Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Pluto's Terrain

               The fascination with the images of Pluto’s rugged topography recently captured by the New Horizons probe reminds us that terrain is the most universal, material, and non-anthropocentric of all spatial categories. After all, Pluto is devoid of human-made places and territories, but is made up of tangible, observable, measurable terrain. Multiple articles are being written on the size, shape, physical composition, height and angles of Pluto’s mountains, valleys, mounds, plains, and countless protuberances. Those forms are being subjected to intense measurement and Pluto’s diameter has now been precisely quantified. The planet turned out to be a bit bigger than initially thought. But what strikes about Pluto’s terrain are its forms. The mission’s scientists are ecstatic: they cannot believe how heterogeneous and often dramatic the forms of the terrain are. Pluto has ice mountains as tall as the Rockies and its largest moon, Charon, has a canyon much deeper that the Colorado River’s. Some scientists, notably, expected a smoother, featureless terrain. Some of the terrain’s forms on Pluto are intriguing, hard to read geologically. “This is a not-easy-to-explain terrain,” said a key member of the New Horizons team. He identified the new object of the mission: to investigate not simply Pluto but its terrain.

When Galileo Galilei invented the telescope in 1609 and pointed it to the void, the first object he scrutinized was the one closest to him: the moon. Galileo was struck by what he saw: mountains, valleys, ridges, depressions, a multiplicity of forms. Terrain. Galileo was even more ecstatic than the members of the New Horizons team are right now; he wrote that he felt so happy that he wept with joy. He had dissolved the ancient myth that the moon had a smooth, featureless surface, a legend that drew from the ancient Greeks' belief in the geometrical perfection of spheres. Galileo noticed that the moon’s surface was, in his words, “full of inequalities, uneven, full of hollows and protuberances, just like the surface of the earth itself, which is varied everywhere by lofty mountains and deep valleys.” Galileo was the first to note that in Earth and the moon the materiality of space is qualitatively the same: terrain defined by multiple forms and textures. Copernicus had already noticed the multiplicity of protuberances that defined the Earth's spherical form when he wrote that the latter was not smooth, “on account of the great height of its mountains and the lowness of its valleys, though they modify its universal roundness to only a small extent.” 
           Copernicus and Galileo are remembered for demonstrating that the Earth is not the fixed centre of the universe but part of a constellation of myriad objects in motion around the sun. Yet they also hinted at a view of space sensitive to forms, angles, and gradients, and are therefore pioneers in a theory of terrain, which they scrutinized through the lens of mathematics, physics, and geometry. And they revealed that the rugged forms that defined the Earth’s terrain were, in fact, the property of all objects moving through the cosmos, even if in each object these forms and textures adopt the most diverse configurations.

The protuberances on Pluto’s surface confront us with terrain’s transcendental immanence: that is, with a materiality that transcends the ephemeral nature of human places and defines all objects drifting in the void of the universe. But this transcendence of terrain in relation to the minuscule scale of human temporality and spatiality only exists as pure immanence: in the cosmic rubble that coalesced, pulled by gravity, to form Pluto; and in the forces and collisions that over millions of years redefined the planet’s crust and created the layout of its current terrain: untouched by humans, but now part of our spatial imagination.

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, in late March. 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. 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.