Forensic Infrastructure: Building the Global South Workshop Summary

WiSER, Wits University, Johannesburg, 31 March and 1 April 2015

IMG_2525The third Planned Violence Workshop, which took place at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WiSER) at Wits University in Johannesburg on 31st March and 1st April 2015, took its title, ‘Forensic Infrastructure’, from Eyal Weizman’s short pamphlet entitled Forensic Architecture. Here, Weizman argues that ‘physical structures’ and other ‘spatial techniques’ of colonisation, occupation and urban development, can be analysed in order ‘to tease out the political forces, cultural habits, forms of knowledge, skills and expertise that were folded into their organisation and form’. The workshop therefore began with the premise that the physical infrastructures that shape the layouts of not only Johannesburg, but also Delhi, London, and other post/colonial cities, might contain within them forensic clues to the structural and day-to-day violence with which they are often complicit, and that they on occasion intensify. Central to this effort was an attempt to assess the way in which various cultural forms, from literary and non-fiction narratives to visual and performance art, might enable not only new understandings and diagnoses of this violence, but also imagine alternative ways of inhabiting these city spaces and thereby subverting the violence inscribed into their terrains. In this way, the workshop looked towards the second clause of its title, attempting to assess the way in which these cultural and literary materials might in fact help to ‘build’ the Global South, both imaginatively and physically.

In preparation for the workshop, and to enhance its focus, the Planned Violence Working Group, in collaboration with WiSER and visiting speakers from the University of California in Irvine, put together a comprehensive reading dossier that was circulated prior to the event. This included Weizman’s important contribution, along with a selection of readings from other urban architects, cultural theorists and literary critics, with the aim of constructing a mutual conversation that would shape the workshop’s interdisciplinary discussion from the outset. A number of the sessions included in the workshop were therefore framed as responses to these readings—marked in the programme as ‘interventions’—and in which some of the contributing authors in attendance spoke directly to their respective pre-circulated texts. These were then supplemented with contributions from other respondents as the workshop sought to complicate and develop the notion of ‘planned violence’, exploring the concept of ’infrastructure’ itself and its various manifestations at both a local and global scale. The reading materials also included writings on recent events, such as the terrorist activity of Boko Haram and the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, so as to situate the workshop in relation to new and emerging forms of violence, thereby lending a sociopolitical immediacy to the discussions that ensued.

After the workshop’s opening panel, in which Elleke Boehmer, Dominic Davies, David Goldberg, Pablo Mukherjee and Sarah Nuttall offered some preliminary updates on the Network so far and raised broader conceptual questions that would be considered throughout, the French philosopher Grégoire Chamayou led the workshop’s first ‘intervention’ panel. Chamayou introduced his groundbreaking work on theories of the drone, discussing his comprehensive mappings of the complex philosophical problems brought about by the growing use of this technological development in modern warfare, primarily by the United States. The peculiar obsession with ‘killing well’, or ‘killing ethically’, that has underpinned the justification of drones as somehow more ‘humanitarian’ than other methods of warfare, constitutes what Chamayou calls ‘necro-ethics’, the concept at the heart of his presentation. Chamayou’s excellent provocation was supplemented with other writings on drones in the pre-circulated reading dossier—most notably Derek Gregory’s ‘Drones and Late Modern Warfare’. Achille Mbembe and Elleke Boehmer offered thoughtful responses to these bizarre and newly emerging patterns of thought.

Whilst the vibrant discussion that followed dissected some of the intricacies of Chamayou’s philosophical argument, the extent to which drones might in fact be thought of as a new kind of infrastructure, and the implications of this categorisation, could not be as thoroughly interrogated in the time available. It would be interesting to connect the technological development of drones, which as Chamayou showed has produced new forms of violence and new, institutionalised ways of thinking about violence, with more mundane infrastructures such as roads, bridges and sewers. The final ‘Planned Violence’ workshop in Oxford will be able, we hope, to explore new technologies such as drones, and related ideological developments (such as David Goldberg’s concept of ‘postracialism’, presented in the workshop’s second ‘intervention’), and ask how they might be considered as infrastructures in and of themselves. To do so, and to consider the consequences of this labelling, we might grapple again with the difficulties of defining what ‘infrastructures’ actually are, given that they are mostly background circuitries that we come into contact with on an every day basis. Oxford speaker Michael Rubenstein’s work on ‘infrastructuralisms’ will be helpful in pursuing these lines of enquiry. Goldberg himself, in his opening comments, drew the workshop’s attention to an excellent commentary on infrastructure by comedian John Oliver, where infrastructure is defined as ‘anything that can be destroyed in an action movie’.

Goldberg’s presentation in the workshop’s second intervention was accompanied by reflections from Elleke Boehmer on her work on ‘Postcolonial Writing and Terror’ and from Keith Breckenridge on his latest book, The Biometric State. Speaking to recent research, both Goldberg and Breckenridge discussed their analyses of the increasingly insidious methods of state racism and biometric governance that have historic roots both in and beyond South Africa. Both have attempted to reevaluate the role that South Africa has played on a global stage throughout the twentieth century. With its infamous legacy of apartheid, South Africa has tended to be seen by historians as somehow an exceptional pariah state that bears no relation to other governmental and ideological developments in the rest of the world throughout this period. What Goldberg and Breckenridge convincingly show is that there are in fact numerous continuities between developments in South Africa and in other parts of the world, primarily in the Global South but also, and perhaps increasingly, in the Global North. For Breckenridge, this is manifest in biometric governance, the use of numerical representations of a pattern on the human body such as fingerprints, as a form of identification, rather than, for example, and as is most often the case in the Global North, the written word. For Goldberg, it is the emergence of new kinds of racism that function, paradoxically, without race—in the very moment of its expression, racism is accompanied by a denial of the expression of racism, to a point that there is increasingly to be found, in the rhetoric of governments such as the US and Israel, even a denial of the denial of racism.

Interestingly, both Breckenridge and Goldberg repeatedly focused on, and directed their analyses towards, the state, an emphasis that was symptomatic of the workshop more broadly. Many papers were state-centric, with Claudia Gastrow’s excellent anthropological research into more informal infrastructural systems in Luanda, presented on the final panel, as one exception. This state-centrism perhaps begins to explains some of the other trends and gaps that shaped the workshop, and the opening day in particular. By treating ‘state’ and ‘infrastructure’ as virtual synonyms, resistance to the proliferating forms of planned violence that were being analysed was eclipsed. Indeed, the only residue of resistance in this session came from Boehmer’s discussion of postcolonial writing and its relationship to terror and terrorist acts. Clearly, violent terrorism is not to be celebrated as a form of resistance, but it is notable that these acts often take infrastructures—and unfortunately, the people making use of them—as their primary targets (the ANC’s strategic bombing of power stations and munitions factories during the height of apartheid is an apt example). But what is more interesting for the ‘Planned Violence’ Network’s concerns is that these glimpses of some kind of resistant activity, no matter how desperate a form they may take, emerged alongside the panel’s only discussion of cultural and literary narrative. Boehmer’s most poignant insight, one that she first made several years ago, was that postcolonial novels might add flesh, or context, to the bare and often visceral bones of the terrorist act.

On the afternoon of the first day, postdoctoral researcher Zen Marie, along with two colleagues, Bettina Malcomess and Kirk Sides, took members of the workshop to different parts of the city in order to bring the reality of Johannesburg’s vibrant and divided urban space into the workshop’s discussions. Some delegates travelled to ‘little Ethiopia’, some to Johannesburg’s increasingly gentrified areas, whilst others walked through the city’s central business district. The different groups re-congregated at the Top of Africa, the upper most floor of the Carlton Centre’s tower that was once the city’s centrepiece. Once the fifty-plus floors have been ascended, the tower’s height allows for an astonishing panoramic view of Johannesburg. These brilliant tours, along with the concluding aerial view of the city and the discussion that ensued as the different groups recounted what they had seen, allowed delegates to situate themselves in the material urban space of Johannesburg, visualising the physicality of its deeply uneven development and the planned violence inscribed into its infrastructural layout.

On the second day, authors Mark Gevisser and Imraan Coovadia self-consciously reflected on the contribution that literary writings, alongside other cultural methods of representation, could make to the preceding discussions of planned violence. Coovadia emphasised the literary writer’s resistance to conceptualisation, envisioning his or her role as somehow to disrupt or interrogate unified responses to certain events and thereby introducing previously unconsidered reservations into trajectories of thought, be they academic, political or both. This broader observation was accompanied by a number of smaller, though carefully made and insightful comments into the ways in which writers think about texts, from their structures through to their plots and forms. Coovadia emphasised the fact that the literary writer, as they author a text, is acutely aware of its broader structure, of how it is built and how the choices made in the processes of its construction shape and shift its internal dynamics. Coovadia observed that certain literary and narrative forms may have distinct diagnostic attributes, as they re-imagine and re-frame the planned violence of urban space to cast them in different and often revealing lights. This notion of emerging and alternative literary genres and forms that might be better suited to making sense of Johannesburg’s urban space was taken up by Gevisser, who framed his book, Dispatcher: Lost and Found in Johannesburg, as subjective autobiographical psychogeography, perhaps with a slight tongue in cheek. Nevertheless, Gevisser’s careful overlaying of important autobiographical events, a geographical and political awakening to the planned violence of Johannesburg, and an in-depth social history of the ideological mapping and segregationist infrastructure of the apartheid city, means that Gevisser’s text and workshop presentation allowed delegates to reimagine the urban environment in subversive, if not actively resistant ways. It seemed that, as the discussion resulting from the second ‘intervention’ panel had also suggested, it was the cultural and literary works and writings that contained the seeds, if not the fully-fledged strategies and practices, to resist the proliferating planned violence that was being charted by the other more rigidly historical and philosophical papers.

Complementing these literary and written creative practices, immediately after the writers’ readings Julie Taylor, founder of Guns and Rain—an online gallery of work by contemporary fine artists from Southern Africa—introduced a curated exhibition  that she had put together from a selection of Southern African artists, and that she had designed to speak especially to the issues of planned violence with which the workshop was concerned. The presentation of this collection of artwork can still be viewed here. The interactive exhibition, which allows viewers to explore each piece from multiple perspectives and to read an accompanying commentary,  juxtaposes a number of artistic works that artistically represent, and in turn reproduce and reimagine, different aspects of urban life and space. For example, Mongezi Ncaphayi’s piece, ‘Compound Housing’, views the restrictive living spaces of the migrant labourers, who formed the backbone of the apartheid economy, from an aerial perspective, de-stabilising the rigid borders of the compounds with a series of wobbly lines drawn with an irreverent free hand. Sandile Radebe’s abstract piece depicts a graffiti-like text that when viewed for a second time, because of the careful shadings bordering the geometric shapes, takes on the multi-dimensional depth of a city, with streets, buildings and sky scrapers, as if viewed from above.

In the workshop’s third ‘intervention’ panel, on the second day, Eyal Weizman, whose work, as mentioned above, informed some of the workshop’s key conceptual underpinnings, presented some of his new research via Skype. It should be noted that Weizman will also be giving the ‘Planned Violence’ Network’s concluding keynote lecture, to be held at the University of Warwick in January 2016, thereby forging some fruitful connections across the Network’s different events. Despite an unfortunately temperamental Skype connection, Weizman introduced his latest research to the workshop, in which he discussed ‘The Conflict Shoreline’, fruitfully bringing an ecological dimension to the discussions of colonialism’s planned violence that lies at the heart of the Network’s interrogations. He drew on his extensive research into the Israeli occupation and the Zionist ideology ‘to make the desert bloom’ in order to explore the interactions between climate change and colonialism, taking the various technological and infrastructural developments that have been implemented in the Negev as his primary case study. Indeed, Israel’s ongoing occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, though not one of the specifically mentioned urban contexts in the Network’s remit, provided a useful if worryingly violent example to which many speakers made reference throughout the workshop, and the Network has recently published a photo essay of Jerusalem’s planned violence on its website which can be viewed here. Though the poor internet connection meant that Weizman was unable to remain online for questions, thoughtful responses from Mark Gevisser, Keith Breckenridge and Grégoire Chamayou allowed for a stimulating discussion, and we look forward to welcoming Weizman to speak again, this time in person, at the final ‘Planned Violence’ Network event early next year.

The workshop concluded with a panel of four ‘position pieces’ from two members of the Network’s Working Group, Pablo Mukherjee and Ruvani Ranasinha, Lakshmi Menon from Jawaharlal Nehru University, and Claudia Gastrow, a postdoctoral fellow at Wits. The papers from Mukherjee and Ranasinha offered an important return to the literary representation of planned violence, emphasising the diagnostic techniques that critical readings of literary texts and genres might offer. Mukherjee discussed the detective fiction of Priayanth Mukhopadhyay that, though drawing generically on Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, exhibits within its literary geographies the differences between uneven urban development in the Global South and Global North. Mapping these internal geographies onto the text’s generic and formal attributes, he showed how literary genres develop in the world space differently, but relatedly, emphasising that these uneven literary developments correspond in complex ways to an unevenly developing world-system. Ranasinha spoke specifically to Kiran Desai’s novel, The Inheritance of Loss, which illuminates the way in which migrant labourers are restricted to the marginal spaces of the urban landscapes in which they arrive. The novel, Ranasinha showed, exposes the planned violence of cities in the Global North through its fragmented formal style, drawing on its literary techniques to dramatise the ways in which migrant populations are subject to sets of physical and spatial restrictions, or ‘soft apartheid’. Lakshmi Menon’s paper rekindled the Network’s important comparative dimension by analysing the use of university spaces in both Delhi and Johannesburg as a site for political protest. By discussing examples of a number of different protest activities, many of which draw on creative and cultural practices to convey their political message, Menon returned the issue of resistance to infrastructural violence to the centre of the workshop’s concluding debate. Finally, Claudia Gastrow discussed her recent anthropological research in Luanda, the capital city of Angola, to offer a thorough and much-needed interrogation of what infrastructure is, and how it might be defined. Gastrow emphasised that infrastructure is not simply the networks of sewers and electricity grids that cut through city space, but also the relationship between these networks and those citizens that make use of them, in both state-administrated and informal ways. In an anecdote about a multi-storey building with a broken elevator, Gastrow told the workshop about the group of men who are now sporadically employed to carry residents’ luggage up and down the numerous staircases, becoming a literal example of what urban commentator AbdouMaliq Simone has called ‘people as infrastructure’.

This final panel of papers returned the Network’s core research interests to the discussion—the diagnostic abilities of literary genre and form, the fluctuating definition of infrastructural formations and networks and the violence inscribed within them, and the ways in which urban space can be re-conceptualised and re-inhabited in order to initiate resistance to the planned violence that shapes so many of the world’s post/colonial cities. The deviating and winding trajectory of the workshop offered a number of fruitful and previously unconsidered juxtapositions, and the friction between them fruitfully raised almost many questions as it answered, provocations to which the ‘Planned Violence’ Network will return in its final workshop, to be held on 24 and 25 September 2015 at the University of Oxford. The Leverhulme-funded ‘Planned Violence’ Network would like to thank all those who contributed to making this third workshop such a success, especially Professor Sarah Nuttall for her intellectual curation and masterful organisational work, and to WiSER for being such generous hosts.

Leave a Reply