Predatory eyes

Following from my last post on the art of bombing – on artists who have attempted to render the aerial perspective of conventional bombing – Honor Harger (from Lighthouse) provides a useful review of artists who are doing the same for drone strikes in his ‘Drone’s eye view’.  Honor writes:

The work of artists such as Trevor Paglen, Omer Fast, and James Bridle exists within a long tradition of artists bearing witness to events that our governments and military would prefer we didn’t see. But Bridle’s work is also part of an ongoing collective effort from both artists and engineers to reveal the technological infrastructures that enable events like drone-strikes to occur.

Omar Fast, 5000 feet is best (2011)

Honor is referring to James Bridle‘s Dronestagram and related projects that I noted earlier, and to Trevor Paglen‘s Drone Vision (see also his other drone-related projects here).  Trevor’s work includes an interview and video clip from Noor Behram, a Pakistani photo-journalist who has been painstakingly documenting CIA-directed drone strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. He’s best known for his harrowing images of the aftermath of drone strikes, but he also shot this video of a drone over his own house:

“Witnessing a drone hovering over Waziristan skies is a regular thing,” says Noor Behram, who shot this video outside his house in Dande Darpa Khel, North Waziristan.

For more than five years, Behram has been documenting the aftermath of drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas, the hub of the CIA’s remote assassination program. When Behram learns of a strike, he races towards ground zero to photograph the scene. “North Waziristan,” he explained “is a big area scattered over hundreds of miles and some places are harder to reach due to lack of roads and access. At many places I will only be able to reach the scene after 6-8 hours.” Nonetheless, Behram’s photographs are some of the only on-the-ground images of drone attacks.

“[The few places where I have been able to reach right after the attack were a terrible sight” he explains, “One such place was filled with human body parts lying around and a strong smell of burnt human flesh. Poverty and the meagre living standards of inhabitants is another common thing at the attack sites.” Behram’s photographs tell a different story than official American reports that consistently deny civilian casualties from drone attacks: “I have come across some horrendous visions where human body parts would be scattered around without distinction, those of children, women, and elderly.”

For Behram, this video is nothing exceptional. “This was like any other day in Waziristan. Coming out of the house, witnessing a drone in the sky, getting along with our lives till it targets you. That day it was in the morning and I was at my home playing with my children. I spotted the drone and started filming it with my camera and then I followed it a bit on a bike.”

The third artwork in Honor’s triumvirate is Omer Fast‘s fictionalised Five Thousand Feet is the Best, which I included in my list of Readings and Screenings on drones back in August.  There’s a clip below, though the full presentation runs to 30 minutes:

The film is based on two meetings with a Predator drone sensor operator, which were recorded in a hotel in Las Vegas in September 2010. On camera, the drone operator agreed to discuss the technical aspects of his job and his daily routine. Off camera and off the record, he briefly described recurring incidents in which the unmanned plane fired at both militants and civilians – and the psychological difficulties he experienced as a result. Instead of looking for the appropriate news accounts or documentary footage to augment his redacted story, the film is deliberately miscast and misplaced: It follows an actor cast as the drone operator who grudgingly sits for an interview in a dark hotel. The interview is repeatedly interrupted by the actor’s digressions, which take the viewer on meandering trips around Las Vegas. Told in quick flashbacks, the stories form a circular plot that nevertheless returns fitfully to the voice and blurred face of the drone operator – and to his unfinished story.

He-111 Luftwaffe bombardiers viewWhat is particularly interesting to me are the ways in which ‘seeing like a drone’ is and is not like seeing through a standard bombsight: the techno-optical regime through which conventional bombing has been conducted differs from the high-resolution full-motion video feeds that inform (and misinform) the networked bombing of late modern war.  Those feeds significantly compress the imaginative distance between the air and the ground, but they do so in a highly selective fashion.  Today’s remote operators, who may be physically thousands of miles away from the target, nevertheless claim to be just 18 inches from the conflict zone, the distance between the eye and the screen, and they (un)certainly see far more of what happens than the pilots of conventional strike aircraft.  But in Afghanistan, where remote operators are usually working with troops on the ground, they become immersed in the actions and interactions of their comrades – through visual feeds, radio and internet – whereas their capacity to interpret the actions of the local population is still strikingly limited.  So it is that local lifeworlds remain not only obdurately ‘other’ but become death-worlds.

Seen/seduced from above

BombsightPart of my histories/geographies of bombing project involves addressing the work of visual artists who have attempted to render the violence of bombing not from below but from above. There are many powerful works that show the horror of bomb-sites and broken bodies, and I’m not uninterested in them; but to convey the violence of bombing in advance, so to speak, demands a much more exacting political aesthetic.

This vantage point matters because that is typically how those outside the conflict zone see air strikes conducted in their name.  During the Second World War the British press and newsreels showed the firebombing of German cities from above (in contrast, of course, to their coverage of the Blitz), and this facilitated the representation of area bombing as ‘precision bombing’ (in contrast, again, to their coverage of the Blitz); in the weeks following the Allied invasion of Europe American and British journalists swept across the continent with the advancing armies and were stunned by what they saw on the ground in Cologne, Hamburg and other cities.

In the weeks before the US-led invasion of Iraq, Baghdad was  repeatedly represented, in graphics, aerial and satellite photographs, and online interactives, as nothing more than a series of targets: then, as I showed in The colonial present, in the very week that Saddam’s statue was toppled, maps appeared showing Baghdad for the first time as a series of neighbourhoods inhabited not by tyrants, terrorists and torturers but by people like you and me.  If those images had been the dominant representation in the weeks and months before the attack, how many more would have been on streets around the world to try to prevent the invasion?

We can’t possibly know: but we surely do know that by the time we imaginatively crouch under the bombs and empathise with their victims it’s too late.

slavick, Bomb after BombThere is an appropriately long arc of work to consider, including artworks by Martin Dammann [the Überdeutschland series], Hanaa MalallahJoyce Kozloff [‘Targets’], Raquel MaulwurfGerhard Richter [Atlas], and Nurit Gur-Lavy.  I’ll post about some of the artworks later, and if anyone knows of others I ought to consider, I’d be very grateful to know about them.  But my very first engagement with these issues was through the work of ellen o’Hara slavick, now Distinguished Professor of Art at UNC Chapel Hill, and a project that was eventually called Bomb after Bomb: a violent cartography (she originally intended to call it ‘Everywhere the United States has bombed‘).  More on the series of 60-plus images and related projects herehere, here and here (the last is on Hiroshima). The book version (Charta, 2007) comes with additional essays by Cathy Lutz, Carol Mavor and the late Howard Zinn.

elin o'Hara slavick, Baghdad (1990)

In “Doors into nowhere” (DOWNLOADS tab) I glossed elin’s project like this:

She adopts an aerial view – the position of the bombers – in order to stage and to subvert the power of aerial mastery.  The drawings are made beautiful ‘to seduce the viewer’, she says, to draw them in to the deadly embrace of the image only to have their pleasure disrupted when they take a closer look. ‘Like an Impressionist or Pointillist painting,’ slavick explains, ‘I wish for the viewer to be captured by the colors and lost in the patterns and then to have their optical pleasure interrupted by the very real dots or bombs that make up the painting.’ 

elin o'Hara slavick and Noam Chomsky

There’s much more to her work than this, as I try to show in my commentary, but what interests me here is that disturbing cascade that runs from beauty through seduction to pleasure.  There is a considerable literature on the dangers of aestheticizing violence, but plainly elin’s work is, as I said at the start, much more exacting than this.

Over at Books & Ideas Vanina Géré now has a short but pointed essay on ‘Artistic beauty as a political weapon’ that addresses these issues in helpful ways.  Political art, she writes, is always threatened by the prospect that

‘the political message will not get through because of the work’s retinal character — in other words, because the work is appreciated primarily for its formal qualities. If political art is often considered lacking in formal efficacy, formally remarkable works are often deemed lacking in political efficacy: too much plastic beauty risks making politics a topic like any other. In grappling with this demanding question, some artists have chosen to accentuate their works’ capacity for formal seduction by springing visual traps, placing viewers before realities that they did not expected to encounter in the rarefied air of a museum or a gallery.’

This is a particularly sharp dilemma for political representations of bombing, since the practice such artworks seek to apprehend and dislocate is itself ‘retinal’, formal: it is made possible by a series of performative abstractions that strip away content.  Cities as places where people live are reduced to co-ordinates, targets, pixels, flares of flight.  Géré doesn’t discuss slavick’s work, but her commentary on Brigitte Zieger‘s Eye Dust series speaks directly to the more general issues surrounding political art and military violence:

‘Using glitter eye shadow to draw clouds rising from explosions, the series creates a dialectical movement in which what we see (the makeup) hides what is (a face), yet nevertheless sheds light on a form of everyday violence. At the same time, these sumptuously executed images, which gently shine, entice the viewer to become increasingly fascinated with images of violence. Zieger’s work, by outrageously exploiting its own aesthetic quality in order to offer a critical perspective on representations and manifestations of military violence, demonstrates by this very token that behind every effort to impose beauty lurks a hidden form of violence. Beauty collaborates with politics, as the very concept of beauty is (in part) political. The challenge of such work lies in the precarious balance between the two.’

For Zieger’s own account of her work on war, violence and intimacy see this short video:

The politics of drone wars

I’m in the UK this week for – amongst other things – a seminar with Pete Adey, Sara Fregonese and some of the Geopolitics and Security students at Royal Holloway on my bombing project, Killing space; a workshop at Open Democracy for a new series on Cities in Conflict to be curated by Tom Cowan; and a lecture at Nottingham organised by Steve Legg: another outing for “Deadly Embrace”.

At the RHUL meeting the conversation frequently turned to drones; Pete made an audio recording of it, and I think at least part of what we discussed will appear on the Theory, culture & society website in the near future.  But I’d like to try to set out some of my own puzzlements and positions about the politics of drones here.

There are many ways in which individuals can take a stand against war, and there is a long and principled tradition of conscientious objection that includes pacifists in two World Wars through young Americans who resisted the draft in the 1960s and 70s to high school students in Israel who refuse to serve in the army of occupation.  In recent times most popular mobilisations against war have been against particular wars – I’m thinking of the demonstrations against the wars in S.E. Asia in the 60s and 70s, for example, or the millions of people who took to the streets to express their opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 – or against particular objects of violence: campaigns to ban land mines or cluster munitions, for example.  To me, the most effective political response to the use of Predators, Reapers and other UAVs in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere is to move between the two: to use the drone to draw publics into an apprehension of the wider fields of military violence in which they are deployed.

Global Hawk imagery of aftermath of Haiti earthquakeI think it is a mistake to focus on the object itself because, like all objects, a drone is highly unstable: it’s not a fixed, determinate ‘thing’ but its capacities and dispositions depend on the network or assemblage in which it is embedded. To see what I mean, begin by stripping the bombs and the missiles from these platforms: at present most drones are used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), and these capabilities extend far beyond the domain of offensive operations and even beyond those of the military.  In 2010 US Southern Command used a Global Hawk to provide detailed imagery of the damage caused by the Haiti earthquake (above) and the following year another Global Hawk was deployed to assess the damage to the Fukishima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan; other, smaller and far less sophisticated drones have been used to monitor wildfires in California and to track and disrupt Japanese whaling fleets, while a series of other, broadly ecological-humanitarian projects have been proposed with varying degrees of plausibility.  I don’t rehearse these other possibilities to minimise the military and paramilitary uses of the technology – and we surely know, not least from Nick Turse‘s account in The Complex, that the military and the civilian have become ever more hopelessly entangled with one another – and neither am I indifferent to the blurring of military power and NGO relief operations in the humanitarian present,  but we need to acknowledge, to paraphrase Clive Barnett, that not all ISR operations are sinister: ‘presumptively illegitimate, undemocratic or suspect‘.

Dwell Detect Destroy drone ad

Hellfire missile launch (USAF)This is why Drone Wars UK focuses on ‘armed drones’ and Drones Watch on ‘killer drones’.  It’s clear that militarised ISR is part of a continued ‘rush to the intimate’ that is profoundly invasive and, on many occasions, extraordinarily violent. In Afghanistan the US military embeds its UAVs in a networked kill-chain in which their near real-time, high-resolution, full-motion video feeds are routinely used to call in attacks from conventional strike aircraft.  So let’s now put the bombs and missiles back on these platforms, since the Predators and Reapers are usually armed and their manufacturers boast about their capacity to compress the kill-chain: to ‘dwell, detect [and] destroy’. But it then makes no sense to object to the strikes carried out directly from them and to exempt those carried out by conventional means across the network: what is the difference between a Hellfire missile launched from a Reaper and one fired from an Apache helicopter gunship?  (To put this in perspective, according to the most recent airpower summary, USAF Predators and Reapers directly accounted for just 5-6 per cent of its ‘weapons releases’ in Afghanistan in 2009, 2010, and 2011, though the proportion climbed to 9.25 per cent in the first ten months of 2012).

Medea BENJAMIN Drone WarfareTo answer that question critics usually cite the horror of death at a distance.  This is death from thousands of miles away, conducted by operators in the continental United States: ‘killing by remote control’.  And yet there are countless other ways in which militaries have been killing from ever increasing distances ever since the invention of the slingshot and the longbow. If you insist that it is wrong to kill somebody from 7,500 miles away, then over what distance do you think it is acceptable?  If you are determined to absolutize distance in this way, then don’t you need to consider all the other ways in which advanced militaries are able to kill their adversaries (and civilians) without ever seeing them? Again, I don’t raise the spectre of Cruise missiles launched from ships hundreds of miles from their targets, the US ‘Prompt Global Strike’ capability and its Advanced Hypersonic Weapon which is ultimately  intended to hit a target anywhere on the planet in under an hour, or the prospect of ‘frictionless’ cyberwarfare, to minimise the deaths caused by drones.  I simply want our politics to apprehend the larger field of military violence in which they are deployed.

And there is something different about those deaths that draws us back into the killing fields.  I should say at once that I don’t think this is simply war reduced to a video-game – and in any case there are many other military technologies that also depend on hand-eye co-ordination, multi-tasking and spatial acuity, all skill-sets valorized by video-games – but I also think it a mistake to assume that the screen effectively insulates the viewer from the victim.  In this sense there is a parallel between the platforms, because video-games are profoundly immersive, and those who call in or carry out these strikes insist that they are not 7,500 miles from their targets at all (and Launch & Recovery crews are much closer than that) but ‘eighteen inches away’: the distance from eye to screen.  It’s a highly selective process of compression; as I’ve shown in detail in Lines of descent (DOWNLOADS tab), those involved in the remote kill-chain typically feel remarkably close to their own troops on the ground and remain distant from the life-worlds of the population at large (which in part accounts for the civilian casualties when drones are used to provide close air support).  But unlike most other forms of distant death and destruction, the pilots, sensor operators and others who are networked into these kill-chains can see their targets up close – even if their ‘seeing’ is techno-culturally conditioned and often predisposes them to treat innocent actions as hostile intentions – and they typically remain on station to carry out a ‘bomb damage assessment’ and so see for themselves, often in hideous detail, what they have done.

Flying an MQ-9 Reaper over Kandahar, Afghanistan

The most consequential change is that these new modes of air power deal not in the area bombing of cities like Cologne, Hamburg or Dresden, or the blind bombing of target boxes over the rainforests of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, but – in addition to close air support – in the calculated assassination of individuals or groups: so-called ‘targeted killing‘ or what the USAF calls putting ‘warheads on foreheads‘.  This does not mean that the firebombing of cities in the Second World War should become the moral standard against which we judge contemporary military violence. On the contrary, targeted killing raises its own grave legal and ethical questions – and, not incidentally, those video feeds have given military lawyers a pivotal role in these newly networked strikes – that in turn activate two other no less serious concerns about the emergent geographies of fields of military violence.

First is the fear that the use of remote platforms lowers the threshold at which military violence will be launched.  Predators and Reapers are much cheaper than conventional strike aircraft, and if there are no troops on the ground, there are no body bags to come home.  In short, drone war threatens to become risk-transfer war hypostatised; the risk is transferred wholly to the adversary population.  But at present these platforms have high failure rates – they are vulnerable to weather conditions (and I don’t mean hurricanes and monsoons, I mean clouds), they crash all too frequently and they are so slow and noisy that they can easily be shot down so they can only be used in uncontested airspace.  These limitations mean that, at present at any rate, they are less likely to incite conventional state-on-state war – though there is certainly a global arms race to acquire and develop far more advanced drone technologies.

Second and closely connected is the fear that they make it much easier to engage in war by stealth.  If one of the primary foreign policy challenges of the last Bush administration was ‘conducting war in countries we are not at war with‘, Obama’s version is the determination to wage what Martin Libicki calls ‘non-obvious warfare’: hence the Obama administration’s preference for remote operations, Special Forces and cyber-attacks.  To be sure, there are degrees of obviousness: the drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere are hardly covert – since they are hidden in plain sight – but they are, within limits, more deniable than the deployment of thousands of ground troops and so inherently less accountable to the various publics involved in them.  And in all these cases Predators and Reapers dramatically heighten the asymmetry involved in military and paramilitary operations against non-state actors, where they have made a policy of ‘kill’ rather than ‘capture’ a much more tempting (and much more pernicious) US counter-terrorism strategy.

More to come.

Judith Butler and the analytics of power

Claire Pagès and Mathieu Trachman conduct a concise but wide-ranging interview with Judith Butler at Books & Ideas, in which she asks this about neo-liberalism and the economic:

‘[I]f we claim that neo-liberalism disposes populations to become disposable, and exposes populations to precarity, we have to ask whether we are speaking about a purely economic rationale and regime of power (by “ neo-liberalism ”), a regime of power that governs the practices of subject-formation, including self-making, and the valorization of the metric of instrumentality in ways that include and exceed the sphere conventionally denoted as “ economic ”.  Indeed, does the power and pervasiveness of “ neo-liberalism” compel us to think about the heteronomy of the economic and the way that the rationalities that govern its operation exceed the purely economic. Must we give up an idea of the purely economic by virtue of neo-liberalism at the same time that we cannot do without the economic?’

Judith Butler, Parting Ways (2012)Incidentally, readers who have followed the sometimes repellent response to Judith’s receipt of the Adorno Prize can find her speech at the award ceremony in Frankfurt on 11 September  – ‘Can one lead a good life in a bad life?’ – here (I think this is the Radical Philosophy version, with images that speak to the controversy) or, in unadorned form, here.

You can also find details of her new book, Parting ways: Jewishness and the critique of Zionism (Columbia University Press) – which, in its closing chapter, engages with Edward Said and Mahmoud Darwishhere.  Like all her work, this book – which also includes reflections around Arendt, Benjamin and Levinas – admirably fulfils her own beautifully understated view of what it is to be critical: that is, to be ‘willing to examine what we sometimes presuppose in our way of thinking, and that gets in the way of making a more livable world.’