Object Lessons

I was supposed to give a shortened version of ‘Little boys and blue skies‘ at the AAG Annual Meeting in San Francisco (about drones and atomic war: available under the DOWNLOADS tab) and fully intended to do so.  But in the event – and as I implied in a previous post – I decided to talk instead about Harry Parker‘s Anatomy of a soldier.  It was a spur of the moment decision, though it had been pricking away in my mind ever since I read the novel, and I only decided to do it at 10.30 the night before: madness.  But it was much closer to the theme of the sessions organised by Kate Kindervater and Ian Shaw on ‘Objects of Security and War: Material Approaches to Violence and Conflict‘ than my original presentation would have been.

I’ve added the presentation to those available under the DOWNLOADS tab (scroll right down).

I hope that most of it will be self-explanatory, but some notes might help.  I started out by invoking Tim O’Brien‘s twin accounts of the Vietnam War, The things they carried and If I should die in a combat zone, which provide vivid reminders of the weight – physical and emotional – borne by ground troops and the toll they impose on the soldier’s body.

I talked about this in ‘The natures of war‘ (also under the DOWNLOADS tab) and – following in the footsteps of that essay – I sketched a brief history of the objects soldiers carried in to the killing fields: from the Somme in 1916 through Arnhem in 1944 to Helmand in Afghanistan in 2014 [shown below].  My source for these images was photographer Thom Atkinson‘s portfolio of Soldiers’ Inventories.

KIT Helmand 2014

But I was more interested now in the objects that carried the soldiers, so to speak, which is why I turned to Anatomy of a soldier.  

In order to throw the novel into even sharper relief, I outlined some of the other ways in which IED blasts in Afghanistan have been narrated.  These ranged from the US Army’s own schematics [the image below is taken from a presentation by Captain Frederick Gaghan here]  to Brian Castner’s truly brilliant non-fiction All the ways we kill and die, in which he describes his investigation into the death of his friend Matt Schwartz from an IED blast in Helmand in January 2012. (This book has taught me more about the war in Afghanistan than anything – I mean anything – I’ve ever read).

GAGHAN Attacking the IED Network jpegs

All of this prepared the ground for Parker’s novel which tells the story of a young British officer in Helmand, Tom Barnes, who loses his legs to an IED blast – told in 45 short chapters by the different objects involved.  Not all of the chapters are wholly successful, but many of them are utterly compelling and immensely affecting.  The overall effect is to emphasize at once the corporeality of war – ‘virtually every object-fragment that is proximate to Barnes is impregnated with his body: its feel – its very fleshiness – its sweat, its smell, its touch’ – and the object-ness of military violence.

GREGORY The body as object-space

I juxtaposed the novel to Parker’s own story – he too lost his legs to an IED in Afghanistan in July 2009.  Yet he constantly emphasises that he never wanted the novel to be about him.

Harry Parker reading from Anatomy of a Soldier, IWM, LOndon

Still, the body is central to all this – Parker’s body and Barnes’s body – and so finally I drew on Roberto Esposito‘s Persons and Things to draw the wider lesson and, in particular, to nail the treacherous lie of ‘bodiless war’:

GREGORY The things that carry them

GREGORY Bodiless war

Anatomy of a war

PARKER Anatomy of a soldier

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

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

There were a few silent nods from the watching men.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fallujah model

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

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

Afghan Warriors Tackle Insurgents in Huge Joint Operation with Scottish Troops

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

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

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

So, for example, a tourniquet:

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

CAT-Combat-Application-Tourniquet-740x476

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

Medical care en route to Bastion

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

The agency of many of the objects is viscerally clear:

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

Or again, his first prosthetics:

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

And the new ones:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

Bodies at risk

This is far more than a post-script to my last post.  In writing ‘The Natures of War’ I started to develop the concept of a corpography (see also ‘Corpographies’ DOWNLOADS tab) because I became keenly interested in the ways in which the entanglements between military violence and ‘nature’ were registered on and through the body.

I had an appreciative message from Eileen Rositzka, following my Neil Smith Lecture at St Andrews, and I’ve finally caught up with a marvellous, exquisitely illustrated essay she has co-written with Robert Burgoyne: ‘Goya on his Shoulder: Tim Hetherington, Genre Memory, and the Body at Risk.’  It was published in Frames Cinema Journal 7 (2015) and is available open access here.

The figure of the body in narratives of war has long served to crystallize ideas about collective violence and the value or futility of sacrifice, often functioning as a symbol of historical transformation and renewal or, contrastingly, as a sign of utter degeneration and waste. As a number of recent studies have shown, the power of somatic imagery to shape cultural perceptions of war has had a decisive impact on the way wars have been regarded in history, and has sometimes influenced the conduct of war as it unfolds.

Following my good friend Gastón Gordillo‘s exemplary lead, I’ve been thinking about extending my original analysis from the mud of the Western Front in the First World War, the deserts of North Africa in the Second, and the rainforests of Vietnam into Afghanistan (for the book-version of the essay), and ‘Goya on his shoulder’ is full of all sorts of ideas on how to do exactly that.  Gastón has made much of Sebastian Junger/Tim Hetherington‘s extraordinary film Restrepo – see here and especially here – and Robert and Eileen add all sorts of insights to the mix and, in particular, provide an illuminating visual genealogy of the issues at stake:

With their concentrated focus on the body in war, Restrepo and Infidel also mark an intervention into contemporary debates in the emerging doctrine of “bodiless war” or virtual war – what is known in war policy circles as the “Revolution in Military Affairs” (RMA). In contrast to the decorporealised, bloodless war culture promoted and even celebrated in many contemporary theories of war, Restrepo and Infidel implicitly dramatise the limitations of so called “optical war” in many current conflict zones, emphasising the body of the soldier as a critical site of representation and meaning.

Their journey takes them from photography of the American Civil War through Edward Steichen‘s mesmerising project to capture what they call ‘bodies at risk’ in the Pacific theatre of the Second World War to Afghanistan today.  As it happens, I’ve spent the last several weeks immersed in Steichen’s project for my ‘Reach from the skies’ lectures: Steichen was one of the foremost architects of aerial photography on the Western Front during the First World War, and the photographs taken of US sailors taken under his direction during the Second have much to show us about the entanglements between military violence, masculinism and the body (the slide below is taken from my discussion in ‘Reach from the sky’).

RFTS Masculinism and military violence.001

And so to Restrepo:

‘… the work of Hetherington and Junger marks an intervention in the contemporary cultural imaginary of war, dramatizing the limitations of so called “optical war” or “bodiless war” in the conflict zones of Afghanistan. The concentrated attention to the touchscape of modern war in their work, moreover, provides a fresh perspective on older traditions of visual representation, illuminating the genre codes of war photography and film in a new way. The visual and acoustic design of Restrepo, in particular, captures the haptic geography of combat in a remote mountain outpost in the Korengal Valley. The film highlights the concentrated experience of sound and touch, providing a first-person account of the way the body inhabits contested space, the way the intensities of war confuse and overwrite the sensory codes of vision, and the compensatory drive of somatic mastery, which is projected in vivid displays of masculine athleticism in the relative safety of the enclosure.

What Steichen called “the machinery of war” is all but absent in these images. Like Steichen, Hetherington expresses the brotherhood of the men in directly physical, gestural forms – in close physical contact, in the “bloodying” of new men, and in the tattoos they give each other with a tattoo gun they have brought up to the camp…

Depictions of war in Restrepo and Infidel revolve around touch – the heat, cold, and dirt, the intense exertion, the texture of skin. Although Hetherington’s images of white, muscular soldiers may be compared to the displays of imperial masculinity celebrated by Edison in his War-Graph actualities, and by Roosevelt in his appeal to the brave “game boys” of military adventure, they also relay the heightened sensuality of Steichen’s World War II sailors to a contemporary war setting. Scenes that contain a high quotient of violence – the firefights with insurgents, the roughhousing, the bloodying of new recruits – are here juxtaposed with shots of soldiers sleeping and other scenes of quiet reflection…

Foregrounding the body of the soldier as a medium of sensory experience and as a body at risk, their work recalls the long history of war photography, painting, and film, dramatizing the importance of the figure of the body in narratives of war, and the power of somatic imagery to shape cultural perceptions of conflict. In Restrepo and Infidel, haptic experience and embodied vulnerability unfold as the central fact of war, the heart of warfare. Here too, however, a certain cultural imaginary is invoked, visible in Junger’s discussion of “young men in war” and of the “hard wiring” of young men for the violence of war, a theme that sacrifices any consideration of context, as if war was an existential constant. Nonetheless, in this framing of contemporary western war, centred on the haptic geography of combat, we can see an initial sketch, an introduction, to a critical understanding of the corpography of war in the current period.

My extracts don’t do justice to the range and depth of the essay, and it really does repay close reading.

Bodies of violence

wilcox-bodies-of-violence

I’m finally working my way through Lauren Wilcox‘s impressive Bodies of Violence (see my earlier notice here), both to develop my ideas about corpography in general (see here, here and here) and to think through her arguments about drones in particular (in the penultimate chapter, ‘Body counts: the politics of embodiment in precision warfare’).

More on both later, but in the meantime there’s an extremely interesting symposium on the book over at The Disorder of Things that went on for most of last month.  I’ll paste some extracts below to give a flavour of the discussion, which is well worth reading in its entirety.

Lauren Wilcox on ‘Bodies of Violence: Theorizing embodied subjects in International Relations’.

[W]hile war is actually inflicted on bodies, or bodies are explicitly protected, there is a lack of attention to the embodied dynamics of war and security…. I focus on Judith Butler’s work, in conversation with other theorists such as Julia Kristeva, Donna Haraway and Katherine Hayles. I argue, as have others, that there is continuity between her works on “Gender” from Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter and her more explicitly ethical and political works such as Precarious Life and Frames of War. A central feature of Butler’s concept of bodily precarity is that our bodies are formed in and through violence….
My book makes three interrelated arguments:

First, contemporary practices of violence necessitate a different conception of the subject as embodied. Understanding the dynamics of violence means that our conceptual frameworks cannot remain ‘disembodied’. My work builds on feminist and biopolitical perspectives that make the question of embodiment central to interrogating power and violence.

Second, taking the embodied subject seriously entails conceptualizing the subject as ontologically precarious, whose body is not given by nature but formed through politics and who is not naturally bounded or separated from others. Feminist theory in particular offers keen insights for thinking about our bodies as both produced by politics as well as productive of [politics].

Third, theorizing the embodied subject in this way requires violence to be considered not only destructive, but also productive in its ability to re-make subjects and our political worlds.

Antoine Bousquet on ‘Secular bodies of pain and the posthuman martial corps

[I]t increasingly appears that the attribution of rights is made to hinge on the recognition of their putative holder’s ability to feel pain, even where this might breach the species barrier or concern liminal states of human existence. As such, any future proponents of robot rights may well have to demonstrate less the sentient character of such machines than their sensitivity to pain (of course, it may well turn out that one entails the other). In relation to Bodies of Violence, if we are indeed to take the liberal conception of pain as purely negative as limiting (and we should perhaps not be too hastily dismissive of the moral and societal progresses that can be attributed to it), how does the recognition of ‘vulnerable bodies’ advocated by Wilcox depart from such an understanding? Is it simply a call for dismantling the asymmetries that render the pain of certain subjects less acknowledgeable than others or does it propose to actually restore a ‘positivity’ to suffering within a post-Christian worldview?…

[A]s our knowledge of the human as an object of scientific study grows, our conception of the human as a unitary and stable entity becomes increasingly untenable, incrementally dissipating into a much broader continuum of being to be brought under the ambit of control. But where does such an expanded framing of human life leave the ‘normative model of the body’ as ‘an adult, young, healthy, male, cisgendered, and non-racially marked body’ (p.51) from which all minoritarian deviations are to be variously silenced, regulated and policed? Does the technicist efficiency-driven mobilisation of human life not corrode those normative hierarchies that do not contribute to or might even impede such a process? As Wilcox notes, the traditional investment of masculinist values in the military institution is unsettled when ‘the precision bomber or drone operator is seen as a “de-gendered” or “post-gendered” subject, in which it does not matter whether the pilot or operator is a male or female’ (p.135). Indeed, there seems to be no inherent reason why any number of deviations from the normative body would be an obstacle to their integration into the assemblage of military drones, to stay with that example. One can even conceive of cases where they could be beneficial – might not certain ‘disabilities’ offer particularly propitious terrain for the successful grafting of cybernetic prosthetics? In this context, corporeal plasticity and ontological porosity seem less like the adversaries of posthuman martiality than its necessary enablers.

Kevin McSorley on ‘Violence, norms and embodiment

[W]hat sense there might be any particular limits to the explanatory value of the key sensitising theoretical framework of embodied performativity and ‘normative violence’ that is deployed across all the numerous case studies considered here. Notwithstanding the supplementary engagement in certain chapters with further vocabularies of e.g. abjection or the posthuman to problematize bodily boundaries, the social embodiment of violent norms is really the major theoretical underpinning of all of the analyses undertaken in each of the five different case studies selected for interpretation. My sense was that Bodies of Violence was primarily concerned with establishing broad proof of concept that such theoretical deployment could work rather than engaging with detailed questions about the potential limits of its conceptual purchase and differences in explanatory value across the five varied case studies. The analyses undertaken propose if anything a near-universal analytic utility for the conceptual framework deployed in that there is a consistent interpretation that underlying normative violences operate within each of the different case studies. Additional comparative analysis, that specifically highlighted and attempted to think through where and why the interpretative framework might be especially productive, or indeed where and why it might feel less resonant and begin to break down, may potentially be insightful for further theoretical elaboration….

[W]hat might happen if the many embodied subjects theorised were able to more consistently speak back to theory, if their feelings and desires were more enfleshed in the analysis[?] Would the stability of this conceptual grid of intelligibility remain intact and unmoved if such encounters and dialogues were able to be staged, if the complex emotions and meaning-worlds of those socially embodied subjects actively negotiating normative violences could have a more audible place in the analysis?

Alison Howell on ‘Bodies, and Violence: Thinking with and beyond feminist IR

Can a theory rooted in a singular concept of ‘the body’ take full account of difference? Can it register the diverse ways in which different bodies become subject to and constituted through power and violence, or management and governance?

Wilcox does amply illustrate that there is no such unitary thing as ‘the body’… [but] there are long-standing traditions of theorizing embodiment and de-naturalizing ‘the body’ in anti-racist, postcolonial, and disability scholarship. These critical traditions should not be subsumed under the category of feminist scholarship, though they do certainly engage with feminist theory, often critically. They make unique contributions to theorizing embodiment, often through intersectional analyses.

Bodies of Violence does take up many texts from these traditions, but, for instance makes use of Margrit Shildrick’s and Jasbir Puar’s earlier work on the body, without also contemplating each of their more recent work on disability and debility…. A second line of inquiry a renewed focus on embodiment potentially suggests might center around the as-yet unmet potential for studying the role of medicine in IR. The sine qua non of medicine is, after all, the body, and if embodiment is important in the study of IR, then we should also be studying that system of knowledge and practice that has taken for itself authoritative dominion over bodies and that does the kind of productive work in relation to embodiment that Wilcox is interested in illuminating.  As with disability studies, there is a significant literature, in this case emanating out of medical anthropology, medical sociology, bio-ethics and history of medicine….

But what of the book’s other titular concept: violence?  Bodies of Violence suggests that to study embodiment is also to study violence. Yet violence is a concept and not merely a bare fact: ‘violence’ is a way of making sense and grouping together a number of practices….

Butler’s work has been central to de-essentializing both sex and gender, thus undermining radical feminist theories of violence that ascribe peacefulness to women and violence to men.Yet Butler’s work is less useful as a tool for excavating the particularly racist and Eurocentric forms that radical feminist thought on violence has taken. Instead, we might look towards Audre Lorde’s debates with Mary Daly, and to the succeeding traditions of anti-racist feminist thought.

Pablo K [Paul Kirby] on ‘Bodies, what matter?

Thinking about the value of bodies draws us into a contemplation of human life and its treatment. Which is why the mere act of recognising bodies can seem tantamount to calling for the preservation and celebration of life. Drawing attention to bodies to highlight an equality of concern due to those who have otherwise been rendered invisible is itself to engage in materialisation, making those bodies matter in a different way. It is a way to turn bodies (which are, on the whole, visible to us) into persons (entities with value and meaning which we may not recognise). And yet the body – precisely because it is inescapable and ubiquitous – is also evasive, and the form of its mattering elusive.

For Judith Butler, ‘mattering’ is the conjoined process of materialisation (suggestive of the way bodies are produced or come into being) and meaning (how bodies are recognised and invested with worth). The stress in contemporaneous and subsequent work on material-isation (on matter-ing) is thus intended to signal a break with ideas of matter as simply there, as idle or inert, and therefore as a kind of brute fact which is inescapable or consistent in its ahistorical role. Thus we are pushed to examine not the characteristics of matter, but the historical process of mattering; not the innate sex that simply bears gender constructions, but the moments which seemed to establish bodies (or body parts) as prior to the sign system which names them. The point is well taken, and has consequences for a theory of embodiment…

And so what is needed is a deeper excavation of the form, degree and value of mattering.

For the so-called new materialists, such a theory means attributing a certain agency to bodily substance (genetics, morphology, neural pathways, flesh itself). As Karen Barad has insisted:

any robust theory of the materialization of bodies would necessarily take account of how the body’s materiality – for example its anatomy and physiology – and other material forces actively matter to the process of materialization.

This is importantly different to saying that political regimes interpret and work bodies in distinct ways. In Bodies of Violence, despite the emphasis on how bodies produce politics, it is mainly politics that produces bodies. Or better, politics that intervenes on and shapes bodies.

Lauren Wilcox, ‘Theorizing embodiment and making bodies “matter“‘

The lightness (and darkness) of being

The Light of God slide.001

Pip Thornton‘s wonderful ‘The meaning of light: seeing and being on the battlefield‘ – which, among many other good things, worries away at the conceit shown in the image above – is just out in Cultural geographies (Online First).  It will eventually form part of a special issue on ‘Darkness’ edited by Tim Edensor.

Here’s the abstract:

On the battlefield, light and dark mean much more than the (dis)ability to see. While the darkness of night-time can be used as a tactic, providing cover for personal and territorial defence and attack, it also affects and secures bodies and the spaces they inhabit in other more immediate and intimate ways, recalibrating senses and redefining distance. Light too can spell both safety and danger on the battlefield, disciplining and controlling its occupants with often asymmetrical power-plays of affect and aggression. Using autoethnographic examples of experiences in Iraq in 2003 (based on the poem below), this article sets out to challenge traditional binaries of light/ dark, good/bad and to question the elemental, cultural and technological sovereignty of light and vision in modern battlespaces.

And here’s the poem:

Light Discipline

In a blackout we adjust our sights

by touch and cup our smoke against

the desert, waiting for the light.

At long last the barrel scrapes

into place and the night is instantly

exposed. I cover my ears and watch.

In the distance a fitful city crouches,

seared eyes raised to the floating

arc above, waiting for the strike.

 

Bodies of violence

Bodies of violenceNew from Oxford University Press, Lauren Wilcox‘s Bodies of violence: theorizing embodied subjects in International Relations (how I wish books didn’t come with subtitles that serve only to narrow the audience for works that deserves a much wider one).

According to conventional international relations theory, states or groups make war and, in doing so, kill and injure people that other states are charged with protecting. While it sees the perpetrators of violence as rational actors, it views those who are either protected or killed by this violence as mere bodies: ahistorical humans who breathe, suffer and die but have no particular political agency. In its rationalist variants, IR theory only sees bodies as inert objects. Constructivist theory argues that subjects are formed through social relations, but leaves the bodies of subjects outside of politics, as “brute facts.”

According to Wilcox, such limited thinking about bodies and violence is not just wrong, but also limits the capacity of IR to theorize the meaning of political violence. By contrast to rationalist and constructivist theory, feminist theory sees subjectivity and the body as inextricably linked. This book argues that IR needs to rethink its approach to bodies as having particular political meaning in their own right. For example, bodies both direct violent acts (violence in drone warfare, for example) and are constituted by practices that manage violence (for example, scrutiny of persons as bodies through biometric technologies and body scanners). The book also argues that violence is more than a strategic action of rational actors (as in rationalist theories) or a destructive violation of community laws and norms (as in liberal and constructivist theories). Because IR theorizes bodies as outside of politics, it cannot see how violence can be understood as a creative force for shaping the limits of how we understand ourselves as political subjects, as well as forming the boundaries of our political communities.

By engaging with feminist theories of embodiment and violence, Bodies of Violence provides a more nuanced treatment of the nexus of bodies, subjects and violence than currently exists in the field of international relations.

Here’s the Contents list:

Introduction
Chapter 1: Bodies, Subjects, and Violence in International Relations
Chapter 2: Dying is Not Permitted: Guantánamo Bay and the Liberal Subject of IR
Chapter 3: Explosive Bodies: Suicide Bombing as an Embodied Practice and the Politics of Abjection
Chapter 4: Crossing Borders, Securing Bodies: Airport Security Assemblages and Bodies of Information
Chapter 5: Body Counts: The Politics of Embodiment in Precision Warfare
Chapter 6: Vulnerable Bodies and “Responsibility to Protect”

If you don’t know Lauren’s work already, you can catch up with some of it here.

Bodies on the line

The more I think about corpography (see also ‘Corpographies under the DOWNLOADS tab) – especially as part of my project on casualty evacuation from war zones – the more I wonder about Grégoire Chamayou‘s otherwise artful claim that with the advent of armed drones the ‘body becomes the battlefield’.  He means something very particular by this, of course, as I’ve explained before (see also here).

But let me describe the journey I’ve been taking in the last week or so that has prompted this post. Later this month I’m speaking on ‘Wounds of war, 1914-2014‘, where I plan to sketch a series of comparisons between casualty evacuation on the Western Front (1914-18) and casualty evacuation from Afghanistan.  I’ve already put in a lot of work on the first of these, which will appear on these pages in the weeks and months ahead, but it was time to find out more about the second.

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En route I belatedly discovered the truly brilliant work of David Cotterrell who is, among many other things, an installation artist and Professor of Fine Art at Sheffield Hallam University.  He became interested in documenting the British military casualty evacuation chain from Afghanistan, and in 2007 secured access to the Joint Medical Forces’ operations at Camp Bastion in Helmand.  He underwent basic training, a course in even more basic battlefield first-aid, and then found himself on an RAF transport plane to Bastion.  The Role 3 Hospital was, as he notes, a staging-ground. ‘Field hospitals are islands between contrasting environments,’ he wrote in his diary, ‘between the danger and dirt of the Forward Operating Bases and the order and convention of civilian healthcare.’  You can read a long, illustrated extract from the diary (3 – 26 November 2007) here, follow the photo-essay as a slideshow here, and explore David’s many other projects on his own website here.

THEY-WERE-SOLDIERS_by-Ann-Jones_72The diary is immensely interesting and informative in its own right, not least about the exceptional personal and professional difficulties involved in documenting the evacuation process.  Here there’s a helpful comparison to be made with journalist Ann Jones‘s no less brilliant They were soldiers: how the wounded return from America’s wars (more on this in a later post), which starts at the US military’s own Level III Trauma Center, the Craig Joint Theater Hospital at Bagram, and moves via Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, the largest US hospital outside the United States, to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington DC.

David’s visual record is even more compelling, as you would expect from a visual artist, not only in its documentary dimension but also in the installations that have been derived from it.  In Serial Loop, for example, we are confronted with a looped film showing the endless arrival of casualties at Bastion: ‘The sound of a continuously arriving and departing Chinook helicopter accompanies images of a bleak and wasted landscape; the banality of the film’s fixed perspective masks the dramas that unfold within the ambulances as they travel to triage.’

9-liner explores what David calls ‘the abstraction of experience within conflict’:

9-Liner explores the dislocation between the parallel experiences of casualties within theatre. It is a quiet study of a dramatic event: the attempt to bring an injured soldier to the tented entrance of the desert field hospital. The screens show apparently unrelated information. JCHAT – a silent scrolling codified message – runs on a central screen. Our interpretation of it is enabled through its relationship between one of two radically different but equally accurate views of the same event. To the left we see the Watchkeeper – a soldier manning phones and reading computer screens in a crowded office. On the right we view the MERT flight – the journey of the Medical Emergency Response Team in a Chinook helicopter.

SHU’s REF submission includes this summary of David’s work (one of the very few useful things to come out of that otherwise absurdist exercise):

The research made clear that soldiers recovering from life-changing injuries had limited means of reconstructing the narrative of their transformative experiences. From the time of wounding through to secondary operations in the UK, many soldiers remained sedated or unconscious for a period of up to five days. The radical physical transformation that had occurred during this period was not adequately reconciled through medical notes, and the embargo on photographic documentation of incident and subsequent medical procedures served further to obscure this period of lost memory.

A culture of secrecy meant that medical professionals were unable to access documentation of the expanded care pathway with which they, and their colleagues, were engaged. This fragmentation of experience and understanding within the process of evacuation, treatment and rehabilitation meant that the assessment of the contradictions and disorientation experienced by casualties and medical practitioners was denied to front-line staff.

Family members, colleagues and members of the public outside the immediate environment of the military were unable to visualise or understand the transformative effects of conflict on directly affected civilians and soldiers. Partly as a result, the scope for public debate to engage meaningfully with the longer term societal cost of contemporary conflict was limited.

The submission goes on to list an impressive series of debriefings, presentations to military and medical professionals, major exhibitions, and follow-through research in Birmingham.

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And it’s one of those follow-throughs that prompted me to think some more about corpographies.  I’d noted the connection between corpography and choreography in my original post, but David’s extraordinary collaboration with choreographer Rosie Kay and her dance company gives that a much sharper edge.  Again, there’s a comparison to be drawn – this time with Owen Sheers‘s impressively researched and executed body of work, not only the astonishing Pink Mist but also The Two Worlds of Charlie F (2012)which was a stage play based on the experiences of wounded soldiers who also made up the majority of the cast (see my discussion of these two projects here).

5 Soldiers started life as a stage presentation in 2010 (watch some extracts here):

A dance theatre work with 5 dancers, it looks at how the human body is essential to, and used in, warfare. 5 SOLDIERS explores the physical training that prepares you for war, as well as the possible effects on the body, and the injury caused by warfare.

Featuring Kay’s trademark intense physicality and athleticism, 5 SOLDIERS weaves a journey of physical transformation, helping us understand how soldiers are made and how war affects them.

5 SOLDIERS is a unique collaboration between award-winning choreographer Rosie Kay, visual artist David Cotterrell and theatre director Walter Meierjohann. It follows an intense period of research, where Rosie learnt battle training with The 4th Battalion The Rifles and David spent time in Helmand Province with the Joint Forces Medical Group.

Rosie explained her commitment to the project (and her training with The Rifles) like this:

“I wanted to look at how the physicality of a soldier’s job defines them –like a dancer, the soldier is drilled, trained, their responses becoming automatic, but can anything prepare you for the realities of war? It is young soldiers and their bodies that are the ultimate weapon in war – their strength and weaknesses may win or lose a battle, their ability to harm or injure others is key to victory. While war is surrounded with weaponry, uniforms, history and ceremony, the real business is human, dirty, messy, painful and happening right now.”

(She is, not coincidentally, an affiliate of the School of Anthropology at Oxford).

5 Soldiers installation PNG

And now there’s a film version that works as a multi-screen installation (screen shot above).

Instead of just creating a short film, the team wanted the web user to get a truly interactive way to watch dance, and actually feel that they can go inside the minds and the body of the work. The 80-minute work was cut to just 10 minutes long, and the company spent one week filming in a huge aircraft hangar at Coventry Airport…

Using a variety of cutting edge filming techniques, the collaborative team have created a 13 angle edit that takes you into the heart of the work, follows each of the dancers, and zooms out so that the performers appear to be like ants in a huge empty landscape.

You can see the interactive, multi-perspectival version here.  This relied on helmetcams, and there’s a fine, more general commentary on this in Kevin McSorley‘s ‘Helmetcams, militarized sensation and “somatic war”‘ here.  But here’s the short, ‘director’s cut’ version:

And look at the tag-line: ‘The body is the frontline’.  It’s not only drones that make it so.