Experimental Procedures for New Ontologies

Review essay of: Bruno Latour (ed.), Reset Modernity (2016). Cambridge: MIT Press, 560 pp.

In 2013, French philosopher Bruno Latour baffled his growing audience with the publication of An Inquiry into the Modes of Existence (henceforth AIME), a 500-page tome containing Latour’s attempt at a systematic philosophy with the ambition and scale of Hegel’s Phenomenology, claiming that our modern world is best understood by delineating the fifteen “modes of existence” that make it up (Latour 2013a). Although this 500-page monster caused confusion even amongst his most seasoned readers, for Latour himself it was only the start. Simultaneously, Latour launched an interactive website through which fellow scholars could contribute to his study of those that give themselves the attribute of “modern”. While studying “the moderns”, as Latour would call these people, contributors to the website detracted or added from the “modes of existence” that made up the ontology of the moderns.1

The whole AIME-project (that is, the book, multiple workshops, lectures and online discussions) came to an end with an exhibition in the ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe called Reset Modernity. In the past, Latour had already, together with Peter Weibel, director of ZKM, utilised exhibitions for exploring and investigating specific topics in his work, inviting many prominent scholars, curators and artists to reflect with him on these topics. This resulted in two large catalogues that also function as reference work for scholars interested in Latour’s work (Latour and Weibel 2002, 2005). And now his latest exhibition has produced again a sizable tome, simply named Reset Modernity (henceforth RM). Even if this catalogue is a bit shorter than his previous two, the volume is still full to the brim with articles of prominent scholars across many disciplines, such as anthropologist Philipe Descola, art historian Joseph Leo Koerner, philosopher Isabelle Stengers and intercut with essays and artworks by artists such as Armin Linke, Friedrich Casper David and Tomás Saraceno, to name but a few.

In RM Latour asks his readers to reset their sensing devices in order to render sensible to us the things that make us modern. Long-time readers notice that he is continuing his research into modernity as set out in his 1993 book We Have Never Been Modern, in which Latour argued that our conception of modernity came down to a rigid and unbridgeable distinction between subjects and objects, culture and nature. More shockingly, Latour argued that this great watershed between subject and object had never taken place as our practices showed that we constantly relied on entities that defied that categorisation, so-called quasi-objects (Latour 1993, 51–55). Only our thinking had been modern, our practices had never been. AIME was the answer to a question posed to Latour after finishing We Have Never Been Modern, namely “if we never were modern, what are we then?” (Latour 2013b). The somewhat paradoxical answer was that we are modern, albeit not in the sense that philosophers usually understood this condition. The problem for Latour was that since we understand the world through the Modern Constitution that divided subject and object we are not well equipped to understand quasi-objects , while a proliferation of quasi-objects is precisely what makes our society, or rather our collective, as Latour would say, modern (Latour 1993, 13–15; 88–90).2

RM promises procedures through which we can rid ourselves of our ontological preconceptions and truly start to understand ourselves as modern. A task which is, according to Latour, very urgent in the age of large-scale environmental problems, smartly captured in the notion of “the Anthropocene”. But what is precisely the danger if we modern people cannot conceive of ourselves as modern? According to Latour’s opening essay Let’s touch base, the problems revolve around nihilism: a politico-theological aspect of modernity. The introduction sees Latour at his most ferocious, producing lines like “the modernizing frontier seems ready to swallow humans and nonhumans alike, plunging all of them into the midst of a general destruction of the conditions fit for life”, and “transcendence [has] been transformed into the abandonment and condemnation of this world” (11).3 Here, the modernizing frontier and transcendence are used interchangeably. Latour points out religious and economic wars as the source of the “general destruction” and these events are cast as processes attracted by transcendent goals. Both are attracted towards some beyond: “religious wars for the colonization of a nonexistent afterworld; […] economic wars for territories that are equally insubstantial” (11). Latour’s warnings of nihilism recall Nietzsche’s (anti-Christian) crusade against nihilism. Nietzsche wrote against life-denying longings, and the acts of self-flagellation and practices of punishment associated with it (See: Nietzsche 1998). Latour does something similar: in the Anthropocene the viability of the planet is at stake, and the belief in some transcendent beyond is causing the trouble.

But what is Latour’s alternative? He contrasts nihilism with the earthly (which we interpret as a term for the immanence of actants), the secular and the material as better dwellings for thought and practice. Latour’s goal this time around seems to be: offering procedures for discovering our Earth anew, not as a place to realise a transcendent beyond that calls upon us, but as a place in which we need to learn how to survive or prevent the looming environmental catastrophes by moving “neither up nor down, but within and along the world” (20). Ridding ourselves of the old “modernizing frontier” by resetting our modern sensibilities would thus help us to find the Earth again.

Resetting however, Latour is quick to stress, should not be understood as the act of rebooting our electronic devices (e.g. resetting my mobile phone), a simple push on a button. Instead Latour alludes to how technical instruments are reset, by recalibration. For example, recalibrating measuring instruments in such a way that they are able to detect the modern entities and value them appropriately; but also the recalibration of navigation instruments, seeking for new points that can help to orient the moderns. An urgent issue since the older horizons that we used to navigate modernity (e.g. secularization, liberal democracy, civilisation, rationalisation, etc.) are either under pressure all over the world, or have proven to be problematic.

The reset procedures are invitations for the reader to develop new ontologies that escape the Modern Constitution. Their outcome is uncertain: although Latour has his ontologies already mapped out, it is clear that his collaborators are not convinced yet and want to find their own ways; what’s more, whether these procedures render new ontologies at all is questioned by some contributors. This gives the procedures offered an experimental character. Thus for the remainder of this essay, we take this experimental route and see what the possible outcome of following Latour’s procedures can be, reviewing the volume in the process.

Procedures 1 & 2: Relocalizing the Global; Without the World or Within

For those who are familiar with Latour’s output before AIME, procedures 1 & 2 are familiar territory. Just as in Science in Action (Latour 1988a) or The Pasteurization of France (Latour 1988b) Latour asks us to look beyond ready-made knowledge and see the messy practices that purify scientific results bringing the quasi-objects that underpin the workings of modern science into view. The novelty is that Latour does not concentrate on knowledge but on our practices of making pictures of the world (cf. Heidegger 1977a). Following Peter Sloterdijk, Latour considers that the predominant modern way of picturing the world is globular (see: Sloterdijk 2014). Globes are not only a representation of all earth’s land and seas as an interconnected whole; in the modern perception it is also that in which or on which we reside. Slogans as “think globally, act locally” seem to suggest that the image of the globe is essential to understand the impact humans have on the earth in the Anthropocene. Yet, as Latour remarks in his book Facing Gaia: “the danger is always the same: the figure of the Globe authorizes a premature leap to a higher level by confusing the figures of connection with those of totality” (Latour 2017, 130). As Latour explains, the globe is an abstraction but is confused for the totality; the result, all the practices and materials involved into making this abstraction disappear from the totality.

In RM Latour explains this mistake of the image of the globe by discussing Charles and Ray Eames’ 1977 short film Powers of Ten (53). What seems at first an educational film about what science can tell us about the largest and smallest possible scales, turns out to be riddled with “globes”; their integration provides a perfect antithesis to what Latour tries to achieve in his first procedure in particular, and RM in general. Effortlessly, the film’s camera travels from the sphere of the galaxy to the sphere of our DNA-structure. But that one camera does not exist. Multiple recording devices were needed to produce the pictures we see. All the pictures are stylized in order to let us grasp the information in them more easily. Others, such as those of a carbon nucleus, could more accurately be described as an artist’s impression. The smooth transition the film gives us would have taken, in reality, complicated travels among laboratories and artist’s studios around the world.

Not only does Latour invite us to imagine the travels between the laboratories but also to take a look inside them. If we would, for example, visit NASA’s research division, we would learn that the famous Blue Marble picture from 1972, which features in the Powers of Ten, is actually made up of large datasets of photos stitched together, removing a lot of cloud formations in the process. Not only are the jumps between the spheres not smooth, closer scrutiny proves that the spheres do not even hold together.

By thinking through such examples Latour helps to rid us of those totalising world pictures, which were according to Martin Heidegger so fundamental to our modern way of thinking. Without the globe, Latour asserts, we are “able to follow connections without jumping […] to the ‘big picture’” (54). Ridding ourselves of the “big pictures”, the second procedure neatly connects by ridding ourselves of another major framework that guides our understanding, the already mentioned subject-object scheme, more specifically, the positioning of object and subject as always face-to-face. Knowledge must be understood to never rely “on such a face-to-face of object and subject and a subject-with-nothing-else-to-do-but-gazing-on-an-object” (93). Latour proposes that instead of imagining the production of knowledge to be this vertical relation, we should “shift direction sideways by ninety degrees” (93): knower and known are now on the same plane (‘within” the world; a plane of immanence).4 Latour”s final word on the matter is that we must move away from the vertical scenography, and should replace our faulty self-understanding with “[registrations of] the experience of dealing with the world” (93).

Giving this procedure more colour than the usual Latourian fare is the addition of essays by critical Latour interlocutors Pablo Jensen, Philippe Descola and Graham Harman, amongst others, who shed new light on what it means to go beyond the subject-object scheme. For example, in his essay How We Became Modern: a View from Afar Descola equally sets out the procedure(s) Latour prescribes, where he understands them as “considering the conditions that made them [the moderns] modern” (122). Remarkably enough, Descola arrives at different results than those of Latour. Noteworthy of Descola’s identification of the moderns is that it helps to fulfil two tasks in the procedure. Firstly, a historical investigation and corroboration of the production of hybrids veiled by the moderns’ cosmological dichotomy; secondly, more importantly, Descola’s anthropological work allows us to see the modern’s cosmology/ontology alongside (rather than above) “premodern” cosmologies, persuading us that throwing out subject and object does not make for an inhospitable world, and encourages one to experiment with nonmodern thought. As such, Descola adds to the procedure and helps us in considering our place on earth together with other collectives.

Procedure 3: Sharing Responsibilities: Farewell to the Sublime

Procedures 1 and 2 brought our own modern collective of quasi-objects in view, in contrast with the exclusive human “society”, and made us aware that there are other collectives on the earth who may not share our “cosmology”. But how is it possible to direct our attention and action with regard to environmental problems without a globe? And with multiple collectives inhabiting the Earth, what is responsible for these problems if not “humanity”? The third procedure asks us to conceive of new ways of how to share responsibilities, while being wary of the temptation of another big Western concept, the sublime.

Traditionally, the moderns considered responsibility as reserved for their individual actions. In extension, responsibility was also something that was felt towards a community, and later on towards society. In the seemingly modern times a new responsibility was added: that for humanity as a whole. In short, the limits of their feeling of responsibility are always formed by the limits of their (collective) subjectivity: from the individual to the community, to a universal idea of humanity. In contrast, one seldom feels responsibility for nature, nor was nature ever a moral agent. But in the Anthropocene, it seems that nature’s catastrophes are at least partly co-produced by humans. Thus one can ask if we are to blame when another hurricane hits the coast.

Our first response may be to morally perfect ourselves and include nature in the moral realm. But then we run into trouble since the Anthropocene not only questions our responsibilities, it also asks “who is this humanity?” Is the whole of humanity responsible for climate change, including residents of Indian slums, and the Amerindians of the Amazon forest? Surely not. For this reason some criticasters of the term Anthropocene have proposed the alternative Capitalocene, identifying Capitalism and capitalist powers as those who are (or should be held) responsible. Dipesh Chakrabarty’s contribution to RM lists all new proposals for new “-cenes”, including their pros and cons (189-99; cf. Moore 2017). Still, with no common human responsibility, how can we account for the fact that the very existence of humanity is potentially threatened by climate change, a fate the moderns share with the Indian Slums, and Amazon Amerindians?

Latour’s answer to these questions (what is humanity in the Anthropocene? and what is its responsibility?) uses an idea developed by the inventor James Lovelock and biologist Lynn Margulis, known as the Gaia-hypothesis. In an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, reprinted in RM (200-4), Lovelock explains the following about the origins of this hypothesis:

[I]n marches another astronomer […] who announces that a complete analysis had been made of the Martian and Venusian atmospheres, and that they are nearly all carbon-dioxide with just traces of other things. I knew instantly that there was almost certain no life on either planet, and that suddenly made me think, well, what about Earth? Why does it have an atmosphere so different […]? And then, it came to my mind as a flash of enlightenment: we must be regulating the atmosphere. And then I thought, again almost instantly, where do the gases come from? We know oxygen comes from plants, and methane, which it reacts with, comes from bacteria. Those are both living things. Carl Sagan’s first remark was “O Jim, it’s nonsense to think that the Earth can regulate itself. […]” But then he said, “Hold on a minute, there is one thing that has puzzled us astronomers, and that is the “cool sun problem.” At the Earth’s birth, the sun was 30% cooler than it is now, so why aren’t we boiling?” […] I thought, if that’s true, then all the biota have to do is regulate the CO2 and they control the temperature. (203-4).

The Gaia-hypothesis states that life on Earth is not simply the result of the right conditions, but that living beings play an active role in stabilizing these conditions. As such, all the organisms of Earth cooperate in order to regulate the temperatures on Earth. This cooperation, as one ecosystem as it were, is what Lovelock and Margulis called Gaia. When adapting this hypothesis for his own philosophy Latour is wary of its holistic overtones. Gaia, in Latour’s interpretation, is not simply a large self-regulating thermostat-system in which all life on Earth has to participate. Nor is it a super-organism, of which all other organisms are merely a part. Such thinking invokes Gaia as an ancient Goddess, whose divine providence rules over all mortals, such as us humans.

Latour robs Gaia of her divine providence in order not to go back to the Romantic idea of the sublime, a terrifying nature in which man’s existence is insignificant. But he keeps some of her godly features. She announces herself to the people, undertakes action by raising the temperature on Earth, and it’s the people who invoke her when they take action for the well-being of all the Earth. Since not all collectives are called upon by Gaia in the same manner, nor invoke her in the same way, not all peoples share the same responsibility. And indeed the call of Gaia may sound the loudest for those capitalist powers. Mediated by Gaia, the peoples of the Earth no longer have a need for an overreaching humanity to understand their actions as bearing responsibility for all life on the planet. Going through procedure 3 gives us the first contours of the new horizon for us moderns, a non-totalizing entity in which we share our existence with nonhumans.

Procedures 4 & 5: From Lands to Disputed Territories; Innovation not Hype

The unfortunate reality of modern political discourse is that the interests of Gaia are measured against the interest of “the economy”. In AIME, Latour has called the economy a meta-dispatcher, a container in which all social relations are reduced to one particular set of forces: in the economic case, social relations are expressed by monetary values and individual preferences (Latour 2013a, 401–2). The problem of the economic reduction is twofold: first, caring for Gaia most likely involves a reduction of consumption and emission, and thus a restraint on the growth of the economy as such. Secondly, economic values and relations are given excessive attention, while those values which are not easily transformed into monetary value and individual preferences remain out of sight. This puts heavy constraints on what us moderns can value, especially now we obviously share our life-world with nonhumans.

The fourth procedure thus turns attention to how we could improve on the way we do economics and how we can account for what we hold dear. In RM the attempts to undertake such endeavours are somewhat disappointing. Martin Giraudeau, Antoine Hennion, Vincent-Antonin Lépinay, Cormac O’Keeffe and Consuelo Vásques make preliminary sketches of how to improve economics. Their motto seems to be: localise as much as possible (260-271). In other words: economics should engage in real-world experiments wherever it can, and refrain from making law-like claims on the functioning of an overall system. Sometimes they cite the writings of the neoliberal Friedrich Hayek, and one is tempted to think that we’re dealing with a free-market proposal in disguise. But the authors defend themselves, saying they are not the “aggressive Darwinist” Hayek was (266), and they propose circumstances under which market-forces could be commanded to halt. If the economy is not an overreaching system, but a collection of local sites, then there is more space for social democracy to exist outside of economic needs, and truly provide a protection against the excesses of market forces. A social democracy outside of the economy is a tempting vision but does not yet connect to any real-world situation. Moreover, all essays, Latour’s included, in this procedure give no clue whatsoever on what kind of institutions could guarantee the limits of market forces.

Procedure 5 zooms in further on the relation between us moderns and the entities making up their collective. The classic tale we find in Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Heidegger, or Carolyn Merchant, is that with the advent of modernity our relationship with nature becomes mediated by technology and becomes one of instrumental rationality, being enframed or undergoing violent domination (Horkheimer and Adorno 2002; Heidegger 1977b; Merchant 1980). These descriptions are neither adequate to describe our relation to technology and nature, nor desirable, but the hype has us in its grip when a seemingly major technological step has been taken (a computer defeating a Go master, for example) which shows we have not yet rid ourselves of thinking in these modern constellations. Latour suggests that we should conceive of our relationship with technological entities not in terms of instrumentality, but in terms of care. Even the most freighting technology, such as, for example, military drones who are able to kill people on the other side of the world, should not be seen as the inevitable new stage of warfare due to technological change, but as problem children. In not caring for these technologies, we would miss how drones being piloted from great distances completely rewrite sovereign law.5

This is what Latour takes from Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (1831) in his play Gaia: Global Climate Tragi-Comedy (328-36). Here it becomes clear that Frankenstein’s fault is not that he created his creature, but that he abandons it because it isn’t as beautiful as he had hoped. Frankenstein’s author asks her own creature Viktor why he has imitated the vengeful God that drowned the Earth to rid himself of his sinful creations. “No Mary. I didn’t imitate him since I ran away. It’s not creating that is a crime, it’s abandoning one’s Creation” Viktor replies (335).

Procedure 6: Secular at Last

The most puzzling is the sixth procedure. Harking back to his opening statement against nihilism and restating the immanence of being, Latour has to find a different place for religion than the one usually given it in Western philosophy. Moreover, in reference to the works of Eric Voegelin, Latour is keen to stress that, even in a secular age, transcendence has not left politics (Voegelin 1987). Therefore Latour asks: what are we to do to make politics and religion earthly? In asking this question Latour gives a new twist to the notions of secular and secularization. With these terms Latour means disentangling the political and the religious from transcendence (364); from attractors that do not take into account what tethers these practices to “the collective,” downgrading religion and politics to the driving forces behind wars.

Latour’s line of thought seems to be that to make politics or religion earthly, one has to discern what specifically political or religious skills and actions amount to. Once we discern these, we might be “freed from the strange idea that there is an activity whereby a human could master mastery so thoroughly that it no longer depends on any other source of power” (365), that the political or the religious could make an entire future happen. But, as Latour is keen to stress, they cannot: they share this earth with other beings. Denying that is nihilistic.

Picking one essay to demonstrate how to view politics in an earthly fashion, we will read Gerard de Vries’s answer to the question: What are Politicians for? He argues that the political should be a practice in which one bears a responsibility to one’s constituency. Politicians are preoccupied with “the defense of the decisions the assembly will make”; whether the outcome of the political process is “good enough […]” knowing that “[t]here will never be general approval. [The politicians] are preparing for what comes next” (391). By contrast, sometimes the political and the religious, especially in conjunction, amount to perversions of these practices. The game of responsibility (a specifically political skill) that De Vries describes is not wrong in itself, and the positive result of this “procedure” is that one might engage with politics without feeling as if one is subjecting oneself to mere power-games – “A good site to open up the possibility of diplomacy” (365) indeed, because if we are to engage with other collectives in a diplomatic way we need to trade our supposed mastery of the world for a particular kind of weakness.

Procedure 7: In Search of a Diplomatic Middle Ground

As has become clear in the previous procedures, Latour is looking for a reorientation of the project of modernity, but it is essential that this new front of modernisation cannot become the measuring rod by which we judge the non-moderns, as for example happened when Canada’s governments falsely blamed the First-nation hunters for the declining Caribou population, applying the new rules of the Anthropocene to all people equally (Parlee, Sandlos, and Natcher 2018). Moreover, in so far as we are modern, we cannot expect the non-modern to follow the same path of modernisation. Still, given the redistribution of responsibilities in the Anthropocene, all the collectives of the earth are forced to interact and to coordinate their actions. These actions cannot be given shape by a similar horizon of modernity, and thus we should instead have recourse to the act of diplomacy for our coordination with other collectives.

Enter diplomacy. Diplomacy must take place in an encounter between different collectives, between which lies a “middle ground” (405). Rather than a fierce show-down between cultures (Latour mentions the colonization of the Americas), “middle ground” designates the possibility of genuine epistemo-cultural recalibration. The Other then is no longer a mere premodern, or a nonhuman that cannot speak the modern as no longer superior.6 Rather, again annulling the binary, “we are all beginning to be equally amodern”, which means that the affairs of us moderns, too, (including the scientific – think of particular methods or distinctions) “are open to ridicule in the face of the others who, themselves in their turn, don’t know how to address them” (407-8). Discovering of the practices hidden by modern definitions already changes “the very idea of what a science is” (405), but this idea is on the diplomatic middle ground up for more scrutiny: comparing, for example, our value of objectivity with the values within other collectives. In a bilateral exchange there are chances of epistemological and existential transformation: “what you encounter can jeopardize the solidity of the epistemological framework that sent you into the field. […] You are never sure to survive the encounter” (405).

Latour makes a remark specifically meant for philosophers: “diplomatic encounters have a strange capacity to modify the way philosophers define their task” (407). Engaging in diplomacy should prompt us to pay closer attention to what we actually do, because we will have to explain it to others. The task of non-modern thinkers will come to include careful acts of description, as Jamie Allen, Claudia Mareis and Johannes Bruder write: “[t]he “reset” […] cracks our modern imaginaries, all the while attempting to log the enunciations of our archival world, dragging along with it an earthly historical ballast, never naively trying to escape [modernity]” (505), and it certainly seems to us that the prospect of diplomacy, an immanent goal for thought to work towards, and keeping on this earthly path with its historical ballast, would certainly make for interesting philosophy, as the essays in this volume demonstrate.


In an interview with Les Temps Modernes Latour was critically asked about the apparent systematic nature of his AIMEproject: “[Why] counter a metaphysical machine with a bigger metaphysical machine?” (Marinda 2015). This question is raised again in the last procedure of RM: is the systematic nature of the AIME project not too closed off in order to be truly diplomatic? Many of the philosophers who contributed to the book are willing to engage with the modes of existence that Latour has proposed, yet few of them accept the systematic ontological classification of these modes, and which is reprinted again at the end of RM (543-6). If even the AIME contributors reject the systematic classification, what then is the upshot of the whole project? Reading through RM provides an answer.

The issues posed by the advent of the Anthropocene ask for a new way of thinking about our relation to the world and a new form of collective action, actions for which our current institutions fall hopelessly short. In lectures given surrounding the Reset Modernity exhibition and thereafter, Latour has sketched a new framework for understanding our current political affairs with regard to what he calls The New Climate Regime.7 Here, Latour presents the Earth as the new horizon that could be used to coordinate political action. But what is this Earth, what does it mean to be a horizon for actions? The resetting procedures of RM help us to conceive what this new horizon can look like.

From procedures 1 and 2 it is clear that Earth cannot be a totalising picture, or a frontier that divides the people into modern and premodern. As with Gaia in procedure 3, Earth shows us the kind of responsibilities we have together with other collectives for the place we inhabit (the Earth itself). Consequently, it does not presuppose a shared humanity (identity for the Earth dweller) just the simple fact that we (who/whatever) are all in this together. Furthermore, the Earth has no transcendence, no meaning in the depths of her cave: we cannot die in the name of the Earth in the hope of gaining a better Earth (procedure 6).

Similarly, the Earth is no utopia guiding our politics, and it is a far cry from the techno-inflated visions of the future that Silicon Valley provides us with: technology is not here to save us, but we have to learn to live with technology (procedure 5). Lastly, the Earth is rich in resources, but ultimately limited. And given that there is not one collective that inhabits the Earth, this means we have to reconsider how much of Earth’s resources we have to use, in order to leave enough for other collectives. What do we value in our modern lifestyles and what do we need to sustain them (procedure 4)? If we gain that knowledge, we can negotiate with the other collectives how to make use of Earth’s resources. This negotiation should be an act of diplomacy (procedure 7), in which the only common ground between the parties is the one beneath their feet, the Earth. The Earth is in a sense a political fiction, a way of imagining politics, perhaps just as the Leviathan pictured on the front piece of Hobbes’ famous book was a fiction. On the other hand, the Earth is very mundane, very concrete, very tangible.

RM perhaps does not reach a complete doctrine of how Earth should feature in politics, nor of how politics oriented towards the Earth should concretely take place. But RM gives us something other which is important, namely a set of terms (Earth, Gaia, Diplomacy, Collectives) that can replace our previously held dear “grand narratives” of the globe, humanity, the free market, etc., which used to navigate our moral and political action, without becoming totalizing. Concluding, RM does not yet yield concrete answers or lasting ontologies, but as the procedures for calibrating our scientific measuring instruments have become more refined over the centuries, so too, we hope, may the procedures that help us to understand our modernity become better over time.


Sigmund Bruno Schilpzand wrote portions of this review whilst on the Better Understanding the Metaphysics of Pregnancy project, receiving funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 679586).

Death and Sophistry

Review of: Grégoire Chamayou (2015) A Theory of the Drone. New York & London: The New Press, 292 pp. 

Imagine dying amidst a torrent of missiles, for no other reason than being in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Imagine, moreover, that “wrong” means that your errands that day caused you to divert from what an American military drone has determined to be a normal spatial pattern. Such is modern warfare. The unmanned vehicles commonly known as drones are the cause of illegal and unnecessary killing and of much legal and ethical sophistry justifying these machines as a humanitarian alternative to warfare qua “boots on the ground”. Grégoire Chamayou’s A Theory of the Drone brings us up to date concerning what military drones are all about, and not just on the battlefield.

This, then, is what it means to write a theory of the drone. Theory presents Chamayou as an activism-minded critic concerned with the study of contemporary armed conflict. He presents a multi-faceted problematization of the use of drones as weapons of war and tools of surveillance. Theory is not just a simple condemnation of a machine that renders its agent invincible, it also especially presents an in-depth study of this piece of weaponry, tracing its social, legal, political, moral and martial connections – connections that are skillfully presented as internal to their object: that this emergent technology is at the root of a process of dehumanizing and de-democratizing violence. 

If one understands by “theory” an explanation of the coming about of drones, this book comprises more than mere theory. Chamayou’s work is all the more theoretical in the sense of postulating links between an emergent technology and events in ethics, politics, war and law, skillfully discerning the role of the drone behind them. Moreover, Theory allows for predictions of an historical process, without any signs of technological determinism[1] and with much emphasis on avoiding rather than welcoming it. Behind the analysis, there is a call to stop the technological process.

Sounding like the protagonist of a dystopian sci-fi novel, Chamayou writes: ‘the surest way to make the potential crimes of the cyborgs of the future impossible is still to kill them immediately, while they are as yet unhatched and there is still time to do so’ (Chamayou 213). The line between sci-fi and techno-historical speculation might seem thin, but after reading the book, the quote above seems no longer over-the-top. Robotized killings based on quantitative social geography – so called “signature strikes” based on patterns of cell-phone data rather than substantive knowledge of the target – perhaps do amount to crime.

If we want to fully understand Chamayou’s analysis of the drone, it is worth noting that the situation he is treating in Theory is not entirely new. Chamayou judges the drone to be ‘the weapon of an amnesiac postcolonial violence’ (Chamayou 95), a repetition of older forms of violence. This book follows an earlier interest of the author, thereby completing an historical account of a particular form of violence that, in his earlier book, Les Chasses à l’Homme (2010, translated as Manhunts), is called “the manhunt”: from capturing slaves in Ancient Greece (in the first chapter, bearing the wonderful title “The Hunt for Bipedal Cattle”) to the round-ups involved in deporting illegal immigrants. In Manhunts we encounter slaves and immigrants as targets[2], and in A Theory of the Drone, potential terrorists. As a practice, “the manhunt” involves a particular “game”, a marginalized other, a target made legitimate through legal, rhetorical, ideological and ethical maneuvering. Manhunts target a particular kind of individual, today these are “terrorists”, or rather “terrorist” signatures.

The “signature strike” is the contemporary guise of the manhunt in which the drones partake: targeting individuals ‘whose identity remains unknown but whose behavior suggests (…) membership in a “terrorist organization”’ (Chamayou 47). The very targets of this manhunt are artefacts, mere signatures, and the war waged on the actual people is itself no less ‘ghostly’ (Chamayou 188): a unilateral act of killing makes it impossible for the human targets to utilize their right to kill in self-defense. As contemporary conflicts become those of machines versus mortal combatants, ‘that right no longer has anything but a ghostly existence’ (Chamayou 162). The form of the manhunt as it recurs in Theory is a dehumanized manhunt, the hunt for the marginalized other in Afghanistan and Pakistan, characterized as ‘not so much a matter of responding to actual attacks’, but of striking in the midst of communities on the basis of quantitative data, killing innocent civilians. Or as the proponents of drone warfare would have it: of ‘preventing the development of emerging threats by the early elimination of their potential agents’, a task for which ‘hunter-killer drones are the main instruments’(Chamayou 34).

This killing is sustained by ethico-legalistic sophistry, and on this level Chamayou’s Theory reaches its full potential. Deploying resources found in Canguilhem and Weil (who inspire Chamayou’s method), Hobbes, Pufendorf, Kant, Hegel, Marx & Engels, Adorno, Foucault and Arendt (and, in passing, Deleuze), Chamayou analyzes legal doctrine and newspaper articles regarding drones, and questions the principles of contemporary military thought that justify drone warfare. The “necroethics”, embodied by military officers and propounded by the military’s own professional philosophers, extends the ‘right to kill well beyond the classic legal boundaries (…). Necroethics holds forth on the procedures of homicide and turns them into the objects of a complacent moral evaluation’(Chamayou 145-145). As Chamayou cynically remarks: ‘by naming and theorizing violence, [the military’s philosophers] allow it to be legitimately exercised’. What to do? Chamayou answers: ‘More than ever, philosophy is a battlefield. It is time to enter the fray’ (Chamayou 16).

Entering the fray means undermining the “humanitarian” premises of dronizing the military. Drones are being hailed as high-efficiency, low-collateral-damage, humanitarian weapons because deploying them means no longer having to deploy soldiers, and the “signature strike” is supposed to ensure that only enemy combatants die. As Theory makes clear, however, there is a crucial aspect of supposition in the process of targeting that renders this problematic. Drones have the capacity to track, monitor and ‘recognize’ the behavioral patterns of the people and communities they surveille. Divergence from the established normal patterns of movement, any irregular event, like a village gathering, is accordingly categorized as dangerous. A telling joke made in the corridors of American power went as follows: “When the CIA sees three guys doing jumping jacks, the agency thinks it’s a terrorist training camp”’ (Chamayou 49-50). Proponents present drones as suitable for a particular kind of manhunt: hunting terrorists, preventing them from acting. Chamayou’s work has the effect of dispelling this as sophism, ideology and myth.

Moreover, Chamayou points out the dangers of “dronizing” war and surveillance for democracy and society. Chamayou warns against the transformative effect this would have on the broader social context within which drones are deployed. Drones will also effect the societies whose militaries deploy them, for ‘the central question would be (…): To what do they lead (…) in terms of the state’s relation to its own subjects?’ (Chamayou 15) The implications are twofold: Chamayou warns citizens against the use of drones in police and surveillance activity and in a host of short, to-the-point chapters unmasks the manifold rhetorical, legal, ethical and ideological trickeries involved in sustaining US (and Israeli) efforts to dronize the military. Secondly, he reflects upon the possible effects of the development of drones on the democratic decision-making progress regarding war, and especially the potential powerlessness of the victims of such wars.

Following this line, Chamayou ends up painting a grim picture of the rise of what he calls the “drone state” (symbolized by the image of a once-imagined police-robot ‘that pissed tear gas and farted black smoke’ (Chamayou 221)), considering both the scope (technology – state) of his analysis and the effect a mere machine might come to have. The drone endangers the democratic processes behind the decision to go to war. We are asked to imagine a power no longer having to justify itself to its subjects. In matters of war, Chamayou argues, societies with dronized militaries are approaching this point: since the citizens’ lives are no longer at stake in dronized war, they wield no political power over the matter of declaring war. Thus Chamayou concludes that democracy might become ‘a political body without human organs, replacing the old regimented bodies of subjects by mechanical instruments that would, if possible, become its sole agents’[3].

Besides presenting a case against drones, Chamayou invites the reader to become a counter-force against them. His writing largely concerns political topics, which could become a viable subject for antiwar protests – such as the illegitimate targeting of innocent civilians by drones – and therefore we are invited to look up the International Committee for Robot Arms Control (Chamayou 272). The way in which Chamayou draws his audience into this fray, by lucidly citing a myriad sources, is commendable and highly engaging. But the weakness of his style is that the argumentative lines I sketched above are often interrupted and sacrificed in favor of a rapid-fire of short chapters, each making a different point. Because of these interruptions his very useful analyses sometimes seem at first less well-argued than they actually turn out to be upon rereading. 

One gets a sense that this book is supposed to compel the reader to counter-act dronization. However, when it comes to systematically constructing arguments or analyses to support this move, it would have benefitted from more sustained treatments of certain topics. Instead Chamayou chose to write twenty-three short chapters, which do make for an eminently readable and informative book. However, this makes the complicated conclusions or crucial moments seem more flimsy than necessary. Examples of this are the introduction of the term “necroethics” (Chamayou 134) to pick out a legal/ethical military mentality and the pointing at continuities between dronized warfare and colonial wars. (Chamayou 185) Similarly the argument that the sociological knowledge that steers drones to pick targets is inept and robots will therefore commit war crimes,[4] or the suggestion that the changes in the military that the drone necessitates, contributes to a dismantling of the welfare state (Chamayou 194) and undermines the conditions for democratic government (Chamayou 188). And, finally, the suggestion that dronization could hence be stopped by a coalition of the ‘oppressed segments of society’ (Chamayou 227). Because of the barrage of short chapters the reader might not see Chamayou’s overarching argument.

These critical remarks notwithstanding, Theory has the potential to be an eye-opener in many respects for a general public, to which it offers a very critical introduction to the topic of drones. On the other hand, academic philosophers may wonder whether it was necessary to compare the structure of drone warfare to what Hegel imagined to be the essence of combatants (and to conclude with Adorno: ‘“I have seen the world-spirit,” not on horseback, but on wings and without a head, and that refutes, at the same stroke, Hegel’s philosophy of history’[5]) or to invoke Kant’s and Hobbes’s contract-theories to condemn this machine. I think that Chamayou unveils a technology-shaped lacuna in the philosophical and political thought regarding war, calling both the untimeliness of thought and the unexamined progress of technology[6] into question.

Describing the drone from canonical philosophical perspectives has the merit of showing how the drone diverges from what we conventionally (and legally) hold to be just, even in martial matters. Chamayou’s notion of philosophy as a battlefield is quite galvanizing in this regard: if one starts looking for destructive metaphors in philosophy they are overabundant, but never have they felt more justified now ‘philosophers working within the confined field of military ethics today (…) declare the drone to be the humanitarian weapon par excellence’ (Chamayou 17). The ideological and moral sophisms sustaining the dronization effort, with its consequent deaths of civilians, are possible because the drone issue does engage the moral, legal and philosophical categories with which one would try to understand it in a very peculiar manner. Thus it can make a mockery out of the concept of humanitarianism and invoke that word to ideologically glorify ghostly, substanceless assassinations as ‘humanitarian warfare’. Not all is just in war, and A Theory of the Drone offers the reader excellent reasons – though one might have to reread it once or twice – to consider critically intervening in the automatization of death, and the murderous role of sophistry.