The God trick and the administration of military violence

JOC staring at screen 24afghan-600

Here is the abstract for my keynote at the Lancaster symposium on Security by remote control next month; it’s a development from my presentation at the AAG in Tampa, and I’ll provide more details as I develop the argument.

The God trick and the administration of military violence

Advocates have made much of the extraordinary ability of the full motion video feeds from Predators and Reapers to provide persistent surveillance (‘the all-seeing eye’), so that they become vectors of the phantasmatic desire to produce a fully transparent battlespace.  Critics – myself included – have insisted that vision is more than a biological-instrumental capacity, however, and that it is transformed into a conditional and highly selective visuality through the activation of a distinctively political and cultural technology.  Seen thus, these feeds interpellate their distant viewers to create an intimacy with ground troops while ensuring that the actions of others within the field of view remain obdurately Other.

But the possibility of what Donna Haraway famously criticised as ‘the God-trick’ – the ability to see everything from nowhere in particular – is also compromised by the networks within which these remote platforms are deployed.  In this presentation I re-visit an air strike on three vehicles in Uruzgan province, Afghanistan, in February 2010, in which more than 20 civilians were killed in a helicopter attack prompted, in large measure, by video feeds from a Predator providing support to a Special Forces detachment in the vicinity.  Most commentaries – including mine – have treated this in terms of a predisposition on the part of the Predator crew to (mis)read every action by the victims as a potential threat.  But a close examination of the official investigations that followed, by the US Army and then the US Air Force, reveals a much more complicated situation.  The Predator was not the only ‘eye in the sky’, its feeds entered into a de-centralized, distributed and dispersed geography of vision in which different actors at different locations inside and outside Afghanistan saw radically different things, and the breaks and gaps in communication were as significant as the connections.  In short, much of later modern war may be ‘remote,’ but there’s considerably less ‘control’ than most people think.

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