Three propositions on the phenomenology of war


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Three propositions on the phenomenology of war

  1. 1. Shane Brighton 101across spaces of exchange informed and constituted through human experience.Just as personal and state identities share a spatial character—a structural (episte-mic ⁄ ontological) scaffolding that binds human beings to the social—these same‘‘inter-spaces’’ of the ‘‘inter-national’’ can act as bridges that allow individualsand states to collaborate, build trust, fight, and ultimately change or be changed(de-familiarized) by inter-national interaction. A theoretical engagement with the phenomenology of space—as it affects bothindividuals and states—thus points to innovative routes in studying the historyand development of IR and our inter-national allegiances. Indeed, such reflexiv-ity can be read as a challenge to the geopolitical nature of modern knowledge: aphenomenon conditioned by conceptions of space and their power to determineand subvert the identity, thoughts, and places that human beings make for them-selves. We enrich our intellectual ‘‘tool-boxes’’ and experiences of the worldby engaging with this reflexivity, making our understanding of how we knowourselves (and how we know others and our interaction with them as being-in-the-world) part of a geo-historical and geo-phenomenological exploration ofour history, present, and future. ReferencesDillon, Michael. (1996) Politics of Security. New York: Routledge.Gallagher, Shaun, and Dan Zahavi. (2008) The Phenomenological Mind. New York: Routledge.Huysmans, Jef. (2006) The Politics of Insecurity. London: Routledge.Luoma-aho, Mika. (2002) Body of Europe and Malignant Nationalism. Geopolitics 7 (3): 117–142.Luoma-aho, Mika. (2009) Political Theology, Anthropomorphism, and Person-hood of the State. International Political Sociology 3 (3): 293–309.Massey, Doreen. (2005) For Space. New York: Routledge.Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. (1962) Phenomenology of Perception. London: Routledge.Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. (1964) Signs. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.´O Tuathail, Gearoid. (1996) Critical Geopolitics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ´Olwig, Kenneth. (2002) Landscape, Nature, and the Body Politic. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.Sallis, John. (1973) Phenomenology and the Return to Beginnings. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press. Three Propositions on the Phenomenology of War Shane Brighton University of SussexLittle in social and political life goes untouched by war. From a phenomenologi-cal perspective, this raises an array of questions: How does war manifest itself inthe life-world, not least in ‘‘peace’’? How and to what effect is it occluded? Con-sidered as an ‘‘intentional object’’—one ‘‘for me’’ and ‘‘for us’’—how might warlay claim? How might it constitute the ‘‘I,’’ the ‘‘We,’’ and the ‘‘Other’’ that pro-vide our everyday sociality? How might phenomenological work on war in bothits historical particularity and in general offer new insight? This paper offersthree propositions. The first concerns the challenges of theorizing war. The
  2. 2. 102 Three Propositions on the Phenomenology of Warothers how war might be thought about as a generative force in ways thatavoid the reactionary vitalism or aestheticization that might be associated withsuch a view. Far from taking war as ‘‘the thing itself,’’ the central traditions in IR tendtoward significant undertheorization. It is not unusual to see IR curricula andtextbooks tracing the Twenty Years’ Crisis to its conclusion, to then resume withthe emergence of the Cold War and UN system in 1945. Implicitly, beyond ageneral awareness of its result, what went on in between—the modality of thistransformation—is not worthy of sustained pedagogic or theoretical attention.The discipline’s central traditions meanwhile consistently reduce war to a conse-quence of supposedly more fundamental processes: political units competingunder conditions of anarchy, contradictions of capital, extension of democraticnorms and the disordering effects of undemocratic governance. In each, war iswritten out, appears as secondary or epiphenomenal. Undoubtedly more war-centered, the subfields of strategic and security studies are frequentlyconstrained in their theorization of war through being policy-focused. Lessconcerned with the thing itself, they tend toward an instrumentalized account ofwar through which to prevail within or achieve security from it. The reflections of practitioners on their experiences of war, however, provideus with ‘‘organic phenomenologists’’ such as Clausewitz. On War considers thepossibility of strategic theory in reference to the limiting factors that emergefrom war as a phenomenon. The limits to any positive theory of war, forClausewitz, follow from the experience of fighting. From fighting to the intel-lectual challenges of generalship, war presents itself, he suggested, as a field ofcontingency in which unpredictability and the general absence of certaintydominate and ‘‘the light of reason is refracted in a manner quite differentfrom that which is normal in academic speculation’’ (Clausewitz 1976:113).Outcomes cannot be predicted with certainty, assumptions are violently unmadeand new ones generated. So often the bonfire of certitudes, war disrupts theclaims of foundational thinking. As a process of violent reciprocation, ‘‘Clause-witzian war’’ is always to some extent beyond conceptual capture, always a fieldof uncertainty, always potentially in excess of the attempt to fully command it. A first proposition on the phenomenology of war is thus that, as an intentionalobject, war presents a surfeit of being over knowing. The conjoined promise andchallenge of the phenomenology of war by extension is that of describing a fieldof contingent unmaking and remaking in which familiar or taken-for-grantedobjects of knowledge and structures of meaning are overwhelmed and trans-formed. Among the most important phenomenological work on ethics and politics,Emmanuel Levinas’s writing was fundamentally informed by experiences of war.In the opening arguments of Totality and Infinity, he remarked on the centralityof war to the objective order that philosophy both described and of which itformed part, observing that the violence of war ‘‘does not consist so much ininjuring and annihilating persons as in interrupting their continuity, makingthem play roles in which they no longer recognize themselves’’ in an ‘‘orderfrom which no one can keep his distance’’ (Levinas 1969:21). For those subjectto it, war thus takes the form of a ‘‘casting into movement of beings hithertoanchored in their identity… by an objective order from which there is noescape’’ (ibid.). Thus, where a phenomenologically oriented reading of Clause-witz highlights the immediate experience of warfighting as one in which certain-ties are constantly unmade, in Levinas one gets a sense of the widerconsequences of this: of war as an order of disordering. Because combatants arenot simply bare life units of strategic calculation but also repositories of mean-ing, the contingent unmaking and remaking of certainties extends beyond thebattlefield to rework social and political relations. Albeit in different ways, societies
  3. 3. Shane Brighton 103and political elites consistently invest armed forces with markers of communalidentity and the logics of civilization: take, for example, any number ofnationalisms, the civilizing mission of the British Empire, the technological supe-riority of the United State. It is these complexes of identity, public reason, andpolitical order that are subject to the contingencies of fighting—‘‘cast inmotion’’—in war. Levinas’s account of the interruption of subjective continuities, the alienationof persons from the structures of meaning which defined them in peace, thusprovides the basis for a second proposition: that as a field of contingency, warforces the unmaking and remaking of social and political meaning in ways whichdefy prediction. In this regard, the necessity of descriptive, reflective engagementwith experience becomes more evident yet. If one of the necessary questionsraised by war is ‘‘how and where to begin again,’’ then phenomenology, as amode of thinking which seeks continually and rigorously to re-found itself in ref-erence to experience, suggests its worth. Realizing this further requires consider-ation of the relation between multiple experiences of war and the task oftheorization. Another writer on war close to the phenomenological tradition was HannahArendt. She also emphasized the contingent outcomes of war and the very lim-ited degree to which violence, in itself, could be applied to predictable politicaleffect. In Between Past and Future, she reflected on a formulation offered byFrench Resistance fighter and poet Rene Char. Liberation, Char observed, ´changed war’s meaning for him and his comrades: impending victory trans-formed their war into an ‘‘inheritance’’ left to them ‘‘without testament.’’ Warhad transformed the world around them and given them an experience ofextraordinary everyday political agency, but the subsequent meaning of thesethings was undecided, mute: ‘‘without testament.’’ Char himself sought ways todislocate himself from his wartime self, ‘‘break with the aroma of these essen-tial years, silently reject (not repress) my treasure’’ in the expectation of ‘‘aprivate life centered about nothing but itself’’ (Arendt 1993:3–5). Arendt, how-ever, found within it an ‘‘odd in-between time’’ (ibid.) in which the ‘‘treasure’’Char was now bound to reject was in fact his elevation and that of his com-rades into ‘‘a public space… where freedom could appear’’ (ibid.). Their headysense of agency was not unique, she argued, but something that recurs in ‘‘thehistory of revolutions… which politically spells out the innermost history of themodern age’’ (ibid.). It might be argued that Arendt proceeds on the basis of an error from thispoint, because the categorization of Char’s experience as evidence of the phe-nomenology of revolution rather than war stands at odds with his melancholic,decidedly conservative expectations. Considered instead as an aspect of thephenomenology of war, Arendt’s ‘‘odd in-between time’’ gives us some senseof its generative power. In its brutal unmaking of social and political meaning,the casting into motion of subjects, war offers a space of possibility. It is, how-ever, in varying degrees determinate for that possibility because its outcome isalways to redistribute power, symbolic and material. In postwar France, forexample, the experience of resistance did not immediately fade but becamereinvented as part of the symbolic authority of Gaullism: a public ‘‘treasure,’’not Char’s private sort. Other forms of wartime experience provided the basisfor new forms of political expression and, with varying success, new socialmovements: consider the role of women’s ‘‘war work’’ in contesting prevailinggender norms and the ‘‘integration’’ of minoritized communities through mili-tary service. In this regard, the inheritance of war testifies through subjectslaying claim to their experience. There is thus an odd duality to the genera-tive power of war: on the one hand, it may force radical innovation ineverything from technology to taxation, while on the other, it opens out a
  4. 4. 104 Three Propositions on the Phenomenology of Warspace of mute possibility and contestation fundamental to the quotidian order-ing of ‘‘peace.’’ A third proposition on the phenomenology of war then is that war is a genera-tive force, not least because it confronts those who experience it with the needto create—and contest—its meaning in ways that do not terminate with cessationof physical violence. Here, in tracing the traversal of meaning from ‘‘war’’ to‘‘peace’’ (in a way that problematizes that distinction), phenomenology opensup the possibility of new lines of critique, of tracing the logics of war within thestructures and continuities of the pacific order. Levinas’s ‘‘objective order from which there is no escape’’ enters the life-world with singularly demanding power. Not only soldiers ‘‘march toward thesound of the guns’’ to meet an uncertain fate but the orders of sociality theyembody. This power is such that, as Etienne Balibar recently argued, the politicsof war almost always closes down any ‘‘neutral position’’ (Balibar 2008:366).Subject to this immediate demand, we might again recognize the potential ofphenomenological questioning, the methodological epoche intended to suspendsuch immediacies and open out the structure of their operation to critique. Thedangers of not doing so are real. Alienated subjects of war are required to makenew acts of self-recognition, to lay creative, constitutive claim to themselves inreference to their experience. There is—as Char and others testify—a headyprecariousness involved: the simultaneous freedom and terror of life-worldsinterrupted by a system of objectivity at a time when that system is typicallydeeply indeterminate and crisis ridden. Such a moment of self-creation invitesaestheticization. Char’s poem centers upon the rejection of an experience of beautiful, vitalurgency to which only the most sensuous of language can testify. Its powerderives from his enframement of wartime as a seductive but unwelcome memorynow out of place. Others, though, have offered an account of life centered onthe violent immediacy of war in which its precariousness is raised to the status ofa value. The reactionary vitalism of Ernst Junger’s Storm of Steel (2004) presents ¨the uncomfortable paradox of a compelling, unflinching descriptive power, ofyoung lives simultaneously taking shape and being erased in trench warfare andthe continuity of that account of martial becoming with the ideological catastro-phe that followed. Elsewhere, we find the macho revolutionism of Sartre’s intro-duction to Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, where that master phenomenologistpresented the violence of native against colonist as the ultimate act of self-creation: ‘‘The child of violence, at every moment he draws from it his humanity.We were men at his expense, he makes himself man at ours: a different man; ofhigher quality’’ (Fanon 2001:20). To assume such positions are necessitated by war is wrong, though they surelyrecur. As Char suggests, war itself does not testify: its meaning is to be produced.But it does necessitate testimony: therein, in part, lays its constitutive power. Inrecognizing the generative field forced open by war and the seductions of prox-imity to death as an organizing principle for political life, phenomenologicalquestioning provides a valuable juncture for critique. The demand that critical‘‘bracketing’’ of experience be repeated attunes us to the excess and abstractionof war: its potential to claim priority, overwhelm, and undo other constitutivepossibilities. Such possibilities do not disappear in war, though they may be bru-tally compromised. Junger’s and Sartre’s elevation of the generative power of ¨martial life struggles to a value were, after all, only possible within the context ofextant economies of value. In this wider economy, the injunction to return to aspace of fundamental questioning, to hold to the possibilities of new beginnings,surely has a place, though beginning again necessarily carries responsibility forwhat we start.
  5. 5. Shane Brighton 105 ReferencesArendt, Hannah. (1993) Between Past and Future. London: Penguin.Balibar, Etienne. (2008) What’s in a War? Ratio Juris 21 (3): 365–386.Junger, Ernst. (2004) Storm of Steel. London: Penguin. ¨Levinas, Emmanuel. (1969) Totality and Infinity. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.Sartre, Jean-Paul. (2001) Preface. In The Wretched of the Earth, edited by Frantz Fanon. London: Penguin.Von Clausewitz, Carl. (1976) On War. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.