While I was in Cambridge, I managed to start Kate Atkinson‘s extraordinary novel, A god in ruins, and I’ve just finished it. It centres on the life of a bomber pilot during the Second War War, but it starts much earlier and ends around 2012 – and while its focus is on ‘Teddy’s War’ (it’s a companion to her earlier novel Life after Life (2013), with its unforgettable rendering of the Blitz, and it comes with a research bibliography), it’s about much more than that. In fact, a common refrain is ‘Let’s talk about something more interesting than the mechanics of bombing’ – though Atkinson handles those superbly well too. The best – and most affecting – novel I’ve read in an age. It’s not so much the scenes from inside Teddy’s Halifax that haunt me, brilliant though they are, or even the dilemma that lies at the heart of the novel – ‘killing people from twenty thousand feet up in the sky’ or killing a single, solitary soul – as the way in which Atkinson renders Teddy’s own death. She does so in exquisite, vivid, illuminating prose, and manages to leave a mesmerising ambiguity: as the walls close in and crash down one by one, is Teddy remembering – re-living – in the darkening present or dying in the incandescent past, ‘a blaze of light in the dark’?
I still regard Postmodern geographies as Ed Soja‘s finest book – his most considered and his most creative – and within that his essay on ‘Taking Los Angeles Apart‘ is surely the stand-out contribution. By turns playful and passionate, it’s packed with insights about Los Angeles and late modern cities. I discussed it at length in Geographical imaginations – the book not the blog – but the essay has come back to haunt me ever since I learned of an extraordinary new book which I know Ed would have read with the greatest interest.
It’s David Kishik‘s The Manhattan Project, which I stumbled across because of its title and my new-found interest in seeing drones through post-atomic eyes. But it’s not about that Manhattan Project at all. Instead, it riffs on Benjamin’s Arcades Project in the most astonishing of ways:
In The Manhattan Project, David Kishik dares to imagine a Walter Benjamin who did not commit suicide in 1940, but managed instead to escape the Nazis to begin a long, solitary life in New York. During his anonymous, posthumous existence, while he was haunting and haunted by his new city, Benjamin composed a sequel to his Arcades Project. Just as his incomplete masterpiece revolved around Paris, capital of the nineteenth century, this spectral text was dedicated to New York, capital of the twentieth. Kishik’s sui generis work of experimental scholarship or fictional philosophy is thus presented as a study of a manuscript that was never written.
The fictitious prolongation of Benjamin’s life will raise more than one eyebrow, but the wit, breadth, and incisiveness of Kishik’s own writing is bound to impress. Kishik reveals a world of secret affinities between New York City and Paris, the flâneur and the homeless person, the collector and the hoarder, the covered arcade and the bare street, but also between photography and graffiti, pragmatism and minimalism, Andy Warhol and Robert Moses, Hannah Arendt and Jane Jacobs. A critical celebration of New York City, The Manhattan Project reshapes our perception of urban life, and rethinks our very conception of modernity.
Another good friend who is sadly no longer with us, Allan Pred, would surely have relished that too. I’m sure Ed would have insisted that Benjamin would never have gone to New York and that, in common with Adorno, he would have sought refuge in L.A. (where else? In fact Adorno left New York for LA, though it’s impossible to think of Ed calling that ‘exile’).
Finally, there’s an excellent review by Dustin Illingworth at The Brooklyn Rail here. When Dustin says this –
Like Borges’s “Aleph,” New York is “the place where, without admixture or confusion, all the places of the world, seen from every angle, coexist.” It is therefore much to Kishik’s credit that his slim volume, a drop in the vast ocean of literature on the city, packs such a considerable theoretical punch.
– then we are back with Ed Soja’s essay, which also began with an appeal to The Aleph and also packed a considerable theoretical punch.
A gracious note from Antipode prompts me to add that today is also a day to remember the countless others who are victims of war and military/paramilitary violence. And so to a new book due at the end of the month from Frederik Rosén, Collateral Damage: a candid history of a peculiar form of death (Hurst/Oxford University Press):
The dilemmas precipitated by the unintentional killing of civilians in war, or ‘collateral damage’, shape many aspects of military conduct, yet noticeable by its absence has been a methodical examination of the place and role of this phenomenon in modern warfare. This book offers a fresh perspective on a distressing consequence of conflict.
Rosén explains how collateral damage is linked to ideas of authority, thereby anchoring it to the existential riddles of our individual and collective lives, and that this peculiar form of death constitutes an image of what it means to be human.
His investigation of collateral damage is notable too for how the death of non-combatants sheds light on some of today’s critical challenges to war and global governance, such as the growing role of non-state actors, mercenary contractors and the impact of military privatization.
In the ethical realm those who successfully prove that collateral damage has occurred also enter the debate about which institutions may exert authority and thus how a truly decentralized world might be organized. This is why the in many ways underrepresented victims of collateral damage appear on closer inspection to have experienced a most significant form of death.
1. The Third Category of Death
2. Urban Warfare and Collateral Damage
3. Collateral Damage and the Question of Legal Responsibility
4. Collateral Damage and Compensation
5. Lifting the Fog of War and Collateral Damage
6. How Bad Can Be Good
7. A Death Without Sacrifice
8. Collateral Damage or Accident?
9. A Private Call for Collateral Damage?
10. A Place Between it All
This is a good moment to remember Patricia Owens’ classic and still vitally important essay, ‘Accidents don’t just happen: the liberal politics of high-technology “humanitarian” war’, Millennium 32 (3) (2003) 596-616, and to reflect on what is surely a classic-in-the-making: Emily Gilbert‘s brilliant new essay, ‘The gift of war: cash, counterinsurgency and “collateral damage”‘, Security dialogue (online early).
Then there is the intentional killing of civilians in war….
On the same day I heard the news of Ed Soja‘s untimely death I received my copy of Spaces of Danger: culture and power in the everyday, a volume in the University of Georgia Press’s Geographies of Justice and Social Transformation series. It’s a collection of essays edited by Heather Merrill and Lisa Hoffman: all of the contributors have been inspired by the work of another friend who I also miss very much, Allan Pred.
These twelve original essays by geographers and anthropologists offer a deep critical understanding of Allan Pred’s pathbreaking and eclectic cultural Marxist approach, with a focus on his concept of “situated ignorance”: the production and reproduction of power and inequality by regimes of truth through strategically deployed misinformation, diversions, and silences. As the essays expose the cultural and material circumstances in which situated ignorance persists, they also add a previously underexplored spatial dimension to Walter Benjamin’s idea of “moments of danger.”
The volume invokes the aftermath of the July 2011 attacks by far-right activist Anders Breivik in Norway, who ambushed a Labor Party youth gathering and bombed a government building, killing and injuring many. Breivik had publicly and forthrightly declared war against an array of liberal attitudes he saw threatening Western civilization. However, as politicians and journalists interpreted these events for mass consumption, a narrative quickly emerged that painted Breivik as a lone madman and steered the discourse away from analysis of the resurgent right-wing racisms and nationalisms in which he was immersed.
The Breivik case is merely one of the most visible recent examples, say editors Heather Merrill and Lisa Hoffman, of the unchallenged production of knowledge in the public sphere. In essays that range widely in topic and setting—for example, brownfield development in China, a Holocaust memorial in Germany, an art gallery exhibit in South Africa—this volume peels back layers of “situated practices and their associated meaning and power relations.” Spaces of Danger offers analytical and conceptual tools of a Predian approach to interrogate the taken-for-granted and make visible and legible that which is silenced.
1 Introduction: Making sense of our contemporary moment of danger
PART ONE: CRITICAL SPATIALITY
Trevor Paglen: Angelus Novus (from back)
2 Katharyne Mitchell: It’s TIME: The cultural politics of memory in the current moment of danger
3 Gunnar Olsson: Skinning the Skinning
PART TWO: SITUATED PRACTICES
Trevor Paglen: From Allan’s notes on Benjamin
4 Gillian Hart: Exposing the Nationa: entanglements of race, sexuality and gender in post-apartheid nationalism
5 Heather Merrill: In other for(l)ds: situated intersectionality in Italy
6 Damani Partridge: Monumental memory, moral superiority, and contemporary disconnects: racisms and noncitizen in Europe, then and now
PART THREE: THE URBAN AND THE SPECTACULAR
Trevor Paglen: From Allan’s notes on Benjamin
7 Richard Walker: The city and economic geography: then and now
8 Shiloh Krupar: Situated spectacle: cross-sectional soil hermeneutics of the Shanghai 2010 World Expo
PART FOUR: HISTORICAL GEOGRAPHIES OF THE PRESENT
Trevor Paglen: Angelus Novus
9 Michael Watts Insurgent Spaces: power, place and spectacle in Nigeria
10 Nancy Postero: Even in plurinational Bolivia: indignity, development and racism since Morales
11 Derek Gregory: Moving targets and violent geographies
PART FIVE: BIOGRAPHICAL MONTAGE OF THE PRESENT
12 Cindi Katz: A Bronx chronicle
There’s also a warm and exquisitely written Foreword by Paul Rabinow, who co-taught a graduate course with Allan at Berkeley, which ends like this:
‘Dame Fortune smiled on me when she sent Allan Pred my way. I am forever in her debt. The glimmers of hope in these dark times continue to emanate from those rare friends, not just their magnificent work, but the way they lived – the way they patiently, unobtrusively, daringly and thoughtfully taught us how to live.’
The stunning cover image, Travelers, is by Allan’s hyper-talented daughter Michele: it shows scissors confiscated at US airports and now suspended under a vast umbrella. Spaces of Danger indeed.
Eyal Weizman‘s stunning Wall Exchange, “Forensic Architecture”, which he presented at the Vogue Theatre in Vancouver earlier this month, is now up on YouTube here and embedded below.
If you are puzzled by my riff on Joni Mitchell, start around 46:10 (though you’ll miss a lot if you do…).
And while we’re on the subject of clouds, you’ll find a remarkable analysis of a different sort of militarized cloud in Tung-Hui Hu‘s A Prehistory of the Cloud from MIT:
We may imagine the digital cloud as placeless, mute, ethereal, and unmediated. Yet the reality of the cloud is embodied in thousands of massive data centers, any one of which can use as much electricity as a midsized town. Even all these data centers are only one small part of the cloud. Behind that cloud-shaped icon on our screens is a whole universe of technologies and cultural norms, all working to keep us from noticing their existence. In this book, Tung-Hui Hu examines the gap between the real and the virtual in our understanding of the cloud.
Hu shows that the cloud grew out of such older networks as railroad tracks, sewer lines, and television circuits. He describes key moments in the prehistory of the cloud, from the game “Spacewar” as exemplar of time-sharing computers to Cold War bunkers that were later reused as data centers. Countering the popular perception of a new “cloudlike” political power that is dispersed and immaterial, Hu argues that the cloud grafts digital technologies onto older ways of exerting power over a population. But because we invest the cloud with cultural fantasies about security and participation, we fail to recognize its militarized origins and ideology. Moving between the materiality of the technology itself and its cultural rhetoric, Hu’s account offers a set of new tools for rethinking the contemporary digital environment.
Here is Lisa Parks on what is surely one of the must-reads of the year:
“Hu’s riveting genealogy of the cloud takes us into its precursors and politics, and boldly demonstrates how fantasies of sovereignty, security, and participation are bound up in it. Much more than a data center, the cloud is a diffuse and invisible structure of power that has yielded a data-centric order. Imaginative and lucidly written, this book will be core to digital media studies.”
Coming from MIT in April next year, a new book by the ever-creative anthropologist Hugh Gusterson, Drone: remote control warfare.
Drones are changing the conduct of war. Deployed at presidential discretion, they can be used in regular war zones or to kill people in such countries as Yemen and Somalia, where the United States is not officially at war. Advocates say that drones are more precise than conventional bombers, allowing warfare with minimal civilian deaths while keeping American pilots out of harm’s way. Critics say that drones are cowardly and that they often kill innocent civilians while terrorizing entire villages on the ground. In this book, Hugh Gusterson explores the significance of drone warfare from multiple perspectives, drawing on accounts by drone operators, victims of drone attacks, anti-drone activists, human rights activists, international lawyers, journalists, military thinkers, and academic experts.
Gusterson examines the way drone warfare has created commuter warriors and redefined the space of the battlefield. He looks at the paradoxical mix of closeness and distance involved in remote killing: is it easier than killing someone on the physical battlefield if you have to watch onscreen? He suggests a new way of understanding the debate over civilian casualties of drone attacks. He maps “ethical slippage” over time in the Obama administration’s targeting practices. And he contrasts Obama administration officials’ legal justification of drone attacks with arguments by international lawyers and NGOs.
I met Hugh at a conference on Orientalism and War in Oxford several years ago, and I’ve recently been reading his Nuclear Rites: a weapons laboratory and the end of the Cold War and People of the Bomb: Portraits of America’s Nuclear Complex as I continue my wanderings through the nuclear wastelands.
The coincidence between Hugh’s previous projects and his new one intersects with my presentation on “Little Boys and Blue Skies” in Toronto last week – see here and here – which sketched out a series of entanglements between drones and the nuclear wastelands (hence the Eliot quotation which serves as my title for this post).
I’m delighted that Grégoire Chamayou and Chris Woods have both accepted invitations to act as discussants and interlocutors for my Tanner Lectures, “Reach from the Sky: aerial violence and the everywhere war“, in Cambridge in January.
The format for the Lectures is for me to give two presentations on the first day; the next day a panel of four respondents offers reactions and comments, and then we open up into general debate and discussion.
I provided a series of detailed commentaries on Grégoire’s variously titled Drone Theory/A Theory of the Drone when it was originally published in French (see here for a full listing: scroll down), and we met last year at a wonderful workshop on Secrecy and Transparency at the Humanities Research Institute at Irvine, so I’m thrilled that the tables will be reversed. Grégoire’s creative imagination seems to know no bounds – see, for example, here and here – and we keep in close touch so I know this will be a rewarding conversation.
I’ve never met Chris, but I’m really looking forward to doing so: he has worked with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism; his Sudden Justice: America’s secret drone wars is the gold standard for books about the conduct of US remote operations; and he is now busy at Airwars monitoring coalition air strikes over Iraq and Syria. I greatly admire Chris’s combination of probing analysis and lucid prose, and his determination to bring the results to the widest possible public audience is an inspiration.
More on other respondents later.