Pranav Kohli

The sixth volume of the Sternberg Critical Spatial Practice series, Eyal Weizman’s The Roundabout Revolutions examines the recent trend of revolutions staged at roundabouts. Previous books in this series analyzed the political and socioeconomic implications of urban architecture and spatial use. Weizman patterns the architectural peculiarities of the modern revolution by focusing on the Arab Spring; an analysis that includes the roundabout revolutions of Gwangju, Cairo, Tunis, Manama, Ramallah, Tehran, and Damascus.

An architect by training, Weizman brings a unique interdisciplinary perspective to bear on the politico-spatial aspects of the roundabout revolutions. He begins with an intricate, lyrical exposition of the circularity and interconnectivity of the roundabout revolutions by meditating on an image of the 1980 Gwangju uprising, the roundabout revolution that began the ouster of South Korea’s military dictatorship. Weizman confesses that this iconic photograph began his engagement with this subject as he was struck by how, “the [Gwangju] roundabout organized the protest in concentric circles, a geometric order that exposed the crowd to itself, helping a political collective in becoming.”

The Gwangju Uprising in 1980.

Weizman’s description is reminiscent of Michel Foucault’s theorization of power. Foucault theorized power not as something that is hierarchically exercised but as a force that circuitously flows and passes through individuals, networks and organizations. Weizman recognizes the emerging character of power as a circle, describing the concentric arrangements of crowds as a “political collective in becoming.” These concentric crowd circles can be seen as a diagram of the fields of power emanating from the roundabout, with the roundabout itself becoming a beacon of a newfound people’s power.

Weizman’s analysis has a special focus on the Arab Spring and in a later section he returns to this idea of an interconnected collective while describing the protestors at Tahrir Square. They are linked not only by physical space and communication technologies but also by “an "Internet of things"—a form of connectivity that entangles organizations, individuals, material objects, and urban spaces such as roundabouts together: sites and websites, proximity and distance, remote solidarity and physical corporality.”

It is while exploring the reasons behind the revolutionary turn in the roundabout’s history that Weizman comes into his own. Symbols are an integral part of revolutions and the symbolic significance of staging a revolution underneath a national icon (like the Pearl Monument in Manama, Bahrain) or a roundabout whose name commemorates the date of the incumbent regime’s rise to power (the Place du 14, née 7 Novembre in Tunis) couldn’t be stressed more.

While the symbolic significance of the individual roundabouts is easy to grasp, Weizman locates the true reason for the revolutionary turn in the roundabout’s history, within the spatial peculiarities of the roundabout itself. The roundabout’s attraction lies in the fact that it is an expansive public space that serves an integral function in the city’s infrastructure. In this sense, the roundabout can be seen as one of the last remaining public spaces where large crowds can gather in the congested modern city. Weizman's reference to the decline of public space recalls Zygmunt Bauman’s treatment of the issue in Liquid Times: Living In An Age of Uncertainty. Bauman’s blames neoliberalism for the privatization of public space. Against this backdrop, it would seem that the occupation of public space—a roundabout in this case—would represent the public’s reclamation of an oligarchic, private power. Weizman doesn’t regard the occupation of the roundabout as the moment when the public reclaimed public ownership of the republic. In his view, it was when the protestors at Tahrir Square began cleaning up the square, shortly after Mubarak’s deposition, that they truly assumed public ownership of the roundabout, and thereby the republic.

The idea of using the roundabout to reclaim public ownership seems especially ironic even in Weizman’s own work, as he theorizes roundabouts as “literal diagrams” of self-regulation. Comparing the free market-like self-regulated nature of traffic on the roundabout to deregulated capitalism, Weizman remarks that like the free market which promised to minimize governmental involvement, the roundabout “has not only come into crisis, [but] it has become the mode by which the crisis took shape.”

The final reason that Weizman puts forth in favor of the use of roundabouts for revolutions is their location. Since they exist at the intersection of a city’s arterial roads, occupying a roundabout catastrophically disrupts the city’s traffic, and thereby its business. Weizman calls this “tactical acupuncture” and writes that “by pressuring a single pivotal point within a networked infrastructure an entire city can be put under siege.” But Weizman leaves this tantalizing lead unexplored. Describing the revolution-ridden roundabouts as inverted panopticons, he remarks that “driving around these roundabouts should cause present despots to feel the back of their neck.” But Weizman does not speculate the architectural strategies that might be employed by the authorities in to curb the roundabout’s newfound revolutionary zest.

Weizman remains optimistic about the future of the Arab Spring, which he thinks is still in its infancy. He believes that although the unions, organizations and activists who organized the Arab Spring may have gone underground, they haven’t dispersed; that there is every likelihood of an encore. Writing about the future course that the roundabout revolutions must take, Weizman suggests the inclusion of the roundtable within the roundabout; that is, the inclusion of political solutions and negotiations within the revolution’s framework. Weizman critiques the Arab Spring’s “politics of negation” and argues that the roundabout revolutionaries seemed eager to overthrow yet reluctant to govern. Weizman suggests that in order to effect real change, the revolutionary impetus of the roundabout must be reproduced in democratic political formations geared at governance.

Weizman seems to endorse an instrumentalist view of the state. The instrumentalist view holds that the state and power itself are instruments for social change; that in better hands the state will do better things. This view suggests that the most realistic way of effecting change is to focus one’s struggle on the conquest of power. Sociologist John Holloway has written that by co-opting revolution for the conquest of power, the instrumentalist view reproduces the same cycle of power and oppression. This can be seen in how some of the most idealistic revolutionary mobilizations of the twentieth century culminated in self-serving oligarchies that were no different from the corrupt regimes they replaced.

Such a perspective limits the disruptive capacity of the revolution to a mere renovation of an existing political entity; taking away the creative capacity inherent in the revolution’s disruptiveness. This limitation characterizes Weizman’s analysis of the Arab Spring, as despite observing the connectivity and circulatory processes that connected the roundabout revolutions to one another, across national borders, he doesn’t speculate the possibility of a revolutionary formation that might transcend those borders. Or to be more specific, a political formation geared specifically at dismantling the region’s defamed colonial-era borders; casting the Middle Eastern states themselves anew. Insightful as the frame of neoliberalism and self-regulation is in the book, it leaves the connections between the principles of self-regulation that govern the roundabout and the Middle East's colonial histories of indirect rule unexplored.

Feature Image: Eyal Weizman with Samaneh Moafi, The Roundabout Revolution, 2013, Gwangju, South Korea

Pranav Kohli is the co-founder of The Students’ Post and its editor for International Affairs and Lifestyle. He is currently pursuing an MPhil in Race, Ethnicity, Conflict from Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. Follow him on Twitter: @questing_kohl