The conflict shoreline, colonialism and climate change

Conflict_Shoreline_web

When Eyal Weizman was in Vancouver last March – joining us for Gaston Gordillo‘s  workshop on Space, materiality and violence at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies – he delivered a public lecture on The Conflict Shoreline: Colonialism as Climate Change.

It’s now available as an extended essay (96 pp) from Steidl in association with Cabinet Books:

The village of al-‘Araqib has been destroyed and rebuilt more than seventy times in the “battle over the Negev,” an ongoing Israeli state campaign to uproot the Bedouins from the northern threshold of the desert. Unlike other frontiers fought over during the Israel–Palestine conflict, however, this threshold is not demarcated by fences and walls but advances and recedes in response to cultivation, colonization, displacement, urbanization, and climate change.

The fate of al-‘Araqib, like that of other Bedouin villages along the desert’s threshold, its “aridity line,” is bound up with deep environmental changes. But whereas even the most committed environmentalists today conceive of climate change as an accidental and unintentional side effect of modernity, Israeli architect and theorist Eyal Weizman argues that from the point of view of colonial history, climate change has never been simply collateral damage. It has always been a stated goal; “making the desert bloom” is, in effect, “changing the climate.”

In examining this history, Weizman outlines attempts—from the Ottoman era through the period of European colonization to the present—to scientifically define, measure, and map the threshold of the desert. Such efforts have been important because imperial and, later, national governments—whose laws have never recognized property rights in the desert—aimed to push back this threshold as they tried to expand the limits of arable land and bring the nomads under state control. In the Negev, the displacement of the weather and the displacement of the Bedouins have gone hand in hand. But while the desert edge, and the Bedouins, have been driven further and further south, global climate change today acts as a major counterforce. Predictably, the Bedouins are caught in the middle.

Brilliantly researched and argued, Weizman’s text—part detective story, part history lesson, and part scientific analysis—explores the changing threshold of the Negev through the extraordinary contemporary photographs of American artist Fazal Sheikh, as well as an array of documents, maps, and images, including historical aerial imagery, remote sensing data, state plans, court testimonies, and nineteenth-century travelers’ accounts. Together, these disparate forms of evidence establish the “conflict shoreline” as a border along which climate change and political contestation are deeply, perilously entangled.

You can find some of the background, and the relation to Eyal’s Forensic Architecture project, in an interview earlier this year:

I’m mostly trying to establish forensic architecture as a critical field of practice and as an agency that produce and disseminate evidence about war crimes in urban context. Recent forensic investigations in Guatemala and in the Israeli Negev involved the intersection of violence and environmental transformations, even climate change. For trials and truth commissions, we analyze the extent to which environmental transformation intersect with conflict.

The imaging of this previously invisible types of violence—‘environmental violence’ such as land degradation, the destruction of fields and forests (in the tropics), pollution and water diversion, and also long term processes of desertification—we use as new type of evidence of processes dispersed across time and space. There are other conflicts that unfold in relation to climatic and environmental transformations and in particular in relation to environmental scarcity.

Conflict has reciprocal interaction with environment transformation: environmental change could aggravate conflict, while conflict tends to generate further environmental damage. This has been apparent in Darfur, Sudan where the conflict was aggravated by increased competition over arable due to local land erosion and desertification. War and insurgency have occurred along Sahel—Arabic for ‘shoreline’—on the southern threshold of the Sahara Desert, which is only ebbing as million of hectares of former arable land turn to desert. In past decades, conflicts have broken out in most countries from East to West Africa, along this shoreline: Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Chad, Niger, Mali, Mauritania, and Senegal. In 2011 in the city of Daraa, farmers’ protests, borne out of an extended cycle of droughts, marked the beginning of the Syrian civil war. Similar processes took place in the eastern outskirts of Damascus, Homs, al-Raqqah and along the threshold of the great Syrian and Northern Iraqi Deserts. These transformations impact upon cities, themselves a set of entangled natural/man-made environments. The conflict and hardships along desertification bands compel dispossessed farmers to embark upon increasingly perilous paths of migrations, leading to fast urbanization at the growing outskirts of the cities and slams.

I’m trying to understand these processes across desert thresholds. There has been a very long colonial debate about what is the line beyond which the desert begins. Most commonly it was defined as 200 mm rain per annum. Cartographers were trying to draw it, as it represented, to a certain extent, the limit of imperial control. From this line on, most policing was done through bombing of tribal areas from the air. Since the beginning, the emergence of the use of air power in policing in the post World War I period—aerial control, aerial government—took form in places that were perceived, at the time, as lying beyond the thresholds or edges of the law. The British policing of Iraq, the French in Syria, and Algeria, the Italians in Libya are examples where control would hover in air.

Up to now I was writing about borders that were physical and manmade: walls in the West Bank or Gaza and the siege around it—most notably in Hollow Land (2007). Now I started to write about borders that are made by the interaction of people and the environment—like the desert line—which is not less violent and brutal. The colonial history of Palestine has been an attempt to push the line of the desert south, trying to make it green or bloom—this is in Ben Gurion’s terms—but the origins of this statement are earlier and making the desert green and pushing the line of the desert was also Mussolini’s stated aim. On the other hand, climate change is now pushing that line north.

Following not geopolitical but meteorological borders, helps me cut across a big epistemological problem that confines the writing in international relations or geopolitics within the borders organize your writing. Braudel is an inspiration but, for him, the environment of the Mediterranean is basically cyclically fixed. The problem with geographical determinism is that it takes nature as a given, cyclical, milieu which then affects politics—but I think we are now in a period where politics affects nature in the same way in which nature affects politics. The climate is changing in the same speed as human history.

fazal-sheikh-desert-bloom-web

The conflict shoreline was originally commissioned in response to Fazal Sheikh’s Desert Bloom series (part of his remarkable Erasure trilogy: see image stream above, and also here).

Truth Commission

It has also been submitted as evidence for Zochrot‘s project on transitional justice, the Truth Commission on the responsibility of Israeli society for the events of 1948–1960 in the South.

Transitional justice mechanisms address the needs of communities and countries in conflict to cope with systematic abuses and structural injustices in order to facilitate reconciliation. Communities in conflict, both victims and victimizers, have developed a variety of innovative approaches to addressing the needs that result from ongoing conflicts. Hitherto, practices informed by the transitional justice paradigm have been used mainly to accompany and heal societies and communities in political transitions such as from totalitarian to democratic rule, or from an apartheid regime as in South Africa to an egalitarian democratic regime. Usually, these practices have been applied after a violent conflict had ended in a peace agreement, as in the former Yugoslavia, or in an armistice, as in Cyprus or Northern Ireland.

Many activists around the world have demonstrated time and again that silencing and ignoring the past prevent conflict resolution and the attainment of true reconciliation. Therefore, even in situations of seemingly intractable conflicts, several initiatives by civil society organizations, trade union or social religious organizations similar to state-sponsored mechanisms of transitional justice have sprung around the world. For the past 40 years, these initiatives have acted without government backing to bring resolve violent conflicts.

The Truth Commission established by Zochrot now joins these initiatives. The first of its kind in Israel/Palestine, the Commission is unique in that … it is active while the conflict is still ongoing, and against the background of the regime’s evasion of responsibility to the events of the Nakba, which began in 1948 and is still ongoing [the Nakba or ‘catastrophe’ refers to the forced eviction and dispossession of the Palestinian people set in motion by the war of 1948]. The Truth Commission for Exposing Israeli Society’s Responsibility for the Events of 1948-1960 in the South which started its deliberations in late October 2014…

The Commission seeks to expose the events of the Nakba during those years – events that have profound implications for the ongoing Nakba experienced by the Palestinian Bedouins to this day. The Commission examines testimonies by Palestinian displaced persons and refugees, as well as Jews who lived in the south and Jewish fighters who took part in displacement and expulsion operations in the area. In addition, the Commission peruses relevant archive materials. The Commission’s report will be designed to encourage the Jewish society in Israel to accept responsibility for past injustices in the south, with reference to the ongoing Nakba, and for redressing them.

You can also read Tom Pessah‘s report for +972 here.

Art in another age of mechanical destruction

Paglen (Untitled, Predators, Indian Springs)

Anthony Downey‘s beautifully illustrated and generously hyperlinked essay on The legacy of the war on terror for Tate Etc (34) (2015) is here.

For centuries artists have both responded to and reflected on political actions and events that shape society. Now they have risen to the challenge of questioning the moral ambiguity and culpability of governments waging the war on terror, whose methods may, according to this writer, have done more to weaken democracy than any terrorist.

The essay considers the art works of Trevor Paglen (see his Untitled, Predators, Indian Springs, above) Christoph Büchel and Gianni Motti, Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri, Gregor Schneider, (see his Passageway No 1 from White Torture below), Wafaa Bilal, Coco Fusco, Hasan Elahi and Gerhard Richter.

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If you know Anthony’s previous work (for example his essay on ‘Exemplary subjects: Camps and the politics of representation’), or his Art and Politics now (2014), you will not be surprised to find that – as the image above suggests – there’s much in this essay about Guantanamo — but also much more besides.

Here is the Introduction:

In the months after the attacks on the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001 a significant number of artists and cultural practitioners compared the events, in all their visual impact and operatic pitching of good against evil, with a work of art. These comments were dismissed at the time as reactionary and in bad taste, but they did reveal an imminent desire to develop a degree of distance – be it aesthetic or otherwise – from the emotive, ‘spectacular’ and brutal realities that unfolded on that fateful day. In the months and years that followed, under the political logic of a so-called war on terror, we saw yet another unprecedented attack, this time on the legal systems protecting basic civil rights. The war on terror segued, in short order, into an assault on human rights. For some, terrorism has become the single biggest challenge facing democratically elected governments worldwide. For others, it is the political reaction to it that has done more to weaken democracy than any act of terror.

Executed as it was in the name of justice, the war on terror has resulted in a nominal state of emergency being declared across North America and Europe. Since 2001 we have witnessed the repeated suspension of due legal process, the revocation of constitutional law, the institutionalisation of torture, the withdrawal of civil rights, the deployment of mass surveillance, the routine collection of information on innocent citizens and arbitrary detention without trial for countless people worldwide.

Contemporary artists, in examining the ambiguity of this state of affairs, often create narratives and forms of speculative visual rhetoric that expose the anxieties surrounding these acts.

Wall Exchange: Forensic Architecture

diehlgroup

“When war happens in the city, people die in buildings, the majority in their homes; when the dust settles ruins become evidence with which we could reconstruct controversial events.”
Eyal Weizman

I’m delighted to announce that my good friend Eyal Weizman will deliver the next Wall Exchange on Forensic Architecture at the Vogue Theatre in downtown Vancouver on 15 October 2015:

Can architecture provide new tool of political analysis and intervention? This question is central to the work of Eyal Weizman, Israeli architect and scholar. Since 2010 he has been directing Forensic Architecture, an innovative forensic agency that investigates the sites of contemporary conflicts and monitors the crimes of states. His teams examine buildings, ruins, maps, satellite imagery and increasingly an emergent type of testimony — images and clips taken by citizens and uploaded online. His talk will unpack new modes of exposing the logic behind state violence from the frontier regions of Pakistan, through the forests of south America to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

I’ve noted the work of Forensic Architecture many times – see here and here, for example, and our Acting Director Gastón Gordillo‘s excellent review essay on Forensis [introduction available here; full version appeared in Environment & Planning D: Society and Space 33 (2) (2015) 382 – 388 and is available here] – so if you are (or can be) in Vancouver in the fall, do come along.

Like all Wall Exchanges, the lecture is sponsored by UBC’s Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies and is free and open to the public – though you do need to book in advance.  Full details and a link to book will be available on the PWIAS website from 8 September onwards.

War Material

SARGENT Two soldiers at Arras

I’m thrilled to say that the (very!) long-form version of The Natures of War, the 1st Neil Smith Lecture which I gave at the University of St Andrews in November 2013, is now online (‘Early View’) at Antipode, all 54 pages of it.

Here is the abstract:

“Nature” is more than a resource bank whose riches can trigger armed conflict and finance its depredations; it is also a medium through which military and paramilitary violence is conducted. The militarisation of nature is part of a dialectic in which earthy, vibrant matter shapes the contours of conflict and leaves its marks on the bodies of soldiers who are both vectors and victims of military violence. Three case studies identify some of the central bio-physical formations that became entangled with armed conflict in the twentieth century: the mud of the Western Front in the First World War, the deserts of North Africa in the Second World War, and the rainforests of Vietnam. Taken together, these reveal vital connections between the materiality and corporeality of modern war and their continued relevance to its contemporary transformations.

You can still find the original, non-Harvard style version under the DOWNLOADS tab – and I’m truly grateful to Andy Kent for relieving me of the task of converting my original MS into the Harvard system.

The image above, incidentally, is John Singer Sargent‘s Two soldiers at Arras (1917), and is a perfect illustration of this passsage from the essay:

In the face of these horrors, some soldiers came to regard themselves as having become as “un-natural” as the militarised, industrialised natures in which they were embedded. The Tommy “will soon be like nothing on earth”, wrote one officer on the Somme in January 1916. “If only we could be clothed in rubber all over and fed through a tube I think some real progress in our equipment might have been made”. He was only half-joking. The next phase in the emergence of this cyborg warrior can be seen in the tank battles that raged across the deserts of North Africa during the Second World War. But, as I must now show, even in the midst of this more fully mechanised warfare, bio-physical entanglements remained immensely powerful—and the human body intensely vulnerable.

I then do the same for Vietnam.

My plan is to rework this version: to incorporate as many of the images I used in the Vietnam extracts I posted online here and here (together with others from the Western Front and the Western Desert), to add a fourth case study of Afghanistan, and to include the revised version in a new book of essays that I’m calling War material.

The plan looks like this (in each case the original essays, apart from the intro, are available under the DOWNLOADS tab too; I’m re-working those versions, planing away any overlaps, and adding more images):

Chapter 1: War material

Chapter 2: Gabriel’s map

Chapter 3: The Natures of War

Chapter 4: Doors into Nowhere

Chapter 5: Lines of Descent

These are all more or less ready to go, apart from the introduction, but I’m debating whether to add a sixth chapter, called ‘Wounds of war’, which would parallel ‘The Natures of War’ in many ways and chart the changing geographies of casualty evacuation from war zones, 1914-2014.

Each of the essays in the book, even in their present form, has something to say about the way in which the conduct of modern war has – and has not – changed over the last hundred years, but the title also tilts at those who seem to think that everything we need to know about modern military violence was uncannily anticipated by Michel Foucault in his (I too think brilliant) Paris lectures in the 1970s so that this absolves them of the need for any research or even reading into the materialities of war (a strangely non-Foucauldian assumption, given his own frequent immersion in the archive and his densely empirical way of working).

I’d be grateful for any comments or suggestions.

“This ain’t Jamaica”

The Tender SoldierA follow-up to my post on the demise of the US military’s Human Terrain System: an interesting report from Vanessa Gezari in the New York Times.  She’s the author of The Tender Soldier, a first-hand account of the Human Terrain System, and she starts her Times essay by recalling her own experience accompanying a US patrol in Afghanistan in 2010:

Cultural training and deep, nuanced understanding of Afghan politics and history were in short supply in the Army; without them, good intelligence was hard to come by, and effective policy making was nearly impossible. Human Terrain Teams, as Human Terrain System units were known, were supposed to include people with social-science backgrounds, language skills and an understanding of Afghan or Iraqi culture, as well as veterans and reservists who would help bind the civilians to their assigned military units.

On that winter day in Zormat, however, just how far the Human Terrain System had fallen short of expectations was clear. Neither of the social scientists on the patrol that morning had spent time in Afghanistan before being deployed there. While one was reasonably qualified, the other was a pleasant 43-year-old woman who grew up in Indiana and Tennessee, and whose highest academic credential was an advanced degree in organizational management she received online. She had confided to me that she didn’t feel comfortable carrying a gun she was still learning how to use. Before arriving in Afghanistan, she had traveled outside the United States only once, to Jamaica — “and this ain’t Jamaica,” she told me…

The shortcomings I saw in Zormat were hardly the extent of the Human Terrain System’s problems. The project suffered from an array of staffing and management issues, coupled with internal disagreements over whether it was meant to gather intelligence, hand out protein bars and peppermints, advise commanders on tribal conflicts or all three — a lack of clear purpose that eventually proved crippling. It outraged anthropologists, who argued that gathering information about indigenous people while embedded in a military unit in active combat posed an intractable ethical conflict. Once the subject of dozens of glowing news stories, the program had fallen so far off reporters’ radar by last fall that the Army was able to quietly pull the plug without a whisper in the mainstream media.

DEITCHMAN jpegShe suggests that the military could – and should – have learned from its previous attempts to enlist social scientists in Vietnam, Central America and elsewhere, and points to Seymour Deitchman‘s  The Best-Laid Schemes: A tale of social science research and bureaucracy (1976), which is available as an open access download from the US Marine Corps University Press here.

Deitchman worked for the Pentagon as a counterinsurgency advisor (among many other roles), and his account was a highly personal, take-no-prisoners affair.

Part of the problem, he insisted, was the language of the social sciences:

DEITCHMAN p. 138 jpeg

There’s much more in a similar vein, and not surprisingly, Deitchman’s conclusion about the military effectiveness of social science was a jaundiced one.

The community of social science is likely to urge and has urged that increased government support of research on the great social problems of the day. With due recognition for the government’s need to collect data to help it plan and evaluate the social programs it is expected to undertake, I have reached the conclusion, nevertheless, that the opposite of the social scientists’ recommendation is in order. The research is needed, without question. Some of it, especially in the evaluation area, is necessary and feasible for government to sponsor. Beyond this, its support should be subject to the economic and political laws of the intellectual marketplace. And the government should do less, not more, to influence the workings of that marketplace. It should support less, not more, research into the workings of society.

You couldn’t make it up (or perhaps they did).   But this isn’t Vanessa’s view.  ‘The need for cultural understanding isn’t going away,’ she insists:

The rise of drones and sociocultural modeling, which uses data to simulate and sometimes predict human responses to conflict and crisis, have given some in the defense establishment the idea that we can do all our fighting safely, from a distance. But we’ve had this idea before, in the decades following Vietnam, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan should have reminded us of its falsity.

Oikological warfare

OWENS Counterinsurgency

A new book from the ever-innnovative Patricia Owens, Economy of Force: counterinsurgency and the historical rise of the Social (Cambridge University Press, 2015).

There’s an excellent interview with Patricia at e-IR here, which includes her own summary of the book:

The book retrieves the older, but surprisingly neglected, language of household governance, oikonomia, to show how the techniques and domestic ideologies of household administration are highly portable and play a remarkably central role in international and imperial relations. In contrast to the ahistorical and anachronistic adoption of social language across IR, I think there is an important story to be told of when, where, and why the social realm first emerged as the domain through which human life could be intervened in and transformed. Economy of Force tells this story in terms of modern transformations in and violent crises of household forms of rule. In two late-colonial British emergencies in Malaya (1948-1960) and Kenya (1952-1960), US counterinsurgency in Vietnam (1954-1975), and US-led campaigns in Afghanistan (2001-2014) and Iraq (2003-2011), so-called ‘armed social work’ policies were the continuation of oikonomia – not politics – by other means. Though never wholly succeeding, counterinsurgents drew on and innovated different forms of household governance to create units of rule in which local populations were domesticated. Military strategists conceived population control as sociological warfare because the social realm itself and distinctly social forms of thought are modern forms of oikonomikos, the art and science of household rule.

The argument has big implications for international theory, as well as the history and theory of counterinsurgency. Rather than objective theories of modern society and their interrelations, various forms of liberalism, political realism, social constructivism, and Marxism need to be situated within the history of the rise and violent transformation of the social realm. They are fragments of competing paradigms of social regulation. Ironically, the dominance of distinctly social forms of thought has obscured the household ontology of the modern social realm. Each of the major traditions is explicitly based on, or implicitly accepts, the erroneous notion that modern capitalism destroyed large-scale forms of household rule. So the book not only offers a new history and theory of counterinsurgency. It offers a new history of the rise of the social realm and political history and theory of household governance.

Research for the book was supported by a yearlong fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. There’ll be a symposium on Economy of Force at Disorder of Things later in 2015.

Here’s the Contents list:

1. Introduction: oikonomia in the use of force
2. The really real? A history of ‘social’ and ‘society’
3. Out of the confines of the household?
4. The colonial limits of society
5. ‘More than concentration camps’: the battle for hearths in two late-colonial emergencies
6. Society itself is at war: new model pacification in Vietnam
7. Oikonomia by other means: counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq
8. Conclusion: ‘it’s the oikos, stupid’.

Among the many pre-publication plaudits, here’s Didier Fassin‘s:

“Through a combination of historical perspective on the colonial world and contemporary inquiry into the imperial enterprise, Economy of Force invites us to rethink the laws of warfare and politics of counterinsurgency by paying attention to the pacification of local populations understood as a form of domestication. It thus unveils the genealogy of the blurred line between military and humanitarian interventions.”

You can get a taste of Patricia’s argument (particularly if you shrink from CUP’s extortionate pricing, even for the e-edition) in her ‘Human security and the rise of the social’, Review of International Studies 38 (2012) 547-567 and ‘From Bismarck to Petraeus:the question of the social and the social question in counterinsurgency’, European journal of international relations 19 (1) (2013) 139-161.

I’ve just heard from Patricia, who tells me that CUP will publish Economy of Force next year in paperback (which ought to make it much more accessible); she’s also made available the proofs of the Introduction on her academia.edu page here.

Bearing witness

ICCG Ramallah 2015

Lisa Tilley provides some sobering reflections on the recent International Conference of Critical Geography at Ramallah here:

The settler colonial condition can be fully understood only by those who live it. But the rest of us can at least bear witness in the place (Palestine) where it is most legible….

Yet in spite of the overtly political and defiant tone, the organisers had agonised over the decision to hold the event in the West Bank because doing so effectively excluded most Arab and Muslim scholars from other parts of the world, as well as Israeli allies who are prohibited from entering Palestinian urban areas, lest Israeli-Palestinian solidarities bloom. Some registered participants were turned away by border forces after being interrogated upon arrival at Tel Aviv, others, especially those with links to Arab or predominantly Muslim countries were subject to invasive interrogation and humiliation either on arrival or on departure.

Yet even these denials, sacrifices, indignities, and border dramas, much as they caused individual pain, actually served in their own way to fortify the overall political message of the conference by becoming part of the anti-normalcy performance of the event itself. Beyond this, physically being in the ‘critical’ geographies of the West Bank was politically and intellectually productive in a way that would be impossible to recreate in another time and place…

Palestine always stays on our lips, confronts our concepts and categories, even rendering worthless some of our carefully spun arguments. The real lessons took place in fertile valleys, poisoned by settler toxins, alongside the walls in which blast holes remain, at the sites of shootings and repressed Selma-style marches, witnessed by nobody…

There were moments when we all simply turned our faces away and wept. But the tears of three hundred critical geographers falling on Palestinian soil will not bring down walls or shatter a violent racist project. “We do not need pity” was stated from the start by Palestinian scholars. So instead the task is to bear witness to Palestine, to say that we know Palestine, that we know it exists, that it has existed, and will continue to exist. Palestinians continue the process of writing back, we can only echo what they say and join in the task of writing/speaking/thinking back in order to bring into being a global Palestine.

More (tweets) here.  I so wish I could have been there.