‘Empire of the Globe’

Klementinum Library, Prague

A quick heads-up: the latest issue of Millennium [44 (3) (2016) 305-20] includes Bruno Latour‘s, ‘Onus Orbis Terrarum: About a Possible Shift in the Definition of Sovereignty’, a keynote address that – amongst many other targets – goes after the globe and geopolitics….  To give you a taste:

To put it more dramatically, the concept of the Globe allows geopolitics to unfold in just the same absolute space that was used by physicists before Einstein. Geopolitics remains stubbornly Newtonian. All loci might be different, but they are all visualised and pointed to on the same grid. They all differ from one another, but in the same predictable way: by their longitude and latitude.

What is amazing if you look at geopolitical textbooks, is that, apparently, the Globe remains a universal, unproblematic, and uncoded category that is supposed to mean the same thing for everybody. But for me, this is just the position that marks, without any doubt, the imperial dominion of the European tradition that is now shared, or so it seems, by everyone else.

I want to argue that the problem raised by the link between Europe and the Globe is that of understanding, as Peter Sloterdijk suggests, why it is that the onus orbis terrarum has been spread so efficiently that it has become the only space for geopolitics to unfold. Why is it that the res extensa, to use a Latin term that pertains to the history of art as well as of science and of philosophy, has been extended so much?

Instead of asking what vision of the Globe Europe should develop, it seems to me that the question should be: is Europe allowed to think grandly and radically enough to get rid of ‘the Globe’ as the unquestioned space for geopolitics? If it is the result of European invention and European dominion, this does not mean that it should remain undisputed. If there is one thing to provincialise, in addition to Europe, it is the idea of a natural Globe itself. We should find a way to provincialise the Globe, that is, to localise the localising system of coordinates that is used to pinpoint and situate, relative to one another, all the entities allowed to partake in geopolitical power grabs. This is the only way, it seems to me, to detach the figure of the emerging Earth from that of the Globe.

Geopolitics limited to absolute space?  The Globe as the ‘unquestioned space’ for geopolitics (and a geopolitics that is indifferent to, even silent about ‘the Earth’)?  Really?

MINCA and ROWAN Schmitt and SpaceIn an interview with Mark Salter and William Walters, which appears as a coda to the issue, there is also a lot about Carl Schmitt and the Nomos of the Earth (and a pointed rejection of the interpretation offered by Claudio Minca and Rory Rowan), and this passage on drones that loops back to the discussion of sovereignty:

The point, I think, is that ‘sovereign’ has one very precise meaning, which is: a referee. So, is there a referee or not? In my understanding of Schmitt, in the two great ideas of his – the ones on politics and the ones in Nomos – there is no referee, precisely. And so, you have to do politics, which means you have to have enemies and friends. Not because of any sort of war-like attitude (even though there is some talk of that in Schmitt as well). But because, precisely, if you have no referee, then you have to doubt; you have to risk that the others might be right, and that you might be wrong. You don’t know your value; you are not in a police operation. OK, so that defines the state now, because the state goes, all the way down, to a police operation. If there is a police operation and not war, then there is a State, in some ordinary sense. That is how we can understand the first hegemon of the United States, entering the First World War as a police operation, no question. The drone, now, flowing over [and] … moving on top of the space of the land, is a police operation because the one who sent it has no doubt that he or she acts as referee. So, the first thing is to draw the extent of that hegemon. How we would do that, I don’t know. Certainly, there would have been a book by Schmitt a few days after the first drone, about this new definition of the State, extending above air its police operation everywhere.

Good knock-about stuff, but I’m not convinced about any of this either (and exasperated by the current preoccupation with the hypostatisation of ‘policing’)…

The Body of War

Here is a call for papers for a wonderfully creative international symposium, The Body of War: Drones and Lone Wolves,  to be held at the University of Lancaster  on 24-25 November 2016.  It’s part of the ongoing States of Exceptions project (for Part I, see here).

I’ve just agreed to give a keynote; it’s an interdisciplinary event, and the organisers tell me they are keen to encourage the participation of early career scholars.

Anti-drone Burqa (Adam Harvey)

Anti-drone Burqa (Adam Harvey)

“The discriminatory concept of the enemy as a criminal and the attendant implication of justa causa run parallel to the intensification of the means of destruction and the disorientation of theaters of war. Intensification of the technical means of destruction opens the abyss of an equally destructive legal and moral discrimination. […] Given the fact that war has been transformed into a police action against troublemakers, criminals, and pests, justification of the methods of this “police bombing” must be intensified. Thus, one is compelled to push the discrimination of the opponent into the abyss.”

Carl Schmitt, The Nomos of the Earth (1950)

13 November 2015: three suicide bombers blew themselves up near the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, Paris, killing themselves and a bystander, and triggering a series of violent actions that caused 130 casualties. 15 November 2015: the President of France, François Hollande, after defying the attacks ‘an act of war’ by the Islamic State, launched a three-month state of emergency and ‘Opération Chammal’, a huge airstrike campaign against ISIL targets in Syria.

These two violent actions design a deformed and limitless theater of war, within which all distinctions and limitations elaborated by International Law seem to disappear. It is not merely the loss of the fundamental distinction between combatants and civilians, that both suicide bombers and airstrike bombings signal. In the current situation, all the fundamental principles that gave birth to the Laws of War seem to collapse: spatial and temporal limitations of hostilities, proportionality of military actions, discrimination of targets, weapons and just methods to use them. In this way, the ‘enemy’, from a juridical concept, is transformed into an ‘ideological object’; his figure, pushed to a climax from both these ‘invisible’ and ‘mobile’ fronts, becomes absolute and de-humanized. Hollande, Cameron and Obama’s unwillingness to use ground troops against the ‘uncivilized’ (Kerry 2015) is mirrored by the ISIL call to intensify suicide missions against the ‘cowards’ (Dābiq, 12: 2015).

But what lies behind the asymmetric confrontation between airstrikes and ‘humanstrikes’, behind the blurring of the distinction between the state of war and state of peace? What notion of humanity are the physical disengagement of the Western powers (with their tele-killing via drones and airstrikes) and the physical engagement of suicide bombers (ready to turn their bodies into a weapon) trying to convey? In other words, how and to what extent is there a connection between the automatization and biopoliticization of war operated by Western powers and the sacrificial nature of the conflict adopted by those who want to fight these powers?

In this second part of the “States of Exceptions” project, our intention is to explore these questions in order to map the crucial transformations of warfare, of its ethical principles and methods of engagement.

We invite potential participants to submit abstracts of no more than 250 words by 31 July 2016 drawing upon, but not limited to, such issues as:

  • Theatres of War: The New Spatialities and Temporalities of Warfare
  • Mirror Images? Drones vs. Suicide Bombers
  • Phenomenology of Drones
  • New Perspectives on Ethics, Horror & Terror
  • The Ubiquity of the Enemy: Lone Wolves and Self-Representing Terror
  • The Collapse of International Law: What Enemy? Which Proportionality?
  • The Body as a Weapon: The Immanentization of Martyrdom
  • Phenomenology of Lone Wolves
  • The End of Law: Rethinking Limitation, Proportionality and Discrimination

Please send abstracts with “States of Exception II” in subject line to bisagroup.cript@gmail.com

The machinery of (writing about) bombing

I began the first of my Tanner Lectures – Reach from the Sky – with a discussion of the machinery of bombing, and I started by describing an extraordinary scene: the window of a Georgian terrace house in London being popped out – but not by a bomb.  The year was 1968, and the novelist Len Deighton was taking delivery of the first word-processor to be leased (not even sold) to an individual.

As Matthew Kirschenbaum told the story in Slate:

The IBM technician who serviced Deighton’s typewriters had just heard from Deighton’s personal assistant, Ms. Ellenor Handley, that she had been retyping chapter drafts for his book in progress dozens of times over. IBM had a machine that could help, the technician mentioned. They were being used in the new ultramodern Shell Centre on the south bank of the Thames, not far from his Merrick Square home.

A few weeks later, Deighton stood outside his Georgian terrace home and watched as workers removed a window so that a 200-pound unit could be hoisted inside with a crane. The machine was IBM’s MTST (Magnetic Tape Selectric Typewriter).

It was a lovely story, because the novel Deighton was working on – almost certainly the first to be written on a word-processor – was his brilliant account of bombing in the Second World War, Bomber.  It had started out as a non-fiction book (and Deighton has published several histories of the period) but as it turned into a novel the pace of research never slackened.

Deighton recalls that he had shelved his original project until a fellow writer, Julian Symons, told him that he was ‘the only person he could think of who actually liked machines’:

I had been saying that machines are simply machines… That conversation set me thinking again about the bombing raids. And about writing a book about them. The technology was complex but not so complex as to be incomprehensible. Suppose I wrote a story in which the machines of one nation fought the machines of another? The epitome of such a battle must be the radar war fought in pitch darkness. To what extent could I use my idea in depicting the night bombing war? Would there be a danger that such a theme would eliminate the human content of the book? The human element was already a difficult aspect of writing such a story.

And so Bomber was born.

The novel describes the events surrounding an Allied attack during the night of 31 June (sic) 1943 – the planned target was Krefeld, but the town that was attacked, a ‘target of opportunity’, was ‘Altgarten’.  And like the bombing raid, it was a long haul.  As Deighton explained:

I am a slow worker so that each book takes well over a year—some took several years—and I had always ‘constructed’ my books rather than written them. Until the IBM machine arrived I used scissors and paste (actually Copydex one of those milk glues) to add paras, dump pages and rearrange sections of material. Having been trained as an illustrator I saw no reason to work from start to finish. I reasoned that a painting is not started in the top left hand corner and finished in the bottom right corner: why should a book be put together in a straight line?

Deighton’s objective, so he said, was ‘to emphasize the dehumanizing effect of mechanical warfare. I like machines but in wars all humans are their victims.’

I pulled all this together in this slide:

Len Deighton BOMBER (Tanner Lecture 1).001

I then riffed off Deighton’s work in two ways.

First, I noted that Bomber was written at the height of the Vietnam War, what James Gibson calls ‘techno-war’:

Len Deighton TECHNOWAR (Tanner 2).001

I focused on the so-called ‘electronic battlefield’ that I had discussed in detail in ‘Lines of descent’ (DOWNLOADS tab), and its attempt to interdict the supply lines that snaked along the Ho Chi Minh Trail by sowing it with sensors and automating bombing:

Electronic battlefield 1 (Tanner Lectures).001 Electronic battlefield 2 (Tanner Lectures).001

The system was an expensive failure – technophiles and technophobes alike miss that sharp point – but it prefigured the logic that animates today’s remote operations:

Electronic battlefield 3 (Tanner Lectures).001

Second – in fact, in the second lecture – I returned to Bomber and explored the relations between Deighton’s ‘men and machines’.  There I emphasised the intimacy of a bomber crew in the Second World War (contrasting this with the impersonal shift-work that characterises today’s crews operating Predators and Reapers).  ‘In the air’, wrote John Watson in Johnny Kinsman, ‘they were component parts of a machine, welded together, dependent on each other.’  This was captured perfectly, I think, in this photograph by the inimitable Margaret Bourke-White:

Men-machines (BOURKE-WHITE) Tanner Lectures).001

Much to say about the human, the machine and the cyborg, no doubt, but what has brought all this roaring back is another image of the entanglements between humans and machines that returns me to my starting-point.  In a fine essay in The Paris Review, ‘This faithful machine‘, Matthew Kirschenbaum revisits the history of word-processing.  It’s a fascinating read, and it’s headed by this photograph of Len Deighton working on Bomber in his study:


Behind him you can see giant cut-away diagrams of British and German bombers, and on the left a Bomber Command route map to ‘the target for tonight’ (the red ribbon crossing the map of Europe), and below that a target map.  ‘Somber things,’ he called them in Bomber:

‘inflammable forest and built-up areas defined as grey blocks and shaded angular shapes.  The only white marks were the thin rivers and blobs of lake.  The roads were purple veins so that the whole thing was like a badly bruised torso.’

More on all that in my ‘Doors into nowhere’ (DOWNLOADS tab), and much more on the history of word-processign in Matthew’s Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing just out from Harvard University Press:

The story of writing in the digital age is every bit as messy as the ink-stained rags that littered the floor of Gutenberg’s print shop or the hot molten lead of the Linotype machine. During the period of the pivotal growth and widespread adoption of word processing as a writing technology, some authors embraced it as a marvel while others decried it as the death of literature. The product of years of archival research and numerous interviews conducted by the author, Track Changes is the first literary history of word processing.

Matthew Kirschenbaum examines how the interests and ideals of creative authorship came to coexist with the computer revolution. Who were the first adopters? What kind of anxieties did they share? Was word processing perceived as just a better typewriter or something more? How did it change our understanding of writing?

Track Changes balances the stories of individual writers with a consideration of how the seemingly ineffable act of writing is always grounded in particular instruments and media, from quills to keyboards. Along the way, we discover the candidates for the first novel written on a word processor, explore the surprisingly varied reasons why writers of both popular and serious literature adopted the technology, trace the spread of new metaphors and ideas from word processing in fiction and poetry, and consider the fate of literary scholarship and memory in an era when the final remnants of authorship may consist of folders on a hard drive or documents in the cloud.

And, as you’d expect, it’s available as an e-book.

Dancing with drones

As I near the end – at last! – of my essay on drone strikes in Pakistan, “Dirty Dancing“, I’ve stumbled – the mot juste, given how long it’s taken me to finish the thing – on two very different performance works, both called ‘Dancing with Drones‘.

Dancing with drones 1

First, a dance-technology collaboration from Australia between dancer Alison Plevey and artists Josephine Starrs and Leon Cmielewski.  This is from a thoughtful commentary by Ann Finnegan:

Of drone warfare, Grégoire Chamayou has written the world is a ‘hunting ground.’ ‘The target is unable to retaliate, no quarter can be given in last-minute surrender, and only one side risks being killed’. Chamayou is writing of the extreme circumstance of war, but in many respects, Plevey in her dance-off with the drone, is hunted, a contemporary Acteon, who in Greek myth was hunted by a pack of dogs intent on tearing him to pieces. Plevey comes across as the innocent, occupying a subject position that could be occupied by anyone. While there is a charm to the mimetic sequences and to the innocence of the initial scenes of ‘playing chasey’ with the drone, the dance-game is also akin to those more vicious games of children that quickly turn.

Filmed in big nature, down by a river in the wilds of Bundanon estate [in New South Wales], the dancer-drone partnership is intriguing, somewhat bizarre, an unlikely dance duo, initially suggesting disturbed bucolic innocence. Two regimes of movement seemingly accommodate each other: the curious drone, the responsive human. There’s a mixture of charm and mild annoyance; the drone hobby toy friendly in size, rising and falling in sequences akin to the flapping of a butterfly’s wings, no more a menace than the buzzing of a gnat or a bee.

As the dance progresses [and the video projection moves back to Carriageworks in Sydney] the emotional register shifts: pleasure, annoyance, charm, resistance, and eventually submissive acceptance. The disturbing note is that the drone is an invasive species, a technologized interface with nature, intruding into the peaceful ecology with a movement regime that progressively subjugates the human. Given its range of movement, from hovering physical intimacy to the dramatic shifts of its vertical climbs, the drone is an unequal dance partner, an undefeatable adversary. What the dance sequence makes clear is that no matter how brilliant her dance, no matter how fluid, graceful and subtle her human body movements, she will be no match for the superior movements of a drone piloted at a distance by an unseen program or programmer…

Chamayou doesn’t shirk from calling out the ‘inhuman operation [of] a mobile battlefield that potentially spans the globe’, of the potential for drones to target anyone, anywhere, from any satellite mapped point of the world. Furthermore, drones have a capacity for actions at a distance, the like of which the world hasn’t seen before: the ability to group, hover, pursue. If computer were touted in the 1990s as multipurpose machines incorporating calculators, typewriters, cameras, CD players, graphic interfaces, radio, and so on, drones combine a camera with several movement modes: the up and down of helicopters, with the horizontal lines of flight of arrows, missiles and aeroplanes.

The darker notes of Plevey and Cmielewski-Starrs’ collaboration drive these points home, especially when the performance arena is invaded by the live presence of a drone. Plevey is no longer alone on stage dancing with and against the cinematic image of herself and the drone. Her drone combatant has now physically entered the space. This radically recalibrates the experience of the audience, who no doubt subliminally reason that relative safety precautions have been taken. After all, viewing big, dangerous nature from a point of safety has always been key to enjoyment of the sublime. Though the appearance of the drone will most likely trigger a rapidly suppressed involuntary adrenalin reaction—the fight or flight response—this suppression, as in the experience of the sublime, is part of the work’s physical thrill. Whilst certainly the onstage drone is not of war machine scale, not loaded with weaponry, nor combat ready, any audience member would still be very much aware of its capacity to harry, and select quarry other than the dancer onstage.

The gendered aspect of the performance, with an unarmed female quarry, draws further allusions to inadvertent attacks on civilians in combat zones.

The second work comes from a team in Hungary.  Initially a team led by Tamás Vicsek from the Department of Biological Physics at Eötvös University in Budapest created what they called ‘flying robots that communicate with each other directly and solve tasks collectively in a self-organized manner, without human intervention.’  Then, in collaboration with Nina Kov, an artist and choreographer based in the UK, the team developed ‘tools facilitating the interactivity between drones and humans’ and – in stark contrast to the first performance work – staged a ‘cooperation between [a] group of drones and humans through movement, which is instinctive and enjoyable…’  The result is a multi-media entertainment that is intended to show ‘the peaceful, civil and creative applications of drones, made possible by the collaboration between high level scientists and artists.’

You can see some of the preparations for the production in this video from YouTube:

And the stage performance at the Sziget Festival in 2015 in this one:

But you really ought to watch the video here, which opens with the disarming statement that

‘No computer-generated images were used.  No pilots, no pre-programmed routes, only dance and interactions.’

You won’t be surprised to learn that ‘Dirty Dancing” is closer in spirit to the first performance.  But both projects provide considerable food for thought about the incorporation of performance as a vital moment in analytical research, no?  (For my own, beginning attempts at a performance-work see here; this is drama, but I’ll be working with Wall Scholar Peter Klein on a musical collaboration around parallel themes, and now I’m starting to think about video and dance too…  But not until ‘Dirty Dancing’ is done!).

Another brick in the Wall

Walls JPEG

I am delighted to say that I’ve had my appointment as Peter Wall Distinguished Professor renewed for another five-year term.  It promises to be an exciting five years, since we’ve also appointed a new Director, Philippe Tortell.

The Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies at UBC is a wonderful place to work, not only because it’s somewhere the boundaries between the arts and sciences are constantly pushed and breached but because it’s also a constant affirmation that truly creative research is also irredeemably social.  It’s not so much a refuge from the modern university (though I’m sure some think of it like that) as a demonstration of what a university could and should be.  We have all sorts of ways to involve people outside UBC in what we do too, as you can see from our website

The war lawyers

If you have three minutes to spare, want to know how the incorporation of military lawyers into the so-called ‘kill-chain’ affects the conduct of later modern war by the United States and the Israeli military, and want a master-class in presentation watch Craig Jones‘ video on The War Lawyers here (scroll down).

Craig War Lawyers JPEG

This comes from Canada’s Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition, in which graduate students present their thesis in just three minutes.  There are all sorts of rules and restrictions – not least in the use of graphics, in which Craig excels too – but the result is none the less remarkable.  Craig aced UBC’s 3MT competition on 10 March, where he competed against 100 other graduate students and also won the People’s Choice Award, and went on to win the Western Canada final on 29 April; the national final takes place online (you can vote here until 19 May), and Craig will also represent UBC in the Universitas 21 International 3MT competition in the fall.

I don’t know how long that video will be up, so in case it should disappear I’ve embedded Craig’s first presentation (at UBC) from YouTube below:

Craig’s thesis will be submitted during the summer, and from what I’ve read so far it will be a major book in very short order.  Meanwhile if you don’t know his work you can find out more at his blog War, law, space; you can also access a number of his papers there (under his DOWNLOADS tab), including ‘Frames of law: targeting advice and operational law in the Israeli military’, Society & Space 33 (4) (2015) 676-96 [from the special issue on ‘War, law and space’ Craig co-edited with Michael Smith] and  ‘Lawfare and the juridification of late modern war’, Progress in human geography 40 (2) (2016) 221-239.

Rights and REDACTED


At Just Security the debate over the US air strike on the MSF Trauma Centre in Kunduz (see here and here) rumbles on, specifically around whether acknowledged violations of international humanitarian law (‘the laws of war’) constitute war crimes (see my previous post here).  The latest contribution is from Adil Ahmad Haque and it is extremely helpful.

But I’m struck by its title: ‘What the Kunduz report gets right (and wrong).‘  I’ve now read the report several times, and am working on my own commentary: but it turns out to be extremely difficult to know what the report gets right or wrong.

I say this having read multiple Investigation Reports, known collectively as Army Regulation 15-6 Reports, into civilian casualties caused by US military action.  They vary enormously in quality – the scope of the questions and the depth of the analysis – and in what has been released for public inspection.   Of all those that I have read, the report into the Uruzgan air strike in February 2010 that I discuss in ‘Angry Eyes‘ (here and here; more to come) now seems a model to me (see also here).

It’s redacted, but it includes real-time transcripts of radio communications between the aircrews and the ground force commander through his Joint Terminal Attack Controller, and after action transcripts of (sometimes highly combative) interviews with the principals involved.  In Kill-chain, Andrew Cockburn reports that the first act of the Investigating Officer, Major-General Timothy McHale, was to fly to the hospital where the wounded were being treated, and six weeks later he and his team had created ‘a hand-drawn time-line of the events that ultimately stretched for sixty-six feet around the four walls of the hangar he had commandeered for his office.’

This is very different from the unclassified version of the report into the Kunduz incident.  The investigation was headed by Major-General William Hickman, with two Assistant Investigating Officers – Brigadier-General Sean Jenkins and Brigadier-General Robert Armfield – supported by an unidentified Legal Advisor and five unidentified subject matter specialists in Special Operations; Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance;  AC-130 Aircrew Operations (this was the gunship that carried out the attack); Joint Targeting; and JTAC Operations.

The final report with its annexes reportedly runs to 3,000 pages, but the released version is much slimmer.   It has been redacted with a remarkably heavy hand.  I understand why names have been redacted – they were in the Uruzgan case too – but to remove all direct indications of rank or role from the various statements makes interpretation needlessly burdensome.

Some redactions seem to have been made not for reasons of security or privacy but to save embarrassment.  For example: from contextual evidence I suspect that several references to ‘MAMs’ or ‘military-aged males’ – a term that was supposedly removed from US military vocabulary – have been excised, but some have escaped the blunt red pencil.  On page after page even the time of an event has been removed: this is truly bizarre, since elsewhere the report is fastidious in fixing times and, notably, insists that the aircraft fired on the Trauma Center for precisely ‘30 minutes and 8 seconds’. The timeline matters and is central to any proper accounting for what happened: why suppress it?

Again in stark contrast to the Uruzgan report, the public version of the Kunduz report includes remarkably few transcriptions of the ‘extensive interviews’ its authors conducted with US and Afghan personnel or with MSF officials – too often just terse memoranda summarising them.

The AC-130 video has been withheld from public scrutiny – this was done in the Uruzgan case too – but, apart from a few selected extracts, the audio transcripts that were central to the Uruzgan case have been omitted from this one as well: and they are no less vital here.

Even if we bracket understandable concerns about the US military investigating itself, how can the public have any confidence in a report where so much vital information has been excluded?  If the military is to be accountable to the public that it serves and the people amongst whom (and for whom) it fights, then its accounts of incidents like this need to be as full and open as security and privacy allow.  Otherwise we pass into an Alice-in-Wonderland world where the Freedom of Information Act becomes a Freedom of Redaction Act.

As you’ll see, I’ll have more questions about the substance of the report when I complete my commentary.