KEY READINGS: Talal Asad on ‘Cultural Translation in British Social Anthropology’

Cultural Translation and academic appropriation

Talal Asad’s essay, ‘The Concept of Cultural Translation in British Social Anthropology’ is one of the key reference points for contemporary thinking around cultural translation.

In the briefest of terms, Talal’s piece responds to a tendency within social anthropology to explain other cultures in terms the researcher already understands. For example, rather than attending to the very specific nuances in the attitudes an indigenous tribe might hold towards holy days or religious festivals, social anthropologists tended  to spot a ‘hidden pattern’ that told him or her about the tribe’s wider religious attitudes, their belief in a system of gods/God, etc. This might not be a problem if the tribe has an understanding of God that matches the anthropologists’ ideas, or indeed if there is a hidden and connected system of meaning that links an idea of God to a holy day to a festival together, or if there is a religion underlies their activities and cements it together conceived in the way an anthropologist conceives it. But this, in Asad’s view, is often not the case.  By ‘detecting’ a pattern of meaning or correspondence between otherwise discreet elements the anthropologist has imposed  their own frame of reference.

For those familiar with poststructuralist/postmodernist theory, this type of cultural translation, which might also be called cultural appropriation, should be immediately recognisable. Asad was after all writing in the 80s, when French thinkers like Foucault and Derrida started to have an impact on a wide range of disciplines. But interestingly Asad extends the argument I set out above to suggest that, in fact, this essentially reductive practice of cultural translation is institutional.  Scholars, he says, habitually take materials gained in the field and, consciously or unconsciously, translate them into a language they understand – that of their own society and culture, yes, but sometimes even into terms of the academy, academic discourse, the norms and terms of the discipline. In our fictional example, this would be the assumption of a network of meaning that can be unpacked and presented to scholars in the West. In doing so, in finding neat objects of study in other cultures that are ready to be exported in academic papers, monographs, etc, the anthropologists also erase the specificities they encounter. He calls this ‘cultural translation’. Asad holds up a significant paper by Ernest Gellner as emblematic of cultural translation:

‘Although it is now many years since Gellner’s paper was first published, it represents a doctrinal position that is still popular today. I have in mind the sociologism according to which religious ideologies are said to get their real meaning from the political or economic structure, and the self-confirming methodology according to which this reductive semantic principle is evident to the (authoritative) anthropologist and not to the people being written about. This position therefore assumes that it is not only possible but necessary for the anthropologist to act as translator and critic at one and the same time. I regard this position as untenable, and think that it is relations and practices of power that give it a measure of viability.’ (p. 164)

What’s perhaps more damning is the use amongst anthropologists of a certain academic rhetoric intended on giving objectivity and uniformity to the field.

‘What we have here is a style easy to teach, to learn, and to reproduce (in examination answers, assessment essays, and dissertations). It is a style that facilitates the textualization of other cultures, that encourages the construction of diagrammatic answers to complex cultural questions, and that is well suited to arranging foreign cultural concepts in clearly marked heaps of “sense” or “nonsense.” Apart from being easy to teach and to imitate, this style promises visible results that can readily be graded. Such a style must surely be at a premium in an established university discipline that aspires to standards of scientific objectivity. Is the popularity of this style, then not a reflection of the kind of pedagogic institution we inhabit?’ (p. 164)

Asad’s point isn’t simply that some anthropologists code other cultures in terms they understand. It’s that the entire discipline, its conventions, institutional practices, and discursive tendencies, is complicit in the practice.

How is it useful for us?

Cultural translation is handy because it very quickly and clearly describes a wide-spread phenomenon, something that takes place at an institutional level, affects the style and mode by which we as scholars communicate, and is tuned in to power relations. It is easy therefore to see how cultural translation is a manifestation of a more general imperialist tendency in Western culture. Scholars who are interested in culture that travels to and from the West will want to take note.

Asad’s critique also forces us to attend to our own writing. Are there assumptions within the way we write that promote or conceal power relations in some way? What are the assumptions we make as media and culture scholars? Are there ways in which we ‘translate’ the culture we examine back into terms (only) academics understand, and, if we do this, if this is part and parcel of scholarship itself, what are the consequences for those more intimately involved in this culture than us?

The idea of cultural translation as an institutional phenomenon is particularly useful for studies that wish to relate individual practices up to broader structural frameworks (see, for example, work in the Creative Industries). Cultural translation, at least in one of its first formulations, is not something that takes place on the intersubjective level alone. Asad’s approach forces us to consider how institutions, organizations, groups, might practice cultural translation.


Asad, Talal. “The concept of cultural translation in British social anthropology.” Writing culture: The poetics and politics of ethnography 1 (1986): 141-164.

GUEST POST: Esperança Bielsa on ‘Linguistic Hospitality’

by Dr Esperança Bielsa

(this is an extract from E Bielsa and A Aguilera, ‘Politics of Translation: A Cosmopolitan Approach’, European Journal of Cultural and Political Sociology, 4:1, 7-24.)

The fundamental ethnocentrism of translation, the reductive tendency that is present in any culture, makes it necessary to formulate a politics of translation in any cosmopolitan project. A politics of translation based on the ethical purpose of translating, which according to Berman is to open up in writing a certain relation with the other, to fertilize what is one’s own through the mediation of what is foreign. Invoking Derrida’s notion of hospitality, Ricoeur has stated that translators can find happiness in what he calls linguistic hospitality, appealing to a regime of correspondence without adequacy that does not erase the irreducibility of the pair of what is one’s own and what is foreign. Only linguistic hospitality understood as an absolute or unconditional hospitality that lets the strangeness of the foreign tongue arrive and does not hide it under a pretended equivalence or false familiarity will make it possible to fertilize what is one’s own through the mediation of what is foreign. Absolute hospitality, as Derrida points out, breaks with the law of hospitality as a right or as a duty. Beyond the obvious reason that an ethical translation of the other, that is, a translation that does justice to the difference of the other, is not contemplated in any regime of rights, one would need to approach a politics of translation based on linguistic hospitality as a responsibility and not as a right. In many instances, this responsibility not only anticipates the law, or is even positioned in certain cases against the norm so that justice can be done, but refers to the circumstances and conditions in which genuine communication can be established. This cannot be articulated from a rights based approach, which approves of any type of communication as long as nobody’s rights are infringed.

An identity that reveals a glimpse of linguistic hospitality could avoid an identity that autoimmunizes itself in processes of closure, of a repetition that is assumed to be eternal but is still ephemeral and fragile, only less flexible and often less resistant and capable of survival. What at the philogenetical level distinguishes intelligence from instinct is not much more than this flexibility, which is impossible to sustain through the preservation of a dogmatic core of origins and essence that the old identitarian identity serves as an idol. There is no lasting tradition that is not renewed by the foreign. Linguistic hospitality allows for this innovation without parting blindly with what deserves to be preserved. Thus, linguistic hospitality could be the core of a politics of translation that is open to the foreign, neither closed nor absolutely open. Where Derridean hospitality would invoke a negative theology without any remaining borders, and where Habermasian tolerance would demand equality across borders, a politics of translation centred on linguistic hospitality draws a porous border in a cosmopolitan space. It really follows a perspective that has led the last Derrida to preserve a minimal nation-state in an international context, and Habermas to insist on a cosmopolitan constitution with few remaining borders. In its short distance from real hospitality, such politics of translation could give social shape to welcoming foreignness, conform it in language, that material of our wakefulness and dreams, of collective longing, that has modified and stirs our flesh, sending it beyond a spirit conceived as mere ideality, beyond culture as a mere symbolic game.

About the contributors:

Antonio Aguilera is Associate Professor at the Department of Philosophy of the University of Barcelona. He is the author of Hombre y cultura (Trotta 1996) and of introductions to Adorno’s Actualidad de la filosofía (Paidós 1991) and Gehlen’s Antropología filosófica (Paidós 1993). He has published articles on Benjamin and Adorno, and book chapters on aesthetics, ethics and violence, time and history, memory and forgetting, etc.
 Esperança Bielsa is Associate Professor at the Department of Sociology of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. She is the author of Cosmopolitanism and Translation (Routledge 2016) and The Latin American Urban Crónica (Lexington Books 2006), co-author, with Susan Bassnett, of Translation in Global News(Routledge 2009), and co-editor, with Christopher Hughes, of Globalization, Political Violence and Translation (Palgrave Macmillan 2009).

CLUSTER STATEMENT: Cultural Translation in Jazz Studies

Each of the six research clusters at BCMCR have produced a statement on what cultural translation means for researchers in their area. The statement for the Jazz Studies cluster is as follows:

“Jazz is a global music whose complex and contested history is inseparable from many of the most important social and political movements of the twentieth-century. It speaks to diverse communities throughout the world on themes of freedom, spontaneity, virtuosity, improvisation, individuality and collectivity, as well as mediating major transformations in the relationship between high art and popular culture. Questions of cultural translation are central to Jazz Studies at BCMCR, and our research frequently looks at the connections between local contexts and the global processes and practices that frame them.  This can include, for example, understanding jazz in specific social and historical contexts, but also how different media such as television and film shapes our experience of jazz. Our work examines how processes of cultural translation take place in and through time, and what is lost in translation, while touching on issues from cultural memory to the politics of improvisation.”

You can find specific examples of research from Jazz Studies scholars at BCU  here.

THIS WEEK: New research from the University of Ibadan 

In this session, speakers from the University of Ibadan will share research they’ve been conducting in Media and Cultural Studies.

1600-1730 Wednesday 18 April
P424, Parkside, Birmingham City University
Free registration at this link

Prof. Ayobami Ojebode (University of Ibadan) – Power to the Powerful, Not to the People: Explaining the Variation in Online Reactions to Chibok and Dapchi Schoolgirls’ Abductions in Nigeria

Prof. Nkechi M. Christopher (University of Ibadan) –  Assessing the influence of journalists’ role perception on the development of investigative journalism in Nigeria

Dr. Olusola O. Oyewo (University of Ibadan) – Teaching Business Journalism in the West African Sub- Region and its implication for uniformity/global standards

Dr. Beatrice A. Laninhun (University of Ibadan) – Exploring Advertising to Children across Cultures

Dr. Olayinka A. Egbokhare (University of Ibadan) – Analysing the Reportage of Yoruba News on Gender Based Violence – a study of selected Radio Stations in Ibadan. (Co Researcher- Abiola Odejide, PhD Emeritus Professor)

About the speakers:
Ayobami Ojebode
 is Professor of Applied Communication in the Department of Communication and Language Arts, University of Ibadan, Nigeria. His research interests are community communication; community governance; new media; and political communication. His works have been published in reputable outlets in many countries. Professor Ojebode has been a visiting researcher, a visiting scholar, a keynote speaker, a consultant, a trainer and/or examiner in universities and research institutes in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, Peru and the United States. Since 2014, he has been facilitating and coordinating advanced research methods workshops for researchers from all over Africa organised biannually by the Partnership for African Social Governance Research (PASGR) in Kenya. (

Nkechi M. Christopher PhD, Department of Communication and Language Arts, University of Ibadan, Nigeria teaches, researches and supervises studies in Communication and Language Arts, and is a book publishing expert and a literacy development enthusiast. Internationally, she taught English for two sessions (2013–2015) in King Abdulaziz University, Jeddah (KSA), has presented papers at conferences and has published in reputable journals. Locally, she successfully initiated and coordinated a six-month synthetic phonics trial sponsored by THRASS UK (2009), organised the 1st Mid-term Conference of the Reading Association of Nigeria (RAN) in 2007, among other sponsored activities and events. She became a full professor of her university with effect from October 2014 by a February 2018 pronouncement. (

Dr Oyewo holds a PhD in Organisational Communication with focus on the informal network of relationship, Rumour within the organisation. He has been a university teacher for the past 21 years teaching courses which include Introduction to Human Communication Systems, Business/Organisational Communication, Comparative Media Systems, Investigative journalism, group communication system etc. He is a member of the Forum of African Media Educators under the auspices of Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. He is also a Fellow of the Certified Institute of Marketing Communications in Nigeria. He is a consultant to various agencies including: UNICEF, Federal Ministries of Health, Information and Education. He is currently a Reader in the Department of Communication and Language Arts and has publications in reputable academic journals, both local and international. He has also supervised to completion, 8 PhD holders, and another two who are also at advanced stages in their research.

Beatrice Adeyinka Laninhun (PhD) teaches in the Department of Communication and Language Arts, University of Ibadan, Nigeria. Her teaching and research interests include marketing communications, speech communication, broadcast presentation and gender studies. She is a Fellow of the Certified Marketing Communications Institute of Nigeria, Member of the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations, associate registered practitioner in Advertising and Member, African Council for Communication Education, Nigeria Chapter, among others. She was a visiting scholar to CAMRI, University of Westminster, United Kingdom. She has published in reputable international journals including Legon Journal of the Humanities, Third Sector Review, and Postmodernism problems.

Olayinka Abimbola Egbokhare holds a B.A., M.A., and Ph.D in Communication and Language Arts University of Ibadan. She teaches and conducts research in Gender Studies, Marketing Communications, Health Advocacy and Promotions. She is the author of Dazzling Mirage, a novel which has been adapted for the big screen. She is presently on the Commonwealth Rutherford Fellowship at the Warwick Medical School, University of Warwick. She uses her creative writing skills for message development for Mental Health, Maternal Health and Preventing Mother to Child Transmission of HIV. She also works with Youths and partners with different organizations on issues relating to young people. She speaks in schools and public fora on literacy, health promotions and gender sensitization (especially the prevention of gender- based violence). As a gender focal person for University of Ibadan, she was on the team that developed the institutions’ Gender Policy and Sexual Harassment Policy.

KEY READINGS: Anthony Pym on Cultural Translation

Below, you can find a very clear and insightful lecture on the topic of cultural translation by Distinguished Professor of Translation and Intercultural Studies Anthony Pym.  It’s a relatively short lecture but great viewing if you’re after a neat summary of cultural translation as a field.

It touches on some of the key threads that run through how we understand cultural translation, namely the social anthropologist angle (started with Talal Asad’s critique of Western social anthropology) and the postcolonial approach (put forward by Homi Bhabha).

CLUSTER STATEMENT: Cultural Translation in the Creative Industries

Each of the six research clusters at BCMCR have produced a statement on what cultural translation means for researchers in their area. The statement for the Creative Industries cluster is as follows:

“Scholars of the Creative Industries might explore cultural translation via the process of cultural intermediation, in the worlds of art, commerce, policy and practice. This could mean researching a group that helps translate arts policies into practicable, comprehensive terms for creative practitioners, specifically to address a lack of diversity in the cultural sector. It could also refer to creative and entrepreneurial practices, such as notions of expertise, online activities and entrepreneurial identities.”


You can find specific examples of research from creative industries scholars at BCU  here.

SEMINAR SERIES: Histories, Heritages and Archives | Angela English on ‘Sequestered Collections’

Sequestered Collections: cultural value and access in moving image archives

by Angela English

My research looks at how archive film might play a role in public history practice. I am currently engaged in a systematic critique of current practices with moving image material and what role is played by film archivists. Public engagement with archive film has been ongoing for some years in various organisations, both nationally and locally particularly using film for memory work with older people. However a systematic critique of different models of use has not been undertaken to date particularly in terms of understanding of outcome.

Informing the critique were ideas of archive film as ‘incomplete object’ and ‘orphaned text’. Shand (2014) makes a distinction between amateur films and amateur footage which can be fragmentary and often without explanatory intertitles or soundtrack.  He calls amateur archive footage, particularly non-fiction footage, ‘an incomplete object’ (p.199)

Czach (2014) says the ‘orphaned home movie’ can be a stubbornly resistant text (p. 35), as it may have no provenance, no genre and no narrative. For the practice critique, I interviewed former colleagues and experienced archivists and practitioners to get as wide an overview as possible as to current practice models, topics of concern and also to create a hierarchy of what seemed important to them in their work and in the sector.

Two areas of concern that arose during the interviews were cultural value and access. Archivists did not seem able to articulate exactly what form historical, social or cultural value takes, though all felt archive film material was valuable. Value seemed defined by an absence and a threat. Some perceptions of value suggested by participants in the practice critique were: marketability as value; KPIs and other instrumental ‘metrics’ (for example numbers of screenings or audience members) as a way of finding value in outreach projects; value through user interaction with archive material and individual enjoyment or pleasure.

Prelinger (2007) calls access to moving image archives ‘a sticky door’. (p.114)  and also suggests that ‘many institutions sequester their holdings behind walls of copyright maximalism, policy or indifference, rendering them inaccessible to many’. (p.114)  Access to collections may be seen expensive in terms of staffing, budgets or equipment. Interrogating the idea of the sequestered collection led to various suggestions of routes to access to moving image archives by participants. These included: the importance of the curator to contextualise orphaned texts; rights clearance is important as anxieties about IPR and copyright can restrict access; digitisation as a route to access.

The practice critique study will be ongoing until later in 2018 and more data will create a wider picture of current practices with moving image archives.


Czach, Liz. “Home Movies and Amateur Film as National Cinema.” Amateur Filmmaking: The Home Movie, the Archive, the Web (2014): 27-37. 

Prelinger, Rick. “Archives and Access in the 21st Century.” Cinema Journal 46.3 (2007): 114-118.

Shand, Ryan. “Retracing the local: amateur cine culture and oral histories.” (2014): 197-220.

SEMINAR SERIES: Dima Saber on ‘Resistance-by-Recording’ part 3

Dima presented her talk as part of the Seminar Series. You can find part 1 here and part 2 here. 

The Stockholm Roundtable

The change in the Syrian Archive’s focus due to a change in the environment/infrastructure which they had no control over prompted us to rethink our ‘Channelling image activism’ theme, from purely considering the political economy of the infrastructure that supports image-activism in the MENA region, to a new focus on the disappearing archives of the Syrian war.

So we decided to use the project’s resources to convene a roundtable in Stockholm in February to discuss the issue of take downs, mapping out the costs of the Syrian activists’ over-reliance on technological platforms they haven’t developed nor designed, and over which they have no control.

The aim of the closed meeting was also to think whether there is value in setting up an academic network of partners in the UK/and Europe to support the Syrian Archive in their discussions with YouTube > in that sense, it was a really good opportunity to discuss the potential contribution that academic research could make to ongoing discussions, within non-academic, activist and civil society circles, of the disappearing archives of the Syrian war.

Problems with the digital

Despite the promise of the digital – especially in post-2011 MENA region; there seems to be a consensus among scholars, that the digital is in fact an unstable source, constantly liable to decay and collapse. I’ve written about this in an article that Paul and I published last year in Archives and Records.

 So despite the fact that the promise and persuasiveness of the digital has pushed the limits of memory, and has given remembering a whole new potential, it has also created new risks, ones Andrew Hoskins refers to as ‘the perpetual hauntings of the loss of control’ due to the unknowable workings and vulnerabilities of the network. He notes that ‘what was once an active memory, a human memory that had to work to sustain a continuity of past – of identity, of place, of relationships – is fundamentally weakened with the shift from reliance to dependency on the search devices of our machines.’

This dependency on algorithms and its costs for the constitution and preservation of a memory of the Syria war was in fact at the very heart of our Stockholm discussions.

Changes to YouTube

Overthe summer of 2017, YouTube introduced a machine-learning-based algorithm to flag videos for terms of service (ToS)-related violations. The algorithm’s purpose was to expedite the removal of propaganda videos that extremist groups like ISIS had posted—but it flagged a large volume of activist content for removal, too. Within a few days, some 900 Syria-related channels disappeared off the platform.

Between September and December, some 68 YouTube channels that the Syrian Archive had been tracking were taken offline, comprising over 400,000 videos.

Given the success of jihadist groups in the online environment, this impulse to ramp up online censorship by taking down social media accounts and content is understandable, according to a report recently published by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism entitled ‘The travellers, American Jihadists in Syria and Iraq’,

The report in fact surveyed 64 American Jihadists who had travelled to Syrian and Iraq to fight alongside Islamic factions, which is the largest available sample to date. However, the report states that while there is no doubt that ease of access to jihadist propaganda online was a factor in many cases analyzed in the sample, there is little evidence to suggest that this was the primary motivation for their radicalisation or travel. Thus, while censorship efforts will continue, they should be done with an acknowledgement that the approach has several limitations. 

Google and YouTube both know that their platforms host material of immense importance. Yet, it doesn’t seem like the companies have figured a way to balance the tension between automated enforcement and the preservation of human rights-related material and historical memory, something that might require more dramatic changes than just the restoration of a few deleted channels. This is where I think research could play a key role – at the Stockholm roundtable, we were able to identify the potential contribution academic empirical research could make in this context:

  1. Online/offline analogues: what happens between the time an individual is radicalised offline, and the creation of pro-Jihadist online content?
  2. Intra-cultural messaging: content analysis and/or surveying of the different available tech/social media platforms
  3. Applying social movement theory to get a better understanding of large group radicalisation

Here are some questions for the future:

  1. What do you do with 4 million videos documenting an ongoing conflict? Do you archive everything? If not, how do you choose what should stay and what could go?
  2. Questions of purpose & value of both citizen & institutional archiving practices in times of war
  3. Archiving as an academic pursuit; what implications for historical inquiry, for media scholars, for activists, archivists and historians?

Dima is Senior Researcher and Lecturer at the Birmingham Centre for Media and Cultural Research. 

SEMINAR SERIES: Dima Saber on ‘Resistance-by-Recording’ part 2

Dima presented her talk as part of the Seminar Series. You can find part 1 here and part 3 here. 

The Syrian Archive Case Study

There is something very intrusive about the first few hours of ethnographic research, especially when you’re being invited into someone’s office to observe their day-to-day practices. The Syrian Archive team were unbelievably welcoming and generous when we spent 4 days last November at their office space in Berlin. We spent two days on participant observation, and two days interviewing the team.

Our presence often involved us looking over their shoulders at their computer screens while they were doing their online verification work. If you’ve ever worked with Internet activists and online security geeks and techies before, you’d understand what it takes for them to tolerate your presence, by their computer screen for 7 hours each day, over 4 days. And for that, I and my research partner were extremely grateful.

It is worth mentioning in this context that the issue of trust is key, and the fact that I’ve known Hadi el Khatib, the Syrian Archive’s founder, for years – that we’ve already worked together on several projects in Beirut, has extremely helped during the research trip in Berlin.


In their own words:

‘The Syrian Archive aims to support human rights investigators, advocates, media reporters, and journalists in their efforts to document human rights violations in Syria and worldwide through developing new open source tools as well as providing a transparent and replicable methodology for collecting, preserving, verifying and investigating visual documentation in conflict areas.’

One of the key questions we explored while in Berlin is how the Syrian Archive team approached and defined key concepts such as ‘visual evidence’, ‘digital memory’, ‘graphic content’, ‘factual claims’, ‘propagandist imagery’ etc. So I sort of had a list of key concepts pertaining to academic research on archives in times of conflict which I used as the backbone for the interview questions and discussions we had with them.

We were also particularly interested in the ways in which they thought of the issue of ‘archival value’; why did they think it was important to build and sustain an open-access database of video footage documenting the Syrian conflict? Who is it important for? And has this changed since the beginning of the uprising in 2011 until today?

They aim to achieve three things through this work:

  1. to preserve data as a digital memory,
  2. to establish a verified database of human rights violations, and
  3. to act as an evidence tool for legally implementing justice and accountability as concept and practice in Syria.


So another key question we explored in our interviews is ‘Ethics’ > The Syrian Archive’s team are very articulate about a ‘Do not harm ethical framework’ which they say underlines their archival practices from the moment a video footage is identified, collected, processed and verified, until it is published as part of an online investigative report on human rights violations.

Taking into consideration my interest in an emerging ethical praxis of image activism in times of conflict I’m now exploring the ways in which my emerging understanding of the Syrian Archive’s internal processes could enable me to rethink my own research ethics agenda.

How can our understanding, as academics, of the Syrian Archive’s grass-root, self-defined, ‘Do Not Harm’ concept help us better design our own guidelines for issues of representation and narrativisation, ownership and consent, harm and vulnerability, subjectivity and objectification, agency and responsibility – especially when performed in the Western academy?


Then the issue of ‘Take downs’ came up.

  • 2012 | First accounts of Facebook groups/accounts suspensions due to ‘false reporting’, ‘copyright infringements’ and for ‘violating privacy policy’
  • 2013-2014 | The scale of take downs intensified, mainly targeting media groups and citizen journalists’ channels on YouTube

So rather than spend their staff time on collecting evidence for and documenting abuses of human rights violations, the Syrian Archive had to shift focus from verification to archiving – on their own servers – of thousands and thousands of videos – a race against time.

Continue to part 3.


Dima is Senior Researcher and Lecturer at the Birmingham Centre for Media and Cultural Research. 

SEMINAR SERIES: Dima Saber on ‘Resistance-by-Recording’ part 1

Dima presented her talk as part of the Seminar Series. You can find part 2 here and part 3 here. 

Resistance-by-Recording: The disappearing archives of the Syrian war 

by Dima Saber

The overall aim of this project is to explore the successes and potentialities as well as limitations and challenges that camera-related practices bring to the objectives of contemporary protest movements across the Arab world.  We’re looking at 4 main countries of focus Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Yemen.

The project advances a media-practice based approach – with ethnographic field studies – in order to explore and theorize how variously situated activists creatively and strategically use digitally networked cameras and images to address local concerns – within the boundaries of existing media ecologies that offer different opportunities and constraints in each particular setting. Each context generates specific needs, and local actors will modify and renew their image-making strategies to address these shifting needs.

Activists not only use cameras to speak truth to power, but to realize or produce themselves as political subjects and negotiate exactly what such a subjectivity may be and can do.  In thus re-centring the agency of human beings over technologies, a critical purpose of the project is also to explore the meanings that practices of creating, distributing, editing, sharing, viewing and archiving images acquire for differently located participants.  This is to say that the project attends to political image production also as subjective, embodied and performative practice.

How do you create an image that is not pre-defined by official imagery? I want to explore Arab-image activism as counter-images – as a response to the complete suffocating and constraining aspect of existing images as depicted through the Western neo-colonial stereotyping gaze, and/or through regime-controlled imagery. At the same time I want to question the assumption that grassroots practices would produce a different, new, original, more authentic images of Arab revolt, war, conflict, etc.

I want to ask:

  1. What drives people to risk everything to create and mobilize rebellious images? What are their motivations, hopes, desires, lived experiences, affects, then and now?
  2. To what extent, and in what particular ways, are the planning, publicizing and performance of political actions dependent on – both shaped by, and shaping – practices of image making? (How camera-based strategies and tactics are mutually shaping of activists’ larger routines and repertoires of defiance)
  3. What are the various considerations do activists/archivists articulate about how images are made, and why; about how they are delivered, displayed and re-purposed? About their intended audience(s)? What kinds of political outcome do they hope for vs. what they hoped to achieve back then when they were documenting the uprisings as they were happening, and how do they see the value of their archives and images today, seven years into the uprising.
  4. What are the main obstacles and limitations they are facing, such as lack of cultural translation and resonance, over-reliance on corporate platforms, the precariousness of the digital
  5. How do activist camera-mediated practices in the Arab world help organize new formations of political connectivity within, across and beyond the region?  How are people connected – or not? How do they work together – or not? I’m interested here in exploring the economy and politics of collaboration.
  6. What are the ethical aspects of creating distributing, displaying and archiving this imagery? Looking for example at Western institutions’ codified ethical guidelines (news industry! BBC, Al Jazeera etc.) vs. how the activists organise themselves: their own sense of ethics?
  7. What are the various forms of connections and circulation between specific geographical places and online spaces? How, precisely, are online and offline activities important to each other?

Continue to part 2 here.

Dima is Senior Researcher and Lecturer at the Birmingham Centre for Media and Cultural Research.