Zizek on Disposable Life

Zizek on Disposable Life

I discussed the History of Violence project’s Disposable Life series when it was first announced here.  Introducing the series, the Project’s Director Brad Evans explains:

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

Nine videos have been produced so far, and you can access the first eight here; the latest comes from Slavoj Zizek:

For Zizek, the issue of ‘disposable lives’ in the contemporary period does not simply relate to some small or invisible minority. According to the new logics of global capitalism, the vast majority of the worlds citizens (including almost entire Nations) are deemed to be worthless and superfluous to its productive needs. Not only does this point to new forms of apartheid as the global cartography for power seeks to police hierarchies of disposability, it further points to a nihilistic future wherein the aspirations of many are already being sacrificed.

You can access the video through the links above or directly from vimeo here.  Not my favourite theorist or commentator, but worth watching not least for the one-liner about Sloterdijk (at 4.06 if you’re really busy).  What he takes from Sloterdijk is this:

‘”global” means there is a globe which is not all-encompassing, it’s a globe where from within you think it’s endless, all encompassing, you see it all, but no, it excludes…’

I agree with Brad’s framing of the project – impossible not to, I think – but once you start to imagine the global in these (un)exceptionable terms,  both conventional and unconventional modes of warfare start to seep back in to the discussion.  For on those now radically dispersed and discontinuous battle spaces whole populations are being rendered disposable on a daily basis.

In media res

Two short essays that address the public circulation of supposedly secret information.  The first, “Collateral Murder and the After-Life of Activist Imagery”, is by Christian Christensen, and concerns the video clip released by Wikileaks as Collateral Murder in April 2010.  I’ve discussed this edited video of a US Apache helicopter attack in New Baghdad in 2007 before, together with the two documentary films that it provoked, and it forms part of my ‘Militarized Vision’ project (you can find links to the clip and to subsequent commentary in that original post).

CHRISTENSEN Collateral Murder

Christian doesn’t explore the content of the video so much as its inscription and re-inscription within public debates, part of the mediatization of later modern war.  He does make a sharp point about the status of the imagery:

One could argue that the repeated use of this imagery (and corresponding audio) has created an entirely new genre of military reporting. It is a genre with specific, often disturbing conventions: the grainy images of those on the ground, the flat, bland coloring, the “narration” of the aircraft operators which swings between the clinical and the cynical, the silence of those under surveillance or attack, the sound of the weaponry as it is discharged, and, importantly, the “overtness” of the technology, by which I mean the way in which the screen is filled with evidence of the technology being used in the form of the cross-hairs in the middle and data visible at the top and the bottom of the screen…

The Collateral Murder video not only shatters the mythology of humane warfare and benevolent US power, but also causes us to question the notion of neutral technology at the service of human development: a theme which has regained a central space in public debate in recent years.

But he also thinks there is another, no less sharp point to be made about the very act of reporting:

Within this context, the killing of two Reuters employees by the US military was particularly poignant. At the most basic level, this was the symbolic killing of Journalism (with a capital “J”) by a military unaccustomed to critical coverage or investigation at home. The killings, of course, then went unreported until Manning leaked the material and WikiLeaks published it: itself an act of journalism. With Collateral Murder, there is a layering and re-layering of meaning, and, for me, journalism lies at the heart of the clip. These are humans first, of course, and most of those killed or wounded in the attack were not journalists. But, in addition to the tragedy of human death, there is also the tragedy of what is symbolically destroyed: Transparency. Democracy. Knowledge. Critical thinking. And it took an act of journalism to bring these tragedies to light, an act of which has now itself been subjected to the full force of the state via the imprisonment of Manning, and the threat of criminal charges being brought against Assange in the US.

Incidentally, the essay is the text of Christian’s presentation to the ‘Image Operationsconference held at the Institute of Cultural Inquiry (ICI) in Berlin earlier this month; the program is here.

Image Operations

The second essay is Adam Morris‘s wide-ranging review of ‘The geopolitics of the Snowden Files‘ at the Los Angeles Review of Books.  Its immediate provocation is the publication of the Obama administration’s self-serving ‘NSA Report’:

The-NSA-Report-243x366The NSA Report — commissioned by the White House in August, published on its website in December, and now available in print via Princeton University Press— was authored by the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies. As suggested by its official title, “Liberty and Security in a Changing World,” the Report was intended to advise President Obama on how to reform the data collection practices of the Intelligence Community (IC), in particular the NSA. Its authors include such veterans of the US security sector as Richard A. Clarke, Michael J. Morrell, and Peter Swire. This insiders’ perspective, in theory, is balanced by the addition to the group of constitutional lawyers Geoffrey R. Stone and Cass Sunstein. The unofficial purpose of the Report, however, was the Obama administration’s attempt to put a lid on the NSA scandal by pretending to be interested in reform. As Luke Harding points out in The Snowden Files, the Review Group was working out of the offices of the Director of National Intelligence, currently occupied by the felonious General James Clapper, w _ho knowingly lied in Congressional testimony about the bulk collection of Americans’ communication data.

The essay provides a fine, critical reading of the Report –

‘The anodyne language of these and other recommendations signals the imperial agenda out of which they are born: The NSA Report is obsessed with framing the debate over surveillance around the neopositivist vocabulary of “risk management,” but we know from history that political liberty will always suffer when a dominant regime deems a nation, its leadership or its population a “national security threat”…’

– but it also spirals off into a vigorous mapping of the context in which the NSA set about its covert operations and Edward Snowden‘s principled decision to go public (Adam also provides a commentary on Luke Harding‘s The Snowden Files: for another review, see Daniel Soar at the London Review of Books here).  And here too, of course, investigative journalism is a vital, enabling and even empowering practice.

Disposable life

Histories of violence banner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A call to arms

LACOSTE La géographie ça sert d'abord à faire la guerreI expect most readers will be familiar with the debate in anthropology over its contemporary militarization:  the incorporation and appropriation of anthropologists and anthropological knowledge in the service of military power, most notably through ‘Human Terrain Teams’.

But it’s a much wider debate that isn’t limited by the military’s ‘cultural turn’ and what I once called ‘the rush to the intimate’ (see DOWNLOADS tab), and recent ‘Human Geography Summits‘ have repeatedly drawn attention to the strategic and tactical significance of geo-spatial intelligence and geographical modelling in apprehending (and appropriating) that ‘human terrain’ (for the 2013 meeting see here).

And now, over at Antipode, there is a must-read open-access column by Joel Wainwright:  ‘“A remarkable disconnect”: On violence, military research, and the AAG’ .  As you’ll see, it’s about much more than the wretched Bowman Expeditions to Central America, important as they are and indispensable as Joel’s critique in Geopiracy has been (see also my brief commentary on different ‘expeditions’ here).

The first part of Joel’s argument, ‘Misunderstanding militarized’, is available at the Public Political Ecology Lab here.

War and peace in an age of ecological conflict

Bruno LATOURAdvance notice (hence the image on the left):  after a show-stopping performance by my friend and colleague Brett Finlay at last night’s Wall Exchange at the Vogue Theatre  in Vancouver – not only a wry and pointed lecture on Bugs R Us but some excellent jazz to warm us (and our bugs) up – the next Wall Exchange will be on Monday 23 September when Bruno Latour, professor at Sciences Po in Paris and winner of this year’s Holberg International Prize, will give a public lecture on ‘War and peace in an age of ecological conflict’.  Full details will eventually be posted here.

This will be Bruno’s second visit to UBC, and we are looking forward to his return; the first was organised by the Department of Geography several years ago, when he announced that, rather like Molière’s M. Jourdain, he now realised he had always been a geographer without realising it.

You can get a foretaste of the argument from his penultimate Gifford Lecture delivered at the University of Edinburgh earlier this year: an extended version of the text of the lectures, Facing Gaia, is here.  They were dedicated to Peter Sloterdijk, the darling of at least some of today’s geographers, but they begin with an homage to Elisée Reclus.

UPDATE:  Booking is now open online here.

Nieto’s Challenge

Many readers will remember Hillary Clinton‘s off-the-cuff claim last fall that “We face an increasing threat from a well-organised network, drug-trafficking threat that is, in some cases, morphing into or making common cause with what we would consider an insurgency in Mexico.”  In “The everywhere war” (DOWNLOADS tab) I used her comment – together with a host of other sources inside and outside the state – to suggest some of the ways in which conceptions of war were being transformed in the borderlands; so too the military/policing distinction.

But a new report from the International Crisis Group, Peña Nieto’s Challenge: Criminal cartels and rule of law in Mexico, suggests that – in the midst of calls to increase the militarization of the US southern border – at least some State Department officials are having second thoughts.  Indeed, the report claims that Clinton’s remark was seen at the time ‘as a misstatement by many in the State Department, aimed more at linking the kinds of violence and weapons used and the seriousness of the danger they posed rather than describing the nature of the cartels or their objectives.’  And now, in an interview with the Group, John Feeley, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, insisted:

‘The violence associated with the criminal activities of the transnational criminal organisations (TCOs) in Mexico is not a national security problem or an insurgency that threatens to destabilise the Mexican government. Clearly, the violence … is a very serious public security problem that has important social and economic repercussions.’ 

For all that, it’s surely more than a ‘public security problem’ and it also has the most acute political repercussions too:


The report spells out many of those repercussions for the democratic constitution of Mexico – though whether Nieto (Mexico’s new President) will pay any attention to it is another question.  But its fundamental argument is captured in these paragraphs:

The development of cartels into murder squads fighting to control territory with military-grade weapons challenges the Mexican state’s monopoly on the use of force in some regions. The brutality of their crimes undermines civilian trust in the government’s capacity to protect them, and the corruption of drug money damages belief in key institutions. Cartels challenge the fundamental nature of the state, therefore, not by threatening to capture it, but by damaging and weakening it. The military fight-back has at times only further eroded the trust in government by inflicting serious human rights abuses. Some frustrated communities have formed armed “self- defence” groups against the cartels. Whatever the intent, these also degrade the rule of law. 

There has been fierce discussion about how to legally define the fighting. The violence has been described as a low-intensity armed conflict, a kind of war, because of the number of deaths and type of weapons used. The criminal groups have been described as everything from gangs, drug cartels and transnational criminal organisa- tions, to paramilitaries and terrorists. The Mexican government, much of the international community and many analysts reject the idea there is anything other than a serious criminal threat, even though those criminal groups use military and, at times, vicious terror tactics. The army and marines, too, thrown into the breach with limited police training and without efficient policing methods, have often used intense and lethal force to fight the groups, killing more than 2,300 alleged criminals in a five-year period.

Within the grey world of fighting between rival cartels and security forces, there is much confusion as to who the victims of the violence are, and who killed them or made them disappear. Estimates of the total who have died in connection with the fighting over the last six years range from 47,000 to more than 70,000, in addition to thousands of disappearances. Cartel gunmen often dress in military uniforms and include corrupt police in their ranks, so people are unsure if they are facing criminals or troops. A victims movement is demanding justice and security. Mexico has also lost hundreds of police and army officers, mayors, political candidates, judges, journalists and human rights defenders to the bloodshed that is taking a toll on its democratic institutions.

Benhabib on Butler

BUTLER Parting waysWhen I first became interested in critical theory (an age ago now), I found Seyla Benhabib‘s work – and especially Critique, norm and utopia (1986) – wonderfully clear and immensely helpful. She has recently published an extended review essay on Judith Butler‘s Parting Ways: Jewishness and the critique of Zionism in Constellations (2012) (open access – at least for now).  It’s a characteristically careful, lapidary essay, which works towards this climactic conclusion:

Is there any hope then? I believe there is but not through boycott, divestment and sanctions movements, which are based upon a false analogy between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the South African struggle, but through continued, sustained, and deep engagement with all countries in the region. Even if the Arab Spring in Egypt brought into power a conservative Islamist party, building and drawing upon its years of resistance to the Mubarrak regime, it was a new generation of Egyptians who first put their lives on the line and who showed us one more time that the legacy of revolutions is, as Hannah Arendt would say, “like a fata morgana” that appears to travelers in the desert in unexpected ways. This young literate generation of men and women are present everywhere in the Arab world; they are networked throughout Europe and the USA and in many other countries as well via migratory nets of kin and family. Today this new generation has not yet found its political voice and they continue to fight behind the Islamic flag to the chants of “Allah is great.”

Israelis, who for a long time considered themselves as the sole democratic peoples in the Arab world, have been taken aback by this evolution. But many have rejoiced in it as well. Protests against Israeli government policies, inspired by Tahrir Square erupted in the summer of 2011 in Tel-Aviv, with thousands of young people chanting for social justice, housing, and jobs. Hundreds of Arab citizens of Israel participated in such protests. The number of Arab youth who are now perfectly bi-lingual is growing and, along with it, their political capacity to engage Israeli society directly. Many Palestinian Arabs living in occupied East Jerusalem would much rather become Israeli citizens in an open and gender-egalitarian society than live under the Islamist rule of a Hamas party. The racist attacks by Israeli religious youth this past summer against Palestinians in the old city of Jerusalem galvanized an entire country around anti-racist teach-ins and demonstrations.

Any call for “cohabitation” between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples that does not balance the continuing paranoia of extinction on the part of Israeli Jews with the legitimate claims and aspirations of the Palestinian people is a non-starter. This means that Israelis themselves will need to think hard and fast about the mess they have created in aspiring to maintain a “Jewish state” on the one hand and continuing to occupy the territories of the West Bank on the other. But the facts on the ground are moving in a different direction and much to the chagrin of liberal Zionists who still advocate a two-state solution: given the military and economic dependence of the West Bank territories upon Israel, maybe the time has come to call for a “confederation of Israeli and Palestinian peoples,” with two parliaments and two separate electoral systems but a common defense and security policy over territory and airspace, and shared water and other natural resources. Under such a scenario, the considerable achievements of the Israeli state and society in economic, technological, medical, and intellectual areas would not need to be dismantled but Israeli sovereignty would be disaggregated and nested into a joint confederal model.

My own instincts are closer to Butler than Benhabib, but her problematisation of Israel’s exceptionalist claims to ‘democracy’ and her investment in a wider political geography (including the Arab uprisings) is surely essential for any project of what Butler calls, following in some part Hannah Arendt,’cohabitation’.

But the very term ‘cohabitation’ is also unsettled (the mot juste) by a vital ‘fact on the ground’ that Rashid Khalidi identifies in the New York Times with vigour and precision: ‘The overwhelming dominance of Israel over the Palestinians means that the conflict is not one that demands reciprocal concessions from two equal parties.’

The Situation(ist) Room

Guy Debord and Alice Becker-Ho playing Le jeu de la guerre

Guy Debord and Alice Becker-Ho playing Le jeu de la guerre

DEBORD Game of warA footnote to my previous discussion of war and simulation. In the 1950s French Situationist Guy Debord devised his own version of Kriegspiel, Le jeu de la guerre, supposedly inspired by Clausewitz. It took decades for a version to become widely available; the English edition, Game of war (Atlas, 2007), was translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith, who also translated Lefebvre’s La production de l’espace.  Debord claimed that ‘“With reservations, we may say that this game accurately portrays all the factors at work in real war.”  Not a mistake Clausewitz would have made…

Downloadable version here.  More from Nathan Heller at the wonderful bookforum here and from Alexander Galloway at cabinet here or culture machine here.

Debord’s project was, of course, about more than war in the conventional, limited sense, as the film below makes clear (‘the board is a psycho-geographic space’; ‘the rules of the game are a lecture in class warfare’): there is an interesting contrapuntal reading to be made with Foucault’s Society must be defended

Butler and Bodies on the Street

Judith Butler‘s Wall Exchange ‘Bodies on the street’, delivered at the Vogue Theatre in Vancouver last year, has now been posted on YouTube:

And a Q&A the following day with UBC faculty at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies is here:

You can access the text of an early version of the lecture here and here.

Storming the castle

More on the politics of the New Aesthetic – though he doesn’t put it like that – and on the materialities of the virtual (and what he does call ‘a new way of seeing’) in an exquisite essay from Andy Merrifield on Kafka, Occupy and the ‘Enigma of Revolt’.  

Andy’s point of departure is Franz Kafka‘s The Castle. This celebrated novel is itself an enigma: Kafka started work on the text in January 1922, it’s unclear whether he intended to finish it, and it famously ends in mid-sentence.  After Kafka’s death in 1924 his friend Max Brod edited and reworked it for publication.

Andy’s essay artfully draws out the spatial politics of K.’s attempt to breach the castle (remember that K. is described as a surveyor):

Where K. goes astray, and where his quest borders on the hopeless, is that he’s intent on struggling to access the castle’s occupants; he wants to penetrate the castle’s bureaucratic formalities and the “flawlessness” of its inner circle. K. struggles for a way in rather than a way out. Using all the Cartesian tools of a land surveyor, he confronts the castle on the castle’s own terms, on its own ostensible “rational” frame of reference. K.’s demands, consequently, are too restrictive and too unimportant, too conventional and too self-conscious. He wants to render the world of the castle intelligible as opposed to rendering it unacceptable.

Andy juxtaposes this with a radically different spatiality by moving from the occupants to Occupy, where

… if protagonists occupy space somewhere, these spaces of occupation are curiously new phenomena, too, neither rooted in place nor circulating in space, but rather an inseparable combination of the two, an insuperable unity that is redefining what a 21st-century public space might be, could be. Squares like Tahrir in Cairo or Zuccotti Park in Manhattan are urban public spaces not for reason of their pure concrete physicality, but because they are meeting places between virtual and physical worlds, between online and offline conversations, between online and offline encounters. That is why they are public: because they enable public discourses, public conversations to talk to each other, to meet each other, quite literally. They are public not because they are simply there, in the open, in a city center, but because these spaces are made public by people encountering one another there. The efficacy of these spaces for any global movement is defined by what is going on both inside and outside these spaces, by the here and the there, by what is taking place in them and how this taking place is greeted outside them, by the rest of the world, how it inspires the rest of the world, how it communicates with the rest of the world, how it becomes the rest of the world.