Incendiary knowledges

Yesterday in my course on Cities, space and power (see TEACHING) I was talking about Alexandria and urbanism in the post-Alexandrian world.  Part of the discussion centred on the Museum and Library (the Museion) as both a community of scholars that was at once religious and academic (Museion means “Home of the Muses”) and a material constellation of power-knowledge. The marvellous Andrew Erskine, in his essay on ‘Culture and power in early Ptolemaic Egypt‘, captures the political purpose behind the imperial project:

‘A Graeco-Macedonian surface was imposed on Egypt, but this surface lacked a unifying tradition – except for a common Greekness. Setting up the Museum and the Library is the setting up of a centre of Greek cultural and intellectual life in the city. It helps to fill the cultural vacuum that exists within the city. Adopting the practices of Aristotle’s school [which was also centred on a Museum], studying the texts of Homer, acquiring the official texts of the Greek tragedies all help to establish some sense of continuity with a Greek past.’ 

But more than this, like other versions of what Ernest Gellner once called an agro-literate polity, this was about exclusion as much as inclusion:

‘The more Greeks can indulge in their own culture, the more they can exclude non-Greeks, in other words Egyptians, the subjects whose land has been taken over. The assertion of Greek culture serves to enforce Egyptian subjection. So the presence in Alexandria of two institutions devoted to the preservation and study of Greek culture acts as a powerful symbol of Egyptian exclusion and subjection. Texts from other cultures could be kept in the library, but only once they had been translated, that is to say, Hellenized.’ 

And this was about more than Greek culture and identity, and the orbit of exclusion extended far beyond Ptolemaic Egypt.  When the Ptolemies sought to bring the knowledge of the known world under their own control they had a particular interest in strategic knowledges like engineering, medicine – and, of course, geography.  Their collecting was aggressive: they confiscated scrolls from travellers, seized others from ships in the Great Harbour, and failed to return scrolls borrowed from other repositories for transcription.  And when the king of Pergamon [modern: Bergama] proposed to build his own collection [left], they forbade the export of papyrus to forestall their rival (which, according to some historians, prompted a series of experiments that issued in the discovery of parchment (‘pergamena‘) as an alternative recording medium).

Fast-forwarding, this is still on my mind for two reasons.  The first is a marvellous essay on ‘Shadow Libraries by Lawrence Liang: if, like me, you still relish the physical space and sensibility of the conventional library, this is a must-read (even if you have to do it online).

What was special about the Library of Alexandria was the fact that until then the libraries of the ancient world were either private collections of an individual or government storehouses where legal and literary documents were kept for official reference. By imagining a space where the public could have access to all the knowledge of the world, the library also expressed a new idea of the human itself. While the library of Alexandria is rightfully celebrated, what is often forgotten in the mourning of its demise is another library—one that existed in the shadows of the grand library but whose whereabouts ensured that it survived Caesar’s papyrus destroying flames.

According to the Sicilian historian Diodorus Siculus, writing in the first century BC, Alexandria boasted a second library, the so-called daughter library, intended for the use of scholars not affiliated with the Museion. It was situated in the south-western neighborhood of Alexandria, close to the temple of Serapis, and was stocked with duplicate copies of the Museion library’s holdings. This shadow library survived the fire that destroyed the primary library of Alexandria but has since been eclipsed by the latter’s myth.

That ‘public’, as Erskine would surely insist, was in fact a carefully delineated and privileged public.  And if this was library as utopia then, like so many utopias, access was restricted.  Liang closes with some thoughts on the library, instead, as a heterotopia (like Stuart Elden, I continue to be astonished at the attention Michel Foucault’s ‘published unpublished’ essay continues to attract, though unlike him not in a good way):

If the utopian ideal of the library was to bring together everything that we know of the world then the length of its bookshelves was coterminous with the breadth of the world. But like its predecessors in Alexandria and Babel the project is destined to be incomplete haunted by what it necessarily leaves out and misses. The library as heterotopia reveals itself only through the interstices and lays bare the fiction of any possibility of a coherent ground on which a knowledge project can be built.

Again, this surely isn’t a purely epistemological dilemma: there is a politics of what is to count as knowledge, after all, and this – my second reason for thinking about these issues – has often intersected with political and military violence.  That ‘ground’ is vulnerable to more than philosophical reflection.  As Matthew Battles reminds us in his Library: an unquiet history (W.W. Norton, 2003),  ‘Libraries are as much about losing the truth as preseving it– satisfying the inner barbarians of princes, presidents and pretenders – as about discovering it.’

Much closer to us than the serial burnings of the Library at Alexandria is the ritualised burning of books organised by the National Socialist German Student’s Association in May and June 1933. From the US Holocaust Memorial Museum:

On April 6, 1933, the Nazi German Student Association’s Main Office for Press and Propaganda proclaimed a nationwide “Action against the Un-German Spirit,” to climax in a literary purge or “cleansing” (Säuberung) by fire. Local chapters were to supply the press with releases and commissioned articles, offer blacklists of “un-German” authors, sponsor well-known Nazi figures to speak at public gatherings, and negotiate for radio broadcast time. On April 8 the students’ association also drafted its twelve “theses”—a deliberate evocation of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses: declarations which described the fundamentals of a “pure” national language and culture. Placards publicized the theses, which attacked “Jewish intellectualism,” asserted the need to “purify” the German language and literature, and demanded that universities be centers of German nationalism….

In a symbolic act of ominous significance, on May 10, 1933, university students burned upwards of 25,000 volumes of “un-German” books, presaging an era of state censorship and control of culture. On the evening of May 10, in most university towns, right-wing students marched in torchlight parades “against the un-German spirit.” The scripted rituals called for high Nazi officials, professors, university rectors, and university student leaders to address the participants and spectators. At the meeting places, students threw the pillaged and “unwanted” books onto bonfires with great ceremony, band-playing, and so-called “fire oaths.”

Among the thousands of titles consigned to the flames was Erich Maria Remarque‘s All Quiet on the Western Front, ‘a betrayal of soldiers of the Great War’, and Ernest Hemingway‘s Farewell to Arms.  And, as the US Holocaust Memorial Museum notes,

Also among those works burned were the writings of beloved nineteenth-century German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, who wrote in his 1820-1821 play Almansor the famous admonition, “Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen“: “Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people.”

I realise that most of this will be well-known to readers (sic), but my point here is not about the vulnerability of libraries, though both Rebecca Knuth‘s Libricide (Praeger, 2003) and Lucien Polastron‘s Books on Fire (Thames and Hudson, 2010) provide a depressingly rich catalogue of historical examples of their calculated destruction.  One of the most famous images of the Blitz in 1940 is surely this photograph taken after the London Library was hit in 1940 – given the inaccuracy of the bombing, it was surely not deliberately targeted – but it testifies as much to the durability of reading as to its fragility:

What I am starting to think about is the way in which the military is inserted/insinuated in the hyphen between ‘power’ and ‘knowledge’.  In Discipline and punish Foucault artfully reverse engineers this, and provides a seminal discussion of the army in the eighteenth century as an exemplary formation of disciplinary power.  But this isn’t quite what I mean, not least because of the co-presence of sovereign and disciplinary power in military formations, and Nina Taunton, also inspired by Foucault, provides a compelling discussion of the early modern military camp (which, in its later version, also makes a fleeting appearance in Discipline and punish) and Shakespeare’s Henry V here that sets the stage – literally so – for what I have in mind.

She focuses on what she calls an ‘epistemology of command’ and ‘a whole culture of watchfulness’ and in doing so, not incidentally, also enlarges our understanding of the ‘theatre of war‘ as a visual metaphoric.  (See also her ‘Unlawful presences: the politics of military space and the problem of women in Tamburlaine‘ in Andrew Gordon and Bernhard Klein (eds), Literature, mapping and the politics of space in early modern Britain, Cambridge University Press, 2001 and her own book, 1590s drama and militarism, Ashgate, 2001).

Clearly the epistemological principles underlying the set-out of the camp make for the ‘new knowledge’ of surveillance as a one-way process, adapted to the exigencies of observation of the enemy on the one hand and the anxiety on the other to impede the enemy’s observation of you. Exposure to enemy strength can be forestalled by reinforcing the power that resides in ocular knowledge. This is achieved by spatially organising the way it is constituted in the camp so that it functions in equal balance with the power inherent in another kind of knowledge – that to do with strategies of secrecy, of keeping the enemy in the dark about your manoeuvres whilst being fully apprised of his. This is exemplified in the organisation of the watch through spying and reconnaissance – major strategies of surveillance.

Taunton writes about the dangers of both ‘the enemy within’ and ‘the enemy without’ – no stranger to ISAF in Afghanistan – but we should be wary of superficial parallels, especially as our histories enter a digital though no less material world.  (For exactly this reason I’m leery of those who think that Foucault’s lectures in 1975-6 uncannily prefigured war thirty years later – as though the concrete particulars are somehow incidental, when Foucault’s own way of working was so densely empirical).

What haunts me at present is the modern constitution of ‘the enemy’ as a mobile object of military knowledge, at once watched and watching. The questions multiply far beyond the delineation of political technologies of vision and scopic regimes that have informed much of my work to date. What are the relays through which (particularly local) knowledges have been militarised?  What are the vulnerabilities – what Taunton describes as the ‘doubleness of discourses that articulate and represent powerlessness through the models of [power/knowledge] in surveillance that they describe’ – that have been written in to the prospect of military violence?  How have militaries responded to being watched by the enemy and by the media (assuming they distinguish between them)?  What are the relations between surveillance, spatiality and secrecy within modern military ‘cultures of watchfulness’?  And how have those cultures responded to the demands of military occupation?  More – I hope – later.

One thought on “Incendiary knowledges

  1. Pingback: Scholars, spies and strategic knowledges « geographical imaginations

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