Deadly Embrace

Later this year I’m giving two, radically revised versions of the British Academy Lecture I gave in London in March: ‘Deadly embrace: war, distance and intimacy’.  The first will be a Keynote Lecture at the International Geographical Congress in Köln in August and the second a lecture at the Eisenberg Institute for Historical Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in October [part of their theme for 2011-2013, “Taking place: History and Spatial Imaginations”].  Then I’ll convert the gelled presentation into a text.

This is my usual way of working these days.  I begin with a presentation – using Mac’s Keynote software as a storyboard, and trying to think visually about the argument – and then give revised versions to different audiences before trying to set it out in print.  I find it really creative, and it usually solves the problem of getting down to work: before I hit on this, I had no trouble finding all sorts of displacement activities to postpone the hard graft of writing.  This is much more fun, but it still leaves two residual problems.  It’s far from straightforward to convert what becomes an intensely visual argument into vivid prose – and there is always the danger that, once you’ve got the presentation in a more or less final form and incorporated the changes suggested at its different outings, you (I) can’t summon the energy or enthusiasm to convert it into written form.  The trick here is to retain the excitement of live performances – of living arguments – by opening up the writing to further changes.  Once the text becomes a mere transcript of a performance it loses its liveliness.  You can see how it works if you compare the Miliband Lecture I gave at the LSE and the version I gave Erlangen in Germany – ‘War in the borderlands’ – with the version published as “The everywhere war” in the Geographical Journal.

I suspect that, eventually, “Deadly embrace” will morph into a book.  There’s already too much to cram into a single essay.  My basic argument is that it’s become commonplace to claim that contemporary wars are fought from a distance: the iconic version is the drone missions flown over Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere from the United States. Yet wars have been waged at a distance throughout history, and we need a surer sense of the historical curve through which military violence has shaped (and been shaped by) the friction of distance. But we also need a sharper calibration of war’s geography, including changes in military logistics, weapons systems, and the emergence of new media to convey the theatre of war to distant audiences. Yet for all these changes the ‘death of distance’ – and the distance of death – in today’s liquid world has been greatly exaggerated, and there remains a stark intimacy to many killing spaces that requires careful reflection.