The Force of Law #OWS

 counterinsurgency, Occupy Wall St, Visual Culture  Comments Off on The Force of Law #OWS
Nov 162011

For the past few days, Occupy locations have reverberated to the sound of the force of law. I mean this literally. I was awakened at 3.30am on November 15 by the sound of what I think were helicopters above lower Manhattan. The combination of police barricades and the closure of the subways meant that no one could get closer to the eviction of Zuccotti Park. Even the airspace was closed, not to prevent the Occupy air force from deploying but to keep out the news channel helicopters. Once again, we are reminded to “move on, there’s nothing to see here.”

The eviction created a new hybrid by categorizing political protest as a health and safety issue, and then responding to it with the weapons of counterinsurgency. The OWS site  was suddenly flooded with klieg lighting, blinding those trying to sleep. From the Twitter feed, email and later news accounts, it’s also emerged that Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRAD) were used to disperse the crowd with painful sound blasts. The LRAD was developed as a weapon of counterinsurgency after the attack on the USS Cole in 2000 by al-Qai’da and is now mounted on certain NYPD vehicles. After a set of legal maneuvers, the park was opened to the public, with the stipulation that no one can sleep there. The result was that “anyone found lying down and even a few of those who tried to sleep sitting up were woken by security guards for Brookfield Properties.” The private corporation now has its own security force on the streets of New York, rendering Zuccotti into the latest outpost of Baghdad-Kabul Inc., the 60 billion-a-year cash-fest for private security firms. In the business pages today, Brookfield just sold a building in New Jersey for $377 million: the realtor took out a congratulations ad.

Clearing a way for Brookfield

In short, we have a full range of counterinsurgency tactics being deployed from noise and light violence to sleep deprivation and the now infamous destruction of books.

Reverting to its standard deference to counterinsurgency, the New York Times described how:

The mayor and his advisers had grown fed up with their inability to police the park, with complaints about noise, disruptions to businesses and odors, and with a leaderless movement that they just could not figure out how to deal with.

Never mind that recent articles had shown there were more complaints about the noise from Ground Zero building work than from Zuccotti. Or that most of the failings here are on the city side: an inability to police must not be tolerated.

A few miles northwest of Zuccotti is the Cardozo Law School where Jacques Derrida delivered his epic essay “The Force of Law” in 1989. Reading an early essay by Walter Benjamin Critique of Violence (1921), Derrida pointed out that it is only in English that one can speak of “enforcing” the law. Both writers showed that law is, in the last analysis, only force but that it does everything it can to sustain what Montaigne long ago called “the mystical foundation of authority.” It is that claim to authority, the ability to determine the relation between the sayable and the visible, which I have called visuality.

NY Times photo showing klieg lights in action

If this deconstruction is what one might expect from Derrida, his conclusion pushed beyond the scholastic definitions of “politics” and “theory” to show why Occupy is perceived as a threat to the state that requires counterinsurgency tactics. Developing Benjamin’s assertion that a general strike is “the right to use force”–which is not at all the same as violence–on the part of labor in the same way that the state claims the right to enforce law, Derrida asserted:

There is something of the general strike, and thus of the revolutionary situation in every reading that founds something new and that remains unreadable in regard to established canons and norms of reading that is to say the present state of reading of what figures the State, with a capital S, in the state of possible reading.

For Bloomberg, the New York Times and the other mediatic apparatus of the one percent, Occupy is and remains unreadable so it must be eliminated as pollution.

Asserting at his press conference that the decision to evict was “mine alone,” Bloomberg sought to restore the authority of the State for his one percent class. His comment made it clear first that he wished to be regarded as the heroic leader, justifying his claim to authority; and that he had simply decided in the manner of King George and consulted no lawyers or other functionaries, let alone the lonely occupant of the White House, who once again missed his opportunity.

Bloomberg’s action was then a classic admission of failure, the failure to understand and communicate. In an indication of the absurdity of it all, the simple tent has now become the latest purported weapon of insurgency, banned from Zuccotti–but not Union Square, where a large tented holiday market is up until December 25. Tents were even banned from sale anywhere near the Occupy London site at St Paul’s Cathedral. Today the City of London Corporation filed an eviction notice to Occupy London, specifically indicating that “the Orders sought will not prevent lawful and peaceful protest in this general area and is directed at the tents and other structures.” Serious legal debate is being pursued relating to the right to bear sleeping-bags.

When the veil was banned in France, the performance duo Niqabitch parodied the ban by wearing a niqa with miniskirts.

On the N17 demonstrations, and thereafter, let’s wear tents in whatever way we can.[UPDATE: 12/5/11] This idea was obvious to many and “bring a tent” has become part of Occupy rhetoric. However, the police have turned even this apparently humorous effort to “wear a tent” as the opportunity for violence as this video from Occupy Melbourne shows:

The violation of her right to privacy is emphasized by her repeated assertion that “this is not consensual.” As Laurie Penny puts it:

It’s the sense of ritual humiliation that’s truly chilling. It’s the pointlessly brutal demonstration of who is weak and who is strong in this game, and the grim, sour humourlessness of it all.

Benjamin understood the general strike to be different from an ordinary strike “in the determination to resume only a wholly transformed work, no longer enforced by the state, an upheaval that the strike not so much causes as consummates.” In this way, most of the strikes cited by Rosa Luxemburg in her 1906 pamphlet on the general strike were local, spontaneous actions. These strikes were “general” not because everyone took part but because their aim was a general transformation and renunciation of domination. Benjamin saw this vision of revolt as not being violent but rather as “deep, moral, and genuinely revolutionary.” The right to look. The invention of the other. Or even, as Arundhati Roy put it today to OWS, “the right to dream.”

The Right to Look

 counterinsurgency, New media, Visual Culture  Comments Off on The Right to Look
Jun 012011

This post sets up a link to the PDF of my article “The Right to Look” in Critical Inquiry. Please enjoy! and I’d love to hear your thoughts.

It’s Not Over

 2011 moment, counterinsurgency, television, Visual Culture  Comments Off on It’s Not Over
Apr 292011

It’s not over. What isn’t? Neither that which we’d like to be over, nor the things we want to see flourish. The conjunction of the the U. S. reconfiguration of counterinsurgency, with the Palestinian regrouping in the face of the popular revolts, and the denouement of the Birther fiasco made for a remarkable global media day on Thursday 27 April.

Recalling Gen. Petraeus to DC and sending Leon “Drone” Panetta to the Pentagon amounts to an official statement that the “surge” mode of counterinsurgency, with massive costs and troops on the ground, is giving way to the UAV model of remote-controlled robot assassination, in order to keep the lid on insurgencies and budgets alike. Even the war in Libya was turned over to Predator drones this week, which launched yet another unsuccessful attack on Gaddafi’s compound.

Counterinsurgency has completed its turn away from the spectacular “image wars” of Shock-and-Awe vintage to the “invisible” war of UAVs, no-fly zones, satellite monitoring and so-called “Black” ops. The Wikileaks Guantanamo files made it clear what this means: those named by  desperate people in detention under extreme duress become targets for elimination. We are so far from the Panopticon that not only is there no intent to reform anyone, there is no legal possibility to even put them on trial. U.S. prosecutors could imagine only 20 cases being brought. So the remaining detainees linger in colonial limbo.

This is not, however, to say that counterinsurgency is simply in the ascendant. With the revolutionary ferment spreading to Syria and with Yemen on the brink of regime change, the Palestinian factions reconciled rather than face revolt from below. It was Egyptian diplomacy that made this change possible, making it clear that, while there is a great deal to be done, the fall of Mubarak was not simply cosmetic. The jailing of the Mubarak clan has resonated around the region–ironically, the Panopticon is, however briefly and instrumentally,  the tool of the “people.”

In the U. S., events seem curiously isolated from global change. The fiasco in which the President had to produce his long-form birth certificate was eloquently condemned by the comedian Baratunde Thurston on YouTube, a post that quickly went viral.

Thurston described his sense of being “humiliated” by this moment, evoking as it did past poll taxes, literacy tests and other demarcations that African Americans were not considered citizens as of right. My (mostly white) students echoed the sentiment, finding it “embarrassing” and “ridiculous.” Trump has gone on a national celebration tour because depressing our side is what this is all about. In this country, it seems that the image war is still on.

So it’s not over: not the revolution, but also not counterinsurgency, and not yet even the image wars. I think we should find this hopeful: if it’s not over, then intervening can make a difference. Hope was sold in 2008 as easy, an immaterial commodity that could be obtained by pressing a lever or clicking a link. We’re finding out how hard it is, but how critical it can be.


In writing about visuality, I learned one major lesson that I keep having to re-learn: visuality is a colonial technique and it is best understood from the places of it application–the plantation, the colony, the neo-colony–looking back at its metropolitan sites of deployment.

As nuclear counterinsurgency continues, it is time to consider how an atomic countervisuality might be developed and from where. For the paradigmatic tools of GCOIN are now being used in Japan, where Global Hawk Unmanned Aerial Vehicles have been flown across the destroyed reactors of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, while they are also directing aerial observation in Libya.

The Global Hawk UAV

The Global Hawk is designed, as the name suggests, for extremely long-range missions and is capable of circumnavigating the globe. It has no standard equipment for radiation detection but is a surveillance and/or targeting platform, using synthetic aperture radar, infrared and other systems.

It was striking to me that the Global Hawk over Japan was launched from a U. S. base in Guam, the major military outpost in the Pacific.  Guam was recently rebranded as the “tip of the spear” in GCOIN operations, after troops had to be relocated there from Japan, following recent elections. Here, then, is one “atomic”  location from which we might counter the increasingly odd fusion of nuclear politics with counterinsurgency. In countering the fission of the nuclear with the singularity of the atomic, I hope to map the complex “entanglement” (Achille Mbembe) produced by nuclear counterinsurgency, linking the Second World War, the Cold War, nuclear weapons, decolonization, the global war on terror and climate change.

Whatever the Global Hawk missions revealed has been kept secret. At the same time, so-called experts are advising that the “safest way to deposit radiation is in the ocean.”  It seems that residents of Oceania, including  those in U. S. territories like Guam– and other nearby island nations operating under the Compact of Free Association with the U. S., like Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia–are once again invisible to Western and Japanese eyes alike.  The “plume” of radiation that is said to have no chance of reaching the mainland U. S. will certainly reach those islands, especially now that it has become clear that large quantities of iodine-131 and caesium-137,  highly carcinogenic isotopes, are already in the sea.

Bikini Atoll 1946: Operation Crossroads Baker

Perhaps it is just assumed that there is so much residual radiation from the 67 above ground nuclear weapons tests conducted by the U. S. from 1945 to 1962 in the Western Pacific that a little more is neither here nor there. Or perhaps the scientifically-accredited but nonetheless magical view of the period that it “seemed logical to believe that water would cleanse Bikini” of radiation is still operative. In fact, the former residents of Bikini Atoll (above) are still in exile, 65 years after the tests that irradiated their island in the interests of discovering whether naval ships (visible in the photo above) could survive nuclear attacks–answer:  yes, but in so radioactive a state as to be unusable.

Bikini islanders leaving in 1946 Today in exile on Kili

The disastrous but forgotten history of these people from the expropriation of their homes to their emiserated exile, radiation-induced cancer epidemic and sustained marginalization in the name of some greater good may indicate what is in store for Northwestern Japan.

The islands that are being used to launch the UAVs are most at risk from the rising sea levels caused by anthropogenic climate change. At the same time as 20,000 troops are being redeployed to Guam, the Army Corps of Engineers–the people who brought you Hurricane Katrina–are busy building sea walls to try and hold back the ocean.

A newly-built sea wall on Guam is already at risk

As this photo taken in August 2010 shows, the walls are barely keeping out the rising tides. Scientists have shown that the rising sea levels in the Pacific have been concentrated in the Western half of the ocean for contingent reasons of tide and wind patterns. At an IPCC meeting in Kolkata that I have not seen reported here,  Rajenda Pachauri attributed the severity of the tsunami to the  additional water mass caused by climate change.

There is, then, a further irony that the U. S. and its allies are using Western Pacific islands as counterinsurgency prisons. Five Chinese Uighurs, formerly detained at Guantànamo Bay, have been relocated to Palau, an independent nation whose budget entirely depends on revenue from the Compact of Free Association with the U. S. These islands were mandated to the U. S. at the end of the Second World War, after Koror had been for some thirty years capital of the Japanese empire in the Pacific.

View of the district of Koror where the Uighurs now live, August 2010

Living in a house in downtown Koror, whose location is known to all locals, the Uighurs are the subject of some resentment because they do not work but spend most of their time in religious observance. A few hundred meters away, Koror floods on a regular basis at high tide.

Flooding in downtown Koror, Palau

This less-than-secure location was presumably selected as a prison because it is so “remote” but it is only a two-hour flight to the Philippines. Elsewhere in the region (broadly defined–see the map below) the Australian government detains over 2,000 asylum seekers on Christmas Island, some 350 km south of Java. Held in facilities designed for several hundred people, the detainees rioted on March 17 and one person recently committed suicide there.

Xmas Island and Palau

Here, then, are a set of “invisibles” from post-war histories, and forced exiles, radiation, detainees, sea level rise, climate change to aerial surveillance that a countervisuality needs to bring into view as a tactic to displace the hegemonic logics of nuclear counterinsurgency. I am well aware that they cut across academic disciplinary lines, perhaps exceeding individual competences (including of course my own). I’d be curious to hear your thoughts about how (and indeed if) such tactics might be developed in the current crisis: comments are open and all will be approved



Counterinsurgency TV

 counterinsurgency, television, watching  Comments Off on Counterinsurgency TV
Mar 272011

After nine days of warfare, President Obama has deemed the new war worthy of our attention with a broadcast on Libya on Monday at 7.30 EDT. We have so many wars going on, it seems there isn’t even time to get on TV and announce the newest one. I’m drafting this review  ahead of the actual speech because it’s not too hard to guess what will have been said. Really, once the speech is announced, there’s almost no need to give it.

President Obama addresses the nation

Obama will talk in the overly rapid way he uses on these occasions, intended perhaps to convey “man of action,” but revealing more clearly that he’s just rattling through to the end, performing a task he’d rather not have to do. When he speaks in public, he takes his time and makes good use of pauses. He’ll also use a strange little chopping gesture with his left hand, no doubt focus-grouped to demonstrate decisiveness. It distracts from what he’s saying and you end up waiting for the next one.

There will be bromides to “our brave men and women in uniform.” Not to challenge the personal courage of these people in any way, but this mission is one where the “Allies” get to play bully in the playground. We will hear of “progress,” measured by the news that Mafeking has been relieved, I’m sorry, make that Ras Lanuf or one of the other small Libyan towns very few of us knew existed ten days ago.

Then it will be stressed that the mission is “limited,” but that the dictator al-Khalifa, I’m sorry, Gaddafi must fall. It will be emphasized that the U. S. has as good as left, before it even officially arrived via Presidential broadcast. In short, this is not a war but if it was one, it’s already over. Except if by any chance it isn’t, then NATO are running it, and we all know how independent NATO is from the U. S.

A quick shout-out to Hillary Clinton–remember the women’s vote in 2012!–and then it’ll be off for a world tour of the other wars, which will be going just fabulously well. A mere eight years after intervening in Iraq for a lightning quick regime change, the U. S. will be about to leave. Or have we already left, I forget? Afghanistan! we’re as good as out of there, because we know that the Pakistanis know where Osama is, and they know that we know, and so that’s ok.

For all the satire, this unwatched and unoriginal broadcast serves to reinforce the imperial dimension to global counterinsurgency (GCOIN) that had seemed vulnerable in the wake of Afghanistan’s palpable failure. The benefit of the Libyan mission, as GCOIN boosters from John McCain to David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy were quick to see, is that here the “Allies” can play Afghanistan Light. A “failed state” subject to the dominion of militia groups organized via personal obligations and hierarchies can, it is hoped, be quickly subjected to domination from the air, using digitized machines. The aspiration is a re-run of Gulf War 1991, an easy techno-triumph to restore the luster, not of the New World Order touted by Bush 41, but of the “Global Counterinsurgency.”

Feel free to scorecard these predictions in the comments section (which will all be approved, BTW, it’s moderated only to keep the spammers out). More serious remarks on atomic countervisuality on Tuesday.


The revolution intensifies

The Caesars are on the march once again. But the revolutions are not over. And just as Hurricane Katrina revealed to us certain truths about the war in Iraq and state power, so too has the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami highlighted the interface of energy and power and the need for new forms of both. The revolutions have intensified to the point where the lineaments of a different economy are visible, provoking the autocracies to demonstrate that their power is in fact simply a correlative of their ability to use force. In Bahrain, the al-Khalifa autocracy have taken the injunction “move on, there’s nothing to see here” so literally that they demolished the entire roundabout at Pearl Square.

Pearl Square (March 18): "move on, there's nothing to see here"

So taken with Rancière were the Bahraini authorities that their spokesperson indicated that the motive for the demolition was to “boost traffic,” which would now presumably be allowed to drive straight across the roundabout. Such is the dark comedy of autocracy.

Counterinsurgency redux

At the same time, seeing its game about to disappear, counterinsurgency has also made a play. From the gloomy shadows emerge  McCain–Lieberman–Kerry, the Praetorian guards, who annoyingly refuse to go into that good night. They’ve persuaded their former Senatorial colleagues Obama and Clinton that a no-fly zone will work, as long as we call Gaddafi a terrorist. The realpolitik that said we can do (oil) business with autocrats has here been replaced by the counterinsurgent mantra of the “pariah state.” The message is “the West will not stand for state violence against citizens”: except when it does, and those occasions seem strangely linked to oil reserves.

The nuclear division of the sensible

At the same time, the disaster in Japan has saddened and now terrified us all. Radiation is so unsettling both because of its invisibility and because it is the ultimate expression of the security state. There’s nothing to see here: but it’s here nonetheless.

Japanese citizens being scanned for radiation

Absolute submission is required from all, making all citizens into children faced with the apparatus that will index their status.

Surrendering to being monitored

In a truly surreal moment, Japan wheeled out its reclusive Emperor Akihito for his first televised address during a moment of crisis, as if to indicate the imperial connotations of nuclear power.

The nuclear state has always been present as a rhetorical justification for counterinsurgency, even as it has retreated from its centrality in the Cold War. Now its peculiar rhetorics are back. When Gaddafi threatened to go “crazy” if there was intervention by the West, he was not speaking clinical language, but the vocabulary of Mutually Assured Destruction: MAD.

The crisis of Caesarism in North Africa and the Gulf and the atomic disaster in Japan are further linked by the energy imperatives of neo-liberal growth. Note that the energy hungry BRIC block (Brazil, Russia, India and China) abstained in the Security Council vote on Libya. Why, after all, did Japan build six not very well designed G.E. nuclear reactors close together on the coast in an earthquake zone, if not out of the conviction that energy was indispensable? The decision was taken in the aftermath of the 1973 oil crisis, leading to a determination that independent energy sources were indispensable.

The rioting atom

In this sense, the metonym of the current situation was the scene on Thursday when Japanese police riot control trucks sprayed water on the spent-fuel containment ponds at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. It was as if the radiation was an insurgency but, lacking a direct target, the gesture appears to have been mostly futile. And is that, after all, the only option that can be found, the more-or-less random hurling of water? Once again, as we saw after Hurricane Katrina, a natural disaster has become a human-made catastrophe.

A once and future slogan: Nuclear Power? No Thanks!

Of course, like everyone, I am in complete solidarity with those suffering in Japan and willing to risk their lives fighting Gaddafi. My point is that these developments are not the end of the revolution but its intensification. There’s a reason everyone (mis)remembers Marie-Antoinette saying “let them eat cake”–although, apparently, she didn’t actually say it. The very first chant used by the January 25 movement in Egypt was “they are eating pigeon and chicken, we are eating beans all the time.” That is to say, food justice and sustainability were at the beginning of this moment of countervisuality as they have always been. It has been the imperatives of the nation-state for cash and cash-crops that has always been given priority from the French and Haitian revolutions to the present. Already, Japanese milk and spinach are showing contamination from radiation, just as milk from the Chernobyl area caused the epidemic of thyroid cancer after the 1986 disaster at the nuclear plant there.

The nuclear power plant at Fukushima

This, above, is the nuclear state’s version of sustainability. Even now, hitherto obscure regulatory bodies and administrators insist that more nuclear power is the only way to deal with climate change and increased energy demands. But here the point is that we can no longer have our cake and eat it. Insanely dangerous and authoritarian power of all kinds needs to be replaced by other, sustainable means.

The following through of the “great ‘undoing'” (Gramsci) of the popular revolt is this conversion of the (food) economy to imperatives of sustainability and equal distribution. The “bread and land” part of “peace, bread, land” was what made it resonate in 1917. If this is hard to imagine, harder to visualize, that’s a measure of the long hegemony of visuality that has made leadership into a synonym for vision but renders sustainability into the impractical and the ideal.

Update 3-19

French warplanes are in action over Libya–presumably the first French military action in North Africa since the defeat in Algeria in 1962.


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