A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Martial McLuhan I: Framing Information Warfare

Michael MacDonald, University of Waterloo

Enculturation: http://enculturation.net/martial-mcluhan
(Published: December 30, 2011)

“I have been slowly accumulating a private arsenal with every intention of using it.”
– Marshall McLuhan (Letters 227).


Although the work of Marshall McLuhan is enjoying a “renaissance for a wired world” (Genosko 1), scholars still tend to portray McLuhan as a “priest,” “oracle,” or “metaphysician” who mistook the global media environment for a social utopia, perhaps even a “Media Eden” (Virilio, Desert Screen 105). Vatic seer of cyberspace, patron saint of Wired magazine, and Advisor in Social Communication to the Vatican, McLuhan is still widely portrayed as a kind of love guru of globally networked cosmic consciousness. In his Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, for example, Guy Debord describes McLuhan as the first “apologist” for the spectacle and for this reason the “most convinced imbecile of the century” (57). Far from unifying humanity in a network of communication, argues Debord, the global village marks the triumph of capitalism as a “global spectacle” that shatters the “unity of the world, and the gigantic expansion of the modern spectacle only expresses the totality of this loss” (29). Similarly, Paul Virilio criticizes McLuhan for “drooling” over the new social space created by global communication networks. McLuhan’s retreat into the “false proximity of a world without density or shadow” renews the quest for religious transcendence by way of the machine (Art 10). And Friedrich Kittler dismisses McLuhan’s hermeneutic ideal of understanding media as a humanist delusion produced by his “silently theological” media theory (“Ontology” 24). The emergence of a “total [military] media system” on a digital basis precludes any “escape” into understanding: computerized storage and transmission media operating at the speed of light outflank human sense perception and thereby “control all understanding”(Gramophone 11). Like the parricide of old Parmenides in Plato’s dialogue, Sophist, McLuhan is conjured up and exorcised to inject war, negation, and nonbeing into the harmonious sphere of media ontology.

These criticisms are not entirely unjust. McLuhan at times does seem to describe media machines as flight apparatuses into a “cosmic harmony” that “transcends space and time” (“Playboy” 238). To begin with, for McLuhan media are not only tools and machines but also profoundly human artifacts invented to cope with the trauma of sensory impairment, dismemberment, mourning, and death. Media are the physical and metaphysical “extensions of man.” The telephone, to offer just one example, comes into being as a medium for communicating with the dead: “Whoever died first [Alexander Graham Bell or his brother] was to contact the survivor through a medium demonstrably superior to the more traditional channel of spiritualism [namely, the telephone]” (Ronell 23).1 McLuhan also seems to have good news for the more metaphysically inclined readers of Playboy. Pushing the media “love machine” into overdrive, McLuhan suggests that as the Gutenberg galaxy implodes into the “Marconi constellation,” electricity spirits us away from the atomizing rationality of typographic culture toward a new marriage of man, machine, and cosmos, a “conubium of a supra-terrestrial nature” (“Playboy” 244).

But McLuhan did not view the global information environment as a spiritual substance or the virtual space for the reconciliation of the tribes of man. If anything, the media environment is for McLuhan a satanic phantasm, a “reasonable facsimile” or “ethereal and highly plausible mock-up” of the mystical body of Christ (Letters 369). Satan, after all, is a “great PR man, a great salesman of hardware and software, and a great master of the media” (Letters 387). Moreover, for all his “delirious tribal optimism,” as Jean Baudrillard calls it (“Requiem” 34), McLuhan recognized that the “global theatre”—the planetary “light and sound show” created by the orbital satellite Sputnik in 1957—is the staging area for “colossal violence” and “maximal conflict” (“Playboy” 259). The global village, for McLuhan, is the site of “arduous interfaces,” “abrasive situations,” and endemic civil wars, insurgencies, and little wars (guerr-illa): when the world is one city, he notes in Counterblast, “all war is civil war” (11). Most importantly, however, McLuhan did not overlook the military aspects of media, as Kittler and Virilio contend. On the contrary, McLuhan wrote extensively about the impact of media technologies on war, revolution, and imperial political economy. Indeed, the military aspects of media technologies preoccupied McLuhan all the way from The Mechanical Bride and its description of subjectivity as a “patchwork quilt of occupied and unoccupied territory” to The Global Village and its definition of the atomic bomb as “pure information.”

This essay therefore explores a neglected but crucially important dimension of McLuhan’s history and theory of media: its analysis of media technologies as vectors of military power. I argue that McLuhan’s prescient analysis of the information revolution and its impact on military affairs offers us valuable insights into the current practice of war in the Global Village. More specifically, I argue that McLuhan’s rhetorical, rather than cybernetic, approach to media war helps us understand emerging forms of Information Warfare (IW or Info War)—wetwar, softwar, gray war, neo-cortical war, perception-space warfare, and others—that target civil society in a permanent campaign to regulate its desires, shape its beliefs, and modify its behaviour.2 Taking my cue from McLuhan, who saw “many advantages to contemporary military manuals” (Letters 238), I approach the topic of Info War by bringing together key works by McLuhan and field manuals, joint publications, strategic roadmaps, and scholarly essays in premier military theory journals from across all branches of the U.S. military.3 By focusing attention on McLuhan as a thinker of media war, I hope to offer a timely reassessment of the “most often cited—but least understood—theorist of the information age” (Deibert 34).

The Matter of Media

There can be no doubt that McLuhan anticipates the current scholarly focus on the “materialities” of communication and the logistics of military transport (Kittler; Virilio; Lenoir; Gumbrecht; Pfeiffer). Drawing on the work of Harold Innis and his staples approach to the political economy of media regimes (“staples are media and media are staples” [McLuhan, Report 1]), McLuhan argues that historical epochs tend to be dominated by certain media of communication—clay, papyrus, parchment, paper, celluloid, circuitry, fiber optics: the materiality of media—that impose their unique monopoly of knowledge on a society.4 “Technological media are staples or natural resources,” McLuhan argues in Understanding Media, “exactly as are coal and cotton and oil” (22). One of McLuhan’s key insights into contemporary Info War, however, is that information itself has become a staple or strategic resource that “supersedes all other commodities in bulk and power” (Marshall McLuhan fonds 000712). And as the “means of moving information increase (and satellite broadcasting is a startling development of his kind),” notes McLuhan in “Popular / Mass Culture,” “there occurs a fluidity of the categories of natural resources . . . almost any natural resource can be substituted for any other as levels of information rise” (Understanding Me 30). Information, as a source of national power, is now the most precious staple, resource, and commodity: information is not only a means of waging war, but the stakes of war.

The material, physical dimensions of media are crucial to grasping the more radical implications of McLuhan’s most infamous aphorism, “the medium is the message.” If the medium is the message—if media impose a certain “pace,” “scale,” and “pattern” on mind and society—it is because a medium is a substance for the transmission of force and energy. McLuhan’s explorations of the modern mediascape therefore seek to show how the materiality of media, their “physics” and “chemistry,” “fission” and “fusion,” tend to shape and reshape habits of perception, forms of understanding, and social institutions: “media of communication are not mere catalysts but have their own physics and chemistry which enter into every moment of social alchemy and change” (Verbi-Voco-Visual Explorations, Item 14).5 Descending into the “terra incognita” of the mediatized mind, McLuhan unearths a whole “geography of perception and feeling” shaped by the forces at play in the technological environment (“New Media” 2). In The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, for example, McLuhan argues that “all the great cultural forms and innovations” of early modern European society issued from the physics of typography and its effects (Understanding Media 172): abstract systems of tropes and schemata in rhetoric; universal forms of entailment in formal logic; the principle of causality; formulae in mathematics; assembly line production; the public sphere; nationalism and national armies; and others. The linear, sequential, fragmented, and mechanized operation of the printing press also prepares the way for the “technological meat grinder” of modern industrialism and its ways of making war and wealth (Mechanical 128). “When we see the scientific techniques of mass killing applied with equal indifference in the abattoirs, in the Nazi death camps, and on the battlefield,” observes McLuhan in The Mechanical Bride, “we can afford to ask whether our habit of bringing death within the orbit of our life interests and industrial procedures is altogether sound” (15).

McLuhan’s view of the media ecology as a matrix of forces and processes in constant flux reveals the logic behind his mosaic method of approaching media history. Since the history of media technologies is “multilinear,” only a pluralist, comparative method, a multidisciplinary “swarming of perspectives” or “swarming of the ground” can help isolate technological events in their historical field. Here McLuhan’s recourse to the symbolist method, the sym-ballein or throwing together of ideas in a textual “kaleidoscope,” becomes a logic of discovery enabling McLuhan to illuminate the formalities of power at work in the media environment.

McLuhan’s understanding of the media environment as a maelstrom of force and energy also reveals the deeper purpose behind his deployment of the aphorism as a verbal “probe.” At the level of content (heuresis, inventio), a probe is not simply a “one-liner” but a device for exploring, discovering, and experimenting, a test or proof in juridical sense (probare). At the level of style (lexis, elocutio), McLuhan mobilized the aphorism as a war machine to establish a rhetorical “beachhead in the mind” (“Speed” 17). McLuhan knew how to exploit the ballistic properties of the aphorism, a genre whose speed of delivery and sudden, decisive impact can rival that of a “projectile hurled by a vigorous arm” (Seneca). McLuhan’s aphorisms are verbal missiles designed to keep pace with information technologies running at the speed of light.

Of course, the aphorism is just one of many rhetorical strategies McLuhan devised to cope with the new media environment. Confronted with these new technologies of power and persuasion, McLuhan suggests, media students must either “assume a large new role or abdicate entirely. It is the age of paratroopers” (Counterblast 134). Mobile, artful, tactical, inventive, polymathic, cunning, opportunistic—“paratrooper” accurately describes McLuhan’s lifelong scholarly guerilla campaign against militarism and its institutions.

Dromocracy: McLuhan on Speed

When Virilio proposes to correct McLuhan by arguing that the “velocity” of the medium is the message (Information Bomb 141), he overlooks the “principle of acceleration”—the inner logic of war and technological change alike—that informed McLuhan’s history of media war at least since The Mechanical Bride (Understanding Media 113). In fact, what Virilio calls “dromocracy,” or the alliance of speed and politico-military power (from the Greek dromos, speed, and kratos, power), constitutes one of the central topics of McLuhan’s analysis of Info War.6 War itself, for McLuhan, is less a product of human passions than of surges and speed-ups in rates of techno-scientific change: “War has become the environment of our time because it is an accelerated form of technological and scientific innovation” (Letters 387).7 McLuhan therefore sought to understand how new media materials and technologies tend to accelerate the conduct of war and in doing so reshape military tactics, strategy, and organizational design. In War and Peace in the Global Village, for example, McLuhan argues that the light, inexpensive, and easily transportable medium of papyrus overtook clay tablets in the arms race of antiquity and ushered in a new science of military command and control: “Papyrus was the means of creating [the Roman army’s] huge networks of straight roads, which gave a special character to their military activities. Papyrus meant control and direction of armies at a distance from a central bureaucracy” (26). Similarly, in an unpublished typescript in the National Archives of Canada McLuhan contends that the strategic use of railways and telegraph cables in the Crimean war (1853-56) caused a dual revolution in military transportation and transmission, corpses and commands, that would determine the pace and scale of two wars: the American Civil War, which raised the ferocity of battle to an “unheard of intensity,” and the First World War, which was a “railway war of centralism” (Marshall McLuhan fonds 00705, Understanding Media 101). From the military roads of the Roman cursus publicus to the “superhighways of thought and feeling that have been stretched across the contemporary mind . . . more menacing than financial or bureaucratic concentrations of power,” McLuhan’s military history of media shows how accelerating transmission speeds alter all the “configurations of power” in politics and warfare (Mechanical 22).

This alliance between power and transmission speed is also important to McLuhan’s account of war in the age of global digital data networks. “It is the normal aspect of our information-flow which is revolutionary now,” argues McLuhan in Verbi-Voco-Visual Explorations, because “the new media normalize that state of revolution which is war” (14). In recent decades the emergence of a global information infrastructure (GII)—cable, direct broadcast satellites, wireless cellular networks, and most importantly, the internet—has decreased the cost of communication, democratized access to knowledge, and fostered the growth of a global civil society. This global infrastructure has perhaps even created a “noosphere,” a planetary web of shared consciousness (de Chardin; McLuhan, Gutenberg 3).8 But the advent of real-time transmission of digitized information, McLuhan recognized, would also have revolutionary consequences for military tactics, doctrine, and organizational design. “Speed is one thing,” he notes in an unpublished typescript, “but the instantaneous is quite another” (Marshall McLuhan fonds 000705).

Global digital data networks open up a vast new field of military power and create formidable new weapons of material and immaterial war. McLuhan’s analysis of telecommunications satellites as new media of military power (“pouvoir satelittaire,” as Virilio calls it)9 seems remarkably prescient in this context. A decade after McLuhan’s death in 1980, the Persian Gulf War, the first war to exploit precision-guided munitions and other “killing appliances” linked to satellites and networked information systems, turned Iraq into the “gory little red schoolhouse of the global village” (War and Peace 129).10 The lesson of the Gulf War was a clear one for militaries around the world. The rapid destruction of the Iraqi army demonstrated that warfare had crossed a technological threshold and entered an era of “new age,” “new world,” or “third wave” warfare: military success would now depend on mastering the electro-magnetic spectrum and the information and telecommunications media it supports (U.S. Air Force; U.S. Army; Defense Science Board, Managed, Creation, Psychological; Toffler; Libicki; Virilio; Molander).

These allusions to new age and third wave warfare reveal an important feature of Info War theory and its approach to information. For all its brutal political realism, the military discourse on Info War takes an idealistic, at times even mystical, approach to information. The motto of the U.S. Air Force, drawn from Virgil, captures the essence of this informatic idealism: “mind moves matter” (Mens Agitat Molem). At the level of military theory, this mind over matter approach seems to hold out the prospect of pure or “absolute war” (118), as Clausewitz calls it, ”absolved of time, space, chance, politics, human nature, death, and other material constraints. As combat strategy becomes computing strategy, Info War launches Clausewitz into cyberspace: the “friction of the total machine” becomes entropy; the fog of war becomes signal to noise ratio; the massing of forces becomes the ubiquity and swarming of media machines; and the center of gravity becomes computing networks and their most vulnerable plug in device, the human brain (Defense Science Board, Information; Dragon; Rowe; Cronin; Wilson; Thomas). At its highest level of theorizing, however, Info War discourse approaches information not simply as data and their transport mechanisms but as an immanent principle of rational development—almost like Hegel’s Spirit (Geist)—at work in matter and mind alike. In this martial monism information becomes a principle of cosmic order and intelligibility. From the genetic code to the universe itself as an immense computing machine or “cellular automaton,” information constitutes the ground of Being and “core of all existence”: “everything is information” (Arquilla and Ronfeld 445). As I suggest below, information, the master trope of Info War discourse, thus makes possible a tactical generalization of the battle-space and of the concept of war itself: if everything is information, information war is potentially war on everything.

Operation Athena: Power, Persuasion, and Info War

One of the key concepts McLuhan used to come to grips with the military dimensions of media was mythology. Myths, for McLuhan, are not only ancient narratives but also implosive, compressed forms of representation—he compares them to montages, hieroglyphs, palimpsests, and cubist paintings—that crystallize a long historical process in a kind of photographic snapshot. Myths are therefore useful “probes” for exploring the inclusive, condensed (“implosive”) forms that characterize knowledge in the era of real-time data transmission, such as icons, symbols, and configurations, not to mention clichés, one-liners, aphorisms, and headlines. Adapting the mythic and symbolist techniques of James Joyce (Ulysses), T.S. Eliot (“The Wasteland”), Ezra Pound (Cantos), and other literary modernists, McLuhan uses myth as a means of ordering and configuring knowledge in the maelstrom or “worldpool” of globalized information flows. “The movement of information round-the-clock and round-the-globe is now a matter of instantaneous configuration,” notes McLuhan in “Electronic Revolution,” and “decision-making in business and in education as much as in diplomacy is now a matter of grasping these configurations” (Understanding Me 5).

The best-known military myth in McLuhan is doubtless that of Cadmus, the Phoenician prince who invented the alphabet and, by sowing the dragon’s teeth, founded at one stroke the army and the city of Thebes. In fact, The Gutenberg Galaxy may be read as a long explication of this myth and its martial exemplum: the alphabet was a “militant transformer” of cultures that generated “military activity on a massive scale” (23). It should come as no surprise,” he writes in The Gutenberg Galaxy, “that the Greeks and Romans, who experienced the alphabet, should also been driven in the direction of conquest and organization-at-a-distance” (63).

But another, less widely remarked mythic figure is even more important for understanding McLuhan’s approach to media war. The Gorgon, a multimedia mix of sound (bloodcurdling shrieks, clacking teeth) and image (flashing armour, petrifying gaze) that terrorizes the Homeric battlefield, represents for McLuhan the power of media to paralyze reflection and “arrest modes of knowledge” (“Myth and Mass Media,” Essential 339-341). Returning to the historical roots of media theory in ancient Greek rhetoric, McLuhan notes in his only letter to Innis that electronic media reactivate all the “potencies” and “magical notions” of the spoken logos elaborated by the ancient Greek rhetors and sophists (Letters 220-223). The multimodal assault of electronic media induces “numbness,” “narcosis,” “hallucination,” “hyperaesthesis,” and a general “demobilization” of consciousness. For McLuhan, then, the Gorgon symbolizes the power of multimedia to “reprogram” psychic and sensory life. This is why McLuhan, ironically enough, views the cool, detached, arbitrary visual code of the printed word as the ideal medium for approaching new media without being stupefied by sounds and images invading our nerve paths and “twanging our synapses” at the speed of light (Mechanical 35). But how is myth a useful heuristic device for examining the rhetorical dimensions of contemporary Info War?

In the rhetorical battle between military agencies for funding, emerging doctrines of warfare must not only invent new operational concepts but also deploy myths, narratives, and images to lend these doctrines the authority of antiquity and the aura of exotic power. Scholars at the U.S. Naval Defense University, for example, argue that information has been linked to the state, power, and warfare since antiquity, and therefore propose Athena Nike as the “Greek god of war best attuned to warfare in the information age. While the owl and the olive tree were her chief symbols, she also attached to her shield the frightening head of the Gorgon medusa, whose live gaze could turn a viewer to stone” (Arquilla and Ronfeldt 8-9). As I interpret this mythic tableau, the image of the owl emblematizes a new approach to warfare that goes beyond data, knowledge, and even intelligence in pursuit of “wisdom”—the most refined and distilled stratum of the informatic pyramid—as the ultimate weapon. Info War is no longer simply about data processing but about “wisdom processing,” and the highest form of conflict is now “wisdom warfare.” The wisdom of Sun Tzu and John Rambo converge in Info War idealism: “the mind,” Rambo observes, “is the ultimate weapon” (Arquilla and Ronfeldt 160). As you might imagine, the sophia of Athena, goddess of InfoWar, is not the contemplation of eternal forms (eidei) or ultimate causes (archai) but the stealth, cunning, and technical inventiveness of the sophist, that “light armed mercenary” of the logos (Plato, Theaetetus 165d).

The image of the Gorgon in this military allegory, on the other hand, represents the power of digitized information to paralyze the mind like the “Gorgon’s head of persuasion,” as Plato calls sophistic rhetoric in Gorgias (punning on Gorgo and Gorgias). Close to physical violence, this kind of persuasion, Plato suggests, bears an almost “supernatural” (daimonia) power that may bring “freedom to mankind at large” or “dominion [archein] of single persons over their several cities” (452d). Like Gorgias’s logos, that ethereal, narcotic, magical body of sound that “stamps” and “engraves” its image on the soul like a “powerful lord” (megas dynastes), digitized information is a kinetic weapon composed of mass and energy that produces a “physio-psychological impact on a human nervous system in terms of the emotional or ideational effect” (U.S. Army, Information Operations 18). As this quotation suggests, the persuasion at work in Info War is not the Platonic leading of souls (psychagogia) but the sophistic art of mental traps and ruses, verbal toxins and pharmaceuticals, and eristic and polemical machines. Taken together, then, the owl and Gorgon indicate that Info War deepens and intensifies some of the most archaic and regressive traits of rhetoric and propaganda. Rhetoric, after all, was perhaps the first psycho-technology, the first systematic attempt to manipulate the soul (psyche) by means of an art (techne) of speech (logos). Thus if myth, like rhetoric, remains a powerful conceptual tool for Info War theorists (and critics), it is because Info War itself relies on the “newest and fastest technology to do the oldest things [emphasis added]” (Wilson 16).11

The basic theoretical framework that shaped McLuhan’s understanding of media was rhetoric, the art (techne) of persuasive discourse. Because the rhetorical tradition shaped McLuhan’s approach to new media, rhetoric also shaped McLuhan’s approach to Info War. As a tool of power and prestige in an intensely competitive social milieu, training in rhetoric prepared mind and body alike for verbal combat in political assemblies, legal trials, and civic ceremonies. Quintilian’s ideal orator, for example, is not only a good man speaking well (vir bonus dicendi peritus) but an “invincible” gladiator of the word, and Tacitus describes the “lucrative and blood-soaked eloquence” (sanguinantis eloquentiae) of legal and political battles in the blazing sunlight of the Forum (Book XII). The ambivalent power of logos as both violence and persuasion was personified by the ancient Greeks in the figure of Peitho. Despite her flowers, jewels, shimmering garments, and ball of twine (for erotic spellbinding), the goddess of persuasion is also the attendant of Bia (violence) and, for Hesiod, the “daughter of Night and designing ruin” (3).

This rhetorical approach to media war stands at the heart of McLuhan’s critique of cybernetics as a means of understanding media. For McLuhan, all the elements excluded by the Shannon-Weaver “pipeline” or transport model of communication—context, meaning, consciousness, effects, interpretation, noise, bodies—are crucial to understanding the “total message” of a medium. McLuhan thus opens a new phase in the “real war” between logic and rhetoric by shifting the focus of media analysis away from media as “transportation” to media as “transformation” (Letters 256). By interpreting media not simply as cybernetic machines for “conjuring worlds of illusion” but as new modes of rhetoric, as new languages with their own “grammar,” “syntax,” and unique powers of expression, McLuhan traces the emergence of a new mode of multimodal persuasion that commandeers all the resources of the rhetorical tradition to create a hyper-rhetoric (“Playboy” 244).

Info War, McLuhan recognized, relies above all on tactics and technologies of persuasion. According to McLuhan, the advent of the atomic bomb, that “historical exclamation mark,” not only inaugurates a new era of irregular, intrastate warfare that gives war back to the people (civil wars, revolutions, wars of independence) but also propels military conflict toward an “electric battle of information and images that goes far deeper and is more obsessional than the old hot wars of industrial hardware” (Understanding Media 295). As he notes in Understanding Media, since 1945 material war waged by men and machines has become ever more closely integrated with immaterial war waged by media technologies against the brain and nervous system. “Now that man has extended his central nervous system by electric technology,” he writes of this new war of nerves, “the field of battle has shifted to mental image-making and breaking, both in war and in business” (102). The Cold War transfers aggression to the plane of the image: the aim of Info War is to “alter the image of the enemy by global information flow” (Counterblast 36). And as information becomes the key to politico-military power, McLuhan argues, war becomes less about capturing geographical terrain (the “outer conquest of space”) than about colonizing psychological terrain (the “inner conquest of spirit”). As he puts it in War and Peace in the Global Village, Info War is “information technology being used by one community to reshape another one” (149, emphasis added). In short, while war is still about physical destruction, it is increasingly about exerting metaphysical control over civil society. Victory in this rhetorical war means capturing the perceptual fields of soldiers and civilians alike: to capture the enemy one must first captivate their “hearts” and “minds (the old pathos and logos of Aristotelian persuasion), not to mention their nervous systems. How do McLuhan’s insights into the rhetorical battle for control of the “cognitive battle-space” illuminate current approaches to Info War?

It is well known that the United States military has been undergoing a revolution in military affairs (RMA) designed to recast American military doctrine, organization, and strategy for war in the age of global information and communications technologies. What is less well known is the decisive role the art of rhetoric is beginning to play in military theory and practice. As information, especially in digital form, becomes the currency of power in war and politics alike, military planners are rediscovering the efficacy of rhetorical persuasion as an instrument of national power and authority (Defense Science Board, "Report on Strategic Communication"). In fact, persuasive information—not just data, signals, and their conduits of transmission—is now recognized as a new medium of military power and a core element of American grand strategy for the twenty-first century (Defense Science Board, "Strategic, Managed, Information, Creation", Psychological; U.S. Army; U.S. Air Force; Keuhl; Libicki; Thomas). The Defense Science Board report on Managed Information Dissemination, for example, segments each region of the globe into a “three-dimensional influence space” and isolates the audiences, media channels, and national interests to be targeted in each sector. The 2003 U.S. Information Operations Roadmap likewise argues that the timely dissemination of “persuasive information” across the world is crucial to the mission of securing global military dominance in all media (sea, land, air, space, and cyberspace, the emerging “fifth dimension” of combat). Even the military doctrine of “Full Spectrum Dominance” finds its parallel in the rhetorical doctrine of “Full Spectrum Influence,” or uncontested supremacy in the global “influence arena.” As these allusions to power and persuasion suggest, the global information environment has become a rhetorical battle-space in which militaries around the globe seek to “capture the minds of the world’s citizenry, influence their attitudes and behaviors, and produce responses favorable to [their] policy” (Keuhl 13).

The information revolution is therefore pushing politics away from Realpolitik, with its emphasis on hard, coercive military force, toward an approach to statecraft that emphasizes the role of soft, persuasive power in international relations (Nye; Dragon; Hammond; Toffler; Keuhl). Contrary to popular belief, Info War is less about destroying the information infrastructure of cities (cables, routers, towers, power grids—their “electronic solar plexus”) than about exploiting the soft power of persuasive information to shape beliefs and control behaviour. “Information and its denial,” notes the Defense Science Board Report on Psychological Operations, “is power. The state or entity most able to effectively control or manage information, especially managing the perceptions of particular target audiences, will be the most influential” (8). This softening of military power has pushed the art of rhetoric in all its protean, mutating forms—sophistry, propaganda, branding, political marketing, strategic communication, military deception, perception management, PSYOP, and others—to the center of a “new vision” or “new paradigm” of warcraft and statecraft alike (Defense Science Board, Strategic 54). Tapping into metaphysical sources of power like ideas, norms, values, and institutions, Info War persuades rather than compels physically, and “relies on logic, fear, desire and other mental factors to promote specific emotions, attitudes and behaviors” (United States Department of Defense 29). From this perspective, war is above all a “neurological” process that makes the “cognitive battle-space” of culture itself—the “space of minds and societies”—the workplace of warfare (Rowe 20). The rhetoric of Info War therefore creates a new configuration in the old trinity of power, knowledge, and persuasion: this new war of nerves is less about the physical destruction of military hardware than about the metaphysical control of psychic and social software. But as McLuhan recognized, there is a hard edge to soft power; Info War is more than a mere “juggling with images.” It is therefore necessary to examine more closely how Info War takes aim at the human organism.

This essay will be continued in the next open issue of Enculturation.


1 Heidegger’s account of the essence of technology as “enframing” (Gestell) obscures one of the “authentic” traits of media technologies, namely, their rootedness in death, anxiety, and finitude.

2 The Defense Science Board defines Information Warfare (IW or Info War) as “any action to deny, exploit, corrupt, or destroy the enemy's information and its functions; protecting ourselves against those actions; and exploiting our own military information functions” (Information Dissemination 24).

3 Key journals are Parameters, IOsphere, Military Review, Joint Forces Quarterly, and Air and Space Power.

4 Like Innis, McLuhan focused his analysis on the “causal effect of stone, papyrus, and print on the changing structures of decision-making” (Understanding Me 6).

5 Here McLuhan anticipates what Kittler calls the “technological a priori”: we can only think as far as the “information machines or our era” (45).

6 Although it is true, as Virilio points out, that “only the vectors” of propaganda change, even the vectors do not change that much. Artillery leaflets, mounted loudspeaker, radio, newspaper, television, word of mouth, and the exemplary use of violence (“heat, blast, and fragmentation from over the horizon”) remain the PSYOP tools of the trade in Iraq and Afghanistan.

7 War is above all “unimaginable acceleration in every phase in technology” (Mechanical 7). For McLuhan, as for Heraclitus, war is the basis of reality: the dialectical discord of opposing forces and their temporal “turnings of fire” (pyros tropai) make war the ground of Being and the “hidden ground” of the media environment.

8 The birth of the modern noosphere can be dated to 1844, the year the electric telegraph, the “first pulsation of the real nervous system of the world,” sealed humanity in a “global membrane” of instant communication: a global village (Gutenberg 262).

9 Virilio’s analysis of the logistics of military perception owes much to McLuhan, especially his dilations on the eye, visual space, and war as a “visual organization of social energies.”

10 War, for McLuhan, is “accelerated” education: “Warfare as the whole culture acting as a unified educational service, is never more evident than at the present moment. The educational activity going on in Vietnam is total” (Understanding Me 143).

11 For example, in an article in the IBM Systems Journal entitled “Grappling Hooks and Catapults,” John Boulanger argues that the tactics of cyberwar not only mirror those of traditional combat (reconnaissance, probing attack, establishing a bridgehead), but also that cyberwar is an affair of siege engines; the intrusion tools for breaching firewalls in cyberspace remain analogous to catapults, grappling hooks and, of course, Trojan Horses.

Works Cited

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