Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Sasha Crawford-Holland reviews The People Are Not an Image

Peter Snowdon. The People Are Not an Image: Vernacular Video after the Arab Spring. New York: Verso Books, 2020. 304 pp.

Review by Sasha Crawford-Holland

18 August 2021

Looking closely at videos produced amid the Arab uprisings of 2010 to 2012 leads Peter Snowdon to claim that their practices of popular self-documentation gave rise to a new form of cinema defined by its collective subject: “the people.” Snowdon detects a transpersonal plurality traversing videos produced through revolutions in Tunisia, Bahrain, Syria, Libya, and Egypt, during which the concept of the people was being reclaimed from authoritarian rhetoric and summoned to authorize different visions of society. In The People Are Not an Image, Snowdon argues that these modes of filming and circulation recover a first-person plural subject—a we prior to the individuations enforced by modern institutions, including aesthetic traditions from Hollywood to vlogs that reify individual psychology at the expense of solidarity. Snowdon takes an effectively Deleuzian approach to theorize the emergence of a new regime of the cinematic image (though he might object to using the term regime to characterize this diverse archive united in opposition to the regime). Readers accustomed to encountering nonfictional images of protest and repression as documentary evidence may be troubled by an approach to these videos as art objects whose form is emphasized over historical content. However, for Snowdon, aesthetics compose the terrain of politics; mediation does not supplementally extend an original event but rather constitutes its distributed structure. For Snowdon, these videos’ sensory configurations are as important as the historical data to which they are often reduced and cannot be understood without attending to the ways that aesthetics redistribute perception to support alternate social arrangements.

Snowdon understands these videos to collectively form a vernacular anarchive. He claims them as vernacular not simply to denote an amateur media practice but also to foreground the processes by which these revolutions reanimated local civic traditions to nourish forms of life that confound the state’s administrative ways of knowing. Drawing their legitimacy from this vernacularization, the videos constitute a living anarchive that continues to circulate anarchically today. Despite the unruly scale and dispersal of the vernacular anarchive, the book’s theoretical provocations are grounded in close analyses of particular videos, all of which are available on a companion Vimeo channel. The first five chapters examine how multisensorial (kinetic, tactile, kinesthetic) qualities give affective life to the people by imbuing images with transindividual vitality, especially in moments of opacity that defy sociological analysis. The second half of the book demonstrates how the filming and circulation of the vernacular anarchive produces the people in spatial, discursive, and corporeal forms as a dynamic and irreducibly plural collective. From spatial practices that elude colonial geometries to musical rhythms that traverse bodies, Snowdon demonstrates how vernacular aesthetics animate revolutionary imaginaries. Against the notion that these revolutions failed, he insists that they invented forms of destituent power grounded in vernacular modes of civic life that refuse to reproduce “the circular logic of sovereignty” (p. 90).

The vernacular anarchive belongs to the realm of what Toby Lee (following Harun Farocki) calls documentary operationality, where nonfictional images do not simply represent the world but produce and act upon it.[1] The people are not an image because these videos do not simply represent the people; rather, the acts of making and watching videos form part of the process through which the people are constituted as such. Snowdon’s project is utopian but not naïve. The people designates not a predetermined essence but a provisional and contested opening based on shared corporeal vulnerability. This collective subject takes shape through a negotiated, dialogical process of nonlinear becoming that is ongoing and, Snowdon shows, aesthetically palpable. Despite acknowledging the role of conflict in constituting the people, the book does not devote sustained attention to histories of social oppression and stratification among the constituencies that the people claims.

The book’s strengths and liabilities are tightly entwined as Snowdon risks an original path that departs from the critical traditions through which activist video is typically analyzed. The book largely avoids materialist or geopolitical accounts of the historical forces that make revolutions necessary. Snowdon’s frequent use of the first-person plural performs his argument in an affront to disciplinary conventions that reject such deictics as universalizing, just as his poetic invocations of crowds give expression to a collective subject that contravenes norms for describing harm to individual bodies. In exploring how online circulation invites new constituencies to join the people, Snowdon advocates a relationship between revolutionaries and international audiences predicated on shared vulnerability, not documentary proof of injustice. This orientation makes forms of planetary solidarity possible, but it does not grapple with the ways that differential distributions of vulnerability undermine the mutuality of looking—in contrast to approaches that conceptualize such visual asymmetry as a structure of exploitation. Throughout the book, Snowdon practices an ethics of close reading that rejects critical habits of regarding images with suspicion. The People Are Not an Image charts hopeful trajectories for several areas of inquiry, from the politics of protest media and self-representation to networked distribution, operational images, and the digital remaking of subjectivity. Yet Snowdon’s ultimate project is more ambitious—to reshape his readers’ political imaginaries.


[1] Toby Lee, “Documentary Operationality: Beyond Representation,” paper presented at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies’ annual conference, 17–21 Mar. 2021.