Commissioned by the Orient Institut Beirut, under the congress “Inverted Worlds”

Linear and non-linear narratives in the context of Arab revolutions

Panel as part of the Congress on Cultural Motion in the Arab Region
Orient-Institut Beirut, October 4-9, 2012

The revolutions in the Arab world are breaking through the timeline of these countries’ histories. The familiar linear narrative was disrupted by actions that led these countries to different directions, culturally, socially, and politically. Tweets, Facebook status updates, Blackberry messages, and practically all html related material were a major catalyst in the so-called “Arab Spring”. Digitalization in its multifaceted dimensions was in fact one of the pre-conditions of these societal motions.

In his essay “Deep Remixability” Lev Manovich describes software as species within the common ecology. Once released, software, like species, start interacting, mutating, and making hybrids. To explain, he uses the example of the designer who, by the end of the 1990s, was able to combine operations and representational formats such as a bitmapped still image, an image sequence, a vector drawing, a 3D model and digital video specific to these programs within the same design – regardless of its destination media. He finally compares the production of software, using his pertinent analogy, to the Czechoslovakian Velvet Revolution, where a whole system was uprooted in an almost invisible pace. At this point in the Arab world, we are witnessing the change that is a recipient of this deep remixability.

In the digital era, narrative has lost its body to become volatile and viral, making its way to fluid transitions between different states of materiality. Narrative is manifested through information spaces that allow random access; the sequential is no longer a must. The elements of the linear narratives (script, scenario, scene, and the like…) are now highlighted, tagged, mapped, annotated… thus accompanying the narrative to its deciphered realm: A narrative is today searchable, browsable, and mutable in most cases.

On another note, narrative owes its current form to the inherited strictly linear form. The polemic in the narrative is derived from its swinging between the strictly linear that embeds a hierarchical structure and the non-linear’s seemingly infinite possibilities to reproduce and reconfigure the information contained in these aforementioned structures.

The panel “Linear and non-linear narratives in the context of Arab revolutions” brings together researchers/artists/activists to discuss different narrative forms (music, cinema, theatre, video works, novels, blogs, social media, computing), opening the way to debate new media’s fluidity in relation to current revolutions.

List of participants:

Matthias Kispert, Hassan Choubassi, Monika Halkort, Lev Manovich, Marwan Kraidy, Lotte Fasshauer, Roula Hajj Ismail, Amal Khalaf, and Sahar Mandour.


Matthias Kispert (D-Fuse and University of the Arts, London):
Debates on Social Media and Revolution
This presentation is two-fold: Part one is devoted to reflections on the debates about the relations between digital technology/social media and revolutionary movements, while part two is a sound performance called Discontent, made from recordings of protests, mainly in London, captured over more than 10 years. Horizontal networks of independently operating nodes, with their links to random access memory and nonlinear narratives, are seen as new models for political activism and revolutionary change, empowering the individual and avoiding the pitfalls of institutionalised power, while still enabling broad movements for social change to come into being. Events like the Arab Spring or the Occupy movement point toward the possibilities of non-hierarchical networks, aided by technology, gathering spontaneously to mount a powerful challenge to the established order. However, after initial enthusiasm by a wide selection of the media, at least those of Europe and the US, many commentators have begun to question whether the role of new technologies has been misrepresented or overestimated. In addition, critics of Communicative Capitalism, such as Jodi Dean, assert that in the current abundance of communication individual messages are flattened to mere content, devoid of context and commodified. What emerges from considering the tension between these opposing positions is a more complex narrative, one that is most likely non-linear and definitely open-ended. This paper aims to open up the debate for a critical approach to the theme. Finally, the performance of Discontent is a re-interpretation of the audible matter of protests, following multiple routes and overlaps, including 2001 May Day riots, protests on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, the attack on the Royal Bank of Scotland building during the G20 protests in 2009, as well as the first days of the Occupy the London Stock Exchange. The piece aims to make audible the affective links established through sound between people who fight oppression collectively, the empowering and disruptive potential of noise as a cultural form, as well as the mixture of adrenaline rush and fear that is experienced once protest goes beyond peaceful.

Hassan Choubassi (European Graduate School/Lebanese International University):
The Masses: From the Implosion of Fantasies to the Explosion of the Political. From Actual to Virtual to Augmented
With new technologies of smart phones and mobile tablets, the image has taken a new dimension. It is no longer a representation nor a simulation nor virtual substitution, but rather actual reality itself augmented by the digital parameters of mobile devices, a step further beyond the actual and the virtual into a superimposition of both. Living under severe political oppression, the Arab masses resorted to virtual reality where it is a safe haven to express themselves and their most extreme fantasies without any restriction. Cyber societies sprout in an exponential way caused by biased and cruel regimes of dictatorships that forbids political change and public political expression. Arab political regimes exercised a heavy censorship on conventional media and enforced a single totalitarian political party that does not allow power devolution. With the advent of the Internet Arab masses imploded in the virtual to its extreme saturation until, eventually, they exploded in the actual through revolution.

Monika Halkort (Queen’s University Belfast):
Counting versus  Narration. The Database as Political Form
This presentation discusses the number based ontology of technical media as counter imaginary to conventional historical narratives. Drawing upon recent research on the role of digital technologies and the database in the reconstruction of a Palestinian refugee camp, I will juxtapose the linear trajectory of narrative sequence with the iterative structure of computer algorithms as alternative vector to think transformation and change. The database does not merely represent social worlds but rather diffracts them into itemised lists of data objects that defy any attempt to fix them into finite form. Taking the infinite variability and modulation of the data fragments as my starting point, I want to shift our attention to the critical threshold space between the historical imagination built into narratives of resistance and revolution and the real time logic of informational practices and procedures so as to open up new arenas to think about modalities of resistance and instituting change. It is here in this ephemeral sphere of hidden scripts and algorithms where histories and justice are written and where the source code of revolutions can be traced.

Lev Manovich (University of San Diego):
How to See One Million Images?
The explosive growth of cultural content on the web including social media, and the digitization by museums, libraries, and other agencies opened up fundamentally new possibilities for the studies of both contemporary and historical cultures. But how do we navigate massive visual collections of user-generated content which may contain billions of images? What new theoretical concepts do we need to deal with the new scale of born-digital culture? How do we use data mining to question everything we know about cultures? In 2007 we have established Software Studies Initiative ( at the University of California, San Diego, to begin working on these questions. I will show a number of our projects highlighting how visualization allows us to see patterns in cultural data which were not visible before. The examples include analysis of art, photography, film, animation, motion graphics, video games, magazines, and other visual media. The two large scale projects which will be shown are visualization of 1 million pages of manga (Japanese comics) pages and 1 million images from deviantArt (largest social network for non-professional art).

Marwan M. Kraidy (University of Pennsylvania/AUB):
Walls of Contention: Virality, Remix and Self-Reflexivity in Revolutionary Graffiti in Beirut and Cairo
Based on field research in Cairo and on twelve months of urban ethnography in Beirut, including interviews with graffiti artists, which has yielded a photographic archive of more than 300 graffiti, this paper focuses on revolutionary graffiti as a viral and recombinant cultural form that creates what I elsewhere called a vibrant hypermedia space of cultural expression and political contention (see Reality Television and Arab Politics: Contention in Public Life. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010). By definition hypermedia space is networked, non-linear and intertextual. Graffiti are a viral form because stencils are uploaded by their creators on Facebook pages, downloaded by activists in other locations, and within hours appear on the walls of multiple cities. For example, graffiti created by Egyptian artists have through Facebook postings, tweets, and in some cases multimedia text messages, been appropriated by Syrian revolutionaries and appear on Beirut walls, with the Lebanese capital becoming a vast repository of Syrian revolutionary and counter-revolutionary graffiti. Importantly, the same stencil is sprayed by various individuals who have no relationship to each other or to the creator of the stencil. Graffiti are a recombinant form because once they are sprayed on walls, they are subverted, modified, and appropriated by various actors who wage representational battles on city walls. In other words, covering, subverting, highlighting and remixing elements of graffiti enact public arguments and dialogues. Graffiti are self-reflexive because they are a prime site for critical commentary about other media—television, Facebook and Twitter, even graffiti themselves. The use of iconographic stencils in graffiti and their spread throughout urban spaces means that they reach audiences who have limited or no access to social media. By narratively linking various media platforms, graffiti play an important role in constructing hypermedia space. After (1) establishing a theoretical grounding to the notions of virality, remix and self-reflexivity, (2) describing the corpus of graffiti and proposing a taxonomy organizing various graffiti according to criteria of styles and themes, the paper (3) tracks down a handful of graffiti, (3a) mapping their diffusion between social media and city walls (3b), analyzing patters of remix and aesthetic and political subversion, and (3c) explaining how self-reflexivity articulates virality and remixability.

Lotte Fasshauer (Freie Universität Berlin):
Revealing by Concealing: Lyrical Narratives and Performative Immediacy in the Video Works of Ghassan Salhab
Narratology offers a wide range of differentiated definitions and descriptive categories. Transmedial narratology looks at the transferability of literature‐related terminology and concepts. Narratological analysis can also be applied to films: concepts like diegesis, the structuring of time, focalisation or unreliable narration can be investigated in this context. Narratological terminology often reaches its limits in the field of poetry. Conversely, these boundaries expose the characteristics of lyrical films. Feature films that integrate lyrical texts exhibit, albeit temporarily, a different compositional principle. The diegetic world is left behind and temporal and spatial references become blurred. The performative dimension of the spoken and written language is particularly revealed in these moments. The lyrical voice tends to create an impression of an immediate performative presence. This tendency can be specified through a narratological perspective that considers the characteristics of lyrical texts. The focus of this paper is on the relationships between film/video and poetry, especially on ways of portraying time in videos, as well as perfomative dimensions in video works by Ghassan Salhab, film auteur, video artist and poet. I will also consider how political/historical and theological/philosophical aspects are linked to the lyrical dimensions of the videos. Poetry plays a major role in Ghassan Salhab’s films and videos. His aesthetic is based less on continuity and consistency and more on the assembly of disparate elements, influenced as it is by the paradoxical experiences that emerge in periods of disorder provoked by war and subsequent re‐orientation. The narratives in Salhab’s videos often follow cyclical structures. We can therefore talk of non‐linear narrativity as an artistic reaction to political upheavals, as well as those in mental and media histories, as a consequence of war. It is especially in periods of political disorder and historical upheavals that existing narratives are called into question; the accepted conceptual structure no longer matches reality and new ways of approaching reality are forged. Poetic modes of expression become more apparent as soon as the conflict reaches a certain level of tension and prosaic solutions no longer seem possible.

Roula Haj-Ismail (Phd Candidate at EGS, amateur teacher and artist):
The Non-Linearity in Transdisciplinarity and/or Let’s Sweat it Out Instead
With the demise of the so-called “holy” school textbook and its evaporation from our classrooms, teachers were given the opportunity to construct the beginning, middle and ending of their curriculum, programmes, lessons and teaching engagements. Some welcomed this new freedom and saw it as an opportunity for more authentic teaching and learning. While others retreated into their caves, refusing to participate in the inevitable. The inevitable, is this mind shift, that every educator has to make in order to remain part of the new learning environment, one that goes way beyond the classroom walls and any national, regional, or local space. The underlying model of our teaching and learning within the institution I teach is transdisciplinarity. A new term that is always underlined in red as a misspelling. Transdisciplinarity guides our philosophy of education as well as our beliefs and values. Not Interdisciplinarity, nor multidisciplinarity, but TRANSDISCIPLINARITY. Within our classrooms, we strive to offer a multiplicity of knowledge sources. There is neither A NARRATOR, nor is there A NARRATIVE. We follow transdisciplinary themes that are globally relevant and encourage students to be internationally minded. At the same time we have educators who still hold on tightly to what they have become accustomed to. For example, they insist on teaching social studies chronologically, namely we begin at the beginning of history, i.e. prehistory, and teach it at the beginning of school, i.e. preschool. Then every year we move to the next period in history, so that by grade 5, students will study modern history and the 20th century political systems. This is an example of a strictly linear form of narration, that is being planned for application. Both of the above instances exist within the same educational institution and result in a heightened tension between linearity in educationional narratives and transdisciplinarity.
And this tension is where our conversation begins, in
the im/possibility of action
making tabouli,
in shifting boundaries,
in mediated memories,
in fragmentation
the Tabouli Performer

Amal Khalaf (Center for Possible Studies – Serpentine Gallery London):
Circles to Squares: Bahrain’s digital public sphere
In March 2011 the Bahraini government demolished the Pearl Monument. Bahrain TV relays aerial view images of the former monument lying in pieces on a mound of grass that was the Pearl Roundabout which, for the previous few weeks, protestors had been occupying. The roundabout itself would later be removed and replaced by the Al Farooq junction in an effort to symbolically cleanse the city of the main focal point of the most sustained protests in twenty years. Built in 1982 to commemorate a GCC summit, the huge, milky white monument was clichéd, just another Khaleeji roundabout that featured white sails and a pearl. As regionally clichéd as it seemed, the Lulu or Pearl Roundabout was an icon for Bahrain, appearing on postcards, t-shirts and mugs sold in the suq as well as the 500 fils coin. Lulu roundabout became ‘Pearl Square’ and the once flat symbol became highly charged. The image of the roundabout has been circulated over and over the Internet by international broadcasting channels, YouTube and state run channels in an argument of representation and re-representation. Whole channels, websites and movements in Bahrain now use its image. So familiar is the jerking, grainy image of the bones of Lulu monument crashing in on itself. The grainy, jerky mobile phone video is no stranger in the Bahraini media-verse. In the strictly controlled media landscape of the Gulf, Khaleejis have long taken the phone video to go to a third space where public space was denied. Here, jokes, secretly filmed girls dancing and boys skating with their slippers out of moving car doors. Where, as Baudrillard would say “the public stage, the public place have been replaced by a gigantic circulation, ventilation, and ephemeral connecting space.” Now the images of the private universes of individuals and families have been replaced and instead an argument of representation has ensued. This paper traces representations, appropriations and symbolism of the Lulu roundabout while touching on issues of public space both real and virtual, through found online footage, images and artists work. The creative/destructive inanimate mobile phone video technologies that have transported the Gulf out of this world and onto the next, have now brought Lulu’s inanimate, empty symbol to its second life.

Sahar Mandour (Assafir Newspaper):
قصة الأمس
في الخامس والعشرين من كانون الثاني العام 2011، تغيّرت قصة مصر.
لكن الصحف الصادرة في الخامس والعشرين المذكور، كانت تروي قصة الأمس.
فكيف كانت حياة مصر تجري في ذاك الأمس، عندما كانت القصة القديمة تتجه بلا تردّد إلى تتماتها، بثبات لم يراودها شكّ للحظة بأنه قابل للاهتزاز؟
أي عالم رسمت معالمه، بينما العالم الذي يعرفه المصريون يتجه إلى زواله؟ بأي عناوين احتفت، عند أي أحداث توقفت؟ كأنها الصفحة الأخيرة من رواية لا تعرف إنها ستنتهي اليوم.
الصحف، القومية كما المعارضة، المصرية كما العربية والدولية، هي تلك الصفحة الأخيرة.
سأعود إلى قراءتها، لأعيد تركيب مشهد النهار الأخير من العهد السابق لثورة، مثلما حفظه الأرشيف اليومي، بأخباره السياسية والأمنية والاقتصادية والثقافية والفنية والمتفرقة، مصرياً وعربياً وعالمياً.
ثم سأعاود كتابتها بلغة روائية، كقصةٍ قصيرة تبدأ كما الأيام العادية، وتنتهي كما الأيام العادية، غافلةً عن سياقٍ آخر يسكنها ويتربص بها.
هو مشهد الفصل الأخير.. ولم يكن يعرف كتّابه حينها أنه الأخير.

Documentation of panel: