A happier new year

Blog visitors 2015 JPEG

And so another blogging year comes to an end, and with more visitors than ever.  The elves at WordPress tell me that the ten most popular posts in 2015 were:

Paris of/in the Middle East (November 2015)

The prosthetics of military violence (February 2015)

Travelling through words (August 2015)

Theory of the drone 1: Genealogies (July 2013)

The war on Ebola (October 2014)

Je ne suis pas Charlie (January 2015)

Bombing Encyclopedia of the world (August 2012)

Is Paris Burning? (October 2012)

Boots on the ground (September 2014)

Inhumanitarian mapping (October 2014)

It’s good to see that some of my older posts have staying power!  I’ve never thought of blogging – like this anyway – as always only ephemeral: even though I use the blog as a way of thinking out loud about things I’m working on at the moment and sharing ideas I’ve stumbled on (or been directed to by friends), I also try to make it about more than me and matters of the moment.

It’s also good to see that readers are interested in such a disparate range of issues, though as in previous years the list is misleading in so far as ‘Home Page’ tops the list, and that always shows the latest posts. And ‘DOWNLOADS’ was also right up there, with 5,000 hits – so I promise to try to keep that up to date.

So thanks for dropping by and confirming that productive research is always irredeemably social (the map above shows where you all came from). And best wishes for a happier new year.

Planetary bombing

NORAD's Santa

You’ve probably read the tinsel-and-glitter story about NORAD tracking Santa Claus on Christmas Eve – like Santa’s sleigh, it goes the rounds every year – but Matt Novak provides an appropriately explosive rendition of it here.

It was a smart move for the military. When American kids asked their parents what NORAD was, the U.S. parents would be able to respond “those are the people who help Santa” rather than “those are the people who are ensuring our second strike capabilities after you and everyone in your play group are turned to dust by a nuclear attack.”

Among other plums in the pudding, Matt pulls out a syndicated story from AP in December 1955, in which the military promised that it would ‘continue to track and guard Santa and his sleigh on his trip to and from the U.S. against possible attack from those who do not believe in Christmas‘ (emphasis added).

Atomic Weapons Requirements Study for 1959 JPEG

Just before Christmas this year, while NORAD was busy preparing to track Santa’s sleigh again, the National Security Archive at George Washington University released US Strategic Air Command’s Atomic Weapons Requirements Study for 1959, produced the year after that AP story.  The study

‘provides the most comprehensive and detailed list of nuclear targets and target systems that has ever been declassified. As far as can be told, no comparable document has ever been declassified for any period of Cold War history.’

Based on the Bombing Encyclopedia of the World, the Air Force planners proposed

the “systematic destruction” of Soviet bloc urban-industrial targets that specifically and explicitly targeted “population” in all cities, including Beijing, Moscow, Leningrad, East Berlin, and Warsaw. Purposefully targeting civilian populations as such directly conflicted with the international norms of the day, which prohibited attacks on people per se (as opposed to military installations with civilians nearby).

The study ‘listed over 1200 cities in the Soviet bloc, from East Germany to China, also with priorities established. Moscow and Leningrad were priority one and two respectively. Moscow included 179 Designated Ground Zeros (DGZs) while Leningrad had 145, including “population” targets.’  Every target was preceded by an eight-digit code from the Bombing Encyclopedia.

Selected SAC targets 1959 JPEG

William Burr provides an excellent, detailed commentary to accompany the Study here; you can also find more from Joseph Trevithick on this ‘catalog of nuclear death over at War is Boring here.

But all of this is prelude to the real plum in my Christmas pudding, the best paper I’ve read all year: Joseph Masco‘s ‘The Age of Fallout’ in the latest issue of History of the Present [5 (2) (2015) 137-168].

Being able to assume a planetary, as opposed to a global, imaginary is a surprisingly recent phenomenon. Although depictions of an earthly sphere are longstanding and multiple, I would argue that the specific attributes of being able to see the entire planet as a single unit or system is a Cold War creation. This mode of thinking is therefore deeply imbricated not only in nuclear age militarism, but also in specific forms of twentieth-century knowledge production and a related proliferation of visualization technologies.  A planetary imaginary includes globalities of every kind (finance, technology, international relations) – along with geology, atmosphere, glaciers, oceans, and the biosphere – as one totality.

What is increasingly powerful about this point of view is that it both relies on the national security state for the technologies, finances, and interests that create the possibility of seeing in this fashion, but also, in a single gesture, exceeds the nation-state as the political form that matters. A planetary optic is thus a national security creation (in its scientific infrastructures, visualization technologies, and governing ambitions) that transcends these structures to offer an alternative ground for politics and future making. Proliferating forms of globality – including the specific visualizations of science, finance, politics, and environment – each achieve ultimate scale and are unified at the level of the planetary. This achievement ultimately raises an important set of questions about how collective security problems can, and should, be imagined.

It’s a tour de force which, as these opening paragraphs show, is beautifully written too.  Joe begins with a richly suggestive discussion of the idea of ‘fallout’:

‘Fallout comes after the event; it is the unacknowledged-until-lived crisis that is built into the infrastructure of a system, program, or process. Fallout is therefore understood primarily retrospectively, but it is lived in the future anterior becoming a form of history made visible in negative outcomes.’

Its horizons are as much spatial as they are temporal – though Joe makes the sharp point that radioactive fallout was initially conceived as ‘the bomb’s lesser form’ and that it was the ‘explosive power of the bomb that was fetishized by the US military’ – and that fallout involves ‘individual actions and lived consequences, a post-sociality lived in isolation from the collective action of society or the war machine’ that mutates into what he sees as ‘an increasingly post-Foucaudian kind of governmentality’.


When he elaborates the multiple registers in which radioactive fallout appears as an atmospheric toxicity Joe moves far beyond the nostrums of Peter Sloterdijk and others – which, to me anyway, seem to be based on almost wilfully superficial research – and connects it, both substantively and imaginatively, to contemporary critical discussions around global climate change and the Anthropocene.

In a cascade of maps and images, Joe shows how

Space and time are radically reconfigured in these fallout studies, constituting a vision of a collective future that is incrementally changing in unknown ways through cumulative industrial effects. The logics of a national security state (with its linkage of a discrete territory to a specific population) becomes paradoxical in the face of mounting evidence of ecological damage on a collective scale, not from nuclear war itself but rather from nuclear research and development programs. It is important to recognize that while cast as “experiments,” U.S. atmospheric nuclear tests were in reality planetary-scale environmental events.

In short, ‘since 1945 human beings have become post-nuclear creatures, marked with the signatures of nuclear weapons science.’

Towards the end of his essay, Joe says this:

In applying the lessons of the twentieth-century nuclear complex to contemporary geoengineering schemes to manage climate change, we might question 1) the claim to both newness and absolute crisis that installs a state of emergency and suspends normal forms of law and regulation; 2) a process that rhetorically reproduces the split between the event and its fallout so completely; and 3) the suggestion that geoengineering is a novel activity, that it is not an ancient practice with many antecedent examples to think with in assessing our current moment. We might also interrogate how the past fifty years of multidisciplinary work to create detailed visualizations of the planet has installed a dangerous confidence in globality itself, as increasingly high resolution visualizations come to stand in for both objectivity and sovereignty, and thus enable psychosocial feelings of control over vastly complex earth systems that remain, at best, only partially understood.

It’s an immensely provocative, perceptive paragraph; it not only makes me retrace my own wanderings through the nuclear wastelands (see here, here and here) but it also obliges me to rethink what I once called ‘the everywhere war’, to map its contours much more carefully  (the original impulse was simply to provide a counterpoint to those commentators who emphasised war time – ‘the forever war’, ‘permanent war’, ‘never-ending war’ – and who never noticed its spaces), and – particularly with that remark about ‘high resolution visualizations com[ing] to stand in for both objectivity and sovereignty’ in mind – perhaps even to see it as another dimension of Joe’s ‘Age of Fallout’.

Citizen Ex

Algorithmic citizenship JPEG

I’m late to this, so apologies, but if you are either weary of web-surfing or can’t get off your digital board, check out James Bridle‘s Citizen Ex project on ‘algorithmic citizenship’:

Algorithmic Citizenship is a form of citizenship which is not assigned at birth, or through complex legal documents, but through data. Like other computerised processes, it can happen at the speed of light, and it can happen over and over again, constantly revising and recalculating. It can split a single citizenship into an infinite number of sub-citizenships, and count and weight them over time to produce combinations of affiliations to different states.

Citizen Ex calculates your Algorithmic Citizenship based on where you go online. Every site you visit is counted as evidence of your affiliation to a particular place, and added to your constantly revised Algorithmic Citizenship. Because the internet is everywhere, you can go anywhere – but because the internet is real, this also has consequences.

The basic idea is derived from an essay by John Cheney-Lippold in Theory, culture and society here:

Marketing and web analytic companies have implemented sophisticated algorithms to observe, analyze, and identify users through large surveillance networks online. These computer algorithms have the capacity to infer categories of identity upon users based largely on their web-surfing habits. In this article I will first discuss the conceptual and theoretical work around code, outlining its use in an analysis of online categorization practices. The article will then approach the function of code at the level of the category, arguing that an analysis of coded computer algorithms enables a supplement to Foucauldian thinking around biopolitics and biopower, of what I call soft biopower and soft biopolitics. These new conceptual devices allow us to better understand the workings of biopower at the level of the category, of using computer code, statistics and surveillance to construct categories within populations according to users’ surveilled internet history. Finally, the article will think through the nuanced ways that algorithmic inference works as a mode of control, of processes of identification that structure and regulate our lives online within the context of online marketing and algorithmic categorization.

From James’s Citizen Ex site you can download (from the banner, top left) an extension to your browser which – after you’ve browsed some more – will calculate, in a very rough and ready way, your own algorithmic citizenship.  Mine (from today’s little effort) is shown at the head of this post.

This may look like an entertaining distraction, but what lies behind it is of course deadly serious: read, for example, James’s (short) stories on Libya and Syria.

Created as a browser plug-in, Citizen Ex shows us the true physical locations of the sites we visit and the territories that govern our actions as we traverse the web. In this reality, every mouse click leaves a trace, as our personal data is collected and stored in locations around the globe. It is with this information that governments and corporations construct a notional vision of our lives. This is our ‘algorithmic citizenship’ — the way we appear to the network. This programmatic fluidity is far removed from the true complexity of human identity. It reduces it to something calculable, which has profound implications for our understanding of privacy, citizenship and the self.

It also has profound implications for surveillance and the digital production of the killing spaces of later modern war.  Read this alongside Louise Amoore‘s brilliant work on The politics of possibility and you can perhaps see where I’m going:

‘[W]hat comes to count as the actionable intelligence behind a sovereign decision is a mosaic of overwhelmingly ordinary fragments of a life that become, once arrayed together, secret and sensitive evidence…

‘Drawing some elements of past activities into the calculation, the mosaic nonetheless moves over the surface of multiple past subjects and events in order to imagine a future unknown subject.’

It’s not difficult to divine (sic) how ‘Citizen Ex’ becomes ‘Citizen-Ex’.

It’s not brain surgery

I’ve often drawn attention to the biomedical and surgical metaphors that have become commonplace in attempts to sanitise and legitimise later modern war.  Reading Stephen Zunes‘s chillingly helpful commentary, ‘Republican candidates defend killing civilians to fight terrorism—and so do Democrats’, I stumbled across this exchange between Hugh Hewitt and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who compares his own surgical skills to bombing (from the recent Republican Party ‘debate’ on 15 December 2015:

HUGH HEWITT: We’re talking about ruthless things tonight — carpet bombing, toughness, war. And people wonder, could you do that? Could you order air strikes that would kill innocent children by not the scores, but the hundreds and the thousands?

BEN CARSON: …..you have to be able to look at the big picture and understand that it’s actually merciful if you go ahead and finish the job, rather than death by 1,000 pricks.

HEWITT: So you are OK with the deaths of thousands of innocent children and civilian? It’s like…

CARSON: You got it. You got it.

A pity he didn’t stick to his day job.

Reach from the Sky


Reach from the sky JPEG.001

I now have more details to share about my Tanner Lectures in Cambridge next month, Reach from the sky: aerial violence and the everywhere war.

First, here is a preliminary summary (not an easy thing to provide, since the two presentations are still very much in formation: but it will give you a rough idea of what I want to address).

Bombing is back in the headlines – but then it never really left. Over the last hundred years, bombing has become the preferred military option for many states, but it has supposedly been radically transformed over the last decade or so by the introduction of unmanned aerial vehicles (‘drones’). Their use has sparked a vigorous debate, inside and outside military circles, but commentators have rarely situated Predators, Reapers and other drones within the longer history of aerial violence or the larger matrix of armed conflict within which they have been deployed.

These lectures seek to fill both those gaps by addressing two fundamental questions. The first lecture, Good bomb, bad bomb, asks how people – both those who carry out air strikes and those publics who endorse them – have been persuaded of the propriety of aerial violence. Four responses run like red threads throughout the long history of bombing from the air: bombing saves lives, especially when compared with ‘boots on the ground’; bombing is bold, brave and ‘separates the men from the boys’; bombing is scientific, objective and precise, organised through an extended ‘kill-chain’ that ensures efficiency and disperses responsibility; and bombing is ‘law-full’, not only legal but also a means of imposing law on those who lack its ordering. These claims only apply to our bombs of course, not theirs, and these arguments and the practices that lie behind them have been substantially re-worked by today’s drone wars.

The second lecture, Killing space, asks what spaces have been produced through the changing ‘destruction line’ that has animated military targeting and military violence. Here there are two issues of crucial importance. One concerns the locus of targeting: in particular the range of aerial violence, the emergence of ‘wars without fronts’ and the extension of military violence beyond any demarcated battlefield, and the subsequent ‘individuation of warfare’ in which targets have contracted from areas and boxes to groups and individuals even as they have expanded through their location within networks that transmit and amplify the effects of individual strikes. The other concerns the grammar of targeting: in particular the reification and abstraction of targets, the rise of dynamic targeting and the incorporation of real-time intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and the increased reliance on digital signatures for the cultivation of the killing fields.

Answers to these questions have much to tell us about the changing contours of modern war and the adjudication of what is to count as a ‘grievable life’ in the twenty-first century.

The lectures draw on a series of presentations, essays (most of them available under the DOWNLOADS tab) and posts, but they will also break new ground – and lots of it.  I’ll be going back to the origins of bombing before the First World War, tracing some of the parallels between bombing on the Western Front and the late modern deployment of Predators and Reapers, tracking the development of drones since the Second World War, and coming right up to the multiple forms of aerial violence currently being visited on Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.  The lectures will also be packed with images (and even poetry).

The format: I’ll give two 50-minute presentations starting at 5 p.m. on Wednesday 13 January, separated by a refreshment break (!) and followed by a reception.  Then at 5 p.m. on Thursday 14 January a panel of four respondents – which will include Chris Woods, (author of Sudden Justice: America’s secret drone wars), Grégoire Chamayou (author of A theory of the drone/Drone theory) and Jochen von Bernstorff, (Professor of Constitutional Law, Public International Law and Human Rights in Tübingen) will provide their reactions and comments, to be followed by a general discussion and debate.

The place: The lectures are organised by Clare Hall but will be given at the Robinson College Auditorium.  Admission is free but you will need a ticket from:

tannerbookings@clarehall.cam.ac.uk (Tel: 01223 761247)

I’m told that the tickets are going fast (really).  I’ll post updates on my progress; after the event I’ll post the presentation slides, and there will also be a published version at a later date.

City of Light, City of Darkness

I’ve long been interested in cities under military occupation, and in particular in the ways in which armies spatialise the city in order to securitise it.  I still have a detailed presentation on the French occupation of Cairo at the end of the eighteenth century – for Edward Said the formative and diagnostic moment in the formation of a distinctively modern Orientalsim – and the US occupation of Baghdad at the beginning of the twenty-first.  The parallels are as striking as the differences, and one of these days I know I have to find the time to convert the image-stream into a word-stream.

So this explains why a new book on Paris under German occupation in the Second World War caught my eye.

DRAKE Paris at warDavid Drake‘s Paris at War, 1939-1945 from Harvard/Belknap was published last month:

Paris at War chronicles the lives of ordinary Parisians during World War II, from September 1939 when France went to war with Nazi Germany to liberation in August 1944. Readers will relive the fearful exodus from the city as the German army neared the capital, the relief and disgust felt when the armistice was signed, and the hardships and deprivations under Occupation. David Drake contrasts the plight of working-class Parisians with the comparative comfort of the rich, exposes the activities of collaborationists, and traces the growth of the Resistance from producing leaflets to gunning down German soldiers. He details the intrigues and brutality of the occupying forces, and life in the notorious transit camp at nearby Drancy, along with three other less well known Jewish work camps within the city.

The book gains its vitality from the diaries and reminiscences of people who endured these tumultuous years. Drake’s cast of characters comes from all walks of life and represents a diversity of political views and social attitudes. We hear from a retired schoolteacher, a celebrated economist, a Catholic teenager who wears a yellow star in solidarity with Parisian Jews, as well as Resistance fighters, collaborators, and many other witnesses.

Drake enriches his account with details from police records, newspapers, radio broadcasts, and newsreels. From his chronology emerge the broad rhythms and shifting moods of the city. Above all, he explores the contingent lives of the people of Paris, who, unlike us, could not know how the story would end.

Here is the Contents list:

Introduction: The Road to War: September 1938–September 1939
1. The Phoney War: September 3, 1939–May 10, 1940
2. Blitzkrieg and Exodus: May 10, 1940–June 14, 1940
3. Parisians and Germans, Germans and Parisians
4. Paris, German Capital of France
5. Unemployment, Rationing, Vichy against Jews, Montoire
6. From Mass Street Protest to the “Führer’s Generous Gesture”
7. Protests, Pillaging, “V” for Victory, the First Roundup of Jews
8. Resistance and Repression
9. Resistance, Punishment, Allied Bombs, and Deportation
10. SS Seizure of Security, the Yellow Star, the Vél’d’hiv’ Roundup, La Relève
11. Denunciations, Distractions, Deprivations
12. Labour Conscription, Resistance, the French Gestapo
13. Anti-Bolshevism, Black Market, More Bombs, Drancy
14. A Serial Killer on the Run, Pétain in Paris, the Milice on the Rampage, the Allies on Their Way
15. The Liberation of Paris

For a principled contemporary account, incidentally, and one that reverberates with the power of the literary sensibility that was so repugnant to the Nazis, it’s hard to beat Jean Guéhenno‘s Diary of the Dark Years, 1940-1944: Collaboration, Resistance, and Daily Life in Occupied Paris.

Matters of definition

Since my post on the use of drones to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance over Iraq and Syria I’ve been thinking about the image stream provided by Predators and Reapers.  Then I used an image from what I think must be an MQ-9 Reaper operated by France which was in full colour and – this is the important part – in high definition.  Over the weekend the New York Times published a report, culled from the Italian magazine L’Espresso, which – together with the accompanying video clip (the link is to the Italian original not the Times version) – confirmed the power of HD full motion video, this time from a Reaper operated by Italy:

The footage … begins with grainy black-and-white images of an airstrike on what appears to have been a checkpoint on a road in northern Iraq, beneath a huge black flag.

Then there is something altogether different: high-resolution, color video of four distinct armed figures walking out of a house and along the streets of a town. At one stage, the picture suddenly zooms in on two of the suspected militants to reveal that one of them is almost certainly a child, propping a rifle on his shoulder that indicates how small he is relative to the man next to him. The images are so clear that even the shadows of the figures can be examined.

Italian Drone video BItalian drone video CItalian drone video AItalian drone video DItalian drone video I

But the significance of all this is less straightforward than it might appear.

First, not all drones have this HD capability.  We know from investigations into civilian casualty incidents in Afghanistan that the feeds from Predators but also early model (‘Block’) Reapers are frequently grainy and imprecise.  Sean Davies reports that the video compression necessary for data transmission squeezed 560 x 480 pixel resolution images into 3.2 MBps at 30 frames per second whereas the newer (Block 5) Reapers provide 1280 x 720 pixel resolution images resolution images at 6.4 MBps.  The enhanced video feeds can be transmitted not only to the Ground Control Stations from which the aircraft are flown – and those too have been upgraded (see image below) – but also to operations centres monitoring the missions and, crucially, to ruggedized laptops (‘ROVERs’) used by special forces and other troops on the ground.


The significance of HD full-motion video is revealed in the slide below, taken from a briefing on ‘small footprint operations’ in Somalia and Yemen prepared in February 2013 and published as part of The Intercept‘s Drone Papers, which summarises its impact on the crucial middle stage of the ‘find, fix, finish‘ cycle of targeted killing:

HD FMV impact on Fix

As you can see, HD FMV was involved in as many as 72 per cent of the successful ‘fixes’ and was absent from 88 per cent of the unsuccessful ones.

Second, Eyal Weizman cautions that the image stream shown on the Italian video was captured ‘either very early or very late in the day.  Without shadows we could not identify these as weapons at all.’  Infra-red images captured at night could obviously not provide definition of this quality, but even so-called ‘Day TV’ would not show clear shadows at most times of the day. In Eyal’s view, ‘showing these rare instances could skew our understanding of how much can be seen by drones and how clear what we see is.’

Third, no matter how high the resolution of the video feeds, we need to remember that their interpretation is a techno-cultural process.  One of the figures shown in the Italian video ‘is almost certainly a child’, reports the New York Times.  So bear in mind this exchange between the crew of a Predator circling over three vehicles travelling through the mountains of Uruzgan in February 2010 (see also here and here):

1:07 􏰀(MC):􏰀 screener􏰀 said 􏰀at least 􏰀one 􏰀child 􏰀near 􏰀SUV􏰀

1:07 􏰀(Sensor):􏰀 bull􏰀 (expletive 􏰀deleted)…where!?􏰀

1:07 􏰀(Sensor): 􏰀send 􏰀me 􏰀a 􏰀(expletive􏰀deleted) 􏰀still,􏰀􏰀 I􏰀 don’t 􏰀think 􏰀they 􏰀have 􏰀kids 􏰀out 􏰀at 􏰀this 􏰀hour, 􏰀I 􏰀know􏰀 they’re 􏰀shady 􏰀but􏰀 come􏰀 on􏰀

1:07􏰀 (Pilot):􏰀 at 􏰀least 􏰀one 􏰀child…􏰀Really?􏰀 Listing 􏰀the􏰀 MAM [Military-Aged Male], 􏰀uh, 􏰀that 􏰀means 􏰀he’s 􏰀guilty􏰀

1:07􏰀 (Sensor):􏰀 well 􏰀may be􏰀 a 􏰀teenager 􏰀but 􏰀I 􏰀haven’t􏰀 seen􏰀 anything 􏰀that 􏰀looked 􏰀that 􏰀short, 􏰀granted 􏰀they’e􏰀 all 􏰀grouped 􏰀up 􏰀here,􏰀 but.􏰀..

1:07 􏰀(MC): 􏰀They’re 􏰀reviewing􏰀

1:07 􏰀(Pilot):􏰀Yeah 􏰀review 􏰀that􏰀 (expletive 􏰀deleted)…why􏰀 didn’t 􏰀he 􏰀say􏰀 possible􏰀 child,􏰀 why􏰀 are􏰀 they􏰀 so 􏰀quick􏰀 to 􏰀call 􏰀(expletive􏰀 deleted) 􏰀kids 􏰀but􏰀 not 􏰀to 􏰀call 􏰀(expletive􏰀deleted) 􏰀a 􏰀rifle􏰀….

03:10 􏰀(Pilot):􏰀 And 􏰀Kirk􏰀97, 􏰀good 􏰀copy􏰀 on􏰀 that.􏰀 We 􏰀are 􏰀with 􏰀you.􏰀 Our 􏰀screener􏰀 updated􏰀 only􏰀 one􏰀 adolescent 􏰀so 􏰀that’s 􏰀one􏰀 double 􏰀digit􏰀 age 􏰀range.􏰀 How􏰀 Copy?􏰀

03:10 􏰀(JAG25):􏰀We’ll􏰀 pass 􏰀that 􏰀along 􏰀to 􏰀the 􏰀ground 􏰀force􏰀 commander.􏰀 But 􏰀like 􏰀I 􏰀said, 􏰀12 􏰁13 􏰀years 􏰀old 􏰀with􏰀 a 􏰀weapon 􏰀is􏰀 just 􏰀as􏰀 dangerous.􏰀􏰀

In other words – it’s more than a matter of high definition; it’s also a matter of political and cultural definition.

Grotesque geographies

KRUPAR lecture

The 2nd Neil Smith Lecture at St Andrews, which was given last month by Shiloh Krupar on ‘Operational Banality: medical geographies of administration and the biopolitical grotesque‘, is now available online here.  A tour de force (plus a splendid cartoon of the spectacularly grotesque Donald Trump).

The Roundabout Revolutions


In ‘Tahrir: politics, publics and performances of space’ (DOWNLOADS tab) I tried to sketch out a preliminary analysis of Tahrir Square as a spatial instantiation of the Arab uprisings – it was, in part, also an attempt to work with Judith Butler‘s ideas about performative spaces in “Bodies in Alliance”. Now Eyal Weizman‘s latest extended essay puts all this in a wider context but a similar spatial frame: The roundabout revolutions from Sternberg Press.

One common feature of the wave of recent revolutions and revolts around the world is not political but rather architectural: many erupted on inner-city roundabouts. In thinking about the relation between protest and urban form, Eyal Weizman starts with the May 1980 uprising in Gwangju, South Korea, the first of the “roundabout revolutions,” and traces its lineage to the Arab Spring and its hellish aftermath.

Rereading the history of the roundabout through the vortices of history that traverse it, the book follows the development of the roundabout in Europe and North America in the early twentieth century, to its subsequent export to the colonial world in the context of attempts to discipline and police the “chaotic” non-Western city. How did an urban apparatus put in the service of authoritarian power became the locus of its undoing?

Today, as the tide of revolt that characterized the Arab Spring seems to ebb, when nations and societies disintegrate by brutal civil wars and military oppression, the series of revolutions might seem like Dante’s circles of hell. To counter this counter-revolution, Weizman proposes that the immanent power of the people at the roundabouts will need to find its corollary in sustained work at round tables—the ongoing formation of political movements able to enact political change.

The sixth volume of the Critical Spatial Practice series stems from Eyal Weizman’s contribution to the Gwangju Folly II in 2013, an exhibition curated by Nikolaus Hirsch with Philipp Misselwitz and Eui Young Chun for the Gwangju Biennale. Weizman and the architect Samaneh Moafi constructed a folly composed of seven roundabouts and a round table in front of the Gwangju train station, one of the central points in the events of May 1980.

There’s a review by Pranav Kohli over at Warscapes here:

Weizman’s description is reminiscent of Michel Foucault’s theorization of power. Foucault theorized power not as something that is hierarchically exercised but as a force that circuitously flows and passes through individuals, networks and organizations. Weizman recognizes the emerging character of power as a circle, describing the concentric arrangements of crowds as a “political collective in becoming.” These concentric crowd circles can be seen as a diagram of the fields of power emanating from the roundabout, with the roundabout itself becoming a beacon of a newfound people’s power.

Weizman’s analysis has a special focus on the Arab Spring and in a later section he returns to this idea of an interconnected collective while describing the protestors at Tahrir Square. They are linked not only by physical space and communication technologies but also by “an “Internet of things”—a form of connectivity that entangles organizations, individuals, material objects, and urban spaces such as roundabouts together: sites and websites, proximity and distance, remote solidarity and physical corporality” …

Weizman locates the true reason for the revolutionary turn in the roundabout’s history, within the spatial peculiarities of the roundabout itself. The roundabout’s attraction lies in the fact that it is an expansive public space that serves an integral function in the city’s infrastructure. In this sense, the roundabout can be seen as one of the last remaining public spaces where large crowds can gather in the congested modern city…. Weizman doesn’t regard the occupation of the roundabout as the moment when the public reclaimed public ownership of the republic. In his view, it was when the protestors at Tahrir Square began cleaning up the square, shortly after Mubarak’s deposition, that they truly assumed public ownership of the roundabout, and thereby the republic.

Another Manhattan Project

I still regard Postmodern geographies as Ed Soja‘s finest book – his most considered and his most creative – and within that his essay on ‘Taking Los Angeles Apart‘ is surely the stand-out contribution.  By turns playful and passionate, it’s packed with insights about Los Angeles and late modern cities.  I discussed it at length in Geographical imaginations – the book not the blog – but the essay has come back to haunt me ever since I learned of an extraordinary new book which I know Ed would have read with the greatest interest.

KISHIK The Manhattan Project

It’s David Kishik‘s The Manhattan Project, which I stumbled across because of its title and my new-found interest in seeing drones through post-atomic eyes.  But it’s not about that Manhattan Project at all.  Instead, it riffs on Benjamin’s Arcades Project in the most astonishing of ways:

In The Manhattan Project, David Kishik dares to imagine a Walter Benjamin who did not commit suicide in 1940, but managed instead to escape the Nazis to begin a long, solitary life in New York. During his anonymous, posthumous existence, while he was haunting and haunted by his new city, Benjamin composed a sequel to his Arcades Project. Just as his incomplete masterpiece revolved around Paris, capital of the nineteenth century, this spectral text was dedicated to New York, capital of the twentieth. Kishik’s sui generis work of experimental scholarship or fictional philosophy is thus presented as a study of a manuscript that was never written.

The fictitious prolongation of Benjamin’s life will raise more than one eyebrow, but the wit, breadth, and incisiveness of Kishik’s own writing is bound to impress. Kishik reveals a world of secret affinities between New York City and Paris, the flâneur and the homeless person, the collector and the hoarder, the covered arcade and the bare street, but also between photography and graffiti, pragmatism and minimalism, Andy Warhol and Robert Moses, Hannah Arendt and Jane Jacobs. A critical celebration of New York City, The Manhattan Project reshapes our perception of urban life, and rethinks our very conception of modernity.

Another good friend who is sadly no longer with us, Allan Pred, would surely have relished that too. I’m sure Ed would have insisted that Benjamin would never have gone to New York and that, in common with Adorno, he would have sought refuge in L.A. (where else? In fact Adorno left New York for LA, though it’s impossible to think of Ed calling that ‘exile’).

You can read the Introduction to The Manhattan Project here and an extract from the first chapter here; there’s also an extended interview with David about the project here.

Finally, there’s an excellent review by Dustin Illingworth at The Brooklyn Rail here.  When Dustin says this –

Like Borges’s “Aleph,” New York is “the place where, without admixture or confusion, all the places of the world, seen from every angle, coexist.” It is therefore much to Kishik’s credit that his slim volume, a drop in the vast ocean of literature on the city, packs such a considerable theoretical punch.

– then we are back with Ed Soja’s essay, which also began with an appeal to The Aleph and also packed a considerable theoretical punch.