Logistics as rationality
: Excavating the coloniality of contemporary logistical formations

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

Abstract

What connects the production and project of Western modernity, cybernetics and Cambridge Analytica? How did we get to a point of near ubiquitous digital surveillance with direct intervention in and rationalisation of even the most intimate parts of our political and emotional subjectivities? This thesis demonstrates the trajectories of power that link the project of Western colonial modernity with the operations of groups like Cambridge Analytica. It does so by investigating logistics as the pervasive organising mode of contemporary capitalist society that enables the global circulation of goods, information and capital. Logistics is often deemed a neutral scientific method applying rational technologies to production and distribution processes. It results in the increased production of value through the accumulation of efficiencies. This thesis troubles this narrative. It outlines a critical history of logistics, the rationality underpinning it and its relation to colonial modernity.

I make a number of key arguments. First, the oft cited claim that the ‘Revolution in Logistics’ started in the 1950s and 60s is inadequate. This moment was purported to begin with the incorporation of computation and systems thinking into ‘Physical Distribution Management.’ This was an early attempt to manage the movement of goods and rationalise the firm as a holistic entity. I develop a twofold extension of this history. First, I historicise the development of cybernetic thought. I focus on the origins of the universal language it developed to describe the world; its conceptualisation of the world-as-system; and the logistical forms of organisation and thought it begat. I return to the late 1930s and the development of (initially) military technologies like cybernetics, early networked computing systems, and the movement from analogue to digital computing as significant moments in the becoming-infrastructural of logistics as a global organising principle. Second, to re-politicise the underlying operations of power at work in this logistical moment, I suggest that we need to think these developments in their relation to imperial power.

Persistent imperial and colonial legacies shape the present. Logistics was established through domination based on the category of race or ‘Otherness.’ It was founded with the inauguration of modernity and was always tied to ongoing processes of racialised domination. What happened in the 1950’s and thereafter was a (counter)revolution in logistics - an extension of earlier logics and techniques of domination – that worked to retain, recalibrate, restructure and reinscribe the inequalities of wealth and the power of Empire at the moment of its apparent dissolution. Logistics and its underlying rationality were and continue to be elemental to the ongoing constitution of modernity. I draw on the work of Mitchell, Quijano, and Mignolo amongst others to demonstrate the continuities of power operant in contemporary logistical organisation. I track how from the 1930s through the Cold War and the concurrent struggles for independence, a set of logistical technologies shaped by logics of coloniality were deployed against anti-imperialist struggles in post- and neo-imperial contexts.

The central argument of this thesis is that the rationality underlying logistical organisation can be understood as a means through which the coloniality of power operates. The thesis delineates a set of logics that constitute this rationality and how they translate to forms of epistemic violence that themselves uphold programmes of domination. Logistical rationality thus structures political and economic possibilities and constructs a regime that attempts to delineate and control space, time, bodies, materials and subjectivities. To think logistics and logistics as rationality together is to consider both the material-infrastructural and political-epistemic foundations of logistics and the ways these were constituted by and contribute to the contemporary shape of modernity. In so doing, I bring into relief the recalibration of structures that determine what counts as knowledge and what counts as being, and consequently, provide a framework that allows us to reckon with the structural, epistemic, and physical forms of violence inherent to the logistical project that lay the groundwork for contemporary forms of domination.


Date of AwardJun 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Brighton
SupervisorDaniel Steuer (Supervisor), Zeina El Maasri (Supervisor) & Mark Devenney (Supervisor)

Keywords

  • Logistics
  • Coloniality
  • Extraction

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