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Cruel and usual: ‘Handbook of Tyranny’ by Theo Deutinger

From the emasculation of the public realm to the horror of capital punishment, state power depends on a hellish infrastructure of objects and tactics


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Exemplifying the increasing emasculation of the public realm, the ‘Camden Bench’ is an amorphous lump of concrete specifically designed to repel rough sleepers, skateboarders and graffiti artists. Image courtesy of Factory Furniture

All manifestations of power depend on what might be described as the infrastructures of atrocity. Behind the arras of the everyday, lurk the calibrated mechanisms, spaces and paraphernalia of control, surveillance and annihilation. It is a diverse and nightmarish terrain, extending from the municipally banal – a public bench intended to repel rough sleepers – to the more calculatedly barbaric apparatus of enclosure, defence and punishment. Theo Deutinger’s Handbook of Tyranny pulls back the arras to reveal this Sadean parallel universe of ingenious and systematic cruelty perpetrated on our behalf.

For Deutinger, an Austrian architect, writer and ‘designer of socio-cultural maps’, the devil is in the detail. With nerdish relish he forensically dissects the non-human entities that make and maintain modern society – walls, fences, prison cells – together with operations, such as crowd control, controlled demolition, slaughter and execution. Individual objects and collective processes are all scrupulously rendered in a bloodless linear drawing style, annotated with dimensions and notes in a hellish homage to conventional architectural handbooks. Even the blood red cover evokes the classic Metric Handbook, still a staple of practice libraries.

‘Theo Deutinger’s Handbook of Tyranny pulls back the arras to reveal this Sadean parallel universe of ingenious and systematic cruelty perpetrated on our behalf’

‘To draw is to minimize, realize, and internalize’, writes Deutinger in his introduction, which opens with a quote by David Bowie, ‘Where are we now?’. Where indeed. Bowie and Berlin form a convenient starting point for Deutinger’s thesis about barriers, borders and the nature of physical obstacles that organise and control our world. He embarked on his infernal compendium because ‘a confrontation with cruelty is necessary first to understand it and second to react to it’. 

The origins of modern tyranny are cartographic. Eighteenth-century land survey techniques reduced what was a hitherto nebulous borderland to a fixed border line, allowing the exact demarcation of territory. This modest invention begat the modern nation-state, which uses the map as a political tool to link people to space and territory. Turning land into territory and people into citizens is enmeshed with the history of military technology to defend terrain and claim that of others. Today, through evolving techniques of surveillance and warfare, a state can now project its power right up to its border.

Yet territoriality functions only as long as people conform and stay within the borders to which they are assigned. When the relationship between citizen and territory fractures and breaks down – through war or other cataclysms – the results are statelessness and the phenomenon of refugees. Currently there are some 10 million stateless individuals and 20 million refugees adrift in this uniquely modern limbo. In rare instances, tragedy becomes farce, as in the case of Julian Assange, an Australian national attempting to avoid extradition to Sweden by languishing in a microscopic piece of Ecuadorian territory located in England.


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Prefabricated concrete element used to construct the Berlin Wall, possibly the world’s most famous barrrier. Yet the fall of the Wall did not result in the dismantling of other divides; in fact, quite the opposite, with 50 new barriers built since 2000. Image courtesy of Bundesarchiv

In theory, the fall of the Berlin Wall heralded a new era of global openness, transparency and mobility. In practice, it was marked by a frenzy of barrier-building, given new impetus by the recent Syrian refugee crisis and Trump’s infamous border wall, which he regularly rhapsodises as ‘impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful and beautiful’. Out of the 66 physical barriers presently in existence between nation states, 50 were built after 2000. Gaza is the world’s most severely fenced-in territory, partitioned off entirely from Egypt and Israel. An 8-metre-high wall of corrugated steel also extends 18m underground to deter people from tunnelling under it.

Barriers are big business, as the contractors queuing up to build Trump’s wall will attest. In 2015, Hungary paid €94 million for its 175km border fence topped with concertina wire to stem the flow of refugees and migrants from Syria and Africa. Despite criticism from the EU for breaching its legal obligations to process and resettle people, the Hungarian government refused to cooperate or demolish the fence, sending the EU a bill for half its cost and embarking on the construction of another barrier on the Serbian border. Hungary’s right-wing premier Viktor Orbán, elected for a third term earlier this year, claimed ‘ethnic homogeneity’ was vital for his country’s economic prosperity. In this, the border fence has played its physical and symbolic part, staunching the flow of ‘undesirables’ and shoring up an increasingly reactionary vision of Hungarian national identity.

From barriers, Deutinger’s thesis expands to take in other aspects of modern tyranny, from the everyday emasculation of public space by deterring ‘unwanted behaviour’, through to refugee camps, crowd control, prison cells, methods of state-sanctioned execution and the gruesome intricacies of the slaughterhouse. 

Each chapter is prefaced by a short essay followed by a typological gazetteer – 15 types of walls, 46 types of fences, 23 varieties of bunker busting bomb, six kinds of death penalty – all delineated in precise, graphic detail. Possibly for the wrong reasons, some chapters are more compelling than others. A section on terrorist groups, included as organisations with more radical designs on the nation state, simply lists their names, dates and areas of operation, amplified by an exhaustive analysis of their flags. Appealing to only the most devout vexillologists, it concludes that black is the new red, as the Islamists of ISIS have overtaken Marxist paramilitaries as the terrorists du jour

‘Deutinger’s thesis takes several aspects of modern tyranny, from the everyday emasculation of public space by deterring ‘unwanted behaviour’, through to refugee camps, crowd control, prison cells, methods of state-sanctioned execution and the gruesome intricacies of the slaughterhouse’

Chapters on legalised slaughter, of the human and animal kind, give more pause for thought. Gory statistics ping out like CSI blood spatter. Six million chickens are slaughtered worldwide every hour, to satisfy global demand, along with several million cows, pigs and sheep. Today’s slaughterhouses are vast, industrial killing factories, programmed to dispatch incoming flocks and herds as speedily as possible. From ‘shackling to packaging’, the ambition is to eliminate human involvement altogether, expediting an already brutally expeditious process that views animals as inanimate commodities. Any humane treatment they might encounter is focused solely on increasing operational efficiency. Modern slaughterhouse design owes much to the research of Temple Grandin, an animal scientist from Colorado and consultant to the US livestock industry. Grandin, who was played by Claire Danes in a 2010 biopic, is autistic, and her experience of autism prompted her to propose minimising sensory distraction in abattoir holding pens to mitigate agitation and ensure compliance. Curved, high-walled corrals prevent animals seeing what is around them or glimpsing what lies at the end of their walk.

Humans are less fortunate. The trussed and tranquillised souls about to be publicly decapitated under Saudi Arabian law are first jabbed in the back to lift up their heads so the executioner can make a clean sweep with his regulation sulthan. Yet across the world, the death penalty is slowly being consigned to history – Venezuela first abolished it in 1863, Nauru in 2016 – showing a growing public and political abhorrence of the ultimate state power to take a life. Certain regimes, however, notably the US, China, Saudi Arabia and Japan, remain suspiciously willing executioners. 


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Illustrating the sequence of public beheading employed in Saudi Arabia, which executed at least 130 people in 2017. Image courtesy of Theo Deutinger, Jolande Kirschbaum and Brendan McGetrick

The handbook’s most affecting testimony is an eyewitness account of the execution of Stanley ‘Tookie’ Williams by lethal injection. A gang leader and black activist, Williams had served 24 years in San Quentin after being convicted of killing four people in 1979. He always protested his innocence and his case sparked a vigorous public debate on the merits of the death penalty. Here, the human factor briefly surfaces from Deutinger’s reams of data. Reflecting on the relationship between the individual and the state, Bruno Latour writes: ‘Action is not simply a property of humans but of an association of actants’. In the case of Williams, though an individual doctor administered the lethal dose of potassium chloride, it was the state of California – its prisons, its hospitals, its gun shops, its governor and the 52 per cent of its citizens who voted against a repeal of the death penalty in 2012 – who really killed him. 

Deutinger’s thesis is that to totally understand tyranny, political and social theory must be expanded to include non-human agents and the language of coercive design, alerting us to our complicity in accepting what is done in our name by human agents. The handbook is therefore a primer and guide ‘for everyone who wants to fight tyranny’. But who might that be, exactly? Meat eaters in favour of the death penalty will simply shrug and turn the page. Not everyone wants to know or cares what goes on behind the arras.

‘To totally understand tyranny, political and social theory must be expanded to include non-human agents and the language of coercive design’

Though the book might be seen as a rallying cry, the impact of its subject matter ends up being parsed into abstraction by its means of representation. The laconic drawings and the obsessive compulsive need to itemise every object and scenario may well be momentarily and horrifyingly informative – the nuances of death by stoning, for instance – but they have the effect of flattening things out, giving equal weight to judicial execution and prickly herbaceous borders. (The latter forms part of a section on how landscaping can deter intrusion.) Doubtless Deutinger’s point is they all form part of the same grand scheme of tyrannical contrivance, but the scope of his enquiry could have benefited from being less expansive. By the end, the reader is breathlessly over-informed but remains curiously underwhelmed, numbed by the volume of statistics and infographics. 

What is clear is that all regimes find it expedient to embrace various forms of repression as a means to an end. Sometimes it is opaquely elusive, sometimes it hides in plain sight, sometimes it emerges, brandishing a canister of tear gas or a police baton. But no matter how apparently perverse or perfidious the problem, human intelligence will always find a solution. The devil, as Deutinger shows, really is in the detail.

Handbook of Tyranny

Theo Deutinger

Lars Müller Publishers, €30, ISBN 9783037785348

This piece is featured in the AR’s June 2018 issue on Power and Justice – click here to purchase a copy.