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Compared to Deleuze and Guattari, reading Virilio is a breeze. This is a short book of about 150 pages, yet it packs as dense a punch as A Thousand Plateaus and uses similar concepts and terms. Virilio retains a pessimistic outlook regarding humanity’s relationship to technology, and views all scientific and technological development as being driven by military necessity. Hence, the internet itself was developed by the Defense Department and originally named Darpanet, but is then unleashed upon the world as a means of connecting the world via information, and ultimately giving the world finite boundaries that can be transversed instantaenously. Actual reality, which is governed by physical spaces and distances, is now supplemented by a virtual reality that produces and reproduces its own information that alters actual reality. Virilio’s world is one in which all ‘locals’ are truly ‘global’, where only ‘world time’ exists since all unfolding events are simultaneously broadcast across the world at every moment. And just as we can instantaenously broadcost information to the world, the world can just as easily look in, and following the vast network of information exchange to focus on any event or place in the world. Thus, we have an age of ‘tele-surveillance’ made possible by the ‘Grand-Scale Transhorizon Optics’ of universal global virtual reality (p. 13-15). The planet itself has now become cybernetic and endogenous, meaning that all information broadcast on each reflexively feeds back onto itself and all points on earch, creating new responses to new information created and disseminated in virtual reality. Everyone can which everyone else as global media focuses in and out of new objects, a process that has its own strategic value ripe for manipulation.
Take advertising. Given a global audience and a global market by the information bomb, capitalism can now invent demand for any of its products among every single human population. This is a ‘new-world ecology’ of information, making possible new possibilities for self-perpetuating ‘war-machines’ (p. 49) that reproduce themselves using global information channels. Since all information and locales are connected to each other competition with one’s adversaries (military or economic) necessitates that each actor wages an all-out war of information, to disseminate itself to all other actors, essentially to control information and how it is perceived. Thus, globalization creates a single ‘panoptical’ point of observation, in which we are all directed to observe the same events and all observers can observe each of us (p. 60-61).
Virilio deplores the homogenizing effects of the information bomb, yet at the same time fortells its own destruction. By creating a self-referencing virtual reality grafted onto actual reality, the information bomb creates the possibility of an ‘image crash’, where virtual ideas distort actual reality and do not conform to the perceptions of other actors. In monetary terms: “Virtual inflation no longer relates solely to the economy of manufactured products [or] the financial bubble, but to the very understanding of our relation to the world.” (p. 113) Virilio almost perfectly describes the American financial crisis in this section, itself caused by making up things that didn’t exist. Collective disbelief, or at least belief in something else.
Instead of historical periods (longue durees), time is reduced to light and speed – “a cosmological constant capable of conditioning human history.” (p. 119) ‘Conditioning’ is creating mechanical mental responses that automate human existence, even democracy becomes automatic as life becomes cybernetic:
“This history of the end of this millennium, held in a levitated state, is based almost solely on the incessant tele-presence of events which do not really succeed each other, since the relief of instantaneity is already winning out over the depth of historical successivity…Finally, everything is reversed. What arrives, what suddenly comes to us is far more important than what leaves, what goes off to the depths of our memories or the far reaches of the geographical horizon.” (p. 127)
Discursively creating a ‘telepresence’ using global information technology can be understood as information warfare, fought over creating ‘real time’ exchanges on the dimensions of geophysical, techno-scientific, and ideological global reality. (p. 143) As if war was fought at light speed by the transmission of successive images that created new interests and objectives in the minds of other people. And because the new ecology is linked to every other part of itself, it can change rapidly and create dramatic shifts in group identities and interests. Historical processes that might have taken hundreds of years before the information bomb might be condensed or vulnerable to rapid and chaotic change because society is ideationally moving faster, literally toward light speed. Thus, Virilio invents the term ‘dromology’ to describe ‘the logic of speed’. It might be interesting to see how dromology relates to contemporay wars, particularly irregular conflicts like those raging across southwest Asia.
Update: for another look at Virilio, check out Adam’s review which kicked off this blog. Yes, reviewing the same book without realizing would constitute something of an EPIC FAIL on my part, thanks for asking.
Finally finished A Thousand Plateaus (actually I skipped a 100 pages in the middle). This is intense postmodern critical theory, much more complicated than anything Foucault has written. In the Intrdoduction, the authors write that each chapter doesn’t necessarily have to be read in order, reinforcing the feeling that each goes in its own (schizophrenic) direction. On the whole, you can discern a method to the whole piece, as it evolves from discussing psychology, language, and interpretation to more concretely political concepts like the state and the war machine.
Before getting to the overtly political issues, Plateaus reads as if someone opened up all the possibilities of perception to one’s mind, emphasizing that all events and objects in the world can be viewed differently depending on one’s spatial position and the assemblage of linguistic signs (semiotic) that assign meaning to observations. In such a world without fixity and in constant flux, what we should strive to be is a ‘body without organs’, and always maintain the ability to renegotiate our internal structure (organs) to the reality we perceive. The BwO is a “connection of desires, conjunction of flows, continuum of intensities. You have constructed own little machine, ready when needed to be plugged into other collective machines.” (p. 161) In interactive situations, to maintain this fluidity requires constantly being able to change one’s face, or ‘faciality’. The shifting combinations of black holes on white screens (orifices on the pristine face of Christ) form locations of resonance that connect the realities of interacting persons (we observe each other’s face to understand how other faces perceive us and their surroundings, whether their expressions indicate anger, satisfaction, etc). And like the BwO, we should strive to have an ever-changing face:
“To the point that if human beings have a destiny, it is rather to escape the face, to dismantle the face and facializations, to become imperceptible, to become clandestine, not by returning to animality, nor even by returning to the head, but by quite spritual and special becomings-animal, by strange true becomings that get past the wall and get out of the black hoels, that make faciality traits themselves finally elude the organization of the face…” (p. 171)
The overtly political elements are interwoven throughout the text, but are fully expressed towards the end of the book in chapters discussing the war machine, the state’s apparatus of capture, and smooth and striated space. These sections make clear Deleuze and Guattari’s affinity for the Islamic scholar Ibn Khaldun, whose Muqaddimah charts a universal history of Arab civilization. The state itself is juxtaposed against a war machine it attempts to appropriate for its own policy, in the form of military institutions. However, the war machine is always external to the state and outside its sovereignty, and has to be continutiously controlled by the state lest it becomes self-perpetuating, and takes over the policies of the state only to reproduce itself and block the development of states by keeping societies segmented and divided. (p. 355) These actual segmentations between social groups represent striated spaces that set the boundaries of smooth or ‘nomad’ spaces. “One of the fundamental tasks of the State is to striate the space over which it reigns, or to utilize smooth spaces as a means of communication in the service of striated space.” (p. 385) The state works against an insurgent war machine that is “revived…a new nomadic potential” develops with each act of mobilization by nomads (p. 386). At the same time, the state “reimpart[s] a war machine that takes charge of the aim, appropriates the States, and assumes increasingly wider political functions” (p. 421). Therefore, we can invert the Clausewitzian relationship between war and politics and say that politics is the extension of war, a global war machine created by capitalism that politically constitutes states with the knowledge and linguistic signifiers to smooth and striate space (p. 421), and give new territorial representations to otherwise deterritorialized locations in space.
This discussion of space is especially interesting in a military context given that IDF Brigadier General Shimon Naveh has incorporated the smooth-striated space concept to describe a new tactical approach in attacking insurgent threats, commonly known as ‘walking through walls’ (see this article, and these couple posts). Naveh had misappropriated Deleuze and Guattari to think about space only in a physical sense: by walking through walls to kill an enemy, soldiers are smoothing out otherwise striated (physical) space. However, these tactics only serve to reproduce the social stratum that separates ‘Israelis’ from ‘Palestinians’, as well as the war machine that makes necessary the use of violence against subjects that are outside the state. In other words, a strategy of ‘walking though walls’ has the social effect creating hostile perceptions of threat between the IDF and its adversaries, just as indiscriminately using airpower can erode political support for military action. If the attempted smoothing of space is not accomplished by the state simultaneously appropriating (and controlling) the war machine, it will ultimately weaken, if not destroy the state.
If we take the smooth-striated model and adapt to social space, we can begin to see how insurgents and counterinsurgents compete to shape space, and attempt to turn the war machine against their adversary. Insurgents deliberately use violence while embedded within civilian population, baiting states to strike and cause collateral damage (witness the current Gaza war). Insurgents in this example try to use the war machine of the state to destroy its own political will to continue fighting. At the same time, collateral damage only recreates the communal identity of insurgents among the civilian population. Conversely, if insurgents use violence against the civilian population as a means of establishing their political authority, the state can mobilize its war machine ‘in defense’ of the civilian population. Thus, the state creates a shared identity, a smooth space of common action and cooperation that excludes insurgents whose uncontrolled war machine destroys their claim to authority. Thus, the state’s (or insurgent’s) ability to ‘capture’ war machines relies upon the inability of adversaries to ‘capture’ their own, and instead are consumed by it.
On the whole, A Thousand Plateaus speaks to the vastly complex and infinite range of possibilities taken by human societies. In exploring the theme of relativity regarding social actors (a Body without Organs recomposes its internal structure with what it encounters externally) speaks to social scientific approaches that emphasize a philosophy of science similar to quantum mechanics as opposed to Newtonian physics, yet it concerns itself with ideational elements instead of purely material ones. This is the same ontological stance that provides the foundation of John Boyd’s postmodern theory of strategy. Destruction and creation are themes of both Boyd and Deleuze/Guattari, and a greater (and more accurate) application of critical theory to war can illustrate how social entities themselves (in terms of both their boundaries and perhaps the structural-functional composition of their internal parts) are created and destroyed in war. Indeed, this process itself often determines victory and defeat.
ChicagoBoyz will be hosting a roundtable discussion of Clausewitz’s classic On War, starting in January.
Announcements regarding the roundtable are here.
On War is certainly part of my “quantum library”, and I am enjoying re-reading it, and I expect that our extraordinary group of participants will have much of value to say about the book.
An interesting question has arisen (for me at least) from Shane Deichmans` excellent review of Admiral Gorshkow`s book The SeaPower of the State.
The question is not whether to buy the book at all. If Shane´s model of what a review should be is not enough to enable a man to take a decision I do not know what is.
The question is: Do I get the
- Naval Institute Press – (1979) version (English)
- Seemacht Sowjetunion : Sergej G. Gorschkow. Dt. Ausg. hrsg. von Eckhardt Opitz
The Naval Inst. version is probably very good, but German is my native laguage so I wd give precedence to an equally good German version.
Now the East German Militärverlag made some good books (I have read some of them) and it may be closer ideologically, thus more authentic. I know the terminology well enough so that may be a plus.
On the other hand the Hoffmann & Campe outfit is known for quality and the editor Prof. Opitz is no fool.
What do you think ? Does it matter at all ?
When I was a teenager I read a lot of sci-fi and fantasy. A heck of a lot. Favourite authors included J R R Tolkein, Ursula Le Guin, Andre Norton, Isaac Asimov, Philip K Dick, and Alan Garner. I haven’t read much sci-fi for a while, although I sometimes dip into Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings and Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy. But when I read a Times review of Paul McAuley’s The Quiet War, I knew that I had to order this new sci-fi novel.
Described by the Times as a “rich and rewardingly complex novel”, The Quiet War…
“is set two centuries in the future, after global warming and the death of billions. Humanity is divided into two camps: those who live on Earth, worship Gaia, and are dedicated to restoring the planet, and the Outers, who’ve created independent city-states and habitats in the hostile environments of the moons of Saturn and Jupiter.
To the militaristic, ruling families of Earth, the independent Outers, now looking to colonise more of the Solar System, genetically altering their children to cope with new ecosystems, are a threat. A “quiet war” of espionage, politics and diplomatic skirmishing is heading towards open, total war to decide the future of humankind.”
Sci-fi and fantasy is often derided as infantile and escapist. Witness, for instance, the English literati’s hostile reaction to Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings and its continued success.
Whatever. Like travel, or living in a foreign country, good sci-fi and fantasy expands the mind and its sense of possibilities. Fantasy and sci-fi can used to examine ethical questions (often in unconventional ways), sound out new ideas and ways of thinking, imagine the impact of revolutionary change, and explore possible futures and alternative worlds. Some of the best sci-fi and fantasy I’ve read – from Norton’s novels about the galactic free traders to Le Guin’s mages of Earthsea – are situated at the fissures and crossing points between civilizations, cultures and worlds. They grapple with the thorny question of whether individuals from different cultures and species can ever understand each other, let alone get along.
And sci-fi and fantasy is just good fun. Any decent novel is escapist – that’s the point of fiction. If you work as a clerk in an airless office with a cretin for a boss, the last thing you want to read is a novel about a clerk in an airless office with a cretin for a boss. That is unless the cubicle is actually a portal to parallel worlds, and the cretinous boss gets torn to pieces by ravenous aliens.
Cross-posted at Kotare: The Strategist.
Books are souvenirs that hold ideas. Ideas are free. If no one knows about your idea, you fail. If your idea doesn’t spread, you fail. If your idea spreads but no one wants to own the souvenir edition, you fail.
The Ramones broke even on tickets, made a little bit on records, but made big money on t-shirts. They had to tour to sell the t-shirts, to make a living. I will idly speculate that there is something similar under way in the world of idea-generating people, and the books they write.