a possible history of oblivion

dead land

Mewat, waste land, dead land, empty land. Codified in the Ottoman Land Law of 1858, modified in the early 1920s as Britain re-structures the colonial governance of Palestine, and surviving today in the Occupied Territories through a series of legal interpretations and strategic deployments, ‘dead land’ marks an empty place possessed by no one. A wasted site, often composed of desert or desertions. To know if a land is dead, stand on the far edges of the nearest inhabited place and shout in your loudest voice; if your voice cannot be heard from that place, the land is empty, mewat.[1] Dead land is constituted through an inability to be heard.

4:53 pm, Zuccotti Park
After the 1967 Israeli-Arab War, as Israel’s military governor builds the judicial infrastructures to manage newly-occupied territories, ‘dead land’ — a legal trace of both Ottoman empire and Islamic law — is used as one rationale for the expropriation of occupied land for Jewish settlements.[2] Contests over the deployment of ‘dead land’ are animated by conflicting genealogies of its legal status in relation to state power.[3] The Ottoman Land Code establishing dead land also defines (drawing heavily on earlier Islamic practices) several other categories of land including state land, private land, and land for public use. One of the state’s legal prerogatives or obligations, encoded in Ottoman Land Law, is to recognize the transmutation of dead land through ‘vivification’ or ‘cultivation’ into land that may be owned or leased by those who re-vivify it. Settlements, according usually to those who occupy them, can be built to cultivate otherwise wasted or dead land.

What constitutes the ‘vivification’ of dead land? By what authority does which state control the meaning of ’empty’? Of ‘cultivation’? What are the land rights of the cultivators of waste?And how does the land of oblivion, that emptied and unhearing place, serve the strategic timings of warring occupations?

The land known today as Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan, wedged between One World Trade Center and Wall Street, is privately-owned public space. Built by U.S. Steel in 1968, the park is created for public use in exchange for the giant industrial company receiving a zoning exemption from city government to add 500,000 square feet to its nearby office building, now one of the largest pieces of real estate in New York City. The ‘revitalization’ of the park in 2005-6 is privately funded by its current owner, Brookfield Office Properties, a transnational commercial real estate company. In 2006, John E. Zuccotti, U.S. Chairman of Brookfield (and of the Real Estate Board of New York), re-names the renovated park after himself. The park’s $8 million revitalization includes new trees, pink granite tables and benches, flowers, lights. The original renovation design also plans to re-engineer the park, which sits atop a steep grade, into a smooth geometrical plane that tilts from west to east, allowing the tens of thousands of workers who walk across it daily to never have to climb a single step.[4]
Land, writes theorist Raewyn Connell, is consistently undertheorized in histories of critical thought in the global North.[5] The place-based politics of Occupy, writes Betty Bayer, provokes reverberating questions about where and how to make space, how and where to dwell: “To demand a hearing on how to dwell is a provocative act, it turns out.”[6] Dwelling for a time in the landed history of Zuccotti Park generates unavoidable reverbs with sedimented histories of occupation in lower Manhattan, partially evicted from public memory through the cultivated oblivion of an Empire State. Terra Nullius (meaning ’empty land’) is the papal doctrine of crusading Christendom that prefigures the Arabic mewat,; settler colonists in Australia use the doctrine centuries later as they seize indigenous land from ’empty’ space. In North America, the related doctrine of ‘discovery’ becomes a legal pretext to declare land occupied by indigenous Americans the property of a newly- established United States. Dutch colonists, famously and forgettably, give trinkets in exchange for the land in lower Manhattan seasonally occupied by the Lenni-Lenape and delivered to history as the ‘new’ Amsterdam.
To dwell on this history of the land — both totally obvious and regularly obliterated — is to inhabit questions about the timings of a settler colonialism that is not yet fully settled, of occupied territories materializing through oblique economies of oblivion and remembrance underwriting the re-design of private and public, governance and market, real estate and dis/placed reverberations. It is also an attempt to stage an historical context for pervasive, everyday processes of permanent war that are neither new, nor limited to the New Old World’s neoliberal re-orderings. Such processes mark the racialized, domestic violence of colonial dispossession and settlement that haunt a politics of occupation, and a pedestrian ethno-graphics of landed theory, today.
real time
At 12:59 a.m., the text arrives: “OccupyNYC: URGENT: Hundreds of police mobilizing around Zuccotti. Eviction in progress!”[7] By 4:15 a.m., on 11.15.11, the privately-owned public land at Zuccotti Park is cleared of the Occupy Wall Street encampment and occupied by the police. Closing air space over the park to media helicopters; shutting down nearby subway stations; flooding the park with a battery of Klieg lights and sonic blasts; barricading the park and surrounding city blocks from journalists and Occupy supporters surging toward Zuccotti; deploying hundreds of police officers while Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly stands on the ledge of the park overseeing his forces — the New York Police Department (NYPD) shuts down OWS in the dead of night in a surprise operation secretly rehearsed for two weeks on Randalls Island as a major “disaster drill.”[8]
Situating the NYPD seizure of the park in the context of what Stephen Graham calls the “new military urbanism”[9] is a useful antidote to the popular oblivion that already surrounds the paramilitary shutdown of major urban Occupy encampments in November 2011. But situating the police enclosure of Zuccotti in relation to the less spectacular, less crisis-driven developments of militarized policing in New York City over the last decade also usefully suggests how oblivion itself operates through shifting, distributed economies of archiving and forgetting in the permanent, racialized, everyday war of policing occupied territories.
The surveillance technologies of post-September 11 militarized policing, Graham writes, “build profiles, analyze patterns of behavior and mobility, and increasingly–because memory is now digitized — never forget.”[10] The Real Time Crime Center opens in New York City in 2005, housing an IBM-designed integrated data management and data mining system that can access billions of records–from individual criminal histories and probation files to 33 billion unspecified “public records” — to aid in the rapid, algorithmic analytics of emergent crime scenes.[11] Automating place-specific crime mapping capabilities and digitizing local crime pattern data, Real Time Crime data provide one stream of police intelligence for the NYPD’s ambitious Operation Impact program. Launched in New York City in 2003, Operation Impact uses flexible, ‘near-real time’ crime data analysis to target high crime risk city neighborhoods with shifting, time-based deployments of police officers, surveillance operations, and intelligence resources. Part of broader digitally-based and ideologically-driven moves toward ‘intelligence-led policing,’ the NYPD’s Operation Impact program joins an increasingly integrated network of data-circulation and data-production among local, state, and federal agencies, including hybrid “intelligence fusion centers,” Homeland Security, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the NYS Border Intelligence Unit, the US Department of Defense, and the FBI.[12]
Referred to by one NYC police commander as “pinpoint precision bombing,”[13] Operation Impact highlights Graham’s observation that the control technologies of military urbanism will be targeted, digital, automated, and pre-emptive.[14] Using data-mining protocols that not only address existing crime in ‘real time’ but anticipate or pre-empt crimes that have not yet happened, Operation Impact converges with new information-based tactics of ‘predictive policing.’ Poised to “penetrate an adversary’s decision cycle and change outcomes,” predictive policing promises to learn from “business intelligence methods” used by companies like Wal-Mart and Amazon to anticipate and “effectively leverage emerging trends, patterns, and consumer behavior .”[15]
The precision bombing that Operation Impact makes possible is, like its military analogue, saturated with violently racist and racialized impacts that remain largely oblivious to populations outside its targeted sites. ‘Stop, question and frisk,’ one of the key tactical engines of Operation Impact’s high volume policing of real time crime ‘hot spots,’ ensures that “non-white New Yorkers bear a racial tax for contemporary policing strategy, a social cost not offset by any substantial observed benefits to public safety.”[16] The NYPD’s data- driven, temporally-flexible police occupation of high crime areas disproportionately inhabited by Black and Latino residents also digitally archives a racialized population of mostly young men of color into the very databases that triggered the police occupation in the first place: as the police overwhelmingly ‘stop, question and frisk’ young, male Black and Latino New Yorkers, a stop report is mandatorily filled out and filed for each person questioned. Information on race, age, scars and tattoos, build, eye color, weight, is entered into the accessible, statistically distributed memory banks of NYPD intelligence. The militarized policing that forecloses Zuccotti Park to experimental occupation operates simultaneously in an everyday urban battlespace, where the weaponization of remembrance and forgetting secures — or fails to — public memory from the timings of routinized violence.
free dominion
Like many of the new buildings that ring the ruins of the World Trade Center, the Freedom Tower signals the martial architectures of the new military urbanism–designed as a 21st century bunker, a steel and titanium block to protect from future blasts.[17] In the signifying slippage from World Trade to Freedom, this securitized revivification of Lower Manhattan communicates a well-worn public secret: that the global trade routes of finance capital will be defended by the semiotics of freedom.
Sorcery, writes Saidiya Hartman, is required in the historical relay of bondage and captivity. The “occult practices to induce forgetting” force the enslaved to slip the knotted hold of the past and wander in the land of oblivion, robbing her of protection and an animating source of rebellion. The desire for freedom is obliterated with the erasures of memory.[18]
But the sorceries of late capitalism may today also work through occult practices of memorialization and remembrance. Temporalities redistribute toward futurities that are already here, pasts that never quite arrive even though they’ve already happened. The tourist-centered walking tours of Lower Manhattan include the National Museum of the American Indian. Zuccotti Park ‘where the Occupy movement once happened’ is a quick sidebar from the 9/11 Memorial. Slave route tourism, Saidiya Hartman narrates, becomes a lucrative business in Ghana as the ghosts of captivity are put to work, once again, in the shimmering fields of saleable atrocities.
slow catastrophe
“Long-term problems of embodiment within capitalism, in the zoning of the everyday, the work of getting through it, and the obstacles to physical and mental flourishing, are less successfully addressed in the temporalities of crisis and require other frames.”
–Lauren Berlant, “Slow Death”[19]
As theory lags behind      you could say it’s time to pay up the bill’s come due the situation that requires it,[20]    the party’s over the song’s arrested the sorrow’s hit the back of the stage and slopped over    a pervasive atmospherics of precarity into the queen’s next of kin    takes hold through the mundane repetitions     salvaging little but the bark–turgid, intermittent–of doom you will say she’s at wit’s end   of commodity purchase, disposal, and replacement. In contrast to the increasingly standardized processing of disaster-events the dark she longed to script against the beat of her wildest and public dreaming   through digital    now wrapped round templates of crisis news and humanitarian response,    her sloped shoulders knitted shawls of stumbling shame hurried pen and no taste for sense longing longing for what was and will not be what cannot remember    the slow catastrophe of repetitious wasting, of ordinary time itself wearing thin and human and non-human worlds bearing depleted signs of exhaustion what cannot have what broke my [ ] what stalled my [ ] what seized this leverage to forge over and over in the dullest  seems to have not yet found a language for expression, much less public reckoning.  repetition of nonsense an old, buried, rambled, wounded, enervated, sorrowing, laggard, happenstance of history you could call the biographics of pubic intent, the costumed ball of rigorous evasion the sulking word games the ergonomic supports the wide swath of destructions never cut never cut by any tell-tale storm
How to pursue that reckoning and that language?   the chide and the backslide How to perform a tactical lamentation for a time beyond the wasted time of an exhausted, dispersed apocalypse?
“rag doll | honeysuckle
| this street this”[21]
occupy time
How to dwell in the occupied territories of time? Silvia Federici’s insurgent history of witches and sorcery as targets of early European capitalist expansion, spells an other story of temporal relay and dis/possession. If the sixteenth and seventeenth century expropriations of rural capitalism entailed the enclosure of land and the means of production, aiming at a class-based dispossession of material power, then the simultaneous foreclosure through the ‘witch hunts’ of the collective psychic terrain of “sorcerers, healers, performers of incantations and divinations” aimed at a no less material dispossession of the ritual powers of transformation and time.[22] And the enchanted knowledges of how to wield them.
Today, such disqualified knowledges may dwell in a time that some times can be re-occupied, with the proper collective alchemy, the well-timed incantatory chant. “We are the 99%.” Today, it may be possible, in the insurgent practices of ordinary time, in the durational performance piece that is a supple politics of temporal occupation, to remember that “All usurpers have shared this aim: to make us forget that they have only just arrived.”[23]
All digital images taken by the author in lower Manhattan, December 2012.


  • [1] From the 1858 Ottoman Land Code as cited in Ya’akov Meron, “Waste Land (Mewat) in Judea and Samaria,”Boston College International and Comparative Law Review 4, no.1 (1981): p. 4.
  • [2] Cited from the extraordinary documentary by Ra’ana Alexandrowicz, “The Law in these Parts” (2011). See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rzEy-FPw-iQ
  • [3] See Meron, “Waste Land,” for a partisan, but historically detailed, history of this legal contest.
  • [4] “Liberty Plaza Construction to Begin this Spring.” Battery Park City Broadsheet, (21 January 2004).
  • [5] See Raewyn Connell, “The Silence of the Land,” Ch. 9 in Southern Theory: The Global Dynamics of Knowledge in Social Science. (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2007).
  • [6] Betty Bayer, “Enchantment in the Age of Occupy.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 40, nos. 3 & 4 (Fall/Winter 2012), p. 38.
  • [7] Writers for the 99%, Occupying Wall Street: The Inside Story of an Action that Changed America. (New York: OR Books, 2011), p. 177.
  • [8] Al Barker and Joseph Goldstein, “Operation to Clear Zuccotti Park, Carefully Planned, Unfolded Without Warning.” The New York Times (16 November 2011), p. 31. For an account of the eviction by Occupy, see Writers for the 99%, Occupying Wall Street, pp. 177- 184.
  • [9] Stephen Graham, Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism. (London: Verso, 2010).
  • [10] Ibid., p. 63.
  • [11] Christopher Kane, “IBM Fighting Crime in Real Time.” Law and Order (September 2007), p. 19.
  • [12] Colonel Bart R. Johnson and Shelagh Dom, “Fusion Centers: New York State Intelligence Strategy Unifies Law Enforcement.” The Police Chief: The Professional Voice of Law Enforcement 75, no. 2 (February 2008).
  • [13] From Shaila Dawan (2003) quoted in Amanda Geller and Jeffrey Fagan, “Pot as Pretext: Marijuana, Race and the New Disorder in New York City Street Policing,” (posted online 8 July 2010), p.6n.2. Online version available at: http://ebookbrowse.com/geller-and-fagan- pot-as-pretext-july-2010-pdf-d42253269.
  • [14] Graham, p. 99.
  • [15] Charlie Beck and Colleen McCue, “Predictive Policing: What Can We Learn from Wal-Mart and Amazon about Fighting Crime in a Recession?” The Police Chief: The Professional Voice of Law Enforcement 76, no. 11 (November 2009).
  • [16] Geller and Fagan, “Pot as Pretext,” abstract.
  • [17] Graham, p.105.
  • [18] Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. (New York: Farbar, Straus, and Giroux, 2007), pp. 155-157.
  • [19] Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), p. 105.
  • [20] McKenzie Wark, The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International. (London: Verso, 2011), p. 153.
  • [21] Pelle Lowe, “Gurney.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 40, nos. 3 & 4, (Fall/Winter 2012), p.281.
  • [22] Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation. (Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 2004), p. 176.
  • [23] Guy Debord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle. (London: Verso, 1990), p. 16.

jackie orr