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Response to Martin Coward - Assemblages, Natural Sciences and Urban Battlespaces

Martin, thanks for your insightful and challenging set of questions that I’ll endeavour to answer to the best of my ability.

Fully defending my methodological and theoretical outlook would probably take us into deep philosophical waters for which this forum is perhaps not the proper place. I have attempted to formulate my framework as clearly as possible in the first chapter of the book although I recognise it is still imperfect in many ways and only an arrested stage in my continuing thinking on those matters. And no doubt, for reasons I evoked in my opening statement, my analysis at times may seem to fall short of upholding this framework, although I hope the book as a whole is at least moderately successful in doing so. 

I will nonetheless try to respond to your question about whether scientific discourses are merely surface effects of deeper assemblages by referring back to Deleuze and Guattari’s definition of assemblage in A Thousand Plateaus:

“An assemblage has neither base not superstructure, neither deep structure nor superficial structure; it flattens all of its dimensions onto a single plane of consistency upon which reciprocal presuppositions and mutual insertions play themselves out.”

It is on the basis of such an understanding of assemblage that I have explored the complex mesh of relationships which bind together the state, capitalist production, technoscientific development and war in the modern period (one might add other categories of analysis but these are perhaps the main stalwarts of social theory) without seeking to reduce one to another. Now, even within the framework of the flat ontology such an understanding entails, any coherent study will naturally require some choices in the relations that will be privileged and, in containing what is already a very broad study (some might say already too broad), I chose to privilege the relationship of technoscience and war even if at the different times I do make references to the role of economic production and state structures. I made this particular commitment partly out of personal interest but also because it seemed to be an area that had been relatively unexplored (particularly in terms of the ideational aspects of technology which may account for the greater emphasis put on it in the study over and above its material effects) and that offered the opportunity to develop a number of interesting problematiques. My final thesis is therefore not intended as a grand narrative to trump all others but as a partial perspective aiming to shine some hopefully insightful light on some of the processes which have shaped the modern world and some of the issues that still face us today. Whether it succeeds in doing so is something I leave to others to decide.

You are correct to point out that I made a conscious decision to focus on the physical sciences in my account. This was largely conditioned by the desire to associate specific bodies of scientific theory and practice to respective paradigmatic technologies, precisely in order to chart both the material and ideational effects of technoscience (and crucially the co-constitutive dynamics of those two aspects). So whereas there were obvious technological pairings for the periodisation of the physical sciences I offered, no such articulation would have been possible with the life sciences. This is not to downplay the importance of those natural sciences but to attempt to place them in the context of these larger epistemic structures (notably by showing how technological metaphors are at work in thinking on biological bodies). 

It does however strike me that in our more recent times, the life sciences are weighing more heavily on the scientific way of warfare, perhaps as these sciences have matured and as the cutting edge of theoretical physics (string theory, quantum theory) have become ever more counter-intuitive and difficult to relate to common experience and the social world. Complexity science, in particular, is above all concerned with living systems and the figure of the network is already a more abstract and less tangible one than were the computer or the engine as the boundaries between technology and biology are being eroded. I have no doubt that there are profound ramifications of the development of genetics for the military and indeed advanced research is being pursued in those areas by DARPA and others. However, that is a topic of enquiry for another project. I would nonetheless, and by way of concluding on this point, note that the main conceptual currency of the genetic sciences remains information, a concept inherited from the physical sciences.

Your echo of Martin Senn’s concerns I have hopefully addressed in my own response to Martin

On the question of the city and urbanism, I am a lot more recalcitrant to make strong statements as it is not an area I have studied particularly closely or that was a central focus of my book. You and others are no doubt in a much better position to comment in detail on this question. What I will say is that I see the different regimes of the scientific way of warfare as being contextual and therefore one of the drivers of their development is the perception of the main strategic and military challenges in the period of their emergence. Cybernetic warfare was formed in the context of the hi-tech industrial warfare, notably nuclear, which was expected to unfold if World War III broke out. When these techniques and military assemblages were deployed to fight a counter-insurgency war in the jungles and marshes of Vietnam, they proved patently unsuited to the task. With the end of the Cold War, military and strategic threats have come to be widely seen (at least from the West’s perspective) as being more diffuse with conflict against networks or in urban terrain being a much greater likelihood. So the character of the urban battlespace definitely matters in defining the types of challenges posed to military planners but how these are resolved remains contingent on the wider cultural and social resources of our times.


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