Blog Post

The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted: Embodied Dissent and Digitized Oppression

In his October piece for the New Yorker (“Small Change”), Malcolm Gladwell offers a thoughtful critique of arguments that social media networks are the driving force between mobilizing meaningful, effective protests—protests that seriously challenge existing formations of power and, in doing so, place the participants in physical danger. As he notes, studies focused on participants in such protests have shown that close friendships with other protestors in the physical, “real” world—what I will call the analog world—is the primary determinant of who will sacrifice their physical safety for the cause. These friendships are formed in the analog world between individuals who inhabit the same physical space. By contrast, the relationships formed and sustained in social networking spaces create loose bonds that are effective in sharing information but woefully ineffective in getting people to make the types of sacrifices that are necessary for concrete change. Thus, “Facebook activism,” he writes, “succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice [i.e., informing their community, attending events, volunteering].” Opposing hierarchical formations of state power that are organized to benefit global capitalism and backed by a sizable military, protestors on the ground in Tunisia and Egypt have, by necessity, proven that they are ready to make the sacrifices that most commentators (myself included) will never be asked to make. Theirs is not a networked movement of loosely-affiliated, online acquaintances willing to post anti-Mubarak messages on their friends’ walls; theirs is a movement driven by dedicated men and women who have laughed, labored, and struggled alongside one another and who, because of this, are far more likely to fall alongside one another rather than betray their comrades and cause.

But at the same time, we cannot deny the fact that new media provide outside, transnational audiences with an alternative means of accessing information through channels which are mediated less than mainstream news media outlets. In “The Twitter Revolution Must Die,” Ulises A. Mejias convincingly cautions readers against celebrating social networking sites as utopian spaces of truly open communication: “as digital networks grow and become more centralized and privatized, they increase opportunities for participation, but they also increase inequality, and make it easier for authorities to control them.” While I absolutely agree with Mejias that it is important not to idealize commodified, corporate-controlled new media spaces, I also think that it is important to acknowledge that they do provide a means of transmitting images and news of events that might not otherwise make it to international audiences. The danger, I think, occurs when we conflate transmitting news of resistance with resistance itself. My fear is that the digital nature of the space in which new media live will decontextualize resistance by separating it from the lived, embodied experience of oppression and the physical risks associated with protest. After all, how do you digitize an oppression that is literally inscribed upon the bodies of the inhabitants of marginalized communities, most often people of color? To speak of resistance without talking about the threat of discipline (in the form of state-sponsored violence) eliminates the element of risk, the very element that gives any gesture of opposition to authority its power and, ultimately, its meaning. And to remove resistance from the analog world to which it responds undermines its capacity to directly challenge the concrete conditions that make resistance necessary.

To better illustrate my vision of analog or embodied resistance, I turn to Gil Scott Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, from which I clearly drew inspiration for my title. Released in 1974, the song responds to a historical moment when the Civil Rights Movement was crippled by internal divisions and an unresponsive government and its greatest leaders had been silenced by violent repression (in the form of prison sentences and bullets). By reminding us that “The revolution will not be televised/The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox/ In 4 parts without commercial interruption”, Heron defines this coming insurrection in opposition to the corporate media outlets that continually threaten to co-opt and commodify revolutionary movements. This opposition, in turn, gives the movement a sense of immediacy that forces the listener to engage directly with it: “You will not be able to stay home, brother/ You will not be able to plug in, turn on or cop out”. This sense of urgency is reinforced by Heron’s invocation of an image of police brutality (“There will be no images of pigs shooting down brothers on the instant replay”), a move that emphasizes the visceral reality of what it means to be Black—that is, to have a Black body, especially an insurrectionary Black body—in the U.S. In this context, the subsequent verse’s portrayal of the presence of Black bodies in public spaces takes on a particular relevance:  

Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Hooterville
Junction will no longer be so damned relevant, and
Women will not care if Dick finally gets down with
Jane on Search for Tomorrow because Black people
Will be in the street looking for a brighter day.
The revolution will not be televised.”

It is this image of Black people physically occupying the public space of the streets—perhaps the very streets where their communities have so often been subject to state-sponsored violence—that has haunted and inspired me as I have listened to the reports coming out of Tunisia, Iran and Egypt. And it is this image that challenges the very idea of a so-called “social media revolution.” Indeed, the revolution isn’t just live. The revolution is lived. After all, the center of the Egyptian uprising wasn’t an avatar or an online persona. It was the bloody, beaten, and barely recognizable body of Khaled Said, who was brutally beaten to death by plainclothes policemen on a busy street in broad daylight under circumstances that were, at best, suspect. Speculation surrounding his death suggests that Said is dead not because he refused to show his identification to the officers, but rather because he posted publically a video of corrupt police officers pocketing confiscated drugs. Although Said used a website, the true act of resistance here was clicking “send”, an action that was performed by a physical body in a physical, non-cyberspace and its consequences were experienced by that body in an equally physical, non-cyberspace. This distinction is not superficial. New media are not utopic spaces that we can retreat to in order to escape the unjust relations of power and material conditions that often shape our analog lives. Our bodies remain subject to the concrete realities in which we live.

Social media allow us to document and publicize revolution, but the act of communication does not displace the power and significance of the embodied act of resistance itself. The in-your-face immediacy of the rebellious body and the spirit of sacrifice are the heart and soul of any insurrection. The most inspiring images coming out of Egypt and Tunisia are not screenshots of particularly informative tweets or blog posts; they are photographs of real people standing and praying in solidarity with one another, men and women facing down militarized police forces without backing down. Images of huge groups of protestors defiantly occupying streets, squares and even the tops of tanks provide glimpses into the liberatory possibilities of mass mobilizations of people (and their bodies) in analog spaces. They also open up potentialities, moments pregnant with the hope of something more. We challenge the material conditions and structures of power that shape our lived reality by confronting them in the analog spaces our bodies inhabit.

Yet this doesn’t mean that we should completely renounce the use of new media and the instantaneous, international communication that it enables; it simply means that we need to recognize its limitations so that we can talk about its political uses in ways that reflect the complexity of their relationship to our social and historical moment. In our rush to become post-human, we need to remember that there is still power and possibility in the human. So when it comes time to protest, this is one HASTAC-er who will be kickin’ it old school with a picket sign in her hand, a bandanna around her neck, and an iPhone in her pocket.


1 comment

Fantastic post! I stumbled on it just as I was writing a short little post about this issue over at my micro-blog, "bookmobility," so I had to snatch a little bit to share there, since you made the case with such power. Thanks!

Also, along these lines, after the graduate employees at my school went on strike a little over a year ago, I wrote a post on my blog here about the importance--but profound insufficiency--of digital technology for organizing movements.