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”


La fin d’Zenga Zenga

As news of Gaddafi’s death spreads around the world via the mainstream media, twitter, facebook, word of mouth, by photo and by text, jubilation extends into the streets in Tunis.

On the Highway out to Les Berges du Lac II to attend the New Arab Debates organized by the British Counsel, my cab was swarmed by passing cars blinking their head and taillights in unison. The cab driver confirmed the cause of the pulsating beats of headlights and high beams. They were celebrating the confirmation of Gaddafi’s death and the hopeful denouement of the Libyan conflict.

Since arriving in Tunisia, on the streets of the Medina, along rue Habib Bourguiba, on T-shirts, car stickers, and pasted to walls, the NTC, The Libyan Interim National Council, flag has been a ubiquitous site. In fact this symbolic gesture and show of solidarity for Tunisia’s neighbor to the East has far outnumbered visual depictions of Tunisia’s own recent revolution. While “Degage” graffiti, French for “get out” and the chant of Tunisian protesters that echoed like an exorcism toward Ben Ali, can still be seen and elaborate street art is still being put up, the omnipresence of the red, black and green flag of the NTC government throughout the physical space of Tunis has been fascinating. But I don’t want to discount the images of the upcoming election; the political posters and campaign flags have captured the majority of visual space. But second to them has been the red, black, and green.

Furthermore, Gaddafi’s wild threat to hunt the rebels down like rats, alley by alley, or Zenga by Zenga, has been particularly memetic. Throughout souks DVDs and CDs, on T-shirts, and scrawled in cheap graffiti on the walls ‘Zenga Zenga’ has taken on a powerful signification. It  has become a metaphor for tyrannical lunacy, a trope for re-articulating power through humor, that is, what Gaddafi had intended as a threat has been transformed by the targets of that threat, and spread through the channels of resistance, into a liberating symbol.

The overwhelming show of support for the NTC, for the people of Libya, makes sense in light of Tunisia and Libya’s history of emotional, political, economic, and social exchange. Tunisia’s first president Habib Bourguiba and Muammar Gaddafi had even gone so far as to sign an agreement to merge the nations in 1974 but the plan stagnated when Bourguiba postponed the referendum over uncertainty of Gaddafi’s competency as a leader. Had the plan gone through Bourguiba would have served as president of the new country with Gaddafi as the Minister of Defense. After 1974 diplomatic relations between the two countries faced a number of erratic turns. After fighting broke out in Libya tens of thousands of Libyans fled across the border into Tunisia.

Despite the high presence of international humanitarian organizations in Libya, many relocated to Tunisia during the height of the conflict only to return to Libya a few weeks ago, and those already based in Tunisia, including many refugee camps set up by the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, most Libyans seemed to find safety and support simply among their Tunisian neighbors. A Libyan, former oil worker, who fled the fighting, moved into the floor above me just one month before I arrived in Tunis. It has been a commen sentiment among the Tunisians with whom I have spoken, that the revolution that ousted Ben Ali and spread throughout the region has been just that, a regional call for democracy. Many Tunisians have expressed sincere hope that the people of Libya will know the elation of liberation from dictatorship. The ubiquity of the NTC flag has therefore foreshadowed today’s elation at the news of Gaddafi’s death and the likely conclusion of months of violence and years of repression.

On my way back from the debate, mentioned above, my bus passed the Libyan Embassy. It was around nine pm and a chunk of the crowd had already gone home but the street in front of the embassy was still a mass of flag waving, chanting celebrators. As I approached from down the street, the bus had let me out at the British Council, I could already hear the chant of ‘Allah hu Akbar’ or God is Great, and Gaddafi is dead.

I arrived in the mass of people. The chanting of Allah’s name in praise for Gaddafi’s end would be punctuated by cacophonous cheering and imperceptible shouts. The crowds were diverse: men and women, old and young, women in hijab, niqab, and unveiled, old men with beards and taqiyah, the skull cap worn by observant Muslim men, boys in shiny fashionable jackets, some covered their faces with black bandanas and some older men were finely dressed in suits. A number of younger men stood on top of a car, the driver sitting and grinning behind the wheel as his small automobile was rocked back and forth by the undulations of the revelers above. The NTC flag was waved alongside the Tunisian flag, a few excited flag bearers also gripped Al Nadha‘s flag. The revelry overflowed into the smiles and handshakes that greeted us.

“Today is a great day for Libya,” said Alaeddin. The relative of a former opposition parliamentarian, Alaeddin explained that during the days of violence he had fled Tripoli to help protect his family in their hometown in the mountains. His speech was punctuated with exuberant laughter. He was excited when we explained that we were American. He told us that he had celebrated the Forth of July last year at the American Embassy in Tripoli, and that he was fond of Thanksgiving. “Today is a great day for Libya,” he repeated. “You know, Libya has oil but the people are poor. Libya is not a developed country. I came to Tunisia to get a change of perspective. I see this [gesturing at the broad, palm lined streets] and am ashamed. Have you seen Sidi Bou Said [The iconic blue and white coastal city a few miles outside of Tunis]? It is beautiful. We don’t have this kind of place in Libya. But now we can begin to build our country.” He explained that Americans are well liked in Libya but that Gaddafi made it all but impossible for Libyans to interact, or get scholarships abroad. He mentioned several cases of Gaddafi barring Libyan students from accepting the Fulbright scholarship after it had already been awarded by the US. Alaeddin said he will return to Libya in a few days and welcomed us to visit him. He faded back to observe the chanting crowd.

It was a powerful scene and eruption of relief. Here are a few images.