21st century writing | 21st century approaches

Editorial – Global Conflict

Daniel O'Gorman


Contemporary fiction about global conflict is often concerned with an imaginative collapsing of space. Putting emotional affect to instrumental use, it works to raise awareness about events that go untold by the world’s media, either challenging conventional understandings of widely reported wars, or drawing attention to traumas and atrocities that have widely gone ignored. Sometimes the ability of storytelling to figuratively ‘collapse’ the space between people, transcending the boundaries of identity, is consciously idealised. This is the case, for instance, in Dave Eggers’ 2006 biographical novel What Is the What, in which the protagonist Valentino Achak Deng, narrating his experiences of loss and displacement during the Sudanese civil war, directly says to the reader: ‘I covet your eyes, your ears, the collapsible space between us’ (535). In other instances, a collapsing of space is less desirable. Kevin Powers’ celebrated Iraq war novel, The Yellow Birds (2012), for example, depicts the inner turmoil of a returned US soldier whose debilitating guilt manifests in the form of a breakdown in his ability to maintain a sense of distance between the United States and Iraq. ‘The space between home,’ he writes, ‘whatever that might mean for any of us, and the stretched-out fighting positions we occupied, collapsed’ (78). As is the case in Eggers’ narrative, this collapsing of space challenges an imbalance in what Judith Butler might call the ‘grievability’ attributed to lives in contemporary news reportage. However, here the collapse is not productive but traumatic: the narrator, when psychologically unanchored from physical space, finds it impossible to regain his bearings because the world as he understands it has stopped making sense.



Drone strikes have been sold to the American public on the claim that they are efficient and precise

[Image by AK Rockefeller under a CC BY license]


The articles in this Alluvium special issue, Global Conflict, are similarly concerned with a collapsing of space. In ‘Displaced Perspective’, Emily Hogg shows how Ugandan author Goretti Kyomuhendo’s 2003 short story, ‘Do You Remember?’, bitingly criticises institutional responses to displacement through war, a global crisis that the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, has described as ‘the new twenty-first century challenge’. International humanitarian institutions such as Amnesty International and the World Food Programme are shown to occupy an ambiguous position in relation to displaced people: there is, she argues, a ‘gap between the expectations evoked by the names of these organizations and the way they are pictured in the story’. On the one hand, these organisations work to bring the marginalised traumas of displaced people closer, figuratively speaking, to the international community, reducing the emotional distance between those inside and outside of the conflict; on the other, they inadvertently perpetuate this distance through the self-aggrandising redemptive language that they sometimes use.

Next, in ‘Drones and Dissociation’ – the first of two articles in this issue which engage with drone warfare – Dorothy Butchard analyses three very different writers’ responses to what Teju Cole has decried as an ‘empathy gap’ in public reactions to these hyper-technologised attacks that have become a defining and disturbing feature of the Obama presidency. Focusing on The Drone Eats With Me by Atef Abu Saif (2015), Grounded by George Brant (2013), and Cole’s own ‘Seven Short Stories about Drones’ on Twitter (2013), she shows how these texts ‘provide valuable and much-needed contemplations on effects of distance and dissociation’. Finally, in ‘Pixels/Tissue’, Dana Bönisch contextualises this sense of dissociation by exploring the roles of proximity and distance in both drone warfare and another, starkly different but equally contemporary mode of global violence: the suicide attack. She writes: ‘while the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle combines maximum destructiveness with zero physical danger for the pilot, a suicide attack is, following Baudrillard, the “gift of one's own death” that cannot be reciprocated’.

Though the conflicts that the articles focus upon are, in a literal sense, located around the globe, they are also ‘global’ on another level. Underlying the Ugandan state’s battle of attrition with the LRA (Hogg), the Gaza crisis and the Afghan resistance against the Taliban (Butchard), and the multitudinous sectarian divisions both exacerbated and unleashed by the Iraq war (Bönisch), is a pattern of intra-territorial conflict in which Western governments or institutions have intervened, either militarily or politically. In this sense, the conflicts that the authors engage with are not only global in scale, but also globalised, reflecting what Arjun Appadurai has described as ‘the major political fact of macroviolence in the past two decades’ (2006: 40). As he puts it in Fear of Small Numbers: ‘the maps of states and the maps of warfare no longer fit an older, realist geography. And when we add to this the global circulation of arms, drugs, mercenaries, mafias, and other paraphernalia of violence, it is difficult to keep local instances local in their significance’ (ibid.).



The drone attack – violent bridging of distance through video-game-like operation

[Image by Tjebbe van Tijen under a CC BY ND license]


However, the texts discussed in all three articles show that despite this collapsing of the categories of the local and the global, those killed and injured in global conflict often remain invisible to the Western world, not least when the violence is enacted or facilitated by the intervening forces. (The one exception to this, at least in the articles here, is Bönisch’s example of the suicide bomber, the horrifying visibility of whom she shows to function primarily as a kind of weapon against this distancing invisibility, or at least one that tactically circumvents it.) As a result, the articles follow the texts that they examine by working to challenge what Butler has in recent years described as an imperialistic ‘framing’ of contemporary warfare that produces a ‘derealization of loss’, or insensitivity to suffering or death, depending on who it is that is victimised and where the violence takes place (2006: 148).

Butler does not provide an easy-to-summarise definition of what she refers to as ‘the frame’ (or occasionally in the plural, ‘frames’). The reason for this is that the concept is, necessarily, highly diffuse and slippery. However, she does provide some relatively clear descriptions of what the frame does. ‘The “Frames” that work to differentiate the lives we can apprehend from those we cannot,’ she writes, ‘(or that produce lives across a continuum of life) not only organize visual experience but also generate specific ontologies of the subject’ (2009: 3). For the most part, these frames are to be understood as visual phenomena, but she makes clear that they are also part of a more abstract, discursive framing of the ways in which life is ‘recognized’ as life that is, as sufficiently ‘grievable’ if lost (14–15). ‘Such frames,’ she writes, ‘are operative in imprisonment and torture, but also in the politics of immigration, according to which certain lives are perceived as lives while others, though apparently living, fail to assume perceptual form as such’ (24).



Joseph Kony – leader of the Lord's Resistance Army – is accused of ordering the abduction of tens of thousands of children. About 66.000 became his soldiers. About 2 million people were displaced internally between 1986-2009.

[Image by Mista Breakfast under a CC BY license]


From just this brief outline of Butler’s analysis, it is possible to see that the framing process that she has in mind is one that is evident not only in the ostensibly hegemonic language of right-wing media outlets like Fox News, but also in the unintendedly patronizing tone that, in ‘Displaced Perspectives’, Hogg shows Kyomuhendo to be critiquing in some of Amnesty’s pronouncements on Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). The frame is not only constituted by the content of what is said, but also – more importantly – in the ideological presuppositions underpinning the language used to say it. ‘Why should it be, for instance,’ Butler asks, ‘that Iraq is called a threat to the security of the “civilized world” while missiles from North Korea, and even the attempted hostage-taking of US boats, are called “regional issues”?’ (2006: 130–1). Likewise, the ‘visual aesthetics’ of reportage on war in the global media are such that they

do not show violence, but there is violence in the frame of what is shown. That latter violence is the mechanism through which certain lives and certain deaths either remain unrepresentable or become represented in ways that effects their capture … by the war effort. The first is an effacement through occlusion; the second is an effacement through representation itself. (2006: 147)



Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole is concerned with an "empathy gap" in public opinion.

[Image by Shawn Hoke under a CC BY NC ND license]


Such a framing of the world according to US foreign policy interests has a damaging effect, Butler argues, on the ability for ‘us’ in the West to recognise, in a meaningful, empathic way, the equal value of all human life around the world. Following Levinas, she claims that the way to redress this imbalance is by re-emphasising a sense of the ‘precariousness’ of human life: that is, ‘to be awake to a sense of what is precarious in another life or, rather, the precariousness of life itself’ (2006: 134–5). To redress a ‘derealization of loss’, in other words, it is necessary to acknowledge the difference of others at the same time as one upholds a sense of shared humanity (and, in particular, of human vulnerability).

There is a clear failure to uphold a shared sense of human precariousness in the practice of drone warfare, a fact that was exposed in disturbingly stark terms when the White House recently offered a public apology for the accidental killing in of two al-Qaeda hostages – one American, one Italian – in a botched CIA strike on a compound near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border earlier this year. In an unprecedented statement, the Obama administration has authorised the release of top-secret documentation about the operation in the interest of conducting ‘a thorough independent review to understand fully what happened and how we can prevent this type of tragic incident in the future’ (White House: 2015, n. pag.). Tragic as the accident undoubtedly is, there is a palpable and powerful act of ideological framing – and, in turn, adherence to what Paul Gilroy might term the ‘mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion’ (2007: 45) – at play in the wording of even a phrase as ostensibly simple as ‘this type of tragic incident’. The incident is tragic because it was ‘our’ civilians who were killed: excluded from ‘this type of incident’ are the 423–926 other civilians who, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, have been killed by drone strikes over the past eleven years in Pakistan alone (as of April 2015). To make this point is, emphatically, not to denigrate the loss of Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto, the innocent victims of the attack in question, but rather to raise the question of why it has taken the death of an American or European citizen for the US government to officially recognise the killing of any civilian by a drone strike as tragic or worthy of investigation.



423-926 civilians have been killed by drone strikes over the past eleven years in Pakistan alone (as of April 2015)

[Image by BAMN under a CC BY license]


As I have already stated, the articles in this special issue strive to show how fiction might work towards an urgent redressing of the ‘derealization of loss’ often at play in Western reportage of global conflict, and exemplified in the White House statement mentioned above. But is this a cause that it is actually worthwhile for fiction to pursue? In the face of an empathic asymmetry that is global in scale, is it realistic to even humour the idea that a fictional text – or indeed an academic commentary on it – might be able to offer any notable resistance to the distancing effects of hegemonic media frames? When put in such stark terms, the task faced by both authors and critics who are concerned with addressing the subject of global conflict might, no matter how well meaning, ultimately seem an exercise in unavoidable futility. However, this would be short sighted. Butler’s frames are ideological constructions: they are built from ideas, and these ideas – along with the identity categories they support – are necessarily subject to movement and change. As Edward Said puts it in his essay ‘Traveling Theory’:

Like people and schools of criticism, ideas and theories travel – from person to person, from situation to situation, from one period to another. Cultural and intellectual life are usually nourished and often sustained by this circulation of ideas, and whether it takes the form of acknowledged or unconscious influence, creative borrowing or wholesale appropriation, the movement of ideas and theories from one place to another is both a fact of life and a usefully enabling condition of intellectual activity. (1983: 226)

While – with very few exceptions – the level of immediate material impact that fiction or literary criticism is able to have on the course of global conflict will always be minimal, both fictional and critical texts can, nevertheless, help ideas to ‘travel’. The ‘intellectual activity’ of writing, reading and interpreting can make distant traumas feel slightly closer, and invisible tragedies a little easier to see. Though necessarily slow and indirect, a constellation of fictional and critical texts might collectively contribute to a productive collapsing of affective space. In doing so, they can potentially challenge and gradually reconfigure the ideological assemblages that frame the way we think about the globe: assemblages that, in turn, inform the way we recognise and respond to global conflict. Butchard writes that George Brant’s drone warfare play, Grounded, ‘explores the gradual erasure of distinctions between victim and operator, those deemed guilty or not guilty’, and all three of the articles in this issue point towards a growing, impassioned body of literature that works along similar lines. Moreover, through their collective commentary, the articles themselves also contribute in a small but significant way towards a reconfiguration of the way we think about ourselves in relation to others in the contemporary world.


CITATION: Daniel O'Gorman, "Editorial – Global Conflict," Alluvium, Vol. 4, No. 2 (2015): n. pag. Web. 13 May 2015, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v4.2.01 


Daniel O'Gorman is an Associate Lecturer in English at Oxford Brookes University, London South Bank University, and Royal Holloway, University of London. He has recently published an article on Dave Eggers and Judith Butler in Textual Practice, and has a piece on Iraq war fiction forthcoming in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction. Daniel's book Fictions of the War on Terror: Difference and the Transnational 9/11 Novel​ will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in July 2015.


Works Cited:

Appadurai, Arjun. Fear of Small Numbers. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2006. Print.

Baker, Peter. ‘Obama Apologises After Drone Kills American and Italian Held by Al Qaeda’. New York Times. 23 April 2015. 

Bureau of Investigative Journalism. ‘Get the Data: Drone Wars’. Accessed 26 April 2015.

Butler, Judith. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London: Verso, 2006. Print.

———. Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? London: Verso, 2009. Print.

Eggers, Dave. What Is the What. London: Penguin, 2006. Print.

Gilroy, Paul. There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack. Oxford: Routledge, 2007. Print.

Powers, Kevin. The Yellow Birds. London: Sceptre, 2012. Print.

Said, Edward. ‘Traveling Theory’. The World, the Text and the Critic. Boston: Harvard University Press, 1983. Print.

White House. ‘Statement by the Press Secretary’. 23 April 2015.

Zenko, Micah. ‘The United States Does Not Know Who It’s Killing’. Foreign Policy. 23 April 2015. 



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