Taking stock

I started this blog on 10 July with a promise to see how it went: I said I’d been told that blogging wasn’t a distraction but a helpful way of sorting out ideas and opening up conversations.  So what have I learned from the experience?  For me, I’ve found that blogging does several things.

First, it means that I read more attentively.  This doesn’t mean that I’m constantly thinking of the next post, simply that when something catches my attention I’m more inclined to follow it up and see where it goes rather than transfer it to the “to be pursued later” (and forgotten sooner) box.  I suspect that many of us have our favourite displacement activities, particularly online: sites we visit (or stumble upon), flitting from one link to the next and telling ourselves that this is all part of the research process.  It often is, but it can also become an intellectual black hole into which we disappear every morning or evening.  I realise there is an irony here, that the act of blogging contributes to the merry-go-round, but I’m finding that the very possibility of working up a post is helping me read more purposefully.

Second, blogging is turning out to be a digital aide-mémoire.  I read Stuart Elden‘s post on this sort of thing, and I understand how that works in principle, but I’m simply not that organised.  I’ve tried to make sure that all my files are digital, and most of them are, though I still end up with piles of books on my desk and heaps of paper all over the floor.  I suspect I couldn’t write at all if my desk were empty and the floor clear of clutter…  Even so, many of these posts are notes to myself, even if I also pop them in an electronic bottle and let the current carry them away, and so I hit the “Print” button, save them as a pdf and disperse them among my e-files (and pray that I’ll find them when I need them).

Third, blogging is also working as a sort of warm-up exercise; once I’ve finished a post, I’m ready to turn to ‘proper’ writing (though I’m less and less persuaded of the difference, which is why those scare-quotes are there).  Like many (I assume most) people, I’ve always found writing difficult. Part of the answer has been to learn to trust myself – not to try to write on those days when I just know it’s not going to happen, when there’s no point in sitting at my desk/screen and simply putting in the hours, but equally to let it flow on those days when the words seem to be leaking out of my fingertips (where they come from in the first place is another question).  And any novelist will tell you that the most effective way to improve your writing is to read (see my first point: crucial) and to write.  Not to think about writing, not to plan and prepare to write, but to do it.  I’ve found blogging a remarkably effective way of moving beyond the frozen moment when you stare at the blank screen and the cursor blinks back at you, breaking the ice by making the black letters dance onto the white space.  I think it probably also helps to keep your writing fluid rather than congealing into the usual academic prose; while I was writing The colonial present (once you get beyond the first chapter: how I wish I had re-written that) I started to lose my “academic” voice, and I’m in no hurry to get it back.  I don’t think that means dumbing-down at all – any reader of E.P. Thompson knows that you can write wonderfully well, reach audiences far beyond the academy, and still have important things to say.

Fourth, blogging has opened up conversations because it is inherently (at least potentially) interactive.  I don’t mean only the comments that appear onscreen, though there have been some of those (and an awful lot more that you never see: in the short time I’ve been doing this, the amount of generic spam that washes in on the electronic tide each day only to be caught in wordpress’s wonderful net exceeds the number of times I’ve inherited millions from my Nigerian uncles, been made a partner in numerous diamond mines, laundered CIA money and scooped the European lottery), but all sorts of people have offered suggestions and comments that have been immensely helpful and encouraging.  Writing is a lonely business, and while I’m fortunate to have good friends here and elsewhere in e-contact, it’s refreshing, even exhilarating to encounter so many people I’ve never met who are prepared to contribute to the wider conversation.  In doing so, blogging not only throws open the gates of the disciplinary ghetto (the ‘geographical imaginations’ I have in mind have a stubbornly little g) but it also (again, potentially) begins to produce and develop publics beyond the academy.  That’s also why I write for openDemocracy, incidentally, but it’s also why I’m so taken by Eileen Joy‘s description of  blogs as the digital equivalent of eighteenth-century coffee shops (without all the blokes, presumably: but make sure you don’t spill your coffee on the keyboard): ‘They’re also Warhol’s Factory, Gertrude Stein’s apartment on the Rue de Fleurus, Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters in their cross-country bus….’  In my dreams too.  I also like Alex Reid‘s insistence on the deterritorializing function of the medium too. That publicness is extremely important; blogging is less lonely than other forms of writing but it’s also less private.  If I were simply writing entries in a journal I’m sure I wouldn’t be bothered.  I had thought of trying a collective blog, worried by the ‘vanity-project’ tag, and there are now increasing numbers of such projects (see the interesting discussion here) and many online open-access magazines – which I love  too – both crossing the academic front-lines into more public territory (and back again).  I’m keenly  interested in the blurring and mixing between the two that is well under way, and intrigued (and hopeful) about the implications for conventional – and increasingly dull – conventional journal formats.  Both Antipode and Society & Space have started to experiment with those possibilities but their online presence still seems (to me, anyway) to be constrained by the earth-bound weight of their parents so that they have yet to take flight.  Still, the thought of initiating a collective blog only to discover that the medium didn’t work for me meant that I decided that, at least for the start-up, blogging would be an individual but not as it turns out entirely non-collaborative venture.

Thanks for travelling with me.

Note:  Since writing this, I’ve discovered a world of posts and commentaries on academic blogging: I had no idea that the medium and practice (it’s both, isn’t it?) could excite so many passions, both for and against.  One interesting overview – apart from convincing me that prezi is not the way I want to go for my own presentations – is this one by Rohan Maitzen which she follows up here. And, as I noted in an earlier post, I’m also intrigued by Scalar as an alternative platform.  Finally, I want to note that throughout my trial-and-lots-of-errors process, Stuart Elden, Jeremy Crampton and the lively bunch at Geopolitics and security have all been wonderfully (and characteristically) generous in their support and encouragement – I’m really grateful to all of them.

The two security-state solution

So Mitt Romney insists that ‘the Palestinians have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace‘…. Given the scale of illegal Israeli settlement in the West Bank (see the meticulous reports from the Foundation for Middle East Peace), the brutality of the Israeli occupation, and the chokehold Israel maintains on Gaza, Palestinians have no interest in peace??

The contours of the Israeli security state’s impress on the Palestinian people ought to be well known – though evidently they aren’t – but hard on the tawdry heels of Romney’s offensive assertion comes a brilliant essay at Jadailiyya from Lisa Bhungalia that details the operation of the American security state in Palestine.

Invoking Laleh Khalili‘s work on occupied Palestine’s position within global counterinsurgency – I’ve drawn attention to this before – Lisa examines ‘the ways in which practices of colonial subjugation and management are being mobilized through the less sensational, seemingly mundane spaces and practices of aid governance’: to be precise, through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).  She shows how its elaborate certification of NGOs and private agencies works not just to channel financial assistance but also to channel information back to the US and Israeli governments. Like collateral damage estimation in military targeting, this civilian regime works through an extended chain of calculation-calibration-certification. This is Eyal Weizman‘s ‘humanitarian present’ with a vengeance: ‘If a decision to accept USAID funds is undertaken, one must fundamentally operate within a framework that affords little flexibility in terms of negotiating the security priorities set out by Washington and Tel Aviv.’

It is also part of the tightening development-security nexus:

‘What we are seeing, in effect, is a proliferation of sites and diversity of means through which US political and economic power is being articulated. Alongside its military and diplomatic interventions, the US is simultaneously extending its reach through a host of “development experts,” humanitarian agents and “democracy promoters” charged with filtering, sorting and policing the Palestinian civilian population. While taking a new and perhaps more sophisticated form, these contemporary practices and strategies must not be dissociated from a longer history of counterinsurgency in Palestine…. The aid regime that has taken form in recent decades is part and parcel of the refinement and evolution of techniques that Khalili speaks of.’

The poster above is the work of Hafez Omar here and here, and Lisa’s essay derives from her doctoral research whose working title is ‘Negotiating a Colonial Present: Aid and its fragmentary states in Palestine’ .


Another extremely interesting Call for Papers for the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers in Los Angeles, 9-13 April 2013:


Organizers: Michael Smith (University of British Columbia) and Craig Jones (University of British Columbia)

War may have always entailed rhetorics of justification and regimes of authorization, but perhaps more than ever, late modern war requires a legal armature to secure its legitimacy and organize its conduct.  In the ‘age of lawfare’ (Weizman 2010), for example, law has become a vital weapon in asymmetric warfare, used by states and non-state actors alike. But there are many different kinds of war – including undeclared wars, metaphorical wars, even “military operations other than war” – just as there are multiple forms, systems and scales of law. War’s “nomospheres” – to borrow from Delaney (2010) – mobilizes a host of subjects, discourse, practices and institutions which in turn reconfigure the spaces of war-law, moving us toward what Derek Gregory (2011) has called an “everywhere war”. The question, then, of the interplay of war and law – how they underpin, disrupt, enable, elide, or efface one another – remains a critical site for scholarship, one that warrants more attention from geographers (c.f. Gregory 2006; Reid-Henry 2006). What is the relationship between law and (organized state) violence? How does law feature in the putative transition from the battlefield to the hyper-networked battlespace?  If war is potentially everywhere, where – so to speak – is law?

This session invites both theoretical and empirical research that engages with the intersections between war, law and space from a diverse range of approaches and perspectives. It asks contributors to consider how law makes war and vice versa, but it also asks how these productions might be interrupted and resisted. It seeks to understand the spaces of war-law through the institutions, agents and practices that authorize, enact and resist them. We welcome contributions from geographers, lawyers and other scholars on themes that may include (but are not limited to):

  • Legal violence and the law as a weapon of war: ‘lawfare’ & the ‘legal war on terror’
  • Targeted killing/assassination, detention and cyber warfare
  • International humanitarian law (IHL), human rights law (HRL) and the laws of armed conflict (LOAC)
  • Genealogies of law in armed conflict
  • The links between law and legitimacy
  • The representational regimes of law/war: new media, propaganda & the “citizen journalist”
  • How law facilitates the political economy of war: its role in the logistics, organization, privatization and marketization of war
  • War inside/outside the border: International, transnational and domestic variations of lawfare
  • Witnessing war – Legal subjectivities, narrations and testimony from those who inhabit the warscape (e.g. lawyers, soldiers, civilians)

Please submit abstracts of 250-300 words to Craig Jones (venga@interchange.ubc.ca) and Michael Smith (mdsgeog@gmail.com) before 15 October 2012.

The politics of seeing and the New Aesthetic

The New Aesthetic began to create its public at the Really Interesting Group in May 2011 with this post from James Bridle:

For a while now, I’ve been collecting images and things that seem to approach a new aesthetic of the future, which sounds more portentous than I mean. What I mean is that we’ve got frustrated with the NASA extropianism space-future, the failure of jetpacks, and we need to see the technologies we actually have with a new wonder. Consider this a mood-board for unknown products.

(Some of these things might have appeared here, or nearby, before. They are not necessarily new new, but I want to put them together.)

For so long we’ve stared up at space in wonder, but with cheap satellite imagery and cameras on kites and RC helicopters, we’re looking at the ground with new eyes, to see structures and infrastructures…

The post digitally curated a series of images – a sort of wunder-camera (hah!) – and soon afterwards James’s first post appeared on tumblr as The New Aesthetic.  The site grew and grew, though not quite like Topsy, and this is is how he now explains his experimental project:

Since May 2011 I have been collecting material which points towards new ways of seeing the world, an echo of the society, technology, politics and people that co-produce them.  The New Aesthetic is not a movement, it is not a thing which can be done. It is a series of artefacts of the heterogeneous network, which recognises differences, the gaps in our overlapping but distant realities.

Bruce Sterling described James as ‘a Walter Benjamin critic in an “age of digital accumulation”’ carrying out ‘a valiant cut-and-paste campaign that looks sorta like traditional criticism, but is actually blogging and tumblring.’  His site is well worth a visit, not least to wander through the back catalogue of objets trouvés (or vues):

I say ‘objet’ deliberately: for Graham Harman fans, and even for those who aren’t, there are some remarkably interesting discussions that link the New Aesthetic to object-oriented ontology: see Ian Bogost, ‘The New Aesthetic needs to get weirder‘ (not as weird as the cutesy title suggests), Robert Jackson, ‘The banality of the new aesthetic‘ (a really helpful essay for other reasons too) and Greg Borenstein, ‘What it’s like to be a 21st century thing‘ (scroll down – much more there too).

I started to follow the blog while I was working on a contribution to a conference on the Arab Uprisings [‘the Arab Spring’] held in Lund earlier this year: I’d been puzzled at the polarizing debate about whether (in the case of Tahrir Square in Cairo which most interested me, but much more generally too) whether this was ‘a Twitter revolution’ or whether it depended on what Judith Butler called (in a vitally important essay on the politics of the street to which I’ll return in a later post) ‘Bodies in Alliance‘.  It seemed clear to me – and to her, as I discovered in a series of wonderfully helpful conversations when she visited Vancouver for the Wall Exchange in May) – that this was a false choice: that the activation of a digital public sphere was important, but so too, obviously, was the animation of a public space, and that the two were intimately – virtually and viscerally – entangled.

Here (in part) is what I wrote:

Writing from Cairo in March 2011, Brian Edwards recalled that when the Internet was blocked ‘the sense of being cut off from their sources of information led many back out on to the street, and especially to Tahrir.  With the Internet down, several told me, there was nowhere else to go but outdoors.’  The reverse was also true.  ‘The irony of the curfew is that it might succeed in getting people off the streets and out of downtown, but in doing so it delivers them back to the Internet… Many of my friends are on Facebook through the night, as are those I follow on Twitter, a steady stream of tweets and links.  Active public discussions and debates about the meanings of what is taking place during the day carry on in cyberspace long after curfew.’  

In the same essay Edwards reflects on the compression of meaning imposed by the 140-character limit of each tweet, and he suggests that the immediacy and urgency that this form implies – even imposes – ‘calls forth an immediate, almost unmediated response, point, counterpoint and so on.’This is a persuasive suggestion, I think, but that response is surely to be found not only virtually (from tweets in cyberspace) but also viscerally (from bodies in the streets).  When we see maps … showing tweets in Cairo, we need to recognize that that these are not merely symbols in cartographic space or even messages in cyberspace: they are also markers of a corporeal presence.

This matters because the urban space where ‘newness’ might enter the world does not pre-exist its performance.  Some writers examine what, following Henri Lefebvre and David Harvey, we might call the production of space, which would include the construction and re-development of Tahrir Square.  Others, also following in some part Lefebvre, prefer to emphasize spatial practices, which would include the rhythms and routines that compose everyday life for a myriad of people in Cairo.  But to emphasize the performance of space is to focus on the ways in which, as Judith Butler put it in direct reference to Tahrir Square, ‘the collective actions [of the crowd] collect the space itself, gather the pavement, and animate and organize the architecture.’  

So I started to wonder about the politics of the New Aesthetic – especially when I returned from Lund to resume my work on the techno-cultural gaze that has been my preoccupation for even longer: the surveillance platforms of remotely piloted aircraft (and killing machines) like the Predator and the Reaper.  (For a time the New Aesthetic was associated with the image of a pixellated Predator supported by balloons, ‘a bright cluster … tied to some huge, dark and lethal weight’, as Sterling put it).
And now I’ve found a revealing essay by Will Wiles on the New Aesthetic, ‘The machine gaze’, at aeon (from which I’ve also taken Sterling’s remark).  He begins with a remark that took me right back to Tahrir (though in fact he’s talking about digital media labs in east London): ‘It’s in these streets that the boundary between the digital and the physical is at its most porous — in the devices and the minds of a far-seeing local population who are among the first to understand that there might not be a boundary at all.’
So to the money question: ‘As the boundaries between digital and physical dissolve, can the New Aesthetic help us see things more clearly?’  Here is part of Wiles’s answer:

The virtual world is being integrated with the physical world and this seamlessness is presented as inherently good. No harm may be intended: it’s natural for a designer to want to smooth away the edges and conceal the joins. But in making these connections invisible and silent, the status quo is hard-wired into place, consent is bypassed and alternatives are deleted. This is, if you will, the New Anaesthetic. Instances of the New Aesthetic are often places where a glitch has exposed the underlying structure — the hardware and software. Or it is an oddity that has the unintended side effect of causing us to consider that structure. Part of a plane appearing in Google Maps makes us realise that we are looking at a mosaic of images taken by cameras far above us. We knew that already, right? Maybe we did. But a reminder may still be salutary.

This is political. The New Aesthetic was accused of being apolitical — fascinated by the oddities and wonders being thrown up by drones and surveillance cameras without thinking about the politics behind them. This is plain wrong: politics seeps from nearly every pore of the New Aesthetic. It was often hard to see, but that’s what Bridle wanted to expose.

The question is one of viewpoint. ‘As soon as you get CCTV, drones, satellite views and maps and all that kind of stuff,’ Bridle said, ‘you’re setting up an inherent inequality in how things are seen, and between the position of the viewer and the viewed. There are inherent power relations in that and technology makes them invisible. When you have a man in a watchtower, you look up at him, and that’s an obvious vision of power. When the man is in a bunker far away and you have just a little camera on a stalk … most people seem to be fine with that.’

The New Aesthetic is about seeing, then. And to see and be seen is to engage in those power relations.

More to come – watch this space….

Rethinking climate change, conflict and security

I’ve been working away on a presentation that will – eventually! – turn into an essay on the militarization of nature and the nature(s) of war, and I stumbled across a conference on Rethinking climate change, conflict and security at the ever-creative University of Sussex next month (18-19 October 2012).  Speakers include Halvard BuhaugSimon Dalby and Mike Hume.

What are the conflict and security implications of global climate change? This question has received widespread attention from policy makers in recent years, with most concluding that climate change will in all likelihood become a significant ‘threat multiplier’ to existing patterns of insecurity and discord.  Academic debate has tended to be more divided, yet despite differences in emphasis a common set of assumptions have come to dominate contemporary academic and policy discourse on climate change and security.

The guiding premise of this two-day international conference at the University of Sussex is that current academic and policy discourse on climate change, conflict and security is framed too narrowly and would benefit from both broadening and critique. Featuring many of the leading scholars of the links between climate change and security, the conference will both set out some of the most recent findings on likely conflict impacts and contest a range of prevailing orthodoxies. It will include a mix of case study and theoretical analyses, including panels on:

  • Theories of climate change and conflict
  • Sub-Saharan Africa
  • Critical discourse analysis and climate security
  • The links between water scarcities, climate change and conflict
  • Migration
  • Case studies from the Arctic to Pakistan
  • Peacemaking, cooperation and climate change

The conference will also feature two keynote addresses, plus a roundtable event featuring leading policymakers in the area of climate security.

Full details here.  Register by 9 October 2012.

I’ll post my preliminary notes for the presentation shortly – though, far from short, I fear they are running away with me…

Patches, the Pentagon and Pakistan

In 2010 artist-geographer-writer (and an old friend) Trevor Paglen published a collection of unofficial US military patches that showed the fraying fringes of the Pentagon’s secret operations: I could tell you but then you would have to be destroyed by me: emblems from the Pentagon’s Black World (Melville House, 2010).

As Steven Heller wrote in the New York Times,  ‘issuing patches for a covert operation sounds like a joke . . . but truth be told, these days everything is branded. Military symbols are frequently replete with heraldic imagery — some rooted in history, others based on contemporary popular arts that feature comic characters — but these enigmatic dark-op images, in some cases probably designed by the participants themselves, are more personal, and also more disturbing, than most.’

Danger Room posted several selections from Trevor’s collection here (and follow the links back for eight – yes eight – more) and here; there are also more here from MilSpecMonkey

Trevor’s wryly serious research has resurfaced twice this week.  Lowen Liu at Slate tried to unpick the stitches from one patch, from the agency that designs, builds and operates America’s intelligence satellites, the National Reconnaissance Office (“Vigilance from Above”), to investigate its use of an anagram from the movie Sneakers – “Setec Astronomy” (Too Many Secrets).  Trevor drew his attention to a 2008 memo from NRO:

Recently, two journalists compiled an article mentioning how symbols used in unclassified logos and patches can reveal information about National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) satellite identities and missions that are otherwise classified. … All briefed personnel are reminded … [of] the grave responsibility of protecting that information from improper and unauthorized disclosure and compromise. Failure to comply with these obligations can result in irreparable harm to the nation.

Liu was left wondering whether Sneakers took “Setec Astronomy” from the NRO… Who knows?

You might also shrug your shoulders and think “Who cares?”, except that those patches can indeed disclose information about the projects they simultaneously conceal and reveal.  And this week Chris Cole at Drone Wars UK published a selection of patches worn by USAF and RAF drone pilots. Described as “morale patches“, designed to raise the morale of the units they represent, most of these don’t tell us anything we didn’t already know about their remote operations – the casual way they turn killing into a cartoon is remarkable, but it’s there in the names of the aircraft they fly:

And Trevor has one other that speaks more directly to American drone operations in Pakistan and beyond than anything else I’ve seen:

Grief, tragedy and translation

It’s been over a decade since Judith Butler reflected on Antigone, ‘the renowned insurgent’ from Sophocles’ Oedipus, in Antigone’s Claim: kinship between life and death (Columbia, 2000), but I’ve been reading and re-reading her latest thoughts, inspired by Anne Carson‘s visual-textual translation Antigonick (or is it Antigo Nick?) (New Directions, 2012) at Public Books here.

Carson’s project – she’s both a poet and a classicist – raises a series of urgent questions about translation and tragedy, and about the connective imperatives between the two.

Those links spiral in and out of Butler’s recent work too, and this is how she concludes her review-reflection:

Antigone rages forth from grief, causing new destruction, and so, too, does Kreon; they mirror each other in the midst of their opposition. So, too, do you, apparently, and everyone else as well, nodding and driving off, unless we catch ourselves in time. The reader is implicated in this recurrent alteration of grief and rage, subject to the destruction she or he is capable of inflicting, if there is no timely intervention.

Apparently “you” already know why tragedy exists. What Carson writes of Paul Celan’s direct address to the “you” offers us a formulation that may well apply to her Antigonick: “But you, by the time we reach you, are just folding yourself away into a place we cannot go: sleep. Blank spaces instead of words fill out the verses around you as if to suggest your gradual recession down and away from our grasp. What could your hands teach us if you had not vanished?”  It is a cry of grief posed in question form, emphatic, handwritten, excessive and abbreviated and, in this sense, a measured scream that gives us some sense of who or what lives on when it is all too late.

If that seems too general – I don’t think it is at all – then read Nicholas Mirzoeff‘s take on Antigo Nick on his Occupy 2012 blog here.

As predicted, Greece is having its Antigone revolution in refusing to abide by the Law in favor of kinship. For the majority who voted for Syriza and other anti-memorandum parties, mutual aid outweighs obligations to creditors. In the first days of this project, you may recall, I was very taken with a reworking of the Antigone legend in the context of the global social movements by Italian performance group Motus. The proper treatment of the dead body was later visualized by the Egyptian video collective Mosireen. And so when the chant “A-Anti-Anticapitalista” became the subject of a later post, I rewrote it in my head in my geeky way to go “A-Anti-Antigone.”

And if it’s still too elliptical, try Brian Patrick Eha‘s review of Antigonick at New Inquiry (he brilliantly describes it as ‘Antigone after Sarah Kane’, who wrote Blasted):

Never have we had so much direct access to grief. Photographs, television, and the Internet all promise to bridge the unbridgeable gap—to give us, our isolated egos, a means of ingress into the walled city of another’s suffering. What they deliver is an endless series of images like the one of the girl in the green dress that recently won a Pulitzer Prize. The photographer, Massoud Hossaini, captured the aftermath of a vicious bomb blast in Kabul, and in his picture the now-famous “girl in green,” who is eleven years old, stands amid the mangled bodies of the dead, stands crying out, in her utter anguish, as if from the bottom of a well, beyond our power to console. She screams noiselessly in the silence of the photograph, forever.

It’s easy to see why this picture won prizes. One can hardly fail to be moved by it. But at the same time that we are bombarded with compelling photographs and video footage that seem to give us access to emotions not our own, these images remain intrinsically mediated, revealing only surfaces, and our sympathy pains too often serve no utility.

Along with our hunger for grief comes impatience with emotional restraint. From the tearful confrontations of Intervention to the acting out of The Bad Girls Club, in our popular entertainments—period dramas like Downton Abbeybeing the rare exception—there’s nary a stiff upper lip in sight. Our age doesn’t do restraint, full stop. Emotions are expressed to their fullest, and these expressions are broadcast for consumption. Understated expressions of grief have largely vanished from society. We no longer dress for mourning except at hasty funerals, and even there the custom survives only in cheap black suits no less shabby than the rented tuxedos that now make our weddings feel forced. When did you last see a man wearing a black armband in remembrance of a fallen friend?

So Anne Carson’s blunt Antigonick has arrived at the right cultural moment, if not for poetry than for grief….