This Is Normal

Anna Feigenbaum, Tear Gas: From the Battlefields of World War I to the Streets of Today

Verso, 224pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781784780265

reviewed by Peter Mitchell

Consider the gas-mask dancers of Gezi Park. In 2013, during the occupation of Taksim Square, dancers – whirling dervishes, ballet dancers – started to put on shows, spinning and dipping in their full regalia, with the addition of the gas masks which were by then becoming the cardinal symbol of the protests. The images quickly gained traction within the feverish meme-jockeying that surrounded Gezi, and no wonder: there’s something indecently powerful in the juxtaposition of dervish robes and leotards with the gas mask’s uncanny non/human architecture, in the queer cold kink of concealment and exposure, and in the spectacle of bodies alienated from identity and tradition twinned with technologised violence. It testifies to the violent deformations that tear gas, by then a feature of daily life in Istanbul, can wreak on the relationship between the subject and the state, and it articulates something of the essential horror of its exterminatory rhetorics of coercion and control, and the potency of its challenge to the politics of the body and the street. That’s one thing the masked dancers seem to say, anyway. Another thing is: this is normal, now. This is how we’re going to have to live.

The Gezi gas mask dancers put in a welcome appearance in Anna Feigenbaum’s new book, Tear Gas: from the Battlefields of World War I to the Streets of Today. It’s a welcome addition to the growing genre of historical studies which reconstruct the global histories of single commodities, technologies and weapons: think of Sven Bickerts’ Empire of Cotton, Barbara Freese’s Coal: A Human History, or, in a more journalistic vein, CJ Chivers’ The Gun: the Story of the AK-47. Weapons histories, in particular, still tend to sit between a long tradition of linear narratives which emphasise the arrival of new technologies of violence as ‘revolutionary’, and an emerging practice of historiography which uses the tools of social sciences to trace how those ‘revolutions’ happen (if indeed they do). This latter approach takes a scalpel to the capillary interplays of technology, policy and ideology: Alex Wellerstein’s writing on nuclear weapons is a particularly good recent example of this.

Tear gas – or CR, CS and its various iterations in smoke, vapour and spray – is a tempting subject for this, carrying a daunting cultural and political freight along with its purely technological history. Since most of our chances of encountering the stuff in our lifetimes have been rising steeply over the past decade, there’s no time like the present for its history to begin to be written. That history is, of course, a shadow history of the state and its use of force over the past century: how that force is projected in the built environment, in the human body, and in the practices of policing and internal repression; how it draws on the complex infrastructure of industry, science, governments and international trade; and how, in use, it reformulates the dispositions of power. It’s also necessarily a history of opposition and resistance to state power. Feigenbaum’s book is partly a product of, an international civic media project run from Bournemouth University, which helps protestors across the world identify, monitor, and record the use of riot-control agents against civilians.

For such a short book, Tear Gas’s scope is impressive: it moves with ease from the first uses of poison gas in the trenches to US labour struggles after World War I, the British colonial authorities coming to terms with anti-colonial resistance after Amritsar, and the role of chemical weapons in the metastasising military-industrial complex and its lobbying, PR and policy-making outgrowths. From here, it jumps to the sixties, the Civil Rights movement, the Democratic National Convention of 1968 and the Bogside disturbances of 1969. What’s particularly valuable in Feigenbaum’s approach is the attention she pays to the making of policy, and the densely networked relations of government, private enterprise, police, military and scientific institutions. There are particularly interesting readings of the Himsworth Report – the civil service investigation into the use of CS gas in the Bogside – and of the ways in which policing policy in the US intersected with Cold War paranoia and racial anxiety. If the rest of the world gets slightly left behind in these chapters – South Africa, for instance, appears only where it bears on US or UK deliberations – this is compensated for by an increasingly forensic focus on personalities, institutions, and the fraught attempts by those at both ends of the tear gas gun to come to grips with the weapon’s effects.

The first thing Tear Gas brings you face to face with is that any history of this particular weapon is also, by necessity, a history of non-lethal force. This includes fire-hoses, baton and beanbag rounds, pepper spray, non-lethal grenades and the new weaponry of sound, all of which follow tear gas’s lead in being designed to clear spaces and disperse crowds without murdering everyone in them. Feigenbaum’s chapter on colonialism begins with an account of the Amritsar massacre, and its effect on British policy for dealing with mass nonviolent resistance: it’s hardly surprising that state power should have been attracted to the possibility of clearing a space the size of the Jallianwallah Bagh without killing more than a handful of people – especially if, in doing so, they could make the experience so unpleasant that the crowd would think twice about trying it again. Non-lethal force here emerges as a liberal fudge by which the state manages to exert maximum repressive force without the legal inconvenience of mass murder, and without the consequences that murder entails: the delegitimisation, the martyrdoms, the inevitable escalation. One wonders how many government functionaries, tasked with coming up with strategies for this sort of thing, have been driven to consider whether the Tsarist state might have survived had it only possessed tear gas in 1905.

As a curiously democratic weapon, undiscriminating in who it incapacitates, tear gas plays an instrumental role in processes by which policing becomes a matter of location, of where you are rather than what you’re doing. Like the police kettle or area bombardment (or, indeed, the border), it reinforces the assumption that, for the target of state violence, location equals intent: you should know where you’re not supposed to be, and if you don’t, you’ve got it coming. There’s telling detail in Feigenbaum’s excellent account of the Bogside violence in 1969, when the neighbourhood’s sunken topography caused the gas to hang around for days, penetrating people’s bedclothes and making everyone sick: Derry, you realise, would not be the only city where local geographies of inequality and physical elevation might intersect nastily with poison gases’ propensity to run downhill and pool in hollows. Just as the 19th century city was often experienced – or, as with Hausmann’s boulevards, designed – with reference to the capacities of small arms and artillery, the experience of violence and repression in the urban spaces of the 21st century will increasingly have to do with how the spaces you inhabit allow you to be rendered blind, breathless, nauseous, agonised or incontinent by an array of weapons that will make your existence temporarily very unpleasant without, for the most part, ending it on the spot.

Finally: like nuclear weapons, chemical weapons are a technology which alters your relationship to the world simply by existing. There’s an intimacy to poison gas that makes it uniquely disturbing: its coercive force is exerted on a cellular level, from within the body, and the soldiers of the Western Front learned very quickly that the violence that gas offers is in some qualitative way more terrible, more fundamentally violating, than that offered by an HE shell or machine-gun bullet. A piquant anecdote in Tear Gas relates a proposal to shoot cyanide gas shells at the Russians during the Crimean War. The suggestion is received with horror at the War Office. Never mind that instant and painless death from cyanide is highly preferable to the effects on the human body of a shrapnel shell: it violates some unspoken rule about the conduct of organised violence which insists that, however we tear and rend each other, certain intimacies are too much to bear. From colonial East Africa to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, police officers throughout this book praise tear gas’ capacity to unman and terrify, to render individuals helpless and rob the crowd of its unity and dignity. As the images of the Gezi Park dancers make clear, living under tear gas, like living under the shadow of the Bomb, entails the formulation of new ways of inhabiting the world, and of construing our political selves and subjecthoods.

It’s in this broader scope, however, that Tear Gas struggles to rise to its subject, and its activist genesis fails to allow room for the wider theoretical framework that such a history requires. That chemical violence is an abomination is taken for granted, but at no point does the book try to parse how it’s different from other forms of violence, quantitatively or qualitatively; this cedes ground to all the many voices here (presented critically, but without much attempt at, well, critique) which argue that the principal difference is that it hurts people less; you’re left wondering what’s so problematic about that statement. Feigenbaum never quite engages with these arguments: the book is directed more as a polemic against the claim of relative harmlessness, as if the most iniquitous thing about non-lethal technology is that it doesn’t always live up to its name.

In the absence of any such theoretical framework, Tear Gas foregoes structural analysis in favour of what reads, at times, like a list of ethical gripes. A persistent note of affronted innocence runs through the whole book - a bewilderment that governments act like governments, that violence traumatises, that ‘police’ is a verb as well as a noun. A report on methods of suppressing subversive activity in the postwar US is taken to task for failing to acknowledge the 'inequality' that leads to political dissent; it doesn’t seem to occur to Feigenbaum that a paranoid anti-subversive use-of-force manual might not be much interested in why people organise. Similarly, the Himsworth Report, which was framed outright as a UK Government enquiry into tear gas’ medical effects – with a view, of course, to using it more effectively and with less risk of causing embarrassing deaths – gets the thumbs-down for failing to acknowledge the psychological trauma that tear gas inflicts; at no point is it considered that the infliction of trauma isn’t so much an unfortunate byproduct of violent policing as its whole point. Perhaps most baffling is Feigenbaum’s response to a memo by a British colonial official in Africa, which reasons that ‘if you may use gas on a Hottentot then why not on an Ibo . . . I must say that I should prefer to use tear gas on a mob rather than shoot at them. Tear gas does no harm but makes the mob look silly.’ This is clearly a fantastic documentary find, yielding access to some rich seams of historical enquiry: the standardisation of forms of state violence between cultural and geographical contexts, the ways in which technologies of violence produce colonial subjects, the structures of disgust and contempt on which colonialism itself was built. Perhaps a future history will be able to do it justice to tear gas’s complex role in making these horrors happen, but all this book can come up with is a curt platitude about ‘the dominant colonial perceptions of the time, what we would now call an Orientalist view that saw native populations as inferior to white settlers.’ Well, yes; but there have to be more insightful things to say about colonialism than that it was a bit racist.

The final chapter attempts an expose of the international trade in non-lethal weaponry. Again, it’s based on good research, exposing the networks of power, influence and capital that structure the industry: but in place of any conclusion, we learn that champagne features heavily at international expos, that no-one cares who the product is used on as long as it fetches a decent price, and that arms dealers make a lot of money and are usually arseholes. Who knew? None of this really tells us much about tear gas as an object of study: its insidious penetration of the politics of power and violence becomes frustratingly obscured.

Perhaps most troublingly, the book’s political flattening effect ends up effacing the differences between the movements whose repression it documents. The civil rights marchers of Derry, Arab rioters in the British Mandate, the Satyagraha movement, Brixton and Toxteth, the demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic Convention and the Gezi Park occupation: all of these figure here as mere ‘protest’. There’s no room, in Tear Gas’s fundamentally liberal politics – a politics of regulated complaint and qualified submission – for any acknowledgement that these movements might have had complexly different and well-articulated sets of means and ends. Struggles are different, and a tear-gassing in Seattle is different from one in Taksim Square, and different again from one in Nyanga or a Brazilian jail. There’s certainly no acknowledgment to be had here that those against whom the state turns its violence might have every intention of destroying it.

Ultimately, what Tear Gas lacks is an analysis of – or even the beginnings of a position on – state violence, and on policing itself. In a sense, Feigenbaum takes on trust the promise of violence-without-violence, and the book becomes an expression of shock and bewilderment at the revelation that violence-without-violence is, well, just plain old violence. You find yourself wondering if, in a weird sense, Tear Gas is actually just fine with the state’s use of force, but only wishes it would exercise it more reliably and with a rather more finessed cruelty.

In fact, that’s exactly what it wants. The last few pages bring the whole project into focus as what it should’ve been all along: a piece of campaigning journalism and advocacy aimed at exposing the trade in tear gas and contesting its use. A final appeal to any policemen who might be reading makes clear what the stakes have been from the beginning: access to public space, the protection of the right to engage in peaceful protest, and governmental transparency about the use of chemical weapons. Tear Gas wants oversight and accountability; it wants tear gas’s legal status under the Chemical Weapons Convention to be clarified. This is all to the good, but a historical account of tear gas requires a grander and more explicitly structural analysis. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Tear Gas is actually two books struggling to be born: a journalistic investigation into the use of non-lethal agents to police populations, with hard policy recommendations and some suggestions for protesting the trade in non-lethal arms; and the big, epic history of tear gas that the subject deserves, situating it fully within the interlocking histories of state, technology, industry, science, culture and resistance. Perhaps that will be Feigenbaum’s next project; we can certainly hope so. For now, Tear Gas is a useful, if occasionally frustrating, first draft.
Peter Mitchell is a writer and historian based in Newcastle.