Somatic War: Militarized Sensation, Gameplay, and Embodied Experience
Kevin McSorley, University of Portsmouth

Drawing on theories of affective design in gameplay, ethnographies of war and the military, and analyses of the logics of contemporary mediatization, this paper explores the translations, discontinuities and resonances between the sensuous and sentimental education of warfare across various domains - including first-person shooter video-games; military training and war fighting; and the mediascape of contemporary counterinsurgency. It highlights the significance of embodied movements and rhythms, affective intensities and sensory practices through which the possibilities and affordances of occupation are rendered legible, enmity and threat are seen and felt, and militarized reflexes are enculturated and elicited across various body-selves. I argue that, in contrast to analyses that stress the abstraction and disembodiment of hi-tech 'virtual/virtuous war', the sentimental education of contemporary warfare is significantly bound up with a materiality that is lo-fi, intimate, multi-sensory and decisively linked to particular embodied experiences, rhythms and risks of soldiering such as patrol, contact and combat flow. Tracing the genealogies of specific prosthetic technologies of anticipation, immersion and remediation such as the helmetcam and the Vallon IED detector, and their associated practices and images, offers one particular route to interrogate how contemporary textures of wartime experience travel across these contemporary virtual and real landscapes of risk and threat. In so doing, I argue that it is through an emerging aesthetic regime of 'somatic war' - that foregrounds sensory immersion and real feeling, vital living and bodily vulnerability - that contemporary warfare is currently being made perceptible and palpable for various significant constituencies. At this historical juncture, the helmet-crammed western soldier in particular has become a key assemblage in the emergence of this specific regime of sensation, where soldiers' bodily rhythms, sensory practices and somatic modes of attention have become a key idiom through which wider public apprehensions of war are being entrained, and understandings of the aims and rectitude of military conduct are shaped and negotiated. The paper will explore how the resonances of such phenomena may be theorised variously in terms of the militarisation of subjectivity and everyday life; the privatisation of violence and the re-enchantment of war; and/or as contemporary articulations of discipline, biopolitics and neuropower that are emblematic of more general transformations in affectivity and the neoliberal way of life. It will also highlight how the aesthetic regime of somatic war is extending both spatially and temporally to reshape the historical apprehension of conflicts including WW1 (explored via an analysis of the BBC's interactive gameplay episode of Our Great War). It will finally emphasise the importance of analysing the phenomenological discontinuities of response to somatic war across various constituencies including gamers, viewers, recruits, trainers and veterans. In doing so, it will point to how political dissensus to somatic war may be associated with sensory modalities and experiences that exceed key dimensions of the militarized sensorium, such as those associated with smell, touch and skin.

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