Simultaneity and Indifference

by zunguzungu

Meanwhile, in Pakistan, an American drone kills 40 civilians.

I have read a great many blogs and a great deal of commentary condemning the odiousness of what the US and French air forces are doing in Libya, but I haven’t been able to find much outcry about this (though I suspect the Pakistan press might maybe have touched on it), which happened almost two weeks ago. I’m sure the vast majority of principled critics of military intervention in Libya are, actually, in principle, just as vigorously opposed to operations where drones kill supposed militants and also any three dozen civilians that happen to be nearby. And they should be! I can’t think of a single argument against the  military intervention in Libya that doesn’t apply a hell of a lot more strongly to our various drone campaigns in Pakistan and elsewhere, “military interventions” which also have a whole hell of a lot less going for them in terms of humanitarian rationale. In Pakistan, they are not bombing the tanks and artillery that were — until they were bombed — targeting civilians in cities and neighborhoods. In Pakistan, there are demonstrations and marches against our use of drone warfare in their country. In that strange entity known as “AfPak,” we are really fucking people’s shit up.

Perspective is difficult. It’s worth noting that while a new military operation — one that was openly declared and conducted through more or less “legal” channels — can actually still provoke a vigorous political backlash and opposition, we seem to lack a mode of outrage for the — secret, illegal, but not less outrageous — continuation and expansion of an old military operation. Obama has not needed to go on television and make bizarre dating analogies about warfare to justify our operations in Afghanistan to a public that didn’t want or understand it; he campaigned on expanding that aspect of our war against Muslims, and he has delivered, and we all go about our business as if we agree.

Is it because we think of Afghanistan as the “good” war, and enfold our operations in the “tribal” region of Pakistan under that banner? Is it because all of this is happening in the frontier of the imperial imagination? Does Obama get a pass for wars that Bush started? Is it just because we didn’t hear about it in the first place? Or has our war in the “AfPak” simply been a fact for so long that we can no longer imagine a world where we aren’t doing terrible things “over there”?

I don’t want to downplay the dissent and outcry that does exist. I just wish there was a hell of a lot more, and want to think about why there isn’t, why the outcry that does exist seems to drop without a ripple. And while I’m sure all of these reasons are valid, I want to suggest that we also face a problem of “simultaneity,” that we have difficulty substantiating, thinking through, living within, and presuming that “meanwhile” that I began this post with. And by simultaneity, I mean something close to what Benedict Anderson was talking about when he argued that the newspaper and the novel were particularly important forms by which the nation-state was imagined as a community, precisely because they were forms of discourse that created a very particular form of meanwhile, of simultaneity. From Imagined Communities:

Consider first the structure of the old-fashioned novel, a structure typical not only of the masterpieces of Balzac but also of any contemporary dollar-dreadful. It is clearly a device for the presentation of simultaneity in ‘homogeneous, empty time,’ or a complex gloss upon the word ‘meanwhile’. Take, for illustrative purposes, a segment of a simple novel-plot, in which a man (A) has a wife (B) and a mistress (C), who in turn has a lover (D). We might imagine a sort of time-chart for this segment as follows:

I: A quarrels with В while A telephones С

II: D gets drunk in a bar while С and D make love while В shops

III: A dines at home with В while D plays pool while С has an ominous dream

Notice that during this sequence A and D never meet, indeed may not even be aware of each other’s existence if С has played her cards right. What then actually links A to D? Two complementary conceptions: First, that they are embedded in ‘societies’ (Wessex, Lubeck, Los Angeles). These societies are sociological entities of such firm and stable reality that their members (A and D) can even be described as passing each other on the street, without ever becoming acquainted, and still be connected. Second, that A and D are embedded in the minds of the omniscient readers. Only they, like God, watch A telephoning С, В shopping, and D playing pool all at once. That all these acts are performed at the same clocked, calendrical time, but by actors who may be largely unaware of one another, shows the novelty of this imagined world conjured up by the author in his readers’ minds.

The idea of a sociological organism moving calendrically through homogeneous, empty time is a precise analogue of the idea of the nation, which also is conceived as a solid community moving steadily down (or up) history. An American will never meet, or even know the names of more than a handful of his 240,000-odd fellow-Americans. He has no idea of what they are up to at any one time. But he has complete confidence in their steady, anonymous, simultaneous activity.

It feels to me like we, in the “West,” don’t have a lot of confidence in the “steady, anonymous, simultaneous activity” of people in Pakistan (particularly not the “tribal” ones). While many of us were watching the protests in Egypt on Al Jazeera English and experiencing an unprecedented level of mediated simultaneity with the men, women, and children in the streets — to such an extent that protest signs analogizing Egypt and Wisconsin came to be thinkable — we have not been following the protests against American drones so closely (or protests in Iraq and Gaza, for that matter). They don’t happen simultaneously. They don’t happen “meanwhile.”

This is not, I think, a problem of lacking the appropriate print culture (though I have taken a kind of satisfaction in teaching Pakistani fiction this semester). There are reasons why we don’t read books about the Iraq war written by Iraqi’s, and why you so rarely read commentary on the “peace process” in Israel written or voiced by Palestinians. The absence of “tribal” Pakistani people protesting American drone bombing in their country is not an incidental omission or an accidental oversight. As Rohit Chopra puts it — in his introductory essay to the special section of Economic and Political Weekly which he put together on “Reflections on Empire,” and which I’m going to leave you with — such an absence has to be produced:

…what is noteworthy about the use of torture by the US in the war on terror is not so much that a nation which prides itself as a beacon of enlightened political consciousness for the rest of the world should undertake such actions. What is more signifi cant, [Talal Asad] argues, is “the absence of any sustained public outrage in the democratic societies of the West” (2007: 33). It is the social, intellectual and cultural production of such a sentiment, at once material and psychological, that I term “imperial indifference”. Imperial indifference should not be mistaken for neglect, for it is inseparable from the very visible and interested acts of empire in the present historical juncture. Indeed, it is essential to these acts. It should not be seen as simple ignorance either, although one of its effects is to justify what Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak has called “sanctioned ignorance” through the authorisation of parochialism as a necessary political and moral attitude (1999: 164).

Rather, imperial indifference is the result of an immense intellectual, political, cultural and social labour undertaken in diverse locations of social life and practice – from the content of school and college textbooks to the representation of ethnic minorities on television shows in India or the US, traversing the multiple tracks and channels of soft diplomacy and the realpolitik calculations of hawks, enshrined in the gendered and raced division of global labour and no less in the political economy of global information technology, communication channels and telecommunication networks. Imperial indifference is made possible by the relentless inscription of the lessness of some lives and bodies; when some lives, as Judith Butler suggests, are less grievable than others (2006: 22). In various forms of social existence, in the banal stuff of everyday life as in the obviously “imperial” acts of powerful states, imperial difference enables as much  as  it  reflects the normalisation of empire in the present historical moment.

As a final thought on the matter, imperial indifference and the normalisation of empire in the present are not restricted to any particular region or nation. On the contrary, they can be seen in various political contexts, including among those nations that claim the mantle of post-colonial societies. Indeed, one of the features of the resurgent model of empire in the present is the collusion that it invites from nations with their own imperialist ambitions, who cynically and strategically draw on and endorse the imperialist actions of powerful states like the US, even as they might challenge other actions of these states. The US, as global hegemon, might well provide the template and vocabulary for such actions on the part of other states. But the imperialistic sentiments and actions of such states are not exhausted by the US example or US influence.  To insist on empire as the preserve of the US (or the west) paradoxically reinforces an American (or western) exceptionalism touted by the more imperialistic minded voices in these locations. Provincialising empire might be the first step towards demystifying and critiquing it and envisioning an alternative.

Also worth reading from that issue of EPW, by the way:

Also, a propos and brilliant, read Zeyep Tufekci’s blog post “Twitter and the Anti-Playstation Effect on War Coverage”