Art in an Age of Terror
New York: Agon Press, fall 2014
AS MEN SHOOT BLINDLY AT CIVILIAN TARGETS IN GAZA AND OVER THE AIRSPACE
OF EASTERN UKRAINE, I RETURN TO UMBERTO ECO’s 1991 PROGNOSIS THAT WAR
HAS BECOME A SELF-PERPETUATING AFFAIR, LOCKED IN AN ENDLESS PURSUIT OF
INSTABILITY. WE MUST, THEREFORE, CREATE AN IMAGINATIVE COUNTER-OFFENSIVE
THAT REFUSES TO PRE-VISUALIZE ENEMIES IN ALL QUADRANTS.
[THE FOLLOWING IS AN EXCERPT FROM TACTICAL RESPONSE: Art in an Age of Terror.]
Strategy, tactics, and logistics (war)
The title of this text crosses out the word “strategic” and replaces it with the
word “tactical.” The subtitle uses the word “terror” but avoids the word “war.” Just
as Krzysztof Wodiczko appropriates language for his title, If You See Something…
(2005) without duplicating the original context of the phrase by leaving it incomplete,
so, too, do I make use of language from a current political context, including the
“war on terror” as well as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, without tying the
meaning directly to any specific ideological position, in particular that of the
US government. I use language to suggest a more complex dialectical debate that
takes into consideration the nuanced relationship of strategy and tactics to war
and terror. In creating a title, I create a representation, a suggestive image whose
language is at once visual, factual, and symbolic. By leaving in evidence the word
“strategic” – crossed out and replaced by “tactical” – I visibly reveal my own tactical
maneuver of highlighting the difference between the two connotations.
“If a war machine could be said to have a body, then tactics would represent
the muscles and strategy the brain, while logistics would be the machine’s
digestive and circulatory systems: the procurement and supply networks that
distribute resources throughout an army’s body” (quoted in Puar, 2007, ix).
Manuel De Landa, while ascribing to war the characteristics of a complex life
system, describes the hierarchy of the functions of war in terms of the traditional
philosophical split between mind and body. Strategy also connotes the function
of power designed by government and military leaders while tactics imply the
maneuvers of men and women in the field. In this way, Michel de Certeau
differentiates the bird’s-eye-view flattening effect of strategic mapping and
statistical configurations of institutional positions from the disruptive meandering
non-patterns of individuals carrying out their daily lives (Certeau, 1984). The terms
“strategic” and “tactical” are most frequently associated with war but are also used
to describe maneuvers in games, whether deterministic – as in the non-cooperative
game of chess – or random – as in the mixed strategies of digital gaming. Strategy
frequently refers to the highest and tactics to the lowest level of planning, suggesting
a hierarchical split.
Often in casual analogy, strategy and tactics are interchangeable leading
readers to question their understanding of the significance of the terms; war
as terminology is rarely questioned, yet ought to be. What has now become a
truism – that war is politics by other means – is really only half of a dialectical
position elucidated two hundred years ago by Carl Von Clausewitz. The thesis
to this antithesis, as Christopher Bassford points out, is that war is nothing
but a duel or a wrestling match (depending on the translation) on a larger
scale (Bassford, 1994). The analogy of “contest” or “game” is common and this
concept of “determined sides” is picked up both by Elaine Scarry in 1985 and
Umberto Eco in 1991. But while Scarry saw the doubleness of war’s division as a
pairing of opposites, symbolically portrayed in uniforms, colors, geographical
divisions, and the polarity of good and evil, making war’s intent “the reciprocal
activity of injuring for a nonreciprocal outcome” (Scarry, 1985, 116), Eco recognized
that modern warfare changed significantly from past assumptions to the point where
the division or doubleness of sides has become indistinguishable. Scarry’s game of
chess or war, the goal of which is to disable the opponent through casualties,
becomes Eco’s contest, played out on the same network, whose casualties impact
both sides simultaneously and to the same degree. To reiterate: “Modern warfare is
therefore an autophagous game” (Eco, 1997, 13), without the necessary means to
out-injure the opponent and thereby reach a conclusion.
Hans Haacke’s State of the Union (2005) takes on the topic of division rather
than war per se, but it implies the context of the “war on terror” and how its
resulting impact on governmental infrastructure through the creation of Homeland
Security contributed such lethal ineptitude to the Katrina disaster. It also
implies the notion of contest as revealed in his font choice for the exhibition
announcement, a font used by fraternities, sports teams, and the military on their
logos and emblems, which promote morale and team spirit, so necessary for the
successful outcome of a contest. But a nation divided is a nation at war with itself,
even if that struggle is in the rhetorical realm of debate (or lack thereof). So
Haacke turns the “us” and “them” binary division presented after September 11,
2001 by the Bush administration (“you are either with us or you are a terrorist”)
into an inversion by showing that the division in the post-9/11 world order is
not between the US and the external world but within the nation-state itself, and
therefore, in many ways, a division of sameness. Both sides bear the same colors;
both sides use the same symbolic language, and both sides risk the possibility
that the division (in spite of Haacke’s own optimism) could persist endlessly.
Again, Eco (1997, 14):
There would be a final moment if war were still, as Clausewitz would have
it, the continuation of policy by other means… But in our century it is the
politics of the postwar period that will always be the continuation (by any
means) of the premises established by war. No matter how the war goes, by
causing a general redistribution of weights that cannot correspond fully with
the will of the contending parties, it will drag on in the form of a dramatic
political, economic, and psychological instability for decades to come,
something that can lead only to a politics “waged” as if it were warfare.
Eco wrote his essay in response to the first Gulf War; but how prescient
his remarks are to the endless morass that constitutes the wars (and continued
conflicts) in Iraq and Afghanistan as well. In this light, the game of weights
indicates the distribution of advantages so akin to the dynamic processes of game
theory that comprehends both chaotic and deterministic conditions of balance or
to quote Donald Rumsfeld: “Stuff happens.” A contest of two ideologies morphs
into a division that is both the product of and the production of chaos.
Game theory is an outgrowth of information and communication
theory and, although applied to such diverse venues as entertainment and
administrative organization, is a product of the war industry. By the mid-1970s
Hans Haacke was already cognizant how technology could just as easily
destroy populations in Vietnam as suggest the model for communications in a
democracy. His adherence to systems theory changed from a positivistic attitude
toward interrelations between physical and social forces to a critical skepticism
of the complexity of competing and interacting forces. In fact Clausewitz’s
synthesis of his thesis (war is a brute contest) and his antithesis (war is rational
policy) makes a triangle out of the binary: war is “a dynamic, inherently unstable
interaction of the forces of violent emotion, chance, and rational calculation”
(Bassford) – in other words: symbolic dynamics. This opens the discussion to a
more complex notion of interconnectedness and competition between spheres.
War, too, is a system but one prone to irrationality, repetition, and unspeakable pain.
Tactical Response: Art in an Age of Terror (© 2014, Kathleen MacQueen and Agon
Press) investigates works by Hans Haacke, Krzysztof Wodiczko, and Alfredo Jaar to
elucidate the intricate relationship between representation and real life, affirming art’s
effectiveness in articulating the consequences of atrocity. While these artists do not
document war, terror, and catastrophe, they speak to the conditions of its existence
and the impact of its experience, offering a vantage point from which viewers can
critically address the causes and consequences of suffering.
THIS TEXT IS FULLY PROTECTED BY COPYRIGHT.
DO NOT REPRODUCE WITHOUT PERMISSION FROM AGON
PRESS AND THE AUTHOR. RELEASE DATE: SEPTEMBER 2014.
Bassford, Christopher. Clausewitz in English: The Reception of Clausewitz in Britain
and America, 1815-1945, 1994.
Certeau, Michel de. “Walking in the City” in The Practice of Everyday Lives, 1984.
Eco, Umberto. “Reflections on War” (1991) in Five Moral Pieces, 2001.
Landa, Manuel De. War in the Age of Intelligent Machines, quoted in Jasbir K. Puar,
Terrorist Assemblages, 2007.
Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, 1985.