Space after the Casbah

How the "Arab Spring" demonstrates an emergent spatiality where the boundaries between public and private space have dissipated.

The Arab countries have always been ahead of the West. There, civilisation not only started, but also endured and thrived long after it had collapsed in Rome. Now, once again, the uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East remind us of the experimental nature of these lands.

If the line between the East and the West and North and South is one of those geopolitical hot zones in which war and revolution have been ever-present, commentators have nevertheless chosen the crises of the 1950s as the reference point for the current chain of events. After all, it was then that the first wave of imperialism had become obsolete. Capital and modernity had spread throughout the world, permeating all forms of life. In doing so, they came undone, their inherent contradictions coming to a head in Algeria. Simultaneously ancient and far more advanced, Algeria was the Other for modernist France, a territory that Corbusier proposed to destroy and rationalise with his Plan Obus ("schrapnal"), his most thorough attempt to implement the futurist war against the past. But instead of the West's fantasy of modernisation and logic, Algieria became a birthplace for post-modernisation.

The uprisings of Algeria's People's War inspired a generation of similarly disaffected youths both in the colonised world and in the West. Gillo Pontecorvo gave the spatiality of this rebellion cinematic form in his 1966 The Battle of Algiers, which depicted the three-dimensional complexity of urban guerrilla warfare and the casbah. The Battle of Algiers would become a key visual text for a generation of rebels, such as the Black Panthers and protesters against the Vietnam War. The film was suppressed in France, where the government suspected it would play a destabilising role. Still, as French rule in Algeria came undone, a generation of young people felt similarly disaffected and oppressed by a modernity that likewise offered them little satisfaction. Sensing that the trouble would spread from South to North, colonial administrators were called back to Paris to implement their interpretations of the Plan Obus on the banlieues of Paris, late modernist spaces to which both the French proletariat and the incoming immigrant population continue to be exiled. Against this turn of colonisation inward upon the centre, the '68 generation pitted the rhizomatic, heterotopian space that had been so clearly demonstrated in The Battle of Algiers.

But The Battle of Algiers also inspired counter-insurgent military forces worldwide to adopt "state terrorism" against their own people, particularly the use of torture against suspects. In Argentina, it was screened at the Navy Mechanics School (ESMA), the training ground for soldiers who would later employ the methods of the French colonisers against the civilians of their own country during the Dirty War. In Israel, The Battle of Algiers was screened soon after the launch of the First Intifada. If left-wing Israelis pointed to the failure of torture in the film—the French win the battle but lose the war—the right wing used the film to brand all Palestinian civilians, even children, as terrorists. More than that, as Eyal Weizman explains, Israel has become a leader in developing post-modern warfare, finding ways to outthink their opponents in occupying rhizomatic space, even using the theories of Gilles Deleuze and Bernard Tschumi to support their theories of spatial warfare. More recently, as the Iraq War began to turn against US forces, the United States Special Operations chiefs held a screening of The Battle of Algiers in the Pentagon.

This year's "Arab Spring" demonstrates how a new spatiality is emerging. First, of course, there is the cause and the object of the uprisings. The real-estate bubble of the last decade reshaped the Arab lands, as a massive underclass toiled to build insanely expensive luxury villas and towering skyscrapers for an oligarchy that grew ever more powerful. With the bubble deflated, the poor saw their prospects of economic survival evaporate and, with little to lose, turned against their leaders. This time the battle isn't in the casbah. Rather, with the rise of network culture, boundaries between public and private space have dissipated. On the one hand, this entails the very real possibility that our electronic communications are monitored at all times. Explosives are no longer necessary to "walk through walls", as the Israeli Defense Force did in the Intifada, when countries employ supercomputers and "deep packet inspection" equipment to analyse traffic. If the casbah is no hiding place, there can be reversals too. The loss of boundaries between public and private allows the rebels to think in different ways. Against the elusive, rhizomatic tendrils of networked capital, the rebels occupied public spaces such as Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, or Pearl Roundabout in Manama, Bahrain. Even though governments in Egypt and Libya at least shut off the Internet, the knowledge that social media and new transnational media entities—most notably Al Jazeera—would spread their message and the risk they faced worldwide made their risk worthwhile.

We are only at an early stage of the new shift in space and power. Its architectural manifestations are far from clear, but one thing does seem certain: the old distinction between physical and virtual spaces is going away. Developing means of mapping, representing and politically acting within this terrain of unprecedented complexity is the task for our generation.

Kazys Varnelis is an architecture historian and director of Netlab, Columbia GSAPP.

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