Drones and the Quiet Americans


Following on from the Coded Conduct exhibition in London in April, James Bridle’s new work A Quiet Disposition opens at the Corcoran in Washington DC later this month, running from 19 June to 7 July.  He explains the background to his ongoing project on networked technologies and the in/visibility of military violence like this (my emphases):

“The Disposition Matrix” is the term used by the US Government for its intelligence-gathering and targetting processes. Overseen by the National Counterterrorism Center and in development for some time, the Matrix is usually described as a database for generating capture and “kill lists”, but the criteria for both adding to and acting on the information in the database is not public. One of the outcomes of the process is the ongoing, undeclared CIA drone war in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere. These attacks have killed an estimated 3105 people in Pakistan alone since June 2004, including 535 confirmed civilians and 175 children. (Sources: The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, New America Foundation.)

The architectural theorist Keller Easterling uses the term “disposition” in other contexts, to refer to the propensity or temperament of forms which produce actions. Disposition is found not in activity itself, but in the relationships or relative positions of the objects that produce action. Consider a motorway: you can describe the movement of the cars, but the active form is immanent in the concrete itself; the motorway has a disposition. If such forms can be said to have a disposition, to what extent can they be said to possess agency?

For Easterling, architectures and infrastructures perform aspects of their being: not merely spatial objects, they shape the world around them on many levels: legal, political, technological. The sociologist Erving Goffman in turn uses the term “disposition” to describe the entire performance, including – in human terms – gesture, posture, expression and intent. These subtexts are capable of overwhelming what is being merely said: the distinction between the aesthetics of what is being depicted, and what is actually being done.

Drones – the armed, unmanned planes in action around the world – are dispositional. Their significance is not wholly in their appearance, but in how they transform the space around them; both the physical space (the privileged view of the weaponised surveillance camera at 50,000 feet) and the legal, national and diplomatic spaces that as a result permits new kinds of warfare and assassination. And the Disposition Matrix is an organising principle: not a thing, not a technology, not an object, but an active form, a reorientation of intent into another dimension or mode of expression. In another sense, the Disposition Matrix is the network itself, the internet and us, an abstract machine, intangible but effective. Finally, the Disposition Matrix is an attitude and a performance.

Quiet AmericanAnd the quiet disposition?  The central insight that animates much of James’s recent work around the New Aesthetic is, as he says in the lecture posted below, that ‘drones … shorten time and space very effectively but instead of using those same networked technologies to make things clearer or to bring empathy they use it to obfuscate and hide.’  You can see this – or rather not see it – in the extraordinary secrecy that cloaks so many of the sites of air attack.  160 years after the dawn of mass-mediated warfare, it is (as he says) sobering to think that we know less about what is happening in Waziristan today than the British public knew about the campaign in the Crimea. Hence Dronestagram and similar projects.  Even though the drone ‘has almost become synonymous with America and with a certain way of prosecuting war’, however, James prefers to see drones as shells or, better, prostheses, ‘extensions of  the network itself’.  For this reason The Quiet Disposition seeks to turn the network on itself, a sort of auto-immune cyberattack, through an intelligence-gathering software system (like the Obama administration’s ‘disposition matrix‘) that lives online, constantly scanning the web for reports about the drone programme and using AI to effect connections between them.

Tahrir Squared

I’ve been putting the finishing touches to the extended version of my essay on Tahrir Square and the Egyptian uprisings, which focuses on performance, performativity and space through an engagement with Judith Butler‘s ‘Bodies in alliance and the politics of the street’ essay/lecture (originally delivered in Venice in 2011).

Tahrir Square (Mohamed Elshahed)Much of the existing discussion of Tahrir treats performance in conventional dramaturgical terms, and owes much more to Erving Goffman‘s classic work than to Judith’s recent contributions, so that spatiality is more or less reduced to a stage: see, for example, Charles Tripp, ‘Performing the public: theatres of power in the Middle East’, Constellations (2013) doi: 10.1111/cons.12030 (early view).  Others have preferred to  analyse the spatialities of Tahrir through the work of Henri Lefebvre: I’m thinking of Ahmed Kanna, ‘Urban praxis and the Arab Spring’, City 16 (3) (2012) 360-8; Hussam Hussein Salama, ‘Tahrir Square: a narrative of public space’, Archnet – IJAR 7 (1) (2013) 128-38;and even, en passant, W.J.T.Mitchell, ‘Image, space, revolution: the arts of occupation’, Critical Inquiry 39 (1) (2012) 8-32.

None of these seem to me to convey the way in which, as Judith has it, the presence of bodies in the square becomes the performance of a new spatiality through which people

‘seize upon an already established space permeated by existing power, seeking to sever the relation between the public space, the public square, and the existing regime. So the limits of the political are exposed, and the link between the theatre of legitimacy and public space is severed; that theatre is no longer unproblematically housed in public space, since public space now occurs in the midst of another action, one that displaces the power that claims legitimacy precisely by taking over the field of its effects…. In wresting that power, a new space is created, a new “between” of bodies, as it were, that lays claim to existing space through the action of a new alliance, and those bodies are seized and animated by those existing spaces in the very acts by which they reclaim and resignify their meanings.’

I see a similar conception at work in Adam Ramadan‘s emphasis on Tahrir as at once a space and an act – a space-in-process, if you like – of encampment: ‘From Tahrir to the world: the camp as a political public space’, European Urban and Regional Studies 20 (2013) 145-9.  I’m drawn to these formulations partly because they connect performance to the possibility of performativity through space-in-process, and partly because these ideas, attentive as they are to ‘space’, also pay close attention to ‘time’ (or rather space-time) (for a suggestive discussion of the temporalities of Tahrir, which I think have been marginalised in too many ‘spatialising’ discussions, see Hanan Sabea, ‘A “time out of time”‘, here.)

These comments are little more than place-holders, I realise, and I hope my reworked essay will clarify them; I’ll post the final version on the Downloads page as soon as it’s ready – in the next day or two, I hope. [UPDATE: The manuscript version, to appear in Middle East Critique, is now available under the DOWNLOADS tab: ‘Tahrir: politics, publics and performances of space’]

In the meantime, if you’re interested in the Egyptian uprisings, there’s an excellent online bibliography at Mark Allen Peterson‘s equally excellent Connected in Cairo here; Mark also provides a listing of documentary films here (including YouTube feeds).

Tahrir Squared

Part of my discussion addresses the imbrications of the digital and the physical, the virtual and the visceral.  For a quick overview, see Mohamed Elshahed here (from whom I’ve borrowed the wonderful image at the head of this post), but for a remarkable online platform that, amongst other things, seeks to ‘multiply the Tahir Effect around the globe’, capitalising on the transformations from the digital to the physical and back again, try Tahrir Squared:

‘T2 is a one-stop shop for reliable and enlightening information about the Arab uprisings, revolutions and their effects. It combines both original content by leading analysts, journalists and authoritative commentators, and curated content carefully selected from across the web to provide activists, researchers, observers and policy makers a catch-all source for the latest on the Arab revolutions and related issues through an interactive, virtual multimedia platform.
Unattached to governments or political entities, Tahrir Squared is concerned with ‘multiplying the Tahrir Effect around the globe’: an Effect which reawakened civic consciousness and awareness. An Effect which led to neighbourhood protection committees, and created those scenes in Tahrir of different religions, creeds and backgrounds engaging, assisting, and protecting one another. 
That Effect still lives inside those who believe in the ongoing revolutions that called for ‘bread, freedom, social justice and human dignity’. This website is a part of that broader initiative, seeking to provide people with the knowledge and information to assist and stimulate that process of reawakening, through the provision of reliable news reports, thoughtful commentary, and useful analysis.