Afghan Stability Powerpoint
This essay examines the new formation of global visuality and argues that interactive modalities of the global and the local constitute this new crisis visuality. The essay counter-poses two representative examples from this field: the visuality of U.S. counterinsurgency and the geography of the Long Island town of Levittown, prototypical “American” suburb and site of recent anti-immigrant violence. At stake in both examples is the transformation in the policing of those who do not count, meaning those who are not considered worthy of account by authority, from the insurgent to the immigrant.
It is becoming clear that a new formation of global visuality is in the making. Visuality is the means by which authority claims to visualize the flows of history and thus validates itself. Since the eighteenth century, visualizing has been the means by which a general conceptualizes the battlefield that extends far beyond his ability to see: visualizing is a mental operation that organizes images, ideas and imagination into a pattern. Material visualizations (what we call images) can be produced when the visuality of authority, as represented by a leader or general, clashes with a countervisuality forged by those visuality considers a crowd or a mob. For us—that mob—visualizing ourselves as a collective subject that might be named the people, the nation or the multitude constitutes the very formation of a politics. If the police say to us “move on, there’s nothing to see here,” we know very well that there is, and so do they. The question is whether or not we claim the right to look at that which we are told not to see. These relations of authority and a politics that is either democratic or it will not be are not equivalent to the flows of capital, although they are interactive with them. Indeed the United States military has actively developed and promoted a global strategy of counterinsurgency since 2006, even as the neo-liberal market economics it intends to promote have seemed to be collapsing. Like other forms of visuality, the visuality of counterinsurgency classifies people as insurgent or not, separates those so classified—usually by material means such as walls—and then claims that this separation is right. Indeed, it is so right that it can become aesthetic. Precisely because this is the era of globalization, characterized by unprecedented transnational migration and electronic media, the digitized border fails to hold. In the present crisis, the very pattern that it is trying to resolve is unclear: a centralized nation or a global market? How are those consolidated in the era of the non-place? Despite, or perhaps because of, the rhetoric that “we” fight “them” over there to avoid fighting them here, the local is breaking down under the pressure of global flows into new configurations, whose existence provokes paranoia and violence. Increasingly, militarized visuality itself is in crisis. That crisis is one of ambition and one of resolution. The ambition of (g)local counterinsurgency is to control the global battlefield by means of intense localized interventions. The resolution of this project is highly unclear. Three possibilities seem open: the development of a new authoritarian global governance under U.S. hegemony; the perpetuation of crisis management as the new normal, as practised in Israel/Palestine; or just possibly, some alternate formation of the global-local relation, driven perhaps by the real exigencies of climate change.
The interactive modalities of the global and the local that constitute this crisis include: counterinsurgency, climate change, the global economic restructuring and the voluntary and forced migrations entailed by all three. In this interim effort to analyze the crisis as it happens,1 I will highlight first the global counterinsurgency and then examine its asymmetric manifestation as a (g)local example in the Long Island suburb of Levittown. The example of Levittown was chosen because it was the archetypal American suburb; for the interaction with Teddy Cruz’s remarkable work on the newly mobile Levittown-style tract housing that is crossing the US-Mexico border from North to South; and finally because Long Island has been the site of coordinated anti-immigrant violence. What is at stake in both examples is the transformation in the policing of those who do not count, meaning those who are not considered worthy of account by authority, from the insurgent to the immigrant.
Increasingly, it seems that militarized visuality does not distinguish between these groups but instead classifies them all as obstacles to circulation. Global counterinsurgency visualizes its tasks in three parts: “clear, hold and build:” clear an area of insurgents or sympathizers by the use of force; hold that gain by stationing troops locally and constructing barriers to movement, such as separation walls; and then begin to build a new form of governance. The last of the trilogy is by far the most problematic, even as it is held to be the key to the whole process. Domestic segregation is complexly and asymmetrically interactive with this process.
“Asymmetric warfare” is one of the military terms for insurgency: it means that relatively small-scale actions by insurgents can have far greater effects than large-scale military efforts. By the same token, local anti-immigration laws in Arizona or violence directed at immigrants in Long Island has had an asymmetric effect on the national political culture. It should be emphasized that such efforts can rebound on their instigators and the outcomes are far from certain at present in both domestic and international locations. Domestic segregation has nonetheless taken on the tactics of counterinsurgency. It classifies residents along similar lines (as insurgent or “legitimate” resident), clears the “illegals” by means of arrest, ejection, or deportation, holds the situation by physical means, and then seeks to build a new polity around that segregation. This rhetoric intensifies the racialized divide between the enfranchised citizenry and the undocumented migrant worker, best known to media discourse as the “illegal immigrant.”
Patterns of circulation, whether of people, goods, or ideas, have already shifted. South-South flows have become a vital feature of the global, visible in the distribution of Tamil Nadu cinema and in the economic exchanges between Brazil, China, and India. South-North flows are dynamic, both in areas that are purportedly illegal (such as unskilled, low-wage undocumented labor and recreational drugs), and now in highly skilled professional and scientific labor and specialized goods. Apple laptops and iPhones are all made in China, which is now the single largest consumer and constructor of solar panels. Such flows are uneven, unequally distributed, and actively disrupted by US and European Union interventions. Within the United States, the sites of asymmetric resolution of these flows and counterflows form borders, whether along national, urban-suburban, or, increasingly, property lines. Other pre-existing modes of separation and distinction such as the color line are also mobilized by this intensification. That is to say, the US-Mexico border is a racialized distinction; the “urban” is understood as meaning people of color, while the suburb is “white”; and residential housing has long been “red-lined” to ensure segregation (meaning the de facto exclusion of people of color from designated areas).
This dizzying, mutually reinforcing set of scenarios is what globalization looks like. It is what Achille Mbembe has called the “entanglement” (2001: 14–16) typical of this period in which nations have been decolonized and yet are subject to neo-colonial control, while the former colonizers have come to grasp that the global empire described by Hardt and Negri has authority over them rather than vice-versa. In order to find our way through the entanglement we need to start at a specific point: as visualization was originally a military tactic, let’s begin with counterinsurgency. For the conservative historian Thomas Carlyle, writing in 1840 just after the aftermath of the emancipation of the enslaved in the British Empire, visuality was the attribute of the hero (Mirzoeff 2006). Carlyle appropriated the idea by which a general was held to visualize a battlefield that had become too large to be seen by any one person.
The analysis presented here does not lack for sophistication; it would, however, be hard to tell what one was supposed to do next after examining it. The military slang acronym FUBAR (“f****** up beyond all recognition”), seems to apply. That is, in desiring to arrive at a more detailed analysis than that presented by the field officer in Iraq, the staff officer in Afghanistan becomes lost in the vortexes of connexity. The crisis in visualizing is that the first image is a reductive caricature whereas the second may well show a more exact rendition of Afghan political economy but offers no strategic solutions. Visualizing has thus failed to make “history” visible and instead shows only that there is no solution available. The intent behind the leak is precisely that: to show that Afghanistan remains in chaos and will need military presence for the foreseeable future. In a continuation of the same strategy, McChrystal leaked his request for 40,000 additional troops in Afghanistan in advance, leaving President Obama to choose between declaring his own general insubordinate and alienating his own supporters by sending more troops. The leak was the first shot in the campaign over Obama’s announced withdrawal date of July 2011. Using this image, McChrystal might claim either that conditions justify a longer mission or that he cannot be held responsible for any perceived failure of the mission. I suspect that this double strategy will accelerate as the putative withdrawal approaches.
The question arising is whether the intensification of the RMA represented by GCOIN is paradoxically destabilizing legitimacy in the domestic context. For if GCOIN is attempting to instill a certain constellation of neo-liberal market and governmental conditions “abroad,” changes in domestic policy that do not align with that constellation may be read as “illegitimate” in that they undermine the global policy. Precisely such a challenge to the “legitimacy” and authority of the Obama administration is in the process of cohering from a range of local imaginaries, in which parts of the United States conceive of themselves as under attack. In instances from recent newspaper articles requiring no particular research to discover, opponents of gay marriage refer to such couples as “domestic terrorists,” while a New York City high school principal describes his work in the Bronx as “classic counterinsurgency.” Border patrols in Nogales, Arizona follow the counterinsurgency mantra “clear, hold, build” as the guiding model for their enforcement of immigration law. In April 2010 a strikingly unconstitutional state law was passed in Arizona that requires police to pursue those who appear to be illegal immigrants and criminalizes any immigrant at large without documentation. While the law may well be invalidated in the future, it was widely agreed that it was passed for “domestic” political reasons within the state. These imbrications of classic population management discourses from sexuality to education and immigration with low-intensity asymmetric warfare both produce, and are a product of, the crisis in visuality. While most scholarly readings of these encounters have concentrated on the neo-imperial framework, it is now becoming clear that the local manifestation of what Deleuze and Guattari called microfascism is of equal importance, especially as it attempts to form a national politics.
At stake is how the counterinsurgency-inflected global network of visuality can continue to sustain the “imagined” content of the nation-state as an “imagined community.” The phrase was coined by the anthropologist Benedict Anderson, who conceived of people’s imaginary relation to the nation as being constituted by what he called “print-capitalism,” especially the newspaper. Anderson adopted Hegel’s suggestion that the morning reading of the newspaper was the modern form of prayer in which each reader was alone but aware of others performing the same reading at the same time: “What more vivid figure for the secular, historically clocked, imagined community can be envisioned?”(2006: 35) For Anderson the new national imagination was above all a temporal relationship in which a “dynastic realm” gave way to the “homogeneous, empty time” perceived by Benjamin as being critical to the emergence of modern capitalism. These conditions all now seem to be under erasure. The image of the solitary bourgeois patriarch communing with his newsprint seems archaic in the age of instant online and cable news. Many American cities lack a substantial newspaper at all and the three nationally circulated newspapers (New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today) now have a combined circulation of just under 17 million. Setting the raw numbers aside, it is clear that news gathering has dispersed first to television and now to the internet, where blogs and social network sites have radically decentered information. Finally, print culture as a temporal signifier seems in contradiction with global time as a complex entanglement of decolonial, imperial, religious and secular temporalities (Puar 2007: xvi-xxii) that are notably “out of joint,” to use Hamlet’s phrase appropriated by Derrida. If we don’t know what time it is, it is still harder to determine where we are in relation to national and international structures of politics and finance that manifest themselves where we happen to be as anthropogenic catastrophes without remedy.
The Levittown Complex
GCOIN is a “top-down” view of globalization enacted on the local. Let’s reverse the point of view. What is the “place” of the citizen—we are all citizens in this view—in the permeable global-local economy? How can it be imagined and visualized? Who belongs and who is out of place? What circulation can be allowed, now that the static investment known as real estate (in contrast to virtual speculation) has failed to keep appreciating? As we all know, the consequences have been dramatic. The pure non-places of America/are going crazy (with apologies to William Carlos Williams). The white-flight suburbs are up in arms, states from Florida to Massachussetts are rewriting their political geographies, and a highly networked media interface of blogs, listservs, and cable news both mobilizes and reports it all. The boundaries and borders of local imaginaries, uncertain in their relation to the dissolving nation-state, are both under erasure and being violently defended. The present discontent evidences the crisis of the non-places of globalization—even the economic crisis that brought this tension into focus came seemingly from “nowhere”—from the arcane realm of credit derivatives, a non-place of the economy. The global economic crisis is centered on the newly unaffordable domestic house itself, the most local of locales, with the areas of greatest expansion like Florida, Nevada, Arizona, and California watching their mansions mutate into slums. Other than Goldman Sachs, the only people being publicly blamed are the legal “non-persons” who were the “domestics,” or servants, of the equity boom of the last decade. These “out of place” migrants from Central and Latin America were eagerly recruited to do the manual labor that the netizens of the immaterial economy felt to be beneath them. Now they are just as vehemently being targeted by means of a spectacular displacement as if they were the cause of the collapse. The border itself has become confused. Teddy Cruz has shown that Levittown itself, the original tract housing, is now wandering. The dream houses of the 1950s are being unceremoniously trucked over the US-Mexico border to restart another cycle of domestic growth. The same credit that brought global capital into crisis was originally advanced in part so that those potential homeowners who were previously “red-lined” outside the mortgage-able segment of US society could move into the housing market (Sugrue 1996). The domestic crisis is, as it always has been in these United States, refracted as one of “race.” Where there is race, there is violence because it is inherently a mode of separation. What happens when the separated refuse to stay where they are supposed to be? The contradiction in this complexity is that it produces the very migration and displacement that it seeks to exclude by means of racialized segregation and compulsory immobility.
Following Cruz, I examine this domestic manifestation of the crisis in Levittown and its surrounding suburbs on Long Island: let’s call it the Levittown complex. The complex centers around the non-place of the suburban house, which is the emblem of “whiteness,” heteronormativity, circulation, consumption and communications. I call this space “the domestic non-place,” appropriating Marc Augé’s concept of transitional spaces like airports or shopping malls as non-places. He has recently redefined the concept in the light of what he calls a “triple decentering” of urban space, first by the exteriorization of the urban (what is known as the ex-urb); the displacement of the “hearth” as the center of the house by first the television and now the computer screen; and “the individual is, finally, decentered from himself [sic].” By this last, Augé means that our electronic communications allow and increasingly require us to be in contact with physically remote locations at all times. The result has been the proliferation of “empirical’ non-places, meaning spaces of circulation, consumption and communication” (Augé 2008: VIII). One such non-place is the suburban house, with its 1000+ television channels, broad-band internet, and land and cell phones as standard equipment. It is the space of consumption of food, media, and products of all kinds, as well as being an object requiring intense consumption to maintain. The suburban house is void unless one can circulate to it by car. Those people who are increasingly seen walking away from the few public transport routes available are almost always domestic employees of one kind or another—unless the walk is for “exercise” in which case it is intended as a form of non place-specific consumption. The sub-divisions, as the mass-produced suburban superhouses are called, are well-named, for they sub-divide the sensible that visuality seeks to organize, producing a newly mediated interface with that which is not domestic—the foreign, the stranger, the migrant. This complex, then, has dimensions that are psychoanalytic, digital, and military-industrial. It is the domestic manifestation of counterinsurgency.
“Levittown” represents a transformation in the policing of those who do not count. In disciplinary society, state agents such as the police, the welfare state, and education structures enacted a set of separations and distinctions in the effort to “reform” those monitored by visuality. As is all too clear, schools, prisons and the welfare system are in crisis, mutating from a system of enclosure to one of control (Deleuze 1992). The “docile body” that Foucault saw being produced by the institutions of the disciplinary society is now on permanent alert. Enjoined to “see something, say something,” watching 24/7 cable news with its constant “breaking news,” the permanently mediated local subject is unable to remain docile. Once again, the (white) citizen is mobilized against mobility. I say once again because in a now-archaic usage the “mobility” was, in the nineteenth century, the mob itself, the rabble: those who were excluded from visuality and whose job it was to move on. British radicals and Chartists took on the name with pride (Thompson 1964: 73), an early example of the reverse appropriation of derogatory names that has given us “queer” and “crip” more recently. Those who move are again suspects: the foreclosed, the unemployed, the homeless, the migrant, and the undocumented. In an updating of the old Platonic orthodoxy, everyone is to stay where they are supposed to be and nowhere else.
In the context of the United States, anxieties over mobility in both senses have a long history that is interfaced with that of slavery in a nation built on slavery and in good part built by slaves. As the ongoing contestation of the election of Barack Obama as President has reminded us, there is a segment of the population that continues to see the descendants of the enslaved as non-citizens of the United States.
This violence responds to and feels authorized by the new forms of racialized segregation. Together, this complex interaction against mobility of counterinsurgency and nativism is key to contemporary strategies of sovereignty in over-developed nations, not “only” at international but also localized borders. As Etienne Balibar has argued, “the more we reduce border externalities, the closer we are to a border operating as a grid…ranging over the new social space” (2002: 84). This grid is forming a pattern of remaking race over the segregation of residences exported as counterinsurgency and domesticated as racialized violence. Race operates here as a technology to suture the gap between body and population, but even so, it is coming undone. Like every emergency, this is a time of danger and opportunity. The crisis in visuality may resolve itself into a highly controlled “regime of separation,” to use Hilla Dayan’s powerful term. Such a regime seeks to “develop unprecedented mechanisms of containment, with forcible separation and isolation of masses trapped in their overextended political space” (2009: 285). The regime of separation was the operating principle of the “surge” in Iraq and of the border as a grid. Separating the “good” house from the “bad” in domestic or counterinsurgent situations is an almost impossible task, however, and leads to an opportunity for a different configuration of space. Such a politics has to find a different narrative to tell. It is no longer possible to reclaim the figure of “culture” that is so dominant in counterinsurgency narratives, for example, while visuality is something that subaltern and decolonial politics have already opposed for two centuries. In countering visuality and counterinsurgency, therefore, the task confronting the critical field known as visual culture is paradoxically to delegitimize its own terms of operation.
2 A similar argument has been made more recently by Anne McClintock.
Anderson, Benedict. 2006. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism. Revised edition. New York: Verso.
Balibar, Etienne. 2002. “What is a Border." Politics and the Other Scene, trans. Christine Jones et al. London: Verso.
Dayan, Hilla. 2009. “Regimes of Separation: Israel/Palestine and the Shadow of Apartheid,” in Adi Ophir et al (eds). The Power of Inclusive Exclusion: Anatomy of Israeli Rule in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. New York: Zone.
Gregory, Derek. 2004. The Colonial Present: Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine. Oxford: Blackwell.
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Mbembe, Achille. 2001. On the Postcolony. Berkeley: University of California.
Mirzoeff, Nicholas. 2006. “On Visuality.” Journal of Visual Culture, vol. 5 no 1 (April): 53–79.
-----. 2009. “War is Culture: Global Counterinsurgency, Visuality and the Petraeus Doctrine." PMLA, vol. 124 no. 5, special issue “War,” edited by Diana Taylor and Srinivas Avaramudan (October): 1737–1746.
Polan, Dana. 1986. Power and Paranoia: History, Narrative, and the American Cinema, 1940–1950. New York: Columbia University Press.
Puar, Jasbir. 2007. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham: Duke University Press.
Sugrue, Thomas J. 1996. The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
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