A Martial Gaze Conscious of Itself

Enter the final contributor to our symposium on Antoine’s The Eye of War (University of Minnesota Press). After the author’s opening post and pieces from Katharine HallDan Öberg, and Matthew Ford, our very own Jairus Grove steps up to the plate. Jairus is Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science in the University of Hawai’i at Manoa and the Director of the Hawai’i Research Center for Futures Studies.  His forthcoming book Savage Ecology: War and Geopolitics at the End of the World will be published by Duke University Press in 2019.

Leafing back through The Eye of War’s evocative images of zebra-striped naval destroyers, pigeon-powered targeting systems, and steampunk-worthy ‘binaural acoustic aircraft detectors,’ I am reminded of how vital prototypes, designs, and never deployed gadgets are to Antoine Bousquet’s story of the martial gaze. I want to spend a bit of time thinking through the status of technical things that are more than ideas and less than practical machines with a little help from one of Bousquet’s interlocutors, Gilles Deleuze. At the end of Deleuze’s book on Foucault, he queries what the exact status of the panopticon is. According to Deleuze, the panopticons of Bentham’s dreams were rarely completed, and yet Foucault saw in its schematic the ordering principle of a new historical episteme. Is the panopticon, then, a metaphor, a kind of architectural condensation of discourses in the form of a blueprint? Those who would see ideas at the heart of the matter would hope so. The panopticon in a thinly constructivist reading would be at best the outcome of a changing set of normative relations regarding enclosure, discipline, and reform. 

The reactionary realist would be just as happy with this reading, as they are already prepared to dismiss Foucault as a naïve ideational thinker inured to the formative significance of things. However, Deleuze accepts neither of these positions. He instead describes Foucault’s thought as diagrammatic, that is, “a display of the relations between forces which constitute power… the panoptic mechanism is not simply a hinge, a point of exchange between a mechanism of power and a function; it is a way of making power relations function in a function, and of making a function function through these power relations.” Drawing inspiration from Gilbert Simondon, Deleuze locates Foucault as a machinic thinker investigating “the very tissue of the assemblage” and the “immanent causal” relationship between abstract machines and concrete machines. The diagram or abstract machine of the panopticon comes to inhabit and form what Deleuze calls the “human technology which exists before a material technology” with the concrete machine its execution in the form of schools, factories, prisons, open plan office spaces, ad infinitum. As Deleuze puts it succinctly, “the machines are social before being technical,” where the social is defined by Deleuze, this time drawing from Gabriel Tarde, as any assemblage or collection of relations that exceed, make up, and go beyond the sociology of humans or individuals.

What Deleuze is reading through Foucault is the possibility of a sociology in which the human is as much a machinic operator as the computer chip or the algorithm. The formative difference is the organization of relations and the social structure of the things, which creates new concrete things. So to say that the panopticon is ‘just’ an idea or ‘just’ a blueprint or ‘just’ a metaphor is misleading. Instead, the panopticon is an operating system for new mutative and evolving human-technical software which will invent, design, and build the Huntsville State Penitentiary in Texas as well as the university dormitory modeled after the prison just a hundred miles away in Austin, where I lived in my first panopticon during college. The diagram is a form, a real existing abstraction, from which the potentia of Foucault’s carceral archipelago can become brick and mortar. And then, it is in the concrete iterations of each particular school, factory, or prison. New variations, differences in style, histories, embodiments, improvisation mean that the concrete exceeds in diversity and novelty the potentiality of the abstract form. Then the feedback into the diagrams begins the process of mutation and formation anew.

There are so many rich examples of this strange life of abstractions, where the seemingly absurd targeting helmets of World War I evolve into the heads-up displays of the digital era despite how few technical similarities connect the shared missions or telos. The line from one to the other is not a life’s work of one inventor, or even team of inventors, much less a single nation. The development tracked in this book is not a conspiracy of arms dealers or the megalomaniacal vision of one sovereign. The protagonist in the bumpy and unpredictable assemblage of warfare is what Bousquet calls the ‘martial gaze.’ The martial gaze is not only a discourse, it is more and less than an ideology, and the drivers in its consolidation as a dominate organizer of contemporary warfare could not have been arranged fully in advance. It is, as Bousquet writes, an assemblage in the full sense of the term; heterogenous, changing, transforming through means of intensity and quantity such that war no longer follows the chaste boundaries of states, borders, or battlefields.

As I read it, The Eye of War seeks to establish the parameters by which this dialogue between the abstract and the concrete actualizations of the martial gaze takes place on the battlefield and in the laboratory of the primarily Western militaries investigated. The book is a big story ranging from the geometric pursuits of the enlightenment, through to the most sophisticated weapons platforms deployed and even some still only imagined.

Drawing much inspiration from Paul Virilio and the visual character of modern warfare, where to see a target is already to prepare the annihilation of that target, Bousquet searches out the parallel imaging practices contained within what Heidegger called the ‘world as image.’ That is, the actual or concrete capture of the world via film with the ways of seeing that made such images legible and significant. For Bousquet, not unlike Heidegger, the thinking, seeing, saying, and doing of modernity is a martial thinking, seeing, saying, and doing. Therefore, the terrain of battle, as well as the strategic thinking devoted to it becomes, in the modern era, obsessed with what initially can be seen in a narrow anthropocentric sense – that is, until the limits of the visual inspire the proliferation of sensory capabilities, which dilate further and further, letting in more and more of the electromagnetic spectrum. (9)

For Bousquet, the diagrams of a transparent and rationally geometric world eclipse, in some sense, their functional application, and begin to take on a life of their own. Bousquet is careful to remind us that this dominant “visual nominalism” should not be mistaken for the actual achievement of transparency, much less the corresponding targeting accuracy. Yet what is clear is the warning not to mistake the book’s rich descriptions of technological gadgets as an endorsement of their effectiveness. This is also, in some sense I think, the point of the book. The “durable obstacles” to the technical dreams of war engineers and logistics experts are not obstacles to the deployment of extraordinarily dangerous and destructive technics. In the tug of war between abstract machines and their concrete actualizations, the abstract machines of fully automated targeting or autonomous drones have taken on a life of their own.

To direct us back to Deleuze’s ‘human technology’, following Bousquet’s account, wars are now being waged as laboratories for the development of weapons over their mere instrumental execution. Citing Virilio at the beginning of the book, Bousquet evokes the notion that it is as if “we can now say that strategy is no more than logistics” and that “logistics is become the whole war.” (7) Taking Bousquet’s account of the terminal velocity of sighting, targeting, and automation seriously, one could go even further to say that the development of the next logistics breakthrough has become the whole purpose of war through its recursive relationship with the advancement of technique. Bousquet’s ‘global imperium of targeting’ is ever expanding and intensifying, but as Bousquet is right to recognize, what that imperium is for is somehow secondary.

As a critical architecture, The Eye of War is more like The Birth of Clinic than The Archeology of Knowledge, in the sense that the theoretical landscape of the gaze’s diagram is immanent to the technological and morphological evolution rather than offered exterior to it as a kind of meta-theory of technological change. Similarly, we are not offered a kind of pre-theoretical normative framework with which to judge in advance the converging trajectories of “perception and destruction.” (3) Instead, what is critical about the theoretical endeavor is the unraveling of at least two strands of contemporary hubris.

The first target addressed in the introduction is the technological determinist position which sees the present lethal assemblage of satellites, drones, precision weapons, and the molecularized battlezone as an inevitable outcome of war. The Eye of War offers instead a bumpy, contingent, and unpredictable history of failures and successes each taken up, dropped, and at times reinvented as the demands of the battle and logics of targeting shift and mutate between attack, defense, camouflage, and counter-measure. There is a dialectical movement, or I think, in the tradition of Deleuze and Guattari, a double-articulation, in the world in which the material exchanges of bullets and bombs are an essential creative component in the making of the martial gaze. And to the political and normative demands of policy-makers, strategists, combatants, and civilians who respond to collateral damage, they also participate in the creative advance of the martial gaze. In Bousquet’s words, “precision targeting in war is not the preordained outcome of technological evolution.” (13) Instead, Bousquet offers a machinic history in which all operators whether they be humans, ideas, concepts, gravity, speed, friction, the electro-magnetic spectrum, exothermic chemical reactions, lasers, and cartography evolve in concert, but not in telos.

The second critical insight is one of a kind of earthly and deflating humility, that is, a retelling of the failures, overreaches, and misplaced hopes of technological optimism. While Bousquet concurs with Bernard Stiegler that “the question of war is inevitably contained within the question of technics,” and that in Bousquet’s words, the technics of war is predisposed “to dominate, secure, and control,” it does not thereby entail that we are in control or that there is a zero point of instrumentality in which full mastery is achieved (15, 10). Instead, Bousquet writes that the “self-serving claims routinely made about the capabilities of military technology” are significantly undermined by a history of error, failure, and catastrophe in the “delusional” pursuit of a “frictionless exercise of power.” For Bousquet, the martial gaze evolves in sophistication, autonomy, and lethality, while continually overestimating its capability. The result is a continuing global expansion, and maybe now saturation, of the capacity to inflict violence with little corresponding benefits for order, or what we would consider the rule-writing benefits of hegemony. War and the battlefield have been molecularized via the advancing sophistication of the martial gaze but the distribution of peace and order and the presumed aims of war are even further from view.

I suspect, with reasonable certainty, that the decision to follow the lead of technics to the critical edge of theory rather than applying a normative framework in advance to be leveraged critically, is a methodological choice. It is a risky one. One could, with some selective omissions, read The Eye of War as a how-to book for ‘fixing’ the martial gaze. In the hands of the gurus of counter-insurgency, The Eye of War could be put to use in favor of more supple forms of violence and control through soldiers, development programs, and armed humanitarian workers. And yet that is always the risk of critique. I would suggest explicit moral frameworks do nothing to guard against that other than to absolve the writer of guilt when it occurs. However, to leave behind the safety net of explicit moral positioning in favor of immanent critique in the way Bousquet has done, collapses the distance between critique and the empirical such that logics of military logistics can be understood from the inside out. Without that internal perspective, which comes from thorough understanding and even a bit of necessary sympathy, one cannot draw out the forces driving change such that some aspect of the dangerous trajectory can be appreciated in advance of their totalization.

If the history of warfare teaches us nothing else, it is that a distanced opposition to war has little if any effect on warfare’s creative advance. In part, the inefficacy of position-taking against war is due to the anthropocentric fallacy at the heart of anti-war activism. What we learn in The Eye of War is just how distributed the operators of war’s advance are. Beyond the sovereign deciders, most often targeted by activists or regulated by international law, are the vast laboratories, battlefields, and machines reorganizing the planetary operating system for war. In this sense, the inhuman or even dehumanizing character of Bousquet’s critical insights are essential to finding more vital chokepoints in the efforts to make a global ecology more hostile to war and more capable of thriving in other ways. Yet the risk of redeployment and instrumentalization of the text remains.

Some readers may recoil from the darkness lurking in Bousquet’s clinical recounting of glowing targeting screens and increasingly conscious autonomous machines. Despite the ‘qualifications’ in the introduction about the limits of military ingenuity, there are times in the book where it feels as if the entire planet is hurdling towards a future of total surveillance and instant and accurate lethal targeting. What resistance is identified in the book is found in passing references to half-hearted U.N. resolutions against autonomous weapons, and in the slightly more compelling presentation of the limits of physics, which may create some drag on the totalization of the planet. Many will find this kind of dark end of history somehow complicit with the martial dreams for the ultimate high ground. I know Bousquet too well to think he dreams of total control. Furthermore, I would challenge anyone who thinks this dark rendering of contemporary military practices is somehow ‘too much’ to provide empirical examples to the contrary. Where are the great counter-measures of democratic liberty, freedom of movement, and privacy missing from the book? Is there a ground swell of renewed internationalism, or a Kellog-Briand pact for our Terminator Salvation? If so, I missed it.

My criticism of the book moves instead in the other direction. My concern with the kind of end of history presented by the extreme momentum of surveillance and targeting technologies here is that Bousquet’s rendering is not darkly creative enough. I think in resisting the truly far out imagination of those DARPA researchers creating the now absurd weapons prototypes for human-machine interfaces, biomimetic and genetically modified humans and other lifeforms, as well as cognitive weapons, then we should be wary of Bousquet’s conclusion that the individual is the ultimate granularity of the martial gaze.

If we take the assemblage and the more-than-human approach of Bousquet’s book seriously, which I do, then we ought not believe that the dream of sensing, imaging, mapping, and targeting ends with the intact human individual. As an early peak at what this could become, consider Bousquet’s review of the late 1970’s research on ‘cognitive cartography’ and the concern that human technology would need to be altered to truly take advantage of the mapping revolution. More than the development of GIS and other targeting technologies, the dream of cognitive mapping and conditioning was to manage the complex informatics of space and the human uses of it from the ground up. That is in the making of user-friendly human subjects. One can image targeting following similar pathways. The “martial gaze that roams our planet” will not be satisfied with the individual any more than it was satisfied with the factory, the silo, the unit, or the home.

The vast data revolutions in mapping individual and collective behavior utilized in the weaponization of fake and real news, marketing research, fMRI advances and brain mapping, as well nanodrones, directed energy weapons, and on and on, suggest to me that just as there has never been an end of history for politics, or for that matter war, there will be no end of history or limit to what the martial gaze dreams of targeting. I can imagine returns to punishment where pieces of the enemy’s body are taken. Jasbir Puar’s work on debility suggests (see our recent symposium) already suggests such a martial vision of the enemy at play in the new wars of the 21st century. Following the long tails of Bousquet’s machinic history, I can further imagine the targeting of ideas and behaviors for which ‘pattern-of-life’ targeting and gait analysis are use are only crude and abstract prototypes.

If we, like the machines we design, are merely technical assemblages, then the molecularization of war described by Bousquet is not likely to remain at the level of the intact human, as if individuals were the martial equivalent of Plank’s quanta of energy. The martial gaze will want more unless fundamentally interrupted by other forces of abstraction and concretization.

My only other critique is one of encouragement for a more exuberant application of the martial gaze beyond the conceptual boundaries of the now boundless battlefield. Finishing the book, I can’t help but move beyond Bousquet’s more chastened claim that the martial gaze is a kind of media theory of war to claim instead that The Eye of War provides us with a martial theory of global media, that is, in the contemporary era, a theory of global life. From the recounting of the mathematization of space to the visualization of sensing, mapping, and targeting we see the outline of the entire technical assemblage of modern life. From cell phone telemetry and GPS, meta-data-fueled machine learning and big data, to supply chain capitalism, media saturation, and open-source surveillance, the martial gaze is indistinguishable from the circulation and communication of daily life in such a way that the concept of ‘dual-use’ seems quaint. Instead, we are, as Bousquet invokes from Rey Chow, living in “the age of the world target,” and violence is modulated to accommodate the historical and geographical distributions of subordination and extermination baked into the code of European expansion and now globalization. For this reason, I hope that The Eye of War is read broadly, as it offers a view into the very guts of our planet, and not only the layout of the everywhere battlefields of 21st century conflicts.


Chow, Rey. The Age of the World Target: Self-Referentiality in War, Theory, and Comparative Work. Next Wave Provocations. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Seán Hand. Foucault. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.

Puar, Jasbir K. The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability. Anima. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.

2 thoughts on “A Martial Gaze Conscious of Itself

  1. Pingback: Returning the Gaze: A Reply to The Eye of Symposium | The Disorder Of Things

  2. Pingback: The eyes have it… | geographical imaginations

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