Thursday, May 1, 2014

More gleanings from browsing around with Lefebvre in mind: Ricks, Porter, Orwell, McCluhan, Graham, Brin

[UPDATE — May 22, 2014: Edited to make the title more specific and soften some text.]

Here’s a second batch of gleanings garnered by happenstance while doing the three prior posts on Lefebvre’s book The Production of Space.

Again, my purpose is to show that spatial orientations — some Lefebvrian, some less so — crop up all the time, in myriad areas. In my STA-biased view, we’d be well-advised to become more sensitive to noticing them and their relations to/with time and action orientations. I’m not trying to make a complex point here; I’m just trying to raise awareness of a fundament.

The materials I highlight in this batch, in order of appearance, are from Thomas Ricks, Patrick Porter, George Orwell, Marshall McCluhan, Stephen Graham, and David Brin. I’ve clustered them together mainly because they happen to raise related themes about national security strategy.

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Ricks on strategy and the blurring of boundaries: Spatial matters always crop up in discussions about strategy — e.g., who’s big/small, who’s near/far, who is/isn’t connected. Strategy is viewed traditionally as the art of relating ends, ways, and means. I’d add that strategy may also be viewed in STA terms: as the art of relating space, time, and action factors — thus analysts and strategists should keep an eye out for how space, time, and action factors figure together in strategic formulations.

While drafting my series about Lefebvre post, I came across an announcement of a new project on The Future of War. It appeared at a blog I admire, observing at unusual length that:
“Taken together, recent changes both in the technological drivers of warfare and the enemies we face have erased the boundaries between what we have traditionally regarded as "war" and "peace," military and civilian, foreign and domestic, and national and international.” (source)
That trends have blurred all sorts of boundaries (a somewhat-Lefebvrian point) is important to include in such a study. But why make this such an emphatic opening point about the entire future of war? It's a mostly mundane point by now. And not so much because Lefebvre raised it forty years ago, but more because Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye did so as well back then.

Their seminal writings — notably Transnational Relations and World Politics (1972), and Power and Interdependence: World Politics in Transition (1977) — illuminated many spatial (and temporal) reconfigurations that were starting to take hold in the 1970s. Accordingly, the old state-centric balance-of-power paradigm was giving way to the rise of “complex global interdependence”: i.e., the global diffusion of power, the erosion of both national sovereignty and international hierarchy, the growth of transnational economics and communications, the internationalization of domestic policy, the blurring and the fusion of domestic and foreign policy, the rise of multilateral diplomacy, and the need to broaden security concepts beyond their military dimensions. All points still worth making today, to a degree.

It is striking that the early 1970s produced such seminal writings about the changing nature of social space (and time) by such far-apart theorists — Lefebvre on the one hand, Keohane and Nye on the other. But it is also dulling that the same observations are constantly repeated and reiterated today. Sure, such ideas and observations, keenly sensed early on, do take decades to unfold, and need to be taken into account. But I fret at seeing them made into a litany; for it may be another sign that American capacity for strategic thinking is getting a little too patterned, even stuck.

Porter on “strategic space” and “the global village myth”: The importance of spatial perceptions for strategy shines more brightly in a blog post by Patrick Porter, advocating that “It’s Time to Abandon the Global Village Myth”:
“The world is increasingly dangerous, we are told, because technology has made it smaller. In this “global village,” the costs of transport and communications have fallen to the point where predators have easy access to our vulnerable points. …
“But the world is not small. Technology may accelerate movement and compress physical space. But it does not necessarily shrink strategic space, the ability to project power affordably across the earth.”
He thus raises concerns that the global-village optic and attendant fears are having adverse, misleading effects on our sense and practice of strategy:
“In the name of taming the dangerous “Global Village,” governments resort to anticipatory war, extraordinary rendition, torture, continual drone strikes and mass surveillance. Instead of containing threats in pursuit of affordable security, the US-led coalition sought to eradicate them in pursuit of absolute security. It set out to destroy rogue regimes, fix broken states, to wipe out terrorism itself. …
“… Fear of the “small world” has driven the United States and other countries to the dangerous attempt not to contain threats, but rather to eradicate them.
“At home, the same fear has thrown off the delicate balance between the principles of security and liberty, damaging habeas corpus and spawning state surveillance that our forbears would find absurd. Crusading for democracy abroad has endangered it at home.”
Indeed, using terrorism as an example, Porter argues that “A closer look shows that the belief in a small world misconceives the security environment.” And his concerns are broader than terrorism, as in a point about “strategic space” that he deems particularly applicable “along Asia’s maritime peripheries”:
“Strategic space is not a politically uncontested thoroughfare of climate and terrain simply to be moved through. (That is not even true of tourism!) Space is a medium into which other humans intrude, through which (and for which) violent political struggle takes place. Amidst the white noise of globalisation rhetoric, this distinction has been lost.”
Thus he concludes with advice to abandon the myth of the global village:
“At the core of the “small world” argument is this myth, that technology mechanically transforms the world independent of human politics and the struggle for power.
“Projecting power affordably over space is now more difficult, not less. This constrains the superpower and its adversaries. It makes us all less powerful, but more secure, than we think. It’s time to abandon the Global Village Myth.”
Porter’s idea of “strategic space” is quite different from Lefebvre’s. Yet they both observe that the world is becoming both larger and smaller, at the same time and in different ways. Porter, somewhat à la Lefebvre, also notices the returning importance of “the wall” in physical as well as digital domains.

Orwell on distance and nationalism: Porter noted that the “global village” concept has a deep history. (A quick Google search reveals statements back into the 1850s about how the world is becoming smaller as a result of one technology advance or another in transportation and/or communications.)

In particular, Porter cites dramatic remarks by George Orwell that were new to me. So I dug up the full quote from Orwell’s Tribune column, “As I please”, May 12 1944:
“Reading recently a batch of rather shallowly optimistic ‘progressive’ books, I was struck by the automatic way in which people go on repeating certain phrases which were fashionable before 1914. Two great favourites are ‘the abolition of distance’ and ‘the disappearance of frontiers’. I do not know how often I have met with the statements that ‘the aeroplane and the radio have abolished distance’ and ‘all parts of the world are now interdependent’.
“Actually, the effect of modern inventions has been to increase nationalism, to make travel enormously more difficult, to cut down the means of communication between one country and another, and to make the various parts of the world less, not more dependent on one another for food and manufactured goods. This is not the result of the war. The same tendencies had been at work ever since 1918, though they were intensified after the World Depression.” (source)
Orwell does not explicitly refer to the “the global village” here, and some points are debatable. Yet he does indeed raise STAish questions about shifts in spatial and temporal orientations — ones that are still being raised by commentators today. Besides, I like his TIMNish reference to increased nationalism, for it’s a variant of tribalism.

McCluhan on allatonceness, the global village, and tribalism: More to the point, for me, Porter’s reference to the “global village” immediately recalls famous remarks by Marshall McCluhan (1967):
“Electric circuitry has overthrown the regime of ‘time’ and ‘space’ and pours upon us instantly and continuously concerns of all other men. It has reconstituted dialogue on a global scale. Its message is Total Change, ending psychic, social, economic, and political parochialism. …
“Ours is a brand-new world of allatonceness. ‘Time’ has ceased, ‘space’ has vanished. We now live in a global village … a simultaneous happening. We are back in acoustic space. We have begun again to structure the primordial feeling, the tribal emotions from which a few centuries of literacy divorce us.” (pp. 16 and 63)
McLuhan popularized the concept global village more than anyone else. And from an STA standpoint, it’s interesting how loaded that quote is with space and time orientations — some of them debatable, but still offering parallels to Lefebvre’s thinking. Notice that McLuhan too expects a revival of tribalism — a further overlap with TIMN.

Graham on space, time, globalization, and tribalization: Browsing around, I also came across a keen paper by Stephen Graham on ”The end of geography or the explosion of place? Conceptualizing space, place and information technology” (1998). Graham writes, citing Gregory Staple’s TeleGeography (1993), that:
“The complex articulations between the local and global dynamics of both material places and electronic spaces have recently been explored by Staple (1993). He believes that the Internet and other communications technologies, far from simply collapsing spatial barriers, actually have a dialectic effect, helping to compress time and space barriers while, concurrently, supporting a localizing, fragmenting logic of `tribalization'. Far from unifying all within a single cyberspace, the Internet, he argues, may actually enhance the commitment of different social and cultural interest groups to particular material places and electronic spaces, thus constituting a `geographical explosion of place' (Staple, 1993: 52). This `new tribalism', exemplified by the use of the Internet to support complex diasporas across the globe, and to draw together multiple, fragmentary special interest groups on a planetary basis, `folds' localities, cities and regions into `the new electronic terrain' (Staple, 1993: 52).” (pp. 174-175)
There it is again, in Graham, as in Orwell and Mcluhan, not to mention in Porter as well: that keen point that the compression of time and space orientations may have contradictory effects. In particular, it may foster tribalism as well as globalism. I’m not sure how Lefebvrian a point that is, but The Production of Space is keen on how global and local forces are interlaced in dialectical ways.

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Brin on spatial (and temporal) horizons affecting fear levels: According to Porter, our sense of a smaller world — a global village — makes us more fearful about terrorism and other threats that once seemed far away. Futurist David Brin offered parallel observations at his engaging blog a while back. His emphasis was on the spatial and temporal “horizons” we have and how that affects our level of fear:
“When the ambient fear level is high, as in civil war-riven Lebanon, loyalties are kept close to home. Me against my brother. My brother and me against our cousins. We and our cousins against the world. Alliances merge and are broken quickly, along a sliding scale that appears to be remarkably consistent. The general trend seems to be this: the lower the ambient fear level declines, the more broadly a human being appears willing to define those tribal boundaries, and the more generous he or she is willing to be toward the stranger. …
“My contention is simple, that there exists an inverse correlation between ambient fear levels and the distance -- in terms of space, time and kinship -- of the "horizons” maintained by average members of a given culture.” (source)
Whether or not his points are particularly Lefebvrian, they, like others here, help show that spatial horizons make a difference and crop up in myriad subtle ways. Besides, from a TIMN perspective, I appreciate that Brin too relates his spatial points to feelings about tribal kinship.

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