Ernst Jünger and the Search for Meaning on the Industrial Battlefield

This is the first in a series of posts on the German war veteran and author Ernst Jünger that draw on research I have presented at seminars at the University of CambridgeUniversity of East Anglia  and University of Sussex over the last year or so.  [Edit: The follow-up posts can now be found here and here]

A complex and controversial character, Ernst Jünger is mostly known today for the vivid autobiographical account of life in the trenches of the Great War he penned in Storm of Steel, one of the defining literary works produced by its veterans. Alongside its unapologetic celebration of war, it contains an unflinching, at times clinical, description of the unprecedented destruction wrought by the advent of modern industrial war. As we approach the centenary of the First World War, the text has lost none of its evocative power and is likely to remain a lasting document of the soldierly experience.

Ernst Jünger in 1919

Ernst Jünger in 1919

Jünger’s subsequent writings, published throughout a long life that ended in 1998 at the ripe old age of 102, are however far less well known in the English-speaking world and many of them remain untranslated to this day. And yet I want to argue that, as problematic a figure as he is, the trajectory of Jünger’s thought and work is worthy of our attention in that it crystallises in a particularly stark and vivid fashion some of the tensions and internecine struggles of the twentieth century. Jünger liked to refer to himself as a seismograph registering the underlying tectonic shifts that prefigured the tremors of his age and in the often exalted and rapturous form that took his writings they can indeed be read as a wilful exacerbation of contemporaneous trends, his failings as much his own as that of his times.

Jünger wrestled in particular with the problem of meaning and human agency in a world increasingly dominated by technology and instrumental rationality that appeared to reach their paroxysm in total war. Inheriting his philosophical outlook from Nietzsche, he understood the problem of the age to be that of nihilism, of the devaluation of all values and the increasing inability to posit any goals towards which life should tend after the ‘death of God.’ He came to view the domination of technique as central to the growth of nihilism, a proposition that appears in an inchoate but nonetheless suggestive form in Nietzsche’s own writings. This Nietzschean perspective would so come to dominate Jünger’s outlook and work that Martin Heidegger would not hesitate to dub him ‘the only genuine continuer of Nietzsche.’[1]

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Marshalling the Real: War and Simulation

This post was originally given as a talk at the Urbanomic event Simulation, Exercise, Operations held in Oxford on the 11th July 2012. Thanks to Robin Mackay for the transcription of the talk that served as a basis for the present version.


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Upon reflecting on the meaning of simulation and the role it occupies in war, it strikes me that it is possible to distinguish between two distinct, if perhaps complementary, significations. There is a first signification which refers back to an older understanding of simulation and is a more etymologically faithful meaning of simulation in terms of deception, in terms of pretence, illusion, and false appearance that refers us back to the classical idea of the simulacrum as formulated by Plato. This conception of simulation invokes the notion of surface resemblance – a simulation is something that appears to be what in fact it is not. The history of the visual arts naturally provides us with numerous examples of such simulations, among others through the styles of trompe l’oeil and photorealism. Simulation here references the idea of a surface representation which may present a superficial resemblance to its object but which possesses no ontological depth.  In the military context, this kind of simulation corresponds to the decoy, for example the inflatable tanks of the Second World War that may resemble tanks from a distance but which beyond that do not capture anything about what a tank actually is and how it works. Related to this is the correlated notion of dissimulation where the exercise is there not so much the representation of something that is not but the concealing of something that is, camouflage being here the obvious military referent.

inflatable tanks

Notwithstanding the significance of such practices, there is also a more contemporary meaning of simulation that will be the main object of the present post. This is a conception that is tied into the history of computing, although it does predate it, and which suggests the imitation of processes, situations and systems through the modelling of the internal characteristics and dynamics of that system and the formalisation of the constituent variables. With it comes a claim – not a claim, obviously, that we should take uncritically – to capturing some depth to whatever is being simulated, rather than simply its surface. In fact, the simulated representation might not be verisimilar and replicate our immediate phenomenological perception; it might for example merely take the form of data points on a computer printout. One common definition of a simulation that is used by computer modellers is that of “an experiment performed on a model” and indeed the concept of the model is key here because this is what distinguishes the first sense of the simulation from the second. Implicit in this second understanding of simulation is the notion of a model as a set of interrelated propositions that purport to capture the internal dynamics and behaviour of a given system. Assumptions are made about the system and mathematical algorithms and relationships are derived to describe these assumptions. These together constitute a model that purports to reveal how the system works, the operation of which can then be tested through simulation exercises with the purpose of such experiments being to better apprehend the patterns of behaviour of the system and eventually evaluate optimal conditions and variable settings for the operation of the system.

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

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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The Obscure Object That Is Violence

A recurrent trope in the abundant commentary of the recent London riots was the “senselessness” and the “meaninglessness” of the violence witnessed, with the apparent lack of any clear or systematic political demands from rioters and the arson or vandalism of property that did not even seem to carry the symbolic charge that such acts might otherwise be seen to hold had the targets been obvious governmental or corporate institutions. In that respect, looting was much less discomforting in that it at least appeared to obey a discernable intent and acquisitive rationale and could be readily interpreted as the actions of “defective and disqualified consumers.” Perhaps the most common response by commentators has been to recognise the senselessness of some of the violence while simultaneously viewing such meaninglessness as rich with meaning. Žižek thus identified the riots as “zero-degree protest, a violent action demanding nothing” but which by its very nature had the effect of revealing to us that under our current predicament “the only form protest can take is meaningless violence.” Such a hermeneutics of the event has by no means been the preserve of any particular political persuasion, even if that which has been read into the violence varies wildly. In the days and weeks that followed the riots, moral collapsefamily breakdown,  materialism and rap music were, among other things, all blamed for the events, including by those who had initially refused to hear anything else than condemnation. What all seemed to be able to agree on however was the significance of the riots, that this unfocused outburst of violence had torn the veil behind which unpalatable truths about our society lay. One is left with the apparent paradox that a more orderly and articulate protest would likely have been endowed with much less meaning than the “senseless violence” of early August.

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Damage, Reincorporated: A Carbon-Based Author Responds

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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Riskless in Libya: The Ethical Peril of Zero-Casualty Warfare

…(drum kick)… Yet another new face and mind for The Disorder Of Things. A warm blogospheric welcome to Antoine Bousquet (that’s Dr Bousquet to you), Lecturer in International Politics at Birkbeck. Best known as the author of The Scientific Way Of Warfare: Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity (due for review here shortly), Antoine has also published on complexity theory and the science/practice of war more generally.


As the military intervention in Libya enters its fourth month of operations, the tensions within the coalition of NATO countries and partners are perceptibly growing with the lack of any tangible progress towards a resolution of the crisis and the recent reporting of civilian casualties. Without prejudging of the final outcome, one cannot help but see in these developments a further echo between the present war – sorry, intervention – and the Kosovo conflict of 1999. Admittedly this time mandated by a UN Security Council resolution, the action in Libya (a.k.a. Operation Unified Protector) is indeed the latest practical exercise of the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, now encapsulated within the wider principle of the responsibility to protect (R2P). Many of the issues and debates raised by that original intervention thus remain as relevant today as they did then.

Although much attention has been focused on the competing claims of universal human rights and inalienable state sovereignty, I want to suggest here that any intervention proposing to act in the name of the former cannot be assessed solely in terms of the inherent merit of such a venture but must just as importantly be examined in view of the means deployed to attain the stated ends. Indeed a marked feature of humanitarian interventions of which Libya is merely the latest instantiation has been the particular form typically taken by military operations, namely that of “riskless” or “zero-casualty” war.

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