Going Meta, or, “Slow” Thinking.

 metaphysical, nuclear, Theory, Visual Culture  Comments Off on Going Meta, or, “Slow” Thinking.
Apr 112011

I have been wanting to write about the writing of this blog for some time but the pace of events since January has been so breathtaking, and so relevant to the themes of my book, that it has not seemed possible to take a break. In the past week, the crisis seems to have itself taken a metaphysical turn. Nuclear regulators in the U. S. (no-one’s idea of a green crowd) have critiqued their Japanese counterparts to the extent that the most basic sense of what has actually happened at the Fukushima Daiichi plants is in doubt. Is there a leak or not? Has there been a meltdown or not?

In tandem with this confusion, nuclear scientists announced last week that maybe they had not properly understood the atom at all. In the last experiment at the Fermi lab before it is due to be closed down, it seems that a new particle has been discovered. Or a subatomic force. Or something. Or maybe not. Meanwhile the search for the mythical Higg’s boson, which has to exist in order for all the other theories to be right, continues to fail, despite ever larger super-colliders. Is it entirely wise, some might ask, to create power by unleashing forces that we clearly do not understand? Obama administration officials see such remarks as “opportunistic” [warning: NYT link, don’t waste your ‘hits’!] What could go wrong with using plutonium in much larger amounts, after all?

All this sent me into a metaphysical reverie about materialism and the atom, chasing down references to the  Atomists, like Democritus, who was so detested by Plato that his work has to be a good thing. And before I knew it, I had missed my self-imposed “deadline” of Tuesday or Wednesday latest. In turn that made me think that what I’m doing is perhaps less a blog than a column. If you can have a column on the Internet that is. In the era of rapid-fire response and disseminating links by Twitter, perhaps the blog form is obsolete, as Kathleen Fitzpatrick mused this week?

At the same time, there’s another iteration of the return of old media going on at present. Leaving Facebook is becoming a performative sub-field in its own right. Over at hip webmag Triple Canopy, the mantra is “slowing down the Internet.” While at Media Commons, I edit a section called “The New Everyday,” which invites people to post “between the blog and the journal,” adding another layer for thought, reflection and, if you’re lucky, feedback.

So, if even the elite in what Bifo calls the “cognitariat” feel overwhelmed by the need to assemble information, forward it to their audience, and then repeat, perhaps the very gesture of annotation is under pressure. Indeed,  the “theory is over” crowd are celebrating the rise of data-driven methodology. It’s been over six months since Wired announced the death of the web, killed by the triumph of the app from the iPad to Netflix. If the Top Ten websites–like Facebook–now command over 75% of web traffic, then the “open web” is a quirky remnant, especially if/when net neutrality disappears.

As the open web retreats, a “computational turn” that depends on Google for its data-mining is likely to be short-lived. When people do find time to comment on open web work, they often do so now via Facebook and Twitter, meaning that the audience for the original piece may well not see the comments, undermining one of the very arguments for open web writing. By the same token, the idea that comments or site visits can be used as a new metric of influence is troubled by that dispersal of commenting to apps.

In short (for once!), the need to be reflexive is also the need for critique, or in a word, politics. So just as we have turned to “slow” food as an alternative to agribusiness, we have to maintain the “slow” humanities. The very need for “theory on the run,” as Geert Lovink has called it, paradoxically requires us to break it down into steps, just as a top-class athlete works on their “mechanics.” It means working towards the “free, libre, open university,” as Gary Hall has put it, in place of the corporate machines that we now have. We need to  collectively work theory from post/tweet/update to  a “middle state” form where it works and can be worked upon, and then achieve its archival form in a publication.

And yet, even as I’m trying to think this through, my email is dinging, I’ve got a tweet about how multi-tasking destroys your memory, and what was I saying?


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




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.


© 2012 For the Right to Look Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha