Nomadology: The War Machine – Smooth Space vs Striated Space

One of the fundamental tasks of the State is to striate the space over which it reigns, or to utilize smooth spaces as a means of communication in the service of striated space. It is a vital concern of every State not only to vanquish nomadism but to control migrations and, more generally, to establish a zone of rights over an entire “exterior,” over all of the flows traversing the ecumenon.

This seems especially relevant today, with the technocratic desire to quantify, label, and then be able to monetise everything. Technocrats continue to sell us the vision of smooth space – that their products, their data, their dark designs, will make our lives easier and better, but that hasn’t happened, and it won’t happen, because in practice they are actually more heavily striating our lives than ever before. They believe that they can fully understand nature, the world, humanity, and individuals if only they were able to gather enough data, but our world doesn’t work like that.

Some people nowadays are too eager to criticize this numerical organization, denouncing it as a military or even concentration-camp society where people are no longer anything more than deterritorialized “numbers.” But that is false. Horror for horror, the numerical organization of people is certainly no cruder than the lineal or State organizations. Treating people like numbers is not necessarily worse than treating them like trees to prune, or geometrical figures to shape and model.

But then if that’s the way Deleuze and Guattari’s State is manifested in the current moment, then it’s worth considering what they have to say about the nomad, and see what lessons we might be able to learn from nomadology. Bear with me with this next quote, but I think it captures dichotomy of the sedentary and the nomad really well.

sedentary space is striated, by walls, enclosures, and roads between enclosures, while nomad space is smooth, marked only by “traits” that are effaced and displaced with the trajectory. […] The nomad distributes himself in a smooth space; he occupies, inhabits, holds that space; that is his territorial principle. […] Toynbee is profoundly right to suggest that the nomad is […] he who does not move. Whereas the migrant leaves behind a milieu that has become amorphous or hostile, the nomad is one who does not depart, does not want to depart, who clings to the smooth space left by the receding forest, where the steppe or the desert advances, and who invents nomadism as a response to this challenge.

To me, this distinction between the migrant and the nomad really speaks of adaptability. Our ability to embrace true nomadism is being stifled by the State and Capital’s efforts to enclose everything, but the nomad’s strength is in clinging to the smooth spaces – perhaps the spaces the state has abandoned.

I’m a sci-fi writer, so I can’t help but think of this thread in terms of climate change, and the huge numbers of climate refugees we’re likely to see in our lifetimes. But as the State retreats to its fortresses, what opportunities might remain outside those walls for the nomad? I don’t have answers, but I think the climate nomad is a compelling figure – someone who shuns the striated spaces of the State and instead seeks to reterritorialize the spaces left behind.

Nomadology: The War Machine – US Military in the Modern Day

It’s probably not surprising that in so much of this discussion of the war machine and the state, I’m put in mind of US imperialsm, particularly the past 20 years of the so-called War on Terror in the Middle East. With the recent situation in Afghanistan, a lot of people have been referencing Vietnam, so let me do the same. With Vietnam it was truly the US going to war – the draft meant many young men were sent to fight regardless of their own feelings about that war or war in general, it was a highly televised event broadcast into American homes every night, and it weighed heavily on political discussions and elections all throughout the years of the war.

Compare that to 20 years in Afghanistan. There’s no draft, so the people going over to fight have volunteered to do so – though economic realities being what they are for many people, can it really be called volunteering? – and even then, more and more of the war was entirely privatised. It wasn’t a war fought by the American people – by the State – but rather by the State’s military apparatus.

A fact that many people likely aren’t familiar with is that even when the US does deign to sign on to various climate change agreements, they will always demand that the US military is exempt from any restrictions related to decreased pollution. In so many ways it is simply not held accountable to the State or the people it is ostensibly protecting.

The war machine is pure exteriority, taking funding from the polity, but otherwise having little or nothing to do with it.

It is not enough to affirm that the war machine is external to the apparatus. It is necessary to reach the point of conceiving the war machine as itself a pure form of exteriority, whereas the State apparatus constitutes the form of interiority we habitually take as a model, or according to which we are in the habit of thinking.

Now, the US military isn’t a true war machine in the D&G sense. “(What we call a military institution, or army, is not at all the war machine in itself, but the form under which it is appropriated by the State.)” As they say: “The State has no war machine of its own; it can only appropriate one in the form of a military institution, one that will continually cause it problems.” That seems a really interesting point to me – the state and the military are always at odds with one another – but still the State is convinced it needs the military, even as the military takes ever-larger pieces of the state’s budget, and even when that military might choose to one day become the state, as with many coups across the last hundred years.

The military institution is a highly regimented and striated hierarchical organisation, but it seems to me that in formal militaries, the true nomadic war machine comes to light in the ways units are able to conduct their duties under their own supervision. There is still a military chain of command, but if the large number of atrocities and war crimes committed by our forces is any indication, that command must seem very distant indeed. And that ties in to some of the other parts of this essay that seemed to me to be speaking of the experience of the war veteran.

If being a part of the nomadic war machine means moving over smooth space – literally, in many desert settings, but also mentally or spiritually, a space where the moral and ethical constraints that underpin society have been smoothed over by a set of increasingly-lax Rules of Engagement –then it’s no wonder both that the rigid hierarchy is required to keep these would-be nomads under control, and also that they so often struggle upon return to the striated space of real life.

Deleuze and Guattari write: “Trapped between the two poles of political sovereignty, the man of war seems outmoded, condemned, without a future, reduced to his own fury, which he turns against himself.” They go on to cite some examples out of ancient myth, but we don’t have to look any further than the many, many veterans who commit suicide upon return to the world. It’s not that their description matches every veteran, but it sadly covers many. Some survive by returning to the war machine – either the formal military institutions, or the private sector – some survive by an act of reterritorialization, becoming something other than a man of war.