Monday, December 1, 2014

Empire on Trial

This is the introduction to my review essay of Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth (2014, Sternberg Press, Berlin), by Forensic Architecture, an interdisciplinary team directed by Eyal Weizman. The whole essay (which examines in more detail the issues of truth, evidence, detectability, fetishism, and disregard for destruction raised by Forensis) is here, published as "Empire on Trial: The Forensic Appearance of Truth"Society and Space: Environment and Planning D 33(2):382-388 (2015)

               The publication of Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth marks a formidable intellectual and political intervention in the analysis of the ways in which traces of destruction and violence are built into the geographies of our imperial present. The book is a collective effort of staggering scope, depth, and ambition and with one clear goal: to level a forensic gaze on state and corporate crimes. This is a gaze finely attuned to the negativity of matter, sensitive to the many ways in which rubble, buildings, scars, chemicals, bones, sounds, algorithms, videos, or photographs can become the evidence of crimes committed by the powerful forces that continuously ravage the world.
This extraordinary volume is the collective work of Forensic Architecture, an interdisciplinary team based in the Centre for Research Architecture, Goldsmiths College, University of London, which since 2011 has been engaged in collaborative work with partner organizations and activists from all over the world. The intellectual leader of this international effort is the noted architect and activist Eyal Weizman, the author of the widely acclaimed books HollowLand: The Architecture of Israeli Occupation (2007) and The Least of All Possible Evils:Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza (2012). Forensis draws from Weizman’s previous work on many levels, particularly in its emphasis on the materiality of violence and domination and the political power of an architectural, spatial, and forensic lens. In Hollow Land, Weizman had demonstrated how the Israeli state controls Palestinians through the manipulation of the materiality and architectural forms of the terrain (walls, checkpoints, roads, tunnels) and the control of vertical fields of vision (through hilltops, drones, and satellites). The Least of All Possible Evils, in turn, examined the logic of “the lesser evil” used by imperial actors to justify their allegedly humanitarian violence; it also dissects the evidence that reveals the terrorist nature of this violence, such as the rubble and corpses created by Israel in Gaza. Forensis develops this sensibility in much more depth, and captures an outstanding diversity of traces of destruction from the world over; in doing so, it not only reveals the evidence of state and capitalist crimes but also proposes a novel political and conceptual sensibility. This is a disposition that resonates with what I have called in Rubble —based on my own ethnographic study of ruins— an object-oriented negativity: that is, a gaze oriented toward objects marked by traces of rupture and dislocation.
Forensic investigations have recently gained enormous appeal in popular culture through TV shows like CSI. But this is a forensic gaze that only seeks to solve crimes recognized as such by the state, thereby celebrating state power and its apparatuses of surveillance. Weizman and his colleagues, in contrast, propose to reverse the forensic gaze and turn it into “a counter-hegemonic practice able to invert the relation between individuals and states, to challenge and resist state and corporate violence and the tyranny of their truth” (11). Forensis reveals that this tyranny is built on “well-constructed lies” (29) and draws on a “forensic architecture” to expose them, understanding architecture not in a narrow disciplinary sense but as a “mode of interpretation” sensitive, as Weizman put it, to “the ever-changing relations between people and things, mediated by spaces and structures across multiple scales” (13).
This volume brings together an innovative collective of talented scholars, artists, theorists, activists, and partner organizations analyzing evidence of imperial crimes on all continents and in all sorts of terrains, including the ocean, the sky, and the underground. The book’s chapters take the reader on a gripping journey to a global constellation of traces of dislocation, from Guatemala to Pakistan, the Mediterranean, the Gulf of Mexico, or sub-Saharan Africa (among many other places).
What sets this forensic lens apart from state-run forensics it not only its more radical negativity but also its goal to recover the original meaning of the Latin word forensis, “pertaining to the forum.” As Weizman argues in the introduction, Forensis interrogates the relationship between the fields where the evidence is collected —actual geographies that he views as elastic and contested force fields— and the forum as the space “where the results of an investigation are presented and contested” (9). This forum is a dynamic triangulation between the contested object (the trace of violence and destruction), the forensic interpreter, and “the assembly of a public gathering.” More crucially, this triangulation is not limited to legal courts. Forensis does, indeed, cover evidence that Forensic Architecture presented in court, for instance in the trial for genocide against the Guatemalan general Ríos-Montt and in the petition submitted to Israel’s High Court to ban the use of white phosphorous in urban environments by the Israel military. Yet the book’s contributors are keenly aware that political struggles are not decided in legal battles, where the global elites have the upper hand. Forensis is primarily a political, rather than legalistic, intervention that seeks to empower global struggles against those crimes that states and corporations refuse to name as such, from targeted assassinations by drones to the environmental dislocation created by the fossil-fuel industries and climate change.
The majority of the crimes documented in Forensis respond, directly or indirectly, to the capitalist system of globalized sovereignty that dominates the world as a whole, and that Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have called “Empire.” This is why I interpret these crimes as imperial in nature —even if the contributors of Forensis do not necessarily use this concept. Hardt and Negri have been criticized for presenting Empire as a disembodied, totalizing abstraction and for giving the misleading image that the globe has been politically homogenized by transnational flows. But the existence of a multi-centered and planetary Empire does not contradict the fact that this globalized formation creates localized and extremely diverse patterns of destruction, shaped by the affective fields of particular nation-states. Most of the crimes covered in Forensis —from the killing of civilians by drones in Yemen to the impact of climate change— involve states and corporations defending the imperial hierarchies of the global order. And these actors are permanently surveilling the totality of the planet with multiple technologies in search for signs of resistance and anti-systemic disruption. And this is where Forensis’ brilliance lies: in reversing the direction of the inquisitive gaze to expose the overwhelming evidence of the destructive nature of this globalized system of sovereignty. In doing so, the book puts Empire on trial in the political forum of world public opinion and makes the case, through the truth exuded by the evidence, that this global order is guilty of crimes against humanity and life on Earth.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Passion for Terrain

One of the most famous propositions made by Spinoza is that we don’t know what the body can do. The practitioners of wingsuit flying reveal that we didn’t know that the human body could fly. Wingsuit flyers stand at the top of a mountain on the edge of a cliff and calmly jump off, head on, toward the abyss. After an initially precipitous fall, they smoothly glide away thanks to the lift created by the surface areas that their special suits have under the arms and between the legs. The boldest practitioners of this extreme sport do not simply fly; they engage with terrain in what they call “proximity flights”: speeding at 220 km per hour very close to mountain walls, rock formations, and forests and artfully adapting their trajectories to the forms of terrain. After gliding in some cases for several kilometers almost caressing the surface of rocks and the tip of trees, they release their parachutes to land in a valley below. This sport’s practitioners declare that this dramatic engagement with terrain is the most exhilarating experience they could ever go through, so intense and visceral that’s impossible to describe with words. This is, they say, what humans have long dreamed of: flying using their bare bodies, without recourse to self-propelled engines. But what interests me here is what this perplexing practice reveals about the affective geometry that defines the body’s mobility in relation to the three-dimensional materiality of the spaces of this world: that is, of terrain.
Mountain climbers, skiers, snowboarders, trekkers, or mountain bikers often agree that they feel addicted to the thrill of making their bodies navigate the multiplicity of forms, textures, angles, and volumes that make up the crust of the planet, especially where the verticality of mountains highlights the force of gravity on the body. In the late 1990s, this passion pushed new generations to test what the body can do amid rugged terrain onto uncharted territory and led to the birth of wingsuit flying, which blended skydiving with BASE jumping, the practice of parachuting from fixed structures such as buildings, bridges, or mountains.
Wingsuit flying is skydiving on steroids. Skydivers jump off an airplane and experience for a few minutes a marked spatial distance between their bodies and the ground toward which gravity inexorably pulls them. The most devoted practitioners of wingsuit flying, in contrast, dislike being far from solid terrain; they prefer to jump off the edge of mountains in order to face rock formations at close proximity, and at a speed in which a split second could mark the difference between life and death. For this reason, those devoted to proximity flying are very sensitive to the forms, angles, and heights of the objects around them and refer to “terrain” regularly in the depiction of their trajectories. When they fly at high speed they are well aware that what their bodies face is terrain's crude materiality, which will kill them upon impact irrespective of how that particular space is socially organized or perceived (the video below, the preview of the documentary Birdmen, captures the physical salience of terrain in these flights' trajectories).
In this intense engagement with terrain, some wingsuit flyers sought to explore even further what their bodies could do. Shaun McConkey was already hailed in the 1990s as the best extreme skier in the world when he discovered wingsuit flying and became addicted to it. His passion for proximity flying was such that he was permanently looking for mountains with particularly vertical walls from where to jump off, from the Artic to the Alps. In seeking to push the limits of what he could do, he decided to add his talents in extreme skiing to the mix. He came up with a technique to ski down the slopes of particularly treacherous mountains, release his skis upon jumping off the edge of the cliff, and glide away. He did it many times and, as the documentary McConkey shows, he became overconfident. In 2009, in a jump in the Italian Alps, one of his skis failed to disconnect and the extra weight made him lose his balance and spin uncontrollably. Pulled by the unrelenting power of the planet’s gravity, Shaun fell hundreds of meters to meet his death, to the horror of the crew that was filming him from a helicopter. 
In order to fully appreciate how the body is affect by terrain we should revisit Spinoza’s famous proposition, and reread it negatively. That is, while it is true that we don’t know what a body can do, we do know what a human body cannot do: escape the physical force that the planet imposes on it through gravity and survive the impact of a fall, as in this case, from a height of hundreds of meters. The human body, after all, is not anatomically designed to fly. The passion of proximity flyers for their craft is proportional to the extremely dangerous nature of this sport, which every year kills about 20 people whose bodies collide with the cold hardness of the ground. This tension between what a human body can and cannot do amid the materiality of actually existing spaces is at the core of a theory of terrain. Much can be said, certainly, about the elitist eccentricity of extreme sports such as this, which commoditize intense “experiences.” But what interests me here is a strictly physical-affective problem central to an understanding of terrain, which in my book in progress Opaque Planet: Outline of a Theory of Terrain I’m exploring further in situations of conflict and warfare: the fact that it’s in the geometry that a body creates in relation to tangible spaces such as cliffs and ridges that we can best appreciate what terrain is. And terrain is powerfully structured by gravity, for as Einstein argued a century ago, what we call "space" (a term he disliked for being too vague) is nothing but fields of gravity. The exhilaration experienced by wingsuit flyers gliding next to granite walls at high speed —and the perplexity that these flights creates on us as spectators— are not simply, in this regard, about this newly-discovered human skill to fly. These aerial trajectories bring to light the physical presence of terrain: the fact that in swiftly moving through the smoothness of the air, fragile bodies confront an unforgiving spatial vastness that has preceded human life on Earth and is always-already indifferent to its passions.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

World of Walls

On the show Game of Thrones, state territoriality comes to a spatial end at a gigantic wall, The Northern Wall: a 300-meter-high, eighty-meter-thick rock of solid ice that expands over hundreds of kilometers, from coast to coast and therefore severing the totality of the landmass in two. This gigantic barrier was built in a distant past to stop a dissolving vortex formed by anti-state insurgencies and supernatural entities. The forces that lurk in those frozen lands stretching behind The Northern Wall are powerful, destructive, and expansive. This is why the Wall is jealously patrolled by guards that nervously scan the other side from the top, facing the misty, forested, frozen abyss ahead. They can clearly see and feel in their bodies that “the other side” is an opaque vastness: a terrain swept by freezing weather, the armies of the dead, and humans who despise hierarchies and actively fight the spatial expansion of the state. The Northern Wall, in short, expresses not the power of the Kings who built it but that of the expansive forces that threaten it; it is huge because if it had been smaller it would have been long since destroyed. Throughout Game of Thrones, the characters who kill and die farther south in warmer lands regularly utter, looking nervously toward the north, “Winter is Coming.” This is the name for the powerful forces that threaten to overflow The Wall and wipe out state territoriality in one stroke.
Today our planet has its own Northern Wall: a world archipelago of walls, fences, and technologies made to keep undesirable and feared multitudes at a distance. Our hyper-globalized capitalist world, of course, thrives on speed, movement, and deterritorialization. Billions of objects, bodies, and bits of information are permanently moving at high speed across international borders. This materiality-in-motion is not smooth but creates massive disruptions, confirming that capitalism is propelled by malign velocities, as Ben Noys argues. Because of these planetary velocities, and in contrast to the fictionalized feudal world depicted in Game of Thrones, in our world there is no space that is “on the other side” of the global order.
But in the twenty-first century there is no “beyond” the Great Imperial Wall precisely because the Wall is Empire’s structuring spatial principle. The imperial and class-based nature of the speed that thrives because of that planetary Wall is manifested in the patterns of spatial segregation it creates. Since the Wall operates in all terrains and is scattered all over the surface of the planet, it is also materialized in the ocean in the ships and planes (aided by satellites) patrolling the waters searching for boats of "immigrants." On land, The Great Imperial Wall also demarcates, like on Game of Thrones, the landmass in two, if in a more allegorical sense. In this case, the line separates desirables from undesirables and makes the latter separable in space. The fences built along the US-Mexico border, the walls built by Spain to seal off its outposts in North Africa, and The Israeli Wall of Separation are all one and the same wall, our Northern Wall, facing the abyss of the insurgent spatial forces that may eventually destroy Empire. This is also why the global core of our Great Imperial Wall is Palestine, where the Israeli state has embraced the walls once used against the Jewish people in Europe and misremembers the genocide not as something that should never happen again but as something that should never happen again to the Jews. Ironically, Hitler also swore in the 1930s that the humiliation of defeat should never happen again to the Germans. Walls thrive in the reactive passions of identity politics, and their power to make people disregard the suffering of undesirables, like those labelled "Jews" in the 1930s and 1940s and "Arabs" today.
In 1938, Adolf Hitler declared in an ominous speech that “the total solution of the Jewish question” demanded a “clear” program. And this plan, he screamed, was “Total separation, total segregation!” In one stroke, Hitler identified the core of the fascist disposition toward space: the desire to keep bodies felt as different and dangerous at a physical distance. We know that Hitler’s call for total segregation was part of a genocidal disposition: the desire to spatially contain a population in order to eventually be able to exterminate it more affectively. Shortly thereafter, Hitler’s call for “total segregation” led to the rise of walls and the herding by force of millions of Jewish men, women, and children into ghettos and slave and death camps. There, behind walls, fences, and barbed wire, they were wiped out in a merciless genocide that was fully industrialized.
The creation of a radical spatial separation between desirable and undesirable populations outlived its Nazi manifestations after the world war. For several decades, it was state policy in the southern United States and Apartheid South Africa. There, fences and walls existed but the spatial segregation was basically enforced through terror, and in the US South lynching became a mechanism of racial territorialization. The insurrections against this segregation in the United States and South Africa throughout the 1960s and 1990s ruptured major affective walls and partly democratized public space. The 1989 insurrection against the Berlin Wall marked the climax of modern protests against walls, and was also notable because the multitude thoroughly destroyed this wall. Not even rubble remained, except as souvenirs in people’s homes. 
             But by the early twenty-first century, the Wall of the neoliberal and imperial order has expanded along new lines, appearing in new nodes and forming constellations of gated communities, armies of private guards, checkpoints, high-tech surveillance, and walls and more walls. The hyper-surveilled striation is the spatial norm of the neoliberal order. Teresa Caldeira, George Ciccariello-Maher, and Mike Davis have called attention to the racialized and class-based nature of these spatial segregations in Sao Paolo, Caracas, and Dubai. In the latter, a mecca of global capitalism, South-Asian workers are treated as modern slaves who are not allowed to move. These are not simply “cities of walls,” as Caldeira argues about Sao Paulo, but urban nodes in a world of walls, the same way that this world of walls has rural nodes in, say, the 20 km fence built by Barrick Gold around its massive mining operation in Tanzania (made to prevent undesirables from grabbing valuable minerals from a space that had been commodified and expropriated from the commons). Walls may not have necessarily gone up everywhere, but in many places (like today in the United States) the police are simply enforcing segregation by murdering more unarmed undesirables on the streets, always in “self-defense.” This hardening of the Great Imperial Wall is spurred by the accelerating and destructive expansiveness of neo-liberal capitalism, and is justified in the name of a humanitarian civilization and global security.
Because the principle of total segregation is the landmark of the imperial present, it has become a recurrent theme in popular culture. The film industry has confronted the oppressive dimensions of spatial segregation but only tangentially, and by projecting it onto a dystopian future. The films The Hunger Games, Elysium, and Snowpiercer depict a future of enforced apartheid; they also present the rise of insurgencies set out to destroy or undermine spatial barriers and the principle of total segregation.
In The Hunger Games, the ruling elite enjoys a life of idle exuberance and dazzling spectacle in the Capitol, while the working classes are forced to live in fenced-off “districts” in the rest of North America. These districts are surrounded by barbed-wired fences and are submitted to different levels of exploitation, suffering, and despair. In an annual spectacle of combat among gladiators, they are all ritually reminded that resistance is futile because in the past a massive revolution was crushed by the state through sheer terror. But this spectacular commemoration ends up backfiring and prompting a widespread revolt. In Elysium, the segregation between social classes is radicalized further because the super rich have simply fled the surface of the planet. They live in luxury in a giant station in the atmosphere, while the rest of humanity lives in despair in a slum world ravaged by global warming. The super rich’s spatial disconnect from the planetary poor is in this case, indeed, total. On a daily basis, the poor can see the station where the elites live, a shinny dot in the sky. The rebellion against this apartheid at last takes place, but is largely individualistic and reformist. Those who reach Elysium from Earth through small vessels do not seek to destroy an oppressive global system but to make its technological gadgets more accessible to the poor.
In Snowpiercer, the principle of total segregation adopts particularly original, gripping, and politically radical dimensions. First, the total separation between the elite and the underclass takes place in the narrow, long materiality of a train moving at high-speed across a devastated, lifeless planet. The planet was frozen by the failed attempt to solve global warming by cooling the atmosphere through the massive dispersal of chemicals in the sky (this is exactly the techno-fix of climate change that neoliberals fantasize about, as Naomi Klein analyzes in This Changes Everything). On this train, the elites live in luxury in the front cars and use their private army to terrorize the multitudes forced to live in crumped slums at the train’s tail. Their mobility is blockaded by tightly policed gates. As a female official tells those in the tail, the train has a hierarchical geometry based on “preordained positions,” according to which, “You, belong to the tail. I belong to the front.” Since the train was built and is run by a corporation, these gates are controlled by a capitalist state, in which the owner of this vehicle is the state.
In these three films, the separation between classes reproduces an affective segregation, through which the elites enjoy a good, pleasant life while being oblivious to the suffering of those they oppress. It is easier to disregard those that you cannot see, or pretend not to notice them. But this disregard is certainly not total, the same way that the segregation is not total, for keeping populations segregated and dominated requires hard work and, more importantly, violence. The political order that rules the train is a terrorist machine ready to murder in order to defend those “preordained positions.” But the physical and affective separation depicted in Snowpiercer stands out because everybody on the train is trapped in a space without outside. Walls have always imprisoned those obsessed by the principle of total segregation. On this train, this imprisonment is not simply affective or allegorical. Out the window, those frozen geographies reveal no signs of life: only the massive rubble of a destroyed world. The train is the prison of the oppressed and oppressors, but also the terrain of revolution.
               In Snowpiercer, revolution is accurately depicted as a geometrical vector: as a bodily force that charges ahead against the troops that manned the multiple gates that kept the train's tail shut off. The Wall that kept the multitude enslaved could only be breached, in short, by bodies forcing their way through it. The movie, tellingly, begins with the image of the future leader of the insurrection making geometrical calculations: counting the seconds it takes the guards to shut the series of gates that lock them up after their inspection. The weakest points of all walls are the gates. Not surprisingly, the most dramatic moment of movies depicting walled cities succumbing to sieges, from The Lord of the Rings to Troy, is that of swarms flowing through a gate that has been breached, making the walls useless. In Snowpiercer, revolution, indeed, starts when, while the guards were being attacked and neutralized, dozens of men and women run carrying with them a long and thick tube and passing it through several gates to prevent them from closing. That was the moment when the political order of the train began crumbling: when segregation was ruptured and the rebellious multitude began their slow, firm march toward the front of the train to capture its mythical engine.
If less openly insurrectional, the vectorial disposition against the principle of total segregation is also the gesture by those people who on a daily basis challenge our Northern Wall, the Great Imperial Wall connecting The United States to Morocco and Palestine. In Morocco, it is common to see dozens of men sitting on top of the fence. Being already on top, they have surmounted the biggest obstacle posed by the materiality of the fence. They are now scanning the terrain, measuring the mobility of the military police in order to decide when to jump. When they do, they create a microscopic breach in The Wall. Countless breaches of the Wall take place all the time all over the world. As Eyal Weizman has forcefully argued in his study of the Israeli Wall of Separation, spatial separation makes for an “impossible politics,” for in the long term it is unsustainable. An iconic image of the imperial present and the futility of its walls is the Mexican family depicted on the run on traffic signposts on roads north of the US-Mexico border. They seem to be fleeing. But their bodies are clearly charging ahead. They have already crossed the border and are creating an assertive vector that, even if only in that place, is dissolving the principle of total segregation and making the fence useless.
The new century has reawakened debates on the left about the nature of future revolutions and about the challenges of imagining a post-capitalist and egalitarian future. These debates should involve how to rethink collective spaces in relation to mobility, equality, and freedom. After all, Hanna Arendt rightly argued that the most fundamental type of freedom is the freedom of movement: the freedom to live in a world free of walls. Maybe the sign that a truly liberating epoch has arrived will be the image of multitudes that --as in Berlin in 1989 but in myriad different places the world over-- rise up against The Wall and reduce it, amid cheers, to rubble.