Drone Vision

Figure 1: U.S. government overflight zone. Photograph: Tomas van Houtryve. Tomas van Houtryve / VII.
Figure 1: U.S. government overflight zone. Photograph: Tomas van Houtryve. Tomas van Houtryve / VII.

In coming upon images that present to us perspectives that seem unfamiliar we tend to search the contents within the frame with a probing gaze: what are we looking at? With Tomas van Houtryve’s photograph (figure 1) placed before us, various captions that have accompanied the picture upon publication might help us on the way: we are looking at people practicing baseball in a sunbathed court in Montgomery County, Maryland.[1] This description, however, does not prepare us for our sense of perplexity in taking in the visual information we are confronted with. For that first question of “what” seems indeed inextricably linked to questions of “how” and “why”: what are the implications of this invitation to take in a very particular pictorial composition that shows us something so familiar in such an unfamiliar way? Furthermore, an image like this pleads with us to consider yet another aspect of its depiction: is there something important that we do not see in the photograph – something unseen that is instrumental in its absence? 

The picture is part of the Belgian photographer’s series Blue Sky Days, which consists of images resembling this first one: we are always looking down, from above, often on unknowing civilians who go about their lives, or on carefully controlled landscapes. Tomas van Houtryve travelled across the United States to photograph either the sort of gatherings that have been struck by numerous US-coordinated air-strikes over foreign countries in recent years – weddings, funerals, groups of people praying or exercising – or domestic areas typically surveilled by drones – prisons, oil fields, and borders – by attaching a camera to a small drone, which he then flew over what he wanted to capture. In what follows I will argue that Blue Sky Days ultimately engages the spectator in a critique of what I describe as a “rhetoric of precision”. The portfolio does so, I will argue, by insisting that seeing is never merely a technical question: it is also always an ethical question. I will frame my discussion with reference to three of the photographs van Houtryve took for the series.

The Rhetoric of Precision

The use of armed drones, the argument goes, is “very precise and very limited in terms of collateral damage,” to quote then-director of the CIA Leon Panetta in a much-cited statement that dates back to May 2009 (Panetta 2009). Obama echoed this view three years later, arguing that “drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties,” adding that “[f]or the most part they have been precise, precision strikes against al-Qaeda and their affiliates” (Holewinski 2015, 42). “Drones enable great precision,” argues Michael Waltz, a former counterterrorism advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney and a Special Forces officer in the reserves, according to himself one “among the last of the pre-drone combat generation” (Rotherberg 2015, 214). Thus the rhetoric of precision, perhaps the clearest expression of how arguments for the implementation of new warfare technology are steeped in the calculative logic George Lakoff refers to as “cost-benefit analysis” (Lakoff 1991, 25).

It is my contention that the use of the word “precision” – to describe, and equally importantly, argue for the escalating use of drone warfare in recent years – has become euphemistic under Obama, and represents yet another instance of the imperial ambition to create reality.[2] “Euphemism,” R. W. Holder suggests, citing Henry Watson Fowler’s definition in Modern English Usage in his own Dictionary of Euphemisms, “means the use of a mild or vague or periphrastic expression as a substitute for blunt precision or disagreeable truth” (Holder 2008, vi). In warfare rhetoric it can often figure as a substitute for both. As Lakoff observes, in the context of Clausewitz’s metaphors “War is Politics pursued by other means” and “Politics is business,” war becomes a matter of maximizing political gains and minimizing losses: war is justified when there is more to be gained by going to war than by not going to war. If we set up an alternative metaphor, Lakoff suggests, such as: “War is Violent Crime: Murder, Assault, Kidnapping, Arson, Rape, and Theft,” then war would be understood in terms of its ethical dimension, and not its political or economic dimension (Lakoff 1991, 25-26, 28). Specific systems of metaphorical thought serve to present the language of war as rational: drone strikes are understood in terms of their technological precision rather than their ethical justification (Kaag and Kreps 2014).

Euphemism – “abuse” for torture, “collateral damage” for unintended killing or for unwanted political consequences – is the linguistic equivalent of obstructed, censored vision, Marianne Hirsch wrote in 2004, responding to the U.S. government’s control over images at the time – images of coffins, of wounded soldiers, of scenes of torture. As Hirsch observed, as George Orwell and Hannah Arendt did before her, euphemism is thus also an assertion of the power and danger of language (Hirsch 2004, 1214). Orwell, in “Politics and the English Language”, argued in 1946 that in political speech “words fall upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details” (Orwell 1968, 136-137). Arendt pointed out, in her coverage of the Eichmann trial (1963), that the very word “Sprachregelung” – the strategy used by the Nazis in order to describe their machinery of death – was in itself a euphemism for lying, with terms such as “Gnadentod” (“death of mercy”) for the killing of psychiatric patients, or “Endlösung” (“final solution”) for the systematic extermination of the Jewish population of Europe through genocide. In drawing our attention to this systematic, deliberate obfuscation, Arendt pointed to what can perhaps be regarded as the matrix of the contemporary use of euphemism in power politics. It is no accident that one of the editions of Holder’s euphemism dictionaries has been given the title How not to say what you mean.

The rhetoric of precision is substantiated by the visual culture that surrounds the drone strikes, in which images of drones flood the internet and the media, but few human beings are to be seen. With a few exceptions the drone operators are faceless and voiceless. A faux secrecy surrounds the drone program, which comes to exist as an “open secret” – everyone knows that strikes are carried out, and they are reported, but the military and the US government seldom participate in discussions about the circumstances around specific strikes, and often do not acknowledge the basic facts provided by humanitarian organizations and the like.[3] Victims are often reduced to numbers of deaths in the news. The visual equivalent of the rhetoric of precision becomes a form of abstract, sanitized imagery where all we see are stock images of drones hovering mid-air over unspecified territories. One of the icons of high-tech contemporary warfare, the image of the body of the windowless, unmanned aircraft is a visualization that allows us to glimpse the machinery, but that ultimately renders accountability invisible.

Yet, if the proponents for an ever-escalating use of armed drones keep returning to the figure of precision, so do the opponents, arguing that strikes are in fact imprecise, with reference to high rates of civilian casualties under the drone program. When the so-called Drone Papers were published online by The Intercept in October 2015, containing new information leaked by a whistleblower, it appeared that 90 percent of people killed in recent strikes in Afghanistan were in fact not the intended targets. According to The Intercept’s source, these numbers illustrated the fact that the U.S. military had become overly reliant on signals intelligence, and significantly, on the use of metadata from phones and computers (“The Drone Papers”, 2015). In Drone, his small book in Bloomsbury’s “object lessons” series, Adam Rothstein points out that as of 2004, 50 percent of military drone accidents were attributable to human factors (Rothstein 2015, xiii). The precision of the weapon cannot erase the imprecision of bad intelligence. Furthermore, as Grégoire Chamayou observes, precision in terms of firing accuracy does not mean that the impact of a strike is reduced, since the “kill radius” of the projectile, or the perimeter of the explosion, can be up to 15 meters (Chamayou 2014, 141-142).

The over-reliance on precision technology can turn into a self-serving argument, enabling what Donald MacKenzie describes in Inventing Accuracy as “the plasticity of implications” (MacKenzie 1990, 363). Widely different and often conflicting arguments all tend to lead to the same conclusion: an increased use of armed drones. As MacKenzie points out, the introduction of new weaponry is often described as “modernization,” “as if it were the natural and unproblematic outcome of technological progress,” producing something like a technological determinism in the military (MacKenzie 1990, 383). Thus the persistent myth of precision is used to argue for ever-new generations of warfare technology, even in the face of increased knowledge. Andrew Cockburn has described how enormous amounts of money went into the development of so-called “precision guidance” in the 1970s, and kept flowing, in spite of meager results (Cockburn 2015, 36-37). “The military mission from Desert Storm through this post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan period of no-name war is ever more obsessed with perfecting the process of finding and killing the target,” William M. Arkin remarked in 2015: “only the imprecision of using such a euphemism is left” (Arkin 2015, 219).

As a concept, “precision” and the metaphorical matrix that surrounds it (“surgical precision”) attest to the intersecting lines of scientific and military cultures. “The generalized drive for precision”, M. Norton Wise points out in the introduction to the anthology The Values of Precision, a sort of cultural and scientific history of quantitative precision, “has regularly been linked to attempts to extend uniform order and control over large territories […]. Precision values always have another face, often hidden, the face that reveals the culture in which instruments of particular kinds are important, because the quantities they determine are valued” (Wise 1995, 4, 5). Quantification and calculation are not neutral processes. In fact, when Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794) made use of measuring instruments in his research in the 1770s and 1780s, and quantified methods were introduced into chemistry, quantification was strongly connected with argument, and the scientific use of the language of precision appeared clearly as a rhetoric, according to Jan Golinski (Golinski 1995, 74). The chemist’s precision measurements gained its significance in a specific context of use, as eighteenth-century science was marked by the quantifying spirit, and other disciplines envied the certainty and predictive power of Newton’s Principia (Golinski 1995, 72). The concepts of “accuracy” and “precision” have emerged, and have always been interlinked, with the development of military culture: in the course of the nineteenth century, for instance, precision measurement was manipulable and became infused with political values in the nuclear arms race, observes Kathryn Olesko (Olesko 1995, 126).

An Aesthetic of Precariousness

I would like to argue that what we might think of as an “aesthetic of precariousness,” evident in a range of artworks over the most recent years, has emerged in response to this rhetoric of precision. The aerial view figures prominently in all these works, which tend to confront the spectator with the sense that the unknowing individuals we are looking at are in harm’s way. They all envision an expanded battlefield in what Derek Gregory has deemed “the everywhere war” and many of them hint at a radically pervasive militarization of urban space and of border control (Gregory 2011). Finally, several of them reflect how images currently often circulate in ways that makes it hard to distinguish too sharply between spheres of media, art and public and political culture. They can all be said to share a “documentary impulse,” in the sense that they employ documentary materials and forms, at the same time as they are heavily invested in styles and strategies we traditionally associate with fiction formats, including enactments and stagings of various kinds. Which works am I referring to? I will mention five of them in order to provide a context for Blue Sky Days.

A most central figure in such a context is Trevor Paglen, whose work consistently and deliberately blurs the lines between science, investigative journalism, and contemporary art. “Migrants Seen By Predator Drone, U.S.-Mexico Border,” one of 100 photographs collected for the project The Last Pictures (2012), is a public domain image which lays bare the essential quality of the drone gaze: below us, unknowing individuals attempt to cross the border, as they are caught in the crosshairs of a weaponized, unmanned aircraft. The Last Pictures were collected on a disk encased in a gold-plated shell mounted to a satellite in geostationary orbit, an art show designed to last billions of years, as the ghost ship continues to circle our planet even after we are gone. It was not Paglen’s first use of such imagery. His 2010 video Drone Vision, which exploits a security flaw in the transmission of video from a drone to a pilot in the States, confronts the spectator with a similar sense that the drone is anthropomorphized as a pair of eyes, equipped with something resembling a searching gaze.

Such anthropomorphosis is perhaps nowhere clearer than in George Barber’s unnerving The Freestone Drone (2013), a gallery installation consisting of various objects and video projections combining found and made footage. The work revolves around the journey of a drone that has taken on a life of its own, and as spectators we look down at the machine as it glides over the landscape, sharing its perspective. A few minutes into the video we are introduced to a spoken-word narrative belonging to the drone, which turns out to have a lonely, rather poetic, childlike voice, making it eerily resemble a figure from children’s television (the video makes a direct reference to Thomas the Tank Engine). As the aircraft approaches the southern tip of Manhattan – “I popped over, you know, ignored orders to see it all myself” – and drifts solitarily over the iconic cityscape, inevitably reminding the viewer of the attacks on September 11, 2001 – it confesses to be “lightly armed”. “Underneath I had a couple of missiles,” it says, “nothing much, I could take out an apartment or a car, that kind of thing”. Tiny against the canyons of Manhattan, the aircraft gives expression to a nagging sense of ambiguity: “I didn’t like being me. Even with just two rockets I make people feel uneasy. Could I ever be a nice drone? I admit I give no warning. I’m a bit creepy”.

James Bridle’s Drone Shadow (2012–), a series of installations detailing the outline of a drone in 1:1 representations on the ground in various urban settings such as London, Washington, DC and Istanbul, also brings the drone to town, locating the machinery in environments markedly different from the landscapes of countries such as Afghanistan or Yemen. One of the major effects of the work is that it ascribes size, proportion and materiality to the aircraft, at the same time as it does not visualize it directly. Absent, the drones nevertheless appear remarkably physical in Bridle’s photographs, where the white lines on the ground are visible enough to be documented by a camera from above. Startlingly, the “shadows” appear in the midst of almost quotidian scenes, in which people go about their ordinary lives, as mindless of what might hover above them as the traffic that surrounds them. In the picture from Istanbul, the shadow appears on the forecourt of a Greek Orthodox church, bleeding into what is a busy road in the city, as a yellow taxi passes by; in Washington, DC, we see the contours of the aircraft on the rainy pavement right outside the Corcoran Gallery.

One of the best known artworks to raise questions concerning drone warfare in recent years is Omer Fast’s half-hour-long installation video 5,000 Feet is the Best (2011). Based on days of conversation with a traumatized drone pilot in a hotel room in Las Vegas, Fast’s work combines fictionalized interview reconstruction of these events with aerial footage and segments that resemble narrative fiction film. At times we cannot be certain of the nature of the footage, as when Fast makes use of conventional strategies of anonymization through the blurring of a face. The hybrid mix also raises questions about the relationship between image and sound, as audio from what appear to be the original, authentic conversations with the pilot are incorporated. Visualizing what uncannily resembles the targeting of an individual, a segment forces us to follow a kid on his bike in a suburb in Las Vegas, as we hover over him for unknown reasons. This re-location to suburbia reappears in what can perhaps be called the film’s constitutive narrative, in which we follow a family of four taking off in their car for a road trip. Everything seems relatively normal until they reach a checkpoint. The drive continues, from the freeway and eventually into a hilly, barren landscape, where the family comes upon three armed men digging a hole in the narrow, dusty road. The perspective changes, and we watch the car, now tiny as a toy, from above, as it appears in sharp black and white, under the cross hairs of the camera eye. Then the perspective changes back to the ground again, as a hellfire missile shoots through the air, killing the men, leaving the members of the family bloody and hurt, stumbling out of the car and away from the scene, severely, perhaps mortally, wounded and maimed.

What is it that makes these aerial perspectives so disturbing? In the case of Paglen’s found image, the answer should be clear. Unlike the other images it documents a very real instance of border surveillance. Predator drones are weaponized, and the cross hairs in the image signal the capacity to inflict violence on the individuals we see, who are reduced to mere dark dots in the greyish, blurry landscape. We understand immediately that we are not looking at a conventional documentary image, but rather at what Harun Farocki has described as an “operative image”. Such images, according to Farocki, “do not represent an object, but rather are part of an operation” (Farocki 2004, 17). This influential notion, originally offered in an essay about automated warheads, reflects an understanding of an image that “is not only showing things, but doing things” (Hoelzl 2014). “Images are no longer limited to a political and iconic representation”, Ingrid Hoelzl writes, “they are not only an interface, but play an active role in synchronic data exchanges” (Hoelzl 2014).[4] As Niels Van Tomme observes, the effects of the emergence of operative imagery “points to a man-made reformatting of our entire field of vision, suggesting a world of images that has moved beyond our reach” (Van Tomme 2014, 29). Thomas Elsaesser sees a “more general shift of our culture towards recoding seeing into a form of action,” in which technologies of imaging:

“are not means of assisting sight, whether of real of imagined things, but technologies of probing and penetration. As vision machines, they generate knowledge that has little to do with human perception or seeing, in the sense of ‘I see’ meaning ‘I know’, and more to do with controlling territory, occupying space, monitoring a situation, and mining it for useful information or active intervention’ (Elsaesser 2013: 242).[5]

Re-mediated and re-circulated by Paglen, the image, whose original purpose and operational quality was to assist in armed border surveillance, now plays a different role, as a document of the fact that such an operation once took place.

In doing so, the image comes to represent an aesthetic of precariousness. The image invites us to consider the fact that the very concept of precariousness works, with its connotations of uncertainty and risk, against our notions of precision. The “precarious” individual, etymology teaches us, is “dependent on the will of another,” although its meanings were extended through the decades of the seventeenth century, leading the word to describe a more general sense of insecurity. Antonyms to “precarious,” such as “safe” and “secure,” in fact lead us in the direction of the connotative realm of “precision”: “Precision is everything that ambiguity, uncertainty, messiness, and unreliability are not. It is responsible, nonemotional, objective, and scientific,” Wise points out in the introduction to The Values of Precision.

Drones present a particular risk that technical precision is confused with moral or legal precision, John Kaag and Sarah Kreps argue in Drone Warfare. Whereas the first is an issue of fact, the second is an issue of value (Kaag and Kreps 2014, 132-135). Likewise, Grégoire Chamayou observes the confusion between the technical precision of the weapon and its capacity to discriminate in the choice of targets in A Theory of the Drone. “The fact that your weapon enables you to destroy precisely whomever you wish does not mean that you are more capable of making out who is and who is not a legitimate target,” writes Chamayou: “The precision of the strike has no bearing on the pertinence of the targeting in the first place” (Chamayou 2014, 143).

Now appearing to us as a document of its operative quality and its powers as vision machine, “Migrants Seen By Predator Drone, U.S.-Mexico Border” stirs us into awareness of what kind of aerial view we are confronted with. In her timely interrogation into the ethics of representation in Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, Judith Butler sees an “evacuation of the human through the image” in the contemporary mainstream media coverage of war:

“The war coverage has brought into relief the need for a broad de-monopolizing of media interests, legislation for which has been, predictably, highly contested on Capitol Hill. We think of these interests as controlling rights of ownership, but they are also, simultaneously, deciding what will and will not be publicly recognizable as reality. They do not show violence, but there is a violence in the frame in what is shown. That latter violence is the mechanism through which certain lives and deaths either remain unrepresentable or become represented in ways that effects their capture (once again) by the war effort. The first is an effacement through occlusion; the second is an effacement through representation itself” (Butler 2004, 146).

As Butler points out, “the aerial view” is often preferred to graphic photos of dead soldiers or maimed children, “an aerial view whose perspective is established and maintained by state power” (Butler 2004, 149). But even if the photographs of children burning and dying from napalm during the Vietnam War shocked the US public to its core, the images also, despite their graphic effectivity, “pointed somewhere else, beyond themselves, to a life and to a precariousness that they could not show,” Butler contends (Butler 2004, 150). To her, “[f]or representation to convey the human […] representation must not only fail, but it must show its failure. There is something unrepresentable that we nevertheless seek to represent, and that paradox must be retained in the representation we give” (Butler 2004, 144). Re-mediated and re-circulated by Paglen, the image of the migrants, rendered as shadowy, faceless individuals, unknowingly under threat by an unseen force from above – a visualization that was never intended to reach a general audience – is marked precisely by its failure to represent the precariousness of the human beings it monitors, who appear as possible targets in a surveillance operation in an aerial view now wrested from the control of state power.

Even if the works by Barber, Bridle and Fast make use of collage and staging in their depiction of drone vision, a fact that give them a status that is different from Paglen’s found image, they can nevertheless be said to emerge in response to the rhetoric of precision and represent an aesthetic of precariousness. In creating quasi-operative images, images that pose as operative so to speak, the artists question the capacity of the technology to “see” the individuals that are depicted with various degrees of precision. In Barber’s video the drone flies so high that we are looking down at a city population rather than a group of people, at the buildings and vehicles that house and transport human bodies, rather than the bodies themselves. In Bridle’s and Fast’s works, we are confronted with what Hugh Gusterson calls “remote intimacy,” a conflicted sense of closeness and distance at the same time, as we peek right into their everyday life activities.[6] One would suspect that few things are more familiar than the sight of a kid on a bike riding through quiet suburban streets, and yet the gliding eye in the sky in Fast’s video more than hints at targeting, even without the cross hairs, filling the footage with anticipation of something terrible to come.

Shadows on the Ground

Figure 2: A playground seen from above in Sacramento County, California. Photograph: Tomas van Houtryve. Tomas van Houtryve / VII.
Figure 2: A playground seen from above in Sacramento County, California. Photograph: Tomas van Houtryve. Tomas van Houtryve / VII.

Having outlined what I find to be an aesthetic of precariousness in a selection of contemporary artworks I would now like to return to Tomas van Houtryve’s Blue Sky Days, a series of photographs which share several of the characteristics of the images I have already discussed, but also represents something new. More often than not, van Houtryve’s pictures appear in a narrative context in which the reader or viewer is explicitly invited to reflect on their quality as quasi-operative images – that is, to imagine that what we see are images captured by a possibly weaponized drone used for surveillance and/or warfare. Consulting van Houtryve’s own presentation of the project on his web page (http://tomasvh.com/) for instance, the reader can download a media kit in which the photographer explains his purpose with Blue Sky Days in a two-page statement, where he writes: “By creating these images, I aim to draw attention to the changing nature of personal privacy, surveillance, and contemporary warfare”. Like Bridle’s activist work, van Houtryve’s pictures are motivated by social and political commitment, and the availability of a downloadable kit adds a significant didactic dimension to the project.

The distinctive, defining formal aspect of van Houtryve’s photographs, apparent even to any viewer that would come upon them without any narrative context whatsoever, is their particular rendering of the human individuals on the ground. Either taken very early or late in the day, the pictures consistently create a contrast in scale and proportion between the shadow and its source, inviting reflection on the relationship between the two. The pictures give the spectator a double vision: taking in the visual information in what we can decode to be a playground (figure 2), we first see shadows, and then go on to look for the individuals that correspond to these shadows. This movement, in which we trace the material bodies indicated by the immaterial traces of shadows, is fundamental, since it confronts us with a drone vision which is simultaneously a top view and a lateral view. On the one hand, the physical bodies we see are mere coordinates, reminding us that the drone operator’s perspective is “remote and objectifying” (Gusterson 2016, 8-9), an aerial view that reduces precarious life to “tiny figures” (Chamayou 2014, 114) – a view which in the Blue Sky Days photographs is marked by the technical precision of the high-definition imagery. On the other hand, this sense of precision is threatened by the visual information provided by the shadows, which paradoxically allows us to recognize and “see” the figures on the ground as human beings, and to acknowledge their state of precariousness. It is in this movement from registration to acknowledgment that the central tension of the images lies, their insistence that seeing is never merely a technical question, but also always an ethical question. It lends a performative quality to the pictures in Blue Sky Days, which, in spite of being quasi-operative images, have an operative function of their own: to not as much document what exactly is happening on the ground, as to document the nature of the gaze that observes it.

Figure 3: Signature behavior. Photograph: Tomas van Houtryve. Tomas van Houtryve / VII.
Figure 3: Signature behavior. Photograph: Tomas van Houtryve. Tomas van Houtryve / VII.

Carefully chosen by van Houtryve, several of the titles and captions of the project add to this sense of conflicted, double vision. By titling a photograph of a yoga class in a San Francisco public park “Signature Behavior” (figure 3), the photographer draws our attention to the intelligence that allows the US to carry out so-called “signature strikes” based on calculations of patterns of behavior. These differ from “personality strikes,” which are carried out based on information about individuals. Upon publication of the picture of the yoga class, van Houtryve took to asking viewers what they thought they were seeing in the image. About half tend to answer that they see people practicing yoga; as many think they are looking at people praying (Silverman 2014, Radnor 2014). This interrogation of the image and its visual information – the fraught attempts to distinguish its patterns of movement – reflects back on the entire series, including the picture of the playground: the mundanity of everyday life, with all its regularity and repetition, is recognizable in the rhythm of the swing, in the circling motions of the carousel, in the interaction between children and adults on a sunny day, but this social interactivity in a communal space seems to entangle these individuals in a shared precariousness, as they appear in each other’s radius, whether in the playground, on the baseball field, or in the public park.

In Blue Sky Days, the figure of the shadow also appears, then, as a visual trope, as an ambiguous mark of human presence, which resonates with various implications in cultural history. The shadow is of course the constitutive figure of Plato’s cave allegory, but it also holds a particular place in the origin myths of the visual arts; some readers will know Pliny the Elder’s story in Naturalis Historia of how a shadow on the wall, delineated and thereafter recreated as plastic art, is transformed into a token of memory of the absent lover.[7] The figure of the shadow appears both as a metaphor for epistemological uncertainty and for cultural commemoration, and it is often associated with death. In his magisterial reading of the shadow as a trope in poetry, The Substance of Shadow, John Hollander reminds us how shadows “are related to our eternal condition – to our contours, rather than to our more substantial mass. And yet their very insubstantiality has allowed shadows to be seen both as residues or traces of something palpable and more profoundly animated and, more enigmatically, as emanations of something internal to us” (Hollander 2016, 3).

This doubleness informs van Houtryve’s pictures, in which the cast shadows are both a form of signature and indexical trace, and also appear as a visualization of fragile, precarious life – or even as a kind of prefiguration of death. Caught up in their everyday life activities, the individuals on the ground only really appear to us through their shadows, and thus take on an uncanny, ghostly quality – and yet it is through this aspect of their existence, however phantasmatic it may appear, that we are able to see them and recognize them as human.

As Hollander observes, shadows might appear in the depiction of objects and bodies – say, in a human face – or as here, as separate, cast shadows, and then there is also the ”covering, sheltering, beneficent shade,” into which the individuals in Blue Sky Days have not retreated, directly exposed as they are to the sun. The title of the portfolio is certainly accurate, but it turns out to be more than a meteorological description. In fact van Houtryve is quoting Zubair Rehman, the grandson of a 67-year-old woman who died while picking okra outside her house in a drone strike in northeast Pakistan in October 2012. At a briefing in Washington, DC, Rehman, then 13, who was injured by shrapnel in the attack, spoke to a group of lawmakers, and said: “I no longer love blue skies. In fact, I now prefer gray skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are gray”.[8] The clarity that allows for precision in the strike is a source of trepidation and anxiety, because the weather conditions in themselves serve as an argument for a strike. The body that casts a shadow is thus in danger, exposed to far worse a threat then the damaging rays of the sun. Perhaps the most important function of the shadows in van Houtryve’s photographs, then, is to muddle the precision of their technical vision, and introduce an ethical vision into our encounter with the images.

“Every history is really two histories. There is the history of what actually happened, and there is the history of the perception of what happened”. On the face of it, this observation, which opens W.J.T. Mitchell’s 2011 book Cloning Terror, might seem obvious: certainly it has always been so. But as Mitchell goes on to explain, today “[t]he shaping of perceptions of history does not have to wait for historians or poets, but is immediately represented in audio-visual-textual images transmitted globally” (Mitchell 2011, xi). Blue Sky Days intervenes into this ongoing transmission, and problematizes the ways in which a rhetoric of precision is mobilized in order to shape public perceptions of drone warfare. As Donald MacKenzie claims in Inventing Accuracy, technologies are always socially conditioned, and “it follows from this that there may be a very real, and politically important, sense in which accuracy can be uninvented” (MacKenzie 1990, 4). “Precision,” as we have noted, is a concept with its own history, with its own genealogy, but its meanings are not carved in stone. Perhaps one might say that van Houtryve’s photographs, through their double vision, in fact perform a sort of language work, laying bare the euphemistic character of the rhetoric of precision, thus enabling a strategy of “uninventing precision”.


Embodiment and Affect in a Digital Age

Drone Personnel: Digital Age Soldiers

The US-led coalition’s increasing reliance on drone technology has provoked concern about the ‘virtualisation of violence’ (Der Derian 2009, 121). It is feared that technological mediation in drone warfare de-humanises victims and distances drone personnel, physically and psychologically, from the violent reality of their actions. The human victim of drone surveillance or attack is ‘reduced to an anonymous simulacrum that flickers across the screen’ (Pugliese 2011, 943), while drone personnel perpetrating that violence are ‘morally disengaged from [their] destructive and lethal actions’ (Royakkers and van Est 2010, 289). Discussions about physical and psychological distance are not new to twenty-first-century violence. Hannah Arendt (1963) and Zygmunt Bauman (1989), in their efforts to better understand the Holocaust, pointed to an intrinsic link between technology, distance and twentieth-century genocides. The Nazis, they argued, relied heavily upon technologies and techno-scientific discourses to justify, sanitise and commit mass violence. Perpetrators of violence were distanced from their victims: government bureaucrats and medical professionals became hyper-rational murderers with the help of techno-science’s distancing and de-humanising effects. This was one of Arendt’s (1964 [orig. 1963], 26) famous insights in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Katherine Hall Kindervater has elucidated the historical trajectory of military drones, tracing their emergence back to the UK’s development of the ‘Larynx’ and the ‘Ram’ in World War II. These unmanned aircrafts were designed in the hope that they would, among other objectives, ‘extend the range and kind of attack’ to ‘limit risk to the pilot’s life’ and overcome conditions in which ‘the human pilot was at a disadvantage’ (2016, 4). Snipers, aerial assaults and other long-range weapons all attempt to distance perpetrators of violence from their victims, lowering the risk of return fire and, potentially, making killing physically, emotionally and psychologically easier for the soldiers.

Killing-from-a-distance appears only to have intensified in the ‘Digital Age’, as globally-networked technologies allow violent perpetrators to maim and kill their victims from a completely different spacio-temporal sphere. Academics of a more techno-utopian bent celebrate networked technologies for their ‘democratising’ effects: in the digital age, citizens can transcend the spacio-temporal borders of the nation-state to communicate with each other worldwide (Castells 1996; Held 1999; Beckett and Mansell 2008). The nation-state’s power to include and exclude people from the community – to manage national identity and the body politic – is undermined, as people use networked technology to create communities and mobilise politically across the globe. Conversely, nation-states can harness networked technologies to bolster their power, increasing their surveillance capacity and ability to inflict violence world-wide. This is what the United States has achieved through its National Security Agency programs, cyberattacks and military drones. As James Der Derian (2000, 775) puts it, ‘sovereignty […] now regains its vigour virtually’. Caren Kaplan likewise argues that despite ‘all the flashy theorising about cyberculture and its utopian potential, the technologies of war may seem to be the epitome of triumph of a world without boundaries or limits – where the subjects eliminate their objects without regret or discomfort of embodied proximity’ (Kaplan 2006, 397). Military drone technology is particularly effective at bolstering the US’s power in its amorphous ‘war on terror’. The mobility of drones, and their dual capability of surveillance and assassination, is perfectly suited to meeting the US government’s changing security imperatives, as ‘de-territorialised’ militant organisations shift locations and new organisations (or individuals) gain traction. From roughly 7000 miles away, drone personnel can collect vast amounts of signals intelligence and geolocation data in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and Libya, and maim and kill people when this surveillance identifies ‘suspicious’ activity.

Drone personnel – the soldiers of the digital age – are often constructed in academic literature as present-day Eichmanns or videogame players. Drone technology is allegedly ‘distancing soldiers from the consequences of their actions’ (Benjamin 2013, 87). Drone teams may be connected to the battlefield ‘via a wireless signal or fibre optic cable’, but they are not connected ‘emotionally or psychologically’ (Singer 2009, 335). As Joseph Pugliese (2016, 3) writes, ‘tele-techno mediations work to generate a type of causal disconnect […] of the US-based drone operator’s relation to the killing’. Medea Benjamin (2013, 86) warns that ‘undertaking operations entirely through computer screens and remote audio feed’ can ‘blur the line between the virtual and the real worlds’. ‘Suburban pilots’ work from the Nevada desert ‘in air-conditioned units and scan video screens, adjusting their soda straw digital view of the world with a joystick’ (Ian Shaw 2013, 545). The videogame analogy is also common: ‘from Afghanistan to Iraq, virtuous war has taken on the properties of a game, with high production values, mythic narratives, easy victories and few bodies’ (Der Derian 2011; 272). In his report to the UN, Special Rapporteur Philip Alston states that ‘because operators are based thousands of miles away from the battlefield […] there is a risk of developing a ‘Playstation’ mentality to killing’ (2010, 25). A 2010 non-government organisation (NGO) report titled Convenient Killing: Armed Drones and the Playstation Mentality likewise warns of ‘a culture of convenient killing’ whereby ‘at the touch of a joystick button the operator can fire missiles or drop bombs on targets showing on a computer screen’ (Cole, Dobbing and Hailwood 2010, 4; 6). ‘Rather than seeing human beings’, drone personnel ‘perceive mere blips on screens’ (Cole, Dobbing and Hailwood 2010, 4). Mediation is equated to an instrument of psychological distancing: one that allows drone personnel to de-humanise their victims and disconnect themselves from the violent reality of their actions.

The alleged psychological ease with which drone personnel carry out their work is undermined by psychological studies and the handful of available personal testimonies from drone personnel (more on these testimonies later). The phenomenon of drone personnel suffering Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has been well-reported by journalists over the last five years. Psychological studies reveal equal, sometimes higher, prevalence rates of PTSD in active-duty drone pilots as manned-aircraft pilots, despite drone personnel’s complete spacio-temporal removal from the battlespace (Asaro 2013, 217). Otto and Webber’s study of 709 US drone pilots finds ‘1 of every 12 pilots received at least one incident MH [Mental Health] outcome’ (defined as diagnoses or counselling for anti-social behaviour, depression, anxiety or PTSD) between 2003 and 2011 (2013, 5). They conclude that there was ‘no significant difference in the rates of MH diagnoses, including post-traumatic stress disorders, between RPA [Remotely Piloted Aircraft] and MA [Manned Aircraft] pilots’ (2013, 3). Another comparative psychological study of 670 drone pilots and 751 manned-aircraft pilots found that 5% of drone pilots presented with symptoms that placed them at high risk of PTSD (Chappelle and McDonald 2012, 6). This was higher than their findings for manned-aircraft pilots, of whom only 1% were at high risk for PTSD (Chappelle and McDonald 2012, 6). A 2014 study of 1084 USAF drone operators found that 4.3% of respondents reported ‘clinically significant PTSD symptoms’ (Chappelle et al. 2014, 483). This was considered to be ‘on the low end of rates (4-18%) of PTSD among those returning home from the battlefield’ (Chappelle et al. 2014, 483). Despite this, it is still clear that drone personnel cannot be homogenously characterised as psychologically removed videogame players. Psychological studies on PTSD prevalence in drone personnel complicate the popular notion of the unfeeling videogame warrior.

There is a danger, however, in constructing PTSD prevalence rates as the primary point of entry for discursive engagement with drone personnel’s psychological health. The researchers of the above-mentioned studies note that their findings are limited, as respondents – particularly active-duty personnel – may avoid self-reporting PTSD symptoms. PTSD diagnoses require ‘severity and persistence’ of a cluster of symptoms (intrusive recollections of traumatic event/s, avoidance of stimuli and increased arousal) for over a month, and are considered more serious than other diagnoses such as anti-social behaviour, anxiety and depression. Active-duty drone personnel could be concerned that in-service PTSD counselling or a PTSD diagnosis would jeopardise their careers (increased at-work monitoring, stalled promotion or temporary disqualification). There is also a ‘strong cultural and community stigma’ towards mental health diagnoses in military institutions (Chappelle, McDonald and Salinas 2011, 5). Individuals are likely to downplay PTSD symptoms to avoid career-damaging effects and possible social stigma arising from a serious mental health diagnosis. Due to the secretive nature of their missions, drone personnel are additionally limited in who they can approach for psychological support both within and outside the military (Linebaugh 2012).

Not only are PTSD prevalence rates too contentious to invest heavily in, but there is also a much broader range of emotional and psychological harm that ought to be as significant when considering drone personnel’s emotional and psychological responses to mediated killing. Twenty percent of drone personnel reported suffering ‘high emotional distress’, defined as ‘anxiety, depression, emotional adjustment difficulties’, severe enough to indicate the ‘need for mental health care’ (Chappelle and McDonald 2012, 6). Ouma, Chappelle and Salinas’s study found that ‘approximately one out of every five active duty operators were twice as likely to report high levels of high emotional exhaustion when compared with National Guard/Reserve operators’ (2011, 12). A different study, on the necessary psychological attributes for drone personnel, states that the work ‘can be very taxing and stressful’, so it is important for recruits to possess ‘the ability to compartmentalise the emotional rigours of one’s job’ (Chappelle, McDonald and King 2010, 19; 20). Compartmentalisation, the study finds, ‘is an important trait for long term stability’ (Chappelle, McDonald and King 2010, 20). All of these studies state that long hours, shift work and shift changes contribute to high emotional distress, but it is important to also consider emotional and psychological stressors that active-duty personnel would feel less comfortable reporting in studies led by military psychologists – stressors that are far more likely to require ‘compartmentalisation’ than shift work fatigue.

This article will proceed in an interdisciplinary manner, drawing upon work within media, screen and cultural studies – including media theory, science and technology studies (STS) and phenomenology – to offer theoretical tools for understanding drone warfare’s mediating effects. It will argue that drone personnel’s psychological illnesses and emotional testimonies problematise common assumptions about mediated, high-technology war. Two hypotheses will be provided for why drone personnel experience unexpectedly high rates of emotional distress, anxiety, depression and PTSD, both of which challenge the idea that technology inherently causes psychological distancing. It is my intention that this paper is speculative in the best sense of the term; that the hypotheses I suggest will prompt further empirical research into drone personnel. My first hypothesis engages with media theory to consider how empathy can develop through surveillance technologies, thereby humanising the supposedly de-humanised victims of drone attacks. The second hypothesis draws on STS and phenomenology to suggest a ‘boundary’ collapse between drone personnel’s bodies and their equipment. I argue that this ‘boundary’ collapse, or ‘leakiness’, could cause psychological distress when it comes to technologies of killing. These hypotheses do not attempt to offer a complete explanation for how and why drone personnel experience mental illness, nor are they mutually exclusive. They do, however, seek to offer possible answers for phenomena evidenced in former drone personnel’s personal testimonies and those hinted at, but likely under-reported, in psychological studies of active-duty personnel.

Perhaps most importantly, this paper aims to encourage discursive acknowledgement and investigation of drone personnel’s mental illnesses. The psychological health of drone personnel has become a site of conflict for academic, NGO and activist critiques of drone warfare. Any academic research on violent perpetrators raises ethical concerns. Feminist Standpoint theory has demonstrated the social and political importance of situated knowledge, and the discursive power that comes with focusing on the lives of marginalised peoples and giving voice to the voiceless in academic research (Collins 1990; Smith 1990). To give voice to the perpetrator of violence (particularly state-sanctioned violence) can re-inforce their power in knowledge production, and can offer legitimacy to their actions. It can also draw attention away from the victims of violence and their pain and suffering. A recent review of Good Kill (a film about a US Air Force drone pilot) seems motivated by this concern, with its provocative title: ‘Drone Operators Get PTSD, Civilians Die Nameless’ (Gharib 2015). In the case of drone warfare, the mostly Muslim victims of drone strikes are already largely invisible in Western public discourses, where the deaths of white, non-Muslim Westerners are far more likely to be grieved (Butler 2003, 27). There is the risk, then, of playing into colonial ideologies whereby war is only worth protesting once harm to Western (mostly white and non-Muslim) lives is evidenced (Gregory 2015, 207).

The controversy surrounding the study of drone personnel is partly motivated by the same concerns as Feminist Standpoint theory, but is more pronounced for reasons unique to drone warfare. The ‘radical asymmetry’ of drone warfare has become the linchpin of drone warfare criticism, and it is this objection that resonates with the public (Enemark 2014, 367). Regardless of one’s knowledge of drone warfare, it is easy to identify the moral problem with US coalition soldiers being geographically removed from the battlespace and safe from physical and psychological harm, while people in targeted countries are vulnerable to both. Academic or journalistic work that takes interest in drone personnel’s psychological health is seen to complicate this neat asymmetry argument, broadening current understandings of risk and harm to include psychological harm and its physiological manifestations. In Drone Theory – to-date the most popular theoretical book on drone warfare – author Grégoire Chamayou expresses his scepticism towards counter-representations of drone personnel, in particular what he calls the ‘media picture of empathetic drone operators suffering psychic trauma’ (Chamayou 2015, 109). He writes that ‘whereas the attention drawn to soldiers’ psychic wounds was in the past aimed at contesting their conscription by state violence, nowadays it serves to bestow upon this unilateral form of violence an ethico-heroic aura that could otherwise not be procured’ (Chamayou 2015, 109). A joint report by numerous NGOs released in October 2016 echoes Chamayou, stating that it is ‘drone advocates’ (emphasis added) who challenge the ‘Playstation Mentality’ thesis (Drone Campaign Network 2016, 14). Highlighting drone personnel’s suffering thus becomes a pro-military move, as it undermines one of the most communicable and resonant ethical objections to drone warfare: its radical asymmetry.

It is important, however, that academics who find the US coalition’s use of drones objectionable draw on all available resources to mount their critique. This includes taking seriously psychological harm to drone personnel. Pentagon spokespeople and military academics argue that governments have a duty of care to protect their soldiers from unnecessary risk of harm (Strawser 2010; Weiner and Sherman 2014; Plaw 2012). Drone technology’s alleged ability to protect soldiers from harm is evoked to justify their use. A key weakness of these arguments is that their conceptions of harm do not account for psychological harm (anti-social behaviours, anxiety, depression and PTSD). As Alison Williams (2011, 387) argues, these commentators ‘mistakenly assume that it is only the physical body that can be damaged by warfare’. Furthermore, they advance a mind/body dualism that ignores the physiological effects of these psychological illnesses (including muscle tension, rapid heartbeat, breathlessness, increased blood pressure, gastrointestinal problems, nausea and body shaking) (McFarlane et al. 1994; Stahl 2002; Aldao et al. 2010; Craske 2012). Contrary to Chamayou’s argument in Drone Theory, there is often no difference in intention between those who illustrate soldiers’ psychological wounds today and those who did in past wars. The purpose is still to contest state violence: the (false) promises made to recruits to attract them into the drone program, the psychological illnesses they suffer as a result of their work, and the ways they are (mis)treated by the institution if or when they become psychologically unwell. Rather than comply with a false dichotomy of care – for either military personnel or civilians – or engage in debate about who suffers more, this article gives discursive attention to drone personnel out of concern for all human suffering in war. This shares commonality with a growing body of scholars such as Alison Williams, Caroline Holmqvist, Lauren Wilcox, Ian Shaw and Majed Akhter who highlight the importance of thinking about humans on both sides of drone technology. Holmqvist (2013, 536; 541) writes of the ‘need to centre human experience to the study of […] war’. She states that ‘drone warfare is “real” also for those staring at a screen and, as such, the reference to videogames is often simplistic’ (2013, 536; 541). Shaw and Akhter (2012, 1501) argue that academics must ‘intervene to dismantle the production and maintenance of the drone fetish […] to reinsert a disavowed corporeality’ into drone warfare discourse. It is crucial that academics increase the visibility of the bodies maimed, killed and psychologically tormented by drone attacks and surveillance. Discourse on the psychological and physiological effects of drone warfare on military personnel, however, does not inhibit this work. Instead, it plays another important role in de-fetishing the drone and reinserting corporeality into drone-warfare discourse.

The Need for an Interdisciplinary Approach

Most research on drone warfare has come from the field of International Relations (IR) (with critical geography a close second). Critical research on drone warfare would be significantly enriched through an interdisciplinary engagement with Media, Screen and Cultural Studies. IR scholars have not been completely blind to media, screen and cultural studies. Since the First Gulf War, IR has taken an interest in the application of media theory to the study of mediated, high-technology war. This application, however, remains pre-occupied with Information Age debates characteristic of the 1990s when many scholars thought that information technology led to a ‘loss of social bonds’ and ‘the demise of the proximate human being’ (Virilio 1999, 86). With this outdated view of media technologies still influential and often evoked in IR, drone technology is commonly described as an instrument of US coalition hegemony that can only de-humanise victims and turn users into unfeeling hyper-militarised warriors. The degree to which a victim is proximate and embodied is assumed to have a causal relation to drone personnel’s psychological and physiological responses to killing. Mediation is considered a barrier to affect, emotions, psychological reactions and physiological sensations. This neglects a plethora of earlier media, screen and cultural-studies theory and more recent ‘pervasive media’ theory that argues the opposite. Media, screen and cultural studies has a decades-long engagement with mediation, human-technology interaction, embodiment, phenomenology and affect. This work offers useful theoretical frameworks for making sense of mediated, high-technology war.

In developing its two hypotheses, this article engages with the above-mentioned range of media, screen and cultural theory to consider why drone personnel experience high emotional distress and other psychological illnesses. This interdisciplinary contribution is timely as critical and feminist international relations scholars lead an ‘affective turn’ within the IR discipline. The discipline’s Realist tradition of privileging the nation-state as the most appropriate unit of analysis is coming under close scrutiny. Many feminist and critical IR scholars argue that Realism has always been a limited approach to understanding the complexity of world politics and security, but is even more limited today when globally-networked technologies and de-territorialised political problems stretch the boundaries of nation-states. Diana Coole and Samantha Frost (2010, 5), in demonstrating the necessity of their ‘New Materialisms’ approach to studies of international political economy, write that traditional theoretical models fail to consider the ‘significance of complex issues such as climate change or global capital and population flows […] or the saturation of our intimate and physical lives by digital, wireless and networked technologies’. Coole and Frost draw attention to the interrelatedness of things (subjects and objects), emphasising the instability of categories assumed in Realism to be fixed: ‘the relationships of humans to the world, the very definition of the human to the nonhuman and the way shifting definitions of nature and life affect subjective experiences of selfhood or the forms and domains of politico-juridical regulation’ (2010, 21). In these critical/feminist IR frameworks, emotions, affect and the relationality of subjects and objects are recognised as having a significant bearing over political agency, mobilisation and violence. As Linda Ahall and Thomas Gregory (2016, 2) argue, ‘rationalist prejudices have traditionally dominated the discipline of IR’ to the point where ‘the role of emotions in global politics has been downplayed, ignored or denigrated’. Only recently have IR scholars increasingly ‘sought to re-centre emotions in our study of international politics’ (Ahall and Gregory 2016, 2). In the digital age, world politics, conflicts and security are deeply enmeshed with media technologies, making media, screen and cultural studies a necessary inter-disciplinary engagement – particularly for academics interested in discovering the political implications of emotions, embodiment and affect.

Hypothesis 1: In the digital age, mediation and disembodiment do not inhibit recognition and empathy

In the words, tone and body language of former drone personnel, it is often difficult to identify the digital age Adolf Eichmanns or videogame players evoked by many academics, journalists, NGOs and politicians. Derek Gregory (2011, 200), Caroline Holmqvist (2013, 542) and Lauren Wilcox (2016, 12) have written on drone personnel’s ‘identification of and […] with’ the ground troops they are supporting: how they are ‘emotionally and affectively connected’ to colleagues on-the-ground despite the technological mediation at play. It is clear from personnel testimonies that drone personnel can also recognise and empathise with their so-called ‘enemies’ as humans, and that this is profoundly affecting, too. These testimonies come from a small group of former drone personnel, but offer rich empirical information that may be generalisable to a wider group of active-duty and retired personnel (who, for above-mentioned reasons, either cannot or do not want to speak publicly about how drone warfare has psychologically affected them). In her The Guardian (2013) opinion editorial, former sensor operator Heather Linebaugh opens by asking: ‘How many women and children have you seen incinerated by a Hellfire missile? […] How many men have you seen crawl across a field trying to make it to the nearest compound while bleeding out from severed legs?’ She goes onto say:

‘I watched dozens of military-aged males die in Afghanistan, in empty fields, along riversides, and some outside the compound where their family was waiting for them to return home from the mosque.’ (The Guardian Dec 29 2013)

Former drone pilot Brandon Bryant, a PTSD-suffering former drone pilot, recounts one of his traumatic experiences of killing:

‘The smoke clears […] and there’s this guy over here, and he’s missing his right leg above his knee. He’s holding it, and he’s rolling around, and the blood is squirting out of his leg, and it’s hitting the ground, and it’s hot. His blood is hot. But when it hits the ground, it starts to cool off; the pool cools fast. It took him a long time to die. I just watched him. I watched him become the same colour as the ground he was lying on.’ (quoted in Power 2013)

In another description of the same experience, Bryant mentions that he ‘imagined his [victim’s] last moments’ as he watched him dying (Democracy Now! 2015). Former drone pilot Matt Martin describes an experience of similar emotional and psychological magnitude in his book Predator: his realisation that two young boys were in the firing line of a missile he had already deployed. The older boy was riding his bike while the younger boy sat on the handle bars. When the missile struck metres away from the boys, killing them, Martin vividly remembered riding his sister around on the handlebars of his bike as a child. He recalls ‘smelling her hair’ and ‘hearing her laughter’ (Martin 2010, 211). This flashback to childhood suggests Martin had the empathetic realisation that in another reality that could be me.

These testimonies undermine constructions of drone personnel as people who do not recognise or empathise with their victims, whereby technological mediation and disembodiment turn victims into ‘ones and zeros’ (Pugliese 2011, 64). To make better sense of technological mediation, recognition and empathy in drone warfare, it is important to consider the media technology environment of the twenty-first century. High-technology, mediated interaction is part of the fabric of everyday life in today’s digital age. This is the environment within which drone personnel live, work and play. It is therefore crucial for IR (and critical geography) academics interested in the lived experiences of drone warfare to engage with media, screen and cultural studies. Media scholar William Merrin argues (2009, 17; 22) that we live in a ‘post-broadcast era’, where ‘bottom-up, many-to-many, horizontal, peer-to-peer communication’ is commonplace due to the proliferation of networked media technologies. He writes that, where broadcast media were concerned with ‘informing and uniting “the social”’, networked media technologies allow people to ‘make their social’ in ‘media worlds […] of interaction, communication, mediation, experience and information (Merrin 2009, 24-25). Mark Deuze (2011, 137) uses the term ‘media life’ rather than ‘media worlds’, but similarly writes that media technologies are so pervasive in the twenty-first century that it makes better sense to think of our lives ‘lived in rather than with media’. Media technologies are imbricated so deeply in our lives – professional, social and intimate – that ‘they are becoming invisible’: ‘people in general do not even register their presence’ (Deuze 2011, 143). This means an ‘increasing immateriality of one’s experience of reality’ whereby the mediated and the unmediated, the ‘virtual’ and the ‘real’, inform one another so closely that it is difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. In the 1990s, when ‘Information Age’ debates were rife, the internet was known as ‘cyberspace’: a ‘coherent place that you could immersively inhabit’ that was distinct from ‘reality’ (McCullough 2004, 9). Now, the ubiquity of networked media technologies undermines our ability to clearly distinguish between un-mediated, non-networked spaces and ‘cyberspace’. It is this pervasive media environment, wherein disembodied interaction is frequent even with the most intimate of contacts, that we must keep in mind as we attempt to understand drone personnel’s lived experiences of their work.

Understanding the effects of pervasive networked media technologies on surveillance practices, in particular, can help make better sense of drone personnel’s emotional and psychological experiences. The pervasiveness of networked media technologies has led to ‘always-on, ubiquitous, opportunistic ever-expanding forms of data capture’ (Andrejevic and Burdon 2015, 19). Where it previously made sense to think of an ‘unblinking, totalitarian Big Brother’ (the government) conducting surveillance, today there are ‘more like ten thousand little brothers’ (McCullough 2004, 15). Mark Deuze argues that surveillance has moved away from the centralised control of the state ‘to the much more widespread and distributed gaze of the many’ (2012, 126). Contacts made in the digital age, ranging from the professional to the intimate, are often initiated, maintained and monitored with and through media technologies. Social media platforms allow (even encourage) close monitoring of friends’ movements, dating apps inform users of the geographical proximity of their matches, key-stroke monitoring software alerts employers to employees’ procrastination and GPS tracking apps (such as ‘Find My Friends’ and ‘Couple Tracker’) provide the real-time GPS location of partners, children and friends. Message-read receipts, social media geolocation tags and ‘last active’ information are further evidence of the normalisation of surveillance in the era of pervasive media, as the distinction between our public and private lives is increasingly blurred. It is likely that drone personnel use one or more of these media technologies in their domestic lives, and these experiences could have significant impact on how drone personnel encounter their work. The US-led drone program is, of course, a vertical (or ‘top down’) form of surveillance: drones collect vast amounts of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) on people across the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia without their permission; secretive National Security Agency programs enable this and other coalition governments contribute through information-sharing and intelligence-processing support. It is important, however, to consider how peer-to-peer, horizontal surveillance practices might interact with this hegemonic, top-down form of surveillance in ways that could allow (even encourage) drone personnel to recognise or empathise with their victims as humans.

Mark Andrejevic (2006, 2010, 2015) has written extensively on how generalised suspicion and widespread data collection post-9/11 has intensified and normalised ‘mutual monitoring’ practices. He writes that the culture of suspicion has been transposed ‘from the realm of post-9/11 policing to that of personal relations’ (2006, 400). Andrejevic provides a useful framework for thinking about the militarisation of everyday life: how post-9/11 military and policing practices have permeated into our private, domestic lives. In the case of drone personnel, however, it is useful to think about how this permeation might occur in the other direction: how they might find it difficult to disentangle surveillance practices in their domestic spheres from their work surveilling the so-called ‘enemy’. Drone personnel are sometimes tasked with surveilling a potential target ‘for more than eight hours a day’ (Asaro 2013, 205). From their surveillance, they can ‘see and recognise the personal details and daily activities’ of the people they are ordered to kill (Asaro 2013, 205). One former pilot writes that ‘you start to understand people in other countries based on their day-to-day patterns of life. A person wakes up, they do this, they greet their friends this way, etc.’ (quoted in Bergen and Rothenberg 2014, 115). Brandon Bryant admits to having watched ‘targets drink tea with friends, play with their children, have sex with their wives on rooftops, writhing under blankets’ (Power 2013). Depending on the altitude of the drone and the feed that is watched (surveillance footage, thermal imaging, etc.), drone personnel see their victims from a bird’s eye view as tiny dots, pixelated blobs or heat signatures. It is clear from their testimonies that this does not prevent them from recognising, and in some cases empathising with, their victims as humans engaging in human activities. Imagination is crucial in this regard, but we also need to consider the possibility that humanisation occurs because similar visualities are at work in drone surveillance as in horizontal, peer-to-peer surveillance practices. The aerial viewpoint and use of digital signifiers to denote a human’s presence is a common visuality in myriad peer-to-peer monitoring interfaces, such as Foursquare, Swarm, Uber, UberEats, Find My Friends, Couple Tracker, MapMyFitness and Facebook’s ‘nearby friends’ feature. These peer-to-peer surveillance interfaces (where humans who are already, or are about to be, known to the user in an embodied sense are represented as disembodied digital signifiers) may be difficult for drone personnel to differentiate from the visuality of the drone. It is therefore important to consider how drone personnel’s experiences with media technologies outside their work could inform their experiences at work. Drone personnel’s emotional and psychological reactions to surveillance and killing could be informed by peer-to-peer, domestic surveillance practices in the digital age.

In addition to considering surveillance cultures in today’s media technology landscape, it is also useful to think about how mediated imagery is understood and experienced by viewers. The work of media, screen and cultural studies can offer useful insight into how drone personnel might experience the mediated imagery of drone surveillance, in ways that increases their likelihood of suffering psychological illness. Derek Gregory (2011, 190) and Kyle Grayson (2012, 123) both refer to the ‘scopic regime’ of drone surveillance: a modernist visual regime that empowers viewers, giving the impression of ‘hypervisibility’ and ‘epistemological and aesthetic realism’ (Gregory 2011, 193; Grayson 2012, 123). Grayson (2012, 123) takes this further, arguing that drone surveillance’s scopic regime ‘produces a form of pleasure that can be addictive for the one with the privilege of viewing’. Scopic regime was a term first coined by film scholar Christian Metz in 1982 to explain how the cinematic apparatus encourages particular viewing behaviours (identification and voyeurism) (Metz 1982, 61). It was later applied to technological apparatuses beyond the cinema by scholars such as Allen Feldman (1997, 30), who used the term to refer to any ‘ensemble of practices and discourses that establish truth claims […] of visual acts and objects and correct modes of seeing’. Metz (1999 [orig. 1974], 79) also wrote, however, that the visual elements of the moving image ‘are indefinite in number and undefined in nature’: ‘one can decompose a shot, but one cannot reduce it’. Johanna Drucker (2011, 6) similarly argues that ‘graphical features organise a field of visual information, but the activity of reading follows other tendencies’, according to the viewer’s ‘embodied and situated knowledge, cultural conditions and training [and] the whole gamut of individually inflected and socially conditioned skills and attitudes’. A scopic regime may direct certain viewing behaviours, but it cannot dictate them: there is a whole gamut of factors, indefinite in number and undefined in nature, that can provoke alternative modes of viewing. This is what cultural theorists Stuart Hall’s (1980 [orig. 1973], 136-138) and bell hooks’s (1992, 117) theories of ‘negotiated’ and ‘oppositional’ reading refer to: possibilities (outside the hegemonic or dominant reading) for unintended, subversive or counter-hegemonic readings of mediated content. The scopic regime of drone surveillance may direct drone personnel to feel omniscient and powerful and to experience pleasure, but this is by no means the only available reading.

Thinking about alternative readings of mediated texts can help make better sense of why former drone personnel suffer from psychological illnesses, despite being directed (by the scopic regime’s dominant/hegemonic reading and military culture) to feel emboldened by their work. Drone personnel suffering with psychological illness have likely engaged in alternative readings of drone surveillance’s scopic regime – readings that encouraged recognition and empathy of their victims, or otherwise sowed the seeds of doubt regarding the (im)morality of their work. Ruptures in the scopic regime would encourage these alternative readings: moments where the so-called omniscience of the drone apparatus comes into question. Alison Williams (2011, 386) and Lauren Wilcox (2016, 9) question the ‘imperfect’ or ‘god-like’ vision of drone surveillance, arguing that the operator’s or analyst’s eye ‘cannot remain unblinking in its gaze, nor can the drone assemblage provide peripheral vision’. Furthermore, Wilcox writes, ‘the visual imagery in drone warfare is often not as clear as purported’ (Wilcox 2016, 11). These ruptures – increasing the likelihood for alternative or counter-hegemonic readings – are evident in Heather Linebaugh’s personal testimony, where she recounts feeling far from omniscient:

“The feed is so pixelated, what if it’s a shovel, and not a weapon?”. I felt this confusion constantly, as did my fellow UAV analysts. We always wondered if we killed the right people, if we endangered the wrong people, if we destroyed an innocent civilian’s life all because of a bad image or angle. (Linebaugh 2013)

In addition to these ruptures, there are also the ‘individually inflected and socially conditioned skills and attitudes’ that drone personnel bring to their viewing of drone surveillance imagery (Drucker 2011, 6). The modernist assumption that the documentary image provides ‘epistemological and aesthetic realism’ is increasingly uncommon in the digital age (Grayson 2012, 123). Digital media technologies allow users to ‘read, edit and write their codes, programs, protocols and texts’ (Deuze 2011, 137). ‘Reality’ is revealed to be ‘malleable’ by digital media technologies: it can be ‘manipulated, fast-forwarded, panned, scanned and zoomed in on’ (Deuze 2011, 137). It is this postmodern understanding of the malleability of reality – an awareness of the ‘constructed-ness’ of mediated images – that drone personnel might bring to their reading of drone surveillance’s scopic regime.

Hypothesis 2: Drone personnel experience a boundary collapse or ‘leakage’ with drone equipment

Possible causes of drone personnel’s psychological illnesses could also be identified by examining their relationship with their technological equipment. A cyborgian ‘leakage’ between human and technology could be particularly affecting when it comes to technologies of killing. Such a leakage would encourage drone personnel to transcend the self/other ‘boundary’, recognising and empathising with their victims. I draw on Donna Haraway’s work to elucidate this hypothesis. There is also the possibility that experiences of proximity with and through drone equipment are felt in relation to experiences of distance, and vice versa. Transitions between states of proximity and distance would increase the likelihood of recognition and empathy, and would provoke drone personnel to confront the violent reality of their actions. I use Martin Heidegger’s and Vivian Sobchack’s phenomenological work to develop this idea.

Posthumanist and cyborg theory scholars argue that instrumentalist accounts of technology fail to understand the porousness of the human/technology ‘boundary’. Learning from these scholars, it would be mistaken to try to make sense of drone personnel’s relationship with drone technology through an instrumentalist framework. Instrumentalist accounts of the human-technology relationship establish a false binary between bodies and technology. Marshall McLuhan (2013 [orig. 1964], 64-70) wrote in Understanding Media that technology can be thought of as an ‘extension’, an ‘amplification’ and an ‘amputation’ of the human body: a multitude of porous formations united only in their imbrication of humans and technology. Rather than discrete entities, humans and technology are enmeshed with one another in myriad ways and often lack clear definition. In ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ (1991 [orig. 1985]), Donna Haraway offers the provocation that ‘we are cyborgs’: ‘theorised and fabricated hybrids’ of ‘human and animal’ and ‘machine and organism’ (150). Haraway invites the reader to think of distinctions between humans and machines, humans and animals, and the physical and non-physical, as ‘leaky’ (Haraway 1991, 152). Haraway’s cyborg is not a literal figure, contained within a clearly defined human-technology assemblage, although often misinterpreted as such (Phan 2015, 5). Haraway’s cyborg is political, referring to human-technology ‘leakages’ that facilitate feminist boundary-crossings between militaristic, patriarchal and colonialist dualisms: ‘self/other, mind/body, culture/nature male/female, civilised/primitive, reality/appearance…’ (Haraway 1991, 177). To approach humans and technology as discrete entities, as the instrumentalist logic does, is to ignore this cyborgian leakiness between humans and technology. Military equipment is often spoken about as discrete tools, contained within non-leaky formations. Academics will name different types of technologies used by soldiers, without further argument, as if their presence is evidence enough that de-humanising processes are at work. Going to war in the twenty-first century involves sitting ‘behind computer screens’, ‘pushing a button’ and ‘dragging a mouse’ to kill people who appear as ‘infrared heat-sensored images and laser-guided targets’ (Royakkers and Van Est 2010; Singer 2009; Masters 2005). An instrumentalist approach is not useful for understanding why drone personnel suffer with psychological illness, as it assumes an inherent link between high-technology work, de-humanisation and psychological distantiation. While controversial, it is useful to consider the feminist boundary-crossing leaks Haraway describes occurring within the (otherwise highly militaristic and patriarchal) human-technology assemblage of the drone apparatus. Drone personnel may be experiencing cyborgian leaks with the drone apparatus whereby the militaristic and colonialist dualisms of self/other and civilised/primitive are transgressed. This seems to be the case for an anonymous active-duty drone pilot, who writes: ‘you feel like you are a part of what they’re doing every single day’ (quoted in Bergen and Rothenberg, 115).

Joseph Pugliese has already initiated the application of posthumanism and cyborg theory to the study of drone technology, drawing on Donna Haraway’s work. In State Violence and the Execution of the Law, Pugliese argues that drone personnel develop a ‘prosthetic’ relationship with their equipment (2013, 203). Prosthesis is the process by which drone personnel’s bodies are extended through the technology in use: the joystick and controls are experienced, through sustained interaction, as extensions of their arms and hands. Thus the alleged ‘boundary’ separating drone personnel from drone technology is revealed as myth. Pugliese acknowledges Haraway’s utopian reading of human-technology assemblages, wherein the cyborg’s boundary-crossing nature offers opportunities to transgress militaristic, patriarchal and colonialist dualisms. However, he aims to ‘recode’ the cyborg descriptor to ‘evidence its violent assimilation and co-option by the very […] militaristic and instrumentalist authorities it was designed to contest’ (2013, 204). He argues that human-technology leakiness, rather than opening up opportunities to challenge the dualisms at work in the ‘war on terror’ (self/other, civilised/primitive, male/female, and so on) simply ‘instrumentalises’ drone personnel’s bodies into ‘lethal machines’ (205). Pugliese (2013, 204) is still convinced by an instrumentalist logic, whereby drone personnel are turned into hyper-militaristic robot warriors who are emotionally ‘disassociated’ and ethically ‘disjoined’. The relationship between human and machine is posited as unidirectional, with drone technology permanently ‘injecting’ personnel with colonialist militarism. This constructs drone technology as all-powerful – a fetishing discourse – and misrepresents Haraway’s cyborg (which sees humans and technology as porous and non-discrete).

Martin Heidegger’s phenomenological work offers a different interpretation of the human-technology relationship, but also considers it porous. Heidegger could provide another useful theoretical framework for understanding why drone personnel suffer psychological illness. Heidegger (1978, 97) argues that ‘there “is” no such thing as an equipment’ because any ‘piece’ of equipment belongs to a ‘totality of equipment’. Assertions that drone personnel are merely ‘fighting from behind a computer’ neglect this (Royakkers and van Est 2010, 292), opting instead to describe equipment in isolated terms. Heidegger contends that the totality of equipment works together ‘in order to’ carry out a function (1978, 97). Drone personnel work with their computers, joysticks, keyboards, chairs and headsets, which all refer to each other, in addition to referring to the room, the building, the military, the US government, its counterterrorism discourses, and myriad other physical and non-physical influences. Any supposed ‘boundary’ separating drone personnel’s bodies and the technology in use is surpassed: the body is extended through the totality of equipment in order to carry out the surveillance or killing of a person or people. Drone personnel’s concern is therefore not with a single piece of equipment (the mouse, the joystick, the computer screen, etc.), but subordinates itself to the in-order-to – regardless of physical distance from the person surveilled or killed. Likewise, when we Skype loved ones overseas, they feel – in every relevant sense – more proximate than the cup of tea or coffee merely an arm’s reach away. Our concern subordinates itself to the in-order-to – communication with our family member, partner or friend – and we become immersed in that activity. This subordination to the in-order-to seems evident in former drone personnel’s surprisingly detailed descriptions of the people they observed. An active-duty drone pilot, referred to simply as ‘Mike’, talks about watching ‘an old man startled by a barking dog’ (quoted in Hurwitz 2013). Brandon Bryant describes watching a group of three men through the drone’s thermal-imaging camera. ‘The two individuals in the front were having a heated discussion’, he says, and ‘the guy at the back was kind of watching the sky’ (Democracy Now! 2013). The detailed descriptions of these moments – the old man’s ‘startled’ reaction, or the man ‘looking at the sky’ while his friends had a heated argument – suggests drone personnel are immersed within the lifeworlds of the people they surveil. Instrumentalist logics fail to explain these immersive experiences.

In addition to examining how immersion might increase drone personnel’s likelihood of psychological illness, it is also useful to consider how moving between experiences of proximity and distance could be particularly traumatic when it comes to technologies of killing. Heidegger further develops his concept of the ‘in-order-to’ with the terms ‘ready-to-hand’ and ‘present-at-hand’ (1978, 97). Drone equipment is ‘ready-to-hand’ when it is all referring to each other harmoniously in order to surveil and kill (1978, 103). If there is a breakage or disruption, the ready-to-hand equipment withdraws and ‘reveals itself’ as obtrusive, becoming ‘present-at-hand’ (1978, 103). Human and technology thus undergo temporary distantiation. For example, a pen ‘reveals itself’ when it runs out of ink; a pair of reading glasses when they fog up. As Mark Weiser (1994, 7) once put it, ‘a good tool is an invisible tool […] it does not intrude on your consciousness’. Moments of breakage could thus be highly anxiety-inducing when it comes to technologies of killing, as drone personnel are provoked to confront the violent reality of their action (the ‘in-order-to’) and question the extent of their culpability within that action. Studies have found that a significant source of stress for drone pilots stems from ‘human-machine interface difficulties’, particularly the ‘ergonomic design of equipment and Ground Control System’ (Ouma, Chappelle and Salinas 2011, 11). These moments of digital friction are likely to be highly stressful for drone personnel because they are required to move from experiencing their equipment as ready-to-hand to confronting it as present-at-hand. Drone personnel are therefore repeatedly encouraged to reflect upon their body’s imbrication with technologies of killing. Heidegger’s phenomenology allows us to think about how moments of separation from drone technology are likely felt in relation to moments of proximity. The constant transitioning between proximity and separation is likely to be a highly emotional experience for drone personnel, as they struggle to situate the ‘boundaries’ of their bodies in relation to, and culpability within, a technological apparatus of killing.

Media, screen and cultural studies theorist Vivian Sobchack’s (2004) work on the phenomenology of inter-objectivity, and the theory of empathy she derives from this, is also useful for thinking about how experiences of proximity and distance might interact to psychologically affect drone personnel. Sobchack argues that empathy results from a person’s recognition that they are both an ‘objective subject’ and a ‘subjective object’ (Sobchack 2004, 288). That is, we are most capable of empathy when we see ourselves as subjects but also acknowledge the capacity for other things (animate or inanimate) to treat us as objects. We experience objectification when we are ‘acted on and affected by external agents and forces, usually adversely’ (Sobchack 2004, 287). An earthquake that destroys one’s house, for example, is an external force, putting the homeowner into a situation whereby their objectivity becomes apparent. A thief who steals one’s car is an external agent who spares no thought for one’s need to get to an important meeting. Sobchack suggests that our ‘reversibility as subjects and objects’ is what allows us to empathise with others (human or otherwise) external to ourselves, as we know what it is like to lose our subjecthood at times of objectification (Sobchack 2004, 287). It is possible, then, that empathy is provoked rather than undermined when drone personnel experience moments of distance between themselves and their victims. Drone personnel are aware, from moments of proximity, that their targets are humans (subjects). Moments of distantiation could therefore render objectifying processes unavoidably obvious for drone personnel, highlighting their role as an external agent. Sobchack’s theory radically changes the way empathy and distance is thought about. Sobchack develops a clear link between our capacity for empathy and our recognition of objectifying processes. It will be fruitful for future research on drone personnel to consider how transitions between cyborgian immersion (as subjectifying) and distantiation (as objectifying) could encourage drone personnel to empathise with their victims.


This article has suggested two hypotheses for why drone personnel suffer psychological illness; first, that technological mediation and disembodiment does not inhibit recognition and empathy – particularly in our digital age – and, second, that drone personnel may experience a ‘boundary’ collapse or ‘leakiness’ between their bodies and their equipment. This leakiness could encourage drone personnel to recognise and empathise with their victims, and provoke them to confront the violent reality of their actions. This article has advocated further empirical research on people who work(ed) in the drone program, despite their psychological health becoming a site of conflict for ethical discussions about military drones. Drone personnel require discursive attention, as they are also victims of drone warfare (albeit in a different way to the people surveilled, maimed and killed by drones across the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia). It is pertinent to acknowledge that drone personnel face psychological harm, and that this harm is also manifested physiologically, particularly when the responsibility to protect soldiers from harm is evoked by the Pentagon and its military academics to convince the public of drone warfare’s virtues.

Continued journalistic and academic investigation into drone personnel will also help to uncover alternative (possibly subversive and counter-hegemonic) readings of the drone apparatus. People can interact with articulations of hegemonic power in ways that expose ‘their porousness and malleability, their incompleteness and their transformability’, and this is no different for drone personnel (Butler 2006, 533). As Judith Butler argues, there is always the possibility for ‘radical rearticulations’ of power through counter-normative relations (1990, 16). It already seems clear, from the handful of testimonies cited in this article, that many drone personnel are far less convinced by the mythology of the drone – as an ethical and omniscient technological apparatus – than the public. It is therefore important their experiences are discovered and communicated. Counter-hegemonic potential can be found within drone personnel’s testimonies, but that potential is foreclosed when academic and journalistic discourses construct the drone apparatus as invulnerable. Opening up this potential aligns with Caroline Holmqvist’s (2013, 542) project to consider how drone personnel’s experiences can ‘seep out in a wider social corpus’, and with Ian Shaw and Majed Akhter’s (2012, 1502) directive to ‘dismantle the production and maintenance of the drone fetish’. Lauren Wilcox (2015, 11) similarly compels us to think about how ‘bodies are both constraining (insofar as they are imposed upon by relations of power) and enabling (as they possess creative or generative capacities to affect the political field)’. Drone personnel’s embodied experiences possess generative capacities to affect the political field, but they first have to be taken seriously by journalists, academics, NGOs and anti-drone politicians before that affective potential can be realised.

This article has also argued for the usefulness of an interdisciplinary approach to studying mediated, high-technology warfare. Media, screen and cultural studies has a decades-long engagement with mediation, human-technology interaction, embodiment, phenomenology and affect. Media, screen and cultural studies offer many useful theoretical tools which international relations scholars can use to make better sense of mediated, high-technology war. Moreover, the introduction of recent media theory – particularly work on pervasive media in the digital age – into a discussion currently dominated by Information Age debates is necessary. It is not that international relations theory has completely ignored media, screen and cultural studies, but that it continues to draw upon 1990s literature focusing on high-speed, high-technology’s role in enacting biopolitical control. To a large extent, this remains relevant; indeed, nation-states and corporations have increased their reliance on big data mechanisms to measure, map and control citizen-consumers. The relentlessly instrumentalist logic of such work, however, neglects the leakiness of human-technology interaction, including the possibility for counter-hegemonic resistance within hegemonic technological apparatuses. Lastly, this article’s posthumanist and phenomenological approaches represent an important contribution to the affective turn led by feminist and critical theorists within IR theory. Embodiment, emotions and affect are burgeoning areas of inquiry in international relations, complicating age-old realist and instrumentalist understandings of agency, mobilisation and power. A unified approach between feminist/critical international relations and media, screen and cultural studies would be most effective in uncovering human experiences of high-technology, mediated war.


I would like to thank Thomas Gregory and Thao Phan for reading and providing excellent feedback on earlier drafts of this article. Luke Goode and Neal Curtis were inspiring teachers and great sounding-boards during my Honours year, when a very early version of this piece was written: thank you both. Lastly, I would like to thank the anonymous reviewers at Krisis: Journal for Contemporary Philosophy, whose comments on my initial submission have been very helpful.


Those Who Feel the Fire Burning

On Pontecorvo’s holocaust film Kapo, Jacques Rivette once said that the least one can say is that it’s difficult, when one takes on a film on such a subject, not to ask oneself certain preliminary questions. Not doing so, he notes, can only be indicative of negligence, of some sort of ignorance (Rivette). What is at stake, and which Rivette reproves Pontecorvo for, is the approach to the subject matter, that is, an ethics that spans the subject filming, to the subject filmed, to the subject spectator – and, Serge Daney adds, involving a certain distance therein (Daney 2004). Pontecorvo’s tracking shot imbues the image with a certain realism, and in that realism the abject choice is made, Rivette claims: 

Look however in Kapo, the shot where Riva commits suicide by throwing herself on electric barbwire: the man who decides at this moment to make a forward tracking shot to reframe the dead body – carefully positioning the raised hand in the corner of the final framing – this man is worthy of the most profound contempt.

Rivette condemns Pontecorvo for attempting to make of something so horrendous something beautiful, to let the tracking shot actually show that which cannot be shown with a certain grace. The negligence, in Rivette’s view, lies in not just the final shot, but in the tracking towards it, framing a movement that results in a spectacularized image. This is an abject thing to do according to Rivette. He thus emphasizes the importance of how to approach such, or any, subject matter. There must be a certain responsibility from the subject filming, to the subject filmed, to the subject spectator – in short, in the constellation of the image. In other words, Rivette emphasizes the importance of a responsibility before the image.

The approach of Those Who Feel the Fire Burning (2014; hereafter Those Who), young director Morgan Knibbe’s new film, is thus considered remarkable to say the least, perhaps even questionable. This film shows the lives of a family of refugees making a dangerous passage to some other place – presumably Europe, given the current influx of refugees, although the film never makes this explicit. We do not know where the family came from, we do not know where their journey is going, nor do we know where they reside as the film subsequently follows their daily lives after the journey. More poignant than this refusal of localization, however, is precisely how the film approaches its subjects. Those Who is for the most part shot with a drone camera, in itself an already remarkable choice given that the drone is a known surveillance tool and in some cases even a weapon. The choice of a drone makes the film strikingly impersonal from the outset, and this impersonality is only further emphasized by the drone’s specific movement: its swerves and the subsequent erratic line of perception created in its flight, lead to a rather unusual and perhaps inappropriate way of filming the refugees. There is very little direct attention and thus little space for the refugees as subjects; the drone, and with that the camera, more often than not turns away from the refugees at the most unexpected moments. The refugees thus become but parts of an environment that the camera registers in flight and so the line of perception makes for a certain distantiated approach. One can question whether this is, ethically speaking, proper considering the situation of these people. Ought there not to be given more space to the subjects themselves, their stories, their experiences? Is the turning away from the refugees, albeit due to the drone, not irresponsible to the subjects filmed, and thus irresponsible towards the image in the way Rivette meant?

Director Knibbe insists that he did not want to make a political statement of any sort. What the film ought to be, he stresses, is an experience, no more, no less (Knibbe 2014). Such an experience, one could assert, would have to be autonomous. French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari call such an autonomous experience as such a sensation; a sensation would be, they argue, self-posited, an expression of pure immanence (1994: 172). A sensation of this kind is free from the restraints of communication, free of any sorts of universalization – it emerges within the constellation of the image, between the three subject positions, being determined by it, but not determinative of it. That is to say, following the reasoning of Deleuze and Guattari, an image as sensation does not depend and fall back on one or the other, it is not a product of either. Rather the image in itself is a production in itself, a creation, and implores to be taken as such.[1] The responsibility before the image that Rivette uncovered can, in this line of thinking, be seen as a commitment to immanence, a commitment which takes responsibility for what an image is in its creation.[2]

To create such an image does not mean it ought to be an abstraction that is free of any form or subjectivity; on the contrary, as it finds its emergence “in-between” it might avoid the image in any way becoming determinate of the forms or subjects, but it is not undetermined by any either. Communication, Deleuze and Guattari tell us, will always tend towards a universalization (1994: 9). Such universalization could, for instance, turn into a political statement and be determined or appropriated by specific ideological means. It could also lead to a subjective account, relegated to the realm of mere fiction. Any sort of universalization through communication would draw the image towards one side of the constellation, consequently ending up denying any of the other side its prevalence. An image as sensation creates, in every instance, a new reality. Thus it is surely determined by its conditions, but it does not in turn determine them.

In what follows the improbable conjunction of the impersonal perception of drones with the precarious subjects that are shown in Those Who is further explored. Through the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari the notion of the image as self-positing will be analyzed in how it works. This will be done in terms of a line that is construed in Those Who. This line is one of perception in that it is in a near-constant flight, giving almost no space to thought as the movement keeps going. The line is marked by a specificity, namely what comes forth from the drone’s motility in combination with the attunement to it by the subject filming, amounting to certain swerves. Thus what is at stake here, and what can be considered a distinction to the many already existing analyses of drone perception, is the specificity of the movement that can occur with drone filming and what potential this movement holds. What will then be put forward is the contention that by making operative that which is specific in the objective movement of the drone, these swerves suspend the subject-object relation. In so doing, the film excavates that which is at once determined by the constellation, while at the same time being undetermined as it forms a self-posited image. Finally, the political of such an image will be considered. 

A flight between fiction and reality

To start with a fictional scene might be the only way to show what would otherwise be nearly impossible, or unethical, to show. In Those Who the opening scene – wherein we find a family trying to cross an unspecified ocean – is one that attempts it nonetheless. It attempts to make us witness to the perilous journey that is undertaken.[3] But it is dark during the crossing, so there is little that one can actually see. The water can be heard crashing onto the boat, and only by some light coming from a flashlight can the shapes of the different family members be seen. As the waves become too strong disaster befalls the family, and the grandfather, through whose point of view we have witnessed the event, gets thrown overboard and is taken by the water. Slowly submerging, the little visibility that there was gets drawn into the complete and utter darkness of the depths.

It is from this darkness that a line of perception emerges. Having drowned, the spirit of the grandfather takes flight, leaves the water and begins to dwell the family’s place of refuge. The flight, still from a point-of-view shot, constitutes a line no longer bound by earthly restrictions, and becomes a line of perception in continuous flight, never allowing any grounding. The scene itself, with its near impossibility of actually seeing what happens, gives but an impression of events, emphasizing the impossibility of going any further in such a depiction. The event is necessarily fictionalized, for besides any ethical concerns it is impossible to actually film something like this. But it is this fiction that imbues the image with the possibility of giving an impression. That is to say, it is via this fiction that the film finds a possibility to give an impression of such an event, and the impression is affirmed in the fullest when the line takes flight, embracing its fictional nature. All the while it remains but an impression it does not go further in representing the event as perception cannot get a hold of it in the dark. It never pretends to more than an impression. The line of perception is where the fictional and the flight of the drone come together.

After it has taken flight, the line of perception does something other than remain in the fictional, for it tends towards those who have survived the crossing, towards the living, and there it occasionally grounds itself again. Their situations are observed as the spirit keeps dwelling, as it keeps moving from one survivor to the other. Ultimately, it finds each of the remaining family members – or so it insinuates – in their daily lives after the crossing, as the line of perception glides from one to the other. Here the fictional and actual meet as the fragments impose a certain realism on the image again and ground it. The line of perception then moves in between the unreal and the actual, or, literally, between the spiritual and the material (Bergson, 2004: 1).

What makes the line of perception actually go in between the unreal and the real is not the mere move from the real (the boat scene) to the unreal (the taking flight of the spirit) to the real again (the scenes of the daily lives of the survivors). Solely this kind of movement would maintain a certain gap between the different states, making the image that fills the gap therefore remain dependent on the different states. Deleuze in his cinema books calls this gap the interval, or that which maintains a difference between perception and action. If the interval remains intact, Deleuze argues, the in-between remains a difference between two things instead of a for-itself. Any image produced would be a correlate of either thing. Likewise, any thought that is produced by the line, in being dependent on perception, would do nothing but trace it, that is, in a docile manner thought would always be subjugated to the line. Or worse, thought risks falling back, completely severing the line, resulting in simply nothing. What is to keep thought from doing either?

Elsewhere, Deleuze and Guattari refer to this interval as that which separates being and thinking – a separation that makes us ‘the slow beings that we are’ (Deleuze and Guattari, 1994: 36). What is at stake here is thought itself, always lagging behind being, that is, behind action. The interval however, Deleuze and Guattari contend, can be traversed, if, and only if, thought and being fall together. Falling together would compose a movement that is both impersonal (for being can no longer be its ground) and singular (for thought becomes per se different): the self-positing force of pure immanence (Deleuze, 2001: 28). The impersonal singular, if composed in Those Who, would be the emergence of an image that is self-positing, of one that avoids the universalization of communication. It would hold a responsibility before the image insofar as it maintains sufficient distance within the constellation of the image. The question is then, how does this occur if simply shifting between real and unreal does not suffice? Or phrased differently, how is the interval traversed?


To understand how the interval is traversed means understanding how the interval is constituted in the film in the first place. This, initially, means dealing with the problem of representation. What Deleuze makes explicitly clear on that account is that cinema is not naturally bound to a logic of representation: ‘cinema does not give us an image to which movement is added, it immediately gives us a movement-image’ (Deleuze, 2005a: 29). It is not an image of movement that cinema produces, it is movement itself. What keeps cinema within the logic of representation then lies within the conditions of thought rather than in the cinematographic apparatus itself, meaning that an image is not per definition tied to such conditions, it becomes so by the way it is given form within the constellation of the image (thus the subject filming is here considered imperative, i.e. in its mannerism.)

Deleuze argues that filming goes by way of what he calls an assemblage, or a ‘distributed system comprising sentience, memory, and communication’ that ‘begins to act as an extension of the self’ (Shinkle, 2015: 4). There exists something of a camera consciousness, a certain feeling with the camera, Deleuze says. ‘We are no longer faced with subjective or objective images; we are caught between a correlation between a perception-image and a camera consciousness which transforms it’ (Deleuze, 2005a: 74). Perception is extended from the subject filming to the camera, from subject to object – the subject filming and camera inform an assemblage, where through-perception is extended. Perception with the camera is then not ‘defined by the movements it is able to follow or make, but by the mental connections it is able to enter into’ (Deleuze, 2005b: 23). Thus perception can be ungrounded from its conventions or its conditions by entering into new connections. Moving between the human and its technical counterpart, it can find new ways of seeing and concomitantly new ways of thinking. The new perceptions that find their genesis in specific movements are then precisely the impersonal singulars.


Those Who’s specific movement likewise relies on the assemblage that is informed by the technique of filming as operationalized. The flight of perception that emerges is one that comes from a camera mounted onto a drone, allowing for enormous degrees of freedom, for the gliding and its accompanying swerves and ultimately for a certain consistency between them. As McCosker notes on drone movement, ‘[t]he drone’s motility is “autonomous” and has “self- sustaining vertical and lateral movement”’ (McCosker, 2015: 3). As the drone is controlled from a distance, its image is thus immediate yet disembodied – disembodied in that the movements it creates are strongly mechanical. There is an assemblage informed by the relation of the subjective and objective, and even though disembodied, the subject is extended in this manner. Drone perception’s specificity is then precisely a disembodied extension.

The movement that is produced through this disembodied extension of drone perception in Those Who is in the first place marked by its swerves. That is, what makes the movement specific is precisely the swerve in combination with the continuous self-sustaining vertical and lateral, stabilizing movement. Whence minimal divergences are determined within its continuous stabilizing, being intrinsic to the drone perception.

In one particular scene in Those Who this specificity is foregrounded in a poignant manner. As the camera is hovering, trying to maintain a focus on two of the refugees sitting at a table playing a game of cards while remaining silent, the alteration of movement occurs at the exact moment one of the two begins to speak. As if the minor vibrations of the voice unsettle the balance and stasis of the drone, an abrupt swerve occurs and the drone reorients: in a swift movement, to the back upper corner, making a near complete turn on its axis while simultaneously bobbing upwards and accelerating towards that exact corner, the drone finds its stasis and focus again. It then perceives the relief of the white ceiling and a cockroach slowly making its way across it. Marking this scene is the unexpectedness of the swerve, which, however minor the divergence may be, determines the perception of the camera. Thus instead of focusing on the two men at the table, especially when they finally begin to talk, the camera shows completely other things.

It is through these minimal divergences, or swerves, that a wave-like movement with a full three-dimensional possible distribution is composed. In a sense the movement might take a completely different direction at any given moment. And the attempt to keep the drone flying ends up emphasizing this exact alteration of direction. In this way the technique of flying with a drone is marked by the attunement to its movements. In other words, what in part determines the drone perception is not so much what the subject filming wants to see, but rather that it can see at all by keeping it in stasis. And in line with the assemblage, this process of attunement takes place before any conscious reaction; it is the continuous reevaluation of the relation between the subject filming and the camera, thus the maintaining of the disembodied extension.

The swerves that occur due to this attunement are, according to Deleuze, exactly what he calls minimal indeterminacies (Deleuze, 2004: 306). That is, ‘[t]his minimum expresses the smallest possible term during which an atom moves in a given direction, before being able to take another direction as the result of a collision with another atom.’ (ibid.) It is neither the weight of the atom nor the void they are in that is responsible for their direction and velocity, it is the swerve itself as ‘a synthesis which would give the movement of the atom its initial direction’ (ibid.). Taking the notion of the swerve from Lucretius, one of the ancient Epicurean philosophers, Deleuze argues that the swerve, similar to how it occurs in Those Who by virtue of the attunement, is itself the reason for a singular alteration in movement. It makes the movement of the drone perception neither dependent on its subject filming nor on its objective camera, but places it in-between.

In this capacity, in attuning to and thereby emphasizing the swerve, the flight is erratic: it takes on new directions abruptly to follow these through, until at indeterminate moments yet another direction is taken. The movement hence constitutes a line insofar as there is a persistence to this erratic flight.


In its persistence the line of perception continuously makes new relations to the whole, that is, the film. The swerves and their minimal indeterminacies play a crucial part in shaping the narrative and more. When the camera by virtue of the swerve unexpectedly starts tracing the cockroach on the ceiling instead of the refugees at the table, this shapes the narrative. As a matter of fact, these minimal indeterminacies turn out to play a rather determining role in regards to the whole, as indeed the expected movement of filming the refugees becomes interrupted frequently enough. More often than not, the camera will show the surroundings, focusing in on seemingly unimportant details. Ultimately, the entire line drawn isthen the narrative of Those Who Feel the Fire Burning. Interestingly, thought or that which takes shape, are then dependent to a large extent on precisely these movements. In effect, that what Deleuze called the interval, the relation of thought and being, is here pushed to a limit.

To understand this relation in depth it helps to lay two similar movements in terms of motility, and above all of in terms of a line of perception, alongside that of Those Who. The first being Wim Wender’s Der Himmel Über Berlin (1987), and the second Gaspar Noë’s Enter the Void (2009). Both films also construe a line of perception by virtue of a flight, so in each we can equally speak of thought trailing behind perception. However, both films also posit a different relationship to the whole.

In Der Himmel, and in particular its opening scene, there is a motility that glides from the highest building downwards along the walls of apartment buildings, into windows and rooms, and back out onto the street. This movement has, in contrast to that of Those Who, a less erratic line, smooth even, as it gently glides downward observing all that it passes. The descent marks the desire of the angel protagonist to become an earthly dweller, thus going from the highest point atop a skyscraper all the way to the streets. Thought is here positioned between two points, from the heights and angelic world to the down-to-earth street and human world, and thus it is framed between these two points. In other words, it is subjugated to the given points, and determined by them. Thus the smooth glide downwards allows a continuous correlation between perception and thought, maintaining the interval as thought is subjugated to the movement.

The difference here between the line of perception that is construed in Der Himmel and Those Who lies not in the starting point, for they share that in a way, though in inverse (for in the former it is a descending one, and in the latter it is an ascending one). Rather, the difference lies in the line’s enclosure. In Der Himmel the descent ultimately results in a grounding of the line, where it loses its motility and thus gets framed. Moreover, this framing is already given from the start, as it marks the angel’s desire. In Those Who such framing never occurs, as the line keeps tending towards the middle of the real and the spiritual. What marks the line of the ghost here is not a unidirectionality, but rather a double as the movement keeps ascending but at the same tries to ground itself in the daily lives of the survivors.

Enter the Void construes a similar line of perception and a subsequent relation to the whole, yet under completely different conditions. Here the line of perception is intermittently interrupted by its moving into different strata of time. As the flight traces the afterlife of its recently deceased protagonist, an occasional flash of memory is triggered by whatever the line of perception encounters. Though the line of perception is certainly erratic, as it seemingly moves around undetermined, the small interruptions of memory stop the incessant movement and allow thought to find its ground again. Every interruption that invokes a flashback halts the erratic line and contextualizes it in terms of narrative. In other words, the line loses its autonomy and becomes once again grounded in the other spaces that are the memories. Though certainly the erratic line of perception expands the interval due to its temporary insistence and erratic nature, at each interval it becomes subject to that which is given by the memory-flashes – in other words, it gets grounded again.

Any such form of actual grounding never occurs in Those Who. Instead the line perpetuates a certain violence upon itself in its insistence to keep going. Even though there will be cuts – as the film is certainly not one long line of flight by the drone – these cuts become subjugated to the line because it keeps on extending. In drawing its erratic line, gliding from one survivor to the other, there is a sheer persistence that marks this line of perception, one that is indifferent to its surrounding and turns into pure endurance. In enduring, the line of perception omits or dissolves any intention or objective, and its movement becomes its own constituent of direction and speed.

That line drawn in Those Who ungrounds thought as it falls behind trying to follow the erratic dispersions of movement. It ungrounds any points or states wherein thought could possibly find its shelter, its needed stasis or state. In that manner thought, that has need for such points of extrapolation or states of recognition, falls behind to such an extent that it opens up to what Deleuze calls an interstice: the interstice is not one or the other, it is the “between” (Deleuze, 2005: 174).


What endures becomes that which persists within the interval. Within the interval, the question becomes how do things stay together, how do they refrain from falling into pure chaos?[4] How does thought refrain from falling into pure chaos, to withdraw from the line and reinstate the same?

Here the swerves gain function. It is through the swerves, through the minimal divergences they introduce, that thought does not fall back into the void, but gets folded out onto the line of perception. In other words, at each occurrence of a swerve thought does not have time to catch up, as it were in Enter the Void, but rather it is shocked and whipped up to unfold onto the line of perception. Thus each of the swerves does not introduce an insurmountable distance wherein perception dissipates; rather, it is forced to make a new connection as it is folded inward onto perception itself. What would not belong to the whole becomes part of it by virtue of the divergence that the swerve introduces: the cockroach on the ceiling becomes of equal importance as the two men sitting at the table playing a game of cards; the cars on the street that are followed when the camera makes a sudden jolt outside become of equal importance as the men inside the apartment.

The unfolding is the precise process of mutual inclusion, or “the simultaneous adoption of and distance from”, as philosopher Brian Massumi calls it (Massumi, 2014: 46). So instead of falling back into chaos or adapting to a distance that introduces a break or cut, the swerves introduce a consistency to the line whereupon the interval is traversed. Within mutual inclusion there is no longer any determining factor that is outside of the constellation. The mutual inclusion marks the swerve as being by no means a contingency, rather it is how “there is a unity of causes among themselves”, among the parts that make up the assemblage (Deleuze, 2004: 307). There is then no longer something else determining what the movement produces, but rather it becomes self-positing, a consistency in and for itself. When and if such consistency is attained – for it needs to be stressed that this all but a certainty, since it can happen anywhere in the line (Deleuze, 1998b: 158) – the line of perception becomes a line of flight, “a path of mutation precipitated through the actualisation of connections among bodies [or assemblages] that were previously only implicit (or ‘virtual’) that releases new powers in the capacities of those bodies [or assemblages] to act and respond” (Lorraine, 2010: 147). It is a line of flight for it produces something that is singular because it is undetermined, yet is determined by all of the parts.[5]


By virtue of the line of flight that Those Who invokes, space becomes homogeneous taken from the point where movement passes through, or heterogeneous taken through the duration of the movement where space is continuously informed by it. There is no privileged space, no particular focus attached to something that can turn into a linear line, like a story or an even less structured form: the space is an any-space-whatever (Deleuze, 1995b: 44). Subjects are decentered, as they are in this space but epiphenomena; they are continuously informed by the movement of the line. As with the above described scene: a man alongside a cockroach, alongside a busy street and a blinding streetlight, alongside a shimmer of the moon in a reflection. Or when the line of perception takes us into a mosque, which some of the refugees attend to: the people on the floor praying alongside the decorated walls, alongside the large chandeliers, alongside the mosque’s pillars. The subject or subjects are but part of the whole at best. More often than not, one cannot even speak of a subject but merely of a body, as the subject does not have any space for existence. There is no privileged room for being a subject here.

Desubjectification is not a kind of salvation; on the contrary, it is the pain of not being a subject; or at times even the pain of having to become a subject every day. Nor is the middle a place of careless joy; on the contrary, it is where subjects are near to death, where subjects are marked by lines their bodies can barely sustain. The people as sovereign subjects are missing in the at-once terrifying and consuming darkness of the middle. And people actually go missing in that darkness, as did the grandfather of the family in the starting scene whence the line emerged. It is the painful realization of the middle. It is the painful realization of people living in between life and death, desubjectivized in being subjected to the situation. It is also the realization of the impression that was given in the opening scene, where what was impossible could only be approached. The real and the unreal come together in the line of flight, in the double movement wherein thought and being fall into infinity. None is dependent on the other; they are absolute and real. And in this real, the people are missing: they are no longer in their countries, instead residing in these in-between spaces – the most poignant example of life in between. This is the thwarted logic of the current geopolitical state of things. But this “acknowledgement of a people who are missing is not a renunciation of political cinema,” Deleuze writes, “but on the contrary the new basis on which it is founded” (2005b: 217). There is necessity for political art precisely because the people are missing.

What can emerge from this darkness – and this is the responsibility to the image in a manner of Spinozean ethics, such as Deleuze and Guattari maintain – is the possibility for an image to be self-posited, to be immanent to itself. What emerges from the dark in Those Who is a line that, albeit marked and often terrifying, might find an opening within the conditions of perception. To be able to alter the conditions of perception, allowing a place for thought that is not given but existent only in terms of its own grounding. What Deleuze here sees as the locus of modern political cinema is the need to circumvent identity politics, making it at once both possible and impossible, and to create space for a new people.[6] That is a politics that precedes being (Deleuze and Guattari 1980: 203). But it is not politics that ignores or negates the subject.

Politics of the image

What precedes being is how the image is created in Those Who; how it is a sensation in and of itself. It is such in excavating the impersonal that lies within the constellation. In a sense, the drone still marks death, as it does in terms of being a weapon or a spying tool, but here it marks it not in the capacity of so being, but in its relation – both with the subject filming, where the impersonal is constituted by the attunement to the swerve, and with the subjects filmed, where the impersonal is constituted by its turning away. In this double movement, which therein maintains a consistency, the perception is turned onto itself, exposing precisely the impersonal relation in itself, as a sensation.

The specific movement is tainted by darkness. Being a subject herein becomes impossible. Yet in the same movement, or rather in the persisting of that movement, the line also draws a line of flight. This, the line of flight, is exactly the sensation in itself, as it uncovers what is impossible and draws it into the real. It adds something to perception, to thought, and that is the space it can give for the subjects filmed. Not as subjective space, but as a possible space wherein they might become subjects.

Rivette called the specific movement in Pontecorvo abject because what it did was frame its subject, to subject it to a certain emotion, whilst being something that can never do justice to the subject it is supposed to represent. This problem is undercut in Those Who. The tracking does not stop, it persists and goes in-between where it excavates the pains of desubjectivication while rendering it real in affective terms.

This is not to say that this approach is how it must be done. On the contrary, the approach and the image are specific to the constellation wherein it emerges. That means it is both subjective (as in taking into account the subject filming and the subjects filmed) as well as objective (as in taking into account the technological apparatus.) It is just that at these specific moments of the swerve, which introduce minimal indeterminacies, the determinative of either subject or object are temporarily suspended. It is then that an impersonal singular can emerge within the constellation of the image, being determined by it and thus retaining a sense of particularity. But in being singular, in the new relation it engenders, it does not become determinative of the constellation, that is, it in no way falls back onto its constellation; rather in the suspension it leaps forward, grasping that which marks the relation, engendering possible new thought. That is a responsibility before the image.

A politics of the image thus considered lies then in a commitment to immanence, wherein one searches, (much like Morgan Knibbe does), for ways not just to stay true to oneself, the subjects one is filming, or the subject viewers, but rather to the image and its creation of a reality. This is where the responsibility of the act of filming lies, which falls together with the possibility of creating space via that means. In so doing, the politics of the image precedes being, can take responsibility for being.