Research Topic 3:

Destabilization by surprise

The concept of surprise (see Addendum I) combines the idea of unexpectedness with that of a trap. To take an opponent by surprise, one has to control information (one’s knowledge, resources and actions are to be concealed) and time (one must outpace the adversary). Here, surprise is not only deployed as a weapon in itself: it reinforces other weapons, and serves as a major tool of discrimination because, once it is completed, it reveals who was best at anticipating and organizing the future. The surprise-maker manages to minimize the unexpectedness that could threaten his or her project, and to maximize the unforeseen for the opponent. This dual relation is a key component of the art of war; however, it has a broader anthropological significance. Whether the opponent be another person, a group, society, the State or even the way things go, the tactical management and agonistic use of surprise, which imply scheming and calculation, appear at many levels of our economic, political and social activities. Beyond its tactical uses, surprise has turned into an inevitable component of contemporary risk-societies, where the threat of incalculable catastrophes is ubiquitous. Security and ecological policies have to deal with “unknown unknowns” and to prepare for incidents that may occur at every moment but at the same time must be prevented by any means. Surprise is also a widespread aesthetic principle in modern arts, that use irritation, shock and enigma in order to breach familiar habits of perception. Literary studies and cultural sociology can shed significant light on these processes for three main reasons. First, strategies that use surprise or aim to prohibit negative surprises cannot be separated from the notions of storytelling and fiction (in order to anticipate, one envisions several series of actions and circumstances and tests their probability; in order to manipulate, one induces misreading; when surprise happens, it forces its victims and beholders to create a retrospective narrative in which the unexpected event makes sense) as well as from technologies of forecasting and risk-assessment. Second, speeches, texts and other carriers of meaning belong to the arsenal of surprise, so that strategy and tactics meets the rhetorical categories of ethos, proof, deliberation, etc. Finally, the interaction between writer and reader, or artist and viewer, can be understood as a competition in which the former has to bypass the latter’s ability to predict the unfolding of the work(s).