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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

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Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

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Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Generation Iron Man

Posted by Aaron Bady on 06/01/10 at 09:02 PM

I don’t know if this is what Adam was getting at in his post on Ironman, but this is how I would pick up that baton and try to move with it:

There’s a moment in the third episode of Generation: Kill when a squad of heavily armed and armored marines comes upon a just-abandoned encampment of (they assume) enemies of some kind. One of the marines pees on their bag of rice, citing the need to “deprive the enemy,” and laughs in disbelief when his non-com points out that they could have taken the rice themselves. “Haji rice?” The idea is incredible. But as his non-com points out, “sleeping on the ground and living on rice…these are hard men. You guys whine if your MRE doesn’t come with pop-tarts.”

That scene crystallizes something for me that might speak to what Adam was asking. The Wire, I think, wanted to think through the interface between social systems, to tell a story through ways one sociality perceives the (only partially intelligible forms and structures) through which its others live. Generation: Kill does this much, much less, of course; in place of The Wire’s ambition to articulate how criminals were embedded in the world of homicide police and vice versa, Evan Wright’s Generation: Kill mainly just has the usual faults of embedded journalism, the total restriction to (and consequent solidarity with) the perspective of the soldiers themselves. Nevertheless, in moments like these we see the extent to which the American military’s badass-ness is a function of its technological appendages, as well as the extent to which this becomes the principle of differentiation by which they distinguish themselves from their enemies. They don’t just whine about their pop-tarts, after all; they whine about the missing armor on their humvees, the lack of air support, and the fact that they don’t have tanks which would make sure that they are absolutely and utterly (as opposed to just almost completely) invincible. Each battle seems scary, and surely was. But after a while, you start to notice—even confined as you are to the perspective of the marines themselves—that as they troll through town after town, gunning down dozens of hopelessly overpowered guerilla gunmen (or maybe hundreds), none of the things they whine about seem to have any consequences. They are strikingly paranoid for people so strikingly invincible.

Apparently the unit that Evan Wright was embedded with was lucky that its non-strategy of “A. Make target out of self, then B. Blast anyone that takes that shot” mostly worked; apparently its commander had a kind of Patton fetish and preferred to drive through towns rather than drive around them, thus getting into (and winning) all sorts of firefights he could have easily avoided. But it demonstrates the quick slide from using vastly superior military technology to wage asymmetrical warfare to necessarily having to target not the enemy’s ability to conduct war (since, in those terms, it’s negligible) but its ability to live. When the enemy lacks an airfield or a military-industrial complex, when they supply themselves by stealing your armaments or by the black market, and when you have little or no ability to distinguish combatant from civilian, there is nothing to bomb but people, nothing to destroy but their food. Which means, as that episode (“Screwby”) goes on to demonstrate quite explicitly, the rules of engagement inevitably bend to include targeting civilians as a mass: seeing only through their technological superiority, American military forces can only target the things their weapons can target.

But to take this the next step, the terror-tactics of counter-insurgency then become a function of the technological superiority which enable them: because we must win at all costs—and cannot even conceptualize losing—we will win by whatever means we can do so, radically re-thinking what it means to win. And not only is almost every choice in Generation: Kill a variation of this dilemma, but they almost always choose the same way: since taking casualties by refraining from committing war-crimes is virtually unthinkable, the question of what should be done gets re-defined to reflect what can be done. And what they can do is kill people. So they do. But this, in turn, produces and necessitates the idea of “the war on terror” (and the figure of the enemy terrorist) as an excuse, legitimization, and displacement of the indiscriminate targeting of populations that we do onto the people we do it to.


The retaliation game is fun.  You can justify anything that way.  All Western violence against the Middle East is, then, of course, retaliation for the Ottoman Empire’s subjugation of Eastern Europe.

By on 06/01/10 at 11:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The problem with the retaliation casus belli is that both sides can use it equally to justify whatever action they wish.  It leads only to a never-ending cycle of war and revenge.  And on all sides of Middle Eastern violence, retaliation bolsters the power of the powerful and leads to the deaths of the innocent. 

Which is to say that only an unwavering committment to non-violence can end violence.  (Hugo says as much in *Les Miserables* when he ironizes the speeches of Enjolras and Combeferre at the barricades.)

By on 06/02/10 at 09:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Even in non-violent actions, Americans are convinced of their innocence and superiority.  A friend of mine and I were in Nicaragua last week and the place was over-run by do-gooders, some of whom did have specialized skills who were willing to donate time to to surgeries in relatively remote areas.  The others were donating for free skills Nicaraguans are capable of doing for money: teaching elementary school, for example.  Others were there to distribute food for religious purposes (the local food, if people can afford it, is far superior to what most Americans eat).

Earlier, I had a strange email argument about the assumptions of helping with someone who was sure he could help the poor.  His example of good American helping was New Jersey kids going to Mexico in the summer to build houses.  My impression from watching construction crews and reading is that Mexicans can build their own houses just fine—perhaps raw materials might be useful.

University Year for Action, a federally funded program, assumed that middle class college students had things to teach working class middle aged blacks (and that the kids wouldn’t question the agencies they were embedded in in an urban renewal scheme that I and others fought).

Even the help has a weird flavor to it, Imperial innocence, I suppose.  One wonders if people who donate clothes to the Nicaraguan victims of Hurricane Mitch understand that the clothes end up being sold in the local markets (saw Jones NY pants and an infants snow suit in a market stall in Jinotega).

Food issues in Nicaragua are complex—and probably can’t be solved by distributions of canned goods and Bibles.

We noted with some irony that we didn’t run into these people in the same numbers in the cheaper hotels.

If the other countries don’t want to be helped (and help is always from a position of power, temporary or permanent), the it feels insulted and betrayed.

Japan in the 1930s had somewhat the same attitude toward China—it was, after all, rescuing China from European control and the people weren’t grateful.

By on 06/03/10 at 08:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Even in non-violent actions, Americans are convinced of their innocence and superiority.

Fun as the Hour of Dislike obviously is, wouldn’t ‘people’ serve as a reasonable substitute for ‘Americans’ in this sentence? For tactical reasons if no other.

By Wax Banks on 06/03/10 at 09:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The whole “helping the poor” always has an interesting torque to it.  I feel the same way about Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, and it’s why I mistrust most American middle class or upper class radicals.

Helping is always an assertion of superiority regardless of whether it actually makes the lives of the helped better or not.

By on 06/03/10 at 10:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

No, helping is sometimes an assertion of privilege but it’s not always an assertion of superiority.  I work for a sisterhood of nuns with schools in North America, Africa, and South America.  Nuns and students from one of the African schools are traveling to South America to help build a new school, after nuns and students from a South American school traveled to an African school to build them a new building.  Teachers, nuns, and students from my school are traveling both to a South American and an African school to help build.  Much of this work is funded by an alum from my school.  But she is only asserting privilege, not superiority.

By on 06/03/10 at 09:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

O, and non-violence does not mean charity.  It means getting beaten, raped, tortured, attacked, etc. without taking any violence action against the perpetrator.  Want to end violence in the Middle East?  Stop committing acts of violence in the Middle East.

By on 06/03/10 at 09:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The joke about Rebecca’s comments is that she’s a rich, concerned westerner, and was in Nicaragua to “do good” herself (by opposing the urban renewal scheme). But that’s different!

By on 06/04/10 at 07:14 AM | Permanent link to this comment

University Year for Action was in the US in the 1980s.  I was in Nicaragua looking for economic refuge last week.

I’m not particularly concerned since their urban places, except for Managua, that we saw (Jinotega and Esteli) worked better than most urban places that size in the US.

I don’t have anything against mutual help, trading, community efforts, etc.  My grandfather was one of those who helped build his community’s first multi-classroom brick school in the 1930s.  I believe he was still a tenant farmer then.  You’re correcting someone who is wiser in these things than you as I’ve been on the receiving end of charity that fit the donor’s idea of what I was rather than helped me in any way meaningful to me.

My impression from country kids, including my father, is that when they have a sense that an education is vital, they get the education almost despite the schools.  A Masai tribal kid got himself to Harvard whether anyone else thought it was possible or not (I read the book, a friend heard him tell Harvard he would be enrolling in the fall).  If the kids don’t see schools as vital to their lives, you can send all the Peace Corp volunteers you want and it’s just so much money for the middle classes to run the program.

Me, I’m currently looking at getting $650 a month in Social Security, so I’m not rich enough for most Central American countries.  Nicaragua is an exception.  I sold a house in Philly just in time so have a bit of a cushion, but it will be gone in a few months.

When I did the University Year for Action gig, I’d had five years of living on the Lower East Side under my belt and knew how cities worked from reading Jane Jacob and walking around urban neighborhoods.  My colleagues in UYA had no clue how much of what they could do and how they got where they got came from who their parents were.  They also mostly failed to connect to the community we were supposed to be working in.

Nicaragua does urban better in its smaller cities than most American cities.  People were using the streets in Jinotege and cars were respectful.  They know how to do safe small cities that aren’t dominated by automobiles quite well already.

I’m poor and not an academic, so in order to be able to dismiss me without admitting your structurally conventional biases, you have to imagine me to be a rich American in Nicaragua to do good.  It’s like the Columbia U radicals sensing something different about one of their number and deciding he had to be a trust fund baby frat boy when he was the only actual working class person in the group and at Columbia on a scholarship

I was looking for a place to be poor with a bit more dignity than I’d get in the US ($650 a month wouldn’t make anyone rich even by Nicaraguan standards).

By on 06/04/10 at 10:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I was looking for a place to be poor with a bit more dignity than I’d get in the US ($650 a month wouldn’t make anyone rich even by Nicaraguan standards).

How little you know about your future homeland. Even $650 a year would make you richer than a lot of the population of Nicaragua. 32% of Nicaraguans live on less than $2 a day.
The average Nicaraguan has a monthly income of $90.

So, yes, you’re a rich American.

By on 06/07/10 at 05:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve been there.  I’ve read the CIA World Fact Book entry on the place.

In Jinotega where the incomes appear to be less divergent, the streets seem safe enough and the rich don’t have armed guards in front of their houses, but the housing is Lower East Side circa 1969.  In Esteli, the streets didn’t feel particularly dangerous, except that the rich were in an fortified compound or had guard dogs and armed men in front of their houses.  It’s possible that they did this simply to be conspicuously consuming, but I kinda doubt that explains all of it. 

The more expensive apartments in Esteli would have been out of my price range or at the high end of it ($375 a month).  My rent in Philly was just a bit more than that in the mid-1990s.  Everything that isn’t dirt latrine and spring water comes from or through or by something imported, and those things are more expensive in Nicaragua than they’d be in the countries that make them.

I also suspect income distribution is lumpy throughout the region.  An American woman we met in Jinotega had Nicaraguan friends who were pretty socially varied (medics who owned hotels, lawyers, cops, first rate mechanics), but not rich by Nicaraguan standards (coffee barons, cigar barons for that area).

CIA World Fact book say GDP per capita is $ 2,800, compared to the US $ 46,400, but that makes me closer to Nicaraguan than to USAsian average (US is in eleventh place). 

Rich is living in the compound on the road to Miraflor, with a sixteen foot high fence, topped with razor wire, between you and the rest of Nicaragua (our Miraflor guide had a cigar manufacturing uncle who lived there).  Rich is owning significant land and taking half of what the campesinos produce (that’s a more onerous share than prevailed in much of rural SW Virginia or even feudal Japan (as high as 40%).

$7500 a year and being a Yankee doesn’t mean being rich.  It just means not being poor.  The rich in Nicaragua do better than that.

By on 06/07/10 at 01:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

$7500 a year and being a Yankee doesn’t mean being rich.  It just means not being poor.  The rich in Nicaragua do better than that.

$400,000 a year in the US doesn’t make you rich, it just means not being poor. The rich in America do better than that. Rich is being CEO of Microsoft or a major commercial bank. Rich is having your own private jet.

By on 06/08/10 at 05:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I never believed the tenured faculty where I was an adjunct were rich and they made three to four times what I made.  Didn’t even see the Deans as rich. 

$100,000 a year or even $200,000 a year on salary is not the same as $50,000 a year on earned income from investments.

I suspect that Nicaraguans with any experience in the world would understand me to be coming from the lower end of American economic life, not the highest.

By on 06/08/10 at 02:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

$400,000 in the US in New York City would mean a different thing than it would mean in Patrick County, Virginia.  I never thought as an adjunct that the tenured faculty were rich (not that their positions aren’t somewhat analogous to landed gentry, but not all of those were rich either).  If I lived in a poor urban slum in Managua or in the country side among campesinos, I might be rich, but I’m not planning to do that.

If I do that.

By on 06/08/10 at 02:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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