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With the benefit of hindsight, what role does new media play in artistic practices, activism, and as an agent for social change in the Middle East and North Africa today?

Jeannine Tang
2 November 2012

Can the subaltern tweet? asked Lisa Nakamura, in response to the formulation 'social media caused the Arab Spring'. If Spivak famously deconstructed the promotion of democracy by supremacist means, Nakamura and others subsequently dismantled the digital orientalism latent in rhetoric suggesting that a US twittersphere galvanised Arab revolutionaries against Arab dictators. Networked media not only yielded conditions for revolutionary communiqués but also digital surveillance and arrests, via monitoring technologies provided by US contractors and companies. Further, online activism only partially represents a movement including in-person organising across classes and political affiliations (such as student groups, a militant industrial labour movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, etc.)


Promoting a tweeted uprising appears at least partially within the structure of western mediagenicity, its iconic images of youth and revolutionary picturesque. A sudden 'event' of insurrection reads legibly to viewers abroad, but is insufficient to explain complex political movements sustained across decades in uneven swirls, whose organising, conversations and tactics can neither be captured nor fully clarified by social media. The originary role attributed to web 2.0 misunderstands communication at its heart, assuming a perfect relay of cause and effect, message and receipt, speaker and context. Such accounts of transparent transmission are blind to structural dissonances between political representation and its appearance as portraiture. Rather, the medium of revolution is necessarily, I think, a scrambled affair, its clarion call sounded by competing interests, themselves prone to drift and projection.

Jeannine Tang

is an art historian teaching at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College.

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