Shooting a Revolution: Professor Della Ratta's Book on Media and Warfare in Syria

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John Cabot University’s Communications Professor Donatella Della Ratta recently published the book Shooting a Revolution: Visual Media and Warfare in Syria. Professor Della Ratta has a background in Media Studies with a specialization in Arabic-speaking media. She has authored three monographs on Arab media and curated chapters on Syrian media and politics in several collective books. Professor Della Ratta is a contributor to Italian and international media outlets such as Al Jazeera English, Hyperallergic, Internazionale, and Il Manifesto.

Can you tell us a bit more about your new book?

As the title “Shooting a Revolution” suggests, the book is about the double meaning of the word “shooting.” In Syria, the two meanings, namely filming and firing a bullet, are dramatically intertwined. The camera can be understood as a tool that peaceful protesters use in order to counteract regime or jihadi violence, and also as the quintessential weapon to commit violence as we have seen through jihadi videos and other types of regime produced media.

When and why did you decide to write this book? 

Della Ratta Book Cover

Shooting a Revolution: Visual Media and Warfare in Syria

I did my Ph.D. research in Syria on the political economy of Syrian TV drama. When the revolution broke out, I was still in Syria doing fieldwork for my doctoral research. It took me a long time to turn my dissertation into a book, for a number of reasons. One reason is that I have personal bonds to Syria. I lived there for four years and my best friend, the renowned activist Bassel Khartabil Safadi, was killed in Syria. It was very difficult for me to cope with the loss of my friend and other people and the loss of the country that I love. The professional reason is that the media scene in Syria after 2011 changed dramatically. In my Ph.D. work, I was very focused on TV production, but then the web really became the media one has to look at. Therefore, I needed to dig more into the internet as a production and distribution platform. The book also contains parts that talk about TV drama, but it’s mostly focused on the visual culture produced after 2011, so it’s very internet focused.

Was it difficult to obtain the material?

First of all, you need to speak Arabic. There is no other way you can access this field. The fact that I speak Syrian Arabic helped me a great deal, otherwise, it would have been difficult. It was also difficult to convince Syrian cultural producers, who are used to a regime of spies and conspiracy, to welcome a foreigner on the TV set. I’m happy and also very grateful to these people, who gave me continuous access. the whole industry was quite open to my research in Syria.

In your book, you talk about “shooting while being shot at.” Do you think that the abundance of this type of footage has desensitized people to violence?

Definitely. Syria is my case study of a condition of hypervisibility connected to a condition of hyperviolence. When you ask people “What do you think about Syria?” nobody has an opinion because after seeing so much from Syria, and on Syria, they become detached. It’s a kind of anesthetic situation, through which you see a lot, but you no longer feel. The idea that the more you video-document something, the more people will act on it, is an illusion. There is no direct correlation between getting more information and acting more.Apparently, it’s quite the opposite. The more you see, the more you feel paralyzed.

How important are networked communications technologies for contemporary warfare?

This is the key element of contemporary warfare. I argue that Syria is the first full-fledged networked conflict. Iraq’s 2003 conflict, for example, lacked this dimension because the major social networks and sharing platforms such as YouTube or Facebook were not present yet. The Arab Spring was a huge mass movement in which literally an entire generation between the ages of 20 and 30 took their mobile phone to film and share on YouTube and other platforms. The moment they started to protest is the moment the revolution started to be networked. We saw this beautiful, peaceful movement and we were praising this revolution made by young non-violent activists. Unfortunately, this process of sharing everything is not something that belongs to peaceful protesters only. There is nothing that prevents a violent side, be it the regime or jihadi groups, from taking over and using networked media as a weapon, which is what happened in Syria. I think that the networked element is key in order to achieve an understanding of what happened in Syria, and will also be key in future conflicts.

Professor Donatella Della Ratta

Professor Donatella Della Ratta

Is there anything else that you would like to add?

I’m grateful to the Syrian people. This book is an academic book, which relies on ethnographic methodology. But it’s also a very personal book and I wrote many chapters in the first person while trying to keep an academic distance, lucidity, and rationality as much as I could. However, I have to say that it’s very challenging and distressful to talk about a movement that you actually witnessed. At the same time, I believe that scholars, as Antonio Gramsci taught us, should be public intellectuals and activists. I tried to give my contribution as a scholar, as an activist and as a human being.

Shooting a Revolution: Visual Media and Warfare in Syria, Pluto Press, 2018 by Donatella Della Ratta.