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.

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The Eye of War: A Symposium

Over the coming week, The Disorder of Things will host a symposium on Antoine Bousquet’s new book The Eye of War: Military Perception from the Telescope to the Drone, published last year by University of Minnesota Press. Following today’s introductory post by the author will be contributions from Katharine Hall, Dan Öberg, Matthew Ford, and Jairus Grove before a final rejoinder from Antoine. See also The Eye of War‘s accompanying website for a visual synopsis of the book and special order discounts.

Antoine is a Reader in International Relations at Birkbeck, University of London and a long-standing contributor to The Disorder of Things. His first book was The Scientific Way of Warfare: Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity (Hurst Publishers & Columbia University Press, 2009). Antoine’s visual-heavy war-centric twitter feed can be found here.

All the entries in this series will be collated here. Previous symposia are also available.


“Visibility equals death.”

This is the stark expression with which strategist Martin Libicki sums up our contemporary martial condition.[1] Indeed, we increasingly live in a world where anything that can be seen can be targeted with lethal force, whatever its position on the globe. The U.S. Air Force certainly has no hesitation in affirming that its “nuclear and conventional precision strike forces can credibly threaten and effectively conduct global strike by holding any target on the planet at risk and, if necessary, disabling or destroying it promptly.”[2]

How have we got to this extraordinary state of affairs? Which concatenation of knowledges, devices, and motives has realised this formidable alignment of perception and destruction? What becomes of war when it hinges on struggles over visibility across planetary battlespaces? Who is the agent of war when it is conducted through technologies that augment, envelop, and supplant human perception? These are the questions that The Eye of War asks and seeks to answer.

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Secular Bodies of Pain and the Posthuman Martial Corps

The penultimate post in the symposium on Lauren Wilcox’s Bodies of Violence before the author gets the opportunity to respond to all the participants. Previous contributions come courtesy of Kevin McSorley, Ali Howell and Pablo – Lauren’s opening post can be found here.


David Mach, Die Harder (2011)

David Mach, Die Harder (2011)

With Bodies of Violence, Lauren Wilcox performs the much-needed service of bringing the body back to the foreground of international politics. Through both sophisticated theoretical exegesis and a rich treatment of relevant empirical material, the work insistently underlines why embodiment matters in contemporary practices of violence and how so many accounts of international relations to date have been deficient in this regard. To any that might still doubt it, Wilcox further demonstrates how the insights developed by feminist theory are not restricted to its primary object of gender and makes a compelling case that we find in this body of work one of the most important repositories of conceptual resources for thinking physical embodiment and the normative social frameworks in which such embodiment is lived out.

Perhaps Wilcox’s most important theoretical commitment in the book is her steadfast refusal to take bodies, and by extension political subjects, as given. Instead, bodies are always to be conceived of as in-formation, produced within and bound by normative orders all the while resisting and exceeding them. The human body should therefore not be treated as the basic unit of social ontology or serve as the fixed atom upon which the edifice of political theory is to be constructed (as exemplified by liberalism’s usual reliance on the sovereign rational individual). Drawing in particular on Judith Butler’s work, Wilcox proposes rather to conceptualise the subject as ‘ontologically precarious’ (p.190) and our political orders as accordingly contingent and open-ended. Violence is here taken to be of critical importance since it cannot be considered as ‘merely harmful but is constitutive of the embodied subjects of IR’ (p.28).

Bodies of Violence offers much stimulus for reflection but I will limit my comments to developing two lines of thoughts which are presented here as much as general provocations than as pointed questions to Wilcox. The first concerns the status of pain within the ethico-political imaginaries of modern societies, the second pertains to the relation of the posthuman military body to prevalent corporeal norms.

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What We Talked About At ISA: Weaponising Geography and the Global Striations of Military Targeting

In the context of a panel I put together on “Turning Ploughshares into Swords: Weapons and Weaponizations”, the ISA’s annual conference was the occasion for me to present some of the research I have undertaken as part of my long term project into the logistics of military perception. The central aim of that project is to uncover the genealogy and operation of the functional constituents of contemporary targeting practices as they increasingly span the globe. I submit that we can outline three distinct, if profoundly intertwined, functions of sensing, imaging and mapping that respectively gather sensorial information, visually represent and disseminate it, and relate it to geospatial frameworks. It is the last of these operations that was the focus of my paper, with particular attention paid to the way in which the planet has increasingly been enframed within systems of geographic coordinates permitting the geolocation and thereby targeting of any entity caught within their mesh.

While the role of cartography in European colonial expansion from the fifteenth century on is well-known, my main interest here lies in the even more intimate relationship between the histories of weapons targeting and techniques of geospatialisation. From the outset, the development of artillery in the early modern era was closely bound up with that of surveying techniques for the measurement of distances by visual means. Indeed, the range-finding exercises of gunners relied on the same trigonometric methods that underpinned the rise of modern cartography.

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Ah, Ça Ira, Ça Ira! Iconographies of the French Revolution

Last month, Stanford University and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France jointly released a vast online collection of documents and images from the French Revolution via the French Revolution Digital Archive. With around 14,000 high-resolution images, it is an overwhelmingly large collection but the website is thankfully very user-friendly with content tagged in multiple ways and organised according to various themes. This is undoubtedly a fantastic resource for not only historians but also a wider audience interested in the tumultuous events of the late eighteenth century considered by many to mark the start of political modernity.

Drawn into the archive, I spent quite some time trawling through it with a particular eye for caricatures, satirical illustrations, and other allegorical depictions of the revolution. I have compiled here a selection of those images I found most striking or noteworthy along with translations and contextual information where necessary. Hopefully these will be of some interest to readers of this blog. As I have no academic specialism in this period of history, I am very much approaching the material as a layman. I therefore more than welcome any corrections or additions to my readings of these images that I’ll gladly include in updates.

Chasse patriotique à la grosse bête (1789)

Patriotic Hunt of the Great Beast (1789) [link]

“Posterity will tell us that in 1789 on the 12th July around four o’clock in the evening, several people claimed to have seen in the vicinity of Paris, on the road to Versailles, a Beast of an enormous size and a shape so extraordinary as to have never before seen the like. The news spread universal alarm in the city and put its people in a state of violent agitation. Cries of “to arms, to arms” were heard everywhere without any being found; it seemed that the Beast had swallowed them all along with their munitions. New weapons as extraordinary as the animal that had to be combated were immediately forged. On the 13th, people continued to agitate themselves, arming themselves and running after the Beast without being able to encounter it. On the the following day of the 14th, forever memorable for the France that suffers, a hundred thousand individuals ran to the Hotel des Invalides from which they carried away canons and sixty thousand rifles, such that there were two hundred thousand armed men who tracked down the Beast everywhere. Suspecting that it had retreated to the Bastille, the people flew to it with heroic courage and this lair of Despotism, despite its hundred bronze mouths vomiting fire, was taken by assault in two hours. With this victory appeared the monster with a hundred heads; its hideous form revealed that it was of an aristocratic kind; suddenly our bravest hunters seized upon her from all sides and it was to whom would cut the most heads. This monster that dragged behind it desolation, famine and death disappeared instantly under a hundred different forms and fled languidly abroad, taking with it the despair and shame of its defeat.”

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Assessing Ernst Jünger: Prophet, Mystic, Accelerationist

Following on from the two previous posts (here and here), this final entry will conclude the story of Ernst Jünger’s intellectual trajectory from exalted warrior-poet to withdrawn mystic. I will then propose a brief assessment of Jünger’s legacy and contemporary relevance to our present concerns, notably to a putative political accelerationism.

We pick up our story with the entry of Germany into the Second World War and Jünger’s new conscription into military service. Now aged 44, his experience of the war would however be quite different from the one that had so decisively shaped him as a young man. Following the successful French campaign, he would spend most of the war in an administrative posting in Paris where he assiduously frequented the literary and artistic circles, meeting collaborationist figures like Pierre Drieu La Rochelle and Louis-Ferdinand Céline but also Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau. As during the first war, Jünger kept a diary that would eventually be published in 1948 under the title of Strahlungen (“Radiations”). However we encounter within it a markedly different tone, reflective of the different circumstances in which he found himself but also indicative of a retreat from the ideas he had espoused up to the early 1930s. Devoid of much enthusiasm for the war, his writings appear at times almost indifferent to the wider drama playing itself out across Europe but become progressively more somber as the fate of Germany darkens, reports of atrocities in the East filter through, and his eldest son is killed in Italy.[1] Already looking ahead to the end of the conflict, Jünger also worked during the war on an essay called The Peace that proposed a vision of a united federal Europe and was circulated among the internal opposition to Hitler in the Wehrmacht. Several of these figures would be subsequently involved in the failed attempt on the Führer’s life in July 1944, a plot Jünger was seemingly aware of but took no direct part in.

ej1949am

The end of the war would nevertheless see Jünger being called to account for his inter-war writings. Having refused to submit to denazification, he would find himself barred from publishing for four years and he returned to live in the German countryside where he would reside until the end of his life. His remarkable longevity would grant him the opportunity for an abundant literary production, penning novels, essays and diaries ranging from science-fiction and magical realism to early ecological thinking and reflections on his multiple experiences with psychedelics. I will however restrict myself here to discussing Jünger’s immediate post-war writings since we find within them a clear statement of both the continuities and breaks with his prior thinking. Of particular importance is the text that he originally composed in 1950 on the occasion of the Festschrift for Martin Heidegger’s sixtieth birthday, Über die Linie (“Over the Line”).

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Ernst Jünger on Total Mobilisation in the Age of the Worker

In this post, I will examine Ernst Jünger’s interwar writings, particularly as he moved from his recollections and reflections on the Great War (see earlier post) to a more ambitious analysis of the social and political turmoil that ensued. Sharpening his central problematique of nihilism and its overcoming, he would see in the commotions of his time the sign that the timorous bourgeois liberal societies of the nineteenth century were about to be swept away by a new technological age of total societal mobilisation and armed conflict. Anticipating and heralding the advent of the totalitarian regimes that were germinating as he wrote, the obvious points of convergence between these writings and fascist ideology have unsurprisingly made them Jünger’s most controversial. As objectionable as his political views were in their own right, Jünger was nonetheless never a National Socialist, spurning the advances made to him by the Party and having little truck with its “blood and soil” creed. He did however develop keen insights into the historical escalation of war and accompanying demands of total mobilisation alongside a withering critique of liberal societies’ preeminent concern with security and comfort.

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Demobilised in 1923, Jünger spent the next three years studying zoology and developing a life-long passion for entomology (he reputedly amassed a collection of 40,000 beetles, even giving his name to a species he is credited with discovering). During those years, he also read philosophy, particularly the works of Nietzsche and Spengler. Departing from the university in 1926, Jünger then began a period of intense writing for nationalist publications and participation in the circles of the Conservative Revolutionary movement, becoming notably close to Ernst Niekisch, the central ideologist of National-Bolshevism. To enter into a detailed consideration of the ideological content of such seemingly paradoxical constellations would take us too far from our central object but it is nonetheless useful to remind ourselves of the ideological complexity and fluidity of Weimar Germany that are all too often repressed when we view the period from a post-WWII standpoint. Jünger’s independent streak also meant his associations ranged more widely than most, frequenting during this time left-wing writers such as Bertolt Brecht, Erich Mühsam, and Ernst Toller. It is within this eclectic milieu and the context of generalised crisis that his political thought was formed, leading to the publication of a series of essays in the first few years of the 1930s. Fascinated by the social and cultural effects of photography, Jünger also put together several collections of photobooks from which I have drawn the images that accompany this post.[1]

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