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Who’s Afraid Of Economic Models?

8 Nov

A guest post by Nathan Coombs, a doctoral student in Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway. Nathan’s work focuses on the relationship between metaphysics and political ideology. Nathan is the author of ‘The Political Theology of Red Toryism’, published in the Journal of Political Ideologies, 16(1), February 2011, as well as a number of other papers. He is an also an Editor of the Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies, an open-access peer-reviewed academic journal which should be a stimulus to us all. Images by Pablo.


If there is a point of unity for strong (non-Keynesian) critics of neoclassical economics it is their shared rejection of modelling. This is not to say such authors shun all use of abstraction, idealisation, and quantisation in favour of just qualitative, empirical efforts at explanation. Rather, modelling is held out as a practice whereby mathematical attempts to grasp economic laws become unhinged from reality; where abstraction begets abstraction for its own sake. For example, in his famous methodological treatise, Economics and Reality, Tony Lawson firmly demarcates the form of abstraction he recommends for economics from the practice of modelling – placing stress on the point where: “it seems vital that I indicate why the procedure to which I refer does not at all reduce to the activities of the ‘modelling’ project in question.” (Lawson 1997, 227)

For different reasons converging to the same end, advocates of the most active strand of Marxian economics, working from the Temporal Single System Interpretation (or TSSI), are equally averse to modelling, associating it with simultaneous, equilibrium interpretations of Marx’s labour theory of value, diverging from the correct representation of the theory. Inside the pages of Andrew Kliman’s recent book, Reclaiming Marx’s “Capital”, the word ‘model’ only occurs negatively in association with what he argues are flawed abstractions of the theory from Okishio’s theorem through much political economy in the 20th century (Kliman 2007, 44, 48, 66, 101, 176). The idea that Marx’s Capital might itself be considered a theoretical model of the economy is out of the question.

What explains this resistance to modelling for critics of the status quo in economics?

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Reality Mining for Population-Centric Computational Counterinsurgency; Or, Feedback Loops Meet Hermeneutic Circles

22 Jul

Drizzled between the gun battles were occasional accounts of villages stabilized and town elders met. But, written as random notes, the accounts were hard to insert into a database. There was nothing consistent, nothing you could plot as a trend over time.

‘These were intelligence reports, not measurable data,’ the source says. ‘The population-centric information wasn’t to be found there.’

So the team widened their search, without much luck. The most reliable data they could find was weekly fruit prices from Jalalabad, a city in northeastern Afghanistan. At least those could be measured over time.

“One assumed there was some secret mound of data to be exploited. But it’s just not true,” the source adds.

Noah Shachtman, ‘Inside Darpa’s Secret Afghan Spy Machine’

Albright has noted that Iran has material to build only 12,000-15,000 centrifuges, and if 1,000 to 2,000 were destroyed, this would hasten the demise of its stockpile. But his and other organizations have also noted that after the centrifuges were replaced, Iran stepped up its enrichment program and its overall production of uranium had actually increased in 2010, despite any effects Stuxnet may have had.

Stuxnet required an enormous amount of resources to produce, but its cost-benefit ratio is still in question. While it may have helped set Iran’s program back to a degree, it also altered the landscape of cyberattacks…In the end, Stuxnet’s creators invested years and perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars in an attack that was derailed by a single rebooting PC, a trio of naive researchers who knew nothing about centrifuges, and a brash-talking German who didn’t even have an internet connection at home.

Kim Zetter, ‘How Digital Detectives Deciphered Stuxnet, the Most Menacing Malware in History’

These domestic images must be more than simply one more form of distancing, one more way to remove oneself from the grisly reality behind the words; ordinary abstraction is adequate to that task. Something else, something very peculiar, is going on here. Calling the pattern in which bombs fall a ‘footprint’ almost seems a wilful distorting process, a playful, perverse refusal of accountability – because to be accountable is to be unable to do this work.

These words also serve to domesticate, to tame the wild and uncontrollable forces…The metaphors minimize; they are a way to make phenomena that are beyond what the mind can encompass smaller and safer, and thus they are a way of gaining mastery over the unmasterable. The fire-breathing dragon under the bed, the one who threatens to incinerate your family, your town, your planet, becomes a bet you can pat.

Carol Cohn, ‘Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals’ (1987)

The ways of thinking embodied in institutions govern the way the members of the societies studied by the social scientist behave. The idea of war, for instance, was not simply invented by people who wanted to explain what happens when societies come into armed conflict. It is an idea that provides the criteria of what is appropriate in the behaviour of members of the conflicting societies. Because my country is at war there are certain things which I must do and certain things which I must not do. My behaviour is governed, one could say, by my concept of myself as a member of a belligerent country. The concept of war belongs essentially to my behaviour. But the concept of gravity does not belong essentially to the behaviour of a falling apple in the same way: it belongs rather to the physicist’s explanation of the apple’s behaviour. To recognise this has nothing to do with a belief in ghosts behind the phenomena.

Peter Winch, The Idea Of A Social Science And Its Relation to Philosophy (1958)

Damage, Reincorporated: A Carbon-Based Author Responds

20 Jul

Paul has produced a couple of highly stimulating posts (here and here) reviewing three books concerned with the contemporary interface between war and technology (Manabrata Guha’s Reimagining War in the 21st Century, James Der Derian’s Virtous War and my own The Scientific Way of Warfare) and that involve both pointed comments on the respective texts and some wider considerations of the challenges posed by the study of present transformations in the exercise of collective violence. With so much to reflect upon, a full post is called for in order to respond to the rich lines of thought suggested by Paul and I will attempt to do so here, however incompletely, by taking on specific comments directed at my own work before offering some brief remarks on its relation to the two other books reviewed.

War is War, PERIOD

Paul points to the limitations inherent to the periodisation I propose and I would accept that, for all the caveats and qualifications I have sought to make, the neatness of the technoscientific typology developed inevitably leaves it open to a range of criticisms. It necessarily occludes or minimises the other influences that have impacted military change, it papers over much of the cultural and historical particularities of national military organisations, and it does not really allow for the ebb and flow of different doctrines that cut across different periods. The empirical evidence supporting such a periodisation is likewise obviously selective and, at their weakest, I think the connections I draw between scientific ideas and military practice are more impressionistic than as thoroughly substantiated as I could have wished. Sweeping as it does through four hundred years of history, the work is unabashedly a much more generalising and grand theorising undertaking than the careful and painstakingly detailed studies into the interplay of technoscience and war that have been produced within the field of science and technology studies on topics such as missile guidance or the origins of cybernetics and therefore may well have fallen prey to some of the pitfalls of such a perilous exercise. At the very least though, I would hope the typology is a useful heuristic device for thinking through various tensions inherent to the organisation and application of military force.

In its more forceful defence however, the typology is not intended to imply that in any given period all contemporaneous ideational and social constructs are ruled by the scientific and technological frameworks of the day (something which my use of the term “technoscientific regime” might unfortunately suggest – I remember agonising a long time over the terminology and never settled it to my entire satisfaction). Rather these frameworks act as pregnant sources of meaning among others but with the particularity that they are endowed with the special prestige granted to scientific rationality in modern societies (science in turn being shaped by its wider cultural and institutional settings). In this sense, the notions of metaphor and resonance I employ point to a much more partial and piecemeal role in the shaping of thought than the episteme presented in Foucault’s The Order of Things and in this more limited regard I think the periodisation continues to stand up quite well.

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Damage, Unincorporated*, Part Two: War Studies in the Shadow of the Information Bomb

13 Jul

I’m thinking about something much more important than bombs.
I am thinking about computers.

John von Neumann, 1946 (via The Scientific Way of Warfare)

Modern war has become too complex to be entrusted to the intuition of even our most trusted commander. Only our giant brains can calculate all the possibilities.

John Kemeny, 1961 (ditto)

‘Extreme science’ – the science which runs the incalculable risk of the disappearance of all science. As the tragic phenomenon of a knowledge which has suddenly become cybernetic, this techno-science becomes, then, as mass techno-culture, the agent not, as in the past, of the acceleration of history, but of the dizzying whirl of the acceleration of reality – and that to the detriment of all verisimilitude.

Paul Virilio, The Information Bomb (1998)

Non-Consensual Hallucinations

A recent spate of cyber-attacks, and the civilian-military responses to them, have pushed questions of collective violence, technological complexity and the very relation between war and peace into a more mainstream arena. Alongside diagnoses of the political impact of Web 2.0, the analysis of contemporary technoscience and its militarised uses seems less neophiliac marginalia than urgently-required research program. As previously indicated in Part One of this review, a number of recent works have broached this subject, and in the process have addressed themselves to the very relation between bios and technos, sometimes with the implication that the latter is on the verge of overwhelming the former. Skynet gone live!

Critical engagement with the boundaries and possibilities of Network-Centric Warfare (NCW) thus opens a range of complex problems relating to the co-constitution of war and society, the place of ethics in military analysis (and military practice) and the adequacy of standard categories of social science to world-changing inventions. To expect answers to such broad questions is perhaps to overburden with expectation. Yet it is interesting to find that both Guha and (Antoine) Bousquet, who are most concerned with the radical newness of contemporary war, implicitly operate within a rather traditional understanding of its boundaries. For both, ‘war’ means the restricted arena of battlespace, and in particular that battlespace as viewed by the soldiers and generals of the United States of America.

James Der Derian is intrigued by many of the same questions, but his view is more expansive, and his diagnosis of the connection between NCW and international politics generally more comprehensive. Continue reading

Damage, Unincorporated*, Part One: The Chaoplexity of Collective Violence

12 Jul

The below mirrors closely a review essay I recently completed for the Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, which should appear at some point in the not-too-distant future. The books under discussion are Reimagining War in the 21st Century: From Clausewitz to Network-Centric Warfare by Manabrata Guha (London and New York: Routledge, 2011); The Scientific Way of Warfare: Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity by Antoine Bousquet (London: Hurst and Co., 2009); and Virtuous War: Mapping the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment Network (2nd Edition) by James Der Derian (London and New York: Routledge, 2009). Part two will follow shortly (lookie here).


I am the last in line that started with who?
With John von Neumann
If it’s the end of time so be it
But hey, it was Truman
Who set me free
I am half man
I’m almost like you
But you’ll be god-damned when I’m through
It’s a new day
So open the bay
And set this free

Black Francis, ‘Half Man’ (2008)

War is different now. On this Manabrata Guha, (our very own) Antoine Bousquet and James Der Derian agree. And their parallel accounts of the impact of technology on war – or more precisely, on the purportedly distinct Western way of war – share some other features. As is to be expected, each engages with traditions of thinking about violence and humanity’s remaking of the natural. Clausewitz looms over all three works, which could be said to share an investment in the tension derived from him between war as a kind of friction and war as a kind of instrument. All three also address a looser set of everyday ideas about (post)modern war, whether in the disconnection of bombers from their targets or the science fiction resonances found in near-instant communication, virtual reality targeting and cyborg warriors.

The question concerning technology – to put it in Martin Heidegger’s formulation, one which concerns all three authors to similar degrees – has gained considerable ground in International Relations and cognate disciplines over the last decades. In large part driven by Der Derian’s early work on post-structuralism and speed, theoretical inquiry into the nature and effects of technological progress has more recently been reinforced by considerable ‘real world’ relevance: in the explosion of social networking and its attendant ‘revolutions’, the increasing deployment of unmanned drones by the US military in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the general discourse of post-Cold War security threats from non-state actors in the form of cyber-attacks, miniaturised weapons systems or black market dirty bombs. As the impact of technology apparently spreads and metastasises, scholarly attention is turning to the sociological and ethical dimensions of digitised networks at war.

So what has the information bomb done to the modalities of collective violence?

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How Much Rape Is There In The Congo (DRC)? And How Does It Matter?

16 May

Dominique Strauss-Kahn has been accused of a sex crime. After a week of free gossip about sordid secrets concealed by superinjunctions, and in the wake of the Assange controversy, the combination of a high profile financier-cum-left-winger with the whiff of sexualised domination has proved sufficient to displace attention from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which had earned a spike in coverage from a new report on the extent of sexual violence there.

The numbers are appropriately horrifying. Although I can’t access the full American Journal of Public Health paper from my usual entry points (itself frustrating: why lock up your vital statistical research behind a paywall while the media is reporting on it far and wide?), the abstract suggests the following: based on a representative household survey of 3,345 female informants from a 2007 survey added to some population estimates, it is suggested that some 1.7-1.8 million women in Congo have been raped during their lifetimes, and that between 407,000-434,000 (to the nearest thousand) of those have been raped in the last 12 months. A total of 3.1-3.4 million women are estimated to have been victims/survivors of ‘intimate partner sexual violence’, which I assume means not raped by strangers or officially ‘enemy’ soldiers.

Jason Stearns provides some useful context to argue that these numbers are not surprising given previous surveys, if somewhat more solid in methodological terms. The UN has been calling the DRC ‘the rape capital of the world’ for some time now, and there are a significant number of organisations working on these issues in situ. Indeed, the sheer scale of attention to rape in the DRC is spoken of as a logistical problem among those working there. While conducting fieldwork in Goma last year, I spoke to a UNOCHA representative who put their figures (which were not comprehensive) for agencies working on sexual violence in Eastern DRC at 80 international NGOs and over 200 local NGOs, as well as multiple elements of the UN system itself. Properly coordinating work between such a mass of groups (with wildly varying levels of skill and funding) in situations of violence and funding uncertainty is as difficult as you might expect.

This gestures towards one of a number of complexities and problems in the analysis and politics of wartime sexual violence.

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What We Talked About At ISA: The Decline of Cognitive Mapping (Part II)

11 May

This is the second of a three-part series on ‘what we talked about at ISA’. The first part on technology in International Relations can be found here. This section examines a particular effect of technology that has largely gone unacknowledged by IR.


If the major crises of the modern world are symptomatic of anything today, it is the banality that our world is complex. Compared to previous periods of history our world is more interconnected (spreading crises further and less predictably), more dynamic (diffusing risks at a quicker pace), and more fragmented (with experts becoming specialized in solving local problems rather than systemic problems). This complexity involves a massive amount of elements, non-linear dynamics, unintended effects, and feedback loops. These features of complex systems strain the limits of the human mind’s finite and embodied capacities. The 2008 financial crisis, the ongoing climate change crisis, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the 2003 North American electrical blackout – all of these point to massively complex systems which already surpass human capacities to cognize. Moreover, if rational action is premised upon the capacity to represent the problems to be confronted, then the complex systems of today’s world are threatening to undermine the cognitive basis of political action.

The relationship between the world and our capacities to think it and act in it are not entirely asymmetrical though. While the world has become increasingly complex, our capacities to work in it have also expanded.

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Sociology Is A Martial Art

2 May

A May Day found object (appropriately enough). Pierre Carles’ 2001 documentary on Pierre Bourdieu, in seven connected parts (missing, unfortunately the end). Besides the biographical, cinematic and intellectual value, it may also be of interest to Disordered readers for the scattered touches on science and its relation to politics and on the character and reproduction of inequality.


What We Talked About At ISA: Technology and World Politics (Part I)

17 Apr

The presentation I gave at the International Studies Association (ISA) conference was on the broad topic of technology and world politics, with more specific reference to the use of crisis mapping software in humanitarian situations. One of the main contentions of this research is that the role of technology in world politics tends to get massively overlooked by the field of IR. This is a bit odd considering the important role of technology in issues of world politics – weapons systems, financial systems, communications systems, surveillance technologies, social media tools, etc., etc. In fact, it’s hard to point to a single standard IR issue that isn’t infected with technological aspects. Yet IR remains a science limited to a focus on disembodied individuals. Whether it be rationalists or constructivists, little mention needs to be made of the actual materiality of these actors and their contexts. Instead, international relations is taken to be comprised of these actors alone.

To get a sense of the materiality of the world, you have to turn to alternative fields – political psychology and its attention to our embodied nature; gender studies for focus on the body and its political roles; and in my particular case, science and technology studies (STS) for an understanding of technology’s unique form of agency. Growing out of sociology, STS became known originally for taking a specifically social approach to the study of science. That is to say, it began looking at how scientists operate in practice in order to create facts. In doing so, it created a lot of controversy – first, for its willingness to suspend the truth of scientific claims in order to look purely at how they gain legitimacy. Second, for its undermining of naïve visions of the scientific method (a naivety that plagues IR to this day). Finally – and for the purposes here, the most interesting controversy – was the agency it attributed to nonhuman objects. I won’t go into the nuances here (maybe another time), but the basic point here is that agency is not primarily about intentional action (a problematic claim about human agency anyways), but instead it is about action changing a structural context. [1] In this sense, it seems unproblematic to agree that technical objects do have agency – in other words, they can change structural contexts by being introduced into preexisting assemblages (a term which itself points to the mutual implication of technology and society).

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The AHRC Writes Back (Kind Of)

28 Mar

Today the Arts & Humanities Research Council responded to yesterday’s piece in The Observer claiming that the government had readjusted the rules (specifically The Haldane Principle) to increase their control over the direction of research in the UK within the state’s ‘national priorities’. Shorter version: the Tories didn’t pressure us, we’re completely independent and the funding to ‘The Big Society’ is coincedental.

Iain Pears is on the case. As he notes, it’s simply not convincing that the approved language suddenly appeared in the relevant documents unconnected with the political agenda of the governing party. The pressure may have been implicit, and the relationship might have been more informal and complicit than hierarchical, but the consequences for research are much the same.

But the AHRC not only wants to defend itself from these specific charges but also to maintain the legitimacy of the government setting overall priorities. Once again, the exact mechanics are expected to be taken on trust. Indeed, in 2009 a Commons Select Committee (Innovation,  Universities, Science and Skills, since you asked) addressed this exact point. While agreeing ‘in theory’ that the government had a role in setting overarching strategy, the relevant MPs (hardly a selection of Parliamentary rebels) put their collective figure on the aspects of policy that still concern us most:

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