Waziristan, U.S.

Drones and the Obama Administration

I gave the following remarks on 26 March 2014.

There currently exists a limit in the liberal critique of the drone program: there is a discussion about the efficacy of the program – and with it an emphasis on collecting numbers of casualties, of some matrices of sorting the dead into militants and civilians; there is a discussion of the legality of the program – with it the implications for state capacity to fight terrorism or to punish individuals; there is a historicizing of drones within imperial histories of violence upon colonized spaces –and with it a linking of US regime to earlier British or European regimes. In any of these cases, there is an assumption that the critic is making a moral case against the usage of drones for imperial over-reach or against blowback, but which stops at not knowing the precise numbers of civilian casualties and hence in suspension.

Priya Satia’s recent essay on the history of drones links British and later US regimes of power and is highly critical of imperial outreach and in an exemplary fashion. Yet Satia concludes: “Only intense public pressure can force lawmakers to have a conversation about what drones should be used for, as has been true of the limits we want to impose on other technologies, from computers to land mine.”1 Satia’s reversion to an idealized liberal democratic politics is incongruent to the critique of lawmakers from the long twentieth century that Satia herself thoroughly documents in her work. What Satia does not do is question the very gaze that allows lawmakers to constitute a space of exception for a vast swarth of subaltern subjects and reject the premise in the first place.

It is not an advisable position to take: after all, the drones ostensibly target a group of individuals (al- Qaeda or Taliban) who as well make no distinction between civilian and military and who have carried out a long string of horrific violence against various states. Being deemed outside of Reason, of History and, markedly, of Time, the only option is to eliminate them with force, and in this particular chain of calculations, the drone program, however flawed, represents the best case scenario.

What I would like to do is point out a particularly US based history (not British or European) both for the targeting of a space as one out of civilization and with categorizing violence on that space as righteous. In an earlier essay, on the question of technology and the act of “seeing” that governs the technical sophistry of drone warfare (“Adam’s Mirror: The Frontier in the Imperial Imagination“) I made a particular argument for us to consider the history of US regimes of power. My argument today furthers that claim by stating that drones do not represent any paradigmatic shift. Rather, the drone program is a continuation of a long history of risk minimization and political marginalization of people-as-population whose presumed opacity helps the US polis imagine the worst. In this regard, the particular spatialization of violence enacted in the drone strikes has been at-home in the foundational ethos of US state-hood.

First, the question of space itself – the un-goverened or semi-governed space, which is thought to lie at the borderlands or at the frontier. It is a site of anxiety, a source of disruption, a place where inclement forces gather to plot, and to attack. It is the space which orients our actions (“Wild West” or “Tribal Areas”) away from civitas to jus bellum. It is regularly invoked elsewhere in contemporary discourse, but it is rather closer to home.
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  1. Priya Satia, “Drones: A History from the British Middle East,” Humanity 5 (Spring 2014): 1-31. []

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Ten Years Ago Today

Very first first

Very first first

Today marks the tenth anniversary of this particular blog. A decade of my life is now invested in a virtual space which itself has nurtured my mind, my writing, my friendships, my community and my making sense of the world. Yet, “I” have been only a subset of what “CM” is. This is the fact that prompts me to write today and mark this occasion. CM became, very early, a communal space of a very particular kind: engaged, irreverent, awkward with looking at itself, steady. Many of my closest friendships came into this space and emerged from it. CM was not ideologically driven, it was not geographically situated, it did not have a political agenda. It was a way of seeing the world. CM published, and was published by, a number of individuals who continue here: Farangi, Lapata, Patwari, Sanyasi, Dacoit, Bulleyah and then many, many readers and guest posters and commentators (nearly 11,000 comments!) and friends who came, who left, who came back.

I have used this space to rant, be informative, be lethargic, be angry, be disgusted, be snarky, be all of the above. I have, barring one occasion, never invoked my personal life, never launched personal attacks on others, never participated in group-think, never self-promoted. I used this space to write – differently, effectively, in sync with my academic turns, and not enough. The CM slow-burn has been in effect for a few years, and somehow sustained itself. Blogging seems so old-fashioned now that people can just post updates on facebook but I predict it will make a comeback. Just you wait.

On behalf of everyone who wrote for CM, I want to thank all who are reading this today, and all who have read it over the years.

CM will go on.

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Announcing my new novel, Taste

Excited to announce that my new novel, Taste, will be out from Foxhead Books in early April. Here’s the amazing trailer directed by Carl Sprague and edited by Brett Marty:

You can pre-order the book here.

A vimeo version is in the works for those of you outside the YouTube frontier.

And here’s the vimeo!

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Concluding installment (part 1 here) of an essay by Prashant Keshavmurthy.1 on the radical disruption of scholarly speech in India.

In 1892, Maulana Shibli Nu’māni, an internationally celebrated Indian Muslim historian, (Urdu-Persian) literary critic and theologian of his day, traveled by sea from Bombay to the Ottoman Empire, journeying through Cyprus, Istanbul, Syria and Egypt. Of this journey he kept a journal that he later published under the title of Safarnāma-i rūm va misr va shām (A Travel Account of Turkey, Egypt and Syria).2 He claims that he had not intended to write a travel account but that European prejudices with regard to the Turks had led him to do so. Even well-meaning Europeans, he observes, remain bound by the Islamophobic prejudices they are raised with. His aims in writing it are therefore corrective and pedagogical: to correct prejudiced European travel accounts of Turkey that form the basis for European histories, and to instruct Indian Muslims by documenting exemplary “progress” among Turkish Muslims.

The Turkey or Ottoman state of Shibli’s time, we must remember, was the only one of the three great early modern Islamic states – the other two being Safavid Iran and Mughal India – to still be extant. Moreover, its emperor, Abduḥamīd II (1876 – 1909), had only recently achieved radical advances in the movement to modernize or “reorganize” – “reorganization” or tanzīmāt bespeaking the bureaucratic character of this modernity – of his state on European models. Shibli intends therefore to focus on the “developments and reforms” of the Muslim world, especially Turkey.

The turn of the century preoccupation with lost Mughal sovereignty among North India’s Reformist Muslims – a sovereignty they understood as Muslim in the wake of the formal end of the Mughal state in 1857 – led them to regard the still regnant Ottoman empire with special attention: in it they saw a Muslim empire that was modeling itself through technological and institutional reforms on Europe, the very ambition of Sayyid Aḥmad Khān, the founder of what became Aligarh Muslim University, and his colleagues like Shibli Nu’māni. Shibli thus discusses formerly Ottoman Cyprus, when he passes through it, in terms of the history of its political sovereignty under Muslim and then British rule. Furthermore, everywhere in his travels he singles out educational syllabi, technology, and such empirical aspects of a society as clothing and food, treating them as indices of a polity’s development.

Shibli desires and is at pains to discover signs of a continuous Muslim world. That he conflates all Arabs in the Ottoman territories with Muslims and vice versa signals this desire. The historical motivations for this desire lay both in the Pan-Islamism adopted as a policy against European meddling in Ottoman affairs by Abdulḥamīd II as well as in the sense of shame at their civilizational “decline” (inḥitāt) pervasive among intellectuals and literati in the Arab world of the time. From Bombay to Aden, writes Shibli, he had been “longing to see a Muslim” and, in Cyprus, when he hears a boy in a seminary recite from the Qur’an he is filled with an emotion of wonderment: “At the priest’s signal the boy recited a few verses from the Qur’an. It affected me strangely. It occurred to me: what was the affecting power in these holy words that, becoming electric power from East to West, shot across from the distant deserts of Arabia to the far-flung islands of the Mediterranean and still survives?” The “affecting power in these holy words” became “electric power” in its rapid global spread: the metaphor succinctly formulates the Muslim Reformist goal of a modernity for a single if heterogeneous global Islam that would validate and include Western technological inventions.
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  1. Prashant Keshavmurthy is Assistant Professor of Persian Studies in the Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University. He spends his days biting his finger in wonderment at the strangeness of pre-19th century Indian and Middle Eastern literary cultures and his nights disentangling the dreadlocks of his affections. []
  2. Shibli Nu’māni, Safarnāmā-i rūm va misr va shām (Ā’zamgarh: matba-i ma’ārif, 1940). All the translations from Urdu in this essay, unless otherwise indicated, are my own. []

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First installment of an essay by Prashant Keshavmurthy1 on the radical disruption of scholarly speech in India.

Rangila Rasul

Rangila Rasul

Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,
In pungent fruit and bright green wings, or else
In any balm or beauty of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?2

chhor literature ko apnī history ko bhūl jā/ Quit “literature” , dump “history”, don’t be a fool.
sheikh o masjid se ta‘alluq tark kar, iskūl jā/ Break with sheikh and mosque, go to “school”.
char din kī zindagī hai koft se kyā fāyda/ Life’s brief as a blink – why be bothered?
khā double-rotī clerky kar khushī se phūl jā/ Breakfast on “loaves”, push a pen, be cool.3

Beginning at regionally varying dates in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries across the world any thinking describing itself as political in whatever sense has had to simultaneously satisfy two minimal conditions: regard the crowd as a legitimate political actor; and grant ontological primacy to the everyday. These two correlated conditions also minimally define the public.

The former condition originates in the awareness that the people, not the king, are the real locus of legitimate power. The king’s once sacred body then vacates an altar whose emptiness, in a sense, begins to constitute democracy.4 It begins to constitute democracy in the sense that the people’s awareness of the impossibility of legitimate power inhering in an individual’s body justifies their sense of its dispersal across themselves. Henceforth, the signs of political legitimacy would increasingly be sought and scrutinized, not in an individual’s mysteriously inherited radiance, but in the masses of ordinary bodies seen in an ordinary light.

This brings us to the latter condition. The people is made up of bodies standing in the sort of quotidian light that Vermeer, the seventeenth century Dutch painter, helped make imaginable. Rather than otherworldly effulgence Vermeer’s is a tranquil window-light, suffusing a woman’s stole and cheek as she holds a dully-gleaming metal jug in a basin. Cloth, flesh, wood and metal each come into their own in this profane, diaphanous and impartial medium. To be political in the modern world has meant to gaze at it in this light, to grant that this everyday object-world was more real than any other. After Ghalib (d.1869), canonized as the last practitioner of the traditional Urdu (and Indo-Persian) ghazal, objects in the ghazal never shone so brightly. Displacing the wine, goblets and gardens that were allegorically always more than themselves in the traditional ghazal, the railways, telegraph and bread loaves (“double-roti”) of Akbar Allahabadi’s (d.1921) ghazals dramatized the impossibility of such transcendence in a colonial political economy.5 Henceforth, the legitimacy of political aims was increasingly to be determined, not in the name of the next world, but according to whether and how it entailed a transformation of such this- worldly and everyday object-relations.

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  1. Prashant Keshavmurthy is Assistant Professor of Persian Studies in the Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University. He spends his days biting his finger in wonderment at the strangeness of pre-19th century Indian and Middle Eastern literary cultures and his nights disentangling the dreadlocks of his affections. []
  2. Wallace Stevens, “Sunday Morning”, The Collected Poems (New York: Vintage Books, 1982), 67. []
  3. K.C. Kanda, Masterpieces of Patriotic Urdu Poetry: Text, Translation and Transliteration (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 2005), 89. All the translations from the Urdu are mine. []
  4. I am indebted for this phenomenological theory of the modern political to Claude Lefort, Democracy and Political Theory (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1988), “Power was embodied in the prince, and it therefore gave society a body. And because of this, a latent but effective knowledge of what one meant to the other existed throughout the social. This model reveals the revolutionary and unprecedented feature of democracy. The locus of power becomes an empty place” (17). []
  5. I am indebted for this interpretation to the essays on Akbar Allahabadi by the great Urdu literary critic, Muhammad Hasan Askari, contained in his posthumously published collection of essays, Vaqt kī rāginī (Tune of the Time) (Lahore: Quasain, 1979). []

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