Durham Geography Charlie Hebdo Event

Today I spoke at a Durham Geography workshop on Charlie Hebdo organised by Angharad Closs Stephens

Here’s a summary of what I said:

1. The January attacks on Paris are representative of a form of violence that is urbanised. A form of urban insurgency that is increasingly common in cities around the world – Mumbai, Madrid, London, Boston, Nairobi. It exploits urban technologies/infrastructures – cars, rails, roads – and urban morphology – enclosed spaces, crowded spaces – for maximum effect. It is not new, but it’s effective. Military doctrine has warned of the complexity of urban space for a while, but this urban insurgency demonstrates a lack of effective response – partly because, as I will discuss in a minute, the proposed responses erode the core attributes of the urban environment that we value – freedom, plurality and so on.

2. Like all insurgency this violence is both symbolic and yet rational – metaphoric and yet practical. It adopts the logic of effects based warfare – the form of nodal targeting that was deployed in the shock and awe campaign of 2003. EBO is both communicative – sending a message to wider constituencies (governments, populations, supporters) – and yet tactically instrumental – exploiting urban technology and form to achieve force multiplication. Above all EBO is an affective form of violence, seeking to achieve a sensation of sudden arrest that will shatter routinised patterns of behaviour and thought. It is supposed to have a non-conscious effect on its audience.
3. We should recognise that this is not an urbicide in the sense of a deliberate attack on the fabric of the city in order to eliminate heterogeneity. Indeed, in a perverse way, we could argue that this is a violent attempt to stake the claim for plurality, to stake a claim for an antagonistic other to puncture the concensus about tolerance of offence. That said, this violence is related – in a roundabout fashion – to the urban counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan as well as Gaza. The widespread use of high explosives in civilian space and the massive military presences required to pacify complex urban terrain have, via the global media, played their own role in nurturing grievance and sharpening insurgent practice.
4. Our reponse is not promising. Too much of the discussion has focused on the transnational nature of terror. Of course training on the Syrian battlefields matters, but Lee Rigby shows that it is not necessary. To attribute the attacks to a shadowy network is to foreclose the uncanny sense in which these attacks are of the city not from beyond it. They are attacks borne out of grievances nurtured in what Mustafa Dikec has referred to as the ‘badlands of the Republic‘. The attacks are disquieting insofar as they are uncanny in Freud’s sense of disclosing the repressed grievance at the heart of western urban environments.
5. Finally, the militarisation of the physical and virtual infrastructures of the contemporary urban environment – the hardening of urban spaces and the increasing surveillance of the communications that are the substrate for the urban public realm will not, in the end, neutralise this type of violence. Rather they are a militarisation of everyday life that diminishes the very thing that #jesuischarlie calls for – a vibrant public disensus.

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