Wednesday, December 5, 2012

World Revolution Z

The trailer of the Hollywood blockbuster World War Z forthcoming this summer is characterized by the dramatic appearance of huge masses of zombies that take over public space at staggering speed. Amid the rapid collapse of state power, the leaderless zombie multitude forces the global elites to retreat behind high walls or to flee on helicopters onto ships out in the ocean. In the final scenes, Israeli soldiers shoot at massive avalanches of bodies that charge against them as if forming a flood of indistinct physical forms. The zombie multitude becomes particularly ominous in the trailer’s closing images, when it forms a protuberance that steadily climbs up the Wall of Separation protecting Fortress Israel. Yet what makes the trailer particularly eerie, and revealing, was the timing of its online release. At the exact time the gripping images of Israeli troops murdering crowds of zombies was going viral on YouTube in mid-November, the Israeli military was murdering and mutilating men, women, and children in Gaza and treating them, as in World War Z, as if they were part of a not-fully-human, dangerous horde that ought to be crushed at all costs.
 “Everything in World War Z is based in reality,” said Max Brooks, the author of the book the movie is based on. “Well, except the zombies. But seriously, everything else in the book is either taken from reality or 100% real.” Maybe we should take Brook’s insistence about the reality of the zombie multitude seriously, and thereby examine in more depth what’s behind the growing obsession with a zombie apocalypse in popular culture. And this may require exploring this genre’s popularity as expression of anxieties about a world revolution. Am I reading too much into yet another zombie movie? Perhaps. Yet the fact that insurrections are mystified as the result of a “contagion” triggered by a “virus” that abruptly turns humans into uncontrollable crowds of zombies should not totally surprise us. This is how elites have always regarded insurrections: as pathological events inexplicably created by irrational hordes blinded by primitive, unsophisticated, impulsive desires. This is how Gustave Le Bon, the father of the “sociology of crowds,” responded to the uprising of the people of Paris in 1871: by claiming that radicalized multitudes are nothing but zombie-like, scary “hordes.”

Scholarly analyses of zombies tend to focus on the historical origins of this figure in Haiti, where the zombie as the living dead symbolized the body of the slave. As David Graeber reminds us, slaves are usually treated throughout history as humans that are already dead: as bare life that could be killed without breaking the law. In popular culture, zombies indeed often represent a state of un-freedom. But isn’t the zombie, in an ironic twist, also a body that cannot be affected and is, therefore, utterly indifferent to power, ranks, and hierarchies and unbearably ungovernable and free? Isn’t this affective dimension key to any political reading of the current popularity of zombies? The author of World War Z emphasized that what terrifies him the most about zombies is, indeed, that they don’t obey rules and cannot be “shocked and awed.” “They scare me more than any other fictional creature out there because they break all the rules,” Brooks said in an interview. And he argued that this disobedience makes of zombies irrational beings comparable to terrorists. “The lack of rational thought has always scared me when it came to zombies, the idea that there is no middle ground, no room for negotiation. That has always terrified me. Of course that applies to terrorists. … Any kind of mindless extremism scares me, and we’re living in some pretty extreme times.” Brooks, on his own admission, is very scared of the world in which we live. He wrote his first book, The Zombie Survival Guide, as a call to arms to get ready for the coming planetary insurrection. His first lesson is, “Organize before they rise!” And “they,” lest we forget, are actually us: ordinary human beings that abruptly become something else: something profoundly menacing.  
Zombies are menacing not only because they cannot be affected but also because they are not totally devoid of affects; after all, zombies are not dead but undead. Their lifeless bodies move, moan, and are guided by one raw appetite: the desire to eat living flesh, which magnetically attracts them to living bodies. In Brooks’ book, this desire makes zombies aggregate to form truly gigantic multitudes: “mega swarms” that roam the continents and are visible from outer space: “Truly massive, miles across, like the American buffalo must have once been.” These zombie multitudes are what Deleuze and Guattari would call uncoded desiring machines: lines of flow guided by desire, even if this is desire of a rudimentary nature. In Spinoza, Deleuze argued that a tick is guided by three basic affects: it is attracted to light, it is sensitive to the smell of mammals, and digs into the animal’s skin. The zombies’ rudimentary affects are very similar. Yet this affective condition makes them immune to the state and thereby has profound political implications. In the eyes of the state, zombies form insurgent multitudes because their undomesticated desires threaten the very fabric of state power.
            While heir to a long legacy of movies about zombie epidemics, the film World War Z is already being hailed as “The Mother of all Zombie Movies,” and rightly so. The film stands out, first, because of its planetary reach, which makes previous films about zombie outbreaks look purely local or regional (England in 28 Days or Atlanta and rural Georgia in The Walking Dead). But what is most distinctive about the zombie multitudes in the film is their staggering speed. This speed, in fact, sets the movie apart from the book, which follows the genre convention of presenting clumsy, slow-moving zombies, the walking dead. To the dismay of some of the book’s fans, on the film’s trailer the zombie multitudes charge at an overwhelming velocity, forming massive avalanches in which the zombies’ individual bodies create an undifferentiated torrent, an unformed thing-in-motion that overruns everything on its path. This vortex makes the allegory of revolution more haunting than it is in the book. Paul Virilio has long insisted that revolutions are processes of acceleration whose speed is qualitatively different from that of capital. “Revolution is speed, but speed is not revolution” (Speed and Politics). We got a taste of that insurgent speed in the staggeringly fast-paced wave of insurrections that shook North Africa and the Middle East in 2011, which in a matter of weeks engulfed multiple countries thousands of kilometers apart from each other. Some of the long-shot images of urban unrest on the trailer of World War Z, indeed, look like images of the Arab Spring.
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. In World 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.

In both The Walking Dead and World War Z, a key strategy to cope with this territorial disintegration is the production of walled, fortified spatial enclaves. Yet whereas in The Walking Dead these walled enclaves are created locally by scattered survivors who have no idea what is going on elsewhere, in World War Z they are largely the product of a globally-coordinated policy of counter-insurgency. Nothing makes Brooks’ conservative anxieties more transparent than the fact his book presents South Africa and Israel as the world leaders in containing the zombie insurrection because of their Apartheid-style policies. In South Africa, Brooks writes, the author of the successful plan to contain the zombies through fortified spatial enclosures was a former official of the Apartheid regime who originally devised this plan to combat a human insurrection. “It was a doomsday scenario for the country’s white minority, the plan to deal with the all-out uprising of its indigenous African population.” In short, in World War Z a human rebellion against an oppressive regime is practically indistinguishable from a zombie outbreak, thereby confirming that the zombie is the figure through which Brooks affectively reads the bodies of rebellious humans. In an effort to whitewash Israeli Apartheid, Brooks presents Israel as a humanitarian nation that opens up its hyper-militarized borders to all uninfected Palestinians fleeing the zombies. And the book and the movie rebrand The Wall of Separation as the object that protects generic humans from the spatially expansive zombie apocalypse. The recent bombing of Gaza by the Israeli military disrupts this fantasy of humanitarian colonialism to remind us that the current Israeli state would never act so kindly toward Palestinians, for The Wall was built to contain not zombies but millions of Palestinian men and women who have for decades lived under foreign military occupation. The images on the film's trailer of Israeli soldiers machine-gunning crowds of zombies that seek to breach The Wall are therefore, indeed, "100% real." 
The genre of a zombie pandemic is quite distinct within the larger genre of end-of-the-world scenarios that currently fascinates popular culture. This is the only apocalypse created not by natural cataclysms but, rather, by human bodies that abruptly stop obeying the state. Zombies are human bodies that have been freed from hierarchies, conventions, consumerism, and indoctrination by the media; and this un-coding creates a collective, leaderless, expansive occupation of space that makes the state crumble. The zombies' unique power to destroy the state is, in this regard, based on a distinct bodily affect: the power to be free from fear. Brooks was asked why he thinks we are witnessing a growing fascination with zombies, and he candidly replied that they represent anxieties about a world in turmoil and about “chaos in the streets.” The fascination with zombies, in short, is the fascination with fearless multitudes. The phrase “we are no longer afraid” was one of the most recurring sentiments uttered during the 2011 insurrections of North Africa and the Middle East. Those were, indeed, multitudes that could no longer be “shocked and awed” by the state. That is the affect that terrifies Brooks and that made him fantasize about a global campaign of indiscriminate state violence against rebellious crowds.
But the fear of the coming zombie insurrection may also be a tangential, not-fully-articulated recognition of the zombie-like conditions that capitalism has long cultivated at a planetary scale. After all, the global grinding machine depends on turning billions of people into passive, depoliticized bodies guided (like ticks and zombies) by just a few rudimentary affects: working, consuming, and obeying. Maybe what makes World War Z truly terrifying is the hidden recognition that the insurgent multitudes presented as lifeless hordes have woken up from their zombie nightmare to become unbearably alive and human.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Destruction of Space

This is the first of the excerpts from my forthcoming book Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction  that I'll be posting on the blog. This is the theoretical intermezzo that opens up Part II of the book (Lost Cities). In the previous chapter, I examined how state violence defeated the indigenous insurgencies that had for centuries kept the state at bay from the Gran Chaco, and had created an anti-state spatial void in the heart of South America. After briefly making reference to the aftermath of that historically-specific destruction by state power, this section explores the concept of "the destruction of space." 

Abstraction’s modus operandis is devastation, destruction (even if such destruction heralds creation).
Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space

          The violent destruction of the void of the Gran Chaco by the state marked the disruption not only of particular forms of sociality free from state control but also of a terrain defined by physical striations that had slowed down state mobility for centuries. Military conquest, therefore, was followed by the smoothing out of forests and swamps, carried out over several decades in order to build roads, railroads, telegraph lines, bridges, towns, airfields, ports, agricultural fields and cattle ranches. The clearest sign that military victory had been complete was that the labor of defeated multitudes armed with shovels, axes, pickaxes and machetes was used to destroy older striations, change the form of the terrain, and produce a territory under state control.
The destruction of space inaugurated in the Gran Chaco in the late nineteenth century has continued unabated. The technologies of destruction have nonetheless changed. At the turn of the twenty-first century, waves of bulldozers are smoothing out the striations of the last areas of thick forests and destroying the homes of whoever happened to live there to make abstract space for agribusiness and capital-intensive cattle ranching. The western edge of the Gran Chaco is going through one of the highest deforestation rates in the world. In the borderlands of Paraguay and Bolivia in the northern Chaco, a handful of highly mobile Ayoreo people still committed to avoiding living under state power are the very last remnants of the multitudes that once formed the war machine of the Chaco. They are no more than two dozen men and women and are permanently on the move, evading the myriad actors and the bulldozers that are rapidly obliterating the once thick forests of the northern Chaco. Far from being un-contacted, these people are fleeing. As Lucas Bessire has analyzed in gripping ethnographic detail, Ayoreo people who left the bush only a few years ago told him they thought those bulldozers regularly haunting them were monsters of steel. These people know what the bulldozers are: machines of spatial destruction. Bulldozers are the main machines for the destruction of space that capitalist globalization relies on. The Ayoreo people aptly call them, “the attackers of the world” (Bessire 2011).
Hundreds of kilometers to the south on the western edge of the Chaco in Argentina,  bulldozers are also on the move to create soybean fields to satisfy the booming global demand for soy; and these machines are destroying places inhabited not by nomadic Indians but by the criollo people who had taken their place in the name of civilization. It was the ordinary people I met in my fieldwork who first prompted me to think about the destruction of space. A ese lugar lo han destruido, “They have destroyed that place,” was a common phrase I heard throughout the region in reference to places disrupted both recently or in a distant past by powerful people alien to the region.
“The destruction of space” may sound like a counter-intuitive concept. The idea that space can be “destroyed” challenges the common sense, first articulated by Newton, that space is the absolute extension upon which objects are located as points in a measurable matrix (see Casey 2007). This is, in fact, the same common sense disturbed by the notion of “the production of space,” which as Lefebvre noted, is often imagined as a timeless substratum that “cannot be produced.” But the production of space is always predicated on spatial destruction, and this intermezzo explores this intersection.
In The Production of Space, Lefebvre revolutionized critical theory by emphasizing that space should be examined through the lens of production. He forced us to think about space as the materially created conditions of all forms of sociality, oppression, struggle, and emancipation. And he demonstrated that production is not restricted to the making of objects but that it is a force that generates space. Yet space, Lefebvre emphasized, is a product unlike any other; it is the very condition for sociality: a product that pervades society in its entirety. It is through space and its production that the contradictions, tensions, and struggles that shape any social formation become tangible. This is why Lefebvre viewed the production of space as a profoundly disruptive and tension-ridden process. Space, he wrote, is ruptured and unstable, “devastated and devastating” as well as “utterly dislocated” (1991:97). This spatial destructiveness is apparent under capitalism and its tendency to generalize abstract space. Lefebvre emphasized that abstract space is inherently violent and destructive, a “lethal” space that “destroys the historical conditions that gave rise to it.” “The negativity that Hegelianism attributed to historical temporality alone is in fact characteristic of abstract space” (1991:370).
 The destructive nature of capitalism lies upon its universalizing abstractions, the product of a state of generalized commodification that reduces sensuous bodies and spaces to available and quantifiable slots: things to be bought and sold and turned into a source of profit. There is a violence intrinsic to abstraction, and to abstraction’s practical (social) use,” Lefebvre insisted. This abstraction, he noted, passes for “an absence” as if capitalist quantifying abstractions were separate from “concrete” objects. “Nothing could be more false. For abstraction’s modus operandi is devastation, destruction (even if that destruction may sometimes herald creation)” (Lefebvre 1991: 289, emphasis in original).
Lefebvre, in other words, was well aware that the production of space is profoundly violent and destructive; but he stopped short of examining the destruction of space as a concept in its own terms. In this intermezzo, I examine the destruction of space by drawing on Lefebvre and also by spatializing Marx’s emphasis that production is inseparable from destruction. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels famously wrote that capitalism’s fabulous productivity is founded upon equally fabulous levels of destruction. Under bourgeois society, they wrote, “all old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed.” Further, what capitalism produces is regularly obliterated in crises of over-production, which lead to the “enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces.” And whereas previous systems were based on the conservation of their modes of production, they argued that capitalism is founded on a constant revolutionizing of production. And this dynamism has a dissolving force, through which “all fixed, fast-frozen relations” are “swept away” and “all that is solid melts into air” (Marx and Engels 1992 [1848]:4-9). In Grundrisse, Marx (1993 [1858]) elaborated on the theoretical foundations of this principle by arguing that production requires the destruction of raw materials. In this cycle, consumption and production are different moments of the same process that begins anew with production.
The production of space under capitalism creates vast levels of spatial destruction. Production and destruction work in tandem permanently giving new forms to the terrain, revealing the terrain's material plasticity, changing its layout in this or another way, redefining the political regimes under which these disruptions are organized and contested. These negative and positive moments in the transformation of the form of the terrain are inseparable but not identical. The same way that the production of space is not the same as the production of ordinary commodities, the destruction of space is not simply the physical obliteration of objects and spatial forms; it is, primarily, the shattering of the conditions of sociality that define a particular constellations of human and living nodes in the terrain. And the main measure of spatial destruction is its impact on human bodies as well as all forms of life. When Lefebvre wrote that space is devastated and devastating he was pointing to its effects on human bodies, not on “space” in the abstract. In Appalachia and the Andes, mining corporations are destroying spaces not only because they are obliterating rock formations but also because they saturate local places and streams with rubble and poison that negatively affect people and all living forms. A political understanding of the destruction of space cannot but be founded on an affective view of space.
The rise of capitalism represented in this regard not only a new mode of production of space —of an abstract space at the service of commoditization and state power but also a whole new mode of spatial destruction. The capitalist destruction of space shatters or disrupts all obstacles to its striving for profit maximization. The traces of this destruction are constitutive of all existing terrains, and are more than apparent in the massive environmental devastation unleashed all over the planet in the past century.
David Harvey is one of the leading authors who has highlighted the spatially destructive nature of capitalist production, through his emphasis on the impact of speed on distance (the famous, if misleading, “annihilation of space by time”) and the disruption of spatial forms created by “uneven geographic development.” And he rightly identifies an important tension between stasis and motion in these disruptions, for while capital strives for mobility “capital invested in the land cannot be moved without being destroyed” (Harvey 2010:190). Yet Harvey has consistently examined this process with a concept with peculiarly bourgeois baggage: “creative destruction.”
Coined and popularized by Joseph Schumpeter (1950) during the New Deal, the idea of capitalism's "creative destruction" appropriates the negativity of Marx’s view of capitalist destruction yet rephrases it as creative, thereby depoliticizing it. Through a subtle yet decisive ideological sleight of hand, destruction is redefined as innovative, positive, desirable: the unavoidable side-effect of the thriving dynamism of capitalism. It is therefore not surprising that neoliberal economists and apologists of corporate power are particularly fond of praising capitalism’s “creative destruction,” for in this usage the positive element, creation, subsumes and neutralizes its destructiveness.
The concept of the destruction of space follows a different path, which acknowledges the affirmative outcomes of destruction but does not subsume this negativity to a creative affirmation. I prefer to conceptualize this process as destructive production, for what defines production in its capitalist-imperial form is what Ann Stoler (2008) calls the ruination of spaces, bodies, and social relations and the creation of social suffering. This destruction is, indeed, as David Harvey and Neil Smith emphasize, spatially uneven. And this spatial destruction creates what Chris Hedges and others aptly call sacrifice zones: "areas destroyed for quarterly profit." “We’re talking about environmentally destroyed, communities destroyed, human beings destroyed, families destroyed.”
Capitalist destruction can only come across as “creative,” in other words, among those who (like Schumpeter) are secluded from the debris it generates, and are keen to erase it. “The truth of the matter,” Marshall Berman (1982:99-100) points out, “is that everything that bourgeois society builds is built to be torn down” and that the bourgeoisie “would tear down the world if it paid.” And he added, “Their secret a secret that they have managed to keep even from themselves— is that, behind their facades, they are the most violently destructive ruling class in history.” By the same token, the destruction of space under capitalism is the most devastating ever created, as the rapidly shifting patterns of climate and extreme weather we are currently witnessing make it clear.

The destruction of space involves very different levels of physical disruption, intensity, violence, and different forms of temporality and speed. The most dramatic and abrupt forms are certainly those produced by warfare, which can obliterate whole cities or regions amid devastating violence and loss of life in a matter of days or weeks. This is destruction as sheer negativity, in which the obliteration of a particular space is usually not geared (in the short-term) toward the production of a new place but is an end in itself as part of a military engagement. Eyal Weizman’s gripping analysis of the Israeli 2009 invasion of Gaza is the best account I know of this type of spatial destruction. In Gaza, the destruction of space by the Israeli military operated through unrelenting firepower and physical force that created vast fields of ruins and 1,400 corpses, most of them of unarmed civilians. Weizman highlights a notable fact: most people died crushed by the ruins of the buildings that fell upon them, which means that the built environment “was turned into the very things that killed” (2012:100). This case shows that the terrain is inseparable from the bodies that live in it and that the destruction of space, therefore, often also destroys human bodies.
Yet in being also the negative moment of the capitalist production of space, the destruction of space operates today at an everyday, unrelenting pace whose temporality and intensity are dictated by the shifting pulsations of capitalist productivity. Unlike situations of warfare, this is the spatial destruction whose negativity is geared toward the production of commodities and places. Countless nodes in the global terrain are obliterated on a daily basis either to obtain raw materials (mountain tops blown away to extract minerals) or to create places where more commodities can be produced (forests bulldozed to create soybean fields). This means that spatial destruction increases amid waves of economic acceleration and operates ideologically through the expansive logic of abstract space: that is, the idea that the whole planet is a blank surface to be exploited for profit regardless of whoever lives there and of the qualitative nature of those places. The destruction of space represented on the movie Avatar, with the obliteration of Pandora's huge forests by an imperial mining operation aptly represents what is the situation today all over planet Earth, and not simply in the Global South. The movie also makes it clear that the capitalist destruction of space “in times of peace” is also an eminently violent affair that demands the forced removal of the bodies living there and opposing this destruction.
Yet another crucial dimension of spatial destruction in the capitalist-imperial present is that destruction is not simply a side effect of capitalist dynamism: “collateral damage” created on the sidelines. Destruction itself is a massive source of profits: the explicit purpose of crucial sectors of the global machine. Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine (2007) shows with clarity that we live in an era of disaster capitalism in which corporations are attracted to recently-destroyed places like a magnet, for they see in the affective shock and social upheaval created by destruction a “business opportunity.” It happened in Iraq amid the rubble created by the 2003 invasion and it happened in Haiti amid the rubble created by the 2010 earthquake: corporations moving in on fields of ruins to profit from them as part of imperial looting operations that are not simply part of the primitive accumulation Marx analyzed in Capital but are constitutive of the capitalist global order.
But the destruction of space is not simply the outcome of capitalist growth; it also accelerates, acquiring a different dynamic, when capitalist production goes through its cyclical periods of crisis. This is spatial destruction created by factories shutting down, jobs disappearing, and people either moving away or living a more degraded existence. This destruction may be gradual and leave behind ghost towns whose physical infrastructure may be initially intact but that reveal over time a place that has been socially devastated. These places are destroyed not because they are physically shattered but because the relations of sociality that gave them life have dissolved. In the huge urban slums where a quarter of humanity lives, the erosion of space adopts a different pace, closer to spatial degradation than destruction: what Stoler (2008) calls the ruination that makes millions of people live in derelict, polluted, debilitating spaces.
What all these different processes of spatial destruction share is the unraveling or erosion of social-spatial configurations and the emergence of new spatial forms punctuated by unwanted material surplus. And this surplus of debris is more often than not superimposed upon older waves of disruption. Lefebvre reflected briefly on these palimpsests of ruins when he wrote that ancient ruins such as Troy or Leptis Magna “enshrine the superimposed spaces of the succession of cities that have occupied them.” He added that “each new addition inherits and reorganizes what has gone before; each period or stratum carries its own preconditions beyond their limits” (1991 [1974]:164). The presence of ruins in the terrain, in other words, affects and conditions the spaces that come next, which in turn reorganize the pre-existing debris that surrounds them.
The constituent force of ruins also means that the point in analyzing the destruction of space is not simply to outline the salience of devastation in the making of terrain, but also to explore the positive spatial and affective reconfigurations that follow, as well as the afterlife of the debris thus created. First, people affected by spatial destruction usually begin to rebuild and to try to remake their lives immediately thereafter. Rebecca Solnit (2009) has examined how places that are devastated often generate remarkable forms of solidarity and creativity among survivors . Not for nothing, as I analyze at the end of the book, ruins can become, as Mark Healey (2011:6) has argued, “an invitation to transformation”: the possibility of building something better.

Yet in the chapters that follow I examine a different afterlife of ruins: their capacity to affect the living spaces and social configurations that surround them because of their ongoing presence and form as ruins. The transformation of the Chaco into a space under state sovereignty took place in a terrain that was already strewn with debris from previous waves of spatial destruction. And the largest and more noticeable were the ruins of Spanish cities destroyed by the war machine. The destruction of space, in this regard, is certainly not restricted to state-capitalist formations; it also defines the negativity of anti-imperial insurgencies aimed at destroying the spaces under the control of the state. At the foot of the Andes, the ruins created by the war machine continue haunting the living, the state, and the Catholic Church centuries after their destruction.


Berman, Marshall
            1982. All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. New York: Penguin.
Bessire, Lucas
            2011. Apocalipctic Futures: The Violent Transformation of Moral Human Life among the Ayoreo-Sppeaking People of the Paraguayan Gran Chaco. American Ethnologist. 38(4): 743-757.
Casey, Edward
            1997. The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Harvey, David
            2010. The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Healey, Mark
            2011. The Ruins of the New Argentina: Peronism and the Remaking of San Juan After the 1944 Earthquake Durham: Duke University Press.
Klein, Naomi
            2007. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Knoff.
Lefebvre, Henri
            1991 [1974]. The Production of Space. Oxford: Blackwell.
Marx, Karl
         1977 [1867]. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy Vol. I. New York: Vintage.
     1993 [1858]. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. New York:Penguin.
Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels
            1992 [1848]. The Communist Manifesto. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Smith, Neil
            1984. Uneven Development: Nature, Capital, and the Production of Space. Oxford: Blackwell.
Schumpeter, Joseph Alois
         1950. Capitalism, socialism, and democracy. New York,: Harper.
Solnit, Rebecca
           2009. A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster. New York: Penguin.
Stoler, Ann
         2008."Imperial Debris: Reflections on Ruins and Ruination."Cultural Anthropology. 23:191- 219.
Weizman, Eyal
2012. The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza.London: Verso.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction

This is a general overview of my forthcoming book Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction. Last week I submitted the manuscript to Duke UP for the second round of reviews. If all goes well, the book should be out in 2014. In the next few weeks, I'll be posting brief, more theoretical excerpts from the book. Since the main argument goes beyond the places I explored in my fieldwork, it's fitting to illustrate this post with images from other ruptured spaces... 

Mankind is merely the experimental material, the tremendous surplus of failures: a field of ruins.
Fredric Nietzsche, Will to Power 

Only in traces and ruins… is there ever hope of coming across genuine and just reality.
        Theodor Adorno, The Actuality of Philosophy

The foothills of the Andes in northern Argentina were for centuries the theater of a violent confrontation between the state and the indigenous insurgencies that controlled the Gran Chaco, the tropical lowlands stretching toward the east. In 2003-2007, roughly a century after the state had finally prevailed, I conducted fourteen months of fieldwork in different areas of the former frontier; I wanted to analyze the myriad ruins that this conflict left in space and how the people living around them related to this spatial sedimentation of older histories. These older ruins confronted me, in turn, with debris created by more recent processes of state and capitalist decline and expansion, including the ruination generated by agribusinesses at the time of my fieldwork. In this book, I examine how my experience in this fraught geography unsettled not only my assumptions about “ruins” but also my understandings about space, its production, and particularly its destruction and generative afterlife. Those palimpsests of ruins revealed the extent to which the destruction of space had become sedimented in the texture of contemporary geographies and in local forms of collective life. And those ruins also brought to light the power of those places to affect the living in the present as well as the legacies of violence that the state and the Catholic Church seek to relegate to oblivion.

What, exactly, is a ruin? Can the material, historical, and affective ruptures congealed in the countless ruins strewn all over the world help us look at space differently? In this book, I argue that answering these questions requires, first, undoing the fetishism that dominates mainstream and elite views of ruins, which celebrate historic ruins as objects whose form should be revered while, at the same time, erasing the experience of the people living around them as well as much vaster and ongoing spatial destruction created by capitalist and state forces. The book analyzes how people at the foot of the Andes view ruins through what was to me an illuminating lens that, as Adorno and Benjamin would put it, revealed the historical constellations congealed in those objects and the tense processes that created them.

This book argues that the afterlife of ruins can only be understood through an affective view of space sensitive to the power of certain objects to affect living social actors, both through their presence in the materiality of the terrain and through the absences and generative ruptures they evoke. On the western edge of the Chaco, the constellations of debris I analyze have different levels of visibility and affective force. Some are famous throughout the region while others are only known locally; some generate apprehension, while others are disregarded. Yet most of these sites are haunted by past presence of the indigenous insurgencies that over several centuries were powerful enough to turn four Spanish cities and multiple missions and forts into ruins. And these ruins are also haunted by the violence unleashed by the state, which was so widespread that today this is the only region in the western edge of the Argentinean Chaco without a rural population that identifies as indigenous. This is why the state and the Church have sought to erase the memory of that violence through the topographic and affective modulation of what some of these ruins are supposed to mean, often involving massive religious processions and ceremonies. Yet the book also shows that the meaning of a peculiar type of ruin, human bones assembled in mass graves, is harder to control by the state because its material form exudes the violence that created it.

In short, this book seeks to critically examine one of the major tropes of modernity, “the ruin,” in order to reflect on a number of interrelated themes: the destruction of space, the sedimentation of processes of violence in the material and affective texture of contemporary geographies, and the ways in which ordinary people and institutional actors are attracted to and haunted by the presence of ruins. More broadly, the book is a call to look at space through a lens that is more attentive to the material and affective immanence of the ruptures that define it, seeking to translate into spatial terms Nietzsche’s observation that humanity is “merely the experimental material, the tremendous surplus of failures: a field of ruins.
Table Of Contents


Part I: Ghosts of Indians

1. Old Walls in Gaucho Spaces
2. On the Edge of the Void

Part II: Lost Cities

    The Destruction of Space
3. Land of Curses and Miracles
4. The Ruins of Ruins

Part III: Residues of a Dream World

    Treks Across Fields of Ruins 
5. Ships Stranded in the Forest
6. Bringing a Destroyed Place Back to Life
7. Railroads to Nowhere

Part IV: The Debris of Violence

    Bright Objects
8. Topographies of Oblivion
9. Piles of Bones
10. The Return of the Indians

We Aren’t Afraid of Ruins                                                                                   

Overview of Chapters
This book is an ethnography that regularly delves into history in order to illustrate the processes through which particular places were destroyed to become ruins. Yet my analysis also draws on the historical and cultural specificity of these places to analyze conceptual themes about space, destruction, form, materiality, affect, negativity, haunting, violence, fetishism, memory, the void, and oblivion.
The book is divided up in ten chapters assembled in four parts, and preceded by an introduction (Constellations) that presents the main places and ruins to be analyzed in the book as they are entangled in “constellations” of objects (drawing from Benjamin’s and Adorno’s use of this concept) that reveal the processes that created them.

Three of the book’s four parts are preceded by brief intermezzos that examine conceptual problems central to my analysis and to anthropology, human geography, and critical theory: the destruction of space as central to understanding the production of space (The Destruction of Space), a re-reading of the dialectic through the ruin and what I propose to call an object-oriented negativity (Treks Across Fields of Ruins), and a discussion of the ways in which philosophies of negativity (such as Adorno’s, Benjamin’s, and Žižek’s) can learn from philosophies of affirmation (such as Spinoza’s and Deleuze’s), and vice versa, in order to examine processes of becoming through rupture, in particular to understand the affective force of the material and bodily debris created by violence (Bright Objects). While conceptual, these are explorations that do not see theory as a transcendental abstraction and, on the contrary, draw from anthropology’s strength: its everyday immersion in actual places and its engagement with ordinary men and women in their historical and cultural circumstances.
Part I, “Ghost of Indians,” begins by presenting the main actors I examine in the book, the criollos of the southeast of the province of Salta, people of mestizo (racially mixed) background who work mostly as gauchos (cowboys) on cattle ranches in the Andean foothills at the western edge of the Chaco. In particular, I analyze how these men and women engage with the ruins that dot the region through a sensibility shaped by their gaucho habits and their participation in local expressions of popular Catholicism. And I show how many of the ruins in the region are for them haunted by the absence of the Indians those ruins were built to contain, and who also happen to be the ancestors of criollos (chapter one). I subsequently examine the historical emergence of the Chaco as an insurgent space that destroyed several Spanish cities and voided state territoriality over several centuries (chapter two). This section tells the history of the military conquest of the Chaco through an analysis of the recurring anxieties, among Spanish and subsequently Argentinean officials, about the vanishing of imperial ruins. The ghosts of Indians currently haunting the region, I argue, are the phantom evocations of the anti-imperial forces that once had the power not only to destroy state spaces but also make their ruins invisible.
In Part II, “Lost Cities,” I examine the contemporary afterlife of the ruins of two major imperial nodes of labor exploitation eroded and destroyed by those insurgencies, the two cities of Esteco. I focus, in particular, on the ruins of the second city of Esteco north of Metán, whose collapse in 1692 was so traumatic that it generated a legend that is to this day famous in northern Argentina and whose ruins have long been considered cursed. This is a curse that prompts massive ceremonies of conjuring annually organized by the Church in surrounding towns. Yet I also draw a counterpoint between these ruins and those of the first, and largely forgotten, city of Esteco a hundred kilometers to the east in the Chaco, which reveals some of the cultural legacies of the spatial ruptures generated by conquest (chapter three). The ruins of the cursed Esteco at the foot of the Andes are also notable because they made apparent, at a collective level, the ways in which criollo views of ruins challenge the elite fetishization of their form (chapter four).
Part III, “Residues of a Dream World,” examines some of the ruins of the project of progress imposed on the Chaco once this region was conquered by the state. These are the ruins of the promises of prosperity that the national elites claimed would pour into the Chaco after indigenous resistance was defeated. Drawing on Benjamin’s view of progress as a bourgeois dream world that mystifies the “wreckage upon wreckage” it leaves on its wake, these three chapters show that the dream elements of progress in this region coalesce in the physical residues of its recurring failures, often the product of new waves of progress equally presented as dreamlike like the agribusinesses currently destroying forests and gaucho spaces. The first chapter of part III narrates my journey to the heart of the Chaco to examine the ghostly detritus of the steamships that failed to conquer the Bermejo River in the 1860s and 1870s (chapter five). I subsequently analyze the ruins of the first town that blossomed on the western Chaco frontier after Argentina’s independence and that annually attracts multitudes in pilgrimage that briefly bring it back to life (chapter six). The last chapter of Part III examines the now derelict railroads that, only a few decades ago, seemed to have brought to southeast Salta the prosperity of industrial modernity (chapter seven).
 In Part IV, “The Debris of Violence,” I examine the material detritus left behind in space by the centuries of violence required to submit the Chaco to state control. These are traces that because of their potential political repercussions have tended to generate myriad attempts by the state and the Catholic Church to modulate their meaning and significance, especially to conjure away the memory of state violence and the power of indigenous insurgencies (chapter eight). But the constellations formed by the debris of violence in rural areas, I show next, also elude affective capture by the state, particularly because the very form of the human bones and mass graves that dot the region have long made criollos and indigenous people aware of the extent of state terror (chapter nine). The last chapter focuses on another, qualitatively different debris of violence: first, the urban neighborhoods created by people of Wichí background who, in different waves throughout the 1900s, arrived in southeast Salta fleeing violence and destruction elsewhere and, second, the ways in which criollos seek to come to terms with and pay homage to, through repetitive performances, the fact that they descend from Indians.
As way of conclusion (We Aren’t Afraid of Ruins), I draw from some of the main analytic and ethnographic threads woven through the book to highlight why, as Adorno once wrote inspired by Benjamin, conceiving of a more just society requires confronting the ruins that surround us, and also the myriad places that are daily destroyed anew. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Terrain as Medium of Violence

First, apologies for the long silence here at Space and Politics. I've been fully devoted to finishing a book manuscript that is now almost ready (Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction, forthcoming with Duke University Press). In the next few weeks, I'll begin posting on the blog brief theoretical sections from the book, hoping to get feedback from the blogosphere about my explorations of the concept of "the destruction of space." Meanwhile, I posted below a longer version of the paper abstract I wrote for Philippe Le Billon's and Simon Springer's panel on "Violence and Space" for the Association of American Geographers meetings in LA (April 2013). This paper (Terrain as Medium of Violence: The Politics of Verticality and the Voiding of Imperial Space) seeks to further analyze some of my preliminary ideas about "the terrain" first explored here and here, now in relation to violence, verticality, vision, and opacity. 

Mastery of the terrain is a decisive factor in warfare. Military strategists have long been acutely aware of this basic principle in the spatiality of violence. Yet critical theorists of space have, paradoxically, paid scant analytical attention to the constitutive relation between violence and the concept of “the terrain”: the three dimensional forms that make up the immanent materiality of space as we know it (buildings, rivers, walls, mountains, forests, oceans, the sky) and that shape mobility, visibility, and therefore the form and intensity in which violence is and can be deployed. 

Eyal Weizman’s work on the control and transformation of the material forms of the terrain of Palestine by the Israeli military has opened a new horizon to investigate violence through the terrain. Rather than treating space as the fixed matrix on which violence is localized, Weizman shows that space is the most fundamental medium of violence. He painstakingly analyzes how the Israeli military controls millions of Palestinians through a huge, three-dimensional constellation of physical infrastructure and technology. This architectural arsenal includes the massive wall that seals off Israel as a besieged fortress as well as myriad networks of checkpoints, roads, settlements, observation posts, hilltops, tunnels, sewage systems, and bridges. And he highlights that violence is structured by what he calls the “politics of verticality”: the control of “the view from above” from hilltops and through unmanned drones permanently scanning the terrain below them. 

Paradoxically, Weizman writes about “the terrain” constantly in his work but does not analyze it as a conceptual category. In this paper, I draw from Weizman and also from Paul Virilio’s work on violence and vision and Derek Gregory’s research on aerial bombing and drones to examine a key principle of a theory of the terrain: the decisive importance of verticality in the deployment of state violence as a three-dimensional vector. The history of aerial bombing and the recent rise in the use of drones reveal that the control of the skies and the atmosphere —and the speed and global reach their spatial smoothness allows for— has become fundamental to imperial power. 

Yet the politics of verticality pose spatial paradoxes that can only be appreciated through the actual, tangible material-political terrains in which it operates. Contra the image of absolute deterritorialization it tends to evoke, the verticality created by drones is always-already subsumed to a spatial principle as old as warfare: that the ultimate aim of controlling a higher ground through towers, mountaintops, or the sky is to create a view from above to visualize, localize, and inflict violence upon targets located primarily on the ground. In short, drones patrol the skies not to control high altitudes per se but in order to control an opaque terrain below that limits the state field of vision. And despite their capacity for unleashing massive levels of destruction, drones reveal something else about the terrains of Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Yemen endlessly scanned by their cameras: that imperial ground forces do not control those spaces. This political voiding of imperial space by local insurgencies is made possible by another ancient principle of guerrilla warfare: the fact that the mastery of heavily striated terrain (mountains, forests, urban spaces) by flexible and mobile forces allows them to avoid visual capture by the state and, in the long run, wear down and defeat more powerful militaries. The verticality generated by drones, in short, reveals not only the vast spatial reach of imperial violence but also the profound spatial limits and opacities it encounters amid the political and material striations of the global terrain.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

YPF y los golpes de timón kirchneristas

¿Qué clase de fenómeno político es el kirchnerismo? Mario Wainfeld lo suele analizar como un movimiento que avanza a los tumbos, improvisando, adaptándose de manera ecléctica a nuevos contextos pero manteniendo el control de la escena, siempre con el olfato y la mirada alerta para dar estocadas profundas en el momento preciso, que a menudo marcan nuevos rumbos. En palabras de Wainfeld, lo que ha definido la historia del kirchnerismo son “sus golpes de timón”: su creación abrupta e inesperada de trayectorias nuevas, que descolocan a adversarios y simpatizantes. Esta ha sido en buena medida la clave de su éxito político así como de sus profundas contradicciones.

La nacionalización de YPF es el último golpe de timón, pero que me interesa analizar no en sí mismo sino en contraste con golpes de timón previos. En su conjunto, estos abruptos cambios de rumbo revelan profundas tensiones irresueltas en el zigzageante devenir kirchnerista, que oscila entre polos que reproducen y erosionan viejas formas de dominación.

El más dramático golpe de timón fue la respuesta en 2009 a las derrotas frente “al campo” y en las elecciones parlamentarias, cuando, en vez de moderarse frente a una derecha fortalecida, el kirchnerismo giró a la izquierda y confrontó a poderes establecidos en varios frentes. Fue una apuesta riesgosa, pero cuyo efecto democratizador y expansivo de derechos colectivos fue claramente positivo: el matrimonio igualitario, la ley de medios, la nacionalización de las AFJP y la asignación universal por hijo, acoplados con una estrategia de alianzas con los gobiernos progresistas de América Latina. Lo definitorio de ese golpe de timón, y su fuerza, es que se apoyó en movilizaciones populares originalmente externas al PJ y al Estado. Del mismo modo que los derechos humanos y la heterodoxia frente al FMI se transformaron en banderas propias desde 2003, el kirchnerismo se abrió más hacia demandas de horizontalidad democrática que anteriormente le eran ajenas. En sólo dos años, esta fuga hacia adelante logró lo imposible: revertir una situación de debilidad política y hacer añicos a una oposición que, a pesar de contar con poderosas usinas mediáticas, fue desbordada en agilidad, oportunismo y astucia. Y en 2010 el kirchnerismo perdió a su máximo estratega pero ganó una poderosa arma afectiva: la memoria de Néstor Kirchner. Si el kirchnerismo como fuerza progresista tuvo su época dorada, donde “el relato” no fue una mera representación discursiva sino una realidad política, fue en su exitosa contra-ofensiva de 2009-2011.

La demoledora re-elección de Cristina en octubre de 2011 abría la posibilidad de que, ante una correlación de fuerzas más favorable, el gobierno empezara a revisar algunas de sus viejas y pesadas cuentas pendientes, entre ellas la devastación sojera-minera sobre la que se sustenta “el modelo”, las alianzas con capitalistas amigos en el manejo de los trenes e YPF, o las alianzas con gobernadores impresentables como Insfrán en Formosa o Soria en Río Negro. Tímidamente, los intelectuales de Carta Abierta apuntaron a esta deuda pendiente luego de las elecciones en aras, señalaron, de hacer del kirchnerismo un proyecto de mayor “igualdad”.

El nuevo gobierno de Cristina, sin embargo, dio un golpe de timón en la dirección opuesta, que se alejó de la horizontalidad de la calle y consolidó la verticalidad de la forma política Partido-Líder. El tono cambió notablemente, siguiendo de hecho una tendencia que se ha dado en países aliados como Bolivia o Ecuador, donde se incrementó la conflictividad entre el Estado y movilizaciones sociales. Gobiernos que fueron producto de las grandes insurrecciones populares contra el neoliberalismo que se dieron en América del Sur entre 2000 y 2003 empezaron a mostrarse cada vez más hostiles frente a las protestas que demandaban la aceleración de la promesa de mayor igualdad.

En la Argentina, esta nueva actitud hizo que muchos de quienes habíamos apoyado el anterior golpe de timón entráramos en un período de creciente zozobra. Uno tras otro, los anuncios del gobierno eran en su gran mayoría decepcionantes; en algunos casos fueron traiciones, como la sanción de La Ley Antiterrorista dictada desde Washington y el G-20, que marcó para muchos un punto de inflexión. El mismo gobierno que en años previos se había apoyado en formas de militancia democratizante ahora adoptaba marcos legales de corte imperial que podían ser usados contra esa misma militancia, usando el lenguaje del “terrorismo” en un país donde este término es sólo usado por los nostálgicos de la dictadura. La ruptura con el sindicalismo organizado y el fin de los subsidios a servicios públicos en nombre de “la sintonía fina” era otro síntoma claro de la introducción de políticas de ajuste light, disfrazadas con eufemismos del marketing neoliberal.

La expresión más clara de este nuevo golpe de timón fue la aceleración, ahora celebrada públicamente, de la expoliación minera-sojera en los Andes y en el norte. Ello marcó un quiebre en la anterior confluencia entre el kirchnerismo y las protestas de corte popular y anti-neoliberal creadas en espacios públicos, y que marcaron buena parte del pulso de la historia temprana del kirchnerismo. Hasta ese momento, Néstor o Cristina nunca habían atacado públicamente dichas protestas. La estrategia oficial había sido en años anteriores el silencio, como frente a la violencia en zonas rurales de Formosa o Santiago del Estero amparada por gobernadores amigos. A partir de febrero de 2012, la hostilidad se hizo oficial y Cristina descalificó en público a las protestas contra empresas mineras multinacionales y las trivializó como un “ambientalismo” preocupado “por la flora y la fauna”, como si no se trataran de luchas por derechos políticos y sociales. A ello se le sumó el ataque de Cristina a las protestas de los maestros, descalificados con argumentos propios del arsenal más rancio de la derecha que el kirchnerismo dice combatir (como vagos que trabajan "cuatro horas" y tienen largas vacaciones).

Este giro alejado de la calle y articulado en alianzas con sectores concentrados de poder hizo sin duda eclosión con la masacre en la estación de Once, cuando la política oficial de capitalismo de amigos subvencionado por el Estado colapsó de la manera más dramática y generó intensos debates y cuestionamientos al interior de simpatizantes progresistas del gobierno, cada vez más perplejos con el nuevo rumbo, lo que se reflejó fuertemente en muchos blogs. Poco después, se aceleraría la crisis con YPF-Repsol ante el fracaso de la política oficial de convocar a “la burguesía nacional” para generar una nueva política de hidrocarburos. Pero fue justamente este fracaso y tal vez el reconocimiento de que el gobierno necesitaba recuperar su vieja mística el que, en estos días, llevó a un nuevo golpe de timón.

La nacionalización de YPF marca un nuevo punto de inflexión en la contradictoria y zigzageante historia del kirchnerismo. Si bien retoma el lenguaje nacionalista desempolvado con el tema Malvinas, la expropiación marca una confrontación de otro tipo, para nada "simbólica": en el frente externo, una confrontación directa con la mayor multinacional española y con España y la Unión Europea. En el frente interno, implica desarmar uno de los núcleos neoliberales que persistían en la Argentina y uno de los mayores legados del menemismo, como lo fue la privatización de un recurso estratégico como los hidrocarburos. En el ámbito de los afectos políticos, la nacionalización ha repentinamente despertado fervor en el ala progresista kirchnerista, desinflado por el giro de los meses previos. En los medios privados y la derecha macrista, se ha despertado el viejo cuco del kirchnerismo como un castrismo-chavismo rioplatense que de repente desafía nuevamente a sectores concentrados de poder. Que Cristina confronte a un gobierno español claramente reaccionario e implacable en su compromiso con una agenda neoliberal no deja de favorecer este nuevo posicionamiento que vuelve a alimentar, al menos en estos días, la mística del kirchnerismo como proyecto anti-neoliberal.

Pero la metáfora del timón, claro está, tiene sus límites. Un gobierno no es un barco, un objeto que se mueve en una misma dirección, sino un entramado de prácticas y políticas diversas y contradictorias que se mueven y avanzan a distintas velocidades y pulsos. La nacionalización de YPF, que celebro, coexiste con las políticas de los meses previos y no necesariamente se contradice con ellas. Y es muy temprano como para saber cómo estas políticas se entrelazarán en el mediano plazo. Los que apoyamos la reconstitución de una YPF con dominio estatal y cuestionamos, al mismo tiempo, el entusiasmo oficial por el avance sojero-minero lo hacemos porque el adversario es en ambos casos el mismo: multinacionales con una dinámica de acumulación capitalista hostil al interés público. El nuevo golpe de timón cambia una vez más la escena política y reabre, abruptamente, espacios sobre los que es posible profundizar la expansión de lo público por sobre intereses corporativos. Pero ello no debe oscurecer las señales de alerta que, al mismo tiempo, contradicen la idea de un proyecto de igualdad. El kirchnerismo es la consolidación política, a largo plazo y con un devenir contradictorio, de las energías colectivas creadas en la insurrección de diciembre de 2001. Su éxito dependerá de la consistencia con la cual se posicione, en la práctica, frente a ese legado.