Violence: A Discourse Analysis, Part III

This is the final section in a three part essay on violence and the politics of representation. Click here for Part I and Part II.

Framing: Violence by Definition

It is important to first acknowledge that not all processes of framing are violent. Obviously they are not; most are benign. It is only those which are clearly violent that concern this article.

Framing is part of the phenomenological and constructivist approach discussed above. As Lakoff explains, frames are mental structures, metaphors and connotations instilled in words and their usage, that give meaning to the way we process the world around us (Lakoff, 2004). Jabri notes, the guiding force of social interaction is communication. For this process to have meaning, “actors draw upon interpretive schemes which situate or typify actor’s stocks of knowledge and which sustain communication (Jabri, 1996: 82).” At best frames describe distinct social phenomenon and at worst they provide the framing agent with the power to construct the nature and identity of the Other.

Within a given discourse, unchallenged frames present a range of consequences. One example is presented in the following quote from Charles Tilly:

The terms terror, terrorism, and terrorist do not identify causally coherent and distinct social phenomena but strategies that recur across a wide variety of actors and political situations. Social scientists who reify the terms confuse themselves and render a disservice to public discussion (Tilly, 2004: 5).

The problem is this process of reification, as pointed out by Bourdieu above. The reproduction of these frames actually serves to construct a group that is bounded by the exogenous imposition of meaning.

Tilly’s point illustrates the central theme of this paper. Social scientists should be cautious of framing when it refers to undefined or loosely defined forms, such as ‘terrorist.’ Because there is no universal definition or distinct social phenomenon that falls within the frame, the meaning appears to be an organic construction manipulated to serve political and normative ends. This is done the same way as constructivists argue ethnic or other forms of identity can be manipulated for various nefarious ends.

Certain speech acts of framing presupposes that there is a referent meaning to the form to which the object of framing is being compared. However, when this is not the case, the problem of framing becomes considerably complicated when the act of framing is itself also a part of the construction of the referent meaning, as was explained above in terms of identity and boundary formation. This means that certain acts of framing function as forced categorization and construction of a social phenomenon. In this example, to talk about terrorists, or to refer to them, presupposes that there is a distinct terrorist form that exists; otherwise, the agent is given considerable lead-way to define the parameters of the frame and the accompanying legitimization of a violent response.

In this case the act of framing a given individual or group as a terrorist is more than a simple speech act. The violence of such acts of framing comes to light when the object of framing is to be degraded to the status of homo sacer. This designation as ‘ the life that is capable of being killed’ or being stripped of all basic human rights is a concept of ancient Roman law that has resurfaced in the work of Giorgio Agamben. The notion is clear in the case of the object of the terrorist frame within the current master discourse of the ‘war on terror.’ But this paper will divorce itself from the specific treatment of this one frame and discuss the problem in general.

It is not hard to find examples of how framing has lead to the designation of homo sacer. The construction and imposition of group identity and boundaries and the framing of ‘Otherness’ by a more powerful agent lead to the violence of, inter alia, Hutu massacres against the Tutsi in Rwanda and the high levels of disappearances and deaths of indigenous Guatemalans orchestrated by the US backed dictatorship during Guatemala’s long civil war. In the first case we see how local, grievance based framing resulted in extreme atrocities and in the second we see how the global master discourse of the the ‘cold war’ provided for equally violent framing as expedient for political elites. Furthermore, within both cases there were myriad examples of local elites seizing the opportunity of the master cleavage to act on personal vendettas through the reproduction of accepted frames, a phenomenon that has been noted by Duffield.

These events of framing legitimized the excessive use of physical violence against the objects of framing. Such framing amounts to categorical murder, Bauman argues. “In these cases, men, women, and children were exterminated for having been assigned to a category of beings that was meant to be exterminated (Bauman, 2008: 87).” But this only shows that framing is capable of leading to violent acts. It still does not adequately argue that framing can be a violent act. For this we will turn briefly to the philosophy of language.

Austin’s seminal work How To Do Things With Words provides the clearest answer. Here Austin pioneered the concept of the illocutionary utterance. This type of speech act refers to what we do in saying, or writing, something. In the famous example of ‘I promise…,’ the utterer is both doing (promising) and saying (I promise). In his definition of illocutionary acts Austin includes “making an identification or giving a description (Austin, 1962: 98),” which is clearly the most basic function of framing. Therefore, simply put, by Austin’s typology framing is an illocutionary utterance: the framing agent is both saying and doing.

If we accept this, excusing the brevity of the argument for confines of space, we have now established that framing not only can lead to action but is an act. In order to understand the violent element of framing, it is important to further inquire how or why certain frames stick. What conditions are required in order for one set of frames to be adopted and reproduced while others are abandoned? The answer returns to the power politics of Foucault. Indeed, what could demonstrate a greater dominance of biopower than the ability to construct the very identity, and legitimized treatment, of an individual through the forced imposition of meaning.

In order for an act of framing to be successful the agent performing the act of framing must be in a position to perform or carry out the act. Austin states that it often happens that a performative speech act is void because the agent is not in the state or position to perform the act which he or she purports to perform. “…it’s no good my saying ‘I order you’ if I have no authority over you: I can’t order you, my utterance is void, my act is only purported (Austin, 1963: 19).” Therefore one could theoretically argue that successful framing is in most cases one that is produced from within the walls of the powerful, exerting their control over the biopower of the object of the framing. For the act of framing to be successful, that is, to be reproduced as part of the prevailing discourse, implies that the agent doing the framing has some degree of authority or power.

The power disparity is further extended if the act of framing essentially strips any remaining agency from the object, turning her into homo sacer. As with the cases presented above where the referent meaning of the frame is a non-distinct social phenomenon, in such a case of framing the agent doing the framing has all the power. This dynamic falls neatly within an understanding of structural and symbolic violence. This is a modern adaptation of the divine right of kings manifested in the right to define.

Finally, violence, “is that which turns any person subjected to it into a thing… (Simone Weil, 1953: 12-13 in Muller, 2002: 23).” This violence exists in the quite literal sense of physical hurt, in that the thing is a corpse but it also exists in the far more devious way of turning a living person into a thing. In this sense, the act of framing is capable of turning the object of framing into a thing by reducing it to an agentless homo sacer.

The power of framing is one that is not given enough critical attention within mainstream discourses considering the degree of violence it is capable of inflicting on the object of framing and the power of proliferating violent master discourses. By virtue of its ontological and epistemological foundation critical discourse analysis is one of the only, if not the only, analytic tools for thoroughly grasping the potential violence of framing.

Austin, J.L. (1962) How to Do Things With Words. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Baumann, Zygmunt. (2008) Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers?. Cambridge,   Harvard University Press

Jabri, Vivienne, (1996),Discourses on violence: conflict analysis reconsidered, Manchester and New       York: Manchester University Press

Lakoff, George. (2004) Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate–The Essential Guide for Progressives, White River Junction: Chelsea Green Publishing Company.

Muller, Jean-Marie. (2002) Non-Violence in Education. France, UNESCO.

Tilly,  Charles. (2004) “Terror, Terrorism, Terrorists.” Sociological Theory, 22:1 March 2004.


Violence: A Discourse Analysis, Part II

This is part two in the discussion. To visit part one, see Violence: A Discourse Analysis, Part I

Identities and Boundaries: A Constructivist and Discursive Approach

Group formation is the product of a social process, made and remade using historical context, cultural and mythological structures (Brubaker, 2004; Wimmers, 2008). These myriad ingredients are part of the constructive and constraining forces of identity and boundary formation but Brubaker draws attention to an additional cause. “Certain dramatic events, in particular, can serve to galvanize and crystallize a potential group or to ratchet up preexisting levels of groupness (Brubaker, 2004: 41).”

Let us accept Brubaker’s claim. If we extrapolate this notion that dramatic events crystallize even previously tenuous or non-existent group bonds, then one can present an argument that dramatic framing can serve as a constructive force. This seems to hold true even if the framing agent subsumes previously disconnected and distinct groups or individuals into a single frame. However, such boundaries, lacking strong self-identification, are usually more durable in the eye of the observer/framing agent than in the objectified group. This dichotomy can play out in the protraction of inter and intra-group conflict that is inaccurately understood and framed by an observer, but that discussion is for another time.

Here we see the symbolic violence inherent in the imposition of meaning. If personal and group identities, treated by some as the most sacrosanct component of the human experience, are a constructed social phenomenon, then the forced imposition of a particular framed identity—based  on the constructed reality of the framing agent and not the autonomy of the object of framing—is a violent act. Of course we should not overlook the efforts of certain groups to engage in countervailing tactics in the face of imposed boundaries through such tactics as boundary contraction, expansion or blurring or inversion and resignification (Wimmers, 2008; also see Judith Butler). But this requires an examination of why and how certain groups are capable of extricating themselves from the imposition of meaning and others are not. There is not enough room to develop such an inquiry here.

Within the constructivist school Fearon and Laiton point out three main approaches. These are broad structural forces, discursive processes and individuals acting to produce or reproduce identity and boundaries. Identities are formed by either content, e.g. x cannot live with y, or boundary, e.g. a is part of b but not part of c (Fearon and Laiton, 2000). Actors within this constructivist biosphere are not necessarily free to choose whichever approach they like best. There exists three primary types of constraint: the institutional environment, the distribution of power, and networks of political alliances (Wimmers, 2008). For purposes here I will only focus on the discursive element of identity and boundary construction with obvious special attention on framing and the role of power.

Discourse theory is rooted in phenomenological and constructivist approaches: being concerned with an individual or groups’ reflection and analysis of the phenomenon around them and acknowledging that these phenomena are comprised of a multiplicity of constructed and dynamic realities to which people have ascribed meaning. It is from this milieu of intention, iteration, and interpretation that discourses are produced and reproduced. Discourses are boundary forming because they set normative relationships and expectations between different subjects. They are capable of delineating the border between the acceptable and unacceptable and of legitimizing, no matter how reprehensible the act (Apter, 1997: 3-4).

Discourse fits into the Hegelian dialectic. However, an important constituent of the dialectic process as Habermas points out, if a true synthesis is to be attained, is the intersubjectivity of various participants within the communicative process. This breaks down when the relationship of agents changes from one of subject-to-subject to one of subject-to-object. Discursive relationships become quite negative—and  theoretically violent—when they produce such a subject to object relationship where, in Kantian terms, the subject treats the object as a means to an end.

In this sense, the discursive process is also quite Foucaldian in that it is closely related to power. Agents with power often prevail in determining the dominant discourse. They have the power-to-define, the Symbolic Power elaborated by Pierre Bourdieu. However, it is also worth noting that sometimes discourses can take on an element of power on their own through popular reproduction, or a meaning far from the first intent of the originating agent. For some, like Austin, Searle and Habermas, language is part of social action and reality. Power over language is therefore as important as power over other forms of action. This explains why, as Brass notes, it is often as equally important to ask who has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence as who has a monopoly over the interpretation, framing, of violence (Brass, 1996).

Power over language is therefore as important as power over other forms of action.

Discourse analysis is made more complicated by the fact that the discourse originating agent is often in a position to hide his or her intended effect through a web of sometimes opaque terms. Brass has noted that, “behind such discourses as ‘criminal law and order,’ ‘caste and community,’ ‘faith and sentiment,’ ‘profit,’ and ‘Hindu-Muslim communalism’ is a nexus of power and interest that fools both villagers and outside analysts (Brass, 1997: 96 in Fearon and Laitin, 2000: 864).” We also see this opaqueness in the following forms: the ‘Cold War,’ ‘War on Drugs,’ ‘War on Poverty,’ or ‘War on Terror.’ These vaguely defined but staunchly defended discourses show how easy and convenient it is to frame a war on the immaterial. What is important then is understanding not only how specific frames are used but also to understand the underlying potential of framing.

How do constructivists argue the discursive origin of boundaries? Bourdieu notes, by reifying groups, by treating them as things-in-the-world, framing agents actually, “contribute to producing what they apparently describe or designate (Bourdieu 1991a: 220 in Brubaker, 2004: 37).” This means that if the agent doing the framing is describing or designating an individual, institution or incident, regardless of the actual language used, then they are contributing to the constructive process. If this construction of identity is forced upon the object of framing then it is a case of directed structural and symbolic violence, if we accept that violating the autonomy of the individual is a form of violence. In terms of physical violence, Wimmer synthesizes the above discussion:

Only those in control of the means of violence will be able to force their ethnic scheme of interpretation onto reality by killing “Catholics,” “Shiites,” or “Furs,” or resettling “Tatars” and “Germans” a la Stalin, thus making Catholics, Shiites, Furs, Tatars, and Germans (Wimmers, 2008: 994).


Apter, David E., (1997), “Political Violence in Analytical Perspective” in Apter, David E. The Legitimization of Violence, New York, New York University Press, pp 1-32

Brass, Paul R., (1996), “Introduction: Discourses of Ethnicity, Communalism, and Violence” in Paul R. Brass (ed), Riots and Pogroms, New York, New York University Press, pp. 1-55

Brubaker, Rogers, (2004), ‘Ethnicity without Groups’ in Wimmer, Andreas et al (eds.), 2004, Facing Ethnic Conflicts: Toward a New Realism, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, pp. 1-20.

Fearon, James D. and David D. Laitin, (2000), “Violence and the Social Construction of Ethnic Identity” International Organization 54, 4, Autumn 2000, pp 845-877.

Wimmer, Andreas, 2008, ‘The Making and Unmaking of Ethnic Boundaries: A Multilevel Process Theory’, American Journal of Sociology, Volume 113, Number 4, pp 970-1022

Violence: A Discourse Analysis, Part I

Lately I have been rather indolent with this blog. So, as a cheeky means to feign productivity I am going to post a previously composed essay in three parts. It adheres to the general theme of this blog but is certainly more abstract and theoretical than previous posts. The following is part I of  DEFINE AND CONQUER: AN INVESTIGATION INTO FRAMING AS A VIOLENT ACT


In framing an individual, institution or incident as X presupposes the existence of an objective meaning and distinct social phenomenon X. Otherwise the agent doing the framing is able to construct any possible meaning for X, thus creating a drastic power disparity between the agent doing the framing and the object of the framing. This power disparity can easily lead to excessive violence because if the X is only given meaning by the agent doing the framing, X can mean anything expedient to the framing agent, allowing for any legitimization of the use of violence against it. In this sense framing can itself be a violent act.

This paper will begin with a brief discussion of the concept of violence, from the traditional conception of physical hurt to the more inclusive forms of structural and symbolic violence. I will briefly address the literature concerning identity and boundary construction because it is important to position the discussion of framing within the constructivist school in order to demonstrate the enduring capability of violence qua framing. Furthermore, I will draw upon discourse theory to synthesis the constructivist approach with particular attention to the power of language. Finally, I will demonstrate how in certain circumstances framing is an act of violence against the object of framing.

Violence: Challenging Physical Hurt

Brass writes, “Inter-personal violence is an aspect of everyday life in virtually all societies… (Brass, 1996: 39).” In order to fully understand this statement we should first examine what conditions qualify  as violence.

The traditional conception of violence has been rightly criticized for being too parochial. This traditional notion of violence was fixated solely on the subjective violence of physical hurt. It was the reigning conception of violence for much of the last century as a convenient and simplifying worldview for policy makers in the age of conventional wars and a world system framed by bi-polarity. It wouldn’t be until scholars such as Galtung, Foucault or Bourdieu began to challenge this narrow view that a broader definition would position itself as a counter discourse for a changing modernity.

It should be understood as a triumvirate of not only physical but also structural and symbolic violence, a interactive spiral of violence as described by Helder Camara. Structural violence pinpoints certain systemic forms of violence such as poverty, exploitation or racism that have been produced by the social, political or economic structure of a given time and place. For most who speak in structural and post-structural terms, the current global economic and political system is inherently responsible for producing severe structural violence.

Symbolic violence is also a manifestation of cultural and social interactions marked by a distinct power asymmetry. This notion of violence goes beyond the obvious case of harassment or incitement. Zizek notes, “there is a more fundamental form of violence still that pertains to language as such, to its imposition of a certain universe of meaning (Zizek, 2008: 1).” Symbolic violence is important to discourse theory and particularly the critical analysis of framing.

The imposition of meaning through framing a discussion of violence is covered by Brass. He notes that what makes the transformation of everyday acts of violence into specialized forms is the process of framing, “developing categories defined as more serious or threatening to civil order and state authority, and fitting particular incidents or events into these categories (Brass, 1996: 39).”  As will be expressed below, this categorization is far more than simple phenomenological interpretation, it can have serious consequences.

It could be argued that immaterial violence, manifest in structural and symbolic forms, is more invasive because it is spread through communicative action and imagination, allowing for the justification of extremes to take hold at the subconscious level before they are brought into the physical realm. It is as Fearon and Laiton have pointed out that, “discursive or cultural systems at best create a disposition for large-scale violence, since they are relatively enduring structures… (Fearon and Laiton, 2000: 863).”

This point about the lasting impact of discourse is quite important. It demonstrates the enduring force of language and framing. This means, if the framing has a violent action potential then the violence is likely to be all the more insidious and enduring. The ‘just war’ discourse is but one example of this process: if belligerence is successfully labeled as morally just then the protraction of extremes is some how justified. Of course not all processes of labeling are violent. Below I will illustrate how and when framing is a violent act.

In order to fully grasp the violent potential of framing we must first turn our attention to the formative process of identities and boundaries. It is the position of this paper that communicative interaction is part of the constructive force of individual and collective identities and boundaries, from which are born perceptions of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ that make violence toward the Other somehow morally palatable.

Brass, Paul R., (1996), “Introduction: Discourses of Ethnicity, Communalism, and Violence” in Paul R. Brass (ed), Riots and Pogroms, New York, New York University Press, pp. 1-55

Zizek, Slavoj. (2008) Violence. London, Profile Books.

Fearon, James D. and David D. Laitin, (2000), “Violence and the Social Construction of Ethnic Identity” International Organization 54, 4, Autumn 2000, pp 845-877.

Perusing Walls in China: Posters and Symbolic Power

This is the third entry in a series on semiotic analysis, Uyghurs, and public space in China. For earlier entries please see, Deconstructing ‘Minzu’, and Museumized Signification, China and Representational Violence. Or visit my index at the top of the page for all previous articles dealing with Symbolic Power, the politics of representation, China, Xinjiang, Uyghurs, and the like. As with other posts on this topic, although the specific point of entry to this conversation deals with the Uyghurs the tactics and artifacts of symbolic violence by the state are the same for other subaltern groups, not only in China but as a transferable model to others such sites. For this reason, an understanding and analysis of a particular phenomena has broader application.

Traveling around Xinjiang one often observes a stark demarcation between Han and minority space and inscription. In Yarkand, for example, Southeast of Kashgar this demarcation is starkly drawn along two streets, with Han exclusively living and working along Xincheng Lu [New City Road] and Uyghurs living along Laocheng Lu [Old City Road]. This is an important observation for two reasons. It relates to the opportunity for Uyghurs to reach out to Han and challenge their signification. Secondly, in predominantly Han neighborhoods there is not the same prevalence of the kind of public inscriptions as in Uyghur neighborhoods.

For example, on every Uyghur house in all the towns and villages in Xinjiang, there is one or a combination of three plaques near the door. These read Wenming Jiating [Civilized Household], Pingan Jiating [Safe Household], and Wuxing [Five Star]. However, I never observed such inscriptions on Han houses. The apparent meaning, a designation of worth conferred by the authority of the state, the state synonymous with a Han majority, coupled with other observations maintains the signification. The following analysis of public inscriptions is based on posters found in what could be considered general public space. While there are kinds of inscriptions that occur only in Uyghur areas, there is another that occurs in public areas with both Han and Uyghur traffic.

General public space in Xinjiang is marked by the ubiquity of banners, slogans and posters, discussed elsewhere. I found, and scholars such as Gardner Bovingdon and Dru Gladney have noted similar restrictions, that Uyghurs in Xinjiang are generally apprehensive to speak about such things but after several conversations on the street a pattern emerged. The majority of Uyghurs I encountered who were willing to discuss them treated them as propaganda. If we apply the same semiotic analysis as in previous posts we will discover another artifact of symbolic power’s domination over Uyghur social space. I observed the following posters in Korla, you can view them in an earlier post.

Jun Ai Min, Min Yong Jun, Junmin Tuanjie Yi Jiaqing [The military loves the people, the people embraces the military, the military and the people united are one family]. In the upper right hand corner, saluting in stoic patriotism, are three Han officers, one from each branch of the military. They are facing toward the red field of the Chinese flag, with its golden stars creased in the wind. In front of the flag are four white doves. At the center of the image, behind the text, are rows of soldiers in camouflage. The bottom of the image shows pictures of the Great Wall and the iconic front of the Forbidden City, Mao’s portrait hangs visibly over the entrance. Compressed at the very bottom left of the image is an old Uyghur man with a white beard and black skull cap. He is handing a red basket of gifts to a phalanx of soldiers.

Jun Min Qing, Jing Min Qing, Chuchu Ningju AiGuo Qing [Civil military sentiment, Civil Police Sentiment, Everywhere a Coherent Patriotic Sentiment]. Sweeping from the lower left corner upward to the top right is a large field of red, the Chinese flag, victoriously splattering the background. At the center of the image are two large white doves. In the top left corner three Uyghurs are facing a Chinese police officer, with two more officers behind him. The Uyghurs’ faces tell of some unknown sorrow or concern as they shake the hand of the Han officer who is smiling confidently. Across the bottom of the poster, two uniformed Han officers are standing, smiling at an old Uyghur man with a small wispy beard and a Hotanese wool hat. The Uyghur man appears sunken and weak while the Han officer is plump and reaching out farther to meet the old man’s slightly withdrawn hands.

Aside from obvious superficial differences, the signification of these two posters is the same. The first observation of note is that the Uyghurs depicted in both images are clearly receiving the support of the Han. The juxtaposition of the elderly, even frail, Uyghur man next to the younger Han officers reinstates the signification we saw above in the museum. The signified is an undeveloped people progressing under the support of the Party. The Uyghur, signifier, here is depicted as weak and in need of assistance. In relationship to the signified concept of provider, given form by the image of the Han officers, the significations are understood in relation to one another. The Uyghur is poor, the Han is strong.

The common image of the doves between the two images plays on the relationship of doves with peace. It encourages a peaceful reliance on the support of the Han. The text itself propels the visual meaning. It speaks of peaceful coexistence under the care of the military, police, and party. The space taken up by the flag in both images and the depiction of the Great Wall and Forbidden City, both powerful nationalistic symbols, further stresses the magnificence of the Party. We see a vibrant symbolic artifact that reinstates the marginalization of Uyghurs, under the Party. The comments below highlight a number of interpretations of these images made after examining photographs taken of the images. It is important to note that the discussion of these images took place outside of China, within the Uyghur diaspora community.

The first and third responses are from Uyghurs who have been living outside of China for four and five years, respectively, and are no longer Chinese citizens. The second response was made by a Uyghur student who has been studying abroad for several years and plans to return to China after completing studies.

Han people are government people but Uyghur people are not government people…. Han people are police but Uyghur people are not police. Han people help Uyghur people. The Government says the Han helps the Uyghur people and also says Chinese government helps Uyghur people. And also, in Chinese news you must say minorities are very happy. Happy! Happy! Happy!

But not every Uyghur knows the real meaning of what the Chinese are doing. This provocation, if many Uyghurs are not so knowledgeable and don’t pay attention to the real meaning, when they see they know it is not reality. One day you are arresting Uyghurs and then you print image to lie. Children maybe don’t realize this.

All the people, for example the young people see this and they will be upset. But little children will see this and they may think something different, so it can change Uyghur’s minds after a long time.

These comments illustrate an immediate perception of domination, one that can be  understood by an application of our analysis. They demonstrate a sentiment that while these posters may be interpreted as false by a number of Uyghurs, they are still capable of affecting others.  Younger residents may be influenced by the messages on the posters. However, according to the three comments, they perceive these posters as empty propaganda that serves to instill a dominant narrative that does not conform to their perceptions of reality, but rather hopes to maintain domination. We begin to understand the power on the walls.

The comments in this section point to a shared perception that the prevalent minority signification of an undeveloped subaltern is as a source of domination. Many appear to equate this representation with either the lack or denial of education. As a few respondents above noted, this signification is perceived as a lie, perpetuated by the regime. But, Camus noted, “you can rebel equally well against a lie as against oppression (Camus, 2008: 13).” Does the rebelling actor target the teller of the lie or the lie itself, i.e. a particular signification or the regime from which it is promulgated? How is the decision to resist either the representation or the regime influenced by perceptions of opportunity? Here is where Judith Butler, and others, offer the valuable concept of resignification, a kind of semiotic resistance. I will touch on this in future posts.

Camus, Albert (1953/2008). The Fastidious Assassins. London: Penguin Books.

The Politics of Representing ‘Uyghur,’ a socio-historical sketch

This piece was republished by the World Uyghur Congress. It is also available on their website.

At 6pm on Tuesday, the 28th of February violence erupted in the desert town of Kargilik, between Kashgar and Hotan, in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China. Armed with knives or axes (depending on the report), whether desperate or deranged, several men unleashed a short spree of bloodletting. The violence resulted in between 12 and 20 dead. The Washington Post, noting 12 deaths, reported,

Officials and state media said the bloodshed started when assailants attacked civilians with knives on a commercial street in Yecheng city, killing 10 people; police fatally shot two of the attackers, the official accounts said.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei callled the attackers “terrorists” and said they attacked innocent civilians, “cruelly killing several of them in an appalling manner.”

This event is happening only days before the National People’s Congress is set to meet in Beijing, on 5 March. This is important in that the NPC will spend time passing into law the revised Criminal Procedure Law, which stands to potentially legalize a number of draconian policies for dealing with security, and terrorist-framed issues. Senior Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, Nicholas Bequelin, points out that, in particular, Article 73 of the CPL poses considerable concern for human rights activists and members of Uyghur or Tibetan groups who are often framed as violent threats to the state. Understanding the violence in Xinjiang is part of a greater discursive battle, with physical and structural ramifications.

The Uyghur Human Rights Project reports that, “The Uyghur American Association (UAA) calls upon the international community to view official Chinese statements about the reported deaths with extreme caution until independent observers are allowed to investigate the incident.” And within reason.

Edward Wang’s piece in the New York Times points out that, “As with virtually all such events in remote parts of China, there were competing accounts of the violence on Tuesday… A report on a Web site run by the propaganda bureau of Xinjiang said Wednesday that 13 people were killed and many others injured when nine “terrorists” armed with knives stabbed people in a crowd… police shot dead seven attackers and captured the other two… Global Times, an officially approved newspaper, reported that attackers killed at least 10 people… Xinhua, the state news agency, reported that the police shot dead at least two attackers.”

As information about this episode of violence unfolds it is important to keep in mind Wang’s critical remarks, and understand the complexity of the politics of representation. The following examination is meant primarily for those with a limited knowledge of Uyghur history and aims to elucidate some of the situation in Xinjiang and provide a background for understanding the unfolding accounts of violence, and the framing of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Although it is geared more as an introduction to the unfamiliar, it also presents information and ideas that those more accustomed to examining and analyzing the region will no doubt find informative.

Uyghurs, an ethnic Turkic and predominantly Sunni Muslim minority group which are culturally and linguistically distinct from the majority Han, trace their ancestry to the geographic region known today as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). The word Xinjiang in Chinese, (新疆), means new territory or frontier. However, many Uyghurs, both inside the XUAR and abroad, tend to perceive this word as synonymous with colonial power. Perceptions that range from economic or political marginalization to victimization by an organized campaign to stamp out cultural identity and autonomy are best explained through a narrative analysis of the subjective meaning of name of the province for those who are purportedly autonomous within.

When I hear, every time, that word, Xinjiang, it reminds me that, ‘Oh! You have your place named with another language. You have to change that name.’ It makes me think that way. Always makes me feel, always reminds me that my homeland, home place, or home country, is occupied by another power. (A Uyghur student who has been living outside of China for five years, for safety reasons names will not be included.)

We hate that word. We don’t even have the right to say our hometown in our own language. (A Uyghur youth with whom I spoke in Kashgar, 2011)

This word, when I was young, I didn’t have any special feeling. Chinese just call our region as Xinjiang. But how do we call it? But we don’t have any word. When I went to Malaysia [first left China] I learned something about our flag, our country. I know that place is not Xinjiang. Now, when I hear that word I just think ‘new project,’ a new chance for the Chinese to earn money. (A Uyghur who has been living outside of China for two and a half years, and has since renounced Chinese citizenship out of fear of persecution.)

In this brief discussion, it is neither my intention to challenge nor certify the word Xinjiang but for consistency I will refer to the region as such. I do acknowledge the significance it has for many Uyghurs as a symbol of oppression or discrusive target of claim-making within a broader framework of resistance and cultural re-articulation.

The preferred name, once Uyghurs are more free to express discursive resistance outside of China and for those more daring who still reside inside China, is East Turkestan. In China, however, it is illegal to mention East Turkestan, Dong Tujuesitan,and the image of the East Turkestan flag, a crescent moon and star on a blue field, is forbidden from public and private space.In December 1999, for example, two men were arrested and charged with 15 and 13 years in prison for merely hoisting the East Turkestan flag in place of the Chinese Flag at a courthouse in Xinjiang.

The reason for China’s response to the ‘East Turkestan’ frame, from central government perspectives, is clear. It presents an implicit history of an independent Uyghur nation which challenges the official Chinese history. Therefore, the Chinese government routinely conflates all mention of ‘East Turkestan’ with separatism and, particularly after the establishment of the US led War on Terror, with terrorism (Dwyer, 2005). The use and interpretation of the ‘East Turkestan’ frame has become a constituent of domination and resistance, when protests, non-violent or otherwise, flare up in the region the government hastily blames it on the influence of ‘East Turkestan’ terrorist groups or foreign interference, as it does with blaming the Dalai Lama for any contention among Tibetan groups.

Before we can even begin to grasp a more profound understanding of the last few years’ episodes of conflict within the province we must develop an understanding of the significance of the words ‘Xinjiang’ and ‘East Turkestan,’ and the social-historical context from which the phenomenon derives its meaning and force.

In 1759, Qing troops conquered the region in what had been a long history of territorial conflict (Millward, 2007). China has at times admitted this history but used it rhetorically to state, “that the lives and cultures of people from multiple ethnic groups have been so intertwined for thousands of years that no single group can claim exclusive ownership of this region.” Still, the declaration of terra nullius is generally only put forth to counter Uyghur claims to a 4000 year history of multiple independent kingdoms, as noted on the World Uyghur Congress Website. While the predominant Chinese narrative is that Xinjiang has been an integral part of Han Chinese rule for centuries (Beijing, 2003; Shandong, 2010), others have suggested that the region was not incorporated into the empire until 1821 (Gladney, 2004: 215).

Conflict throughout this period was protracted. In 1864, Qing administration was jolted by the Yakub Beg rebellion which resulted in the independent Khanate of Kashgaria (Gladney, 2004). However, Beg’s sudden death in Korla in 1877 effectively brought an end to organized anti-Qing resistance; and, although Xinjiang had been treated more as a colony to this point, it was shortly thereafter officially made a province in 1884 (Millward, 2007). The collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911 sank China into chaos. In Xinjiang, uprisings and brutal crackdowns were prevalent (Gladney, 2004) as the region was split between a series of warlords and the competing geo-political interests of the Soviet Union and emerging rivalry between the Guomingdang (Nationalist) and Communist party of China (Bovingdon, 2010; Millward 2007; Gladney, 2003, 2004).

Millward (2007) provides a vivid account of rapidly shifting power dynamics during this period. On 12 November 1933, the East Turkestan Republic (ETR) was established in Kashgar. Its leaders were predominantly educators and merchants who had been influential reformers in the 1910s and 20s. A year later the ETR would fall to the infamous warlord Sheng Shicai. On 12 November 1944, the second ETR was established in Ghulja. Ahmetjan Qasimi, Mehmet Emin Buğra and Isa Yusuf Alptekin were influential forces in this time, and remain as Uyghur heroes.

The hope of lasting independence went down in flames on 27 August 1949. Although the negotiations for an independent Uyghur nation had essentially already been resolved much earlier, for the CCP had agreed to this in exchange for Uyghur military assistance against the Guomingdang, Ahmetjan Qasimi and a coterie of Xinjiang’s top Uyghurs were invited to Beijing to meet with Mao on the issue of independence. However, somewhere en route their plane mysteriously crashed. Their deaths would be kept secret until several months after the Chinese Army had fully occupied the region. The death of so many well educated and capable leaders resulted in a leadership vacuum for the region’s Uyghurs. This lesson has not been lost and, although it is a strictly taboo subject to discuss in public both the two independent republics and the mysterious plane crash are well known and hushed topics.In her memoir, World Uyghur Congress (WUC) President Rebiya Kadeer notes, “The death of our leading delegation was too severe a setback for compatriots to overcome, and so our momentum toward independence came to a stop (Kadeer, 2009; 11).”

Despite this history of indigenous resistance to perceived foreign—Qing, Russian, CCP—occupation, Chinese sources tend to represent the independent republics as the result of abusive foreign governments (Chen, 2009). Official media sources in China go as far to relate that in the early 20th century and later, ‘a small number of separatists and religious extremists in Xinjiang,’ influenced by overseas extremism and imperialism, ‘politicized the idea of East Turkestan’ and fabricated a history which had not even existed. While Chinese officials and scholars may have referred to Xinjiang as a colony before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, “Chinese historians after 1949 would busy themselves erasing any such reference (Bovingdon, 2010; 39).” The representation of Xinjiang as an ancient and unbroken part of China became the official discourse within China and diverging from this discourse became a crime tantamount to terrorism. However, it has been continually contested by the Uyghur diaspora, and many third party scholars.

Because the Chinese government frequently blames domestic contention on the manipulation of foreign organizations, framed as violent separatist groups with no authority in China, it is important to quickly examine Uyghur deterritorialization.

Yitzhak Shichor (2003, 2009) provides a rich history of Uyghur diffusion. In 1949, Alptekin and Buğra led the first major wave of a Uyghur exodus from Xinjiang to neighboring Kashmir. By 1952, owing to Alptekin’s efforts, pressure from the US and the UNHCR Turkey accepted around 2,000 Uyghur refugees for resettlement in Kayseri. This marked the second phase of Uyghur migration. By a decade later a sizable community had also started to form in Istanbul. The third phase of Uyghur migration can be divided into two separate waves. The first began with post-Mao reforms in the late 1970s, with greater flight from China, mainly to Central Asian countries and Turkey. The second wave was composed of Uyghurs migrating from host countries such as Turkey to a third host country in North America or Western Europe (Shichor, 2003: 285). The global headquarters of the World Uyghur Congress is in Munich. Still, the diaspora is relatively small. The majority of Uyghurs still live in Xinjiang. There a different migration, Han moving from inner China, encouraged by uneven access to opportunities at the expense of Uyghurs, is perceived by Uyghurs as a direct economic and cultural attack.

Due less to migration of Uyghurs out of Xinjiang than to steady Han migration into Xinjiang, from 1947 until the present the demographics of Xinjiang have dramatically shifted. The majority of Uyghurs with whom I have spoken have brought this up as one of the gravest threats to their cultural survival. The Han population in the region has increased at an average rate of 8.1 per cent yearly, from 5 per cent in 1947 to around 40 per cent in 2000 (Millward, 2007: 307). Information for 2010 from the National Bureau of Statistics in China reports the percentage of Han as 40.1 per cent and conflates the remaining 59.9 per cent to an amalgamation of the other ethnic groups. This census representation, I would argue, is done in part to stifle ethnic based mobilization and to legitimize official histories of Chinese presence in the region.

A few years ago, in Korla, I was asked by one Uyghur how many Uyghurs lived in Xinjiang. When I told him that I knew that the given number is usually around 9 million he replied that the number is actually double but that, “the government will never say there is more than 10 million Uyghurs. Because when a nation has more than 10 million,” he choked with emotion, “they have to get their own country.” This sentiment is illustrative of the perceptions of repressive intentions behind various forms of representation, including the census. Representing or misrepresenting population figures is a way to dominate a given group but it can also be transformed into a counter-discourse if the population claims greater numbers than official figures. Uyghur sources report from 15 to 20 million Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Admittedly, the history of this conflict has been represented in opposing narratives by Chinese, Uyghur, and third party historians. This is understandable considering actors in political conflicts often appeal to history to legitimize their cases (Bovingdon, 2010: 23). At times, it becomes difficult to disentangle the opposing representations. It does appear, however, that some accounts (Bovingdon, 2010; Gladney, 2003; 2004; Millward, 2007; Shichor, 2003; 2009) are more resonant with Uyghur narratives. This is important to separate from narratives obedient to Chinese cultural and historical hegemony. Understood from an analysis of the literature and discussion with Uyghurs, official Chinese accounts can be seen as representational repression. It is important to keep in mind as news and representations of the violence in Kargilik unfolds.

We should keep in mind that prematurely conceptualizing cycles of violence in terms of dyadic ethnic clashes distorts the complexity of the phenomenon as to render analysis facile. Conflation of contention to one category whether male/female, rich/poor, or in-group/out-group fails to take into consideration a multiplicity of influences and identities, as noted by Amartya Sen in Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. Similarly, be wary of attempts to present some definitive sketch of ‘Uyghur.’ There is none. On this, it is worth quoting Gaye Christoffersen in length.

“Western and Chinese discourse on ‘the Uyghur’ tends towards making essentializing arguments that assume there is a ‘Universal Uyghur’ with an unchanging essence and fixed properties, whether living in Xinjiang, the Central Asian diaspora, Afghanistan, Turkey, Germany or the United States. Uyghur identity formation, difficult to begin with, is complicated further by outside forces attempting to construct a monolithic identity that would fit their particular vision. It is their essentializing imagery that victimizes Uyghurs by forcing them to assimilate to alien visions. The vast majority of Uyghurs in Xinjiang have no voice in world affairs, instead becoming the object of the politics of representation by outside forces (2002; 3).”


Kashgar Old City, 2011

This article was republished on the Website for the World Uyghur Congress.

Works Cited:

Bovingdon, Gardner (2010). The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land. New York: Columbia University Press.

Chen, Xi (2007). “Between Defiance and Obedience: Protest Opportunism in China,” in Perry,Elizabeth J. and Goldman, Merle (2007), Grassroots Political Reform in Contemporary China. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 253-281.

Christoffersen, Gaye (2002). “Constituting the Uyghur in U.S.-China Relations: The Geopolitics of Identity in the War on Terrorism.” Strategic Insight White Paper: Centor for Contemporary Conflict at the Naval Postgraduate School.

Gladney, Dru. C (2003). “Islam in China: Accommodation or Separatism?” The China Quarterly, No. 174, Religion in China Today.

———- (2004). Dislocating China: Reflections on Muslims, Minorities and other Subaltern Subjects. London: C. Hurst & Co. (Publishers) Ltd.

Kadeer, Rebiya; trans. Alexandra Cavelius (2009). Dragon Fighter: One Woman’s Epic Struggle for Peace with China. USA: Kales Press, Inc.

Millward, James A., (2007). Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang, London:  C. Hurst & Co.

Sen, Amartya (2007). Identity and violence: the illusion of destiny. New York: W W Norton & Co Inc.

Shichor, Yitzhak (2003). “Virtual Transnationalism: Uygur Communities in Europe and the Quest for Eastern Turkestan Independence.” in Allievi, Stefano and Nielsen, Jorgen S. (2003), Muslim Networks and Transnational Communities in and Across Europe.  Leiden: Brill. 281-311

———- (2009). Ethno-Diplomacy: The Uyghur Hitch in Sino-Turkish Relations. Honolulu: The East West Center.

Shared Spaces and Thinking Streets

As I prepare to change continents again, to resettle in a new environment, I am too itinerant for thorough introspection and retelling tales of wandering; however, one thing that has been growing more salient in my observations and thoughts is the awareness and concern over disparate urban landscapes. The questions linger as to what layout, what urban design functions best in what setting, in what cultural proclivity, grown out of what historical traditions, superstitions, symbolic integrations of living, breathing nature and planned, constructed steel and glass? To follow Edward Soja’s notions of spatial justice, the morality of urban spaces, layout and interactions requires us to begin pondering the ethics of our material surroundings.

This has been made more apparent since I returned to Seattle. Without a car I am at the mercy of public transportation, at 2.25USD for two hours of bus travel, the two, three hours between home and work that many must commit, round trips upwards of 4 hours a day, deprive time for creative and individual pursuits, take time away from families or time away from healthy eating, etc. Battling the cars that won’t stop, even in the rain, for pedestrians to cross or cyclists to peddle on their way, there is a certain sour taste to such arrangements in Seattle, indeed in most of this country, around the urban planning, use and integration of public space that has just not been so apparent in other places. These issues of public space require both a moral and material solution.

Recently I stumbled, in much the way in which I have stumbled into cafes, restaurants and alleys, into a wonderful little broadcast (link at bottom) by the BBC on Shared Spaces. The BBC’s Angela Saini begins…

“The streets beneath our feet are getting smart. Pavements are melting into the roads and traffic lights are disappearing. Inspired by the work of scientists and engineers in Holland and Japan, this is a revolution in urban design. Part of it is a movement known as ‘Shared Space’, which promises to dramatically change the way cities look and how we experience them.”

What are Shared Spaces? The Project for Public Spaces explains:

“Shared Space is more a way of thinking than it is a design concept.   It is most readily recognized as a street space where all traffic control devices such as signals and stop signs, all markings such as crosswalks, and all signing have been removed.  Curbing is removed to blur the lines between sidewalks and motorized travel way.  The philosophy is that absence of all of those features forces all users of the space — from pedestrians to drivers — to negotiate passage through the space via eye contact and person to person negotiation.

This is all premised on the idea that traditional streets allocate distinct spaces to the different modes, and in doing so create a false sense of security to each user leading them to behave as if they have no responsibility to look out for other users in “their” space.  This obviously works best for operators of motor vehicles, who are sitting within the protection of a ton and a half of steel.”

Shared Spaces evolve from the avant garde ideas of Dutch urban engineer Hans Monderman‘s observations that many traffic signs: ‘beware of cow,’ carry not the signification of their text but the deeper signification of ‘the driver is an idiot.’ It may well be the case that when the roads are plastered with warning signs and cars and pedestrians observe only flashing lights and immutable signs they lose track of one another and pay less attention to the phenomenon at hand than the mirror warnings that plague their visual field. Remove the barriers to engagement with one another, return a personal trust and responsibility to the road and urban space user, encourages the theory behind Shared Spaces and Living, Thinking Streets.

“Today, Monderman’s vision can be experienced throughout his Dutch province of Friesland, no where more so than in Drachten, an unassuming town that until recently was famous only for being the home of the Dutch electronics giant Philips. As Angela discovers for herself, Drachten’s shared space schemes (and those of its near neighbours) now attracts a regular pilgrimage of engineers and planners, from all parts of the world, eager to experience this new urban vision.”

As a theory for more than just better traffic engineering and urban design the ethics behind Shared Spaces has resonant social implications. It leads to questions on the nature of the self and community, surely whether implemented in a deeply liberal individualist or moral communitarian setting the project would be met with different results. What does it tell us about economic situations, private car ownership to public transportation, to bicycles etc.? Urban sprawl complicates matters as much do ideological prejudices that foster fear or hatred of the Other. It returns to Soja’s Spatial Justice and encourages the planner and space user alike to take stock of moral and community standing. Or, as the Project for Public Places notes, Shared Space is not a transportation concept, it is a political concept. It is social and scientific and we must think more about how places are created and maintained.

For further thought provocation the BBC has more at THINKING STREETS.

Notes on the Dérive and a Jordanian Surrealist in Tunis

“One of the basic situationist practices is the dérive, a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences. Dérives involve playful-constructive behavior and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll.” Explained Guy Debord in his 1958 essay The Theory of the Derive.

Dérive, the French form of the concept expressed, at least superficially, by the English “to drift,” is the situationist theory of itineracy or rather, as Debord explains:

In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.

This notion encourages the loss of oneself, the acceptance of subjectivity in the previously taken for objective walls and lanes of urban bodies; in the way that acupuncture seeks to balance the body’s discordant energy flows by studying qi (气), understanding how energy flows through the body, the urban acupuncturist extends these concepts to approach ‘the urban’ as a creature composed of chakras, in a sense, the nexus of subjectivity and objectivity. The dérive seeks to uncover, to chart, and to analyze these urban chakra patterns, given the name of psychogeographic currents. Or, in a different conceptualization, Robert M. Pirsig writes in Lila:

A metaphysics of substance makes us think that all evolution stops with the highest evolved substances, the physical body of man. It makes us think that the physical body is man. It makes us think that cities and societies and thought structures are all subordinate creations of this physical body of man. But it’s as foolish to think of a city or a society as created by human bodies as it is to think of human bodies as a creation of the cells, or to think of cells as created by protein and DNA molecules, or to think of DNA as created by carbon and other inorganic atoms. If you follow that fallacy long enough you come out with the conclusion that individual electrons contain the intelligence needed to build New York City all by themselves. Absurd.

If it’s possible to imagine two red blood cells sitting side by side asking, “will there ever be a higher form of evolution than us?” and looking around and seeing nothing, deciding there isn’t, then you can imagine the ridiculousness of two people walking down a street of Manhattan asking if there will ever be any form of evolution higher than “man,” meaning biological man.

Biological man doesn’t invent cities or societies any more than pigs and chickens invent the farmer that feeds them. The force of evolutionary creation isn’t contained by substance. Substance is just one kind of static pattern left behind by the creative force (1991: 249-250).

Pirsig may or may not have been eliciting the theory of the dérive in his attempt to define a metaphysics of substance, here in the form of the city, to challenge the materialist conception of the meaning behind the form and concept ‘city’ but the two currents of thought, that of Pirsig and Debord, take us down similar alleyways of contemplation. They force us to rethink the ‘city’ as subjective for there can be no objective chart of chakras that can be superimposed categorically on all cities.

It is a matter of perceptions, memories, past ventures, histories-personal, familial, and collective-memories, warped or relived, damaged or manipulated by desire, crumbling facades with great meaning, ultra-modern corners of commercial banality devoid of deeper significance, bullet holes in plaster that date back to failed rebellions or poorly painted over graffiti incanting more recent revolutions, windows from whence beautiful women once looked, or hamams with long and twisting tales that get passed down from generation to generation, piles of bricks that had great plans of construction, the stained faces and indelible recollections of that street or this particular corner, these essences come together with the organic, with the natural, or, is it true as Georg Lukács was reportedly wont to quote from the 17th century Italian political philosopher Giambatista Vico, “the difference between history and nature is that man has created the one but not the other.”

Debord continues: “Within architecture itself, the taste for dériving tends to promote all sorts of new forms of labyrinths made possible by modern techniques of construction.”Is this not why the labyrinthine coronaries of ancient places are so ideal for the dérive, as anyone who has gotten lost in the alleyways, hutongs, souks, courtyards, and tunnels of myriad timeless cities would agree. Built, refurbished, forgotten, named, renamed, burned, ransacked, salvaged, painted, inhabited, abandoned, drawn, copied, studied, ridiculed, praised, emulated, visited, avoided, the urban systems of place and memory haunt the dériving afternoon with suggestions and directions. Some may be seized to make the trip while others are ignored, postponed, or forgotten. How do you navigate in a strange city when you have no place in particular to go?

Despite best intentions you can never fully retrace your steps through any environment, cognitive or tangible, regardless of whether the attempt to reverse engineer the path of discovery is carried out in the mind, on paper, or by some process of movement or vehicle exterior to the body. Conditions shift, psychic states alter in the unending waltz of synaptic exchange, the gradual decay, onslaught of oxygen breaking down each molecule and memory over time, force us to adapt in thought and form. This means that when we look back we approach the object of observation from a different vantage point; each approach is different, no memory the same complexion. In this sense, observing, interacting with and analyzing an urban object-as is the attempt of the dérive- a work of art or literature, a cultural, social, or political phenomenon, a quotation gathered through formal or informal tactics, recipes or stories must itself remain an evolving process, divorced from grounded, unchanging theory, or so goes my understanding of the insistence of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory.

A few days ago I stepped outside of my house, down the stairs that are marked by the blue, yellow, and white geometric patterned tiles that gently glisten with certain angles of light from the always open window, out the door, brown and bulky with sometimes broken locking mechanism, and made a calculated decision: turn right. I began the somewhat rote trajectory of navigating alleyways, from tight passages to more open expanses. Sometimes doors open into a view of courtyards, past puddles and storefronts that reflect the familiar faces.

I was vaguely conscious of my direction but, attempting to remain open to the impulse of the dérive, pulled more spontaneously toward the same warren of streets in the Medina that sucked me in on my last attempt to emulate Debord. There was an angle of the city that resembled times past but the precision of the memory was irrevocably shifted to match the meteorological and contemplative peculiarity of the day, the time; subtle differences infect each observation rendering it unique, subjective, giving it a meaning granted by changing relationships.

A dark street sign mounted just above my head, mounted on an off-white wall, mounted by unknown hands, mounted to be translated by the reader, it read: Rue Archour. I followed several colorful doors, and random bits of refuse toward the next location which pulsated with expectant glee at the opportunity to be noticed; the static structure of plaster, stone, and time needed legitimization by human inhabitation and observation. Another sign, this one in Arabic, an open door, an inviting air, a familiarity to another days meandering. The shadows of time and similarity of past events were imprinted deep and dark in the psychogeographic contours of this sudden destination but the details were all shifted; like those memories of childhood events that come back to life in our dreams, the dimensions are never the same. I stepped into the Maison des Associations Achouria at 62 Rue Anchour, a collective art space.

Inside the open cells, white walls and arches of the Maison des Associations Achouria, in a back corner, behind columns of simple hanging oil paintings of Arab, Berber, Bedouin scenes, I saw a sign for Club Peinture Animé. Following still deeper into the soul of impulsive wandering I stepped into the small classroom, a few Tunisian pupils with pencil and brush hung on the personalized instruction of their resident Dali, the Jordanian surrealist painter Abdel Qwaider.

Qwiader (alternately spelled Guider) has been living in Tunis for four years, he explained. In that time he has seen a lot of things change in Tunisia. When I told him I was researching art and resistance he broadcast a rapid grin and invited me to sit at his little desk in the back hallow of the stone room. From across the wooden desk he offered me a macarooth, a heavy Tunisian sweet. As we chatted I glanced around the room. The walls bore his works.

He gestured to a painting of a faceless man sitting behind a desk, the juxtaposition of the material perspective of the man, the artist, in front of me, behind a desk, the stranger-essentially faceless, pointing to the pictorial man, the image, the object to my left of an inscribed faceless creature in the same posture, perhaps encouraging his unseen interlocutor to glance outside the confines of the painted image to notice another pair of observers. The man behind the desk in the image was naked. On the desk, near his right and left hands were two masks, each ostensibly a different archetype, ideology, characteristic. “People lie,” Qwaider commented when he noticed my attention focused on this work. While this piece had the feeling of an unrefined Magritte the bulk of Qwaider’s pieces were glaringly redolent of Salvador Dali.

This similar, mockingly reminiscent work, leads one to ponder, can surrealism be practiced in the same form as its origin or, in order to remain surreal, mustn’t the form evolve to keep track of its intended meaning? Let me explain. Susan Sontag, in Against Interpretation, wrote:

The surrealist tradition in all these arts is united by the idea of destroying conventional meanings, and creating new meanings or counter-meanings through radical juxtapositions (the ‘collage principle’). Beauty, in the words of Lautreamont, is ‘the fortuitous encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table.’ Art so understood is obviously animated by aggression, aggression toward the presumed conventionality of its audience and above all, aggression toward the medium itself. The Surrealist sensibility aims to shock, through its technique of radical juxtaposition (1966: 270).

In this sense, in order for a work to remain as a surrealist challenge to the established order, social or political, in order to destroy conventional meaning or create a counter-meaning, which means counter-discourse on negotiated reality, must it present an absurd construction? When once the juxtaposition of Lautreamont’s suggested beauty would have been taken as an absurd proposition it is now far easier to accept. Magritte’s challenge, ceci n’est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe) expressed in La trahison des images (The Treachery of Images), would not resonate the same now as when it was first introduced into the collective experience-this challenge to the accepted order is now taken for granted- just as one cannot adequately retrace one’s steps through an ancient city center, preserving the full emotional affect of the first experience. In this light one is left to wonder whether modern surrealist paintings are devoid of the shocking potential to challenge political or social conventions due to their reliance on a now established structure of forms. It would appear however, that while Qwaider’s pieces are obviously no competitors for those of Magritte’s first insistence that we reexamine our ideologies and psychic constructions of validity they present a symbolic confrontation to the reigning order of subjectifying ‘reality,’ a ‘reality’ which under Ben Ali was taboo to represent or question.

It is easy for the radical to rush to advocate shocking established orders and issuing social and ideological challenges. But, as one Tunisian reminded me:

It is true that the point of some artists is to make some people really face their fears, to face their weak points, just shock the people. The thing is now, and I will talk only about Tunisia because I live in this society, in Tunisia we are not ready to be shocked. For sure we are living in an unstable society. We have this conflict between Islamists and secular. We are already suffering from this conflict.

We don’t have a real government yet. We don’t have mind stability. We don’t know who we are right now. For the artist to start shocking people right now, it’s really so much to take. The Tunisian cannot take that right now.

If you just wait for the country to be stabilized, for the country to take its first step and be walking in the right direction, then you can throw some shocking art on the Tunisian society. Then maybe, maybe, it’s gonna be tolerated. But right now it is not the time at all. For sure. I think that the Tunisian society needs time.

With both positions -shock and time- in mind, we return to our brief examination of Qwaider’s work.

Pointing at the image above Qwaider explained that it was painted after the revolution. Before the revolution this sort of image would have been forbidden; it could have landed the artist in the interrogation cell and the torture chambers of the Ministry of Interior. The signification challenges the regime, the object of oppression, the false wholeness and acceptability of life in a dictatorship. The chair, the throne, the seat of power, and the scepter, recognizable symbols of power. The ground beneath these symbols cracks from the tectonic resonances of “DEGAGE,” the dictator has fled. The skull and shackles remains in the foreground to remind the observer of the tortures that once would have followed the unveiling of this only slightly veiled criticism of oppression. After the revolution, Qwaider explained, “There is so much more freedom. Freedom about everything, not just for artists.”

In this image and the one before Qwaider plays with the symbol of the chair, and stained in the fabric of his painted reference to illegitimately enthroned power, the color purple rises above the other hues. The color purple was Ben Ali as much as the color Orange signifies the Netherlands. The color is the RCD. The color is a reminder of power and oppression. The following vignette on the color purple comes from a Tunisian journalist with whom I sat down for tea one rainy afternoon; it offers some illumination on a possible signification of the color purple:

Well, we have been hating the color purple since whenever. I was born with the Tunisian TV slogan: purple, with the Tunisian bridges color: purple, with the Tunisian party wearing purple scarf, with the Tunisian leader, when they got[sic] for Nov 7 celebration the whole country becomes purple. And it is all related to Ben Ali. It is all to bring it back to Ben Ali.

I mean, the color purple is just a color but Ben Ali used it to so that when you see it you just remember Ben Ali. When you see it even in the street, just like that, a painted door, or whatever, you just remember Ben Ali. If you notice you cannot find any purple door or any purple window in Tunisia. No one paints that stuff with purple, just because it is a reminder of Ben Ali. We used to make fun of that. If you find any stuff with purple, that’s an RCDist. People made fun of it.

Just wearing the color purple, it was ‘oh, you have become an RCDist.’ Just wearing the color would make you like, we would make fun of you for wearing the color purple. You are related to Ben Ali for sure. You don’t have any other idea about purple other than Ben Ali.

In our mind as Tunisian, we don’t have any other idea about the color purple. Whenever we sit it is just Ben Ali. I mean it is not really true. Of course the color purple existed a long time before Ben Ali. The color purple has been there for ever.

With the kind of surrealist prodding encouraged by Sontag above the color purple might be issued a counter-meaning. This is the chromatic interpretation of Roland Barthes or Judith Butler’s re-signification and it stands out among myriad other artistic attempts, surrealist or otherwise, to re-articulate a meaning for Tunisian psychic spaces. Through such works of art arise challenges to the formerly established order and guidance for negotiating a new meaning to the pyschogeography of space. While omnipresent symbols of social control are sometimes escaped with everyday resistance, humor, desecration, parody, or art these are not always the responses of the oppressed.

The symbols of power can also become so entrenched in the social space as to shape ‘reality,’ and mold the collective meaning or experience of the imagined community of the nation as has been documented of the map or museumized images (Anderson 1993). In order to conceive a deeper account of the social space, to more adequately interpret the forms and meaning encountered either on the dérive or the analytic investigation, as Bachelard has noted, “…the phenomenologist has to pursue every image to the very end (1969: 19).” If we accept this proposition then significant meaning for a given social space can be extrapolated from a careful encounter and analysis with images, indeed as is the thesis of Semiotics.

As I arrived at these images via the semi-structured wandering known as the dérive, guided by unspoken, uninscribed impulses, I will let them speak more for themselves. Their meanings may convey a challenge to the social and political order or they may merely entertain. I found the space where these images live and took them into my possession with the aid of digital photography and now disseminate them. I end with these further thoughts by Susan Sontag:

Surrealists, who aspire to be cultural radicals, even revolutionaries, have often been under the well-intentioned illusion that they could be, indeed should be, Marxists. But Surrealist aestheticism is too suffused with irony to be compatible with the twentieth century’s most seductive form of moralism. Marx reproached philosophy for only trying to understand the world rather than trying to change it. Photographers, operating within the terms of Surrealist sensibility, suggest the vanity of even trying to understand the world and instead propose that we collect it (1973: 64).

Anderson, Benedict (1983). Imagined Communities, London and New York: Verso.

Bachelard, Gaston (1969). The Poetics of Space, Boston: Beacon Press.

Pirsig, Robert M. (1991). Lila: An Inquiry into Morals, New York: Bantam Books.

Sontag, Susan (1973). On Photography, New York: RosettaBooks LLC.

Sontag, Susan (1966). Against Interpretation, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.