Issue 1, 2017

Death and Sophistry

Sigmund Bruno Schilpzand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Adorno, T.W. 2005. Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life. London: Verso.

Chamayou, Grégoire. 2015. A Theory of the Drone. New York & London: The New Press.


[1] “Technology is not invincible. That is a myth which leads to passivity”: Chamayou, A Theory of the Drone, 227. Chamayou seems to approve of this statement, which he quotes from a 1970s militant antiwar movement.

[2] The list in Manhunts goes on: Indians, blacks, foreigners, the poor, Jews and… wolf-men!

[3] Chamayou 221. This concerns a police-robot fit for the future as imagined in 1924. 

[4] Chamayou 213. Reasons for which are given on p. 51, concerning the faulty or at least epistemologically very flimsy “profiling method” involved.

[5] Adorno, Minima Moralia, cited in Chamayou, A Theory of the Drone, 205.

[6] One should make a case for science and technology scholars here (for example Noortje Marres’s Material Participation), whose reflections on technology and perceptions of relations between ‘nonhumans’ and politics are gaining some attention in philosophical circles. Regarding the sphere of labor there are (Marxist) analyses of the role that technology plays in perpetuating inequality (like Leela Fernandes’s Producing Workers), but none of this has become mainstream political philosophy.


Sigmund Bruno Schilpzand

Ziggy Schilpzand (Amsterdam, 1991) earned his rMa in Amsterdam and now works in Southampton on the Metaphysics of Pregnancy project.