this roundtable can provoke a novel discussion about action and reaction, platform, and dignity in mediated dissent on the heels of the Arab uprisings in this most crucial time. Our objective, in the end, is to trespass and hopefully dissolve the walls that barricade theory from practice, and activism from scholarship. In our commitment to critical academia, one that refuses the dichotomy between the hands and the minds, we attempt to engage as organic intellectuals in campaigns in support for those in struggle.
The outcome of the conference is a collection of presentations and essays that form the backbone of this JadaliyyaRoundtable. Allman begins with a challenge to the technological primacy of the Internet through the discussion of mobile capability in Egypt. Once the Internet is determined as a site of inquiry, two of the essays in the roundtable speak to the role of Facebook in the construction of both identity and dissidence. Paolo Gerbaudo investigates the popularization of leadership on the top social media platform. Alternatively, Reem Abd Ulhamid examines how Palestinian identity manifests on Facebook self-portrayals.
The pedagogical and occupational dilemmas of Bahrain’s quagmire are relayed with exceptional candidness by Mike Diboll and the conflict in Syria becomes an illustrative example of how user-generated content defines news media priorities in the Levant. Just when we suspect that the prevailing discourse online on Syria is dissident, Miriyam Aouragh reminds us of the adaptive functionality of pro-regime counterrevolutionary action. Finally, Adel Iskandar offers a preliminary appraisal of the nexus between the political and the cultural in his discussion of satirical memes from Egypt.
Alongside these articles, the roundtable includes audio recordings of the conference presentations. The keynote presentation by Walter Armbrust demonstrates the powerful political cultures of resistance in the context of the Egyptian revolution between offline spaces and online spheres. The special address to the conference was given by Jillian York who examined the patterns of state censorship and their circumvention by activists online in the revolutionary tumult of 2011.
In all, this roundtable approaches the spaces of contestation from across the region with the pervasive expectation that these contributions—in essay or presentation form—enrich our understanding of ourselves and our media.