Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Opaque Zones of Empire

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.   
    My view of terrain draws from the growing body of scholarship that, as Stuart Elden has recently argued, has moved away from a view of space as a two-dimensional, flat area and toward a perspective that conceives of space as a three-dimensional configuration defined by volume (see the video of Elden's "Secure the Volume" presentation here)Studies on the spatiality of violence and in particular aerial warfare and verticality have played a leading role in this conceptual transition, led by the groundbreaking work of Paul Virilio, Peter Sloterdijk, Derek Gregory, and Eyal Weizman, among others. In this essay, I argue that this conceptual shift from area to volume should be explored even further and from an object-oriented perspective, or, more precisely, an object-oriented negativity. But this sensibility to the materiality of the countless objects that populate the spatial texture of the planet demands new conceptual tools to account for the volumetric physicality of space and for the ways in which its forms, folds, and multiplicity preclude vision and the deployment of violence. I believe that the concept of terrain is key to this theoretical shift because this is the only term that indicates that, indeed, space is made up of forms, folds, textures, depths, and volumes. Not surprisingly, this is the term, “terrain,” that drone operators use to name the opaque spaces they scrutinize from above. In what follows, I examine terrain as a conceptual (rather than descriptive) category in relation to violence, vision, and ontologies of multiplicity, and as the gateway toward an immanent ontology of space.
           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.         
   In the past few decades, a vast and sophisticated literature has criticized these abstracting spatial imaginaries, from the phenomenological argument that places are only conceivable through the body’s sensory orientation to Lefebvre’s emphasis on the destructiveness and violence that the “abstract space” of capitalism is founded upon. Yet I believe that this critique of spatial abstraction has not gone far enough, and that we have yet to develop a theory of space that takes to heart its tangible multiplicity and ruggedness. While we count on a rich, ever-growing literature on “space,” “place,” “landscape,” or “territory,” the scholarship on the one concept that hints at this material multiplicity, “terrain,” is remarkably thin (with the exception of an important article by Elden that I review below). The term “terrain” is more often than not treated as a flat, descriptive, vaguely defined term. But how the term is thus used is revealing of its power to account for multiplicity and volume, for "terrain" is regularly mentioned to refer to a space whose three-dimensionality and heterogeneity affects human mobility and visibility: for instance, in references to “the terrain” navigated by mountain climbers, skiers, and explorers or the “urban terrain” that involves counter-insurgency military operations. More importantly, the political salience of terrain is clear in that military strategists (and now drone operators) have been long aware of the importance of this concept in warfare. Sensibility to the multiplicity of forms, textures, materiality, and volume of the terrain has always been a decisive principle of combat, because it is through the manipulation of this multiplicity that you can increase your field of vision and, at the same time, increase your opacity in relation to the enemy’s visual field.
            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.
   And this takes me to a final point as to why my view of terrain draws from theories of negativity. Badiou argues that the figure of the pure multiplicity of being, precisely because this multiplicity cannot be represented, is the void. The void is, indeed, the figure of the terrain. This void should be read not as an abstraction but in its spatial and bodily immanence: through the vertigo that the vast, opaque, three-dimensional, and not fully visible geographies of the planet create in the human body. This is the void graphically represented, for instance, in Tim Hetherington’s documentary Restrepo, where US soldiers stationed in an outpost in the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan felt haunted by the terrain they were immersed in (see my review of the film here). In the film, those soldiers make it clear that those opaque mountains, forests, and valleys were for them a hostile immensity that turned insurgents into a ghostly presence. Those mountains constitute a tangible void within Empire: one of the countless outsides of a world without outside.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Imperial Presidency

            The confirmation that everything we write, say, or do electronically is being "recorded" and stored in giant databases indicates that the aggressive expansiveness of the planetary surveillance apparatus does not tolerate the existence of places beyond its reach. This is precisely how Hardt and Negri define the globalized system of sovereignty they call Empire: as a spatial totality "without outside." Empire marks, in this regard, not just a new territoriality that overrides national territories but the planet-as-territory. And while Empire began forming two decades ago with the global triumph of neoliberal capitalism, it has only coalesced as a mature political entity under the Obama presidency. This presidency is not simply the heir to the old, nationally-based US imperialism; it presides over something much larger and planetary in scope, forged in alliance with military-political nodes from all over the world: a spatially expansive project to make the totality of the planet observable, controllable, and subservient to a neoliberal ontology of profits.
            The Obama presidency has further consolidated Empire by removing the last political and spatial obstacles that prevented an unrestrained deployment of imperial violence and surveillance on the totality of the planet and the whole of humanity. The constitutional protections from abuse of power by the sovereign that were enshrined by the bourgeois revolutions of the late 1700s (the right to trial, the right to privacy, etc.) managed to create for a few generations a relative spatial sanctuary from the terror that imperial forces regularly unleashed overseas. This relative sanctuary exempted US citizens from what imperial forces have always done directly or by proxy in places like Vietnam, Guatemala, or Afghanistan: detaining people without trial, assassinating them, or having their homes and personal communications submitted to permanent surveillance. These privileges enjoyed by a few hundred millions of people (among the billions of the whole of humanity) have now been terminated by an imperial sovereign that no longer tolerates limits to his capacity to decide who must die. The "kill lists" regularly approved by Emperor Obama, in short, have no bounds and no restraints, and are solely dependent on his own will as absolute sovereign power. A legion of imperial assassins and drones are being permanently dispatched to all corners of the world following Obama's "thumbs down" signal. The best expression that we are witnessing not simply a transition but a rupture in global geographical configurations is the fact that recent TV shows like The Wire (with cops seeking warrants from a judge to set up a wire) and movies like The Bourne Ultimatum (with US intelligence officials going to jail for ordering the assassination of US citizens) have become quaint, disjointed relics from another era. Old forms of racial, class, and imperial privilege will not vanish overnight, for it is easier to “take out” civilians in the mountains of Pakistan than it is in New York City. But the violent repression of the Occupy movement in New York and in the rest of the United States submitted many white, middle-class US citizens to the type of police brutality (coordinated by the FBI and involving 8,000 arrests and hundreds of people injured while in police custody) that in previous years was usually restricted to poor African-Americans. This erosion of liberal notions of citizenship marks a key threshold, and a rupture, toward the historically novel and totalizing territoriality of Empire.
            The rise of an imperial architecture of surveillance and militarization is a major project of counter-revolutionary engineering. While official propaganda seeks to distract the public by insisting that the current hyper-surveillance is a response to “Islamic terrorism,” the latter poses no existential threats to Empire. In fact, the main impact of "terrorist attacks" has been to empower the global elites and make a fearful public more amenable to their will. The internet and mobile communication networks are being militarized because they have become the channels of much more threatening forces: multiple anti-imperial, anti-elite, and anti-neoliberal movements that have appropriated and politicized the open-ended spatiality of communication networks to disrupt, challenge, and interrupt the material currents and flows of Empire. This anti-elite appropriation of the internet had a profound political impact on the streets (in North Africa, southern Europe, North America) and in the breaching of the secrecy of the security apparatus (Wikileaks, Anonymous). The attempt by the Obama presidency to tame the internet and turn it "into the largest and most powerful surveillance system ever created" (as Julian Assange rightly puts it) is not simply an effort to curb political dissent, as in China or Bahrain; it is a profoundly imperial gesture that seeks to expand its controlling gaze over the totality of the globe. The fact that the Obama presidency has consistently supported state terrorism against demands for democracy and social justice from Bahrain to Honduras and that it has expressed open hostility against countries marked by grassroots, egalitarian, and anti-capitalist sentiments like Venezuela confirms that Empire is, above all, a machinery guided by the ontology of profits of the global capitalist elites. The main vector that reproduces this spatiality with no outside is violence in its material capacity to destroy and mutilate human bodies. “Imperial sovereignty means that no point of space or time and no element of the biopolitical tissue is safe from intervention” (Tiqqun, Introduction to Civil War, p. 157).  
While acknowledging the immense power of the surveillance apparatus of Empire enthusiastically co-generated by corporations and state agencies, we must not lose sight of the political weakness that its existence reveals. The global panoptic reveals that the bourgeois elites of Empire are fearful of the opacity that is constitutive of the planet (I examine this opacity in my post Opaque Zones of Empire). The panicked, knee-jerk reaction by the many pundits who demonized NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden also reveals that the elites’ fear of the opacity of the world is proportional to their fear of losing the opacity they feel entitled to. The articles by Jefreey Toobin at The New Yorker and David Brooks at The New York Times, for instance, reveal, first, that these elites are lying through their teeth and therefore seek to destroy the message by killing the messenger. Most tellingly, they consistently defend their Orwellian imperial state with an Orwellian double-speak. Both Toobin and Brooks argue that Snowden is an “enemy of transparency” for demanding transparency and that he “broke the law” for revealing that the Obama presidency has systematically violated the US Constitution. Orwell’s 1984 is not simply an allegory of the present: it is the present of a planetary machinery obsessed with making every space observable while waging war in the name of peace. The fact that the presidency that regularly approves "kill lists" was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize is not, strictly speaking, a contradiction. This is how the global elites see imperial terror: as a civilizing campaign of pacification. Yet we should resist the techno-fetishized aura of God-like inevitability that the media projects onto this powerful Imperial Eye. All empires in human history, after all, are sooner of later reduced to rubble. And the paranoid Imperial Eye that is obsessively scanning the whole world fears the planetary and human immensity that it will never be able to fully visualize, control, and apprehend.