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Earwitnesses of a Coup Night

August 4, 2016 1 comment

Update: This text is published inGerman in the Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft‘s blog, translated by Florian Sprenger. It is also published in Turkish in Biamag, translated by  Doğan Terzi. Here is the original English version, which is also published on the Theory, Culture & Society journal’s blog.

Earwitnesses of a Coup Night: The Many Media Infrastructures of Social Action

The particularly cruel scenes in Ankara and Istanbul from July 15th and 16th circulated quickly. From eye witness accounts to images detached from their context, media users, viewers and readers was soon seeing the graphic depictions of what had happened with the added gory details, some of them fake, some of them not.

Still and moving images from the hundreds of streams that conveyed a live account of the events left many in Turkey puzzled as to what is going on. Only later most were able to form some sort of a picture of the events with the coherence of a narrative structure. By the morning the live stream on television showed military uniform soldiers raising their hands and climbing down from their tanks. What soon ensued were the by already now iconic images of public punishment: the man with his upper torso bare and the belt as his whip, the stripped soldiers in rows shamed and followed up by the series of images of expressions of collective joy as most of Turkey was relieved again. The coup was over. The unity in resisting the coup was unique. As it was summarised by many commentators: even the ones critical of the governing AK Party’s politics agreed that this was not a suitable manner of overthrowing an elected government.

However, what became evident immediately in the wake of the actual events was the quick spread of narratives and explanations about the coup night and its extent. As one journalist aptly and with a healthy dose of sarcasm put it:

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The flux of commentaries on social media and in newspapers, columns and television deserved its own name: “coupsplaining” as @shokufeyesib coined it.

Also some rather established organisations like Wikileaks got quickly on the spectacle-seeking bandwagon of the coup attempt’s repercussions. Turkish journalists and activist soon read and revealed that the so-called “AKPleaks”-documents were not really anything that interesting as it was advertised to be. As Zeynep Tufekci summarised: “According to the collective searching capacity of long-term activists and journalists in Turkey, none of the ‘Erdogan emails’ appear to be emails actually from Erdogan or his inner circle” while actually containing information that could be considered harmful to normal Turkish citizens instead.

Of course, besides commentators inside and outside Turkey, there was no lack of people with first-hand experience. Besides the usual questions that eyewitnesses were asked in many news reports about “how did things look like”, another angle was as pertinent. How did it sound? The soundscape of the coup was itself a spectacle catered to many senses: the helicopters hovering around the city; the different calibre gunfire that ranged from heavy fire from helicopters to individual pistol shots; individual explosions; car horns; sirens, and the roaring F-16 that descended at times so low so that its sonic boom broke windows of flats. Such sonic booms have their own grim history as part of the 21st century sonic warfare as cultural theorist Steve Goodman analysed the relation of modern technologies, war and aesthetics. As has been reported for years, for example Israeli military has used sonic noise of military jets in Palestine as a shock technique: “Palestinians liken the sound to an earthquake or huge bomb. They describe the effect as being hit by a wall of air that is painful on the ears, sometimes causing nosebleeds and ‘leaving you shaking inside’.”

In the midst of sonic booms,  a different layer of sound was felt through the city: the mosques starting their extraordinary call to prayer and calls to gather on the streets. The latter aspect was itself triggered by multiple mediations that contributed to the mobilization of the masses. Turkish President had managed to Facetime with CNN-Turk’s live broadcast and to call his supporters to go on the streets to oppose the coup attempt. By now even the phone the commentator held has become a celebrity object with apparently even $250,000 offered for it.

But there was more to the call than the ringtone of an individual smartphone. In other words, the chain of media triggers ranged from the corporate digital videotelephony to television broadcasting to the infrastructures of the mosques to people on the streets tweeting, filming, messaging and posting on social media. All of this formed a sort of a feedback-looped sphere of information and speculation, of action and messaging, of rumours and witnessing. Hence, there was more than just traditional broadcast or digital communication that made up the media reality of this particular event.

The mosques started to amplify the political leadership’s social media call by their own acoustic means. Another network than just social media was as essential and it also proved to be irreducible to what some called the “cyberweapon” of online communications. As one commentator tried to argue commenting on the events in Turkey: “But, this is the era of cyberpower. Simply taking over the TV stations is not enough. The Internet is a more powerful means of communication than TV, and it is more resilient — especially with a sophisticated population.” However, there were also other elements in the mix that made it a more interesting and a more complex issue than merely about the “cyber”.

Turkish artist and technologist Burak Arikan had already in his earlier work mapped the urban infrastructure of Istanbul in terms of its mosques, malls and national monuments. “Islam, Republic, Neoliberalism” (2012) employs his critical mapping methodology to visualise how structures of power are part of the everyday whether we always realise these relationships or not. Based on his research, Arikan devised three maps of those architectural forms and how they connect. According to Arikan, the “maps present a comparative display of network patterns that are formed through associations linking those architectural structures that represent the three dominant ideologies –Islam, Republic, Neoliberalism– in Turkey.”

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During the coup weekend, it was the network of the mosques and their minarets that became suddenly very visible – or actually, very audible. While the regular praying times have become such an aural infrastructure of the city that one does not necessarily consciously notice it, the extraordinary calls from imams reminded how dense this social, architectural fabric actually is. The thousands of Istanbul mosques became itself an explicit “sonic social network” where the average estimated reach (300 meters) of sound  from the minarets is too important of a detail to neglect when one wants to understand architecture as solidifying social networks in contemporary Turkey. In the context of mid-July it was one crucial relay of communication between the private sphere in homes, the streets and the online platforms contributing to the mobilization of the masses. The musicological perspective has highlighted how sound and noise negotiate conflict across private and the public and we can extend this to a wider media ecological perspective too. This is where art and design practices can have an instrumental role to play in helping us to understand such overlapped media and sensorial realities.

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Artists such as Arikan have  investigated the ways how online tools and digital forms of mapping can connect to issues of urban planning and change. The visual artwork helps us to also understand how there are other social realities, less front of our eyes even if they are in our ears. This expands the wider sense of how media is and was involved in Turkey’s events, and it gives also insights to new methodologies of artistic intervention in understanding the coupling of media, architecture, visual methods and  the sonic reality of urban life. And in this case of the bloody events of the coup weekend, much of the personal experience of “what happened” is now being narrated in Turkey in terms of what it sounded like – another aspect of the media reality of the coup attempt’s aftermath.

 

The Earth (for the Posthuman Glossary)

November 12, 2015 Leave a comment

I am writing some entries (“Anthropocene”, “Medianatures”, “The Earth”) for the forthcoming Posthuman Glossary, edited by Rosi Braidotti and Maria Hlavajova. The project and some of the entries were the topic of seminars during May/June in Utrecht in a row of seminars, and the book I believe is expected to be out later in 2016.

Here’s one of the text – although in draft form (and not copy edited); a short text on the Earth. One can say topical for so many reasons: issues of climate change/disaster, as well as the perhaps linked enthusiastic discovery of Earth-like planets outside our solar system – a recurring theme in our current public discourse about space and science.

 The Earth

The Earth is a planet, of an age of about 4.54 billion years and defined by its geological formations, density, biosphere, hydrosphere and an atmosphere that sustains life. It’s more than a world for humans but an Earth that is defined by its life-sustaining conditions and its planetary relations (Woodard 2015). On a planetary level, it is one complex dynamic system where biosphere, atmosphere and many of the geological spheres interact; on an extra-planetary level it is as dynamic, part of the gravitational pull, periodic rotation, cosmic rays and the radiation of the sun. Buckminster Fuller coined it “spaceship earth” marking the speculative beginnings of post-planetary design: ‘We are all astronauts’ (Fuller 1969: 14) who spin in space traveling 60 000 miles an hour, in the midst of rich non-human life as well as the intensive relations to other planets and the sun.

The Earth is also a complex ecosystem where one should never mistake humans to be the centre of action but merely one part in a larger loop of processes. One way to refer to it is by way of a ‘holarchy arisen from the self-induced synergy of combination, interfacing, and recombination’ (Margulis and Sagan 1995:18).

Besides the life of the organic and the inorganic spheres, it is also a mediasphere by which we don’t have to think only of the Jesuit fantasies of the immaterial reality of cognition such as Teilhard de Chardin did–or what cyber culture then rehashed with a dose of Silicon Valley excitement–but the different visualisation systems that give us operational representations of the planet. This is the view of the Earth since the Vostok I-space flight in 1961: the first human that is orbiting the planet and able to describe the ground-detached view. It’s the Earth that features in the cover of the first Whole Earth Catalogue in 1968, and in the inside pages hailing the imagery of the satellite era: the necessary coffee table book of 243 NASA images, in full color, from the Gemini flights in 1965—for only $7. The Earth furnishes the home.

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Our understanding of the Earth is mediated by a variety of representational techniques and is itself a product of the technological era. ‘They alone shall possess the earth who live from the powers of the cosmos, quoted Walter Benjamin (2008: 58) in his short text ‘To the Planetarium’ from 1928, analysing technological ways of organising the physis – both the gaze upwards, and from up there, back downwards. The satellite based images of the Earth since 1960s and leading to the famous Blue Marble of 1972 (Apollo 17-flight) mark subsequent examples in the series of images that define the Earth from the space. The escape velocity (Virilio 1997) that allows accelerating objects from airplanes to space ships to leave the Earth’s gravity bound surface is also what then allows us to see the Earth from above. The old etymology of the Earth as eorþe referring to something different from the heavens and the underground gives way to a dynamic of vectors where the Earth becomes defined from the heavens. The energetic powers of acceleration transform into the visual survey from above. As Fuller puts it, writing in late 1960s, ‘However, you have viewed more than did pre-twentieth-century man, for in his entire lifetime he saw only one-millionth of the Earth’s surface.’ This media-enhanced understanding of the Earth seeps into the biological work of Margulis and Sagan even, when they narrate the new metamorphosis of visual epistemology that this technological thrusting and imaging brings about. It brings forth an imaginary of the orbital that is shared by satellites and astronauts: ‘As if floating dreamily away from your own body, you watch the planet to which you are now tied by only the invisible umbilicus of gravity and telecommunication.’ (Margulis and Sagan 1995: 18). They use such images and narratives to contribute to the idea of holarchic view where the human is part of the micro- and macrocosms. For them, the event is a sort of a planetary level mirror image that carries Jacques Lacan concept from babies to space: to perceive ‘the global environment’ as the ‘mirror stage of our entire species’ (Ibid.)

Much more than an echo of psychoanalytic stage for the planetary design, the mediated vision turned back on the earth itself was instrumental to a range of political, scientific and military considerations. Seeing the Earth from space was one such thing that had an effect on climate research (also impacted by the nuclear testing, see Edwards 2010). It had an effect on military planning and geopolitical evaluation. It opened up again a holistic view of the planet as one although at the same time as a complex system of non-linear kind. It contributed to a variety of cultural moods and movements. Even the gaze to the otherworldly away from the Earth was a way to sharpen the focus on the planet; But the technological gaze toward deep space with telescopes such as Hubble was never just about space and the interplanetary worlds. Geographical surveys benefited from the developed lenses and image processing of satellite-enabled remote sensing. (Cubitt 1998: 45-49) The perspective back to the Earth has enabled the fine-tuning accuracy of corporate digital maps such as Google Earth and a massive military surveillance system too.

The Earth is constantly targeted by satellites and remote sensing systems such as the Planetary Skin institute. The institute is one among many systems that offer polyscalar view of multiciplity of processes for analysis. It boasts with the ideal of reading these as “scalable big data” that benefits communities and can “increase, food, water, and energy security and protect key ecosystems and biodiversity” (quoted in Bishop 2016). Alongside systems as the Hewlett Packard’s Central Nervous System for the Earth (CeNSE) it creates real-time surveillance systems that intend more than mere observation. As Ryan Bishop (ibid.) argues, these are massive level systems for constant data-based interpretation of the various scales of the Earth that indeed define a specific corporate-security angle on a planetary scale.

Our relations with the Earth are mediated through technologies and techniques of visualization, sonification, calculation, mapping, prediction, simulation, and so forth: it is primarily through operationalized media that we grasp the Earth as an object of analysis. Even the surface of the earth and geological resources used to be mapped through surveys and field observation. But now this advances through remote sensing technologies (see also Parikka 2015). One can argue that they are in a way extensions of Leibniz’s universal calculus, which offered one way to account for the order of the earth, including its accidents like earthquakes (such as the infamous 1755 in Lisbon). But as the architect-theorist Eyal Weizman argues, this calculation of the Earth is now less organized according to the divine order of Christian Deity and more about the “increasingly complex bureaucracy of calculations that include sensors in the subsoil, terrain, air, and sea, all processed by algorithms and their attendant models.” (Weizman, Davis, Turpin 2013: 64) Also practices of meteorology are to be understood as such cultural techniques and media operations that order the dynamics of the sky as analyzable data. The terrestrial opens up through what circulates above it, the atmosphere becomes a way to understand the ground and the orbit is where the understanding of the Earth begins by way of massive data-driven remote sensing systems. The nomos of the Earth that defines its geopolitics is one that reaches out to the heavenly spheres as much as to the multi-scalar data-intensive operations (see Bratton 2015).

References

Benjamin, W. (2008) ‘To the Planetarium.’ In Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 58-59.

Bishop, R. (2016) ‘Felo de se: The Munus of Remote Sensing’. Boundary2, forthcoming (estimated 2016).

Bratton, B. (2015) The Stack. On Software and Sovereignty. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Cubitt, S. (1998) Digital Aesthetics. London: Sage.

Edwards, P. (2010) The Vast Machine. Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Fuller, B. (1969) ‘Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth’ Online at http://designsciencelab.com/resources/OperatingManual_BF.pdf (originally published in 1968).

Margulis, L. and Sagan, D. (1995) What is Life? New York: Simon & Schuster.

Parikka, J. (2015) A Geology of Media. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Virilio, P. (1997) Open Sky. Trans. Julie Rose. London: Verso.

Weizman, E.; Davis, H. and Turpin, E. (2013), “Matters of Calculation: Eyal Weizman in Conversation with Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin,” in Architecture in the Anthropocene: Encounters among Design, Deep Time, Science, and Philosophy, ed. Etienne Turpin. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Open Humanities Press, 63-82.

Woodard, B. (2015) ‘Less World to be Ourselves. A Note on Postapocalyptic Simplification’ E-Flux Supercommunity, August 6, http://supercommunity.e-flux.com/texts/less-world-to-be-ourselves-a-note-on-post-apocalyptic-simplification/.

“All humanity is flying like spacewalking astronauts”

November 30, 2014 Leave a comment

The science-fiction film Interstellar, dir. Christopher Nolan, presents a near-future situation where the human kind seems to be presented with the no-alternative choice of attempting to leave the planet because of the climate change disaster. In George Monbiot’s critical reading, the film presents a political defeatism that boils down to the choice of voting with your feet – with the help of escape velocity. “Technological optimism and political defeatism: this is a formula for the deferment of hard choices to an ever receding netherland of life after planetary death.”

But the trick of the film is rather different. On the one hand, even the idea of leaving is problematised with the (admittably rather odd) relativity theory sort of a twist where the time-axis is bent in ways that actually disturb causality of leaving/returning. On a more social level, the film is more of a Spielbergian tale of the crumbling down of the nuclear family system. But then in terms of biopolitics, one is reminded that perhaps the leaving itself is not that radical departure anyway. It’s already in Michel Serres’ observation, in Natural Contract (1990/1995), that one finds the necessary situation to understand although without a helmet on, we are anyway living as astronauts, governed in relation to atmospheres and biospheres and other ecological conditions of life.

“All humanity is flying like spacewalking astronauts: outside their capsule, but tethered to it by every available network, by the sum of our know-how and of everyone’s money, work, and capacities, so that these astronauts represent the current highly developed human condition.” (120)

Of course, we need to acknowledge that such conditions of living, breathing and other networks are rather differentially distributed on the planet, which returns to us to the more pressing question relating to the political economy of the interstellar imaginary of governance – political but also in the techno-scientific sense cybernetic (with its long term relations to κυβερνώ (kyvernó̱).