Post Gaddafi Artistic Re-Articulation of Power

Source: Showing It Off: Libya's Artists Display Work After Qaddafi

In late September with Gaddafi removed from power and on the run, with major NTC achievements toward situating a transitional government, the insurgence of democratic participation in Libya was augmented by an outpouring of artistic expression toward re-articulating the previous total domination of social space under Gaddafi’s 42 year regime. Ellen Knickmeyer, former AP bureau chief for West Africa and Washington Post bureau chief for Baghdad and Cairo, writes about the transformation in a Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting article. Discussing the totalizing control of social space through domination of symbolic autonomy under Gaddafi she writes:

For 42 years, Muammar Qaddafi did it all for the aspiring young artists of Libya. Did they want to study literature? Qaddafi’s Green Book had it all. Were they hoping to explore their creative side? Maybe take an art class at school? Great, and for their final exam, they could draw a composition of their choosing, on any one of the glories of Qaddafi’s revolution.

“If we wanted to sing, we had to sing about him,” said Karim Namssi, an unemployed 25 year old in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, who is trying to change all that. “We got used to him being a one-man show.”

Examining this facet of control is relevant to building a more exhaustive picture of domination. Outside of state-centric notions of security, repressive regimes maintain their domination through a combination of coercive physical force, state violence, and a monopoly over myriad forms of capital. It is through this monopoly that they frame and maintain control over the social space. Pierre Bourdieu, French sociologist and philosopher, writes:

The social world is accumulated history, and if it is not to be reduced to a discontinuous series of instantaneous mechanical equilibria between agents who are treated as interchangeable particles, one must reintroduce into it the notion of capital and with it, accumulation and all its effects. Capital is accumulated labor (in its materialized form or its ‘incorporated,’ embodied form) which, when appropriated on a private, i.e., exclusive, basis by agents or groups of agents, enables them to appropriate social energy in the form of reified or living labor.

Bourdieu outlines two forms of capital that are most relevant to Knickmeyer’s article. Domination is a matter of monopolizing cultural and symbolic capital, says Bourdieu (1977, 1991). Cultural capital is understood as the partial or total monopoly of a society’s symbolic resources in religion, education, science, and art, by monopolizing the mechanisms for appropriating these resources (1977: 187). Symbolic capital is the accumulated prestige or honor of a given individual or group (1991: 14), and the recognition they receive from another individual or group (1991: 72).

Exerting a monopoly over cultural capital and the colonization of Libyan life space through Gaddafi’s omnipresent image –as was the case with Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt, indeed all such totalitarian regimes exhibit this feature– and manipulation of public discourse toward deification of Gaddafi, as illustrated above, reified the regime’s, namely Gaddafi’s, monopoly over symbolic capital. This domination is the exertion of symbolic power, that very power that seeks to dominate symbolic: discursive, inscriptive, performative, interactions in social space and thereby assert domination over social space. A monopoly of symbolic power provides the repressive agent with not only its dominant force that presses on the subjugated from above, in the form of coercive physical violence, but also forms the subject (Butler 1997). It is a colonization of the psychic realm of agency and a push toward manipulating the agents relationship to power, Gaddafi, and the social space in which the agent finds him or herself.

With the removal of this suppression on symbolic interactions the individual is freed to renegotiate her relationship to the social space in which she was previously dominated. The outpouring of artistic expression is part of this process of re-articulating power away from the forced reality under Gaddafi toward a more untrammelled notion of agency and autonomy. Knickmeyer continues, quoting Anouar Swed, a Libyan who returned from London to launch a line of fashionable clothing modeled on traditional Libyan dress, “When he [Gaddafi] left, the art came out.’’

Source: Showing It Off: Libya's Artists Display Work After Qaddafi

Since the political revolution there has been an artistic revolution:

The neighborhood children break-dancing, the car radios burbling ballads and blasting rap recorded at people’s homes in just days, the elaborate graffiti splattering almost every patch of whitewashed bare wall in Tripoli, where Qaddafi had banned even spray paint… After a life of forced silence under Qaddafi, Libyans and Libyan artists have a lot to say.

Reaffirming this, in a recent CNN article Catriona Davies explains that before the Libyan revolution there were fewer than ten newspapers in the whole country. Now there are 120 independent newspapers in Benghazi alone.

The eruption of free expression by previously subjugated individuals is not only an indicator of individuals taking advantage of the lifting of total domination under the previous regime, it is also part of the democratization process. Artistic engagement as a referent object should not be overlooked as a constituent process of non-state, non-military, regime change and creation. In Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and elsewhere where popular mobilizations have lead to the removal of dictatorial regime structures the transitional political organizations, and the international community, should ensure that engagement in social space creation and participation is freely open and access to cultural and symbolic capital remains public.

These observations are transferable to all regime spaces and should serve as empirical data that elite manipulation and the appropriation of monopolized capital serves to entrench domination and exploitation.

Source: Written on the Wall

Bourdieu, Pierre (1977). Outline of a Theory of Practice. London: Cambridge University Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1991). Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge: Polity Press

Bulter, Judith (1997). The Psychic Life of Power. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Image 1, 2 source: Knickmeyer, Ellen (6 October 2011) “Showing It Off: Libya’s Artists Display Work After Qaddafi”

Image 3 source: Gastman, Roger (November 2011) “Written on the Wall”

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About michaelcaster
Michael Caster is a human rights advocate, researcher and civil society consultant. He holds an MA in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and an MA in Conflict Studies and Human Rights from Utrecht University. He has worked in China, Thailand, Myanmar, Turkey, and Tunisia.

2 Responses to Post Gaddafi Artistic Re-Articulation of Power

  1. Not be allowed to create and express? Definitely a hardship on “artists” and the artist within everyone. It will be very interesting to see the direction taken in this part of the world. Thank you for your insights, Michael.

  2. Melia says:

    That’s a brilliant answer to an insitetreng question

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