Trauma geographies, woundscapes and the clinic

I returned from the RGS/IBG Conference in Cardiff to the start of term (which explains and I hope excuses my silence: I’ve updated my two course outlines for this term, and you can find them under the TEACHING Tab if you are interested; if you have any comments or suggestions I’d be happy to have them).

My next order of business is to turn my Antipode Lecture on “Trauma Geographies” into a text (the video will be online soon, I hope); I’ve already started on the translation, helped by questions and feedback from the presentation, and I’ll post the draft when it’s ready.

The argument moves from medical care and casualty evacuation in Belgium and France, 1914-1918 through Afghanistan 2001-2018 to Syria 2011-2018, and in each case I address both combatants and civilians.  Much of this trades on (and develops) posts that will be familiar to regular readers – and if you’re not the GUIDE tab ought to help direct you to the most relevant ones – but I’ve also returned to my ideas about corpography and used them to flesh out (sic) the concept of a ‘woundscape‘.  I decided to that because one of the themes of the conference was landscape, and the idea of a woundscape seemed to take that debate in a fruitful new direction.  I first encountered it in Jennifer Terry‘s brilliant Attachments to War, and she in turn found it in the work of Gregory Whitehead (particularly Display Wounds).

I’m drawn to the way in which both authors/performers try to coax wounds to speak, to read their violent ruptures of the body, and to transcend the typically narrowly bio-medical discourse that frames them.  At the same time, I don’t want to ignore that scientific framing, not least because it is profoundly performative and has such vital consequences (both physical and affective), so in my rendering a ‘woundscape’ is constituted through the explosive intersection of the military gaze (‘the target’) and the medical gaze (the injured body) but immediately spirals beyond those visual registers – and indeed beyond visuality – to include a range of other senses and sensibilities. A woundscape thus includes the bio-physical, cognitive and affective landscapes in which casualties are created, moved and treated.  The affective envelope that surrounds and invades the injured body is a constant concern; this extends beyond the casualty to a host of other actors – as Omar Dewachi shrewdly observes, when wounds travel they ‘enter new social worlds and multiple histories of violence’ – but I I focus on physical injury (rather than PTSD) because so many accounts of later modern war have represented it as what James Der Derian dubbed ‘virtuous’ war whose seeming remoteness is rendered as at once increasingly virtual, fought on and through screens and algorithms, and at the limit radically, absurdly disembodied. Against this, I’m trying to respond to John Keegan’s dismayed observation that the wounded – he included the dead too – ‘apparently dematerialize as soon as they are struck down…’

So here are the slides from my presentation that summarise my interim propositions about woundscapes, drawn from the three case studies; I’ll be revising and elaborating them as I proceed, but I hope this might start a conversation:

Finally, Omar’s wonderful essay that I cited earlier appeared in MATMedicine, Anthropology, Theory – and I would be remiss not to draw attention to its most recent issue.  The editorial on ‘Clinic and Crisis‘ by Eileen Moyer and Vinh-Kim Nguyen sends me back to the other essay I’m currently trying to finish, on “The Death of the Clinic“, which plainly intersects with ‘Trauma Geographies’:

A common thread runs through the articles of this issue of MAT: the conjoining of clinic and crisis. Here we refer, in the manner of Foucault (1963) to the clinic as both an epistemology (a way of knowing) as well as a material space where the ill seek care. Crises are moments of rupture, where the surface of everyday life splinters to reveal what lies underneath and new dangers can appear; they are also turning points where futures can be grasped and foretold. Moments of social crisis manifest in bodies, and therefore in the clinic. Das’s notion of ‘critical events’, as discussed in Affliction: Health, Disease, and Poverty and also taken up in MAT’s September 2017 issue, furnishes perhaps the most thorough consideration of crisis. As she and others have pointed out, crisis is an everyday reality for many who live in conditions of precarity and existential instability. More generally, the current geopolitical climate and the growing urgency of climate change contribute to the sense of crisis. The clinic is symptomatic of crisis, a place where a state of emergency becomes finally visible.

More soon – and I haven’t forgotten that I need to return to my series of posts on Ghouta and, in particular, to address the issue of medical care and casualty evacuation (or lack of it) there too.

War wounds

London last week, Warsaw at the weekend and now Ostrava this week…  More on the last two soon, but while I was in London I gave a new version of “Gabriel’s Map” to Geography and War Studies at King’s College London.  A large and lively crowd, and I learned much from it all: many thanks to Nick Clifford and Richard Schofield for the invitation and the excellent hospitality.

Amongst other things, I had the opportunity to explain the continuities I see between the argument I’ve developed around the First World War and my research on the war in Afghanistan.  Many protagonists have come to represent contemporary war (‘later modern war’) as the hypostatisation of the ‘optical war’ I described on the Western Front, involving a reliance on visual imagery at every level (from the full-motion video feeds provided by remote platforms to the digital displays in command centres down to hand-held devices) and the virtual (sic) erasure of the body: you can see this in arguments as diverse as those proposed by Christopher Coker and James Der Derian.  Der Derian is rightly suspicious of all this, of course, and I tried to show in “Gabriel’s Map” that on the Western Front there co-existed a radically different apprehension of the battlefield – a haptic geography that relied on a bodily habitus and on sound and touch.  This is no less true of ground troops in Afghanistan today; it takes different forms, to be sure, but it’s clear from military blogs and memoirs that for most of those beyond the Forward Operating Bases war is as intimate, as corporeal and as visceral as it ever was.  I’m working my way through a series of memoirs and other materials now and, for all its problems (on which Nick Turse is exactly right), Sebastian Junger‘s War/Restrepo duo (the latter produced with Tim Hetherington) speaks directly to this question.


This has the liveliest of political and ethical implications, but I’ve had other reasons not to leave the trenches behind… Jasper Humphreys at KCL’s Marjan Centre has proposed an extremely interesting project as part of next year’s commemoration of the outbreak of the First World War, drawing on the riches of KCL’s Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives.  The working title is the same – “Gabriel’s Map” – and the aim is to provide a different narrative of the war that develops the themes I sketched in the presentation, using video and social media to capture the attention of young people (and, I hope, the not-so-young…!).  This is exciting stuff, and I’ll keep you posted.

First World War centenaryThe centenary is itself an interesting project. According to the Guardian, the British government anticipates “unprecedented public interest” and, for once, they may have got something right (as opposed to Right); Andrew Murrison, the minister responsible for the commemorations, has both acknowledged the lively debates that continue to swirl around the conflict and expressed the hope that a central motif will be how the war played out at the ‘intimate level’.

More from the Imperial War Museum (itself being remodelled) here and from the excellent Australian War Memorial here.

Project Z

In 2010 James Der Derian (with David and Michael Udris) released Human Terrain, a film that explored the US Army’s Human Terrain Teams and its projected ‘cultural turn’ in counterinsurgency.

Human Terrain

‘Human Terrain’ is two stories in one. The first exposes a new Pentagon effort to enlist the best and the brightest in a struggle for hearts and minds. Facing long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military initiates ‘Human Terrain Systems’, a controversial program that seeks to make cultural awareness the centerpiece of the new counterinsurgency strategy. Designed to embed social scientists with combat troops, the program swiftly comes under attack as a misguided and unethical effort to gather intelligence and target enemies.   Gaining rare access to wargames in the Mojave Desert and training exercises at Quantico and Fort Leavenworth, ‘Human Terrain’ takes the viewer into the heart of the war machine and a shadowy collaboration between American academics and the military.

The other story is about a brilliant young scholar who leaves the university to join a Human Terrain team. After working as a humanitarian activist in the Western Sahara, Balkans, East Timor and elsewhere, and winning a Marshall Scholarship to study at Oxford, Michael Bhatia returns to Brown University to take up a visiting fellowship.  In the course of conducting research on military cultural awareness, he is recruited by the Human Terrain program and eventually embeds with the 82nd Airborne in eastern Afghanistan.  On the way to mediate an intertribal dispute, Bhatia is killed when his humvee hits a roadside bomb.

War becomes academic, academics go to war, and the personal tragically merges with the political, raising new questions about the ethics, effectiveness, and high costs of counterinsurgency.

Der Derian has now released a new film project, completed with Philip Gara, Project Z: the final global event.  The trailer (below) was released last month – at 11:11:11 on 11/11/11 – and according to a press notice, its release was ‘in acknowledgement of a cascading series of related dates – from the 11/ fall of the Berlin Wall, to the 9/11 attacks in the US, to the Arab Spring’s 2/11/11 removal of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from power.’

“If we don’t learn from these events, we’re headed for the final global event,” says head of the Global Media Project (GMP), James Der Derian, who is producing the film. Directed by Phil Gara ’08, a first-time filmmaker coming out of the GMP, the documentary features some of the world’s leading policy thinkers, military strategists, and critical theorists in an entirely new context, which they have embraced in the spirit of producing innovative global interest media that can reach new audiences.

And yes, “Z” stands for “Zombie.” As in, “we need to stop going around like the undead, wake up, and start making the tough decisions about how we want to live in a global community,” Der Derian says.

Trailer is here:

I’m grateful to Cathy Lutz for the information.

Drezner International politics and zombiesIn posting this, I’m mindful not only of Rob Sullivan‘s critical response to Trevor Paglen‘s The Last Pictures (incidentally, the URL gloriously converts Paglen to “Pagen”….) and all those interested in ‘zombie geographies‘… For a different take that none the less loops back to Der Derian’s concerns in both his films, see Gaston Gordillo‘s perceptive commentary on Marc Forster’s forthcoming film World Revolution Z, based on Max Brooks‘s novel:

Zombie epidemics and revolutionary situations share a similar spatiality: a territorial disintegration through which multitudes that do not take orders from the state dissolve state-controlled spaces. InWorld War Z and also on the hugely popular TV show The Walking Dead, the zombie multitudes create, through this territorial dissolution, an overwhelming spatial void that is first generated in urban centers and subsequently expands outwardly. As Lefebvre insisted, in an increasingly urbanized world the most radical insurrections are (and will be) urban phenomena. This is why the panoptic surveillance of urban space is a key priority of the imperial security apparatus, as Stephen Graham demonstrates in Cities under Siege. In The Walking Dead, the urban nature of the zombie insurrection is particularly apparent in the opening episodes, when the zombie takeover of the city of Atlanta forces survivors to flee to rural areas. In one scene, attack helicopters bombard the city with napalm, the epitome of counter-insurgency weapons. In subsequent episodes, the spatial voiding created by the collapse of the state acquires a particularly haunting presence. For months on end, the small band of survivors lives on the run, in hiding, always on the edge and with their weapons at the ready, suffocated by the spatial emptiness that surrounds them —a voiding not unlike the one experienced by imperial troops in terrains controlled by local insurgencies, be that of the jungles of South America in the 1600s or the mountains of Afghanistan today.

World War Z