Through a bomb-sight darkly

As the conference of geographers came to a close, and the attendees began to turn their attention to enjoying the Louisiana weather or checking in for their flights home, Donald Trump shot missiles into Syria. It was an eerie repetition. At just the same time last year, with the conference in Boston rather than New Orleans, the same president had shot the same missiles into the same country. I had to check the news archives from 2017 to convince myself that it had really happened just like that the year before. Then, I had been sitting in the Boston Public Library, down the street from the conference, reading with disgust the commentary offered by mainstream pundits, many of whom had suddenly decided that Trump was no longer a stump-fingered moron, but in fact a brave “Presidential” sort of man simply by dint of having ordered some generals to reduce Syrian neighborhoods to rubble. This time, I was doing the same thing in the Charlotte airport on my layover home.

What made the experience all the more unsettling, in 2017 as in 2018, was the contrast between the conference—where we almost universally agreed that Trump is a psychopath, that American imperialism is whipped up by racism and greed—and the world that kept thundering along outside, totally regardless of the conclusions that we were pronouncing under fluorescent lights in dingily-carpeted rooms with names like Woodleaf or Constitution D. Is the modern nation-state better understood in terms of Foucault’s biopower, or should we pay more attention to the masculinist project of capitalist spatial order? We anxiously go back and forth on these questions in New Orleans, and in Homs a few more chunks of cement are ricocheted through a few more Syrian bodies.

Meanwhile, the American press takes a break from pointing out that Trump is gross and stupid, and stands to salute the flag under the glow of tracer bullets. We go back to our gala dinners, trying to figure out which department is throwing the best party, with the most free drink tickets and the most substantial snack tray.

How can all these things occupy the universe at the same time? In the New Orleans Marriott, we debate whether to call our present era the Anthropocene or the Capitalocene or the Plantationocene or something else. On CNN, the talking heads debate whether Trump’s action “sends a signal” to Assad. On the streets of Damascus, a family debates whether to finally flee the country. The simultaneity of it all is too much.

I don’t mean to bash academia for its familiar characteristics of obscurity and otherworldliness. My own research is plenty obscure and otherworldly, too. But there is something about its ineffectiveness that is feels horribly obvious as the inertia of the American war machine lurches onward at the same time that we congratulate one another from the safety of podiums emblazoned with the logos of corporate hotel chains. The points of view that we take for granted are simply not the points of view that exert much power on the world, and for every critical geographer trying to slice the theoretical distinction between two subfields ever more thinly, there are ten businessmen investing in defense-company stocks and a hundred voters who think that Tomahawk missiles are inspiring symbols of American might.

I often think of the story in which Stalin crosses Boris Pasternak’s name off of the list of writers to be purged with the comment “Do not touch this cloud dweller.” Sometimes I feel like our safety, our comfort, our titled awards and expensed hotel stays and free drink tickets, are on account of our cloud-dwelling. If we really threatened to overturn the intertwined projects of imperialism, capitalism, militarism, racism, sexism, and so on, we would be purged. But so long as we are just debating whether this author or that one coined the superior neologism, we are preserved—and so is the brutality of the world.

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