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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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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