Popular Geopolitics through Maps

In large part, my research is concerning itself (at the moment anyway) with the ways in which we come to have “mental maps” of certain parts of the world, or indeed the world as a whole (particularly places we’ve never been and are hence reliant on mediation/representation) and how conceptualisations of these spaces and places as stable/unstable, violent/pacific, safe/dangerous, homogenous/heterogeneous come about, through the practices of what has come to be known as “popular geopolitics”.

I’m particularly interested in how these “interior maps” come to be through non-visual mediations (i.e radio and sound), and how this can be seen as a dynamic process involving both human and non-human, material and expressive elements of techno-cultural assemblage.

Things must often, though, start from their opposites, so I want to share here, some interesting examples of how these mental maps, both past and present, have gone from the realm of the expressive/imaginary (individual and collective) into the material/visual.

Rose’s map shows a febrile Europe in the latter part of the 19th Century, giving visual, zoomorphic form to widely held popular beliefs about the malevolence of Russia and the need for strong, militaristic nationalism across Western Europe in response. This is  a representation from the “mind” of Rose, to be sure, but intimately connected to the swirling, volatile “affective atmospheres” of the European continent during this period.  An excellent visual collation of satirical maps of the late 18th and early 19th Century can be found here

If you can get past the somewhat hyperbolic soundtrack, this “map” offers a high-speed geopolitical history of Europe which puts to bed any remaining notions of the link between and permanence of the territorial state and “national identity”

This sobering time-lapse effort of every nuclear detonation in history captures, at least in part, the possibilities of a critical-geopolitics of mapmaking; visualising the abstracted world of “nuclear defence” and bringing to mind a world, and an environment pock-marked with the effects of geopolitical posturing.

Finally (for now), Yanko Tsvetkov’s series of maps, based around perceived national stereotypes and prejudices have been doing the rounds on the web and are collected  here They vary from the insightful to the crass, and draw inspiration from the satirical “World According to Ronald Reagan”

Tsvetkov’s maps are more varied, satirising multiple perspectives from the same, ostensible “view”, some with more success than others (the “USA and the World of Dictatorships” for example), ranging from the subtle to the scatological.

Interesting though, from a researchers standpoint, to see these stereotype maps in relation to the “tabloid foreign policy” from which these popular imaginaries  from which they both draw inspiration and reflect back.

Ok, I’m mapped out for the day, going to indulge in some tea and text now…

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#Kony 2012

I’ve seen a lot of my friends sharing this meme about Joseph Kony and the LRA through various social media websites.  Whilst this shouldn’t be taken as a direct criticism, the whole thing just rankles me a bit.  I’ll try and explain why.

The danger with using the power of internet memetics and the changing society is that we end up focussing on a singular dynamic of violence and horror.  True enough the LRA and Kony are a terrible example of, well, anything, but the risk of turning the power of the internet  against him and proclaiming some kind of “new dawn” (which, given the power of social communication in aiding recent civil resistance in the Middle East is understandable), in  what seems to be a (mis)guided attempt at a cosmopolitanism ethic is troubling.

I don’t doubt the sincerity of those behind the ‘Invisible Children’ project.  Nor do I reject a “do what you can” mentality to popular engagement with geopolitics.  It’s laudable, really, and I say that with no hint of sarcasm at all.  I know he cares, I do too.  I’ve been aware of Kony and the activities of the LRA for a long time.  As he says in the film when confronted with the reality of child soldiering in Northern Uganda: “this has been going on for years?  if this was happening in America it would be on the cover of Newsweek!”.

He’s right in a sense,  but also completely wrong.  The psychological gap between America, or the West in general and the necropolitical in sub-saharan Africa has become so great that even a Newsweek/Time/Life magazine front cover (of which there have been many covering the great African Wars which began in the early 1990’s and continue to this day ((of which Kony and the LRA exist as only a tiny fragment)) is not enough to turn the Western world’s attention for any longer that the time taken to fulfil a news cycle.  We have seen it and yet have chosen to look away from this particular intrusion of the real.

Joseph Kony is a paranoid schizophrenic and his movement, the LRA, is riven with internal divisions.  His surrender was being talked about up until mid 2009.  Newsnight reporters managed to track him down in the jungle in 2006 and interview him regarding the potential end of hostilities and the demobilisation of his factions.  The ICC’s warrant against him though, and the relentless ‘infantopolitics’ employed in the world of social media by Invisible Children’s campaign skews the debate massively.

The cosmopolitics employed by Invisible Children is, as I’ve said, laudable.  However, by focussing on a singular conflict dynamic (i.e. in Northern Uganda) which is actually part of a much larger, messier history involving processes of geopolitical power, ethnic violence and resource control and neo-colonialism, there is a distinct risk of missing the point, of magnifying something vile and terrible, but small at the expense of noticing (and mobilising against) something which is vile, worse and much, much larger.

Central African conflict dynamics must be seen in the context of poverty, institutional corruption, resource conflict, Western backing of dictators during the Cold War and myriad other factors.  The literature is out there, both in academia and in the media, it has been for years. Over 4 million people have died in wars in Central Africa since 1992 and in relation to this Kony is, awful, but small, fry.  (when compared with, say the Interhamwe in Rwanda, the RPF in Sierra Leone or Charles Taylor’s militias in Liberia, not to mention all the nameless ‘small business’ warlords peppering the DRC to this day)

The “big idea(s)” that Invisible Children proposes, which seem from their video to be the creation of a US backed surveillance infrastructure in Northern Uganda along the employment of celebrities to “make a celebrity” of Kony himself in order to aid his capture seems to be a bizarre and counter-productive notion which will only succeed in driving Kony further into the jungle underground, making him more, rather than less, difficult to apprehend.

The whole thing seems misguided, as I say, focussing on one particularly horrific but not unique, example of the desperate violence which typifies uneven development, whilst ignoring the much larger socio-economic structures of global finance capital, debt, trade imbalances and neo-colonial meddling which ensure the continued power and status of individuals like Kony.

Yes he is terrible.  Yes he is a war criminal.  Yes he must be stopped, but the employment of an affect saturated social media politics of (largely white) Western mobilisation is not, to my mind, going to help the general wellbeing of the majority of Africans, even if it does, by happenstance, result in the death or capture of Kony.

Better, I feel, to look at the crippling yoke of debt repayments still throttling African development, along with the rigged system of global trade which allows US and EU farm subsidies which keep African export prices artificially low, not to mention the insatiable demand of the West for conflict minerals and other natural resources which often leads to the fuelling of many other local conflicts and funds warlords just as vicious and cruel as Kony, warlords who, incidentally, also kidnap and use child soldiers on a vast scale.

Finally the idea of using (again, largely White) ‘influential culture makers’ via the web to mobilise a support agenda around a single humanitarian issue is nothing new, and, I suppose, the main reason for my (what seems now quite lengthy) rant.

It’s history redux, we’ve seen it all before.

We care.  For a while. Maybe we’ll ‘like’ a site, or wear a wristband, or go to a few meetings or photoshoots.  Maybe we’ll even make our own mini-films about traumatised African children we’ve met whilst on our travels.

Maybe it’ll save a few lives, so who am I to argue?

I just wish that kind of energy that people obviously feel when confronted with a tiny, edited, highly mediated snippet of injustice could be directed towards the bigger picture.

Maybe I’m wrong, maybe you think I’m being too cynical.

If so, don’t be shy of letting me know.

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Shame

Shame

Cert. 18 

Dir. Steve McQueen

After suffering accusations of romanticising IRA hunger-striker Bobby Sands in his starkly aestheticized debut feature Hunger (accusations so laughable as to barely merit derision from anyone who had taken the time to actually watch the film), one could be forgiven for thinking that the Turner-prize winning artist-turned-filmmaker Steve McQueen (OBE) (CBE)  (yes, really), might want to play it safe for his second:  a light-hearted romantic comedy with Mila Kunis and Adam Sandler perhaps?

It would seem not.  Given the buzz created around the sexually explicit nature of the film at its premier at competition in Venice, which for mainstream movies these days generally leads to a disappointing end product: the sexually explicit nature of everyday reality, ubiquity of pornography and the seemingly impossible task of achieving genuine shock value in sexual matters being such that claims to sexual “authenticity” on the big screen seem out-dated, received with a shrug:  “So what? I’ve seen much worse on the internet”.

It’s curious then, that, taken into account this level of expectation Shame isn’t really a film about sex.  To be sure, it’s there; often soft-focussed, reverse-cut and edited and, yes, I suppose, explicit, although never leaving you in any doubt as to the credentials of it’s director:  this isn’t sex filmed to look “arty”; its sex “scenes” could easily stand alone as video-art.  Above all, Shame is about the almost crippling incapacity to feel, despite inhabiting one of the most sensuous societies in human history.

Michael Fassbender’s “Brandon”, the putative “sex addict” around which the film orbits is to New York of the early 21st Century what Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, Patrick Bateman, was to its 1980’s.  But just as Bateman’s propensity for extreme violence was a mask for the greed and one-upmanship of Wall Street, so Brandon’s use of prostitutes, pornography and random encounters fills the empty, meaningless professional and personal void he inhabits.  His regard for his estranged sister Sissy, played by Carey Mulligan, as an imposition, a hindrance to his lifestyle belies the clear implication that he has no life as such upon which she is imposing.  His devastating rejection of her, which begins the film’s final act, asks the uncomfortable question of the extent of Brandon’s alienation, not only from any semblance of family, intimacy or connection but even from himself.

McQueen’s tendencies as a visual artist, whilst ensuring the film looks and sounds about as perfect as it can, right up there with the long list of cinematic elegies to the dark, cold alienation of the contemporary American city, his preference for long takes can often be confounding.  Mulligan, whilst a decent singer in her own way, simply cannot carry the full length, “tragic-Marylin” noir-jazz rendition of ‘New York, New York’ in the manner I think he’s aiming for.

As Sissy’s increasingly pathological need for the love of her sibling (she allows his boss to seduce her for no other reason, it would seem, than to get his attention) collides with Brandon’s inability to provide even the most basic affection and respect towards himself, let alone her, the film fragments both narratively and visually towards an unsurprising but utterly compelling conclusion.  The tragic beauty of this is woven into Fassbender’s face in the film’s penultimate scene in some of the most powerful emotional climaxes I’ve seen since Tilda Swinton in 2009’s I am Love.

If you’re looking for a date movie, this probably isn’t it.  Or maybe it is, I suppose it depends on the state of your relationship; with your partner and yourself.

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War without Death

 

“Media turns the attention of its consumers away from the injury done to the bodies of soldiers towards the mechanistic, distant war fought by machines against other machines, the horror that attaches so readily to seeing frail bodies recedes as machines take their place, and armour spear and pinches other armour” – John Taylor, Body Horror

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Trainee Journalists wanted at the Daily Mail

Whilst surfing this afternoon, this job advert for “Trainee Journalists” caught my eye:

Trainee Journalists

£18,000

Britain’s most successful newspaper group is offering would-be reporters, writers and sub-editors an exciting and challenging year-long training course, plus the chance to work at the Daily Mail and Mail Online.

  • We are looking for bright, sharp, intelligent writers and subs who believe they can be fast-tracked to the very top
  • You’ll be on the best journalism course in the business – and be paid a competitive salary while you train
  • Successful applicants will probably have completed postgraduate journalism training or had experience working in newspapers

To apply send your CV, 200 words on why you want to be a Mail journalist and six examples of your work to sue.ryan@dailymail.co.uk by February 10. Please specify your preference, if any, for a subbing or reporting trainee

DAILY MAIL

Wow, I thought.  What an opportunity.  So I decided to send “Sue”  my statement which I’ve reproduced below.  Whilst I don’t really want too much competition for this job, maybe some of you guys should think of applying?  Stick your 200 word statements in the comments section if you like and I’ll make sure she gets them.

Dear Sue

I read-with great excitement-your advert seeking trainee journalists for The Daily Mail and  I believe that there is so much I could offer to such a highly esteemed, opinion forming and consistently high quality publication.  I will attempt to elaborate.

My love for The Mail began from an early age when my father- an avid reader of your paper himself- would often chase me round the house with a rolled up copy, beating me furiously as he became convinced that I had entered Britain illegally and, moreover, was slipping carcinogenic substances into his porridge.  Later, just prior to his confinement, my mother and I would visit him daily to deliver copies to the faeces smeared, tinfoil-insulated shack he had constructed at the bottom of our garden.  Such fond memories.  Thusly, I decided to dedicate myself to becoming one of the trailblazing journalists for whom he held such admiration and who brought him so many happy hours of ill-informed, apoplectic rage.

Over the course of my academic studies, have received many citations  from senior professors who felt compelled to go beyond their remit and inform me of their feedback in person.  I feel that these references lend compelling support to my application for a position with The Daily Mail

“Your work shows to me that a basic grasp of the difference between fact and conjecture is no longer a requirement for entry into university” – Prof. R. Bumgardener

“The use of evidence in this argument is so misleading as to constitute academic fraud.  Or it would be if I could make any sense of what you are talking about” – Prof. K Akabusi

“I really don’t know why you bothered to write this at all.  It’s just terrible.  You are terrible” – Dr. No

I am a quick learner and can turn my hand to all forms of prejudice based pseudo-journalism.  I have previously self-published many articles on the walls of local public toilets tackling subjects as diverse as “The 10 best bulldozers for clearing gypsy camps” and  “Public Sector Immigrants: Are they pissing in hospital soup?”

In conclusion, taking me on as a trainee is a decision you would not regret.  I would make every effort to ensure that nothing, absolutely, nothing I wrote would have any grounding in compassion, evidence or sanity and that my authorial voice would shriek loud and without logic; as incoherent and hateful as any of your current employees.

I look forward to discussing this application with you.

Yours

Little Richardjohn III

p.s. I regret that I am unable to provide you with the requested 6 examples of my work as the majority of my files are being investigated by the police on a different matter.  I hope to have this situation resolved promptly.

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Syria: some possible scenarios

With the situation in Syria showing no signs of a swift resolution and every sign of  protracted stalemate I thought I’d hypothesise on some possible scenarios which could emerge over the next year.  However, as the last year has shown, prediction in the Middle East is a dangerous, inexact practice.

1) Protests against the regime increase in number and scale, into the heart of Damscus, the trickle of Syrian army defectors becomes a flood: Assad steps down in the manner of Mubarak, leaving senior Baathists, Army leaders to pave the way for free elections:

Egypt redux and, for many in the West (if not the Syrian opposition), the ideal situation, although it seems highly unlikely given the level of violence perpetrated thus far, extrajudicial killings and rampant torture.  Assad and other regime figures would hardly submit themselves to a situation which could lead them to future indictment and trial.  Also, whilst speculation on the political psychology of the regime is problematic, it seems – to put it brutally- that Assad feels his army command are willing to see through the current policy of internal repression, and that enough of the population will either support or look the other way during the period required to crush the nascent uprising.  Any transition to democratic, civilian rule would face massive obstacles:  the Opposition would demand Assad step down as a precondition and also, perhaps, the presence of international mediators or even troops (a move which would be anathema for many Syrians who, it must be said, still appear to support to regime in large numbers, let alone other actors such asthe Arab league, UN etc.. to  engage).

2) Further defections and desertions strengthen the insurgent “Syrian Free Army” to the point where it develops a credible offensive capability, whilst  regular forces are unable to consistently and decisively surpress centres of the revolt in Hama and Homs, withdrawing from them.  An uneasy stalemate ensues:

Not far off the current situation.  As one commentator has put it “The uprising is too big to crush, but too small to overthrow the regime”, and with every new batch of killings of protestors, disappearances and torture accusations, reconciliation between the regime and the opposition becomes more difficult.  Continued sanctions and an fast-paced economic decline over the next 12 months as a consequence of this could force the regime to the table to negotiate over some, if not all, of protesters demands.  Highly unlikely that a large scale, drawn out insurgency will be able to develop in the short-medium term though, despite the regime’s accusations of an Al-Qaeda inspired series of car bombings in Damascus recently, which seem far fetched.

3)  The regime gradually collapses from within under the combined stressors of the urban uprisings and various ethnic and political and military factions accepting the demise of the Assad regime; although not willing to allow the main opposition groups to simply take over.  Likely resulting in all out civil war:

The nightmare “Lebanon” scenario.  Given the complex ethnic makeup of Syria generally and the Syrian army in particular, there is no way of telling how the army, or its commanders would be able to handle a post-Assad transition to democratic civilian rule.  A full-scale civil war in Syria would be a disaster for the region, and has the potential (if not the guarantee) to produce a situation on a scale as bloody, as chaotic and destabilising as Iraq in 2006, although the ethnic demographics and geographies of Syria make the protracted Muslim/Christian bloodbath of 1980’s Lebanon less likely; in the event of a disorderly regime collapse, the political violence which would emerge from this kind of endgame would be potentially catastrophic, given Syria’s location at the heart of the Middle East and the possibility of external actors wishing to exert influence in any transition, peaceful or violent.

There are, of course many other possibilities, variables and permutations of the above.  These are though, broadly premised on the assumption that the Opposition movement in Syria is not going to simply “shut up shop” and return home;  too much blood has been spilled and the emancipatory desire of the Arab spring still courses through the streets, bodies and affective relations of Syrian life for this to be a possibility.

However, the overwhelming people power (however unfinished their revolution) of Egypt has here, been met with violence rather than tacit support, and the trajectory of the brief Libyan civil war of 2011 is unlikely to be repeated here, given the impossibility of NATO airpower being given to support the opposition (Syria’s air defence capabilities are well in advance of those encountered in Libya, not to mention the UNSC) and the relative military weakness of the insurgency.

The Assad regime may be able to continue in its current “holding pattern” of short, sharp military crackdowns, mass arrests and maintaining the line to internal constituencies that outside conspiracies and terrorism necessitate the maintenance of an militarised state of exception.  However, it is widely felt that this is unsustainable in the medium-long term, particularly if protests intensify.  It should not be forgotten though, that the Hama massacre of 1982, where, during the last period of similar unrest, Assad’s father ordered the army to restore control, resulted in the deaths of at least 10,000 people.  It remains to be seen though, whether the Army, or Assad himself, has the desire or ability to order the repeat of such a brutal episode.  Whilst this uncertainty remains, the capacity for de-escalation and de-militarisation must be kept alive and nurtured by all actors with influence in Syria.

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Black Mirror and the Culture Industry

I’ve just got around to watching the Charlie Brooker scripted Black Mirror on Channel 4 and I have to say it’s just brilliant.  Dark, warped, frequently nightmarish tales befitting an age of hyperconsumption and the collapse of meaningful social and cultural exchange.

I won’t take either programme to pieces here, don’t worry.  I was compelled to jot a couple of notes down regarding the inspired climax of the second piece Fifteen Million Merits, where Bingham, played wonderfully by  Daniel Kaluuya (recently seen in BBC’s The Fades) tricks his way onto an X Factor-style talent show in a dystopian (not so distant) future where the whole population appears to inhabit digital media cells and must cycle on exercise bikes every day whilst watching the crass, empty, pornographic output provided by said talent show.

Holding a piece of broken glass to his throat to prevent his interruption and ensure attention, Bingham launches an extended, “Networkesque” rant against the nightmare world he finds himself trapped in.  The “judges”, far from dismissing his speech, declare themselves impressed Not, of course, with the content or meaning of Bingham’s diatribe, but rather its “heartfelt” and “true” nature.  The lead judge then offers Bingham a show doing exactly what he’s just done, twice a week, for half an hour.

Isn’t this exactly the essence of the culture industry in late capitalism, as expressed so devastatingly by Adorno & Horkheimer?  A mass culture so truly omnipotent that any capacity for resistance to it becomes impossible by dint of its capacity to absorb, sterilise and commodify anything which might approach such a thing, even the anguished, fractured scream of an individual driven to the brink of sanity by the mere awareness of this vacuous culture.  “Something is provided for everyone,” they wrote in 1947 “so that none may escape”.

Adorno and Horkheimer did not live to see the birth of reality television, youtube or facebook, but their writings cast a long (fore)shadow across the 20th Century, persistently relevant to the degeneration of culture in mass society.  That you, the individual, may despise the culture industry is no reason for you to leave,

You can’t anyway,

Come back, we could use someone like you,

Or research has shown that a lot of people feel empty and unsatisfied to the point of suicide by what we produce.

I think you could do great things in that market…

“What is decisive today is the necessity inherent in the system not to leave the customer alone, not for a moment to allow him any suspicion that resistance is possible.  The principle dictates that he should be shown all his needs as capable of fulfilment , but that those needs should be so pre-determined that he feels himself to be the eternal consumer, the object of the culture industry”

(Adorno & Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment)

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