ConflictSpace/Ars Poetica

Last week, Charli mentioned something at Duck of Minerva about architecture and governance, which coincided nicely with some new output from my favorite space and place blogs, and reminded me that I hadn’t covered the subject in a while. At BLDGBLOG, Geoff Manaugh writes about “The Psychiatric Infrastructure of the City,” reflecting on the impact of Boston’s Big Dig on the cognitive processes of residents. At Subtopia, Bryan Finoki comments on “Prisoner Boxes“, first detailed in a 2005 Vanity Fair article. 

Manaugh reflects on Boston’s massive urban reengineering project, which converted the city’s nightmarish (I drove it, once, to my eternal regret) Central Artery into a subterranean throughfare, apparently contributed to some commuter distemper while construction disrupted normal traffic flows, and ultimately freed up plenty of open park space. “What interests me here,” Manaugh writes, ” is not the obvious fact that bad traffic might
cause tempers to flare, but the idea that people might develop
historically unique psychiatric conditions because of a work of public
infrastructure under construction somewhere in their city.”

With his usual creative and well-reasoned flair, Manaugh speculates on ways in which the “psychiatric infrastructure of the city” might shape cognitive processes and conditions. Imagine a “new tunnel… is being dug between Manhattan and New Jersey”, or “a new flood barrier is under construction outside London – a
gleaming wall of metal that will rise from the tidal murk”. In the US, the project precipitates overbooked psychiatrists, complaints of  “nightmares of forced
reunion,” forced social gatherings, and home invasion – “The whole
island is ill at ease… all because of that new tunnel getting closer and closer to completion. ” For the UK,  Manaugh wonders whether this would “change the dreams of city residents,” altering London’s and Londoners’ self-perceptions and sense of identity, precipitating “A new confidence. Dreams of survival. Psychoanalysts
report that no one dreams of drowning anymore.”

On one level here, the answers are both uninteresting and obvious: of course,
these sorts of projects would affect the dreams, thoughts, and
nightmares of a city’s residents – after all, those new landmarks would
be a part of the world these people live within. But a less
obvious, or less easily tracked, impact might be postulated here –
that, say, a new bridge between San Francisco and Oakland might subtly
change how San Franciscans think about their peninsular city, and that
this only becomes obvious in retrospect, when someone notices that
prescription rates have changed or the divorce rate has plummeted. It was the psychiatric implication of a new bridge that did it.  Put
another way, if a new highway can have a measurable, and easily
detected, impact on a city’s economic health and administrative
well-being, then could a new highway – or bridge, or tunnel, or flood
wall, or, for that matter, sewage treatment plant – have a detectable
impact on the city’s mental health? After all, these sorts of massive public works “may carry a psychological burden,” the Boston Globe wrote back in 2006.

Somewhere between Foucault and Agamben, Finoki explores familiar themes in micro scales, observing the constituent spaces of a disaggregated panoptic – free-floating, networked architectures of control.  Images of the prisoner boxes were recently obtained from CENTCOM through an FOI request, and published on the rejuvenated Memory Hole website (P.S. I prefer the Memory Hole 1.0 banner text).

For Finoki, prisoner boxes are primarily “another stark reminder that torture is, in and of itself, a space; that is, that torture happens within a space as much as it defines a space – even if it is out in the open for all to see.” More, “sometimes…. only the simplest rudimentary unit of space is all that is required to constitute torture.” There are subtle shades of Arendtian (Eichmann-esque?) banality woven into Finoki’s subtopic:

The prisoner box is anything but elaborate. Look at it, looks like a campsite outhouse. It is far from a specialized torture module of any kind. It does not have the sadistic anatomical engineering of an iron maiden, or even the spectacular proximity of a public thrashing where civic space has been converted into an arena for the collective participation in cruelty. It is very simply and adequately, a box made of plywood. It could be useful for so many things. However, when a person is made to sit inside one in the 100+ degree summer heat of Iraq all day long, week after week – it is then probably the cheapest human oven ever designed. It becomes torture space in its simplest form, reduced to its barest essence; the prisoner box as a minimal cubic space of biopolitics.


Anyway, I guess what I find just as spooky as the existence of the boxes themselves is the ease of their potential erasure from the landscape. When I think about a spatial legacy of the ‘war on terror’, architectural objects and relics that we may look back upon, say, 200 years from now, as a forensic geography of the ‘war on terror’’s narrative of torture, perhaps the way we look back upon the ancient remains of war from the Dark Ages as artifacts of barbarism; or even the more modern ruins of the Cold War as living museums of institutional paranoia – these “prisoner boxes” probably won’t last. They are this way the perfect epitome of the ‘war on terror’’s environmental imprint, or the lack thereof, in that they are made fleeting, detached, improvised, totally exceptional, politically and physically; meaning, they are designed to technically no longer exist once they’ve fulfilled their usefulness. Unlike the colossal shells of megaprisons, they are disappearing acts, blips on the future radars of human rights organizations around the world; collapsible serial boxes for an evidenceless trace of the ‘war on terror’ architectural secrecy.

One wonders at the scaled poesis of space in war. What configuring of identity and community? What locational elisions, battlespace seams? Panoptic, subtopic, urbanoptic; transspatial, dystopic, hypocentric. When do efforts at regulating conflict spaces, mechanisms of governing it, transcend rigid academic disciplinary and professional boundaries? Battlespace poetics: art or science? Doctrine is important, law essential, ethics critical, technology often necessary. But at the end of the day, there must be a singular, creative, intuitive spark prostrating itself at the calloused feet of innovation and progress. 


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