Great to see a new paper by Jason Dittmer’s exploring the more-than-human and materialist aspects of geopolitics, in this case examining British Foreign Office records to explore the creation of ‘affective atmospheres’ through building design, while also dealing with the more pragmatic issue of vast increases in paper. Partly this is a story that continues a trend in political geography exploring the emergence of foreign policy as a practice of governance, work that is perhaps best signified by Neil Smith (2003) American Empire: Roosevelt’s Geography and the Prelude to Globalisation. Like Smith, Dittmer is engaging with the institutionalisation of practices of diplomacy, but rather than centring on the specific biographies of the individuals involved, Dittmer orientates our attention to the material, architectural and bodily implications of the rather improvised emergence of this new arm of the British Government.
The style of analysis is always relational, Dittmer is keen to illustrate the ways in which innovations and events elsewhere shape the decisions made within the nascent Foreign Office, for example the independence of states (for example Central and South American states in the 1800s) did not lead to a waning of contact but transformed the type and intensity of diplomatic relations. Such transforming relations had material implications, not least an increase in the circulation of paper. Similarly, Dittmer explores the knowledge controversy around the selection of architects (and architectural style) for the building, feeding in to the wider question of how such seemingly aesthetic decisions have political implications, not simply in terms of their symbolic force (ie Gothic verses Italianate architecture) but in the subsequent use of these buildings of sites of human and material circulation. Certainly, in the research on the Court in Sarajevo, this question of the design of the Court, and in particular the selection of its location, went on to shape public perceptions of its legitimacy for years to come.
It would be interesting to set such historical analysis — charted by Dittmer through parliamentary reports and Hansard — alongside the recent work by Eyal Weizman on forensic architecture. In a deviation from previous work, for Weizman it is not the practices of the architect but that of the surveyor that becomes the focus of scrutiny, thereby orientating attention to the building as a form that is always in a process of decay and transformation. The gaze of an architect is a static fantasy, that of the surveyor of a material pragmatist. Dittmer’s work engages with this question of temporality, in particular how the future use value is understood in the present, it may be interesting to take the research into the realm of surveyors reports and subsequent building inspections to see how these architectural materials speak back concerning their imagined usage and feasibility.
Alex Jeffrey, August 2015