Still from amateur video uploaded to YouTube showing a young woman caught in a cloud of tear gas near Taksim Square, in Turquey

☛ YouTube: “Taksim’de Gaz saldırısının içinde kalan Kadının acı çığlıkları” uploaded on June 12, 2013 by Keneth Minovski. Still @ 00:53. [UPDATE–February 14, 2014] The link to the video is dead and Keneth Minovski’s channel has been closed. Another copy of the video can be found here.

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“Caught in the Cloud: The Biopolitics of Tear Gas Warfare” is an essay I wrote at the invitation of Léopold Lambert for his ongoing collaborative project The Funambulist Papers (see other papers from this series). Léopold Lambert is a French-born architect and writer currently living in New York, whom I recently had the pleasure to meet. He is the editor of the blog The Funambulist where he also writes on a regular basis. In 2012 he published Weaponized Architecture. The Impossibility of Innocence. More recently, he began the publication of The Funambulist Pamphlets in collaboration with Punctum Books.

The essay I wrote draws on my current doctoral research about the aporia of community: the fact that contemporary forms of coexistence foster destructive interactions. My research originally started with the study of mass murders but has since broadened to encompass other violent phenomena. Many aspects of this ongoing research are regularly featured here, on Aphelis.

The essay was inspired by a video uploaded to YouTube at the height of the Taksim Square protests in Turkey (see the above screenshot and links). The video shows a tear gas attack of stunning intensity led by Turkish police forces against a crowd of protestors. Yet, the event recorded is far from being exceptional: see for example how tear gas was used worldwide since December 2012 on this map created and maintained by Dr. Anna Feigenbaum. On the contrary, the events captured in the amateur video are illustrative of the way civilians, in the very intimacy of the domestic space they inhabit, are increasingly confronted with massive and indiscriminate violence. The argument I make in the essay addresses this issue through the theories of Michel Foucault and Peter Sloterdijk (read the essay). What follows is not a summary of the essay, but complementary remarks and observations on various aspects related to the same topic. Léopold also discussed related themes in a post he uploaded a few days ago: see “Thanatopolitics: Managing the Acceleration/Deceleration of the Death Process”.

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The problem is not merely about protests, although they seem to have increased in number in recent years (one also has to take into account the probable increase in media coverage). Indeed, protests could be said to be part of an antagonistic process immanent to social life, an idea Roberto Esposito recently developed in his book on Italian philosophy (Living Thought, 2012). The issue instead, as it was clearly outlined by Jean-Luc Nancy, arises when those conflicts reach a point of intensity beyond which they take a deadly turn:

Que cet affrontement avec soi puisse être une loi de l’être-en-commun et son sens même, voilà qui est au programme du travail de pensée ―immédiatement accompagné de cet autre programme: que l’affrontement, en se comprenant lui-même, comprenne que la destruction mutuelle détruit jusqu’à la possibilité même de l’affrontement, et avec elle la possibilité de l’être-en-commun ou de l’être-avec.

Using tear gas as a riot control agent is one thing. Using it to a point where lives are increasingly endangered is another. In my essay, I point to what was qualified by the European Parliament as an “excessive” use of tear gas against protestors in Bahrain. A couple of days ago, another appalling example was provided when it was reported that 36 Egyptian prisoners had died of asphyxiation in the holding cell of a police van.

Furthermore, the destructive potential associated with the ways by which we manage our coexistence is far from being restricted to the use of tears gas. At the time of writing, Secretary of State John Kerry has declared that the use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria was undeniable and has accused the Syrian government of being responsible. In this case as well, civilians ―not fighters nor military personnel― were killed in the very neighborhood they were living in.

In the conclusion for his essay Civilization and Its Discontents published in 1930, Freud had already identified the challenge that the human species was about to face. Would it be possible for humans, he asks, to develop a way of living in common while at the same time “mastering the derangements of communal life caused by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction”? (tr. by James Strachey, New York: W.W. Norton&Company Inc., [1930] 1962, p. 92) This worrying observation has since been repeated by many ―especially after the atomic bombing of Japan in 1945― including Walter Benjamin, Günther Anders, Albert Camus and Hannah Arendt. Conflicts among humans, as I suggested earlier, have existed since the dawn of time. According to Plato, when men first gathered in cities, they “did wrong to one another” until Zeus provided them with with “civic art” (πολιτικὴν τέχνην), “which includes the art of war” (Plato, Protagoras, 322b). However, up until recently, never those conflicts had reached such a scale, both in terms of technological means and in term of global proportions.

This global war led by human beings against themselves ―or this “global civil war” as some already chose to call it― is not limited to the theatre of war, if only because of the civilian casualties. In fact, the very concept of “war”, of which Clausewitz provided a classical definition, should probably be broadened today to take into account the specificities of contemporary conflicts. There are many arguments for such a change in this traditional understanding of war. I’ll conclude those remarks by quickly sketching the outline of two of them.

First, as I have suggested, we are increasingly experiencing the blurring of traditional distinctions between the civilian sphere and the military sphere worldwide. This confusion severely threatens the legal principle of civilian immunity and, with it, the way peaceful life is stabilized and experienced. Among other things, the penetration of war into civilian spaces is illustrated in recent times by the militarization of law enforcement agencies in the United-States and elsewhere, the privatization of the military industry, as well as the increased use of drones abroad in what President Obama has called the “Overseas Contingency Operation”. In some respects, acts of terrorism and mass murders ―although they sometimes differ in nature― could also be taken into account in this reconfiguration.

Second, I would tentatively argue that this “global civil war” is to be found in various man-made catastrophes as well. Although not specifically of military nature, they bring significant destruction in an environment which was believed the be safe and secure. Recent examples would include the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster (both of which are still ongoing). Although those cannot be associated with what would classically constitute an “act of war”, they both are catastrophes related to our way of living (energetic production in this case) which had ―still have― consequences of unprecedented proportions on civil life. Although unintentionally and with indirect means, “we” are perpetrating those events upon ourselves.

Recently, when the Prime Minister of Canada visited Lac-Mégantic in the southern province of Quebec where a derailed train of crude oil had exploded and flattened the centre of the town, he compared the scene to a “war zone”. The phrasing, I believe, is significant. Environmental disasters, as do wars, expose humans to a violence communal life was precisely supposed to prevent or, at least, to temporize.

One must certainly keep the ability to make a qualitative distinction between an oil spill at sea and a chemical attack on civilians. As Jean-Luc Nancy argues in his latest book L’équivalence des catastrophes (Galilée, 2012), those catastrophes are not equivalent in the sense that they would be equal in nature, in intensities or in consequences. They are equivalent in the sense that they resonate globally at various levels, if only by means of the economic network blanketing the planet. From this standpoint, there are no such things as localized catastrophes anymore.

At the time of writing these notes, the possibility of a U.S. military intervention in Syria is looming large on the horizon. To believe that the possibility of such an intervention only concerns Syrians would be a profound mistake. The same applies, I argue in my essay, to the dreadful situation of the young woman depicted in the video.

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