Academics against the arms trade

Yoked to my previous post – and a distant echo of one of my earliest posts on ‘The death merchants‘ – is an important message from the editors of Critical Military Studies:

Dear academic friends and colleagues,

As many of you will know, from September 12th-15th the DSEI [Defence and Security Equipment International] arms fair will take place at the ExCeL Centre in East London. DSEI is one of the largest arms fairs in the world, with over 1500 companies and representatives from more than 100 states. As you can imagine, it also generates a lot of opposition. The Stop the Arms Fair coalition have called for a week of action before the arms fair begins, and as part of this we’re organising an academic conference, on Friday 8th September, that will take place in front of the ExCeL Centre. The conference will cover a series of issues related to militarism, with a series of talks, workshops and performances co-organised by activists and academics. Topics for workshops include:

–    Militarism and (gendered) embodiment
–    Recognising and resisting border militarism within universities
–    Militarism and contemporary colonialism
–    The purpose of radical theory

The team behind the workshop did this two years ago when the arms fair last happened, and the event was a huge success, providing participants with the opportunity to meet new people, have some wonderful conversations about the nature of militarism and the purpose of academic practice, and put academic ideas into action in an exciting and unusual manner. You can read a write-up of that event by Chris Rossdale in Critical Military Studies. There is a website for this year’s event here and Facebook event. Updates and logistics information will be available on both of those, but you can also get in touch with Chris Rossdale at C.Rossdale@lse.ac.uk if you want more details.

If you can’t make the conference (and even if you can), we are also currently circulating an open letter for academics to sign, signalling opposition to the arms fair. This will be published in a media outlet around a week before the action. We would be very grateful if you could sign it and circulate it to people and networks you think might be interested. You can find the letter here.

You can find more details (wherein the devil lurks) at DSEI’s website here, including this gem:

‘DSEI Strategic Conferences take place on 11 September (Day Zero) … 2017 brings Brexit and a change of US government, this combined with a competitive global defence & security market means DSEI can promise a conference and seminar programme that will challenge day to day thinking. Both events will tap into the ideas and theories of the people who drive the defence and security sector forward in pursuit of innovation and long-term economic prosperity…’

In case you’re wondering, admission is now £1,150 for ‘Industry/Academia’ but a snip at £150 for students….

Becoming Weapon

News from the brilliant Nisha Shah that her paper, ‘Gunning for war: infantry rifles and the calibration of lethal force’, is just out in a themed issue of Critical Studies on Security [(5 ( 2017] on ‘Becoming Weapon’:

Infantry rifles are responsible for the majority of war-related deaths. This paper describes how and why they became ‘standard-issue’ military equipment. Examining testing reports, field surgery observations and bullet specifications, I develop a theory of instrumentality through which a specific way of killing in war- fare becomes legitimate and manifest in infantry rifles. Rather than pre-given objects that are made acceptable through an evaluation of their uses and consequences, I show that weapons become possible through an ontology that calibrates how killing in war occurs, technologically and ethically. More generally, this paper expands the study of weaponry and war by uncovering the material and moral specifications that not only design but also crucially define what counts as a weapon. Clearly stated are when and against whom the line between life and death can be drawn. This paper, by contrast, uncovers the conditions that generate how and with what that line can be legitimately crossed.

In their helpful introduction, the guest editors – Antoine Bousquet, Jairus Grove and Nisha Shah – explain:

No human artefact is intrinsically a weapon, be it a sword, an explosive or a chemical agent. Conversely, a passenger airplane, a shard of broken glass or a trained dog can perfectly well serve as a vector of bodily harm or lethality. An arrangement of things becomes a weapon through relational changes in intensity and context such that its motive force, density, potential energy or mechanical capability comes to make events of death and dismemberment. And beyond the immediate occasion of a weapon’s terrible work lies a wider network of relations that condition its emergence and support its operation. Systematically pursued, the tracing of such a network will draw out dependencies that extend far beyond the immediate requirements of its material production or the political economy of its acquisition and circulation, revealing the long tail of weaponisation that runs through our contemporary societies…

By placing particular emphasis on the making or becoming of weapons, we can begin to displace the fascination with the technical performance of destruction and instead query how weapons come to destroy in the first place. In so doing, we hope to break the deadlock between techno-fetishism and normative-polemical rejections of weapons, which together function as obstacles to a greater understanding of the significance of weapons in the making of worlds of violence and war.

It’s an excellent issue, including a paper from the equally wonderful Kate Hall (Kindervater).  Here are those other contributions:

Attachments to War

And in lockstep with my last post and my continuing interest in the prosthetics of military violence…   A new book from Jennifer Terry, Attachments to War: biomedical logics and violence in twenty-first century America, also due from Duke University Press in November:

In Attachments to War Jennifer Terry traces how biomedical logics entangle Americans in a perpetual state of war. Focusing on the Afghanistan and Iraq wars between 2002 and 2014, Terry identifies the presence of a biomedicine-war nexus in which new forms of wounding provoke the continual development of complex treatment, rehabilitation, and prosthetic technologies. At the same time, the U.S. military rationalizes violence and military occupation as necessary conditions for advancing medical knowledge and saving lives. Terry examines the treatment of war-generated polytrauma, postinjury bionic prosthetics design, and the development of defenses against infectious pathogens, showing how the interdependence between war and biomedicine is interwoven with neoliberal ideals of freedom, democracy, and prosperity. She also outlines the ways in which military-sponsored biomedicine relies on racialized logics that devalue the lives of Afghan and Iraqi citizens and U.S. veterans of color. Uncovering the mechanisms that attach all Americans to war and highlighting their embeddedness and institutionalization in everyday life via the government, media, biotechnology, finance, and higher education, Terry helps lay the foundation for a more meaningful opposition to war.

Contents:

Introduction
1. The Biomedicine-War Nexus
2. Promises of Polytrauma: On Regenerative Medicine
3. We Can Enhance You: On Bionic Prosthetics
4. Pathogenic Threats: On Pharmaceutical War Profiteering
Epilogue

And here is the (equally brilliant) Laleh Khalili:

This brilliant book is a thoughtful and profoundly original study of how war becomes an object of attachment and support in the United States. Jennifer Terry’s discussion of wounding, injury, trauma, and prosthetics is one of the most fascinating, moving, and intensely generative studies I have read about how war is normalized, made everyday, and embedded in practices and beliefs and affect(ion)s of ordinary folks.

You can read the Introduction over at Catalyst: feminism, theory, technoscience here, and watch presentations on ‘Militarization, medicalization, responsibility’ (from 2015) by Jennifer and Nadia Abu el-Haj on You Tube here.

The Right to Maim

Following all too closely on the heels of my last post, a new book from Jasbir Puar, out from Duke University Press in November: The Right to Maim: debility, capacity, disability:

In The Right to Maim Jasbir K. Puar brings her pathbreaking work on the liberal state, sexuality, and biopolitics to bear on our understanding of disability. Drawing on a stunning array of theoretical and methodological frameworks, Puar uses the concept of “debility”—bodily injury and social exclusion brought on by economic and political factors—to disrupt the category of disability. She shows how debility, disability, and capacity together constitute an assemblage that states use to control populations. Puar’s analysis culminates in an interrogation of Israel’s policies toward Palestine, in which she outlines how Israel brings Palestinians into biopolitical being by designating them available for injury. Supplementing its right to kill with what Puar calls the right to maim, the Israeli state relies on liberal frameworks of disability to obscure and enable the mass debilitation of Palestinian bodies. Tracing disability’s interaction with debility and capacity, Puar offers a brilliant rethinking of Foucauldian biopolitics while showing how disability functions at the intersection of imperialism and racialized capital.

Contents:

Introduction: The Cost of Getting Better
1. Bodies with New Organs: Becoming Trans, Becoming Disabled
2. Crip Nationalism: From Narrative Prosthesis to Disaster Capitalism
3. Disabled Diaspora, Rehabilitating State: The Queer Politics of Reproduction in Palestine/Israel
4. “Will Not Let Die”: Debilitation and Inhuman Biopolitics in Palestine  1
Postscript: Treatment without Checkpoints

Here are three pre-publication reviews, first from Elizabeth Povinelli:

In signature style, Jasbir K. Puar takes readers across multiple social and textual terrains in order to demonstrate the paradoxical embrace of the politics of disability in liberal biopolitics. Puar argues that even as liberalism expands its care for the disabled, it increasingly debilitates workers, subalterns, and others who find themselves at the wrong end of neoliberalism. Rather than simply celebrating the progressive politics of disability, trans identity, and gay youth health movements, The Right to Maim shows how each is a complex interchange of the volatile politics of precarity in contemporary biopower.

Paul Amar:

Jasbir K. Puar’s must-read book The Right to Maim revolutionizes the study of twenty-first-century war and biomedicine, offering a searingly impressive reconceptualization of disability, trans, and queer politics. Bringing together Middle East Studies and American Studies, global political economy and gendered conflict studies, this book’s exciting power is its revelation of the incipient hegemony of maiming regimes. Puar’s shattering conclusions draw upon rigorous and systematic empirical analysis, ultimately offering an enthralling vision for how to disarticulate disability politics from this maiming regime’s dark power.

And Judith Butler:

Jasbir K. Puar’s latest book offers us a new vocabulary for understanding disability, debility, and capacity, three terms that anchor a sharp and provocative analysis of biopolitics of neoliberalism, police power, and militarization. Gaining recognition for disability within terms that instrumentalize and efface its meanings carries a great risk. So too does opting out of discourse altogether. Puar references a wide range of scholarly and activist resources to show how maiming becomes a deliberate goal in the continuing war on Palestine, and how the powers of whiteness deflect from the demographics of disability and ability. Lastly, her deft understanding of how the attribution of ‘capacity’ can work for and against people in precarious positions will prove crucial for a wiser and more radical struggle for justice.

If you can’t wait until November, you can get a taste of Jasbir’s arguments in her essay for borderlands 14 (1) (2015) ‘The ‘Right’ to Maim: Disablement and Inhumanist Biopolitics in Palestine‘ available as an open access pdf here.  I’ve been attending closely to Jasbir’s vital arguments as I re-think the sketches I made in Meatspace? and The prosthetics of Military Violence: more soon.

Distinction and the ethics of violence

In another lifetime, or so it seems, I wrote a short essay on ‘The death of the civilian’ (DOWNLOADS tab), and I seem to have spent much of the intervening years developing those early ideas.  So I’m thrilled to see an important new paper from Nicola Perugini and Neve Gordon, ‘Distinction and the Ethics of Violence: on the legal construction of liminal subjects and spaces’, available online now at Antipode:

This paper interrogates the relationship among visibility, distinction, international humanitarian law and ethics in contemporary theatres of violence. After introducing the notions of “civilianization of armed conflict” and “battlespaces”, we briefly discuss the evisceration of one of international humanitarian law’s axiomatic figures: the civilian. We show how liberal militaries have created an apparatus of distinction that expands that which is perceptible by subjecting big data to algorithmic analysis, combining the traditional humanist lens with a post-humanist one. The apparatus functions before, during, and after the fray not only as an operational technology that directs the fighting or as a discursive mechanism responsible for producing the legal and ethical interpretation of hostilities, but also as a force that produces liminal subjects. Focusing on two legal figures—“enemies killed in action” and “human shields”—we show how the apparatus helps justify killing civilians and targeting civilian spaces during war.

Their two case studies focus on US drone attacks in Pakistan and the use of human shields in Gaza (the image below, taken from the article, shows the Israeli Defence Force’s ‘Laboratory of Discrimination’ (sic)).

You can watch a video where Nicola and Neve discuss their ideas on the Antipode website here, which also provides a less formal gloss:

[Their paper] examines how militaries actually make distinctions in the battlefield, given that today most fighting takes place in urban settings where distinguishing between combatant and civilian is becoming increasingly difficult.

Their paper shows how liberal militaries are utilizing new technologies that aim to expand that which is perceptible within the fray. Combining the more traditional forms of making distinctions such as binoculars and cameras with cutting edge hi-tech, militaries subject big data to algorithmic analysis aimed at identifying certain behavioral patterns. The technologies of distinction function before, during, and after the fray not only in order to direct the fighting and to help produce the legal and ethical interpretation of hostilities, but also as a mechanism that identifies and at times creates new legal figures.

Focusing on two legal figures—“enemies killed in action” and “human shields”—Nicola and Neve show how technologies of distinction help justify killing civilians and targeting civilian spaces during war. Ultimately, they maintain that distinction, which is meant to guarantee the protection of civilians in the midst of armed conflict, actually helps hollow the notion of civilian through the production of new liminal legal figures that can be legitimately killed.

For more on the intersections between international law, military protocols and the (in)visibility of the civilian, I also recommend the insightful work of Christiane Wilke (see ‘Seeing Civilians (or not)’ here).

A modern space of terror

Several years ago, while my work on the geographies and genealogies of aerial violence was in its early stages, I was in Madrid: one of my main objectives was to see Pablo Picasso‘s Guernica.

I’d written (briefly) about it in a short essay – ”In another time-zone, the bombs fall unsafely….’: Targets, civilians and late modern war’ (DOWNLOADS tab):

In 1937 Europe’s world was turned upside down. The theme of the Exposition Universelle that was due to open in Paris later that year was the celebration of modern technology, ‘Art et technique dans la vie moderne’, and Pablo Picasso had been invited to paint a mural for the Spanish Pavilion. By the spring, he was still casting around for a subject.

27 April was market day in Guernica (Gernika), and the Basque city was crowded with refugees from the Civil War and people from out of town attending the market.  Towards the end of the afternoon, the town was attacked from the air: first by a single German aircraft, then by three Italian aircraft, then by three waves of German and Italian aircraft. Later, in the early evening, the attack was resumed with astonishing ferocity by squadrons from the German Condor Legion whose high explosive and incendiary bombs set off a firestorm that destroyed three quarters of the town and left as many as 1, 600 people dead and over 800 injured. The next day a passionate eyewitness account of the devastation by journalist George Steer was published in The Times [see here for a reading of his report by his biographer Nicholas Rankin and for more contemporary imagery]. His report was syndicated around the world and set off a firestorm of its own. Franco’s immediate response was to deny that an air raid had taken place, and to blame the destruction on Republican and Anarchist forces defending the town. The commander of the Condor Legion, Wolfram von Richthofen, claimed that the raid had been directed against a military target, the bridge over the Rio Mundaca, and that its purpose was to cut off the Republican line of retreat; but his own standing orders required military targets to be attacked ‘without regard for the civilian population’, and in a secret report to Berlin he described ‘the concentrated attack on Guernica’ as ‘the greatest success’ in extinguishing resistance to the Nationalist-Fascist forces.

Picasso now had his subject:

‘It was an enormous canvas, so large that Picasso needed a ladder and brushes strapped to sticks in order to paint its heights… Working from the ladder when he needed to, and sometimes on his knees, the artist began to paint on May 11, 1937, and he did so with a hot and focused intensity that was unusually keen even for him. He was determined to transform the vacant canvas into a monumental mural that would disturb and shock its viewers, reminding them … that people similarly suffered unimaginable terror in every place and time.’

‘Guernica’ as both place and painting became a symbol of a technological sublime terrifyingly different from that anticipated by the organizers of the Exposition Universelle. It was a sort of imaginative counter-geography that wrenchingly displaced the complacent Euro-American fiction that aerial warfare was always waged in ‘their’ space and that its horrors could remain unregistered.

But, as you can see, I said remarkably little about the canvas itself.  And I confess that when I finally stood in front of it in Madrid I continued to struggle with the composition.

In a wonderful essay on ‘Picasso and Tragedy’ in this month’s London Review of Books T.J. Clark has come to my aid – not least because he flips my uncertainty about the composition into a careful consideration of its spatiality.  First, this:

What marks Guernica off from most other murals of its giant size is the fact that it registers so powerfully as a single scene. Certainly it is patched together out of fragments, episodes, spotlit silhouettes. Part of its agony is disconnectedness – the isolation that terror is meant to enforce. But this disconnectedness is drawn together into a unity: Guernica does not unwind like a scroll or fold out like a strip cartoon (for all its nods to both idioms); it is not a procession of separate icons; it is a picture – a distinct shape of space – whose coherence is felt immediately by the viewer for all its strangeness.

‘Space’ is shorthand, I recognise. In the case of Guernica, what seems to matter most is the question of where the viewer is standing in the bombed city. Are we inside some kind of room? There are certainly walls, doors, windows, a table in the half-dark, even the dim lines of a ceiling. But doesn’t the horse opposite us look to be screaming in a street or courtyard, with a woman holding a lamp pushing her head through a window – a filmy curtain billowing over her forearm – to see what the noise is outside? Can we talk of an ‘outside’ and ‘inside’ at all in Guernica? Are the two kinds of space distinct? We seem to be looking up at a room’s high corners top left and right, but also, above the woman with the lamp, at the tiles on a roof. There is a door flapping on its hinges at the picture’s extreme right edge, but does it lead the way into safety or out to the void? How near to us are the animals and women? If they are close by, as appears likely, looming over us – so many giants – does that proximity ‘put us in touch’ with them? Does proximity mean intimacy? How does the picture’s black, white and grey monochrome affect our looking? Does it put back distance – detachment – into the scene, however near and enormous individual bodies may seem? Where is the ground in Guernica? Do we have a leg (or a tiled floor) to stand on? Literally we do – the grid of tiles is one of the last things Picasso put in as the picture came to a finish. But do any of the actors in the scene look to be supported by it? Does it offer viewers a foothold in the criss-cross of limbs?

The reader will have understood that the best answer to almost all of these questions is: ‘I’m not sure.’ And spatial uncertainty is one key to the picture’s power. It is Picasso’s way of responding to the new form of war, the new shape of suffering.

 

And then this:

Guernica is a tragic scene – a downfall, a plunge into darkness – but distinctively a 20th-century one. Its subject is death from the air. ‘That death could fall from heaven on so many,’ Picasso told an interviewer later, ‘right in the middle of rushed life, has always had a great meaning for me.’ A great meaning, and a special kind of horror. The historian Marc Bloch had this to say in 1940:

The fact is that this dropping of bombs from the sky has a unique power of spreading terror … A man is always afraid of dying, but particularly so when to death is added the threat of complete physical disintegration. No doubt this is a peculiarly illogical manifestation of the instinct of self-preservation, but its roots are very deep in human nature.

Bombing of the kind experimented with in April 1937 – ‘carpet bombing’, ‘strategic bombing’ ‘total war’ – is terrifying. Because the people on the ground, cowering in their shelters, may imagine themselves suddenly gone from the world – ripped apart and scattered, vanished without trace. Because what will put an end to them so completely comes out of the blue – Picasso’s ‘from heaven’ – and has no imaginable form. Because death from now on is potentially (‘strategically’) all-engulfing: no longer a matter of individual extinctions recorded on a war memorial, but of whole cities – whole ‘worlds’, whole forms of life – snuffed out in an hour or so.

And finally this:

We could say that the nowhere-ness and isolation in Guernica are what terror – terror with von Richthofen’s technology at its disposal [he called it ‘absolutely fabulous’] – most wants to produce. It is the desired state of mind lurking behind the war-room euphemisms: ‘undermining civilian morale’, ‘destroying social cohesion’, ‘strategic bombing’, ‘putting an end to war-willingness’. But surely Guernica would not have played the role it has for the past eighty years if all it showed was absolute negativity. It is a scene, after all, not a meaningless shambles. It presents us, at the degree zero of experience, with an image of horror shared – death as a condition (a promised end, a mystery) that opens a last space for the human…

It is difficult, maybe impossible, to describe what is happening here without one’s language tipping into the falsely redemptive. Nothing that takes place in Guernica, to make my own feeling clear, strikes me as redeemed or even transfigured by the picture’s black-and-white reassembly of its parts. Fear, pain, sudden death, disorientation, screaming immediacy, disbelief, the suffering of animals – none of these realities ‘falls into place’. Judith Butler in a recent essay, looking for a basis on which a future politics might be built, asks her readers to consider the idea of a collectivity founded on weakness. ‘Vulnerability, affiliation and collective resistance’: these, she argues, are such a commonality’s building blocks. I believe that Guernica’s usefulness – its continuing life in so many different contexts – may derive from the fact that it pictures politics in much the same way.

My extended extracts don’t do justice to the richness and the subtlety – nor the passion – of the original, which is easily the best essay I’ve read all summer – and long before.

So, two resolutions: I want to go back to Madrid; and I want to say much more about Picasso’s unsettling composition and its continuing resonance in my next book, Reach from the sky: aerial violence and the everywhere war.

News from Forensic Architecture

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(The image is taken from one of the reports, ‘Ground Truth’, a project that ‘aims to provide historical and juridical evidence on behalf of communities in the illegalised Palestinian Bedouin villages in the northern threshold of the Negev/Naqab desert, Israel’; the newsletter provides details of this and several other current investigations around the world).