The Violent Image: Insurgent Propaganda and the New Revolutionaries

August 16, 2012

It is hard to avoid the overwhelming volume of texts discussing the War on Terror; even after the 10th anniversary of 9/11, there remains a clear need to investigate these events and to consider how they continue to inform and influence our contemporary landscape. Early discussions on the War on Terror dwelled on defining terror, including the social, political, ideological and economic influences that led to the attack on the Twin Towers. Significant among the responses to the attack were some that came via the diffuse forms of visual communication that mediated the act in the global village. It is precisely this mediation via digital technology that Neville Bolt sees as the basis for a paradigm shift in insurgents' operating concepts. For Bolt, it is the communicative platforms and the visual that have empowered this shift, with acts of terror shattering conventional concepts of propaganda.

Bolt argues that there has been an equally powerful shift in communicative functions that reactivates the anarchist principle of the "propaganda of the deed". He offers a compelling discussion of the principle's evolution, beginning with its 19th-century origins and unravelling the fault lines of the anarchists' failure, via limited forms of communication, to reach those they aimed to influence. Throughout, he draws together an impressive range of sources, critics and theories.

As a former producer-director of documentaries on war zones, Bolt draws on personal insights on conflict in developing critical perspective on the role played by the media in responding to acts of terror in an age of digital technology. This understanding is a welcome addition, and adds weight to the argument that the relationship between terror/insurgent groups and those who report on them has changed, with the journalist no longer perceived as a mediator but a threat to the effective communication of the propaganda of the deed.

The contemporary terrorist/insurgent, Bolt suggests, is not driven by propaganda but by trying to redefine and reconstruct dramatic visualisations that become embedded in the memory of the viewer. In part, the image displaces the written word because it offers more fluid and open readings. Bolt relates this to Roland Barthes' and Susan Sontag's essays on the photographic image. It is here that the most significant aspect of Bolt's argument develops, as he questions the function of individual and collective memory in terms of the visualisation of the act of terror. He contends that in our contemporary culture of digital information, instant communication and expression have enabled more open forms of dialogue between insurgents and potential supporters. Citing the Arab Spring as an example, he highlights the complex interplay between digital media, insurgent agendas and their efforts to gain support from the global village. In this context, the book's references to Walter Benjamin, Marshall McLuhan and Paul Virilio are significant and give a contemporary resonance for future studies of insurgents' actions.

This is a welcome contribution to the study of the communicative aims of insurgents, war studies, media studies, communication and advertising, and Bolt's comprehensive body of research and extensive supporting references offer an enriched source of material for the reader and student interested in the subject. The Violent Image is an interesting, informative text that will make readers question how they mediate and narrativise acts of terror in relation to the propaganda of the deed.

The Violent Image: Insurgent Propaganda and the New Revolutionaries

By Neville Bolt. Hurst, 256pp, £24.99. ISBN 9781849041911. Published 31 May 2012

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