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

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?

A Metamorphosis Of Force

For Manabrata Guha, existent accounts of Network-Centric Warfare (NCW) undersell the radical dimension of its transformation of collective violence. Setting himself in favour of an ‘intuitive’ and ‘conceptual’ inquiry rather than an ’empirical’ or ‘practical’ one, he suggests that a fundamental shift has occurred, such that crucial figures like Donald Rumsfeld and Vice Admiral Arthur Cebrowski (a key architect of NCW) can be said to have been engaged in “a project of some philosophical significance”. More precisely, the current crop of NCW theorists are inadequate to their object, and continually seek to restrain the radicality of the new form within the thought patterns and paradigms of the old.

The radicality of NCW (and hence the need for the ‘reimagining’ of the title) comes from two central elements: first, the speed of command made possible by new technologies; and second, the resulting ‘self-synchronization’ of action in war to a commander’s intent. This is an Age of Networks marked by ‘a new trinity’ of Speed, Sharing and Decentralisation. The theme of speed is one repeated in the accounts given by Bousquet and Der Derian, but is most forcefully emphasised at the theoretical level by Guha. Speed matters because it means that war as a practice has finally caught up with Clausewitz, who is said to have recognised the role of uncertainty at an ontological level, and who can thus be united with the figure of Deleuze, whose theoretical interest lay in the question of immanence. For Guha this seems to mean that hierarchies and distinctions – between command and control, between man and machine, between war and politics – collapse into a kind of ontological state that undoes all such moves. This is war as “absolute immanence” or “pure war”, which escapes the bounds placed on it by ‘absolute war’ (the logic of maximising the powers of violence in a direct clash) or ‘real war’ (the messy practice of day-to-day decisions on the traditional battlefield).

The connection of speed and immanence means that NCW cannot be captured and controlled by state apparatuses in the clichéd sense of war as a political tool. As Guha puts it, “the intensiveness of war is characterized by the differential play of infinite intensities of infinite magnitude” (emphasis in original), in the sense that the consequences, feedback loops and sensitivity to initial conditions which characterise NCW – and which Bousquet would call chaoplexic – resist in their essence the intentionality of the human actor. Distinguishing between the conduct and concept of war, Guha thus suggests the networked realities of instant response, battle swarms and the increasing removal of the human element from the war machine mean that NCW cannot be harnessed as technologies like the rifle or tank might have been.

So, in a typical passage, the ‘technological signature’ of NCW is already said to have found expression in:

US Navy carrier-centric fleets [which] have repeatedly demonstrated over the past decade that regardless of terrain (accessibility) and weather (visibility) conditions, they can create a remarkably diverse and mobile array of weapon-clusters – battlenodes – from where a variety of passive and active surveillance operations take place – manned and/or unmanned…the US Navy is in the process of transforming itself into a capability-based modular expression of force that can stretch and extend battlespaces into the gaps, cracks, and faultlines of the familiar dimensions of space and time (emphasis in original).

The superiority of distributed networks are said to have overwhelmed military planners, who then seek to impose a strategy of NCW by removing uncertainty and computing threats. In setting up this complicated theoretical story Guha relies on the idea of a radical break, leading to “an understanding of war where the very notion of confrontation is obviated by the fluidity of the play of forces…the abandoning of the anthropic plane”. This argument requires a certain degree of simplification. For example, it is claimed that Hugo Grotius, Emmerich de Vattel and Thomas Hobbes all reduced war to a function of the body-politic state and constructed it as rational policy, a frame now apparently superseded by NCW. Yet Grotius was not such an untrammelled statist, and a fuller account of his views (such as that provided by Eddie Keene) would recognise the ways in which he innovated international property rights for private individuals and corporate forces, bringing him much closer to the present situation that Guha would seem to allow.

This kind of detail is important principally because it unsettles the over-neat narrative of war that makes NCW seem so revolutionary. But Reimagining War is also beset by some other problems. It is badly edited, and passages are frequently repeated, in large part completely verbatim, at different points in the text. This is all the more deflating in a text that retails at £80 (and £52 on Kindle!) for only 173 pages (pre-notes and bibliography). Important concepts, like the idea of a ‘grid of operations’, are casually introduced but only fleshed out much later. Much of the conceptual vocabulary is deployed imprecisely or in contradictory ways. For example, the Real, with a capital R, appears often, implying a psychoanalytical Lacanian or Žižekian understanding, but usually means ‘the real’ in a more commonsensical vein, i.e. what actually happened in a particular circumstance.

This kind of slippage invites scepticism about other philosophically-loaded phrases and conveys the impression that they are being deployed as fluffy buttresses to the argument, investing it with a depth that is never cashed out or explained. Significant space is given to articulating a Deleuzian and Guattarian account in which war is outside of the law, outside of sovereignty and irreducible to state apparatuses, only for Guha to conclude that such theorising is “disjointed and…frankly contradictory”, salvageable only because it offers a syntax of immanence.

Compelling passages on the relationship between bios and technos in contemporary war-making; on Clausewitz’s ‘architectonic’; and on the emergence of statistical governance are thus somewhat lost amongst a central thesis repeatedly stated but never really developed, despite (or perhaps because of) the wide-ranging use of Deleuze, Guattari, Levinas, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida, Kant, Foucault, Liebniz, Laurelle and Descartes, amongst others. For all this there is no real mention of Paul Virilio, and no explicit engagement with Der Derian. Despite occasional nods to ethical implications, this too vanishes in a changing stream of metaphors. Even the core tension between concept and conduct emerges somewhat under-served, unrelated to an examination of institutions, practices or ethics.

Only Our Giant Brains Can Calculate All The Possibilities

Guha closes Reimagining War with a short riposte to Antoine, who is charged with falling into the trap of limiting concepts to conducts, of simultaneously noting the transformations brought about by new assemblages – assemblages which have changed the very grounds for action in the world – and wanting to hold on to the idea of war as a discrete kind of human behaviour, separable from others. This is a far less damning critique than Guha wants it to be. Indeed, The Scientific Way of Warfare draws out many of the same features, tensions and philosophical implications as Reimagining War, but under a tighter and more informative analytical typology.

The task for Antoine is to trace the technoscience of war, which is to say the close relationship between scientific discovery/practice and the techniques of battle themselves. Historicising these relations yields four distinct regimes, “characterised by a specific theoretical and methodological constellation”: mechanistic, thermodynamic, cybernetic and chaoplexic, each associated with a technology: the clock, the engine, the computer, and the network respectively.

This periodisation is persuasive and enlightening (at least for those not already steeped in the discourses of NCW). For example, in tracing the elective affinities between talk of thermodynamics and energetic resources and an age of capital and revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries, Antoine explains how thermodynamic objects are less stable and so have the potentiality to ‘break loose’, setting an ‘energetic’ model of bodily comportment and military manoeuvre. Where Frederick the Great was the martial implementer of a mechanistic technoscience, Napoleon took the lead in the age of thermodynamics, introducing a flexibility and autonomy that gave him an upper hand and contributed in its own way to the Hegelian interest in the energies of history, one taken up in a Marxian conception of the energies of class war.

Later, the introduction of the computer to war required a ‘closed world’ of data for analysis, with uncertainty an information deficiency to be corrected in the spirit of technocratic management. The figure of Robert McNamara and the computational initiatives of Vietnam loom large in this period. On this account, we are currently at the threshold between cybernetic and chaoplexic ways of war. In chaoplexity the stress is on open systems, which include feedback loops but now in a way that give rise to new structures spontaneously and which take non-linear pathways and forms. The key phrase here, as for Guha, is ‘sensitive dependence on initial conditions’, a legacy traceable to Henri Poincaré and one which fundamentally denies projects of control and management.

In The Scientific Way of Warfare, this highlights a similar tension to that between conduct and concept already noted in Guha’s work, namely that commanders still seem to think of warfare in terms of a closed system. Advocates like Cebrowski seek ‘information superiority’ in the battlespace, but this neglects sensitivity to initial conditions, the need to constantly revise and adapt models to stave off entropy, and ignores that much information in war is contradictory. Such enthusiasts are really interested in an acceleration of the decision-cycle and so are prone to fall back on simplistic feedback models. One particularly example is of the NATO bombing of Kosovo, in which cheap counter-measures such as camouflage and fake smoke plumes pumped false information into the system. Whereas NATO had originally quantified its success as resulting in 120 ‘confirmed’ tank strikes, it turned out after the war that they had only destroyed 14, echoing a techno-fetishism that also failed the world’s most powerful military in Vietnam.

This analytical frame works at several levels. Mechanism, for example, is explained both as an ontological claim about nature (the Universe viewed as A Great Automaton), and as a methodological approach to enquiry which required that objects be unpacked into their component elements so that the causal relations could be better understood and controlled. Similarly, the metaphors deployed by regimes also find a more concrete reality in particular artefacts (like the clock), which always threaten to take on a fetishistic quality. As such, a ‘doubled analysis’ of both tools and metaphors becomes necessary.Bousquet’s typology will be a useful frame for many, and at times threatens to be too neat. At the conceptual level this is smartly sidestepped by addressing the different regimes as sets of ‘resonances’. Not intended as causal claims about technology determining thought (or vice versa), regimes can thus take on a subtler aspect, and one more amenable to the variable traction of different conceptual models.

Despite this caveat, periodisation has its limits. There still appears to be a conflict between thinking in terms of the linear progression of science/technology and the multiple possible constellations of mental frames and discursive categories used by war-makers themselves, in which there may be old doctrine sitting side-by-side with new, and retreats to previous modes of war-making. The recycling and reinscription of doctrines of counter-insurgency being a case in point. How do we think these confluences of memes, practices, technologies and ambiguous psychological schema?

Moreover, the content of war is itself somewhat displaced. Bousquet addresses the organisation of fighting in logistical terms (from drills to nuclear warheads), but much less is said about the forms of mobilisation, control, political settlements, gender arrangements or human suffering that go with the different kinds of technoscience. What, for example, is the relationship between a mechanistic understanding of the world and the earliest moves in European expansion? Are they imperfectly related, or was an understanding of discipline important only in restricted terms, in the same way that the clock helped with navigation but did not fundamentally alter or reflect the modalities of global power?

The bow and arrow once was the pinnacle of weapons technology. It allowed the great Genghis Khan to rule from the Pacific to the Ukraine: an empire twice the size of Alexander the Great and four times the size of the Roman Empire. But today, whoever holds the latest Stark weapons rules these lands.

So speaks Raza, stand-in for the terrorist-with-our-technology nightmare in Iron Man. For both Guha and Antoine this spectre of the technological fallacy resurfaces, if in every different ways. In Reimaging War the process seems quite straightforward, with the technological framework for pure war itself ushering in a singularity, one which will not bear the impositions of human direction and purpose, whatever comforting lies we may wish to tell ourselves. Weapons determine history, but now without human agents. In The Scientific Way of Warfare, matters are more ambiguous, and at least implicitly leave open questions around the transformation of social relations or the normative framework appropriate to our capacities. Weapons reflect and inflect military history, but in a process only partially related to our purposes. Technology transforms societies, just as it is transformed by them, with each epoch staging a new frame of confrontation between bios and technos. But what of socios and ethos?


* With apologies to Hetfield, Ulrich, Burton and Hammett.

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3 thoughts on “Damage, Unincorporated*, Part One: The Chaoplexity of Collective Violence

  1. Thanks for the thought-provoking post and perceptive comments on the book, great stuff! I’ll wait for part two before responding fully though.

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  2. My dictionary gives two definitions for ‘immanent’ (and by implication for ‘immanence’). Putting aside the theological definition (‘present throughout the universe; said of God’), we’re left with ‘living, remaining, or operating within; inherent.’ The notion of war as ‘absolute immanence’ advanced by Guha must therefore mean that war is inherent in something in a way that presumably it wasn’t before. So my question is: what is the thing or entity that ‘pure war’ or ‘war as absolute immanence’ is immanent in?

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    • Well, you’d have to quiz Guha on that, since its his terminology and, as I indicated, I don’t think it’s up to much, at least on the evidence of the book.

      The point as far as I understand it is that war is immanent to itself. ‘Pure war’ is the term for this. Drawing on Clausewitz, the distinction made is between ‘real war’ (the complex and messy advances and retreats and mistakes and confusions of actual battle); ‘total war’ (where the entire apparatus of state and economy is geared towards a conflict with a horrific final logic of annihilation – as in the World Wars and the spectre of nuclear destruction); and then ‘pure war’ (which designates the conceptual account of war, removed of all the actual bloodiness, confusion and politics, in which ideal typical – or game theoretical – assumptions about stimulus and response, instant decisions, precision weapons and perfect information hold). For Clausewitz, ‘pure war’ was a theoretical space. For Guha, the technological advances of the last decades makes it much more real.

      The reason this appears to deserve the term ‘immanent’ is that the decision loops and pre-determined responses of drones and the like are faster than human cognition, which means that that systems respond with a speed (and series of knock-on effects) which cannot be harnessed by human intentionality in the same way as canon or troop manoeuvres or air strikes. Hence war is less definable in terms of elements external to it (politics, economics, military strategy, romantic views of national destiny) and more definable in terms of principles contained within the machinery of violence itself. Which is war as absolute immanence or war as immanent to itself.

      This has a Deleuzian legacy (I’m only familiar with that at second hand) which may also complicate the attempt to tie down the terminology to a dictionary definition. That’s fair I think – theoretical terms have a different history and are to be judged on their efficacy, not on their etymology. Antoine or Nick may be able to say more about the framework of immanence and what it provides, but that’s what I understand from it. I can see its usefulness as a way of gesturing towards a direction of travel in military affairs, but am hugely sceptical about it as an umbrella term for a ‘revolution’ in war or as a way of describing some ontological reality.

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