Theses Doctoral

Struggling with Images: Revolution, War, and Media in Syria

Tarnowski, Stefan

In the context of debates about the causal role that new media technologies did or didn’t play in the 2011 Arab uprisings, my dissertation conversely examines some of the diverse and contradictory ways new media technologies have been used and their power envisaged during revolution and war in Syria since 2011. Exploring various contexts of use, I consider how the same technologies have been understood to ground divergent political projects, to produce contradictory affective responses, and to mint antithetical epistemic values. I ask how technologies come to be seen as answers to social and political problems; and I give an account of the social and political questions asked of a technology as it moves through geographies, institutional settings, or historical moments.

By investigating the infrastructural, epistemological, and affective dimensions of the Syrian revolution and war and the work of its media activists I develop a conceptual analysis of political possibilities and their foreclosure in Syria over the past decade. My dissertation draws on 18 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Turkey, Lebanon, France and Germany (2018-2020) among communities of humanitarian, media and digital forensic activists involving two different but connected things. First, following activists as they move, across borders, in and out of organizations, and in and out of activism. Second, following images as they move, also across borders, in and out of contexts of use, and in and out of use. These two movements happen at different intensities and speeds, and with different levels of friction, marked by the politics of access to Syria.

Based on interviews with a range of actors invested in the use of new media technologies, I give an account of how and why Syrian activists persevered with their political projects and technological practices despite having little hope of success. Second, amidst widespread scholarly interest in humanitarian intervention, I argue that the governmental practice of stabilisation, despite congruences with the practices of human rights video and forms of humanitarian intervention, has served as a distinct form of intervention in the wake of the ‘War on Terror’. Third, amidst widespread arguments that the Syrian uprising was a failed democratic revolution, I argue that the uprising should be considered on the basis of its central demand for dignity, while tracing the career of the concept in a debate amongst Syrian intellectuals over the “right to a dignified image”. Finally, by participating in a digital forensic investigation, I give an account of the legal, technical and political hurdles that would have to be overcome to turn open source content into legally felicitous evidence in a possible future war crimes tribunal.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Abu El-Haj, Nadia L.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 13, 2022