‘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’)…

Illegalities and undemocracies


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

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

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

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

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

The conflict shoreline, colonialism and climate change


When Eyal Weizman was in Vancouver last March – joining us for Gaston Gordillo‘s  workshop on Space, materiality and violence at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies – he delivered a public lecture on The Conflict Shoreline: Colonialism as Climate Change.

It’s now available as an extended essay (96 pp) from Steidl in association with Cabinet Books:

The village of al-‘Araqib has been destroyed and rebuilt more than seventy times in the “battle over the Negev,” an ongoing Israeli state campaign to uproot the Bedouins from the northern threshold of the desert. Unlike other frontiers fought over during the Israel–Palestine conflict, however, this threshold is not demarcated by fences and walls but advances and recedes in response to cultivation, colonization, displacement, urbanization, and climate change.

The fate of al-‘Araqib, like that of other Bedouin villages along the desert’s threshold, its “aridity line,” is bound up with deep environmental changes. But whereas even the most committed environmentalists today conceive of climate change as an accidental and unintentional side effect of modernity, Israeli architect and theorist Eyal Weizman argues that from the point of view of colonial history, climate change has never been simply collateral damage. It has always been a stated goal; “making the desert bloom” is, in effect, “changing the climate.”

In examining this history, Weizman outlines attempts—from the Ottoman era through the period of European colonization to the present—to scientifically define, measure, and map the threshold of the desert. Such efforts have been important because imperial and, later, national governments—whose laws have never recognized property rights in the desert—aimed to push back this threshold as they tried to expand the limits of arable land and bring the nomads under state control. In the Negev, the displacement of the weather and the displacement of the Bedouins have gone hand in hand. But while the desert edge, and the Bedouins, have been driven further and further south, global climate change today acts as a major counterforce. Predictably, the Bedouins are caught in the middle.

Brilliantly researched and argued, Weizman’s text—part detective story, part history lesson, and part scientific analysis—explores the changing threshold of the Negev through the extraordinary contemporary photographs of American artist Fazal Sheikh, as well as an array of documents, maps, and images, including historical aerial imagery, remote sensing data, state plans, court testimonies, and nineteenth-century travelers’ accounts. Together, these disparate forms of evidence establish the “conflict shoreline” as a border along which climate change and political contestation are deeply, perilously entangled.

You can find some of the background, and the relation to Eyal’s Forensic Architecture project, in an interview earlier this year:

I’m mostly trying to establish forensic architecture as a critical field of practice and as an agency that produce and disseminate evidence about war crimes in urban context. Recent forensic investigations in Guatemala and in the Israeli Negev involved the intersection of violence and environmental transformations, even climate change. For trials and truth commissions, we analyze the extent to which environmental transformation intersect with conflict.

The imaging of this previously invisible types of violence—‘environmental violence’ such as land degradation, the destruction of fields and forests (in the tropics), pollution and water diversion, and also long term processes of desertification—we use as new type of evidence of processes dispersed across time and space. There are other conflicts that unfold in relation to climatic and environmental transformations and in particular in relation to environmental scarcity.

Conflict has reciprocal interaction with environment transformation: environmental change could aggravate conflict, while conflict tends to generate further environmental damage. This has been apparent in Darfur, Sudan where the conflict was aggravated by increased competition over arable due to local land erosion and desertification. War and insurgency have occurred along Sahel—Arabic for ‘shoreline’—on the southern threshold of the Sahara Desert, which is only ebbing as million of hectares of former arable land turn to desert. In past decades, conflicts have broken out in most countries from East to West Africa, along this shoreline: Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Chad, Niger, Mali, Mauritania, and Senegal. In 2011 in the city of Daraa, farmers’ protests, borne out of an extended cycle of droughts, marked the beginning of the Syrian civil war. Similar processes took place in the eastern outskirts of Damascus, Homs, al-Raqqah and along the threshold of the great Syrian and Northern Iraqi Deserts. These transformations impact upon cities, themselves a set of entangled natural/man-made environments. The conflict and hardships along desertification bands compel dispossessed farmers to embark upon increasingly perilous paths of migrations, leading to fast urbanization at the growing outskirts of the cities and slams.

I’m trying to understand these processes across desert thresholds. There has been a very long colonial debate about what is the line beyond which the desert begins. Most commonly it was defined as 200 mm rain per annum. Cartographers were trying to draw it, as it represented, to a certain extent, the limit of imperial control. From this line on, most policing was done through bombing of tribal areas from the air. Since the beginning, the emergence of the use of air power in policing in the post World War I period—aerial control, aerial government—took form in places that were perceived, at the time, as lying beyond the thresholds or edges of the law. The British policing of Iraq, the French in Syria, and Algeria, the Italians in Libya are examples where control would hover in air.

Up to now I was writing about borders that were physical and manmade: walls in the West Bank or Gaza and the siege around it—most notably in Hollow Land (2007). Now I started to write about borders that are made by the interaction of people and the environment—like the desert line—which is not less violent and brutal. The colonial history of Palestine has been an attempt to push the line of the desert south, trying to make it green or bloom—this is in Ben Gurion’s terms—but the origins of this statement are earlier and making the desert green and pushing the line of the desert was also Mussolini’s stated aim. On the other hand, climate change is now pushing that line north.

Following not geopolitical but meteorological borders, helps me cut across a big epistemological problem that confines the writing in international relations or geopolitics within the borders organize your writing. Braudel is an inspiration but, for him, the environment of the Mediterranean is basically cyclically fixed. The problem with geographical determinism is that it takes nature as a given, cyclical, milieu which then affects politics—but I think we are now in a period where politics affects nature in the same way in which nature affects politics. The climate is changing in the same speed as human history.


The conflict shoreline was originally commissioned in response to Fazal Sheikh’s Desert Bloom series (part of his remarkable Erasure trilogy: see image stream above, and also here).

Truth Commission

It has also been submitted as evidence for Zochrot‘s project on transitional justice, the Truth Commission on the responsibility of Israeli society for the events of 1948–1960 in the South.

Transitional justice mechanisms address the needs of communities and countries in conflict to cope with systematic abuses and structural injustices in order to facilitate reconciliation. Communities in conflict, both victims and victimizers, have developed a variety of innovative approaches to addressing the needs that result from ongoing conflicts. Hitherto, practices informed by the transitional justice paradigm have been used mainly to accompany and heal societies and communities in political transitions such as from totalitarian to democratic rule, or from an apartheid regime as in South Africa to an egalitarian democratic regime. Usually, these practices have been applied after a violent conflict had ended in a peace agreement, as in the former Yugoslavia, or in an armistice, as in Cyprus or Northern Ireland.

Many activists around the world have demonstrated time and again that silencing and ignoring the past prevent conflict resolution and the attainment of true reconciliation. Therefore, even in situations of seemingly intractable conflicts, several initiatives by civil society organizations, trade union or social religious organizations similar to state-sponsored mechanisms of transitional justice have sprung around the world. For the past 40 years, these initiatives have acted without government backing to bring resolve violent conflicts.

The Truth Commission established by Zochrot now joins these initiatives. The first of its kind in Israel/Palestine, the Commission is unique in that … it is active while the conflict is still ongoing, and against the background of the regime’s evasion of responsibility to the events of the Nakba, which began in 1948 and is still ongoing [the Nakba or ‘catastrophe’ refers to the forced eviction and dispossession of the Palestinian people set in motion by the war of 1948]. The Truth Commission for Exposing Israeli Society’s Responsibility for the Events of 1948-1960 in the South which started its deliberations in late October 2014…

The Commission seeks to expose the events of the Nakba during those years – events that have profound implications for the ongoing Nakba experienced by the Palestinian Bedouins to this day. The Commission examines testimonies by Palestinian displaced persons and refugees, as well as Jews who lived in the south and Jewish fighters who took part in displacement and expulsion operations in the area. In addition, the Commission peruses relevant archive materials. The Commission’s report will be designed to encourage the Jewish society in Israel to accept responsibility for past injustices in the south, with reference to the ongoing Nakba, and for redressing them.

You can also read Tom Pessah‘s report for +972 here.