Anatomy of a war

PARKER Anatomy of a soldier

‘He straightened and held me in one hand.  “Right, orders for tomorrow’s operation,” he said.   “We’re deploying most of the company for the first time and the whole platoon’s out together.  It’s a standard route security operation for the logistics convoy bringing in our supplies.  There’s nothing complicated about this patrol, but we’ll be static for long periods and that will make us vulnerable.  We have to clear all the roads in our AO and then secure it so the convoy can travel safely through.”  He moved his hand up my shaft and used me to point at the flat ground.

“Is everyone happy with the model?” he said.

There were a few silent nods from the watching men.

“Just to orientate you again.  This is our current location.”  He pointed me at a tiny block of wood near the centre of the grid that had PB43 written on it in peeling blue paint.  It was the largest of a hundred little wooden squares placed carefully across the earth and numbered in black.  “This is Route Hammer.”  He moved my end along a piece of orange ribbon that was pinned into the dirt.  “And this blue ribbon represents the river that runs past Howshal Nalay.”  I swept along the ribbon over a denser group of wooden blocks.  “These red markers are the IED finds in the last three months, so there’s quite a few on Hammer.”  I hovered over red pinheads…

He started describing the plan and used me to direct their attention to different parts of the square.  He said their mission was to secure the road and then provide rear protection.  He told them how they would move out before first light and push along the orange ribbon, past the blocks with L33 and L34 written on them.  I paused as he explained how vulnerable this point was, and that one team would provide overwatch at the block marked M13 while others cleared the road.

I was pointed at one of the men, who nodded that he understood.

He told them how they would spread out between block L42 and the green string.  Two other platoons would move through them and secure the orange ribbon farther up.  Then he swept me over the zones they were most likely to be attacked from.  He said the hardest part of the operation was to clear the crossroads at the area of interest named Cambridge; this was 6 Platoon’s responsibility.  I hovered over where the orange ribbon was crossed by white tape.

I had done it all before: secured sections of the ribbon, dominated areas of dirt, reassured little labels, ambushed red markers and attacked through clusters of wooden blocks.  I had destroyed as my end was pushed down hard and twisted into the ground.  I’d drawn lines in the sand that were fire-support positions and traced casualty evacuation routes through miniature fields.  I was master of the model.’

This passage comes from Harry Parker‘s stunning novel about the war in Afghanistan, Anatomy of a soldier (Faber, 2016).

In one sense, perhaps, it’s not so remarkable: the use of improvised physical models to familiarise troops with the local terrain is a commonplace even of later modern war.  In Rush to the intimate (DOWNLOADS tab) I described how in November 2004, immediately before the second US assault on Fallujah, US Marines constructed a large model of the city at their Forward Operating Base, in which roads were represented by gravel, structures under 40′ by poker chips and structures over 40′ by Lego bricks (see image below). Infantry officers made their own physical model of the city using bricks to represent buildings and spent shells to represent mosques.

Fallujah model

I called this a ‘rush from the intimate to the inanimate’, and discussed the ways in which the rendering of the city as an object-space empty of life was a powerfully performative gesture – one in which, as Anne Barnard put it, the soldiers straddled the model ‘like Gulliver in Lilliput’.

As the passage I’ve just quoted suggests, it was standard practice in Afghanistan too; here are soldiers from the Afghan National Army studying a model for Operation Tufan/Storm, a joint ANA/UK operation in Helmand:

Afghan Warriors Tackle Insurgents in Huge Joint Operation with Scottish Troops

So far, then, so familiar.  But the passage with which I began is remarkable because the narrator – whose shaft is gripped by the officer’s hand, who hovers over the orange ribbon, who confesses to having done it all before – is the handle of a broken broom.  ‘My first purpose was to hold my head down against the ground as I brushed sand out of a small, dirty room,’ the chapter begins.  ‘In time, my head loosened and the nail then held it on pulled free.  Someone tried to push it back on, but my head swung round and fell off.  I was discarded.’

‘That would have been the end of me,’ the broom handle continues – ‘my head was burned with the rubbish’ – ‘but I was reinvented and became useful again.’

The novel tells the story of Captain Tom Barnes, a British army officer who steps on an IED while on patrol in Afghanistan; he is airlifted to the Role 3 hospital at Camp Bastion and then evacuated to Britain; he loses both his legs, the first to the effects of the blast and the second to infection.  And the narrative is reconstructed through the objects that are entangled in – and which also, in an extraordinarily powerful sense, animate – the events.

So, for example, a tourniquet:

‘My serial number is 6545-01-522… A black marker wrote BA5799 O POS on me and I was placed in the left thigh pocket of BA5799’s combat trousers… At 0618 on 15 August, when I was sliding along BA5799’s thigh, I was lifted into the sky and turned over.  And suddenly I was in the light… I was pulled open by panicked fingers and covered in the thick liquid… I was wound tighter, gripping his thigh… I clung to him as we flew low across the fields and glinting irrigation ditches…’

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The story is continued in and through other object-fragments.  On patrol, a boot; day-sack; helmet (‘My overhanging rim cut his vision as a black horizontal blur and my chinstrap bounced up against his stubble as he pounded onto each stride’); night vision goggles (‘My green light reflected off the glassy bulge of his retina’); a radio (‘His breathing deepened under the weight of the kit and condensation formed on the gauze of my microphone… I continued to play transmissions in BA5799’s ear as the other stations in the network pushed farther up the road’); an aerial photograph (‘He took me out and traced his finger across my surface… in the operations room a small blue sticker labelled B30 was moved across a map pinned to the wall.  That map was identical to me’); and his identity tags (‘I had dropped around your neck and my discs rested on the green canvas stretcher stained with your blood’).

Medical care en route to Bastion

After the blast from the IED and a helicopter evacuation, the medical apparatus: a tube inserted into his throat at Camp Bastion’s trauma centre (‘I was part of a system now; I was inside you…’); a surgical saw (‘He held me like a weapon, and down at the end of my barrel was my flat stainless-steel blade… My blade-end cut through the bone, flashing splinters and dust from the thin trench I gouged out’); a plasma bag (‘I hung over you… I was empty; my plastic walls had collapsed together and red showed only around my seals.  The rest of the blood I’d carried since a young man donated it after a lecture, joking with a mate in the queue, was now in you’); a catheter; a wheelchair; his series of prosthetics (‘You pressed your stump into me and we became one for the first time… Slowly you outgrew all my parts and the man switched them over until I only existed as separate components in a cupboard and you’d progressed to a high-activity leg and a carbon-fibre socket’).

The agency of many of the objects is viscerally clear:

‘I lived in the soil.  My spores existed everywhere in the decomposing vegetable matter of the baked earth.  Something happened that meant I was suddenly inside you…  I was inside your leg, deep among flesh that was torn and churned.  I lived there for a week and wanted to take root, but it wasn’t easy… I struggled to survive.  Except they missed a small haematoma that had formed around a collection of mud in your calf…  You degraded and I survived… I made you feverish and feasted unseen on your insides…’

Or again, his first prosthetics:

‘You improved on me but you became thinner.  The pressure I exerted on you, and the weight you lost from the energy I used, made your stump shrink.  I could no longer support you properly.’

And the new ones:

‘Your hand caressed my grey surface and felt around the hydraulic piston under my knee joint… You’d been waiting for me but were nervous about what I might do for you…’

What is even more remarkable, as many of the passages I have quoted demonstrate, is that these events are narrated through objects that in all sorts of ways show how military violence reduces not only the ground but the human body to an object-space, perhaps nowhere more clearly than in this remark: ‘You were not a whole to them, just a wound to be closed or a level on a screen to monitor or a bag of blood to be changed.’  And yet: virtually every one of those passages is also impregnated with Barnes’s body: its feel – its very fleshiness – its sweat, its smell, its touch.

O'BRIEN The things they carriedI think this is an even more successful attempt to render the corporeality of war through its objects than Tim O’Brien‘s brilliant account of Vietnam in The Things They Carried (for more, see my post on ‘Boots on the Ground‘ and my essay on ‘The natures of war’: DOWNLOADS tab). This is, in part, because the narrative is not confined to those objects close to Barnes’ own body; it spirals far beyond them to include a drone providing close air support (‘I banked around the area and my sensor zoomed out again and I could see the enemy in relation to the soldiers who needed me’) and, significantly, extends to the components of the IED and the bodies of the insurgents who constructed and buried it.

There is a powerful moment when the two collide, when the father of a young insurgent killed in the drone strike wheels his son’s body to the patrol base:

‘The corpse was half in me, with my front end under it and my handles sticking up in the air.  He managed to push it farther into me and the distended head bounced off my metal side.  Dried blood showed around its ears and nose and was red in its mouth.  And then he pushed my handles down and I scooped it all up…  The corpse’s eyes had opened from the jolting and looked up at him.  He looked down into them, at his son’s face and the blue lips and purple blotching across his cheeks and he knew he had already accepted the loss.  He lowered my handles and smoothed the eyelids shut again.  He pushed me down the road.’

Barnes reaches for a compensation form, which takes up the story:

‘There was a leaflet that BA5799 had read tucked in the notebook next to me.  It described how to deal with this.  What to say, what not to say…  He was dealing with death in an alien culture and he had no idea how to relate to this man or the death of his son…  BA5799 wanted to feel compassion for this man and his dead son but only felt discomfort and the man’s eyes challenging him.  And all he cared about was getting back into the base and the loss of a potential asset in securing the area.’

All of these criss-crossing, triangulating lines capture not only the anatomy of a soldier but an anatomy of the war itself – at once calmly, coolly and shockingly abstract – in a word, objectified – and invasively, terrifyingly, ineluctably intimate.

***

Harry Parker (Ben Murphy photo)Postscript: You probably won’t be surprised to learn that Anatomy of a soldier is based on Harry Parker’s own experience.  Out on patrol with his men on 18 July 2009 in central Helmand he stepped on an IED; he lost his lower left leg in the blast and had his lower right leg amputated at Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham (the major centre for advanced trauma care for the British military).  ‘‘Writing about the explosion felt good creatively,’ he told Christian House, ‘but also you’ve mined your personal experiences’ and the process left him ‘a sweaty mess’.  I’ve written about what Roy Scranton calls ‘the trauma hero‘ before, and so it’s important to add that Parker insists that the novel is not disguised autobiography: ‘I didn’t want to write, “I was in the Helmand valley.”’

One other note: at the AAG meeting in San Francisco next month Iain Shaw and Katherine Kindervater have organised a series of really interesting sessions on Objects of Security and War:

These sessions aim to bring together scholars working in the areas of war and security that are attentive to the materialities of contemporary violence and conflict. We are especially interested in work that seeks to place objects of security and war within a wider set of practices, assemblages, bodies, and histories. From drones and documents, to algorithms and atom bombs, the materiality of state power continues to anchor and disrupt the conduct and geography of (international) violence.

I’m part of those sessions – but reading Anatomy of a soldier has made me think about giving an altogether different presentation. I’ve long argued that we need to disrupt that lazy divide between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ and that literature is able to convey important truths that evade conventional academic prose (hence my unbounded admiration for Tom McCarthy‘s C, for example).  And Anatomy of a soldier convinces me that I’ll find more inspiration in novels like that than in whole libraries on object-oriented philosophy…

Illegalities and undemocracies

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A postscript to my previous post about Palestine, solidarity and BDS.  Over at Books & IdeasBenjamin Ferron has a review essay on Ingrid Nyström and Patricia Vendramin, Le boycott (2015): Globalisation and the art of boycotting.

There’s some succinct historical context, tracing the politics of boycotts back to the late seventeenth century, but then this about the current Boycott, Disinvest, Sanctions movement:

‘Launched in 2005 at the request of Palestinian intellectuals and academics, and supported by 172 Palestinian civil society organisations, it calls for an economic, academic, cultural and political boycott of the state of Israel to protest against the colonisation and occupation of Palestinian territories, the construction of the Wall of separation and annexation, and campaign in favour of the equality of Israeli Arab and Jewish citizens, and the acknowledgement of the Palestinian refugees’ right of return. The penalisation of these actions in Israel and in France (through the so-called Alliot-Marie circular) shows that this mode of action is threatening to the intended targets or their allies.’

I knew about moves by the Cameron government in the UK and the now mercifully extinct Harper government in Canada to outlaw BDS – the irony of the former Prime Minister threatening to use ‘hate laws’ against anyone with whom he disagreed is wholly unexceptional –   but I now realise that their authoritarian response is much wider than I had imagined, and for the reasons supplied by those last eight words in the quotation.

Of particular relevance to the upcoming plenary at the AAG is this report from Glenn Greenwald at The Intercept that details attempts in the US to suppress pro-Palestinian voices and peaceful actions: ‘Greatest Threat to Free Speech in the West: Criminalizing Activism Against Israeli Occupation‘.

Standing on occupied ground

This is Reading Week at UBC, so I’m doing just that…  At the AAG Annual Meeting in San Francisco there is a Plenary Session on Friday 1 April (sic) on Forging Solidarity: Taking a stand on Palestine:

In July 2015 the International Critical Geography Group convened its seventh conference in the occupied city of Ramallah, Palestine. The conference brought together scholars and activists committed to combating social exploitation and oppression. Altogether four hundred participants from over forty countries energetically took up issues on and beyond the violent frontlines of class, gender, race, sexual, and colonial divisions. Yet they also took critical steps beyond discussion and debate of our intellectual work towards concrete collective action. An example of this was the overwhelmingly vote of conference participants for a strong resolution to sign onto the Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott and the broader Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. The resolution adopted is both a political statement in solidarity with the anti-colonial struggle of our Palestinian comrades but also an agenda for a broader commitment to anti-capitalist, decolonial, anti-racist, feminist and queer social movements and struggles around the world against growing social, economic and political precarity, rising authoritarianism, encroachment of fundamental rights, dispossession, structural adjustment in the south and north, revanchism, ongoing colonization of public space, land and resources, the privatization of the commons, as well as structural and state-sanctioned violence against racialized, gendered, queer bodies, and other targeted bodies and communities.

Building on the momentum generated by the conference and this resolution, this discussion panel aims to open up a serious discussion about BDS and the academic boycott of Israel within the Association of American Geographers. This is, we believe, particularly relevant in light of the current situation in Palestine/Israel but also taking into consideration how academics from other professional organisations such as the American Anthropological Association, the Association for Asian American Studies, the American Studies Association and the Native American Studies Association, as well as a number of student councils worldwide, have already endorsed this call for solidarity. Our distinguished panel of scholars and activists will speak out about the importance and the urgency to adopt a political stand on Palestine and to further the work of decolonizing the discipline of geography. In doing so, we hope to reaffirm a commitment to critical scholarship and praxis by encouraging and enabling spaces of political and conceptual possibility for geographers in solidarity with ongoing socio-political, economic and environmental struggles around the globe.

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In the wake of that ICG Conference in Ramallah, David Lloyd‘s moving reflections on another conference/workshop in the same city, ‘Walter Benjamin in Palestine‘, repay careful reading:

Activism is in fact the antagonist of complacency and of the satisfaction with familiar protocols that dulls thinking and makes the institutionalized academic a little stupid. But activism is not always expressed in headlong mobilization or fervent debates, nor is thought only the forethought that shapes or the afterthought that reflects on practice. As “Benjamin in Palestine” exemplified, it can also take the form of deliberate thinking in common whose very exercise is a form of resistance, however limited. As the BDS movement continues to advance, perhaps workshops like these, which step beyond mere “severance of relations” (as Benjamin described the act of striking) to shape conditions for new modes of relation, may offer a way to think the future of our resistance to Israeli apartheid. Perhaps too it offers a model also for an alternative to the insidious corporatization of our intellectual and creative lives under the neoliberal dispensation we all confront, wherever we reside, and not only in occupied Palestine. That, indeed, may be the insight we have been gifted by those who daily struggle for the right to education in the face of dispossession.

BUTLER NotesIn its way this, too, is a modestly performative politics of assembly.  So it’s good to see that panelists at the AAG plenary include this year’s Honorary Geographer, Judith Butler; full list is here.  You can find Judith’s previous remarks on BDS (at Brooklyn College) here.

You can also find out much more about the American Anthropological Association’s stand (last year) here; the statement that accompanied the successful resolution is here; a series of FAQs (“Yes, but…”) is here; and other resources are here.

It’s opportune, too, that the latest issue of borderlands should be devoted to The politics of suffering – with a special focus on occupied Palestine.  Among the many truly excellent essays three stand out for me.

First, Suvendrini Perera‘s accomplished contrapuntal reading of transnational justice, ‘Visibility, Atrocity and the Subject of Postcolonial Justice‘, which proceeds’ through a series of key sites – Congo, Belgium, Nuremberg, Israel, Gaza – that links past and present, colonial and colonizing worlds’, and then focuses on the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians on the beaches of Mullivaikkal in northeast Sri Lanka:

In the context of the 2009 atrocities in Lanka, in this paper I attempt to think through a set of questions about visibility, witness, suffering, accountability and disposability as they are played out in the relations between the necro-geo-politics of global institutions and the patchworks of local and transnational movements that attempt to materialize peoples’ suffering and realize the possibility of justice within fragile and compromised frameworks.

Drone feed Gaza city November 2012

Second, Joseph Pugliese‘s characteristically innovative ‘Forensic ecologies of occupied zones and Geographies of dispossession: Gaza and occupied East Jerusalem‘:

In this essay, I work to develop what I term multi-dimensional matrices of suffering that envisage the understanding of suffering beyond the locus of the human subject. In my theorising of multi-dimensional matrices of suffering, I proceed to conceptualise the suffering experienced in occupied zones as both relational and distributed. In the occupied zone, suffering encompasses complex, multi-dimensional vectors that bind humans, animals, animate and non-animate objects and entities, buildings and land. In the context of the regimes of violence that inscribe occupied zones, I situate suffering, and a range of other affects, in ecological configurations that, through a range of forensic indices, evidence the impact of these regimes of violence on the broad spectrum of entities that comprise a particular occupied zone. The conceptualisation of suffering and trauma in occupied zones in terms of its relational multi-dimensionality, its site-specific matrices and relational distribution across ecologies, I conclude, enables an understanding of suffering that moves beyond anthropocentric approaches. I situate my analysis in the context of Israel’s drone-enabled regime of unrelenting surveillance, occupation and military control over Gaza [see image above] and its continuing occupation of East Jerusalem.

It really is a tour de force, only too literally so, and builds not only on Joe’s brilliant State violence and the execution of law and his previous research but also on Jane Bennett‘s work and – as the title signposts – on Eyal Weizman‘s project of forensic architecture.  It’s doubly important because so much critical writing on military drones has virtually nothing to say about Israel’s use (and sale) of them.

Finally, Jasbir Puar‘s ‘The ‘right’ to maim: Disablement and inhumanist biopolitics in Palestine‘:

This essay argues that Israel manifests an implicit claim to the ‘right to maim’ and debilitate Palestinian bodies and environments as a form of biopolitical control and as central to a scientifically authorized humanitarian economy. In this context, the essay tracks the permeating relations between living and dying that complicate Michel Foucault’s foundational mapping of biopower, in this case, the practice of deliberate maiming. In doing so it demonstrates the limitations of the idea of ‘collateral damage’ that disarticulates the effects of warfare from the perpetration of violence, and notes that the policy of maiming is a productive one, a form of weaponized epigenetics through the profitability of a speculative rehabilitative economy.

This too is meticulously argued and imaginatively constructed, and adds important dimensions to my posts about Israel’s war on Gaza and, in particular, my preliminary speculations about the prosthetics of military violence.

‘Reach from the sky’ ONLINE

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The video of my two Tanner Lectures, Reach from the sky: aerial violence and the everywhere war, delivered in Cambridge last month, is now available on the Clare Hall website.  The first, ‘Good bomb, bad bomb’ is here, and the second, ‘Killing Space’, is here, while the responses from Grégoire Chamayou, Jochen von Bernstorff and Chris Woods are here.

I’m immensely grateful to the video team, who were exceptionally helpful and remarkably accomplished.

I’m now hard at work on the long-form version…  And yes, I have – just! – notice the mistake on the poster.  It was indeed ‘Reach from the sky.’  Per ardua….

There’s also a short and kind reflection on the lectures from Alex Jeffrey over at Placing Law here.

Targeted killings

Coming from Simon and Schuster in May, a new book by Jeremy Scahill and his team at The InterceptThe Assassination Complex: Inside the Government’s Secret Drone Warfare Program.

the-assassination-complex-9781501144134_hrMajor revelations about the US government’s drone program—bestselling author Jeremy Scahill and his colleagues at the investigative website The Intercept expose stunning new details about America’s secret assassination policy.

When the US government discusses drone strikes publicly, it offers assurances that such operations are a more precise alternative to troops on the ground and are authorized only when an “imminent” threat is present and there is “near certainty” that the intended target will be killed. The implicit message on drone strikes from the Obama administration has been trust, but don’t verify.

The online magazine The Intercept exploded this secrecy when it obtained a cache of secret slides that provide a window into the inner workings of the US military’s kill/capture operations in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Whether through the use of drones, night raids, or new platforms yet to be employed, these documents show assassination to be central to US counterterrorism policy.

The classified documents reveal that Washington’s fourteen-year targeted killing campaign suffers from an overreliance on flawed signals intelligence, an apparently incalculable civilian toll, and an inability to extract potentially valuable intelligence from terror suspects. This campaign, carried out by two presidents through four presidential terms, has been deliberately obscured from the public and insulated from democratic debate. The Assassination Complex allows us to understand at last the circumstances under which the US government grants itself the right to sentence individuals to death without the established checks and balances of arrest, trial, and appeal.

The book will include original contributions from Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden.

From NYU Press in July, a collection of essays edited by Kerstin Fisk and Jennifer Ramos that connects drone warfare to the Obama administration’s doctrine of ‘preventive force’ and the tangled legal armature that surrounds it: Preventive Force: Drones, Targeted Killing, and the Transformation of Contemporary Warfare.

Preventive ForceMore so than in the past, the US is now embracing the logic of preventive force: using military force to counter potential threats around the globe before they have fully materialized. While popular with individuals who seek to avoid too many “boots on the ground,” preventive force is controversial because of its potential for unnecessary collateral damage. Who decides what threats are ‘imminent’? Is there an international legal basis to kill or harm individuals who have a connection to that threat? Do the benefits of preventive force justify the costs? And, perhaps most importantly, is the US setting a dangerous international precedent?

In Preventive Force, editors Kerstin Fisk and Jennifer Ramos bring together legal scholars, political scientists, international relations scholars, and prominent defense specialists to examine these questions, whether in the context of full-scale preventive war or preventive drone strikes. In particular, the volume highlights preventive drones strikes, as they mark a complete transformation of how the US understands international norms regarding the use of force, and could potentially lead to a ‘slippery slope’ for the US and other nations in terms of engaging in preventive warfare as a matter of course. A comprehensive resource that speaks to the contours of preventive force as a security strategy as well as to the practical, legal, and ethical considerations of its implementation, Preventive Force is a useful guide for political scientists, international relations scholars, and policymakers who seek a thorough and current overview of this essential topic.

Contents are listed here.

That same month comes the book I most want to read – but the eye-popping price from Routledge makes me wonder whether some mega-publishers see books as anything other than commodities.  It’s Kyle Grayson‘s Cultural Politics of Targeted Killing: On Drones, Counter-Insurgency, and Violence (hardcover only: madness).

GRAYSON Cultural politics of targeted killingThe deployment of remotely piloted air platforms (RPAs) – or drones – has become a defining feature of contemporary counter-insurgency operations. Scholarly analysis and public debate has primarily focused on two issues: the legality of targeted killing and whether the practice is effective at disrupting insurgency networks, and the intensive media and activist scrutiny of the policy processes through which targeted killing decisions have been made. While contributing to these ongoing discussions, this book aims to determine how targeted killing has become possible in contemporary counter-insurgency operations undertaken by liberal regimes.

Each chapter is oriented around a problematisation that has shaped the cultural politics of the targeted killing assemblage. Grayson argues that in order to understand how specific forms of violence become prevalent, it is important to determine how problematisations that enable them are shaped by a politico-cultural system in which culture operates in conjunction with technological, economic, governmental, and geostrategic elements. The book also demonstrates that the actors involved – what they may be attempting to achieve through the deployment of this form of violence, how they attempt to achieve it, and where they attempt to achieve it – are also shaped by culture.

The book demonstrates how the current social relations prevalent in liberal societies contain the potential for targeted killing as a normal rather than extraordinary practice.

Contents:

Chapter One: The Cultural Politics of the Targeted Killing Assemblage

Chapter Two: Beyond the Exception: The Legal Problematisation of Targeted Killing

Chapter Three: The Politics of Targeted Killing

Chapter Four: Science, Capitalism, and the RPA

Chapter Five: The Aesthetic Subjects of Targeted Killing

Chapter Six: The Quotidian Geopolitics of Targeted Killing Strikes

Chapter Seven: Concluding Remarks on the Cultural Politics of Targeted Killing

(Amazon says July, but the publisher says ‘2017’ so perhaps somebody in Taylor & Francis’s counting-house might have a serious think between now and publication; they clearly take ‘making a killing’ all too seriously).

Head in the Clouds

xa-prehistory-of-the-cloud.jpg.pagespeed.ic.MC3L6haZTGI’ve mentioned Tung-Hui Hu’s brilliant A Prehistory of the Cloud before: there’s now a wonderful interview with the author over at Rhizome (conducted by Jamie Sutcliffe).  Among many other plums, there’s a revealing history of the project itself and juggling the author’s identities as poet, network engineer, and professor of literature:

Until a year or two or ago, I tried very hard to keep these identities separate. The first academic paper I wrote when I was studying architecture was dismissed as an extended prose poem. From thenceforth it was very important for me to separate those lives. When I lived in Berkeley—across the bay from San Francisco—that was where I was an academic, and San Francisco was where I was a poet, and never should the two meet, right? But poetry is also a way of noticing patterns, of looking for events and images that rhyme or have associations. And maybe there is a kind of poetry in the juxtapositions of history: the place in the Utah desert where the telephone network is sabotaged is also the place where the artist group Ant Farm imagines a network out of truck stops; the bunker in Virginia built to house the US financial system in the event of a nuclear attack is now the place where the nation’s film reels are kept in cold storage.

Cloud computing

And there are extended riffs on the book’s central themes.  I particularly liked this one, in response to an artful question about Frederic Jameson‘s view of conspiracy as ‘a poor man’s cognitive mapping’:

I think conspiracy and paranoia are just what the cloud needs, if I can ascribe the cloud agency. The system works like a massive pyramid scheme—we all need to believe that it’s everywhere in order for it to be everywhere. I remember talking to someone who knew Facebook was a problem, but even she became annoyed when one of her friends left Facebook: “What do you mean you left Facebook, we’re all on it, we all agreed to be on it, so why do you get to opt out?” That’s the mechanism that the cloud employs; we assume that everybody is a user, that everybody is on it and freely engaged in these practices, and we feel personally offended when that’s not the case. Now, of course, the cloud isn’t everywhere, this is a particularly Western view and that’s why the book takes America as the prime example of this way of thinking. Americans think freedom means market freedom and the free movement of goods, and get violently offended when this is not the case. Our model is basically that if you’re not free, we will bomb you until you are free.

The idea of conspiracy, as Jameson tells us, is totalizing. That’s the idea of The Cloud, rather than the clouds; there is one cloud that we are all supposed to subscribe to. I think that’s the reason why paranoia about security is always part of the way that the cloud is produced, rather than unmasked or exposed. This is one reason why understanding some technical aspects of the cloud—the way it fails and doesn’t cover much territory—could change our image of it, away from one totalizing entity. Oddly enough, given my examples, the book’s goal is to get us away from simply talking about paranoia or even control, which is the dominant model now in new media studies. My problem with the “control society” model is that not only is it totalizing in the way that the cloud is totalizing, but it distracts us in some ways from looking at the real violence that’s been happening all along, so that if we start thinking about gadgets and the way that life is optimized and produced, then we forget the flip-side of that, which is the way that death is also meted out.

Rooting for the uprooted

There’s an excellent account by Michael Hodges of Eyal Weizman‘s Forensic Architecture project (he now calls it a research agency) over at Wired UK.  Unlike some media versions, this is fully – and appropriately – embodied and materialised, following Eyal through East Jerusalem and into the West Bank in August 2015.  He explains:

“The idea is to use forensic architecture as a method that extends deep into the facts and looks at them and maps them out to see the materialisation of political forces. Forensic Architecture assumes that every bit of material reality is the product of a complex force field that extends in space and time. So you can take an inanimate object and see into it, almost like a crystal ball.”

That’s as good a summary of the project as you’ll find, but en route you also understand the ‘situatedness’ of the project – that’s an inadequate formulation, I increasingly think, since it’s also about extending deep into what, for want of a batter word, we might call the field: it’s about the rootedness of Forensic Architecture in the lives of the uprooted.

FA Waziristan 2010 reconstruction

In consequence, what also comes into view during the report is the passionate commitment of its investigators to the witnesses whose experiences they recover:

“We understand the relationship between memory, architecture and violence,” Weizman says. “Take the woman who survived the drone strike in Waziristan [above; see also the video here: scroll down to case 2]. She was very traumatised; she lost relatives in there. We returned her digitally to the site of the attack and built it together with her, reconstructed her family house that had been hit by the drone [above]. During the modelling process she was meticulous about every window, every object we placed in there, every person. But she was very obsessed with a fan. In the beginning she said it was on the ceiling. Then she said no, it was a standing fan. She asked us to move it to the left and then to the right and then back again, until we were wondering, what is it about the fan? But when we made her walk through the space she recollected exactly where it had been, and that after the strike had killed her family she had found bits of human flesh on the blades of the fan. You see, the fan acted as an anchor for her memory and in the end we reassembled that memory in a digital space.”

And as you follow Eyal through occupied Palestine, you also realise that there is something vitally defiant in so thoroughly challenging Israel’s rhetorical claim to the ‘facts on the ground’.