Damage, Unincorporated*, Part Two: War Studies in the Shadow of the Information Bomb

I’m thinking about something much more important than bombs.
I am thinking about computers.

John von Neumann, 1946 (via The Scientific Way of Warfare)

Modern war has become too complex to be entrusted to the intuition of even our most trusted commander. Only our giant brains can calculate all the possibilities.

John Kemeny, 1961 (ditto)

‘Extreme science’ – the science which runs the incalculable risk of the disappearance of all science. As the tragic phenomenon of a knowledge which has suddenly become cybernetic, this techno-science becomes, then, as mass techno-culture, the agent not, as in the past, of the acceleration of history, but of the dizzying whirl of the acceleration of reality – and that to the detriment of all verisimilitude.

Paul Virilio, The Information Bomb (1998)

Non-Consensual Hallucinations

A recent spate of cyber-attacks, and the civilian-military responses to them, have pushed questions of collective violence, technological complexity and the very relation between war and peace into a more mainstream arena. Alongside diagnoses of the political impact of Web 2.0, the analysis of contemporary technoscience and its militarised uses seems less neophiliac marginalia than urgently-required research program. As previously indicated in Part One of this review, a number of recent works have broached this subject, and in the process have addressed themselves to the very relation between bios and technos, sometimes with the implication that the latter is on the verge of overwhelming the former. Skynet gone live!

Critical engagement with the boundaries and possibilities of Network-Centric Warfare (NCW) thus opens a range of complex problems relating to the co-constitution of war and society, the place of ethics in military analysis (and military practice) and the adequacy of standard categories of social science to world-changing inventions. To expect answers to such broad questions is perhaps to overburden with expectation. Yet it is interesting to find that both Guha and (Antoine) Bousquet, who are most concerned with the radical newness of contemporary war, implicitly operate within a rather traditional understanding of its boundaries. For both, ‘war’ means the restricted arena of battlespace, and in particular that battlespace as viewed by the soldiers and generals of the United States of America.

James Der Derian is intrigued by many of the same questions, but his view is more expansive, and his diagnosis of the connection between NCW and international politics generally more comprehensive. Continue reading

Damage, Unincorporated*, Part One: The Chaoplexity of Collective Violence

The below mirrors closely a review essay I recently completed for the Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, which should appear at some point in the not-too-distant future. The books under discussion are Reimagining War in the 21st Century: From Clausewitz to Network-Centric Warfare by Manabrata Guha (London and New York: Routledge, 2011); The Scientific Way of Warfare: Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity by Antoine Bousquet (London: Hurst and Co., 2009); and Virtuous War: Mapping the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment Network (2nd Edition) by James Der Derian (London and New York: Routledge, 2009). Part two will follow shortly (lookie here).


I am the last in line that started with who?
With John von Neumann
If it’s the end of time so be it
But hey, it was Truman
Who set me free
I am half man
I’m almost like you
But you’ll be god-damned when I’m through
It’s a new day
So open the bay
And set this free

Black Francis, ‘Half Man’ (2008)

War is different now. On this Manabrata Guha, (our very own) Antoine Bousquet and James Der Derian agree. And their parallel accounts of the impact of technology on war – or more precisely, on the purportedly distinct Western way of war – share some other features. As is to be expected, each engages with traditions of thinking about violence and humanity’s remaking of the natural. Clausewitz looms over all three works, which could be said to share an investment in the tension derived from him between war as a kind of friction and war as a kind of instrument. All three also address a looser set of everyday ideas about (post)modern war, whether in the disconnection of bombers from their targets or the science fiction resonances found in near-instant communication, virtual reality targeting and cyborg warriors.

The question concerning technology – to put it in Martin Heidegger’s formulation, one which concerns all three authors to similar degrees – has gained considerable ground in International Relations and cognate disciplines over the last decades. In large part driven by Der Derian’s early work on post-structuralism and speed, theoretical inquiry into the nature and effects of technological progress has more recently been reinforced by considerable ‘real world’ relevance: in the explosion of social networking and its attendant ‘revolutions’, the increasing deployment of unmanned drones by the US military in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the general discourse of post-Cold War security threats from non-state actors in the form of cyber-attacks, miniaturised weapons systems or black market dirty bombs. As the impact of technology apparently spreads and metastasises, scholarly attention is turning to the sociological and ethical dimensions of digitised networks at war.

So what has the information bomb done to the modalities of collective violence?

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What We Talked About At ISA: The Decline of Cognitive Mapping (Part II)

This is the second of a three-part series on ‘what we talked about at ISA’. The first part on technology in International Relations can be found here. This section examines a particular effect of technology that has largely gone unacknowledged by IR.


If the major crises of the modern world are symptomatic of anything today, it is the banality that our world is complex. Compared to previous periods of history our world is more interconnected (spreading crises further and less predictably), more dynamic (diffusing risks at a quicker pace), and more fragmented (with experts becoming specialized in solving local problems rather than systemic problems). This complexity involves a massive amount of elements, non-linear dynamics, unintended effects, and feedback loops. These features of complex systems strain the limits of the human mind’s finite and embodied capacities. The 2008 financial crisis, the ongoing climate change crisis, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the 2003 North American electrical blackout – all of these point to massively complex systems which already surpass human capacities to cognize. Moreover, if rational action is premised upon the capacity to represent the problems to be confronted, then the complex systems of today’s world are threatening to undermine the cognitive basis of political action.

The relationship between the world and our capacities to think it and act in it are not entirely asymmetrical though. While the world has become increasingly complex, our capacities to work in it have also expanded.

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Inference and Scientific Progress in International Relations

This is the third in a series of posts by several of us at The Disorder Of Things on Patrick Thaddeus Jackson‘s The Conduct Of Inquiry in International Relations: Philosophy of Science and Its Implications for the Study of World Politics. Paul started things off with his post setting up Jackson’s methodology of politics in order to ask important questions about the politics of Jackson’s methodology. Joe continued with his post and a discussion of the relationship between the scientific and the normative, and their institutionalization within IR. Next week will see a final post, followed by a reply by Jackson himself.

Update (17 Feb): Meera’s post is now up.


Inference and Scientific Progress in International Relations

From a philosophy of science perspective, IR discussions on methodology and epistemology have always struck me as a bit bizarre. The outdated nature of most debates and the odd use of labels like ‘positivism’ have made IR philosophy of science too often seem like a muddled confusion, rather than an insightful debate. So it’s hard to overstate how fantastic it is to see a book like Patrick Thaddeus Jackson’s – precisely because it weaves skillfully through rigorous philosophy of science, and doesn’t remain bound by IR’s idiosyncratic frameworks of debate. I find myself highly sympathetic to a lot of what Jackson argues for in this book, and am a strong proponent of methodological pluralism. There are two major points I think Jackson’s book neglects though – one is more based upon my own philosophical position (an external critique), while the second is a problem more or less within Jackson’s position (an internal critique). In what follows I try to examine some missing elements of Jackson’s book, and suggest what might be an alternative approach. [1]

On Monism and Dualism

Jackson begins by setting out a 2×2 matrix of different fundamental philosophical orientations (‘wagers’). These are considered ideal types that help to clarify the vast field of philosophy of science. The first distinction is between mind-world dualism and mind-world monism. It is a distinction concerning the relationship between the researcher and his or her object. The second distinction is between what Jackson calls phenomenalism and transfactualism – or what might be also known as instrumentalism versus realism about scientific objects. The former sees empirical data as all that can be legitimately said to exist, whereas the latter argues we can deduce the existence of unobservable entities as well.

Phenomenalism Transfactualism
Dualism Neopositivism Critical Realism
Monism Analyticism Reflexivity

The 2×2 matrix: A scholar’s best friend.

As Jackson is clear about the ideal-type nature of this categorization, I don’t want to criticize that aspect. Rather, my point is that in his discussion of mind-world dualism and monism Jackson leaves aside one crucially important position (and the position undertaken by many in the so-called ‘speculative realist’ movement). [2] Whereas Jackson sets the empiricist, explanation-based, ‘scientific’ perspectives on the side of mind-world dualism, he sets the social constructivist, understanding-based perspectives on the side of mind-world monism. The former tries to bridge the gap between mind and world by creating accurate representations. The latter asserts that all of reality is intertwined with linguistic and conceptual baggage. (36) (This is precisely what Quentin Meillassoux will call the ‘correlationist’ position: the reduction of Being to the relation between mind and world. )

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Rape & Rape Prevention: A Cod-Evolutionary Perspective

Rape is an evolutionary adaptation. More than that, it now appears that anti-rape strategies are evolutionary too, which for women means increased strength at certain stages of the menstrual cycle, increased general distrust of men and hatred of black men in particular. Taking Darwin in vain, this is the argument put together by Jesse Bering at Slate.

We should probably start by getting our definitional house in order. In an admirable example of rigging the answer by misspecifiying the question Bering names rape as “the use of force, or threat of force, to achieve penile-vaginal penetration of a woman without her consent“. So men are biologically incapable of being raped, women incapable of raping, and the sexual-reproductive organs the only legible site for sexualised aggression (no anal here please!).

Hardly surprising, given this terminological firing gun, that rape emerges as a phenomena only comprehensible in procreational terms. This is a narrower agenda even than saying that it is somehow ‘evolutionary’, itself already less than saying it has something to do with ‘biology’ (the possibility of rape being about ‘sex’, socially understood, or ‘power’ stands at yet further removes).

The quality of proof offered doesn’t fare much better. Take the study on racist attitudes and menstrual cycles, results we’re at risk of ignoring with our rampant ‘political correctness’ (*yawn*). Turns out women from this sample (77 white undergraduates) scored higher on fear-of-rape metrics of black men when they were most vulnerable biologically to impregnation. Bering takes this as supporting an evolutionary adaptation against ‘out-groups’, although he concedes that ‘cultural transmission’ may play a role.

The study itself suggests something rather less conclusive. It found that implicit race bias (non-conscious stereotyped associations of the form ‘black-physical’) was much more strongly correlated with rising fertility than explicit bias. Its metrics for race bias were all clearly consistent with a sociological or interpretive account of race (which is to say that race is a social, not a biological category, and that its meaning is historically and politically determined, not the outcome of adaptive ancestral behaviour). The data is also somewhat partial, as its relation to some wider questions. There is no comment on the fact that, for example, race bias remains fairly pronounced even where there is no ‘conception risk’, nor any significant attempt to cite work on general levels of race bias in general populations as a comparator or to examine variation among degree of bias in the women studied and the possible sources for those differences.

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