Red Storm Rising – Tom Clancy


“What modern combat lacks in humanity,” Calloway observed, “it more than makes up for in intensity” (522).

RSR is an epic technothriller that imagines a massive, multi-theatre conventional conflict between NATO forces and the Warsaw Pact in the late 1980s.  The novel examines the capacities and shortcomings of various allied and enemy intelligence, logistical and combat systems as they are applied in a diversity of applications. The scope of these systems run the gamut from peace-time Navy signals intelligence gathering to sophisticated KGB counter-intelligence operations to anti-submarine warfare to AirLand battle to anti-satellite warfare to guerrilla tactics in Soviet-occupied Iceland.  The novel amounts to a thoroughgoing analysis of the operational concepts of Western and Soviet militaries at the end of the Cold War. It’s kind of like the old guy with the gold-embroidered USN ball cap’s equivalent of “War and Peace”.

“It’s an awful sound. You hear rushing air. If you penetrate the hull at deep depth, the sudden pressure change inside the hull causes the air to ignite and everyone inside the boat incinerates. I don’t know if that’s true, but somebody told me that once. Anyway, you hear the rushing air, then you hear the screech – like a car throwing its brakes on hard. That’s the bulkheads letting go. The comes the noise of the hull collapsing, hollow boom, sort of. And that’s it. A hundred people just died. No, I don’t like it much.

“The hell of it is, it’s exciting,” O’Malley went on. “You’re doing something extremely difficult. It requires concentration and practice and a lot of abstract thought. You have to get inside the other guy’s head, but at the same time you think of your mission as destroying an inanimate object. Doesn’t make much sense, does it? So, what you do is, you don’t think about that aspect of the job. Otherwise the job wouldn’t get done”. (564)

Clancy’s narrative style is conservative and maybe even a little generic, but the conceptual depth of the subject matter is substantial and impressive.  While the novel’s characterizations hinge on a more or less untroubled concept of honour (evil is, for Clancy, a known quantity), the novel is interested in the kinds of “alienated” experiential conditions of “cold” warfare characteristic of intensely technological battlespaces (the ASW environment, for example). The novel’s interest in the deep operational concepts of adversary (i.e. Soviet) forces even detours into unexpected topics like commentaries on classic Soviet cinema (two Navy/USMC SIGINT officers watch a pirated satellite broadcast of Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky, for example, and comment about its historical and technical accuracy and the merits of the performance of the actor portraying Nevsky).

The tension seemed to grow by degrees, then it plateaued. The years of training were paying off. Data was handled, plotted, and acted upon in seconds. The crew suddenly a physical part of the gear they were operating, their feelings shut off, their emotions submerged, only the sweat on their foreheads betraying that they were men after all, and not machines. They depended absolutely on their sonar operators. Sound energy was their only indication of what was happening, and each new bearing report triggered furious activity. (329)

While the novel highlights distinguished feats of heroism, honour and chivalry on both sides of the conflict, Clancy’s esoteric knowledge of the logistical and operational organization of the military forces of the day is the primary subject matter. The novel is primarily interested in the process of intelligence gathering, with combat (particularly ground combat) being secondary or even tertiary to the intelligence intrigues. Accordingly, much of the “action” of the first few hundred pages concerns the processing of disparate bits of intelligence as a reserve naval intelligence officer (Toland) begins to recognize the broad outlines of the Soviet plan for invading Western Europe. In deference to the process, the novel details the tabling of the Office of Naval Intelligence and US military command with “characters” who are known only by their acronyms (COMSUBLANT, COMLANTFLT, COMNAVAIRLANT) in the same sense that the novel only gives the US President a title (rather than a name). These “characters” (if they can be called that) are more body politic than they are body natural, and only serve as functionaries of plot development and contextual detail.

Then came the VCR. All the data relayed from the aircraft was recorded on videotape anyway since it was a convenient medium for data storage, but the VCRs built into the NATO system possessed only a few operating features. The Dutch captain thought to bring his personal machine into his office, and demonstrated how by using fast forward and fast reverse, the radar data could be used to show not only where things were going, but also where they had come from. Computer support made the task easier by eliminating items that moved no more than once every two hours – thus erasing the Russian radar lures – and there it was, a brand-new intelligence tool.

With several copies made of each tape, a staff of over a hundred intelligence and traffic-control experts examined the data round the clock. Some engaged in straight tactical intelligence. Others looked for patterns. A large number of trucks moving at night to and from front-line units could only mean shuttle runs to fuel and ammunition dumps. A number of vehicles breaking away from a divisional convoy and deploying in line parallel to the front meant artillery preparing for an attack. The real trick, they had learned, was to get the data to the forward commanders quickly enough so they could make use of it. (392)



The novel is remarkable not only for its detailed and comprehensive treatment of the theoretical and practical applications of Soviet and NATO military doctrines, but for its prescient anticipation of aspects of hybrid or full-spectrum warfare in the Soviet counter-intelligence doctrine of “Maskirovka” (Маскировка). Maskirovka is the Russian word for “camouflage” and the concept developed from the early 20th century to encompass a range of deep operational concepts and activities aimed at denial and deception.

“But маскировка has a broader military meaning: strategic, operational, physical and tactical deception. Apparently in U.S. military terminology, this is called either CC&D (camouflage, concealment and deception) or more recently D&D (denial and deception). It is the whole shebang—from guys in ski masks or uniforms with no insignia, to undercover activities, to hidden weapons transfers, to—well, starting a civil war but pretending that you’ve done nothing of the sort.” (Berdy, Michele A. “Russia’s Maskirovka Keeps Us Guessing.” Moscow Times 31 July 2014)

The plot develops around a politburo ploy to stave off the collapse of the Soviet Union after a jihadist attack destroys a major refinery in Azerbaijan, decimating the USSR’s petroleum reserves. Over the objections of a handful of ministers, the politburo votes to undertake a complex, multi-faceted deception in order to divide NATO forces and fabricate a pretext for a major offensive in Europe. This Maskirovka is conceived and carried out in order to maximize strategic surprise in order to soften Western resistance in advance of a gambit to seize oil fields and production facilities in Iraq and the Arabian peninsula.

The Soviets make unilateral overtures on arms reductions treaties, decommissioning several antiquated submarines in a gesture of “good faith” in advance of proposed talks to throw Western governments off their footing. Shortly thereafter, the KGB stages a bombing in the Kremlin in which a number of visiting schoolchildren are killed. The bombing immediately follows a broadcast of a digitized remaster of Alexander Nevsky on state television, the details of the film matching the broad outlines of the state’s account of the bombers’ actions and designs, which blames German intelligence operatives. Simultaneously, Russian special forces sail for Iceland on a merchant vessel camouflaged to look like an American ship, intending to seize Keflavik airfield and cut short the operational range of NATO’s hunter-killer submarines.  A KGB operative, preparing to attack vital NATO infrastructure, is apprehended in Germany after he is struck by a car and is interrogated under the influence of sodium pentothal. Western intelligence circles quickly clue in to the Soviet designs and put themselves on war footing, mobilizing fleets and putting forces on high alert. With the Russian covert strike on Keflavik, the war commences in earnest.

At some level, the Maskirovka is a success. Greece and Turkey stay out of the war on account of the counterintelligence plot. The US is slow to mobilize, mistaking Soviet preparations for annual drills, and Soviet forces are able to seize strategic airfields in Norway and Iceland with only nominal resistance. These early successes give the Russians an enormous advantage in the battle for the North Atlantic that makes convoy duty highly risky for NATO forces. This advantage results in major fleet loses for the US and the UK after several successful air raids and submarine skirmishes. However, the Maskirovka is but one operational element of the grand Soviet strategy, and their persecution of deep operations warfare in Europe is far less decisive, particularly as the Navy is able to compensate for its losses and innovate new aerial tactics, resulting in a tactical stalemate that frustrates Soviet ambitions, leading to an internal coup and eventual ceasefire.

First Strike

“once political authorities commit military forces in pursuit of political aims, military forces must win something—else there will be no basis from which political authorities can bargain to win politically. Therefore, the purpose of military operations can not be simply to avert defeat—but rather it must be to win” (US Army, FM 100-5).

The novel is also interested in the problem of the first strike, over which the Soviets demur because of the “political” implications of the decision. The meaning of this political decision is unclear, but we might infer that the decisiveness of that kind of escalation moves beyond the modelling of war as the continuation of politics and into something more like the spasmodic calculations of Herman Khan’s wargasm: after the point of escalation, it would become exceedingly difficult to contain the response and so the decision has implications which alter the nature of the sovereign decision and sideline the tactical and strategic problems of conventional military force.

Intelligent Machines & Chaoplexic Warfare – DeLanda vs. Bosquet


Writing about 20 years apart, DeLanda and Bosquet propose differing methods for interpreting modern sciences of military administration’s capacities for marshaling of the forces of chaos. For both writers, chaos is both primary condition of the fog of war and an ancillary property of matter itself. And for both, the properties of chaos are of formative consequence for the engineering of weapons and the organization of tactical and logistical military systems which seek to “order” the chaos of armed conflict.

War in the Age of Intelligent Machines

DeLanda’s work on the development of military technologies is speculative in its approach, and is directly indebted to the concept of the machinic phylum developed by Deleuze and Guattari. DeLanda develops his theory of the war machine from the perspective of a hypothetical AI attempting to elaborate the conditions of its own emergence. In so doing, DeLanda works through a study of nomadic war machines (nimble foldings of man and machine that actively subvert sedentary tendencies of the military state) that foregrounds their heuristic applicability and their migration across varying physical “structures” and abstract scales. In this sense, he is less interested in the history of human ideas at war and more interested in the conscription of human and mechanical bodies within abstract machines for organizing and engaging conflict (weapons, tactical and strategic schemas, logistical systems, etc).  This folding of the organic and the inorganic into complex, nimble assemblages is a primary characteristic of the intelligent machine, a characteristic which complicates notions of human agency and control with profound implications for the study of war and military technology and culture.

There are many points of contact between war machines and the machinic phylum. In order to chart the distribution of these points, we will consider a given war machine as composed of a hierarchy of levels, a series of components operating at successively higher levels of physical scale and organization. At the lowest level, there are weapons, both offensive and defensive. One level above, we have tactics, the art of assembling men and weapons into formations with the purpose of winning single battles. The next level is one of strategy, the art of assembling single battles into a coherent war with a given political objective. Finally, we reach the level of logistics, the art of military procurement and supply, which may be  seen as the assembling of war and the resources of the planet (fodder, grain, industrial might) that make it possible. Thus, the machines produced as the output of each level (weapons, battles, wars, etc) may be seen as units of assembly for the next level up the scale.

DeLanda’s focus is on cooperative behaviour of both inert and organic matter, positing the machinic phylum as a critical point where apparently random patterns converge into self-organizing matrices or “singularities” (think of a vortex, for example, or the challenge of implosion assembly that confronts the engineers of nuclear weapons). It follows that, for DeLanda, the emergence of war machines maps to the properties of turbulence and fluid dynamics, and the problems these systems encounter can be thought in the same terms. In this sense, the problem of the weapon artisan (the blacksmith, the gunsmith, even the operations theorist) are similar to the problems of the military commander in so far as both must track critical points or resistance and acceleration (e.g. develop abstract machines for controlling turbulence and “friction”).


DeLanda’s analysis then takes up three metatendencies: centralized and decentralized theories of C&C and the production and logistical systems that developed in tandem with them, wargaming and game theory and their centrality in the development of nuclear strategies and doctrines, and simulation and simulacra and their significance for the development of intelligence systems. We’ll forego a thorough treatment of these tendencies in anticipation of a fully developed dissertation chapter and move on to Bosquet.

Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity

Bosquet is interested in a process of “machinic” migration comparable to DeLanda’s, however his approach is more conventional in that he is more interested in the history of ideas and less so in the anticipation of singularities. For Bosquet, technology does not emerge ex nihilo (e.g. from an unmediated encounter with an “outside”) but rather from human engagement with the world. His methodology for elaborating technology’s significance for the study of war and military technology isn’t wholly incompatible with DeLanda (citing Martin can Creveld: “behind military hardware there is hardware in general, and behind that there is technology as a certain kind of know-how, as a way of looking at the world and coping with its problems”) and he gives substantial treatment to concepts like assemblage and, in later sections of the work, cybernetics and chaos theory. However, the nuances of his approach and the specificity of his engagement with the history of military thought is enough to distinguish the work from DeLanda’s on its own terms.

The notion of a scientific way of warfare seeks not merely to capture the growing role played by science in developing and perfecting military technologies…The primary concern here is with the manner in which scientific ideas have been systematically recruited to inform thinking about the very nature of combat and the forms of military organization best suited to prevail in it. The success of modern science and technology in providing reliable predictions about the world and increasing human control over it through the discovery of fundamental laws and the construction of apparatus capable of taking advantage of them has naturally proven highly attractive to military thinkers and practitioners in search of decisiveness on the battlefield. From the eighteenth century onwards, attempts have been made to apply scientific method and insights to warfare in its totality, and many have believed, like the Baron de Jomini, that “all strategy is controlled by invariable scientific principles” only awaiting discovery by the rational mind. The scientific way of warfare therefore refers to an array of scientific rationalities, techniques, frameworks of interpretation, and intellectual dispositions which have characterized the approach to the application of socially organized violence in the modern era…Technologies are here considered not simply in terms of the material changes they have wrought but also as central conceptual and metaphorical figures around which particular scientific frameworks are organized.

Like DeLanda (and indeed, like Clausewitz and Jomini), Bosquet foregrounds chaos and develops an interpretation of various systems, techniques and “machines” military intellectuals have developed for responding to and capitalizing on the chaos of battle and conflct by rendering predictability.  Linking the multifaceted development of technologies of war to both Heideggerian enframing and Freud’s notion of ordering as “compulsion to repeat”, Bosquet argues that the process of ordering is a defining characteristic of social life and that the specific forms that ordering takes are highly consequential in their mediation of the relationship between chaos and order. And, after Derrida, he adopts the indispensable concept of “technoscience” to describe the tight symbiosis between the technologies which allow the isolation and study of physical forces and the theoretical understanding that these technologies facilitate.

The most innovative aspect of his methodology is perhaps his elaboration of the metaphor:

In order for any scientific truth to gain universal or even widespread acceptance beyond its tiny communities of expertise, it must therefore necessarily be socially and culturally reproduced and validated. This entails presenting its core ideas and notions in terms that are coherent and comprehensible to the non-initiated, generally express through the medium of language but also possibly in a visual or experiential fashion…Metaphor consists in viewing a principal conceptual domain – that is any coherent organization of experience – through the lens of another subsidiary conceptual domain….[as a mechanism of transfer] “the metaphor selects, emphasizes, suppresses and organizes features of the principal subject by implying statements about it that normally apply to the subsidiary subject” (citing Max Black). The reverse is also true in that metaphors work both ways; the subsidiary subject comes to be seen to be more like the principal subject.

Bosquet continues:

The metaphorical character of language […] is due to the fact that our language, at any given time, gives us a cross-section of our processes of concept formation or discovery…While new metaphors can modify our conceptual system, they also help us apprehend novelty. Indeed, through them we can understand the new and unfamiliar in terms of images, objects or conceptual frameworks we are already comfortable with….Metaphors can therefore constitute a means of ordering experience by imposing existing structures of meaning over the chaos and confusion produced by the eruption of novelty. It is on the basis of the new understanding afforded by metaphors that future actions can be justified and control exerted.

And so Bosquet develops his analysis from four central metaphors (the clock, the engine, the computer and the network), all of which owe their influence and generic universality to “embodiment” in both major technologies of the era and conversely, their transferal into a web of theories and practices. In this way, Bosquet’s selected metaphors “serve as both points of departure for speculation and as heuristics bolstering the theories that sprang from them.

As with DeLanda, I’m going to hold back on a more substantive treatment of those specific analyses in anticipation of a thorough development within my dissertation. Please enjoy another Taylor Swift cyberwarfare meme.


War is the Health of the State

“War is the health of the State” – Randy “Cold as Ice” Bourne

Bourne’s argument proposes a theory of the state in the era of the Jus Publicum that attends the accretions and subversions of will to power which consolidate national collectives into resolved political, social and cultural unities charged with preparing for and waging war, conscripting individuals, material and institutions, suing for peace and so on. Writing after the American entry into WWI, Bourne’s essay weds a kind of tireless Nietzschean scorn of the herd instinct with a libertarian anti-war polemicism, and can be read as a rebuke of pro-war intellectuals like Dewey, alongside Wilsonian internationalism. The essay might also be read in light of the post-war fascist’s reworking of Neitzschean tropes and conceits, towards which Bourne’s essay develops a prescient counter-discourse. The essay develops in two parts, the prior of which elaborates a theory of the State at war as body politic, the latter of which develops a kind of Weberian genealogy of the American State as an agent of war. The prior is our focus here.

State is essentially a concept of power, of competition; it signifies a group in its aggressive aspects…The State is the country acting as a political unit, it is the group acting as a repository of force, determiner of law, arbiter of justice. International politics is a “power politics” because it is a relation of States and that is what States infallibly and calamitously are, huge aggregations of human and industrial force that may be hurled against each other in war. When a country acts as a whole in relation to another country, or in imposing laws on its own inhabitants, or in coercing or punishing individuals or minorities, it is acting as a State.

Bourne develops an elaborate concept of the State as a kind of body politic, arguing that wartime brings the ideal of the State into sharp relief, revealing attitudes and tendencies which are not fully developed and cannot reveal themselves during times of peace. During the emergency of wartime, the urgency for union intensifies and “war sends the current of purpose and activity flowing down to the lowest levels”. As all social activity is interlinked in support of collective military objectives (defensive or offensive), “the State becomes what in peacetimes it has vainly struggled to become – the inexorable arbiter and determinant of men’s businesses and attitudes and opinions”. For Bourne, war is an endemic condition through which States are conceived and realized. War triggers in the State a kind of auto-immune response that marshals the individual cells of the body politic into obedience, generating a uniformity that projects inward as well as out. War should not be conceived as a force or event external to the State, but rather as a function of it. In this way,

War is the health of the State. It automatically sets in motion throughout society those irresistible forces for uniformity, for passionate cooperation with the Government in coercing into obedience the minority groups and individuals which lack the herd sense…In general, the nation in wartime attains a uniformity of feeling, a hierarchy of values culminating at the undisputed apex of the State ideal, which could not possibly be produced through any other agency than war. Loyalty – or mystic devotion to the State – becomes the major imagined human value.

In so doing, Bourne links this “health” to the values and figures of meaning around which “aristocratic” society coalesce.

War can be called almost an upperclass sport. The novel interest and excitements it provides, the inflations of power, the satisfaction it gives to those very tenacious human impulses – gregariousness and parent-regression – endow it with all the qualities of a luxurious collective game which is felt intensely just in proportion to the sense of significant rule the person has in the class division of his society.

It follows that this ennobling valuation of war generates a kind of class-stratification of state-idealism as herd instinct that is strung-out between two extremes: between the military-patriotic aristocracy and unskilled labourers, both of whom become a kind of half-witting fodder for the autoimmunity of war as health: “In this great herd machinery, dissent is like sand in the bearings. The State ideal is primarily a sort of blind animal push towards military unity. Any difference with that unity turns the whole vast impulse toward crushing it”.

Bourne’s skepticism towards the State as harbinger of war extends into the State’s own remedies and machinations for instating peace as a manageable equilibrium. Think of the concept of “gunboat diplomacy” or, after Bourne, the “armed truce” preceding the First World War. In doing so, Bourne subtly inverts the Clausewitzian maxim:

If diplomacy had been a moral equivalent for war, a higher state in human progress, an inestimable means of making words prevail instead of blows, militarism would have broken down and given place to it. But since it is a mere temporary substitute, a mere appearance of war’s energy under another form, a surrogate effect is almost exactly proportioned to the armed force behind it. When it fails, the recourse is immediate to the military whose thinly veiled armed it has been. A diplomacy that was the agency of popular democratic forces in their non-State manifestations would be no diplomacy at all…The State, acting as a diplomatic-military ideal, is eternally at war. Just as it must act arbitrarily and autocratically in time of war, it must act in time of peace in this particular role where it acts as a unit. Unified control is necessarily autocratic control. Democratic control of foreign policy is therefore a contradiction in terms. Open discussion destroys swiftness and certainty of action.

Cold as ice, Randy. Bourne’s skepticism is total, and the State (which is not equivalent to the nation) must be either reformed or abolished if it is to facilitate a political unity amenable to the life-enhancing forces of a more organically-conceived body politic (e.g. the nation, the country). For

if the State’s chief function is war, then it is chiefly concerned with coordinating and developing the powers and techniques which makes for destruction…The very existence of a State in a system of States means that the nation always lies always under a risk of war and invasion, and the calling away of energy into military pursuits means a crippling of the productive and life-enhancing processes of the national life.

This claim maps fairly neatly to Virilio’s claims about Pure War and the underdevelopment of the citizenry. In fact, Bourne’s analysis is remarkably prescient and forward thinking. He claims, for instance, that the seat of government and State authority becomes in times of war confused with a mystic authority, which seems to anticipate something like the secularization of political concepts theorized by Schmitt. Check it out:

The State is a personal as well as a mystical symbol, and it can only be understood by tracing its historical origin. The modern State is not the national and intelligent product of modern men desiring to live harmoniously together with security of life, property, and opinion. It is not an organization which has been devised as pragmatic means to a desired social end. All the idealism with which we have been instructed to endow the State is the fruit of our retrospective imaginations. What it does for us in the way of security and benefit of life, it does incidentally as a by-product and development of its original functions, and not because at any time men or classes in the full possession of their insight and intelligence have desired that it be so. It is very important that we occasionally lift the incorrigible veil of that ex post facto idealism by which we throw a glamor of rationalization over what is, and pretend in the ecstacies of social conceit that we have personally invented and set up for the glory of God and man the hoary institutions which we see around us. Things are what they are, and come down to use with all their thick encrustations of error and malevolence. Political philosophy can delight us with fantasy and convince us who need illusion to live that the actual is a fair and approximate copy…of that ideal society which we can imagine ourselves creating. From this it is a step to the tacit assumption that we have somehow had a hand in its creation and are responsible for its maintenance and sanctity.

It’s here that Bourne begins to develop his genealogy, which is where I’ll leave off.

Pure War

Virilio: the man, the myth, etc

Lotringer’s interviews with Virilio develop a number of compelling ideas significant to literary-cultural studies of postmodern warfare. We might rank the thesis of Pure War itself alongside Virilio’s arguments about the nature of an emerging nuclear faith as the most significant. And these arguments can, of course be linked back to Virilio’s more familiar claims about acceleration and speed, logistical “dromocracy” and, after Baudrillard, simulation and deterrence.

If war is the source of the city, then, being an urban planner, I’m for war. If I say that war is the source of technology, I reinforce what I said for the city, I reinforce the idea that I’m a strategist, a man of the war-machine, and thus someone who shouldn’t be trusted.

Virilio develops a line of historical interpretation that clarifies salient features of military-economic development and their spatialization into the logistical architecture undergirding global urban life in times of war as in peace (a distinction which, for Virilio, is abolished by the logic of deterrence). Eschewing sociological analysis in favour of an analysis of mythic figurations of enmity, defense, security, etc (e.g. “us” vs “them”) that evade purely sociological registers, Virilio argues for an analysis of the strategic and logistical contouring of militarized societies that unearths elements of sense and cognition that aren’t conventionally recognized as part of the military-industrial infrastructure of modern life. Rather than developing an exacting analysis of historical datum, Virilio’s is an analysis geared towards drawing out tendencies rather than producing an exact picture or diagram of global and local strategic situations. This kind of analysis is not anti-military, per se (in Virilio’s own language, what he proposes is “worse”). Rather, this kind of analysis seeks to elucidate problems of contemporary war that exceed not only the prescriptions of conventional anti-war discourses, but also those of the techno-scientific class that refuses to recognize the interdependence and mutual-constitution of overlapping fields of science, war and technology. In this sense, Virilio is not against war (in fact he claims he is “for it”) but “against the intelligence of war that eludes politics”.

Virilio: The Total Peace of deterrence is Total War pursued by other means […] Deterrence is the development of an arms capacity that assures total peace. The fact of having increasingly sophisticated weaponry deters the enemy more and more. At that point, war is no longer in its execution, but in its preparation. The perpetuation of war is what I call Pure War, war which isn’t acted out in preparation, but in infinite preparation. Only this infinite preparation, the advent of logistics, also entails the nondevelopment of society in the sense of civilian consumption.

Lotringer: The age of deterrence completely transforms the nature of war: direct confrontation becomes scarce, but civilian society pays the price of its infinite postponement.

Virilio’s claims about the reconstitution of sovereignty in the wake of the bomb are exemplary of this kind of mythic analysis, which can be extrapolated as emblematic of the state or condition of Pure War. Virilio argues that the consolidation of nuclear strategy through a dual implementation of weapons systems, strategic doctrines and formal treaties governing their development and use has produced a situation in which the political “center” that endured the era of absolute monarchy through the Jus Publicum is displaced by an absolute weapon, anticipating absolute destruction. As the speed of electronic threat detection and countermeasure deployment intensifies and the time available for mounting a response shortens, the nature of the political decision to undertake war (that which is properly the object of classical sovereignty) is fundamentally changed. Instead, the decision is electrified by a technocratic objectivity operating at the speed of light, yielding to a kind of transpolitics, after Baudrillard, one characterized by the collapse of geographical time and distance in which “acts of war without war” deter and distill the potency of geopolitical eruptions and upheavals, neutralizing them into a kind of equilibrium or meta-stability of competing and coordinated strategic interests. This yields to an untenable irony in which it is the ultimate weapon that ensures the survival of the species.

Clausewitz says something fundamental: “Politics prevents complete release”. It’s because war is political that there is not complete release. If war weren’t political, this release would reach total destruction.

Although the fundaments of the emerging divine right of transpolitics is the deliberated technological mediation of the “right” to absolute destruction, which is confirmed in the “success” of its deterrence, the consolidation of power according to the technicity of cold warfare is itself oblivious to the consequences of the decision (the destruction of nuclear war). In this sense, even as techno-military apparatuses assume priority in the vertical hierarchies of military, state and economic administration, their claims to divine right are emptied of the significance of sacrificial logic, succumbing to a kind of general economy of war without sacrifice. Lotringer prompts Virilio like so:

We have defined a positive aspect of death: death reunifies, nuclear death gives us back a mythology on the universal level, it promotes a new humanism founded on destruction. There is a second aspect, entirely negative this time, which has to do with this mythology holding an insurmountable threat over our civilization, giving rise to a reign of terror in the name of death which is at hand, but perhaps will never arrive.

In his response, Virilio reflects on the religious aspect of this emerging nuclear faith:

That might come from the fact that there are no priests of nuclear death other than military men. Death only exists as a foundation of religion because there are intercessors…mediators of the death question on the individual level: those who come to hold your hand as you die, those who make a sign of the cross over the condemned man, those who give absolution, etc. Now, for the death of the species, there are no priests. The only mediation is by the military, and it’s obvious that the military man is a false priest because the question of death doesn’t interest him. He’s an executioner, not a priest. A new inquisitor. And he is the inquisitor of all thought – not only within civilian society, but within science itself – war is no infiltrating the social sciences.

For Virilio, these tendencies require novel methods of interpretation that attend both the riddles of technology and the problem of the “meaning” of death.

Knowing how to do it doesn’t mean we know what we are doing. Let’s try to be a little more modest, and let’s try to understand the riddle of what we produce. Inventions, the creations of scientists are riddles which expand the field of the unknown, which widen the unknown, so to speak. And there we have an inversion. The inversion is not pessimistic, per se, it’s an inversion of principle. We no longer start from a positivistic or negativistic idea, we start from a relativistic idea…I believe that within this perversion of human knowledge by the war-machine, hides its opposite. Thus there is work to be done within the machine itself, and in my view politics has never done anything other than this. Politics, in the ancient sense of the invention of the political has never done anything other than this. Politics, in the ancient sense of the invention of the political, has never done anything other than put its hands in the bloody guts of the cadaver of war, and pull out something that could be used – something that wasn’t war. Today the military knows all about civilians, but civilians know nothing about the military. For me, that’s the worst possible situation. That’s the Apolitics of the Worst. Politics, on the contrary, means facing this tendency towards extremes, this enemy, this false priest, in order to question it – as in a struggle with the angels, or with the devil. It’s the question of death: we can’t face it, we must face it intellectually and physically, as doctors and artists have.

Three Perspectives on Death, Suicide and Mass Murder – Part III

Nihilism + Spectacular Stupidity = the tragedy of the late-modern hero

Franco Berardi

Heroes is a disturbingly playful and ironic rumination on the glib logic of murder and suicide in the age of financial capitalism. “Inspired” by the Dark Knight shootings in Aurora, Colorado (“what most impressed me was the metaphorical density of an act that could be interpreted as breaking the separation between spectacle and real life…or real death, which is the same”), Berardi’s argument wagers that the disruptive effects and influences of neoliberalism (“the agony of capitalism and the dismantling of social suicide”) might be better understood through an examination of the “madness” of crime and suicide in all its half-deliberated horror.  Berardi’s study of the “heroes” of a culture of “nihilism and spectacular stupidity” theorizes a tragic condition where spectacle and is conflated with reality, where “identities are perceived as authentic forms of belonging”, developing a cartography of the ideas and writings of the infamously depraved as they react to the disruptive mutations of neoliberal socialization.

The sensibility of a generation of children who have learned more words from machines than from their parents appears to be unable to develop solidarity, empathy or autonomy … Random recombination of frantic precarious activity has taken the place of political awareness and strategy … Now, the task at hand is to map the wasteland where social imagination has been frozen and sublimated to the recombinant corporate imaginary. Only from this cartography can we move forward to discover a new form of activity which, by replacing Art, politics and therapy with a process of re-activation of sensibility, might help humankind recognize itself again.

Berardi’s study of mass-murderers (a mix of teenage and college-age men like James Holmes, Harris  & Klebold, Pekka-Erik Auvinen, Raymond Cho, Anders Breivek) develops by elaborating on the nihilistic sloganeering characteristic of the killers’ manifestos, correspondence and creative writings. Among the more compelling of these accounts is the study of Cho, which posits a schism between the language of domesticity and the language of socialization rent open by a gap between his Korean upbringing and his American schooling.

At school, Cho was expected to write in a language that he could not speak, while at home he listened to and spoke a language he could not write. The language of operational interaction, for him, was different from the language of affection and intimacy. The experience of linguistic dissociation might have played a significant role in the development of Cho’s mental distress – which led him first to be hospitalized, then to be diagnosed with a severe anxiety disorder know as selective mutism…Cho’s experience is possibly only an extreme form of that dissociation of language and affection which is generally widespread among those who are learning more words from a machine than they do from their mothers. A paralysis of emphatic relations, and an increasing fragility of the common ground of interpersonal understanding, are becoming common features in the psycho-scape of our time.

The hinge on which Berardi’s speculations pivot is an elaboration of his earlier themes (e.g. semiocapitlism – think Baudrillard). The thrust of this theoretical maneuver is an elaboration of an abiding condition of nihilism in societies that have succumb to the machinery of capitalist deterritorialization. In such states, “the generalized perception of widespread corruption is neither a superficial impression, nor the deterioration of the moral character.”

It is a systematic effect of the randomization of value. When value can no longer be determined by the precise relation to work-time, its determinant values factors become deception, swindle, violence.

In Berardi’s read, financial capitalism is an example of “annihilating nihilism”. After Nietzsche and Heidegger, in the absence (or perhaps recess) of any ontological foundation for judgement, nihil becomes the condition through which a hermeneutics of value, meaning and sense can be elaborated. Conversely, the annihiliation of financial capitalism (think of credit-default swaps, for example) “destroys the shared values (both moral values and economic values) produced in the past by human production and democratic political regulation, in order to affirm the primacy of the abstract force of money”.

“annihilating nihilism” – a page from James Eagan Holmes’ journal

This pattern of annihilation appears to extend into the nature of work under just-in-time production regimes (think of how temporary labour works, for example, in which capital buys up packets of time/labour while remaining indifferent to the fate of the interchangeable bearers of that labour).

As we move into the age of info-labour, there is no longer a need to invest in the availability of a person for eight hours a day throughout the duration of his or her life. Capital no longer recruits people, but buys packets of time, separated from the interchangeable and occasional bearers. In the internet economy, flexibility has evolved into a form of fractalization of work…Fractalization is the modular and recombinant fragmentation of the period of activity. The worker no longer exists as a person. He or she is only an interchangeable producer of micro-fragments of recombinant semiosis that enter into the continuous flux of the internet.

The situation of fractalized labour yields to a situation of boundless precarity, particularly in terms of the “contractual guarantees of the continuity and regularity of jobs”.

Berardi’s conclusion turns away from the cartography of mass killing and towards political questions that share an affinity for ideas we might associate with the accelerationist turn:

The brain mutation that is underway can be described as a spasmodic attempt to cope with the surrounding chaotic infosphere and to reframe the relation between infosphere and brain. The social brain is obliged to cope with traumatic phenomena. Not only the psychic dimension of the unconscious is disturbed, but the fabric of the neural system itself is subjected to trauma, overload, disconnection. The adaptation of the brain to the new environment involves enormous suffering, a tempest of violence and madness. My question is: does consciousness play a role in this process of mutation? Does imagination consciously act on the neuro-plastic process? Can the conscious organism do something when it is taken in a situation of spasm?

It follows that this “horrible project” is trying to find ethical methods and terms for withdrawing from this brutalization: “how can we remain human, how can we speak of solidarity, while abandoning the emptied and ineffective field of political action?”

Three Perspectives on Death, Suicide and Mass Murder – Part II

Talal Asad

Asad’s volume, “On Suicide Bombing”, develops a three-tiered genealogy of the conditions through which terrorism, suicide terrorism and the affectivity of horror that is the subject of the prior two categories are rendered intelligible or significant as political phenomena. And like Mbembe’s theory of Necropower/Necropolitics, Asad is wary of explanations positioning terrorism within a Manichean dialectic of civilization vs barbarism in their thinking of the “value” or meaning of these acts. Likewise, Asad is dismissive of the “Clash of Civilizations” thesis that took root in the popular and political-realist imaginary in the wake of 9/11. For Asad, as for Mbembe, the significance of these acts is constituted in a complex play of competing values, reversals and ironies that is the proper subject of genealogical critique. It follows that the contest of values and meanings assigned or ascribed to terrorism (and counterterrorism) implicate liberal democratic societies in the codifications of violence and law as much as they do Islamic states and cultures.

Terrorism is an epistemological object in modern society, something that calls for theorization (what is terrorism?) as well as for practical information gathering (how can one forestall this danger?). These two tasks are dependent on each other. Terrorism, however, is more than the object of these tasks. It is also an integral part of liberal subjectivities (the urge to defeat political terror, the fear of social vulnerability, the horror and fascination with death and destruction), although terror itself is dismissed as being essentially part of a nonmodern, nonliberal culture.

In doing so, Asad unsettles the narrative “in which rational democrats in the West react defensively to destructive terrorism from the East” by charting an expansive historical space in which “violence circulates” and basic presumptions about the coherence of motives and agencies produced by conventional geopolitical explanations (and valorizations) falter in their account of the constitutive conditions in which violence is enacted and legitimized.

Asad’s argues that liberal-democratic societies’ identification of terrorism as an object justifying various kinds of humanitarian military interventions and novel policing structures generates a liberal politics of intervention undergrided by a peculiar blend of compassion and cruelty.  He points to Michael Walzer’s Arguing About War, which argues for a dichotomy between terrorism and civilized forms of warfare which defines the destruction of terrorism as its essence and the collateral destruction of conventional military powers as an excess. By Asad’s account, Walzer imagines that the military commander only “crosses the line” into wanton destruction as a last resort when the patience and regard for the inviolability of civilian life is exhausted by military necessity, and even then only does so reluctantly (read: weighted with that pathos of guilt). Walzer’s is effectively a moral argument, rather than an ethical one, which inquires about the particularities of evil and the “moral limits of justified counterviolence”.  Instead, Asad poses an effective counter discourse: “What does the adoption of particular notions of death-dealing do to military conduct in the world?”. In doing so, Asad unsettles the terms in which the violence of liberal military interventions are legitimized:

If state killing is authorized on the basis of due proportionality and military necessity (as humanitarian law requires of conduct in war), and if the question of what is proportional or necessary cannot be determined without regard to overall war aims as well as military strategy (there are always war aims in every war), every kind of forceful means can be – and is – used in war on that basis, including the destruction of civilians and the terrorizing of entire populations.

The shift in register brings the subject of intervention into sharper focus by shifting the emphasis away from the actions of military commander towards “what he has judged necessary and then chosen to do”. This brings military action into the “interpretive process that lies at the heart of modern ethics”. This is a distinction that is decidedly not extended or applied to the terrorist by arguments like Walzer’s.

Terrorism, conversely, is conceived as an object rather than a subject:

Terrorism is a generalized construct derived from our concepts of morality, law, and the rules of war, whereas actual terrorist are shaped by culture, ideology and politics–specific inchoate factors and notions that motivate diverse actions […] In other words, the discourse of terrorism is dependent on a constructed object (not an imaginary object) about which information can be collected.

In this way, terror becomes an object of discourse, enabling “a redefinition of the space of violence in which bold intervention and rearrangement of everyday relations can take place and be governed in relation to terror”.

Asad then turns his focus to suicide bombing itself, unsettling questions about the motives of suicide attackers, and the significance of the acts themselves.  The intentions of these kinds of attacks are usually apparent, and do not require construction or reconstruction in the same way as motivations do, and so the divining of motives preoccupies this section of his study.

Asad argues that notions of sacrifice (sacri-ficium or making holy) are inadequate to describing the concept of martyrdom (shahid) in the political imaginary of Islam. As an explanation, which loads the gesture of suicide with a Christian significance, it is therefore inappropriate (even if it remains significant to Asad’s argument as an idea). So too are psychoanalytic explanations, such as Etienne’s, which posit suicide terrorism as a kind of neurosis of the death wish, of which “war is the outlet”. Even if these kinds of questions productively trouble the coherence of the suicidal agent (does he/she decide?; are they compelled by unconscious desires?), the civilizing pretenses of guilt are no bar to the repetition to the transgression of the laws of war (see above). Moreover,

war is not a neurosis but a collectively-organized, legitimized, and moralized game of destruction that is played out much more savagely by the civilized than the uncivilized.

The problem, for Asad, is that explanations that account for motives require “typologies of action that are conventionally recognized and to which individuation is central”.

For example, by the juridical system that determines (by using one or other psychological theory) guilt and innocence, or by theologies of salvation that trace the origin and consequences of sin, or by a secular theory of the unconscious that claims to make us understand our perplexed unhappiness.

He argues that the “uniqueness” of suicide bombing resides in its contingency, suggesting that the horror (a state of being distinct from terror that involves admiration and a kind of sublime pleasure or desire) terrorism provokes is essential to understanding the phenomenon, connecting this horror with the transcendental values ascribed to the crucifixion (obviously the most potent image of self-sacrifice in the Christian imaginary). I won’t elaborate on this too much (it’s not far off some of Sontag’s arguments, and draws from Bataille’s interpretation of the infamous Leng Tche photo).  Nonetheless, the analysis yields to an elaboration of

the complex genealogy that connects contemporary sensibilities about organized collective killing and the value of humanity with the Christian culture of death and love, a genealogy that I think needs to be properly explored. For what needs to be identified here is not simply the willingness to die or to kill but what one makes of death – of one’s own death and that of others.

Three Perspectives on Death, Suicide and Mass Murder – Part I

Achille Mbembe – Necropolitics

Mbembe’s hugely influential paper presents theorizes the relationship between the constitution of sovereignty and “the generalized instrumentalization of human existence and the material destruction of human bodies and populations”. For Mbembe, as for Agamben (after Schmitt), these kinds of figures of sovereignty (e.g. categories of life and death), constitute a nomos in that they undergird a political order by delimiting a spatial topography, “founding” an inside and an outside that orients the customs of the law, the state and interrelated questions of decidability which legitimize these institutions.  Mbembe argues that these figurations cannot be mapped to a simple dialectic between reason and unreason, or between the civilized discourse of state subjects and the barbarism of terror (or alike constellations of Manichean colonial logic). After Bataille, “politics is not the forward dialectical movement of reason. Politics can only be traced as a spiral transgression, as that difference that disorients the very idea of the limit”. It follows that “politics is the difference put into play by the violation of a taboo”.

As I’ve suggested, Mbembe is elaborating on the work of Agamben, and before him Foucault and Schmitt. Central to his argument is the question of the “relationship between politics and death in those systems that can function only in a state of emergency”.  He develops a critical genealogy of the figuration of categories of enmity as a technique of racism, after Foucault, that foregrounds the warlike constitution of the body politic in a variety of historical and theoretical contexts (as in the Nazi figuration of the disposability of undesirables, or Susan Buck-Morss’ critique of the master-slave dialectic in Haiti).  Crucially, Mbembe locates the colonial periphery as the site where the suspension of law or juridical order yields to a situation of limitless war, and argues that the historical facts and conditions of imperialism produced in the modern political imaginary an enduring legitimation for the forms of sovereignty (that is, juridical mastery over the disposability of human subjects) that these suspensions enacted and underwrote.

Consider Schmitt’s theory of the state of exception and its relation to the Jus publicum Europaeum. This order assumes the juridical equality of all “states”, guaranteeing a right to wage war (and therefore to both kill and conclude peace) to all territorially-individuated entities recognized on that basis. The dual implication of a right to wage war and sue for peace effectively “civilized” the means of killing by attributing rational objectives to the act.  It follows that

Under Jus publicum, a legitimate war is, to a large extent, a war conducted by one state against another or, more precisely, a war between “civilized” states. The centrality of the state in the calculus of war derives from the fact that the state is the model of political unity, a principle of rational organization, the embodiment of the idea of the universal, and a moral sign.

Of course, the Jus publicum underwrote a clear distinction between the eminent domains of European state and a global periphery available for colonial appropriation. Insofar as the colonies exist at the frontiers or limits of this order, and as the liminal colonies are not organized as states of yet, and as their armies do not constitute a distinct political entity, qualified by a codified reverence for an eminent adversary, they exist beyond the pale.

It is thus impossible to conclude peace with them. In sum, colonies are zones in which war and disorder, internal and external figures of the political, stand side by side or alternate with each other. As such, the colonies are the locations par excellence where the controls and guarantees of the juridical order can be suspended – the zone where the violence of the state of exception is deemed to operate in the service of “civilization”

And so colonial warfare, in which the massacring of “natural humans” (as opposed to rational citizens) isn’t comprehended as murder, “is not a legally codified activity”. It follows that “colonial wars are conceived as the expression of an absolute hostility that sets the conqueror against an absolute enemy”. After Kojeve, the paradox of colonial war “is simultaneously idealism and apparent inhumanity”. For Mbembe, this is a paradox that constitutes enduring relationships between imperial/colonial states and their periphery, even as the raw materials of space are increasingly complicated, deterritorialized, etc, by the intensified machineries of domination and exploitation (as in the camps, the occupied territories, etc).

Complementary to biopower, which produces figurations of sovereignty in aid of the preservation and multiplication of a particular mode of life, necropower corresponds to sovereignty’s means of defining “who matters and who does not, who is disposable and who is not” and is qualified as “terror formation”. Building on Fanon’s analysis of the colonial town, Mbembe points to the colonial occupation of Palestine to qualify how necropower undergirds the colonial state’s fundamental claim of sovereignty and legitimacy:

This narrative is itself underpinned by the idea that the state has a divine right to exist; the narrative competes with another for the same sacred space. Because the two narratives are incompatible and the two populations are inextricably intertwined, any demarcation of the territory on the basis of pure identity is quasi-impossible. Violence and sovereignty, in this case, claim a divine foundation: peoplehood itself is forged by the worship of one deity, and national identity is imagined as an identity against the Other, other dieties. History, geography, cartography, and archaelogy are supposed to back these claims, thereby closely binding identity and topography. As a consequence, colonial violence and occupation are profoundly underwritten by the sacred terror of truth and exclusivity (mass explusions, resettlement of “stateless” people in refugee camps, settlement of new colonies). Lying beneath the terror of the sacred is the constant excavation of missing bones; the permanent remembrance of a torn body hewn in a thousand pieces and never self-same; the limits, or better, the impossibility of representing for oneself an “original crime”, and unspeakable death: the terror of the Holocaust.

Necropolitics, insofar as it complements Foucauldian notions of disciplinarity and biopower, is defined by three characteristics, all evidenced in Fanon’s account of the colonial town as in the example of the occupied territories:

First is the dynamics of territorial fragmentation, the sealing off and expansion of settlements. The objective of this process is twofold: to render any movement impossible and to implement separation along the model of the apartheid state. The occupied territories are therefore divided into a web of intricate internal borders and various isolated cells […] By departing from the planar division of a territory and embracing a principle of creation of three-dimensional boundaries across sovereign bulks, this dispersal and segmentation clearly redefines the relationship between sovereignty and space.

It follows that the second and third characteristics might be described as “vertical sovereignty”, after Eyal Weizman, or the elaboration of schemes of transit and acceleration over and above the occupied territory (UAVs, helicopter gunships, air strike corridors, even underpasses and bridges on settler roads) underwriting a condition of reciprocal exclusivity, and “infrastructural warfare”, in which the sabotage of the enemy’s societal infrastructure (water, land, airspace) intensifies the conditions of siege warfare along the multiplied axes of colonial-military deterritorialization.

For Mbembe, the necropolitical dimension of the Palestinean struggle (circa 2002 or so) reveals two irreconcilable and incorrigible logics in confrontation: a logic of martyrdom and a logic of survival, respectively indexed to a dialogic of terror and death and terror and freedom, respectively.  The logic of survival, which nonetheless retains something of a dialogic of terror and death, can be described in its lowest form as the “satisfaction” of killing an enemy bent on one’s own extinction. After Elias Canetti, “it is the death of the other, his or her own physical presence as a corpse, that makes the survivor feel unique” (and, it follows, more secure).  The logic of martyrdom is epitomized by the suicide bomber, which, in Mbembe’s critique (as in Talal Assad’s), troubles our notions of survival and the “value” or meaning of the act of killing.

This logic seems contrary to another one, which consists in wishing to impose death on others while preserving one’s own life. Canetti describes this moment as survival as a moment of power. In such a case, triumph develops precisely from the possibility of being there when the others (in this case the enemy) are no longer there. Such is the logic of heroism as classically understood: to execute others while holding one’s own death at a distance.

The prior would seem to correspond to Mbembe’s characterization of Hegel’s thinking on death insofar as it seeks to “conquer”, for want of better term, the negative potency of death (the possibility of extinguishing life). The latter (the logic of matyrdom, writ large as suicide bombing) corresponds with Bataille’s perverse thinking on the same:

In its desire for eternity, the besieged body [of the suicide bomber] passes through two stages. First, it is transformed into a mere thing, malleable matter. Second, the manner in which is put to death – suicide – affords its ultimate signification. The matter of the body, or again the matter which is the body, is invested with properties that cannot be deduced from its character as a thing, but from a transcendental nomos outside it. The besieged body becomes a piece of metal whose function is, through sacrifice, to bring eternal life into being. The body duplicates itself and, in death, literally and metaphorically escapes the state of siege and occupation.

For Mbembe, the self-sacrifice of the suicide bomber is properly comprehended as a comic gesture in that it activates a kind of “play” that confounds the delimitation of animal and human life. The victim (or rather agent) of the sacrifice, who “voluntarily tricks himself” in seeing himself die, becomes fully alive. This is, for Bataille, a kind of trick of transgression:

The self-sacrificed proceeds to take power over his or her death and to approach it head-on. This power may be derived from the belief that the destruction of one’s own body does not affect the continuity of being. The idea is that the being exists outside us. The self-sacrifice consists, here, in the removal of a twofold prohibition: that of self-immolation (suicide) and that or murder.

This would seem to imply that “death occurs here as pure annihilation and nothingness, excess and scandal”. Mbembe rebuffs this interpretation:

What connects terror, death and freedom is an ecstatic notion of temporality and politics. The future, here, can be authentically anticipated, but not in the present. The present itself is but a moment of vision – vision of the freedom to come. Death in the present is the mediator of redemption. Far from being an encounter with a limit, boundary, or barrier, it is experienced as “a release from terror and bondage”. [If the lack of freedom characteristic of the servitude of slaves] is the very nature of what it means for the slave or the colonized to exist, the same lack is also precisely the way in which he or she takes account of his or her own mortality. Referring to the practice of individual or mass suicide by slaves cornered by slave catchers, Gilroy suggests that death, in this case, can be represented as agency. For death is precisely that from and over which I have power. But it is also that space where freedom and negation operate.