Refractions of war

Empire of chance

During my recovery I’ve done less writing than I would like but more reading than I thought possible.  Out of the blue I received Anders Engberg-Pedersen‘s Empire of chance: the Napoleonic wars and the disorder of things, which turns out to be one of the best books I’ve read in an age.  Here’s the summary:

Napoleon’s campaigns were the most complex military undertakings in history before the nineteenth century. But the defining battles of Austerlitz, Borodino, and Waterloo changed more than the nature of warfare. Concepts of chance, contingency, and probability became permanent fixtures in the West’s understanding of how the world works. Empire of Chance examines anew the place of war in the history of Western thought, showing how the Napoleonic Wars inspired a new discourse on knowledge.

Soldiers returning from the battlefields were forced to reconsider basic questions about what it is possible to know and how decisions are made in a fog of imperfect knowledge. Artists and intellectuals came to see war as embodying modernity itself. The theory of war espoused in Carl von Clausewitz’s classic treatise responded to contemporary developments in mathematics and philosophy, and the tools for solving military problems—maps, games, and simulations—became models for how to manage chance. On the other hand, the realist novels of Balzac, Stendhal, and Tolstoy questioned whether chance and contingency could ever be described or controlled.

As Anders Engberg-Pedersen makes clear, after Napoleon the state of war no longer appeared exceptional but normative. It became a prism that revealed the underlying operative logic determining the way society is ordered and unfolds.

And here is the Contents list:

Introduction: The Prism of War
1. The Geometry of War: Siege Architecture and Narrative Form
2. State of War 1800: Topography and Chance
3. Modus Operandi: On Touch, Tact, and Tactics
4. Exercising Judgment: Technologies of Experience
5. Paper Empires: Military Cartography and the Management of Space
6. The Poetics of War: Cartography and the Realist Novel
Conclusion: The Disorder of Things

It’s a stunning achievement: beautifully written, meticulously argued, bristling with ideas and substantive insights.

Off the Road

I’m sorry for the inordinately long silence – and grateful to all those who have written to ask if I’m OK. The short answer is yes – now.

At the end of February I had a routine biopsy and, having asked, was told that it was perfectly safe to travel: there was only a 1 per cent risk of infection.  So the next day I flew off to the UK for a series of lectures at Durham, Newcastle, Exeter and Queen Mary London.  Somewhere over Greenland I realised that all was not well – a combination of high temperature and chills (which I’m relieved I didn’t know at the time doctors call ‘rigors’) – and I recognised, through my confusion, the symptoms of sepsis.  I managed to explain to the Cabin Service Director what was happening, and she found two doctors on board who looked after me: by this stage I was very ill and going in to shock.  At one stage plans were laid to divert to Rekjavik, but the doctors – magnificent men in that flying machine – gave me antibiotics and brought my temperature down.  I was moved to a flat bed (ah!) and by the time we landed in London (straight in: the flight crew declared a medical emergency) I felt much better.  Before I was allowed to disembark, I was checked over by two cheery paramedics, and then wheeled through the terminal by the captain and the Cabin Service Director.  So a huge thank you to all those on BA 84 who came to my aid: I cannot praise their professionalism, care and competence too highly.

Sepsis on the ground is terrifying – my wife has had it multiple times – but at 38,000 feet it’s almost overwhelming.  It was, I thought, a sharp lesson for someone who now works on casualty evacuation…

So I headed off to London and checked in at the Great Northern Hotel, ready for the train to Durham the next day.  Twenty minutes after I’d phoned Angela (‘Have I got a story for you?!’) the symptoms returned, so I went down to reception to ask them to call an ambulance.  Their first thought was that a cab would be quicker – but this was King’s Cross and the queues were enormous – so they called a paramedic who cycled over from St Pancras.  I can remember muttering something about ‘not going on your crossbar’, and when I stumbled through my explanation he called a car which took me to University College London Hospital just down the road.

I thought I’d be there for a few hours while they pumped IV antibiotics in to me, and even though they kept me overnight, the next morning I was still counting on making my train to Durham at mid-day. Then a consultant explained that I would be going nowhere until I’d had no temperature spike for 48 hours, and ordered all sorts of lab work to find out what was going on.


Eventually I was there for five days on IV, receiving absolutely wonderful care (so hands off the NHS!).  By then I’d cancelled Newcastle and Durham, and was discharged into the care of my brother and his family with a course of heavy-duty oral antibiotics.  Never having been in hospital before, I wasn’t prepared for how weak I was — it turns out that life-saving antibiotics are also life-draining ones — nor for how vulnerable I would feel.  Over the weekend it became clear that I’d have to cancel Exeter, and by mid-week QML had to go too.

I flew home at the end of the week, just when the course of antibiotics had expired: you can perhaps imagine how apprehensive I was during the flight.  But to distract me I managed to watch “Testament of Youth“, loosely (but brilliantly) based on Vera Brittain‘s autobiographical memoir of being a nurse in the First World War — when sepsis was a major killer.  Smart choice.

Alicia Vikander as Vera Brittain

I’ve been slowly recovering since then, having battled a series of secondary infections, and I’m now just about OK.  I’m really sorry to have had to let so many people down, since I know that everyone who arranged my lectures and seminars had gone to a huge amount of trouble on my behalf: I was really looking forward to those exchanges.  I’m now staring at a backlog on my screen and on my desk, so I also have to apologise to all those whose messages and requests have gone unanswered: I’ll do my best to get back on track.

It may take a while: I’m off to deliver the two presentations I’d planned for the UK – “Angry Eyes” (about air strikes in Afghanistan) and “Dirty Dancing” (about drones and military violence in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas) – at the Balsillie School of International Affairs and the Centre for International Governance Innovation at Waterloo.  And then it’s the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers in Chicago…  So bear with me, and thanks again to all those who have written.  I really appreciate it.

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,

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 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….