Disposable life

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Histories of Violence launches its tremendously important (and equally ambitious) Disposable Life project, which Brad Evans explains like this:

“Mass violence is poorly understood if it simply refers to casualties on battlefields or continues to be framed through conventional notions of warfare. We need to interrogate the multiple ways in which entire populations are rendered disposable on a daily basis if we are to take seriously the meaning of global citizenship in the 21st Century”. (Brad Evans, Project Director)

 Throughout the Twentieth Century, violence was ceaselessly waged against targeted populations deemed to be “disposable”. The years 2014-2016 will be a poignant moment to reflect upon the historical significance and contemporary meaning of these mass atrocities. The period begins with the 20th anniversary of the Zapatista uprising which provided a contemporary frame on the history of indigenous and racial persecution. April 2014 will mark the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide which exposed to a watching global community the horrifying legacy of colonialism, along with its lasting and unresolved implications. June 2014 bears witness to the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I which remains one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history. Onto January 2015, we confront the historical memory of the violence of Auschwitz which taught us the shame of being human. The year also witnesses the 70th anniversaries of the bombings of Hiroshima & Nagasaki that still serve as a horrifying reminder of the devastating potential of weapons of mass destruction and the capacity to reason widespread destruction; the 100th anniversary of the Armenian “genocide” which remains a source of contention and passionate debate in terms of its definition and political vocabulary; the 65th anniversary of the start of the Korea War that continues to have profound impact upon global ideas of security and peaceful co-habitation; the 60th anniversary of the official start of Vietnam War (from United States perspective) whose targeted violence against local populations and biospheres in particular fundamentally challenged claims of Western superiority and enlightenment; along with the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the “killing fields” in Cambodia which remains one of the most violent experimental episodes in the history of human existence.

There is no doubt a need to collectively memorialise these traumatic events and remember the devastating loss of life. Any attempt to create more just futures must have an appreciation of these histories of violence. There is also a need however to move beyond the historicity of memorialisation to critically question their contemporary significance in terms of providing a more honest and somber reflection of the present conjuncture. This requires us to move beyond the dominant Western tropes for conceptualising such violence as either exceptional in history or the result of a failure of liberal modernity. Disposability may take many different forms. It cannot be reduced to simplistic explanations. Nor can it be properly understood without engaging its underlying causes that may be of a political, economic, cultural, social, psychological and identity based nature. Only then might we start to rethink the terms of global citizenship in the 21st Century. With this in mind, the initiative is compelled to ask: Are there, for instance, aspects of contemporary global society that make it possible to think and act in ways that render specific populations disposable? How might we commemorate these tragic events in ways that will cultivate a deeper understanding of the conditions that give rise to extreme violence? Is it correct to argue that we now live in a post-colonial and post-racial moment? Or are there continued remnants from the brutality of colonialism that shapes relations amongst people today? What challenges does the notion of disposability pose for the integrity of social research? How should we engage the broader public in critical education and discussion around the various forms that violence has taken in the past and continues to take in the present? And how might we forge a truly trans-disciplinary pedagogy that connects the arts, humanities and social sciences such that we may engage more critically with the meaning of violence and the disposability of populations in the 21st Century?

This is excellent stuff, and from my point of view a critical question concerns the ways in which notions of ‘disposability’ circulate between (or perhaps more accurately among) the ‘battlefields and warfare’ with which the paragraph begins and the other spaces and spheres of social life to which it opens out.  I think this requires histories of violence, to be sure, but also geographies of violence – in short, historical geographies of violence.

The Project is launched with a short video from Cynthia Enloe, who ‘provides her original interpretation of the paradigm by exploring the meaning of disposability in the terms of the ways life continually appears arbitrary and nameless. For Enloe, not only does the problem of disposability point to contemporary forms of banality as earlier critiqued by Hannah Arendt, it allows us to rethink what it means to be humane in the 21st Century.’

For a partial list of future contributors, book projects and recommended readings, see here.  And keep watching that space!

Scholars, spies and strategic knowledges

I’ve been reading anthropologist/historian Nicholas Dirks on ‘Scholars, spies and global studies’ here.  He’s acutely aware of the origins of ‘area studies’ in the Second World War – and Trevor Barnes‘s brilliant work with Matt Farish has done much to deepen our knowledge of geography’s enlistments too: see here and scroll down to 2006 for their already classic paper – and notes that

“The first great center of area studies in the United States was not located in any university, but in Washington,” McGeorge Bundy, onetime dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University and then president of the Ford Foundation, observed in 1964. The [Office of Strategic Services], he said, was “a remarkable institution, half cops-and-robbers and half faculty meeting.”

Invoking the spirit of another stellar anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, Dirks makes it clear that he doesn’t want to go back there:

‘The point now is to recognize the essential distinctiveness — of ourselves and others. That distinctiveness can only be appreciated in global frames and with insistent humanist attention…  I mean here to insist on a radically new way of identifying the core values and aims of humanist education that puts traditional questions on a global stage, along with the studies of social and policy scientists.’

For a fuller treatment of the issues and ideas sketched in this brief essay, see his University Lecture, ‘Scholars and Spies: Worldly knowledge and the predicament of the university’, delivered at Columbia in February 2012 here [fast forward to 7:23]:

But, as I asked in a previous post on our martial Arts, what if that humanist tradition is already, constitutively compromised through its entanglement with military (and now we obviously need to add paramilitary) violence?  Too often, I think, we approach that relationship either in instrumental terms – in the case of my own field, a series of indictments of the ways in which, in Yves Lacoste‘s resonant phrase, la géographie, ça sert, d’abord, à faire la guerre; you can see a similar approach in opposition to the enlistment of anthropologists and others in US counterinsurgency operations and Human Terrain teams – or in philosophical terms (‘epistemological violence’, f,  example).

Both are important, to be sure, but for them to work in concert we also need a political genealogy of the conceptual armatures deployed in (and beyond) the humanities and social sciences, mapping the ways in which the construction of our key concepts circulates in and out of other concrete practices. That’s one of the reasons I’m so interested in Stuart Elden‘s retro-midwifery at ‘The Birth of Territory‘, though I’m drawn more to its adult (and no less bloody) adventures. Those entailments are not purely discretionary, a matter of preferring this concept over that, and without wanting to return to or even supplement Jürgen Habermas‘s delineation of ‘knowledge-constitutive interests’ I’m left wondering how the production of concepts is implicated in the operations of power, including military power, and how their performative potential (practical and rhetorical) is realized.  I’ve never seen the university as an Ivory Tower – and I’m not suggesting it’s a Missile Silo either – but, as I argued in Incendiary knowledges, we need to ‘world’ our ‘worldly knowledges’ and think carefully about the hyphen in power-knowledge.

Bruno Latour once playfully identified four deficiencies in actor-network theory – the three words actor, network and theory, plus the hyphen – which prompts Ilana Gershon to describe the hyphen as a ‘trickster placeholder’.   It’s an artful conceit, but I think we should take the ‘place’ in ‘placeholder’ seriously and think some more about the spaces in which and through which knowledge and military power are entangled.  David Livingstone provides some clues in Putting science in its place: geographies of scientific knowledge (Chicago, 2003), but military power remains in the wings of his account, while Gerard Toal‘s discussion of the battlefield as one of geography’s ‘venues’ in the SAGE Handbook of Geographical Knowledge, edited by Livingstone with John Agnew (Sage, 2011) is substantively closer to what I have in mind, but it’s more concerned with instrumental modalities than the apparatus through which, for example, the historical battlefield morphed into the contemporary battlespace.  That apparatus is at once conceptual and practical, and it is also – crucially – multi-sited, with circulations between (for example) districts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Pentagon, and a host of military installations, defence industries and research institutions inside and outside the academy.  In other words, the installation of battlespace – a diffuse, non-linear and unbounded space of military and paramilitary operations – at once exemplifies and engenders the contemporary ‘global’ to which Dirks directs our attention.

It was of course Michel Foucault who reminded us of the circulation ‘between geographical and strategic discourses’ – only natural, he said, because ‘geography grew up in the shadow of the military’ – and in that same interview with the editors of Hérodote (including Lacoste) he suggested that:

‘Once knowledge can be analyzed in terms of region, domain, implantation, displacement, transposition, one is able to capture the processes by which knowledge functions as a form of power and disseminates the effects of power.  There is an administration of knowledge, a politics of knowledge, relations of power which pass via knowledge and which, if one tries to transcribe them, lead one to consider forms of domination designated by such notions as field, region or territory.’

Those notions are far more than ‘metaphors’, as he called them in the interview, or at any rate metaphors are rarely purely linguistic plays.  In the case of many of our spatial concepts, these are not only – as George Lakoff and Mark Johnson might say – ‘metaphors we live by’ – but also metaphors through which others are made to (or let) die.  The ‘human’ in human geography has come under increasing pressure in recent years, from both post-structuralism and post-humanism, and my own work on war is indebted to both of them; but my particular concern is the way in which the production and performance of particular spaces is an intrinsic and intimate part of a military violence that is all too human.

Martial arts

If you’re tired of all the war-talk – I mean ‘war on the humanities’ talk – then try Anthony Galluzzo on teaching the humanities at the US Military Academy at West Point (yes): Sarah Lawrence, with guns, over at Jacobin.

“I agreed with a lot of what you said today, Professor Galluzzo,” he said. “But don’t you think there’s a difference between imaginary others and actual people you meet on the ground, in a place like Afghanistan? Can’t fantasies also reinforce stereotypes?” He articulated my own misgivings. I suggested he read Edward Said.

Although Greg didn’t know the book, his questions reminded me that Orientalism – a text and term often invoked by many of my West Point colleagues at the time as what “we” weren’t doing over there – is very much about the ideological misuse of imaginative literature in the service of nineteenth-century imperialism.

More (and older) thoughts from another instructor at a military academy, Lucretia Flammanghere: ‘We would not have a literature of modern war if warriors had not written it.’

And while we’re on the subject: last year US News and World Report named the US Military Academy at West Point and the US Naval Academy at Annapolis as the best public liberal arts colleges in the United States…

I’m as sceptical of the rankings game as you are, but I’m left wondering about the rhetorical effect of reports like this on an American public.

And all this certainly reminds us that the history of the humanities has been intimately entwined with the history of war in ways that transcend any simple (and usually noble) vision of the humanities representing and reflecting on human conflict (see, for example, Harvard’s Drew Faust here).  We know from Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and others some of the ways in which violence has been written in to the very constitution of the humanities, but it’s surely time to return to those questions and think, more concretely, about these martial Arts of ours…

If you think so too, then (to start the conversation) see Homi Bhabha speaking on The Humanities and the Anxiety of Violence earlier this year here.