The Revolution Is Not Being Televised – Why Gil Scott-Heron Is Still Right

by Thom Kiraly

Following the events in Egypt in the last week I’ve noticed an increasing number of comments such as “Gil Scott-Heron was wrong” being carelessly been thrown about online. What is being suggested is that since Al Jazeera has got a live feed up reporting on what is going on in Egypt at the moment, the revolution is now, as it were, being televised. I beg to differ. I think that statements such as “Al Jazeera – Gil Scott-Heron: 1 – 0” are based on a fundamental misreading of Scott-Heron’s poem and on a lack of understanding of the power structures of media.

Before I go any further, please listen through the poem in its entirety to make sure you have actually heard it at least once. Let’s not be seduced into thinking that the poem is nothing but a sound bite. Go here for the full text.

First of all, the poem needs to be situated within the context from whence it emerged. It is true that Scott-Heron wrote in a time when television looked quite different from today, new media has been coming and going ever since, but what I would suggest is that the fundamental structures of television has not changed. What is this fundamental structure? – Spectatorship. Television is based on the premise that you, the viewer, is a spectator, a passive observer, and not an active participant. If you were a participant you wouldn’t be watching the TV, you would be participating, wouldn’t you?

The poem deals with the appropriation of revolution by commercial interests, more specifically the appropriation carried out by ad agencies and the companies producing the products they advertise. Not being televised here means not being made to fit into the format of television with its commercial breaks and watered-down opinions. Has this been done by Al Jazeera to what is happening in Egypt? No. If it would, that would probably disqualify it as a revolution in the sense of the poem. A participatory event or process, the revolution is precisely everything which cannot be televised. It is one of its essential parts that it will not be captured by cameras due to it being more than a visual spectacle, more than angry people chanting or rioting. What Al Jazeera is covering is thus not really the revolution. To think that one would have to regard the images as truth, as showing the thing in itself. And it does, of course, no such thing. Regardless of what KRS-ONE has to say about it.

In a video clip from the 90’s Scott-Heron himself explains some of what the poem was trying to say:

“That was about the fact that the first change that takes place is in your mind. You have to change your mind before you change the way you live and the way you move. So, when we said that the revolution will not be televised we were saying that the thing that’s going to change people is something that no one will ever be able to capture on film. It will just be something you see and all of a sudden you realize: “I’m on the wrong page” or “I’m on the right page, but I’m on the wrong note and I’ve got to get in sync with everyone else to understand what’s happening in this country.”

Somehow this gets me thinking of a clip from the Jean-Pierre Jeunet film Amélie. Skip to 5:15 in this video to see what I mean.

The important part here is the boy telling the man:

“When the finger points to the sky, the imbecile looks at the finger.”

Essentially, the people proclaiming the debunking of Scott-Heron is right now pointing at the screen saying: “But it’s right there! That’s the revolution!” But what they are pointing at is their own finger pointing. The screen is trying to point at the revolution, but ends up doing the same thing as the spectators. All it can show is what it is showing. That’s all they (Al Jazeera) could get. It may be stunning, it may be exclusive, but don’t be fooled: you are a spectator, not a participant and that is the essence of the revolution not being televised. So the fact that we’re watching TV to see the revolution taking place rather underlines how far away the revolution really is for us, who are only watching it.

To be sure, the revolution is live. But not on Al-Jazeera.


[Note: In this text I do not touch on the role of so called social media. I understand that those platforms and television are not fully separate and converge in interesting ways, but I wanted to focus on the webcasts of Al Jazeera and the Scott-Heron poem. Furthermore, I do not have anything against Al Jazeera, quite the opposite in fact, but they are not a revolutionary news source.]