Danse macabre

Patterns of life 3 JPEG

Grégoire Chamayou writes to say that after our conversations in Irvine last year he has worked with an artist friend, Julien Prévieux (who won the Prix Marcel Duchamp in 2014) and the Opéra national de Paris to turn his ideas about schematic bodies and patterns of life into a short film: Patterns of Life.

I’ve embedded it below, but if the link doesn’t work you can watch it here or on YouTube here. You will soon see why Anne Buttimer once described Torsten Hågerstrand‘s time-geography diagrams as a danse macabre.  The subtitles are in French but the commentary is in English.

I find the combination of intellectual imagination and performance work absolutely compelling – see my comments on ‘Bodies on the line’ here, for example.

Bombs and books

Among a million and one other things, I’ve returned to my work on the history of bombing for my Reach from the Sky lectures in January.

Secret History of the Blitz

I’ve long admired Joshua Levine‘s work, and his Secret History of the Blitz is thoroughly impressive.  Many others have picked their way across the bomb-sites before, of course, but there are genuinely novel insights to be found amidst the rubble and Levine is an excellent (and wonderfully literate) collector.

2015 is the 75th anniversary of the the Blitz of 1940-41. It is one of the most iconic periods in modern British history – and one of the most misunderstood. The ‘Blitz spirit’ is celebrated by some, whereas others dismiss it as a myth. Joshua Levine’s thrilling biography rejects the tired arguments and reveals the human truth: the Blitz was a time of extremes of experience and behaviour. People were pulling together and helping strangers, but they were also breaking rules and exploiting each other. Life during wartime, the author reveals, was complex and messy and real.

From the first page readers will discover a different story to the one they thought they knew – from the sacrifices made by ordinary people to a sudden surge in the popularity of nightclubs; from secret criminal trials at the Old Bailey to a Columbine-style murder in an Oxford college. There were new working opportunities for women and the appearance of unfamiliar cultures: whilst prayers were offered up in a south London mosque, Jamaican sailors were struggling to cross the country. Unlikely friendships were fostered and surprising sexualities explored – these years saw a boom in prostitution and even the emergence of a popular weekly magazine for fetishists. On the darker side, racketeers and spivs made money out of the chaos, and looters prowled the night to prey on bomb victims.

From the lack of cheese to the decreased suicide rate, this astonishing and entertaining book takes the true pulse of a ‘blitzed nation’. And it shows how social change during this time led to political change – which in turn has built the Britain we know today.

You can find good reviews from the Independent here and from the Telegraph here.

Le gouvernement du ciel

Very different in reach and tone (but also impressively literate), and in many ways much closer to some of the themes I want to address in Cambridge in January,  is Thomas Hippler‘s Le gouvernment du ciel: histoire globale des bombardements aériens.  Readers interested in these things will surely know his remarkable account of Giulio Douhet,  Bombing the People: Giulio Douhet and the Foundations of Air-Power Strategy, 1884–1939; the new book picks up from the last chapter of the previous one in many ways.

Here is the Contents List:


The earth, the sea and the sky

Towards perpetual peace

The colonial matrix

Civilisation, cosmopolitanism and democracy

The people and the populace

Philosophy of the bomb

Making and unmaking a people

Under the nuclear shield, ‘revolutionary war’

World governance and perpetual war

As you can perhaps divine from the chapter titles, this is at once an attempt to write a global history of the twentieth century through diagnostic episodes in bombing’s bleak history and a discussion of the political formations that aerial violence both presupposed and installed.


I stumbled upon a fascinating conversation between Thomas and Grégoire Chamayou (above) and since I provided a detailed commentary on Théorie du drone for those who can’t read French (you can access the full set here: scroll down for the links) I’ll try to do the same for Le gouvernment du ciel in the weeks ahead (and I’ll include some snippets from that extended conversation).

I don’t think my commentaries have been superceded by the publication of the translation, Theory of the drone, so I’m hoping the same will be true if there is an English version of Le gouvernment du ciel (though I can’t find any sign of one yet).

I saw a man

SHEERS I saw a man N Am ednLast week I was in Bloomington for the drones conference – more on that later – but while I was there I managed to finish Owen Sheers‘ new novel, I saw a man.  All of the reviews I’ve seen so far (and they have been very, very good: see here, here and here, for example) praise the way in which Owen so beautifully recovers the circles of grief that spiral from a drone strike on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border that accidentally killed a party of foreign journalists, including Caroline, the wife of the book’s narrator.  ‘Despite its “fire and forget” name tag,’ we are assured, ‘once a Hellfire had been released there would always be someone who never would.’

In fact, Owen and I had corresponded about the details of drone strikes and casualty investigations while he was working on the book, and he certainly treats mourning and memory with extraordinary skill and empathy.  Restricting the victims to those outside the region, apart from a local driver and interpreter, may make the task easier – much of the story plays out in Hampstead – but it’s still formidably difficult.


Yet the book is also, equally centrally, about distancing.  Michael is an author with a reputation for effacing himself from his narratives.  Towards the end, in a phrase that powers the book’s meta-fictional twist (and which in some editions is captured on a cover from which Sheers’ own name is absent), Michael is told:

 “Isn’t that what you’re always saying? You need distance to see anything clearly? To become your own editor.”

Even when he tries to lose himself in his fencing lessons, his instructor insists:

“DISTANCE! DISTANCE MICHAEL! It’s your best defence!”

And it is of course distance that is focal to the fateful drone strike.  Those most directly involved in the kill-chain are soon effaced from the official narrative:

“A U.S. drone strike.” That was all the press release said. No mention of Creech, screeners, Intel coordinator, an operator, a pilot. It was as if the Predator had been genuinely unmanned. As if there had been no hand behind its flight, no eye behind its cameras.

And those who were killed are artfully turned into the authors of their own destruction (a tactic that is routinely used on Afghan and Pakistani victims too), even sacrificed for a greater good (international humanitarian law’s vengeful doctrine of ‘necessity’):

[T]he Pentagon statement also made mention of the journalists “working undercover,” of “entering a high-risk area.” They had known, it was implied, the dangers of their actions. And, the same statement reminded the world, an influential terrorist had been successfully targeted. The weight of blame, Michael knew, from the moment it happened, was being dissipated, thinned.

But distance is not a moral absolute (one of the most egregious mistakes of critics of drone warfare: if you think it wrong to kill someone from 7,000 miles away, over what distance do you think it is acceptable?).  In a narrative arc that will be familiar to many readers, the pilot of the drone (Daniel) is haunted by what happened, and by the dismal intimacy of death.

Charleston Mountains NV

Each morning, as he sets off from his home outside Las Vegas to drive to Creech Air Force Base, Daniel reflects on the similarity of the distant Charleston mountains to those over which he would soon be flying his Predator or Reaper.  It’s a common trope, actually: George Brant makes much of it in his play Grounded.  ‘Despite their proximity,’ though, Daniel hadn’t been into them and didn’t really know them.

They were his daily view but not yet his landscape, a feature of his geography but not yet his territory. Unlike those other mountains, 8,000 miles away. Those mountains Daniel knew intimately. He’d never climbed in them, either, but he was still familiar with the villages silted into their folds, the shadows their peaks threw at evening and the habits of the shepherds marshalling their flocks along their lower slopes. Recently he’d even been able to anticipate, given the right weather conditions, at what time the clouds would come misting down the higher peaks into the ravines of the valleys. Over the last few months he’d begun to feel an ownership over them. Were they not as much his workplace as that of those shepherds? For the troops operating in the area they were simply elevation, exhaustion, fear. They were hostile territory. But for Daniel they were his hunting ground, and as such it was his job not just to know them but to learn them, too. To love them, even, so that from the darkness of his control station in Creech, he might be able to move through their altitudes as naturally as the eagles who’d ridden their thermals for centuries.

It’s a brilliant paragraph, reflective and revealing, that captures the ways in which the pilot’s optical knowledge is transmuted into ‘ownership’, knowledge pinned to power, and distanced from the corpographies of troops on the ground for whom the mountains meant only ‘elevation, exhaustion, fear’ [see also here].  Daniel was freed from all that, soaring high above them, precisely because his territory appeared elsewhere.  If, as Stuart Elden suggests, territory can be conceived as a political technology that asserts a claim over bodies-in-spaces, then one of the most perceptive passages in I saw a man is the description of Daniel scanning ‘the territory of his screen (my emphasis)’…

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Distance, intimacy, experience: all mediated by political technology and in consequence highly conditional and always partial.  That is how the pilot is made free to pursue what Grégoire Chamayou calls his ‘man-hunting‘: because what appears on the screen is a target – not a man or a woman.

Or, as the book’s epigraph says: ‘I saw a man who wasn’t there….’

‘By our algorithms we shall know them’


Radical Philosophy 191 is out now, including two contributions of particular interest to me as I continue to grapple with the surveillance apparatus that (mis)informs US drone strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.  This has come into sharper view after Obama’s rare admission of not only a strike in the FATA but of a mistake in targeting – though his statement was prompted by the death of an American and Italian hostage not by the previous deaths of innocent Pakistanis.

First, Grégoire Chamayou‘s ‘Oceanic enemy: a brief philosophical history of the NSA‘ which traces a path from the sonic surveillance of submarines off Barbados in 1962 to ‘pattern of life’ analysis in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, and which – not surprisingly – intersects with his Theory of the drone in all sorts of ways:

‘The premiss is the same as before: ‘in environments where there is no visual difference between friend and enemy, it is by their actions that enemies are visible.’ Today the task of establishing a distinction between friend and enemy is once again to be entrusted to algorithms.’

Second, Claudia Aradau‘s ‘The signature of security: big data, anticipation, surveillance‘ shatters the crystal balls of the intelligence agencies:

‘We are not crystal ball gazers. We are Intelligence Agencies’, noted the former GCHQ director Iain Lobban in a public inquiry on privacy and security by the Intelligence and Security Committee of the UK Parliament (ISC) in the wake of the Snowden revelations about mass surveillance….

I argue here that the disavowal of ‘crystal ball gazing’ is as important as the image of finding the clue through the data deluge in order to locate potential dangerous events or individuals in the future. Intelligence work is no stranger to the anticipation of the future – rather, it justifies itself precisely through the capacity to peer into the future in order to prevent or pre-empt future events from materializing. Big data has intensified the promise of anticipating the future and led to ‘exacerbat[ing] the severance of surveillance from history and memory’, while ‘the assiduous quest for pattern-discovery will justify unprecedented access to data’. ‘Knowledge discovery’ through big-data mining, and prediction through the recording of datafied traces of social life, have become the doxa of intelligence and security professionals. They claim that access to the digital traces that we leave online through commercial transactions or social interactions can hold a reading of the future. They repeat the mantra of data scientists and private corporations that the ‘digital bread crumbs’ of the online world ‘give a view of life in all its complexity’ and ‘will revolutionize the study of human behaviour’.

Unlike statistical technologies of governing populations, big data scientists promise that through big data ‘we can escape the straightjacket of group identities, and replace them with more granular predictions for each individual’. To resist their unreasonable promise of predicting crises, preventing diseases, pre-empting terrorist attacks and overall reshaping society and politics, I recast it as divination rather than detection. Big-data epistemics has more in common with the ‘pseudo-rationality’ of astrology than the method of clues. As such, it renders our vocabularies of epistemic critique inoperative…

‘There is nothing irrational about astrology’, concluded Adorno, ‘except its decisive contention that these two spheres of rational knowledge are interconnected, whereas not the slightest evidence of such an interconnection can be offered.’ The irrationality of big-data security is not in the data, its volume or messiness, but in how a hieroglyph of terrorist behaviour is produced from the data, without any possibility of error.

You can obtain the pdfs of both essays by following the links above – but they are time-limited so do it now.

Drone networks

Three contributions to the debates over drones and military violence.  First, my friends at the Bard Center for the Study of the Drone have published Dan Gettinger‘s essay on ‘Drone Geography: mapping a system of intelligence‘.  It’s a superb sketch of the intelligence network in which the US Air Force’s drones are embedded (you can read my complementary take on ‘Drone geographies’ under the DOWNLOADS tab).  Let me add just one map to the illustrations that stud his essay.  It’s taken from the Air Force’s RPA Vector report for 2013-28, published last February, and it shows the architecture of remote split operations within and beyond the United States.  It’s helpful (I hope) because it shows how the Ground Control Stations in the continental United States feed in to the Distributed Common Ground System that provides image analysis and exploitation (shown in the second map, which appears in a different form in Dan’s essay).  I’m having these two maps combined, and I’ll post the result when it’s finished.

RSO architecture (USAF) 1

Distributed Common Ground System (USAF) 2

Dan is right to emphasise the significance of satellite communications; much of the discussion of later modern war and its derivatives has focused on satellite imagery, and I’ve discussed some of its complications in previous posts, but satellite communications materially shape the geography of remote operations.  The Pentagon has become extraordinarily reliant on commercial providers (to such an extent that Obama’s ‘pivot to the Pacific’ may well be affected), and limitations of bandwidth have required full-motion video streams from Predators and Reapers (which are bandwidth hogs) to be compressed and image quality to be degraded.  Steve Graham and I are currently working on a joint essay about these issues.

One caveat: this is not the only network in which US remote operations are embedded.  In my essay on ‘Dirty Dancing’ (now racing towards the finish line) I argue that the CIA-directed program of targeted killing in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan cannot be severed from the multiple ways in which the FATA have been configured as both borderlands and battlefields and, in particular, from the cascade of military operations that have rendered the FATA as a space of exception (in something both more and less than Agamben’s sense of the term).  Here I’ve learned much from an excellent essay by Elizabeth Cullen Dunn and Jason Cons, ‘Aleatory sovereignty and the rule of sensitive spaces’, Antipode 46 (1) (2014) 92-109).  They complicate the claim that spaces of exception always derive from a single locus of sovereign power (or ‘the sovereign decision’).  Instead, they  suggest that borderlands are ‘contested spaces’ where ‘competing’ powers ‘collide’.  In the FATA multiple powers have been involved in the administration of military violence, but on occasion – and crucially – they have done so in concert and their watchword has been a qualified and covert collaboration. In particular, the FATA have been marked by a long and chequered gavotte between the militaries and intelligence services of the United States and Pakistan which, since the 1980s, has consistently put at risk the lives of the people of the borderlands.  And in my essay on ‘Angry Eyes’ (next on my screen) I argue that the US military’s major use of Predators and Reapers in Afghanistan – orchestrating strikes by conventional aircraft and providing close air support to ‘troops in contact’ – depends on communication networks with ground troops in theatre, and that this dispersed geography of militarised vision introduces major uncertainties into the supposedly ‘precise’ targeting process.

CHAMAYOU Theory of the droneSecond: Elliott Prasse-Freeman has an extended review of the English translation of Grégoire Chamayou‘s Theory of the drone – called ‘Droning On‘ – over at the New Inquiry (you can access my own commentaries on the French edition here: scroll down).  His central criticism is this:

While his title promises theory, we instead are treated to a digression on the military and social ethics of attacks from the air, in which Chamayou asks without irony, “can counterinsurgency rise to the level of an aero-policy without losing its soul?” What offends Chamayou is the “elimination, already rampant but here absolutely radicalized, of any immediate relation of reciprocity” in warfare. This, we are told, is the problem.

Promised a theory of the drone, how do we arrive at a theory of the noble soldier?…

And so, dispatching with the dream of the drone … Chamayou assumes the concerns not of the brutalized but of military leaders and soldiers.

He continues in terms that resonate with my argument in ‘Dirty Dancing’:

By combining knowing (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance), sighting (targeting in movement and in the moment), and eliminating (“putting warheads on foreheads”), the drone constitutes an assemblage of force (as drone-theorist Derek Gregory puts it) that promises a revolution in control and allows the US war apparatus to imagine space and politics in new ways. Because the body of the accused can ostensibly be precisely seen, it can be seen as itself carving out a body-sized exception to state sovereignty over the territory on which that body moves. In this way, eliminating the body does not constitute an assault on the territory of the state, as these bodies are presented as ontologically (and hence quasi-legally) disconnected from that territory.  Geographer Stuart Elden in Terror and Territory (2009) points out the significant overlap between who are labeled ‘terrorists’ and movements fighting for their own political spaces – which hence necessarily violate extant states’ ‘territories’ (and hence the entire international order of states): to violate territory is to terrorize. The US is hence remarkably concerned in its arrogation of a position of supra-sovereignty to ensure that it overlaps with ‘classic’ state sovereignty, and by no means violates the norm of territorial integrity (well-defined borders): by harboring or potentially harboring unacceptable transnational desires, the militant uproots himself, and risks being plucked out and vaporized in open space that belongs only to him. The exception to sovereignty provides the drone the opportunity to extend this exception into temporal indefiniteness: wars are not declared, aggressions are not announced—the fleet, fusing police and military functions, merely watches and strikes, constantly pruning the ground of human weeds.

In ‘Dirty Dancing’ I’m trying to prise apart – analytically, at least – the space of exception, conceived as one in which a particular group of people is knowingly and deliberately exposed to death through the political-juridical removal of legal protections and affordances that would otherwise be available to them, and territory conceived (as Stuart suggests) as a political-juridical technology, a series of calculative practices that seeks to calibrate and register a claim over bodies-in-spaces.  That’s why Dan Gettinger’s essay is so timely too, and why I’ve been thinking about the FATA as a performance of what Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge call ‘code/space’, why I’ve been working my way through the files released by Edward Snowden, and why I’ve been thinking so much about Louise Amoore‘s superb critique of The politics of possibility: risk and security beyond probability (2013).

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Although Louise doesn’t address drone strikes directly, her arguments are full of vital insights into the networks that are mobilised through them.  ‘The sovereign strike is always something more, something in excess of a single flash of decision’, she insists, and when she writes that —

those at risk (which is to say those who are to be put at risk by virtue of their inferred riskiness) are ‘not strictly “included by means of their own exclusion”, as Agamben frames the exception, they are more accurately included by means of a dividuated and mobile drawing of risk fault lines’

17— it’s a very short journey back to Grégoire Chamayou‘s reflections on the strange (in)dividual whose ‘schematic body’ emerges on the targeting screen of the Predator or Reaper.  Louise writes of ‘the appearance of an emergent subject’, which is a wonderfully resonant way of capturing the performative practices through which targets are produced: ‘pixelated people’, she calls them, that emerge on screens scanning databanks but which also appear in the crosshairs…

And finally, Corporate Watch has just published a report by Therezia Cooper and Tom Anderson, Gaza: life beneath the drones.  This brings together a series of interviews conducted in 2012 – when ‘drones killed more people in Gaza than any other aircraft’ – that were first published in serial form in 2014.  The report includes a tabulation of deaths from Israeli military action in Gaza and those killed directly by drones (2000-2014) and a profile of some of the companies involved in Israel’s military-industrial complex.

Theories and counter-theories of the drone

CROGAN Gameplay modeI expect many readers will know Patrick Crogan‘s Gameplay mode: war, simulation and technoculture (Minnesota, 2011).  He has now uploaded what I think is a draft of Drones and global technicity: automation and (dis)individuation at academia.  Here’s the extended abstract:

This paper (for General Organology conference [held last month at the University of Kent]) will explore the expansion of military drone usage by Western powers in the “war on terror” over the last decade or so in relation to Bernard Stiegler’s organological approach to questions concerning human historical, cultural and technological becoming.. Theorists approaching drones from different fields such as Grégoire Chamayou, Derek Gregory and Eyal Weizman have argued that the systematic and growing deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles should be understood as the “avant-garde” of a general movement toward remote and increasingly autonomous robotic systems by all branches of the armed forces of the U.S. and many of allies and competitors. These developments put into question all established cultural political, legal and ethical framings of war, peace, territory, civilian and soldier in the societies of the “advanced powers” on behalf of which these systems are deployed. Animating this indetermination is what Chamayou calls the “tendency inherent in the material development of drones” leading to this profound undoing of cultural and geopolitical moorings. I will explore the organological nature of this tendency inherent in drone materiality and technology, concentrating on the virtualizing, realtime digital developments in remotely controlled and increasingly automated robotic systems.

The projection of a simulational model of the contested space over the inhabited world is a constitutive part of this tendency. Indeed, the inhabitants of the spaces of concern in the war on terror—which in principle and increasingly in practice are everywhere—are better understood as environmental elements or “threats” in what simulation engineer and theorist Robert Sargent has called the “problem space” the computer simulation designer seeks to model conceptually in order to make the simulation serve as an effective solution. A specifically designed spatio-temporality is enacting a performative, “operational” and automated reinvention of the lived experience of both inhabiting and contesting the control of space in time.

If, as the above writers have shown, this projection of and over “enemy territory” has clear precedents in European colonialist strategies and procedures, what is unprecedented today is the digitally-enabled expansion and intensification of this spatio-temporal reanimation of the world. This reanimation must be understood as key contributor to a transformative and extremely problematic pathway toward the automation of military force projection across the globe. This essay will analyse the nature and implications of these transformative digital modellings of the enemy in and as milieu, a milieu as tiny as the space around a single ‘target’ and as large as the world, existing both in a brief “window of opportunity” and within a permanent realtime of preemptive pan-spectrum surveillance.

From an organological perspective developments in drone technics must also be approached as a particularly pressing political and ethical challenge of the global transformations of human technicity in the digital “epoch”—or rather, in the generalised crisis of epochality and spatio-temporal orientation that Stiegler sets out to thematise and respond to in his “philosophical activism”. If as Stiegler provocatively suggests in Technics and Time 1: The Fault of Epimetheus) human being had a “second origin” in the historical development of the West which achieved its culmination its “worldwide extension”, it is one whose epoch has led us tendentially and increasingly rapidly to the crisis of ethnocultural idiomatic differentiation and specificity (as he argues in Technics and Time 2: Disorientation). The history of Western techno-capitalist, imperial colonisations, wars and subsequent post-colonial globalisation is attaining its full extent and its exacerbation, readable in the above noted indeterminations of war, peace, sovereignty, citizenship and so on. What goes with this is a doubled movement (which Virilio termed “endocolonisation”) of intensification of the reorganisation of social and individual surveillance, control and regulation via realtime, pervasive digital technical regimes. The systematic deployment of computational abstraction, simulational virtualisation and anticipatory, realtime preemptive materialisation of this doubled movement is perceivable in all its cultural-political, conceptual and technological complexity in drone technics. Indeed, drones are a major driver of research and development in automation and AI for the spectrum of what the U.S.A.F calls the “perceive and act vector”, as well as for “big data” processing in realtime to handle ever-growing monitoring and surveillance feeds.

Today a voluntarist and cynical (and nihilist in Stiegler’s view) adoption of the automatising potentials of digital technics supports the rapid advances in drone systems (and I have proposed that an “elective naivety” sustains this in the academy, across scientific and humanities disciplinary contexts). From Stiegler’s organological perspective, I will argue that the autonomy of human agency is always composed with various automated functions that form part of our material, prosthetic conditions of existence. By addressing some of the inherent contradictions arising from the proposed development of fully autonomous military robotic systems, I hope to contribute toward the urgently needed “redoubling” of the first adoption of the possibilities of digital automation evidenced in drone technics (as the “logical” outcome in strategic-political terms of the latest advances of computer technology). To “re-double” technocultural becoming reflectively, critically, in the name of a less inhuman potential of automated digital technics is the responsibility of those able to read and write, to reflect and respond to the accelerating epochal transformation of the world in this “our” era of the permanent war on terror. This is the horizon in which “we” maintain the possibility of a non-inhuman future (or further “re-birth”) for contemporary humanity. For, as Stiegler has argued in What Makes Life Worth Living, this is a better way to think the present and future than that implied in the term “post-human”, for the human remains a project and a projection and not a superceded entity.


Bernard Stiegler (above) was a keynote speaker at the conference, and if you want some tantalising glimpses into some of the other possibilities opened out by his ideas for the analysis of drones, I’d recommend James Ash, ‘Technology and affect: Towards a theory of inorganically organised objects’, Emotion, space and society (in press, 2014) – incidentally, James reviews Gameplay mode in Cultural politics 8 (3) (2012) 495-497 – and Sam Kinsley‘s ‘The matter of virtual geographies’, Progress in human geography (2014) 38 (3) (2014) 364-84.

As you can see from the abstract, Patrick also engages with my work and, crucially, Gregoire Chamayou‘s, and since the English-language translation of Theory of the drone is published at the end of this month I thought it might be helpful to list and link to my detailed commentaries on the book in one place, so here they are:


Theory of the drone 1: Genealogies

Theory of the drone 2: Hunting

Theory of the drone 3: Killing grounds

Theory of the drone 4: Pennies from heaven [on counterinsurgency/COIN]

 Theory of the drone 5: Vulnerabilities

Theory of the drone 6: Sacrifice, suicide and drones

Theory of the drone 7: Historical precedents and postcolonial amnesia

Theory of the drone 8: From invisibility to vulnerability

Theory of the drone 9: Psychopathologies of the drone

Theory of the drone 10: Killing at a distance

Theory of the drone 11: Necro-ethics

Theory of the drone 12: ‘Killing well’?

You can also find my essay on ‘Drone geographies’ from Radical Philosophy (2014) under the DOWNLOADS tab.

Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer‘s combative review of Theory of the drone, ‘Ideology of the drone’, is here and my extended commentary on that review is here.  Simon Labrecque provides another review here, invoking the USAF’s own description of its remote missions: ‘Projeter du pouvoir sans projeter de vulnérabilité.’

Meanwhile over at the Funambulist Papers, Stuart Elden suggested one way of wiring Grégoire’s previous book Manhunts to Theory of the drone here, while Grégoire’s own postscript (which suggests another route) is here.

Expect more commentary once the English edition is out.

A short history of schematic bodies

While I was in Irvine last month for the Secrecy and Transparency workshop, I had a series of rich conversations with Grégoire Chamayou — who also made a brief but brilliant presentation on targeting, signature strikes and time-space tracking.  He now writes to say that he has elaborated his ideas in a longer contribution to Léopold Lambert‘s Funambulist papers: ‘A very short history of schematic bodies‘.

(Even more) briefly, Grégoire connects Torsten Hågerstrand‘s time geography – which Anne Buttimer once saw as a danse macabre – to the activity-based intelligence that supposedly ‘informs’ CIA-directed drone strikes [see my ‘Lines of descent’ essay: DOWNLOADS tab] via three diagrams drawn from Paul Klee.


The first two (above) distinguish (1) ‘dividuals‘ from (2) ‘individuals‘: so, following Deleuze, Grégoire distinguishes (1) ‘societies of control articulated through the dyad of “dividuals” and databanks’ from (2) ‘disciplinary societies structured around a relationship between the individual and the mass.’ Seen thus, Hagerstrand’s project mapped the reverse move from (1) to (2), from ‘statistical dividuality’ to ‘chronospatial individuality’.

But Grégoire suggests that targeting involves a third fabrication, a co-construction of (1) and (2), thus:


He writes:

The corresponding object of power here is neither the individual taken as an element in a mass, nor the dividual appearing with a code in a databank, but something else: a patterned individuality that is woven out of statistical dividualities and cut out onto a thread of reticular activities, against which it progressively silhouettes in time as a distinctive perceptible unit in the eyes of the machine.

The production of this form of individuality belongs neither to discipline nor to control, but to something else: to targeting in its most contemporary procedures, whose formal features are shared today among fields as diverse as policing, military reconnaissance and marketing. It might well be, for that matter, that we are entering targeted societies.

This speaks directly to current theses about the individuation of military violence as one (and only one) modality of later modern war, but we need to remember that targeting appears at the interface of the market and the military, as Sam Weber shows in Targets of opportunity.  

It’s also important to think through the ‘body’ that is made to appear in the sights and as a sight; it’s not a fleshy body but a digital-statistical trace that is literally ‘touched’ by the cross-hairs (the apparatus of the drone as prosthesis).  As I wrote in ‘Drone geographies’ (DOWNLOADS tab),

[People] are brought within the militarized field of vision through the rhythmanalysis and network analysis of a suspicious ‘pattern of life’, a sort of weaponized time-geography… 

Killing is made the culmination of a natural history of destruction – in precisely not the sense intended by W.G. Sebald – and the targets are rendered as ‘individuals’ in a calculative rather than corporeal register.

Here Ian Hacking‘s ideas about ‘making up people‘ are also relevant.  In his classic British Academy lecture, ‘Kinds of people: moving targets‘, he described how ‘a new scientific classification may bring into being a new kind of person’ – in this case, the target – and how ‘a classification may interact with the people classified.’  A signature strike is surely the deadliest version of this ‘interaction’…

Incidentally, anyone who thinks that so-called ‘personality strikes’ are somehow less deadly needs to read REPRIEVE‘s latest report, You only die twice: multiple kills in the US drone program.  Spencer Ackerman has a good summary (and graphic, extracted below) here, describing the multiple deaths involved in the search for specific, named targets:

'Personality strikes' in Pakistan


Game of Drones

theory_of_the_drone_finalJean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer writes to say that his review of Grégoire Chamayou‘s Théorie du drone has just appeared in English translation over at Books & Ideas here.

It’s a combative review, literally so:

When Chamayou was asked what motivated him to write the book, he replied that “some philosophers in the United States and in Israel work hand in hand with the military to elaborate what I call a ‘necro-ethics’ that tries to justify targeted assassinations. So it is urgent to respond. When ethics is brought into a war, philosophy becomes a battlefield.” 

A bit like Plato looking upon his Socratic dialogues as the philosopher’s responses to the sophists – i.e. to false philosophers – Chamayou presents his Theory of the Drone as a response to the traitorous philosophers who collaborate with the military. I am myself one of this low species: I teach ethics and the law of war to officer students at the French Military Academy of Saint-Cyr, and I often work with the military (without however being “enlisted” to justify anything whatsoever). Therefore I can testify that, when you take an interest in military matters, it is helpful to work with them, to increase your precision and to avoid some clichés and factual errors.

I provided some background to Vilmer’s work and discussed his critique here.

An excellent English translation of Theory of the Drone is due from the New Press in December.

While I’m on the subject of translations, French versions of my ‘Drone geographies’ from Radical Philosophy (DOWNLOADS tab) are now available as ‘Géographes du drone’ in Jef Klak: critique sociale et experiences littéraires 1 (2014) 262-277 and in Décadrages: Cinéma, à travers champs 26-27 (2014) 129-150.

Ideology of the drone

9782130583516Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer has published an extended critique of Grégoire Chamayou‘s Théorie du drone at La vie des idées under the title ‘Ideology of the drone’.  Some of the essays from that site are eventually translated into English and appear on the mirror site Books & Ideas, but I have no idea when or even whether this one will be, so I thought it would be helpful to provide a summary.

First, some background.  Vilmer has travelled via Montréal, Yale and War Studies at King’s College London to his present position at Sciences Po in Paris, where he teaches ethics and the law of war; he also teaches at the military academy at Saint-Cyr, and is a policy adviser on security issues to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  Vilmer is the author of more than a dozen books, of which La Guerre au nom de l’humanité : tuer ou laisser mourir (2012) is probably the best known.  If you’re not familiar with his work, here’s an English-language interview with him about La Guerre au nom de l’humanité via France 24 and the Daily Motion:

pe-3-2013I should note, too, that Vilmer’s critique trades in part on an essay published earlier this year, ‘Légalité et légitimité des drones armés’ [‘Legality and legitimacy of armed drones’], in Politique étrangère 3 (2013) 119-32, in which he rehearses a number of criticisms of Chamayou.  There Vilmer insists that the use of drones is perfectly compatible with the principles of international humanitarian law (this is about principle not practice, though, and he doesn’t address the implications of international human rights law which many critics and NGOs believe is the operative body of law for drone strikes outside war zones, like those carried out by the US in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan).

He also has no time for critics who turn the distance between the drone operator and the target into a moral absolute (though I don’t think Chamayou does that at all: instead, as I tried to show previously, he provides a nuanced discussion of the concept of distance).  Still, Vilmer is right to insist that the history of modern war is the history of killing the enemy from ever greater distances, and those who cling to the ‘nobility’ of hand-to-hand fighting are blind to an historical record reaching back over centuries.  If distance is a ‘moral buffer’, this is hardly unique to today’s remote operations, where in any case the greater physical distance is counterbalanced by a compression of what Vilmer calls ‘epistemic distance’ through the real-time full-motion video feeds transmitted from the drone.  The difference between the crew of a Lancaster bomber over Germany and the drone operator controlling an aircraft over Afghanistan is that the latter sees his victim.  And if conducting strikes by computer is ‘dehumanising’, the machetes used at close quarters in the Rwandan genocide were hardly less so.  What is more, Vilmer suggests, those video feeds are not only remote witnesses of the target; there is an important sense in which they also function as remote witnesses of the crew, providing a vital record for any subsequent military-judicial investigation and thus inviting and even institutionalising a regularised monitoring of ‘the conduct of conduct’.

la-theorie-du-droneNow to the extended critique of Chamayou.  Vilmer notes that Théorie du drone follows directly from Chamayou’s previous book, Chasses à l’homme [Manhunts], and in fact that’s his main problem with it: he says that Théorie reduces the function of drones to ‘hunting’, specifically to the US campaign of targeted killing, and identifies the one so closely with the other that the force of his analysis is blunted.  Vilmer thinks this is playing to the crowd: there is a considerable audience opposed to the use of drones who find Chamayou’s arguments convincing because they confirm their own views.

Indeed, Chamayou makes it plain that one of his express intentions is to provide the critics with useful tools to advance their political work.  Yet at the same time he presents Théorie as a philosophical investigation – and it is that, Vilmer concedes, erudite and at times brilliant – but in his view the objective is less to provide understanding than to provoke indignation.  In fact,  Chamayou has said in press interviews that what provoked him in the first place was the sight of philosophers collaborating with the military – and Vilmer freely admits to being one of them (though in France rather than the United States or Israel).

It’s important to examine the practice of targeted killing, Vilmer agrees, because it raises crucial ethical and legal questions.  But it’s also important not to confuse the ends with the means.  As I’ve noted in my own commentaries on Théorie, there are other ways of carrying out targeted killing (as Russian dissidents on the streets of London or Iranian scientists on the streets of Tehran have discovered to their cost) and there are many other military uses for drones.  Targeted killing gets the most publicity because it’s so controversial, Vilmer argues, but it’s far less important than the provision of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (though ISR is central to lethal strikes carried out by conventional aircraft and ground troops too).

Vilmer is breezily confident about the use of drones in war-zones, where he says they are no more problematic than any other observation platform or weapons system.  Contrary to Chamayou’s assertion that drones only save ‘our’ lives, Vilmer insists that they have saved the lives of others – ‘their’ lives – in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Mali.  Yet Chamayou isn’t interested in these cases; instead his ‘theory of the drone’ reduces its role to CIA-directed targeted killings in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, which Vilmer complains is like calling a book on Russian cyber-attacks Theory of the computer.

aJeangène VilmerThat said, he thinks Chamayou’s critique of signature strikes is ‘excellent’, and he deeply regrets the migration of the American campaign away from ‘personality strikes’ against High Value Targets. The widening of the target lists and the ‘industrialisation’ of targeted killing deserves condemnation – and Vilmer notes that the Obama administration, responsible for ramping up the attacks, has since cut them back in response to criticisms – but in his view this only shows that Predators and Reapers ‘have been used in an imprecise way’ not that they are intrinsically less accurate than other systems.

When Chamayou seeks to show, to the contrary, that drones are ‘inhumane’ he advances two arguments that Vilmer flatly rejects.  (I have to say that I think Chamayou’s arguments are considerably more subtle than Vilmer allows: see here and here).  The first – the claim that ‘unmanned’ aircraft are by definition ‘inhuman’ – he dismisses as sophistry, not because each operation involves almost 200 people but because the bombers that destroyed Hamburg and levelled Dresden were ‘manned’: he says that Chamayou would hardly describe the results of their missions as ‘humane’. The second – that machines dedicated to killing cannot be ‘humane’ – is an absolutism that doesn’t engage with those (like Vilmer) who argue that some weapons are more humane than others. That, after all, is precisely why some weapons are banned by international law.  And unlike Chamayou, Vilmer insists that drones allow for a greater degree of compliance with principles of distinction because they are more than weapons systems: they also provide enhanced ISR.

Vilmer agrees that it is wrong to compare drone strikes with bombing missions in the Second World War, Korea or Vietnam, but he disagrees with the contemporary alternative canvassed by Chamayou: ground troops armed with grenades.  In the case of Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia this isn’t a realistic option, he argues, and in the absence of drones the only alternative would be a Kosovo-like bombing campaign or a rain of Tomahawk missiles – neither of which would be as accurate as a Hellfire missile.  But this is to substitute one absolutism for another.  Hellfire missiles are not confined to Predators and Reapers but are also carried by conventional strike aircraft and attack helicopters; and in any case cruise missiles have been launched from US Naval vessels to attack targets in Yemen, and Special Forces have been deployed on the ground in all three killing fields.  Perhaps more to the point, however, Vilmer knows very well that conventional operations involving ground troops do not typically minimise civilian casualties.  He points to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq as reasons for Obama’s greater reliance on remote operations and a ‘lighter footprint’, and he also emphasises (as Chamayou does not) the casualties caused by Pakistan’s own military operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (see my discussions here and here).

This last brings Vilmer to a key objection, which is that Chamayou provides no detailed discussion of the reasons behind the US drone strikes.  It’s not enough to attribute them to American imperialism tout court, he insists, because this is a reductive argument that turns terrorists and insurgents into freedom fighters and fails to acknowledge let alone analyse the real dangers posed, both locally and trans-nationally, by al-Qaeda and its associates.  Théorie doesn’t simply ‘disappear’ the terrorists, Vilmer writes, it turns them into victims: like so many rabbits put back in the magician’s hat.  The imagery is almost Chamayou’s – he claims that ‘one no longer fights the enemy, one eliminates them like rabbits’ – but Vilmer prefers another one.  He says that Chamayou’s talk of the predator (or Predator) advancing, the prey fleeing, makes it seem as though the drones are targeting Bambi’s mother…

Bambi's mother

It’s another clever phrase (and Vilmer excels in them), but I think Chamayou is much more sensitive to civilian casualties – and to the plight of all those innocents living under the perpetual threat of attack – than Vilmer.  There are snares and dangers out there, to be sure; but there are also an awful lot of Bambis and their mothers.

Finally, Vilmer turns to France’s decision to buy Reapers, which Chamayou contends has caused no outcry in France only because the public is badly informed about drones. On the contrary, Vilmer replies: it’s because they can tell the difference between buying the technology and using it like the Americans. Vilmer has much more to say about this in a recent open access interview in Politique étrangère, where he explains that the Air Force had deployed four unarmed drones, a version of Israel’s Heron called the Harfang, in Afghanistan, Libya and Mali, but that from the end of this year France will start to take delivery of 12 MQ-9 Reapers: these too will be unarmed.  He also speculates about the future development of drones.  Among other things, there will be a lot more of them (so he does worry about their proliferation); he also thinks they will be faster and stealthier, more lethal and more autonomous, and that they will fly in swarms.  He also believes that aircraft of the future will increasingly be produced in two versions: either conventional operations with pilots onboard or remote operations with pilots in a Ground Control Station.

Please bear in mind that this is only a summary of Vilmer’s critique, which is vulnerable to its own simplifications and caricatures, though I obviously haven’t been able to keep entirely silent.  But I’ll reserve a fuller engagement until I’ve finished my own extended commentary on Théorie du drone.