Violence and imagination

While I was working on ‘Gabriel’s Map’ (DOWNLOADS tab) Trevor Barnes introduced me to Tom McCarthy‘s mesmerising novel C which, among many other things, contains some extraordinary passages describing a young British pilot soaring high over No Man’s Land on the Western Front in the First World War.  His job was to identify the location of enemy artillery batteries and then direct (‘range’) the British guns on to them:

‘Serge feels an almost sacred tingling, as though he himself had become godlike, elevated by machinery and signal code to a higher post within the overall structure of things, a vantage point from which the vectors and control lines linking earth and heaven … have become visible, tangible even, all concentrated at a spot just underneath the index finger of his right hand which is tapping out, right now, the sequence C3E MX12 G…

‘‘Almost immediately, a white rip appears amidst the wood’s green cover on the English side. A small jet of smoke spills up into the air from this like cushion stuffing; out of it, a shell rises. It arcs above the trench-meshes and track-marked open ground, then dips and falls into the copse beneath Serge, blossoming there in vibrant red and yellow flame. A second follows it, then a third. The same is happening in the two-mile strip between Battery I and its target, and Battery M and its one, right on down the line: whole swathes of space becoming animated by the plumed trajectories of plans and orders metamorphosed into steel and cordite, speed and noise. Everything seems connected: disparate locations twitch and burst into activity like limbs reacting to impulses sent from elsewhere in the body, booms and jibs obeying levers at the far end of a complex set of ropes and cogs and relays.’

Serge is using the clock code to range the guns on to their target, but the passage is remarkable for McCarthy’s imagery of ‘machinery and signal code’ and ‘ropes and cogs and relays’. Some of those who survived the war used the same mechanical imagery, perhaps nobody more effectively than Ernst Jünger:

‘The modern battlefield is like a huge, sleeping machine with innumerable eyes and ears and arms, lying hidden and inactive, ambushed for the one moment on which all depends. Then from some hole in the ground a single red light ascends in fiery prelude. A thousand guns roar out on the instant, and at a touch, driven by innumerable levers, the work of annihilation goes pounding on its way.’

What distinguishes McCarthy, I think, is his realisation that more is happening than lights setting levers in motion. Later he has Serge recognise that he is the messenger of death but insist that

‘he doesn’t think doesn’t think of what he’s doing as a deadening. Quite the opposite: it’s a quickening, a bringing to life. He feels this viscerally, not just intellectually, every time his tapping finger draws shells up into their arcs, or sends instructions buzzing through the woods to kick-start piano wires for whirring cameras, or causes the ground’s scars and wrinkles to shift and contort from one photo to another: it’s an awakening, a setting into motion.’

This is much on my mind today for two reasons.  First, while I’ve been recovering from my eye surgeries last month I’ve been reading more diaries from the First World War (reading is apparently good therapy!), and in one of them Captain Henry Wynard Kaye of the Royal Army Medical Corps describes several visits to a friend in command of a Royal Flying Corps squadron on the Western Front.  He describes exactly that sense of ‘a quickening, a bringing to life’ – and death – that McCarthy evokes so perceptively.  Here is Kaye’s entry for 12 August 1915:

 ‘Two of his officers went off at 5 to destroy some trenches up by Hooge. The observer had the spots on which they were going to put shells marked on his map, and off they sailed saying they would be back at 8. Their programme was to fly up to the place, and directly they secure a suitable place for observing the observer sends a wireless signal to the Battery Commander telling him to begin. Thereafter the observer directs the battery about each shot by wireless until the job is done…  In an artillery job he clearly regards himself as running the whole show, and talks about ‘I’m going to shoot’, ‘I’m going to put shells there and there’, regarding the Battery Commander only as the man who puts his orders into effect’.

 

I drew on McCarthy’s work in “Gabriel’s Map’ because, so it seems to me, there are times when nominally ‘fictional’ writing captures with distilled perfection what ostensibly ‘factual’ sources labour to bring into partial view: the ‘truth’ of fiction, if you like.  So much so that I’ve written elsewhere about the lazy distinction between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ (though since I wrote that the US election has clearly made that distinction even more tense).

And so my second reason for returning to all this: Brad Evans‘s interview in the latest Los Angeles Review of Books with Tom McCarthy, which pivots around his new collection of essays Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish, and the intricate imbrications between philosophy and literature throughout his work:

I try to undo the distinction that’s usually made between “fiction” and “reality,” as though “fiction” were synonymous with fakery. I don’t think that’s the right layout to work with; I think there’s something else going on. In Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish, I try to argue that “fiction” is best understood in terms of a gap or interim, a delay or décalage — what Hamlet calls an out-of-jointness. Another way of thinking about this would be (and this perhaps goes back to Faulkner’s ripple image) as a kind of asynchronic overlay. And vitally, what this overlay gives rise to, in its collisions and its recesses, is a possibility — and an ethics — of witnessing. Tell him we were here, says Vladimir to the boy-angel amid all the replays and repetition loops and waiting periods of Godot: Don’t turn up here tomorrow and deny you ever saw me. Then, watching Estragon sleeping, he asks himself, “Was I sleeping, while the others suffered?”; and he muses that someone is also watching over him (Vladimir) and thinking: “He is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on.” Now, of course someone is watching him — it’s a play! But beyond that, I think Beckett is invoking the notion of literature as a shared or consensual hallucination in which the act of witnessing, of affirming the existence of “the others,” becomes possible. This is not a journalistic or “scientific” act; it’s ultimately an imaginative one, an act of the imagination.

War Stories

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Thursday 15 September 7 – 9.30 p.m. on the Goldcorp Stage at the BMO Theatre Centre – 162 West 1st Avenue, Vancouver:

War stories from Afghanistan, Iraq and other conflict zones told by foreign correspondents, combat veterans and scholars.

Award-winning Iraqi-Canadian photojournalist Farah Nosh and writer/photographer Ann Jones will share images and stories of the impact of war on civilians. Wall Distinguished Professor and geographer Derek Gregory will discuss changes in the evacuation of war casualties from battlefields over the past century. Contact! Unload, a play directed by Wall Scholar George Belliveau, will feature Canadian veterans depicting what it means to transition home after overseas service. The play highlights Marv Westwood’s Veteran’s Transition Program and artist Foster Eastman’s Lest We Forget Canada! mural. Moderated by Emmy Award winning journalist Peter Klein.

Following the presentations the performers will engage with the audience in a discussion about the different perspectives and approaches to sharing war stories, and the value of storytelling’s ability to chronicle, enlighten and heal.

Register here (free).  I’m really excited about this – I admire the work of Farah Nosh and Ann Jones enormously, I’m looking forward to the extracts from Contact! Unload – I’m still thinking about Rosie Kay‘s Bodies on the line and Owen Sheerswonderful work in a similar vein – and Peter Klein will be a wonderful interlocutor.  Do come if you can.

UPDATE:  We’re sold out, but there is a wait list.  And you can find more on WAR STORIES from the wonderful Charlie Smith at the Georgia Straight here.

All the ways we kill and die

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I’ve noticed Brian Castners astonishing work before – see my post here – and I’m now deep into his latest book (published on my birthday).  I’ll write a detailed response when I’m finished, but it is so very good that I wanted to give readers advance notice of it.  It’s called All the ways we kill and die (Arcade, 2016):

The EOD—explosive ordnance disposal—community is tight-knit, and when one of their own is hurt, an alarm goes out. When Brian Castner, an Iraq War vet, learns that his friend and EOD brother Matt has been killed by an IED in Afghanistan, he goes to console Matt’s widow, but he also begins a personal investigation. Is the bomb maker who killed Matt the same man American forces have been hunting since Iraq, known as the Engineer?

In this nonfiction thriller Castner takes us inside the manhunt for this elusive figure, meeting maimed survivors, interviewing the forensics teams who gather post-blast evidence, the wonks who collect intelligence, the drone pilots and contractors tasked to kill. His investigation reveals how warfare has changed since Iraq, becoming individualized even as it has become hi-tech, with our drones, bomb disposal robots, and CSI-like techniques. As we use technology to identify, locate, and take out the planners and bomb makers, the chilling lesson is that the hunters are also being hunted, and the other side—from Al-Qaeda to ISIS— has been selecting its own high-value targets.

This is how Brian himself describes the book:

In January of 2012, a good friend of mine–Matt Schwartz from Traverse City, Michigan–was killed in Afghanistan. Matt was an Explosive Ordnance Disposal technician. We had the same job, but while I had done my two tours in Iraq and went home, Matt deployed again and again and again. He was shot on his second tour, and died on his sixth.

I realize now that I was bound to do an investigation into his death; my training demanded it. But instead of asking “what” killed him–we knew immediately it was a roadside bomb–I asked “who” killed him. It’s a question that would not have made any sense in past wars, not even at the start of this one. But we have individualized the war, we target specific people in specific insurgent organizations, and in the course of my research, I discovered the leaders on the other side do the same in reverse to us.

This is the story of an American family at war, and the men and women who fight this new technology-heavy and intelligence-based conflict. I interviewed intel analysts, biometrics engineers, drone pilots, special operations aircrew, amputees who lost their legs, and the contractors hired to finish the job. They are all hunting a man known as al-Muhandis, The Engineer, the brains behind the devices that have killed so many soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

You can read an excerpt at VICE (‘The problem with biometrics at war‘) and another at Foreign Policy (‘You will know the Bomber by his designs).

Reading this in counterpoint to Harry Parker‘s  Anatomy of a soldier (see my post here) – both deal with the aftermath of an IED in Afghanistan – is proving to be a rich and truly illuminating experience.

The trauma hero

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Following up my earlier post on novels, memoirs and narratives of war, there’s a thoughtful discussion by Roy Scranton at the LA Review of Books on what he calls ‘the myth of the trauma hero’.

A boy goes to war, his head full of romantic visions of glory, courage, and sacrifice, his heart yearning to achieve heroic deeds, but on the field of battle he finds only death and horror. He sees, suffers, and causes brutal and brutalizing violence. Such violence wounds the soldier’s very soul.

After the war the boy, now a veteran and a man, returns to the world of peace haunted by his experience, wracked by the central compulsion of trauma and atrocity: the struggle between the need to bear witness to his shattering encounter with violence, and the compulsion to repress it. The veteran tries to make sense of his memory but finds it all but impossible. Most people don’t want to hear the awful truths that war has taught him, the political powers that be want to cover up the shocking reality of war, and anybody who wasn’t there simply can’t understand what it was like.

The truth of war, the veteran comes to learn, is a truth beyond words, a truth that can only be known by having been there, an unspeakable truth he must bear for society.

This is probably the place to say that Roy served in the US Army in Iraq 2002-2006, studied at the New School for Social Research, and in 2010 embarked on a doctorate in English at Princeton – although, as you will soon see, this runs the very real risk of claiming that ‘he knows what he writes’ by virtue of these experiences.

Roy traces the myth of the trauma hero to eighteenth-century European Romanticism, and argues that it achieved its mature form in the twentieth century.  Accordingly he follows its development through Wilfred Owen in the First World War, Ernest Hemingway in the Second and Tim O’Brien in Vietnam until he reaches its contemporary form in Afghanistan and Iraq – and, in our own immediate present, in a film like Eastwood’s American Sniper.

It’s a beautifully composed contribution, and it’s made me re-think the basis for my ‘Gabriel’s Map’ and ‘Natures of War’ essays (DOWNLOADS tab) because Roy’s central thesis turns on a critique of the sacralization of trauma in ways that, at first sight, collide with my own attempts to develop what I’ve called a corpography (also DOWNLOADS tab) that can make us attentive to the corporeality and materiality of modern war:

‘Most Americans seem to believe that war can only be known through direct, physical, sensory experience on the battlefield, such as the moment of vision Owen describes in “Dulce et Decorum Est.” Ernest Hemingway, who in contrast to Owen’s long front-line service lasted only a few weeks as a noncombatant before being wounded and returning to the US, stands in American letters as the high priest of combat gnosticism. In Hemingway’s work, the emphasis on physicality, embodiment, and materiality we see in Owen’s representations of the soldier’s truth opens into a metaphysical bias against representation itself.’

d34387b998ba1136a34e9cc9e03515eeIn effect, Roy suggests, ‘being there’ becomes a privileged position from which truth cannot be communicated – only felt, and so only shared between those who were there.  The assertion of ethnographic privilege run through multiple fields from anthropology to journalism, of course, and it bedevils any attempt at historical reconstruction, but here it is heightened by the appeal to the supposedly inexpressible experience of trauma.  This could be developed still further through the reflections of, say, Elaine Scarry or Giorgio Agamben.  I take this very seriously, and yet if you work your way through the letters, diaries and memoirs of those who returned from the wars there is, I think, a sustained (and diverse) attempt to convey the corporeal – viscerally traumatising – experience of military violence.

But Roy’s point, I take it, is that this dilemma can function – can even be invoked – to exclude commentary and criticism.  And he concludes by emphasising the work that the ‘trauma hero’ continues to perform hors de combat:

‘[The most troubling consequence of our faith in the revelatory truth of combat experience and our sanctification of the trauma hero [is] that by focusing so insistently on the psychological trauma American soldiers have had to endure, we allow ourselves to forget the death and destruction those very soldiers are responsible for… Understanding the problem of American political violence demands recognizing soldiers as agents of national power, and understanding what kind of work the trauma hero is doing when he comes bearing witness in his bloody fatigues.’

I understand this concern too; there are – as I’ve argued in ‘The Natures of War’ – moments in many memoirs, novel and poems that reach towards the redemptive, even the exculpatory.  But I’ve also been deeply affected by those that disclose a more complex sense of the soldier as victim and vector of military violence: one of the recurrent motifs of the texts from the Western Front that I’ve worked with, for example, is the description of the fighting as ‘murder’.

So, much to think about – not least for the ways in which Roy’s ideas about the contemporary trauma hero complicate theses about a supposed transition to ‘post-heroic war’.  Those claims have a special resonance in the drone debates where, as I’ve noted elsewhere, Grégoire Chamayou has suggested that the trauma reportedly suffered by drone operators is ‘being mobilised to restore to war the ethico-heroic temper [critics] insisted it had lost through trauma’.

Evil Hours Cover Final

If you want to know more about the genealogy of post-traumatic stress, I recommend David J. Morris, The evil hours: a biography of post-traumatic stress disorder (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015).   You can read an extract over at Salon here.  The book is particularly relevant to this discussion because it suggests that where trauma was once mediated through philosophy and literature it is now constituted through psychology and psychiatry.  David is very good on the arguments that raged over ‘shell-shock’ during the First World War, but if you want a ‘biography’ of that then you should turn to Michèle Barratt‘s Casualty figures: how five men survived the First World War (Verso, 2007).

Finally, Roy’s Learning to die in the Anthropocene is due from City Lights in the fall; you can get a taste of it from his essay in the New York Times with the same title here; this was the final installment of a five-part series on War and the city in which Roy retraced his footsteps from civilian to soldier to civilian.

Novel wars

Since I added ‘The Natures of War’ to the DOWNLOADS section several people have asked me about my use of novels, especially in relation to Vietnam, while others have asked me to recommend writings – both novels and memoirs – that treat contemporary conflicts, especially Afghanistan.

Writing letters to home

The first part is easy.  To say things too quickly, I think the usual distinction between ‘fiction’ and ‘non-fiction’ is much more problematic than it seems (don’t we all know this? and in any case where exactly do you place a ‘memoir’ in such a strangely bifurcated landscape?).  I also believe that there are some insights – truths, if you prefer – that are best conveyed in ostensibly fictional form.  For that reason I suspect it’s significant that it’s my appeal to (for example) Karl Marlantes‘s magnificent Matterhorn in the Vietnam section that seems to trouble some readers much more than my use of poetry in the section on the Western Desert in the Second World War.  Yet both emerged through their authors’ reflections on their experiences of modern war in those places.  That doesn’t mean that one can ignore literary conventions or linguistic devices – no text is a transparent reflection of the world, after all – but this surely also holds for nominally factual accounts too (and that goes for military blogs, which have created their own conventions).  In other ‘fictional’ cases I can think of – like Tom McCarthy‘s C, which I drew upon in ‘Gabriel’s Map’ to characterise the battlefields of the Western Front  – the narrative is clearly embedded in intensive and immensely thoughtful research.  In fact, I’d push this further: hence my interest in documentary drama as part of – not simply a product of – the research process.

The second question is more difficult, but there are some recent guides which might help.  A good place to start is George Packer‘s ‘Home Fires: how soldiers write their wars‘ which appeared in the New Yorker last spring.  Packer tries to pin down what is distinctive about writing that seeks to capture the wars fought in the shadows of 9/11:

‘The first wave of literature by American combatants in these long, inconclusive wars has begun to appear—poems, memoirs, short stories, novels. Their concerns are the same as in all war writing: bravery and fear, the thin line between survival and brutality, the maddening unknowability of the enemy, tenderness, brotherhood, alienation from a former self, the ghosts of the past, the misfit of home.

But Iraq was also different from other American wars… Without a draft, without the slightest sacrifice asked of a disengaged public, Iraq put more mental distance between soldiers and civilians than any war of its duration that I can think of. The war in Iraq, like the one in Vietnam, wasn’t popular; but the troops, at least nominally, were—wildly so. (Just watch the crowd at a sports event if someone in uniform is asked to stand and be acknowledged.) Both sides of the relationship, if they were being honest, felt its essential falseness.’

Given this disconnect, he concludes, ‘it’s not surprising that the new war literature is intensely interested in the return home.’  But when it deals with the soldiers’ experience of war, he continues,

‘It deals in particulars, which is where the heightened alertness of combatants has to remain, and it’s more likely to notice things. To most foreign observers, the landscape of Iraq is relentlessly empty and ugly, like a physical extension of the country’s trauma. But in the poetry and the prose of soldiers and marines the desert comes to life with birdsong and other noises, the moonlit sand breeds dreams and hallucinations.’

It’s that struggle to turn the experience of land into its evocation that interests me.  But Packer makes surprisingly little of it, and his gaze is focused almost unwaveringly on Iraq rather than Afghanistan (not surprising, given his own war reporting).

Writing in the New York TimesMichiko Kakutani identifies a series of writings on the human costs of what Dexter Filkins called ‘the forever war’:

‘War cracks people’s lives apart, unmasks the most extreme emotions, fuels the deepest existential questions. Even as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan morph into shapeless struggles with no clear ends in sight, they have given birth to an extraordinary outpouring of writing that tries to make sense of it all: journalism that has unraveled the back story of how and why America went to war, and also a profusion of stories, novels, memoirs and poems that testify to the day-to-day realities and to the wars’ ever-unspooling human costs.

‘All war literature, across the centuries, bears witness to certain eternal truths: the death and chaos encountered, minute by minute; the bonds of love and loyalty among soldiers; the bad dreams and worse anxieties that afflict many of those lucky enough to return home. And today’s emerging literature … both reverberates with those timeless experiences and is imprinted with the particularities of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq: changes in technology, the increased presence of female soldiers and, most importantly, the all-volunteer military, which has opened a chasm between soldiers (“the other 1 percent”) and civilians.’

Here too there is an attempt to see how today’s writing differs from the established canon of war literature.  En route, Kakutani makes some good suggestions for reading, but she says very little about the differences – those dense ‘particulars’ again – between Iraq and Afghanistan.

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She leaves that to Brian Castner‘s outstanding essay for the LA Review of Books, ‘Afghanistan: a stage without a play.’

Castner did two tours in Iraq, and his own account of that experience (and, just as important, what followed) in The Long Walk is a tour de force in every sense of the phrase.  But he is also remarkably perceptive in his readings of Afghanistan (‘the Undescribed War’, he calls it) and – of particular interest to me, given my interest in ‘the natures of war’ or what my good friend Gastón Gordillo would prefer me to call ‘terrain‘ – its land and landscapes.  Castner also draws several illuminating comparisons with Vietnam (not least through a double parallel with the US’s ‘Indian Wars’ of the nineteenth century).

Kevin Maurer covered both wars, and always found

“Afghanistan far more riveting than Iraq because it’s a whole different world. Baghdad is a Middle Eastern city, but it is a modern city. In Afghanistan that barely exists. I’ve always been able to turn my brain into Afghanistan mode and out, while Iraq blurs.”

The influence of the terrain, especially its beauty, is clear: while a few descriptions of colorful Iraqi skies creep into the literature, it was mostly an ugly urban war fought along the New York State Thruway, rest stop to rest stop. “Afghanistan always had that Vietnam vibe to it,” Maurer said, “because you can go get lost in Afghanistan, you can be on some hill on some outpost. In Iraq you were never that far out.”

Korengal

And for that very reason the terrain was always more than beautiful.  You can see that in a film like Restrepo – and even more clearly in Koregal (above) – but according to Castner you can also see it in John Renehan’s forthcoming novel, The Valley.  And here too Vietnam continues to haunt the imaginative landscape:

RENEHAN The ValleyThe landscape acts as an omnipresent consciousness, an apparition always in the corner of [Lieutenant] Black’s eye, and Renehan attaches to it layers of reverence and dread and unknowable quasi-mysticism; the valley is capable of anything. This infection spreads slowly for the reader, and Renehan says his writing process followed a similar path. “I more or less thought I was setting out to write a mystery story that happened to be set in a war. But as I started writing it I realized it was growing into something different in my mind, and it changed on paper too.” A detective story becomes a heroin- and concussion-fueled dreamscape that crosses genres. “Going After Cacciato gave me comfort in writing the parts of The Valley that become almost surreal,” Renehan said. “It reassured me that this sort of thing is okay, because it’s a war novel, right?”

What I need to think more about – the process I started in ‘Gabriel’s Map’ and continued in ‘The Natures of War’ – is how, despite Castner’s title, the stage is always part of the play.  And novels and poems will continue to help me do so.

POSTSCRIPT  Just after I finished drafting this post, I stumbled across ‘s Peter Molin‘s excellent blog: Time Now: the Iraq and Afghan wars in art, film and literature which also discusses the three reviews I list here.  Peter is a US Army officer who served in Afghanistan in 2008-9, and his posts are rich in ideas, insights and resources: well worth bookmarking.

War cultures

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The British Academy is holding a two-day Landmark Conference in London on 12-13 November 2014, The First World War: Literature, Culture, Modernity.  The conference is convened by Santanu Das and  Kate McLoughlin:

A hundred years after the war’s outbreak, this conference brings together some of the world’s leading experts and emerging scholars to reassess its literary and cultural impact and explore its vexed relationship to modernity. Was the war a ‘crack in the table of history’ or did it reinforce deep continuities? What is the relationship between artistic form and historical violence, and between combatant and civilian creative responses? What are the colonial and transnational dimensions of First World War literature? Spanning across literature, the visual arts and music, the conference will adopt an international perspective as it investigates the war’s continuing legacies.

Registration is required; full details here.

In association with the conference, there will be an evening of music and readings at King’s College Chapel (London) on 11 November, Terrible Beauty: Music and Writing of the First World War, and an evening of poetry reading at the British Academy on 12 November, The Past Hovering: An Evening of War Poetry; both events are free but registration is required.

Another brick in the wall

When I was writing the Israel/Palestine chapters in The Colonial Present the vast, wretched landscape of occupation and repression was numbingly new to me (though it shouldn’t have been). I found little help from mainstream geography, with some honourable exceptions, and I vividly remember my first visit to the West Bank with Steve Graham, Eyal Weizman and others.  You would think I would have been prepared: I’d certainly read everything I could lay my hands on.

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But nothing prepares you for the enormity of the occupation, its monstrous violence and everyday humiliations, and the sight of the wall snaking across the landscape – what Ariella Azoulay and Adi Ophir call ‘the Monster’s Tail’ – remains one of the most appalling impositions I have ever seen.  Neither was I ready for the iron-clad violence of the Qalandiyya checkpoint, whose enclosures, grills and bars that would not have been out of place in an abbatoir could barely contain the brooding militarised violence of those who constructed it: but of course they weren’t supposed to.

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Since then, much of this has become all too familiar – which is part of the problem – but there are now many more geographers doing vitally important work on occupied Palestine.  Visualizing Palestine has recently added this new infographic about the wall to its excellent portfolio:

VP Where Law stands on the Wall

The focus adds yet another dimension to contemporary discussions about international law and what Michael Smith calls ‘geo-legalities’.  I’m keenly interested in those arguments, but today I’m led down this path by a new essay –part prose, part photography – composed by China Miéville for the Palestinian Literature Festival and performed by him at Nablus.

MIEVILLE Beyond equal rightsMiéville is best known as a novelist (and one with an intriguing geographical sensibility at that), but he’s no stranger to international law either: his Between Equal Rights: a Marxist theory of international law (2006) has been widely acclaimed. Yet this morning I’m seized by his photo-literary apprehension of the familiar unreality of the landscape of occupation:

Yes, we know the holy land is now a land of holes, and lines, a freakshow of topography gone utterly and hideously mad, that the war against Palestinians is also a war against everyday life, against human space, a war waged with all expected hardware, with violent weaponized absurdism, with tons and tons of concrete and girders.  This is truism, and/but true.

His experience of crossing the line reminds me of my own, though he captures its Kafka-esque horror far more vividly:

And in its wedge of shadow the long stupid zigzag of the checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem is indicated with a sign, there on the Bethlehem side. Entrance, it says, white on green, and points to the cattle run. Inside are all the ranks of places to wait, the revolving grinder doors, green lights that may or may not mean a thing, the conveyor belts and metal detectors and soldiers and more doors, more metal striae, more gates.

Finally, for those who emerge on the city side, who come out in the sun and go on, there is a sign they, you, we have seen before. White on green, pointing back the way just come.

Entrance, it says. Just like its counterpart on the other side of a line of division, a non-place.

No exit is marked.

The arrows both point in. Straight towards each other. The logic of the worst dream. They beckon. They are for those who will always be outside, and they point the way to go. Enter to discover you’ve gone the only way, exactly the wrong way.

Entrance: a serious injunction. A demand. Their pointing is the pull of a black hole. Their directions meet at a horizon. Was it ever a gateway between? A checkpoint become its own end.

This is the plan. The arrows point force at each other like the walls of a trash compactor. Obey them and people will slowly approach each other and edge closer and closer from each side and meet at last, head on like women and men walking into their own reflections, but mashed instead into each other, crushed into a mass.

Entrance, entrance. These directions are peremptory, their signwriters voracious, insisting on obedience everywhere, impatient for the whole of Palestine to take its turn, the turn demanded, until every woman and man and child is waiting on one side or the other in long long lines, snaking across their land like the wall, shuffling into Israel’s eternal and undivided capital, CheckPointVille, at which all compasses point, towards which winds go, and there at the end of the metal run the huge, docile, cow-like crowds will in this fond, politicidal, necrocidal, psyche-cidal fantasy, meet and keep taking tiny steps forward held up by the narrowness of the walls until they press into each others’ substance and their skins breach and their bones mix and they fall into gravity one with the next. Palestine as plasma. Amorphous. Amoebal. Condensed. Women and men at point zero. Shrunken by weight, eaten and not digested. An infinite mass, in an infinitely small space.

If you can bear to read more about this ‘non-place’, as Mieville calls it, try Helga Tawil-Souri, ‘Qalandia checkpoint as space and nonplace’, Space and culture 14 (1) (2011) 4-26; Irus Braverman, ‘Civilized borders: a study of Israel’s new crossing administration’, Antipode 43 (2) (2011) 264-95; Hagar Kotef and Merav Amir, ‘Between imaginary lines: violence and its justifications at the military checkpoints in occupied Palestine’, Theory, culture and society 28 (1) (2011) 55-50; and Merav Amir, ‘The making of a void sovereignty: political implications of the military checkpoints in the West Bank’. Environment and Planning D: Society & Space 31 (2013) 227-44.

qalandia_b

These are all behind paywalls, and if you can’t pass through those walls – and even if you can – I also recommend an open access essay by Helga Tawil-Souri, ‘Qalandia: an autopsy’, Jerusalem Quarterly 45 (2011) available here.  It’s a brilliant essay, and apart from what it has to tell us about the checkpoint (or ‘terminal’, as the Israelis prefer), like Miéville’s it also has much to teach us about the power of prose and the material politics of representation:

 Qalandia is dead because this time I find it impossible to photograph. I am paralyzed. Where do I stand? What do I document? Why am I even bothering? What am I supposed to do with a string of images? How will I put them back together to tell a story when there is no story to be told anymore? Photographing it, filming it, trying to write about it, only contradicts its very nature: a time-space of interruption, of suspension.  The checkpoint disjoints, tears the limbs off of my body; to want to tell its ‘story’ is a form of re-con-joining. I cannot. It has taken that right away from us.