Violence and imagination

While I was working on ‘Gabriel’s Map’ (DOWNLOADS tab) Trevor Barnes introduced me to Tom McCarthy‘s mesmerising novel C which, among many other things, contains some extraordinary passages describing a young British pilot soaring high over No Man’s Land on the Western Front in the First World War.  His job was to identify the location of enemy artillery batteries and then direct (‘range’) the British guns on to them:

‘Serge feels an almost sacred tingling, as though he himself had become godlike, elevated by machinery and signal code to a higher post within the overall structure of things, a vantage point from which the vectors and control lines linking earth and heaven … have become visible, tangible even, all concentrated at a spot just underneath the index finger of his right hand which is tapping out, right now, the sequence C3E MX12 G…

‘‘Almost immediately, a white rip appears amidst the wood’s green cover on the English side. A small jet of smoke spills up into the air from this like cushion stuffing; out of it, a shell rises. It arcs above the trench-meshes and track-marked open ground, then dips and falls into the copse beneath Serge, blossoming there in vibrant red and yellow flame. A second follows it, then a third. The same is happening in the two-mile strip between Battery I and its target, and Battery M and its one, right on down the line: whole swathes of space becoming animated by the plumed trajectories of plans and orders metamorphosed into steel and cordite, speed and noise. Everything seems connected: disparate locations twitch and burst into activity like limbs reacting to impulses sent from elsewhere in the body, booms and jibs obeying levers at the far end of a complex set of ropes and cogs and relays.’

Serge is using the clock code to range the guns on to their target, but the passage is remarkable for McCarthy’s imagery of ‘machinery and signal code’ and ‘ropes and cogs and relays’. Some of those who survived the war used the same mechanical imagery, perhaps nobody more effectively than Ernst Jünger:

‘The modern battlefield is like a huge, sleeping machine with innumerable eyes and ears and arms, lying hidden and inactive, ambushed for the one moment on which all depends. Then from some hole in the ground a single red light ascends in fiery prelude. A thousand guns roar out on the instant, and at a touch, driven by innumerable levers, the work of annihilation goes pounding on its way.’

What distinguishes McCarthy, I think, is his realisation that more is happening than lights setting levers in motion. Later he has Serge recognise that he is the messenger of death but insist that

‘he doesn’t think doesn’t think of what he’s doing as a deadening. Quite the opposite: it’s a quickening, a bringing to life. He feels this viscerally, not just intellectually, every time his tapping finger draws shells up into their arcs, or sends instructions buzzing through the woods to kick-start piano wires for whirring cameras, or causes the ground’s scars and wrinkles to shift and contort from one photo to another: it’s an awakening, a setting into motion.’

This is much on my mind today for two reasons.  First, while I’ve been recovering from my eye surgeries last month I’ve been reading more diaries from the First World War (reading is apparently good therapy!), and in one of them Captain Henry Wynard Kaye of the Royal Army Medical Corps describes several visits to a friend in command of a Royal Flying Corps squadron on the Western Front.  He describes exactly that sense of ‘a quickening, a bringing to life’ – and death – that McCarthy evokes so perceptively.  Here is Kaye’s entry for 12 August 1915:

 ‘Two of his officers went off at 5 to destroy some trenches up by Hooge. The observer had the spots on which they were going to put shells marked on his map, and off they sailed saying they would be back at 8. Their programme was to fly up to the place, and directly they secure a suitable place for observing the observer sends a wireless signal to the Battery Commander telling him to begin. Thereafter the observer directs the battery about each shot by wireless until the job is done…  In an artillery job he clearly regards himself as running the whole show, and talks about ‘I’m going to shoot’, ‘I’m going to put shells there and there’, regarding the Battery Commander only as the man who puts his orders into effect’.


I drew on McCarthy’s work in “Gabriel’s Map’ because, so it seems to me, there are times when nominally ‘fictional’ writing captures with distilled perfection what ostensibly ‘factual’ sources labour to bring into partial view: the ‘truth’ of fiction, if you like.  So much so that I’ve written elsewhere about the lazy distinction between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ (though since I wrote that the US election has clearly made that distinction even more tense).

And so my second reason for returning to all this: Brad Evans‘s interview in the latest Los Angeles Review of Books with Tom McCarthy, which pivots around his new collection of essays Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish, and the intricate imbrications between philosophy and literature throughout his work:

I try to undo the distinction that’s usually made between “fiction” and “reality,” as though “fiction” were synonymous with fakery. I don’t think that’s the right layout to work with; I think there’s something else going on. In Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish, I try to argue that “fiction” is best understood in terms of a gap or interim, a delay or décalage — what Hamlet calls an out-of-jointness. Another way of thinking about this would be (and this perhaps goes back to Faulkner’s ripple image) as a kind of asynchronic overlay. And vitally, what this overlay gives rise to, in its collisions and its recesses, is a possibility — and an ethics — of witnessing. Tell him we were here, says Vladimir to the boy-angel amid all the replays and repetition loops and waiting periods of Godot: Don’t turn up here tomorrow and deny you ever saw me. Then, watching Estragon sleeping, he asks himself, “Was I sleeping, while the others suffered?”; and he muses that someone is also watching over him (Vladimir) and thinking: “He is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on.” Now, of course someone is watching him — it’s a play! But beyond that, I think Beckett is invoking the notion of literature as a shared or consensual hallucination in which the act of witnessing, of affirming the existence of “the others,” becomes possible. This is not a journalistic or “scientific” act; it’s ultimately an imaginative one, an act of the imagination.

Disposable futures

EVANS and GIROUX Disposable futures

News from Brad Evans of a new book co-authored with Henry Giroux, Disposable futures: the seductions of violence in the age of spectacle (out next month from City Lights).

Disposable Futures makes the case that we have not just become desensitized to violence, but rather, that we are being taught to desire it.

From movies and other commercial entertainment to “extreme” weather and acts of terror, authors Brad Evans and Henry Giroux examine how a contemporary politics of spectacle–and disposability–curates what is seen and what is not, what is represented and what is ignored, and ultimately, whose lives matter and whose do not.

Disposable Futures explores the connections between a range of contemporary phenomena: mass surveillance, the militarization of police, the impact of violence in film and video games, increasing disparities in wealth, and representations of ISIS and the ongoing terror wars. Throughout, Evans and Giroux champion the significance of public education, social movements and ideas that rebel against the status quo in order render violence intolerable.

You can read the preface and an excerpt from the first chapter here, and you can get a taste of their argument from their op-ed for Truthout in June 2014 here, where they explain why they decided

‘…to develop a paradigm that focused on the intensification of what we called the politics of disposability. This requires taking our analysis beyond 20th century frames of analysis to look at the ways in which more and more individuals and groups are now considered excess by the onslaught of global forces that no longer offer the possibility of alternative futures. It talks precisely to those contemporary forms of disposability that have become so normalized; the burden of the guilt is placed on the shoulders of the victims, while the most pernicious of systemic abuses continues to hide things in plain sight. And it develops a critical angle of vision that goes well beyond the mere authentication of lives as simply born vulnerable to question the systemic design for oppression and exploitation that produces humans as some expendable category…

‘There is something, however, more at stake here than the contemporary plight of those millions forced to live in intolerable conditions. What makes the contemporary forms of disposability so abhorrent is precisely the way it shapes disposable futures. The future now appears to us as a terrain of endemic catastrophe and disorder from which there is no viable escape except to draw upon the logics of those predatory formations that put us there in the first place. Devoid of any alternative image of the world, we are merely requested to see the world as predestined and catastrophically fated. Frederic Jameson‘s claim then that it is easier to “imagine the end of the world than it is the end of capitalism” is more than a reflection on the poverty of contemporary imaginations. It is revealing of the nihilism of our times that forces us to accept that the only world conceivable is the one we are currently forced to endure: a world that is brutally reproduced and forces us all to become witness to its spectacles of violence that demand we accept that all things are ultimately insecure by design. In this suffocating climate, the best we can hope for is to be connected to some fragile and precarious life support system that may be withdrawn from us at any moment. Hope has dissolved into the pathology of social and civil death and the quest for mere survival. For if there is a clear lesson to living in these times, it is precisely that the lights can go out at any given moment, without any lasting concern for social responsibility. This is simply the natural order of things (so we are told) and we need to adapt our thinking accordingly.’

And, as always, you can find much more on these themes over at Brad’s History of Violence project (and particularly the Disposable Life series of lectures here).

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.

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!