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Humanities on the Edge Article Review: Gregg Lambert

War Machine.jpg
I was in my eighteenth year when the first gulf war started in 1990 (the one that Baudrillard said didn’t actually happen). Except for the odd excursion into the equatorial paradises like Panama and Granada, the United States was not at war from about the time I was born until I became an adult. Sure, there was the Cold War, but that was pretty much thawing by the time I was learning the alphabet. I have learned that I will, on occasion, have some trouble relating to my students, who have known a state of constant war during their developmental years. I am not unique with this experience, a lot gets said about this fact, though it does seem to be little more than lip service. It’s the generic, “Well, isn’t that a shame?” But it is with some genuine interest that I approach Gregg Lambert’s work concerning war and the state.

Gregg Lambert’s “The War-Machine and ‘a people who revolt’” considers the role and function of the army, or military, as it relates to state power. Drawing from the work of Deleuze and Guattari, Lambert argues that such war-machines are “not intrinsic to the form of state power,” which operates essentially under a conservative, or conserving, imperative to “conserve and protect, even replenish, the organs of state power.” As a purely destructive mechanism, the war-machine functions contrary to state power.

The internal policing policies, according to Lambert’s discussion, are dialectic in that the punishment for a given crime corresponds to the crime: “the robber is stripped of all his possessions and imprisoned, the murderer is executed.” Though there is violence in this process, that violence is turned inward, order is preserved and peace maintained. The institutions of the law like the police and the courts are the organs of the body of the State-Form. Insofar as the function of war is to cause harm to the organs of another body, the fact of this action represents an alien impulse to the body that otherwise seeks to maintain itself. This line of reasoning frames Lambert’s initial inquiry:

“In Deleuze and Guattari’s detailed account of the long history of the appropriation of the war machine, which is always exterior to the State Form, we also find these somewhat extraordinary and very solitary figures that they seem to privilege. Why? To be exceptional or solitary means in some way to be found outside the circle of society, and often against it, but not in any way that could be compared to the criminal who merely represents the law’s own internal contradiction (which can be peacefully resolved). By contrast, the warrior who kills himself, destroying his own organs, represents a kind of violence that cannot ultimately [be] internalized by the State Form, despite its efforts to recoup this suicidal character of violence in the myths of martyrdom or patriotic sacrifice.”

By extension, the individual outsider can also be a pack or group. These groups that rebel against the state make up the oft represented kind of identity that Lambert considers to be “a people who are missing.” The mythology that surrounds a figure like Crazy Horse is just one example. Furthermore, these “people who are missing” can become imbued with messianic attributes. If they have gone, they might return. But since they are missing, they can be given qualities that may not be accurate. As an example, Lambert critiques Hardt and Negri’s concept of “the Multitude” as make-believe militants that are strikingly dissimilar to actual militants. As proponents of Neo-Marxism, Hardt and Negri advocate for new possibilities and formations of an enlightened proletariat. Lambert critiques this new and unrealized proletariat as lacking in the violence that would surely be inherent to such a movement.

An interesting turn in this discourse happens when the State-Form is cast as an appropriator and not a creator. In other words, the state must deal with the people who are and have never been a part of it. Like the war-machine, the people are never interior to the state, never fully a part of the state: “There are too many resisting elements, too many numbers; moreover, the people are always failing the ideals of the State, always found to be lacking, or exhibiting a tendency to go a little insane, to return to religion and to the family, and if punished to the extreme limit, to become terrorists or serial killers.” In this light, Lambert aligns characteristics of both fascist and democratic states. Neither “created” a people. Furthermore, while this analysis explains the phenomenon of the suicide bomber, Lambert also critiques the Israeli Defense Forces in deliberately appropriating tactics of the war-machine that perpetually thwart the formation of a Palestinian state. This illustration adds emphasis to the point that “the people share the same species, nature, and origin as the war-machine.” And the State-Form can appropriate that just like the people. The consequences of this juxtaposition constitute the next turn in the article.

Drawing on works by theorists like Foucault and Badiou that align with Deleuze and Guattari, Lambert points out that people who revolt don’t always revolt in ideal ways. In fact, sometimes they don’t follow the rules at all. At this point in the essay, there is an extended discussion of a “bi-polar” revolt against the state anchored in two of Herman Melville’s most iconic characters, Ahab and Bartleby. Ahab represents the “exceptional individual,” who actually shares certain qualities with the men who follow him to their doom. As Lambert argues, “Ahab must break a pact and betray the Whaler’s law, which says that the violence unleashed in the hunting of whales must always be rationalized by its productive, economic justification.” Bartleby, also a significant source of analysis by Deleuze and Guattari, represents another kind of revolt. By virtue of his ginger addiction, Bartleby is quite literally the drug addict, the person who refuses work. There is an interesting note about the State-Form as appropriator in a discussion of how the State-Form actually tolerates some level of drug addiction, like alcoholism, as long as usual productivity is not affected.

Shifting to real world situations, Arafat, a popular figure at the time Deleuze and Guattari were working with the Bartleby text, is analyzed in terms of his Ahab-like proclivities. This analysis is brought up in order to questions whether or not war (and violence) is a requirement of the war-machine. Since the war-machine is a response to the State-Form, which functions in many ways like an empty signifier seeking to appropriate people into its purview, then the war-machine itself is an invention and not a facet of human nature. The war-machine, therefore, is the response to the state.

Here Lambert sums up four main points: 1) the war-machine is created by those outside of the State; 2) the war-machine’s only goal is the destruction of the state; 3) the war-machine can use war to create something new or different; and 4) without the object of the State the war-machine can turn on itself. This final point of “distinguishing destructive violence from creative violence” harkens all the way back to Plato. Ultimately, Lambert argues that the nature of the war-machine—either as deployed by the State or those who revolt—has become too muddled and complicated. Lambert interjects his own thoughts at this point and asks that the perspective of death be considered. He argues there is the destructive death as embodied in the form of Ahab and that we all recognize. But in terms of the second type of death, one that is transformative, he admits that “we lack a distinctive image for this second point of view.”

I don’t know what the transformative moment looks like either. But this deconstructive work by Lambert reveals some complexities that are not considered enough. For example, there is no political solution to the multiple current predicaments produced by this global economy; the State-Form will not commit suicide. More importantly, unlike former Humanities on the Edge speaker Joshua Clover, war and violence are not the only methods of engaging in revolt. It is becoming more apparent to me that this order of things, this global economy, this thing that we call late-capitalism (but which may well be something entirely different) will come to an end. It is bound to create a crisis that it cannot account for. But like the gods of old (and present), it will live as long as we nurture it. It will thrive on all the pitchforks and bullets we throw into it. The one thing capitalism can’t produce is peace.

-Robert Lipscomb


Lambert, Gregg. "The War-Machine and a 'people who revolt" Theory & Event 13.3 (2010): n. pag. Web. 26 October 2014.

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