Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Strategies Against Architecture

In my recent posts I՚ve given the impression that I view academic critical theory as somehow lightweight, airy-fairy, and impractical, at least when measured alongside the sturdy simple souls who do engineering. Well I take it all back. You can՚t get much more pragmatic than the IDF, and they are down with this stuff in a big way, apparently:
The attack conducted by units of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) on the city of Nablus in April 2002 was described by its commander, Brigadier-General Aviv Kokhavi, as ‘inverse geometry’, which he explained as ‘the reorganization of the urban syntax by means of a series of micro-tactical actions’....
Contemporary military theorists are now busy re-conceptualizing the urban domain. At stake are the underlying concepts, assumptions and principles that determine military strategies and tactics. The vast intellectual field that geographer Stephen Graham has called an international ‘shadow world’ of military urban research institutes and training centres that have been established to rethink military operations in cities could be understood as somewhat similar to the international matrix of élite architectural academies. …

There is a considerable overlap among the theoretical texts considered essential by military academies and architectural schools. Indeed, the reading lists of contemporary military institutions include works from around 1968 (with a special emphasis on the writings of Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari and Guy Debord), as well as more contemporary writings on urbanism, psychology, cybernetics, post-colonial and post-Structuralist theory. …
Naveh, a retired Brigadier-General, directs the Operational Theory Research Institute… ‘We are like the Jesuit Order. We attempt to teach and train soldiers to think. […] We read Christopher Alexander, can you imagine?; we read John Forester, and other architects. We are reading Gregory Bateson; we are reading Clifford Geertz. Not myself, but our soldiers, our generals are reflecting on these kinds of materials. We have established a school and developed a curriculum that trains “operational architects”.’ In a lecture Naveh showed a diagram resembling a ‘square of opposition’ that plots a set of logical relationships between certain propositions referring to military and guerrilla operations. Labelled with phrases such as ‘Difference and Repetition – The Dialectics of Structuring and Structure’, ‘Formless Rival Entities’, ‘Fractal Manoeuvre’, ‘Velocity vs. Rhythms’, ‘The Wahabi War Machine’, ‘Postmodern Anarchists’ and ‘Nomadic Terrorists’, they often reference the work of Deleuze and Guattari.… 
Indeed, as far as the military is concerned, urban warfare is the ultimate Postmodern form of conflict. Belief in a logically structured and single-track battle-plan is lost in the face of the complexity and ambiguity of the urban reality. Civilians become combatants, and combatants become civilians. Identity can be changed as quickly as gender can be feigned: the transformation of women into fighting men can occur at the speed that it takes an undercover ‘Arabized’ Israeli soldier or a camouflaged Palestinian fighter to pull a machine-gun out from under a dress.… 
Critical theory has become crucial for Naveh’s teaching and training. He explained: ‘we employ critical theory primarily in order to critique the military institution itself – its fixed and heavy conceptual foundations. Theory is important for us in order to articulate the gap between the existing paradigm and where we want to go. Without theory we could not make sense of the different events that happen around us and that would otherwise seem disconnected.… 
Naveh references such canonical elements of urban theory as the Situationist practices of dérive (a method of drifting through a city based on what the Situationists referred to as ‘psycho-geography’) and détournement (the adaptation of abandoned buildings for purposes other than those they were designed to perform). These ideas were, of course, conceived by Guy Debord and other members of the Situationist International to challenge the built hierarchy of the capitalist city and break down distinctions between private and public, inside and outside, use and function, replacing private space with a ‘borderless’ public surface. References to the work of Georges Bataille… also speak of a desire to attack architecture and to dismantle the rigid rationalism of a postwar order, to escape ‘the architectural strait-jacket’ and to liberate repressed human desires.
This is by far the weirdest thing I՚ve read recently. The whole article has a slightly unbelievable air to it, as if it was extracted from a Don Delillo or JG Ballard novel. The intrusion of a subfield of computer science that I have a tenuous connection to (swarm intelligence) adds to the unreality.

(h/t to Jordan Peacock, who has written a quite useful introduction to Deleuze and Guattari at Ribbonfarm)

[Addendum: some commenters missed the tone of the post and the cited article, which was awed but not exactly approving. And yeah, the use of radical philosophy (and even more so the work of the radically humanist Christopher Alexander) for the purposes of military occupation may be perverting it.]

9 comments:

Ben Hyde said...

"too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane"

http://govbooktalk.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/afghanistan-stability-coin-dynamics.jpg

Hal Morris said...

Ignoring the references to post-modernists (and maybe Deleuze is some kind of exception who has more to say than the others), it sounds rather like the American military reformer John Boyd, a major influence in Venkat's e-book "Be Slightly Evil". I got and read the bio of Boyd he recommended -- read it out loud with my wife and we both enjoyed it a lot.

The trouble with any brilliant new weapon or tactic or martial art or fighting doctrine is eventually you're not the only one who knows it unless it is the sole property of a very secretive general staff...maybe.

Also, in the end he seemed to have a full war-winning theory that strongly influenced both Iraq wars, but what was lacking was insight on what to do when/if you win.

Crawfurdmuir said...

"And yeah, the use of radical philosophy (and even more so the work of the radically humanist Christopher Alexander) for the purposes of military occupation may be perverting it."

And the Gods of the Copybook Headings laugh uproariously.

As a wise man wrote long ago, "pro captu lectoris habent sua fata libelli." Books (or more particularly, the ideas contained in them), like weapons, can be turned to purposes never envisioned by their creators.

kay schluehr said...

Books (or more particularly, the ideas contained in them), like weapons, can be turned to purposes never envisioned by their creators.

There is also a specific moral: you cannot draw a line between yourself and your opponent using a general abstraction. The IDF is still part of a centralist, hierarchically organized state, one which spawns an effective nomadic, deteritorialized war machine that crushes another state which is politically fragile, aggressive and desperate. The state doesn't have to alter its essence, but can formally integrate what looks like it would be an opposing principle. Did we even have good philosophers of the state yet?

mtraven said...

Huh, it's a variation of William Gibson's famous line "the street finds its own uses for things". So does the state, apparently.

Hal Morris said...


Perhaps you'd find this interesting -- I just ran across it (tho who knows, maybe you were there and witnessed the proceedings).

http://www.fudco.com/chip/deconstr.html

DESCRIPTION:
How To Deconstruct Almost Anything
My Postmodern Adventure

by Chip Morningstar
June 1993
This is the story of one computer professional's explorations in the world of postmodern literary criticism.

mtraven said...

Actually I was at that conference and have seen that piece before. I had somewhat similar reactions, although at the time I was more sympathetic, actively trying to suppress my own engineer's reflexes to label stuff nonsense and try and understand what it was about (on rereading Morningstar, so was he, more so than I remember).

Here's a more recent diatriabe against obscurantism.

Hal Morris said...

Thanks Mike, I've been listening to the audible.com version of Nonsense on Stilts by Massimo Pigliucci whose blog that is (Scientia Salon).

kay schluehr said...

From the "Art of Darkness" article:

Darkness provides a safe haven from the light of evidence and reason.

But isn't darkness like fire? - once someone produces darkness there are ten people around who strive to put it out.

I wonder if the author ever validates his own theses. Take Zizek for example, probably the most renowned Lacanian these days. He is not only Lacanian but also Hegelian, i.e. an admirer of two of the greatest and most famous obscurantists. Is he because he is intimidated by the other #followers? Do people feel now intimidated by him ( he is perceived as a popularizer - how would that fit? ) or is there a culture of intimdation, one from which only scientists are exempted? Aren't young scientists ( followers ) also intimidated by their own mainstream? Would they admit that they don't get what their colleagues are talking about? Aren't they in the game for sociological reasons? Take string theory in physics or category theory in computer science. They were received with awe and disdain in equal parts and keep on being controversial without any resolution. Being "promising" with high expectations for future payoffs seems to be a universal trait of modern culture. The marketplace of ideas all the way down.

You can have a sociology of modern thought but then you actually have to do it. It doesn't suffice to believe in enlightenment myths and perceive light as good and darkness as evil, muddy and corrupt. Life isn't like that.