Oliver‘s favourite historian, Alfred McCoy, recently co-edited a fine new collection, Endless Empire: Spain’s retreat, Europe’s eclipse, America’s decline (University of Wisconsin Press, 2012), and there’s an excellent taster of McCoy’s argument at both Tomdispatch and Guernica. The title – ‘Beyond bayonets and battleships’ – is not only a rejoinder to Romney’s complaint during the last Presidential debate; it’s also a reply to Obama and his predecessors.
McCoy traces the long historical curve of what, in another age, was called America’s techno-war: the phrase comes from James Gibson’s stunning The perfect war: technowar in Vietnam (Monthly Review Press, 1986; Atlantic, 2000), and like Gibson McCoy insists on the importance of the wars in Indochina for the matrix within which late modern war is now conducted.
Many of his themes resonate with my own work – the key elements for today’s remote operations were assembled over the skies of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, and these have been radically extended by biometric identification, electronic surveillance and cyberwarfare – and McCoy also peers into a not-do-distant but desperately dark future in which the contemporary politics of verticality and what Stuart Elden describes as projects to ‘secure the volume‘ will be dwarfed by a triple-tier canopy (‘Just how high is national sovereignty? … Some puckish Pentagon lawyer might reply: only as high as you can enforce it’):
It’s 2025 and an American “triple canopy” of advanced surveillance and armed drones fills the heavens from the lower- to the exo-atmosphere. A wonder of the modern age, it can deliver its weaponry anywhere on the planet with staggering speed, knock out an enemy’s satellite communications system, or follow individuals biometrically for great distances. Along with the country’s advanced cyberwar capacity, it’s also the most sophisticated militarized information system ever created and an insurance policy for U.S. global dominion deep into the twenty-first century. It’s the future as the Pentagon imagines it; it’s under development; and Americans know nothing about it.
I’m drafting the introduction to The everywhere war now, and this is a superb essay for me to engage – if you read one thing this week, make it this.
News from my friend and colleague Gaston Gordillo about his proposed paper for the Violence and Space sessions at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers in Los Angeles next year. An extract from the abstract (!) for The Terrain as Medium of Violence:
In this paper, I draw from [Eyal] Weizman and also from Paul Virilio’s work on violence and vision and Derek Gregory’s research on aerial bombing and drones to examine a key principle of a theory of the terrain: the decisive importance of verticality in the deployment of state violence as a three-dimensional vector. The history of aerial bombing and the recent rise in the use of drones reveal that the control of the skies and the atmosphere —and the speed and global reach their spatial smoothness allows for— has become fundamental to imperial power.
Yet the politics of verticality pose spatial paradoxes that can only be appreciated through the actual, tangible material-political terrains in which it operates. Contra the image of absolute deterritorialization it tends to evoke, the verticality created by drones is always-already subsumed to a spatial principle as old as warfare: that the ultimate aim of controlling a higher ground through towers, mountaintops, or the sky is to create a view from above to visualize, localize, and inflict violence upon targets located primarily on the ground. In short, drones patrol the skies not to control high altitudes per se but in order to control an opaque terrain below that limits the state field of vision. And despite their capacity for unleashing massive levels of destruction, drones reveal something else about the terrains of Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Yemen endlessly scanned by their cameras: that imperial ground forces do not control those spaces. This political voiding of imperial space by local insurgencies is made possible by another ancient principle of guerrilla warfare: the fact that the mastery of heavily striated terrain (mountains, forests, urban spaces) by flexible and mobile forces allows them to avoid visual capture by the state and, in the long run, wear down and defeat more powerful militaries. The verticality generated by drones, in short, reveals not only the vast spatial reach of imperial violence but also the profound spatial limits it encounters amid the political and material striations of the global terrain.
More at Gaston’s Space and Politics
, with links to his other postings on these ideas and news of his book project, The After-Life of Places: Ruins and the Destruction of Space,
forthcoming from Duke. He promises more to come!
The Violence and Space
sessions will evidently be very lively: Stuart Elden
has also published his abstract, “Urban Territory: Violent Political Technologies in London and Kano”
, on his Progressive Geographies
Horizontal notes on the vertical:
I expect most readers will know of Eyal’s work on the politics of verticality, most obviously through his book Hollow Land: Israel’s architecture of occupation
(2007 – paperback out this year), and Stuart has become interested in similar issues: see the video of his Secure the Volume: vertical geopolitics and the depth of power here
. Steve Graham
has also called for a ‘vertical turn in urban social science
‘: you can listen to it here
, and read his essay with Lucy Hewitt
, “Getting off the ground: on the politics of urban verticality”, in Progress in human geography
(Online First: 25 April 2012) doi:10.1177/0309132512443147. Enough to make you giddy.