Sight-seeing: war and extreme tourism

For the last several months there have been dispiriting reports of Israeli tourists travelling to the Golan Heights to gaze across the war zone in Syria: as Allison Good put it over at Foreign Policy, “Many Israelis are foregoing the pool or the beach, flocking instead to the Israel-Syria border for a little action.”

There was a thoughtful response to this voyeurism from Paul Woodward at War in Context – make no mistake, this is spectatorship not witnessing, as the video that prefaces his commentary makes clear – in which he suggested a series of ways in which he thought Israelis watching the war through binoculars was significantly different from Americans watching the war on television:

For Israelis the spectacle of regional violence is self-affirming.

It reinforces the idea that Israel is justifiably obsessed with its own security because it is surrounded by a ‘dangerous neighborhood.’

It confirms Ehud Barak’s racist notion that Israel is a villa in a jungle and that tranquility inside this villa can only be afforded by high walls.

It defines neighbors on the basis of their otherness and legitimizes indifference in preference to empathy.

I’m not so sure; there are, sadly, also American constituencies who surely see things the same way.

There are also close parallels between the voyeurs on the Golan Heights (or in this case Lows) and the ‘hill of shame’ from which the international media looked on at the Israeli attack on Gaza in 2009.  Here too the media were joined by Israeli tourists with cameras, binoculars and picnics: ‘bombing as spectator sport’, as two angry commentators described it.  There’s another personal, passionate report here.  For more on watching Gaza, see Peter Lagerquist, ‘Heard on the Hill of Shame’, at MERIP and – absolutely vital, this – David Campbell‘s  take, ‘Constructed visibility: photographing the catastrophe of Gaza (2009)’, which can be downloaded through his blog here. And Craig Jones has an excellent article culled from his MA thesis on ‘Shooting Gaza: Israel’s visual war’ in Human Geography 4 (1) (2011): abstract here.

There is also now a developing discussion of the wider, militarized landscape of ‘extreme tourism’ in Israel from Matt Carr at Ceasefire.  He pays close attention to the growth of tour companies run by former military officers and settlers, to the inclusion of the illegal settlements on the West Bank in their itineraries, and to the shooting ranges where tourists are encouraged to role play:

The sight of these ignorant, gimlet-eyed tourists in sunglasses and shorts, living out their paramilitary fantasies and teaching even young children to kill imaginary terrorists in a land under Israeli military occupation, is not the most edifying spectacle. But Caliber 3 does not only aim to thrill. Its activities are intended to combine ‘the values of Zionism with the excitement and enjoyment of shooting which makes the activity more meaningful.’ As the school’s director puts it ‘What is key here is not just shooting at targets, but hearing how we fight every day to protect the Jewish state.’

This can all be embedded in an emerging literature on ‘battlefield tourism’ or ‘war tourism’ – Richard Butler and Wantanee Suntikul have an edited collection, Tourism and war, out from Routledge this summer – but I think it’s more usefully connected to Rebecca Steins pathbreaking work on the politics of tourism, especially her book Itineraries in Conflict: Israelis, Palestinians and the political lives of tourism (Duke University Press, 2008). You can find a more recent report from her, ‘An All-Consuming Occupation’, on the fourth Jerusalem Festival of Light in June 2012 and the wretched history of tourism that was concealed in its glare, at MERIP.  She’s also provided an incisive examination of Israeli media coverage of the Gaza war – most eyes have been directed at international coverage –  in ‘Impossible witness: Israeli visuality, Palestinian testimony and the Gaza war’, Journal of cultural research 16 (2-3) (2012) 135-53.

Finally, for faint flickers of hope, there’s Caryn Aviv‘s essay on ‘The emergence of alternative Jewish tourism’, European Review of History 18 (1) (2011) 33-43.  Here’s the abstract:

This article explores the emergence of ‘alternative Jewish travel’ to the West Bank and within Israel. One programme, aimed at diaspora Jews, reframes religious, cultural, and ethnic Jewish identity to include non-violence and solidarity with Palestinians as part of what it means to be Jewish. Another programme, aimed at Israeli citizens (both Jews and non-Jews), reframes Israeli national identity to include post-Zionist solidarity with Palestinians, but is not necessarily Jewish in any religious or ethnic sense. Alternative Jewish travel programme tours explore complicated questions of justice and nationalism in different ways that reflect their simultaneously local and global positions, who organises them, and how they define Jewishness differently.

In Frames of War: when is life grievable? (2009) Judith Butler offered a series of reflections on other, no less violent visualities than those I have discussed here, but Aviv’s essay is worth reading alongside Butler’s response to the Jewish critics of her richly deserved award of the Adorno Prize by the city of Frankfurt: grace under fire.

Frithjof Voss

I’ve been awarded the inaugural Internationalen Wissenschaftspreis der Deutschen Geographie (International Science Award of German Geography) by the Frithjof Voss Stiftung, and the Prize was presented at the Closing Ceremony of the IGC in Cologne yesterday (30 August).  The award is to be made every four years and ‘honours the lifetime achievements of foreign scientists whose merit lies in their applied research and contribution towards building links between international geography and German-speaking geography.’

I’m really, really honoured by this.  I’ve valued my exchanges with German-speaking geographers for several decades now.  Before I left Cambridge for Vancouver in 1989 I had already come to know Benno Werlen, Dagmar Reichert and others, and in 1997 I was invited to give the first Hettner Lecture at Heidelberg.  I shall never forget that first visit.  I was staying in a hotel in the Old Town, in a large room tucked underneath the eaves, and I’d left the text of my lecture open on a bed while I was taken on a field excursion.  It rained solidly all day, and when I climbed the stairs to my room I was wet through; as I opened the door a hole appeared in the ceiling – it was a very old hotel – and water cascaded down onto the bed.  As I watched, the text of my lecture literally dissolved before my eyes.  (Probably the first time I thought that physical geography might have an impact on human geography).  I dashed downstairs and said in my best but rather frantic schoolboy German, “The rain is inside my room”, to which the gracious woman behind the desk – who had patiently been correcting my grammar and vocabulary ever since I arrived – replied (in German) “No, it is raining outside…”  I half-dragged her up the stairs,threw the door open, and she said – to my horrified satisfaction – “The rain is inside your room!!” Fortunately I had another copy of the lecture (Rule No. 1: always have a back-up).

That visit opened the door to a continuing series of conversations with colleagues at Heidelberg, and to a lasting friendship with Peter Meusburger – whose boundless energy, enthusiasm and intellectual insight I shall always treasure.  I’ve been back many times since, especially for Peter’s international seminar series on Knowledge & Space (like the ten Hettner lectures, these have been supported by the Klaus Tschira Foundation and held at the beautiful Villa Bosch just outside the city), and in 2007 – just ten years after my first visit – I was thrilled to be awarded an honorary degree by the university.  In 2011 I gave a Keynote lecture on “War in the borderlands” at the conference on New Cultural Geography at Nürnberg-Erlangen, and made more new friends; this past year I’ve been to Cologne to help plan the IGC – and made yet more new friends – and returned this week to give another Keynote  (a sawn-off version of “Deadly embrace: war, distance and intimacy”).

The subject of those last two lectures supplies a second reason for my pleasure at this Award.  It’s really heartening to discover that “applied research” is not interpreted in a narrowly instrumental way, and that the Foundation encourages a critical engagement with matters of public moment: ‘The main concern of the foundation is to demonstrate the practical value of geography when dealing with manifold social problems.’

Frithjof Voss (1936-2004) was an expert on satellite imaging and mapping at the Institute of Geography at the Technical University of Berlin, and he was determined ‘”to rally high technology to offer something that materially benefits ordinary people.”  In 1991 he started using satellite imagery and remote sensing to identify the breeding grounds of locusts in the Tokar Delta in Sudan.  “Locusts do not recognise national borders,” he explained, “and neither does my system.” Ground studies confirmed the accuracy of his biotope mapping, and Voss then set about building his own satellite and linking it to GPS satellites so that real-time intelligence could be transmitted to eradication crews on the ground.

I am, of course, aware of the parallels between this aerial sensor/ground response system and other, different and deadly systems that are the focus of much of my own research on late modern war (drones, in case you’re not following this).  But Voss’s approach was a profoundly ameliorative one.   ‘Considering how quickly locusts breed, and the relative inaccessibility of many locust biotopes, Voss’s “smoke alarm” approach can literally mean the difference between life and death for many people.’ He was named an Associate Laureate of the Rolex Awards for Enterprise in 1996, and went on to extend his work to Asia.  As his work in China was drawing to a close, Voss noted that “huge locust swarms began infesting Kazakhstan and were heading to Russia. If our system had been in place in Central Asia, this could have been prevented.” Instead, as the Rolex website puts it, ‘crops were destroyed in an area the size of France, tensions between Russia and Kazakhstan were exacerbated and states of emergencies were declared across the region.’

Something else that captures my imagination – the website makes it plain that his work not only affected people far beyond the academy: it also sought audiences beyond the academy.  Long before most of us had realised the importance of ‘public geographies’, Voss was emphatically clear:

“We know nothing about public relations or how to interest the world in what we are doing… How do we reach those in positions of responsibility who have the imagination to see how great an impact such a system could have on millions around the world? Who do we see to help fund implementation?” Asked whether his remarks were a plea for an expert on such worldly matters to join his crusade, he replied, “Certainly I’m asking. It’s the business of scientists to ask.”

I wish I’d known him.

‘The terrain as medium of violence’

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 blog here, 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 blog here.
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.

Remote Witnessing

In an astonishing essay on ‘Drone bombings in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas’, published in the Journal of Geographical Information Systems 4 (2012) 136-141 – the places this blog is taking me! – Katrina Laygo, Thomas Gillespie, Noel Rayo and Erin Garcia (three geographers and a political scientist at UCLA) explore what they call ‘public remote sensing applications for security monitoring’.

An open-access version should be available here but there is also a manuscript version here.  (In fact news of the project appeared in the press soon after the US raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound last year – Gillespie and John Agnew headed a team that had used satellite imagery and the theory of island biogeography (sic) to predict the location of bin Laden’s hideout in 2009 – but much of the media interest in the new work focused on the image captured by satellite of a Predator circling above an area south west of Miram Shah.)

The new project uses unclassified high-resolution imagery from QuickBird 2 (via GeoEye) to monitor drone strikes in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).  The difficulties (and dangers) of eyewitness reports are well-known, and media coverage of drone strikes in the area is at best uneven – though the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, along with organizations like CIVIC and Reprieve, continue to do brave, invaluable, eye-popping work – but the UCLA team concludes that, in principle, the commercial availability of the satellite imagery means that  ‘it is possible for the public’ – a distant public – ‘to monitor drone bombings in the [FATA]’.

You can see where they might be going.  In the weeks preceding the US-led invasion of Afghanistan the Pentagon secured exclusive rights to commercial imagery from the Ikonos-2 satellite.  They didn’t need it for operational purposes; the objective was to exercise ‘shutter control’ and prevent media and other organizations from obtaining imagery that might reveal casualties from the high-level bombing campaign. It wasn’t cheap; the standard cost was around $200 per square kilometre, with a premium for rapid turnaround, and news media had been paying $500 for each image.  It’s still not cheap.  The authors of this (I presume preliminary) report concede that ‘it may be prohibitively expensive to monitor the entire region’.  They estimate that weekly data for one year’s coverage of a town like Miram Shah would cost $64,000, though this would not be beyond the reach of some organizations.

But their own test-case is not encouraging.  Working from a map of drone strikes and casualties constructed by the Center for American Progress – they don’t say why they selected this source – the team searched the satellite image for evidence of any of the 16 drone strikes around Miram Shah before 1 January 2010 included in the database.  This is what they say:

 ‘We feel confident that we were able to identify the location of one drone bombing in Figure 4(b). If the center of the compound is the target, it would appear that the drone bombing is accurate. This also suggests that the blast radius of such attacks is relatively small or less than 20 m. Indeed, the walls still appear to remain intact. This appears similar to blast radii reported for hellfire missiles which are used by both the Predator and Reaper drones.’

The claim is not only repeated but generalized in the abstract: ‘Results suggest that drone bombings are very accurate and drone missions are common in the region.’

They suggest no such thing; drone strikes are most certainly common, but the claim about their accuracy is based on a single case for which nothing is known of the intended target or the basis for its identification – was this yet another wedding party?  Neither can anything be said about civilian casualties; they don’t key this site back into their casualty database, such as it is, and in any case they note that ‘The resolution of QuickBird 2 is currently not high enough to see or quantify casualties.’  Not exactly forensic architecture then.

Not surprisingly, though, the conclusion chimes with the Center for American Progress’s own endorsement of the campaign:

Hardly a week goes by without some key figure in the Al Qaeda network and its affiliates being targeted in a range of actions, including drone strikes as well as other actions by U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies to prevent attacks and degrade the Al Qaeda network. The damage done to Al Qaeda by the Obama administration represents America’s greatest national security success since the fall of the Soviet Union and the peaceful integration of Eastern European countries in the 1990s.

The importance of all this goes beyond the particular case.  Susan Sontag once famously declared that ‘Being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country is a quintessentially modern experience.’  It’s a more complicated (and contentious) claim than it looks, but in any event being a spectator is not the same as being a witness.  And we surely know – or ought to know – from Lisa Parkss wonderful work that satellite and other remote technologies do not provide an unmediated window on the world. I’m thinking particularly of her ‘Satellite view of Srebrenica: tele-visuality and the politics of witnessing’ in Social identities 7 (4) (2001), and ‘Digging into Google Earth: an analysis of “Crisis in Darfur”‘ in Geoforum 40 (4) (2009), but you can get a sense of her work from the press report of her 2010 lecture to the New Zealand Geographical Society here.  She also has a new book out late this year/early next from Routledge, Coverage: media spaces and security after 9/11.

Now the use of satellite technology to conduct ‘remote witnessing’ is not alien to human rights organizations, but most of them are well aware of its problems as well as its potential.  Amnesty International sponsored the Science for Human Rights Project (originally Satellites for Human Rights) from January 2008 to January 2011:

Its primary purpose was to test the potential use of geospatial technologies for human rights impact. The purpose of the evaluation is to assess the extent to which work undertaken by Amnesty International contributed to change (intended and unintended) and to assess the potential for using geospatial technologies to contribute towards more effective advocacy and impact.

There have been a series of public examples.  Some of them have been conducted under other banners, like the celebrity Satellite Sentinel Project on Sudan.

But the most directly relevant to this post is probably Amnesty’s (now terminated) Eyes on Pakistan archived here.  Although this involved interactive mapping platforms rather than the use of satellite imagery the project title gives a clear indication of the direction in which Amnesty was moving and the wider debate about witnessing of which it was a part.

Amnesty has also launched Eyes on Darfur (here too the imagery is no longer being updated) and now Eyes on Syria.  This does involve remote imagery, and there is an interesting discussion on Amnesty USA’s blog about its significance:

The images from Homs and Hama show clearly that armed forces have not been removed from residential areas, as demanded by the U.N. General Assembly resolution from mid February. In Hama, the images reveal an increase in military equipment over the last weeks, raising the specter of an impending assault on the city where the father of current President Bashar al-Assad unleashed a bloody 27-day assault three decades ago, with as many as 25,000 people killed.

With reports of a ground assault underway in Homs, the analysis of imagery identifies military equipment and checkpoints throughout Homs, and field guns and mortars actively deployed and pointing at Homs [see image left]. Additionally, the images show the shelling of residential areas in Homs, concentrated on the Bab ‘Amr neighborhood. Artillery impact craters are visible in large sections of Bab ‘Amr, from where we have received the names of hundreds killed throughout the period of intense shelling.

Note that last clause: to convert remote sensing into remote witnessing requires difficult, painstaking work in multiple registers because the imagery does not speak for itself.  To believe otherwise means that anyone who ventriloquises from imagery alone – academics screening imagery in California or CIA/USAF analysts scrutinising near real-time feeds from drones – runs the real risk of seeing what they are predisposed to see.  As that same blog post notes,

Satellite images can help to show the widespread and systematic nature of violations, characteristics inherent to certain international crimes such as crimes against humanity. Additionally, they can help in identifying command responsibility, a key requirement for holding individual perpetrators accountable. [Ivan] Simonovic [Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights] pointed out that the UN Panel on Sri Lanka relied a lot on satellite images. The same holds true for the current commission of inquiry on Syria, which equally relies on satellite images. Thus, the point is that while satellite images barely deliver the “smoking gun” that leads to a conviction, they can provide major support for international investigations and accountability mechanisms.

And this brings me back to drones.  Writing in the New York Times on 30 January 2012 Andrew Sniderman and Mark Hanis proposed re-purposing drones ‘for human rights’:

DRONES are not just for firing missiles in Pakistan. In Iraq, the State Department is using them to watch for threats to Americans. It’s time we used the revolution in military affairs to serve human rights advocacy. With drones, we could take clear pictures and videos of human rights abuses, and we could start with Syria. The need there is even more urgent now, because the Arab League’s observers suspended operations last week. They fled the very violence they were trying to monitor. Drones could replace them, and could even go to some places the observers, who were escorted and restricted by the government, could not see. This we know: the Syrian government isn’t just fighting rebels, as it claims; it is shooting unarmed protesters, and has been doing so for months. Despite a ban on news media, much of the violence is being caught on camera by ubiquitous cellphones. The footage is shaky and the images grainy, but still they make us YouTube witnesses. Imagine if we could watch in high definition with a bird’s-eye view. A drone would let us count demonstrators, gun barrels and pools of blood. And the evidence could be broadcast for a global audience, including diplomats at the United Nations and prosecutors at the International Criminal Court.

This produced a series of responses:  Lauren Jenkins was appalled, Daniel Solomon sceptical, and Patrick Meier sympathetic.  The most scathing response was from anthropologist Darryl Li in Middle East Report, which provoked a heated exchange between him and Sniderman.  I see all this as part of a diffuse (and I think largely uncoordinated) campaign to rehabilitate drones in the public eye, something I’ll be writing about in a future column for open Democracy.  But whatever you make of it, and wherever your sympathies lie, the debate about ‘humanitarian drones’ clearly underscores the necessity of seeing visual technologies as political-cultural technologies enrolled in highly particular scopic regimes.

In short – and to return to where I started – remote witnessing is not a passive practice but an intervention in a field of power and as such it involves a series of investments that spiral far beyond the cost of obtaining the imagery.


War, Shakespeare and Shylock in Auschwitz

I’ve been thinking more about the relations between theatre and war I started to sketch in the previous post.  Stuart Elden‘s work on Shakespeare and territory (or, rather, ‘Shakespearean territories‘) is of considerable interest here – remember Homi Bhabha’s claim that ‘territory’ derives from both terra (earth) and terrere (to frighten), thus territorium as ‘a place from which people are frightened off.’   Stuart provides a more nuanced genealogy than that, needless to say, but there are also contributions that address Shakespeare’s thematics (and theatrics) of war more directly.

Ros King and Paul Franssen‘s Shakespeare and war (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2009) includes King’s own essay on Shakespeare’s use of a contemporary manual of war written by an English mercenary.  Of more interest to me, though, is Theodor Meron‘s Bloody Constraint: war and chivalry in Shakespeare (Oxford University Press, 1998), which builds on his earlier Henry’s Wars and Shakespeare’s Laws: perspectives on the law of war in the later Middle Ages (Oxford University Press, 1994).  As the subtitle indicates, Meron comes at this from an interesting direction: he is a professor of international law, the Charles L. Denison Professor Emeritus at NYU’s School of Law, and serves as President of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and Presiding Judge of the Appeals Chambers of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda.  He is also the man who, as Legal Adviser to Israel’s Foreign Ministry, wrote a secret memorandum just after the 1967 War arguing that establishing Israeli “settlements” in the occupied territories would be a violation of international law.  As all this suggests, Meron’s interest in Shakespeare is not a narrowly historical or textual one – though he shows considerable mastery of both domains –  and he artfully considers Shakespeare’s address to the present and the legacy of chivalry to modern humanitarian law.  What happens, he asks, when technology – and especially artillery – puts an end to the individualism of combat, or at any rate, marginalises face-to-face combat?  (Here Paola Pugliatti‘s more recent Shakespeare the just war tradition [Ashgate, 2010] also has much to offer and, again, considers contemporary notions of discrimination and proportionality; Part Two includes a fascinating discussion of “Theatres of War”, which is what led me down this path in the first place.)

More directly related to my previous post is a new collection of essays out next month from the University of Toronto Press: Shakespeare and the Second World War: theatre, culture, identity, edited by Irena Makaryk and Marissa McHugh.  Here’s the blurb:

Shakespeare’s works occupy a prismatic and complex position in world culture: they straddle both the high and the low, the national and the foreign, literature and theatre. The Second World War presents a fascinating case study of this phenomenon: most, if not all, of its combatants have laid claim to Shakespeare and have called upon his work to convey their society’s self-image.

In wartime, such claims frequently brought to the fore a crisis of cultural identity and of competing ownership of this ‘universal’ author. Despite this, the role of Shakespeare during the Second World War has not yet been examined or documented in any depth. Shakespeare and the Second World War provides the first sustained international, collaborative incursion into this terrain. The essays demonstrate how the wide variety of ways in which Shakespeare has been recycled, reviewed, and reinterpreted from 1939–1945 are both illuminated by and continue to illuminate the War today.

Full details are here, but two essays that I’m looking forward to reading are Mark Bayer‘s “Shylock, Palestine and the Second World War” and Tibor Egervari‘s “Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice in Auschwitz”.  Egervari is another interesting man: Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice in Auschwitz is a play first performed in 1977 and reworked many times since.  Informed by the writings of Primo Levi, it’s an ‘imaginative reconstruction of  what it might have meant to stage the Merchant of Venice in Auschwitz’ (Egervari wryly notes that the Nazis staged the play more than 50 times between 1933  and 1939).  You can download the script here.  The play is many things, but among them is a tart reminder that Giorgio Agamben‘s space of exception – especially as captured in Homo sacer – is almost always a profoundly theatrical space: space as performance rather product.

If this captures your imagination too, you might be interested in Arthur Horowitz‘s “Shylock after Auschwitz: The Merchant of Venice on the post-Holocaust stage – subversion, confrontation and provocation’, Journal for cultural and religious theory 8 (3) (2007) here.

Theatre of/and war

The image of a ‘theatre of war’ may have become commonplace by now, but it conveys multiple layers of meaning – many of which accrete around ideas of visuality, spectatorship and performance.   The OED credits the first English-language version to a letter from Winston Churchill, 15 October 1914: ‘ The hand of war will I expect be heavy upon us in the Western Theatre during the next four weeks.’  But this hardly conveys the fecundity of the term, which in any case can be found much earlier in Clausewitz: ‘the space over which war prevails [and which] has its boundaries protected, and thus possesses a kind of independence.’  It’s a labile term too: like the battlefield, the theatre of war has long stopped being the clearly demarcated region envisaged by Clausewitz in the early nineteenth century.

There is also a vital relationship between theatre and war, one which long precedes either of these usages, and Jeanne Colleran‘s  new book from Palgrave Macmillan – due in September – promises to make an important contribution to a growing interdisciplinary debate about that contemporary relationship.  ‘Theatre’ is no more confined to the stage than war is to the battlefield – Frédéric Megret is useful on the latter, though I think his chronology is wrong: the disintegration of the battlefield was surely already in evidence in the First World War – and in relation to the theatrical stagings of war (especially in conflict zones) I’ve particularly enjoyed James Thompson and Jenny Hughes, Performance in Place of War [also Palgrave Macmillan, 2009]. But Theatre and War asks different questions:

How has the media, beginning with the Persian Gulf War, altered political analysis and how has this alteration in turn affected socially-critical art? Jeanne Colleran examines more than forty plays, most of which were written in direct response to the emergent New World Order and the subsequent 1991 war in Iraq as well as to the 9/11 attacks and the retaliatory actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. These works are drawn primarily from the British and American stage – the principal partners in these conflicts. The writers include prominent figures (Harold Pinter, Caryl Churchill, Sam Shepard, Tony Kushner, David Hare, Trevor Griffiths, Naomi Wallace, and Neil LaBute), work by theatre groups and artistic directors (San Francisco Mime Troupe, Nicolas Kent and the Tricycle Theatre, and Alan Buchman and Culture Project), and plays by emerging playwrights and by writers who work primarily as journalists or in other media (Anne Nelson, Lawrence Wright, George Packer, Robin Soans, and others).

You can read the opening chapter – Spectator of Calamitieshere.


Introduction: Spectator of Calamities

1  Five Political Crises: The New Semiotic Environment

2  Turning History into Happening: The First Iraq War

3  The Persians

4  From the Ruins of 9/11: Grief and Terror

5  Facing Terror

6  War Documents

7  Bodies Count: In/Visible Scandal at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib

8  Afghanistan and “the Spectacle of Our Suffering”

Incidentally, the Dictionary of War project includes “theatre of operations” rather than theatre of war, but there architect and artist Celine Condorelli‘s imag(in)ing explores several relations between theatre and war, paying close attention to the ‘set up’ that enframes the taking of place that is war – ‘the place where people are taught to pay attention’ – and thus to the narratives that are at once released and confined by what she treats as its ‘architectural’ staging.  Architecture is important to her proposal, I think, not only through its materialities but through its imaginative, projective dimension – the sense of what will unfold in (what can unfold in) this space.  So too, perhaps, with war.

Cologne and the geometry of destruction

I’m in Cologne for the International Geographical Congress.  It’s my second visit to the city – I’m on the international Scientific Committee involved in organising the IGC so I was here last year – but coming out of the main station and immediately seeing the vast cathedral again sends shivers up my spine.  This was the aiming point for Bomber Command’s first ‘Thousand Bomber’ raid (“Operation Millennium”) on the night of 30 May 1942; ironically the cathedral survived, but the bomb load, fanning out in a triangle, fell across the most densely populated part of the city.  One pilot compared the attack to ‘rush-hour in a three-dimensional circus’: 1,455 tons of bombs (high explosive and incendiaries) were dropped on the city in just ninety minutes, creating raging infernos that devastated 600 acres. The original target was Hamburg – attacked in July in “Operation Gomorrah” – but bad weather forced Bomber Command to switch the attack to Cologne (the nearest large city to Bomber Command’s bases).  By the end of the war the RAF had dropped 23,349 tons of bombs on the city and the US Eighth Air Force 15,165 tons, and according to Jörg Friedrich 20,000 people had been killed in the attacks.

I’ve described the production of a city as a target in “Doors into nowhere” (see DOWNLOADS), and here is an early target map for Cologne; later ones were much more schematic since the detail was useless for night bombing or ‘blind bombing’ (‘bombing through cloud’) that were the characteristic modes of Bomber Command’s area bombing strategy.

Operation Millennium gave Bomber Command a fillip, and the British press was ecstatic.  Thrilled at ‘the most gigantic air raid the world has ever seen’, the Daily Express reported that one pilot had said ‘It was almost too gigantic to be real…’ The Times noted that it was the 107th raid on the city and that, as far as the eye could see, the sky was filled with aircraft, ‘waiting their turn in the queue’ and arriving over the target one every six seconds: ‘from the point of view of the attackers it was the perfect raid’.  The News of the World had been shown daylight photographs of the aftermath: ‘No part of the city escaped, and the heavily-damaged areas total some 5,000 acres equal to an area of nearly eight square miles.  The old town has gone.  In addition to isolated points of damage, there are several major areas of devastation – due west of the cathedral and the main station; north-west of the main station; south of the cathedral; and near the west station.’  The language was abstract, one of lines and areas, because the ‘point of view’ was, like that of the aircrews who had carried out the attack, distant, and this geometric imaginary was confirmed when the photographs were published in the Illustrated London News:

Soon carefully edited cinema newsreels chimed in; at one briefing caught by the camera Cologne was hailed as ‘an old friend to many of you’, and the commentator described ‘tons and tons of beautiful bombs’ being loaded into the aircraft:

After the war, when British and American reporters could inspect the ruins of the city on the ground, they were stunned at the scale of destruction. Now the solid geometries of the city that they diagrammed were no longer clinical descriptions but chilling memorials.   Janet Flanner [‘Genêt’], in her “Letter from Cologne” published in the New Yorker on 19 March 1945, described the city as ‘a model of destruction’, lying ‘shapeless in the rubble’: ‘Our Army captured some splendid colored Stadpläne, or city maps, of Cologne, but unfortunately the streets they indicate are often no longer there.’ (She wasn’t greatly impressed by the survival of the cathedral – its Gothic nave ‘was finished in exactly 1880’ – and thought ‘the really great loss’ was Cologne’s 12 eleventh-century Romanesque churches).

Sidney Olson cabled LIFE magazine in March:

‘The first impression was that of silence and emptiness. When we stopped the jeep you heard nothing, you saw no movement down the great deserted avenues lined with empty white boxes. We looked vainly for people. In a city of 700,000 none now seemed alive. But there were people, perhaps some 120,000 of them. They had gone underground. They live and work in a long series of cellars, “mouseholes”, cut from one house to the next.’

Alan Moorehead was was shaken to the core:

‘… few people I think were prepared for Cologne.  There was something awesome about the ruins of Cologne, something the mind was unwilling to grasp, and the cathedral spires still soaring miraculously to the sky only made the débacle below more difficult to accept and comprehend…  A city is a plan on a map, and here, over a great area, there was no plan.  A city means movement and noise and people: not silence and emptiness and stillness, a kind of cemetery stillness.  A city is life, and when you find instead the negation of life the effect is redoubled.  My friends who travelled with me knew Cologne, but not this Cologne…[T]hey found themselves looking at disordered rocks, and presently they abandoned any attempt to guide our way by their memory of the city, and instead everyone fixed his eyes on the cathedral and used that only landmark as a guide across the rubble…’

Here is a compilation of contemporary film coverage, which includes Moorehead’s commentary:

Solly Zuckerman, a British scientist who had been closely involved in planning the bombing campaign, arrived early the next month and was so overwhelmed by what he saw that he found it impossible to write an essay he had promised Cyril Connolly’s Horizon: it was to be called “The natural history of destruction”.  It was left to W.G. Sebald to redeem that promise, in his own way, many years later.  But when he asked Zuckerman about his experience (their paths crossed at the University of East Anglia), all he could remember was a surreal still life: ‘the image of the blackened cathedral rising from the stony desert around it, and the memory of a severed finger that he had found on a heap of rubble.’

All this explains why the spectre of the cathedral – still blackened, rising today out of a grey and greasy wet sky – haunts me too.