Ontopower: War, Powers, and the State of Perception

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Ontopower: War, Powers, and the State of Perception by Brian Massumi, Duke University Press, 2015.

Brian Massumi’s latest addition to our understanding of power may be the most important addition to grand strategy since On War. To Massumi, an “ontopower” is power that is able to alter perception about a chain of effects, altering the future of the original (pg. 41). It is, as its Greek prefix indicates, a living power. Massumi’s protagonist is the idea of preemption as strategy, and he describes in his book the underlying assumptions in which preemption becomes the only response available to threats. Preemption, because it occurs before the threat emerges, must have, as its ontological premise, the ability to define a threat after its destruction has occurred. Preemption, in its truest sense, requires that perceptions bend to fit the action. In other words, what could be a threat should be attacked because it very well could have attacked you. Preemption changes premise from fact to potential.

What Massumi does very well, better than most, is translate what is a philosophy of action into epistemological methods. He uses the word “operationalization,” familiar to military planners, to describe this process. This word means “to make into an action.” True to its assumptions, ontopower requires descriptions of the environmental system as full of threats. What may be surprising to some is that the two dominant descriptive paradigms of modern life—neo-conservatism and neo-liberalism—synthesize a need for this power (pg. 43); one that benefits from an ability to reorganize the complexity of the environment. One militarizes the environment, and the other benefits from the creative destruction of the capitalist order. It is in this way that preemption, an ontology, becomes epistemology.

To Massumi the juxtaposition of deterrence and preemption creates a new era in security studies. Deterrence is policy; it is the rationalization of competition between peers who are against unitary actors. Preemption supposes there is no benefit for rationalizing. The Cold War was deterrence, but we’ve entered a new era where threats require responses faster than policy can provide. Massumi makes the point that if our actions create the enemy, then preemption only requires a threat because the threat could become an enemy. But preemption disturbs equilibriums; it creates reactions that cannot be predicted, and uncertainty is a vague, uneasy threat. One doesn’t preempt something that can be deterred and vice versa. Preemption is the logical conclusion of the liberal state’s inability to provide security, what Massumi calls the “perception attack.” The liberal state system arose to deter state invasions, and with these, we are familiar: Napoleon, Prussia, Germany, Japan, and Russia. Putting aside that the goals of war have changed between the two eras, one must look at the changing expectations of security. The tragedy of liberalism has been a narrowing of the understanding of the state-individual relationship. The civic no longer thinks of threats in terms of state war. It (the West) doesn’t think Germany is going to attack France or even that China might take a bite out of Vietnam.* In the past, people expected the state to secure them from organized threats; they now expect to be secured from individual threats. Twenty thousand dead could be used to trigger demands for action, but now, the numbers are down to the tens? Paris? San Bernardino? The simple murder of one person, which a hundred years ago would have been considered a cost of living, now demands policy. This is the operationalization of Massumi’s proliferative effect. Every individual in the new era has the potential to drive policy—AQ, ISIS, individual immigrants. The genius of this end of liberalism is transferring the idea of threat from people to the vast indeterminate: global warming, capitalism, and religion. Everything makes the civic insecure, and every threat is existential in nature. This is the operationalization of power. Liberalism has created ultrathreatened individuals, and in order to pacify the civic, the state has responded with strategies of preemption. Liberalism expends a lot of energy creating the proto-problem—the grand unification all our insecurities are tied together. This is the operationalization of preemption.

Massumi makes his argument in the explanation of the militarization of ontopower and in the machinations of history. In joining the concepts that drove the revolution in military affairs (pg. 93) to the execution of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he reveals the transformation of mundane military strategy into a “power to the edge.” In hindsight, Massumi’s connection of the unknowable threat and the preemptive actions that prove the nature of it reveal a frightening world in which there are unanticipatory effects that create father actions. Capabilities-based operations provide a nexus in which the terminus of action meets the push of past skill and reflex. The role of command is one of modulating emergence in order that the action provides the information required to perceive the threat. Information becomes secondary even as the military relies ever more on information technology (pg. 123).

All told, this operationalization and militarization of preemption and Massumi’s discretion of the role of threat is deeply concerning. Are these assumptions conditioning the security state to long for the “end of action” that preemption seems to afford? A nation could convince itself that it needs to preempt a threat that isn’t really there, and it triggers a war. Massumi approaches the metaphyiscal with his “confounding aspect” (pg. 155) when he invokes Whitehead’s lament about the “unfortunate effect” of “back cast critical thought.” There is no pure history from which to learn, no exogenous right. What we know now affects what we knew of before. How does nature operationalize quanta? Something happens and we immediately reconfigure the past to fit the new information. Not doing this could create an unbearable cognitive dissonance. But it’s not a one-way street. The past has a force all its own that affects the present and the future. Concrete objectives and lines of operations give way to wars of probabilities. Massumi uses the word “embroilments” to describe these constantly changing entanglements. It is apt, as quantum physics tells us there is a floor below which we cannot observe action. Through his writing, both here and previously, Massumi is issuing a clarion call on the changing nature of power, with preemption becoming a strange attractor, bending past and present into a network of constantly changing assumptions (pg. 209).

Ontopower is less a guidebook than a warning against assuming we will be right. Without making a moral argument, Brian Massumi effectively describes the moral limitations of the power to preempt, the rewriting of history through the actions of the present, the confirmation of what could have been into what was. It should be studied by practitioners of power—professionals who owe it to the country to have discussions now, so as to have answers when policy demands action.

Phil Reynolds

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."