Totalising the State through Vision and War

Another commentary in our series on Antoine’s The Eye of War (University of Minnesota Press), following the author’s introduction and pieces by Katharine Hall and Dan Öberg. This latest intervention comes from Dr Matthew Ford, Senior Lecturer in International Relations in the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex. Matthew has written extensively on military innovation, science and technology studies, and counter-insurgency. Matthew’s latest works are Weapon of Choice: Small Arms and the Culture of Military Innovation (Hurst, 2017), and (with Alexander Gould), ‘Military Identities, Conventional Capability and the Politics of Standardisation at the Beginning of the Second Cold War, 1970-1980’ in The International History Review. He is in addition the founding editor of the British Journal for Military History, a peer-reviewed open access that caters to audiences outside of academia as well as within.


usa seal

 

The Eye of War does not draw a connection to the official seal of the United States of America but the book does serve to remind us that among all the world’s powers, the United States has done the most to make the symbol of the all-seeing eye a technological reality. Tracing the pattern of ideas that framed the American political imaginary and subsequent reification of the Eye of Providence is not Antoine Bousquet’s purpose. Instead, Antoine’s book makes a double move. In the first instance, the majority of the work goes wider and draws attention to how technologies of vision personify the Leviathan state (Neocleous, 2003). In the second, it shows how technologies of hiding have undermined battle as a point of decision.

In an effort to develop these lines of reasoning and add my own provocation, I advance a three-step argument. In part one, I draw parallels with James Scott’s Seeing like a State (1998) and argue that the technologies of vision that Antoine identifies reflect the impulse of the state to sedentarise populations in an attempt to assert control over them. Expanding my point, in part two, I argue that the martial desire to achieve decisive battle has been frustrated by camouflage and concealment, technologies that are represented in orientalist terms by Western militaries. Finally, I contend that these modes of seeing have reified Western military strategies into technical systems that in effect reproduce what might best be described as a frustrated Western Way of Warfare (Hanson, 2009), trapping martial thinking in orientalist (Porter, 2009) and counter-productive ways.

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Requiem for the Battlefield

The third post in our series on Antoine’s The Eye of War (University of Minnesota Press), following an opening summary and Katharine Hall’s intervention on perspective and subjectivity. This next commentary comes from Dr Dan Öberg. Dan is Associate Professor of War Studies at the Swedish Defence University, where his research focuses on the ontology of war, critical military studies and the thought of Jean Baudrillard. Dan is author most recently of ‘Warfare as Design: Transgressive Creativity and Reductive Operational Planning’ in Security Dialogue and ‘Enduring War: Heroes’ Acre, ‘The Empty Throne, and the Politics of Disappearance’ in Critical Military Studies.


If we look closely, we see that the real world begins, in the modern age, with the decision to transform the world, and to do so by means of science, analytical knowledge and the implementation of technology – that is to say that it begins, in Hannah Arendt’s words, with the invention of an Archimedean point outside the world (on the basis of the invention of the telescope by Galileo and the discovery of modern mathematical calculation) by which the natural world is definitively alienated. This is the moment when human beings, while setting about analyzing and transforming the world, take their leave of it, while at the same time lending it force of reality. We may say, then, that the real world begins, paradoxically, to disappear at the very same time as it begins to exist. (Jean Baudrillard, Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?)

Antoine Bousquet’s excellent and much anticipated book The Eye of War: Military Perception from the Telescope to the Drone traces how the history of the rationalisation of vision and the mathematisation of space during the Renaissance have enabled an ever expanding martial gaze. Herein the reader, among many things, gets an in-depth look at the changing fields of military perception and the subsequent attempts to hide from its view. As the author notes, this development leads towards the dispersal and disappearance of the battlefield in its traditional sense.[1] In this intervention, I would like to put forward a complementary view of the battlefield in relation to the trajectory traced by the author. This view can be summarised as an insistence that from the end of the 18th century and onwards, the traditional battlefield starts to disappear as it is operationalised through military doctrines, planning, and conduct. Moreover, as a direct consequence, the battlefield reappears, refracted through military attempts to model space and time. Below I attempt to sketch out this dual process of disappearance and reappearance by engaging with the history of the military imaginary which both sees and targets, and which arguably corresponds to that martial gaze of which the book speaks so well.

As The Eye of War illustrates, often through fantastic pictures and drawings from historical times, the introduction of new weapon-systems and their social interpretation influence the possibility of targeting and the remits of the battlefield. Historically, we may perhaps argue that varying conceptions of the battlefield have been part of warfare for as long as there has been strategic dispositions in war, evident particularly in attempts to connect tactical means with strategic ends. At times such connections have been drawn on spatially and temporally demarcated battlefields. However, at other times, we find examples of how the conception of the battlefield challenges such remits. For example, in medieval warfare when a strategy of attrition was employed to starve an opponent, the target was crops and the tactics was to put your army in the field, aggressively devastate the countryside, and live off the land. Here the battlefield expands and the target shifts from the enemy soldier to the milieu in which a system of production is established. Or when the strategy was one of plunder, the target was likely to be a poorly protected enemy fortress and the tactics assaulting its walls and exciting pay, while avoiding surrounding armies through manoeuvre. Consequently, the attempt to operationalise the tactical means into strategic ends, that is, the attempt “to target”, potentially constitutes and challenges the remits of the battlefield.

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Linear Perspective, the Modern Subject, and the Martial Gaze

The second post in our series on Antoine’s The Eye of War (University of Minnesota Press). Antoine opened the series with a summary of the project earlier this week, and we now welcome Dr Katharine Hall’s contribution. Katharine is Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary, University of London and publishes in the fields of political geography, science and technology studies, and security studies. Her recent works include ‘The Technological Rationality of the Drone Strike’ in Critical Studies on Security and ‘The Emergence of Lethal Surveillance’ in Security Dialogue. Her current projects focus on pilotless aircraft and air power in the interwar period, and on racialised violence and militarised urban policing.


One of the things the distinguishes The Eye of War from many of the books about contemporary drones strikes and military targeting technologies is its historical focus. In analyzing the martial gaze – the linking of perception and destruction, surveillance and targeting – Antoine Bousquet looks not just at the development of this gaze in technologies and practices across the 20th century, but also seeks to situate it within a much longer modern history of perception and representation. The former links Eye of War to a body of critical scholarship attentive to the historical geographies and ‘lines of descent’ of contemporary Western war (ex. Derek Gregory, Caren Kaplan, Ian Shaw, Gregoire Chamayou, Kyle Grayson), while the latter links the investigation into the martial gaze to the birth and development of modern science and the modern (liberal) political subject.

Bousquet calls this historical approach a ‘machinic history.’ This methodology is part assemblage theory, part genealogy, and part intellectual history. The main body of the book is devoted to detailing three functions or logistics of perception: sensing, imaging, and mapping (followed by its opposite: hiding).  Through this investigation he aims to show how perception has become technical, which is the root of his argument. Each of these functions have become increasingly absorbed by and embedded in technical apparatuses, not a new phenomenon but one that has been intensifying. Ultimately this is an argument about the relationship between the human and the technical. Bousquet is concerned with human agency and the removal of this agency from processes of perception, especially where the stakes are so great like in targeted killing. As Bousquet writes, “This book’s ultimate wager is that by plunging into the heart of the machine, we may obtain a truer sense of the potential and limits of our agency within it, political or otherwise.” 

Part of this dive into the machine is to the birth of linear perspective and the Italian renaissance, which Bousquet identifies as the foundational site of the martial gaze. One of the central figures here is Leon Battista Alberti, whose book On Painting details a method for translating what is seen from the eye to the paper, keeping proportions and perspective in scale.  In these foundations (and they aren’t the only ones) is the creation of a system or apparatus to represent the world and to do so through a particular regime of accuracy. In other words what develops from this is a system of seeing and knowing the world – of sensing, imaging, and mapping. The central figure in this system, of course, is the eye.

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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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The Internationalist Disposition

A guest post, the second in our occasional series on left and progressive foreign policy, from Alex Colás. Alex is Reader in International Relations at Birkbeck, University of London and the author of many pieces on empire and imperialism, social movements, global governance, and piracy. Most recently he is author, with Jason Edwards, Jane Levi and Sami Zubaida, of Food, Politics, and Society: Social Theory and the Modern Food System (University of California Press) and, with Liam Campling, of ‘Capitalism and the Sea: Sovereignty, Territory and Appropriation in the Global Ocean’, in Environment and Planning D.


Any credible political movement, the late Peter Gowan used to say, needs to have a programme, a strategy and a tactical arsenal. Progressive or leftist internationalism, in all its diverse expressions, is no exception. But it is precisely this rich variety that advises against associating emancipatory internationalism to a fixed programme or a single strategy, and instead talking of a more general disposition: a standpoint on how the world is, and an outlook on how it might be transformed. For radical internationalists – ranging from Karl Marx to Frantz Fanon; Emma Goldman to Ho Chi Minh –  these include a rejection of transhistorical or naturalised claims to cultural or territorial identity; a focus on the universalising contradictions of modern capitalism; harnessing the democratic potential of the cosmopolitan admixture of peoples, languages, religions and customs, particularly though not exclusively in cities; an unwavering commitment to racial justice and minority rights; an insistence on the need to ‘think globally, and act locally’, and to always chase the avenues of solidarity opened up by the everyday, transnational experience of workers on the factory shop floor,  the ship’s lower decks, the contemporary call centre, the processing plant or fast-food restaurant kitchen.

An internationalist disposition is acquired through political education and mobilised collectively in very different contexts – often in unsatisfactory, weak or marginal ways. It is not an intrinsic quality of this or that class, ideological tendency, cultural community or political organisation; nor is the history of left internationalism everywhere bathed in glory. There are, however, some characteristics to the internationalist disposition, its present expressions and historical trajectory that make it an indispensable component of any democratic response to the global national-populist involution we are currently witnessing.

Reality Bites

Our world is still very much the product of the dual revolutions of the eighteenth-century which saw the advent of industrial capitalism and the consolidation of the national sovereign-territorial state. Internationalism today continues to adopt liberal, hegemonic and revolutionary forms first essayed during that period, and the aspirations to liberty, equality and solidarity still resonate (albeit plainly with different ideological, geographical and cultural inflections) among emancipatory struggles across the world. One of the distinguishing features of left internationalism is that it dreams with sober senses: its cosmopolitan projection is grounded in the practical routines of household, workplace, neighbourhood or community. It has been built on grassroots solidarity campaigns, secondary strike action, international volunteering, refugee support networks and mass boycotts coordinated by explicitly internationalist organisations. Liberal internationalism in contrast has mainly been the product of elite efforts at institutionalising multilateral cooperation; it has never had a broad social base (unless, at a push, one includes more recent and generally passive NGO membership). Hegemonic internationalism for its part has found expression in clearly hierarchical or paternalistic traditions of imperial patronage (like those which brought millions of colonial peoples into Europe’s world wars), or in transnational religious charity. Of course, there has been some overlap between these three forms of internationalism – hegemonic internationalism in particular has adopted both a revolutionary and liberal garb, and the defence of universal human rights for instance has sometimes bound the latter two. But the fact remains that the only genuinely democratic forms of internationalism have historically been of a leftist persuasion – feminist, anarchist, communist, socialist, anti-colonial.  

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Lenin Lives! A Disorders Forum: Author’s Response

This post wraps up our forum on Philip Cunliffe’s Lenin Lives! Reimagining the Russian Revolution, 1917-2007 (Zero Books, 2017). See here for the introduction and responses from Jamie Allinson and Alex Sutton.


I am delighted not only by Jamie Allinson’s and Alex Sutton’s intellectual generosity, but also their careful attention to the detail of the inverted counter-factualism. Both Allinson and Sutton take me to task in seeking to create a Marxist ‘social science fiction’, Allinson for the lack of ‘verisimilitude’. Sutton takes these criticisms further. He enjoins me not only to identify what we might call the Singularity of the Left – that point at which things went decisively wrong – but also criticises me for not agonising in sufficient detail over the political problems of my counter-factual world as well the actually existing world. Sutton asks, for example, which specific institutional body would be responsible for deciding to annihilate a fictional puppet-state of West Germany ensconced in the post-war Rhineland by a counter-revolutionary League of Nations that I portray in the book.

Yet I explicitly set myself against any attempt to construct the ‘verisimilitude’ of a counter-factual history in every precise detail. This was partly a stylistic choice, heeding Ken Macleod’s warning against the tedious introverted detail that preoccupies ‘alt history’ Internet chat forums. More than this, though, it was also an intellectual choice, chosen in opposition to that notorious, barren search for the single moment at which things definitively ‘went wrong’. As Slavoj Žižek has said, this is one of the most insidious traps for the left. Loren Goldner’s summing up of these debates cannot be bested, and is worth quoting at length:

Into the mid-1970’s, the ‘Russian question’ and its implications was the inesca­pable ‘paradigm’ of political perspective on the left, in Europe and the US, and yet 15 years later seems like such ancient history. This was a political milieu where the minute study of the month-to-month history of the Russian revolution and the Comintern from 1917 to 1928 seemed the key to the universe as a whole. If someone said they believed that the Russian Revol­ution had been defeated in 1919, 1921, 1923, 1927, or 1936, or 1953, one had a pretty good sense of what they would think on just about every other political question in the world: the nature of the Soviet Union, of China, the nature of the world communist parties, the nature of Social Democracy, the nature of trade unions, the United Front, the Popular Front, national liberation movements, aesthetics and philosophy, the relationship of party and class, the significance of soviets and workers’ councils, and whether Luxemburg or Bukharin was right about imperialism.

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Lenin Lives! A Disorders Forum: Brave Old World

This is part three in a forum on Philip Cunliffe’s Lenin Lives! Reimagining the Russian Revolution, 1917-2017 (Zero Books, 2017). For the rest of the forum, click here.


Alex Sutton is a Lecturer in Political Economy at Oxford Brookes University. He has previously worked at the Universities of Warwick, St Andrews, Kingston and Chichester. His research focuses on International Political Economy and British imperial history, considering how imperial policy derives from the fractious nature of capitalist social relations.

 

 


Philip Cunliffe’s Lenin Lives! is a fascinating, and diverting, journey into a counter-factual world of utopian wish-fulfilment. Here, Cunliffe draws on counter-factual history as a ‘critical tool for political action’ (35) to develop an alternative story of human development: what if the socialist revolutions of the early twentieth century had lived up to their promise?

The book makes a disclaimer early on that its goal is to be ‘indicative, demonstrative, and provocative’ (22), as such any criticisms – I hope – are to be taken with a pinch of salt. My fear, however, is that Lenin Lives! has fallen into a trap in fetishizing a past possibility for a future that could not happen. Indeed, Cunliffe describes the book as a ‘future of the past rather than a future of ours’ (34) and distinguishes between the ‘historical world’ – our timeline – and the ‘better world’ that might have been. Lenin Lives! is, in this sense, far too enamoured with saving the promise of the Soviet Union that it does not adequately account for the inherent problems of this vision and its execution. This is not to single out Cunliffe but rather to say that Lenin Lives! unproblematically articulates a view of social change that has been much-debated within radical thought.

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