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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