Battle of the maps

Books & Ideas has a translated interview with Michel Foucher, ‘A world out of key’, on cartography and geopolitics.

Foucher is a former diplomat and now a professional geographer (though no doubt each requires the skills of the other).  A graduate of the Sorbonne, he was special envoy to the Balkans and the Caucasus (1999), adviser to the French Foreign Minister (1997-2002), head of the Policy Planning Staff of the Foreign Ministry (1999-2002), French Ambassador to Latvia (2002-2006), and Ambassador at large for European Issues (2007).  He is currently Director of Studies and Research at the Institut des hautes études de défense nationale and Professor of Applied Geopolitics at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris.  At the 19th Festival of Geography he took part in a roundtable on ‘Les nouveaux territoires de la guerre’ (below; video here), and repeatedly invokes Clausewitz to insist that ‘the geographer is [the person] who looks over the hill’.

FOUCHER Nouveaux territoires de la guerre

Prolonging that martial note, the current interview is based on Foucher’s recent book, La bataille des cartes.  The analysis is conventional enough – though I like Foucher’s image of a ‘dissonant world’, which could be made to play off Edward Said‘s ‘contrapuntal geographies’ (hence the title of the interview).  It’s a wide-ranging discussion, from the meaning of geopolitics and questions about ‘strategic autonomy’ in our dissonant world, through reflections on territorialisation (and ‘maritimisation’ – works much better in French) and the power of imaginative geographies embedded in maps, to b/ordering and the implications of the Arab uprisings for the imaginaries installed by colonial cartographies.  (You can find an earlier interview on borders, security and identity here). The B&I translation is clunky in places, but it’s a good survey for a public audience.  Above all, Foucher is determined to counter the view that geography is what Jean-Claude Guillebaud called ‘a dead star’.

A Battle of Maps

As Stuart Elden noted, the project from which it derives is available not only as a book but in a digital version for the iPad, A Battle of the Maps, in either French or English. You can try it out free (‘Lite’ – just the first two sections) or download the full version here.

There’s an irony in all this; Foucher notes that ‘in an age dominated by screens’ the market depends on ‘the sham of “it’s true because it’s in colour”, a wordless geography’.  Foucher seeks to undo this cartographic rhetoric through 74 Le Monde Diplo-style  maps and accompanying text, and some of them – even in the free version – are suitably imaginative: ‘The world according to Standard & Poor’s’ or ‘The banker’s mental map’.  As Foucher notes, ‘geopolitical rhetoric enables experts who are neither geographers nor political scientists, still less cartographers, to seize commercial opportunities.’  And as those two maps also imply, many of them aren’t even experts….

War tourism


I spent part of the week-end at UBC’s Museum of Anthropology, which is currently hosting Safar/Voyage: contemporary works by Arab, Iranian and Turkish artists (until 15 September).  I’d written an essay for the accompanying catalogue – “Middle of What?  East of Where?”, which you can find under the DOWNLOADS tab – and I was at MOA on Saturday afternoon for a lively and appropriately wide-ranging public conversation (billed as a”Global Dialogue”) on “Nomadic aesthetics and the importance of place” with Jian Ghomeshi, artist Jayce Salloum and curator Jill Baird.

destinationx1While I was at MOA I spent some time with the artworks on display and in the company of a brilliant app that provides all sorts of information and context; for such a compact exhibition they are thrillingly diverse, speaking to one another in a multiplicity of ways, and disrupting common stereotypes of the region as somehow homogeneous.  Two exhibits are likely to be of particular interest to readers of this blog.  The first, artfully parked outside the second, is Lebanese artist Ayman Baalbaki‘s Destination X (originally 2010, but recreated for MOA in 2013):

Destination X is an old car piled high with the hastily gathered belongings of a refugee family: luggage, everyday objects, and colourful cloth bundles tied to the roof. During the Lebanese civil war these floral fabrics, regional and postcolonial at the same time, replaced fabrics embroidered with local peasant motifs, mirroring the lost agricultural “paradise.” The overloaded car suggests movement and absence, urgency and wandering. The letter X symbolizes forced flight into exile to places unknown. Distance is swallowed in an aimless journey, when time and duration become vague. The journey and its hardships, the risk of leaving home, the difficulty of resettling.

You can find images of earlier versions here, where the artist explains that, while the work had its origins in the Lebanese civil war, it speaks to many other situations and peoples: “Other nationalities can sympathise…Many of the elder generations, it echoes with them…either from Bosnia or from World War II.”

ATinstallThe second is Adel Abidin‘s mixed-media installation, Abidin’s Travels (2006), set up as a travel agent’s office, complete with posters, brochures and video, and its nemesis (a website: how many travel agents are there these days?)

I came up with the idea when I visited Iraq in 2004 and was greeted at a checkpoint by an American soldier, who said, “Welcome to Baghdad!” I realized I was being welcomed by an occupier of my own city. This experience made me think about cities in war and their messy transformations.

After the occupation and gentrification of a city in a conflict zone, you would need a guide, even if you grew up there. This is what I saw happening in Baghdad. So I created a travel agency, using “holiday travel” as a point of departure and Iraq as a destination, to explore the idea of tourism and consumerism in general, and how these generic models break down when applied to a country ripped apart by war. I created this work to draw attention to the new Iraq, “the democratic Iraq,” a mythical place where, in reality, possibility and opportunity barely exist.

You can find a short, interesting commentary by Laura Marks here.


Baghdad has obviously changed in the last six or seven years, but in case you think tourism has been ‘normalised’ check out Wikitravel‘s current guide, which reads as though it was written by the artist (“The easiest way to stay safe in Baghdad is not to go there in the first place”).  Still more revealing, look at the hotel reviews (yes) on Trip Advisor here.  Like all reviews on the site, they tell you as much about the reviewer as they do the place – I was particularly taken by this review of one hotel, which was never far from the headlines during the invasion and occupation, and which displays what I hope is a rare sensitivity to the lot of ordinary people in Baghdad:

The problems start with the lack of amenities. The pool wasn’t fit to swim in, the hotel doesn’t have a bar, there isn’t a gym, nothing. The service was appalling. The food was always cold & generally dreadful, the bathrooms are fitted out with full bottles of head and shoulders, Colgate, dove soap, bic razors and gilette shaving foam. There is no room service, no laundry service and all that for $300 a night….One plus. It’s safe, which is saying something for Baghdad…

Not much global dialogue there then.

The security archipelago

AMAR Security archipelagoA new book from the ever-creative Paul Amar coming this summer from Duke: The Security Archipelago: Human-Security States, Sexuality Politics, and the End of Neoliberalism. Paul wins the prize for getting the most buzz-words into a single title. Our paths crossed most recently in Beirut, at a lively conference at AUB on Security of/in the city, and last year in Lund for a workshop on the Arab uprisings.  For the next two years he’s heading a regional working-group for the Arab Council of the Social Sciences called “Producing the Public: Spaces and Power” (more on this soon).

Paul is a wonderfully engaging speaker and a brilliant writer, but if you don’t know his work you can get a small taste of his argument in this paper on ‘Turning the gendered politics of the human security state inside out?’ for an IPSA-EPCR panel on ‘Governing life globally’ in Sao Paolo and from this excellent interview on ‘Middle East Masculinities’ at Jadaliyya at about the same time; there are other PDFs available from his webpage at UC Santa Barbara here.

The book paints on a canvas that stretches far beyond the ‘Middle East’:

In The Security Archipelago, Paul Amar provides an alternative historical and theoretical framing of the refashioning of free-market states and the rise of humanitarian security regimes in the Global South by examining the pivotal, trendsetting cases of Brazil and Egypt. Addressing gaps in the study of neoliberalism and biopolitics, Amar describes how coercive security operations and cultural rescue campaigns confronting waves of resistance have appropriated progressive, antimarket discourses around morality, sexuality, and labor. The products of these struggles—including powerful new police practices, religious politics, sexuality identifications, and gender normativities—have traveled across an archipelago, a metaphorical island chain of what the global security industry calls “hot spots.” Homing in on Cairo and Rio, Amar reveals the innovative resistances and unexpected alliances that have coalesced in new polities emerging from the Arab Spring and South America’s Pink Tide. These have generated a shared modern governance model that he terms the “human-security state.”

Richard Falk describes it as ‘an extraordinary book that revolutionizes the way to think about security’ – and about time too.  Like much high-flying academic commentary on war, much of the critical debate around security displays a theoretical sophistication that is not matched by analytical substance.   Paul’s work has always avoided that trap, and Jack Halberstam‘s endorsement makes it plain that this is a book that combines erudition with empirical heft:

Paul Amar works in English, Arabic, and Portuguese [and in Spanish too], and he studies security regimes in a comparative framework encompassing the Middle East, North and South America, and Europe. Combining research that he has done in Brazil and Egypt on the emergence of new forms of security and new grammars of protest politics with the unfolding stories of an economic boom in Brazil and political change in Egypt, Amar has written an up-to-the-moment account of the ‘human-security state’ and its opponents.

Here’s a list of the Contents:

Introduction. The Archipelago of New Security-State Uprisings
1. Mooring a New Global Order between Cairo and Rio de Janeiro: World Summits and Human-Security Laboratories
2. Policing the Perversions of Globalization in Rio de Janeiro and Cairo: Emerging Parastatal Security Regimes Confront Queer Globalisms
3. Muhammad Atta’s Urbanism: Rescuing Islam, Saving Humanity, and Securing Gender’s Proper Place in Cairo
4. Saving the Cradle of Samba in Rio de Janeiro: Shadow-State Uprisings, Urban Infranationalisms, and the Racial Politics of Human Security
5. Operation Princess in Rio de Janeiro: Rescuing Sex Slaves, Challenging the Labor-Evangelical Alliance, and Defining the Sexuality Politics of an Emerging Human-Security Superpower
6. Feminist Insurrections and the Egyptian Revolution: Harassing Police, Recognizing Classphobias, and Everting the Logics of the Human-Security State in Tahrir Square 200
Conclusion. The End of Neoliberalism?


IDPs 2012

global-overview-2012-hpThe Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre in Geneva has released the map I’ve reproduced above.  From their research, the IDMC reckons that last year 28.8 million people were displaced by armed violence, conflict and human rights violations, an increase of 6.5 million over the previous year.  The conflicts in Syria (which now has more than 3.8 million IDPs] and the Democratic Republic of Congo (which now has around 2.6 million IDPs) accounted for about half the increase; the vast majority of displaced persons are women and children.  You can download the detailed Global Overview here, and you can find more on the geographies of internal displacement through the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement here.

The increases are dramatic, but the eruption of new wars and the continuation of chronic conflicts make it all too easy to overlook the legacy of displacement – all those left stranded in the wake of war and its penumbra of sometimes silent violence.  In the case of Iraq, for example, and even after returning people have been taken into account, Elizabeth Ferris, co-director of the Brookings-LSE project, has recently suggested that“perhaps three million people, 10 percent of Iraq’s population, remain displaced – and forgotten.”  In its recent report on Iraq ten years after the US-led invasion, and specifically on what it calls “the humanitarian impact”, IRIN highlights the ‘forgotten displacement crisis‘ (see also the workshop report from Oxford’s Refuges Study Centre here).  And don’t lose sight of  all those who have sought refuge from the Syrian conflict in Iraq (more than 140,000), especially in the northern governorates.

Lost in all the numbers, too, is the way in which violence severs those intimate ties, material and affective, between particular people and particular places: ties that are intrinsic to local knowledge (and often the means of survival) and to identity.  Geographers have written about place (and its – I think misconceived – duals, ‘placelessness’ and ‘non-places’), but many of these classical discussions have been so romanticised (I’m thinking of books like Yi-Fu Tuan‘s Space and place) that they have somehow failed to engage with the enormity of forced dis-placement.  I’m not saying that human geographers have been indifferent to internal displacement, still less to refugees – far from it – but the absence of a close engagement with the concept that is in many ways at the heart of displacement is none the less a striking absence from all those paeans to place.

Even Tim Creswell‘s fine work – I’m thinking of his ‘Weeds, plagues, and bodily secretions: A geographical interpretation of metaphors of displacement’ in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers (1997) – engages more with language than with landscape and is more at home with Anglo-American displacements.  But, perhaps prophetically, the last of his three poems on ‘Displacements’ in the latest Geographical Review [103 (2) 2013] includes the hope that

‘the color 

and screech of Mysore and Mogadishu

do not dwindle into cartographic memory…’

Falling downwards?

058602-FC222Richard Holmes, author – amongst many other books – of Tommy: the British soldier on the Western Front, which I’ve read with the keenest interest for my “Gabriels’s Map” project, has a wonderfully readable new book out that intersects with my “Killing Space” project on bombing: Falling upwards: how we took to the air. It’s a history of ballooning (of sorts).

Although Holmes does address the military uses of hot-air balloons, he is something of a romantic and there’s more here on the delights and dangers (for those in the air) than the prospect of war from the air they helped to usher in.

But early in the book he describes a collection of balloon memorabilia made by Sophia Banks (sister of Joseph) that included a British cartoon from December 1784 entitled “The Battle of the Balloons’ (you can see a watermarked copy here):

This shows four balloons, two flying the French fleur de lys and two the British Union Jack, manoeuvring for aerial combat. Their crews are armed with muskets, but also, more menacingly, with broadside cannons. Their muzzles point through portholes cut in the balloon wickerwork.  Here the balloon is already conceived of as a weapon of war, comparable to the navy’s ships of the line.

Less than ten years later the French would establish the first military balloon regiment, but others insisted on the essentially pacific nature of ballooning and, indeed, of manned flight more generally. In his ‘Letter on Flight’ (1864) Victor Hugo, a good friend of the celebrated aeronaut Nadar, waxed lyrical (the appropriate Icarian verb, as it turned out) on the changes the balloon would inaugurate:

‘It will bring the immediate, absolute, instantaneous, universal and perpetual abolition of all frontiers, everywhere… Armies will vanish, and with them the horrors of war, the exploitation of nations, the subjugations of populations. It will bring an immense and totally peaceful revolution. It will bring a sudden golden dawn, a brisk flinging open of the ancient cage door of history, a flooding in of light. It will mean the liberation of all mankind.’

Fu-Go-bomb-balloonIf only.  There is, after all, a counter-history of ‘falling downwards’: the first bombing from the air involved unmanned balloons loaded with shrapnel launched by Austria during the siege of Venice in 1849 (though they apparently had little effect); during the American Civil War and the First World War observation balloons were a vital means of surveillance and artillery ranging; and in retaliation for the bombing of Tokyo, in the dog days of World War II the Japanese experimented with using incendiary balloons (‘fire balloons’ or ‘balloon bombs’ – see right) to attack the west coast of Canada and the United States (more here). The only one of these to appear in Holmes’s account is a splendid discussion of ballooning in the Civil War; his collection of ‘balloon stories’, as he modestly describes his project, stops at the end of the nineteenth century (and is concerned, above all, with the experience of balloonists, so ’empty’ balloons don’t count for much).

For all that, the Janus-faced history of the balloon, one peaceful and the other stridently martial, has implications for contemporary discussions of another aerial object: the drone.  The specificity of the object matters, of course, since it has particular capacities and dispositions – but their realization depends on the networks in which they are embedded.  As with balloons, so with drones.

Greenwashing war

KUPAR Hot spotter's reportComing next month from Minnesota, a new book from one of Allan Pred‘s most creative graduate students (and that’s saying something!).  Shiloh Krupar – a contemporary of the equally talented Trevor Paglen – is Assistant Professor of Culture and Politics at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, and her Hot spotter’s report promises to add new dimensions to discussions of the biopolitics of militarism and the enlistment of ‘nature’ in the service of military violence:

Many nuclear and other U.S. military facilities from World War II and the Cold War are now being closed and remediated. Some of these sites have even been transformed into nature refuges and hailed as models of environmental stewardship. Yet, as Shiloh R. Krupar argues, these efforts are too often doing less to solve the environmental and health problems caused by military industrialism than they are acting to obscure the reality of ongoing contamination, occupational illnesses, and general conditions of exposure.

Using an unusual combination of empirical research, creative nonfiction, and fictional satire, Hot Spotter’s Report examines how the biopolitics of war promotes the idea of a postmilitary and postnuclear world, naturalizing toxicity and limiting human relations with the past and the land. The book’s case studies include the conversion of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal into a wildlife refuge, a project that draws on a green “creation story” to sanitize other histories of the site; the cleanup and management of the former plutonium factory Rocky Flats, where the supposed transfiguration of waste into wilderness allows the government to reduce the area it must manage; and a federal law intended to compensate ill nuclear bomb workers that has sometimes done more to benefit former weapons complexes.

Detecting and exposing such “hot spots” of contamination, in part by satirizing government reports, Hot Spotter’s Report seeks to cultivate irreverence, controversy, coalitional possibility, and ethical responses. The result is a darkly humorous but serious and powerful challenge to the biopolitics of war.

I’m sure, too, that it will have much to show us about ways of developing and conveying our arguments outside the conventions of formal academic prose. According to Bruce Braun, ‘Hot Spotter’s Report is at once a devastating indictment of ‘green war’ and a hopeful search for new conditions of existence in and beyond the toxic residues of militarism. Written with wit and passion, Krupar’s irreverent experiments with fable, satire, and creative non-fiction do much more than disrupt the ongoing sanitization of military violence; they open space for new coalitions and political imaginings in domestic landscapes marked by the legacies of imperial war.’


1. Where Eagles Dare: A Biopolitical Fable about the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge
2. Alien Still Life: Managing the End of Rocky Flats
3. Hole in the Head Gang: The Reductio ad absurdum of Nuclear Worker Compensation (EEOICPA)
4. Transnatural Revue: Irreverent Counterspectacles of Mutant Drag and Nuclear Waste Sculpture
Conclusion: Hot Spotting

Situational awareness

brighton-festival-2013Two art projects from Lighthouse at the Brighton Festival in the UK this month (4-26 May); thanks to Sam Hind for the information.

 James Bridles work will be familiar to most readers, and in Brighton he’s reprising his Under the shadow of the drone, which is a true-to-scale rendering of a Reaper, this time on the seafront:

The stark marking out in an unexpected public space of a Reaper drone’s silhouette brings the reality of these technologies into our daily lives. The work critiques the way that contemporary networked technologies, while enabling the digitally saturated culture of the 21st century, can also obscure and distance us from political and moral responsibility.

Bridle explains:

“Drones are just the latest in a long line of military technologies augmenting the process of death-dealing, but they are among the most efficient, the most distancing, the most invisible. These qualities allow them to do what they do unseen.

“We all live under the shadow of the drone, although most of us are lucky enough not to live under its direct fire. But the attitude they represent – of technology used for obscuration and violence; of the obfuscation of morality and culpability; of the illusion of omniscience and omnipotence; of the lesser value of other people’s lives; of, frankly, endless war – should concern us all.”

And Lighthouse adds: ‘By superimposing a large-scale drawing of the shadow of a drone in an urban location in Brighton, Bridle brings these chilling machines uncomfortably close to us, embedding them into our daily lives, and in the process perhaps making the reality of the daily occurrence of deadly drone strikes more tangible.’

BRIDLE Under the shadow of the drone, Brighton

For me, some of Bridle’s other projects – like Dronestagram – are more effective in bringing the strikes (rather than the technology) down to earth and into the spaces of everyday life, but it’s still an arresting project.  Size and scale matter; I remember visiting the RAF Museum at Hendon and being truly astonished at how small a Lancaster bomber was – and yet how vast the bomb door in its belly.  If you’re in Brighton, you can find Bridle’s rendering 5 minutes/500 metres walk east from the Brighton Wheel on Marine Parade, towards Yellowave Beach Sports Venue; then look down to Madeira Drive.


The second is Mariele Neudecker‘s The air itself is one vast library (a quotation from Charles Babbage), originally shown in 2010:

… an exhibition of startling images that explore the disturbing, and often invisible, technologies of war. In dramatic contrast with her more familiar depictions of landscape and the sublimity of nature, this highly topical study brings us face to face with weapons of mass destruction.

Neudecker’s artistic strategy is rooted in ‘ground truth’, a term used in remote sensing to describe data collected on location. Works created whilst on site at the historic Nike missile facility in the US are emblematic of Neudecker’s determination to go beyond mere representation. Her extraordinary graphite rubbings of vast Hercules missiles physically capture the object, making what is otherwise abstract and monstrous, tactile and present. Other works investigate military imaging and tactical communication, which provide us with new ways of detecting what is intended to be camouflaged and out of view.

You can see this at Lighthouse, 28 Kensington Street, Brighton, and preview images here.

For more on artworks, invisible military technologies and ‘geographies of seeing’, I thoroughly recommend honor harger‘s excellent reflections on Unmanned Aerial Ecologies here, which includes a series of brilliant images and commentaries on the work of Trevor Paglen and Marko Peljhan.  The latter is new to me and very interesting: the title for this post is taken not only from the military, which is appropriate enough, but also from one of Peljhan’s projects featured in honor’s essay.

The camp and geographical imaginations

Last Thursday, the last full day of my visit to Ostrava, Tomas took me to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in the Polish town of Oswiecim: I’m still trying to come to terms with what I saw and felt.

It was Tomas’s third visit.  Last time, he said, it was in the depth of winter, with the ground covered in snow: Auschwitz rendered in the sombre black and white tones we’ve come to expect.  On Thursday it all seemed so incongruous: full colour on an unexpectedly sunny day – brilliant blue sky, flowers coming in to bloom and birds singing – and made even more unsettling by the new housing at the edge of the town and the supermarket up the road.  To say that is at once to invoke a moral geography of sorts, and in a series of revealing essays Andrew Charlesworth, Robert Guzik, Michal Paskowski and Alison Stenning have documented the controversies that have shaped the site since the establishment of the State Museum in 1947 and the subsequent development before and after the fall of Communism: see ‘”Out of Place” in Auschwitz?’ [in Ethics, place and environment 9 (2) (2006) 149-72] and ‘A tale of two institutions: shaping Oswiecim-Auschwitz’ [in Geoforum 39 (2008) 401-413].

Auschwitz then and now

But as soon as we entered the complex a different (though related) series of moral geographies were invoked, also about the dissonance between Auschwitz then and now but more directly bound up with what Chris Keil calls ‘Sightseeing in the mansions of the dead’ [in Social & Cultural Geography 6 (40(2005) 479-494] or what is variously called ‘thanato-tourism’ or  ‘dark tourism’: the tourism of death.  You can find other fine reflections, following in Keil’s footsteps, in Derek Dalton‘s ‘Encountering Auschwitz: the possibilities and limitations of witnessing/remembering trauma in memorial space’ [in Law, Text, Culture 13 (1) (2009) 187-225] here.  Significantly, Dalton argues that current theorising ‘fails to highlight the vital role of the imagination in animating the artefacts and geography of a place and investing them with meaning’.

AUSCHWITZ3 April 2013

For the tour is, of course, both pre-scripted (it is surely impossible for most visitors to come to what was the largest extermination camp in Europe without prior expectations and understandings) and scripted (it invites and even licenses a particular range of performances and responses). It takes in Auschwitz I (above), the original site more or less at the centre of Oswiecim that was established in the spring of 1940, and the sprawling open/closed space of Auschwitz II at Birkenau beyond the perimeter established the following year.  (Auschwitz III, the labour camp at Monowitz linked to the IG Farben works, is not part of the memorial complex; neither are any of the 40-odd satellite camps).

Auschwitz 1944

We started by walking through the gates, their hideous sign Arbeit macht frei silhouetted against the sky, and filed into a series of prison blocks in a silence broken only by the guide’s voice whispering through our headphones and the shuffle of feet on stone and stair.

AUSCHWITZ April 2013

Inside we saw the collections of suitcases and shoes stripped from those who were murdered inside the camp: signs of movement from all over occupied Europe to the dead stop of the gas chambers.  The first, experimental ones killed people in their hundreds; the later ones killed them in their thousands.  We will never know the exact number nor all their names, but we do know more than 1,100,000 people were murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau, around 960,000 of them Jews.



Dalton’s attention was also captured by these collections: a fraction of the total, yet the sheer number of shoes confounded any attempt ‘to posit individual histories’; and even though the suitcases had names and sometimes dates on them, Dalton was numbed by his inability ‘to focus on an individual case; my eye took them in as a mass despite their differences.’  This is a recurrent theme in his essay, but I saw the artefacts differently.  As I looked at the collections behind the glass, I started to wonder about the aestheticisation of suffering – about what Keil calls ‘a Hall of Mirrors, a half-world between history and art’ (and in my photographs you can just about see the spectral reflections of the visitors in the glass) – and the ways in which these everyday objects had been turned into a vast still life that none the less could evoke such unutterable terror.

‘I have nothing to say, only to show,’ wrote Walter Benjamin (about his working method).  Perhaps that is the best way to apprehend the museum; perhaps, too, this begins to explain Theodor Adorno‘s insistence in Negative Dialectics that ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.’ And yet he later qualified his remark:

‘Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as the tortured have to scream … hence it may have been wrong to say that no poem could be written after Auschwitz.’ 

He said his objection was to lyric poetry; perhaps, then, we need to reaffirm what Michael Peters [in Educational Philosophy & Theory 44 (2) (2012) 129-32] calls ‘poetry as offence’: a notice inside Dachau declared that anyone found writing or sharing poetry would be summarily executed. For as I trudged across the vast expanse of Birkenau, alongside the railway tracks and the infamous ramp and around the ruins of the gas chambers and crematoria, I began to think that Auschwitz made poetry all the more necessary – as defiant affirmation.

My visit also prompted me to re-visit Giorgio Agamben‘s meditations on Auschwitz in Homo Sacer: sovereign power and bare life and Remnants of Auschwitz: the witness and the archive (which is Homo Sacer III).   If you’re not familiar with his work, Andrew Robinson provides a short and accessible summary that speaks directly to his incorporation of the Nazi concentration camp here.

Auschwitz master plan (summer 1942)

AGAMBEN Homo sacerAlthough the cover of the English-language translation of Homo Sacer (right) shows part of the second master plan for Auschwitz (February 1942), which I’ve reproduced above (and you can find more maps and plans here), Agamben’s discussion is brief, confined to Part III and most of it in §7, where he treats ‘The camp as the nomos of the modern’ and, specifically, as ‘the materialization of the state of exception’ and ‘the most absolute biopolitical space ever to have been realized.’ The plan provided for the expansion of the camp, and van Pelt explains it thus:

The left side of the drawing depicts the concentration camp. Its center is the enormous roll-call place, designed to hold thirty thousand inmates. To the south are the barracks of the original camp, a group of brick buildings built in 1916 as a labor exchange center for Polish seasonal workers in Germany. To the east (on the right side), are the SS base and a Siedlung for the married SS men and their families. The center of town includes a hotel and shops.

Given what Agamben subsequently argued about the witness and the archive in Remnants, it is worth remembering that these detailed plans constituted important legal evidence against David Irving‘s notorious dismissal of Auschwitz’s function as an extermination camp as ‘baloney’ (in a Calgary lecture); you can find a detailed account of this early instance of forensic architecture in Robert Jan van Pelt‘s The case for Auschwitz: evidence from the Irving trial (2002) and a suggestive discussion of the plans (including an account in the appendix of the geographical selection of Auschwitz as a ‘central place’: given what we know of Walter Christaller‘s involvement in the spatial planning of Eastern Europe under the Third Reich, I wonder whether this was used in a technical sense?) in van Pelt’s ‘Auschwitz: from architect’s promise to inmate’s perdition’ [in Modernism/Modernity 1 (1) (1994) 80-120], from which I took the plan and explanation above. In our imaginations Auschwitz is full of people, and the plans are naturally as empty of the prisoners as today’s buildings: and yet through van Pelt’s patient, methodical commentary, they become redolent of the horrors they were intended to instil.

agamben_remnantsofauschwitz64In Remnants, Agamben does not attempt to make the plans and stones – the spaces – speak, but he is concerned, in quite another register, to erect ‘some signposts allowing future cartographers of the new [post-Auschwitz] ethical territory to orient themselves.’  Still, I’m left puzzled by the closed geography that captures his attention.  The nearest he comes to transcending this is his brief discussion of Hitler’s insistence on the production in central Europe of a volkloser Raum, ‘a space empty of people’, which Agamben glosses as a ‘fundamental biopolitical intensity’ that ‘can persist in every space and through which peoples pass into populations and populations pass into Musselmänner’, the ‘living dead’ of the camps (p. 85).  The sequence of transformations evidently stops short – there is, as Agamben says himself, a ‘central non-place’ at the heart of Auschwitz: the gas chamber – but Agamben’s reluctance to go there is in part a product of his interest in bare life and in part a product of an argument directed towards elucidating the position of the witness (even then his selection and examination of witnesses is, as Jeffrey Mehlman shows, strikingly arbitrary).  It’s a profound absence, but even Agamben’s abbreviated sequence shows that to make sense of Auschwitz-Birkenau and that still space at its centre you have to turn outwards and imagine spaces of exception that spiral far beyond and converge upon the dread confines of the camp: the contraction of the spaces of everyday life, the confinement of the ghettoes, the transit camps, the railway lines snaking across the dark continent.  Their absence from Remnants has acutely political and ethical consequences, because it threatens to turn the act of witnessing into a purified aesthetic act; the best discussion of this that I know is J.M. Bernstein‘s ‘Bare life, bearing witness: Auschwitz and the pornography of horror’ [in parallax 10 (1) (2004) pp. 2-16], which I drew on in my discussion of Agamben and Auschwitz in ‘Vanishing points’. Paolo Giacarria and Claudio Minca have more recently emphasised in their ‘Topographies/topologies of the camp’ [in Political geography 30 (2011) 3-12] that

‘what will eventually become the most infamous extermination camp was … not located in a void; quite the contrary, it was fully embedded within the broader spatialities and territorialities that were implemented by the Nazi imperial project.’

I sketched some of these geographies in my entry on holocaust in the Dictionary of Human Geography, and for me all this means that the immediate struggle during my visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau was an effort of the imagination: to focus in on the individual lives lost in the mass murder while simultaneously panning out to the wider spaces of terror set in motion far beyond and, crucially, constitutive of the site of the camp itself.

REES AuschwitzBut the ongoing, far greater conundrum is to understand how it all was possible: how could people do such things?  Agamben himself portrays this as the ‘incorrect’, even ‘hypocritical’ question….  As with his more general argument about homo sacer, responsibility plainly does not lie solely with those who used political and legal artifice to put so many people to death; mass murder on an industrial scale, surely the most exorbitant of all the grim termini of Fordist war, required more than Hitler and Himmler.  Neither can the willingness of so many men and women to be party to these murders be explained by their “following orders” and being “fearful of punishment”, a putrid defence that most historians have exposed as a lie.  What is so extraordinary, after all, is the way in which, under general directives, so much was left to local improvisation and ‘ordinary’ functionaries.  The ‘prison within the prison’, Auschwitz’s Block 11, is an exemplary instance: here punishments were devised for people who were already destined for death.  I have no answer, but I do think that the key is not only in turning ‘ordinary’ people into ‘functionaries’ but also in luring and licensing the transformation of base imaginations into physical realities.

Note: There’s a vast specialist and a general literature on Auschwitz, but for a book that brilliantly bridges the two I recommend Laurence Rees‘s authoritative and accessible Auschwitz: the Nazis and the final solution, also published as Auschwitz: a new history (available in a Kindle edition).

ADDENDUM:  This post continues to attract many readers several years after I wrote it, so I should probably add that I’ve since become even more critical of Agamben’s views on the exception.  If we think of a space of exception as one in which groups of people are knowingly and deliberately exposed to death through the removal of ordinary legal protections then the conflict zone is surely a paradigmatic case (and its indistinction has become ever clearer [sic] since the ‘deconstruction of the battlefield’ from the First World War on); but this is not a legal void, since the right of combatants to kill one another – and the concomitant obligation to afford at least minimal protection to civilians – is regulated by international law (Agamben’s concern in State of exception is entirely with the suspension of national laws).  It is sadly the case that the invocation of international law as anything other than a rhetorical gesture has become all too common, but the failure to respect its norms or to sanction those responsible for its transgression has not reduced civilians crouching under the bombs or caught in the cross-fire to ‘bare life’.  For an indication of what I have in mind, see ‘The Death of the Clinic‘.

Close up at a distance

KURGAN Close up at a distanceStuart Elden trailed Laura Kurgan‘s Close up at a distance: mapping, technology and politics earlier this year, and it’ a sumptuous book.  The main title is a good summary of the techno-cultural field produced for drone strikes, but Kurgan’s focus is different: it’s on satellite imagery.  Now Trevor Paglen has provided a summary review for Bookforum:

Imaging technologies, explains Kurgan, “let us see too much, and hence blind us to what we cannot see, imposing a quiet tyranny of orientation that erases the possibility of disoriented discovery.” Part of the problem is a matter of perspective: The view from above is less an expansive panorama than a view through a keyhole. This vantage is also highly susceptible to ideological forces. When Colin Powell sat before the UN advocating the invasion of Iraq, he brought satellite images showing a handful of trucks and buildings. This data, he claimed, provided evidence of “active chemical munitions bunkers” operating outside Baghdad. “The facts speak for themselves,” he said. Of course, as Kurgan points out, the images did anything but that, and Powell needed to do a great deal of misleading speaking on their behalf to make them show anything close to what he claimed they did.

But Kurgan does not want to write off the “visual regime” of satellite imagery entirely. In fact, much of her work makes use of visual data culled from mapping, geolocation, and overhead-imaging technologies, and in Close Up at a Distance she argues that the need for interpretation is precisely what makes this kind of information so significant. For her, the “imaginative leaps” required to turn data into stories don’t always have to be carried out by the Colin Powells of the world: Such interpretive work can also advance movements for social justice or anti-imperial politics—such as when Pakistani journalists used Google Earth to document an unacknowledged American Predator-drone base in Baluchistan. In a series of deftly rendered case studies, Kurgan demonstrates how understanding satellite images—their production, interpretation, and distribution—is “a civic responsibility and a political obligation.”

Lisa Parks has travelled over much of the same ground and to brilliant effect, but Kurgan’s emphasis (she’s Director of the Spatial Information Design Lab at Columbia) is on a series of artistic re-workings of satellite imagery to produce radically new and insistently critical ways of seeing, of re-imagining what we see (and what we don’t) – which is why Trevor, as both artist and geographer, is such an apposite reviewer.


Unmanned twice over

UnmannedI’m going to the CASAR Conference on Transnational American Studies at the American University in Beirut in January.  I’ve been to these meetings before, and I’m looking forward to returning to the city and meeting many old friends.  I’ll be presenting another version of “Drones, spaces of exception and the everywhere war”; the programme includes a keynote address from Judith Butler and  a performance of Robert Myers‘ play Unmanned.

Myers is a Professor of English and Creative Writing at UAB and a former Director of CASAR, and he developed the play while he was a visiting artist at the International Institute for U.S. Studies at the University of Illinois last spring.  It’s a two-hander, involving a drone pilot and a sensor operator, and Myers sets the scene like this:

The play takes place principally in a single-wide trailer painted with desert camouflage in the desert in the American West. Other scenes take place in an automobile and in other locations, which should be created with music and light. The play is written so that it may be staged with two office chairs. The set should be minimal. There is no reason to create a realistic “cockpit” since the flyers are not really in a cockpit and they are not flying. Their workspace resembles the cubicles of millions of other office workers. Outside the trailer, Stage Left, is a sign with a series of crudely painted arrows, which say: Kandahar 6792, Las Vegas 473, Mogadishu 5712, Phoenix 173, etc. Several actual props are introduced in the course of the play—a couple of unmarked white milk shake cups with straws, a fox stole etc.—and the two characters could wear minimalist headsets with microphones so as not to create confusion about when they are talking to Central Command. However, since the play is – among other things – about the relationship between the real world and the virtual world, all other machines, including phones, computers, navigational equipment, monitors should be mimed and/or created with light. 

I do like that last sentence.  You can download an excerpt from the play here.

unmanned1SMThere have been several other drama-works that deal with drones (in different ways), including Jordan Crandall‘s performance work also called Unmanned:

Unmanned is about the changing nature of masculinity in the face of automated technologies of war. It focuses on the unmanned aerial system, or drone, as a site of investigation. Rather than taking a conventional analytical approach, however, the work is performed live as “philosophical theater”: a blend of performance art, political allegory, philosophical speculation, and intimate reverie. Jordan Crandall conducts a series of monologues in the guise of seven different characters, supplemented with stage action, video, and sound. Each character is an archetype of masculine identity struggling with its own agency and role in the field of deployment — historically the most complex issue in the field of military endeavor.

The drone becomes a figure for a reorganization of masculinity — one that dissipates the structuring forces of modern military identity, its standards of adequacy and scales of worth. Yet at the same time, in a much larger sense, the drone becomes a figure for a much larger condition: a reorganization of agency and skill, within a data-intensive environment of distributed and embedded intelligence, where network computing has become integrated into all manner of objects, spaces, and infrastructures. This reorganization not only challenges conventional identifications, however gendered, but the very status of the human.s about the changing nature of masculinity in the face of automated technologies of war. It focuses on the unmanned aerial system, or drone, as a site of investigation. Rather than taking a conventional analytical approach, however, the work is performed live as “philosophical theater”: a blend of performance art, political allegory, philosophical speculation, and intimate reverie. Jordan Crandall conducts a series of monologues in the guise of seven different characters, supplemented with stage action, video, and sound. Each character is an archetype of masculine identity struggling with its own agency and role in the field of deployment — historically the most complex issue in the field of military endeavor.

The drone becomes a figure for a reorganization of masculinity — one that dissipates the structuring forces of modern military identity, its standards of adequacy and scales of worth. Yet at the same time, in a much larger sense, the drone becomes a figure for a much larger condition: a reorganization of agency and skill, within a data-intensive environment of distributed and embedded intelligence, where network computing has become integrated into all manner of objects, spaces, and infrastructures. This reorganization not only challenges conventional identifications, however gendered, but the very status of the human.

I’m continuing to work on my own performance-work, The social life of bombs, though – as I’ve noted before – it ends with a drone strike but begins a hundred years earlier…