Francesco Sebregondi – Power, Logistics, Interface: The Case of Gaza

From a role of support to the deployment of a machine of power, logistics has developed into a mode of power in its own right. It is perhaps in Gaza that this shift can be grasped to its fullest extent.

The sea, land, and air blockade of the Gaza Strip has now entered into its second decade. Within the territory that it contains, the blockade has created an unparalleled form of subjugation. For its two million captive residents, the material conditions of life are worsening at an alarming pace. Taking stock of the dreadful level of access to water or electricity imposed by this enduring regime, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Occupied Palestinian Territories recently stated that the blockade “has driven Gaza back to the dark ages.”[1] Let us not be fooled though: far from constituting a political atavism, the Gaza Strip should rather be seen as a frontier where the defining technology of power of our present is both stress-tested and calibrated.

By examining the architecture of the Gaza blockade, this blog post proposes seven theses on logistics as power.[2] In so doing, it will reckon with the shift from faces to interfaces as key sites of contemporary power.

 

  1. War is the continuation of logistics by other means

It is no longer necessary to argue that the 2005 Israeli disengagement did not end the occupation of the Gaza Strip, but rather inaugurated an occupation of a new kind. The concomitant establishment, in 2007, of a drastic blockade has turned Gaza into an experimental laboratory of colonial governance, where “Israel fine-tunes a dubious balance of maximum control and minimum responsibility.”[3] By sealing the Gaza borders, the Israeli authorities have gained the ability to channel, monitor, and modulate the flow of everything going in and out of the Palestinian enclave. The blockade thus forms the primary infrastructure of the logistical regime of power deployed over Gaza.

Since 2008, Gaza has endured three wars – which caused thousands of civilian casualties and the extensive destruction of its built environment. Not only has the blockade constituted the structural trigger of each of the wars, but also its primary stake. Aptly code-named “Protective Edge”, the 2014 Israeli military operation in Gaza had for declared objective the destruction of the Gaza tunnels; by opening up channels of unmonitored communication across the border, those tunnels posed indeed a fundamental, topological threat to the exercise of logistical power.

The extreme case of Gaza speaks to the thorough entanglement of the military and civilian dimensions of present-day logistics.[4] It also reveals a crucial inversion of the classical relation between war and logistics – whereby war is turned into an instrument to support the durable enforcement of logistical power.

  

  1. Logistics overrides the law

Gaza is often approached as a paradigmatic example of a “state of exception”.[5] While recent theories of this particular juridical condition point to the trend of its generalisation across contemporary globalised societies – the exception becoming the norm – it is worth asking whether the very notion of exception doesn’t cast more shadows than it sheds light. By focusing on what is missing from a postulated ‘normal’ picture – the law being suspended – the theoretical framework of the exception tends to prevent from seeing and describing what has actually emerged from the juridical void.

Historically, states of exception have tended to lead to a de facto sovereign rule by a military authority, administering the territory according to its own rationality. In the process, the rule of law gives way to the rule of logistics which, far from constituting a simplification of the legal structure of power, leads to a reconfiguration of its operational logic. Rather than attaining directly to life, “without any mediation” (Agamben), the rule of logistics operates through a process of over-mediation, whereby every infrastructure and protocol of exchange is turned into a site of immanent governance.

The very etymology of our modern notion of logistics echoes this shift. While the term is commonly traced back to the crucial Greek root logos, a number of linguists have stressed the etymological detour of the term through the Middle French logis “shelter for an army, encampment,” itself from the Proto-Germanic laubja- “shelter”.[6] It is outside the polis and along military campaigns that logistics departed from the logos of the law. After this shift, the problem of power is no longer to legislate, but to lodge; not to fix a frame, but to structure a motion.

 

  1. Logistics has no future

Logistics doesn’t only extend power in space, beyond the customary boundaries of the political, but also suspends it in time. The logic of constant optimisation by which it runs fixates its temporal realm in a never-ending present. In that sense, the rise of logistical power must be understood in relation to the emergence of resilience as the dominant political project of our times – or rather, in lieu of an actual one. When the only objective of power is to prevent an impending catastrophe, its response is to postpone it indefinitely, without ever overcoming it; at the same time, dwelling on the verge of a catastrophe enables to maintain permanent access to emergency measures.[7] The offensive mode of warfare of yesterday used logistics in order to prepare for a decisive event – victory or defeat – which would open up a new condition of politics. Today, logistics as power uses all means necessary, including war, to deploy an essentially defensive strategy: preventing a defeat, maintaining an advantageous status quo, keeping an inviable system running for as long as possible and against all odds. The Gaza blockade crystallises this strategy.

 

  1. Logistics cuts through politics

As the entity in charge of overall supervision, monitoring, and critical decision-making, the Israeli state apparatus is undeniably exercising a dominant role in the logistics of power in Gaza. Yet the system would not function – it would in fact collapse – without the operative role played by the international humanitarian complex in Gaza. By organising the reliable delivery of aid to the Gaza population on behalf of the de facto occupying force, it finds itself simultaneously complicit and hostage of the blockade regime. From the spaces they construct to the technology they use, the humanitarian and military fields tend to share a common practical rationality – which is primarily based on calculation and quantitative efficiency.[8] Logistics creates a bond between entities whose political discourse may be opposed, but whose operational politics are complementary. Gaining agency within this regime of power starts with developing a new cognitive map of its structure: moving away from predetermined polarities and fault lines, tracking material connections and interdependences among the nodes of a circulatory system.

  

  1. The territorial principle of logistics is the zone/camp

Sprung out of the ruins of mandatory Palestine, the Gaza strip is an accidental territorial entity: its geographical contours correspond to an entrenching of the frontline of the Arab-Israeli war at the time of the 1949 cease-fire. Effectively, it is a vast refugee camp. Under the current regime of the blockade, Gaza forms an inverted image of a zone – this essential territorial tool for the assemblage of transnational logistical networks.[9] A territorial binary emerges: the zone carves a territory out of the normal sovereign rules with a view to release the circulation of goods, capital, and labour across its borders – those borders being controlled from within and looking outside; the camp is confined by an external sovereign force so as to contain the human and material flows across its borders, which this time are controlled from without and looking inside. Because they share the same territorial profile, the zone and the camp are potentially reversible entities (a number of speculative design projects exist to turn Gaza into a premium logistical zone that would form a hinge between the Mediterranean and the Middle East)[10]. Most importantly, logistical power requires, and actively produces, both zones and camps. Its essential mode of operation is the differential optimisation of circulation. As such, it manoeuvres as much on the acceleration of certain flows than on the hindering of others.

 

  1. The architectural paradigm of logistics is the terminal 

There are only two crossings that remain partially open to circulations across the Gaza border: at its southern end, Kerem Shalom – for goods; at its northern tip, Erez – for people. Two gates to sustain the needs of a population of two million: the Gaza terminals can only be described as engineered choke points. The process of channelling all circulations through a minimal number of terminals, as witnessed in Gaza, mirrors a general tendency that is observable across the world: from ports to cargo hubs or distribution centres, logistical infrastructure is getting bigger and ever more integrated. The architecture of logistics tends towards the terminal as both its formal paradigm and its political ideal: the ultimate point of centralised control over the exchange between two or more circuits.

Drawing a parallel between the physical and the computational terminal may shed light on a tension that is at the heart of logistical power: between decentralised structures of exchange and centralised control over exchange protocols. A computer terminal is an end-user device enabling to send commands across the entire computer network it is attached to. Specifically, it is through the terminal that an (admin) user can edit the protocols of exchange between the different hardware and software components of the computer network. Similarly, a physical terminal is never an ‘end’ in itself, but a crossing. It is positioned at a strategic junction between a number of ramified circuits across which decentralised forms of exchanges are to take place. Logistical power is exercised not so much at the level of the content of the exchange, but rather at the level of its modalities, of its conditions of possibility. It works by withdrawing from the centres of production of content all the while investing its infrastructures of circulation. The terminal is, therefore, an optimised architecture of control, enabling a minimal localised input to be propagated throughout a vast delocalised network, and thereby achieving maximum effects.

 

  1. The key site of logistical power is the interface

From ministries to switchboards; from parliaments to interfaces; from tribunals to checkpoints. In the passage from a juridical to a logistical model of power, the effective site of power finds itself displaced from the centre of the territory to its border. Yet the border shall neither be approached as a linear feature nor as a device whose only role is that of obstructing the flows that traverse it.[11] The border of Gaza is a case in point. On the one hand, extending far beyond the material fence, it operates as a thick apparatus of surveillance and firepower that relies as much on drones, maritime vessels, electronic monitoring, digital infrastructure, and mobile security patrols than on a concrete wall. As such, the border now tends to overlay the whole of the territory that it used to delimitate, and bordering practices are to be found across the entire urban and social fabric over which it is deployed. On the other hand, if the case of Gaza pushes the border’s capacity for obstruction to a rare extreme, even there it is not its sole function. In particular, while it is engineered to reduce all material inflows sustaining the life of Palestinians in Gaza to a bare minimum, it must also enable the swift flow of intelligence data from Gaza to Israeli authorities – as a condition of its security performance. Above all, borders must be understood as filtering devices, fundamental enablers of, rather than obstacles to, the particular kind of differential circulation that characterises our globalised condition.

In that sense, a border is a particular – territorial – manifestation of an interface. According to the broad definition proposed by Benjamin Bratton, an interface is “any point of contact between two complex systems that governs the conditions of exchange between those systems.”[12] In our evermore interconnected world, the governance of the conditions of exchange between two or more systems appears effectively equivalent to the governance of those very systems. As we shift our attention from the faces to the interfaces of power, it is the entire theoretical apparatus with which we conceive of the political that we must re-evaluate. From a logic of gathering, where politics are to be articulated through the confrontation of primarily discursive practices, we may need to move to – or invent? – a politics capable of acting within and through dispersal, of affecting our proliferating bordering conditions, of confronting logistical power through the (re-)design of its strategic circuits.

 

Francesco Sebregondi is an architect and a researcher, whose work explores the intersections of violence, technology, and the urban condition. Since 2011 he is a Research Fellow at Forensic Architecture, former Coordinator of the collective project (2013-2015), and co-editor of its main publication Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth (Sternberg Press, 2014). He’s the architect of the PATTRN project, an open-source tool for data-driven, participatory fact-mapping. Between 2013 and 2015, he taught in the School of Architecture at the Royal College of Art, on the topic of “architecture and activism”. Since 2015, he’s a CHASE-funded doctoral candidate at the Centre for Research Architecture, Goldsmiths University of London. In 2017, he was a participant in The New Normal programme at Strelka Institute, in Moscow.

 


Notes:

[1] Lynk, S. Michael. “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967” (23 October 2017). Accessible at: https://www.unwatch.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/Lynk-Report-Oct-2017-A_72_43106.pdf

[2] See Neilson, Brett. “Five theses on understanding logistics as power” in Distinktion: Scandinavian Journal of Social Theory Vol. 13, No. 3, December 2012, 323–340. While it acknowledges Neilson’s piece and takes its theoretical proposal into account, this blog post does not engage directly with it due to word count constraints.

[3] Li, Darryl. 2006. ‘The Gaza Strip as Laboratory: Notes in the Wake of Disengagement’. Journal of Palestine Studies 35 (2): 38–55.

[4] Cowen, Deborah. The Deadly Life of Logistics. Mapping Violence in Global Trade. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2014.

[5] Agamben, Giorgio. 2005. State of Exception. Chicago, Ill. ; London: University of Chicago Press.

[6] Heinen, Christian. Geschiscthe der Logistik. Zwischenprüfungsarbeit: 2004. p.3.

[7] Azoulay, Ariella, and Adi Ophir. 2012. ‘Abandoning Gaza’. Edited by Marcelo Svirsky and Simone Bignall. Agamben and Colonialism, 178.

[8] Weizman, Eyal. 2011. The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza. London ; New York: Verso.

[9] Easterling, Keller. 2014. “Zone” in Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space. London ; New York: Verso.

[10] See for example, “Global Palestine / Connected Gaza”. Accessible at: http://www.connectedgaza.com/

[11] Mezzadra, Sandro and Brett Neilson. 2013. Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labour. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

[12] Bratton, Benjamin. 2016. The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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4 Comments

  1. Dear Francesco, thx for sharing! I’ve tried to cross the Gaza borders for a couple of times from both side, and didn’t manage. It is still the place in the Middle East where I would like to go the most – been hanging around the region for the last few years, doing a practice-based work related to borders, mass events, and crisis. Also in the West Bank – which is designed according to a logistic principle not only applied to humans and goods but also towards appropriating surrounding natural resources. In this sense all borders are generated by a mere logistic drive – hidden behind layers of cultural discrimination. I’m trying to think if the reversibility between the camp and the zone you mention can be an arm of resilience – would it make sense as a strategy of resistance to turn a camp into a zone as a way to prepare its hypothetical transformation into a TAZ, or is there a more straight forward line between the nature of the camp and its possible transformation into a TAZ? I think the question would be how to escape the reversibility between camp and zone and move directly into a TAZ, because I’m feeling that moving from a camp into a zone would close any possible further transformation. In my border research, I’ve been fantasizing about the buffering space which is always present between two bordering countries as a potentially no law land open to subversive action – which is obviously an absurd idea or only an artistic reverie given that exactly because of this possibly ambiguous legal status, the buffering area is defined as a gated horizon from both side of the borders, and it is meant to be a transitional space to be cross as quickly as possible and not occupied – neither mapped artistically the way I’ve been trying to do in the past.
    I’m also wondering if the complex porosity of the West Bank with the violent incursions of colonial settlers (or the porosity of Calais in France, in a different way) versus the locked status of Gaza and its borders would provide a better figure to think about state of exceptions and logistics as power in nowadays cultural and political conditions. On another note, I think the parallel between physical and computational terminal is also potentially profitable to think about the internet as a merely logistic enterprise, where the freedom of contents is balanced by a surgical distribution of them via filter bubbles of various kind. Your accent on logistic as a modality to control contents makes me think that it might be possible to paraphrase McLuhan saying that the “logistic is the message”, rather then the medium – especially in a time where the concept of medium is loosing ground in favor of the concept of the interface, which you connect interestingly with that of border. Looking forward to talk more!

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  2. Hi Mitra,
    Many thanks for your comments and apologies for the belated reply. You raise quite a lot of valuable and challenging points which I’d much rather discussing in person during the workshop, to do justice to their breadth. As a general point though, I’m glad that your comments point to the same problem as the one I’m looking at with my research, namely not only how to describe this posited logistical condition, but how to intervene into it strategically. also looking forward to talk more.

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  3. Hi Francesco, I am not very familiar with the situation in Gaza so I very much enjoyed reading this. Many rich ideas here. To me it seems that one of the key characteristics logistics as power, is the way this means power becomes embedded/abstracted into technologies, their protocols or supply chains and their rhythms. This makes them hard to explicitly see, and as you point out, hard to contest and confront.

    And yes – your final point on the shift this implies – from a discursive politics to a politics of distribution. This! Maybe relevant is a ref I mentioned to Joana. I recently read Carbon Democracy by Timothy Mitchel and you also might also find it useful. “Rather than a study of democracy and oil, it became a book about democracy as oil – as a form of politics whose mechanisms on multiple levels involve the processes of producing and using carbon energy.” In other words, he explores the connection between both the logistics of coal based and oil based energy systems and democratic politics. The nature of the extraction and supply chain in each case, enables different ways of confronting power, or acting to strategically disrupt it.

    The other thing I’ll add, is that I think some of your ideas also also have relevance to how resources are distributed within borders/states – processes that are becoming increasingly algorithmic. Eg. how in the US, access to social services, systems once built on human discretion and decision making, are being rapidly automated by data driven algorithmic systems. In Automating Inequality, Virginia Eubanks argues this to be producing a new means of state violence – making access to services increasingly difficult, decisions hard to contest, and subjecting those in these systems to extreme forms of surveillance. Lots of issues of logistics & class there.

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    1. Hi Tega,

      Many thanks for your points / comments. Haven’t read “Carbon Democracy” yet but I’ve heard it mentioned a few times so I’ll definitely look into it, thanks for the recommendation. About the similarity between the algorithmic systems increasingly used within services and administrative sectors across the Global North, and those tasked with optimising transnational logistical networks: it seems intuitively right, but it would be worth doing some research and tracing specific links… great suggestion! Along those lines, and as I hope this short blog post may convey, my research looks at Gaza not so much as an exception, but as a radical version of a new norm. So the identification of links and resonances between Gaza and more privileged urban settings is very much what I’m trying to do…

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