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What We Talked About At ISA 2012: How Music Brings Meaning to Politics

8 May

At this year’s ISA conference, I presented on the panel ‘The Social Technologies of Protest’, with George Lawson, Eric Selbin, Robbie Shilliam and our discussant Patrick Jackson. The full text of the draft paper is available here. Thanks go to the panel and audience for some fascinating questions and discussions.


Music is a world within itself
With a language we all understand
With an equal opportunity
For all to sing, dance and clap their hands
But just because a record has a groove
Don’t make it in the groove
But you can tell right away at letter A
When the people start to move

-          ­‘Sir Duke’, Stevie Wonder, Songs in the Key of Life (1976)

Music is an old and effective technology of politics. This was highly visible in both the recent uprisings and the attempts at counter-revolution; whilst from the beginning Tunisian activists sang their national anthem in the street in anti-regime protest, Assad blasted the Syrian anthem into the cities as a reminder of his position. Rappers and older musicians shared platforms in Tahrir Square, and DJs parodically remixed Gaddafi’s final public speeches into technotronic nonsense. Whilst not all political music is sung of course, songs and the act of singing are particularly powerful in political situations as means and symbols of mobilisation and unification.  Moreover, songs tend to linger in the brain.

But there are at least two ways of thinking about the relationship between politics and music. The question which is perhaps most often asked and answered is: how, when and where is music political? So, why did the Tunisian protesters sing the national anthem in front of the courthouse, how did music support the anti-apartheid struggle, and why did the Haitian revolutionaries sing the Marseillaise? How did the musical character of these expressions facilitate a particular kind of political act? Lots of excellent writers, both scholarly and otherwise, have turned their attentions to the nature of political music, and especially protest music, in a variety of times and places.

However, the question that I want to focus on mainly here though is slightly different: how, when and where is politics musical? This question was stimulated by the general observation that when we try to make sense of politics, we often use metaphors related to music. A common phrase is that a political statement or value ‘struck a chord’ with an audience, or that protesters are ‘banging a drum’. Politicians may or may not be ‘in tune’ with publics, and relations may be ‘harmonious’ or not. Coups will be ‘orchestrated’.

Perhaps surprisingly, in moving from vernacular to scholarly modes of understanding politics, the metaphors of music are no less important. In fact, in some cases they seem to be more important. The genre-defining work of the historical sociologist Charles Tilly in the study of contentious politics is a revealing and fascinating case in point.

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All Your Brain Are Belong To Us: Neuroscience Goes To War

19 Feb

The Royal Society has just released a fascinating report entitled “Neuroscience, Conflict and Security” that examines the increasing role that neuroscientific research is playing in the military today (thanks to Nick for drawing my attention to it). Indeed, as was reported by Wired’s Danger Room a couple of years ago, the US Air Force has been soliciting  research proposals for “innovative science and technology projects to support advanced bioscience research” that include “bio-based methods and techniques to sustain and optimize airmen’s cognitive performance”, “identification of individuals who are resistant to the effects of various stressors and countermeasures on cognitive performance” and “methods to degrade enemy performance and artificially overwhelm enemy cognitive capabilities.” Likewise, DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that gave us the Internet) has long shown significant interest in the potential military applications of neuroscience.

As the Royal Society report puts it, military neuroscience can be seen to have “two main goals: performance enhancement, i.e. improving the efficiency of one’s own forces, and performance degradation, i.e. diminishing the performance of one’s enemy” (p.1). It is with reference to these two goals that I will attempt in this post to make some sense of the wider context and implications of neuroscience’s entanglement with contemporary martial practices.

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Affect! Biopolitics! Technology! Ecology!: A Call for Papers

16 Dec

A brief pre-holiday announcement of the next Millennium annual conference, to be convened on the theme of Materialism and World Politics. Full details below the fold. The range of suggested topics looks both fascinating and much-needed, and I am assured by well-placed sources that there will also be some stellar speakers, for those who are tempted by such things. As always, papers submitted in the wake of the conference which survive the rigours of peer review will be published in a resulting special issue (Vol. 41, No. 3). Also, don’t forget about the Northedge Essay Competition (deadline 30 January 2012).

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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

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