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Response to Martin Coward - (a)Rationality and the Instrumentalisation of War

Martin, thank you for these provocative points on the respective roles of reason and affect. I absolutely do not contest that the drive for order also corresponds to a profound mental and psychic urge that has little to do with rationality (I briefly refer to Freud in the book to that effect – p.12-13). Nor do I see order and chaos as inherently empirical facts, they can be just as well seen as cognitive categories, although distinguishing too sharply between these two modalities risks reopening the Cartesian split. Here I agree very much with your presentation of David Campbell and the notion of schema of interpretation as addressing a persistent anxiety about a recalcitrant and perplexing reality. Scientific and military metaphors certainly have this effect although I would be careful to insist one does not reduce them to mere ideological window-dressing since they have real impact on organisational and operational reality.

Science is only one of the ways by which societies and individuals can produce ordered worldviews but which in the modern era has increasingly taken precedence over other forms such as religion or philosophy. That is not to say that we should take science’s self-proclaimed superior rationality at face value since not only does it fulfil needs which are properly pre-rational but it necessarily founds itself in arational presumptions about itself and its method and further articulates itself in manners which are culturally contingent (notably via discursive resonance - p.23-24).

If I have privileged a mode of engagement with warfare that is nonetheless primarily rational and calculating, it is because I am essentially talking about the instrumental dimension of war, that is the way in which political actors seek to employ war as a means to an end and thus rationally. While you are correct to point out that this is no way captures the full experience of war, for better or for worse it is the modality which has become increasingly dominant in the West in the modern era. Simultaneously, non-instrumental modes of engagement with war have been increasingly marginalised in the West’s understanding of war so that not only the brutality and death of war have to be ever more concealed but society at large is no longer willing to countenance what in the past it celebrated, namely that some individuals find the activity of fighting and killing people a fulfilling one. The instrumentalisation of war is therefore a double-edged sword, partly neutering opposition and revulsion to war by framing it as a regrettable necessary means to an end and primarily a technical problem to be solved rationally, while simultaneously making war an ever-more detached experience from the general public, draining it of the wider meaning attributed to its pursuit in the past, and thus undermining the original basis for much of its support.