Man and Woman, War and Peace Anthony Wilden

Some twenty years ago Anthony Wilden burst on the scene as the translator and promulgator of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan as well as the author of a series of highly original essays on Freud’s connection between death and repetition, the limitations of Piaget’s bioglogical structuralism, the nature of the autobiographical self-constructed in Montaigne’s Essays, the inadequacy of Marcuse’s notion of libido, and sundry other topics. These formed the basis for his System and Structure: Essays in Communication and Exchange which attempted to meld into a unified discursive framework – impossible task – the creative (but ultimately gnomically self-serving and obfuscatory) insights of Lacan-speak with general systems theory and the straight, no-nonsense Anglo-Saxon prose of Gregory Bateson’s ecological approach to human communication.
Now, fifteen years and many provocative essays later, Wilden once again attempts a unified ecological perspective, a new science of communication and exchange which he calls Context theory. Only this time Lacan, though his ideas can be felt as a presence, is mercifully absent from the writing. Instead in Man and Woman, War and Peace and in the companion volume The Rules are no Game published at the same time, plain English rules: the forceful clarity of Orwell’s prose, not the poetics of Lacan’s master Mallarme, is the model.
Orwell was exercised by the connection between language and power: specifically the totalitarian corruption of speech and writing. Wilden follows him. But his remit is wider, more politically focused; and his method more systematic and theoretically grounded. For Orwell the question was monolithic state control of the individual. For Wilden it is the power of the colonizer over the colonized – male power over women, white power over black people, first world power over the third world. Not just totalitarian control but all modes of subordinating, oppressing, subjugating, enslaving, dominating and manipulating human beings. And not just speech/writing and the corruptions thereof but the whole communicational scene of language, gestures, images and signs in its everyday ‘uncorrupted’ use as it makes and remakes our culture.
Since all communication rests on differences Wilden begins by untangling the confusions, tricks and communicational errors which thread their way through the terms ‘difference’, ‘identity’, ‘distinction’, ‘opposition’, ‘polarity’, ‘contradiction’ and ‘paradox’. Using Bateson’s characterization of ‘distinction’ – “a difference that makes a difference” – as the starting point for an analysis of the move from analogue to digital communication he builds a model that is a) rich enough to discuss phenomena as wide apart as Yin Yang polarity, paradoxical injunctions (‘don’t read this sentence’), double binds, Hegel’s dialectics, Escher’s images and the binary oppositions of structuralist anthropology; and b) goes beyond mere semiotic categorization and clarification by showing how, by ignoring questions of level and context, the systematic distortion of relations of hierarchy into flat, either/or opposition serves the interest of the dominant epistemology. “Thus we say: nature, as opposed to society; man, as opposed to woman; white, as opposed to non-white; capital, as opposed to labor. We also say ‘society on the one hand, and nature on the other’… But the real relationship described by each of these phrases is in fact hierarchical. In reality the first term constrains the second…and such hierarchies are contingent: they are products of history.” (p. 23)
As products of history they have, of course, political and ideological content. Wilden’s aim is to chart the hidden forms of this content, to lay bare the mechanisms of domination that operate inside the apparently neutral, innocuous tropes and usages of everyday communication and, in so doing, suggest how they may be countered.
Thus the overall form of Man and Woman, War and Peace is an attempt to uncouple the multiple connections between men, women, war, peace that have, in the long course of cultural evolution, been sedimented into a picture of some ‘natural’, inevitable and changeless human essence. For Wilden such questions as – why is war virtually universal among human cultures? What is the psychic source of the prevalence and satisfaction of torture? Why do victorious soldiers rape and kill women of conquered peoples? – are not answerable in terms of the shape of some ahistorical human psyche. They are, rather, facets of a single phenomenon: the production, maintenance and perpetuation of male supremacy – “the biggest and most deeply rooted form of organized bullying in the history of human culture”.
For those who accept the change in the perception of rape, for example, brought about by feminist arguments of the last twenty years – that it is an act of violence against women and not an excess of male sexuality – Wilden’s thesis, though not the communicational underpinning he advances, will come as no surprise. What will perhaps jolt such readers is his treatment of war. The aim of his book is not to mount a pacifist condemnation of it but to use what it has to offer in order to fight the system of bullying that sustains it. To this end Wilden gives elaborate analyses – framed always in terms of context and levels of communication – of the nature of strategy, tactics, battlefield manoeuvres, lines of communication, rules of conflict and the like. He has much to say about the theories of the two great writers on war, Clausewitz and Sun Tzu, arguing against the Prussian insistence on total war and for the Chinese characterization of victory as the avoidance of armed conflict.
What is singular about Wilden’s account of warfare – whether he is describing the butchery at Culloden, the rape of Nanking or countless other acts of carnage and destruction – is his avoidance of rhetoric in the name of a larger didactic vision. Like Brecht in his way poems and in ‘Mother Courage’ Wilden knows that war is too deeply defended an activity to yield to outright moralism and too strongly invested with accumulated historical intelligence not to be useful. Learn – he seems to be saying: understand the power itself is a form of communication, observe tactics, study the nature of strategy, manoeuvre cunningly and survive with dignity.
Man and Woman, War and Peace is, as its subtitle openly declares, a combat manual, a kind of guerrilla handbook for long term survival in the war against the dominations and reductions of male supremacy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s