Reconnoitering the Reasoned: An Approach to the Anthropology of Revolution

By Anne Kirstine Hermann

“It is not enough to place concepts in opposition to one another in order to know which is best; we must confront the field of questions to which they are an answer, so as to discover by what forces the problems transform themselves and demand the constitution of new concepts.”

Gilles Deleuze, “A Philosophical Concept…”

The concept of revolution is a peculiar one. It refers to a political phenomenon, several historical hotspots, as well as to conspicuous changes.  According to Deleuze, concepts fulfill several functions defined by internal as well as external variables such as the state of things in a moment of history. Asking how we might solve the conflict between the universal and the individual in employing concepts, Deleuze ponders if we can in fact find new functions and variables of them. In the following, I will show how the events that came to be known as “The Egyptian Revolution”[1] of 2011 can be an anthropological site for the nature of a specific concept. I will suggest how one could create an ethnographic account of the Revolution by studying its conceptualization in commonsense as the primary faculty of truth in order to philosophically move beyond it. Further, I will discuss what happens when we, as ethnographers of current events, conceptualize such accounts ourselves.

Revolution, Ready-made?

The common public narrative of recent events in Egypt is largely one of revolution. The search term “Egyptian revolution” (in quotation marks) yields almost two million hits on Google.[2] It has its own website,, whose architects remain anonymous. Furthermore, “2011 Egyptian revolution” already has its own, incredibly thorough, Wikipedia entry, which amounts to 16,950 words. By comparison, the entry on the French Revolution totals 15,515, the Russian Revolution (1917) 9,952, and the Iranian Revolution 12,892 words. The role of the Internet and social media during the Egyptian events obviously makes the comparison flawed in some regards. However, the extensive article underscores the conceptualization of these events as a revolution, while it does not address how the events came to be conceptualized as such. Nevertheless, only far right-wing media in the US and regime-friendly media in Egypt seem to have countered the conception that this was, in fact, a revolution. While the newspaper Al Ahram, often described as the voice of the Mubarak-regime, focused on “protests and chaos” as well as “looting and robbery,”[3] Fox News television host Glen Beck continuously questioned the popular forces behind the events, stating, “This is not just poor people mad at rich people. This is coordinated,” and predicting that events in Egypt were part of a “coming insurrection” of Muslims throughout the world.[4]

Apart from these thoroughly biased accounts, mainstream media seemed to collectively construct — or reproduce — the revolution rhetoric. The Egyptian opposition newspaper Al Wafd spoke of an “angry revolution”[5] and in the New York Times, correspondent David D. Kirkpatrick reported “The Egyptian revolution was truly astonishing to watch.” Although he stated, ”it is hard to say that there was any one trigger or force behind these two revolutions [Tunisia and Egypt]” and ”[n]o individual, group or event was solely responsible for these historic shifts in power,” he did not question if a revolution was carried out.[6] What makes the New York Times’ discourse confusing is also the shuffling of the terms “revolt,” “protest,” and “revolution.”  The New York Post appears to have employed an equally fluid boundary between violent uprisings and liberating revolution, concluding nevertheless: “After all, every nation worth its salt has had a revolution — so why not Egypt?”[7]

As for the Guardian, “Revolution” moved into the headlines on January 30th accompanied by an editorial call for action: “For western countries, particularly the US, the paymaster of the Mubarak regime, a radical new approach is also now required.”[8] In the Economist, the conceptual shift is easily localized, perhaps due to its weekly publication. While asking on January 27th “First Tunisia, next Egypt? The scent of the jasmine revolution… has certainly spread,” the Economist categorized Egyptian events themselves as “protests.”[9] The following week, however, the revolution-rhetoric was thoroughly employed with connotations of a universal liberal ideology: “Revolutions do not have to be like those in France in 1789, Russia in 1917 or Iran in 1979. The protests sweeping the Middle East have more in common with the popular colour revolutions that changed the world map in the late 20th century… If the West cannot back Egypt’s people in their quest to determine their own destiny, then its arguments for democracy and human rights elsewhere in the world stand for nothing.”[10] Similarly, the Arabic television network Al-Jazeera not only termed the events a revolution. In their aftermath it coupled them with the European enlightenment in a broadcast on Egyptian prospects: “Scientific enquiry and politics have always been bound together. The birth of a recognisably modern scientific establishment in Britain coincided with the end of absolute monarchy.”[11]

(Re-)producing Revolution

As appears, it is difficult to determine exactly when this narrative came into being. When surveying various media outlets, “revolution” seems to have emerged initially from slogans and statements in the cries, pamphlets, and not least cyber sites of the protesters. Moreover, the conceptual switch seems to have accompanied the twin developments of the growing prospects of protesters’ success and the increasingly violent push back from Mubarak’s forces, not least as they began to target foreign journalists. This raises the question of how such a shared and self-evident frame of thought — Revolution — took form. When were these particular events labeled by this particular term? Why was this label assumed to fit these events and who assumed it did? And how did terming them “revolution” affect actions? In other words, how did this common reasoning change the course of events themselves?

As Michel-Rolph Trouillot has shown, discursive dynamics can both narrate and silence a revolution, as was the case, he argues, with the Haitian Revolution.[12] Discourse, thus, would seem an obvious site for studying the concept of revolution itself. Further, by employing the idea of performativity, two separate levels of this concept could be studied. Following J.L. Austin, one could ask if the revolution was a performance constituted by protesters’ utterances and declarations that they were carrying out a revolution.[13] On the other hand, aligning with Ian Hacking, one could ask how “diagnosing” Egypt with “revolution” effected the reproduction of this revolution.[14] Drawing on Hacking’s “dynamic nominalism” — the idea that some categories are pure cultural inventions while others derive from nature — we could question if some parts of this revolution were “real” and others nominated.[15] In “Making Up People,” Hacking is concerned with labeled groups such as homosexuals or people with multiple personalities. The bottom line for Hacking is that individuals are shaped by the agency ascribed to them via labels, placing process and performance at center of attention.[16] Could these ideas be transposed into a theory of “Making Up Events”?

Similarly, Manuel DeLanda’s assemblage theory might bring new insight to the phenomenon. According to DeLanda, various entities “may be usefully treated as assemblages and therefore as entities that are products of historical process.”[17] These assemblages can be defined along two dimensions: along an axis of “material” versus “expressive” and on a second axis spanning from “territorialization,” the stabilization of an assemblage as an entity, to “deterritorialization,” i.e. destabilization of the entity.[18] This idea resembles Bruno Latour’s actor-network-theory in its break with human essence, “social explanations,” and static entities. According to Latour, there are no groups, only group formations. He interprets “the social” as not the cause of connections but their product, agitating a social science devoted to “the tracing of associations.”[19] From this point of view “the rule is performance and what has to be explained, the troubling exceptions, are any type of stability over a longer term and on a larger scale.”[20]

Drawing on Jane Bennett’s idea of distributive agency, we could ask further what an assemblage or network approach to the revolution would entail. Advocating agency of assemblages, Bennett’s sense of agency resembles Latour’s catalytic agency that applies to non-human materialities and humans alike.[21] Consequently, her vital materialism can “offer different diagnoses of the political.”[22] Perhaps the idea of distributive agency can be applied to discourse uniting locals’ performative utterances, in Austin’s terms, with Western media’s labeling, in Hacking’s, asking which parts are “real” and which are nominated and what sort of entities constituted these processes. Thus, following Latour and DeLanda, one could suspend the essence of revolution and trace instead its assemblages. What would emerge if we looked at pamphlets, poverty, and political pundits; Twitter, Tahrir Square, and the Times; Facebook, frustrated youth, and fearful fathers; comparisons, camera phones, and counterstrikes? Would they constitute a momentary entity of distributive agency? Moreover, what materials should we look to at in order to conduct such an ethnographic study?

The Compatibility of Conceptualization

In studying the 2011 Egyptian Revolution from this angle, traditional ethnographic methods of  “self-socialization” and of representing the significance of a local set of concepts would obviously be insufficient. Instead, one would have to shift focus to social transformation by following the concept itself, locally and/or globally, in order to question the self-evident and to de-familiarize it. In doing so, one could ask what would count as an ethnographic encounter and what kinds of entities to commit to methodologically, this being itself, perhaps, the object of study. On the practical level, one could study the revolution’s discursive dynamics by tracing narratives. As a term, “revolution” is tricky because it is both a concept and rooted in the shape of events, while bearing both historical connotations and political implications. One could therefore study the assemblages it shaped both in terms of concept clusters, social entities, and alliances. The site for such an account might be the printed as well as digital documents that the events produced and that produced the events. For instance, the Facebook page We are all Khaled Said, commemorating a young man who died from police brutality in the summer of 2010, has been viewed as the core of the revolt. Another “glocal” narrative was structured through the Facebook “event” Revolution Day that joined tens of thousands of supporters in the days before the first giant protest on January 25th. The anonymous 26-page leaflets that circulated Cairo could also be considered, as they provided practical and tactical advice for mass demonstrations and alternated social media, which were monitored by security forces. Similarly, the Western mediation and nomination of events and the alliances and responses it conjured up could be included in a tracing of discourses.

Producing such an ethnographic account might provide an empirical foundation for a theory of revolution as a concept. Since Franz Boas’ “native ontology” broke with the idea that similar phenomena are caused by universal laws of human nature, the comparative method has been a site of contention in anthropology, with the past three decades being largely informed by the type of particularism that Boas called for. However, French structuralists such as Marcel Mauss employed a mode of comparison relying on a conviction that there is more to ethnography than merely indexical knowledge of specific cultures.[23] Like Mauss’ comparative study of ethnographic archives in order to localize general laws of The Gift, questioning those of The Revolution, or lack thereof, by comparing the Egyptian case to other revolutions might be interesting in determining the “real” from the nominal. Thus, a second order of questions would consider if an ethnographic encounter with revolution could explain its ontological status on a particular or a universal level. That is, could this encounter produce an anthropological-philosophical concept of revolution?


Operationalizing theoretical lenses like performativity, dynamic nominalism, assemblages, actor-networks, and distributive agency in an ethnographic encounter with the 2011 Egyptian Revolution might pave the way for an anthropological account of the concept of revolution itself. While comparability versus specificity is a site of contention in anthropology, the discipline’s attachment to concepts is not only a symptom of commitment to particular ontological frames but also a way of navigating a reality in which formerly static ethnographic methods have been suspended. Suspending such methods enables us to study revolution as suggested here. Nevertheless, we might ask to what extent ethnographically naming a phenomenon “revolution” would constitute a diagnostic performance “making up events” on its own. In conclusion, there are good reasons to both study the concept of revolution ethnographically and to include a reflexive moment into such a study in order to question the conceptualization and comparability of concepts in the discipline itself. In any case, this anthropological approach to revolution might reveal an inadequacy of that concept in letting new ones emerge. This leads us back to Deleuze’s call for not critiquing concepts but rendering them irrelevant by discovering new conceptual paths: “it is never very interesting to criticize a concept: it is better to build the new functions and discover the new fields that makes it useless or inadequate.”[24]

[1] This article was written prior to the renewed unrest in Egypt of November 2011.

[2] Internet search figures in this article are based on samples of October 20th 2011.

[3] “Protests and chaos continue across the country with looting and robbery in absence of security forces,” Al Ahram, January 30, 2011. Translated by The Economist.

[4] Glenn Beck, “The Coming Insurrection: Egypt,” Fox News, January 31, 2011.

[5] “Egypt faces the unknown,” Al Wafd, January 30, 2011. Translated by The Economist.

[6] David D. Kirkpatrick, “Spreading Revolutions” [Interactive feature], The New York Times, February 13, 2011.

[7] Amir Taheri, “Egypt’s revolution: the morning line,” New York Post, May 11, 2011.

[8] Editorial, “Mubarak’s dictatorship must end now,” The Guardian, January 29, 2011.

[9] “Protests in Egypt — The scent of jasmine spreads,” The Economist, January 27, 2011.

[10] “Democracy in the Arab world — Egypt rises up,” The Economist, February 3, 2011.

[11] Dan Hind, “From revolution to Enlightenment,” Al-Jazeera, May 17, 2011.

[12] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995).

[13] J.L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words, 2d ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975).

[14] Ian Hacking, Historical Ontology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).

[15] Ibid., 106.

[16] Ibid., 110-111.

[17] Manuel DeLanda, A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity (New York: Continuum, 2006), 3.

[18] Ibid., 28.

[19] Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 5, 8.

[20] Ibid., 35.

[21] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 21, 62.

[22] Ibid., 38.

[23] Marcel Mauss, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies,  trans. W.D. Halls (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1950; London: Routledge, 1990).

[24] Gilles Deleuze,  “A Philosophical Concept…,” in Eduardo Cadava, Peter Connor, and Jean-Luc Nancy, eds., Who Comes After the Subject? (London: Routledge, 1991), 94.