What is the relationship of cunning to strategy? The arch strategist and philosopher of war, Carl von Clausewitz argued that “no human characteristic appears as suited to the task of directing and inspiring strategy as the gift of cunning.”1Clausewitz, On War, 238. Cunning, as he discussed, has a great deal to do with deceit, the projection of images, the concealment of purposes, and the ways in which, through the creation of false impressions, we lead our opponents to make their own mistakes. And yet Clausewitz went on to argue that such methods of cunning and deceit have “little strategic value” as they require “a considerable expenditure of time and effort, and the costs increase with the scale of the deception.”2Clausewitz, On War, 239. “It is dangerous,” he maintained, “to use substantial forces over any length of time merely to create an illusion”3Clausewitz, On War, 239. and cunning is therefore best understood as a weapon of the weak, occasioning use only when there is no other hope. Clausewitz was writing at the inception of the modern era of strategy and war. To what extent does his theory and ultimate dismissal of the strategic value of cunning hold up today?
How can it be that cunning is the human capacity from which strategy most singularly derives and yet be of little strategic value to the practice of strategy? At first glance this would seem to be a paradox. If we follow Clausewitz we can see that it owes to the ways in which strategy has lost its dependence on the arts of deception and image-making, which as Clausewitz maintained, are closely related to cunning as capacity. From the neo-Clausewitzian perspective, the creation of images and illusions calls for “time and effort.” Strategy, on the other hand, is defined by the maximal utilization of time—“time lost is literally irretrievable” suggests Colin Gray, one of Clausewitz’s contemporary exponents.4Gray, Modern Strategy, 16.
Cunning inspires the development of strategy because strategy develops out of war, and war, in turn, from the hunt—the original practice in which humans first learned the value of cunning. But a transformation in human capacities attends the historical development of the hunt into war and the modern evolution of strategy. The strategist is not the warrior every bit as much as the warrior is not the hunter. These are distinct anthropological types. Each of these different enterprises; strategizing, war-making, and hunting is said to have a distinct logos. At the same time the logos of each is related to another. Strategy depends, to some extent, on war, while not requiring it as such. War depends, to some extent, on hunting, while not requiring it. Strategy does not depend on hunting, and indeed is defined against it. Hunting is costly to strategy, such that while the two enterprises are entwined, the one negates the other.
Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari give us an indication of this when they argue that war does not appear “when man applies to man the relation of hunter to animal, but on the contrary when he captures the force of the hunted animal, and enters an entirely new relation to man, that of war (enemy, no longer prey).”5Deleuze and Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus, 396. But war, as Paul Virilio had argued in a more nuanced account, can nevertheless be said to derive from the hunt, insofar as it entails a development in the nature of relations between man and hunted animal. 6Virilio. Negative Horizon. The arts by which humans learned to domesticate animals and subsequently breed them for war represent, Virilio argues, the “fulfillment and perfecting of predation.” 7Virilio. Negative Horizon, 40.
If cunning is the virtue of the hunter, and if war marks a development in hunting then in what way does war develop cunning, and what is its outcome? Secondly, is there a subsequent evolution from war to strategy? And if the strategist and the warrior are distinct anthropological types, how, if at all, does the strategist develop the hunt, and does that development testify to a development of cunning?
My argument here is that cunning, contrary to Clausewitz’s dismissal, is absolutely fundamental to strategy—the arts of getting what one wants. In being so it is part of what demarcates the human from the animal. The argument is not simply that the possession of cunning is the sole marker of the human. Animals, too, in their own ways navigate their worlds through the deployment of cunning. But what distinguishes the human from the animal is that the former knows that its’ cunning is cunning; that the images it makes are simply images, that its deceptions are just that, and that the illusions by which it deceives are manifestations of cunning. Unlike the animal the human is not entirely caught up in the play of images surrounding it, by which it both deploys cunning, and suffers the cunning of others. Instead the human, as Lacan expresses it, maps itself into a world of images in which it is enthralled. The human is able to isolate him or herself within its own world, and manifest an art of decipherment.8Lacan. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, 107. It is in this sense that the world of images and illusions is open to human intervention. The question is that of how we humans can best engage our cunning such that we are able to choreograph our own lives in accordance with an extraction of power from our imaginations.
In the thoroughness of its excavation of the function of images, and the problem of the imagination in human experience, psychoanalysis is unrivaled as a scientific discipline. It is to twentieth and twenty-first century power relations what military strategic theory was to the eighteenth and nineteenth century.
Unlike much of Western Philosophy, it cannot be accused of denigrating or pathologizing the functions of cunning. It has taken the imaginal life of the human subject very seriously as a means to getting to the root of the nature of human being. At the same time it has had to defend itself against the accusation that it can be reduced to mere idealism, and that it rests upon the paltry aphorism, that “life is a dream.”9 Lacan. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, 53. In response to this critique, Lacan defended psychoanalysis as a science of the real—“no praxis is more orientated towards that which, at the heart of experience, is the kernel of the real than psycho-analysis.”10Lacan. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, 53-64. What Lacan took to be the fundamental task of his discipline was not simply cunning as such, but the ways in which cunning relates to the problem of how human beings get what they want.
As human beings we are condemned never to be able to grasp each other as anything more than images. This reality is constitutive of human experience. It is the basis of human desire. When we fall in love, we fall, necessarily, for an image. And when another falls for us, they fall for our own image. Likewise all of what we can know of ourselves is mediated by images of ourselves, many of them given to us, by others. Not only is human specificity to be understood in terms of its capacity for the production and decipherment of images, the human is also that peculiar animal which senses itself to be an image. But to this practice of seeing ourselves as images we must add also the practices by which we learn to experience how we are received, as images, in the eyes and imaginations of others. Our sense of subjectivity is rooted in our experience of not just making and receiving images in a broad and ambiguous way, but that we are looked at and received as an image given unto others, often in spite of ourselves, but also in a quasi-instrumental way.