Buses and tanks on the street

At a wonderful conference earlier this year in Roskilde I heard a stunning presentation about cross-cultural encounters and everyday racism on board Bus 5A in Copenhagen:

‘With more than 65,000 passengers a day, bus 5A is the busiest route in Copenhagen and the Nordic countries. Day and night, the bus cuts through the streets and connects different parts of the city. Bus 5A is iconic and loved, but also hated among bus drivers who have named it ‘the suicidal’ route and in everyday language refer to it as ‘Slamsugeren’ (suction vehicle) because it transports all kinds of people and connects many different places in the city. The bus starts in the suburb (Husum) and connects the multicultural part of Copenhagen (Nørrebro) with the more gentri ed inner city and the outskirts of Copenhagen, ending at the airport.’

The paper, by Lasse Koefoed, Mathilde Dissing Christensen and Kirsten Simonsen – which has been published in Mobilities (and from where I’ve borrowed these quotations) – describes a series of tactics pursued by passengers (and drivers) on the bus; for example:

‘… the dominant picture of the bus more often involves what we could call ‘the little racism’. A Pakistani immigrant describes this to us with a strong use of body language. He looks askance and moves a bit away from an imagined person next to him, wrinkles up his nose and says,‘Ashh’, in this way performing distanciation. Another respondent confirms this impression by telling: ‘You can feel it on the Danes, in particular when it is crowded’. She has difficulties finding words but talks about discomfort and anger. She is aware that she cannot rule herself out from the feeling:

I can see that I actually do it a bit myself. When a group of young immigrants enters the bus, then I strengthen my hold on my backpack or my bag. (Charlotte, passenger)

She recognises that it must be an unpleasant experience for the young men and feels a bit guilty, but she ‘tries to do it a little discreet[ly]’. What is at stake here is a sensing of an affective space, the more passive side of emotional experience, where emotions such as fear, discomfort, anger and disgust are circulating in the intense atmosphere of the crowded bus. This affective space is also at work as a background when young boys, asked about visions for the future, develop a utopia of a bus without racism.’

It’s a stimulating and provocative read, and it’s been on my mind for months since.  But it’s given a startling immediacy today by the new that Amnesty International has plastered a tank on the side of a Copenhagen bus.  Adweek reports:

The wrap makes a city bus look like a tank prowling the streets. “This is everyday life in Aleppo,” says the headline on the side, referring to the Syrian city devastated by the country’s civil war….

The idea is to remind people that while the Islamic State has left Aleppo [that’s a sentence that requires a good deal of qualification: to attribute the horrors of the siege of Aleppo to IS is not so much shorthand as sleight of hand], the Syrian war continues. The ad is also designed to raise awareness of refugees’ right to security from war and persecution.

“Everyone has the right to safety—also refugees,” says Claus Juul, legal consultant for Amnesty International. “It can be difficult to imagine what it is like to be human in a city, where one daily fears for one’s own and loved ones lives. Therefore, we have brought the everyday life of Aleppo to Copenhagen’s summer cityscape, so we, Danes, have the opportunity to face Syria’s brutal conflict.”

You need to see the short animation here or here to get the effect.

Fortunately the route is the 26 not the 5A…

Liberties and Republicans

On this terrible morning, with Donald Trump elected as President-designate of the United States, what to say?  Wrestling with sleeplessness last night, I started to think about the Statue of Liberty (bear with me).  I wrote about its multiple valences more than twenty years ago in Geographical Imaginations:  

Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi‘s original proposal was for a lighthouse in the likeness of a woman to be raised at the Mediterranean entrance to the Suez Canal as a symbol of the nineteenth-century expansion of Europe.  Its title, Egypt carrying light to Asia, was intended to assert the historical mission of Europe – with a colonized Egypt acting as its handmaiden – to bring “enlightenment” to the Orient.  Bartholdi spent two years making plans and models but in 1869 – the year the Canal opened – the Khedive Ismail withdrew his support and it was not until 1871 that Bartholdi was able to reactivate his scheme.

By then, in the wake of the Pais Commune, the project had been transformed and relocated.  One of his patrons, Édouard de Laboulaye, suggested that a monument be raised on the shores of the New World to symbolize Liberty Enlightening the World.  The representation of Liberty as a woman derived from classical antiquity, but this ‘whole allegorical apparatus’, as Maurice Agulhon called it, had been codified in France in the late seventeenth century.  When the Revolution occurred, Liberty already had an established iconographical status and a decree of 1792 adopted her as the seal of the republic: ‘the image of France in the guise of a woman, dressed in the style of Antiquity, standing upright, her right hand holding a pike surrounded by a Phyrgian cap or cap of liberty.’


By the opening decades of the nineteenth century the use of ‘Marianne’ as a symbol of both Liberty and the Republic had become a commonplace.  This was true in the most literal of senses.  “Where was this woman to be seen?” ask Agulhon.  The answer: “all over the place”.  Paris had two statues of her, in the Place de la Concorde and the Place Vendôme, and many other towns had their own effigies.  In 1848 she appeared on the second seal of the Republic, wearing a diadem of corn with seven rays of the sun encircling her head in a spiked halo.


The resemblance to the head of the American statue is striking, but a sunburst was also the Bartholdi family emblem and, still more significantly, it was intimately associated with the reign of Louis XIV, the ‘Sun King’.  To adorn Liberty with a sunburst was thus in a sense ‘to “crown” her’, Kaja Silverman argues, ‘and thereby align her with a tradition of stable and conservative government.’

That Liberty should be represented by a woman was clearly not without irony.  In practice, Joan Landes remarks,

the assault on paternalism was limited by force … and by the redirection of women’ public and sentimental existence into a new allegory of republican, virtuous family life.  Liberty herself is a profoundly ironic symbol, a public representation of a polity that sanctioned a limited domestic role for women … If Liberty represented woman, surely it was as an abstract emblem of male power and authority.

The power of patriarchy was reasserted still more forcibly after the fall of the Commune with the triumph of the bourgeois republic and its cult of respectability.  As Roger Magraw observed, ‘the official Mariannes who adorned town halls by the 1880s wore a halo of flowers and the motto Concorde, moving towards that anodyne statue which France sent to her fellow capitalist republic as the State of Liberty.’  Anodyne indeed: Silverman argues that Bartholdi virtually erased the corporeality of the body.  Thus he ‘completely buries the female form beneath hear classic drapery’ and ‘any thought that a body might nevertheless lurk beneath those folds is abruptly put to flight by the possibility of entering the statue and climbing up inside it.’  She is well aware of the sexual connotations of such a reading, of course, and moves quickly to foreclose them.  ‘Liberty is precisely an extension of the desire to “return” to the inside of the fantastic mother’s body,’ she proposes, ‘without having to confront her sexuality in any way.’  Viewed in this light, therefore, Liberty is rendered non-threatening and even ‘safe’.

It was thus from within a many-layered iconographical tradition that Laboulaye’s proposal was made.  He was Professor of Comparative Law at the Collège de France and although he never crossed the Atlantic he was regarded as France’s greatest expert on the United States.  Like many other republicans at the time, he regarded the United States as a model of the ideal society and he and his companions were convinced that a Statue of Liberty, given by France to America, would symbolize their most cherished principles.  For this reason Bartholdi was urged to ensure that the statue should ‘not be liberty in a red cap, striding across corpses with her pike at the port’ – a reference to Delacroix’s famous Liberty guiding the people to the barricades (below) –  but ‘the American liberty whose torch is held high not to inflame but to enlighten.’  Bartholdi agreed.  ‘Revolutionary Liberty cannot evoke American Liberty,’ he declared, ‘which after a hundred years of uninterrupted existence, should not appear as an intrepid young girl but as a woman of mature years, calm, advancing with the light but sure step of progress.’

Delacroix Liberty leading the people

For all there enthusiasm of the projects initiators, however, public subscriptions were slow – even Gounod conducting La liberté éclairant le monde at the Paris Opéra brought in a mere 8,000 francs – and in American they were slower still.  Bartholdi made a show of offering the statue to Philadelphia and Boston; other American cities submitted bids until at last prominent subscribers in New York were goaded into action.

In 1875 Bartholdi started work in his Paris atelier:

Statue Of Liberty In Bartholdi Workshop

He soon realized the magnitude of the task  and invited Gustave Eiffel to design the wrought-iron bracing needed to support the copper sheets that would form the outer skin of the sculpture.  It took several years to complete the disembodied sections of the statue, but by the spring of 1883 Bartholdi was at last ready to assemble them.  By the end of the year, as Victor Dargaud‘s canvas shows, the statue still surrounded by its scaffolding was looming about the rue de Chazelles.

That same year Emma Lazarus published ‘The New Colossus’ to raise money for the statue’s plinth; its famous lines were eventually mounted inside the lower level:


The government of France presented the Statue of Liberty to the United States on the Fourth of July 1884, and five months later it was dismantled, shipped across the Atlantic and reassembled on Bedloe’s Island in New York harbour.


Astonishingly when the inauguration ceremony was held in October 1886, all women were barred except for the wives of the French delegation (led by Bartholdi).  American suffragists held their own simultaneous ceremony, and issued this pointed declaration: ‘In erecting a Statue of Liberty embodied as a woman in a land where no woman has political liberty, men have shown a delightful inconsistency which excites the wonder and admiration of the opposite sex.’


This is only a partial narrative but its echoes this morning are only too sonorous – not least the casual Orientalism, the overpowering whiteness, the complicated sexism and (in blessed counterpoint) Lazarus’s defiant acceptance of the exile and the refugee.

And so, for all the baggage carried by Liberty, if I could draw her now I would show an endless line of refugees; at the very back, a woman in a long flowing dress, her crown askew, using her battered torch as a crutch as she limps along in the dust, hoping against hope to be allowed to cross the border; and on an island in New York Harbor a new, glittering faux-gold statue of a man raising his searchlight in his tiny hands, and on the base Dante‘s immortal instruction: ‘Abandon hope, all ye who enter here….’

Yet today of all days we surely cannot afford to abandon hope.  Never has it been more urgent for scholars to reach out far beyond the academy, to create and engage new publics, and to help revitalize a critical and participatory political and intellectual culture – one in which knowledge trumps ignorance, compassion hostility and solidarity selfishness.

Empire, faith and war

My time in the archives at the Imperial War Museum this summer was very productive and I made considerable headway in completing my work on casualty evacuation from the Western Front in the First World War and from North Africa in the Second – more on that later.  In the letters and diaries written from Belgium and France I found many, scattered references to the presence of non-Caucasian troops, especially from North Africa and India; as I’ve noted before, it was not all white on the Western Front.



But apart from the heroic work of scholars like Santanu Das there have been few attempts to piece these fragments together.  I’ve now discovered a website, Empire, Faith and War, that aims to put the contribution of Sikhs literally on the map (though it’s much more than an exercise in cartography):

As the world turns its attention to the centenary of the Great War of 1914-18, the ‘Empire, Faith & War’ project aims to commemorate the remarkable but largely forgotten contribution and experiences of the Sikhs during this epochal period in world history.

From the blood-soaked trenches of the Somme and Gallipoli, to the deserts and heat of Africa and the Middle East, Sikhs fought and died alongside their British, Indian and Commonwealth counterparts to serve the greater good, gaining commendations and a reputation as fearsome and fearless soldiers.

Although accounting for less than 2% of the population of British India at the time, Sikhs made up more than 20% of the British Indian Army at the outbreak of hostilities. They and their comrades in arms proved to be critical in the early months of the fighting on the Western Front, helping save the allies from an early and ignominious defeat.

Wartime generations and their stories fading fast, and current and future generations losing vital links to this monumental past.

There’s probably not a single Sikh in the UK who doesn’t have a military connection in their family history. It is often because of those links to the armies of the British Raj that many Sikhs now reside in the UK.

And yet the role of Sikhs in World War One is a largely unknown aspect of the Allied war effort and indeed of the British story.

By revealing these untold stories we aim to help shed much needed light on both their sacrifice, but also on the contribution of all of the non-white allied forces from across the British Empire.

This is possibly our last opportunity to discover and record the stories of how one of the world’s smaller communities played such a disproportionately large role in the ‘war to end all wars’.

Apoorva Sripathi has a good account of the background to the project here.

Visual occupations and a counter-politics of visuality

Most readers will know Eyal Weizman‘s searing account of the cruel intersections between the politics of visibility and the politics of verticality in occupied Palestine, Hollow Land: Israel’s architecture of occupation.

But there are other, no less intimate and intrusive dimensions to the politics of visibility for a people under military (and civilian) occupation that amount to what Gil Hochberg calls an ‘uneven distribution of “visual rights”‘.  In her brilliant new book from Duke University Press, Visual occupations: violence and visibility in a conflict zone, she explores ‘the political importance of various artistic attempts to redistribute the visible’ (my emphasis) and, in effect, to put in place a counter-politics of visuality.

978-0-8223-5887-9_prIn Visual Occupations Gil Z. Hochberg shows how the Israeli Occupation of Palestine is driven by the unequal access to visual rights, or the right to control what can be seen, how, and from which position. Israel maintains this unequal balance by erasing the history and denying the existence of Palestinians, and by carefully concealing its own militarization. Israeli surveillance of Palestinians, combined with the militarized gaze of Israeli soldiers at places like roadside checkpoints, also serve as tools of dominance. Hochberg analyzes various works by Palestinian and Israeli artists, among them Elia Suleiman, Rula Halawani, Sharif Waked, Ari Folman, and Larry Abramson, whose films, art, and photography challenge the inequity of visual rights by altering, queering, and manipulating dominant modes of representing the conflict. These artists’ creation of new ways of seeing—such as the refusal of Palestinian filmmakers and photographers to show Palestinian suffering or the Israeli artists’ exposure of state manipulated Israeli blindness —offers a crucial gateway, Hochberg suggests, for overcoming and undoing Israel’s militarized dominance and political oppression of Palestinians.

Here’s the Contents List:

Introduction. Visual Politics at a Conflict Zone

Part I. Concealment

1. Visible Invisibility: On Ruins, Erasure, and Haunting
2. From Invisible Spectators to the Spectacle of Terror: Chronicles of a Contested Citizenship

Part II. Surveillance

3. The (Soldier’s) Gaze and the (Palestinian) Body: Power, Fantasy, and Desire in the Militarized Contact Zone
4. Visual Rights and the Prospect of Exchange: The Photographic Event Placed under Duress

Part III. Witnessing

5. “Nothing to Look At”; or, “For Whom Are You Shooting?”: The Imperative to Witness and the Menace of the Global Gaze
6. Shooting War: On Witnessing One’s Failure to See (on Time)

Closing Words

2014_cover_publication_forensisIt’s a compelling book, and I’m struck by another parallel with Eyal’s work.  In Hollow Land Eyal showed the central role that architecture and architects play in Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank, but in subsequently developing his collaborative Forensic Architecture project he effectively reverse-engineers architecture’s dominant imaginary to use built forms and spatial formations as a way of revealing prior trajectories of violence to a public forum.  That too is a counter-politics of visuality.

All white on the Western Front?

Indian troops at Ypres

There is a telling anecdote in Lyn Macdonald‘s account of The Somme:

Climbing on to the firestep, the Staff Captain cautiously raised his head above the parapet and looked across. ‘Good God!’ he exclaimed. ‘I didn’t know we were using Colonial troops!’ Pretor-Pinney made no reply. Hoyles and Monckton exchanged grim looks. ‘Dear God,’ muttered Monckton, when the Colonel and the visitor had moved away to a safe distance, ‘has the bastard never seen a dead man before?’ It was a rhetorical question. Lying out in the burning sun, soaked by the frequent showers of a week’s changeable weather, the bodies of the dead soldiers had been turned black by the elements. The Battalion spent the rest of the day burying them.

In fact, it’s doubly revealing.  On one side, it confirms the (I think simplistic) stereotype of the General Staff and their distance from death; but on the other side it also speaks to what Santanu Das, writing in the Guardian, calls ‘the colour of memory’:

In 1914, Britain and France had the two largest empires, spread across Asia and Africa, and an imperial war necessarily became a world war.

More than 4 million non-white men were recruited into the armies of Europe and the US. In a grotesque reversal of Joseph Conrad’s vision, thousands of Asians, Africans and Pacific Islanders were voyaging to the heart of whiteness and far beyond – to Mesopotamia, East Africa, Gallipoli, Persia and Palestine. Two million Africans served as soldiers or labourers; a further 1.3 million came from the British “white” dominions. The first shot in the war was fired in Togoland, and even after 11 November 1918 the war continued in East Africa.

A South African labourer said he went to war to “see different races”. If one visited wartime Ypres, one would have seen Indian sepoys, tirailleur Senegalese, Maori Pioneer battalions, Vietnamese troops and Chinese workers.

Today, one of the main stumbling blocks to a truly global and non-Eurocentric archive of the war is that many of these 1 million Indians, or 140,000 Chinese, or 166,000 West Africans, did not leave behind diaries and memoirs. In India, Senegal or Vietnam there is nothing like the Imperial War Museum; when a returned soldier or village headman died, a whole library vanished.

Moreover, as the former colonies became nation states, nationalist narratives replaced imperial war memories. Stories that did not fit were airbrushed. In Europe, communities turned to their own dead and damaged.

WWI Sikhs Bagpipes

In ‘Gabriel’s Map’ I began in East Africa in 1914 with an Indian Army contingent – whose staff officers included, in William Boyd‘s An Ice-Cream War,  the young Gabriel Cobb – sent to seize German East Africa defended by the local Schutztruppen under German command.  But as I travelled back to the Western Front the colonial troops who also served there slipped from the record.  Yet by the end of September 1914 two Indian divisions and a cavalry brigade had already arrived in France (see above), and in October the first sepoys were sent into battle at Ypres.  If British, French and German troops were shocked at the devastation of a European countryside that was, in its essentials, once familiar to them, what could the freezing cold, the endless mud and the splintered trees have meant to these men (who usually arrived unprepared and ill-equipped for the winter)?

sepoysinthetrenches_0_1I suspect a satisfying answer has to wait for Santanu’s next book, India, Empire and the First World War: words, images and objects (Cambridge University Press, 2015). But in the meantime the whitening of the Western Front (and other theatres of the War) can be resisted through other sources. Some of them are listed in his brief essay on ‘The Indian sepoy in the First World War’ for the the British Library (and you can find ‘Experiences of colonial troops’, adapted from his Introduction to Race, empire and First World War writing [Cambridge University Press, 2011] here).

In addition Christian Koller‘s ‘The recruitment of colonial troops in Africa and Asia and their deployment in Europe during the First World War’, Imigrants & Minorities 26 (1/2) (2008) 111-133 [open access pdf here] provides a helpful context and more references (including French and German sources), and Gajendra Singh‘s The testimonies of Indian soldiers and the two world wars: between self and sepoy (Bloomsbury, 2014)  is a wider, though inevitably selective account of the fabrication of Indian military identities under the Ra (the chapter on ‘Throwing snowballs in France’ is also available in Modern Asian Studies 48 (4) (2014): it’s an artful discussion of the (mis)fortunes of a chain letter – this is the ‘snowball’ in question – that ran foul of the military censor).  The Round Table 103 (2) (2014) is a special issue devoted to ‘The First World War and the Empire-Commonwealth’.


Finally, I’m working my way through Andrew Tait Jarboe‘s excellent PhD thesis, Soldiers of empire: Indian sepoys in and beyond the metropole during the First World War, 1914-1919 (Northeastern, 2013): during my current research on military-medical machines 1914-2014 I’ve found a number of references to the treatment of wounded Indian troops on the Western Front – their evacuation on hospital trains and their treatment in segregated hospitals – and Andrew’s third chapter (‘Hospital’) provides an illuminating reading of what was happening:

‘Between 1914-18, the British established segregated hospitals for wounded Indian soldiers in France and England… [T]hese hospitals were not benign institutions of healing. Like hospitals that repaired the bodies of English soldiers, Indian hospitals played a crucial role in sustaining the war-making capacity of the British Empire. Indian hospitals in Marseilles or Brighton also served an imperial purpose. As sites of propaganda, they reaffirmed the ideologies of imperial rule for audiences at home, abroad, and within the hospital wards. Yet even while the British Empire succeeded to a considerable extent in exploiting the manpower of India, … wounded sepoys were rarely ever mere pawns on the imperial chessboard. Hospital authorities were committed to two policies: returning sepoys to the front, and protecting white prestige. Wounded sepoys found ways of resisting both. In this way, Indian hospitals readily became what British authorities hoped they would not: spaces where imperial subalterns contested the policies and ideologies of imperial rule.’

Sikhs WW1

For imagery of non-European troops on the Western front and elsewhere, try this page at the Black Presence in Britain.  More wide-ranging is the exhibition organised by the Alliance française de Dhaka, War and the colonies 1914-1918, that you can visit online here (I’ve taken the image above from that collection).

All of this, clearly, adds another dimension to Patrick Porter‘s lively discussion of Military Orientalism: Eastern war through Western eyes (2009).  But it’s not only an opportunity to reverse (and re-work) that subtitle.  The Times of India reports a campaign to change ‘the colour of memory’ by instituting 15 August as a Remembrance Day in India:

“This will be our Remembrance Day. We have attended such memorial functions in France where heads of different states converge and the civilian turnout is quite big. But we don’t see a single Indian face there—quite an irony, given the fact that 1, 40,000 Indians defended French soil from German aggression in the Great War, and many never returned home. That’s why we, NRIs from France, came up with this project,” says a representative of Global Organization for People of Indian Origin (GOPIO), France.


Thatcher’s Gift: law and ordering

Datta Khel strike satellite analysis

Following on from my last post…  The failure of the anonymous US official to recognise what I called the operative presence of customary law is symptomatic of a structural condition: Pakistan’s borderlands, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, must be construed as ‘lawless’ in order for law (which is to say ‘order’) to be imposed from the outside, through military and paramilitary violence shrouded, as it so often is, in the cloak of law itself.

Talking with Michael Smith yesterday – who is busy co-editing a special issue of Society & Space on legal geographies with Craig Jones  – I suggested that this effectively repeated the canonical double gesture of Orientalism, in which the space of the Other is summoned as a space of the bizarre, the exotic and at the limit the monstrous (‘a living tableau of queerness’, Edward Said called it), that must be imperatively normalised – straightened out, if you prefer – through the imposition of the order it has been deemed to lack.  In this case, the ordering is imposed through a deadly dance choreographed in Washington and Islamabad.

Michael then provided me with this remarkable quotation from Peter Fitzpatrick‘s ‘Racism and the innocence of law’ from the Journal of Law and Society 14 (1) (1987) 119-132 (p. 129):

“It is hardly surprising, then, that the resort to law as a symbol of race and nation should be so facile, so common and so effective. Thus, to return to the stratagem of the telling instance and to Thatcher’s contribution, she precisely echoes the imperialist claim to law as a gift we gave them, gave those “people with a different culture”, people who did not have law, who did not give it to the world and who in remaining essentially alien have failed to assimilate the gift adequately.”

The reference is to a speech given by Margaret Thatcher in January 1978, in which she praised Britain’s contribution to law (‘throughout the world’) and sympathised with those who feared that immigration would see this ‘swamped’ – submerged, drowned – ‘by people with a different culture’.

Datta Khel strike BoJ PNG

So, in the telling instance of Datta Khel [the image above is from an official Pakistani transcript published by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism; there is also a detailed report here – scroll down to 17 March) colonial and imperial power redux: Midnight’s Children being ‘ordered’ by Thatcher’s….. It would have been better if the Jirga targeted by the drone had been a ‘charity car-wash’ – but that distant prospect was evidently (and I think necessarily) construed as even less likely than its being a properly constituted legal assembly.

In case this is misunderstood, to insist on the operative presence of customary law is emphatically not to deny that people in these areas are subject to extraordinary violence from the air and from the ground, by the CIA, the Pakistan military, and the Taliban and other groups – but it is to acknowledge how what Michael called ‘liberal legality’s denigration of its others (tradition, custom, customary law)’ is a vital, constitutive moment in the imposition of those violent exactions.

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.

Orientalism and War

Forthcoming from Hurst in the UK – who have an expanding catalogue of books on the Middle East that is full of delights – and Columbia University Press in North America (September/October 2012), this edited collection on Orientalism and War emerged from a superb conference I attended at Oxford in June 2010.

But it’s not the usual quick-and-dirty “Proceedings” volume; Tarak Barkawi and Keith Stanski have done a marvellous job of editing, and the papers have all been revised for publication.  I’ve listed the Contents at the end of this post.

In their Introduction, Tarak and Keith treat Orientalism as a regime of truth:

‘For us, this focus on Orientalism as an institutionalized community of experts is crucial. Orientalism is not mere bias against Easterners; it is a regime of truth. Views that in fact amount to grotesque misrepresentation come to be accepted by the authorized experts and by those they communicate with. One such misrepresentation that sits at the core of historical and contemporary Orientalisms concerns the East as a site of disorder and the West as that which brings order to disorder.’

The gavotte between order and disorder is one of the central ways in which Orientalism is so deeply entangled with war, and – as they also note – ‘war entails a cycle of the unmaking and remaking of truths of all kinds.’  In particular, war has ‘an uncanny capacity to overturn received wisdom of all kinds. Wars and military operations rarely turn out as expected.’

This is obviously about far more than the imaginative geographies that Edward Said exposed so wonderfully well in his Orientalism; as the chapters in the book document in different ways and in different placesthese regimes of truth impose and inscribe material economies of violence that, in their turn, enforce those regimes of truth.  The relation between the two is not a frictionless machine but a slippery series of precepts, protocols and practices that can (and usually does) come undone – the point that Tarak and Keith sharpen so well –  but the dangerous liaison between epistemological violence and physical violence is of cardinal and continuing importance.

For Said, Orientalism entailed two cultural-political performances:

  • First, ‘the Orient’ was summoned as an exotic and bizarre space, and at the limit a pathological and even monstrous space: ‘a living tableau of queerness.’
  • Second, ‘the Orient’ was constructed as a space that had to be domesticated, disciplined and normalized through a forceful projection of the order it was presumed to lack: ‘framed by the classroom, the criminal court, the prison, the illustrated manual.’

As I’ve said, these performances wrought considerably more than epistemological violence. The Orientalist projection of order was more than conceptual or cognitive, for the process of ordering also conveyed the sense of command and conquest. Said knew this very well, and his critique of Orientalism was framed by a series of wars. Orientalism (1978) opens with the civil war in Lebanon, a place that had a special significance for Said; it was a belated response to his puzzlement at the jubilation on the streets of New York at the Israeli victory in the 1967 and 1973 wars; and it located the origins of a distinctively modern Orientalism in Napoleon’s military expedition to Egypt between 1798 and 1801.

And yet, even as he fastened on the importance of the French invasion and occupation, Said’s focus was unwaveringly on the textual appropriation of ‘ancient Egypt’ by the savants – the engineers, scientists and artists – who accompanied the French army.

Their collective work was enshrined in the monumental Description de l’Égypte, which Said described as a project ‘to render [Egypt] completely open, to make it totally accessible to European scrutiny’, and so to usher the Orient from what he called ‘the realms of silent obscurity’ into ‘the clarity of modern European science.’  The phrasing is instructive: visuality is a leitmotif of Orientalism. Said repeatedly notes that under its sign ‘the Orient is watched’, that the Orient was always more than tableau vivant or theatrical spectacle, and that the Orientalist technology of power-knowledge was, above all, about ‘making visible’, about the construction ‘of a sort of Benthamite panopticon’ from whose watch-towers ‘the Orientalist surveys the Orient from above, with the aim of getting hold of the whole sprawling panorama’ in every ‘dizzying detail’.

But Napoleon’s military expedition was about more than annexing Egypt as what Said calls ‘a department of French learning’, and its execution inflicted more than cultural violence.  In my own contribution to the volume, I tried to go beyond textual appropriations – even as I necessarily relied on an archive that is primarily textual – to trace the changing relations between Orientalism, visuality and military violence from the French occupation of Egypt to the American-led occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.  (There’s an extended version of the essay under the DOWNLOADS tab).

Although I’ve emphasised the historical roots of Said’s critique in this post, I should note that the essays in Orientalism and War are all written by scholars with a clear sense of the continuing, dismally contemporary relations between the two (and Said himself displayed the same sensibility in his brilliant stream of essays on the dispossession of the Palestinian people).

‘When a book comes along that examines what should be obvious yet is utterly under-thought, you have to read it and teach it. This is such a book. It forces us to consider how war is unthinkable without Orientalism, and how Orientalism is unthinkable without war.’ — Cynthia Weber, Professor of International Relations, University of Sussex

‘Orientalism has a history in which projections of superiority and inferiority, fear and desire, repulsion and envy reach extremes that only war can resolve. From Herodotus to Petraeus, Orientalism and war have been cultural bedfellows. Assembling a diversity of views and keenness of inquiry rarely found in a single volume, Tarak Barkawi and Keith Stanski have revitalised the concept of Orientalism to bring a nuanced and complex understanding of how culture has become the killer variable of modern warfare.’ — James Der Derian, Professor of International Studies (Research), Brown University


1   Orientalism and War –  Tarak Barkawi and Keith Stanski

2  Shocked by War: the non-politics of Orientalism – Arjun Chowdhury

3  American Orientalism at War in Korea and the United States: a hegemony of racism, repression and amnesia – Bruce Cumings

4  Terror, the Imperial Presidency and American Heroism – Susan Jeffords

5  Can the insurgent speak? – Hugh Gusterson

6  Colonial Wars, Postcolonial Specters: the anxiety of domination – Quynh N. Pham and Himadeep R. Muppidi

7  Orientalism in the Machine – Josef Teboho Ansorge

8  Dis/Ordering the Orient: scopic regimes and modern war – Derek Gregory

9  Nesting Orientalisms at war: World War II and the “Memory War” in Eastern Europe – Maria Mälksoo

10  Victimhood as agency: Afghan women’s memoirs – Margaret A. Mills

11  Fanon’s “guerre des ondes”: resisting the call of Orientalism – John Mowitt

12  The Pleasures of Imperialism and the Pink Elephant: Torture, Sex, Orientalism – Patricia Owens

13  Afterword – Patrick Porter