Security Studies – Occupying the Future?

This is to be the first in a short series of posts reflecting on the peculiar, and often neglected, relationship between security studies and the future. 

“I hold that man is in the right who is most closely in league with the future.”
Henrik Ibsen (Shuman, 1997)

“The politics of catastrophe is turned towards an unknown future, which must be imagined and inhabited in order to be made palpable, knowable and actionable
(Aradau & Munster, 2011)

“It is always profitable to recall that the ways in which states prepare and organise themselves for war, and the ways in which their societies problematise security, directly reflect the forms of life that they enact.”
(Dillon & Reid, 2009)

The Future in (and of) Security Studies

The great paradox of the future is that it is perennially immanent. It is a destination at which, by its very definition, we can never arrive. Even if our predictive reach can extend so far as to accurately prophesy what is to come, certainty and verification will always exceed our material grasp. Through this unknowability, the future has historically inspired humans with a curious mixture of giddy excitement, utopian aspiration and fearful uncertainty. For those concerned with the practice and study of security, the desire to reconcile the possibility and unpredictability of the future has proved particularly problematic.

The impossibility of knowing and governing the future directs us towards a tension at the ontological core of security. Whilst I wish to avoid too circuitous a detour into the metaphysics of time and knowing, this point is worthy of further, if brief, explication. The history of security, as both a practice and an academic discipline, can be usefully recounted as an ongoing effort to assert order, control and predictability onto a realm that is, somewhat contradictorily, most frequently characterised as disordered, uncontrollable and unpredictable.          

The imperative to occupy and order these realms – these places that are imagined as chaotic, dangerous, borderless and unknown – is foundational to both the act of doing security, and to the epistemologies and heuristics we have developed in order that we can make them finite and governable. For the neorealist, the existence of anarchy in international relations is made intelligible through the application of structural limits and a framework of rational self-interest; for the Copenhagen school, the apparent contention between the ordered civility of daily life and the extremities of violence and exception which fortify against the intrusion of danger and disorder, is made comprehendible through the concepts of anomie and exception; for the classical realist, the uncertainty of the state of nature is every bit as fearful as its brutality, but through the imposition of Leviathan – the chaos is bounded, ordered and known.

In each instance, the unknown or uncontrollable – however it is imagined – becomes intelligible through either the forceful imposition of order or the demarcation and exclusion of that which is deemed extra-normal. In practice and in thought, a priori uncertainty, and its attendant danger, is either colonised or quarantined. The unease and excitement generated by the future for those of us concerned with security is more easily understood when we bear this tension in mind. The future is unknowable and ungovernable yet, unlike the geographies, bodies and actions that constitute our visions of the past and present, the future can be neither colonised nor shut-out. If we endeavor to order and govern the future, we may only aspire to do so through a Leviathan of our own making. This task – to imagine the future and to invent, so far as is possible, the machines and ideas that may secure it – has long been central to the work of security professionals, military thinkers and technologists.

The history of this undertaking is one we may be only peripherally aware of in IR and security studies. One of the many ways the discipline has traditionally fortified its boundaries – in its ambition for order, definiteness and completeness – has been to adopt a largely ahistorical approach. As such, even though technological and scientific innovation has ostensibly been central to the study of security and, particularly, of organised violence, there has been scant attention paid to the role of our imagined futures in conditioning, shaping, guiding our preparations in the present.

The end of the Cold War is often used to demarcate the start of a broadening and deepening of security studies.[1] The decline of a bipolar nuclear world order, and the security fetishes that accompanied it, meant that there was room for new concerns, the consideration of different threats and the embracing of new ways of thinking about security. However, whilst new schools and approaches have proliferated, it is worth noting that the application of novel methodologies to security problematics has been far from even, and the trajectories of new theoretical exploration have certainly not been uniformly radial.

Critical Security Studies – Unknown Futures, Risk, Probability

Scholars in some fields of security have embraced the opportunity to engage with cross-disciplinary and theoretically rich approaches. Critical security approaches, particularly have aspired to grapple with the complexity, contingency and subjectivity of security. Yet, even here, it is only recently that scholars have critically and systematically engaged with the constitutive role of either the future or the imagination in conditioning the security discourses and technologies of the present. Louise Amoore’s numerous publications on risk, preemption and the rise of the algorithm as a both a tool and actant in security are notable examples of such work (Amoore, 2006, 2016), as is Aradau and Munster’s excellent work on the Politics of Catastrophe (Aradau & Munster, 2011).

Amoore’s work is instructive in directing us towards a genealogical account of the preoccupation with occupying and securing the future throughout modern history. Whilst her work speaks specifically to the prominent role of algorithmic routines in the conditioning and framing of war and security (Raley & Amoore, 2017), it is equally useful as an investigation of the relationship between temporal imaginaries – of our past, present and, most critically, future – and the technologies we develop to control and order them.

In speaking of the prominence, historically, of algorithmic thinking in IR and security, she highlights the aspiration for a “sense of the ‘definiteness’ and stability in a world otherwise characterized by profound uncertainty that promised a capacity to secure against unknown futures.” (Raley & Amoore, 2017). Statistical knowledge, probabilistic modelling and data systems have been part of our discipline since its genesis as a key aspect of Cold War geopolitics. Understood in these terms, Amoore continues, “international relations is bound historically with the development of algorithmic ways of calculating” and “the practice of security has historically embraced a computational capacity to act decisively and procedurally in the face of radical uncertainty.”

Aradau and Munster’s work, in a somewhat different vein, takes the notion of catastrophe as its main focus and uses it as a concept to explore the modalities of thought and technological novelties through which states and security actors seek to govern future events. Again advocating a genealogical method, the authors argue that the catastrophe allows critical security scholars to consider the means through which security actors have attempted to make knowable and finite those future possibilities which are truly unpredictable and boundless.

There is, of course, far more to this literature than has been noted in the brief reflection above, however, it will be demonstrated in coming chapters that there is still a significant amount of work to be done. Not only is there a need for research which systematically engages with these issues in relation to warfare and political violence, but there is also a great deal to be gained from further cross-disciplinary study and engagement with new theories and methods.

It is this crucial task to which the following series of posts will be devoted.


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