Achille Mbembe, on necropolitics and colonial occupation

I was reading Achille Mbembe’s Necropolitics a few days before Hamas attacked Israel and Israel started bombings and blockades in the Gaza Strip. In the book, Mbembe takes the Gaza Strip as a central example, showing the continuities of colonialist practice in the contemporary world. I’ll note it down not to forget.

Mbembe, A. (2019). Necropolitics. Duke University Press.

“To return to Fanon’s spatial reading of colonial occupation, the late modern colonial occupation in Gaza and the West Bank presents three major characteristics concerning the working of the specific structure of terror that I have called necropower. The first involves the dynamics of territorial fragmentation—the sealing off and expansion of settlements. This process has a twofold objective: to render all movement impossible and to implement forms of separation on the model of an apartheid state. The occupied territories have thus been divided into a web of intricate internal borders and various isolated cells. According to Eyal Weizman, by departing from a planar division of territory and embracing a principle of creation of three-dimensional boundaries within a territory, dispersal and segmentation clearly redefine the relationship between sovereignty and space.

These actions, for Weizman, constitute “the politics of verticality.” The resultant form of sovereignty might be qualified as “vertical sovereignty.” Under a regime of vertical sovereignty, colonial occupation operates through schemes of over- and underpasses, a separation of airspace from the ground. The ground itself is divided between its crust and the subsoil. Colonial occupation is also dictated by the very nature of the terrain and its topographical variations (hilltops and valleys, mountains, and bodies of water). Thus, high ground offers strategic advantages not found in the valleys (better vision and self-protection, a panoptic fortification enabling the gaze to be directed in multiple directions). As Weizman puts it, “Settlements could be seen as urban optical devices for surveillance and the exercise of power.” Under the conditions of late modern colonial occupation, surveillance is oriented both inwardly and outwardly, the eye acting as weapon, and vice versa. Instead of the conclusive division between two nations across a boundary line, Weizman claims, “the organization of the West Bank’s particular terrain has created multiple separations, provisional boundaries, which relate to each other through surveillance and control.” Under these circumstances, colonial occupation not only amounts to control, surveillance, and separation but is also synonymous with isolation. It is a splintering occupation in keeping with the splintering urbanism characteristic of late modernity (suburban enclaves or gated communities).

From an infrastructural point of view, a splintering form of colonial occupation is characterized by a network of fast bypass roads, bridges, and tunnels that weave over and under one another in an attempt to maintain the Fanonian “principle of reciprocal exclusivity.” According to Weizman, “the bypass roads attempt to separate Israeli traffic networks from Palestinian ones, preferably without allowing them ever to cross. They therefore emphasize the overlapping of two separate geographies that inhabit the same landscape. Where the networks do cross, a makeshift separation is created. Most often, small dust roads are dug out to allow Palestinians to cross under the fast, wide highways on which Israeli vans and military vehicles rush between settlements.”

Under these conditions of vertical sovereignty and splintering colonial occupation, communities get separated along a y-axis. The sites of violence duly proliferate. Battlegrounds are not located solely at the Earth’s surface. Underground and airspace are transformed into conflict zones as well. No continuity exists between the ground and the sky. Even the airspace boundaries are divided between lower and upper layers. Everywhere, the symbolics of the top (of who is on top) is reiterated. Occupation of the skies therefore acquires a critical importance, since most of the policing is done from the air. Various other technologies are mobilized to this effect: sensors aboard unmanned air vehicles, aerial reconnaissance jets, early warning Hawkeye planes, assault helicopters, an Earth-observation satellite, techniques of “hologrammatization.” Killing becomes precision-targeted.

Such precision is combined with the tactics of medieval siege warfare adapted to the networked sprawl of urban refugee camps. An orchestrated and systematic sabotage of the enemy’s societal and urban infrastructure network complements the appropriation of land, water, and airspace resources. Critical to these techniques of disabling the enemy is bulldozing: demolishing houses and cities, uprooting olive trees, riddling water tanks with bullets, bombing and jamming electronic communications, digging up roads, destroying electricity transformers, tearing up airport runways, disabling television and radio transmitters, smashing computers, ransacking cultural and politico-bureaucratic symbols of the proto-Palestinian state, and looting medical equipment—in other words, infrastructural warfare. While Apache helicopter gunships are used to police the air and kill from overhead, armored bulldozers (the Caterpillar d-9) are used on the ground as weapons of war and intimidation. In contrast to early modern colonial occupation, both weapons establish the superiority of the high-tech tools of late modern terror.

As the Palestinian case illustrates, late modern colonial occupation is a concatenation of multiple powers: disciplinary, biopolitical, and necro-political. The combination of the three grants the colonial power absolute domination over the inhabitants of the occupied territory. The state of siege is itself a military institution. It allows for a modality of killing that does not distinguish between the external and the internal enemy. Entire populations are the target of the sovereign. Besieged villages and towns are sealed off and isolated from the world. Daily life is militarized. Local military commanders have the discretionary freedom to decide whom to shoot and when. Movement between the territorial cells requires formal permits. Local civil institutions are systematically destroyed. The besieged population is deprived of their means of income. Invisible killing is added to outright executions.” (p. 80-3)

Javier Cercas, on fiction, faking, and Enric Marco

I’ll use the introductory paragraph for Enric Marco article in Wikipedia first:

Enric Marco (12 April 1921 – 21 May 2022) was a Catalonian impostor who claimed to have been a prisoner in Nazi German concentration camps Mauthausen and Flossenbürg in World War II. He was awarded the Creu de Sant Jordi by the Catalan government in 2001 and wrote a book on his experiences. In 2005 he admitted his claims were false and returned his medal, after his deception was revealed by university researcher Benito Bermejo.

Javier Cercas takes the case of Enric Marco as intriguing material for a novelist and tells both Marco’s story and the story of the novelist from the moment he encounters Marco. The passage below is one of the examples where the novel adopts an essayistic mode.

Cercas, J. (2017). The Impostor (F. Wynne, Trans.). Maclehose Press.

Like Marco, the novelist does not create his fiction out of nothing: he creates it from his own experience; like Marco, the novelist knows that pure fiction does not exist and that, if it did exist, it would not be remotely interesting, and no-one would believe it, because reality is the basis, the fuel that drives fiction: and so, like Marco, the novelist creates his fictions by painting and distorting historical and biographical truth, by mixing truth and lies, what actually happened with what he wished had happened, or what would have seemed interesting or fascinating if it had happened, but did not happen. Like Marco, who studied history and listened carefully to the central characters of history and assimilated their stories, the novelist knows that he needs a foundation for his lies and this is why he researches thoroughly, so that he can thoroughly reinvent reality. Marco, moreover, has all the qualities required of a novelist: energy, fantasy, imagination, memory and, more than anything, a love of words; almost more so for the written than the spoken word: from the first, Marco has not only been an indiscriminate reader, he has also been a compulsive writer, author of countless stories, poems, articles, biographical fragments, manifestos, reports and letters of every kind that clutter his archives and have been sent to countless people and institutions. Vargas Llosa is right: Marco is a genius because he succeeds at everything, in real life and for many years in what great novelists only partly achieve in their novels, and even then only for as long as it takes to read them; that is to say, he deceives thousands and thousands of people, making them believe that he was someone that he was not, that something that did not truly exist actually existed and that what is actually a lie is in fact the truth. But Marco’s genius, of course, is only partial. Unlike great novelists, who in exchange for a factual lie deliver a profound, disturbing, elusive, irreplaceable moral and universal truth, Marco delivers only a sickly, insincere, mawkishly sentimental story that from the historical or moral point of view is pure kitsch, pure lies; unlike Marco, great novelists make it possible, through their paradoxical truth – to know and recognize the real, to know ourselves and recognize ourselves, to gaze into the reflecting waters of Narcissus without dying. So, of Marco is a genius, is he also monstrous? And if he is, why is he?

The answer is obvious: because what he did is something that can be done in novels, but not in life; because the rules of a novel are different from the rules of life. In novels, it is not only acceptable to lie, it is obligatory: the factual lie is the path to literary truth (and this is why Gorgias says that he who deceives is more honest than he who does not deceive); in life, on the other hand, as in history or in journalism, lying is “an accursed vice”, to quote Montaigne, a baseness and an act of violence and a lack of respect and a violation of the first rule of human coexistence. The result of mixing a truth with a lie is always a lie, except in novels, where it is a truth. Marco deliberately confused fiction and life: he should have mixed truth and lies in the former, not the latter: he should have written a novel. Perhaps if he had written a novel he would not have done as he did. Perhaps he is a frustrated novelist. Or perhaps he is not, and perhaps he could not settle for writing a novel but wanted to live it. Marco turned his life into a novel. This is why he seems monstrous: because he did not accept who he was and had the audacity and the effrontery to invent himself out of lies; because in life, lies are a bad thing, whereas they are a good thing in novels. All, needless to say, except a novel without fiction or true story. All novels other than this one.

” (pp. 204-5)

Sara Ahmed, on Diversity and Repair (ref. Bend it Like Beckham)

A quote from Sara Ahmed’s book ‘On being included: Racism and diversity in institutional life’  where she’s doing field research with diversity workers. From universities to private companies, she traces the challenges and tactics of these workers.

Ahmed, S. (2012). On being included: Racism and diversity in institutional life. Duke University Press. p. 163-5.

Diversity and Repair

One of my aims in this book has been to write about experiences of being included. Inclusion could be read as a technology of governance: not only as a way of bringing those who have been recognized as strangers into the nation, but also of making strangers into subjects, those who in being included are also willing to consent to the terms of inclusion. A national project can also be understood as a project of inclusion—a way others as would-be citizens are asked to submit to and agree with the task of reproducing that nation. [20]

Others have written of the current moment as a time in which the liberal promises of happiness and freedom have been extended to those who were previously excluded. For example, Jasbir Puar elegantly describes how a new class of (affluent, white, male) queer subjects are being “folded into life” (2007: xii, 24, 35, 36). The fold into life is an invitation to live; more than that, it is an invitation to live well, to flourish. The good ethnic as well as the good homosexual might be the ones who choose life, where life means being willing to become worthy of receiving state benevolence. To be included can thus be a way of sustaining and reproducing a politics of exclusion, where a life sentence for some is a death sentence for others.

I think this analysis provides an astute reading of both the politics of the state and those forms of politics premised on being willing to be the recipients of benevolence. If we start from our own experiences as persons of color in the institutions of whiteness, we might also think about how those benevolent acts of giving are not what they seem: being included can be a lesson in “being not” as much as “being in.” The “folding into life of minorities can also be understood as a national fantasy: it can be a “fantasy fold.” We come up against the limits of this fantasy when we encounter the brick wall; we come up against the limits when we refuse to be grateful for what we receive. As Gail Lewis has convincingly shown, the inclusion of racial others by institutions implicit in the creation of the category “ethnic minorities” can mean, in practice, being “managed through a regime of governmentality in which ‘new black subjects’ were formed” (2000: xiii). “Being included” can thus be to experience an increasing proximity to those norms that historically have been exclusive; the extension of the norms might be not only a fantasy but also a way of being made increasingly subject to their violence. [21] We are not then simply or only included by an act of inclusion. In being “folded in,” another story unfolds.

The smile of diversity is a fantasy fold. Diversity is often imagined as a form of repair, a way of mending or fixing histories of being broken. Indeed, diversity enters institutional discourse as a language of reparation; as a way of imagining that those who are divided can work together; as a way of assuming that “to get along” is to right a wrong. Not to be excluded becomes not simply an account of the present (an account of becoming included) but also a way of relating to the past. Racism is framed as a memory of what is no longer, a memory that if it was kept alive would just leave us exhausted. Fanon once commented very wisely how slavery had become “that unpleasant memory” ([1952] 1986: 115). It is almost as if it would be impolite to bring it up. In the book Life in the United Kingdom, on which British citizenship tests are based, there is one reference to slavery and that is to abolitionism (Home Office 2005: 31). The nation is remembered as the liberator of slaves, not as the perpetrator of slavery.

The empire has even been imagined as a history of happiness. In a speech given in 2005, Trevor Phillips describes empire as a good sign of national character: “And we can look at our own history to show that the British people are not by nature bigots. We created something called the empire where we mixed and mingled with people very different from those of this island.” Happiness works powerfully here: the violence of colonial occupation is reimagined as a history of happiness (a story of hybridity, of mixing and mingling). The migrant who insists on speaking about racism becomes a rather ghostly figure. The migrant who remembers other, more painful aspects of such histories threatens to expose too much. The task of politics becomes one of conversion: if racism is preserved only in our memory and consciousness, then racism would “go away” if only we too would declare it gone.

The promise of diversity is the promise of happiness: as if in becoming happy or in wanting “just happiness” we can put racism behind us. We can use as an example here the film Bend It Like Beckham (2002, dir. Gurinder Chadha). [22] The film could be read as offering a narrative of repair. Reading this film in the context of an analysis of institutions is useful—a way of connecting an institutional story with a national story. The film is not only one of the most successful British films at the box o≈ce; it is also marketed as a feel-good comedy. It presents a happy version of multiculturalism. As one critic notes: “Yet we need to turn to the U.K. for the exemplary commercial film about happy, smiling multiculturalism. Bend it like Beck- ham is the most profitable all-British film of all time, appealing to a multi-cultural Britain where Robin Cook, former Foreign Secretary, recently declared Chicken Tikka Masala the most popular national dish. White Brits tend to love Bend it like Beckham because it doesn’t focus on race and racism—after all many are tired of feeling guilty” (D. McNeil 2004). What makes this film “happy” is partly what it conceals or keeps from view. It might o√er a relief from the negative feelings surrounding racism. We can note that these negative feelings are not identified with those who experience racism, but with “white Brits”: the film might be appealing because it allows white guilt to be displaced by good feelings. The subjects for whom the film is appealing are given permission not to feel guilty about racism; instead, they can be uplifted by a story of migrant success.

On Coetzee’s Jesus Trilogy | books

Mulhall, S. (2022). In other words: Transpositions of philosophy in J.M. Coetzee’s “Jesus” trilogy. Oxford University Press.

“J. M. Coetzee’s ‘Jesus’ Trilogy extends and intensifies his long-term interest in engaging with a wide range of texts, themes and assumptions that help constitute the history of Western European philosophy. In this commentary, Stephen Mulhall extends his own earlier work on Coetzee’s previous stagings of the ancient quarrel between philosophy and literature by identifying and following out various ways in which the ‘Jesus’ Trilogy activates and interrogates themes drawn from Wittgenstein’s later philosophy. These themes include rival conceptions of counting and reading, the relation between concepts and wider forms of life, and the intertwined fate of philosophy, literature and religion in a resolutely secular world. In these ways, Wittgenstein’s, and so Coetzee’s, visions of the world disclose their uncanny intimacy with issues and values central to the critique of modernity elaborated in the work of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre.” — from Oxford University Press

Pippin, R. B. (2021). Metaphysical exile: On J.M. Coetzee’s Jesus fictions. Oxford University Press.

“This is the first detailed interpretation of J. M. Coetzee’s “Jesus” trilogy as a whole. Robert Pippin treats the three “fictions” as a philosophical fable, in the tradition of Plato’s Republic, More’s Utopia, Rousseau’s Emile, or Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Everyone in the mythical land explored by Coetzee is an exile, removed from their homeland and transported to a strange new place, and they have all had most of the memories of their homeland “erased.” While also discussing the social and psychological dimensions of the fable, Pippin treats the literary aspects of the fictions as philosophical explorations of the implications of a deeper kind of spiritual homelessness, a version that characterizes late modern life itself, and he treats the theme of forgetting as a figure for modern historical amnesia and indifference to reflection and self-knowledge. So, the state of exile is interpreted as “metaphysical” as well as geographical. In the course of an interpretation of the central narrative about a young boy’s education, Pippin shows how a number of issues arise, are discussed and lived out by the characters, all in ways that also suggest the limitations of traditional philosophical treatments of themes like eros, beauty, social order, art, family, non-discursive forms of intelligibility, self-deception, and death. Pippin also offers an interpretation of the references to Jesus in the titles, and he traces and interprets the extensive inter-textuality of the fictions, the many references to the Christian Bible, Plato, Cervantes, Goethe, Kleist, Wittgenstein, and others. Throughout, the attempt is to show how the literary form of Coetzee’s fictions ought to be considered, just as literary—a form of philosophical reflection.” — from Oxford University Press

Uhlmann, A., & Rutherford, J. (Eds.). (2017). J. M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus: The Ethics of Ideas and Things. Bloomsbury Academic.

“Since the controversy and acclaim that surrounded the publication of Disgrace (1999), the awarding of the Nobel Prize for literature and the publication of Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons (both in 2003), J. M. Coetzee’s status has begun to steadily rise to the point where he has now outgrown the specialized domain of South African literature. Today he is recognized more simply as one of the most important writers in the English language from the late 20th and early 21st century. Coetzee’s productivity and invention has not slowed with old age. The Childhood of Jesus, published in 2013, like Elizabeth Costello, was met with a puzzled reception, as critics struggled to come to terms with its odd setting and structure, its seemingly flat tone, and the strange affectless interactions of its characters. Most puzzling was the central character, David, linked by the title to an idea of Jesus. J.M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus: The Ethics of Ideas and Things is at the forefront of an exciting process of critical engagement with this novel, which has begun to uncover its rich dialogue with philosophy, theology, mathematics, politics, and questions of meaning.

Section I. Philological and Philosophical Concerns
1. What does J. M. Coetzee’s Novel, The Childhood of Jesus have to do with the Childhood of Jesus? – Robert B. Pippin
2. Pathos of the Future: Writing and Hospitality in The Childhood of Jesus – Jean-Michel Rabaté

Section II. Sociopolitical Concerns
3. Thinking Through Shit in The Childhood of Jesus – Jennifer Rutherford
4. Coetzee’s Republic: Plato, Borges and Migrant Memory in The Childhood of Jesus – Lynda Ng and Paul Sheehan

Section III. Intertextual Concerns
5. Creative Intuition: Coetzee, Plato, Bergson and Murnane – Anthony Uhlmann
6. The Name of the Number: Transfinite Mathematics in The Childhood of Jesus – Baylee Brits

Section IV. Ethical and Stylistic Concerns
7. J. M. Coetzee and the Parental Punctum – Sue Kossew
8. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus and the Moral Image of the World – Tim Mehigan
9. Beyond the Literary Theme Park: J. M. Coetzee’s Late Style in The Childhood of Jesus – Yoshiki Tajiri

” — from Bloomsbury Collections

Rebecca Solnit, on Woolf and Uncertainty

Rebecca Solnit is my favorite author for the audiobooks I listen to. Maybe she’s the one who got me into listening to audiobooks with her Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Her essay collection Men Explain Things to Me has seven essays, one focusing on Virginia Woolf in dialogue with Susan Sontag. She returns back to this topic in Hope in the Dark, too. Maybe I can add that here as well. For now, I’d like to quote a passage from this essay, Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable, to get back to it in the future.

Solnit, R. (2014). Men explain things to me. Haymarket Books.

Principles of Uncertainty

Woolf is calling for a more introspective version of the poet Walt Whitman’s “I contain multitudes,” a more diaphanous version of the poet Arthur Rimbaud’s “I is another.” She is calling for circumstances that do not compel the unity of identity that is a limitation or even repression. It’s often noted that she does this for her characters in her novels, less often that, in her essays, she exemplifies it in the investigative, critical voice that celebrates and expands, and demands it in her insistence on multiplicity, on irreducibility, and maybe on mystery, if mystery is the capacity of something to keep becoming, to go beyond, to be uncircumscribable, to contain more.

Woolf’s essays are often both manifestoes about and examples or investigations of this unconfined consciousness, this uncertainty principle. They are also models of a counter-criticism, for we often think the purpose of criticism is to nail things down. During my years as an art critic, I used to joke that museums love artists the way that taxidermists love deer, and something of that desire to secure, to stabilize, to render certain and definite the open-ended, nebulous, and adventurous work of artists is present in many who work in that confinement sometimes called the art world.

A similar kind of aggression against the slipperiness of the work and the ambiguities of the artist’s intent and meaning often exists in literary criticism and academic scholarship, a desire to make certain what is uncertain, to know what is unknowable, to turn the flight across the sky into the roast upon the plate, to classify and contain. What escapes categorization can escape detection altogether.

There is a kind of counter-criticism that seeks to expand the work of art, by connecting it, opening up its meanings, inviting in the possibilities. A great work of criticism can liberate a work of art, to be seen fully, to remain alive, to engage in a conversation that will not ever end but will instead keep feeding the imagination. Not against interpretation, but against confinement, against the killing of the spirit. Such criticism is itself great art.

This is a kind of criticism that does not pit the critic against the text, does not seek authority. It seeks instead to travel with the work and its ideas, to invite it to blossom and invite others into a conversation that might have previously seemed impenetrable, to draw out relationships that might have been unseen and open doors that might have been locked. This is a kind of criticism that respects the essential mystery of a work of art, which is in part its beauty and its pleasure, both of which are irreducible and subjective. The worst criticism seeks to have the last word and leave the rest of us in silence; the best opens up an exchange that need never end.