Uncomfortable Ethnographies: The Politics of Race and the Untimeliness of Critique

Review of: Gloria Wekker (2016) White Innocence. Durham: Duke University Press, 240 pp.

In a recent article titled “The coercive character of our ‘normal’”, Sander van Walsum (2017) briefly refers to the controversy surrounding the Dutch politician and ex-VJ and media presenter, Sylvana Simons. Van Walsum tries to understand the sharp turnaround in the public profile of Simons, from popular media presenter to hated public voice against racism. To the extent that Simons remained simply a “coloured” face in media culture, she was popular. But hidden behind that popularity lay the problematic politics of tolerance which Wendy Brown’s (2006) book-length analysis has exposed. For Simons could be popular only to the extent that her race was a commodity and/or an irrelevant aspect of her identity, and not “an issue”. The moment she scathingly brought up the racist and colonial mentality in the Netherlands, the often revolting public attacks against her began. Van Walsum suggests Simons’ exposed the racist assumption that she existed precisely thanks to the public and so should conform to its expectations – that is, shut up about race, and racism, since the Netherlands was not racist. After all, how could she have been so popular if it had been so?

The Simons controversy exposes something particular, and peculiar, within Dutch society. On the one hand, the claim that Dutch society is extraordinarily liberal, open-minded, and yes, that word again, tolerant. On the other, the dramatic rise in racist and xenophobic political populism since the late 1990s. Gloria Wekker confronts this paradox, and its attendant historical precedents, in her politico-economic and cultural genealogy of contemporary Dutch society. As an activist and public intellectual, Wekker’s longstanding involvement in issues around gender, race and sexuality are crystallized in a clearly constructed and lucidly developed series of arguments which in book form confront this paradox head on. This paradox is addressed by Wekker by framing herself as an anthropologist with the goal of “making the familiar world strange” (ix). Wekker’s goal of making the commonplace consensus strange seems appropriate given the claims of incomprehension and denial by which accusations of racism are met.

In the Introduction, Wekker identifies the central object of her analysis, “the white Dutch sense of self”, an ethnographic analysis of which would reveal that “whiteness is not acknowledged as a racialized/ethnicized positioning at all” (2). In making this argument, Wekker connects to a longer intellectual study of whiteness, such as Richard Dyer’s White (1997), whose relative invisibility in studies of race and ethnicity kept whiteness as the norm rather than as a subject (and ethnicity) itself worthy of analysis. Specifically for the Dutch case, Wekker argues, whiteness is the effect of “an unacknowledged reservoir of knowledge and affects based on four hundred years of Dutch imperial rule” which structures “dominant meaning-making processes” including, one may presume, the vociferous denials of racism. She deploys Edward Said’s concept of the “cultural archive” (1993) as an analytical tool for understanding how the present Dutch climate around race relations is structured. The terms “imperial rule”, “cultural archive” and an ethnography of white Dutch selfhood are linked thus by Wekker: “a racial grammar, a deep structure of inequality in thought and affect based on race, was installed in nineteenth-century European imperial populations and … it is from this deep reservoir, the cultural archive that … a sense of self has been formed and fabricated” (2). And it is this self which she argues is marked by “white innocence”.

The recurrent appearance of the word “deep” should already suggest to the reader that Wekker’s analysis is based on a depth-hermeneutic that begins with and dives below the surface articulations of racial and ethnic discourse in the Netherlands. In revealing the present legacies of the hidden colonial archive, Wekker takes recourse to a primarily psychoanalytical language of “splitting” and “displacement” (4) to explain the processes by which the denial of European history manifests itself in the crises around racism today in Dutch society. This plumbing the depths of Dutch history and the cultural archive however, does not seek to find one singular cause for the prevalence of denial in the construction of white Dutch selfhood. Wekker immediately states that she attempts an “intersectional reading of the Dutch colonial archive, with special attention for the ways in which an imperial racial economy” is marked by “gendered, sexualized, and classed intersections” (2).

Her intersectional analyses, spread out across the subsequent five chapters, focuses primarily on the western part of the Dutch empire, that is, Suriname and the Antilles. Each of these chapters fleshes out what Wekker identifies as three paradoxes which structure the white Dutch sense of self:

  • a refusal to identify with migrants;
  • the innocent victim of German Occupation;
  • Dutch imperialism.

At first, a reader might find the stating of these elements confusing since they do not seem to name a paradox but perhaps historical “features” of Dutch selfhood. It is here, however, that the sometimes uncertain place of psychoanalysis is important to emphasize, since what Wekker is arguing is that in each of these elements, a process of denial is crucial. That is, (1) the historical reality of migration which structures all and not just non-white Dutch populations is denied; (2) the Dutch self-image as victim represses the memory of violence and collaboration in the Netherlands which marked the extermination of Jews under the Occupation; and (3) a denial of the crucial importance of Dutch imperialism in structuring forms of white superiority in the Dutch context.

These three denials, Wekker convincingly argues, enable a self-presentation of the white Dutch Self as “innocent”, the central concept through which Wekker develops her analyses in the chapters that follow. In other words, a process of denial helps the positing of a self-image of innocence – and innocence is of course a powerful mode of refusing accusations of racism. The paradoxes she identifies are fleshed out in three “innovations” in her methodology. Firstly, as already stated above, Wekker thinks of race, sexuality and gender together in an intersectional frame. Secondly, she links metropolitan and colonial history in her analyses; and lastly, she links the Eastern and Western spheres of Dutch imperialism. Each of these innovative perspectives are differentially evidenced in the five chapters which follow. The reader thus encounters different features of a complex theoretical and conceptual framework (three paradoxes and three perspectives) being deployed at different levels of intensity in each of the five controversies she constructs.

The first chapter analyzes “case studies of everyday racism” ranging from controversial statements on a Dutch TV talk show to literary analysis of Ellen Ombre’s Negerjood. Unlike the other chapters, which primarily though not exclusively fasten on a single object of analysis, this chapter captures in miniature, as it were, both the wide range of Wekker’s field of analyses as well as the conceptual resources she will deploy throughout the book. The importance of psychoanalysis is felt most strongly in this chapter with invocations of Fanon on the European unconscious, and processes of “internalization and splitting” (41). Further, the crucial link between racism, gender and sexuality are brought out through a reading of the submerged effects of the experience of slavery in the work of Toni Morrison (Beloved), the work of historian and sociologist Rudolf van Lier (Samenleving in een Grensgebied) and historians including Avtar Brah and Laura Ann Stoler.

The second chapter turns to important sites of knowledge-production blessed with the official sanction of being sciences, namely the University and governmental policy-making. The chapter swiftly shifts the focus from the sphere of popular culture (such as TV) to explore the enormous power that the nexus of racism and sexism exerts within government policy-making, the academy generally, and women/gender studies in particular. One of the most important insights Wekker offers in her analysis of policy-making is the shift from “commensurate participation in society” and “integration, while holding on to one’s own identity” (55, emphasis added) to an increasing focus on “shared values” (55) and the necessity of integrating migrants into “Dutch society”. In other words, a broader focus on “employment, education, housing and political participation” (55) toward a more egalitarian society has been increasingly replaced by firstly the identification of “problem” groups (Turks, Moroccans, Antilleans) and their integration into Dutch society. Wekker’s own involvement in different government policy-making organs provides for compelling evidence that “long-standing ideas about and practices with regard to race” (58) structure the aims of policy, the allocation of funds, and the involvement (or not) of relevant, non-white partners in the process of policy-making. Her analyses reveal that the category “woman” is considered white, that “allochtonous women” do not fall within the ambit of “women” while the specific differences between allochtonous women are ignored. This colour-blindness regarding gender is then convincingly shown precisely in the area of women/gender studies, where once again the category “woman” does not include women of colour. In this chapter, Wekker’s intersectional focus on class, sexuality, race and gender clearly exposes the compartmentalized functioning of intellectual labour within the University, and policy-making generally.

The third chapter “The Coded language of the Hottentot Nymphae and the Discursive Presence of Race, 1917” fastens on an interesting if little-known case in the history of psychoanalysis in which three Dutch women were treated by the psychoanalyst Dr. J.H.W. van Ophuijsen. Here, the complex processes of identification and displacement become evident in the paradox Wekker identifies in which, while the white, upper-class women, believing they possessed overly developed labia minora, identified with “the supposed morphology of black women’s genitalia”, their doctor, on the other hand, dismissed their claims and persisted in diagnosing them as suffering from “a masculinity complex”. What propelled the doctor’s denial of these women’s racial imaginings, and why was it necessary, Wekker asks, for colonial ideologies of black women’s bodies and sexualities to be read through the lens of masculinity? In exploring this paradox fed by denial (the doctor’s) and displacement (the three women), Wekker deploys the notion of the colonial archive, and the relation between the metropolis and the colony, to show how crucial sites of cultural dissemination, including advertisements, magazines and the World exhibitions, had provided a script through which these white women were exposed “to knowledge about black women and their bodies” (93). Further, Wekker shows how medical-scientific discourse furnished fantasies of the civilized male and the evolutionary higher-placed white race, thus relegating both women and people of colour to inferior positions in both scientific and popular discourse. Wekker convincingly shows how the black female body becomes the over-determined site through which an “explicit discourse on gender and sexuality…was informed by implicit assumptions about racial difference”(106).

It is in the chapter titled “Of Homo Nostalgia and (Post)Coloniality” that the strength of Wekker’s intersectional analysis comes most to the fore, as she moves between a genealogy of the women’s and gay rights movement, the contemporary defence of gay rights, and the disparaged figure of the un-integrated allochthon. The Dutch situation is particularly important here, since the alignment of Left and Right with specific political views gets undone in the wake of xenophobic gay rights and women’s rights discourses. While elsewhere, particularly the U.S., conservative social views issue from a combined homophobic and racist milieu, Wekker rightly argues that in the Dutch case seemingly feminist and gay rights’ discourses are closely aligned with malignant notions of cultural alterity and racial/ethnic/cultural inferiority. Hence the subtitle of the chapter ‘Or, Where did all the Critical White Gay Men go?’. Wekker rightly argues that women’s emancipation was understood in far more expansive terms including issues of education, employment, child care and sexual violence. The gay liberation movement, on the other hand, argues Wekker quoting existing research, was marked by “the depoliticized character of Dutch gay identity” (116) which was “anchored in domesticity and consumption” (Mepschen et al 2010, 971) and closely linked to normative notions of citizenship and exclusionary notions of nationalism.

Wekker fleshes out this normativity by exposing how a white European understanding of gay identity underwrote both the identification of sexuality of people from other cultures as well as the demand for integration through the rhetoric of exposure in “coming out” discourse and speaking in public. Noting the virtual absence of “white and black, migrant and refugee lesbians” from the current political landscape, as well as the class-blindness of sexual rights discourse, she argues that “the assumption that speaking about one’s sexuality is only natural and thus good for everyone” (121) remains unquestioned. This equation between sexual acts and sexual identity which undergirds sexual rights discourse is singularly white, middle-class, European. Yet, precisely by claiming the status of former victims of homophobia, a nostalgic discourse of defensiveness against minorities is deployed by Dutch gay men.

In addition to an unexamined normativity, Wekker deploys Said’s concept of the cultural archive to situate the ambivalent relationship of desire and disgust which structures much public discourse of white Dutch gay men. The ethnic other (in this case, young men of Moroccan and Turkish backgrounds) is both desired and vilified. Wekker refers to a controversial interview with the late Pim Fortuyn, an openly gay man whose political campaigns targeted primarily those in the Netherlands having an Islamic background. Fortuyn’s stated desire for young Moroccans was matched by a dismissive stance toward their seemingly backward attitude – that is, denial of their homosexuality. Wekker insists that the raced and classed discourse of the white right to avail itself of the bodies of women and men in colonial history emerges precisely in this dialectic of desire and disgust. Thinking through gender, race and sexuality allows Wekker to situate the nostalgic gay rights discourse against minorities within a comparative perspective (with the women’s rights movements) and through an identification of the persistence of colonial modes of thought on coloured bodies and their sexualities. Her analysis punctures a developmental discourse of sexual and gender rights from an intersectional perspective, fleshing out in greater detail an earlier critique by Judith Butler (2008) of the link between history, time and sexuality.

The last full chapter of the book explores the increasingly virulent reactions in Dutch society to the critique of the figure of Black Pete (Zwarte Piet), often identified as a Moorish servant to a white bishop, Sinterklaas. This cultural tradition accompanied by much festivity is celebrated annually on December 5. Zwarte Piet’s integral place within tradition, particularly one enjoyed primarily by children, Wekker convincingly argues, helps explain the impassioned responses any anti-racist critique of this figure precipitates. Here the claim of “innocence” is most clearly seen since the figure of the innocent child enjoying a well-established Dutch tradition functions as a mechanism whereby the claim of racism can be denied. Wekker situates a series of controversies, including the cancellation of an artistic intervention around Zwarte Piet by two artists invited by the Van Abbe Museum in 2008, to then analyze the defensive (and aggressive) responses elicited primarily on the internet to critiques of the figure of Zwarte Piet. Deploying Paul Gilroy’s notion of “postcolonial melancholia”, Wekker frames the discourse that claims Zwarte Piet is part of “our” (Dutch) tradition as a melancholic response of sadness where something valuable from colonial history is threatened by the presence of the unwanted outsiders within. Coupled with the continual references to children, and thus a discourse of innocence, the structure of denial and then displacement (foreigners do not understand “our” tradition) generates an aggressively defensive discourse of an innocent white Dutch identity.

Wekker’s argument that whiteness exempts itself from charges of racism through claims of innocence is innovatively built up by moving her analytical gaze across a very disparate range of objects – from TV talk shows, psychoanalytical case study, popular controversies around tradition, literary analysis, and institutional critique. As a method, taking this very varied set of objects as scenes for analysis, often punctuated by tellingly painful and pungent personal anecdotes, makes for refreshing reading since no one disciplinary paradigm with its own privileged object domain prevails. Structuring this wide-ranging series of analyses through the triple-paradox framework helps the reader to situate her attention even as analytical objects shift rapidly. The use of psychoanalytic language (denial, repression, splitting, internalization, displacement) is iconoclastic, since Wekker’s engagement with psychoanalysis is primarily through its generative power evidenced in the work of writers such as Fanon and Césaire, rather than through explicit invocation of Freud and/or Lacan as “masters” of the discourse.

Wekker’s book-length study of White Innocence is untimely. If timeliness means being appropriate, and exhibiting the norms of propriety, then White Innocence speaks to an interlocutor – the white Dutch self – who would find the book inappropriate, and confronting. And that is precisely the book’s aim. One could argue that being untimely, in this sense, is precisely what critique means. Wekker’s scholarly intervention in an increasingly fraught public debate around race exhibits precisely the right sort of untimeliness, that is, puncturing the complacent, consensual and self-deluding image of a small, liberal and innocent nation whose culture is far from racist.

White Innocence is untimely in another sense too. There might be a sense for some readers going through the book that “of course” would be the obvious response to an argument which claims that colonial history and deep structures of racism, misogyny and homophobia structure the white self – that is, a sense of “haven’t we heard this all before?” But this is precisely where the book is untimely in a productive and critical way. For in the Dutch context, as Wekker clearly shows, it is precisely a denial of colonial history, with its attendant intellectual, affective and discursive consequences, that marks the contemporary multicultural scene of politics. The book then is not repeating an argument in an all-too familiar context. Rather, it is inserting a critical analysis into a national context which has strenuously denied any implication in the dark history of colonialism and racism. These two forms of untimeliness make Wekker’s intervention particularly useful in a Dutch political climate unwilling to look critically at its own self-image, as well as for theorists of race beyond the Netherlands who seek to understand how racism manifests itself quite differently in different geo-political contexts.


Recensie van: René ten Bos (2015) Water, een geofilosofische geschiedenis. Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Boom, 352 pp.

In Water wordt het gelijknamige element geanalyseerd vanuit het standpunt van de geofilosofie, waarin het denken en de wereld waarbinnen het denken zich voltrekt met elkaar verstrengeld zijn. Deleuze en Guattari, geofilosofische denkers pur sang, thematiseren het landschap waarbinnen het denken plaatsvindt en stellen dat het landschap meedenkt met het denken. Subject en object kunnen volgens de geofilosofie niet naast elkaar worden geplaatst en hebben een wederkerige relatie tot elkaar. Ten Bos schaart zich bij deze geofilosofische standpunten door te stellen dat water meedenkt met de filosofie: ‘We zouden het moeten aandurven dit denken in water onder te dompelen’ (16). Wat volgt is niet alleen een exposé over hoe het denken door toedoen van water vorm heeft gekregen, waarbij diep wordt gegraven in de geschiedenis van de filosofie, maar ook een pleidooi voor de relevantie van geofilosofisch denken. Als water voortdurend doorsijpelt in het denken, zoals Ten Bos betoogt, hoe kan dan de geschiedenis van de filosofie worden herschreven en welke rol is daarbij weggelegd voor een geofilosofische manier van denken?

De wortels van geofilosofisch denken zijn te vinden bij Thales – verguisd door Aristoteles en Plato, maar omarmd door Nietzsche omwille van Thales’ overtuiging dat de natuur uit zichzelf tot ons zou kunnen spreken (25). Thales stelt dat water het leidende principe, de zogenaamde archè, is van alle realiteit. Dit ‘waterige’ begin van de filosofie duidt op een meer ongewisse bodem van het denken, dat geen vaste grond aan de voeten krijgt. Het denken verdrinkt in de wereld die het overspoelt. De werkelijkheid is volgens Thales daarom het beste te begrijpen als een ‘eeuwigdurend worden’ (36). Na Thales hebben filosofen geprobeerd het vlietende karakter van water weg te denken, bijvoorbeeld door te stellen dat de mens alleen de werkelijkheid kan doorgronden als hij bereid is God als het eerste principe te erkennen (32). Het stromende karakter van de eeuwig wordende werkelijkheid bedreigt de zuiverheid en stabiliteit van de polis, aldus Plato. Door het mogelijke binnendringen van ‘verkeerde zeden en gebruiken van overzee’ is de polis volgens Plato gebaat bij een ‘groot redder en goddelijke wetgevers’ (52). Immers, een stad die zich openstelt voor de zee kan in moreel verval komen. Plato draagt de ‘manier van de logos’ aan als een methode die ‘het wezen of de essentie die alle veelvoudigheid moet verbinden’, zodat men door een wereld kon koersen die werd gezien als ‘onmiskenbaar divers en veelsoortig’ (66). De meervoudigheid van de wereld kan tot uitdrukking worden gebracht wanneer deze wordt ingeperkt. Volgens Ten Bos kan de democratie de meervoudigheid van de wereld blijvend benadrukken: ‘Het geruis van de democratie is een echo van het geruis van de zee’ (71). De democratie is in fundamentele zin anti-logos omdat zij kan leiden tot een voortdurend hernieuwd omarmen van de meervoudigheid van de wereld, waarmee zij steeds opnieuw de eenheid van de polis ter discussie stelt. Democratie kan volgens Ten Bos worden gezien als een voortdurend experiment.

Zoals opgemerkt heeft het denken over de natuur (en het water zelf) te maken gehad met een zekere afkeer van het denken van Thales, oftewel thalassofobie. Wie denkt dat Herakleitos’ bekende uitspraak panta rhei of ‘alles stroomt’ doelde op een diepe poëtische meditatie op de manier waarop fysieke processen verlopen komt bedrogen uit. Herakleitos reflecteert op de manier waarop water doorlopend zijn stemming beïnvloedt: ‘Wie bijvoorbeeld in een rivier stapt om haar te doorwaden, wordt zelf ook doorwaad’ (84). Water heeft voor Herakleitos ook een meer sinistere associatie met duisternis en slapen: in beide gevallen geeft men zich over aan een bepaalde situatie. Uiteindelijk leidt dit tot een ambivalent beeld van water, wat ons kan doden door verdrinking maar daarnaast ook dient als brandstof voor het leven en de ziel. In plaats van het denken onder te dompelen in water verkondigt Plato een aards of chtonisch perspectief waarbij de logos kan voorkomen dat het denken ten onder gaat in het onwezenlijke, veranderlijke en vloeiende water. Vanaf het begin van de jaartelling neemt de thalassofobie een meer extreme vorm aan wanneer gnostici de zee zien als ‘een materieel symbool voor de duisternis waarin het goddelijke verzonken ligt’ (108). Het christendom, de gnosis en het neoplatonisme verbinden een toenemende angst voor de kosmos met de overtuiging dat heil alleen kan worden gevonden door een speurtocht naar de eigen ziel, al dan niet met behulp van de troost die men kan vinden bij de medemens. Dante verkondigt in deze tijd een heel andere visie. Water en aarde, zo betoogt hij, vermengen zich op allerlei manieren en hebben daarom geen vastomlijnde contouren of grenzen (113). Dit staat haaks op de rigide onderverdeling van de elementen in het in die tijd dominante aristoteliaanse wereldbeeld. Hieruit rijst de vraag of water nu hoger ligt dan de aarde of juist lager dan de aarde. Dante kiest geen positie in dit debat en lijkt zich neer te leggen bij de ‘essentiële onverklaarbaarheid van de verhouding van water met de aarde’ (120). Water verschijnt aan het denken ‘als iets volstrekt ondoorgrondelijks’ (Ibid.). In plaats van het vinden van de ultieme oorzaak van de verschijnselen in de wereld, roept Dante op het denken opnieuw op de dieptes van het water af te stemmen door empirisch onderzoek.

Dit betekent echter niet dat het denken over water haar apotheose bereikt met het empirisch onderzoek dat heeft geleid tot de molecuulformule H2O, die slechts een deel van de betekenis van water kan duiden. Ten Bos meent dat er altijd ‘een residu aan onrust blijft hangen’ wanneer we water uitputtend proberen te beschrijven’ (123). Pogingen water van betekenis te voorzien vanuit een geofilosofisch perspectief dienen van dit bewustzijn doordrongen te zijn. Meer gepast is een vorm van ‘verlegenheid’ (124). Ten Bos meent dat water moet worden gezien als rizoom, een niet-hiërarchische en niet-doelmatige ‘wortel’. Daarbij beroept Ten Bos zich op het werk van wetenschappers die werkzaam zijn op het gebied van de hydrologie en chemie. Deze wetenschappers hameren zelf voortdurend op het grillige en onvoorspelbare gedrag van water.

Water verhoudt zich slecht tot eigendom en vormt de inzet van conflicten tussen natiestaten. Vanaf de zestiende eeuw leidde de overtuiging dat de paus de enige en absolute autoriteit in de wereld was tot hevige oorlogen. Hugo de Groot ontwikkelt in deze tijd een volkenrecht dat stelt dat ieder volk de zeeën zou mogen bevaren en handel zou mogen drijven met andere volken (167). De Groot zag dit idee als een heilige wet of natuurwet die op geen enkele manier door politieke machten terzijde mocht worden geschoven. Bovendien zag hij de zee als ongrijpbaar, onbegrensbaar en onuitputtelijk, wat het onmogelijk maakt de zee als eigendom te zien. Op vergelijkbare wijze stelt filosoof Carl Schmitt dat aanspraken op eigendom en soevereiniteit alleen gelden op het land. Schmitt hekelt de nadruk op het land in de politiek omdat water en zee volgens hem de oergrond van het leven zijn. Vanaf het moment dat de Engelsen kiezen voor een maritiem bestaan ontstaat volgens Schmitt een ommekeer van het ruimtebeeld, waarbinnen de wereld niet louter vanuit het land maar juist vanuit de zee werd gezien. In het liberaal-kapitalisme kan de zee worden gezien als een ‘gladde’ ruimte zonder lijnen, inkervingen en punten. In deze ruimte kan men alleen overleven door te navigeren met behulp van geprojecteerde lijnen en meridianen. Hoewel het kapitalisme de ‘gladheid’ van de zee met lijnen wenst te doortrekken, zou het nooit zonder die gladheid kunnen functioneren (185). Daar waar het kapitalisme tracht de ruimte te construeren waarbinnen ‘vrije’ handel kan plaatsvinden, vindt men zowel een ‘proliferatie van regels en technieken’ als ‘een toenemende wanorde’ (Ibid.).

Aan de hand van Peter Sloterdijks werk bestrijdt Ten Bos Schmitts rigide scheiding tussen land en zee. Sloterdijk hamert op de amfibische kwaliteiten van mensen. Door te duiken staat het ik niet langer tegenover de wereld in een ‘confronterende’ zijnswijze, maar lost het ik op in een ‘mediale’ zijnswijze in wat Sloterdijk een ‘sfeer’ noemt (197). Voor Sloterdijk staat duiken gelijk aan verbinding, deelname en enthousiasme. Een ander element dat refereert naar water in Sloterdijks denken is de notie van eiland, dat wordt gezien als een ‘utero-technisch’ project waarmee ‘de wereld op afstand wordt gehouden en mensen erin slagen dicht bij elkaar te zijn’ (203). Hoewel de mens aan overbrugging doet, zijn afzonderen en isoleren ook typisch menselijke eigenschappen. Sloterdijk stelt diegenen die aan overbrugging doen ten voorbeeld. Juist de mensen die vaste grond en zekerheid onder de voeten willen krijgen, zijn verliezers in deze tijd van globalisering. Deze mogelijkheid tot verbinding kan uitnodigen tot een romantisch beeld van de zee. Michel Serres wijst echter op het feit dat de zee ons gehele sensorium overhoopgooit: op zee weet je niet of je iets hoort of ziet en soms kun je je op je gemak voelen en dan weer volledig van slag raken. De zee is zowel intiem als vijandig. De grote witte walvis, het lijdend voorwerp van de toorn van kapitein Achab in Herman Melvilles Moby Dick, kan worden gezien als symbool van het kapitalisme dat zich aandiende in de tijd van Melville (237). Marx, eveneens getuige van het opkomende kapitalisme, duidde de nieuwe productieverhoudingen van zijn tijd in termen van stroming en circulatie, waarbij geld als smeermiddel optreedt. Wat betreft de rol van geld schrijft Marx dat ‘geld enerzijds een soort beknopt overzicht van alle dingen levert, maar anderzijds die dingen ook afwezig maakt omdat men er alleen nog maar de ruilwaarde van ziet’ (240). Ten Bos betoogt dat ‘de karakterloosheid en betekenisloosheid van de zee lijken op die van wit en die van geld. Alleen in een wereld waarin niets vaststaat, kunnen karakterloosheid en betekenisloosheid ongeremd gedijen’ (241). Kapitalisme gedijt daarom goed in een maritieme ruimte, wat in het geval van Melville wordt gerepresenteerd door de witte walvis.

De zee kan worden gezien als ‘mineraalrijk land dat vraagt om rationeel beheer en duurzame ontwikkeling’ (253). Dehistorisering en depolitisering van de zee, volgens Ten Bos inherent aan het kapitalisme, moeten worden bestreden omdat daardoor het begrip van de relatie tussen mens en zee ons ontglipt. Inzichten uit de ‘exacte’ wetenschappen en de menswetenschappen kunnen helpen de relatie tussen mens en zee te duiden, waardoor de samenleving tot het inzicht kan komen dat ecologische crises niet met eenvoudige chirurgische ingrepen te genezen zijn. Het verkondigen van sombere boodschappen is echter niet lucratief voor de wetenschap, omdat dit niet aanlokkelijk is voor het bedrijfsleven, die de noodzakelijke financiering voor onderzoek levert. Een ‘blauwgroene’ vorm van kapitalisme lijkt het huidige denken over de zee te beheersen: ‘Blauw is de gedachte dat de zee nog steeds een sky-high belofte inhoudt … groen is de gedachte dat diezelfde zee nog steeds een onuitputtelijke en vruchtbare levensbron is’ (265). Tegenwoordig moet de waarde als levensbron worden gezien als ‘onuitputtelijke geldbron’, waaruit een ‘kapitalistisch delirium’ spreekt: Áan de ene kant wil de ondernemer de bestaande wereld ontstijgen en aan de andere kant wil hij de controle erop niet verliezen’ (Ibid.). De ecologische destructie die deze houding tot gevolg heeft, kan de zee transformeren in de primordiale zeeën van honderden miljoenen jaren geleden, waar alleen eencelligen overleefden. Hoewel Ten Bos hier duidelijk zinspeelt op politiek-normatieve aspecten van de filosofie, wordt het niet geheel duidelijk hoe filosofen zich aan de hand van geofilosofische principes kunnen mengen in ecologische vraagstukken. Het denken mag zich weliswaar vol overtuiging in de diepte van het water storten, maar hoe kunnen filosofen ervoor zorgen dat beleidsvormingsprocessen een vergelijkbare koers gaan varen?

Na de beschrijvingen van de verhouding tussen de poëzie en de wetenschap, het overweldigende karakter van water dat het denken heen en weer slaat tussen uniformiteit en multipliciteit en de invloed van kapitalistische productieverhoudingen op het denken en water komt Ten Bos in het laatste hoofdstuk van Water tot een besluit met een meer methodologisch-conceptueel karakter. Hoe kunnen we ‘het vloeibare’ (285) begrijpen wanneer ons verstand, zo meent bijvoorbeeld Kant, eigenlijk helemaal niet daartoe is uitgerust? De (zuivere) rede trekt de mens op het droge, vanwaar de wereld kan worden gekend en gewaardeerd. Michel Serres roept op juist af te dalen in de diepte. Daarbij is weliswaar een rol voor de rede weggelegd, maar volgens Serres hoeven we ons niet te beperken tot ‘punten, lijnen en vlakken’ (287). Er is een vloeiende strategie nodig die wetenschap en ethiek met elkaar verbindt. Volgens Serres kan de notie van het clinamen van Lucretius een eerste aanzet geven tot een meer fluïde wetenschap. Het clinamen, een immanente vorm van verandering in de natuur, verduidelijkt dat objecten voortdurend kunnen worden beïnvloed door zaken die buiten hen plaatsvinden (294). Serres duidt het universum als een ‘meervoudigheid van stromen’ (295), waarbij er geen essentieel verschil tussen lokaal en globaal bestaat: ‘Omdat het hele universum constant meedeint met alle kleine en grote gebeurtenissen, vervalt het hele verschil tussen beide’ (Ibid.). Mens en wereld deinen mee met de wereld. Een nautische ethiek openbaart zich: ‘Leer accepteren dat instabiliteit de wet is. Omarm complexiteit. Begrijp dat ethiek identiek is met de natuurkunde’ (297). In plaats van de wereld in een onwrikbare orde te plaatsen, laveert de wijze wetenschapper tussen ‘evenwicht en afwijking’ en streeft daarbij naar ‘meedeinen, meeveren, meegaan’ (298). Het verlangen van de rationaliteit naar eenheid is illusoir omdat deze slechts van buiten aan de wereld kan worden opgedrongen.

De meervoudigheid van de wereld is goed te zien in water. In het meervoudige ‘hangt alles met alles samen en zoekt alles verbinding met alles’ (300). Uiteindelijk is de wereld als water: ongrijpbaar, onbegrijpbaar, hooguit zintuiglijk waarneembaar. Het geofilosofische project van Ten Bos lijkt voornamelijk gericht te zijn op de mate waarin de overweldigende en onpeilbare mysterieuze diepte van water wordt geaffirmeerd. Water laat overtuigend zien dat de geschiedenis van het denken een worsteling behelst tussen affirmatie en een thalassofobisch indammen van water. Ten Bos haalt Sloterdijk aan om de affirmatieve levenshouding die tegenover water kan worden ingenomen te verduidelijken: ‘Wie duikt zegt ja en zoekt de verbinding, de deelname, het enthousiasme. Wie opduikt om adem te halen, zoekt de scheiding, de kritiek, misschien zelfs de distantie. Mensen zitten, als we Sloterdijk mogen geloven, altijd vast in deze ambivalentie’ (201). Het affirmeren van de disruptieve kracht van het water kan voortdurend op de klippen lopen en is kwetsbaar. Daarmee rijst de vraag hoe de affirmatieve kracht van waterig denken kan doordringen in de zaken die Ten Bos problematiseert, zoals ecologische kwetsbaarheden en de wetenschap. De lezer die verwacht concrete richtlijnen voor interventionistisch waterig denken aan te treffen, zal teleurgesteld worden. In de hydrologie en hydrodynamica is inderdaad, zoals ook Ten Bos betoogt, een sterke mate van erkenning van de grilligheid van water te vinden. Water laat zich volgens hydrologen niet zonder meer ‘vangen’ in een model en elke kwantitatieve beschrijving van water moet aan een zekere scepsis worden onderworpen. Daarbij moet wel worden opgemerkt dat deze erkenning beperkt kan blijven tot diegenen die water op wetenschappelijke wijze bestuderen. Beleidsmakers die harde beslissingen moeten nemen over de veiligheid van waterkeringen zullen minder snel geneigd zijn het vlietende karakter van water te omarmen. De vraag blijft niet alleen in hoeverre en hoe ruimte kan worden vrijgevochten voor het denken zodat het zich kan onderdompelen in het water, maar ook welke krachten een dergelijke onderdompeling belemmeren. Ten Bos levert een krachtig en erudiet pleidooi voor een instrumentarium dat gevestigde manieren van denken ter discussie kan stellen. Het komt er nu op aan dit instrumentarium los te laten op de wereld.

Can the Right of Necessity Be Both Personal and Political?

Review of: Alejandra Mancilla (2016) The Right of Necessity: Moral Cosmopolitanism and Global Poverty. London: Rowman and Littlefield International. 140 pp.

In The Right of Necessity: Moral Cosmopolitanism and Global Poverty, Alejandra Mancilla argues that agents whose basic rights to subsistence are not realised should be entitled to “take, use and/or occupy the material resources required to guarantee [their] self-preservation, or the means necessary to obtain the latter” (4). This right of necessity (RoN hereafter) is, according to Mancilla, a “concrete expression” of the basic right to those material provisions necessary for survival (70). When an economic order guarantees its members secure access to the content of their subsistence rights (food, water, shelter, etc.), the exercising of the RoN would be limited to rare emergency cases. But in a world such as ours, in which very many human beings experience severe and chronic deprivation, resort to the RoN would be far more common. In this sense, the RoN serves as a check on any system of property rights: if a socioeconomic regime does not create conditions within which the basic right to subsistence is fulfilled for all, then those whose rights remain unmet – or others acting on their behalf – are entitled to act to guarantee their survival. “Demanding otherwise from them would be unreasonable, as it would be irrational for them to accept”, according to Mancilla (68). The RoN is a Hohfeldian “privilege compounded by a claim against others (including the owners of the targeted property) not to interfere with the agent’s actions” (85 italics in original). Defining the RoN as a privilege means that those who act to secure their survival have no duty not to do so. Combining it with a duty held by others not to interfere with the legitimate exercising of the RoN strengthens a right that would otherwise be weak.

The principal audience for this argument is moral cosmopolitans: those who hold that all individual human beings are equally the ultimate units of moral concern. One of Mancilla’s general aims is to rebalance the conversation on cosmopolitanism and global poverty in favour of a focus on “what the needy may be morally permitted to do by themselves and for themselves to fulfil or satisfy their basic right to subsistence” (3). Such a shift is indeed sorely needed: most contributions to the global justice debate to date have focused on the duties and (in)action of the well-off, treating the global poor simply as passive recipients of aid or sympathy. Another sense in which Mancilla’s contribution is very welcome is the careful and considered historical recovery of the arguments for the RoN provided by Aquinas, Grotius, and Pufendorf. These accounts demonstrate that RoN has a rich but as yet under-recognised historical pedigree.

In general, Mancilla’s case for the RoN is compelling: I found little to disagree with in many of the arguments she offers. Issues remain, nevertheless. Here, I focus on three. The first two relate to the assumptions she makes; the third to the likely practical and political implications of her argument.

Feasible conditions

Mancilla makes four normative and two factual assumptions, upon which the rest of her case for the RoN relies. Her normative assumptions are moral cosmopolitanism, the existence of the basic right to subsistence, the acceptance of the institution of property, and belief that any reasonable system of property rights must satisfy everyone’s basic needs. I will not discuss Mancilla’s normative assumptions as I have no quarrel with them. Her factual assumptions are more controversial, however. The first is that “certain minimally favourable material and technological conditions hold at the global level, that make it not utopian but feasible to have everyone’s basic right to subsistence satisfied” (16).

The problem with this assumption is that the feasibility of the satisfaction of subsistence rights for all is not fully determined by ‘material and technological conditions’ alone. As John Rawls says, when it comes to a society ensuring that all of its members enjoy human rights, while “money is often essential”, “political culture” is “all-important” (Rawls 1999, 108-109). Rawls gives the examples of famines that occur as the result of political and institutional failure, as opposed to simple lack of food (1999, 109). He also refers to the difference that the position of women can have on population levels and the sustainability of the economy (Rawls 1999, 109-110). Attitudes about the status of women are often deeply embedded within cultural and religious practices, and not necessarily reducible to ‘material and technological conditions’.

Rawls’ comments on this topic are far from perfect or complete. In particular, he does not elaborate on the specific ways a regime can be burdened by unfavourable conditions, and the sense in which political culture is implicated in each of these ways. The general point is clear, however: in order to make the realisation of the right to subsistence truly feasible, a society would need to have a political culture that was hospitable to it. It is not clear that conditions globally can currently be characterised in this way (which is not to say that it can never be), even if one did accept that anything like a single global society existed. This takes us to the next problem.

A basic global economic structure

Mancilla’s second factual assumption is “that there is such a thing as a basic global economic structure of which most human beings take part” (16). I take the reason why she needs this assumption to be that it provides a single global entity which can be held responsible for global poverty. Mancilla follows Thomas Pogge in interpreting human rights as “direct moral claims against social institutions imposed on oneself” (73). However, the crucial question Pogge does not consider in great depth, according to Mancilla, is what those whose human rights are not fulfilled are entitled to do for themselves while their institutions are failing. Mancilla regards her defence of the RoN as offering an answer to this question.

There are two problems with Mancilla’s assumption of a ‘basic global economic structure’, both of which suggest it is redundant. First, it is not at all clear that she needs it in order for the most striking implications of her argument to win through. Even if it was not the case that most human beings participated in a single economic order, the global poor would still presumably be able to exercise the RoN within their local, national, and regional settings. Indeed, all of the cases Mancilla cites as examples of when something close to the RoN has been invoked in the real world (the callamperos in Chile, for example, or the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra in Brazil) are distinctly local in character (87-88).

The second problem is that, even if you accept Mancilla’s assumption of a ‘basic global economic structure’, it does not follow from this that such a structure itself has the capacity to guarantee the subsistence rights of all. The reason for this is that a ‘structure’ is not necessarily an institutional agent – that is, a macro-level agent able to regulate relations amongst other sub-level agents in line with a given pattern or goal. The presence of capable institutional agents is necessary if individuals are to have secure access to the content of their subsistence (and other) rights. The paradigmatic example of such an institutional agent in our current world is the state, but capable global institutional agents need not be exact replicas. A number of global justice theorists – including Henry Shue, who Mancilla cites approvingly throughout the book – have persuasively argued that it is precisely the absence of capable institutional agents which helps to explain the present levels of global poverty and inequality (Ronzoni 2009; Scheffler 2008; Shue 1988).

If Mancilla believes that the current levels of global economic interaction and interdependence is equivalent to the existence of a set of global institutional agents capable of regulating relations between all individuals such that all enjoy the basic right to subsistence, then she is mistaken. Alternatively, if she holds that the right to subsistence can be realised in the absence of capable institutional agents, this would be mistaken too. Indeed, given that Mancilla herself accepts that basic rights generate “final duties” to “create conditions under which the legitimate exercise of the right of necessity by the chronically deprived simply disappears” (76), it is not clear that the assumption of a ‘basic global economic structure’ is doing any useful work in her account at all.

Practical and political implications

The final problem with Mancilla’s argument for the RoN which I will discuss relates to its practical and political implications. This has two dimensions: personal implications for the agent exercising the RoN, and political implications for wider society. On the personal level, one question Mancilla deals with is whether those invoking the RoN can use force if others interfere with the exercise of their right. Mancilla’s response is disappointing (87-88). First, she distinguishes between violence and resistance with no explanation of what this distinction consists in. Then, she simply rules out violence a priori with an approving reference to Pogge where there should be an argument. Finally, she gives three examples of real world cases where the RoN has been successfully claimed without resort to violence, presumably to show that such results are possible. But the question is not whether it is possible to successfully exercise the RoN non-violently, but whether non-violence is all that can ever be justified. Given the current scale of deprivation globally and the inevitability of the resistance from those whose property will become vulnerable to appropriation by the needy, a more nuanced discussion of the characteristics of violence (directed at what, for example?) and fuller defence of pacifism is necessary. Does Mancilla really wish to rule out any resort to violence even if peaceful resistance is itself met with obstinacy and force? Such a move would have the unfortunate implication of rendering the ANC’s campaign against Apartheid unjustified, for example. This takes us to the political dimension.

As Mancilla rightly emphasises throughout The Right of Necessity, the overall aim of moral cosmopolitanism must be the establishment of conditions within which all human beings enjoy secure access to the content of their basic subsistence (and other) rights. For this reason, her discussion of what she calls the “Remedy Worse Than Disease objection” – which suggests that accepting the RoN would have highly negative consequences for social order and lead to a worse state of affairs for all, including the poor – is very interesting (106-107). Mancilla’s response is twofold. First – and rightly, I think – she questions why the burden is placed on the needy to sacrifice their subsistence for the sake of the status quo. Second, she suggests that the exercising of the RoN may in fact spur the global wealthy to take steps to reform the global order in line with cosmopolitan aims. Mancilla concedes that this as an “empirical claim” (107) – the problem is that it seems an implausible one. The few examples of real-world cases where peaceful invocations of the RoN have led to semi-permanent social reform do not evidence her claim; they are striking precisely because they are atypical. While it may not lead to near-anarchy, as Mancilla’s interpretation of the objection assumes, the RoN may lead to the overall aim of moral cosmopolitanism being harder, as opposed to easier, to realise. The likely response of those in power must always be borne in mind when engaging in action which seeks to have wider political effects, especially when these effects involve cost for those with power. This is part of the reason why resistance takes the form of civil disobedience (e.g. non-violent, public, etc.) in some contexts (see King 1991), and why the justificatory bar for violence is so high (which is not to say that violence can never be justified, as Mancilla suggests). Without a more careful discussion of the likely political implications of the RoN, Mancilla has no basis to claim that it could bring us closer to the overall cosmopolitan aim. It looks just as – perhaps more – likely to do the opposite.

Despite the problems just noted, Alejandra Mancilla’s The Right of Necessity is a timely, well-argued and original addition to the literature on global justice in general, and moral cosmopolitanism in particular. The most significant contribution it makes is to shift attention to the agency of those typically considered the victims of injustice. The central question we are left with is a pertinent one: what if the actions necessary to secure immediate needs are in tension with the overall cosmopolitan aim?

Dialectics of Secular Revelation: Jameson’s Cognitive Mapping Aesthetic, Thirty Years On

Review of Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkle (2015) Cartographies of the Absolute. Alresford: Zero Books, 311 pp.

How do we, as the increasingly atomized individuals of capitalist societies, formulate a collective relationship to capital when conditions seem constantly to mitigate against such an effort? This is, perhaps, the central question of Western Marxism, a once vibrant tradition of critical thought, for which it has been claimed that the American literary critic Fredric Jameson today stands as the foremost living exemplar (Anderson 1998, 74). In Cartographies of the Absolute, Alberto Toscano & Jeff Kinkle take Jameson’s conceptual framework to be axiomatic, along with most of the political and philosophical foundation of Western Marxism; and while their intention is not to comment directly on Jameson’s hermeneutics, the book could nevertheless be understood as the single most sustained response, within the entire field of cultural analysis, to Jameson’s challenge, made at the conclusion of his famous essay on postmodernism, that “[t]he political form of postmodernism, if there ever is any, will have as its vocation the invention and projection of a global cognitive mapping, on a social as well as a spatial scale” (1984, 92). In addition, then, to touching on a few of the book’s own unique contributions, in what follows I will be sketching an outline of a particular discursive tradition with which, I will argue, this book finds itself deeply enmeshed.

Referred to as both his most influential concept (Tally 1996, 399) and his least defined concept (Jameson 1992, viv), Jameson initially formulated the notion of cognitive mapping as a kind of metaphorical remedy to his metaphysical diagnosis of subjective disorientation under conditions of late capitalism — as an imperative to represent the hidden totality of class relations through the development of a new aesthetic form. Formulated, in part, as a kind of dialectical response to the epistemological relativism characteristic of intellectual trends in American academia at the time of writing in the mid-‘80’s, Jameson was also responding to formal preoccupations in the field of architecture, thus orienting much of his analysis to a study of the built environment, which he saw as the “privileged aesthetic language” of late capitalism, due to its “virtually unmediated relationship” to capital (1984, 79 and 56). In essence, Jameson’s project could be understood as a continuation of the basic problematic of Western Marxism, as inaugurated by Georg Lukács (1971), concerning the dialectical relationship between, on the one hand, the divisive symptoms of capitalism that result in social class divisions and, on the other, attempts to represent the a priori totality underlying those same processes.

If Toscano & Kinkle’s approach can be identified with Jameson, then it can also be counter-posed to the work of Bruno Latour, another highly influential yet very different type of thinker who likewise tends often to be preoccupied with metaphors drawn from cartography. Indeed, the opening chapter of their book puts forward a rather in-depth critique of Latour’s incapacity to comprehend the larger dynamics of capitalism from within the bounds of a methodology (derived in part from ethnography) that refuses to accept the a priori existence of any so-called “social explanations” (2005, 1) including, most notoriously, the existence of capitalism itself (1993, 173). Whereas Jameson’s cartographic epistemology is an attempt “to think the impossible totality of the contemporary world system” (1984, 80), for Latour “[t]otality does not present itself as a fixed frame, as a constantly present context; it is obtained through a process of summing up, itself localized and perpetually restarted” (2006, NP). While it is perhaps understandable why Toscano & Kinkle would find Latour’s methodological commitment to the small-scale ill-suited given the scale of ambition in Cartographies of the Absolute, at the outset of the book their polemical stance against Latour seems to preempt the possibility of exploring more productive tensions in the dialectical relationship between different cartographic modes of thought. Whilst this opening polemic is not necessarily representative of the book as a whole, it does however demonstrate their scholasticist fealty to a particular type of hermeneutics. In conclusion, then, whilst their book is original — even, at times, idiosyncratic — in the way that they have selected their objects of study, I will argue that in terms of their methodology Toscano & Kinkle are, in fact, quite traditional.

Jameson first expanded upon his initial call to develop “an aesthetic of cognitive mapping” (1984, 89) at a famous conference on the topic of “Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture” (Nelson & Grossberg 1988), and then in a book-length version of the postmodernism article in which he described the challenge of cognitive mapping in quasi-gnostic terms as a revelation of “the true economic and social form that governs experience” (Jameson 1991, 411). Jameson was, in effect, writing a kind of artistic manifesto avant la lèttre, calling for: the development of “a whole new technology, which is itself a figure for a whole new economic world system” (1984, 58); the development of a pedagogical art-form, whose objective would be “[t]o teach, to move, to delight” (Nelson & Grossberg 1990, 347); but also, calling for experimentation at the formal level, instructing his readers to forget “all figures of maps and mapping” in order to “try to imagine something else” (Jameson 1991, 409). Thirty years later, then, Toscano & Kinkle have set out to assess the extent to which Jameson’s call has been answered, producing what amounts to a taxonomy of the “cartographic turn” in the arts of cinema, television, photography, and installation. Matching Jameson in terms of scope, interdisciplinarity and theoretical ambition, Toscano & Kinkle read these cultural artifacts “symptomatically” as material traces of a late capitalist world system in crisis. In separate chapters centered around the critically lauded cable series The Wire (’02-’08) as well as the now forgotten genre film Wolfen (’81), for example, Toscano & Kinkle read depictions of the decaying inner-city landscapes of Baltimore and New York City — both, respectively, around the period of a major financial crisis — as commentaries on what Marx called the “vampire-like” quality of capital.

Whilst Jameson was evocatively vague in his initial discussion of the cognitive mapping concept, he would go on to apply the term to describe his own method of cultural analysis, when, in an analysis of 1970s Hollywood ‘conspiracy films’, he stated that “in the intent to hypothesize, in the desire called cognitive mapping — therein lies the beginning of wisdom” (1992, 3). Jameson’s approach here was itself indebted to Louis Althusser’s technique of symptomatic reading — an exegetical approach to cultural analysis concerned with the “necessary invisible connection between the field of the visible and the field of the invisible” and the “psychological weakness of ‘vision’” (1970, 19) that was also influential in the field of film criticism in the 1970s. Believing capitalism, then, to be the ultimate referent and true ground of being, a kind of actually-existing metaphysics whose fundamental laws could be mapped, Jameson’s cognitive mapping method — the fundamental framework for Toscano & Kinkle’s whole approach — was therefore to render visible the noumenal economic base hidden in the cultural artifacts of the superstructure.

Referencing a 1928 letter to Henry Ford in which the Colombian poet José Eustasio Rivera claimed that, if rubber could speak “it would exhale the most accusing wail” (193), Toscano & Kinkle discuss, for instance, an approach that they refer to as “materialist prosopopoeia” (43) as a name for a cognitive mapping aesthetic that attempts to show “that the causes of ‘our’ social life [lie] elsewhere, in the processes of extraction, dispossession and subjugation that constitute imperialism and colonialism” (16), discussing, as exemplary, a piece by the British contemporary artist Steve McQueen entitled Gravesend, that uses the medium of video installation to portray the commodity chain of rare earth minerals in electronics manufacturing. While attempts at debunking the seeming ‘bargains’ of globalized capitalism has, as of recent times, become a kind of cause célèbre of liberal virtue — with campaigns for ethical consumerism attempting to bring a measure of transparency to the working conditions in Chinese smart-phone factories, and regulatory schemes for corporate social governance seeking, on paper at least, to redress the problem of conflict minerals — Toscano & Kinkle view the former as weak and ineffective symbolic actions that, in attempting to render commodity chains transparent, paradoxically represent “a new kind of opacity” (201). They are thus fascinated by attempts to render multinational global capitalism visible whilst at the same time being fundamentally suspicious of the contemporary discourses of ethical transparency.

In the same manner that Jameson performed symptomatic readings of 1970s Hollywood conspiracy films as another example of a cognitive mapping aesthetics, Toscano & Kinkle also survey a selection of Hollywood films from the 2010s addressing the global economic crash of 2008 in which they are much less interested in the quality of their narratives than they are concerned with decoding how, for example, in the filmic diegesis, “the inanity of built space (alternating between the triumphant banality of the glass skyscraper and the tawdry iteration of ‘luxury apartments’ and sundry cubbyholes) are ‘realistically’ depicted in these films” (169). According to Georg Lukács — the former theologian, who, as we have seen, may be thought of as a cornerstone in the Western Marxist hermeneutical framework — it is precisely at these moments of transition and crisis that the fundamental gap between the false appearance of things and their underlying reality becomes apparent. While Toscano & Kinkle draw from this framework when they speak of “crisis [as] a… synthetic rupture, potentially rendering visible the unity between seemingly disparate domains” (79), they are also critical of what we might call the post-industrial sublime, as for example represented in the photography of Lewis Baltz or Edward Burtynsky, which depict the effects late capitalism has on the built environment and on landscapes. Here, by contrast, they celebrate the works of Allan Sekula, to whom the book is dedicated, as well as those of Harun Faroki, visual artists, both of whom frame and narrativize their own work in critical essays that Toscano & Kinkle celebrate as attempts to rethink visual imagery as indexes of the machinic operations of global-spanning logistical processes — as opposed to naïvely realist modalities of representation.

While Toscano & Kinkle do speak of an idealized “realism shorn of didacticism” (193), as with Jameson’s original concept, their approach to aesthetics seems to value the pedagogical above all else. In so doing they might be said to re-stage the same relationship of inequality between those who know and those who passively absorb an image, a notion of passive spectatorship that Jacques Rancière (2009) associates with Guy Debord — another Western Marxist figure who stands behind Jameson and Toscano & Kinkle, with Kinkle having, in fact, written his PhD on Debord. Against the ideal of critical art that he identifies with Debord — to “turn the spectator into a conscious agent of world transformation” through “build[ing] awareness of the mechanisms of domination” (2009[2004], 45) — Rancière advocates an approach that appreciates the capacity of art to open up a world of phenomenological experience that reveals the fundamental contingency of how the sensible world is distributed, a political promise that he argues may be contained with even the most self-secluding, and seemingly apolitical, of artworks. Embracing polemics over ambivalence, Toscano & Kinkle’s emphasis on the role of theory in producing univocal symptomatic readings — as well as in their preference for ‘critical’ artists— seems to lead to the conclusion that the aesthetic of cognitive mapping that Jameson had called for some thirty years previously, today finds its realization not in the field of aesthetics so much as in the interpretation of aesthetics in line with the same old framework that had called for the development of a new form of aesthetics in the first place. Within that framework, Jameson had initially conceptualized cognitive mapping as a kind of antidote to his famous postmodern diagnosis of subjective dislocation, in which he announced “a mutation in the object, unaccompanied as yet by an equivalent mutation in the subject” (Jameson 1984, 80). Perhaps then, when, in their conclusion — in spite of the many postmodern equivocations that they, like Jameson, have made regarding the fundamental partiality of perspective —Toscano & Kinkle speak wistfully of a future “politics with a totalising impetus” (241), the ultimate forebear of this call to critical awareness in face of unimaginable complexity might be understood less in terms of Western Marxism than of Kant’s third critique, according to which it is in the ultimate inadequacy of representation, in cartography’s very failure to systematically divide the boundlessness of the absolute, that reason becomes intuitively palpable and, through this critical act, that the individual comes to make sense of her true location in the world.



A Predatory Empire of Surveillance and Control

Review of: Ian G. R. Shaw (2016) Predator Empire: Drone Warfare and Full Spectrum Dominance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 327 pp.

The Predator UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle), or as it is more popularly known, the Predator drone, has become something of an iconic image in the recent decade. It has become the manifestation of the new way of warfare, which started in full with the Global War on Terror (GWOT). Now a decade-and-a-half later the Predator is still flying, the GWOT has changed in nothing but name, and the practice of targeted killing – something with which the Predator is most closely associated with – has become an accepted norm in the field of international security relations. It comes therefore as no surprise that in the recent years a number of books on drone warfare have been published. Among others, books such as P.W. Singer’s Wired for War (2009), William Arkin’s Unmanned: Drones, Data, and the Illusion of Perfect Warfare (2015), Drone Warfare by John Kaag and Sarah Kreps (2014), and Medaa Benjamin’s Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control (2013), have in great detail discussed, explained, and elaborated upon the rise of the drones, the notion of “clean” warfare and how the future of conflict could become even more unmanned and robotic. Worthy and needed as these books are, they focus, however, primarily on the military application of drones. In this regard, Ian Shaw’s Predator Empire: Drone Warfare and Full Spectrum Dominance, offers a refreshing and much needed alternative point of view on the world of the Predators, and other unmanned systems. Rather than viewing his research from a singular, military angle, Shaw, a social geographer currently at the University of Glasgow, takes the Predator as an example of a larger issue – one that is fueled by, and is a constituent of, the rise of robotics. In his book, Shaw seeks to answer the question of what it does mean to live on a planet that is enclosing its populations inside controlled, artificial, and dronified environments (Shaw 3). In this, Shaw illustrates how the rise of the drones is further contributing to the ever-increasing state of surveillance, of over-watch of our societies and a world of dronified state violence. A system of full spectrum dominance – once more Shaw borrows from the military realm here, where the concept of full spectrum dominance has been long established – enables the control of every physical (land, sea, air and space) and non-physical (e.g. cyber) space. Shaw argues that this will lead to the development of a world that is increasingly, digitally and physically, enclosed. A world of a “single immunity configuration”, one that is controlled by new technologies, enabling a pacification of societies, and to quell unrest, resistance, and objection before it becomes apparent (Shaw 256-257). Of particular importance, and worthwhile reading, is his description of how over the years humans have reacted, and to some extent even adapted to, this ever-increasing securitization of public space. In this, he offers a much-needed critique of how, in the last decades, the notion of what consists of public space has radically changed, arguing that contemporary public spaces have morphed into spaces of oversight, surveillance, and control that have become the norm.

Shaw illustrates that this development has not been novel and recent. He goes as far back as a few centuries, arguing that this desire for surveillance, policing and control is nothing new under the sun: he traces the roots of this current drone empire back to the societal developments in England during the Industrial Revolution, where the first precedents for building the security state were established. The analogy and reference to this period is a highly interesting one. It allows Shaw to illustrate how the foundations for this Predator Empire have been long in the making, eventually materializing more comprehensively with the start of the Vietnam War. From this era on, Shaw describes how a state of affairs gradually emerged in which the full-spectrum-dominance concept allowed the US to militarize much of the world, and to bring it under a state of surveillance enabled by technology. In this, Shaw illustrates how this mechanization of society, with an increasing presence of machines and a growing reliance on them, has changed not only the physical spaces but likewise political spaces too. In particular, the limited need for boots on the ground – the result of the increasing presence of Predator machines – has changed the political discourse, enabling what Shaw describes as global surveillance operation. This too has morphed, in the words of Shaw, into a state of extreme dominance by the US national security apparatus, fuelled by the unprecedentedly new levels of surveillance technology, enabling a formation of spaces in which every person is continuously watched over by machines of non-loving grace. With his work Shaw makes a clear rebuttal of the optimism found among the 1960 and 1970 cyberneticists, who believed technology would enable a better world in which we are all watched over by machines of loving grace, to reference Richard Bautigon’s poem. 

Primarily, what makes this book worthwhile reading is that it allows the reader not only to connect the era of drone warfare to war and conflict, but also creates a greater understanding of how this affects societies at large. He tracks the history of drone warfare, and the extent to which the rise of these machines has been a logical development from within societies, connecting the military realm with political, social, ethical and moral ones. Thereby it becomes clear how the emergence of drones is a logical extension of the ever-increasing growth of the national security establishment – foremost in the post 9/11 world. In this, he offers a much needed critique of, in the author’s opinion, the growing militarization and securitization in the United States, which in the light of the recent election victory of Donald Trump, and his strong focus on security and anti-terrorism, seems even more likely.

Despite being an insightful and much needed book, Shaw’s focus on the US is a shortcoming however. The Predator has become a new icon, a symbol of the new way of war. A way of war in which an increasing dehumanization is taking place, in which the battlefield is becoming a remote place, leading to a growing disconnection between the state of conflict and the public’s perception of it. However, although indeed this development largely originated in the United States, in recent years the Predator has been getting competition. The Chinese Ch-4 and Ch-5 drones, for example, are now among the world’s most exported drones, with nations in the Middle East and Africa eager to obtain them and use them for their own purposes. In this, the realm of the Predator is somewhat declining, slowly but gradually being replaced by a Drone Empire of many nations and of many actors (state and non-state). The full spectrum dominance is now becoming a global full spectrum dominance. This is a topic of increasing importance, and one that should be discussed much further.

The book is a worthwhile read both for readers with an academic background and those with a broader interest in contemporary political, social and ethical affairs. It provides much-needed clarification of the development of Predator drones and other unmanned systems that emerged so rapidly in the last fifteen years. Additionally, the book contributes to a much broader discussion about the future direction of society: which roles machines will play in this, and how will future governments – in particular the US government – use, or not use, machines such as the Predator, and for what political purposes? Anyone interested in questions such as these would be more than advised to read Shaw’s book.


Death and Sophistry

Review of: Grégoire Chamayou (2015) A Theory of the Drone. New York & London: The New Press, 292 pp. 

Imagine dying amidst a torrent of missiles, for no other reason than being in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Imagine, moreover, that “wrong” means that your errands that day caused you to divert from what an American military drone has determined to be a normal spatial pattern. Such is modern warfare. The unmanned vehicles commonly known as drones are the cause of illegal and unnecessary killing and of much legal and ethical sophistry justifying these machines as a humanitarian alternative to warfare qua “boots on the ground”. Grégoire Chamayou’s A Theory of the Drone brings us up to date concerning what military drones are all about, and not just on the battlefield.

This, then, is what it means to write a theory of the drone. Theory presents Chamayou as an activism-minded critic concerned with the study of contemporary armed conflict. He presents a multi-faceted problematization of the use of drones as weapons of war and tools of surveillance. Theory is not just a simple condemnation of a machine that renders its agent invincible, it also especially presents an in-depth study of this piece of weaponry, tracing its social, legal, political, moral and martial connections – connections that are skillfully presented as internal to their object: that this emergent technology is at the root of a process of dehumanizing and de-democratizing violence. 

If one understands by “theory” an explanation of the coming about of drones, this book comprises more than mere theory. Chamayou’s work is all the more theoretical in the sense of postulating links between an emergent technology and events in ethics, politics, war and law, skillfully discerning the role of the drone behind them. Moreover, Theory allows for predictions of an historical process, without any signs of technological determinism[1] and with much emphasis on avoiding rather than welcoming it. Behind the analysis, there is a call to stop the technological process.

Sounding like the protagonist of a dystopian sci-fi novel, Chamayou writes: ‘the surest way to make the potential crimes of the cyborgs of the future impossible is still to kill them immediately, while they are as yet unhatched and there is still time to do so’ (Chamayou 213). The line between sci-fi and techno-historical speculation might seem thin, but after reading the book, the quote above seems no longer over-the-top. Robotized killings based on quantitative social geography – so called “signature strikes” based on patterns of cell-phone data rather than substantive knowledge of the target – perhaps do amount to crime.

If we want to fully understand Chamayou’s analysis of the drone, it is worth noting that the situation he is treating in Theory is not entirely new. Chamayou judges the drone to be ‘the weapon of an amnesiac postcolonial violence’ (Chamayou 95), a repetition of older forms of violence. This book follows an earlier interest of the author, thereby completing an historical account of a particular form of violence that, in his earlier book, Les Chasses à l’Homme (2010, translated as Manhunts), is called “the manhunt”: from capturing slaves in Ancient Greece (in the first chapter, bearing the wonderful title “The Hunt for Bipedal Cattle”) to the round-ups involved in deporting illegal immigrants. In Manhunts we encounter slaves and immigrants as targets[2], and in A Theory of the Drone, potential terrorists. As a practice, “the manhunt” involves a particular “game”, a marginalized other, a target made legitimate through legal, rhetorical, ideological and ethical maneuvering. Manhunts target a particular kind of individual, today these are “terrorists”, or rather “terrorist” signatures.

The “signature strike” is the contemporary guise of the manhunt in which the drones partake: targeting individuals ‘whose identity remains unknown but whose behavior suggests (…) membership in a “terrorist organization”’ (Chamayou 47). The very targets of this manhunt are artefacts, mere signatures, and the war waged on the actual people is itself no less ‘ghostly’ (Chamayou 188): a unilateral act of killing makes it impossible for the human targets to utilize their right to kill in self-defense. As contemporary conflicts become those of machines versus mortal combatants, ‘that right no longer has anything but a ghostly existence’ (Chamayou 162). The form of the manhunt as it recurs in Theory is a dehumanized manhunt, the hunt for the marginalized other in Afghanistan and Pakistan, characterized as ‘not so much a matter of responding to actual attacks’, but of striking in the midst of communities on the basis of quantitative data, killing innocent civilians. Or as the proponents of drone warfare would have it: of ‘preventing the development of emerging threats by the early elimination of their potential agents’, a task for which ‘hunter-killer drones are the main instruments’(Chamayou 34).

This killing is sustained by ethico-legalistic sophistry, and on this level Chamayou’s Theory reaches its full potential. Deploying resources found in Canguilhem and Weil (who inspire Chamayou’s method), Hobbes, Pufendorf, Kant, Hegel, Marx & Engels, Adorno, Foucault and Arendt (and, in passing, Deleuze), Chamayou analyzes legal doctrine and newspaper articles regarding drones, and questions the principles of contemporary military thought that justify drone warfare. The “necroethics”, embodied by military officers and propounded by the military’s own professional philosophers, extends the ‘right to kill well beyond the classic legal boundaries (…). Necroethics holds forth on the procedures of homicide and turns them into the objects of a complacent moral evaluation’(Chamayou 145-145). As Chamayou cynically remarks: ‘by naming and theorizing violence, [the military’s philosophers] allow it to be legitimately exercised’. What to do? Chamayou answers: ‘More than ever, philosophy is a battlefield. It is time to enter the fray’ (Chamayou 16).

Entering the fray means undermining the “humanitarian” premises of dronizing the military. Drones are being hailed as high-efficiency, low-collateral-damage, humanitarian weapons because deploying them means no longer having to deploy soldiers, and the “signature strike” is supposed to ensure that only enemy combatants die. As Theory makes clear, however, there is a crucial aspect of supposition in the process of targeting that renders this problematic. Drones have the capacity to track, monitor and ‘recognize’ the behavioral patterns of the people and communities they surveille. Divergence from the established normal patterns of movement, any irregular event, like a village gathering, is accordingly categorized as dangerous. A telling joke made in the corridors of American power went as follows: “When the CIA sees three guys doing jumping jacks, the agency thinks it’s a terrorist training camp”’ (Chamayou 49-50). Proponents present drones as suitable for a particular kind of manhunt: hunting terrorists, preventing them from acting. Chamayou’s work has the effect of dispelling this as sophism, ideology and myth.

Moreover, Chamayou points out the dangers of “dronizing” war and surveillance for democracy and society. Chamayou warns against the transformative effect this would have on the broader social context within which drones are deployed. Drones will also effect the societies whose militaries deploy them, for ‘the central question would be (…): To what do they lead (…) in terms of the state’s relation to its own subjects?’ (Chamayou 15) The implications are twofold: Chamayou warns citizens against the use of drones in police and surveillance activity and in a host of short, to-the-point chapters unmasks the manifold rhetorical, legal, ethical and ideological trickeries involved in sustaining US (and Israeli) efforts to dronize the military. Secondly, he reflects upon the possible effects of the development of drones on the democratic decision-making progress regarding war, and especially the potential powerlessness of the victims of such wars.

Following this line, Chamayou ends up painting a grim picture of the rise of what he calls the “drone state” (symbolized by the image of a once-imagined police-robot ‘that pissed tear gas and farted black smoke’ (Chamayou 221)), considering both the scope (technology – state) of his analysis and the effect a mere machine might come to have. The drone endangers the democratic processes behind the decision to go to war. We are asked to imagine a power no longer having to justify itself to its subjects. In matters of war, Chamayou argues, societies with dronized militaries are approaching this point: since the citizens’ lives are no longer at stake in dronized war, they wield no political power over the matter of declaring war. Thus Chamayou concludes that democracy might become ‘a political body without human organs, replacing the old regimented bodies of subjects by mechanical instruments that would, if possible, become its sole agents’[3].

Besides presenting a case against drones, Chamayou invites the reader to become a counter-force against them. His writing largely concerns political topics, which could become a viable subject for antiwar protests – such as the illegitimate targeting of innocent civilians by drones – and therefore we are invited to look up the International Committee for Robot Arms Control (Chamayou 272). The way in which Chamayou draws his audience into this fray, by lucidly citing a myriad sources, is commendable and highly engaging. But the weakness of his style is that the argumentative lines I sketched above are often interrupted and sacrificed in favor of a rapid-fire of short chapters, each making a different point. Because of these interruptions his very useful analyses sometimes seem at first less well-argued than they actually turn out to be upon rereading. 

One gets a sense that this book is supposed to compel the reader to counter-act dronization. However, when it comes to systematically constructing arguments or analyses to support this move, it would have benefitted from more sustained treatments of certain topics. Instead Chamayou chose to write twenty-three short chapters, which do make for an eminently readable and informative book. However, this makes the complicated conclusions or crucial moments seem more flimsy than necessary. Examples of this are the introduction of the term “necroethics” (Chamayou 134) to pick out a legal/ethical military mentality and the pointing at continuities between dronized warfare and colonial wars. (Chamayou 185) Similarly the argument that the sociological knowledge that steers drones to pick targets is inept and robots will therefore commit war crimes,[4] or the suggestion that the changes in the military that the drone necessitates, contributes to a dismantling of the welfare state (Chamayou 194) and undermines the conditions for democratic government (Chamayou 188). And, finally, the suggestion that dronization could hence be stopped by a coalition of the ‘oppressed segments of society’ (Chamayou 227). Because of the barrage of short chapters the reader might not see Chamayou’s overarching argument.

These critical remarks notwithstanding, Theory has the potential to be an eye-opener in many respects for a general public, to which it offers a very critical introduction to the topic of drones. On the other hand, academic philosophers may wonder whether it was necessary to compare the structure of drone warfare to what Hegel imagined to be the essence of combatants (and to conclude with Adorno: ‘“I have seen the world-spirit,” not on horseback, but on wings and without a head, and that refutes, at the same stroke, Hegel’s philosophy of history’[5]) or to invoke Kant’s and Hobbes’s contract-theories to condemn this machine. I think that Chamayou unveils a technology-shaped lacuna in the philosophical and political thought regarding war, calling both the untimeliness of thought and the unexamined progress of technology[6] into question.

Describing the drone from canonical philosophical perspectives has the merit of showing how the drone diverges from what we conventionally (and legally) hold to be just, even in martial matters. Chamayou’s notion of philosophy as a battlefield is quite galvanizing in this regard: if one starts looking for destructive metaphors in philosophy they are overabundant, but never have they felt more justified now ‘philosophers working within the confined field of military ethics today (…) declare the drone to be the humanitarian weapon par excellence’ (Chamayou 17). The ideological and moral sophisms sustaining the dronization effort, with its consequent deaths of civilians, are possible because the drone issue does engage the moral, legal and philosophical categories with which one would try to understand it in a very peculiar manner. Thus it can make a mockery out of the concept of humanitarianism and invoke that word to ideologically glorify ghostly, substanceless assassinations as ‘humanitarian warfare’. Not all is just in war, and A Theory of the Drone offers the reader excellent reasons – though one might have to reread it once or twice – to consider critically intervening in the automatization of death, and the murderous role of sophistry.