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The Scientific Way of Warfare: Some Opening Considerations

I would first of all like to thank all the contributors for their participation as well as CTlab for making this online symposium possible. After the lengthy solitary process of reading and writing, it constitutes a much appreciated opportunity for feedback and the various unexpected and salutary connections and lines of flight which fresh perspectives bring. Having already imposed a large manuscript on the participants, I will strive for brevity in my opening statement and limit myself to three observations on the book’s central claim, its guiding methodology, and one of the main findings to be drawn from it.

The broad area of interest which oriented my research was the question of the relationship between science, technology and war, all of which have decisively shaped the modern societies we live in. The notion that modern industrial warfare is highly dependent on technology is so widely accepted as to be utterly banal, although there is a marked tendency in popular accounts to focus on weapon systems over the less ‘glamorous’ technologies that support them. Less common are enquiries into the application of scientific method to the practice of warfare itself (rather than to the development of new weapons), even if a number of scholars have profitably analysed the major role the RAND Corporation and the wider fraternity of operations researchers and system analysts played during the Cold War. In The Scientific Way of Warfare, I sought to consider together the influence of scientific ideas and technological artefacts on war by considering the combined material and ideational ramifications of certain key technologies (the clock, engine, computer, and network). In this way, I aimed to show how in distinct historical periods certain dominant scientific conceptual frameworks, along with their associated practices and articulated around those aforementioned technologies, are reflected in the theories and practices of warfare that are contemporaneous to them. Each of the ‘regimes’ I thereby distinguished is characterised by a specific understanding of the nature of reality and the laws governing the diverse bodies that inhabit it, and by extension of the nature of war and the forms of military organisation most likely to wage it successfully.

Arguing the above did raise a number of important methodological points that I believe are of potentially wider relevance to the way in which we practice social science. From the very start, I was keen to consider both the ideational and material aspects of my designated area of research without ever reducing one to the other. Neither did I want to imply that scientific discourse (understood as practices as well as linguistic statements) was a master discourse that shaped all others. I consciously decided to seek out what Foucault referred to as ‘polymorphous correlations’ between the different areas I was looking at, over and above any consistent causal account which would locate the origin of change in any particular domain or strata of social reality. In this way I aimed to show how the organisation of ideas, bodies, and machines combine to work together and act upon the world. The notion of assemblage which I drew from Deleuze and Guattari soon appeared as a helpful manner of talking about social organisation within the flat ontology I wanted to adhere to. The notions of metaphor, abstract machine, diagram, or discursive resonance I alternatingly call upon were all further ways of talking about the same reality accordingly. One comes up against intrinsic difficulties in upholding this methodology, the reasons for which have to do above all with the inherently sequential nature of exposition and the very grammar of language which both so easily reduce to linear causal chains what are actually co-constitutive and mutually supportive relations between elements. It is therefore perhaps inevitable that at times my prose might seem to imply a more definite causal flow than I myself intended despite my efforts to avert this as much as possible. While some might bemoan the loss of an unambiguous causal account and legitimately raise the difficulties it poses for determining action within the world, I see this approach’s value in preventing the foreclosure of certain connective lines of thought through a prior commitment to a definite ontological hierarchy.

Finally, I would like to briefly comment on what progressively emerged from my study as a central dynamic at the heart of both military practice and scientific theory and did eventually structure much of my thinking: the relationship between order and chaos. The human psyche, the organisation of human society, and the production of knowledge all strive for order and regularity and to keep at bay what threatens to bring disruption and meaninglessness into them. However, not only does chaos inevitably resurface with the capacity to upset the most stable and established of arrangements but it seems to be in fact a necessary condition of creativity and even order itself. Science has recurrently needed to concede to chaos and indeterminacy to permit the development of its understanding of the natural world, notably through the introduction of probabilities or non-linear dynamics. Throughout the development of the sciences I have charted, this tension between their drive for predictability and the limits they consistently encounter has been a perennial constant, even if the ways in which these tensions are navigated are never quite the same. What one might characterise as an on-going dialectic between chaos and order (I tend to privilege Edgar Morin’s notion of dialogic understood as the simultaneous competition, antagonism and complementarity of distinct logics and for which there exists no possible higher synthesis that might resolve this tension) is echoed in the forms taken by the organisation of military force. Indeed, all attempts to bring complete control and predictability prove to be inherently self-defeating while a tolerance for (and capacity to profit from) chaos and contingency seems an enduring necessity.


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