Digital breaches

In my latest posts on the wars in Syria – Cities under Siege here and here – I tried to open a space for the voices of those inside the siege lines.  To supplement those discussions, I want to notice two other digital breaches of siege lines, one in Mosul in Iraq and the other in East Ghouta in Damascus.

Although the Syrian regime has been either unwilling or unable to prevent digital access to the world outside its barricades (no doubt for a variety of reasons), Islamic State has persistently sought to isolate the communities it controls from within.  For example:

In Mosul, Omar Mohammed – a 31 year-old ‘stealth historian‘ – risked his life to chronicle life under IS in a remarkable series of posts: Mosul Eye.  When he lost his job teaching ancient history at the university in June 2014 he started an anonymous blog and became the eponymous ‘Mosul Eye’.

Lori Hinnant and Maggi Michael reported for AP:

Anonymous for more than three years, Mohammed wandered the streets of occupied Mosul by day, chatting with shopkeepers and Islamic State fighters, visiting friends who worked at the hospital, swapping scraps of information. He grew out his hair and his beard and wore the shortened trousers required by the extremists. He forced himself to witness the beheadings and deaths by stoning, so he could hear killers call out the names of the condemned and their supposed crimes.

By night, he was Mosul Eye, and from his darkened room he told the world what was happening. If caught, he knew he would be killed.

Writing in the New Yorker in October 2016,  Robin Wright explained that Mosul Eye

provided details about life under the caliphate—initially offering hourly reports regarding roads around Mosul that were safe to travel, and then, in the following weeks, reporting on the dawning anxiety about the heavily armed ISIS fighters, the power blackouts, the rising prices, the chaos in local markets, the panic over food shortages, and the occupiers’ utter brutality. Over the next year, Mosul Eye expanded into a Facebook page and a Twitter account. The posts were determinedly stoic—melancholic and inspiring at once.

For the past two weeks, as Mosul has become the epicenter of a new U.S.-backed offensive to defeat ISIS—also known as ISIL—Mosul Eye has been posting dozens of times a day on its social-media outlets. On Monday, it tweeted, “Today, Mosul has entered the atmosphere of the war. The bombardment is continuous on many areas of the city, specifically the southern and northeastern outskirts of the city.”

Mohammed paid smugglers to arrange his escape, and once outside of Mosul he eventually revealed his identity; it was not an easy decision but once he had made it, he said, he finally felt free.

Most of the published interviews with Mohammed took place once he was outside Mosul and his identity was known, but Wright managed to reach him over social media inside the besieged city and her report addressed the key questions of provenance and credibility:

Iraqis and Mideast scholars believe that the site is for real. Rasha al Aqeedi, a scholar from Mosul who now writes from Dubai, told me that “the information is reliable,” and added, “The perspective and ideology, however, reflect Mosul’s young intelligentsia: the will to review Islam and question religious texts and the fault lines along historic narratives.”

But the same questions dogged the two AP journalists en arrière, once they had met with him and he revealed his identity.  Here is their detailed response:

Omar gave us databases from his hard drive tracking the dead, noting daily events in Mosul. Each one was a separate file — totaling hundreds of files. The origin dates on each matched the date of the file, or at most was one or two days away from it. For his account of the day on the Tigris, he gave us multiple photos and a video from the day, each with an origin date in March 2015, which was when he said the events had happened. On Google Maps, he showed us the curve in the river where he picnicked, and zoomed on the marshy areas to show how it matched up with his account. As for himself blogging inside a dark room in his house in Mosul, he provided a video that AP used. He used maps to show his escape route. He showed on Google a list of the top students from his high school in Mosul, and his name was among the top five.

On the third day, just before we filmed over the course of about 90 minutes, he stepped away to make a phone call, in English, to announce that in a few minutes he would be shedding his anonymity as he didn’t want to be anonymous anymore. He showed us footage from his thesis defense, in which one of the professors accused him of secularism.

After the meetings, we asked Omar for contact information for his thesis advisor, who was among the few to figure out his identity during the early days of Mosul Eye; his younger brother, who he had told over the summer; activists and volunteers he worked with in Mosul; an American history professor he was in touch with via Skype since 2012, who knew his real identity. He provided all of this, and we spoke with all of them, including one person who, as it turns out, also figured out who he was and discovered that they have mutual friends. Omar provided us with links to his own scholarly work on Mosul. He sent over screen grabs of exchanges with a reporter from another news organization who he had worked with during the airstrikes to try and extract trapped civilians. He explained that, by that point, people were just messaging Mosul Eye in hopes he could help them. He acknowledged one other person had administrator access to the account: a Mosul woman now living in the U.S. who helped him with some of the interviews in English.

Omar explained to us how he cross-checked his information, and we put some of that into the story, but Mosul Eye isn’t an infallible source any more than anyone else, especially in a chaotic war environment. His death toll numbers, especially during the final months of the battle, are unconfirmed but in line with other estimates.That said, some of his unpublished notes read by Lori and Maggie, with origin dates from 2014 and 2015 and early 2016 especially, showed knowledge of IS that would only be published later. The leaflets he was collecting and publishing, the photos he was using to offer biographies and diagrams of their leadership showed a historian’s desire for documentation.

Several activists whom AP interviewed said that Mosul Eye was the only window to the outside world and that they have been closely following but fearing to even “like” or “share,” knowing that IS keeps an eye on social media.

I have cited this passage in its entirety because in the deformed world of “fake news” (which plainly did not start with Donald Trump, even if he embodies its digital metastasis: see also here and here), where today the alt.left is as pernicious as the alt.right in disparaging stories they don’t like, questions of veracity – and, to be sure, of positionality – have assumed a new and profoundly political importance  The vomit-inducing denial of systematic Russian and Syrian air strikes on hospitals and medical facilities across Syria is a case in point; the disingenuous disparagement of the work of MSF, the Syrian Civil Defence (the White Helmets) and a host of other non-government agencies is another.

It’s a complicated terrain, of course, and my second example illustrates something of what is at stake.  It comes from East Ghouta.  I’m preparing a major post on recent events there – it should be ready next week – and, as in my previous work, here too I’ve drawn on voices from inside the siege.  Many newsrooms and digital platforms have reported the extraordinary videos posted on Twitter and YouTube by 15 year-old Muhammad Najem: see here and here.

CNN reported:

Najem’s videos have a common theme: an appeal to the world to bear witness to what is happening in Syria.
“People should know about everything happening in Syria,” he told CNN. “I want to follow my studies. I want to become a reporter when I grow up. “Our blood begs every day. You watch it daily without any reaction from you,” Najem says in one video, wearing a Syrian flag draped around his neck like a scarf. “Our hunger, cold, and displacement have become a common sight. Save our people in Ghouta.”
In one of his most powerful videos, Najem stands on a rooftop as explosions echo in the distance. “We are killed by your silence,” he says.”


(If you read some of the comments below his videos on YouTube, you will discover the killing is not only accomplished by silence.)

The CNN report added the by now standard disclaimer – ‘CNN cannot independently verify the authenticity of these videos – but the tone and texture of their coverage makes it plain that CNN doubts neither their authenticity nor their accuracy.  There is no single, plenary Truth – Donna Haraway debunked the ‘God Trick’ ages ago – but passion and partiality do not automatically disqualify someone’s voice: still less so, when their position is so precarious.

But listen to this exchange from the state-owned France 24.


In one of the videos, Najem says he wants to become a reporter “when I am grown up”. But for Franco-American [photo]journalist Jonathan Alpeyrie, who covered the Syrian conflict (in 2013, he was held captive by an Islamist group for 81 days), “a journalist shouldn’t be seen… Otherwise he becomes the subject,” he told FRANCE 24. To Alpeyrie, the teenager is more activist than journalist. “He is hostile to Bashar al-Assad but the role of the press isn’t to take a stance….”

Although several news outlets have relayed the teenager’s testimony, Alpeyrie thinks it’s dangerous to do so: “We can’t confirm the provenance of these videos. He says that he’s filming in Eastern Ghouta, but we don’t know anything.”


Describing Najem’s videos as a series of ‘selfies’, France 24’s reporter asked philosopher-psychoanalyst Elsa Godart for her take on them:

If a teenager is behind the account, his reliance on the selfie can have different motivations, said Godart. In the worst situation, aside from manipulation: “We can envision an extreme narcissism, where one plays on a tragic event under the sympathetic guise of defending humanity.”

And if we assume that the gesture is real and sincere on the part of an adolescent on the ground? “Then this could be just as it appears: a selfie as an act of resistance. The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei documented his 2009 arrest with a selfie that he later exhibited as a work of art,” said Godart.

To her, the selfie taken at war is similar: “It denounces something extraordinary. It is a testimony of something that one feels a duty to report. ‘I am attacked, and here is the photographic evidence.’”

I hope it’s obvious what I think too.

Geographical imaginations

I’ve re-designed the blog but all the familiar features are still here; I hope it works better, and it should certainly be easier on the eye(s), but let me know if something isn’t working for you.  I had wanted to change the title too, and use just the three words that have always appeared below it – I am a man without discipline (!) – but that proved to be a bridge too far.  For now, anyway.

The images behind the title are on automatic rotation – ah, algorithms! – so don’t be put off if the blog looks different the next time you visit.

I’d like to draw your attention to the tabs at the head of the blog: DOWNLOADS provides easy access to much of my recent work, but if something is missing that you need please let me know; the GUIDE is a series of signposts to the blog and is probably a better place to start than the ‘search’ box; and TEACHING includes not only course outlines and reading lists but also the slides for some recent lectures relevant to the focus of the blog.

If you want to download one of the longer posts, hint the ‘Print’ button at the end and save as a pdf.

Thanks for visiting.

War | Space

Regular readers will remember Craig Jones wonderful old blog, War, law, space; it’s now re-launched, re-imagined and refurbished and you can find it here.


WAR | SPACE brings attention to the enduring but not inevitable nature of war and imagines a world without (para)military violence. It offers critical perspectives that eschew narratives of geopolitical grand strategy in favour of a people-centric view of war. By ‘people’ we mean not only the political and military architects of (para)military violence, but crucially also those civilians, soldiers, and fighters who are caught in the mighty cross-hairs of war.

In a famous 1985 essay, the American essayist and professor of English and American Literature and Language Elaine Scarry wrote: “the main purpose and outcome of war is injuring”. She points out that this fact is so obvious that it is often forgotten altogether. She continues:

“one can read many pages of an historic or strategic account of a particular military campaign, or listen to many installments in a newscast narrative of events in a contemporary war, without encountering the acknowledgment that the purpose of the event described is to alter (to burn, to blast, to shell, to cut) human tissue, as well as to alter the surface, shape, and deep entirety of the objects that human beings recognize as extensions of themselves.”

Scarry’s words ring truer than ever 30 years on. The genres to which she refers are still replete with pages and reels devoted to what might best be described as Clean War. Clean War is full of euphemism and offers a bloodless, glossy account of war in which ‘we’ defeat the barbarians with law, ethics and an overflowing vocabulary of legitimisation on our side. In Clean War only the bad guys die; actually, they are simply taken out, liquidated, targeted, replaced or disposed. They are not mourned, for there is no life that has been lost; nobody – and no body – to mourn, to speak with Judith Butler.  In his famous essay Politics and the English LanguageGeorge Orwell described a version of Clean War as “the defence of the indefensible”. He wrote:

“[P]olitical language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.”

And so it is with precise, clean, surgical, just, legal, necessary, and proportional war today. So much so that we must constantly remind ourselves, pace Scarry, that first and foremost, war is injury.

WAR | SPACE pays special attention to those who injure, those who are injured, and those who care for the fractured, fragile and injured bodies and souls who remain. It also pays special attention to the ideas, institutions and processes that cause, constrain, and remedy war’s many painful injuries.

Craig adds that he’s also looking for ‘collaborators and authors to expand this project to include cutting edge critical thinking about war, especially in the Middle East and North Africa.

If you are interested in joining this project or would like to contribute in any way please email: craig . jones at ncl. ac . uk.

Victims of (para)military violence, academics, journalists, activists and interested citizens are encouraged to get in touch.

A happier new year

Blog visitors 2015 JPEG

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

Paris of/in the Middle East (November 2015)

The prosthetics of military violence (February 2015)

Travelling through words (August 2015)

Theory of the drone 1: Genealogies (July 2013)

The war on Ebola (October 2014)

Je ne suis pas Charlie (January 2015)

Bombing Encyclopedia of the world (August 2012)

Is Paris Burning? (October 2012)

Boots on the ground (September 2014)

Inhumanitarian mapping (October 2014)

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

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

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

Travelling through words

How-We-Write-cover-EAt Stuart Elden‘s suggestion, I’ve been invited to join a collaborative project initiated and edited by Suzanne Akbari called ‘How we write‘: it’s an interdisciplinary collection of short essays each of which describes how we write (and emphatically not how you ought to write…).

It will be published in remarkably short order by Punctum Books as a free downloadable volume; the contributors are Suzanne Conklin Akbari, Michael Collins, Alexandra Gillespie, Alice Hutton Sharp, Asa Simon Mittman, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Maura Nolan, Rick Godden, Bruce Holsinger, Stuart Elden and Steve Mentz.

There’s certainly not one way of writing, and as I roughed out my contribution I realised through talking with friends that even in my own field(s) the variety of writing practices is enormous and seemingly endless.  Trevor Barnes told me over lunch yesterday that he had once thought everyone wrote like him.  It turns out that we have much in common – we both find writing difficult, and neither of us writes every day – and we are worlds away from a close colleague who writes in bed from 6 to 10 a.m., longhand on a yellow legal pad, everything tumbling out perfectly formed…

So here is what I came up with (with some links added):

Travelling through words

 The way I write – by which I mean both the practices I follow and (please God) the style of my writing – has changed over the years: though, as I tell all my students, that doesn’t mean it’s become any easier.

I wrote my PhD thesis (on the woollen industry in Yorkshire between 1780 and 1840) in three weeks. Really. Starting at 7 a.m., with thirty minutes off for lunch (including a walk to the corner shop for a newspaper, trailed by our deeply suspicious cat all the way there and all the way back), an hour off for dinner and the quick pleasure of a novel, knocking off at midnight. Every day for twenty-one days. When I finished I promised myself I’d never work like that again. Years later, while I was writing The Colonial Present, I became wholly absorbed in the attempt to keep up with a cascade of real-time events in multiple places. My training as an historical geographer hadn’t prepared me for that – I’d always envied the ability of colleagues writing about contemporary issues to make sense of a world that was changing around them as they wrote – and there were times when I yearned for the less frenetic pace of archival work. But I wasn’t writing to a deadline – though as the project swelled beyond an analysis of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan to include Israel’s renewed assault on occupied Palestine and then the US-led invasion of Iraq, I decided I must finish before Bush invaded France.

Deadlines are the problem: I’ve always had the greatest difficulty writing to meet them because I can never be sure where my words will take me. Lecturing is something else entirely. There’s something infinitely more pressing about facing a live audience the next morning, and since I don’t perform from a prepared script I don’t have to fine-tool my prose or curb my flights of fancy, and I like the sense of freedom that gives me. Anyone writing in those pre-digital days could also rely on a raft of excuses to stay afloat in the face of turbulent editors – not least clinging to the flotsam of “I posted the manuscript last week.” But a PhD thesis combined the worst of both worlds: appealing to a mail-storm was out of the question, and my Cambridge examiners were live and all too close at hand. The problem was that I had made little real progress and instead had devoted myself to acting (a live audience again). Every Wednesday evening I would walk home after rehearsals promising myself a fresh start the following morning. But who starts on a Thursday? So we agreed, me and I, to wait until Monday. Monday evening found me walking home after rehearsals renewing my vows. But it was the 29th of the month, and who starts anything then? So we both agreed to wait until the 1st of the month. And when that arrived, it was a Thursday. You could keep this up forever, or at least I could. In this case, the back story was that I had been married for just three months when my mother-in-law asked my wife to accompany her on an extended visit to her family in Colombia, and I realized that this was an opportunity for uninterrupted, distraction-free writing.

Those two adjectives tell the real story: how I welcomed those interruptions and distractions! There always seemed to be good reasons to defer putting pen to paper (or, more accurately in those days, fingers to the keys of my electric typewriter). As you will have gathered I was, and remain, a past master at procrastination. I know that many writers have an iron will and obediently follow a strict self-discipline. Perhaps the most extreme, though probably apocryphal, example is Victor Hugo, who supposedly instructed his manservant to confiscate all his clothes so that he couldn’t leave the house while he was working on a novel. But that’s not me (I don’t have a manservant).

Or at any rate, it’s not me until I immerse myself in the writing. And that’s always been my first problem: starting. Over the years I’ve learned to know and trust myself. So I know I can write in the morning, sometimes in the evening but never in the afternoon – so I’ve stopped trying. And if the words aren’t there on Monday morning, there is no point in spending the day staring at the screen and hesitantly pecking at the keys, because I know very well that the next morning I will come in, read the print-out and tear the whole thing up. Better to find other things to do – especially if I can convince myself that they are getting me into the right space to start the next day. The converse is also true. If the words are leaking out of my fingertips dismally early on a Sunday morning, then out they must come (and, in case you are wondering, I’m still married to my wife – who learned all this long before I did). The irony is that once the text is moving, I’ve always wondered why it took me so long to get started.

I invariably wonder about that because I actually enjoy the process once it’s under way, though each time I also wonder whether I’ll be able to pull it off again. Whenever I sit at my desk, or increasingly these days my laptop, there’s almost always a flicker of doubt: will the words come this time? I imagine (another conceit, I know) that it’s something like the moment just before the diver launches himself into space. I pause, waiting to break the still surface of the screen.

I have my own swimming-pool library, of course. I’ll have read and read and then read some more, and I’ll have organized my notes, quotations, comments, thoughts and ideas into a long working – I was going to say draft, but it’s more of a storyboard. In the past, the storyboard would have been the product of reading and thinking, by which I mean it was a verbal-textual product-in-formation. Reading is a creative process, to be sure, though it’s usually an internal one as you work with the text to understand what the author is arguing (and why they could possibly be arguing that) while at the same time making it your own: not just putting it into your own words but working out what you make of it, where it’s taking you (and whether you want to go there), and installing it into your own library (where it may well magically move from one shelf to another). So I’ve got endless notes – Kindle Highlights now saves me hours of transcription, and I work through them, highlighting key passages in bold, adding comments and organizing them into digital files – and I’ll have extracted what I need, and cut-and-pasted everything into a rough map that still doesn’t commit me to any single route.

I know that it’s also a long way from the text I’m going to write; I open that up as a separate document, control my fear at its blankness by formatting the page, giving the document a title (I actually can’t write without a title), saving it, and then – well, wait or write.

I don’t read (or write) with a single purpose; on the way all sorts of other ideas flicker into being, rarely fully formed, that might end up in the essay I’m working on at the moment but might just as well end up as the spur for something else altogether. My sources are all over the place, and ideas are as likely to emerge from fiction as they are from anywhere else. Years ago I read William Boyd’s An Ice-Cream War, and one passage – “Gabriel thought maps should be banned. They gave the world an order and reasonableness it didn’t possess” – stayed with me, like a burr clinging to my jeans. I used it as an epigraph in one of the chapters in Geographical Imaginations, but years later I surprised myself by returning not only to that passage but also to the incident it described, and unfolding it into a completely new essay on cartographic vision and what I called “corpography” in the First World War (in which another novel, Tom McCarthy’s C, also occupies a central place: I can’t think of a more beautiful combination of skilled research and superb writing). I called the essay “Gabriel’s Map” [DOWNLOADS tab] – of course – but, more figuratively for my present purposes, working on it confirmed that there’s something deeply deceptive about mapping, a false sense of security that has to be supplemented by lively interruptions activated through the body.

So I also like to be free of the text – springing away from the board, if you like (and I do like) – so that for me there’s always been another moment in creative work that is an intensely physical, even corporeal process, thinking that is best conducted on the move, sometimes in front of a class but often out walking, alive to the world around me until it disappears (or I do) into my own fabricated world. I’ve always had the sensation of feeling myself think: of ideas moving around, words forming in my mouth, whole phrases springing to my lips (the real trick is to remember them!). I often talk to myself, even say passages out loud, because the rhythm and cadence of the prose matters to me, and I know it does to some readers too. I remember Roger Lee, when he was editor of the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, writing to tell me that he had just spent a summer’s afternoon wandering around his garden reading aloud parts of my manuscript on the Egyptian journeys of Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert. It was a characteristically thoughtful and wonderfully appreciative remark, and I’ve never forgotten it. In some measure, I think, I always have Roger and his garden in my mind’s eye as I try to coax more words into the world.

Even writing is a corporeal process. I can’t think with my laptop on my lap – it has to be on a table or a desk – and I need a chair that I can push back or pull up; I need space to get up, scoot to a book-case, stand and gaze out of the window; and I write best in bare feet (seriously: perhaps that’s where the diving metaphor comes from). I usually write three or four pages without much editing. This is never the whole argument or story, just the first three or four pages, and – like those crime novelists whose work I most admire – I’m never sure where I’m going next. (How I despair of those who tell me they have finished their research so that all – all! – they have to do is “write it up,” as though writing is not part of the creative research process: if what you’ve written is merely a record of what you’ve done or thought, then perhaps you should work in a laboratory). Three or four hot pages uncurl from the printer, and then I take myself off – sometimes to my office at the university, sometimes to a coffee shop – where I go over what I’ve written. It’s much better editing hard copy than trying to do so on the screen, and for some reason I have to use a black roller-ball; pencil doesn’t work, and blue ink is a disaster. By the time I’ve re-written the draft, expanded sentences that I now see are shorthand for something that needs much more explication, and added notes to myself about work that needs to be done to fill out gaps, I’ve also got a sense of where the writing is taking me next.

photo-3So it’s back to the keyboard – and back to the beginning of the manuscript. I rework my original pages, and by the time I’ve finished (scribbling on my original storyboard and annotating the map while I’m writing the essay, adding footnotes which will sometimes make it into the finished version but are just as likely to be notes to myself, and pushing further out into the unknown) those three or four pages will have grown to six or seven. I use footnotes constantly, sometimes as commentary, often as placeholders for paragraphs to be drafted in the next round of revisions, and always as a holding pen for references. I never use the Harvard reference system while I’m composing – to me, the arch-enemy of good writing [see Gregory D (1990)] – and the final labour of transforming (deforming) my prose into the obstacle course of brackets, names and dates required by most journals is the most depressing part of the whole business. Once my six or seven pages are on the screen the cycle starts again: back to the beginning, editing, annotating, moving some of those footnotes into the text (which is often the best place for them) and composing another three or four pages, slowly pushing on.

It’s a discontinuous process, but I’m always writing from the beginning towards the end, although I never know in advance where that will be. It isn’t seamless, and sometimes everything comes to a juddering halt. These days I use my blog as (among other things) a sort of five-finger exercise, practicing ideas for long-form essays and getting the words to flow across the screen, but some days that’s not enough. In fact, I can look back at virtually all of my published work and remember how the gaping white space between this paragraph and that marks a week, sometimes (far) longer, when nothing was working. That’s almost always been because I didn’t know enough or because I’d tried to dodge a difficulty. So I eventually admit to myself that I need to read and think some more, to go back and undo the preceding paragraphs, even – the horror of it! – to delete whole passages (that’s easily the hardest part, but I’ve learned to save those deletions in case they can be given a new lease of life somewhere else), and often to re-order or even re-think the narrative. This also usually involves going off to find new source materials, reading more essays and more books, so that the whole journey opens up again.

photo-6En route, my desk becomes steadily more cluttered with piles of books, previous print-outs, pages from articles and far too many black roller-ball pens. There’s no trail of breadcrumbs to take me back to the beginning, but there are several coffee mugs in different stages of decomposition which mark the stages of my increasing immersion in the text. Friends and family know when I’m not working on something: my desk is tidy. But once I’m in that space (the zone?) I never, ever stop the research and switch to writing.

I’ve described all this as working with a storyboard, largely because I think of what I do now as telling stories. This means two things. First, I think it’s a mistake to front-load theory into any essay; unless what you are about is textual exegesis – I did a lot of that in the past, but if I do it now it’s en passant – that act will needlessly limit the story you tell. You may think that’s a good thing – after all, you can’t say everything and you need to keep what you write within bounds – but I’ve come to think of writing as a journey that takes me (and, crucially, my readers) to unexpected places. Front-loading theory is the intellectual equivalent of a conjurer coming on stage and showing the audience how a trick is done before they do it. There’s a reason they don’t do that. I realize that this is a device which helps a lot of writers magic words onto the page, but it gives the impression that theory is something to be ‘applied,’ that it provides a template, whereas I try to treat it as a medium in which I work – and one that will be changed by the substantive materials I use. (In much the same way, my ‘map’ is constantly changed as I travel with it: it’s not the map but the mapping that matters). I also think that the best sort of theory is carried in solution: if you know your Michel Foucault or Judith Butler, say, you will recognize their hand in what I write, but if you don’t you are not disqualified from grasping what I’m saying. It follows, too, that theory in my writing is always impure and hybrid; I borrow from multiple sources, since I still haven’t found anyone who asks all the interesting questions or provides all the satisfying answers, and I’m usually aware of the tensions and contradictions between them. But ultimately the story is the thing.

Second, writing is no longer a purely verbal-textual process for me because I now work from a visual storyboard. Everything I’ve written for the past five or six years (apart from this essay, ironically) has emerged out of presentations that I’ve tried to design to make as visually arresting as possible. I’ve found a real pleasure in image research – which often takes me to sources I would never have found any other way, and opens up avenues of inquiry I’d never have glimpsed otherwise – but it’s also a way of ‘slow thinking’: of trying to work out how best to show what I mean, and even of figuring out what I mean. One of Allan Pred’s favourite Benjamin quotations was “I have nothing to say, only to show,” and at long last I’m discovering the power of that resonant phrase. So as I search for images, and juggle text boxes and fonts, I’m thinking about how this will look and in consequence what it will say…instead of lines of text marching across the screen, words appearing from I never know quite where, everything slows down and, again, I feel myself think. I’ve found this even more immersive than pure writing, a process of creation that constantly draws me in and draws me back and pushes me on. It’s also interactive: it’s much easier to re-jig a presentation, which I do every time depending on the previous audience’s reaction and the Q&A, than it is to re-work a text (and reading a paper to an audience is in most cases one of the least effective ways of communicating anything of substance to anyone). I should probably add that I prefer Keynote to PowerPoint, I never use pre-set templates and there’s not a bullet-point in sight. Since I don’t have a script to accompany the presentation, the only disadvantage is that once I’ve performed the thing enough times for me to be more or less satisfied with the argument, at least for the moment, I then have to convert a cascade of images and quotations into a text…. Sometimes, to be honest, that means I don’t; I’ve done the fun part, and I shrink from the labor of conversion. Sometimes I do – in which case the whole process starts all over again, using the presentation as the basis for the storyboard and adding more notes, ideas and sources to track down.

There’s also another, more traditional sense of interactivity involved in my work, because there comes a time when writing has to join up with reading: communication is, after all, a collaborative not a competitive process. So I’ve always relied on good friends (colleagues and graduate students alike) who are willing to read my far too long drafts and tell me exactly what they disagree with, what they don’t get, and what is wrong with them; they almost always suggest other things to think about and other sources to track down. Referees are often a different kettle of fish, particularly if you haven’t referred to them (which is what some of them seem to think “refereeing” means). But here too there is an opportunity for dialogue – there’s no point in acceding to every criticism and suggestion if you’re not persuaded by them, and I’ve learned most from those editors who have identified the points which they think are particularly sharp while leaving me to make up my own mind so long as I can justify it.

In this sense, writing – like reading – can be a never-ending process. In much the same way that you can’t read the same book twice, because you are no longer the same person that read it first time round, you read your own work differently when you see it through someone else’s eyes. And that’s one of the best things about the whole process. There are times when writing is a solitary and remarkably lonely affair. There’s a passage at the very end of E.P. Thompson’s Whigs and Hunters – one of my political and intellectual heroes ever since I worked on my PhD – where he describes himself sitting in his study, the clock ticking towards midnight, the desk covered with notes, photocopies and drafts. I identify with that; but there is also that wonderful moment when you are released back into the world that lies outside the text – with your text in your hands and in your reader’s. There’s no greater reward.

UPDATE:  Two things.  My daughter Jaimie reminds me that I missed out a key confession: I type with just two fingers.  I’ve never learned to touch type, but I do type fast — so much so that in the Dark Ages of the typewriter I frequently caused the levers to jam…  And How we write is now available to download for free from Punctum Books, though if you do so PLEASE consider making a donation to the press who have produced a beautiful book in an amazingly short space of time.

Militarized Cities

My good friend Léopold Lambert‘s Funambulist blog and his associated podcast (Archipelago) have been joined by a new print and digital magazine with the same title.

Its subtitle, “Politics of Space and Bodies”, expresses it ambition to bridge the world of design (architecture, urbanism, industrial and fashion design) with the world of the humanities (philosophy, anthropology, history, geography, etc.) through critical articles written by long-time collaborators as well as new ones.

Many aspects of The Funambulist’s editorial mediums remain free and in open access (books, blog, and podcast) and readers who enjoy the forms and contents of the platform are invited to consider purchasing or subscribing to the magazine as a form of support for this form of production of knowledge.

The inaugural September issue on Militarized Cities is available on pre-sale.  It includes:

by Léopold Lambert
by Mona Fawaz, Mona Harb & Ahmad Gharbieh
by Sadia Shirazi
by Mohamed Elshahed
by Demilit (Javier Arbona, Bryan Finoki & Nick Sowers)
by Nora Akawi
by Philippe Theophanidis
46 | STUDENTS: REVISING HISTORIES [building truth]
by James Martin
by Zulaikha Ayub
by Maeve Elder & Ylan Vo

Subscription details for both the print and digital editions are here; the project as a whole can be accessed via The Funambulist‘s Home page here.

Countdown before midnight


Another year rolls by, and the elves at WordPress have compiled this list of my top posts for 2014:

1  The Death Zone

2  The War on Ebola

3  Theory of the Drone 1: Genealogies (2013)

4  Gaza 101

5  Is Paris Burning? (2012)

6  Kunduz and ‘seeing like a military

7  Darkness descending

8  Conflicts without borders

9  War comes home

10  War and distance: logistics (2012)

In fact, the list simply shows the ‘most read’ posts this year – two of them were written in previous years, so it’s good to see that the shelf-life of the blog is longer than the usual jibes about ‘ephemera’ imply; on several occasions people have read a post and suggested that I publish it — to which I say: ‘But I just did…’

Still, contemporary issues clearly dominate: 1, 3 and 7 were all about Gaza, and ‘The war on Ebola’ (2) got more views in a single day than anything I’ve ever posted (or probably written…).

Even this list is misleading, though, since ‘Home Page’ tops the list, and that always shows the latest posts.  And ‘DOWNLOADS’ was also right up there, with more than 4,000 hits – so I promise to try to keep that up to date.

In any event, thanks very much for stopping by and making this a much less solitary affair than I first thought it would be.  This is where you all came from:

Visitors 2014