The fact that NSA-whistleblower Edward Snowden was able to leave Hong Kong despite the planetary surveillance apparatus devoted to capturing him confronts us with the problem I explore in this essay: those opaque spaces that the panoptic regime cannot see (or see clearly) because of the textured, volumetric, non-representational multiplicity of the global terrain. I presented this paper, Opaque Zones of Empire: Notes Toward a Theory of Terrain, at the Association of American Geographers Meetings in Los Angeles back in April, at the panel “Space and Violence,” organized by Philippe Le Billon and Simon Springer. This is my first serious attempt to begin theorizing the concept of terrain, drawing from ideas previously posted here and here (and also here in relation to the spatiality of the Occupy movement). This is a draft of a longer article in progress.
The argument by Hardt and Negri that Empire is a globalized system of sovereignty in which “there is no outside” is non-metaphorically evoked in the cover of their book Empire, which is illustrated with a photo of the planet viewed from outer space. In this essay, I examine the idea of a planetary totality (which I explored in my previous post on The Imperial Presidency) not as a spatial endpoint but, rather, as a threshold that allows us to look at the outsides of a world without outside: that is, at those spaces that are politically within Empire yet, at the same time, beyond its reach. I propose a negative route to examining the panoptic regime of hyper-visibility by focusing not on the prying cameras of drones and satellites but on the rugged topographies they permanently scrutinize; not on what the panoptic regime sees but on what it cannot see, or what it cannot see clearly. This requires folding Hardt and Negri’s claims about an Empire without an outside to reveal the void that haunts this totality from within: the opaque zones of Empire. This opacity erodes visual capture due to multiple territorial obstacles but also because this opacity is constitutive of the non-representational multiplicity of space in its immanence, which is the lens I propose to use to analyze the concept of terrain.
The existence of a sophisticated machinery of vision that is permanently scanning the surface and infrastructure of the planet has cultivated among officials fantasies of a God-like transcendence able to submit the globe to an all-seeing Eye that seeks “total information awareness.” But research on the drone wars reveals that this panopticon is often overwhelmed by the densely-layered spatial immensity it seeks to visualize. Derek Gregory has shown that the visual information recorded by the drones scanning the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan is so vast that their sensors are permanently “drowning in data” ("From a View to Kill" p. 194). The regime of hyper-visibility, in this regard, is permanently confronted with the problem of how to analyze and interpret the textured density of the terrain. The gaze guiding the drones, Gregory shows, follows a binary logic that seeks to distinguish “normal” from “abnormal activity” from amid an extremely heterogeneous and complex spatial universe. And the pressure to see insurgent activity on this multi-layered ground has been a major factor in the many cases in which unarmed civilians were “erroneously” murdered by drones, after the operators and image analysts navigating them “saw” mundane objects as “rifles,” people praying as a sign that they were “Taliban,” or children as potentially hostile “adolescents.” “If seeing is believing,” Gregory observes, “it is also techno-culturally mediated” (p. 203) (see also Gregory's recent blog post on this topic over at his blog Geographical Imaginations).
This reveals, first, the profoundly affective nature of these visual fields, in which vision is not an unmediated mechanical or optical process but a bodily-cultural perception, in which drone operators and analysts are affected and often disoriented by the opaque terrain they seek to interpret. But this also reveals what Allen Feldman, based on his materials on paramilitary violence in northern Ireland, has called “the core of blindness” that defines panoptic regimes: a blindness produced by the disassociation or gap between mechanical visual capture and receptive seeing. Yet the global panopticon faces a more profound core of blindness, which is constitutive not of the technologies of capture but of the sheer multiplicity of forms, objects, flows, and rhythms of the space it seeks to apprehend.
Henri Lefebvre gave us important clues as to how to disrupt the very notion of a spatial totality. In The Urban Revolution, he argued that the urban phenomenon “can only be comprehended as a totality;” but he warned that this totality “cannot be grasped.” “It escapes us. It is always elsewhere” (p. 186). Likewise, the spatial totality of Empire is something that cannot be grasped because it is haunted by the multiplicity that escapes not only our analytic lens but also the panoptic gaze. And understanding this core of blindness, this opaque elsewhere, requires revisiting what is probably one of Foucault’s most groundbreaking contributions to a political understanding of space: that visibility is central to the operations of power. Foucault’s analysis of the vertical visual field of Bentham’s panopticon shows that seeing a body is a key dimension to controlling it. Paul Virilio examined a similar relation in regards to violence when he wrote, “For men at war, the function of the weapon is the function of the eye” (War and Cinema p. 26). Yet this exclusive focus on what the gazes sees, this purely positive approach to visibility, risks replicating imperial fantasies of global mastery by erasing those places and practices that evade visual capture. And this requires drawing from Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of visual perception, and especially his argument that the visual field of the body faces spatial limits. Beyond the edges of our visual fields, Merleau-Ponty argued, space becomes phenomenologically invisible: a virtual field we may know about (from memory, images, books, movies, etc.) but that escapes our direct sensory apprehension. The reach and technological sophistication of the imperial panopticon has dramatically expanded these fields but has not changed the fact that the visual field created by the human body is limited and always faces, as Lefebvre would put it, an elsewhere that cannot be grasped. Yet this negative route to the problem of visibility should avoid a dichotomy between visibility and invisibility and examine what the panoptic eye may see without seeing. The notion of opacity is important in this regard, for it focuses on those spaces of indistinction that the panopticon observes without grasping and without understanding. And the terrain remains opaque, even to technologies with planetary reach, because of the sheer heterogeneity of its forms and flows, especially in terrains defined by high levels of striation and multiplicity of folds such as forests, mountains, and cities: for millennia the natural havens of anti-imperial insurgencies.
The pure multiplicity of the actually existing spaces of planet Earth is the foundational principle of a theory of terrain. Alain Badiou has argued that the question of being requires dissolving the fantasy of being-as-One through the figure of the pure multiplicity of being. To say that something is, Badiou argues, is to say that something is pure multiplicity. A theory of terrain is the spatialization of Badiou’s ontology. Terrain, I propose, is the name of the pure multiplicity of space. Or put it differently, the pure multiplicity of the terrain is the ontological condition of what space is. This is not a transcendental spatial ontology but an immanent one, not unlike the one Spinoza was after when he conceived of “Nature” as a universe indifferent to our presence. The best way to illustrate the multiplicity of terrain is by way of its opposite: space conceived of as pure homogeneity. The epitome of homogeneous space devoid of heterogeneity and texture is Newton’s absolute space: a matrix that can be measured in terms of points and positions. As Edward Casey has argued, this is space “empty not only of things but also of place itself” (The Fate of Place p. 139). This is the blank space represented in some scenes of the film The Matrix: a space devoid of forms in which Morpheus explains to Neo what The Matrix is, while they are fully immersed in the limitless nothingness of pure homogeneity. This is precisely how a rising European bourgeoisie conceived of the global geography it was eager to conquer and commoditize: space stripped off qualitative, sensuous dimensions and reduced to a quantifiable abstraction. And this is the homogenous space that the imperial panopticon fantasizes about as fully observable.
One of the few authors who have examined the concept of terrain is Stuart Elden, who explores it in relation to “land” and “territory” (see his paper "Land, Terrain, Territory" here). Elden rightly notes that the term is used by geologists, physical geographers, and military strategists “with little conceptual precision” and that most references to terrain are “very vague” and tend to reduce it to “land form, rather than process” (p. 807). He subsequently examines the importance of terrain as land that has strategic, political, and military significance. Yet he also argues that terrain, together with land, should be subsumed to territory as a political technology of spatial control. Land and terrain, he concludes, “are necessary but insufficient to grasp territory” (p. 811). Elden’s analysis is crucial, first, because he identifies the salience of terrain in the spatiality of violence and territoriality, thereby opening up a field of research that has remained under-analyzed in the literature on space. But while it is certainly true that terrain is not enough to understand territory, it could be argued that terrain can help us better understand territory and, in particular, the politics of verticality.
A key principle of a theory of terrain is that there is something about its material multiplicity that escapes political capture. A case in point are the rugged striations and folds of the mountains of Afghanistan, which have provided refuge for anti-imperial insurgencies in very different historical circumstances and in the face of different territorial regimes. For this reason, subsuming terrain to territory risks not only recreating the conceptual vagueness of the concept but also reducing, for instance, the densely layered materiality of those mountains to a dead, passive, fixed “land form” on which active political territories are built. The fact that the presence of those massive rock formations, in fact, can powerfully affect and constrain political processes tells us that an analysis of terrain requires an object-oriented theory of space, which does not reduce matter, its volume, and its forms to what humans make of them. My analysis of terrain draws, in this regard, from the object-oriented ontologies proposed in the past decade by authors like Latour, Harman, and Bryant, who have rightly argued that there is always something in the materiality of objects that escapes how they are socially appropriated and conceptualized. Likewise, the material objects and forms that make up the multiplicity of terrain ---mountains, cities, rivers, walls, tunnels, valleys, buildings--- are never exhausted by how they are linguistically appropriated or politically controlled. Yet a theory of terrain seeks to unsettle anthropocentric-constructivist views of space but without being “post-human,” in the sense that a political understanding of the “agentive force” of spatial forms requires that the main vector of our analysis is, still, the human body and its mobility. This also means that terrain and territory, as Elden observes, cannot be separated from each other. The volume, forms, multiplicity and temporality of terrain affect and channel human mobility and the spatiality of violence, and are thereby constitutive of territory, not as a determining force but as its plastic, ever-malleable and contested medium, without which human life is inconceivable.
Eyal Weizman's notable work embodies like no other the political importance of an understanding of terrain. His analysis of the material spatiality of the Israeli occupation of Palestine is conceptually groundbreaking and the best example I know of a volumetric and political analysis of terrain. In Hollow Land, he shows with devastating detail how territoriality and violence operate through the material, rugged, and three-dimensional forms of the terrain and the built environment. Weizman analyzes, in particular, how the Israeli military treats the terrain as the medium of its domination, as a political plastic whose multiple material forms are permanently modified, calibrated, and observed through a dense maze of walls, fences, checkpoints, observation posts on hilltops, satellites, and drones that are guided by a simple goal: to keep millions of Palestinians relatively immobile and visible. Weizman’s work powerfully illustrates the power of a territorial analysis of terrain. But while he mentions the word “terrain” constantly in his writing, he does not analyze it as a conceptual category. A theory of terrain draws from Elden's analysis of territory as a political technology of spatial domination and from Weizman's work to argue that territoriality is created through the manipulation of the forms of the terrain. And because a theory of terrain is object-oriented, it is also sensitive to the power of spatial forms and objects to preclude vision and constrain political practices. Weizman reveals that the physicality of the topography imposes limits on regimes of hyper-visibility. Palestinians, he shows, also manipulate the terrain to create spaces of opacity, especially in one of the few spaces they count on to evade the panoptic eye: the underground. In Gaza, in particular, the construction of hundreds of tunnels across the Egyptian border has for years partly undermined the Israeli siege and has created zones of opacity in the one area of the terrain, the crust of the planet, that satellites and drones cannot penetrate.