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Will Chaoplexy Dissolve the Cartesian split?

Let me start my comments by saying that I found Antoine Bousquet's The Scientific Way of Warfare to be one of the most brilliant works it has been my pleasure to read over the past decade. While covering nearly half a millennium of history, philosophy, science and warfare, it dances through complex ideas in a manner that is most unlike the more common, turgid plodding that one finds in academic work. It is unfortunate that I will be incommunicado for most of the online discussions (I will be in Mexico on a concert tour when this is published).

“Its central claim”, Bousquet notes on page 3, “is that throughout the modern era the dominant corpus of scientific ideas has been reflected in the contemporary theories and practices of warfare in the Western world.” A simple idea that, as with all fractal thoughts, can be expanded upon infinitely and yet still maintain a pattern.

For Bousquet (page 4), “The scientific way of warfare therefore refers to an array of scientific rationalities, techniques, frameworks of interpretation, and intellectual dispositions which have characterised the approach to the application of socially organised violence in the modern era.” This is an intriguing cluster that spans multiple disciplinary thought patterns, and it is certainly borne out in the rest of the book. As I read the book, I was struck by the successive “peeling away” of components of nature and how these components were confused for “absolute reality”; a confusion beautifully documented and described in the work.

First, in the mechanistic conceptualization, “time” is separated from nature; not only by being measurement independent but, more importantly, by shifting the locus of perception of time from a “natural” cycle (day/night) to a mechanical, human conceived and constructed cycle. The realization was stunning – if humans can control time, what else can “we” wrest from Nature (or God)?

The second, thermo-dynamic phase, separates “energy” from nature in several senses. First, “energy” is no longer directly dependent upon natural, temporally immediate, sources (wind, water, muscle power, etc), it can be turned on or off at will. In a more subtle effect, “energy” is now subject to the Will of Man rather than the Will of God. Indeed, one can almost see the recapitulation of Aquinas' City of God in material form in the writings of Frederick Winslow Taylor, with echoes of Plato's cackles heard in the background.

The third cybernetic phase abstracts information from “meaning” and, at the same time, the system/carrier of information/meaning from nature. In many ways, cybernetics, at least as Bousquet presents it (and it is certainly a valid presentation) is, in many ways, the final materialization of a Platonic Ideal into the material world. Information may, as Bateson noted, be a difference that makes a difference”, but Bateson later realized that neither “information” nor “meaning” was the sine qua non of emergent cybernetic systems; it was relationships (cf Angels Fear, Bantam, 1988).

This brings me to the brink of the fourth phase Bousquet identifies but, before going on, I would like to make an observation. The first three phases all focus on the increasing materialization of parts of “reality”, their subsequent control with social and material consequences (including those in warfare) and, perhaps most importantly, their use as dominant metaphors for the perceptual organization of “reality”. At the same time, each of these phasic metaphors (dominant paradigms, universal narratives, what have you) is yoked with a singular form of social relationship; what Alan Page Fiske calls “Authority Ranking”.

Authority Ranking (AR) systems all derive their legitimacy and authority (as do all relational systems) from lived experience. But the touchstone of the system is in the mutual obligations and responsibilities between the ranks - the “relationship” - and when this crumbles, so does the legitimacy of the system. AR systems, at least in their fully functional, institutionalized forms, are quite recent in our evolutionary history; a mere 10-12,000 years old. And when they crumble, which they always have being perceptually closed systems, people “revert” back to older systems, usually reciprocity based (Equality Matching in Fiske's terminology). This happened with jobs and employment in the late 1960's through to the mid 1980's, and it should be no surprise when this happens with the social organization of warfare.

As Bousquet notes, the phase change has not fully happened in the prosecution of warfare, although the distributed networks of terrorists and insurgents appear to be further along than most conventional forces. One page 238, he notes that “One way of understanding these developments is as a process of evolution in the forms of control adopted for the purpose of handling the uncertainty inherent in the practice of warfare.” As a contrary (complimentary?) alternative, I would suggest, that another way to understand these developments is as a social homeostatic faculty that shifts dominant social relationships with techno-environmental necessities.

One of the reasons, I would suggest, why the vision of network warfare as instant command and control is so fatally flawed is that very notion of a human exterior locus of control – an Authority Ranking system attempting to mascarade as an Equality Matching one. Al Qaida did not fall into that trap - since they perceive of their external locus of control as “God”, a role arrogated to systems controllers in network centric warfare.

Let me return to the title of these comments: Will Chaoplexy dissolve the Cartesian split? This was an issue that Bateson wrestled with until his death. If the Clockwork world spawned the Cartesian split (e.g. Mind-Body dualism and the hubristic notion that all that is not mind can be controlled), will the Chaoplexic world reunite them? This was where Bateson was moving in his last work, and it is something that I have observed in my own research on job search. We can also see it dissolving, or at least minimizing, in some of the current discussions about creating an Advisors Corp.

So, I will leave this with a question: Antoine, do you think that we will see control returning to individuals and small operational groups – networks and project groups – in the near future?

Marc Tyrrell is a Symbolic Anthropologist who teaches at the Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. He is also a member of the Canadian Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies, Anthropologist in Residence with Insignia Research, blogs at In Harmonium and is active at the Small Wars Council.

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