Scholars, spies and strategic knowledges

I’ve been reading anthropologist/historian Nicholas Dirks on ‘Scholars, spies and global studies’ here.  He’s acutely aware of the origins of ‘area studies’ in the Second World War – and Trevor Barnes‘s brilliant work with Matt Farish has done much to deepen our knowledge of geography’s enlistments too: see here and scroll down to 2006 for their already classic paper – and notes that

“The first great center of area studies in the United States was not located in any university, but in Washington,” McGeorge Bundy, onetime dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University and then president of the Ford Foundation, observed in 1964. The [Office of Strategic Services], he said, was “a remarkable institution, half cops-and-robbers and half faculty meeting.”

Invoking the spirit of another stellar anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, Dirks makes it clear that he doesn’t want to go back there:

‘The point now is to recognize the essential distinctiveness — of ourselves and others. That distinctiveness can only be appreciated in global frames and with insistent humanist attention…  I mean here to insist on a radically new way of identifying the core values and aims of humanist education that puts traditional questions on a global stage, along with the studies of social and policy scientists.’

For a fuller treatment of the issues and ideas sketched in this brief essay, see his University Lecture, ‘Scholars and Spies: Worldly knowledge and the predicament of the university’, delivered at Columbia in February 2012 here [fast forward to 7:23]:

But, as I asked in a previous post on our martial Arts, what if that humanist tradition is already, constitutively compromised through its entanglement with military (and now we obviously need to add paramilitary) violence?  Too often, I think, we approach that relationship either in instrumental terms – in the case of my own field, a series of indictments of the ways in which, in Yves Lacoste‘s resonant phrase, la géographie, ça sert, d’abord, à faire la guerre; you can see a similar approach in opposition to the enlistment of anthropologists and others in US counterinsurgency operations and Human Terrain teams – or in philosophical terms (‘epistemological violence’, f,  example).

Both are important, to be sure, but for them to work in concert we also need a political genealogy of the conceptual armatures deployed in (and beyond) the humanities and social sciences, mapping the ways in which the construction of our key concepts circulates in and out of other concrete practices. That’s one of the reasons I’m so interested in Stuart Elden‘s retro-midwifery at ‘The Birth of Territory‘, though I’m drawn more to its adult (and no less bloody) adventures. Those entailments are not purely discretionary, a matter of preferring this concept over that, and without wanting to return to or even supplement Jürgen Habermas‘s delineation of ‘knowledge-constitutive interests’ I’m left wondering how the production of concepts is implicated in the operations of power, including military power, and how their performative potential (practical and rhetorical) is realized.  I’ve never seen the university as an Ivory Tower – and I’m not suggesting it’s a Missile Silo either – but, as I argued in Incendiary knowledges, we need to ‘world’ our ‘worldly knowledges’ and think carefully about the hyphen in power-knowledge.

Bruno Latour once playfully identified four deficiencies in actor-network theory – the three words actor, network and theory, plus the hyphen – which prompts Ilana Gershon to describe the hyphen as a ‘trickster placeholder’.   It’s an artful conceit, but I think we should take the ‘place’ in ‘placeholder’ seriously and think some more about the spaces in which and through which knowledge and military power are entangled.  David Livingstone provides some clues in Putting science in its place: geographies of scientific knowledge (Chicago, 2003), but military power remains in the wings of his account, while Gerard Toal‘s discussion of the battlefield as one of geography’s ‘venues’ in the SAGE Handbook of Geographical Knowledge, edited by Livingstone with John Agnew (Sage, 2011) is substantively closer to what I have in mind, but it’s more concerned with instrumental modalities than the apparatus through which, for example, the historical battlefield morphed into the contemporary battlespace.  That apparatus is at once conceptual and practical, and it is also – crucially – multi-sited, with circulations between (for example) districts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Pentagon, and a host of military installations, defence industries and research institutions inside and outside the academy.  In other words, the installation of battlespace – a diffuse, non-linear and unbounded space of military and paramilitary operations – at once exemplifies and engenders the contemporary ‘global’ to which Dirks directs our attention.

It was of course Michel Foucault who reminded us of the circulation ‘between geographical and strategic discourses’ – only natural, he said, because ‘geography grew up in the shadow of the military’ – and in that same interview with the editors of Hérodote (including Lacoste) he suggested that:

‘Once knowledge can be analyzed in terms of region, domain, implantation, displacement, transposition, one is able to capture the processes by which knowledge functions as a form of power and disseminates the effects of power.  There is an administration of knowledge, a politics of knowledge, relations of power which pass via knowledge and which, if one tries to transcribe them, lead one to consider forms of domination designated by such notions as field, region or territory.’

Those notions are far more than ‘metaphors’, as he called them in the interview, or at any rate metaphors are rarely purely linguistic plays.  In the case of many of our spatial concepts, these are not only – as George Lakoff and Mark Johnson might say – ‘metaphors we live by’ – but also metaphors through which others are made to (or let) die.  The ‘human’ in human geography has come under increasing pressure in recent years, from both post-structuralism and post-humanism, and my own work on war is indebted to both of them; but my particular concern is the way in which the production and performance of particular spaces is an intrinsic and intimate part of a military violence that is all too human.

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