‘Empire of the Globe’

Klementinum Library, Prague

A quick heads-up: the latest issue of Millennium [44 (3) (2016) 305-20] includes Bruno Latour‘s, ‘Onus Orbis Terrarum: About a Possible Shift in the Definition of Sovereignty’, a keynote address that – amongst many other targets – goes after the globe and geopolitics….  To give you a taste:

To put it more dramatically, the concept of the Globe allows geopolitics to unfold in just the same absolute space that was used by physicists before Einstein. Geopolitics remains stubbornly Newtonian. All loci might be different, but they are all visualised and pointed to on the same grid. They all differ from one another, but in the same predictable way: by their longitude and latitude.

What is amazing if you look at geopolitical textbooks, is that, apparently, the Globe remains a universal, unproblematic, and uncoded category that is supposed to mean the same thing for everybody. But for me, this is just the position that marks, without any doubt, the imperial dominion of the European tradition that is now shared, or so it seems, by everyone else.

I want to argue that the problem raised by the link between Europe and the Globe is that of understanding, as Peter Sloterdijk suggests, why it is that the onus orbis terrarum has been spread so efficiently that it has become the only space for geopolitics to unfold. Why is it that the res extensa, to use a Latin term that pertains to the history of art as well as of science and of philosophy, has been extended so much?

Instead of asking what vision of the Globe Europe should develop, it seems to me that the question should be: is Europe allowed to think grandly and radically enough to get rid of ‘the Globe’ as the unquestioned space for geopolitics? If it is the result of European invention and European dominion, this does not mean that it should remain undisputed. If there is one thing to provincialise, in addition to Europe, it is the idea of a natural Globe itself. We should find a way to provincialise the Globe, that is, to localise the localising system of coordinates that is used to pinpoint and situate, relative to one another, all the entities allowed to partake in geopolitical power grabs. This is the only way, it seems to me, to detach the figure of the emerging Earth from that of the Globe.

Geopolitics limited to absolute space?  The Globe as the ‘unquestioned space’ for geopolitics (and a geopolitics that is indifferent to, even silent about ‘the Earth’)?  Really?

MINCA and ROWAN Schmitt and SpaceIn an interview with Mark Salter and William Walters, which appears as a coda to the issue, there is also a lot about Carl Schmitt and the Nomos of the Earth (and a pointed rejection of the interpretation offered by Claudio Minca and Rory Rowan), and this passage on drones that loops back to the discussion of sovereignty:

The point, I think, is that ‘sovereign’ has one very precise meaning, which is: a referee. So, is there a referee or not? In my understanding of Schmitt, in the two great ideas of his – the ones on politics and the ones in Nomos – there is no referee, precisely. And so, you have to do politics, which means you have to have enemies and friends. Not because of any sort of war-like attitude (even though there is some talk of that in Schmitt as well). But because, precisely, if you have no referee, then you have to doubt; you have to risk that the others might be right, and that you might be wrong. You don’t know your value; you are not in a police operation. OK, so that defines the state now, because the state goes, all the way down, to a police operation. If there is a police operation and not war, then there is a State, in some ordinary sense. That is how we can understand the first hegemon of the United States, entering the First World War as a police operation, no question. The drone, now, flowing over [and] … moving on top of the space of the land, is a police operation because the one who sent it has no doubt that he or she acts as referee. So, the first thing is to draw the extent of that hegemon. How we would do that, I don’t know. Certainly, there would have been a book by Schmitt a few days after the first drone, about this new definition of the State, extending above air its police operation everywhere.

Good knock-about stuff, but I’m not convinced about any of this either (and exasperated by the current preoccupation with the hypostatisation of ‘policing’)…

Flesh on the Bones

Skeleton RoadOne of my pleasures is good – and I mean seriously good – crime fiction, and I’ve just finished Val McDermid‘s latest, Skeleton Road.  It’s a finely wrought reflection on the wars that destroyed the former Yugoslavia, notably the conflict between Serbia and Croatia, but it’s also shot through with ferociously smart insights into geopolitics.

In fact, the epigraph is from Gerard Toal‘s Critical Geopolitics (the book not the blog) and in her acknowledgements Val thanks both Linda McDowell and Jo Sharp.

I was particularly taken by the way in which the shadows (and lights) of international law and human geography fall across its pages. Neither becomes an abstraction; both are fully embodied.  Two of the protagonists are lawyers working for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and another is a Professor of Geography at Oxford (who ‘forced herself to consider the entries she was due to contribute to the forthcoming Dictionary of Human Geography‘ – a perfectly reasonable motive for murder).

All of which may explain my favourite quotation from what is now one of my favourite novels.  I’ve always despaired of those approaches to ‘geography and literature’ that gut novels by ripping out the supposedly ‘geographical’ bits, so I hope I’ll be forgiven for this autopsic deviation.  This is Maggie Blake, Professor of Geography, describing the results of her fieldwork in Dubrovnik:

‘The work I ended up doing on the region and its wars … is rooted, as human geography should be, in an embodiment of the conflict.’

The rule of war

ADS_274_300por300The latest issue of Lisbon’s Análise Social has a special section devoted to the work of historical sociologist Michael Mann (all in English).  I’ve admired Mann’s historical and geographical range – and his combination of narrative and analytical power – ever since I read the first volume of his Sources of social power (1986; new edition 2012).

In the course of an interview with Miguel Bandeira Jéronimo, Mann describes the conceptual changes he has introduced as his multi-volume project has progressed, and he draws particular attention to his attempt to clarify the distinction between political power and military power:

Political power is the institutionalization of power relations over a given territory, backed up by mostly non-lethal, routinized and rule-governed coercion. Military power is the deployment of lethal violence which is aimed deliberately at terrifying, killing, and wounding people, and which is minimally or not at all institutionalized or rule-governed. Geopolitics lies between the two and can be either an extension of political or military power, according to whether inter-state relations contain matters of peace or war. The former are subject to negotiated rules and international courts and tribunals, the latter are not.

Leaving aside Mann’s claims about geopolitics, which I leave to my friends who work in that area, and the idea of a ‘given territory’ (on which I suspect Stuart Elden would have much to say), I’m puzzled by this.

I accept that not all rules are codified into formal protocols, but even in the case of so-called ‘new wars’ is military violence really perpetrated in a rule-free zone?  The operative codes may not be ‘ours’, and they may be fluid and improvisational, but this does not mean they don’t have a substantial role in drawing the contours of military and paramilitary violence.

And surely military power in many (though not all) of its contemporary forms is highly institutionalised and ‘rule-governed’?  The bureaucratisation of modern war, and in its later forms its juridification, is highly advanced: I don’t mean to imply that this is unproblematic, of course, still less that the rules remain intact throughout a conflict, and the reach of international courts and tribunals is evidently highly skewed (not least through the operation of political power), but still…  I think we need a much more nuanced account of the relations between law and war, one which recognises the complicities between them and, in particular, the ways in which military violence frequently works to extend the boundaries of a law that travels in the rear, its baggage train so to speak.

Finally, these clarifications are too clear.  In particular, they don’t address intra-state and transnational conflicts, and they make the distinction between ‘war’ and ‘peace’ such a black and white affair.  And here, plainly, the question of territory reappears in even more urgent (and contested) form.