I like accidental discoveries. Ideas that I come across completely unexpectedly that reveal a blank space in how I conceive of a problem or issue that turn out to be critical. I had a moment like that read Barry Allen’s new book on ancient and medieval Chinese philosophy.
|What could modern humanity learn from the military
philosophers of ancient China?
As I’ve written before, the Utopias project is going to involve a philosophical analysis of the concept of the mass man as it arose through the First World War. This is why Ernst Jünger and Filippo Marinetti’s writings will be so important to setting up the book’s central problem: they were central thinkers of the mass man. The First World War spurred rapid philosophical development of a literal end to individuality. This is totalitarian politics.
I’ve been reading Barry’s book largely for pleasure, not really thinking of the philosophers of ancient China as any figures who’d have to do directly with this project that focusses its energy almost entirely on the last century or so. But in his chapter on Sunzi and The Art of War, Barry developed a fascinating idea that could be a pivot point in the entire analysis of the philosophy of mass man.
The most influential set of ideas on the development of military policy, arms manufacture, and martial strategy in the First World War era was that of Carl von Clausewitz, Prussian general and author of On War. I had not at first thought of Clausewitz himself as a source of philosophical ideas. Whenever I encountered him in reading or teaching, it was always as a strategist, never a philosopher. So I always thought his work was a guidebook of the details of military strategy.
Frankly, I also never thought of the military as being a place that typically produced a philosophical mind-set. At least not until this year. Having such an insightful teacher in my communications program with a lifelong military history opened my mind quite a bit about some of my presumptions. Like a lot of lifelong self-identified leftists, I think I’ve let my systematic and institutional problems with the military bleed into more personal scales. That’s quite a mistake.
Here’s a summary of Barry’s analysis. Writing in the 1830s, Clausewitz described war as a place where, because all knowledge was uncertain, knowledge was useless. Spies, espionage, any attempt to gain knowledge of the enemy other than the most basic reconnaissance of positions in the immediate area, were useless because they were less reliable than absolutely certain.
|Apparently not enough, as the First World War forged a
conception of humanity as masses, units subsumed
into a collective identity, interchangeable, expendable.
What mattered in war was the moral fortitude to overcome your enemy through overpowering him in brute force. The side with more artillery, slogging through the blood and terror for longer, would win. Barry writes of him, “Do not prepare your calculations. Prepare your battalions. It is force, not knowledge that wins wars.”
There are no men in this vision of war, only numbers. Individuals only matter insofar as they’re counted in a collection of forces,* no more important as people than an individual bullet matters to the smooth operation of a machine gun. It may as well be any bullet as long as it kills an enemy soldier or otherwise damages enemy forces. It may as well be any infantryman too.
* The importance of counting as one of a collection in his ontology, and the direct political expression of this idea is at the root of my suspicion of Alain Badiou’s thought. But that’s a complicated fight for another day, and may not even fit into the scope of the Utopias manuscript itself. Badiou's is simultaneously too big and complicated a philosophy and too narrow and niche a figure to spend much time in Utopias in direct argument with him.
Here is the mass man, the essentially totalitarian conception of the individual. Hannah Arendt saw it explicitly, the vision of humanity as shaped by total war.
And perhaps, I thought, sitting on the subway early on a Friday morning, Sunzi himself could offer a hand at crafting the solution to truly overcome the philosophical spectre of totalitarianism whose destructive reaction haunts us so profoundly. . . . To be continued (if not tomorrow, then in three or so years)