The death of worldliness in Pakistan

Williams mapIn an article published last week, Brian Glyn Williams discussed his 2009 trip around Pakistan, despite warnings from the U.S. State Department that the country posed a terrorist risk. His main purpose was to collect information on the CIA’s drone strikes and their effectiveness against Pakistan’s Taliban in the tribal regions. Williams notes the different cultural geographies of the country, and concludes by ruing the recent TTP attack against tourists at a northern mountain camp. In his words:

“This is a tragedy on many levels and certainly fulfills one of the terrorists’ main goals, to prevent interaction between Western “infidels” and average Pakistani Muslims. As I have found in my own personal travels in Afghanistan and Pakistan, even the smallest interactions between Westerners and local Muslims go a long way towards humanizing the “other” and establishing personal bonds between societies supposedly engaged in a holy war or a “Clash of Civilizations.”

The attack will no doubt have its intended “chilling effect” and may all-but-kill Pakistan’s fragile tourist economy, and with it, a vital “bridge” to the Western world, as Williams puts it.

But the “chilling effect” has been evident on a more banal level for decades: everyday life in Pakistan. While the death of Western and Chinese tourists may reach the fronts of the newspapers here, the damage done to the physical and mental health of families, villages, and entire regions by Islamic militants and drone strikes has been equally  toxic.

The concept of “world”, as first discussed in Heidegger’s Being and Time, is an excellent analytic for thinking about this interdependence between people, things, and worlds. Although a dense text, it is incredibly rewarding–and a (much needed) philosophical counterpoint to prevailing attitudes towards drone strikes. With “surgical” metaphors aplenty–precise, pinpointed, accurate–targeted killings from Predator and Reaper strikes are anything but contained and isolated. They have an immediate resonance with families and friends of course, but also a much longer worldly damage.

Although a fairly old-fashioned term in geography, I am drawn to the “lifeworld” for explaining the biopolitical damage wrought by aerial surveillance and assassination: peoples’ sleeping patterns change, their daily behavior, their friendship circles, their most intimate (biological) movements all adapt to robotic monitoring (real or perceived–it doesn’t matter). It is an oppressive form of control that pollutes everyday being-in-the-world and spreads with the fear it generates. Both terrorism and targeted killings have this worldly element.

And so to a forthcoming Antipode article by Daanish Mustafa and colleagues, who examined “worldliness” in the Swat valley of Pakistan, and the deliberate “place destruction” carried out by the Pakistani Taliban.

First, we argue that violent groups like the TTP aim at place destruction and strategically consider the location and spaces of their violence: their violence is neither irrational nor random. Rather their targeting is aimed at controlling and redefining public spaces (where the public sphere actualises) thereby constricting spaces and actions for everyday (or informal) politics. Second, from this realization we demonstrate that violent non-state politics relies on logics similar to totalitarian states, and as per Arendt, aims to destroy “worldliness” and plurality. The implication of our argument is that responses should not only be preoccupied withthe grand considerations of economics, war, or religion, but should seek to defend places for the actualization of ordinary human worldliness.

It’s an important article because it positions “worldliness” as the target of terrorist attacks, which are in turn underlined by a totalitarian instinct to render the world as predictable, ordered, and bounded. In distinction, contingency, creativity, and emergence are seen as threatening forces to be exorcised.

While certainly following different geographies, the biopolitical logics of drone strikes — particularly “signature strikes” that target threatening patterns of life — also aim at ordering, homogenizing, and predicting the totality of the “battlespace”.  A technological antipode to the morbid techniques of the TTP, no doubt, but the net result is the pollution of the lifeworld and decades of “blowback” emerging from this damaged milieu.

The world is engineered in many different ways, and humans, nonhumans, and “natures” of all kinds are enrolled in a variety of imperial and terrorist projects. Geography should  defend the existence of plural, complex, atmospheric, and above all living worlds that inevitably escape the transcendent designs of cyborgian architects. These fragile spaces of co-existence are vulnerable. And whether targeted by terrorists or machines, they can disappear altogether.

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