Archives of the Insensible

9780226277332News from the ever interesting Allen Feldman of his new book, Archives of the Insensible: of war, photopolitics and dead memory, coming from Chicago in December:

In this jarring look at contemporary warfare and political visuality, renowned anthropologist of violence Allen Feldman provocatively argues that contemporary sovereign power mobilizes asymmetric, clandestine, and ultimately unending war as a will to truth. Whether responding to the fantasy of weapons of mass destruction or an existential threat to civilization, Western political sovereignty seeks to align justice, humanitarian right, and democracy with technocratic violence and visual dominance. Connecting Guantánamo tribunals to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, American counterfeit killings in Afghanistan to the Baader-Meinhof paintings of Gerhard Richter, and the video erasure of Rodney King to lynching photography and political animality, among other scenes of terror, Feldman contests sovereignty’s claims to transcendental right — whether humanitarian, neoliberal, or democratic—by showing how dogmatic truth is crafted and terror indemnified by the prosecutorial media and materiality of war.

Excavating a scenography of trials —formal or covert, orchestrated or improvised, criminalizing or criminal — Feldman shows how the will to truth disappears into the very violence it interrogates. He maps the sensory inscriptions and erasures of war, highlighting war as a media that severs factuality from actuality to render violence just. He proposes that war promotes an anesthesiology that interdicts the witness of a sensory and affective commons that has the capacity to speak truth to war. Feldman uses layered deconstructive description to decelerate the ballistical tempo of war to salvage the embodied actualities and material histories that war reduces to the ashes of collateral damage, the automatism of drones, and the opacities of black sites. The result is a penetrating work that marries critical visual theory, political philosophy, anthropology, and media archeology into a trenchant dissection of emerging forms of sovereignty and state power that war now makes possible.

Here is the wonderful Talal Asad on the book:

Archives of the Insensible is a remarkable diagnosis of our time, tracing with great subtlety the multiple ways in which violence is transformed into justice and justice gives birth to destruction. This is a startling book written with passion and insight, and a valuable contribution to our understanding of the relationship of violence to international law in the contemporary world.

You can see why I’m so interested…

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).

Psycho-geographies of violence

0747590338Will Self‘s series of columns for the Independent on ‘psycho-geography’ attracted considerable attention (they were published between 2003 and 2007 and then collected in the book shown on the left).  In its original form, of course, psychogeography can be traced back to the Lettrist International and the Situationists, and David Pinder‘s Visions of the city: utopianism, power and politics remains one of the most eye-opening introductions to these and similar experiments.

But in today’s Guardian Self turns to a far from utopian prospect to consider what in less avant-garde and more demotic terms would probably also count as a ‘psycho-geography’ of sorts:  ‘We are passive consumers of the pornography of violence‘.

He begins with a devastating imaginative reconstruction of one of the executions carried out by IS/IS/IL: seen not from the point of view of the video-viewing (or not-viewing) public, or even the executioner, but the victim.  He’s aware of the objections:

Surely, at the end of a year in which the public arena has been fully booked for grand guignol, the last thing anyone needs is such an intrusive – and arguably insensitive – speculation? May we not take this opportunity, on the verge of a new year, to sit back, relax, and turn away from the theatre of horrors – not, of course, because we don’t care about all this suffering, all this hideously violent discorporation, but because at least we know this much about ourselves: we may not be the most ethically motivated, caring, community-minded people around; however, we aren’t like them – we aren’t like those men in Raqqa who beat and burn and stone and rape and enslave and shoot and chop and cut: we aren’t evil. And surely, in the opinionated maelstrom we can all at least agree with David Cameron and Barack Obama on this: to cut off someone’s head is an act of such maleficence that it necessarily, in and of itself, renders those who do it evil; if by evil is understood a will-to-absolute-negation, a nihilism that metastasises through the failing body politic, leaving in its necrotic wake only dead-eyed zombies incapable of any authentic feeling.

And yet I wonder: what I wrote above was an active attempt on my part to sympathise with Abdul-Rahman Peter Kassig, Alan Henning, Steven Sotloff, James Foley and David Haines in the last moments of their lives. It was painful to write because I needed to try and put myself in their heads – possibly it was uncomfortable to read for the same reason; yet reading it was also an activity, requiring the translation of marks on page or screen into ideas, images and sensations. Some attempts to understand these perverse and evil actions are similarly engaged, but for the most part our response to the hostage crisis that unfolded over 2014 was necessarily passive. Passive in part because our government wishes to retain its monopoly both on what it sees as the legitimate exercise of violence, and on the prerogative of mercy as well: there will be no ransoms paid for British hostages, while the knife wielded by the man who has been called Jihadi John will be parried – or so they assure us – by targeted air strikes against Islamic State forces, while our “commitment to the region” is re-emphasised in other ways.

So, our passivity – the passivity of civilians who depend on a professional army to assert our moral will, and the passivity in my case – and quite possibly yours – of citizens who have long since recoiled from the spectacle of this interminable conflict worthy of Orwell’s 1984: the so-called “war on terror”.

There’s more – much more – that takes in themes that will be familiar to many readers but here given new urgency by the torsions of Self’s imagination and the sharpness his prose.  It’s an extraordinary ride, and it grips intellectually, politically and ethically.  One of Self’s central arguments is that even as we are reduced to the status of ‘passive consumers’ of this execrable violence (one that is, as he shows, far from absent from our own history) we are – those of us that live in the United States, Canada, the UK, France and elsewhere – also profoundly implicated not only in what is being staged by IS but also in the administration of military violence by the states that make up the latest ‘coalition’.

‘… we are all kneeling in the desert, staring at the serrations on that knife; the very personal and intimate nature of these murderous beheadings calls to our attention – try as we might to repress it – the cold impersonality of the murders committed in our name; for, just as in recent decades the west found it profitable to outsource manufacturing production to low-wage economies, so our own moral accounting has in the short term benefited from a form of outsourcing: western governments no longer find it expedient to perpetrate violence closer to home (it makes for bad PR and restive electorates); yet in a globalised world the exercise of “legitimate” violence is the one monopoly they continue to operate. Perhaps one way of looking at the Middle East is that it’s one of the most productive “bloodshops” we have, a reliable supplier of conflicts that give the west a showroom within which to demonstrate its overwhelming firepower.’

As I say, there’s much, much more, and Self’s reflections on the braiding threads between imagery, passivity , disembodiment and military and paramilitary violence make this the one essay I’d urge everyone to read and reflect on this week, even this month.  And probably all next year.

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!

Deconstruction on the map

There have been many maps tracking the course of military and paramilitary violence in Syria.  They include general ‘situation maps’ like this one from Canada’s National Post early last year (and whatever I think about the politics of the paper, its graphics are often outstanding):

National Post 13 January 2012

Or this one from the New York Times on 12 March 2013 (and, as Brian Harley would have been the first to remind us, the very titles of the maps tell their own stories of uncertainty, sympathy and affiliation: but ‘Map of the dispute in Syria’?  I understand ‘conflict’, ‘civil war’, ‘uprising’ – but ‘dispute‘?!).

Map of the dispute in Syria NYT

Other sites have tried to capture the fluidity of the situation through a series of updated though largely conventional maps, like Political Geography Now‘s maps of ‘rebel activity’ here and a very different, quite remarkable series of ‘military maps’ here (though as far as I can see no information on sources is provided).  The BBC‘s ‘Mapping the Conflict’ interactive is here and its earlier attempts at ‘Mapping the Insurgency’ are here.  Relief Web‘s bi-weekly mapped updates on the refugee crisis are all here.

Some of the most imaginative crowd-sourced maps are provided by Syria Tracker here (and more on the project’s data mining and crowd sourcing from iRevolution here). One of the most ambitious interactive projects, reported by the Guardian and master-minded by the New Scientist, is this one, which uses the open-source QGIS to extract and locate violent events recorded on the new Global Data on Events, Location and Tone database (though, for reasons that will be obvious to most geographers, the hexagons give me another pause for unquiet thought); you can access the interactive via the NS here:

NS Charting Syria's Civil War

All of these maps suffer from inevitable imperfections and deficiencies of data, and they all process and manipulate what they have in different ways (not least by the boundaries they draw around their maps: see this more porous map of the internationalization of the war from Foreign Policy).

We all surely know that none of these representations can be innocent – which brings me to other, more specific mapping projects, like this crowd-sourced map of rape as a military weapon from Women under siege; the live, interactive map is here.

Sexualized violence in Syria

You can find a detailed discussion of the project up to July 2012 by the project’s director Lauren Wolfe here (and an excellent interview here):

‘To step back from the red dots on our map and try to understand the sexualized violence of Syria’s war, our team of doctors, activists, and journalists has taken the 81 stories we’ve gathered so far, from the onset of the conflict in March 2011 through June 2012… Many more victims are included in these reports, but the vagueness of much of the information does not allow us to give an estimate of the total number…. Our data, though largely anecdotal, gives us a sense of the scope and impact of sexualized violence in Syria. It appears to be widespread, not limited to any particular city, and often involves rape.

“The data we have so far suggest sexualized violence is being used as a tool of war, although possibly haphazardly and not necessarily as an organized strategy,” said Dr. Karestan Koenen, associate professor of epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University and the lead epidemiologist on the mapping project. “These reports indicate that post-conflict intervention will need to address the consequences of sexualized violence for victims.”

More on that and the possibilities of what we might call forensic cartography from Laura Bates at Open Democracy here:

The crowdmap may serve another vital function in the future, when the information might be used to help drive prosecutions and bring perpetrators to justice. Wolfe hopes that collecting these reports now will give us a base from which to pursue more detailed investigations on the ground post-conflict “to turn our documentation into evidence that could be used in future war crimes trials”. This is vital when dealing with a crime which carries so much stigma that “stories are usually gathered after the fact, when much has been lost to shame and the destruction of evidence.”

Another potential instance of forensic cartography is this map from Human Rights Watch of sites where, despite denials by the Syrian Army, there is evidence of cluster bombs being used (more here):


Apart from the forensic possibilities, all of this must seem desperately depressing – so many violent deconstructions of the material map – but a Syrian activist, Omar al Assil, has produced a map (of sorts – it’s a web of associations, technically a force-directed graph: plotting physical locations of activists would obviously be inviting reprisals) of non-violent activism in Syria; you can read about it courtesy of Amnesty International here and check out the interactive here.  Incidentally, unless it’s a temporary glitch, Amnesty’s own Eyes on Syria project seems to have shut both of them…

Non-violence map of the Syrian uprising

 “In the [Syria Non-Violence Movement] we believe that there is still a room for peaceful struggle and creativity amid all this chaos. Many people thought that the non-violence came to an end and this is a small step to show them that it is still there and they are using it or working with it on daily basis. So mainly it was to motivate people and the other aim is to document all these activities so interested people can have access to it easily.”

Taken together, these last maps say something about the courage of people’s convictions – and perhaps even the (I fear faint) possibility of cartographic convictions.


IDPs 2012

global-overview-2012-hpThe Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre in Geneva has released the map I’ve reproduced above.  From their research, the IDMC reckons that last year 28.8 million people were displaced by armed violence, conflict and human rights violations, an increase of 6.5 million over the previous year.  The conflicts in Syria (which now has more than 3.8 million IDPs] and the Democratic Republic of Congo (which now has around 2.6 million IDPs) accounted for about half the increase; the vast majority of displaced persons are women and children.  You can download the detailed Global Overview here, and you can find more on the geographies of internal displacement through the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement here.

The increases are dramatic, but the eruption of new wars and the continuation of chronic conflicts make it all too easy to overlook the legacy of displacement – all those left stranded in the wake of war and its penumbra of sometimes silent violence.  In the case of Iraq, for example, and even after returning people have been taken into account, Elizabeth Ferris, co-director of the Brookings-LSE project, has recently suggested that“perhaps three million people, 10 percent of Iraq’s population, remain displaced – and forgotten.”  In its recent report on Iraq ten years after the US-led invasion, and specifically on what it calls “the humanitarian impact”, IRIN highlights the ‘forgotten displacement crisis‘ (see also the workshop report from Oxford’s Refuges Study Centre here).  And don’t lose sight of  all those who have sought refuge from the Syrian conflict in Iraq (more than 140,000), especially in the northern governorates.

Lost in all the numbers, too, is the way in which violence severs those intimate ties, material and affective, between particular people and particular places: ties that are intrinsic to local knowledge (and often the means of survival) and to identity.  Geographers have written about place (and its – I think misconceived – duals, ‘placelessness’ and ‘non-places’), but many of these classical discussions have been so romanticised (I’m thinking of books like Yi-Fu Tuan‘s Space and place) that they have somehow failed to engage with the enormity of forced dis-placement.  I’m not saying that human geographers have been indifferent to internal displacement, still less to refugees – far from it – but the absence of a close engagement with the concept that is in many ways at the heart of displacement is none the less a striking absence from all those paeans to place.

Even Tim Creswell‘s fine work – I’m thinking of his ‘Weeds, plagues, and bodily secretions: A geographical interpretation of metaphors of displacement’ in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers (1997) – engages more with language than with landscape and is more at home with Anglo-American displacements.  But, perhaps prophetically, the last of his three poems on ‘Displacements’ in the latest Geographical Review [103 (2) 2013] includes the hope that

‘the color 

and screech of Mysore and Mogadishu

do not dwindle into cartographic memory…’