Friday, February 27, 2015

Terrain as Insurgent Weapon

Below is the abstract of my essay "Terrain as Insurgent Weapon: An Affective Geometry of Combat in the Valley of Death," which I'll present at the workshop Space, Materiality, and Violence, at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, University of British Columbia, March 20-21. This is my most thorough attempt yet to theorize terrain, based on how the mountainous terrain of the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, affected warfare in the region. In the next few days, I'll be posting excerpts on this blog. I'm really looking forward to this workshop, which will bring together among the best thinkers in the field, such as Eyal Weizman (our keynote speaker), Derek Gregory, Craig Jones, Caren Kaplan, Jake Kosek, Léopold Lambert, Catherine Lutz, and Shaylih Muehlmann.

In April 2010, a local insurgency forced the US military to withdraw from the Korengal Valley in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, which US soldiers called “the valley of death.” Most accounts of violence in the Korengal captured in the documentaries Restrepo and Korengal and in first-hand depictions by soldiers and journalists highlight that the rugged, opaque, vertical terrain played a decisive role in allowing insurgents to locally defeat the mightiest military on Earth. But what, exactly, is terrain? How were insurgents able to turn terrain into an effective weapon against a much more powerful enemy? While military analysts have long been aware of the importance of terrain in warfare, the term tends to be discussed in vague and descriptive terms. Likewise, with a few exceptions, “terrain” remains largely un-theorized in the humanities. 
    In this paper, I draw on the rich material available on insurgent violence in the Korengal to articulate a theory of terrain, whose departing point is that terrain’s materiality is not reducible to social constructions and can be best understood through a geometrical examination of bodies in motion. In particular, I conceptualize terrain through a series of axiomatic principles: that terrain is defined by a multiplicity of forms that are plastic and modifiable; that terrain is intrinsically opaque to human perception (even to seemingly "all-seeing" technologies such as drones); that the materiality of terrain is not fixed but adopts different levels of ambient thickness related to the temporal becoming of our planet and its daily and seasonal rhythms as an object in motion; and that terrain has a three-dimensional verticality profoundly affected by gravity. Drawing on the experience of soldiers and journalists based in the Korengal, I analyze how the local insurgency adapted to, and manipulated, these dimensions of terrain to outmaneuver the US military and counter its technological superiority. I look at this spatiality of insurgent violence through the lens of an affective geometry: i.e. an examination of how multiple bodies, including human bodies engaged in combat, affected each other amid the forms, angles, textures, verticality, and temporal becoming of the forested mountains of Afghanistan.

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) will be published as "Empire on Trial: The Forensic Appearance of Truth" in Society and Space: Environment and Planning D 33(2) in 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.