Militarized vision

Before I started my odyssey through Grégoire Chamayou‘s Théorie du drone (which will continue next week), I had discussed multiple ways of thinking about the relations between visualities, political technologies of vision and drones.  Much of the work that I pointed to takes place in the borderlands between investigative journalism and visual art: hence my interest in (for example) James Bridle, Omer Fast, and Trevor Paglen (for a quick review and further links, see here).

Two additional essays have crossed my screen, appropriately enough, which contribute to these discussions.

The first is Matt Delmont‘s ‘Drone encounters: Noor Behram, Omer Fast and visual critiques of drone warfare’ [American Quarterly 65 (1) (2013) 193-202]:

‘Drones draw their deadly power from …  twin claims to visual superiority: the ability to see and to resist being seen.  At the same time, however, artists, scholars, and human rights activists have used the visual to contest the expansion of the drone program.’

The first of these, as Tim Mitchell showed in his classical expositions of what, following Heidegger, he called ‘the-world-as-exhibition’ (which has continued to haunt much of my work since Geographical Imaginations), is a profoundly – and appropriately – colonial/imperial impulse.  You can find a suggestive discussion of Heidegger’s original exposition of ‘the conquest of the world as picture’ directed specifically at today’s drone wars in Joseph Pugliese‘s ‘Prosthetics of law and the anomic violence of drones’ [Griffith Law Review 20 (2011) 931-61] and, eventually (!), an extended account in The everywhere war.

What interests Matt is the critical ability to reverse the impulse – to make the unseen seen/scene – and turn the visual back on itself, and that’s exactly the point sharpened in exquisite detail in Henrik Gustafsson‘s ‘Foresight, hindsight and state secrecy in the American West: the geopolitical aesthetics of Trevor Paglen’ [Journal of visual culture 12 (2013) 148-164]:

‘Combining geographic research and artistic practice, self-professed ‘experimental photographer’ Trevor Paglen implements such a dialectical method in his ongoing project to map and photograph the sprawling black sites of the US military and intelligence community. Paglen’s images rarely show human agents, other than the blurry figures boarding an unmarked aircraft, or the blackened-out faces on fake passports. It is concerned, instead, with the agency of space. Moving between imaginative geographies and what Paglen refers to as ‘facts on the ground’, it investigates how the former produces the latter, how imaginative geographies materialize.’

It’s a beautifully realised reading that pays particular attention to what geographer Don Mitchell famously called ‘the lie of the land‘.  In Don’s terms, this was the extraordinary capacity of the landscape – as at once material fabrication and enframed visuality – to conceal through its very physicality the work involved and embodied in its production.  In much the same way, Henrik suggests, Trevor’s work offers a series of strategic reversals, détournements, of the ‘dark geography’ of the national security state inscribed in and on the landscape (and the skyscape).

Paglen Untitled (Reaper Drone)

As my last post showed, I hope, my interest in the aesthetic-imaginative has not diminished my commitment to the archival-documentary (or my admiration for projects like these or Oppenheimer’s The Art of Killing that so artfully bleed the one into the other).

In that vein, I’ve returned to the incident I discussed last time – the US combat helicopter attack on unarmed civilians in New Baghdad in July 2007 – and started to compare what happened there with the even deadlier attack on three vehicles carrying civilians down a dusty mountain road in Uruzgan, Afghanistan in February 2010 which I discussed in “From a view to a kill” (DOWNLOADS tab) (that strike was also carried out by US attack helicopters, but the vital ‘visual responsibility’ was the work of a surveillant Predator crew.)

Collateral Murder2

My intention is to work towards an extended essay on ‘Militarized vision‘ that will, I hope, take critiques of the politics of vision beyond the full motion video feeds from drones. I’m working my way through transcripts of both incidents, the video clip of the Baghdad attack released by Wikileaks, and the military’s own investigations of both incidents.  The interrogations and conclusions from the investigations are crucial, I think, not only for providing additional information and even insight, but also for adding an understanding of the juridical layer involved in the scopic regimes at work.  The reports have much to tell us about what flight crews and ground troops saw (and didn’t see) on the days in question (above) and about what is possible for the military to see (and not see) after the event (below).  I’d already worked my way through the Uruzgan investigation in detail for The everywhere war, but re-reading it alongside what Wikileaks called “Collateral Murder” is proving to be an illuminating exercise.

New Baghdad %22MAM%22

More later, though my next posts on Chamayou (and what will be a separate post on the juridical individuation of later modern war) will provide some of the necessary context.

11 thoughts on “Militarized vision

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