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Urbanity and War

My thanks for an invitation to participate in what has been a fascinating event – both in terms of the source material and the resulting comments. I have learnt much and it has sparked some interesting lateral associations. I would like to add a final comment on cities and war in the contemporary era.

In this forum the contemporary city has been described as ‘feral’. I have no doubt that this is how it is seen in the warfighting laboratories of the advanced industrial world. This is a figuration of the city as a wild entity that poses the problem of domestication. The city thus becomes figured as a dangerous place that must be ordered by military force. This is, of course, not a new trope in the city’s relation with war: Haussmann’s boulevards exemplify this logic; Hitler hesitated at the edge of Stalingrad; even siege warfare treated entering the city with extreme caution.

The problem I see here is the way that the city is seen as a zone of plurality hostile to the ordering regimes that would try and control its multiplicity. This is a common trope in the history of the city. If you forgive me quoting my recent book, Urbicide (shameless, I know):

In Being Singular Plural Jean-Luc Nancy notes that ‘as long as philosophy is an appeal to the origin, the city, far from being philosophy’s subject or space, is its problem’ (Nancy 2000, 23). Nancy’s comment elegantly captures the stakes of urbicide. The ‘philosophy’ that Nancy is referring to – that philosophy that seeks to ground ontology on an essential foundation – is shorthand for the conceptual imaginary that underlies exclusionary political forces such as ethnic nationalism. According to such conceptual imaginaries, Being is founded on a particular principle and thus predicated on a notion of homogeneity and purity. All that cannot be attributed to such a foundational principle cannot be seen as proper Being and, hence, must be excluded [and, I would add destroyed].

The issue here is the way that regimes of reason treat the multiplicity of the city as a problem that is amenable to their regimes of order. In treating the problem of the city as one of order advanced industrial militaries will repeat this cycle.

Moreover, it seems to me that his will miss the real issue at stake in the metropolitanisation characteristic of contemporary urbanisation: namely the way that it is networked and thus contains within itself the potentialities of precisely the same violence as the warfare that regards it (from outside the city limits) as an object for potential ‘ordering’. That is to say, just as the US Army or IDF look at the city with chaoplexic vision in the hope that techniques of swarming might order its unruly spaces, the networked city is already providing the technological and discursive resources for the swarms of insurgents that course through (and frequently attack) its infrastructure pathways. The figuring of the city and war as separate zones/forces is thus comprehensively problematised.

We may thus see militaries eschewing metaphors of ordering. It strikes me that this is what the IDF are doing when they look to notions from Deleuze and Guattari for inspiration. Is the next phase of Antoine’s story thus one in which the metaphor of the rhizome and its cellular recombination becomes the guiding trope for military organisation. If so, what kinds of technologies and strategies will it entail (apologies for asking another futurology question)?

Martin Coward is Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Sussex, UK. His research focuses on post-structuralist theory and political violence. He is author of Urbicide: The Politics of Urban Destruction (Routledge, 2008).