About CTlab's virtual symposia: CTlab symposia enable informed discussion regardless of the physical location and distribution of participants. They can be conducted ad hoc, in response to emerging and topical issues, or on any number of planned topics. Proceedings remain available for public viewing via this web page, and are also compiled, for ease of reading and distribution,  into a single PDF document. If you have an idea for a symposium that's consistent with CTlab interests, drop us a line so we can discuss it.


« Tangents and Extensions | Main | Scientific Narratives and Regime Changes »

A Rhetoric of Chaoplexity

I would like to thank the CTlab for allowing me to contribute to this forum to discuss what I believe is an insightful interrogation of the discursive evolution in strategic military formulations. I have a few initial comments.

First, I think the linkages (or assemblages) between material and discursive influences on doctrinal phases in military strategy is a productive engagement at the interstices of technology and the rhetorics of both science and power. I don’t mean to needlessly repeat Bousquet, I think his work acknowledges the genetic linkages, as each strategic phase bears the traces and the ideological imprints of previous thinking. Also, Bousquet’s final judgment of Net Centric Warfare (NCW) reflected something that concerned me while reading his work: it seemed that the unsettled/unresolved presence of cybernetic imperatives have yet to be reconciled with contemporary recognition of the chaoplexic milieu for military operations. The faith in technologies of control and surveillance may indeed be misplaced – and could lead to unrealistic expectations of military capability. While it may be fashionable to liken soldiers and military units to social agents, endowed with ‘decision rules’ that enable reactive flexibility and produce ‘emergent’ solutions – I think many here in this forum have recognized that chaoplexity is not a mutually exclusive insight, but an additive property. Chaoplexity reflects both the deepening complexity of factors in modern warfare, as much as our epistemic capacities to recognize, predict, and perhaps understand the limitations of information in warfighting.

Nevertheless, I think the basic insight of linking material and discursive texts speaks strongly about the constructed domain of military strategy. I am forced to wonder whether manifestations of network war are as much a production of the world tightly envisioned in the doctrinal expositions of chaoplexic warfare. Scholars in the social construction of technology tradition, from Ithiel de Sola Pool onward, have reminded us that we cannot disentangle the politics from the technology, and by extension, the pervasive influence of discourse to constrain our attitudes towards the relation of our technological prowess to the perceived strategic environment.

Which is to say that we must not forget the capacity of such terminology to construct the world we operate within. To borrow from a much-used resource in rhetorical scholarship, Kenneth Burke, it seems evident that the terms, tropes, and imagery of chaoplexic strategy are as much reflections of observed and emergent phenomenon as they are deflective of elements of military action that inhere from the past. Burke’s concept – terministic screens – reminds us of the limitations that our rhetorics provide in the imagination of policies and their alternatives. The fetishization of chaoplexic warfare and technologies of networking seems to be a risky fixation. I wonder at its advocates' sometimes seamless moves between biological and technological metaphors and descriptions of actual behavior and environments. Warfighting is a “rugged landscape” – but so is Afghanistan.

I think most of us could agree that there are dangers in an unproblematic embrace of chaoplexic warfare as a necessary, definitive statement on contemporary strategy. And I think we’ve heard some interesting critiques thus far in this forum. But at the risk of making chaoplexity a tautology, perhaps its unsettled nature is itself a positive quality. Oddly enough, it would seem that any controversy over the probative and strategic value of chaoplexity would be a destabilized, productive locus for emergent thinking. As military strategists, planners, and academics ponder the applications of complexity theory more generally, the process of debate and adaptation to the realm of military practice would seem ripe for “emergent” conceptual innovation.

I’d like to conclude by way of example. The proliferation of chaoplexic formulations into the ranks of military planners; the transformation of the strategic lexicon and by that, the imagining of the individual warfighter; and flexible networks of the asymmetric enemies, does much, I think, to add mystery to process of strategy. What I mean by this is that the general recognition of chaoplexity and the ambiguity the notion carries with it gives rhetorical tools to those who would capitalize on our latent uneasiness over the uncertain, the chaotic, and the unpredictable. If chaoplexity finally empties the power of cybernetic thinking to determine the outcomes of war, then war becomes a kind of alchemy. Not literally, of course. But take the public statements of Paul Wolfowitz as an example. Prior to the events of September 11, 2001, his comments were oddly prescient of a world that the rhetoric of the Bush administration would characterize relentlessly thereafter...

Speaking to the graduation of West Point in 2001, Wolfowitz said: "Military history is full of surprises, even if few are as dramatic or memorable as Pearl Harbor. Surprises happen so often, that it is surprising that we're still surprised by it."

Wolfowitz was making the argument that the unknowability of the threat environment, and implicitly, the unreliability of intelligence estimates, would require a kind of preemptive stance towards national security strategy. You could call this a reaction against chaoplexity – where chaoplexity becomes the argumentative grounds for more command and control at the level of grand strategy. The often opaque, indeterminate implications of chaoplexy provides easy justifications for a public rhetoric of threat and crisis promotion – as chaoplexity offers little in the way of a predictable calculus of threat and power. Yet we all know that Iraq has proven to be a damning referendum on this kind of neo-conservative logic – quelling for now a populist resistance to chaoplexity as grand strategy. I suppose this delinks the realm of national security strategy from more theater-specific formulations. The strategic discourse of chaoplexity is technocratic and, at times, recursive in its own right. As a compass for military planners, its dangers lie in trying to retain the ambitions of cybernetic agency within a recognized chaoplexic context. Above this level of discourse, chaoplexity is “strategy without guarantees,” and likely of minimal elaborative use to the elected stewards of national security.

Craig Hayden, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of International Communication in the School of International Service, American University. He writes at Intermap, the website of the International Media Argument Project.

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.
Editor Permission Required
You must have editing permission for this entry in order to post comments.