Manic Pixie Drone War

By Grayson ClaryApril 14, 2015

A Theory of the Drone by Grégoire Chamayou

MY FAVORITE PIECE of found poetry, published in The Washington Post last year, is a collection of things drone operators say before they crash an aircraft costing some $13 million dollars. Beautiful things like: “Okay, interesting. We are falling out of the sky.” I like that — like an indifferent parachutist. What seems to be everyone’s favorite contemporary poem centers on the machines too: Michael Robbins’s “To the Drone Vaguely Realizing Eastward.” Famously, it ends: “The bomb bay opens with a queef.”

Both are striking short works, and both manage to represent the drone — the most rigorously hackneyed object in American security — in ways that seem genuinely novel. The aircraft comes suddenly alive in that language, as if a stealth coating of banality had been scraped jauntily off. You can get a handle on the smooth machines with diction like this. And so, having plowed through great volumes of dull drone writing, I have to wonder if the urgent question of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) isn’t aesthetic.

As a natural experiment, I took Grégoire Chamayou’s new A Theory of the Drone with me to the National Air and Space Museum. Some of the drones held in common by the American public hang there, looming a little out of place between World War II Aviation and Sea-Air Operations. The smallest in the small sample is cute, in its way: the RQ-14A Dragon Eye, light enough to be launched by hand. Much larger is the RQ-3A DarkStar, sleek and science-fictional, though for all its threatening curves the plane is just a reconnaissance platform. The prize is the Predator. Its head is bulbous; its rear end sports that unusual and signature inverted V-tail. An ugly craft, frankly, and gawky looking too. The stylized outline fronting Chamayou’s Theory looks to be the more handsome Reaper.

Before an onslaught of theory proper, the book opens with a kind of stage play, one that I thought might benefit from a visual aid. Chamayou reproduces the conversation of UAV operators conducting a strike in Afghanistan. This is a common way to start a drone story, though he elaborates it to unusual length, letting the pilot, sensor operator, safety observer, etc., speak for seven full pages. Their dialogue dead-ends at the realization that a helicopter assault on their target has struck women and children. “I personally wouldn’t be comfortable shooting at these people,” says the sensor operator. Exit, pursued by an oversight committee. I thought the dangling planes might enliven that theatrical presentation: “The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”

Why is dialogue, of all things, the point of departure for so many drone narratives? The hope is that it will puncture the sphere of cliché encircling the planes. The most famous instance of this storytelling approach was published in Der Spiegel in 2012; then, a sensor operator asked his pilot, “Did we just kill a kid?” The answer came down from on high: “No. That was a dog.” The account was evocative enough that GQ profiled its protagonist, Brandon Bryant, a year later. The dog on two legs appeared too, an emergent meme. And sure enough, Bryant is in Theory as well. Echoing his witness, Chamayou writes, “This kind of testimony is extremely rare.” By this he means testimony copping to qualms, trauma, etc. But the plain problem is that, over time, Bryant’s experience has been machined into cliché too — another layer of armor.

The drone is a representational oddity, exceptionally difficult to characterize except on its own terms. Grim and deadly or not, those terms are relentlessly boring; for all its loose resemblance to a sex toy, the Predator is very difficult to fetishize. So Chamayou’s effort as a philosopher is to dissect the conventional terms and get at their juicier marrow. Philosophy turns out not to be a very good tool for this. The problem? In two sentences:

Necroethics is characterized not only by a number of particular theses but also and perhaps above all by a particular style of both thinking and writing. This style, which combines the dryness of academic writing with the juridico-administrative formalism of bureaucratic rationality, by its vocabulary alone engenders a massive euphemization and derealization of the violence that constitutes its true subject.

Oh dear. Chamayou is right — the question is one of style — and yet we’re headed here in the wrong direction entirely. Rewind: the trouble is at the root of Theory and theory.

After its introductory theater, the book lays a project on the table. The drone, Chamayou says, is an “unidentified violent object.” It suffers from “crises of intelligibility.” It must be theorized. Its critics are dangerously late to this party, in Theory’s opinion, while its partisans are on the march: “large-scale intellectual maneuvers are in the offing and semantic coups are being plotted.” This is rousing, right, and well put — though Chamayou overestimates, I think, the degree to which drone warriors lean on professional ethicists. Chamayou imagines himself a warrior too, in his theoretical way. “What I have to say is openly polemical,” he confides. “Its objective is to provide discursive weapons for the use of those men and women who wish to oppose the policy served by drones.”

A discursive weapon: in other words, a way to speak poorly of drones. But aren’t philosophy’s arms, here, a solution in search of a problem? I don’t think anyone has objected that our national conversation on the Reaper is too free and clear. As Chamayou identifies, the trouble is the opposite: that words are tortured into contemporary art objects, made to stand in for subterranean systems of thought. It’s another cliché of drone criticism — true but no longer especially interesting — that words like “imminent” and “combatant” have lost their commonsense meanings. But who benefits, exactly, when this re-interpretive habit is opposed on its own terms, chockablock with jargon?

Chamayou’s individual findings are tough to quibble with: that the drone destroys any notion of reciprocity in war; that it undermines the ideas of peacetime and sovereignty; that it revises traditional notions of soldier and spy, and with them traditional military ethics. An unanswered question is whether chest-beating, self-declared theory is a better road to these conclusions than another form of consideration. Chamayou often quotes earlier writers or critics who fall, decades on, into the “eerily prescient” category. This would be good evidence, though, that in fact reciprocity is always being destroyed, that neither peacetime nor sovereignty has ever existed, and that there is no such permanent thing as traditional military ethics. At which point we arrive back at the drone as a defiantly ordinary object, ordinary in the way that violence has always been ordinary.

It’s worth recalling here one of the most infamous quotations to come out of the George W. Bush administration. Speaking to Ron Suskind, who reproduced the exchange in a 2004 essay for The New York Times Magazine, an anonymous aide tore memorably into “the reality-based community,” whose constituents “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” The staffer beat his chest, declaring:

We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.

If this is an unsettling thing to hear out of the executive branch, at least it has counterterrorism’s causes and effects the right way round. The real logic of these policies is elemental, primal; the elaborate legal apparatus trailing them is a subordinate reality. You might think from Chamayou’s emphasis on theory that drone war rests mostly on memos issued by the Office of Legal Counsel, works of clandestine and overwrought thought. But that’s all chaff, not missile. It’s true that, like an iceberg, only a fraction of the drone apparatus is ever visible. But it’s the pointy part that kills you.

That’s why Chamayou’s sharpest knives are contra his mission statement, anti-theoretical and uncritical. They’re weaponized bits of gut feeling, as when he declares, “a drone looks like the weapon of cowards [emphasis original].” Looks like — so I would venture again that the problem of the UAV is aesthetic. Political philosophy will do no one much good. It’s a neat nod in this direction that Chamayou cites on terror Albert Camus, whose novels and dramas are better — famously better — than his philosophy. It hints at a certain bias in genre to which Chamayou alludes — the Russian anarchists in Camus’s heinously overlong essay The Rebel — rather than the Russian anarchists in his vastly more legible play The Just Assassins. Theory by old habit overemphasizes theory. Little help.


To launch another Russian trope: what is to be done?

A productive hint appeared in Colors Magazine this January, an item entitled “Drones on Rugs.” “When it comes to what to depict on rugs,” Cosimo Bizzarri wrote there, “Afghan weavers traditionally turn to what’s most familiar.” Today that palette includes the tragically, fatally familiar UAV. The woven effect is striking, not that it’s very pretty. The rug turns that ordinary quality, the drone’s indifferent quality, against itself. It gives you a glancing feel for the horror in our boredom, and especially the horror embedded in the boredom of drone targets. Admittedly, the rug is kitsch. Admittedly, Western buyers skew this rug economy with their novelty interests. But forgive the rug, because it represents at least what you could call — following the method of philosopher Raymond Geuss — an “invitation.”

In “A World Without Why,” Geuss suggested that there are three ways of getting to “anywhere outside the world.” This seems like the vantage point you’d want, if you were to see the Predator really clearly: a place outside the usual systems of thought. One of Geuss’s ways to get outside is theory, the line of inquiry “clever enough to turn the why-game against itself from within.” But Geuss mused, “This way out does not recommend itself to me because I am not clever enough to tread this path successfully, but also because even if I were successful, who would notice?” A Theory of the Drone is stuck in that trap: very smart, a very good read, and still invisible from the drone’s-eye view.

The second option is action, creating “not merely new words, but new facts.” This is the gist of that Bush broadside against the reality-based community. But it’s difficult to imagine what “action” would mean — in any effective way — for a drone critic. Unpromising. That leaves the third option, the “invitation,” which is substantially art.

I always think of drone art as originating with Teju Cole’s “Seven short stories about drones,” a series of tweets splicing world literature with drone language. My favorite is his riff on Camus’s The Stranger, “Mother died today. The program saves American lives.” There’s no arguing with the brutal caesura in that couplet, and no real refuge in euphemism. There’s no failing to receive the invitation. So: a point of origin for drone art, in my mind at least. I have no genealogical sense of whether or not this is true. Probably it isn’t — but for what it’s worth, writer Adam Rothstein launched his online festival of drone culture, “Murmuration,” with “Seven short stories” too.

The performance of art, Rothstein wrote for the festival’s statement of purpose, “is a public space where, rather than in secret labs or bunkers, we should be investigating the capabilities of drones.” That challenge seems to be one that creators embrace; the festival collected works of astonishing and promising diversity, trying out a range of fresh juxtapositions. And Rothstein, “an insurgent archivist and artist,” is out this year with a very clarifying book called Drone. I expect our politics don’t overlap much (I’d be one of the first up against the wall in most revolutions), but many of his diagnoses are decisively on point. Especially productive is the suggestion that the drone is less an object or a technology than an intersection in narrative space — a storytelling collision.

Drone is impressively methodical, with a nice pluralism to its interests: fictional narratives, aesthetic narratives, technological narratives, etc. It opens and sustains questions; it closes relatively few. And if its suggestions are diverse, the notion of a narrative responsibility still unifies the book effectively. “We must write a new story of the drone that is not like those we’ve used in the past,” Rothstein concludes. Or as he puts it in more visual language: “The meme — and the drone — must be designed better.” Whether you oppose or support the use of the aircraft for targeted killing, it would be worth investing in a better “design.” The conversation has lost aesthetic dynamism.


On some level, it’s heinously glib to judge a Reaper by its “looks.” On some level, it’s intuitively unproductive to challenge it primarily on artistic terms. But don’t we all love Shelley’s dictum that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”? And if you’re willing to grant that there’s an aesthetic obstacle to grappling with UAVs, I’d offer a sobering thought for the future: what becomes of the drone as it gets prettier?

I have the television on in my office during the day, for news and the like. Some ads are especially common: little blue pills, and for some reason a range of catheters. And then there’s Northrop Grumman’s long-range strike bomber. I assume it’s a long-range strike bomber; you might have seen it — or its outline, wearing an immaculate tarp — in a spot during the Super Bowl. The bomber’s the last in the advertisement’s evolutionary sequence of flying wings: the ancient, alien YB-35; the iconic B-2, styled for stealth; the unmanned X-47B; and then this gorgeous question mark. As it’s seen in the clip, it’s best seen reflected in the sunglasses of a pilot wearing aviators indoors. The same shadow haunts the Washington Metro too, one of the country’s stranger advertising markets.

The Long Range Strike Bomber program is a reasonably big ticket item in military R&D, a next generation aircraft, set to carry in its belly massive volumes of nuclear or conventional fire. Its antecedents can already ferry around their fair share of Hiroshimas. If picked — the Northrop concept is competing with a Boeing/Lockheed Martin joint effort — the plane will be really useful only in especially destructive wars. Then again, a YouTube commenter tells me that the ad could be a trick, representing instead the unarmed, unmanned RQ-180: a new surveillance UAV. The silhouette could go either way I suppose, eye in the sky or destroyer of worlds. But just try if you can — experimentally — to hate it. Critique runs off the angles, water off the back of a drone.


Grayson Clary lives and works in Washington, DC.

LARB Contributor

Grayson Clary lives and works in Washington, DC.


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