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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A Martial Gaze Conscious of Itself

Enter the final contributor to our symposium on Antoine’s The Eye of War (University of Minnesota Press). After the author’s opening post and pieces from Katharine HallDan Öberg, and Matthew Ford, our very own Jairus Grove steps up to the plate. Jairus is Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science in the University of Hawai’i at Manoa and the Director of the Hawai’i Research Center for Futures Studies.  His forthcoming book Savage Ecology: War and Geopolitics at the End of the World will be published by Duke University Press in 2019.


Leafing back through The Eye of War’s evocative images of zebra-striped naval destroyers, pigeon-powered targeting systems, and steampunk-worthy ‘binaural acoustic aircraft detectors,’ I am reminded of how vital prototypes, designs, and never deployed gadgets are to Antoine Bousquet’s story of the martial gaze. I want to spend a bit of time thinking through the status of technical things that are more than ideas and less than practical machines with a little help from one of Bousquet’s interlocutors, Gilles Deleuze. At the end of Deleuze’s book on Foucault, he queries what the exact status of the panopticon is. According to Deleuze, the panopticons of Bentham’s dreams were rarely completed, and yet Foucault saw in its schematic the ordering principle of a new historical episteme. Is the panopticon, then, a metaphor, a kind of architectural condensation of discourses in the form of a blueprint? Those who would see ideas at the heart of the matter would hope so. The panopticon in a thinly constructivist reading would be at best the outcome of a changing set of normative relations regarding enclosure, discipline, and reform. 

The reactionary realist would be just as happy with this reading, as they are already prepared to dismiss Foucault as a naïve ideational thinker inured to the formative significance of things. However, Deleuze accepts neither of these positions. He instead describes Foucault’s thought as diagrammatic, that is, “a display of the relations between forces which constitute power… the panoptic mechanism is not simply a hinge, a point of exchange between a mechanism of power and a function; it is a way of making power relations function in a function, and of making a function function through these power relations.” Drawing inspiration from Gilbert Simondon, Deleuze locates Foucault as a machinic thinker investigating “the very tissue of the assemblage” and the “immanent causal” relationship between abstract machines and concrete machines. The diagram or abstract machine of the panopticon comes to inhabit and form what Deleuze calls the “human technology which exists before a material technology” with the concrete machine its execution in the form of schools, factories, prisons, open plan office spaces, ad infinitum. As Deleuze puts it succinctly, “the machines are social before being technical,” where the social is defined by Deleuze, this time drawing from Gabriel Tarde, as any assemblage or collection of relations that exceed, make up, and go beyond the sociology of humans or individuals.

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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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