Islands of Sovereignty

When so many eyes are on the plight of refugees and asylum-seekers making the ever dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean, it’s important to attend to the wider geographies of marine migration and its policing.  So I really welcome news from Jeff Kahn of an intriguing and important new book, his Islands of Sovereignty: Haitian Migration and the Borders of Empire (forthcoming from Chicago later this year).

In Islands of Sovereignty, anthropologist and legal scholar Jeffrey S. Kahn offers a new interpretation of the transformation of US borders during the late twentieth century and its implications for our understanding of the nation-state as a legal and political form. Kahn takes us on a voyage into the immigration tribunals of South Florida, the Coast Guard vessels patrolling the northern Caribbean, and the camps of Guantánamo Bay—once the world’s largest US-operated migrant detention facility—to explore how litigation concerning the fate of Haitian asylum seekers gave birth to a novel paradigm of offshore oceanic migration policing. Combining ethnography—in Haiti, at Guantánamo, and alongside US migration patrols in the Caribbean—with in-depth archival research, Kahn expounds a nuanced theory of liberal empire’s dynamic tensions and its racialized geographies of securitization. An innovative historical anthropology of the modern legal imagination, Islands of Sovereignty forces us to reconsider the significance of the rise of the current US immigration border and its relation to broader shifts in the legal infrastructure of contemporary nation-states across the globe.

My own early work on Guantanamo [in ‘The Black Flag’: DOWNLOADS tab] nibbled at the remote edges of some of these issues, but Jeff makes them front and centre (as they should be), and the wider resonance of his argument in the face of  Trump’s wretched views on  immigration needs no gloss from me [though what Trump will do when someone tells him the US has maritime borders too is anyone’s guess].

Here is Jeff’s elaboration (taken from the book):

One of the overarching arguments of the book is that one must understand the valorization of law’s reign and the simultaneous desire for its evasion as two forces that have produced a potential dynamism within liberal sovereignty. That dynamism, having been activated through the historical conjuncture of Haitian migration, has reconfigured the spatiality of one of modernity’s core political forms–the nation-state itself. The goal is not to identify and typologize illiberal accretions on liberal political forms (R. Smith 1997) or to reveal the centrality of empire to American republicanism (Rana 2010) but to examine how the dialectics of the liberal rule of law continue to produce new geographies into the present. In this sense, the book is not just a dissection of liberal cosmology but a revelation of a liberal cosmogony of a kind by which state forms have been partially recreated as valued entities, both aesthetic and instrumental.

[Haitian] Interdiction [operations] emerged initially as a search for spaces of flexible bureaucratic intervention unburdened by the dense layers of proceduralism iconic of law’s rule. But what accounted for this urgent turn to the relative freedom of the seas? When Haitians began arriving in South Florida in the early 1970s, they encountered what was then an embryonic asylum-processing regime that granted the INS frontline screeners and district directors nearly unreviewable discretion to dispose of Haitian claims, which were, in almost every instance, denied as being merely “economic” in nature. The litigation and political organizing that emerged out of these early cases developed into a coalition of Haitian exiles, leftist activists, mainstream religious networks, and tenacious civil rights attorneys who would, through an unprecedented process of what I call “siege litigation” (chapter 2), effectively shut down the INS’s capacity to expel Haitians from South Florida for the better part of a decade. A space-producing dynamic would soon emerge around an energetic polarity of opposing litigation camps, each focused in different ways on the dilemma of what in government circles had already by that time become known as “the Haitian problem.” This book examines the ways new geographies were fashioned in these contests and what such space-making processes can reveal about existing cosmologies of law’s rule, including their shifting aesthetic and moral geographies.

You can get a taste of Jeff’s arguments about those legal geographies in his brilliant essay,  ‘Geographies of discretion and the jurisdictional imagination. PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 40 (1)  (2017) 5-27.

The modernist ideal of liberal constitutionalism affords jurisdiction a special place as the organizing principle behind the distribution of official state power. Nonetheless, little attention has been paid to the intricate spatial infrastructures that give jurisdiction its form.  In this article, I argue that the complex architectures that undergird various jurisdictional registers combine to segment material and virtual landscapes into historically specific, multilayered geographies of discretion, dictating where, when, and to whom various institutions are permitted to speak the law. Looking to politicized litigation and advocacy over the rights of Haitian asylum seekers in the United States, I demonstrate how battles over jurisdictional cartographies can both instantiate and remake the spatiality of nation-states and the cosmologies of liberal sovereignty on which they rest.

 

Here’s the main Contents list for the book:

1 • The Political and the Economic
2 • Border Laboratories
3 • Contagion and the Sovereign Body
4 • Screening’s Architecture
5 • The Jurisdictional Imagination
6 • Interdiction Adrift

And, as I’ve noted before, since this comes from an American scholarly press the price of the paperback and e-book is eminently reasonable.  Commercial behemoths (oh, please let them soon become mammoths) take note!

Counterinsurgency and the counterrevolution

Another interesting interview tied to a book, this time between Jeremy Scahill and Bernard Harcourt, over at The Intercept.  A central argument of Bernard’s book, The Counterrevolution: how our government went to war against its own citizens,is that contemporary politics is based on – in fact, realizes – a counterinsurgency warfare model.  He explains it like this:

… all of the [ways] in which we govern abroad and at home is now funneled through a particular way of thinking about the world. It’s a mentality. It’s a way of thinking about society that triggers particular kinds of strategies and politics that result from that. And the way of thinking about society is this counterinsurgency paradigm of warfare.

So, counterinsurgency started in the 1950s – well, it started long before then, but it kind of crystallized with Western powers in the 1950s and 60s in Algeria, and Indochina before then, and in Vietnam for the Americans. And it was a particular way of thinking about society, the way society is structured into three groups. With, on the one hand, a small active minority who are the insurgents, and a large passive majority who can be swayed one way or the other, and then a small minority of counterinsurgents.

And that way of thinking has become internalized, second hand. Most, I would say, many in America, but certainly our political leaders are looking at the world through that lens when they look at other countries when they look domestically at their own population, and as a result of that it triggers particular kinds of counterinsurgency practices, really. And three practices particularly that I think when you look at what we’re doing both abroad and at home, you see resonances of them everywhere. The first is the idea of getting total information awareness. That’s always been the key linchpin of counterinsurgency theory, is to get total information on the total population.

And that’s what distinguishes it from just getting good intelligence. It’s that you have to get total intelligence on the total population, not just targeted to people who you suspect, but on the total population. So that you can make a distinction between or you can identify that small group of active insurgents. And you need the information on everyone so that you can make that separation, those fine distinctions between someone who is in that active minority or someone who’s just [in the] you know, passive masses. So that’s the first strategy. The second strategy is then that you have to rid of the active minority that you identified, just that small group of individuals, the insurgents, and you do that through any means possible. And then the third strategy is to win the hearts and minds of the masses, basically.

And I think that starting after 9/11. We saw that way of thinking become the dominant way of governing abroad particularly with the war in Iraq, but then more generally with the use of drones outside of war zones et cetera, use of total information through the NSA in the way in which everything was captured about everyone to the most minor detail. And then also trying to pacify the masses in Iraq through kind of some provision of services or just distribution of cash. But then eventually, when this way of thinking comes back to the United States through different forms of pacification of the masses. Particularly right now, I would say through forms of distraction, really.

The interview loops through a number of arguments that will be familiar to regular readers – about Guantanamo Bay, the carceral archipelago and torture; about the ‘cultural turn’ and counterinsurgency; about drones and targeting killing; and about international humanitarian law, international human rights law and the ‘individuation’ modality of later modern war – but repatriates them from the global borderlands to the United States.

Illegalities and undemocracies

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A postscript to my previous post about Palestine, solidarity and BDS.  Over at Books & IdeasBenjamin Ferron has a review essay on Ingrid Nyström and Patricia Vendramin, Le boycott (2015): Globalisation and the art of boycotting.

There’s some succinct historical context, tracing the politics of boycotts back to the late seventeenth century, but then this about the current Boycott, Disinvest, Sanctions movement:

‘Launched in 2005 at the request of Palestinian intellectuals and academics, and supported by 172 Palestinian civil society organisations, it calls for an economic, academic, cultural and political boycott of the state of Israel to protest against the colonisation and occupation of Palestinian territories, the construction of the Wall of separation and annexation, and campaign in favour of the equality of Israeli Arab and Jewish citizens, and the acknowledgement of the Palestinian refugees’ right of return. The penalisation of these actions in Israel and in France (through the so-called Alliot-Marie circular) shows that this mode of action is threatening to the intended targets or their allies.’

I knew about moves by the Cameron government in the UK and the now mercifully extinct Harper government in Canada to outlaw BDS – the irony of the former Prime Minister threatening to use ‘hate laws’ against anyone with whom he disagreed is wholly unexceptional –   but I now realise that their authoritarian response is much wider than I had imagined, and for the reasons supplied by those last eight words in the quotation.

Of particular relevance to the upcoming plenary at the AAG is this report from Glenn Greenwald at The Intercept that details attempts in the US to suppress pro-Palestinian voices and peaceful actions: ‘Greatest Threat to Free Speech in the West: Criminalizing Activism Against Israeli Occupation‘.

“I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now…”

Eyal Weizman‘s stunning Wall Exchange, “Forensic Architecture”, which he presented at the Vogue Theatre in Vancouver earlier this month, is now up on YouTube here and embedded below.

If you are puzzled by my riff on Joni Mitchell, start around 46:10 (though you’ll miss a lot if you do…).

And while we’re on the subject of clouds, you’ll find a remarkable analysis of a different sort of militarized cloud in Tung-Hui Hu‘s A Prehistory of the Cloud from MIT:

We may imagine the digital cloud as placeless, mute, ethereal, and unmediated. Yet the reality of the cloud is embodied in thousands of massive data centers, any one of which can use as much electricity as a midsized town. Even all these data centers are only one small part of the cloud. Behind that cloud-shaped icon on our screens is a whole universe of technologies and cultural norms, all working to keep us from noticing their existence. In this book, Tung-Hui Hu examines the gap between the real and the virtual in our understanding of the cloud.

Hu shows that the cloud grew out of such older networks as railroad tracks, sewer lines, and television circuits. He describes key moments in the prehistory of the cloud, from the game “Spacewar” as exemplar of time-sharing computers to Cold War bunkers that were later reused as data centers. Countering the popular perception of a new “cloudlike” political power that is dispersed and immaterial, Hu argues that the cloud grafts digital technologies onto older ways of exerting power over a population. But because we invest the cloud with cultural fantasies about security and participation, we fail to recognize its militarized origins and ideology. Moving between the materiality of the technology itself and its cultural rhetoric, Hu’s account offers a set of new tools for rethinking the contemporary digital environment.

Prehistory of the Cloud

Here is Lisa Parks on what is surely one of the must-reads of the year:

“Hu’s riveting genealogy of the cloud takes us into its precursors and politics, and boldly demonstrates how fantasies of sovereignty, security, and participation are bound up in it. Much more than a data center, the cloud is a diffuse and invisible structure of power that has yielded a data-centric order. Imaginative and lucidly written, this book will be core to digital media studies.”

Reach from the Sky

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I’ve been invited to give the annual Tanner Lectures in Cambridge on 13-14 January 2016. The Lectures are given in parallel at nine universities in the UK and the USA: Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Yale, Berkeley, Michigan and Utah.

Appointment as a Tanner lecturer is a recognition for uncommon achievement and outstanding abilities in the field of human values. The lecturers may be elicited from philosophy, religion, the humanities, the sciences, the creative arts, and learned professions, or from leadership in public or private affairs. The lectureships are international and intercultural and transcend ethnic, national, religious, and ideological distinctions.

The purpose of the Tanner Lectures is to advance and reflect upon the scholarly and scientific learning relating to human values. This intention embraces the entire range of values pertinent to the human condition, interest, behavior, and aspiration. The lectures are published in an annual volume.

The Tanner Lectures were established by the American scholar, industrialist, and philanthropist, Obert Clark Tanner. In creating the lectureships, Professor Tanner said, “I hope these lectures will contribute to the intellectual and moral life of mankind. I see them simply as a search for a better understanding of human behavior and human values. This understanding may be pursued for its own intrinsic worth, but it may also eventually have practical consequences for the quality of personal and social life.”

It’s a huge honour, and thoroughly intimidating when I look at the roster of previous speakers and those delivering the other lectures in 2015-16, and I’m thrilled – though so far I’ve only got as far as a title: ‘Reach from the Sky: aerial violence and the everywhere war‘.  The clock is ticking, so watch this space for progress reports…

Gravity modelling

Mediterranean migration crisis (HRW) MAP

The latest issue of Radical Philosophy (192, July/August 2015) is out now, and it includes a short essay by Martina Tazzioli, ‘The politics of counting and the scene of rescue: Border deaths in the Mediterranean’ (see also my post about The Left to Die Boat).  Her commentary adds new dimensions to discussions of the humanitarian present:

The exclusive focus on the modalities of rescue has overshadowed the peculiar politics of life that underpins military-humanitarian operations: migrants seeking asylum become lives to rescue and their freedom – of movement and of choosing a safe place to stay – is dislodged from the outset. The mechanisms of capture and containment of unauthorized movements act simultaneously through border restrictions that cause border deaths and through the humanitarian channelling system. The risks to life that people who seek asylum in Europe take, being forced to cross the Mediterranean ‘illegally’, and rescue politics are not opposite mechanisms of migration government. This means that humanitarian measures hold a specific political technology over migrant lives by rescuing, sorting and channelling migrants, one in which people escaping wars can seek asylum only by first becoming shipwrecked persons to rescue. Humanitarian and security measures are thus two intertwined political technologies of migration governmentality.

mapsmania

The map above is drawn from the Migrants Files, a database recording the deaths of more than 29,000 migrants who have tried to seek refuge in Europe since 200.  But Martina’s commentary details what she calls the ‘politics of counting’ and in doing so she enlarges the scope of those (other) projects that seek to move behind the statistical toll of wars and other forms of military and paramilitary violence to identify and name their otherwise nameless casualties:

If border deaths are accounted for through a logic of counting, something remains undetectable from the political perspective of the northern shore of the Mediterranean. Moving beyond the logic of counting means refusing to look at border deaths from the standpoint of this governmental gaze – migration agencies or states – and taking into account what border deaths are for the friends and the relatives of the missing migrants. This means engaging in a decolonial move that challenges the logic of recognition that sustains political campaigns and research projects aiming to count and identify dead migrants. By moving from the northern to the southern shore of the Mediterranean we realize that these uncounted deaths not only have a name but are fully known by their friends and relatives. Rather than producing a more exact border deaths population database, it is a question of bringing into visibility the reality of what the visa regime and the European mechanisms of border control generate: the ‘disappearance’ of women and men who die without being detected but who are counted as ‘missing’ in the countries of origin or of transit by those who know them. The logic of identification – giving a name to corpses found at sea – risks, paradoxically, reproducing the hierarchy that assumes dead migrants are people who, in order to exist, have to be recognized, counted and named from the northern shore of the Mediterranean. A politics that accounts for border deaths without reproducing this space of governmentality attends to what exists beyond counting and identification: unaccountable deaths represent the unquantifiable ‘cost’ of borders that cannot be assessed from the northern shore of the Mediterranean and that requires taking into account those people – friends and relatives – for whom they are missing persons.

HRW Med Migration Crisis JPEG

Last week, Human Rights Watch issued a report on The Mediterranean Migration Crisis: Why People Flee, What the EU Should Do; the map at the head of this post identifies sample migration routes derived from the interviews carried out by HRW for its report:

The report draws on Human Rights Watch’s extensive work on the human rights situation in the four main sending countries as well as interviews with Syrians, Eritreans, Afghans, and Somalis who crossed the Mediterranean in May 2015. Human Rights Watch staff interviewed over 150 recently-arrived migrants and asylum seekers in Italy (Lampedusa, Catania, and Milan) and Greece (the islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Leros, and Kos).

Note: For those who had the good fortune to escape spatial science in the 1960s and 70s, and who might well be puzzled by my title, gravity models were (and probably still are) one of the canonical forms of migration modelling.  Martina’s commentary is an urgent reminder of the gravity that lies behind the politics of calibration and calculation.

Butler and bodies in alliance

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I’ve been inspired by Judith Butler‘s work in all sorts of ways – most recently by her discussions of performance, performativity and bodies in spaces that helped me make sense of the events that unfolded in Tahrir Square (see here and here).  I now have news of a new book from Judith that addresses these themes in more detail: Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, due from Harvard in November.

Judith Butler elucidates the dynamics of public assembly under prevailing economic and political conditions, analyzing what they signify and how. Understanding assemblies as plural forms of performative action, Butler extends her theory of performativity to argue that precarity—the destruction of the conditions of livability—has been a galvanizing force and theme in today’s highly visible protests.

Butler broadens the theory of performativity beyond speech acts to include the concerted actions of the body. Assemblies of physical bodies have an expressive dimension that cannot be reduced to speech, for the very fact of people gathering “says” something without always relying on speech. Drawing on Hannah Arendt’s view of action, yet revising her claims about the role of the body in politics, Butler asserts that embodied ways of coming together, including forms of long-distance solidarity, imply a new understanding of the public space of appearance essential to politics.

Butler links assembly with precarity by pointing out that a body suffering under conditions of precarity still persists and resists, and that mobilization brings out this dual dimension of corporeal life. Just as assemblies make visible and audible the bodies that require basic freedoms of movement and association, so do they expose coercive practices in prison, the dismantling of social democracy, and the continuing demand for establishing subjugated lives as mattering, as equally worthy of life. By enacting a form of radical solidarity in opposition to political and economic forces, a new sense of “the people” emerges, interdependent, grievable, precarious, and persistent.

butler_overviewThe book is based on Judith’s three Mary Flexner Lectures, ‘Bodies in Alliance‘, delivered at Bryn Mawr College in 2011:

‘Gender politics and the right to appear’

‘Bodies in alliance and the politics of the street’

‘Towards an ethics of co-habitation’