Returning the Gaze: A Reply to The Eye of War Symposium

The final post in our symposium on The Eye of War as Antoine responds to his interlocutors. All the entries in this series are collated here.

I have read each of the fantastic contributions made to the symposium with real pleasure and intellectual thrill. I feel very fortunate to have my work engaged with so thoroughly and generously by four wonderful scholars who each brought something unique to the conversation. Each entry is too rich in suggestive lines of thought to fully do any of them justice here and so I will only be able to selectively engage their contributions. I know however that they will continue to fire synapses for some time to come and I am very grateful to each participant for that gift. Big thanks also go to Paul for suggesting the symposium in the first place and organising it.

Katharine’s comments focus on the book’s early genealogy of the martial gaze, noting the uncommon historical perspective it brings to contemporary accounts of military targeting. It is certainly the case that much of the abundant scholarship produced on drones has a strong presentist feel, often emphasising the alleged revolutionary character of these weapon systems. Some of the best contributions have produced enriching accounts of their antecedents, either through a history of unmanned weapons (Grégoire Chamayou, Ian Shaw) or of aerial bombing (Derek Gregory), but these remain nevertheless conditioned by the starting point of the drone to which such histories lead by design. Notwithstanding its reference in the book’s subtitle (call it a sop to the marketing imperatives of academic publishing), The Eye of War’s enquiry was never motivated by the drone – indeed, the project was initiated before it became an object of sustained academic study – and it only explicitly features fleetingly in the final analysis. Instead, military perception was to be the investigation’s central object with the primary task being to trace its conceptual fundaments and technical milestones as far back as possible.

As outlined in my introductory post, the crucible for the contemporary manifestation of military perception that I settle on is the Italian Renaissance in which we can see an intertwined rationalisation of vision and mathematisation of space cohere. Katharine usefully supplements this account by connecting it to the Cartesian worldview that systematised what was arguably already implicit in the cultural expression of linear perspective (see also her recent article in the special issue on “Becoming Weapon” I had a hand in). As I note in the book, Martin Jay famously identified the originary “scopic regime” of modernity as one of “Cartesian perspectivalism” with its “understanding of vision as monocular, static, fixed and immediate, distant and objectifying, purely theoretic and disincarnated.” The notion of a rapacious drive for mastery over the world underlying modern epistemology is of course itself a well-rehearsed critique, as is the idea that this project has ironically ended up in a supposedly sovereign subject being increasingly dominated by its creations. If The Eye of War has any claim to originality in this regard, it is in underlining that the martial dimension of this reversal is still insufficiently appreciated.

Dan’s fascinating contribution echoes these preoccupations with its Baudrillardian account of a “disappearance” of the battlefield under the effect of its unrelenting operationalisation. Dan evokes the constitution of an “external point of reference” within military theory and practice that bears obvious parallels with linear perspective’s casting of the visible world as a homogeneous, isotropic space amenable to rational comprehension and control. The efforts of seventeenth century military thinkers such as De Saxe, Guibert, or Puységur to formulate a universal theory of war, frequently couched in geometric principles, are manifest expressions of an emerging conception of war that would find its realisation in the French Grande Armée. In noting the importance of national mobilisation to this, Dan draws in turn our attention to the centrality of logistics to this modern understanding of war, a crucial insight previously made by Paul Virilio. At the most fundamental level however, behind the rise of logistics and the coding of the battlefield, we find the ascendancy of information.

It is particulary instructive in this regard that the first systematic treatment of military logistics by Antoine-Henri Jomini emphasised the importance of information being transmitted up and down the chain of command. The development of logistics, synonymous with a spatial and temporal extension of operations, was therefore coterminous with that of information gathering, processing, and distribution – and with that of abstract modelling. While a formal scientific understanding of information would have to wait the mid-twentieth century work of Claude Shannon, its growing centrality within military operations thus reaches much further back. The revolutionary use of maps by Napoleon’s staff to analyse and plan strategic movements, described by Anders Engberg-Pedersen as “the central part of an information-transformation system” for “visualising and managing future”, already realises the “abstract model of military space/time” evoked by Dan. Of course, what concerns us today is the extent to which war – and the human, by the same token – has altogether disappeared behind its informational model, leaving behind only a spectral presence that continues to haunt us as we still flounder in thinking beyond it.

Matthew’s own narration of the state’s historical endeavours to sedentarise and order populations so as to better govern them, including in their war-making capacity, resonates further with this discussion. Deleuze and Guattari immediately come to mind here with their account of the territorialising processes associated with “state apparatuses of capture” that are the socio-political expressions of a “royal science” that strives to objectify and metricise the world from an “external point of reference.” Most interesting however is Matthew’s discussion of a “frustrated” Western way of warfare trapped in its quixotic pursuit for the decisive battle through technological fixes. There is much that could be said about this but I will limit myself to a few reflections here.

Matthew is of course correct in identifying a long tradition of “military orientalism” attributing cowardice and treachery to non-Europeans for not pursuing decisive clashes of arms in the open. Yet, conversely, we need to be wary of essentialising a putative Western way of warfare that would possess distinct, invariable characteristics, eliding in the process the numerous historical instances in which it failed to conform to that model. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that the decisive battle has held an enduring grip upon the Western military imaginary. It notably occupies pride of place in Clausewitz’s On War as a means of achieving the “highest aim” in war: “the destruction of the enemy’s armed forces.”[i] The great irony is that Clausewitz’s exhortation of the decisive battle came just as its zenith has passed. Indeed, according to Russell Weigley, the quest for decisive battles can only be said to have been consistently pursed for an interval of two hundred years between the Battle of Breitenfield (1631) and the Battle of Waterloo (1815). Moreover, Weigley finds the desired conclusiveness to have persistently eluded European states, observing that even Napoleon’s formidable string of battlefield triumphs could not secure a lasting peace. He concludes that, “as a positive instrument of policy, as a weapon with which to win positive gains for the national interest at a cost not disproportionate to the gains, war in the age of battles was consistently a disappointment and a failure.”[ii]

We would be hard-pressed not to extend that trenchant judgment to most of the major conflicts of the twentieth century, of course. Even where these wars did produce conclusive outcomes, they did so through gruelling attritional ordeals in which virtually unlimited national resources were poured in and certainly not by virtue of any decisive exchanges. Nor did they prove any more “positive” an instrument of policy. To the extent that we can consider the First and Second World Wars as a single intra-European Thirty Years War, its net consequence was to destroy the geopolitical pre-eminence of all its participants, “winners” and “losers” alike (including those who still bathe to this day in the nostalgic glow of “their finest hour”). Throughout most of this period, the martial gaze served primarily to support the efficient direction of the tremendous energies being galvanised and unleashed, all the way to the weaponisation of the physical processes powering the Sun. Not only did the efforts to establish an Archimedean point by which to rationally master war and its effects fail to deliver the sought certainties; they discovered as their asymptote the most irrational outcome of mutual annihilation – what we might be tempted to call the antinomy of Martial Reason.

These conflicts could however still be understood in conventional political terms in the main, even where a clear tendency for the means to usurp the ends was displayed. Armed adversaries faced each other as representatives of collectives whose political wills they were supposed to be enacting and conflicts strove for some settlement that would return states to more amiable relations. It has become increasingly hard to reconcile such an understanding with the manifestations of military violence in the early twenty-first century, a phenomenon that can at least be partly attributed to the recent developments of the martial gaze and the  unprecedented capabilities for remote precision targeting associated with it. Indeed, the latest batch of “exquisite military techniques” has not only revived the dream of unequivocal decisive effects but has also fostered an individualisation of targeting and the new “ontology of the enemy” that accompanies it. Most evidently in the context of the Global War on Terror, we are seeing a shift away from “status-based targeting against units, formations, and equipment” towards “identity-based targeting against individuals, cells and networks.”[iii] Within this frame, the targeted individual is typically apprehended solely in terms of their singular risk assessment or their function as a node in a pathological network to be eradicated (or at least contained). Unsurprisingly, this ends up privileging “tactical engagement over identifying political solutions” in Matthew’s formulation since the adversary’s political character is altogether negated. Taken on its own terms alone, the last seventeen years of the War on Terror can only be said to have resulted in more “failure and disappointment.”

There is little for me to demur from in Jairus’s fantastic distillation of the book’s methodological and theoretical underpinnings. A book always remains in some measure a mystery to its own author and it is a special thrill when an acute reader puts into their own words those intuitions and intentions of which one can only ever be imperfectly cognisant. I must say that of all the criticisms of the book I might have expected – and Jairus does an excellent job of answering several of those – that it is not dark enough is certainly not one of them! Jairus is absolutely right though, the molecularisation of war can also be understood in a quite literal sense as reaching beneath and beyond the unit of the human body. In a sense, war already does, whether in its psychological and affective dimensions or its weaponisation of chemicals, toxins, and other infectious agents. But those existing means may in time come to bear to their successors the relation that area bombing has to precision strikes as our knowledge of nanotechnology, neuroscience, and synthetic biology deepens. Never bet against the insatiability of war’s appetite.

Finally, returning to Katharine, she asks the most difficult question of “how we might change course” and regain some agency in the face of processes that seem to have taken on a life of their own. Unsurprisingly, I am unable to offer any easy answers. If it is indeed the case that our contemporary condition is tributary to a martial gaze whose antecedents reach back to the dawn of modernity (Heidegger would likely say that the worm was already in the fruit with Socrates), there are evidently no quick fixes for this. Katharine suggests that we may need to revisit early modern philosophy and take a Spinozian turn that might eschew the quest for the mastery and possession of nature. I agree that perhaps nothing short of a radical reengagement with the world would suffice to break with the seemingly inexorable logic of the martial gaze. But I also struggle to be particularly sanguine about the real prospects of such an epochal reorientation, truth be told.

Indeed, the modernist project has already been submitted to insistent deconstruction for decades and Spinoza is today in much greater philosophical favour than Descartes. Whatever the effects of this intellectual shift, they have not included a significant inflection of the general direction or momentum of travel in the matters concerning us here. Returning specifically to the aforementioned notion of “scopic regimes”, it is worth noting that these were always intended as plural with Jay keen to outline historical alternatives present in modern “visual subcultures” such as seventeenth-century Dutch art and the baroque. Scholars interested in the visual practices of present-day warfare have accordingly adopted the concept of scopic regimes in the hope of contesting the military God’s eye view through an “aesthetic redistribution of the sensible” (see Gregory 2011, Coward 2013, Grayson 2016). Yet if Dutch art and the baroque, notwithstanding their cultural contributions, cannot be said to have arrested the development of the logistics of military perception, how much hope should we place in the contemporary aesthetic interventions of a Mahwish Chishty, an Omar Fast, or the #NotABugSplat collective to turn the tide?

This is not to say that there does not exist an effective counter-conduct to the martial gaze. It can be found in the extensive practices of camouflage, decoy, and concealment that I gather in the book under the label of “hiding.” These practices seek to evade, misdirect, and bedazzle the gaze by exploiting the identified biases, lacunae, and blind spots that are the inevitable by-product of its workings, even at their most hegemonic. The martial gaze thus secretes an immanent becoming-imperceptible that simultaneously frustrates its operation and impels its continuous elaboration since it responds in turn to the obstacles raised again it. If nothing else, the long history of warfare teaches us that no advantage gained on the field of battle is ever final; it is always eventually countered, subverted, and outflanked. Perhaps we therefore find our best counsel in Deleuze’s Postscript on the Societies of Control when he tells us that “there is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons.”

[i] Carl von Clausewitz, On War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), p.99

[ii] Russell F. Weigley. The Age of Battles: The Quest for Decisive Warfare from Breitenfeld to Waterloo (Bloomington & Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 1991), p.539

[iii] Glenn J. Voelz, “The Individualization of American Warfare” Parameters Vol.45, No.1 (2015)


One thought on “Returning the Gaze: A Reply to The Eye of War Symposium

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

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