‘If the casbah is no hiding place, there can be reversals too’
The Battle of Algiers, Rizzoli, 1966
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.
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.