The Speed of Revolutionary Resonance

by | 14 Mar 2011

The current wave of revolutionary insurrections seems to be the fastest in history. Revolutions always come in waves, but insurgent shockwaves that once expanded across continents over years or months are now making states crumble, one after another, in a matter of weeks. As the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt are rapidly followed by widespread rebellions in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and now Oman, it is clear that these are not just events but nodes of acceleration, which shoot out high-speed resonances in all directions and make millions of bodies fight oppression in myriad places at the same time. This political whirlwind is a distance-dissolving machine. It is also an evolving constellation that shifts its form and pulsation because of the striated nature of the global terrain, one day creating moments of joyful exhilaration on Tahrir Square and a few days later facing unrestrained state violence in Libya. In these mutating territories, we seem to be witnessing an epochal clash between new revolutionary velocities and the old, increasingly eroded supremacy of the state in controlling means of speed-creation.

In Egypt, the Mubarak regime was overwhelmed by a revolutionary resonance that, while emanating from its node in Tahrir Square, became a high-speed deterritorializing force that saturated the space of the nation with millions of bodies on the streets. This insurgent deterritorialization was fueled by a fast-paced rhizomic synergy between bodies in the streets and instant forms of communication that outmaneuvered the state and disseminated images with high affective impact (passionate bodies and bodies killed by the state) that resonated with even more bodies, outpacing the state modulation of fear through TV and radio and inspiring further action on the streets. These are rhizomic, leaderless, affirmative velocities that follow multiple lines of expansion independent from each other yet empowered and made resilient by their interconnectedness (an amazing, real-time visualization by André Panisson, shown here, illustrates the rhizomic velocities of tweets about the Egyptian Revolution, and the spatial interconnections they generate, during key moments of the uprising).

The state, in turn, has responded throughout the region with an arsenal of velocities of its own: arboreal patterns of speed that respond to centralized nodes of command, with vast means of destruction at its disposal, and with nodes of resonance modulation with few entry points under its tight control (the TV, radio). This mobile, powerful, but heavy machinery has unleashed violence to prevent the formation of multitudes producing resonance in the streets and has tried to shut down multi-entry nodes of resonance expansion like the internet and phone systems. These are reactive velocities, which follow the tempo and initiative of revolutionary resonances on the streets. These are also murderous velocities, which can indeed slow down or disrupt these resonances by killing the bodies producing them.

In Libya, the Gaddafi regime withstood the deterritorializing charge of the initial uprising by acting fast and with ferocity. In contrast to Egypt, high-speed state terror in Tripoli territorialized the revolution. And the relative weakness of an internet-savvy youth in comparison to Egypt has limited the synergy between the unrest on the streets and the speed allowed by rhizomic social networks. Because of this widespread violence, the Libyan Revolution is now a territorial insurrection, solidifying its control of cities like Tobruk and Benghazi and confronting a regime entrenched in Tripoli. Gaddafi’s swift and violent response, in other words, created the battlefronts favored by states, which allow them to move troops and high-speed weapons systems outwards from the safe node of its arboreal structure. And while it is likely that this strategy will run its course the way it did in Egypt, the Libyan case reminds us of the power of state velocities and, more importantly, that revolutions are decided in bodily confrontations in actual spatial terrains.

Paul Virilio taught us about the political power of speed, and I draw on his ideas as well as on Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of flows (and of the smooth and striated spaces these flows create) to examine these novel patterns of revolutionary velocity. Yet since the speed of revolutions also involves bodily affectations, the infancy of a physics of speed lies in fact in Spinoza, who argued that when bodies affect each other positively through good encounters they can create something powerful that increases their capacity to act, an intensified bodily affect I call resonance. This essay explores the politically important yet complex question of the speed of these intensified affects in revolutionary situations: the mechanics of their spatial-temporal rate of expansion. The potential actualization of that cherished chimera, a global revolution, may reside in this question.

In Resonance and the Egyptian Revolution, I drew on Spinoza to analyze the resonance created in the streets of Egypt as the expansive empathy created by bodies coming together in their struggles to control space. I emphasized that resonance is not a metaphor but the material bodily agitation that all reports coming from Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, or Libya agree in presenting as vibrant, expansive, and powerful. And I argued that a defining feature of resonance is its mobile and fluctuating nature, which makes its solidity elusive, hard to grasp, always displaced. The elites that fear this resonance see it as a “virus” (as John McCain and the Yemeni President put it) that expands through “contagion” or “hallucinogenic drugs” (adds Gaddafi): a pathological, chemical chain-reaction that infects bodies against their will and turns them into zombies. Yet revolutions are not chemical but physical processes created by bodies resonating with myriad other bodies and discovering their own agency and affirmative power. In a recent piece, Alain Badiou called “poetic” the idea that the revolutions of 2011 are spreading through resonance and added: “Let’s name this resonance ‘event.’” Like many others, Badiou assumes that resonance cannot carry theoretical or political weight of its own, that it is a poetic way to name something else, presumably more real: an event. Badiou distances himself from resonance right after discovering it and naming it, missing its power to turn previously atomized collectives of bodies into revolutionary vectors.

But how is it that revolutionary resonances travel in space? How to explain what Badiou calls “the fabulous expansion” of these insurrections, whose speed puzzles all analysts? What are the actual physical mechanics of this speed? Does the revolution spread through bodies running and passing the revolutionary torch on to the next national neighbour, as this remarkable poster with men running at high speed suggests? The speed of these revolutions is certainly faster than the speed of running bodies. Instant systems of global communication now shoot out powerful revolutionary resonances that travel at high speed toward anywhere on the planet. But how to account for the unfathomable speed of this briefly disembodied resonance, given that it involves not bodies but affects decomposed in bits of information through networks of instant media communication that, on impacting TV and computer screens, affects other bodies and makes them resonate?

One of Spinoza’s most fundamental axioms is that all bodies are either in motion or at rest, and that the motion or rest of particular bodies depends on the motion and rest of other bodies (Ethics, II, prop. 13). Bio-politics begin here, for power involves the management of these patterns of mobility and rest. Emancipation and domination are bio-political arrangements of mobility and speed. On one end, bodies in motion in smooth space unconstrained by other bodies epitomize liberated, un-coded flows, the nomadic lines of flight that fascinated Deleuze and Guattari. On the opposite end, bodies forced to remain fixed in striated space by other bodies epitomize the oppressive bio-politics of fixity (the panopticum, the prison) that fascinated Foucault. And the primary bio-political force that allows a group of bodies to control the mobility of other bodies is, as Virilio has shown, their capacity to generate speed.

This is why Virilio, moving beyond Foucault, emphasized that oppression also relies on fast-paced forms of mobility. Speed, in short, can serve both revolution and state domination. “Revolution is movement but movement is not revolution” (Speed and Politics, 43). The rapid movement of goods, flows, bodies, and messages all over the world is not revolutionary in and of itself. Capitalism thrives on this ever-faster speed. Yet this is regulated mobility built on militarized striations that, while letting global capital and imperial citizens flow across boundaries, force undesirable bodies to remain behind walled borders or fixed in the Guantánamo Bays of the global police state. The astounding mobilities stirred up by globalized capitalism, however, are hard to police; they create and multiply affective connectivities that splinter unexpected lines of flight cutting through these striations and producing lines of fracture. These are liberating lines of flight that erode imperial power from within its vortex of velocities. The globe is crisscrossed by an ongoing confrontation between these two opposed patterns of speed, which rephrasing Deleuze and Guattari are the arboreal flows coded by capitalist-state power and the un-coded nomad flows of insurgent, rhizomic velocities.

While these speeds are not of the same spatial nature they only exist in mixture, and therefore should not be seen as two opposed models. Deleuze and Guattari emphasized that rhizomes and trees are always entangled and that “there are knots of arborescence in rhizomes and rhizomatic offshoots in roots.” Facebook groups, with an administrator that posts messages that reach thousands of bodies, follow an arboreal dispersion within a rhizomic network, and the death-squads that patrol the streets of Tripoli in pick-up trucks are rhizomic lines of speed that follow an arboreal chain of command. Yet these patterns of speed do express that in revolutions a centralized, rooted form is challenged from all sides by swarms striking it and moving away to avoid repression. And revolutions defeat arboreal-centralized velocities by overwhelming them with mobile and swarm-like forms of bodily saturation. In order to understand this speed, we need to examine the mechanics of resonance expansion in more detail and historically, for this involves not only the speed of bodies and objects (vehicles, weapons) but also the speed of the resonances created by the multitude, a more complex affair (in future essays, I aim to explore a bio-political physics in more detail, a challenging task that requires drawing on its convergences with physics as well as its specificity as a bio-politics that cannot be reduced to positivist models of predictability).

Once produced by two or more bodies affecting each other after a good encounter, the capacity of resonance to expand in space depends, first, on whether those bodies meet other bodies with which they can resonate. The longer a resonance lasts and the farther it expands the stronger it becomes. During most of human history, the maximum speed at which a revolutionary resonance traveled was the speed of the bodies carrying it within them. At the start of the English Civil War in 1642, for instance, the insurgent resonance that made many bodies organize an uprising against the King could only expand if those bodies walked, ran, or rode horses to other villages to make other bodies resonate and join their struggle. Likewise, the resonance created by the French Revolution in 1789 travelled to Haiti through the bodies of revolutionaries who after several weeks on a boat brought with them (together with news, pamphlets, books) the sense of empowerment created in the streets of France. The speed of resonance expansion across the Atlantic was that of the ship, roughly 5 knots per hour. Once in Haiti, that resonance expanded at dramatic speed. Within two years, a revolutionary army made up of thousands of determined black bodies inspired by the French multitude destroyed the jewel of all French colonies, the highly profitable slave plantation of Sainte-Dominique.

Prior to the invention of the telegraph, the railways, and the steamboats, the speed of revolutionary resonances was roughly the same as the speed of the state attempts to crush them, particularly on land. The sea was a different type of space because of its smooth and liquid nature, controlled by fast ships owned by the state or merchant capital. Yet this state-corporate supremacy on the sea was often challenged by highly mobile non-state actors like pirates, which mastered the art of speed on agile boats hiding amid intricate islands or coastlines. On land, the maximum speed faced by rebels and state agents was that of the horse or animal-traction vehicles, even if the state had the upper hand in its military power, in creating military assemblages in cavalry units, and in counting on supply networks to sustain that speed for longer.

By the mid-1800s, however, new inventions in the mechanics of speed (the steam engine and the telegraph) profoundly altered this relative balance. These innovations marked a dramatic turning point in the history of human spatiality. From then on, state power increased due to its capacity to move troops at higher speed and to coordinate this mobility through rapid flows of information among places distant from each other. Yet two different mechanics of velocity were at play here: the speed of armed bodies on a train or a steamboat and the speed of the messages flashing through the telegraph lines. The most decisive was the latter. The supremacy of the telegraph was its unrivaled speed, which allowed for rapid coordination across thousands of kilometers and gave the state the power to master space: to be aware of what was going on simultaneously in different places. And this is why the infrastructure that facilitated these two velocities were more often than not built next to each other: telegraph lines running parallel to the railroads.

David Harvey perceptively argued that these technologies meant that whereas a revolutionary group could be successful in controlling a local place, for instance a town, the state had a superior control over space that allowed it to encircle it and crush it. This power, however, is not a transcendent quality of the state or capital but the immanent power of bodies to act and strike faster. Successful revolutionary resonances prevail precisely because they have superior control of space and create insurgent velocities that defeat the arboreal high-speed machinery of state violence. The most resilient guerilla groups are highly mobile and able to strike with stealth speed, like the elite commandos of the Vietnamese and Salvadorian guerrillas. And savvy insurgencies appropriate the means of communication of the day, as the Russian Bolsheviks did when they used the telegraph and the postal service to their advantage in outmaneuvering the Kerensky government in October 1917.

The insurgent velocities flowing through North Africa and the Middle-East, likewise, are inseparable from the speed of global networks of instant communication. And this requires a brief overview of the nodal spatiality of different media technologies: that is, the spatial layout of the nodes that produce messages and the nodes that receive them. In the twentieth century, radio and TV opened up and democratized access to nodes of message-reception but within an arboreal structure originating in a handful, and tightly-controlled, nodes of message production. The structure of both the radio and TV is hierarchical and their flows are unidirectional and emanate from a root that anchors the whole system: a handful of nodes based in a building somewhere (TV and radio stations) and controlling the messages sent out to millions of bodies who cannot but listen and watch. That the most influential TV nodes are controlled by the state or corporations gives these actors unparalleled power to modulate the reactive, fearful, inward-looking resonances necessary to reproduce exploitative bodily constellations based on profound inequalities.

The internet and mobile technologies, in contrast, are built on a multi-sited and rhizomic physical infrastructure with countless nodes of message-creation, even if the network has arboreal nodes such as Google or Facebook (as pointed out by Ian Buchanan). The dense arborescent knots that exist within wider rhizomic networks can be clearly seen in the picture to the right. On a daily basis, a complex, multilayered system like this channels billions of multi-directional flows created by millions of bodies who can potentially reach wide audiences without the mediation of media conglomerates. In 2010, Wikileaks brought to light with devastating clarity why the internet, while coded by state-corporate arboreal forms at multiple levels, does offer a liberating potential: a small group of bodies can make classified information about imperial operations accessible, in principle, to billions of bodies all over the planet. More importantly, they can do it despite the fierce opposition of the imperial elites. And that Wikileaks survived myriad cyber-attacks through the rapid creation of rhizomic networks of solidarity (the Wikileaks mirror sites) reveals that insurgent velocities on the web can outpace the speed of state censorship. Yet what recent debates about the political salience of the internet overlook is that what the web amplifies is the power to mobilize and coordinate bodies in actual spaces through equally rhizomic forms of speed.

In the Egyptian Revolution, the synergy between the velocities generated on these networks of instant communication and in the urban terrain was decisive in allowing the multitude outmaneuver state violence and state propaganda. The revolution was fought at different yet inseparable velocities: the speed of swarms of bodies clashing with the police on the streets and the much-faster speed of the affective resonances generated by those clashes and amplified over the internet and TV networks not controlled by the Egyptian state like Al Jazeera. Disembodied and projected instantly as images, sounds, and text onto countless computers and TV screens, these resonances became embodied again by affecting the millions of bodies watching, listening, and reading. Not all bodies were affected the same way. Yet millions resonated positively, and not just in Egypt.

Nikolai Grozni wrote about the affective impact that the resonance travelling at instant speed from Egypt had on his body following the news in Paris. “Ever since the uprising in Egypt began on Jan. 25, I have hardly moved an inch away from the TV screen. I may be in France, but my spirit is in Tahrir Square. I’m throwing stones. I’m breathing in tear gas. I’m lighting up Molotov cocktails. I’m dodging bullets. I’m fighting thick-headed policemen. I’m cursing every symbol of the regime until my voice cracks.” Contrary to what he claims, Grozni’s body (not just his spirit) was affectively and fully in sync with those bodies on Tahrir Square, to the point that the spatial distance between Egypt and France seemed to had dissolved. His body resonated, via his TV, together with those bodies on Tahrir Square. This instantaneous affectation amplified through global networks was the same that, a few days earlier, had inspired millions of Egyptian bodies following the news about the uprising in Tunisia to take to the streets to topple Mubarak.

The synergy between the streets and online social networks was in fact what triggered the opening salvo of the Egyptian Revolution on January 25. As analyzed by Charles Hirschkind, in the previous months social networks became a potent resonance machine amplifying what the Egyptian media made invisible: bodies terrorized by the state. The affective power was epitomized by the widespread circulation in June 2010 of the photo of the disfigured, tortured face of Khalel Said, who had been beaten up to death by two police officers. The visceral resonance created by the image of the corpse led to the creation of a Facebook group (We Are All Khalel Said) that was to have a central role in the organization of the January 25 demonstrations. This image reached myriad computer screens and affected millions of bodies, as Jon Beasley-Murray would put it, at a non-discursive, non-ideological level. “That was the turning point,” said Heba Morayef, the Human Rights Watch advocate in Egypt to The Guardian. “Prior to that, demonstrations in favour of political reform struck many ordinary Egyptians as somewhat abstract.” The tortured face of a 28-year-old man dissipated those abstraction and made many bodies resonate out of empathy with a young man tortured and murdered by state agents. Activists on Facebook turned that bodily trace of terror into a deterritorialized weapon of resonance expansion.

Corpses open up potent territories in resonance acceleration. A corpse is a body that can no longer be affected by other bodies. It is a body that cannot resonate. Yet it is a body that can still affect other bodies, and powerfully, to the point that it can do so more viscerally dead than alive. Spinoza did not explore the unidirectional affectations involving the dead body, but anthropologist Alan Klima did. In his book The Funeral Casino, an enthralling exploration of the power of corpses amid state terror and Buddhist meditation in Thailand, Klima shows that dead bodies, especially those murdered by the state, create affects of unpaid debt with those corpses’ former lives. Likewise, the disfigured face of a lifeless Khalel Said created empathy through Facebook (We are all Khalel Said) and inspired many to honor their debt to the many victims of state terror by confronting the state on the streets.

This is why the Mubarak regime tried to shut down rhizomic networks of instant communication (internet, phone systems) transmitting these resonances, turning off the famous “internet switch” in key buildings in Cairo (especially the Telecom Egypt Building) and going after the bodies of on-line activists. Khalil Said, after all, was killed because he was a blogger exposing police corruption and Wael Ghonim was captured on the street and detained for twelve days because of his activism on Facebook. This is the same state tactic of reterritorialization involved in imperial attempts to imprison the body of Julian Assange, which shows that state velocities also seek synergy between their repressive actions on the networks of communication and on actual bodies in the streets.

Since bodies coming together in space are the main source of revolutionary resonance, the primary aim of the state in all cases has been to disband those bodies and take them off the streets. The resulting clash between arboreal and rhizomic velocities was particularly dramatic in Egypt. In planning for the January 25 protests, activists decided to take over the streets through patterns of high mobility and dispersion in order to avoid being pinned down in space (“kettled”) by the police as it had happened in previous rallies, a strategy of swarming also adopted by activists in the UK to challenge kettles. An Egyptian activist told The Guardian, “This time we were determined to do something different – be multi-polar, fast-moving, and too mobile for the amin markazi [central security forces].” And they were indeed too fast, mobile, and multi-polar for the state, stretching riot police units thin and outmaneuvering them over several days. At one point, an overwhelmed police gave up and withdrew from the streets of Egypt. In this urban terrain, as The Invisible Committee would put it, the centrifugal force of the multitude prevailed over the centripetal force of the police. The footage of the epic, several–hour battle for the control of the Qasr El Nile bridge on January 28, shown here, illustrates how amid clouds of teargas these mobile swarms came together, dispersed when attacked, and pushed the police back even in a narrow space such as a bridge. The successful occupation of the bridge anticipated the occupation of Tahrir Square and, a few days later, the toppling of Mubarak.

Few events embodied the Egyptian Revolution more dramatically than when on February 11, the day Mubarak fell, a multitude surrounded the building of the state-run TV in Cairo on the Nile, while determined masses were taking over the rest of the city and the nation to topple the regime once and for all. That dangerously resonant bodily saturation encroaching on the root of the state propaganda machine was powerful enough, despite the protective ring of soldiers, to make the bodies inside the building change the tone of the modulation emitted from the arboreal state node. Instead of propagating fear, the state TV began endorsing the revolutionary resonances emanating from Tahrir Square. In Egypt, rhizomic speeds prevailed by saturation not only in the clashes with the police but also in the modulation of resonances in arboreal networks of mass communication.

These mobilities were politically effective not so much because of the speed of individual bodies, which for the most part walked or ran, but because of their multi-polar nature, which was able to saturate the urban terrain and outpace the state. The systemic speed of this human swarm was enhanced by its myriad pulsations, widespread spatial dispersion, and bodily density. A gripping example are the videos (here and here) quickly posted on YouTube that show police vans and unmarked vehicles driving at very high speed amid large crowds without even trying to avoid them. On the one hand, these vehicles’ lightning speed made them run over and kill several bodies. On the other hand,this is a desperate velocity of escape from a hostile space controlled by resonant bodies. And while the videos were posted online to highlight state brutality, they also signal a rapid retreat by the state from streets saturated by the multitude.

These rhizomic speeds are constitutive of an insurrection without leaders, hierarchical organizations, or parties (most of which had been neutralized or decapitated by the regime). This non-hierarchical bodily form is the multitude as multiplicity. And as Stathis Gourgouris observed, this multitude never gestured toward any transcendent or superior authorization. No leader, no vanguard, no revolutionary party, just resonant bodies on the streets. The most popular slogan chanted in Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain or Libya has been and is, “The people want to bring down the regime.” Originated in signs and on Facebook pages in Tunisia, this chanting by myriad resonant bodies materializes the constituent, leaderless power of the multitude.

This wave of revolutionary expansion has been compared to that of 1989, which peaked between June (Tiananmen Square, electoral defeat of the Polish Communists) and December (fall of Ceausescu in Romania). But as Emily Bell noted on a panel organized by Al Jazeera, comparing the two: “We are now looking a much more compressed time frame. Six weeks instead of six months.” In addition to be spreading faster, these revolutions, unlike those of 1989, are opening widening lines of fracture within a crucial node of global imperial power. The global elites fear the speed of these revolutions, which is outpacing their ability to contain them and understand them. Since Tunisia, these elites have been running several steps behind, out of step, tripping into each other, out of words, contradicting themselves, making transparent their hypocrisy, one day being vague and urging “orderly transitions” if protesters are murdered by states that are satellites to the United States (Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen) and, the next day, firmly condemning state violence if the regime is more hostile to, or independent from, imperial designs (Iran, Libya). Similar anxieties have surfaced in pro-Gaddafi interventions by some self-ascribed revolutionary leaders like Daniel Ortega and Hugo Chávez, who now seem fearful of revolutions. In their different expressions, these are all anxieties about the power of resonant multitudes to dissolve geopolitical formations that once seemed solid.

The state still counts on powerful weapon systems that allow it to destroy resonant bodies at unparalleled speed. The capacity of the state in Libya to unleash violence rapidly is, at a local and rudimentary scale, that of the global imperial machine, which is unrivaled in its power to murder or kidnap bodies practically anywhere on the planet, as the US does on a daily basis. But the revolutions of 2011 are teaching us that the synergy between unarmed multitudes on the streets and global networks of communication can outpace state velocities. This is fundamental for the success of revolutions committed, like the Egyptian, to non-violence. This is the first time since the invention of the telegraph that non-state constellations of bodies have such an influence on instant forms of communication. Hence the epochal nature of these revolutions, forged through affective encounters on the streets yet expanding elsewhere at unparalleled speed. And affects are, as Deleuze and Guattari argued, “projectiles just like weapons.”

The body is the only manufacturer and conduit of this affective weapon. In Ethics, Spinoza wrote, “No one has yet determined the limits of the body’s capabilities: that is, nobody as yet has learned from experience what the body can or cannot do” (III, 2). In his book on Spinoza, Deleuze rightly argues that this is a provocation, an incentive for us to go farther, for “we need to discover more in the body than we know.” What revolutions teach us, and what we tend to forget, is that resonant bodies bring down states.

From Space and Politics

1 Comment

  1. great stuff.

    In a sense this a key difference between an anti-cut manifestation in London and an anti-gov demo in Tahir Square, is in the fact that in London we are facing a government aware (at least to some extent) of the possibility of bodies’ vibration to generate a resonance, to produce an atmosphere, able to overcome the tipping point beyond which unpredictability surfaces. Whilst Middle East protests testifies of the inadequacy of old arborescent binarising tactics of the State to deal with rhizomatic, IT-enabled movements, protests in London show the adequacy of a government reaction which is not aimed at blocking the movement of bodies, merely in keeping their vibration low: the smooth control allows for movement provided the intensity is too low for events to emerge – which of course calls for yet another radical reformulation of protest tactics


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