Cunning & Strategy

Col. John Boyd’s concept of ‘orientation’ relates ‘filters’ of perception to his analysis of military strategy. Illustration by unbag.


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.

How one must make a counterbattery in a bastion, from which without fear of being discovered one can dismount all the pieces of the enemy. From La Pyrotechnie de Hanzelet Lorrain (1630), Jean Appier-Hanzelet.

Our bodies are central to the practices by which we “presentify ourselves to one another.”11Lacan. Anxiety: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book X, 88. But bodies are themselves images, which presentify themselves to us. Their life exceeds our own, sometimes hospitable towards us, at other times less so. The body is “the image we believe we abide by.”12Lacan. Anxiety: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book X, 88. But that belief, Lacan argued, will always be tested. In the experience of looking at ourselves in a mirror, whereupon we catch our own gaze, the value of this one fundamental image, which he calls the “specular image”, changes value. For there is the moment at which “this gaze that appears in the mirror starts not to look at us anymore.”13Lacan. Anxiety: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book X, 88. This, Lacan argued, is an uncanny moment wherein an anxiety ensues that is fundamental to the human condition. An anxiety which arises from the recognition or sense of the motility of the image, its capacity to undergo modification, to be more absent than present, less stable, less hospitable. Image anxiety.


The human subject is a kind of photograph. It is the product of an act of photographing in which it allows itself to be photographed, and turned into an image. 14Lacan. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, 106. Another word for this willful participation in the act of being turned into an image, common to the experience of being photographed is, of course, posing. The experience of being photographed is an of extension of the ordinary experience of being an image received in the eyes of others. Roland Barthes describes it better than anybody: “I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of ‘posing,’ I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image…I experience it with the anguish of an uncertain filiation: an image – my image – will be generated.”15Barthes. Camera Lucida, 10-11.

At stake here is not the age-old philosophical problem of representation; the difference between what can be known phenomenologically and what must remain veiled from us as noumenon. This is not an issue of knowing our metaphysical boundaries. Instead it is a question of grasping how we humans participate in the both the practices of our own image production and the image-making of others who would seduce and deceive us, were we not able to deceive and seduce them first. The human being enacts the breach between “its being and its semblance, between itself and that paper tiger it shows to the other.”16Lacan. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, 107. Likewise, it recognizes, in moments of perspicuity, the breach in others, between what is seen, and what is real, as the image of the real emerges. 17Lacan. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, 108.

The problem of “being taken down a false track,” is perhaps the most concrete of all problems facing human beings caught up in the game of signifying images. It is “the enigma which fills us with dread and from which we protect ourselves with the formal illusion of truth.”18Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime, 2. It is fundamentally a non-negotiable phenomenon and quite why we fear it as we do is in a sense a puzzle in itself. As Baudrillard put it, “the fact that we cannot bear its enigmatic character is also an enigma, also part of the enigma. It is part of the world that we cannot bear either the illusion of the world or pure appearance.”19Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime, 3. Not to be sensitive to this enigma, and our encapsulation within it, Baudrillard argued, is “in effect, to be incapable of living” for “intelligence is precisely this sensing of the universal illusion.”20Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime, 6. “All things offer themselves up without a hope of being anything other than illusions of themselves. And it is right that this should be so.”21Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime, 7. Few have taken on this problem more assiduously than Lacan. 22Lacan. Anxiety: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book X, 55. Beneath the entire field of image production is, Lacan says, the logos of the hunt. In many ways Lacan might be compared here with Gracian who, writing in the 17th century to inform the subject of the Baroque court, said that the life of man was to be understood as a “warfare against the malice of men”23Gracian. The Art of Worldly Wisdom, 5. in which opposing intelligences are forever lurking in ambush of one another. This is not to be read as a comment on the tragic condition of the human. It is affirmative. As Guy Debord expressed, “we never seek things for themselves but for the search…one prefers the hunt to the catch.”24Debord. Panegyric: Volumes 1 & 2, 51.

But this fear of being taken down a false track is as old as philosophy itself, and goes right to the heart of the entire Western tradition of thinking concerning the cunning of images. Indeed the logos of the hunt is inseparable from this fear of the image within that tradition. If we go back to Plato’s Sophist, we encounter it explicitly.25Clausewitz, On War, 8-9. The dialogue was, of course, concerned with interrogating the question of the differences between sophistry and philosophy, and beyond that the question of the particular “expertise” that can be accorded to sophists and sophism. The conversation was framed by its interlocutors, Thaeatatus and the Visitor from Elea, as a kind of hunt. A hunt for the sophist. Hunting is the method employed by the interlocutors of the dialogue. 26Clausewitz, On War, 3. But to hunt the sophist, Thaeatatus and the Visitor must also consider the particular expertise that is at stake in hunting. Expertise, the Visitor maintains, can be divided into two categories. There is the expertise which can be defined as production which entails the bringing into being of something that wasn’t there before, and there is the expertise which can be defined as acquisition, which creates nothing, but which “takes things that are or have come into being, and takes possession of some of them with words and actions, and which keep other things from being taken possession of.”27Clausewitz, On War, 4. Hunting falls into the latter category, along with any practice which has to do with “learning, recognition, commerce, and combat.”28Clausewitz, On War, 4.

Clausewitz’s “fascinating trinity”: a synthesis of his dialectical analysis of the nature of war. Illustration by unbag.


We are well aware of the role that images play in propaganda. Because of their ability to communicate across linguistic barriers, images have long been used in the West as instruments of conquest. But do we understand the extent to which the human experience and practice of image making and decipherment, at its most banal and most universal, is ontologically grounded not just in the logos of the hunt, but of war? Do we understand, even after Reich 29Reich, Wilhelm. The Mass Psychology of Fascism. or Deleuze and Guattari 30Deleuze and Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus, 351-423., why the game of war is such a fascinating compulsion for human beings? Nobody other than Lacan has began to scrape the surface of this question of how war may “live off” an exploitation of the human fascination for images, and off the psychic life of the human subject as such.

In a lecture at the Saint-Anne Hospital in 1962, Lacan illustrated the relations between human subjectivity, image-making, and anxiety with a metaphor. Imagine yourself inside a cave donning a mask, he commanded. It is, as is every mask in some way, an animal mask. Another animal appears beside you in the cave. It appears to be a real animal; a gigantic one, a female praying mantis. The female praying mantis you remember, is known to devour her mate after or during copulation. You realize that, while you are aware that you yourself are masked, you do not know which mask you are wearing. What animal are you? What properties does your mask represent, and what image does it give to the giant female praying mantis? Given that you do not know quite what mask you yourself are wearing, it is easy to imagine that the praying mantis may easily mistake your identity. This dilemma, Lacan argued, and more to the point, this anxiety, proceeds from the fact that one can never know how one’s own image is received “in the enigmatic mirror of the insect’s ocular globe.” 31Lacan. Anxiety: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book X, 6.

The human subject is troubled by its interpellation within the game of the gaze in a double sense. It is threatened with the possibility that it may fall for the spectacle of another, that it may be deceived, as we have already seen. But there is a further source of anxiety for the subject as it participates in the game of the gaze. In making the paper tiger that is one’s own image, one becomes a spectacle for an other, and will be consumed by that other. That the image one gives to the other will lead to an end of the game of the gaze. Anxiety, as Lacan argued, derives not from a fear of loss or failure, but from a sense of the imminent possibility of completion and success. For Freudians, this way of comprehending anxiety is a kind of heresy as Freud taught that anxiety derives from a fear of loss. For Lacan “anxiety isn’t the signal of a lack” but “the failing of the support that lack provides.”32Lacan. Anxiety: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book X, 53. Anxiety does not attend a feeling of longing for something absent but a sense of the imminence of what has been longed for. If there is a “security of presence” then it is dependent on the “possibility of absence” and once that possibility of absence is threatened with disappearance, anxiety ensues.33Lacan. Anxiety: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book X, 53. It is “when there’s no possibility of any lack” that the subject experiences anxiety because “anxiety isn’t about the loss of the object, but its presence”; a presence that threatens to annul the condition of absence that incites the game of the gaze at its origin. What is feared, most fundamentally, in the game of the gaze, is success, because success confers a condition in which “there’s no lack.”34Lacan. Anxiety: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book X, 54.

The nexus of relations between cunning, hunting, war and the image is compelling for one final reason. Why is it that the endeavor of making images of God has been so divisive within Christian and Islamic traditions? Why do we suppose that God, while presenting himself as a source of renovation for human beings in the form of an image, nevertheless forbade the making of images of himself by humans? Is it that in consenting to the creation of such images that he would have to enter into the game of gazing, of being lured by such images; the game of his own desire being aroused by that which is not real, and therefore a breach within himself, between the image and the real?35Lacan. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, 113. If the game of the gaze is, as Clausewitz maintained, fundamentally a game of the weakest party, why would God enter into that game? Is not the entire historical and religious practice of sacrifice rooted in the game of the gaze? What is a sacrifice if not a gift given to a God on the basis of an assumption that they desire it? Sacrifice consists in the pretense that gods desire in precisely the same ways that humans do. Or is it, as Baudrillard maintained, the very “strategy of God himself to use images in order to disappear, himself obeying the urge to leave no trace?” (1996: 5).36Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime, 5.




Barthes, Roland. 2000. Camera Lucida. London: Vintage Books.

Baudrillard, Jean. 1996. The Perfect Crime. London: Verso.

Clausewitz, Carl Von. 1993. On War. London: Everyman.

Debord, Guy. 2004. Panegyric: Volumes 1 & 2. London: Verso).

Deleuze, Gilles, and Guattari, Felix. 1999. A Thousand Plateaus. London: Athlone Press.

Gracian, Baltasar. 2005. The Art of Worldly Wisdom. New York: Dover.

Gray, Colin. 1999. Modern Strategy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gruzinski, Serge. 2001. Images at War: Mexico from Columbus to Blade Runner (1492-2019). London: Duke University Press.

Lacan, Jacques. 2014. Anxiety: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book X. Oxford: Polity.

Lacan, Jacques. 2004. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. London: Karnac.

Plato. 1993. Sophist. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Reich, Wilhelm. 1970. The Mass Psychology of Fascism. New York: Touchstone.

Virilio, Paul. 2005. Negative Horizon. London: Continuum.

   [ + ]

1. Clausewitz, On War, 238.
2, 3. Clausewitz, On War, 239.
4. Gray, Modern Strategy, 16.
5. Deleuze and Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus, 396.
6. Virilio. Negative Horizon.
7. Virilio. Negative Horizon, 40.
8, 16. Lacan. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, 107.
9. Lacan. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, 53.
10. Lacan. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, 53-64.
11, 12, 13. Lacan. Anxiety: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book X, 88.
14. Lacan. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, 106.
15. Barthes. Camera Lucida, 10-11.
17. Lacan. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, 108.
18. Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime, 2.
19. Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime, 3.
20. Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime, 6.
21. Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime, 7.
22. Lacan. Anxiety: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book X, 55.
23. Gracian. The Art of Worldly Wisdom, 5.
24. Debord. Panegyric: Volumes 1 & 2, 51.
25. Clausewitz, On War, 8-9.
26. Clausewitz, On War, 3.
27, 28. Clausewitz, On War, 4.
29. Reich, Wilhelm. The Mass Psychology of Fascism.
30. Deleuze and Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus, 351-423.
31. Lacan. Anxiety: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book X, 6.
32, 33. Lacan. Anxiety: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book X, 53.
34. Lacan. Anxiety: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book X, 54.
35. Lacan. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, 113.
36. Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime, 5.