by Mike Hill 2022. London: University of Minnesota Press. 237pp. ISBN: 978-0-8166-6090-2.
In the past two decades, talks about ‘everywhere’ and ‘endless’ wars have become familiar refrains among scholars of critical security studies. Whether as a strategic consequence of the use of new weapons and media or as part of a political discourse aimed at justifying armed intervention domestically and overseas, the blurring of traditional analytical categories – the battlefield, wartime, combatants and civilians – is key to current understandings of the changing character of war. On Posthuman War: Computation and Military Violence turns our attention back to these claims to radically rethink their implications. The destitution of the boundaries between war and peace in the twenty-first century – author Mike Hill suggests – are not epiphenomenal to technological capability or political agendas. Instead, these transformations are symptomatic of a new mode of military violence actively engaged in “the technical redefinition of what it means to be a human being” (3). To understand the peculiarity of contemporary war, we need to capture the emergence of the human at the intersection of the cultural, biological, material and computational realms.
‘Hill presents a far-reaching and thought-provoking analysis, whose theoretical elocution hints at the importance of revisiting claims that are often taken for granted in critical security studies.’
Hill’s analysis foregrounds the role of computation as conceptually and practically central to posthuman war. As the author’s systematic exploration of military engagements in demography (chapter 1), anthropology (chapter 2), and neuroscience (chapter 3) shows, contemporary war-making sees human beings not simply as friends or enemies, soldiers or civilians, but as the quantifiable outcome of calculation and categorisation processes. In so doing, On Posthuman War simultaneously adds to Foucauldian debates on the liberal way of war and on recent conversations on posthumanism in security studies. First, the book offers a critical reading of military violence that furthers the ontological reach of Foucault-inspired analyses: if in Clausewitz’s military thought war is ‘the continuation of politics by other means’, and in Foucault’s famous dictum politics is ‘the continuation of war by other means’, posthuman war focuses on “the means themselves”, and on how notions of humanity are computed as the very means of violence (5, 35, 48). Further, this study provides a previously underexplored entry point into posthuman theorisations of war and security. Building on Badiou’s mathematical reading of ontology, speculative realist philosophies and Bergson’s theories of mind, Hill is less directly interested in the historico-political question of “the human” per se (see, for instance, Cudworth and Hobden, 2015; Moore, 2020; Wilcox, 2017), and instead focuses on its radical reliance on far-reaching dynamics of numbering and scale today. As the Western military lexicon becomes populated with ideas of systems, networks, big data and ubiquitous enemies, war extends not just beyond the bodily capabilities of human beings, but it fundamentally concerns the very “definition of the humanity, the primacy of communication, and the way reality is understood” (5).
In putting forward this computational understanding of posthuman war, the author develops a set of conceptual tools that enhance, but also disrupt, critical frameworks in war and security studies. These interventions carry serious political implications, suggesting that some well-established categories of critical analysis – ethnicity and race war, culture and community, cognition and identity – may be myopic to the multiplicity and (in)calculable potentiality of posthuman war, which encompasses the totality of social relations down to the neural impulses in our brains. In this respect, the book develops at least two significant lines of argument. The first one revolves around the notion of ‘identity infiltration’. Borrowing the phrase from the US-produced Terrorist Recognition Handbook, Hill deploys it as a metaphor to understand how apparently peaceful state activities, like the census, use computation to co-opt, explode and weaponise identity and racial diversity (chapter 1). Rather than upholding liberal ideals of inclusion, the multiplication of ethnic categories in the US census – and their countless combinations – has arguably enabled illiberal practices of state violence that see identity as fluid and multiple and thus conceives of all citizens as potential targets.
Secondly, building on identity infiltration, On Posthuman War emphasises the largely neglected materiality of computation in contemporary war. Exploring increasingly data-driven counterinsurgency practices (chapter 2) and state-of-the-art research in military neuroscience (chapter 3), the author shows how the turn away from fixed and phenotypic notions of identity does not translate into purely culturalist and immaterial forms of war-making. The real-time virtualisation and digitalisation of the battlefield seems to ignore subjective understandings of ethnic community in favour of an accurate depiction of its physical properties – from the geography of the ‘human terrain’ in counterinsurgency to brain activity and corporeal ‘terrain’ in neuroscience. As martial violence becomes computationally sustained, identity categories are functionally replaced by the materiality of the battlefield. ‘Whiteness’ here exists not as a racial marker but as a realm of calculability: this is the ‘whiteness’ of armed civilians who cannot be classified as friends (blue) or foes (red) (123) or the ‘whiteness’ of the axons that regulate data-transmission in the brain (the so-called white matter). Through a deep exploration of the importance of computation in contemporary military violence, On Posthuman War exposes human subjectivity as the by-product of an entanglement of data and matter which exceeds the critical purchase of categories like race and gender (contrast this, for instance, with Wilcox, 2017).
‘As demography, anthropology and neuroscience place computation at the heart of martial violence, the subjects of war are to be found not simply within fixed categories of racial identity, cultural communities or human cognition, but at the dynamic intersection of matter and data.’
Hill presents a far-reaching and thought-provoking analysis, whose theoretical elocution hints at the importance of revisiting claims that are often taken for granted in critical security studies. However, the book leaves some important questions unanswered, especially in relation to the politics of the human, identity and race. The author clarifies that “to say that war extends into the formerly neutral territory of the human being per se is not to disregard the historical record”, as his focus is strictly on “how computational intelligence takes part in the expansion of military violence” more recently (2-3). Yet, this general lack of contextualisation begs the question of whether the book’s main conceptual pillars – the human and computation – can be truly considered “formerly neutral” (2) or “neither good or evil” (12). On the one hand, the premise that the human constitutes a “formerly neutral terrain” of war risks inheriting the understatement of racial violence that characterises Foucauldian security studies (Howell and Richter-Montpetit, 2019). From this perspective, it is hard to claim any novelty in the permeation of war within the domain of the human without overlooking how slavery and racial violence have been “fundamental to the idea of the human that formed the basis for biopower” (Howell and Richter-Montpetit, 2019: 5-6). If anything, it could be argued that the “redefinition of what it means to be a human being” (3) has historically been productive of the difference between war and peace, masters and slaves, liberal states and barbaric peripheries. On the other hand, while the book makes an incisive case for the role of computation in warfare, its statement of a shift away from identity and race as politically consequential categories might be difficult to accept without reservation. With critical scholars like Ruha Benjamin (2019) and Katherine McKittrick (2014, 2021) emphasising the relevance of mathematics, computation and algorithmic decision-making to racial violence – from the reduction of Black life to numerical inventory in transatlantic slavery to premature death sentences in predictive policing – it still seems analytically important to consider how computational systems produce human beings while simultaneously dehumanising others in advance (McKittrick 2021: 113).
On Posthuman War presents a powerful analysis of contemporary warfare in an age when numbers define what counts in and as war by reshaping the concept and substance of humanity. As demography, anthropology and neuroscience place computation at the heart of martial violence, the subjects of war are to be found not simply within fixed categories of racial identity, cultural communities or human cognition, but at the dynamic intersection of matter and data. Thanks to its deep theoretical elaboration on these phenomena, this book will be of interest to scholars engaged in debates on the liberal way of war and on the (post-)human in critical security studies, as well as to theoretically-inclined military sociologists. By offering an underexplored perspective on key assumptions informing these fields today, On Posthuman War provides serious tools for critical analysis which – perhaps not without some caution – promise to stimulate transdisciplinary conversation on the posthuman face of war.
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