In this article, film scholar Donnatella Della Ratta deconstructs the frames that have characterized, both aesthetically and politically, the social movements that erupted in the Arab region in 2011. On the tenth anniversary of what is commonly known as the “Arab Spring,” she reconsiders the intertwinement of the media and the military, violence and representation, and their blending in the hyperconnected dimension of the social web’s participatory culture. She reflects on the continuity of this dynamic, which was triggered by the astonishing events of ten years ago, and the newly emerging forms of disciplining and domesticating the body and its revolutionary potential.
My memories of spring 2011 go back to my dear friend B, originally from Daraa but living in Damascus. Once he came to see me at my workplace in the old city of the Syrian capital. Fearful but firm, he pulled out of his pockets a tiny USB, handed it in to me, and ordered: “Play it!” In the video, a voice belonging to the unidentified man who is filming shouts, “Peaceful, peaceful,” while sounds of shootings are heard in the background. The shootings get closer to the cameraman, his tone becoming more determined: “No, no, I am peaceful, peaceful,” he insists. The camera shakes, the images become pixelated, yet the filmer does not move or leave. “The world will see what happened in Daraa…. Shoot at me, shoot at me!” is the final cry before the filming process is abruptly interrupted, leaving the viewer with a terrifying, suspended question: is he still alive?1
At some point, this kind of sequence was so familiar to the international public following news reports from the Arab world in 2011 that it became the quintessential visual trope of the so-called Arab Spring. In The Pixelated Revolution (Rabih Mroué, 2013), where he dissects the pervasive condition of nonstop filming, against all odds, during the March 2011 Syrian uprising, Lebanese artist Rabih Mroué labels this phenomenon as the “double shooting,” describing it as it follows:
One person is shooting with the camera and the other is shooting with the rifle. One shoots for his life and the life of his citizens, and the other shoots for his life and the life of his regime.2
No one would ever get to know the fate of the anonymous videographer involved in the double shooting, one of hundreds of thousands of improvised filmmakers who restlessly documented the first networked uprising of their times. Syrian director Ossama Mohammed celebrates these bold human beings in his touching essay film Ma’a al-Fidda (Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait, 2014), which he codirected with Wiam Simav Bedirxan. “In Syria, every day, YouTubers film, then die. Others kill, then film,” his voice bitterly remarks, commenting over an elegantly edited sequence of anonymous videos from Syria featuring obscene torture practices—which Mohammed had previously collected from his social-media feed—rendered as aesthetically compelling performances.
Double shooting became a common practice marking the year 2011, the year of the Arab uprisings and of the rise of a global protest movement shaking the planet from Cairo to Wall Street, from Sanaa to Madrid. Ten years later, I wish to rewind that image, to go back to the double shooting and freeze that frame—the frame where one is filming while the other is about to kill, the frame epitomizing the conditions of “shooting” and “being shot at” that so vividly marked the visual politics of the Arab uprisings. I want to move on from that frozen frame to consider what the double shooting suggests about the entanglement between violence and visibility. How do they blend together in what I term the “networked image,” a social mode of the visual that is a condition inherently connected to a web 2.0 participatory culture?3
Syria in particular, and the Arab uprisings overall, shed light on a dynamic that goes beyond the specifics of a war zone, embracing a much more pervasive and comprehensive way of existence of the visual—which turns itself into a politics of the visual—that is paradigmatic of the networked age. Is it possible to think about Syria beyond Syria—that is, to look at the Syrian case not as an exceptional condition but instead as a laboratory, where the inner dynamics of the social web and participatory culture were dramatically reconfigured? Was 2011 really only about the Arab world and the blossoming of its “Spring”? Or was it a catalyst for a process investing in the very techno-social (infra)structure of the networks and triggering what could be considered a paradigm shift in contemporary digital culture?
The double shooting should not be seen merely as an aesthetic and political form, magnifying the bravery and resilience of the Arab citizens who gave their lives to shoot while being shot at. Rather, I propose to decompose and deconstruct that frame to uncover how the intersection between media and the military, and their blending in the hyperconnected dimension of participatory culture, repurposes the inner dynamics of the networks and shapes contemporary forms of digital culture. For shooting and shooting at are still being constantly reproduced, shared, storified, Instagrammed, and liked on the web 2.0.
Let 2021 be not just about celebrating the tenth anniversary of the so-called Arab Spring, but also about reflecting on what the astonishing events of ten years ago have triggered in terms of the relationship between violence and visibility—and how the latter has been reconfigured, giving rise to a culture of anxiety and fear, of control and surveillance, now performed in new, unprecedented ways. Let 2021 be not only about remembering the past, but also about what the past can teach about the present and, ultimately, the future.
The Era of the Shot
The “shot” is a figurative device to describe how the intertwinement between violence and visibility has been evolving until today.4 The double shooting at work in the 2011 uprisings (shooting as in filming and shooting as in killing) can be traced back to the beginning of the last century, manifesting itself as early as World War I. At that time, philosopher Ernst Jünger elaborated a powerful reflection on the interconnection between violence and its technological reproduction in the guise of photography, from the unique standpoint of his hands-on experience as a fighter in that war. “There can be no war without photography,” he concluded, celebrating the coming of an era when weapons would become more sophisticated and abstract, more technological and mobile, and therefore “more effective at a greater distance.”5 Like a camera eye.
In this phase, as brilliantly underlined in Paul Virilio’s War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception (1989), the simultaneously invented camera eye and machine gun—what I call “the cam shot” and “the gun shot”—merge, creating an overlap between the logic of perception and the logic of destruction, technologies of the visual and technologies of warfare. As contemporary conflicts evolved, from Vietnam to the Balkan wars, from the Gulf War to Iraq 2003, so has the entanglement between regimes of representation and regimes of warfare.
“Photography has kept company with death ever since cameras were invented, in 1839,” Susan Sontag wrote in her seminal article on the subject.6 But it is only with the first highly mediatized conflict, the twenty-year-long Vietnam War, that the general public became accustomed to having death and destruction mediated through technological reproduction. “Ever since, battles and massacres filmed as they unfold have been a routine ingredient of the ceaseless flow of domestic, small-screen entertainment.” Reviewing the sheer amount of visuals produced during the decades-long Vietnamese conflict, Sontag concluded: “The understanding of war among people who have not experienced war is now chiefly a product of the impact of these images.”
With the Gulf War of 1991, the mediatization of warfare and the spectacularization of violence that goes hand in hand with it took a more extreme form: that of green missiles falling on pixelated screens, hitting invisible yet very material targets, everything looking so like a video-game simulation that philosopher Jean Baudrillard could provocatively declare that the Gulf War never took place. It disappeared into its media representation and dissolved in the game of hypersimulation.
With the Arab uprisings, particularly with Syria, the enmeshment between violence and visibility reached its peak: the 2011 street movements carry an unprecedented networked dimension that inscribes both the act of a peaceful protestor filming with a smartphone and that of an armed man raising his gun to shoot at them—both the cam shot and the gun shot—into a dynamic of participatory culture. Immediately, the violence performed on the ground is rendered into a digital commodity available to be copied, shared, manipulated, and liked—all within the economy of the social web. This aspect never emerged before, even in highly mediatized yet pre-networked conflicts, like Iraq in 2003.
The Arab uprisings are born quintessentially networked. They are fully enmeshed within the atmosphere of euphoria and excitement characterizing the rise of the web 2.0—the social web—in the mid-2000s, when social-networking platforms were shaped around the idea of users’ participation, and of the viral spreading of the content thus generated. The domino effect of the Arab uprisings, with country after country falling to the irresistible charm of revolutionary hashtags spread on social media, seemed to suggest that the virality paradigm marking the first phase of the social web could work as well in politics as it does in digital marketing. The 2011 uprisings thus became the quintessential political embodiment of data euphoria: the more likes, shares, and retweets, the better the visibility, reputation, and ultimate success of the revolutionary idea. That they then turned into the concrete manifestation of such a culture of contagion offers a case study in virality 2.0.
The economy of the networks inserts every content creator into a dynamic of participatory culture. It matters not whether the producer-spreader of content is a violent subject, a torturer, a jihadi, or an armed battalion, so long as they actively contribute to the circulation of data and the virality paradigm. From the networks’ point of view, a perpetrator and a victim are exactly the same.
The cam shot and the gun shot fully merge and converge in the time of the social web. Visibility and violence, representation and annihilation, perception and destruction—all dramatically and fully intertwine in the networked form as they are equally rendered into sharable and likable items for the sake of mere circulation on the social web. Ultimately, the entanglement between violence and visibility thrives on the techno-social infrastructure of the social web and on its persistent thirst for networked participation.
ISIS offers a seminal case study by which to grasp this twofold dynamic blending the visual and military regimes. ISIS films and kills, shoots and shoots at. It generates a vicious cycle in which the cam shot and the gun shot feed into each other in endless loops. Violence triggers visibility and visibility activates violence in a spiral of circulation that thrives on the social web.
As a terrorist organization, ISIS captures this mechanism so well that its first global appearance on social media is orchestrated through the borrowed technique of hashtag activism that made Arab protestors so celebrated in 2011. Only three years later, in 2014, the group cleverly hijacks the World Cup hashtags #Brazil2014 and#WC2014 to gain global visibility via social media as it takes over Mosul.7 In a few hours #alleyesonISIS becomes the most talked about viral campaign, terrorizing and fascinating people at the same time.
No longer a symbol of revolutionary change and progressive values, hashtag activism in the hands of ISIS turns into a weapon of war, used to trigger the group’s global visibility, to intimidate some and recruit others, to instigate fear and anxiety as well as praise and admiration. Its compelling and professionally produced visual media, from memes and video games to short videos such as the Mujatweets (2015) and fully fledged feature films like Flames of War (2014), become its weapons to shock and awe, used to horrify and seduce global publics.8
The rise of ISIS, driven by the same virality mechanism that had once determined the global visibility of the so-called Arab Spring—too early and naively dubbed “Twitter revolutions,” “Facebook revolutions,” or “web 2.0 revolutions”—and boosted by techniques similar to those formerly employed by Arab revolutionaries, marks the end of the age of innocence of the social web. The euphoria of the mid-2000s dissolved. Ultimately, the virality paradigm can lead both to toppling authoritarian regimes and to triggering terror and anxiety.
Virality embraces an unprecedented meaning now, suggesting the enactment of terror by means of participatory culture. A new paradigm emerges, whereby circulation and hypervisibility generate a condition of chaos, fear, and insecurity, not the euphoria and excitement for potential progressive change once promised by networked technologies.
The Networked Image
Initially, the cam shot and the gun shot were two very distinct moments and movements in the context of the Arab uprisings. During the first sparks of the 2011 protests, the cam shot belongs to peaceful protesters, who film to memorialize the events unfolding and to produce visual evidence of the crimes and violations committed—footage that will eventually serve as court evidence in future trials. Conversely, the gun shot is performed by torturers, armed battalions, jihadi groups, and regime officers—all the violent formations active on the ground—who targeted in particular those who film.
Yet both the cam shot and the gun shot are concerned with the aesthetics of the performance and seem to share a compulsive attraction to the visual form that eventually comes to offer visibility to the violence. Very soon, the lines between the two will be blurred, as Silvered Water narrates so well. Those who kill will be filming and uploading their deadly performances on social media, looking for “likes” and “shares” and even opening crowdfunding channels to attract supporters to their cause. Similarly, those who film will circulate their footage on both the web and global TV networks, inaugurating the practice of staging and orchestrating sequences of violence with the goal of providing a better angle, a steadier image, a more solid evidence of the crimes that they aim at denouncing.
With the ISIS visual production, the cam shot and the gun shot fully merge into a new version of what filmmaker and media theorist Harun Farocki once called “operational images [that] do not represent an object, but rather are part of an operation.”9 They are not crafted with the aim of denouncing, informing, or producing evidence. Rather, their goal is to do something, to put an idea to work, to call a world into being. The most (in)famous ISIS media productions, from the killing of the Jordanian pilot live on camera to the merciless videotaped destruction of the museum in Mosul, clearly materialize and call this world into being.10 A world made up of terror, fear, and anxiety is evoked by images and in turn takes material form through images.
ISIS operational images are what I define as “networked images,” an emerging mode of the visual that takes place at a distance from the language of representation.11 Networked images no longer aim at mirroring reality or conveying an ethical address. They have been transformed into an aesthetic performance intended to be reproduced, liked, and shared in the circuits of the social web. Their capacity to be injected into the networks’ dynamics of “spreadability” generates their viral potential, which in turn forms a social currency that counts much more than any truth-value in the web’s economy of attention and circulation.12
No longer is visual media valued for its representational and mimic potential, for calling into being an “ethical regime” of the visual, for its quality of serving as “image-evidence,” or for its commitment to an adherence to reality.13 Networked images are social: they circulate; therefore they are. The new visual and political regime that they inhabit is indifferent to representational values and does not aim at semantic or indexical truth. It establishes, instead, its own “fictionality,” to use philosopher Jacques Rancière’s term.14 This refers not to any fictitious universe but, rather, to the ambition of constructing new realities and proposing alternative framings of the empirical world.
Networked images are performative, in that they gain value (therefore “meaning”) through circulation and shareability, determined not only by human interaction as measured by how many people like, share, retweet, and repost them, but also by virtue of the technological infrastructure supporting these very interactions (the interface, the database, the algorithm). The Syrian uprising turned bloody civil war provides a compelling case study in how networked images are formed and circulated by a plethora of human and trans-human subjects: the nonviolent activists, the regime officers, and the jihadi battalions who originally brought them to life; the Silicon Valley–based platforms who hosted them and the unknown users who shared and remixed them; and social-media algorithms that contributed to boosting their circulation and rendering them viral and hypervisible on the social web.
The networked images that thrive on this synergy between local and global, violent and nonviolent, human and algorithmic subjects represent the quintessential visual and political formation of contemporary times. They grow and prosper not because of their content but in spite of it, since value on the social web is calculated merely according to criteria of virality and spreadability. The overwhelming visual media circulating in the decade since the beginning of the Syrian uprising has proven to generate chaos and anxiety rather than to establish a solid interpretation of the events unfolding on the ground.
Circulation has replaced meaning. Media battles fought between the Syrian regime and prorevolution citizen journalists illustrate this dynamic. The incendiary web controversies over Omran Daqneesh, the “ambulance boy”; or the polemics surrounding the White Helmets, a group of civil servants joining the Internet “mannequin challenge” to shed light on civilians’ deaths in Aleppo, have reinforced an atmosphere of uncertainty and confusion, wherein images are deployed to create their own alternative framing of the empirical world.15
The cam shot and the gun shot have finally converged and merged into the networked image, blurring the lines between visibility and violence, in which the latter becomes a quintessential component of the image’s own social potential, of its very “sociality.” The imperative of sharing and circulating that rules the social web now grants full visibility to the image, no matter what meaning it carries, even in spite of it.
2011–21: Transition to the Cum Shot
A continuity exists between 2021 and the events of ten years before, particularly with regard to the process of siphoning the body away, its centrality overshadowed by the rise of the networked image and the euphoria over the social web’s participatory culture. Back in the 2011 revolutionary moment, hashtag activism was made central and the social web was being overcelebrated as the catalyst of web 2.0 revolutions, while the protest movement was, in fact, inherently made of bodies. The Arab uprisings happened and unfolded because of living bodies hitting the streets, chanting, dancing, protesting, filming, and being killed.
Bodies were the real catalysts of the uprisings, the ones who paid the highest price in 2011—as well as in 2021, when they find themselves compressed in confinement, quarantined, isolated, socially distanced, and masked. This past decade inaugurated an unprecedented chapter in the history of the mortification of the body and the subjugation of its revolutionary potential, which first became apparent precisely during the “Spring” season.
Since then, the process of disciplining the body has evolved and has taken more sophisticated forms in a world that, no longer excited by the perspective of a global progressive transformation, is instead plagued by the chaos, fear, and insecurity brought about by terrorism, unexpected health crises such as the current pandemic, and the threats to human life materializing through climate change and environmental disasters. This new condition requires novel ways of performing control over bodies and responding to the structural insecurity of the planet.
Thus has the body itself become a shooting device, turned into a technology of the self through molecules that are ingested and injected with the excuse of granting pleasure, safety, or health. From hormones to vaccines, substances absorbed to perform gender-affirming treatments or in vitro fertilization or to boost sexual performances or cure mental or physical dysfunctions or to immunize against a viral threat have become inner guards tasked with surveilling and domesticating the body. From a shot of testosterone to a shot of an anti-COVID-19 vaccine, these chemicals perform the same action. They colonize and discipline the body with the promise of keeping it excited, safe, possibly happy, hopefully alive.
This is the era of the “cum shot.” Here, the “cum” emphasizes the pleasure and voluntary element through which bodies have been subdued. It hints at something organic and inherently material, as suggested by the ejaculated semen of the “cumming”—a visual trope widely used in pornographic films to depict pleasure. However, it goes beyond pornography understood merely as the porn industry, referring to a broader network of media and devices that renders all contemporary subjects hypervisible, reaching its peak through social-media platforms and their narrative of confession and self-surveillance.16
This is a new stage of global capitalism, which queer philosopher Paul B. Preciado sees characterized by the governmentality of “the pharmacopornographic regime.”17 Preciado suggests that the body and its management, as performed both via tech-media devices and via science, became the most desirable commodity to own and control. This new phase takes a distance from the previous stage of the knowledge economy, founded on the extraction of value from cognitive processes and on the control of data. Within the pharmacopornographic regime, bodies themselves become the data whose production is managed through biomolecular and semio-technical processes; here, “pharmaco” refers to endocrinology, immunology, and so forth and “pornographic” to the wider understanding of devices making the subject hypervisible.
A surveil-and-punish mechanism is no longer needed, as the pharmacopornographic power induces compliance and surveillance through different instances of engineering people’s subjectivities, from the hormones used to prevent pregnancy or to treat menopausal disfunctions to substances, like Viagra, employed to enhance sexual life and on to the confessional narratives and self-disclosure mechanisms that lie at the heart of contemporary social media.
Under the guise of giving pleasure and comfort, these are in fact devices for inducing compliance and obedience, annihilating any possible form of resistance and dissent with the promise of sexual freedom, liberation, immunization, well-being, safety. This pharmacopornographic mechanism is inherently violent, however, of a kind of violence that is silently and gently performed within the body, in the moment when it becomes fully colonized by science and pornography, reprogrammed by endocrinology and social media.
As it was in 2011, the body is still very present in 2021, but in a far more domesticated form. This is a body that can no longer hold or touch another body, nor can it move freely in any public space; a body that cannot express any feeling, as it finds itself constrained behind masks and face shields and contained by social distancing. It is a disciplined, obedient, vaccinated body, far from the revolutionary defiance of 2011.
The so-called Arab Spring paved the way to this process, marking the emergence of a new relationship between violence and visibility through the injection of the cam shot and the gun shot into the inner dynamics of the social web. At the same time, it has signaled the necessity of taking a step further toward domesticating bodies, for they were the real protagonists of the protest movements. Since then, to contain and prevent further outbursts of revolutionary energy, and defuse any possibility that the social web could serve as a platform for developing political change, global neoliberal capitalism has been invested in finding new and more effective mechanisms of control of both body and networks. In the current moment of structural instability and chaos, the most powerful device to induce compliance and self-control may well be the body itself.
The year 2011 marked the liberation of human bodies, unleashing their revolutionary and creative power. At the same time, it triggered a dynamic that has paradoxically led, ten years later, to their confinement within new and unexpected forms of containment. From the cam shot to the gun shot to the cum shot, a new phase of biopolitics has been inaugurated, the consequences of which are yet to be fully understood.
The video was uploaded onto YouTube on April 29, 2011. At the time of writing, it was still available online as “Syria What Is Happening in Daraa 2011-04-29.” See www.youtube.com/watch?v=DsOjUgdMDjE.
See Rabih Mroué, The Pixelated Revolution, nonacademic lecture / WRO 2013, Pioneering Values, https://vimeo.com/119433287.
“Participatory culture” is a term coined by Internet scholar Henry Jenkins back in 2006, referring to the grassroots culture generated by and through the social web, where users are, at the same time, also producers of content. Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2006). Web 2.0 was evangelized by Internet entrepreneur Tim O’Reilly in a blog post that became viral in 2005. Tim O’Reilly, “What Is Web 2.0: Design Patterns and Business Models for the Next Generation of Software,” September 30, 2005, www.oreilly.com/pub/a/web2/archive/what-is-web-20.html. O’Reilly advocated for a shift in the understanding of the Internet and of its business model, rethinking the latter in terms of relationships created by users, and connections between users and data. Web 2.0 is also known as the “social” or “participatory” web, as its economy is precisely based on connecting people and data—which is the successful business model at the basis of contemporary social media.
I elaborate on the notion of the shot in Donatella Della Ratta, “Shot Theory: From Viagra to the COVID-19 Vaccine, Pfizer Got It Right,” Institute of Network Cultures, July 27, 2021, https://networkcultures.org/longform/2021/07/27/shot-theory-from-viagra-to-the-covid-19-vaccine-pfizer-got-it-right/.
Quoted in Eduardo Cadava, Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), 51.
Susan Sontag, “Looking at War: Photography’s View of Devastation and Death,” New Yorker, December 9, 2002.
Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “Iraq and ISIS: Waging War with Hashtags,” Washington Post, June 24, 2014, www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2014/06/24/iraq-and-isis-waging-war-with-hashtags/.
For more on ISIS’s visual-media production, see Donatella Della Ratta, Shooting a Revolution: Visual Media and Warfare in Syria (London: Pluto Press, 2018).
Harun Farocki, “Phantom Images,” Public, no. 29 (2004): 17.
See “ISIS Video Shows Jordanian Pilot Being Burned to Death,” CBS News, February 3, 2015, www.cbsnews.com/video/isis-video-shows-jordanian-pilot-being-burned-to-death/; and Andrew Curry, “Here Are the Ancient Sites ISIS Has Damaged and Destroyed,” National Geographic, September 1, 2015, www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/150901-isis-destruction-looting-ancient-sites-iraq-syria-archaeology.
Della Ratta, Shooting a Revolution, 8-9, 160–61, 178, 195–98.
The term “spreadability” was coined by Henry Jenkins to refer to the potential of any web 2.0 content for spreading around, moving from one platform to another, being shared, recopied, retweeted, and so forth. “If it doesn’t spread, it’s dead” was his famous motto. See Henry Jenkins, “If It Doesn’t Spread, It’s Dead (Part One): Media Viruses and Memes,” Confessions of an Aca-Fan, 2009, http://henryjenkins.org/blog/2009/02/if_it_doesnt_spread_its_dead_p.html.
Philosopher Jacques Rancière spoke of an “ethical regime” of the visual. See Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, ed. and trans. Gabriel Rockhill (London: Bloomsbury, 2013). The philosopher Georges Didi-Huberman used the expression “image-evidence” to describe the potential of a visual item to produce proof of a crime, as in the case of the Sonderkommando’s four frames denouncing the Nazi death camps. See Georges Didi-Huberman, Images in Spite of All: Four Photographs from Auschwitz, trans. Shane B. Lillis (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2008).
Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, 33.
On the disputes surrounding the case of Omran Daqneesh and the White Helmets, see Della Ratta, Shooting a Revolution, 121–23.
Here I build on queer philosopher Paul B. Preciado’s understanding of pornography, going beyond its traditional meaning of “porn industry” to hint at the apparatus of industries and devices giving hypervisibility to the contemporary subject. See Paul B. Preciado, Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era, trans. Bruce Henderson (New York: Feminist Press, 2013).
Preciado, Testo Junkie.