As above, so below

 Omer Fast 5000ft is the best

News from Rob Coley of a Colloquium on Drone Culture organised by the University of Lincoln 21st Century Research Group, As Above, So Below, on Saturday 24th May; I’ll be giving one keynote and Benjamin Noys (Chichester) will be giving the other 


 The military use of aerial drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, has in recent years instigated huge controversy, dispute and protest. There continues to be much debate over the social and political implications of drone warfare, not least here in Lincoln, where, for the past year, the county has been home to the RAF’s Remotely Piloted Aircraft Squadron. As wartime base to the Lancaster bomber, Lincolnshire is, to many, still ‘Bomber County’, and today the UK’s provision of armed Reaper drones, which operate in Afghanistan on surveillance and combat missions, are controlled remotely from a base less than five miles from our university campus. The issues raised are, then, strikingly clear: the ethics of extrajudicial killing, the relation between ‘surgical’ strikes and ‘collateral’ civilian deaths, the diffusion of the conventional ‘battlefield’, the implications of the commercial use of drones in civilian airspace, the psychological effects of exerting power from a distance.

 Though motivated by these issues, this one-day colloquium has been convened in order to examine the broader questions relating to the drone as a cultural concept and, in its virtual potentials, as a more complex set of transformations which extend beyond the actuality of the unmanned aerial vehicle. Specifically, drone culture is understood here as a symptom of what McKenzie Wark has called ‘vectoral’ power, a power that, constituted by flows of information, operates in abstract communicational space so as to exploit perception at a distance. In this sense, the cultural significance of the drone is inseparable from the newly complex processes of mediation unique to the 21st century.

This event will map the immanent forces of drone culture across a variety of disciplines and phenomena, and in doing so disclose its political and ethico-aesthetic expressions in literature, cinema, music, photography, theatre and performance. For examples, we might look to science-fictional explorations of the relation between air and informational power (Ballard, Pynchon, McCarthy), the drone in political theatre (such as George Brant’s Grounded), the drone in recent cinema (such as Oblivion with Tom Cruise), and the drone in art (see the work of Josh Begley, James Bridle, Omar Fast, Adam Harvey and Trevor Paglen). In response, the colloquium will include an exhibition of art works, performances and screenings.

You are invited to submit proposals for either:

  • 20 minute paper presentation (with title and abstract of about 350 words)
  • 5 minute ‘speed papers’ – positions, potentials and provocations (with title and abstract of about 100 words)

Suggestions for topics include, but are not limited to:

  • aerial power, informational power, vectoral power
  • maps and mapping
  • speed and accelerationism
  • perception at a distance: remoteness and affect
  • video game logics
  • drone temporalities (including audio and sonic)
  • drone fictions (SF drones, drone horrors, weird drones)
  • drones and swarms
  • drone subjectivities and psychologies
  • patterns of life in software-sorted space
  • kill lists and ‘big data’
  • the long history of distance weapons and intelligent machines
  • the rhetoric of the ‘targeted’, ‘surgical’ and ‘signature’ strike
  • counterinsurgency
  • ubiquitous warfare and the normalization of crisis
  • drone sorcery, magic and glamour
  • thanatopolitics

Please include a short biographical note with all submissions and send in one word file to: 

Deadline for all submissions: 31st January, 2014

Survivable life

Just back from St Andrews – the video of the Neil Smith Lecture will be available online shortly, and I’ll post a notice when it’s ready – and so much to catch up on it’s not easy to work out where to start.


But this is as good a place as any: Ann Jones‘s new book, They were soldiers: how the wounded return from America’s wars (Haymarket, 2013):

After the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Ann Jones spent a good part of a decade there working with Afghan civilians—especially women—and writing about the impact of war on their lives: the subject of Kabul in Winter (2006). That book revealed the yawning chasm between America’s promises to Afghans and its actual performance in the country. Meanwhile, Jones was pondering another evident contradiction: between the U.S. military’s optimistic progress reports to Americans and its costly, clueless failures in Afghanistan as well as Iraq. In 2010-2011, she decided to see for herself what that “progress” in Afghanistan was costing American soldiers. She borrowed some body armor and embedded with U.S. troops. On forward operating bases she saw the row of photographs of “fallen” soldiers hung on the headquarters’ wall lengthen day by day.

At the trauma hospital at Bagram Air Base she watched the grievously wounded carried from medevac helicopters to the emergency room and witnessed the toll that life-saving surgeries took on the doctors who performed them. She accompanied the wounded on medevac flights from Bagram to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, then on to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, and finally—for those who made it—back to all-American homes where, often enough, more troubles followed: violence against wives, girlfriends, children, and fellow soldiers; Big Pharma-induced drug addiction; murder, suicide, and the terrible sorrow of caretaker moms and dads who don’t know what happened to their kids. They Were Soldiers is a powerful account of how official American promises—this time to “Support Our Troops”—fall victim to the true costs of war.


This dovetails perfectly with what I hope will be my new research project on caring for those wounded by war – combatants and civilians – between 1914 and 2014 and their precarious journeys away from the killing zones (see DOWNLOADS tab and scroll down).  As I’ve noted before, much of the critical commentary on modern war has been preoccupied with those killed – which is of course important – but the other casualties of war have all too often been marginalised.  It’s high time to supplement inquiries into what Judith Butler calls the constitution of  a ‘grievable life’ with others into the constitution of a ‘survivable life’.

Hence the vital importance of Ann’s book.  There’s an interview with Amy Goodman at Democracy Now here, and another with Truthout here, in which she deftly rejects the lazy politics in which the left supposedly cares only for ‘their’ civilians while the right cares for ‘our’ troops:

We worry – if at all – about how vets are treated when they return because of our mistaken notion that Vietnam vets suffered mightily from not being greeted as heroes. What Vietnam veterans truly suffered from was not their reception, but the war. That fact we tend to forget. Consequently, we think we can resolve all the possible nasty consequences of war by waving flags at airports as troops return. The deeper problem is that none of these veterans of the wars of choice in Iraq and Afghanistan – not one of them – should ever have been sent to war. But without a draft that can potentially strike any family in the country, those who have no fear that a family member may be compelled to serve are free to ignore the whole political and public relations process by which leaders drag the country into war and carry it on. War can be left to a supposedly “all volunteer” standing army – those poor kids with no job options or a shot at college – which is precisely what the founding fathers warned against, believing that a standing army would be used by autocrats to destroy democracy. That volunteer army, of course, is shadowed by a larger privatized for-profit army of mercenary contractors. The standing army of the poor and patriotic is alienated from the general public and left at the mercy of the president. Our recent presidents and their cronies, who hold a nearly unblemished record of evading military service, have thrown kids into war with an enthusiasm undampened by any real knowledge of what war is, while the most influential segments of the general public, feeling both grateful and guilty that their kids are safe, make no effort to restrain those war-loving leaders.

You can read an extract from They were soldiers, with a very helpful prefatory note from Nick Turse, at TomDispatch here:

In 2010, I began to follow U.S. soldiers down a long trail of waste and sorrow that led from the battle spaces of Afghanistan to the emergency room of the trauma hospital at Bagram Air Base, where their catastrophic wounds were surgically treated and their condition stabilized.  Then I accompanied some of them by cargo plane to Ramstein Air Base in Germany for more surgeries at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, or LRMC (pronounced Larm-See), the largest American hospital outside the United States.

Once stabilized again, those critical patients who survived would be taken by ambulance a short distance back to Ramstein, where a C-17 waited to fly them across the Atlantic to Dover Air Base in Delaware. There, tall, multilayered ambulances awaited the wounded for the last leg of their many-thousand-mile journey to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C. or the Naval Hospital at Bethesda, Maryland, where, depending upon their injuries, they might remain for a year or two, or more.

Now, we are in Germany, halfway home.  This evening, the ambulance from LRMC heading for the flight line at Ramstein will be full of critical-care patients, so I leave the hospital early and board the plane to watch the medical teams bring them aboard.  They’ve done this drill many times a week since the start of the Afghan War.  They are practiced, efficient, and fast, and so we are soon in the air again. This time, with a full load.

 Two rows of double bunks flank an aisle down the center of the C-17, all occupied by men tucked under homemade patchwork quilts emblazoned with flags and eagles, the handiwork of patriotic American women. Along the walls of the fuselage, on straight-backed seats of nylon mesh, sit the ambulatory casualities from the Contingency Aeromedical Staging Facility (CASF), the holding ward for noncritical patients just off the flight line at Ramstein.
At the back of the plane, slung between stanchions, are four litters with critical care patients, and there among them is the same three-man CCAT (Critical Care Air Transport) team I accompanied on the flight from Afghanistan. They’ve been back and forth to Bagram again since then, but here they are in fresh brown insulated coveralls, clean shaven, calm, cordial, the doctor busy making notes on a clipboard, the nurse and the respiratory therapist checking the monitors and machines on the SMEEDs. (A SMEED, or Special Medical Emergency Evacuation Device, is a raised aluminum table affixed to a patient’s gurney.) Designed to bridge the patient’s lower legs, a SMEED is now often used in the evacuation of soldiers who don’t have any.
Here again is Marine Sergeant Wilkins, just as he was on the flight from Afghanistan: unconscious, sedated, intubated, and encased in a vacuum spine board. The doctor tells me that the staff at LRMC removed Wilkins’s breathing tube, but they had to put it back. He remains in cold storage, like some pod-person in a sci-fi film. You can hardly see him in there, inside the black plastic pod. You can’t determine if he is alive or dead without looking at the little needles on the dials of the machines on the SMEED. Are they wavering? Hard to tell.

They were soldiers is available as an e-book if, like me, you can’t wait.

Sensing war

News from Kevin McSorley of a really interesting conference next summer which I’m going to try desperately hard to attend.  Full details at


Sensing War

International Interdisciplinary Conference, 12 – 13th June 2014, London, UK

War is a crucible of sensory experience and its lived affects radically transform ways of being in the world.  It is prosecuted, lived and reproduced through a panoply of sensory apprehensions, practices and ‘sensate regimes of war’ (Judith Butler 2012) – from the tightly choreographed rhythms of patrol to the hallucinatory suspicions of night vision; from the ominous mosquito buzz of drones to the invasive scrape of force-feeding tubes; from the remediation of visceral helmetcam footage to the anxious tremors of the IED detector; from the desperate urgencies of triage to the precarious intimacies of care; from the playful grasp of children’s war-toys to the feel of cold sweat on a veteran’s skin.

Recognising the recent growth of ground-breaking work on the senses across the humanities and social sciences, Sensing War aims to bring together researchers from a wide variety of disciplines to foster creative dialogue and critical exploration of the multiple and shifting relationships between war and sensation.  What concepts, resources and methods does the sensuous turn in scholarship offer to further our understandings of the myriad experiences of war and militarism?  How is war sensed by and for the drone operator, the occupied population, the female engagement team, the insurgent, the medic, the refugee, the veteran, the military family, the arms fair delegate, the war tourist, the video-gamer, the artist?  As war continuously shape-shifts, bleeding across the global flows of late modernity, how might attentiveness to sensory experience help us to rethink its genealogy and ontology?  How might we enable innovative and critical sensory engagements with war that allow us to see, hear, sense and understand it anew?

We invite contributions that engage with the topic of Sensing War widely and creatively.  Potential themes may include, but are not limited to:

•   Sensing bodies, technologies and environments of war

•   Sensory and scopic regimes and counter-regimes of war

•   The militarization of sensation

•   War politics and the distribution of the sensible

•   Military orientalism, the colonial nervous system and the empire of the senses

•   Touch/smell/sound/vision/tastes of war

•   Rhythms, movements and kinaesthetics of war

•   The sensory and affective grammar of everyday life in wartime

•   Sensuous war/play

•   Sensation-seeking, extremity, craving and addiction in warfighting

•   Sensing the shadows of war

•   Sensory resonances and aftermaths of war

•   Gender, class, race, sexuality, disability and sensations of war

•   War sensation and activist practice

•   Doing sensuous ethnographies, sociologies, geographies and histories of war

Please send paper abstracts (max 500 words), or details of other proposed contributions, together with brief biographical details, by 14th February 2014 to:

All proposals are subject to a review process.  We aim to publish selected papers from the conference as a special themed issue of a relevant journal and an edited collection.

Please address any other queries to Kevin McSorley at

Academic Committee:

Kevin McSorley, Sociology, University of Portsmouth

Debbie Lisle, International Relations, Queens University Belfast

Tara Woodyer, Geography, University of Portsmouth

Holger Pötzsch, Media & Culture, University of Tromsø

Joseph Burridge, Sociology, University of Portsmouth

Droning on

Sorry for the long silence – I’ve been prepping for my trip to St Andrews, where this afternoon I’ll be giving the Neil Smith Lecture.  Over the years I’ve given lots of lectures named after people I knew (if I knew them at all) only through their writings, and this is the first time I’ve given one named after someone I knew – and cared so much about.  There is a wonderful phrase in a commentary on Marx’s humanism (and humanity) and his critique of alienation, which talks about ‘man in the whole wealth of his being, man richly and deeply mentally alive’.  Needless to say I can’t track down the source when I need it – Ollman, maybe? – but I’ve never forgotten those words (or at least their force) since I read them years and years ago.  I can think of no other phrase that captures Neil so perfectly.

GREGORY The natures of war

Still lots to do, but I have added the final version of my general essay on drones, ‘Moving targets and violent geographies’, to the DOWNLOADS tab.  It will appear in an edited collection in honour of Allan Pred, edited by Lisa Hoffman and Heather Merrill, but I’ll also re-work it (and no doubt extend it) for The everywhere war so, as usual, I’d value any comments – preferably by e-mail to avoid the spam filters.  I’m flattered by those e-marketeers who think that my blog is a likely medium to flog everything from Viagra (well, not quite so flattered at that) to Louis Vuitton luggage, but thanks to those filters they – and perhaps you, dear reader – are out of luck…

And while I am channelling Del-Boy, another wordpress service lists the search terms that people use to navigate their way to the blog, and I’d particularly like to know what the person who was searching for – how do I put this? – a highly specialised type of basket apparently made in Vietnam made of Geographical imaginations.  I don’t expect they’d have found it on Louis Vuitton either.

Stilled life

In my last post I drew attention to China Miéville‘s essay on the Israeli Wall that gashes occupied Palestine which was, in part, a portfolio of photographs, and to Helga Tawil-Souri‘s anguished questions about photographing the monstrosity:

What am I supposed to do with a string of images? How will I put them back together to tell a story when there is no story to be told anymore? Photographing it, filming it, trying to write about it, only contradicts its very nature: a time-space of interruption, of suspension.

Others have reflected on these issues too: see, for example, Simon Faulkner, ‘The most photographed wall in the world’, Photographies 5 (2) (2012) 223-42:

On the one hand, the Wall has become a patently visible structure around which to galvanize opposition to the Israeli occupation. On the other, this very visibility is a problem in that it has tended to reduce the occupation to the Wall.


But I’m particularly taken by the work of the Czech (‘I’m not Czech like the Czechs’) engineer-turned-photographer Josef Koudelka whose Wall (published by Aperture last month) records his own encounters with the structure between 2008 and 2012 and whose gaze reaches beyond the wall itself into the wider landscape of occupation, exaction and repression.

Koudelka’s work first captured public attention in 1968 when he courageously documented the Soviet-led occupation of Czechoslovakia.  ‘I grew up behind a wall,’ he told Ha’aretz, ‘and because of that experience I am very sensitive to all the people who grew up behind a wall.’

KOUDELKA Prague 68

His publisher explains that the new book is part of a larger project, This Place, initiated by photographer Frédéric Brenner:

This Place explores Israel as place and metaphor through the eyes of 12 acclaimed photographers, who were invited to look beyond dominant political narratives and to explore the complexity of the place – not to judge, but to question and to reveal.

It’s not easy to track down much information about the project, which included photographers like Jeff Wall and Gilles Peress, but a New York Times report from December 2011 described Koudelka’s response:

Though he is not a political person, he said, “it is not easy for me in this country. I don’t see things that make me very cheerful.” He said he was focusing on “the crime against the landscape, in the most holy landscape for humanity.”


And over at the New York Review of Books blog David Shulman has an exceptionally fine meditation on the wall and Koudelka’s Wall, which includes a series of images from the book:

Koudelka’s pictures have an eerie, meditative texture. Many of them are structured around the glaring contrast between the Wall, always intrusive, harsh, ophidian, and the organic, still living world of hills, terraces, and valleys on either side of it. Paradoxically, these photographs are beautiful, almost too beautiful, to look at—despite, or perhaps because of, the raw wound they reveal. Look, for example, at the graveyard of decimated olive trees in an area earmarked for annexation to the east of Jerusalem. I have known Palestinian farmers who treat their olive trees—sometimes their main life support—like beloved children, and who sit in mourning when a tree is killed by settlers or soldiers…

To my mind the most powerful of Koudelka’s images is the final one in the book: Wall to the left, Wall to the right, a menacing emptiness in between, a lifeless place fixed in concrete and leading nowhere, despite the sadly hopeful sign pasted on the left-hand wall, pointing one way to Jerusalem, and the other way to Rachel’s Tomb, where the Matriarch Rachel weeps for her children.

And yet, as Shulman implies and James Johnson reiterates here, these images are empty of life and, at the limit, the panoramic gaze seems to ‘depersonalise suffering’… (which, if you follow Eyal Weizman‘s Hollow Land, should come as no surprise, though I think it’s also possible to read these photographs in other, mournful – indeed, haunted – ways).  More from Shulman in his Dark Hope: working for peace in Israel and Palestine (2003).


Another brick in the wall

When I was writing the Israel/Palestine chapters in The Colonial Present the vast, wretched landscape of occupation and repression was numbingly new to me (though it shouldn’t have been). I found little help from mainstream geography, with some honourable exceptions, and I vividly remember my first visit to the West Bank with Steve Graham, Eyal Weizman and others.  You would think I would have been prepared: I’d certainly read everything I could lay my hands on.


But nothing prepares you for the enormity of the occupation, its monstrous violence and everyday humiliations, and the sight of the wall snaking across the landscape – what Ariella Azoulay and Adi Ophir call ‘the Monster’s Tail’ – remains one of the most appalling impositions I have ever seen.  Neither was I ready for the iron-clad violence of the Qalandiyya checkpoint, whose enclosures, grills and bars that would not have been out of place in an abbatoir could barely contain the brooding militarised violence of those who constructed it: but of course they weren’t supposed to.


Since then, much of this has become all too familiar – which is part of the problem – but there are now many more geographers doing vitally important work on occupied Palestine.  Visualizing Palestine has recently added this new infographic about the wall to its excellent portfolio:

VP Where Law stands on the Wall

The focus adds yet another dimension to contemporary discussions about international law and what Michael Smith calls ‘geo-legalities’.  I’m keenly interested in those arguments, but today I’m led down this path by a new essay –part prose, part photography – composed by China Miéville for the Palestinian Literature Festival and performed by him at Nablus.

MIEVILLE Beyond equal rightsMiéville is best known as a novelist (and one with an intriguing geographical sensibility at that), but he’s no stranger to international law either: his Between Equal Rights: a Marxist theory of international law (2006) has been widely acclaimed. Yet this morning I’m seized by his photo-literary apprehension of the familiar unreality of the landscape of occupation:

Yes, we know the holy land is now a land of holes, and lines, a freakshow of topography gone utterly and hideously mad, that the war against Palestinians is also a war against everyday life, against human space, a war waged with all expected hardware, with violent weaponized absurdism, with tons and tons of concrete and girders.  This is truism, and/but true.

His experience of crossing the line reminds me of my own, though he captures its Kafka-esque horror far more vividly:

And in its wedge of shadow the long stupid zigzag of the checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem is indicated with a sign, there on the Bethlehem side. Entrance, it says, white on green, and points to the cattle run. Inside are all the ranks of places to wait, the revolving grinder doors, green lights that may or may not mean a thing, the conveyor belts and metal detectors and soldiers and more doors, more metal striae, more gates.

Finally, for those who emerge on the city side, who come out in the sun and go on, there is a sign they, you, we have seen before. White on green, pointing back the way just come.

Entrance, it says. Just like its counterpart on the other side of a line of division, a non-place.

No exit is marked.

The arrows both point in. Straight towards each other. The logic of the worst dream. They beckon. They are for those who will always be outside, and they point the way to go. Enter to discover you’ve gone the only way, exactly the wrong way.

Entrance: a serious injunction. A demand. Their pointing is the pull of a black hole. Their directions meet at a horizon. Was it ever a gateway between? A checkpoint become its own end.

This is the plan. The arrows point force at each other like the walls of a trash compactor. Obey them and people will slowly approach each other and edge closer and closer from each side and meet at last, head on like women and men walking into their own reflections, but mashed instead into each other, crushed into a mass.

Entrance, entrance. These directions are peremptory, their signwriters voracious, insisting on obedience everywhere, impatient for the whole of Palestine to take its turn, the turn demanded, until every woman and man and child is waiting on one side or the other in long long lines, snaking across their land like the wall, shuffling into Israel’s eternal and undivided capital, CheckPointVille, at which all compasses point, towards which winds go, and there at the end of the metal run the huge, docile, cow-like crowds will in this fond, politicidal, necrocidal, psyche-cidal fantasy, meet and keep taking tiny steps forward held up by the narrowness of the walls until they press into each others’ substance and their skins breach and their bones mix and they fall into gravity one with the next. Palestine as plasma. Amorphous. Amoebal. Condensed. Women and men at point zero. Shrunken by weight, eaten and not digested. An infinite mass, in an infinitely small space.

If you can bear to read more about this ‘non-place’, as Mieville calls it, try Helga Tawil-Souri, ‘Qalandia checkpoint as space and nonplace’, Space and culture 14 (1) (2011) 4-26; Irus Braverman, ‘Civilized borders: a study of Israel’s new crossing administration’, Antipode 43 (2) (2011) 264-95; Hagar Kotef and Merav Amir, ‘Between imaginary lines: violence and its justifications at the military checkpoints in occupied Palestine’, Theory, culture and society 28 (1) (2011) 55-50; and Merav Amir, ‘The making of a void sovereignty: political implications of the military checkpoints in the West Bank’. Environment and Planning D: Society & Space 31 (2013) 227-44.


These are all behind paywalls, and if you can’t pass through those walls – and even if you can – I also recommend an open access essay by Helga Tawil-Souri, ‘Qalandia: an autopsy’, Jerusalem Quarterly 45 (2011) available here.  It’s a brilliant essay, and apart from what it has to tell us about the checkpoint (or ‘terminal’, as the Israelis prefer), like Miéville’s it also has much to teach us about the power of prose and the material politics of representation:

 Qalandia is dead because this time I find it impossible to photograph. I am paralyzed. Where do I stand? What do I document? Why am I even bothering? What am I supposed to do with a string of images? How will I put them back together to tell a story when there is no story to be told anymore? Photographing it, filming it, trying to write about it, only contradicts its very nature: a time-space of interruption, of suspension.  The checkpoint disjoints, tears the limbs off of my body; to want to tell its ‘story’ is a form of re-con-joining. I cannot. It has taken that right away from us.