Monday, February 16, 2015

Put a Drone on It: Chamayou's A Theory of the Drone

Image from Sleep Dealer 

Drones are having their cultural moment right now. They have appeared in such films from Interstellar to Captain America: Winter Soldier. While in the first film the drone's cameo appearance was used to shuffle in some post-Empire concerns (the drone was an Indian Surveillance drone), in the latter film drones do not directly appear but the the film deals with "drone anxiety." Drone anxiety is the fear that the very things that make drones strategically desirable--"precision targeting," low risk, and stealth, will make possible a massive centralization and automation of state power. (Sleep Dealer, pictured above, was ahead of the curve on this point). The unmanned ariel vehicle becomes synonymous with a breakdown of responsibility and centralization of control. In many cases the fear of the drone then just merges with fears of robots. In any case drones are hot, and the war on terror is not (or at least less so). 

Beyond popular culture drones have become what I consider "transdisciplinary theoretical objects." Transdisciplinary theoretical objects are things that nearly everyone writes about or reads about regardless of their specialization. Drones, financialization, social media, and climate change are such objects currently. Neoliberalism is fifteen minutes ago. Such objects not only reflect the cultural, economic, and technological transformations that define anything like a "conjuncture" but raise the question as to how the different tools of ontological speculation, textual analysis, historical reflection, and visual interrogation can combine and augment each other. That would be the ideal, but all to often these shared objects of concern simply become the terrain upon which the narcissism of minor theoretical differences can play themselves out. 

Image from Captain America: The Winter Soldier 

It is for all of these reasons that I was excited to read Grégoire Chamayou's A Theory of the Drone, so excited that I read his previous book on manhunts (but not so excited that I read it before the English translation came out). After reading the earlier book I proposed that perhaps the two could be read together as a kind of outsourcing of risk and violence (the drone is the new slave hunter). My prediction was correct, Chamayou places the drone in a trajectory that is more of the manhunt than of combat. The drone sees, locates, and eliminates a target, it does not battle an enemy.

This one sided hunting relates to the first question Chamayou takes up, the much discussed figure of the drone operator. At one time or another it seemed that every major periodical from The Atlantic to The New York Times (not exactly a huge spread, I know) ran a profile of the drone operator.  We could ask the question as to why the drone operator came to be such a figure of fascination, but that is not the question that Chamayou asks. Chamayou contests the attempts to attribute to drone operators the same post-traumatic stress found in the battlefield. Drone operators are subject to stress, to long hours, but theri stress is to be subject to a kind of cognitive dissonance of living and home but working in a global battle zone. As Chamayou writes,

"...relocating agents of armed violence to a domestic zone of peace places them in a social environment that may well not be able to understand them and which may actively, before their very eyes, contest the violence of which they are the agents."

And latter...

"And what if drone psychopathology lay not where it is believed to be, in the possible traumas of the drone operators, but in the industrial production of compartmentalized psyches, immunized against any possibility of reflecting upon their own violence, just as their bodies are already immunized against any possibility of being exposed to the enemy?"

Image from Arrested Development 

More important than the psychological or moral economy of the drone is where it fits in the politics and economy of war . If the drone's moral or psychic lineage includes the slave hunter then its political genealogy is much closer to home. It starts with Vietnam, with the US military's attempt to avoid another Vietnam not in the anti-imperialist or anti-war sense of the term, but in the sense that Vietnam exposed the US and the military to its dependence on popular opinion, on the draft, on the people. As Chamayou writes, 

"The Vietnam crisis made crystal clear all the latent political dangers associated with such a dependent relationship. The American ruling classes came to recognize the full scope of the powerful dynamics of social radicalization that could be engendered by an unpopular imperialistic war. They could also see to what extent the explosive synergies activated by the antiwar movement resonated with all the social movements agitating American society."

Image from Interstellar 

Drone warfare does not just shift the moral economy of war, the risk and bravery that makes killing justifiable, or the psychic economy, the dangers and damage of war, but is a shift in the political economy of war. Or, more to the point, is a shift in the moral, technical, and psychic economy of war as a response to the political economy of war. It is war divorced from the mass mobilizations that have largely defined conflict. The drone is not just some technological transformation of the means of war, but a fundamental transformation of its logic, limitations, and rationale. Its conditions and effects exceed the boundaries of war theory, political theory, political economy, or ethical philosophy. Chamayou's book offers a provocative introduction to drone theory, and an argument as to why we all need to think about drones. After all, they are everywhere.

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