In an early phase of my work on later modern war I explored the so-called ‘cultural turn’ in US counterinsurgency and its invasive mapping of ‘human terrain’, and as part of the attempt to impel (and interpellate) US soldiers into what I called this ‘rush to the intimate’ I considered the role-playing simulations acted out in mock Iraqi villages and towns fabricated for pre-deployment training in the continental United States (see ‘The rush to the Intimate’: DOWNLOADS tab).

In the interim many more detailed studies have appeared, but one of the most imaginative and insightful can be found in Cultural Anthropology (32/1) (February 2017): Nomi Stone‘s Living the laughscream: human technology and effective maneuvers in the Iraq war (open access).

It focuses not on the US soldiers and their reactions but on the Iraqi role-players, many of whom served as US interpreters in Iraq, described by one US officer as ‘the apparatus’ or what Nomi reconceptualizes as ‘human technology’.  Their performances are carefully scripted, and yet:

Amid this artifice, role-players have been hired to enact Middle Eastern villagers authentically—not by their own measures, but rather within prescribed military terms. Role-players are asked to be exemplars of their cultures and those cultures must be synchronic, pruned of their excesses and any relationship to the outside: Iraqis, as it were, in a box. However … the Iraqis who worked for the American military first as interpreters and contractors in the 2003 Iraq War and subsequently as role-players are a somewhat unique subset of the population; indeed, they are often quite far removed from the U.S. military’s imagined characteristics of a prototypical Iraqi. Not only are many of them educated, they are also particularly versed in American culture and critical of Iraqi politics. They typically bear an ambivalent relationship to both countries as they negotiate past accusations, allegiances, and the prospect of assimilation. Many show little trust for outsiders and even less for each other, and because of their dangerous affiliations in wartime, they have learned to chameleon in most circumstances. As they are turned into stereotypes inside an archetypal village, and as they act out wartime precarity so often that their homes and their losses turn into even more estranging archetypes, they laugh.

The machine thus turns out to be made of flesh. Role-players inject new ways of being, in part through laughter, into their performances. Those interjections indicate the limits of a military fantasy that believes human beings can be wholly resourced and turned into technologies.

This is on my mind because this past term, in a series of lectures on performance and performativity – the differences between them and the dots that can join them – I returned to these role-playing exercises to flesh out (literally so) the ideas involved; above all, to emphasise how every performance is different even when the script is nominally the same, and so the contingency of the performative.

And ‘the laughscream’?

The [Iraqi role-player] knows or feels more than the military narrative of their experience can accommodate, exceeding the constricted functions prescribed for a hired cultural tool. Additionally, the laughscream acts as a refusal to be lived by the role and the role-players’ fraught wartime pasts. For those accused of betrayal and marginalized by their compatriots, pursued by Iraqi militias and not always trusted by the U.S. soldiers whom they worked for, that past is painful. As one role-player explained, reflecting on the harshness many Iraqis had endured: “We are turned inside out. At the same time, we can laugh and cry.” Indeed, for Iraqis who worked with the U.S. military, it is presently prohibitively dangerous to return to their former home, particularly amid the ascendance of the Islamic State. Meanwhile, due to their wartime choices, many now negotiate ongoing ambivalence and feel stranded between nations: although they were frequently ejected to the peripheries of their countries for working with the Americans, many strongly identify with Iraq and are ill at ease with full assimilation in America. As they continue to work for the U.S. military, some conceal that work from their families in Iraq, grappling with how they might be perceived. Amid these tensions, the laughscream functions in part as an actor, an agentive vector out.

Laughter rises to confirm that, for the role-players at least, the Iraq of the simulation is not the Iraq of their homeland. As fake guns sound, role-players repeat themselves, becoming increasingly estranged from the original object. Yet, through laughter, the archetypal and mechanical face of country and person give way to Iraqis who live impossibly hybrid and ambivalent lives in the United States to which they have aligned at such great cost. In the parodic redeployment of power as Judith Butler has conceived it, the mechanical performance of death becomes a complexly subversive act that momentarily insinuates life into the playing of a role.

But there is another reason for reading Nomi’s essay: it is so beautifully written.  If, like me, you often feel assailed by the sheer grimness of so much academic prose, provoked into your own laughscream, this is a wonderful demonstration that intellectual agility and analytical depth need not involve the death of style.

Not surprisingly, Nomi is an accomplished poet too: more at her website here.  You can also find an excellent interview about her movements in the borderlands between anthropology and artistic practice here:

My academic work and my poetry are inextricable and cross-pollinating. I was a poet first. My first collection of poems, Stranger’s Notebook (TriQuarterly, 2008) was based on my time in Djerba. I was deeply moved by Carolyn Forché’s call to comprehend the impress of the social on the poetic imagination; this led me to begin conducting ethnographic fieldwork and then to become an anthropologist.

By now, my anthropological engagement is essential to my poetry. As I explained in a poet’s statement some years ago, my philosophy of seeing is “deeply inflected by the anthropologist’s mandate to estrange the familiar and de-estrange the hitherto unknown.” Additionally, my work as an anthropologist sends me both toward moments of conceptual clarity and toward continuous re-complication: as the tidy military diagrams of culture remind us, the world is instead messy and tangled and contingent, as we each engage in the daily work of living and loving and getting by. I want my poems to demand that same complexity, and I only learned how to think it through the wonderful, arduous, and singular training that becoming an anthropologist demanded. What an astonishment to spend seven years shuttling back and forth between reading social theory about war, Empire, technology, migration, and laughter or political histories of America and Iraq and then witnessing the stagings of Empire itself, in its scatterings across the Middle East and the United States, as well as interviewing those whose lives had been demarcated and unmade by those very terms. These forms of seeing and knowing are to me humbling, and both my in-progress ethnographic manuscript and my forthcoming collection of poems, Kill Class, are the beneficiaries of that long academic journey.

Kill Class is due from Tupelo Press later this year; the collection is based on her ethnographic fieldwork across those US military training camps.  You can find her poem War Game, America’ here.

“What to do when the concepts and methods most essential to a field of scholarship are taken and deployed as instruments of war? American anthropology has struggled with this question since the Cold War era, when many fieldworkers were drawn into counterinsurgency campaigns around the globe. In this courageous and compassionate book, Kill Class, Nomi Stone offers a new way of grappling with this most difficult problem. Her stark and unflinching poems give a harrowing sense of cultural understanding made into a vehicle of state violence. At the same time, with tremendous delicacy and grace, they enter into the minds and lives of American soldiers and their Iraqi counterparts, revealing bewilderment where you would have thought to find certitudes, vulnerability where you would expect only hardness, small moments of wonder in the face of horror. The result is a truly arresting ethnography of American military culture, one that allows readers to circle at length through the cloverleaf interchanges where warfare nestles into the most mundane corners of everyday life, only to arrive at an exit where you would have expected least to find it: in an ethics of radical and transformative encounter, a way of coming undone in the company of others through the practice of sympathetic imagination.”  Anand Pandian, Johns Hopkins University

There’s also an earlier interview with her about her fieldwork (and her ideas about later modern war) over at the Wenner-Gren blog here: also well worth reading and savouring.

All this is much on my mind because over Christmas I read Alan Hollinghurst‘s The Sparsholt Affair and luxuriated in its mesmerising prose; as with other authors I admire this isn’t a purely formal (ahem) affair, though he is undoubtedly a master stylist.  Rather, you can roll the words around in your mouth, taste them and so find yourself ineluctably drawn into – rather than distracted from – the pulsing arc of the narrative: in an inversion of the metaphor with which I began, consumed by it.  So too The Swimming-Pool Library and Line of Beauty.  I get the same immersive pleasure from authors like Tom McCarthy (C is still one of my all-time favourite novels), Pat Barker (try Noonday) and Sarah Waters (oh, The Night Watch!).   This isn’t a matter of genre either; Peter May‘s Lewis trilogy is one of the finest works of crime fiction I know, along with almost anything by the ought-to-be legendary John Harvey (also a poet).

I’ve never forgotten a prescient admonition by Pierce Lewis in ‘Beyond description‘ (which appeared in the Annals of what was then the Association of American Geographers in 1985) – a lovely, lovely essay about passion and prose – in which he forestalled a possible objection: ‘we are not trained to be painters or poets, and while that is true, I do not think we should boast about it.’

For the record, I’ve written my share of God-awful prose, especially in the early stages of my career; the fault wasn’t only the dismal Harvard reference system (though it doesn’t help at all: too many names and dates crammed into brackets you have to hurdle over in a madcap race to retain the meaning of the sentence).  The colonial present was a cathartic release, in a way, because – after completing that awful opening chapter – I started to lose my academic voice.  I’m not desperate to get it back, and the two books I’m working on now will, I hope, show how far I’ve come.

But who, I wonder, are your favourite stylists?

Postscript: For my rant about the Harvard reference system, see ‘Gregory, D.’ (DOWNLOADS tab).  And there’s more on the corporeality and contextuality of (my) writing here.

The machinery of (writing about) bombing

I began the first of my Tanner Lectures – Reach from the Sky – with a discussion of the machinery of bombing, and I started by describing an extraordinary scene: the window of a Georgian terrace house in London being popped out – but not by a bomb.  The year was 1968, and the novelist Len Deighton was taking delivery of the first word-processor to be leased (not even sold) to an individual.

As Matthew Kirschenbaum told the story in Slate:

The IBM technician who serviced Deighton’s typewriters had just heard from Deighton’s personal assistant, Ms. Ellenor Handley, that she had been retyping chapter drafts for his book in progress dozens of times over. IBM had a machine that could help, the technician mentioned. They were being used in the new ultramodern Shell Centre on the south bank of the Thames, not far from his Merrick Square home.

A few weeks later, Deighton stood outside his Georgian terrace home and watched as workers removed a window so that a 200-pound unit could be hoisted inside with a crane. The machine was IBM’s MTST (Magnetic Tape Selectric Typewriter).

It was a lovely story, because the novel Deighton was working on – almost certainly the first to be written on a word-processor – was his brilliant account of bombing in the Second World War, Bomber.  It had started out as a non-fiction book (and Deighton has published several histories of the period) but as it turned into a novel the pace of research never slackened.

Deighton recalls that he had shelved his original project until a fellow writer, Julian Symons, told him that he was ‘the only person he could think of who actually liked machines’:

I had been saying that machines are simply machines… That conversation set me thinking again about the bombing raids. And about writing a book about them. The technology was complex but not so complex as to be incomprehensible. Suppose I wrote a story in which the machines of one nation fought the machines of another? The epitome of such a battle must be the radar war fought in pitch darkness. To what extent could I use my idea in depicting the night bombing war? Would there be a danger that such a theme would eliminate the human content of the book? The human element was already a difficult aspect of writing such a story.

And so Bomber was born.

The novel describes the events surrounding an Allied attack during the night of 31 June (sic) 1943 – the planned target was Krefeld, but the town that was attacked, a ‘target of opportunity’, was ‘Altgarten’.  And like the bombing raid, it was a long haul.  As Deighton explained:

I am a slow worker so that each book takes well over a year—some took several years—and I had always ‘constructed’ my books rather than written them. Until the IBM machine arrived I used scissors and paste (actually Copydex one of those milk glues) to add paras, dump pages and rearrange sections of material. Having been trained as an illustrator I saw no reason to work from start to finish. I reasoned that a painting is not started in the top left hand corner and finished in the bottom right corner: why should a book be put together in a straight line?

Deighton’s objective, so he said, was ‘to emphasize the dehumanizing effect of mechanical warfare. I like machines but in wars all humans are their victims.’

I pulled all this together in this slide:

Len Deighton BOMBER (Tanner Lecture 1).001

I then riffed off Deighton’s work in two ways.

First, I noted that Bomber was written at the height of the Vietnam War, what James Gibson calls ‘techno-war’:

Len Deighton TECHNOWAR (Tanner 2).001

I focused on the so-called ‘electronic battlefield’ that I had discussed in detail in ‘Lines of descent’ (DOWNLOADS tab), and its attempt to interdict the supply lines that snaked along the Ho Chi Minh Trail by sowing it with sensors and automating bombing:

Electronic battlefield 1 (Tanner Lectures).001 Electronic battlefield 2 (Tanner Lectures).001

The system was an expensive failure – technophiles and technophobes alike miss that sharp point – but it prefigured the logic that animates today’s remote operations:

Electronic battlefield 3 (Tanner Lectures).001

Second – in fact, in the second lecture – I returned to Bomber and explored the relations between Deighton’s ‘men and machines’.  There I emphasised the intimacy of a bomber crew in the Second World War (contrasting this with the impersonal shift-work that characterises today’s crews operating Predators and Reapers).  ‘In the air’, wrote John Watson in Johnny Kinsman, ‘they were component parts of a machine, welded together, dependent on each other.’  This was captured perfectly, I think, in this photograph by the inimitable Margaret Bourke-White:

Men-machines (BOURKE-WHITE) Tanner Lectures).001

Much to say about the human, the machine and the cyborg, no doubt, but what has brought all this roaring back is another image of the entanglements between humans and machines that returns me to my starting-point.  In a fine essay in The Paris Review, ‘This faithful machine‘, Matthew Kirschenbaum revisits the history of word-processing.  It’s a fascinating read, and it’s headed by this photograph of Len Deighton working on Bomber in his study:


Behind him you can see giant cut-away diagrams of British and German bombers, and on the left a Bomber Command route map to ‘the target for tonight’ (the red ribbon crossing the map of Europe), and below that a target map.  ‘Somber things,’ he called them in Bomber:

‘inflammable forest and built-up areas defined as grey blocks and shaded angular shapes.  The only white marks were the thin rivers and blobs of lake.  The roads were purple veins so that the whole thing was like a badly bruised torso.’

More on all that in my ‘Doors into nowhere’ (DOWNLOADS tab), and much more on the history of word-processign in Matthew’s Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing just out from Harvard University Press:

The story of writing in the digital age is every bit as messy as the ink-stained rags that littered the floor of Gutenberg’s print shop or the hot molten lead of the Linotype machine. During the period of the pivotal growth and widespread adoption of word processing as a writing technology, some authors embraced it as a marvel while others decried it as the death of literature. The product of years of archival research and numerous interviews conducted by the author, Track Changes is the first literary history of word processing.

Matthew Kirschenbaum examines how the interests and ideals of creative authorship came to coexist with the computer revolution. Who were the first adopters? What kind of anxieties did they share? Was word processing perceived as just a better typewriter or something more? How did it change our understanding of writing?

Track Changes balances the stories of individual writers with a consideration of how the seemingly ineffable act of writing is always grounded in particular instruments and media, from quills to keyboards. Along the way, we discover the candidates for the first novel written on a word processor, explore the surprisingly varied reasons why writers of both popular and serious literature adopted the technology, trace the spread of new metaphors and ideas from word processing in fiction and poetry, and consider the fate of literary scholarship and memory in an era when the final remnants of authorship may consist of folders on a hard drive or documents in the cloud.

And, as you’d expect, it’s available as an e-book.

Crossing the Ts


As part of the Chronicle‘s Scholars Talk Writing series, there’s a lovely interview with Deirdre McCloskey here and much to think about.  For example:

Given the many differences you point out in Crossing about how Donald and Deirdre think, felt, and interacted in the world, surely there were changes in your prose style when you transitioned. Can you say something about gender and writing, and how your crossing affected your prose?

I do not want to be accused of essentialism. But as a first- and third-wave feminist (not second wave — e.g., the startlingly transphobe Germaine Greer), I note differences. It’s hard for me to judge, true, because when I read my earlier stuff I’m reading it philosophically for the argument, not rhetorically for the style. The big item I reckon is the style of argument. I still write always with an argument, which might sound male — unless you met my mother, from whom I learned how to argue! But the arguing is less relentless now, more diffident, as arguments should be if you are interested in the actual truth and want to establish it together with your reader.

As a young man I was proud of crushing an opponent in my writing — as though on my high-school football team (of which, by the way, I was co-captain). Now I am trying to make common cause with the reader, and trying also to be truthfully gentle with the “opponents.” It came naturally — not as Rule No. 15 in How to Be a Woman. My joke, though, is that I can’t tell whether any improvement is because I became a woman (within the limits, alas, of biology and life history) … or because I finally grew up.

Travelling through words

How-We-Write-cover-EAt Stuart Elden‘s suggestion, I’ve been invited to join a collaborative project initiated and edited by Suzanne Akbari called ‘How we write‘: it’s an interdisciplinary collection of short essays each of which describes how we write (and emphatically not how you ought to write…).

It will be published in remarkably short order by Punctum Books as a free downloadable volume; the contributors are Suzanne Conklin Akbari, Michael Collins, Alexandra Gillespie, Alice Hutton Sharp, Asa Simon Mittman, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Maura Nolan, Rick Godden, Bruce Holsinger, Stuart Elden and Steve Mentz.

There’s certainly not one way of writing, and as I roughed out my contribution I realised through talking with friends that even in my own field(s) the variety of writing practices is enormous and seemingly endless.  Trevor Barnes told me over lunch yesterday that he had once thought everyone wrote like him.  It turns out that we have much in common – we both find writing difficult, and neither of us writes every day – and we are worlds away from a close colleague who writes in bed from 6 to 10 a.m., longhand on a yellow legal pad, everything tumbling out perfectly formed…

So here is what I came up with (with some links added):

Travelling through words

 The way I write – by which I mean both the practices I follow and (please God) the style of my writing – has changed over the years: though, as I tell all my students, that doesn’t mean it’s become any easier.

I wrote my PhD thesis (on the woollen industry in Yorkshire between 1780 and 1840) in three weeks. Really. Starting at 7 a.m., with thirty minutes off for lunch (including a walk to the corner shop for a newspaper, trailed by our deeply suspicious cat all the way there and all the way back), an hour off for dinner and the quick pleasure of a novel, knocking off at midnight. Every day for twenty-one days. When I finished I promised myself I’d never work like that again. Years later, while I was writing The Colonial Present, I became wholly absorbed in the attempt to keep up with a cascade of real-time events in multiple places. My training as an historical geographer hadn’t prepared me for that – I’d always envied the ability of colleagues writing about contemporary issues to make sense of a world that was changing around them as they wrote – and there were times when I yearned for the less frenetic pace of archival work. But I wasn’t writing to a deadline – though as the project swelled beyond an analysis of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan to include Israel’s renewed assault on occupied Palestine and then the US-led invasion of Iraq, I decided I must finish before Bush invaded France.

Deadlines are the problem: I’ve always had the greatest difficulty writing to meet them because I can never be sure where my words will take me. Lecturing is something else entirely. There’s something infinitely more pressing about facing a live audience the next morning, and since I don’t perform from a prepared script I don’t have to fine-tool my prose or curb my flights of fancy, and I like the sense of freedom that gives me. Anyone writing in those pre-digital days could also rely on a raft of excuses to stay afloat in the face of turbulent editors – not least clinging to the flotsam of “I posted the manuscript last week.” But a PhD thesis combined the worst of both worlds: appealing to a mail-storm was out of the question, and my Cambridge examiners were live and all too close at hand. The problem was that I had made little real progress and instead had devoted myself to acting (a live audience again). Every Wednesday evening I would walk home after rehearsals promising myself a fresh start the following morning. But who starts on a Thursday? So we agreed, me and I, to wait until Monday. Monday evening found me walking home after rehearsals renewing my vows. But it was the 29th of the month, and who starts anything then? So we both agreed to wait until the 1st of the month. And when that arrived, it was a Thursday. You could keep this up forever, or at least I could. In this case, the back story was that I had been married for just three months when my mother-in-law asked my wife to accompany her on an extended visit to her family in Colombia, and I realized that this was an opportunity for uninterrupted, distraction-free writing.

Those two adjectives tell the real story: how I welcomed those interruptions and distractions! There always seemed to be good reasons to defer putting pen to paper (or, more accurately in those days, fingers to the keys of my electric typewriter). As you will have gathered I was, and remain, a past master at procrastination. I know that many writers have an iron will and obediently follow a strict self-discipline. Perhaps the most extreme, though probably apocryphal, example is Victor Hugo, who supposedly instructed his manservant to confiscate all his clothes so that he couldn’t leave the house while he was working on a novel. But that’s not me (I don’t have a manservant).

Or at any rate, it’s not me until I immerse myself in the writing. And that’s always been my first problem: starting. Over the years I’ve learned to know and trust myself. So I know I can write in the morning, sometimes in the evening but never in the afternoon – so I’ve stopped trying. And if the words aren’t there on Monday morning, there is no point in spending the day staring at the screen and hesitantly pecking at the keys, because I know very well that the next morning I will come in, read the print-out and tear the whole thing up. Better to find other things to do – especially if I can convince myself that they are getting me into the right space to start the next day. The converse is also true. If the words are leaking out of my fingertips dismally early on a Sunday morning, then out they must come (and, in case you are wondering, I’m still married to my wife – who learned all this long before I did). The irony is that once the text is moving, I’ve always wondered why it took me so long to get started.

I invariably wonder about that because I actually enjoy the process once it’s under way, though each time I also wonder whether I’ll be able to pull it off again. Whenever I sit at my desk, or increasingly these days my laptop, there’s almost always a flicker of doubt: will the words come this time? I imagine (another conceit, I know) that it’s something like the moment just before the diver launches himself into space. I pause, waiting to break the still surface of the screen.

I have my own swimming-pool library, of course. I’ll have read and read and then read some more, and I’ll have organized my notes, quotations, comments, thoughts and ideas into a long working – I was going to say draft, but it’s more of a storyboard. In the past, the storyboard would have been the product of reading and thinking, by which I mean it was a verbal-textual product-in-formation. Reading is a creative process, to be sure, though it’s usually an internal one as you work with the text to understand what the author is arguing (and why they could possibly be arguing that) while at the same time making it your own: not just putting it into your own words but working out what you make of it, where it’s taking you (and whether you want to go there), and installing it into your own library (where it may well magically move from one shelf to another). So I’ve got endless notes – Kindle Highlights now saves me hours of transcription, and I work through them, highlighting key passages in bold, adding comments and organizing them into digital files – and I’ll have extracted what I need, and cut-and-pasted everything into a rough map that still doesn’t commit me to any single route.

I know that it’s also a long way from the text I’m going to write; I open that up as a separate document, control my fear at its blankness by formatting the page, giving the document a title (I actually can’t write without a title), saving it, and then – well, wait or write.

I don’t read (or write) with a single purpose; on the way all sorts of other ideas flicker into being, rarely fully formed, that might end up in the essay I’m working on at the moment but might just as well end up as the spur for something else altogether. My sources are all over the place, and ideas are as likely to emerge from fiction as they are from anywhere else. Years ago I read William Boyd’s An Ice-Cream War, and one passage – “Gabriel thought maps should be banned. They gave the world an order and reasonableness it didn’t possess” – stayed with me, like a burr clinging to my jeans. I used it as an epigraph in one of the chapters in Geographical Imaginations, but years later I surprised myself by returning not only to that passage but also to the incident it described, and unfolding it into a completely new essay on cartographic vision and what I called “corpography” in the First World War (in which another novel, Tom McCarthy’s C, also occupies a central place: I can’t think of a more beautiful combination of skilled research and superb writing). I called the essay “Gabriel’s Map” [DOWNLOADS tab] – of course – but, more figuratively for my present purposes, working on it confirmed that there’s something deeply deceptive about mapping, a false sense of security that has to be supplemented by lively interruptions activated through the body.

So I also like to be free of the text – springing away from the board, if you like (and I do like) – so that for me there’s always been another moment in creative work that is an intensely physical, even corporeal process, thinking that is best conducted on the move, sometimes in front of a class but often out walking, alive to the world around me until it disappears (or I do) into my own fabricated world. I’ve always had the sensation of feeling myself think: of ideas moving around, words forming in my mouth, whole phrases springing to my lips (the real trick is to remember them!). I often talk to myself, even say passages out loud, because the rhythm and cadence of the prose matters to me, and I know it does to some readers too. I remember Roger Lee, when he was editor of the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, writing to tell me that he had just spent a summer’s afternoon wandering around his garden reading aloud parts of my manuscript on the Egyptian journeys of Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert. It was a characteristically thoughtful and wonderfully appreciative remark, and I’ve never forgotten it. In some measure, I think, I always have Roger and his garden in my mind’s eye as I try to coax more words into the world.

Even writing is a corporeal process. I can’t think with my laptop on my lap – it has to be on a table or a desk – and I need a chair that I can push back or pull up; I need space to get up, scoot to a book-case, stand and gaze out of the window; and I write best in bare feet (seriously: perhaps that’s where the diving metaphor comes from). I usually write three or four pages without much editing. This is never the whole argument or story, just the first three or four pages, and – like those crime novelists whose work I most admire – I’m never sure where I’m going next. (How I despair of those who tell me they have finished their research so that all – all! – they have to do is “write it up,” as though writing is not part of the creative research process: if what you’ve written is merely a record of what you’ve done or thought, then perhaps you should work in a laboratory). Three or four hot pages uncurl from the printer, and then I take myself off – sometimes to my office at the university, sometimes to a coffee shop – where I go over what I’ve written. It’s much better editing hard copy than trying to do so on the screen, and for some reason I have to use a black roller-ball; pencil doesn’t work, and blue ink is a disaster. By the time I’ve re-written the draft, expanded sentences that I now see are shorthand for something that needs much more explication, and added notes to myself about work that needs to be done to fill out gaps, I’ve also got a sense of where the writing is taking me next.

photo-3So it’s back to the keyboard – and back to the beginning of the manuscript. I rework my original pages, and by the time I’ve finished (scribbling on my original storyboard and annotating the map while I’m writing the essay, adding footnotes which will sometimes make it into the finished version but are just as likely to be notes to myself, and pushing further out into the unknown) those three or four pages will have grown to six or seven. I use footnotes constantly, sometimes as commentary, often as placeholders for paragraphs to be drafted in the next round of revisions, and always as a holding pen for references. I never use the Harvard reference system while I’m composing – to me, the arch-enemy of good writing [see Gregory D (1990)] – and the final labour of transforming (deforming) my prose into the obstacle course of brackets, names and dates required by most journals is the most depressing part of the whole business. Once my six or seven pages are on the screen the cycle starts again: back to the beginning, editing, annotating, moving some of those footnotes into the text (which is often the best place for them) and composing another three or four pages, slowly pushing on.

It’s a discontinuous process, but I’m always writing from the beginning towards the end, although I never know in advance where that will be. It isn’t seamless, and sometimes everything comes to a juddering halt. These days I use my blog as (among other things) a sort of five-finger exercise, practicing ideas for long-form essays and getting the words to flow across the screen, but some days that’s not enough. In fact, I can look back at virtually all of my published work and remember how the gaping white space between this paragraph and that marks a week, sometimes (far) longer, when nothing was working. That’s almost always been because I didn’t know enough or because I’d tried to dodge a difficulty. So I eventually admit to myself that I need to read and think some more, to go back and undo the preceding paragraphs, even – the horror of it! – to delete whole passages (that’s easily the hardest part, but I’ve learned to save those deletions in case they can be given a new lease of life somewhere else), and often to re-order or even re-think the narrative. This also usually involves going off to find new source materials, reading more essays and more books, so that the whole journey opens up again.

photo-6En route, my desk becomes steadily more cluttered with piles of books, previous print-outs, pages from articles and far too many black roller-ball pens. There’s no trail of breadcrumbs to take me back to the beginning, but there are several coffee mugs in different stages of decomposition which mark the stages of my increasing immersion in the text. Friends and family know when I’m not working on something: my desk is tidy. But once I’m in that space (the zone?) I never, ever stop the research and switch to writing.

I’ve described all this as working with a storyboard, largely because I think of what I do now as telling stories. This means two things. First, I think it’s a mistake to front-load theory into any essay; unless what you are about is textual exegesis – I did a lot of that in the past, but if I do it now it’s en passant – that act will needlessly limit the story you tell. You may think that’s a good thing – after all, you can’t say everything and you need to keep what you write within bounds – but I’ve come to think of writing as a journey that takes me (and, crucially, my readers) to unexpected places. Front-loading theory is the intellectual equivalent of a conjurer coming on stage and showing the audience how a trick is done before they do it. There’s a reason they don’t do that. I realize that this is a device which helps a lot of writers magic words onto the page, but it gives the impression that theory is something to be ‘applied,’ that it provides a template, whereas I try to treat it as a medium in which I work – and one that will be changed by the substantive materials I use. (In much the same way, my ‘map’ is constantly changed as I travel with it: it’s not the map but the mapping that matters). I also think that the best sort of theory is carried in solution: if you know your Michel Foucault or Judith Butler, say, you will recognize their hand in what I write, but if you don’t you are not disqualified from grasping what I’m saying. It follows, too, that theory in my writing is always impure and hybrid; I borrow from multiple sources, since I still haven’t found anyone who asks all the interesting questions or provides all the satisfying answers, and I’m usually aware of the tensions and contradictions between them. But ultimately the story is the thing.

Second, writing is no longer a purely verbal-textual process for me because I now work from a visual storyboard. Everything I’ve written for the past five or six years (apart from this essay, ironically) has emerged out of presentations that I’ve tried to design to make as visually arresting as possible. I’ve found a real pleasure in image research – which often takes me to sources I would never have found any other way, and opens up avenues of inquiry I’d never have glimpsed otherwise – but it’s also a way of ‘slow thinking’: of trying to work out how best to show what I mean, and even of figuring out what I mean. One of Allan Pred’s favourite Benjamin quotations was “I have nothing to say, only to show,” and at long last I’m discovering the power of that resonant phrase. So as I search for images, and juggle text boxes and fonts, I’m thinking about how this will look and in consequence what it will say…instead of lines of text marching across the screen, words appearing from I never know quite where, everything slows down and, again, I feel myself think. I’ve found this even more immersive than pure writing, a process of creation that constantly draws me in and draws me back and pushes me on. It’s also interactive: it’s much easier to re-jig a presentation, which I do every time depending on the previous audience’s reaction and the Q&A, than it is to re-work a text (and reading a paper to an audience is in most cases one of the least effective ways of communicating anything of substance to anyone). I should probably add that I prefer Keynote to PowerPoint, I never use pre-set templates and there’s not a bullet-point in sight. Since I don’t have a script to accompany the presentation, the only disadvantage is that once I’ve performed the thing enough times for me to be more or less satisfied with the argument, at least for the moment, I then have to convert a cascade of images and quotations into a text…. Sometimes, to be honest, that means I don’t; I’ve done the fun part, and I shrink from the labor of conversion. Sometimes I do – in which case the whole process starts all over again, using the presentation as the basis for the storyboard and adding more notes, ideas and sources to track down.

There’s also another, more traditional sense of interactivity involved in my work, because there comes a time when writing has to join up with reading: communication is, after all, a collaborative not a competitive process. So I’ve always relied on good friends (colleagues and graduate students alike) who are willing to read my far too long drafts and tell me exactly what they disagree with, what they don’t get, and what is wrong with them; they almost always suggest other things to think about and other sources to track down. Referees are often a different kettle of fish, particularly if you haven’t referred to them (which is what some of them seem to think “refereeing” means). But here too there is an opportunity for dialogue – there’s no point in acceding to every criticism and suggestion if you’re not persuaded by them, and I’ve learned most from those editors who have identified the points which they think are particularly sharp while leaving me to make up my own mind so long as I can justify it.

In this sense, writing – like reading – can be a never-ending process. In much the same way that you can’t read the same book twice, because you are no longer the same person that read it first time round, you read your own work differently when you see it through someone else’s eyes. And that’s one of the best things about the whole process. There are times when writing is a solitary and remarkably lonely affair. There’s a passage at the very end of E.P. Thompson’s Whigs and Hunters – one of my political and intellectual heroes ever since I worked on my PhD – where he describes himself sitting in his study, the clock ticking towards midnight, the desk covered with notes, photocopies and drafts. I identify with that; but there is also that wonderful moment when you are released back into the world that lies outside the text – with your text in your hands and in your reader’s. There’s no greater reward.

UPDATE:  Two things.  My daughter Jaimie reminds me that I missed out a key confession: I type with just two fingers.  I’ve never learned to touch type, but I do type fast — so much so that in the Dark Ages of the typewriter I frequently caused the levers to jam…  And How we write is now available to download for free from Punctum Books, though if you do so PLEASE consider making a donation to the press who have produced a beautiful book in an amazingly short space of time.

The trauma hero


Following up my earlier post on novels, memoirs and narratives of war, there’s a thoughtful discussion by Roy Scranton at the LA Review of Books on what he calls ‘the myth of the trauma hero’.

A boy goes to war, his head full of romantic visions of glory, courage, and sacrifice, his heart yearning to achieve heroic deeds, but on the field of battle he finds only death and horror. He sees, suffers, and causes brutal and brutalizing violence. Such violence wounds the soldier’s very soul.

After the war the boy, now a veteran and a man, returns to the world of peace haunted by his experience, wracked by the central compulsion of trauma and atrocity: the struggle between the need to bear witness to his shattering encounter with violence, and the compulsion to repress it. The veteran tries to make sense of his memory but finds it all but impossible. Most people don’t want to hear the awful truths that war has taught him, the political powers that be want to cover up the shocking reality of war, and anybody who wasn’t there simply can’t understand what it was like.

The truth of war, the veteran comes to learn, is a truth beyond words, a truth that can only be known by having been there, an unspeakable truth he must bear for society.

This is probably the place to say that Roy served in the US Army in Iraq 2002-2006, studied at the New School for Social Research, and in 2010 embarked on a doctorate in English at Princeton – although, as you will soon see, this runs the very real risk of claiming that ‘he knows what he writes’ by virtue of these experiences.

Roy traces the myth of the trauma hero to eighteenth-century European Romanticism, and argues that it achieved its mature form in the twentieth century.  Accordingly he follows its development through Wilfred Owen in the First World War, Ernest Hemingway in the Second and Tim O’Brien in Vietnam until he reaches its contemporary form in Afghanistan and Iraq – and, in our own immediate present, in a film like Eastwood’s American Sniper.

It’s a beautifully composed contribution, and it’s made me re-think the basis for my ‘Gabriel’s Map’ and ‘Natures of War’ essays (DOWNLOADS tab) because Roy’s central thesis turns on a critique of the sacralization of trauma in ways that, at first sight, collide with my own attempts to develop what I’ve called a corpography (also DOWNLOADS tab) that can make us attentive to the corporeality and materiality of modern war:

‘Most Americans seem to believe that war can only be known through direct, physical, sensory experience on the battlefield, such as the moment of vision Owen describes in “Dulce et Decorum Est.” Ernest Hemingway, who in contrast to Owen’s long front-line service lasted only a few weeks as a noncombatant before being wounded and returning to the US, stands in American letters as the high priest of combat gnosticism. In Hemingway’s work, the emphasis on physicality, embodiment, and materiality we see in Owen’s representations of the soldier’s truth opens into a metaphysical bias against representation itself.’

d34387b998ba1136a34e9cc9e03515eeIn effect, Roy suggests, ‘being there’ becomes a privileged position from which truth cannot be communicated – only felt, and so only shared between those who were there.  The assertion of ethnographic privilege run through multiple fields from anthropology to journalism, of course, and it bedevils any attempt at historical reconstruction, but here it is heightened by the appeal to the supposedly inexpressible experience of trauma.  This could be developed still further through the reflections of, say, Elaine Scarry or Giorgio Agamben.  I take this very seriously, and yet if you work your way through the letters, diaries and memoirs of those who returned from the wars there is, I think, a sustained (and diverse) attempt to convey the corporeal – viscerally traumatising – experience of military violence.

But Roy’s point, I take it, is that this dilemma can function – can even be invoked – to exclude commentary and criticism.  And he concludes by emphasising the work that the ‘trauma hero’ continues to perform hors de combat:

‘[The most troubling consequence of our faith in the revelatory truth of combat experience and our sanctification of the trauma hero [is] that by focusing so insistently on the psychological trauma American soldiers have had to endure, we allow ourselves to forget the death and destruction those very soldiers are responsible for… Understanding the problem of American political violence demands recognizing soldiers as agents of national power, and understanding what kind of work the trauma hero is doing when he comes bearing witness in his bloody fatigues.’

I understand this concern too; there are – as I’ve argued in ‘The Natures of War’ – moments in many memoirs, novel and poems that reach towards the redemptive, even the exculpatory.  But I’ve also been deeply affected by those that disclose a more complex sense of the soldier as victim and vector of military violence: one of the recurrent motifs of the texts from the Western Front that I’ve worked with, for example, is the description of the fighting as ‘murder’.

So, much to think about – not least for the ways in which Roy’s ideas about the contemporary trauma hero complicate theses about a supposed transition to ‘post-heroic war’.  Those claims have a special resonance in the drone debates where, as I’ve noted elsewhere, Grégoire Chamayou has suggested that the trauma reportedly suffered by drone operators is ‘being mobilised to restore to war the ethico-heroic temper [critics] insisted it had lost through trauma’.

Evil Hours Cover Final

If you want to know more about the genealogy of post-traumatic stress, I recommend David J. Morris, The evil hours: a biography of post-traumatic stress disorder (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015).   You can read an extract over at Salon here.  The book is particularly relevant to this discussion because it suggests that where trauma was once mediated through philosophy and literature it is now constituted through psychology and psychiatry.  David is very good on the arguments that raged over ‘shell-shock’ during the First World War, but if you want a ‘biography’ of that then you should turn to Michèle Barratt‘s Casualty figures: how five men survived the First World War (Verso, 2007).

Finally, Roy’s Learning to die in the Anthropocene is due from City Lights in the fall; you can get a taste of it from his essay in the New York Times with the same title here; this was the final installment of a five-part series on War and the city in which Roy retraced his footsteps from civilian to soldier to civilian.

War, travel, travel writing

What got me in to the work on war that has preoccupied me for the last ten years or more was an interest in travel and travel-writing.  I spent several years on European and American travellers to Egypt in the long nineteenth century between the Napoleonic invasion of 1798 and the First World War.  Inspired by Edward Said‘s Orientalism, I wanted to move the discussion away from the canonical texts that had caught Said’s attention to more mundane diaries, travel writings and guide books, together with sketches, paintings and photographs, made by travellers and tourists as they struggled to find the terms for a culture and a landscape for which most of them had no terms.  I was particularly concerned to move beyond the texts and to think about the bodily encounters,  changing transactions and material landscapes that emerged in the course of a ‘scripting’ of Egypt for modern tourism.

My original intention was to bring all this together in a book to be called Dancing on the Pyramids, and one bright September morning, on the brink of a rare sabbatical leave, I was at last ready to write.  I switched on the TV and watched a plane fly into the World Trade Center.  In the days and weeks that followed, it seemed impossible to seek refuge in past: and yet, as I watched events unfold, I realised that many of the formations that I had identified in the nineteenth century were being reactivated in the shadows of 9/11, in the United States and in Britain, and in Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq.  That journey produced The colonial present and, while I’m still determined to return to Dancing one day, I simply haven’t been able to leave war (past and present) alone.


So I was particularly interested to receive via the war @ media network, hard on the heels of my last post, news of an interdisciplinary conference at the University of East Anglia on 29 November 2014 on War, travel and travel writing:

Some of the oldest Western texts – Homer’s epics or Herodotus’s Histories – combine the experience of war with encountering foreign people and places. For combatants, the protracted nostos, or homecoming, is as much part of war as was the journey to a faraway battlefield. For civilians, deportation, evacuation, expulsion and displacement are often deeply traumatic. For those observing military conflict, travelling through a war zone can be exhausting, exhilarating or exasperating. For those merely travelling around or above it, it can be just as fatal as we have seen in regards to MH017. Conditions of war also produced the kind of document now officially used for identification – the passport.

This interdisciplinary conference broadly examines all manner of issues relating to war and travel, and more specifically issues relating to the representation of war and travel in the fields of museum studies, literature, psychology, theatre, military history and war studies, ethnography, gender, film, media, and others.

Keynote Speakers:

Professor Tim Youngs is the director of the Centre for Travel Writing Studies at Nottingham Trent University and the founding editor of Studies in Travel Writing. He has written or edited nine books, mostly on travel writing, among them Beastly Journeys: Travel and Transformation at the Fin-de-Siècle (2013) and The Cambridge Introduction to Travel Writing (2013).

Dr Muireann O’Cinneide (National University of Ireland, Galway) is the author of Aristocratic Women and the Literary Nation, 1831-1867 (2008) and has published on narratives of the First Afghan War, on Victorian travellers’ bodies, and on class, authority and the reception of knowledge in women’s travel writing.

Possible Topics/research questions:

• Travel writing about war / war writing about travel.
• Gender, travel and war.
• The role of the war reporter/foreign correspondent.
• International organisations (Médecins Sans Frontières, the UN, the Red Cross, Crescent, Crystal).
• Museums and wars in foreign places.
• Forced travel, trauma and the aftermath of war.
• The encounter with the other: enemy, alien, “native”.
• “Foreign experience” in expansionist imperialist practice, military recruitment and war propaganda.
• The effect of digital media on the representation of war and travel (blogs, Twitter, social media sites, e-journalism, war games).

The conference is organised by Petra Rau (UEA) and Kate McLoughlin (University of Oxford). Please email 300-word abstracts by 20th September 2014 to, specifying the conference title in the subject line.



I wonder, too, about contemporary ‘war tourism’, so-called ‘dark tourism‘ (who doesn’t?  see my previous post in relation to Israel/Palestine here), and about journals like Sassoon’s…  Having recently returned from a brief tour of the battlefields of the Western Front around Ypres, I’m reminded that at least one Edwardian traveller down the Nile thought it remarkably strange to spend one’s leisure time visiting tombs and cemeteries…

Style wars

One of these days I’ll set out the advice I give to students about writing essays – and when I do I’ll also include what I wish published authors would avoid too (me included) – but in the meantime you might be interested in these trenchant words of advice:

Keep the language crisp and pungent; prefer the forthright to the pompous and ornate.
Do not stray from the subject; omit the extraneous, no matter how brilliant it may seem or even be.
Favor the active voice and shun streams of polysyllables and prepositional phrases.
Keep sentences and paragraphs short, and vary the structure of both.
Be frugal in the use of adjectives and adverbs; let nouns and verbs show their own power.

They are taken from the CIA’s detailed Style Manual & Writers Guide for Intelligence Publications issued in 2011; you can find Michael Silverberg‘s commentary at Quartz here.

CIA Style Guide

What particularly caught my eye was this admonition:

Do not uppercase the w in Korean war, which was “undeclared”; the same logic applies to Vietnam war and Falklands war, and a similar convention (if not logic) to the Iran-Iraq war.

Shadow-Warfare_FINALHidden in plain sight here is the remarkable fact that the United States has not formally declared war since 1941.  You may think that not much depends on a formal declaration, and you would be right, except that this reluctance says much about executive authority and, crucially, what Larry Hancock and Stuart Wexler call, in their excellent Shadow Warfare (Counterpoint, 2014), ‘the history of America’s undeclared wars’.

In a sense, their book provides the back-story to Jeremy Scahill‘s Dirty Wars:

Contrary to their contemporary image, deniable covert operations are not something new. Such activities have been ordered by every president and every administration since World War II. Clandestine operations have often relied on surrogates, with American personnel involved only at a distance, insulated by layers of deniability.

Shadow Warfare traces the evolution of these covert operations, detailing the tactics and tools used from the Truman era through those of the contemporary Obama administration. It also explores the personalities and careers of many of the most noted shadow warriors of the past sixty years, tracing the decades-long relationship between the CIA and the military.

Shadow Warfare offers a balanced, non-polemic exploration of American concealed warfare, detailing its patterns, consequences, and collateral damage, and presenting its successes as well as its failures. Hancock and Wexler explore why every president, from Franklin Roosevelt on, felt compelled to turn to secret, deniable military action. It also delves into the political dynamic of the president’s relationship with Congress, and the fact that despite decades of warfare, Congress has chosen not to exercise its responsibility to declare a single state of war—even for extended and highly visible combat.