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.

Choreographies of 21st Century Wars

5 soldiers rosie kay

As regular readers will know, I’m keenly interested in the intersections between performance works and the critique of military violence – using performance not only as a way of engaging audiences and creating publics but also as an intrinsic part of the research process itself.

Much of my own work has focussed on theatre, and I’ve commented on the multiple meanings of  ‘theatre of war’ on several occasions (see here, here and here, though I know there’s much more to say about that).

But I’ve also drawn attention to the role of dance – notably Rosie Kay‘s collaborative project with visual artist David Cotterrell, 5 Soldiers: The Body is the Frontline (see my post on ‘Bodies on the linehere; more on the production here and here).


All of which will explain my interest in this new collection of essays (which includes a contribution from Rosie Kay), Choreographies of 21st Century Wars, edited by Gay Morris and Jens Richard Giersdorf:

Wars in this century are radically different from the major conflicts of the 20th century–more amorphous, asymmetrical, globally connected, and unending. Choreographies of 21st Century Wars is the first book to analyze the interface between choreography and wars in this century, a pertinent inquiry since choreography has long been linked to war and military training. The book draws on recent political theory that posits shifts in the kinds of wars occurring since the First and Second World Wars and the Cold War, all of which were wars between major world powers. Given the dominance of today’s more indeterminate, asymmetrical, less decisive wars, we ask if choreography, as an organizing structure and knowledge system, might not also need revision in order to reflect on, and intercede in, a globalized world of continuous warfare. In an introduction and sixteen chapters, authors from a number of disciplines investigate how choreography and war in this century impinge on each other. Choreographers write of how they have related to contemporary war in specific works, while other contributors investigate the interconnections between war and choreography through theatrical works, dances, military rituals and drills, the choreography of video war games and television shows. Issues investigated include torture and terror, the status of war refugees, concerns surrounding fighting and peacekeeping soldiers, national identity tied to military training, and more. The anthology is of interest to scholars in dance, performance, theater, and cultural studies, as well as the social sciences.


Here is the Contents list:

Introduction: Contemporary Choreographies of Wars, Gay Morris and Jens Richard Giersdorf
Chapter 1: Access Denied and Sumud: Making a Dance of Asymmetric Warfare, Nicholas Rowe
Chapter 2: Questioning the Truth: Rachid Ouramdane’s Investigation of Torture in Des Témoins Ordinaires/Ordinary Witnesses, Alessandra Nicifero
Chapter 3: “There’s a Soldier in All of Us”: Choreographing Virtual Recruitment, Derek A. Burrill
Chapter 4: African Refugees Asunder in South Africa: Performing the Fallout of Violence in Every Day, Every Year, I am Walking, Sarah Davies Cordova
Chapter 5: From Temple to Battlefield: Bharata Natyam in the Sri Lankan Civil War, Janet O’Shea
Chapter 6: Choreographing Masculinity in Contemporary Israeli Culture, Yehuda Sharim
Chapter 7: Affective Temporalities: Dance, Media, and the War on Terror, Harmony Bench
Chapter 8: Specter of War, Spectacle of Peace: The Lowering of Flag Ceremony at Wagah and Hussainiwala Borders, Neelima Jeychandran
Chapter 9: A Choreographer’s Statement, Bill T. Jones
Chapter 10: Dancing in the Spring: Dance, Hegemony and Change, Rosemary Martin
Chapter 11: War and P.E.A.C.E, Maaike Bleeker & Janez Janša
Chapter 12: The Body is the Frontline, Rosie Kay and Dee Reynolds
Chapter 13: Geo-Choreography and Necropolitics: Faustin Linyekula’s Studios Kabako, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ariel Osterweis
Chapter 14: Re: moving bodies in the Mexico-USA drug, border, cold, and terror wars, Ruth Hellier-Tinoco
Chapter 15: After Cranach: War, Representation and the Body in William Forsythe’s Three Atmospheric Studies, Gerald Siegmund
Chapter 16: The Role of Choreography in Civil Society under Siege: William Forsythe’s Three Atmospheric Studies, Mark Franko

There’s obviously a lot more to say about choreographing war too…

Dancing with drones

As I near the end – at last! – of my essay on drone strikes in Pakistan, “Dirty Dancing“, I’ve stumbled – the mot juste, given how long it’s taken me to finish the thing – on two very different performance works, both called ‘Dancing with Drones‘.

Dancing with drones 1

First, a dance-technology collaboration from Australia between dancer Alison Plevey and artists Josephine Starrs and Leon Cmielewski.  This is from a thoughtful commentary by Ann Finnegan:

Of drone warfare, Grégoire Chamayou has written the world is a ‘hunting ground.’ ‘The target is unable to retaliate, no quarter can be given in last-minute surrender, and only one side risks being killed’. Chamayou is writing of the extreme circumstance of war, but in many respects, Plevey in her dance-off with the drone, is hunted, a contemporary Acteon, who in Greek myth was hunted by a pack of dogs intent on tearing him to pieces. Plevey comes across as the innocent, occupying a subject position that could be occupied by anyone. While there is a charm to the mimetic sequences and to the innocence of the initial scenes of ‘playing chasey’ with the drone, the dance-game is also akin to those more vicious games of children that quickly turn.

Filmed in big nature, down by a river in the wilds of Bundanon estate [in New South Wales], the dancer-drone partnership is intriguing, somewhat bizarre, an unlikely dance duo, initially suggesting disturbed bucolic innocence. Two regimes of movement seemingly accommodate each other: the curious drone, the responsive human. There’s a mixture of charm and mild annoyance; the drone hobby toy friendly in size, rising and falling in sequences akin to the flapping of a butterfly’s wings, no more a menace than the buzzing of a gnat or a bee.

As the dance progresses [and the video projection moves back to Carriageworks in Sydney] the emotional register shifts: pleasure, annoyance, charm, resistance, and eventually submissive acceptance. The disturbing note is that the drone is an invasive species, a technologized interface with nature, intruding into the peaceful ecology with a movement regime that progressively subjugates the human. Given its range of movement, from hovering physical intimacy to the dramatic shifts of its vertical climbs, the drone is an unequal dance partner, an undefeatable adversary. What the dance sequence makes clear is that no matter how brilliant her dance, no matter how fluid, graceful and subtle her human body movements, she will be no match for the superior movements of a drone piloted at a distance by an unseen program or programmer…

Chamayou doesn’t shirk from calling out the ‘inhuman operation [of] a mobile battlefield that potentially spans the globe’, of the potential for drones to target anyone, anywhere, from any satellite mapped point of the world. Furthermore, drones have a capacity for actions at a distance, the like of which the world hasn’t seen before: the ability to group, hover, pursue. If computer were touted in the 1990s as multipurpose machines incorporating calculators, typewriters, cameras, CD players, graphic interfaces, radio, and so on, drones combine a camera with several movement modes: the up and down of helicopters, with the horizontal lines of flight of arrows, missiles and aeroplanes.

The darker notes of Plevey and Cmielewski-Starrs’ collaboration drive these points home, especially when the performance arena is invaded by the live presence of a drone. Plevey is no longer alone on stage dancing with and against the cinematic image of herself and the drone. Her drone combatant has now physically entered the space. This radically recalibrates the experience of the audience, who no doubt subliminally reason that relative safety precautions have been taken. After all, viewing big, dangerous nature from a point of safety has always been key to enjoyment of the sublime. Though the appearance of the drone will most likely trigger a rapidly suppressed involuntary adrenalin reaction—the fight or flight response—this suppression, as in the experience of the sublime, is part of the work’s physical thrill. Whilst certainly the onstage drone is not of war machine scale, not loaded with weaponry, nor combat ready, any audience member would still be very much aware of its capacity to harry, and select quarry other than the dancer onstage.

The gendered aspect of the performance, with an unarmed female quarry, draws further allusions to inadvertent attacks on civilians in combat zones.

The second work comes from a team in Hungary.  Initially a team led by Tamás Vicsek from the Department of Biological Physics at Eötvös University in Budapest created what they called ‘flying robots that communicate with each other directly and solve tasks collectively in a self-organized manner, without human intervention.’  Then, in collaboration with Nina Kov, an artist and choreographer based in the UK, the team developed ‘tools facilitating the interactivity between drones and humans’ and – in stark contrast to the first performance work – staged a ‘cooperation between [a] group of drones and humans through movement, which is instinctive and enjoyable…’  The result is a multi-media entertainment that is intended to show ‘the peaceful, civil and creative applications of drones, made possible by the collaboration between high level scientists and artists.’

You can see some of the preparations for the production in this video from YouTube:

And the stage performance at the Sziget Festival in 2015 in this one:

But you really ought to watch the video here, which opens with the disarming statement that

‘No computer-generated images were used.  No pilots, no pre-programmed routes, only dance and interactions.’

You won’t be surprised to learn that ‘Dirty Dancing” is closer in spirit to the first performance.  But both projects provide considerable food for thought about the incorporation of performance as a vital moment in analytical research, no?  (For my own, beginning attempts at a performance-work see here; this is drama, but I’ll be working with Wall Scholar Peter Klein on a musical collaboration around parallel themes, and now I’m starting to think about video and dance too…  But not until ‘Dirty Dancing’ is done!).