Empire of Chance: The Napoleonic Wars and the Disorder of Things
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Napoleon’s campaigns were the most complex military undertakings in history before the nineteenth century. But the defining battles of Austerlitz, Borodino, and Waterloo changed more than the nature of warfare. Concepts of chance, contingency, and probability became permanent fixtures in the West’s understanding of how the world works. Empire of Chance examines anew the place of war in the history of Western thought, showing how the Napoleonic Wars inspired a new discourse on knowledge.
Soldiers returning from the battlefields were forced to reconsider basic questions about what it is possible to know and how decisions are made in a fog of imperfect knowledge. Artists and intellectuals came to see war as embodying modernity itself. The theory of war espoused in Carl von Clausewitz’s classic treatise responded to contemporary developments in mathematics and philosophy, and the tools for solving military problems―maps, games, and simulations―became models for how to manage chance. On the other hand, the realist novels of Balzac, Stendhal, and Tolstoy questioned whether chance and contingency could ever be described or controlled.
As Anders Engberg-Pedersen makes clear, after Napoleon the state of war no longer appeared exceptional but normative. It became a prism that revealed the underlying operative logic determining the way society is ordered and unfolds.
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application of the critical method, however, departs in significant ways from Kant’s critical project. First, the inquiry into the transcendental conditions of possibility of perception is exchanged for an examination of the validity of theoretical constructs; second, the world to which these constructs are applied is not conceived as a stable phenomenon governed by lawfulness. Berenhorst views war as a human activity that forms a world unto itself insofar as it is governed by specific operative
Another point on which my line of inquiry differs from that of traditional discourse analysis is my focus on what has been called the poetics of knowledge, that is, the ways the production of knowledge is bound up with aesthetic choices and techniques.14 In The Names of History, for example, Jacques Rancière shows how the change of narrative tense in historiography cannot be reduced to mere style, to a rhetorical turn of phrase. Rather the linguistic change has epistemological significance as it
is better than knowledge. But talent is formed in seclusion, on touch, tact, a nd tactics 87 character, however, only in the stream of the world. They are two entirely different goals, and two entirely different roads lead there.”74 Backtracking on the road of science and knowledge and venturing instead down the road of praxis, Kleist changes his views on decision making. No longer at home in logical space, he needs a new model for the empirical world, with all the demands and constraints
such that the countries in the vicinity of the Turks will be secure from their violence and their projectiles. Therefore I have undertaken to show how such a structure is to be built.”3 The intrusion of the unheard and unexpected is met with a building that transforms brute acts of violence into a geometrical design. The development of new architectural forms domesticates and brings under control the contingencies of warfare. The tactical worth of a fort, as the Italian mathematician and engineer
decision can thus be boiled down to the question of “whether you should maneuver to the right, to the left, or directly ahead. The selection between three simple alternatives cannot, surely, be considered an enigma worthy of a modern sphinx.”46 Not, that is, if one has a good map at hand. Mapmaker and military thinker in one, Jomini presents a cartographic military theory in which the art of war consists in the organization of the terrain into strategic and tactical zones and the management of