Distinction and the ethics of violence

In another lifetime, or so it seems, I wrote a short essay on ‘The death of the civilian’ (DOWNLOADS tab), and I seem to have spent much of the intervening years developing those early ideas.  So I’m thrilled to see an important new paper from Nicola Perugini and Neve Gordon, ‘Distinction and the Ethics of Violence: on the legal construction of liminal subjects and spaces’, available online now at Antipode:

This paper interrogates the relationship among visibility, distinction, international humanitarian law and ethics in contemporary theatres of violence. After introducing the notions of “civilianization of armed conflict” and “battlespaces”, we briefly discuss the evisceration of one of international humanitarian law’s axiomatic figures: the civilian. We show how liberal militaries have created an apparatus of distinction that expands that which is perceptible by subjecting big data to algorithmic analysis, combining the traditional humanist lens with a post-humanist one. The apparatus functions before, during, and after the fray not only as an operational technology that directs the fighting or as a discursive mechanism responsible for producing the legal and ethical interpretation of hostilities, but also as a force that produces liminal subjects. Focusing on two legal figures—“enemies killed in action” and “human shields”—we show how the apparatus helps justify killing civilians and targeting civilian spaces during war.

Their two case studies focus on US drone attacks in Pakistan and the use of human shields in Gaza (the image below, taken from the article, shows the Israeli Defence Force’s ‘Laboratory of Discrimination’ (sic)).

You can watch a video where Nicola and Neve discuss their ideas on the Antipode website here, which also provides a less formal gloss:

[Their paper] examines how militaries actually make distinctions in the battlefield, given that today most fighting takes place in urban settings where distinguishing between combatant and civilian is becoming increasingly difficult.

Their paper shows how liberal militaries are utilizing new technologies that aim to expand that which is perceptible within the fray. Combining the more traditional forms of making distinctions such as binoculars and cameras with cutting edge hi-tech, militaries subject big data to algorithmic analysis aimed at identifying certain behavioral patterns. The technologies of distinction function before, during, and after the fray not only in order to direct the fighting and to help produce the legal and ethical interpretation of hostilities, but also as a mechanism that identifies and at times creates new legal figures.

Focusing on two legal figures—“enemies killed in action” and “human shields”—Nicola and Neve show how technologies of distinction help justify killing civilians and targeting civilian spaces during war. Ultimately, they maintain that distinction, which is meant to guarantee the protection of civilians in the midst of armed conflict, actually helps hollow the notion of civilian through the production of new liminal legal figures that can be legitimately killed.

For more on the intersections between international law, military protocols and the (in)visibility of the civilian, I also recommend the insightful work of Christiane Wilke (see ‘Seeing Civilians (or not)’ here).

Intelligence and War

Vue d’artiste de l’évolution de l’Homme peinte sur un mur, stencil graffiti on Vali-ye-Asr Avenue in central Tehran. By Paul Keller, 4 November 2007

A new edition of the ever-interesting Mediatropes is now online (it’s open access), this time on Intelligence and War: you can access the individual essays (or download the whole issue) here.  Previous issues are all available here.

The issue opens with an editorial introduction (‘Intelligence and War’ by Stuart J Murray, Jonathan Chau, Twyla Gibson.  And here is Stuart’s summary of the rest of the issue:

Michael Dorland’s “The Black Hole of Memory: French Mnemotechniques in the Erasure of the Holocaust” interrogates the role of memory and memorialization in the constitution of post-World War II France. Dorland hones in on the precarity of a France that grapples with its culpability in the Vel’ d’Hiv Round-up, spotlighting the role of the witness and the perpetually problematized function of testimony as key determinants in challenging both the public memory and the historical memory of a nation.

Sara Kendall’s essay, “Unsettling Redemption: The Ethics of Intra-subjectivity in The Act of Killing” navigates the problematic representation of mass atrocity. Employing Joshua Oppenheimer’s investigation of the Indonesian killings of 1965–1966, Kendall unsettles the documentary’s attempts to foreground the practices of healing and redemption, while wilfully sidestepping any acknowledgment of the structural dimensions of violence. To Kendall, the documentary’s focus on the narratives of the perpetrators, who function as proxies for the state, makes visible the aporia of the film, substituting a framework based on affect and empathy in place of critical political analyses of power imbalances.

Kevin Howley is concerned with the spatial ramifications of drone warfare. In “Drone Warfare: Twenty-First Century Empire and Communications,” Howley examines the battlefield deployment of drones through the lens of Harold Innis’s distinction between time-biased and space-biased media. By considering the drone as a space-biased technology that can transmit information across vast distances, yet only remain vital for short periods of time, Howley sees the drone as emblematic of the American impulse to simultaneously and paradoxically collapse geographical distance while expanding cultural differences between America and other nations.

Avital Ronell’s essay, entitled “BIGLY Mistweated: On Civic Grievance,” takes direct aim at the sitting US president, offering a rhetorical analysis of what she calls “Trumpian obscenity.” Ronell exposes the foundations of the current administration, identifying a government bereft of authority, stitched together by audacity, and punctuated by an almost unfathomable degree of absurdity. In her attempt to make sense of the fundamentally nonsensical and nihilistic discourse that Trump represents, Ronell walks alongside Paul Celan, Melanie Klein, and especially Jacques Derrida, concluding with a suggestive, elusive, and allusive possibility for negotiating the contemporary, Trumpian moment.

In “The Diseased ‘Terror Tunnels’ in Gaza: Israeli Surveillance and the Autoimmunization of an Illiberal Democracy,” Marouf Hasian, Jr. explains how Israel’s state-sanctioned use of autoimmunizing rhetorics depict the lives of Israelis as precarious and under threat. Here, the author’s preoccupation is with the Israeli strategy of rhetorically reconfiguring smuggling tunnels as “terror tunnels” that present an existential threat to Israeli citizens. In doing so, he shows how the non-combatant status of Gazan civilians is dissolved through the intervening effects of these media tropes.

Derek Gregory’s essay, “The Territory of the Screen,” offers a different perspective on drone warfare. Gregory leverages Owen Sheers’s novel, I Saw a Man, to explore the ways in which modern combat is contested through a series of mediating layers, a series of screens through which the United States, as Gregory argues, dematerializes the corporeality of human targets. For Gregory, drone warfare’s facilitation of remote killings is predicated on technical practices that reduce the extinguishing of life to technological processes that produce, and then execute, “killable bodies.”

But how is the increasingly unsustainable illusion of intelligence as being centralized and definitive maintained? Julie B. Wiest’s “Entertaining Genius: U.S. Media Representations of Exceptional Intelligence” identifies the media trope of exceptionally intelligent characters across mainstream film and television programs as key to producing and reinforcing popular understandings of intelligence. Through her analysis of such fictional savants, Wiest connects these patterns of representation to the larger social structures that reflect and reinforce narrowly defined notions of intelligence, and those who are permitted to possess it.

We end this issue with a poem from Sanita Fejzić, who offers a perspective on the human costs of war that is framed not by technology, but through poetic language.

My own essay is a reworked version of the penultimate section of “Dirty Dancing” (DOWNLOADS tab) which we had to cut because it really did stretch the length limitations for Life in the Age of Drone Warfare; so, as Stuart notes, I re-worked it, adding an extended riff on Owen Sheers‘ luminous I saw a man and looping towards the arguments I since developed in ‘Meatspace?

The Death of the Clinic

This is the fifth in a new series of posts on military violence against hospitals and medical personnel in conflict zones. It follows directly from my analysis of the situation in Syria here.

President Bashar al-Assad has consistently denied that his forces have attacked hospitals or doctors.  In an interview with SBS Australia on 1 July 2016 he asked his interviewer:

‘… the very simple question is: why do we attack hospitals and civilians?… No government in this situation has any interest in killing civilians or attacking hospitals. Anyway, if you attack hospitals, you can use any building to be a hospital. No, these are anecdotal claims, mendacious statements …’

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There are at least four answers to Assad’s disingenuous question (if you falter at the adjective, see here).

(1) Silencing the witnesses

When Widney Brown from Physicians for Human Rights testified at the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on 31 March 2016 she provided one clear and compelling rationale for Assad’s attacks on doctors:

‘… attacks on doctors silence particularly powerful witnesses. When the Syrian government denies its use of chemical weapons, cluster munitions, starvation, or torture, doctors can bear witnesses to these violations because they have seen and treated the victims.’

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To be sure, there are other witnesses and even paper trails and photographic records.  Ben Taub, who has done so much to bring ‘Syria’s war on doctors‘ to the attention of a wider public, has also provided a detailed account of the work done by Bill Wiley and the Commission for International Justice and Accountability whose volunteers have smuggled over 600,000 documents out of Syria detailing mass torture and killings by the regime.

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The war crimes have not been confined to attacks on hospitals in opposition-held areas.  A photographer known only as ‘Caesar’, who had been attached to the Defence Ministry’s Criminal Forensic Division, smuggled out thousands of high-resolution digital images exposing the horrors of the regime’s own military hospitals:

The pictures, most of them taken in Syrian military hospitals, show corpses photographed at close range – one at a time as well as in small groupings. Virtually all of the bodies – thousands of them – betray signs of torture: gouged eyes; mangled genitals; bruises and dried blood from beatings; acid and electric burns; emaciation; and marks from strangulation…

These unfortunates may have lived and died in different ways, but they were bound in death by coded numerals scribbled on their skin with markers, or on scraps of paper affixed to their bodies. The first set of numbers (for example, 2935 in the photographs at bottom) would denote a prisoner’s I.D. The second (for example, 215) would refer to the intelligence branch responsible for his or her death. Underneath these figures, in many cases, would appear the hospital case-file number (for example, 2487/B)…

[T]he system of organizing and recording the dead served three ends: to satisfy Syrian authorities that executions were carried out; to ensure that no one was improperly discharged; and to allow military judges to represent to families—by producing official-seeming death certificates—that their loved ones had died of natural causes. In many ways, these facilities were ideal for hiding “unwanted” individuals, alive or dead. As part of the Ministry of Defense, the hospitals were already fortified, which made it easy to shield their inner workings and keep away families who might come looking for missing relatives. “These hospitals provide cover for the crimes of the regime,” said Nawaf Fares, a top Syrian diplomat and tribal leader who defected in 2012. “People are brought into the hospitals, and killed, and their deaths are papered over with documentation.” When I asked him, during a recent interview in Dubai, Why involve the hospitals at all?, he leaned forward and said, “Because mass graves have a bad reputation.”

(2) Multiplying the casualties

This is a radicalisation of an old strategy.  As Sam Weber pointed out in Targets of opportunity (2005), ‘every target is inscribed in a network or chain of events that inevitably exceeds the opportunity that can be seized or the horizon that can be seen.’  So, for example, when the United States or Israel bombs a power plant it often as not explains that it has been careful to bomb in the small hours when only a skeleton staff was in the building in order to minimise collateral damage.  But this begs the question: why bomb the power plant at all?  In most instances the degradation of the electricity supply means that it becomes impossible to pump water or treat sewage; refrigerators fail and food perishes; hospitals are forced to use unreliable generators. The result – the intended, carefully calculated result – is that casualties rise at considerable distances from the target and over an extended period of time.

Similarly, Dr Abdulaziz Adel notes:  ‘Kill a doctor and you kill thousands.’  Simply put, patients who are sick or injured then go without treatment and in many cases their lives are put at risk.  (The images below are from Collateral Damage: more here).

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Dr Rami Kalazi, a neurosurgeon from East Aleppo, agrees:

‘They are the artery of life in the city. Can you imagine a life in city without hospitals? Who will treat your kids? Who will make the surgeries for the injured people? So, they are targeting these hospitals because they know, if these hospitals were completely destroyed, the life will be completely destroyed.’

(3) ‘Moral[e] bombing’

This too is an old strategy.  The architects of ‘area bombing’ during the combined bomber offensive against Germany during the Second World War described it as ‘moral [sic] bombing’: a sustained and systematic attempt to undermine the morale of the enemy population so that they would demand their leaders sue for peace.  If this was a tried and tested strategy, however, the test showed that it was a complete failure (see my ‘Doors into nowhere’: DOWNLOADS tab).

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But the lesson was lost in Syria, where attacks on hospitals have had a central place.  As Samir Puri argues, the strategy behind the joint Syrian and Russian air campaign seems to be:

“If there is a total collapse of any kind of trauma care, those are the sort of things that can contribute to collapsing morale very suddenly. The morale of a besieged force can look robust until it collapses.”

And Syria is not unique in contemporary wars: Israel has deployed the same strategy in its repeated assaults on Gaza (see here, here and here for ‘Operation Protective Edge’ in 2014), and the Saudi-led coalition has attacked more than 70 hospitals and health facilities in Yemen since March 2015 (in this latter case Russian media have reported MSF’s objections to the ‘utter disregard for civilian life’ without dissent: see for example here).

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‘Preventing medicine’, as Annie Sparrow puts it, has become ‘a new weapon of mass destruction’.

(4) ‘Violence legislates’

Following the attack on the UN aid convoy delivering supplies to a Syrian Red Crescent warehouse outside East Aleppo on 19 September 2016, 101 humanitarian organisations issued a joint appeal to the United Nations on 22 September; in part it read:

‘Deliberate attacks on humanitarian workers and civilians are war crimes. This must mark a turning point: the UN Security Council cannot allow increasingly brazen violations of international humanitarian law to continue with impunity.

‘Heads of state are gathered in New York this week for the United Nations General Assembly. Each one that accepts a lack of accountability for perpetrators and facilitators of war crimes colludes in the ongoing dissolution of international humanitarian law’ (my emphases).

The first paragraph is damning enough.  Ben Taub in the New Yorker again:

Nowhere has the supposed deterrent of eventual justice proved so visibly ineffective as in Syria. Like most countries, Syria signed the Rome Statute, which, according to U.N. rules, means that it is bound by the “obligation not to defeat the object and purpose of the treaty.” But, because Syria never actually ratified the document, the International Criminal Court has no independent authority to investigate or prosecute crimes that take place within Syrian territory. The U.N. Security Council does have the power to refer jurisdiction to the court, but international criminal justice is a relatively new and fragile endeavor, and, to a disturbing extent, its application is contingent on geopolitics.

But the sting comes in the second paragraph.  As I’ve noted before, international humanitarian law is not a neutral court of appeal, a deus ex machina above the fray, but has always been closely entangled with military violence.  In many respects it travels in the baggage train, constantly pulled by the trajectory of the very violence it supposedly seeks to regulate (or facilitate, depending on your point of view).  In short, as Eyal Weizman has it, ‘violence legislates‘.

There is good reason to fear that the systematic violation of medical neutrality is intended to force its dissolution.  Thomas Arcaro writes: ‘Humanitarian principles like neutrality and impartiality that once seemed so self-evident have been drawn into question, especially on the politically and ethnically complex battlefields of Iraq and Syria.’

And not only there.  In the case of the US airstrike on the MSF Trauma Centre in Kunduz in 2015, I’ve suggested that some key Afghan officers and politicians chafed at the protections afforded to wounded Taliban combatants by international humanitarian law.  They also alleged that the Trauma Centre had breached its conditional immunity because the Taliban had overrun the hospital and were firing at US and Afghan forces from its precincts.  There is no evidence to support that assertion, but it is an increasingly familiar claim.  On 7 December 2016 US Central Command justified a ‘precision strike’ requested by Iraqi forces on a building within the al-Salem hospital complex in Mosul by claiming that IS fighters had used it as a base to launch heavy and sustained machine-gun and rocket-propelled grenade attacks.  That would certainly have compromised the hospital’s immunity, but international humanitarian law still requires a warning to be issued before any attack and a proportionality analysis to be conducted; Colonel John Dorrian said that the US Air Force did not ‘have any reason to believe civilians were harmed’ but conceded that it was ‘very difficult to ascertain with full and total fidelity’ whether any medical staff or patients were in the building at the time of the air strike.

But what the Syrian case suggests is a new impatience with medical neutrality tout court: not only a hostility towards the treatment of wounded and sick combatants but also an unwillingness to extend sanctuary to wounded and sick civilians.

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And that reluctance is not confined to the Assad regime and its allies.    A survey carried out for the International Committee of the Red Cross between June and September makes for alarming reading – even once you’ve overcome your scepticism about public opinion polls.  As Spencer Ackerman reports:

Areas in active conflict record greater urgency over questions of civilian protection in wartime than do the great powers that often conduct or participate in those conflicts. In Ukraine, 83% believe everyone wounded and sick during a conflict has a right to health care, compared with 62% of Russians. A full 100% of Yemenis endorse the proposition, as do 81% of Afghans, 66% of Syrians and 42% of Iraqis – compared with 49% of Americans, 53% of Britons, 37% of the Chinese and 67% of the French.

It’s that last clause that is so disturbing: for the last four states listed are all permanent members of the UN Security Council…

So what, then, are we to make of what I’ve been calling ‘the exception to the exception’?

The exception to the exception

homo-sacerI think it’s a mistake to treat ‘the camp’, following Giorgio Agamben‘s vital work, as the exemplary, diagnostic site of the modern space of exception; the killing fields of today’s wars (themselves spaces of indistinction, where it is never clear where war stops and peace begins, where the geometry of the battlefield or, better, ‘battlespace’ becomes ever more fractured and blurred, and where the partitions between international and internal conflicts have been reduced to rubble) are also spaces within which groups of people are deliberately and knowingly exposed to death through the removal of legal protections that would ordinarily be afforded to them.  In short, killing and injuring become legally permissible.

Those exposed groups include both combatants and civilians, but their fate is not determined solely by the suspension of national laws (the case that concerns Agamben) because international humanitarian law continues to afford them some minimal protections.  One of its central provisions has been medical neutrality: yet if, through its serial violations in Syria and elsewhere, we are witnessing the slow ‘death of the clinic’ – which I treat as a topological figure which extends from the body of the sick or wounded through the evacuation chain to the hospital itself – and the extinction of ‘the exception to the exception’, the clinic as a (conditionally) sacrosanct space – then I think it’s necessary to add further twists to Agamben’s original conception.

As Adia Benton and Sa’ed Ashtan have argued, medical neutrality – the exception to the exception – represents a fraught attempt to restrict the state’s recourse to military violence: it is a limitation on and has now perhaps become even an affront to sovereign power and the state’s insistence that it is ‘the sole arbiter of who can live and who can die’.

Agamben describes the inhabitants of the space of exception as so many homines sacri – where sacer has the double meaning of both ‘sacred’ and ‘accursed’ – and it may be that in today’s killing fields doctors, nurses and healthcare workers are being transformed into new versions of homo sacer: once ‘sacred’ for their selfless devotion to saving lives, they are now ‘accursed’ for their principled dedication to medical neutrality.

 

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Yet the precarity of their existence under conditions of detention and torture, siege and airstrike, has not reduced them to what Agamben calls ‘bare life’.  They care – desperately – whether they live or die; they have improvised a series of survival strategies; they have not been silent in the face of almost unspeakable horror; and they have developed new forms of solidarity, support and sociality.

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Whitewashing

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Regular readers will remember my series of commentaries on Israel’s punitive and reckless assault on Gaza during the summer of 2014 (see, for example, here, here and here).

In the debates over what Israel called ‘Operation Protective Edge’ – and over later modern military violence more generally – questions of law have come to the fore: partly because law is now closely implicated in the conduct of military operations (‘operational law’), as Craig Jones‘s wonderful work has demonstrated, and partly because its legitimating narrative requires (and indeed rests on) militaries investigating their own alleged breaches of international law and their rules of engagement.

B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories has now published Whitewash Protocol: the so-called investigation into Operation Protective Edge.  It’s a complex, forensic investigation, but here is one of the key findings about the Israeli military investigation of its own actions:

The MAG [Military Advocate General’s Corps] examined only several of dozens of almost identical attacks that took place over the fifty days of hostilities, time after time ending with terrible human tall. Given these recurring results, one cannot accept the MAG’s position, that those responsible for these attacks could reasonably base their assessments of the anticipated harm to civilians on assumptions that were repeatedly proven unfounded, and debunked by their own actions or the actions of their colleagues – at a heavy death toll.

The interpretation adopted by the MAG has a far reaching implication that applies to all strikes carried out during the operation: It absolves every level of officials involved in the attacks – from the prime minister, through the MAG himself through to the persons who ultimately fired – of the duty to do everything in their power to minimize harm to civilians. In fact, the MAG sets the bar very low in terms of what is required of those responsible for the attacks – including senior military officers and the MAG (who are not under investigation in any case) – by doing no more than examining what they claimed to know prior to the attacks, while entirely disregarding the question of whether their assessment was reasonable. In doing so, the MAG utterly overlooks the issue of what those responsible for the attacks should have known, including the obligation to learn from their own experience.

And the reason this matters is made plain in the summary:

The fighting during Operation Protective Edge was brutal and violent. Israel implemented a policy of air strikes against homes, which killed hundreds of people, including entire families. Tens of thousands of people were left homeless, losing all they held dear. Genuine, effective investigations are needed not just for the sake of achieving justice for the victims and their loved ones. They are needed as a deterrent to forestall future actions of this sort and to avert further losses. When nothing is investigated, when the consensus is that everything done during the fighting was moral and legal – the stage is set for actions such as these, or even worse, to recur. There was no accountability after Operation Cast Lead, only whitewashing. Now, after Operation Protective Edge, there is no accountability either, only whitewashing. This is not a theoretical legal issue: we are talking about human lives.

The full report can be downloaded as a pdf here.  It needs to be read in conjunction with B’Tselem’s report from May 2016, The Occupation’s Fig Leaf: Israel’s Military Law Enforcement System as a Whitewash Mechanism available here.

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Yael Stein, B’Tselem’s Research Director, writes:

In his response to the report, the [Israeli military] spokesperson said that B’Tselem is waging a “delegitimization campaign” against the military law enforcement system. Yet this system cannot be considered legitimate until it ensures justice for victims and unless its investigations seek to uncover the truth and hold those responsible accountable…. What may appear at times to be an independent, efficient law enforcement system is in fact a mechanism for covering up suspected offenses and protecting the real culprits.

To be sure, the IDF shoots more than the messenger…

Standing on occupied ground

This is Reading Week at UBC, so I’m doing just that…  At the AAG Annual Meeting in San Francisco there is a Plenary Session on Friday 1 April (sic) on Forging Solidarity: Taking a stand on Palestine:

In July 2015 the International Critical Geography Group convened its seventh conference in the occupied city of Ramallah, Palestine. The conference brought together scholars and activists committed to combating social exploitation and oppression. Altogether four hundred participants from over forty countries energetically took up issues on and beyond the violent frontlines of class, gender, race, sexual, and colonial divisions. Yet they also took critical steps beyond discussion and debate of our intellectual work towards concrete collective action. An example of this was the overwhelmingly vote of conference participants for a strong resolution to sign onto the Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott and the broader Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. The resolution adopted is both a political statement in solidarity with the anti-colonial struggle of our Palestinian comrades but also an agenda for a broader commitment to anti-capitalist, decolonial, anti-racist, feminist and queer social movements and struggles around the world against growing social, economic and political precarity, rising authoritarianism, encroachment of fundamental rights, dispossession, structural adjustment in the south and north, revanchism, ongoing colonization of public space, land and resources, the privatization of the commons, as well as structural and state-sanctioned violence against racialized, gendered, queer bodies, and other targeted bodies and communities.

Building on the momentum generated by the conference and this resolution, this discussion panel aims to open up a serious discussion about BDS and the academic boycott of Israel within the Association of American Geographers. This is, we believe, particularly relevant in light of the current situation in Palestine/Israel but also taking into consideration how academics from other professional organisations such as the American Anthropological Association, the Association for Asian American Studies, the American Studies Association and the Native American Studies Association, as well as a number of student councils worldwide, have already endorsed this call for solidarity. Our distinguished panel of scholars and activists will speak out about the importance and the urgency to adopt a political stand on Palestine and to further the work of decolonizing the discipline of geography. In doing so, we hope to reaffirm a commitment to critical scholarship and praxis by encouraging and enabling spaces of political and conceptual possibility for geographers in solidarity with ongoing socio-political, economic and environmental struggles around the globe.

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In the wake of that ICG Conference in Ramallah, David Lloyd‘s moving reflections on another conference/workshop in the same city, ‘Walter Benjamin in Palestine‘, repay careful reading:

Activism is in fact the antagonist of complacency and of the satisfaction with familiar protocols that dulls thinking and makes the institutionalized academic a little stupid. But activism is not always expressed in headlong mobilization or fervent debates, nor is thought only the forethought that shapes or the afterthought that reflects on practice. As “Benjamin in Palestine” exemplified, it can also take the form of deliberate thinking in common whose very exercise is a form of resistance, however limited. As the BDS movement continues to advance, perhaps workshops like these, which step beyond mere “severance of relations” (as Benjamin described the act of striking) to shape conditions for new modes of relation, may offer a way to think the future of our resistance to Israeli apartheid. Perhaps too it offers a model also for an alternative to the insidious corporatization of our intellectual and creative lives under the neoliberal dispensation we all confront, wherever we reside, and not only in occupied Palestine. That, indeed, may be the insight we have been gifted by those who daily struggle for the right to education in the face of dispossession.

BUTLER NotesIn its way this, too, is a modestly performative politics of assembly.  So it’s good to see that panelists at the AAG plenary include this year’s Honorary Geographer, Judith Butler; full list is here.  You can find Judith’s previous remarks on BDS (at Brooklyn College) here.

You can also find out much more about the American Anthropological Association’s stand (last year) here; the statement that accompanied the successful resolution is here; a series of FAQs (“Yes, but…”) is here; and other resources are here.

It’s opportune, too, that the latest issue of borderlands should be devoted to The politics of suffering – with a special focus on occupied Palestine.  Among the many truly excellent essays three stand out for me.

First, Suvendrini Perera‘s accomplished contrapuntal reading of transnational justice, ‘Visibility, Atrocity and the Subject of Postcolonial Justice‘, which proceeds’ through a series of key sites – Congo, Belgium, Nuremberg, Israel, Gaza – that links past and present, colonial and colonizing worlds’, and then focuses on the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians on the beaches of Mullivaikkal in northeast Sri Lanka:

In the context of the 2009 atrocities in Lanka, in this paper I attempt to think through a set of questions about visibility, witness, suffering, accountability and disposability as they are played out in the relations between the necro-geo-politics of global institutions and the patchworks of local and transnational movements that attempt to materialize peoples’ suffering and realize the possibility of justice within fragile and compromised frameworks.

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Second, Joseph Pugliese‘s characteristically innovative ‘Forensic ecologies of occupied zones and Geographies of dispossession: Gaza and occupied East Jerusalem‘:

In this essay, I work to develop what I term multi-dimensional matrices of suffering that envisage the understanding of suffering beyond the locus of the human subject. In my theorising of multi-dimensional matrices of suffering, I proceed to conceptualise the suffering experienced in occupied zones as both relational and distributed. In the occupied zone, suffering encompasses complex, multi-dimensional vectors that bind humans, animals, animate and non-animate objects and entities, buildings and land. In the context of the regimes of violence that inscribe occupied zones, I situate suffering, and a range of other affects, in ecological configurations that, through a range of forensic indices, evidence the impact of these regimes of violence on the broad spectrum of entities that comprise a particular occupied zone. The conceptualisation of suffering and trauma in occupied zones in terms of its relational multi-dimensionality, its site-specific matrices and relational distribution across ecologies, I conclude, enables an understanding of suffering that moves beyond anthropocentric approaches. I situate my analysis in the context of Israel’s drone-enabled regime of unrelenting surveillance, occupation and military control over Gaza [see image above] and its continuing occupation of East Jerusalem.

It really is a tour de force, only too literally so, and builds not only on Joe’s brilliant State violence and the execution of law and his previous research but also on Jane Bennett‘s work and – as the title signposts – on Eyal Weizman‘s project of forensic architecture.  It’s doubly important because so much critical writing on military drones has virtually nothing to say about Israel’s use (and sale) of them.

Finally, Jasbir Puar‘s ‘The ‘right’ to maim: Disablement and inhumanist biopolitics in Palestine‘:

This essay argues that Israel manifests an implicit claim to the ‘right to maim’ and debilitate Palestinian bodies and environments as a form of biopolitical control and as central to a scientifically authorized humanitarian economy. In this context, the essay tracks the permeating relations between living and dying that complicate Michel Foucault’s foundational mapping of biopower, in this case, the practice of deliberate maiming. In doing so it demonstrates the limitations of the idea of ‘collateral damage’ that disarticulates the effects of warfare from the perpetration of violence, and notes that the policy of maiming is a productive one, a form of weaponized epigenetics through the profitability of a speculative rehabilitative economy.

This too is meticulously argued and imaginatively constructed, and adds important dimensions to my posts about Israel’s war on Gaza and, in particular, my preliminary speculations about the prosthetics of military violence.

“I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now…”

Eyal Weizman‘s stunning Wall Exchange, “Forensic Architecture”, which he presented at the Vogue Theatre in Vancouver earlier this month, is now up on YouTube here and embedded below.

If you are puzzled by my riff on Joni Mitchell, start around 46:10 (though you’ll miss a lot if you do…).

And while we’re on the subject of clouds, you’ll find a remarkable analysis of a different sort of militarized cloud in Tung-Hui Hu‘s A Prehistory of the Cloud from MIT:

We may imagine the digital cloud as placeless, mute, ethereal, and unmediated. Yet the reality of the cloud is embodied in thousands of massive data centers, any one of which can use as much electricity as a midsized town. Even all these data centers are only one small part of the cloud. Behind that cloud-shaped icon on our screens is a whole universe of technologies and cultural norms, all working to keep us from noticing their existence. In this book, Tung-Hui Hu examines the gap between the real and the virtual in our understanding of the cloud.

Hu shows that the cloud grew out of such older networks as railroad tracks, sewer lines, and television circuits. He describes key moments in the prehistory of the cloud, from the game “Spacewar” as exemplar of time-sharing computers to Cold War bunkers that were later reused as data centers. Countering the popular perception of a new “cloudlike” political power that is dispersed and immaterial, Hu argues that the cloud grafts digital technologies onto older ways of exerting power over a population. But because we invest the cloud with cultural fantasies about security and participation, we fail to recognize its militarized origins and ideology. Moving between the materiality of the technology itself and its cultural rhetoric, Hu’s account offers a set of new tools for rethinking the contemporary digital environment.

Prehistory of the Cloud

Here is Lisa Parks on what is surely one of the must-reads of the year:

“Hu’s riveting genealogy of the cloud takes us into its precursors and politics, and boldly demonstrates how fantasies of sovereignty, security, and participation are bound up in it. Much more than a data center, the cloud is a diffuse and invisible structure of power that has yielded a data-centric order. Imaginative and lucidly written, this book will be core to digital media studies.”

Continuing catastrophes

VP-AlHaq-GazaVillages

At a time when the plight of refugees from the wars in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia and elsewhere is – at last – commanding the attention of a global audience, it’s important not to forget other refugees: including those from Palestine.  Al-Haq, which co-sponsored the infographic above, explains:

August 26, 2015 marked the first anniversary of Israel’s offensive on the Gaza Strip, during which 2,219 Palestinians were killed. However, a large part of the story is left untold. Over half of those killed were refugees who were displaced from their homes in Yafa, Salama, Isdud, and many other villages and towns, as a result of and following the Nakba [‘catastrophe’] in 1948. The majority of those killed lived in refugee camps in the Gaza Strip within a 30 mile (50 km) radius of their homes of origin. A total of 1,236 refugees were killed during the 2014 offensive, including at least 309 children.

This infographic visually represents the untold story of Gaza’s refugees. Created by Visualizing Palestine in collaboration with four Palestinian human rights organizations, Al-Haq, the Al Mezan Centre for Human Rights, the Palestine Centre for Human Rights, and Al-Dameer Association for Human Rights, who launched a joint campaign to document Israel’s attacks during the 2014 offensive against the Gaza Strip.

For Palestinian refugees, the Nakba did not end in 1948, as they have experienced a continued denial of justice. There are 1.3 million refugees residing in Gaza who are spread over eight refugee camps, making up almost three quarters of the total population of the Gaza Stip. Refugees residing in Gaza have faced multiple consequent internal displacements due to Israeli policies, including Israel’s three military offensives against Gaza over the last six years. Israel’s deadly military operations, as well as its eight-year closure of Gaza have had devastating effects on the entire population in Gaza. While all Palestinians in Gaza endure harsh living conditions, including irregular electricity and water supplies, these issues are even more acute in the refugee camps.

You can find the data and other notes on the visualization here.  And if you are wondering about my title, here is Joseph Massad writing in 2008 on ‘Resisting the Nakba‘:

[T]here is much at stake in all of this, in rendering the Nakba an event of the past, a fact on the ground that one cannot but accept, admit, and finally transcend; indeed that in order to move forward, one must leave the Nakba behind. Some have even suggested that if Israel acknowledges and apologizes for the Nakba, the Palestinians would forgive and forget, and the effects of the Nakba would be relegated to historical commemorations, not unlike the one we are having this year.

In my view, the Nakba is none of these things, and the attempt to make this year [2008] the 60th anniversary of the Nakba’s life and death is a grave error. The Nakba is in fact much older than 60 years and it is still with us, pulsating with life and coursing through history by piling up more calamities upon the Palestinian people…  Much as the world would like to present Palestinians as living in a post-Nakba period, I insist that we live thoroughly in Nakba times. What we are doing this year is not an act of commemorating but an act of witnessing the ongoing Nakba that continues to destroy Palestine and the Palestinians. I submit, therefore, that this year is not the 60th anniversary of the Nakba at all, but rather one more year of enduring its brutality; that the history of the Nakba has never been a history of the past but decidedly a history of the present.