Guest post by Richard Vogt. Currently a casual academic at the Australian National University, his research interests also include violence to/of bodies, hypocrisies of power, the political representation of emotion and affect, and media and cultural interruptions of all kinds. Always open to collaborations @richardvogt2019.
Review of No Go World: How Fear is Redrawing Our Maps and Infecting Our Politics by Ruben Andersson (University of California Press 2019)
‘To be human is to tell stories,’ Andersson concludes in a coda at the end of his work. No Go World is his meta-story of maps of danger, but it is also a story of how these maps have come to reflect where we find ourselves in 2020. At a structural level, there are two halves to Andersson’s tale of an increasingly fear-infected West: ‘The Story of the Map’ and ‘Contagion.’ Yet it is not always that simple, weaved through as it is with sub-narratives and intermissions. It is more correct to say that through an understanding of the cartographic history of a no go world we discover how danger is not geographic but geopathological and systemic. Fear has redrawn the globe, especially since the addiction to post-9/11 interventions in the Middle East and North Africa, and as Andersson engages with this syndrome, we come to understand it as a uniquely modern pathology.
Andersson recounts how as a young boy he was fascinated with maps. He still is. Whilst the mappae mundi—a medieval map with fantastical monsters and beasts at its edges and Jerusalem as its centre—remains the ‘luminous metaphor’ of our politics of fear throughout (p.249), Andersson no longer views these western drawings as containing omnipotent truths. Rather, they display the limits of knowledge for Western powers and more clearly reflect the ‘anxieties haunting late capitalist society’ (p.13). At the book’s beginning we find him grappling with the explorers of the Sahel before him, with names like Caillié and Kaplan and Flatters, who ventured into the desert during the colonial era. At times it is unclear just how strong a romantic tug toward their missions Andersson feels. It was certainly a motivating force in the ‘benevolent bout of Orientalism’ that prompted him to leave home for Africa as a young man (p.66).
Andersson opens his journey with a reflection upon the ‘Timbuktu Syndrome.’ Named after what was once seen as the archetypal remote destination for explorers, the mythical end of the beaten track is now within reach but also further away than ever, being formally constructed as out of bounds (just witness the panic and the imposition of restrictions and pre-journey training on Andersson by his university, for purposes of security and insurance). These points on the map, now daubed in various shades of red, leave Andersson reflecting on his two decades of anthropology and journalism. In a real sense, intervention is creating this instability and violence and making the region bleed red into new areas of the map. As he reminisces about sitting around a fire and sipping tea with the locals years before as a backpacker, he concedes that No Go World is ‘shot through with a sadness of sorts’ (p.7). Africa has become a high-tech ‘laboratory of peacekeeping’ as remote control UN interventions attempt to assuage fears of instability and concerns over uncontrolled migration (p.29). For Andersson, what he reveals of Mali and Somalia (in particular) acts as a diagnosis of the ill-intent and self-interest of Western intervention. ‘Keeping people sedentary and dampening extremism’ (p.180) may be the global mission statement of the US and European powers, but at what cost? One figure is an EU spend of €15 billion in the 22 months to September 2016 (p. 190). Other estimates account for a global annual spend of around €50-55 billion by 2020 or 2022, double that of a decade earlier (p. 143).
The second half of the book analyses how intervention provokes a contagion of danger. Much like his previous writings on Western Africa and the Spanish border fences, Andersson demonstrates how hardened border policies give rise to further chaos and crisis. He points to the emergency scripts used for the ‘infected’ border regions at the US/Mexico and Italy/Libya borders as sites of Western domination—perhaps even sites of 21st century recolonization (p.143). Conversely, from the dominated side, there are endless signs proclaiming the no entry world. Andersson spends time investigating the deadliest peacetime border in the world, the Mediterranean Sea. In making a security fetish of the border, Western governments have cynically used the fear-gripped border as ‘an almost limitless emotional resource’ in electoral politics (p.159). The misery of others comes second to the creation of an emotionally safe zone from which to vote in.
No Go World is arguably a product of its era (2014-2019), but part of a growing literature that will remain relevant across Europe and the US for the coming decades. Andersson has charted an anthropolitical history of the present that is too wide-ranging to fully engage with in this brief appreciation (for instance, I have not even discussed the US military industrial complex and vertical bordering). The book deals with specific 21st century trends towards the modern buffering of danger, and the outsourcing of responsibility and danger, through the tyranny of distance. However, his reliance on past literature is intended to point out that these danger zones resonate with those of the colonial era (p.239). As such, the mappae mundi has not altered all that much; it is still one that reflects a Christian, Western understanding of the world. His storytelling style is key to the success of this book, which has as one of its mission statements a desire to bring anthropological studies out of the cul de sac of academia and back into the mainstream of an urgent modern history. Through his account of the pathology of modern cartopolitical fears, he ultimately asks whether the system he is presenting is a deliberate one or not. Whereas empires once thrived to fill in the blank spaces on maps, now we see a reemergence of them through the withdrawal of Western presence. Driven by fear, interventions are undertaken through tyranny by distance.
How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)
Vogt, R. (2021). Book Review: No Go World: How Fear is Redrawing Our Maps and Infecting Our Politics. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2021/05/book-review-no-go [date]