Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Ruination of Written Words

I wrote this text as an invited post for Savage Minds, as part of their Writer's Workshop series. Many thanks to Carole McGranahan for the invitation.     

              When the Roman Empire collapsed, numerous libraries and an unknown quantity of books disintegrated with it. Amid a rising Christianity hostile to traces of paganism, the texts of many authors admired in Roman antiquity were turned to dust and the memory of their existence dissolved. Pieces of writing by noted figures such as Cicero or Virgil certainly survived, but the majority of what these men wrote has been lost. This was an epochal moment in the history of writing: an imperial collapse so profound that it physically disintegrated vast amounts of texts, erasing them from human memory.
            Some books from ancient Rome were saved from this massive vanishing of written words only because a few copies survived for over a thousand years in the libraries of European monasteries or in libraries in the Middle-East. This survival was often the outcome of pure chance: that is, a set of conjunctural factors somehow allowed those books, and not others, to overcome the wear and tear and ruination of paper and ink by the physical pressures and cuts inflicted on them by the weather and by the living forms attracted to them, primarily insects, mice, and humans. In European monasteries, many ancient books and their words disintegrated after a few centuries, gone forever. But others lingered and were eventually copied by hand again on new and more robust paper, which could withstand atmospheric and bodily pressures for the next two to three centuries. Three hundred years or so later, another monk would grab a manuscript about to disintegrate and copy those words again. Who knows how many amazing books were eaten away by bugs simply because no monk chose to save them from their ruination? One of the books that miraculously survived in a monastery over a millennia of chance encounters with the void was Lucretius’ extraordinary philosophical treatise De rerum natura, The Nature of Things.

            What got me thinking about the ruination of written words is Stephen Greenblatt’s fascinating (if uneven) book The Swerve, which narrates how in 1417 a book-hunter discovered Lucretius’ The Nature of Things in a remote monastery. In my book Rubble, I examined how different forms of ruination, from the Spanish conquest to the soy boom, have created constellations of nodes of rubble in northern Argentina, many of which are perceived by locals to be haunted (Gordillo 2014). I therefore read The Swerve with an eye sensitive to the destruction of places and matter and the affective materiality of their debris. The richness conveyed by Greenblatt’s story of the vanishing of Roman books reveals that the physical disintegration and afterlives of rubble also involve the written word, which in the modern world is often presented as an emblem of human endurance.
            The striking thing about The Nature of Things’ close encounter with its ruination is how closely it resonates with Lucretius’ ideas about matter, contingency, decay, and the void. Lucretius conceptualized and celebrated in poetic verse the immanent materiality of the world through the lens of Epicurus’ atomism: the thesis first articulated in Greece centuries earlier according to which everything is made out of atoms and void. Written around 40 BC and admired as well as controversial in its days, The Nature of Things argued that atoms are always moving in the void, clashing with each other because of their clinamen, or tendency to “swerve.” Amid whirlwinds of random collisions, atoms create the energy of the universe and all motion, life, and destruction. Hostile to religious transcendence, Lucretius celebrated chance and the sensuous, fleeting becoming of life. The Catholic Church condemned Lucretius as a pagan writer and by the early middle-ages De rerum natura had been largely forgotten, except by a few scholars who saw it cited in ancient texts. Yet in a remote monastery those ideas lingered in the fragile materiality of those written words penned by a man who had long been dead. Those markings on paper were not just signs with meaning and poetic symbolism: they were traces, left by a human hand, that had the power to affect.
            Once discovered and disseminated more widely as a book in 1471, Lucretius’ text subsequently affected some of the most prominent physicists of early modernity such as Gassendi and Galileo. As Greenblatt shows, when in 1633 the Inquisition condemned Galileo for claiming that the Earth moved around the sun, one of the charges was that he was under the influence of atomism and its pagan physics of motion, which contradicted Aristotle’s ontology of spatial fixity and stasis. As Michel Serres has argued in The Birth of Physics, Lucretius is often misread as an imaginative poet rather than a rigorous philosopher of physics. But the quantum revolution in physics in the 1900s demonstrated that Lucretius had brilliantly anticipated, if in rudimentary form, that the material makeup of the universe comprises, indeed, a ghostly dance of subatomic patterns in the void. Further, Lucretius deduced the existence of atoms through the observation of the decay and decomposition of objects such as books, which in disintegrating into smaller and smaller fragments reveal that the seeming solidity of matter hides its constitutive void.
            The story of the greatest philosophy book that survived from the times of the Roman Empire may seem distant from the experience of writing in our high-tech, hyper-digitized twenty-first century. Writing has become so deterritorialized, so agile in its capacity to connect humans across continents through screens, cables, and fiber optics that it is easy to forget that writing has not ceased to be, and cannot but be, a material practice that produces a physical object, the written word. Today, as it was in the days of Lucretius, writing is a form of thinking that mobilizes a geometry between the hands (or other bodily organs) and tools for leaving material traces on an object. On a computer, these traces may be digitized but bits of energy are material nonetheless. This materiality makes of written words, either printed or digitized, objects always-already subject to ruination. As in medieval monasteries, to prevent written words from vanishing, human beings have to copy them over and over again as hardcopies or data files. Writing undoubtedly creates transcendence, and what Lucretius wrote indeed survived his times and still affects us today. But written words are immanent traces that, like all objects, as Lucretius wrote, eventually decompose into atoms moving in the void.


Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Vectorial Multitude

              For the past few months, a multitude of men, women, and children has been piercing through Fortress Europe by the mere act of moving and persevering in their motion. This motion is propelled by a striving to move away from places of suffering in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan and toward the prosperous core of Europe and the promise of a better life. This directionality has disrupted the policed boundaries of Fortress Europe because it formed a human vector: that is, a bodily force in motion that has a direction, trajectory, and momentum. And the power of this vectorial multitude lies in the sheer numbers of human bodies that are determined to disobey the order that they ought not to move. 
Thomas Hobbes was fearful of the power of vectorial multitudes to threaten the state. He was a talented geometrician who was convinced that motion is as crucial to understand society and politics as it is to understand physics. Hobbes had met Galileo in Florence in 1636, when the latter lived under house arrest by the Inquisition for having argued that the Earth moved. Galileo and Hobbes had intense conversations about physics, motion, and geometry over several weeks. Hobbes left Florence a transformed man. The same way that Galileo, contra Aristotle, saw motion as the center of physics, Hobbes became obsessed with the idea that motion and its control are fundamental to the survival of the state. When he published Leviathan in 1651, he insisted that the idea of “freedom” should be stripped of idealized abstractions and defined exclusively as the freedom to move. But absolute freedom and mobility is the anarchic realm of the “the war of all against all.” Hobbes therefore argued that the role of the Sovereign is to calibrate motion. The point is not to prevent bodies from moving, he wrote, “but to direct and keep them in such a motion, as not to hurt themselves by their own impetuous desires, rashness, or indiscretion, as Hedges are set, not to stop Travellers, but to keep them in a way” (388). As an apology of the necessity of state power, Leviathan celebrates obedience and the self-discipline of a body that only moves through pre-set channels of mobility, such as “hedges.” Hobbes's horror of “the war of all against all” is the horror of a multitude that disobeys, jumps over the hedge, and adopts a vectorial thrust that makes its constituent bodies move freely and at their leisure.
               In his Willing Slaves of Capital, Frédéric Lordon picked up this same problem, if engaging with the materialist geometry of Spinoza rather than that of Hobbes. Lordon argues that one of the great mysteries, and one of the main powers, of capitalist hegemony is the ability of elites “to make others do things,” such as making millions of men and women move in a particular way and with a particular direction, primarily moving their own bodies from home to the workplace, “by getting them to put one foot before the other, as revealed by the striking spectacle of the daily migration toward factories and business districts…” (121). The political importance of the calibration of motion was also highlighted by the Argentine President Juan Domingo Perón, who famously said that good citizens “go from home to work and from work to home.” The sign that the state is challenged is, precisely, the formation of vectorial multitudes whose constitutive bodies have broken from their previously predictable patterns of mobility.
               Vectorial multitudes have long been a crucial physical-political component of most revolutions in history. The vectors that charged against La Bastille in 1789 Paris, against The Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg in 1917, or that entered Havana in 1959 have become celebrated historical icons, as symbols of the power of human bodies in motion to bring about the collapse of powerful states. Vectorial multitudes, certainly, can also be generated by the state. But these are vectors that obey orders. The clearest examples are troops charging ahead in the battlefield, like the thousands of Allied soldiers who charged against the German bunkers on the beaches of Normandy in June 1944, or the swarms of cops that regularly charge against protesters in Baltimore, Cairo or Rio de Janeiro. Yet the main weapon by the state against vectorial multitudes are walls and fences, like the one being rapidly built by the Hungarian government to stop the hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children fleeing the wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

           Categories such as “war”, “society,” “history,” and now “refugee crisis” are our attempts to name something that is hard to conceptualize and wrap our heads around: that in the most materialist sense of the term what we call “societies” are constellations of human bodies in motion coming together and dispersing following particular rhythms. These are bodies that walk, work, run, move in vehicles, come together and disperse, are obliged to remain in certain places by force… and, in epochs of unrest, have the capacity to coalesce in vectorial multitudes: assemblages of striving bodies that in “putting one foot before the other” and pushing forth can undermine our World of Walls

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Insurgent Underground

            The people of Gaza have long been punished by the Israeli state for refusing to live in a ghetto, but in July and August 2014 the punishment was particularly severe, for Palestinian dared to use militarily the only space they can control: the underground. One of the most powerful militaries in the world became vulnerable to attacks by combatants moving through an invisible network of tunnels carved out in the crust of the Earth: the only part of the terrain that the Israeli military cannot master. In response to the tunnels, the Israeli military unleashed such levels of violence on Gaza that it killed 2,300 people, most of them civilians, and reduced thousands of homes and Gaza’s civilian infrastructure to rubble. This destruction was the reactive response to the perceived power of the underground to help poorly armed men outmaneuver a high-tech military that can see almost anything except what lies underneath the planet’s surface.

The underground is the largest space of our planet: all-pervasive in its presence; invisible to our ordinary senses; impossible to apprehend in its vastness. For most humans, the ground marks a limit. But in Gaza, besieged from land and sea and surveilled and attacked from the sky, the ground has become a horizon: a path toward matter than can be hollowed out by human labor and turned into vectors of undetected mobility. Palestinians first dug tunnels along the border with Egypt to smuggle goods essential for everyday life and defy the Israeli blockade. As Eyal Weizman has shown, this was also the Palestinian response to the politics of verticality enforced by Israel in its control of the airspace and of all hilltops in the West Bank in order to have a wide field of vision from above. In creating the tunnels, Palestinians countered that verticality with a verticality of their own, moving down and beyond the reach of that panoptic eye. By 2014, the tunnels had expanded to form a much vaster and deeper infrastructure that was militarized and, more importantly, designed to pass underneath the hyper-militarized Israeli border and emerge “on the other side,” within Israeli territory. Israeli officers called these underground passages “offensive tunnels,” in contrast to the “defensive tunnels” along the Egyptian border. But as a whole this is basically an infrastructure of self-defense: it was created by a population submitted to a restrictive siege by one of the most powerful militaries on the planet, facing adverse living conditions and a profoundly asymmetrical confrontation. And this subterranean infrastructure of resistance involved not simply the production of a new type of place but the weaponization of the terrain of planet Earth.
As soon as combat began in and around Gaza in early July 2014, it became clear that the confrontation adopted a different rhythm because of the impact of the tunnels. In a gripping video, Palestinian combatants (one of them holding the camera) can be seen emerging from a tunnel behind the militarized fence, running for a few hundred meters in the open, and then overrunning a fortified Israeli outpost after a brief firefight. Then you see the combatants retuning safely back to the tunnel’s entrance loaded with captured Israeli weaponry, closing off the lid behind them, and finding shelter in the underground.
On the night of July 17-18, after days of bombings by Israel and rocket attacks flying from Gaza toward Israel, Israeli ground forces entered Gaza from multiple points with the explicit goal of wiping out what they called “the tunnels of terror.” As Glen Greenwald insists, the word “terror” has become a meaningless and purely ideological category solely used by state agents to name any type of resistance committed by “them” against “us,” often misnaming what is standard combat between armed humans. While the Israeli military falsely claimed the tunnels were designed to attack “Israeli kindergartens,” the tunnels were largely used to attack the IDF forces surrounding and invading Gaza. Despite carrying highly destructive and sophisticated weaponry and counting on full control of the airspace via helicopters, jets, drones, and satellites, the Israeli ground forces entering Gaza suddenly faced a hard-to-control terrain because of their enemy’s capacity to move undetected through the tunnels. 
The New York Times wrote, “Israeli troops in Gaza described Hamas gunmen who vanished from one house, like magicians, and suddenly popped up to fire at them from another.” In The Art of War, Sun Tzu argued that one of the most important goals in combat is to deceive the enemy: by pretending, for instance, to be “in the east” only to strike “from the west.” Likewise, Palestinian fighters turned the terrain into a space of deception, and used “tunnels to surprise the forces from behind and to attack those in the rear,” confusing Israeli troops, who “find themselves having to improvise.” “What caught the Israeli off guard,” he article continues, was the “sophisticated” use of those tunnels, which created a “360 degree front” that undermined the Israeli forces’ situational awareness. Noting the growing “frustration” among Israeli officers, the same article in The New York Times quoted “military experts” who argued that “it is increasingly evident that the Israel Defense Forces have been operating from an old playbook and are not fully prepared for a more sophisticated, battle-ready adversary.”

Facing this inscrutable obstacle in their capacity to control Gaza’s battlefield, “the terror tunnels” became the media’s obsession and the object of the Israeli hard-right’s fury. On July 24, Martin Sherman published in the Jerusalem Post a piece entitled “Why Gaza Must Go.” He highlighted the anxieties created by the tunnels and criticized the myopia of Israeli officers who did not foresee their “deadly” and “chilling” menace: “the devastating potential of an elaborate tunnel system developed by the terror organizations in Gaza.” Sherman argued that the “mowing the lawn” strategy of regularly punishing Gaza with intense moments of violence had failed. He concluded, “The grass needs to be uprooted – once and for all. …. The only durable solution requires dismantling Gaza, humanitarian relocation of the non-belligerent Arab population, and extension of Israeli sovereignty over the region….” The insurgent underground, in short, was perceived to be so threatening that it triggered calls for the physical obliteration of the whole of Gaza.
This call for massive destruction was not an abstract projection into the future but the disposition that guided the Israeli struggle against the tunnels, something that became particularly apparent in early August in the southern edge of Gaza, Rafah. On August 1, Palestinian combatants emerged from a tunnel to ambush a small Israeli force, killing two soldiers, capturing one, and retreating again to the underground. This activated Israel’s infamous “Hannibal directive,” which gives the command to direct overwhelming firepower at the area where the soldier is believed to be captured, with the goal of killing him to prevent him from becoming a hostage. Over the next three days, Rafah was subjected to such a devastating and deadly barrage of bombings that between 135 and 200 civilians were killed and hundreds of homes were reduced to rubble. Eyal Weizman’s Forensic Architecture team has recently completed (co-produced with Amnesty International) a must-read analysis of the devastation inflicted by Israeli on Rafah in those days (you can read the report here; see also the excellent analyses by my friends and fellow bloggers Léopold Lambert and Derek Gregoryyou an also read my review essay of Forensic Architecture’s extraordinary book Forensis here). Through the careful examination of multiple forms of evidence (rubble, video, photographs), Forensic Architecture’s investigation shows that the target of the heavy bombing was the underground. The bombing targeted all buildings suspected of hiding the entrance to the tunnels over a wide area. This extreme level of violence unleashed on Gaza, in short, resulted from the Israeli exasperation at the disorienting spatiality created by that opaque underground.
In response to wave of terror unleashed in Gaza in those days, Amir Nizar Zuabi wrote in Haaretz an evocative piece called "The Underground Ghetto City of Gaza." In it, he imagined that ten years into the future Gaza would be abandoned after everybody moved underground. “We dug entire neighborhoods, streets, highways, schools, theaters, hospitals. We gave up on the dream of getting out of the Gaza Strip. … We, who were attacked from the sky, from the sea, from the fields, who had one-ton bombs dropped on our heads in pointless rounds of killing, have turned our back on life. We, whom the world forgot, decided to pay it back in kind, and forgot it right back. … The only refuge left to us was the earth.” In this account, the underground is no longer a weapon of resistance but a destination, a line of flight: a path toward exodus and withdrawal.
This politicization of the underground has a significance that goes beyond Gaza. The idea that people facing powerful oppressors may have no other option but to give up the ground and retreat downwards toward the planetary crust is a central theme in the films The Matrix and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, where rebels plotting revolution have created underground cities, not unlike the one Amin Zuabi imagined in his piece on “the underground city of Gaza.” Hollywood here draws from the long history of rebels who have weaponized the underground. In some cases, ironically in the Bar Kokhba revolt (132–136 AD) by Jewish combatants against the legions of the Roman Empire, the use of tunnels and caves did not prevent defeat. In others, the military appropriation of the underground was key to the resilience and ultimate victory of insurgent forces, as in the case of the vast network of tunnels created by the Vietcong in South Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s.
            Certainly, the underground has long been militarized and manipulated by state militaries as well: to mine enemy trenches (as Derek Gregory has analyzed in the case of World War I) or to create bunkers and hidden weapon systems. But if the state can be said to have a political attitude toward the underground, it is one of unease, for no state can fully control the entrails of the Earth. For this reason, in 2010 the US Department of Defense created a project called “Transparent Earth,” designed to create (using sound waves) a three-dimensional mapping of the crust to a depth of five kilometers. As the name indicates, the ambitious goal is to turn the underground into something it is not: a transparent object. As Ryan Bishop writes in his analysis of this program in the book Forensis, “Mastery is inescapably haunted by that which eludes it.” The destruction brought upon Gaza a year ago was the materialization of this principle, for that barrage of firepower by the Israeli state was haunted by the underground that eluded its mastery. The tunnels of Gaza, and the anxieties they generated, reveals that what embodies our imperial present are not simply drones but also those places that drones can’t see because they are hidden in the terrain.