The war lawyers

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

Craig War Lawyers JPEG

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

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

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

Bearing witness

ICCG Ramallah 2015

Lisa Tilley provides some sobering reflections on the recent International Conference of Critical Geography at Ramallah here:

The settler colonial condition can be fully understood only by those who live it. But the rest of us can at least bear witness in the place (Palestine) where it is most legible….

Yet in spite of the overtly political and defiant tone, the organisers had agonised over the decision to hold the event in the West Bank because doing so effectively excluded most Arab and Muslim scholars from other parts of the world, as well as Israeli allies who are prohibited from entering Palestinian urban areas, lest Israeli-Palestinian solidarities bloom. Some registered participants were turned away by border forces after being interrogated upon arrival at Tel Aviv, others, especially those with links to Arab or predominantly Muslim countries were subject to invasive interrogation and humiliation either on arrival or on departure.

Yet even these denials, sacrifices, indignities, and border dramas, much as they caused individual pain, actually served in their own way to fortify the overall political message of the conference by becoming part of the anti-normalcy performance of the event itself. Beyond this, physically being in the ‘critical’ geographies of the West Bank was politically and intellectually productive in a way that would be impossible to recreate in another time and place…

Palestine always stays on our lips, confronts our concepts and categories, even rendering worthless some of our carefully spun arguments. The real lessons took place in fertile valleys, poisoned by settler toxins, alongside the walls in which blast holes remain, at the sites of shootings and repressed Selma-style marches, witnessed by nobody…

There were moments when we all simply turned our faces away and wept. But the tears of three hundred critical geographers falling on Palestinian soil will not bring down walls or shatter a violent racist project. “We do not need pity” was stated from the start by Palestinian scholars. So instead the task is to bear witness to Palestine, to say that we know Palestine, that we know it exists, that it has existed, and will continue to exist. Palestinians continue the process of writing back, we can only echo what they say and join in the task of writing/speaking/thinking back in order to bring into being a global Palestine.

More (tweets) here.  I so wish I could have been there.

War at a distance

Porter-The-Global-Village-Myth-webNews from Patrick Porter of a new book due out in March, The global village myth: distance, war and the limits of power (from Hurst in the UK/Georgetown University Press in the US):

According to security elites, revolutions in information, transport, and weapons technologies have shrunk the world, leaving the United States and its allies more vulnerable than ever to violent threats like terrorism or cyberwar. As a result, they practice responses driven by fear: theories of falling dominoes, hysteria in place of sober debate, and an embrace of preemptive war to tame a chaotic world.

Patrick Porter challenges these ideas. In The Global Village Myth, he disputes globalism’s claims and the outcomes that so often waste blood and treasure in the pursuit of an unattainable “total” security. Porter reexamines the notion of the endangered global village by examining Al-Qaeda’s global guerilla movement, military tensions in the Taiwan Strait, and drones and cyberwar, two technologies often used by globalists to support their views. His critique exposes the folly of disastrous wars and the loss of civil liberties resulting from the globalist enterprise. Showing that technology expands rather than shrinks strategic space, Porter offers an alternative outlook to lead policymakers toward more sensible responses—and a wiser, more sustainable grand strategy.

You can get a preliminary preview of Patrick’s basic argument at War on the Rocks here.

A short history of schematic bodies

While I was in Irvine last month for the Secrecy and Transparency workshop, I had a series of rich conversations with Grégoire Chamayou — who also made a brief but brilliant presentation on targeting, signature strikes and time-space tracking.  He now writes to say that he has elaborated his ideas in a longer contribution to Léopold Lambert‘s Funambulist papers: ‘A very short history of schematic bodies‘.

(Even more) briefly, Grégoire connects Torsten Hågerstrand‘s time geography – which Anne Buttimer once saw as a danse macabre – to the activity-based intelligence that supposedly ‘informs’ CIA-directed drone strikes [see my ‘Lines of descent’ essay: DOWNLOADS tab] via three diagrams drawn from Paul Klee.


The first two (above) distinguish (1) ‘dividuals‘ from (2) ‘individuals‘: so, following Deleuze, Grégoire distinguishes (1) ‘societies of control articulated through the dyad of “dividuals” and databanks’ from (2) ‘disciplinary societies structured around a relationship between the individual and the mass.’ Seen thus, Hagerstrand’s project mapped the reverse move from (1) to (2), from ‘statistical dividuality’ to ‘chronospatial individuality’.

But Grégoire suggests that targeting involves a third fabrication, a co-construction of (1) and (2), thus:


He writes:

The corresponding object of power here is neither the individual taken as an element in a mass, nor the dividual appearing with a code in a databank, but something else: a patterned individuality that is woven out of statistical dividualities and cut out onto a thread of reticular activities, against which it progressively silhouettes in time as a distinctive perceptible unit in the eyes of the machine.

The production of this form of individuality belongs neither to discipline nor to control, but to something else: to targeting in its most contemporary procedures, whose formal features are shared today among fields as diverse as policing, military reconnaissance and marketing. It might well be, for that matter, that we are entering targeted societies.

This speaks directly to current theses about the individuation of military violence as one (and only one) modality of later modern war, but we need to remember that targeting appears at the interface of the market and the military, as Sam Weber shows in Targets of opportunity.  

It’s also important to think through the ‘body’ that is made to appear in the sights and as a sight; it’s not a fleshy body but a digital-statistical trace that is literally ‘touched’ by the cross-hairs (the apparatus of the drone as prosthesis).  As I wrote in ‘Drone geographies’ (DOWNLOADS tab),

[People] are brought within the militarized field of vision through the rhythmanalysis and network analysis of a suspicious ‘pattern of life’, a sort of weaponized time-geography… 

Killing is made the culmination of a natural history of destruction – in precisely not the sense intended by W.G. Sebald – and the targets are rendered as ‘individuals’ in a calculative rather than corporeal register.

Here Ian Hacking‘s ideas about ‘making up people‘ are also relevant.  In his classic British Academy lecture, ‘Kinds of people: moving targets‘, he described how ‘a new scientific classification may bring into being a new kind of person’ – in this case, the target – and how ‘a classification may interact with the people classified.’  A signature strike is surely the deadliest version of this ‘interaction’…

Incidentally, anyone who thinks that so-called ‘personality strikes’ are somehow less deadly needs to read REPRIEVE‘s latest report, You only die twice: multiple kills in the US drone program.  Spencer Ackerman has a good summary (and graphic, extracted below) here, describing the multiple deaths involved in the search for specific, named targets:

'Personality strikes' in Pakistan


Flesh on the Bones

Skeleton RoadOne of my pleasures is good – and I mean seriously good – crime fiction, and I’ve just finished Val McDermid‘s latest, Skeleton Road.  It’s a finely wrought reflection on the wars that destroyed the former Yugoslavia, notably the conflict between Serbia and Croatia, but it’s also shot through with ferociously smart insights into geopolitics.

In fact, the epigraph is from Gerard Toal‘s Critical Geopolitics (the book not the blog) and in her acknowledgements Val thanks both Linda McDowell and Jo Sharp.

I was particularly taken by the way in which the shadows (and lights) of international law and human geography fall across its pages. Neither becomes an abstraction; both are fully embodied.  Two of the protagonists are lawyers working for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and another is a Professor of Geography at Oxford (who ‘forced herself to consider the entries she was due to contribute to the forthcoming Dictionary of Human Geography‘ – a perfectly reasonable motive for murder).

All of which may explain my favourite quotation from what is now one of my favourite novels.  I’ve always despaired of those approaches to ‘geography and literature’ that gut novels by ripping out the supposedly ‘geographical’ bits, so I hope I’ll be forgiven for this autopsic deviation.  This is Maggie Blake, Professor of Geography, describing the results of her fieldwork in Dubrovnik:

‘The work I ended up doing on the region and its wars … is rooted, as human geography should be, in an embodiment of the conflict.’

‘Books constitute capital’

HARVEY Seventeen contradictionsIntroducing his interview with David Harvey at the Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this week, Scott Carlson notes that

‘The American stage has recently been set for questioning capitalism, with the U.S. tour of academe’s rock star of the moment, Thomas Piketty. The French economist’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century has highlighted capitalism’s drift toward inequality and criticized economists’ focus on pure theory.’

The interview was prompted by the publication of David’s latest book, Seventeen contradictions and the end of capitalism: see also this interview with Jonathan Derbyshire here.  En route, David has good things to say about Piketty’s project – its empirical detail, its humanistic flourishes (see also Paul Krugman here) – but he is evidently dissatisfied with its analytical and, in consequence, its political reach.

Since he spoke to the Chronicle, David has fleshed out his critique of Piketty here.

The book has often been presented as a twenty-first century substitute for Karl Marx’s nineteenth century work of the same title. Piketty actually denies this was his intention, which is just as well since his is not a book about capital at all. It does not tell us why the crash of 2008 occurred and why it is taking so long for so many people to get out from under the dual burdens of prolonged unemployment and millions of houses lost to foreclosure. It does not help us understand why growth is currently so sluggish in the US as opposed to China and why Europe is locked down in a politics of austerity and an economy of stagnation. What Piketty does show statistically (and we should be indebted to him and his colleagues for this) is that capital has tended throughout its history to produce ever-greater levels of inequality. This is, for many of us, hardly news. It was, moreover, exactly Marx’s theoretical conclusion in Volume One of his version of Capital. Piketty fails to note this, which is not surprising since he has since claimed, in the face of accusations in the right wing press that he is a Marxist in disguise, not to have read Marx’s Capital.

If he had – David’s central point – he would have realised that capital has to be conceived not as a thing but as a process: the insight that has animated so much of his own work ever since he made his celebrated ‘transition’ in Social justice and the city from liberal to socialist formulations.

But we might also note the reference in the passage I’ve highlighted to difference, to the macro-scale differences between the US, Europe and China, and by implication to the production of a variegated and highly uneven capitalist space.  David’s insights here have surely been his crowning achievement – and, significantly, the Chronicle interview is captioned ‘Mapping a new economy’.

SLOTERDIJK World Interior of CapitalHe’s no longer alone, of course, and many critics have also been enthralled by another rock star release, Peter Sloterdijk‘s In the world interior of capital (memorably described by Carl Raschke as a ‘philosophical docudrama’):

‘No point on the Earth’s surface, once money had stopped off there, could escape the fate of becoming a location – and a location is not a blind spot in a field, but rather a place in which one sees that one is seen.’

It’s also, as Harvey shows, rather more than that.  Sloterdijk shows that too, hence his ‘spherology‘ and his emphasis on ‘spatial multiplicities’.  But their analyses – like their philosophies and their politics – take us to radically different destinations.

So back to my title: these three books ‘constitute capital’, in exactly the sense Thomas Jefferson meant, but they also enable us to apprehend capital – in the double sense of comprehending its exactions and, ultimately, indicting its deformations.

Seeing Machines

VIRILIO Vision machineIn a series of posts on photography Trevor Paglen provides some ideas that intersect with my own work on Militarized Vision and ‘seeing like a military’.  First, riffing off Paul Virilio, Trevor develops the idea of photography as a ‘seeing machine‘:

‘Seeing machines is an expansive definition of photography. It is intended to encompass the myriad ways that not only humans use technology to “see” the world, but the ways machines see the world for other machines. Seeing machines includes familiar photographic devices and categories like viewfinder cameras and photosensitive films and papers, but quickly moves far beyond that. It embraces everything from iPhones to airport security backscatter-imaging devices, from electro-optical reconnaissance satellites in low-earth orbit, to QR code readers at supermarket checkouts, from border checkpoint facial-recognition surveillance cameras to privatized networks of Automated License Plate Recognition systems, and from military wide-area-airborne-surveillance systems, to the roving cameras on board legions of Google’s Street View” cars.

What’s more, the idea of seeing machines I’m sketching out here isn’t confined to the imaging devices and systems I’ve described in broad strokes. The definition extends to include the images (or data) produced by such imaging systems, the digital metadata associated with those images, as well as additional systems for storage, archiving, search and interpretation (either human or algorithmic). Finally, and crucially, seeing machines encompasses not only imaging systems, search, and storage capacities, it encompasses something a bit more abstract, namely the “styles” or “practices” of seeing that different imaging systems enable (i.e. the difference between what a view camera and an automated license-plate reading camera “want” to do and how they see the world differently).  Crucially, the definition of photography I’m proposing here encompasses imaging devices (“cameras” broadly understood), the data (“images” being one possible manifestation of that data) they produce, and the seeing-practices with which they are enmeshed.’

In a subsequent post on Geographies of Photography Trevor then links these seeing-practices to what he calls the production of space (and what I now prefer to think of as performances of space), and uses the example of the Reaper to illustrate what he has in mind:

What exactly is a Reaper drone? In essence, it’s a camera attached to a remote-controlled airplane. Sometimes it carries missiles. What’s particular about a Reaper drone (and other drones in its larger family, including the Predator and the Sentinel) is that airplane, pilot, navigator, analysts, and commander don’t have to be in the same place. The aircraft might be flying a combat mission in Yemen by a pilot based in Nevada, overseen by a manager in Virginia, and supported by intelligence officers in Tampa (geographer Derek Gregory has written about what he calls “Drone Geographies.”) The drone creates its own “relative” geographies, folding several noncontiguous spaces around the globe into a single, distributed, “battlefield.” The folding of space-time that the Reaper drone system enables is a contemporary version of what Marx famously called the “annihilation of space with time,” i.e. the ability to capitalize on the speed of new transportation and communications technologies to bring disparate spaces “closer” together, relatively speaking.

I think that’s more or less right: these new, networked political technologies of vision have been instrumental in the production of a non-linear and discontinuous battlespace, threaded by wormholes that connect one site to another.  But, as I’ll try to show when I eventually get to my post on Uruzgan, the process is far from seamless, the folds are more fragile than most of us realise, and the discontinuities and ruptures are as important as the connections for the administration of military violence.