How We War Now

Georges Bataille of "Accursed Share" fame

At a talk at my university last month, a fellow student opined that the media, and in fact we as a society, don’t focus on peace enough. This sentiment begs the question of whether there’s such thing as peace without war. Certainly neither is as black and white as it used to be. Wars are smaller and more dispersed. And probably longer. The only thing for sure about them these days is their ambiguity. If “war is the continuation of politics by other means,” then war and peace seem to exist not as opposites, but in a cycle. What’s more, our current conflicts are completely obscuring any boundaries in that cycle. Sociologist Martin Shaw wrote of 21st century warfare:

      The key understanding, therefore, is that war fighting must be carried on simultaneously with ‘normal’ economics, politics and social life in the West. It is imperative it does not impact negatively on these.

Some insights into this “new” warfare can be found in mid 20th century philosophy. Two French guys, Georges Bataille and his contemporary Jacques Derrida, had a few scarily astute theories on the origins and nature of war. We’re dealing with what are admittedly dense philosophical concepts; by nature almost impossible to define. However, philosophy, like art history, is a discipline that often comes back around to human nature itself. If you can wade with me through the academic mire for a bit, there’s some nuggets of truth.

Bataille’s  La Part Maudite, or The Accursed Share, was an economic treatise written sometime between 1946 and 1949. Understandably people were quite preoccupied with war. Bataille was the first philosopher to explain economic systems not in terms of cost and scarcity, but in terms of surplus and excess. According to him, an overgrowth of positive in a nation’s economy is actually dangerous. When there is an abundance of human energy or natural resources, the system has two options: “luxury” or destruction. The modern academic Richard Koenigsberg explains:

Bataille extracted from the anthropological record the notion of the “accursed share” as that portion of a society’s surplus that “begs” to be dissipated violently—in war, sacrifice or mere conspicuous, luxurious dissipation.

Bataille, though, was not an economist. He was a damned introspective philosopher. So “the accursed share” is really just about how people work. Bataille wrote that in more primitive times, the simplest way to deal with excess was through sacrifice. Sacrifice was a way (hang in there) of taking something familiar to us, something subjective, and then objectifying it and destroying it as an object. For example, the ancient Aztecs sacrificed fellow men, making them objects for the gods in their final moments. In a 2006 Theory and Event essay, “War and its Other: Between Bataille and Derrida,” Nick Mansfield explains the origins of our current conflicts in Afghanistan an Iraq in Bataillan terms. The September 11 attacks objectified Americans. The US then completed the excess-sacrifice cycle by in turn making enemies in Afghanistan and then Iraq the objects to be destroyed. Crazy? So crazy it makes sense? In this theory, war is less of a horrifying blip on history’s radar than an inevitability.

Events are pretty free-flowing in the philosophy of Derrida as well. Derrida’s claim to fame is “deconstruction.” I can’t give you a good definition. I’ve come to understand it as referring to attempts to unravel the way we understand the world and its truths, while recognizing that every tool we have to do so is another layer. There isn’t a beginning or end to things. Argh! What this means to Derrida in terms of warfare is that it is essentially wrong to think of peace as the original state and war as the interloper. The very terms war and peace open up a world of problems. Mansfield explains:

    To see society as warfare is always to imagine the barricade, the sub-culture, the hearth within which something or other is sheltering, something that the enemy, imagined as violence-incarnated, threatens to destroy…war endlessly confirms the peace it would seem to defy?
    Peace induces a war that murders it but in which in turn its trace is preserved. Each threatens the other it allows, makes and is determined to ruin.

Bataille referred to the act of sacrifice (or war) as transgressive. Even if the act of objectification and destruction made sense, it was still seen as some unnatural. The key to how people or nations could do this, though, is in Derrida’s amorphous world view. The warmonger maintains his “goodness” by using war as the shell that gives shape to the peaceful state that must be protected. This endless mess of sacrifice and objectification and peace begetting war begetting peace is, in short, maddening. The scariest thing is that the ambiguity of this philosophy kind of gives an excuse for the ambiguity of today’s wars.

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2 Responses to How We War Now

  1. Pingback: War Is Boring » The Starving Art Historian: How We War Now

  2. JF says:

    While interesting I would be reluctant to base to much on philosophers without consulting the work of sociologists or other soft scientists who might have done some experimental analysis (It’s the same reason why it’d probably be better to consult a behavioral psychologist about sexuality instead of Michel Foucault although the latter can make for much better two in the morning party conversations). On the same line I would suggest “The Invention of Peace: Reflections on War and International Order” by Michael Howard and “Violence and Social Orders” by Douglass North. Both actually align with effects that Bataille and Derrida describe above (that Peace is not the default state and that it’s creation is often out of luck instead of reproducible design with the issues of social identity being critical) but find different causal mechanism derived from historical records (and are often careful to consider the complexities of the question… such as the seemingly democratization of violence while at the same time the most recent decade having been the most peaceful in human history). While not as seductive as seemingly finding a primordial mechanism at the root, theirs actually offers the potential for finding a way towards reproducing our historical successes (and potentially avoiding the failures).

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