TED talks and Wall works

This week it was announced that the TED talks will be moving from California to Vancouver in March 2014 – Mayor Gregor Robertson supposedly saw this as a sign that ‘we’re breaking through in thought leadership’ (sic) – so this may be a good time to announce something different (particularly for those, like Nathan Jurgenson, who are leery of the TED bandwagon).


The Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies at UBC plans to host six International Roundtable Discussions next year in Vancouver; the outline call is below, and you can find more details here, and details of our other international programs here.

Big Ideas. Time and space to explore them. The Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of British Columbia will host six International Roundtable Discussions each year for scholars from the international community and Canada to come together in the pursuit of knowledge in an interdisciplinary environment. The objective of the Institute’s International Roundtable Discussions is to engage in fundamental research and idea exchange that can prompt advances in science and society, and have a significant impact on the discovery of solutions to important problems.

  • The International Roundtable program is open to scholars around the world, who can submit proposals for roundtable discussions that will explore creative and innovative ideas that will make significant contributions to knowledge.
  • The international roundtable must offer a unique opportunity for collaboration among scholars. The Institute will not fund meetings that would have otherwise happened, such as annual meetings.
  • The application must describe how the proposed roundtable will create a coherent forum for creative curiosity and the exchange of ideas that can lead to new discoveries.

Applications must be submitted electronically, no later than June 1, 2013 for the May 5 to 10, 2014 Roundtables and October 1, 2013 for the October 20 to 25, 2014 Roundtables to Joanne Forbes, International Program Manager, internationalprograms@pwias.ubc.ca

A geography of geographical imaginations

As I finally crawl out from my festive bunker, WordPress has provided a summary of activity on the blog for 2012.  This is where you came from:

Geography of geographicalimaginations.com 2012

The top posts in 2012 were these:

1  Visualizations and digital displays: 10 Rules

2 Geography strikes back!

Gaza stripped: the deconstruction of the battlefield?

Episodes in the history of bombing

The politics of seeing and the New Aestheti5

6 The politics of drone wars

Is Paris Burning?

Cologne and the geometry of destruction

Predatory eyes

10 The Code breakers

11 Remote witnessing

12 Popeye the weatherman

13 Targeted killings and signature strikes

14 Administrative geographies and killing fields

15 Bomb Sight

Thanks for your visits and comments.  There’s a lot more to come for 2013.

Grief, tragedy and translation

It’s been over a decade since Judith Butler reflected on Antigone, ‘the renowned insurgent’ from Sophocles’ Oedipus, in Antigone’s Claim: kinship between life and death (Columbia, 2000), but I’ve been reading and re-reading her latest thoughts, inspired by Anne Carson‘s visual-textual translation Antigonick (or is it Antigo Nick?) (New Directions, 2012) at Public Books here.

Carson’s project – she’s both a poet and a classicist – raises a series of urgent questions about translation and tragedy, and about the connective imperatives between the two.

Those links spiral in and out of Butler’s recent work too, and this is how she concludes her review-reflection:

Antigone rages forth from grief, causing new destruction, and so, too, does Kreon; they mirror each other in the midst of their opposition. So, too, do you, apparently, and everyone else as well, nodding and driving off, unless we catch ourselves in time. The reader is implicated in this recurrent alteration of grief and rage, subject to the destruction she or he is capable of inflicting, if there is no timely intervention.

Apparently “you” already know why tragedy exists. What Carson writes of Paul Celan’s direct address to the “you” offers us a formulation that may well apply to her Antigonick: “But you, by the time we reach you, are just folding yourself away into a place we cannot go: sleep. Blank spaces instead of words fill out the verses around you as if to suggest your gradual recession down and away from our grasp. What could your hands teach us if you had not vanished?”  It is a cry of grief posed in question form, emphatic, handwritten, excessive and abbreviated and, in this sense, a measured scream that gives us some sense of who or what lives on when it is all too late.

If that seems too general – I don’t think it is at all – then read Nicholas Mirzoeff‘s take on Antigo Nick on his Occupy 2012 blog here.

As predicted, Greece is having its Antigone revolution in refusing to abide by the Law in favor of kinship. For the majority who voted for Syriza and other anti-memorandum parties, mutual aid outweighs obligations to creditors. In the first days of this project, you may recall, I was very taken with a reworking of the Antigone legend in the context of the global social movements by Italian performance group Motus. The proper treatment of the dead body was later visualized by the Egyptian video collective Mosireen. And so when the chant “A-Anti-Anticapitalista” became the subject of a later post, I rewrote it in my head in my geeky way to go “A-Anti-Antigone.”

And if it’s still too elliptical, try Brian Patrick Eha‘s review of Antigonick at New Inquiry (he brilliantly describes it as ‘Antigone after Sarah Kane’, who wrote Blasted):

Never have we had so much direct access to grief. Photographs, television, and the Internet all promise to bridge the unbridgeable gap—to give us, our isolated egos, a means of ingress into the walled city of another’s suffering. What they deliver is an endless series of images like the one of the girl in the green dress that recently won a Pulitzer Prize. The photographer, Massoud Hossaini, captured the aftermath of a vicious bomb blast in Kabul, and in his picture the now-famous “girl in green,” who is eleven years old, stands amid the mangled bodies of the dead, stands crying out, in her utter anguish, as if from the bottom of a well, beyond our power to console. She screams noiselessly in the silence of the photograph, forever.

It’s easy to see why this picture won prizes. One can hardly fail to be moved by it. But at the same time that we are bombarded with compelling photographs and video footage that seem to give us access to emotions not our own, these images remain intrinsically mediated, revealing only surfaces, and our sympathy pains too often serve no utility.

Along with our hunger for grief comes impatience with emotional restraint. From the tearful confrontations of Intervention to the acting out of The Bad Girls Club, in our popular entertainments—period dramas like Downton Abbeybeing the rare exception—there’s nary a stiff upper lip in sight. Our age doesn’t do restraint, full stop. Emotions are expressed to their fullest, and these expressions are broadcast for consumption. Understated expressions of grief have largely vanished from society. We no longer dress for mourning except at hasty funerals, and even there the custom survives only in cheap black suits no less shabby than the rented tuxedos that now make our weddings feel forced. When did you last see a man wearing a black armband in remembrance of a fallen friend?

So Anne Carson’s blunt Antigonick has arrived at the right cultural moment, if not for poetry than for grief….

Histories of violence

I should have mentioned this before: Brad Evans, whose Foucauldian riffs have opened up a series of arresting perspectives on contemporary (‘liberal’) war, has a resource-rich website for his Histories of Violence Project.   It includes a series of cultural interventions, including an interview with Tom McCarthy and a reading from his novel “C”, a clutch of talking-head’ lectures on thinkers like Arendt, Bauman, Butler, Fanon and Foucault, and a special series of videos to mark the anniversary of 9/11, ‘Ten years of Terror’, including Zygmunt Bauman, Mick Dillon, Steve Graham, Michael Hardt, Mary Kaldor, Brian Massumi, Cynthia Webber – and Brad himself.

I single out Tom McCarthy’s “C” for many reasons, not least of which are the various ways in which it intersects with my last post about war from the air and war over the airwaves (though it ends in 1922).

Visualizations and digital displays: 10 Rules

My post about using visualizations and presentations as ways into writing has prompted a flurry of e-mails, so here are my ten ‘rules’ for using images in presentations (and storyboards).  I use Mac’s Keynote so, being a fanboy, Rule No. 1 should probably be ‘Don’t use PowerPoint’ – I find Keynote more user-friendly and more cinematic – but these precepts apply to most presentation software.  And to try to forestall a firestorm of comment, I have read Edward Tufte on visual displays, but most of the (Power)points he makes apply to the use of any images:  I’m not convinced that these digital technologies necessarily lead to a dumbing down of argument or a dulling of presentations.  I’ve also worked my way through endless PowerPoint displays from the US military as part of my research – see, for example, ‘Seeing Red’ in the Downloads section – and, for that matter, sat (and slept) through endless seminar and conference presentations, so I do know how bad things can get.

It was my dear friend Allan Pred who taught me to think visually; one of his favourite quotations was Walter Benjamin’s “I have nothing to say.  Only to show.”  I emphasise this because I hope it will be clear that none of this implies that visualization is a transparent medium.  The contemporary interrogation of visual art, of visuality and scopic regimes surely makes that – er – clear.  But being able to provide a critique of particular images doesn’t mean that we can afford not to use them.

1       Do not use standard templates (unless you want your presentation to be indistinguishable from everybody else’s): start with a completely blank screen for each slide.

2       Plain white backgrounds are rarely a good idea – though used highly selectively they can be devastatingly effective.  I usually find a background image (sometimes tiled) and fade its opacity down so that I can layer other images and text-boxes over the top.  But don’t get carried away: there are always times when a single image (no background) is the most dramatic way of making your point.

3       When you layer in other images, it’s usually a good idea to put a frame round them and use shadow to make them stand out.

4       Textboxes:  do not use Times New Roman (which doesn’t mean use goofy typefaces, unless that’s somehow your point): this is supposed to be a contemporary technology.  Do not mix typefaces on the same slide – I don’t think it’s a particularly good idea to change them throughout the presentation either – but do play with different sizes (and makes sure your audience can read them).  Remember you can change text colours – but don’t produce a variation of an Ishihara chart.  Experiment with where best to put the text boxes on the page, and think whether you want them to be ready and waiting when the slide appears or whether you want a series of ‘appearances’ as your argument develops.

5       If your presentation involves a critical reading of quotations then the key ones need to be on the screen – but don’t make them too long, and put the key phrases in bold (the bolding can be made to appear one click at a time as you work through the quotation).  Always include the source – it often helps to add a small image of the author to remind everyone that this isn’t a disembodied text.

      Do not use bullet points.

7       See (6)

      Most programs will allow you to incorporate all sorts of ‘special effects’ but use these sparingly (don’t make your audience’s heads spin with dazzle and display) and – crucially – with purpose.  If your presentation is divided into four sections, for example, then you can mark the transition to each section not only with a title slide – and perhaps a common background colour for the section – but with a characteristic transition that you only use for this purpose.

      Images: use search engines diligently not lazily; the best images – and certainly the least hackneyed – are unlikely to be on the first page.  In fact, used carefully visual searches can take you to places you would never otherwise find and can open you up to ideas and considerations you’ve never thought of.  Size matters, and Google allows you to search for different sizes of the same image.  Remember that images can be cropped (so find out how to do it), and always credit the artist/photographer in small print by the image (this goes for background images too).  That’s not just a courtesy – it will help you locate the source again should you need it.

10      Make sure you run through your presentation using a projector – slides that look wonderful on your laptop or tablet may well not work so well in the wild….  The first time you see your presentation should not be when you deliver it — so rehearse!  And you really shouldn’t have to read from a script; you can add ‘Presenter Notes’ to help you, of course, but I find these more useful when I come to convert the presentation into written form than I do for its live performance.

Deadly Embrace

Later this year I’m giving two, radically revised versions of the British Academy Lecture I gave in London in March: ‘Deadly embrace: war, distance and intimacy’.  The first will be a Keynote Lecture at the International Geographical Congress in Köln in August and the second a lecture at the Eisenberg Institute for Historical Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in October [part of their theme for 2011-2013, “Taking place: History and Spatial Imaginations”].  Then I’ll convert the gelled presentation into a text.

This is my usual way of working these days.  I begin with a presentation – using Mac’s Keynote software as a storyboard, and trying to think visually about the argument – and then give revised versions to different audiences before trying to set it out in print.  I find it really creative, and it usually solves the problem of getting down to work: before I hit on this, I had no trouble finding all sorts of displacement activities to postpone the hard graft of writing.  This is much more fun, but it still leaves two residual problems.  It’s far from straightforward to convert what becomes an intensely visual argument into vivid prose – and there is always the danger that, once you’ve got the presentation in a more or less final form and incorporated the changes suggested at its different outings, you (I) can’t summon the energy or enthusiasm to convert it into written form.  The trick here is to retain the excitement of live performances – of living arguments – by opening up the writing to further changes.  Once the text becomes a mere transcript of a performance it loses its liveliness.  You can see how it works if you compare the Miliband Lecture I gave at the LSE and the version I gave Erlangen in Germany – ‘War in the borderlands’ – with the version published as “The everywhere war” in the Geographical Journal.

I suspect that, eventually, “Deadly embrace” will morph into a book.  There’s already too much to cram into a single essay.  My basic argument is that it’s become commonplace to claim that contemporary wars are fought from a distance: the iconic version is the drone missions flown over Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere from the United States. Yet wars have been waged at a distance throughout history, and we need a surer sense of the historical curve through which military violence has shaped (and been shaped by) the friction of distance. But we also need a sharper calibration of war’s geography, including changes in military logistics, weapons systems, and the emergence of new media to convey the theatre of war to distant audiences. Yet for all these changes the ‘death of distance’ – and the distance of death – in today’s liquid world has been greatly exaggerated, and there remains a stark intimacy to many killing spaces that requires careful reflection.