Blurred Reality – The dehumanizing Drone Stare

 

Eduard Anaskin, Nils Heller, Jakob Schiele, Sophie Timmermann

Drone warfare has become one of the dominant topics of 21st century military discourse, both theoretically, as a symbol for a modernized warfare, and practically, as a supposedly ‘surgical’ tool that is used with increasing frequency on the battlefields of the War on Terror, especially in Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. One of the most intriguing aspects of this drone warfare is the ever-present visual component: the grainy drone camera footage. We decided to look into this new medium of ‘drone imagery’ and produced a video meant to provoke critical reflection about what is seen and what is not seen in this type of seemingly objective battlefield documentation.

The main goal of this video is to emphasize what Roland Bleiker calls the gap between the represented and the representation, or ‘the very location of politics’ (Bleiker, 2009). When we looked at the footage of what drone operators look at in their missions, we noticed the striking resemblance to video games. Drone imagery seems to create a sense of simulated reality, moving the perceiver away from the object, i.e. the pilot away from what is targeted. People on the ground are no longer perceived as human beings, instead they become monochrome silhouettes devoid of personal history, emotions and agency under the omniscient eye of the ‘drone stare’  (Wall and Monahan, 2011).

By comparing actual drone strikes with examples from video games, we tried to highlight the ‘blurred reality’ that is also named in our title. ‘Blurred’ is understood by us here as a strongly limited view, a view that leaves out details and thus creates a representation far away from the complexities of the real world. Drone operators remote control their aircrafts from a computer just as a gamer would do, sitting in front of multiple screens, using joysticks and keyboards. Rather than seeing situations with their own eyes, the digitized image serves as a ‘shield’ from what actually is (Ibid.). In this sense, drone imagery evokes a particular form of power imposition, or rephrasing Foucault, knowledge production.

To demonstrate the matter, we drew on the three sites described by Gillian Rose in which meanings are made, namely: site of production; site of the images itself; and, importantly, site of audiencing (Rose, 2016). It becomes evident that by perceiving a scenario from a bird’s eye view, drone imagery provides an allegedly objective perspective from above. This creates a feeling of control and authority, in some instance amounting to the drone operator feeling godlike, something that we also showed with the selected quotes. (Gregory, 2011). Indeed, the imagery of the drone pretends to be to able to depict the wholeness of a picture, and consequently claims its objectivity. However, rather than zooming in to individuals and facing them, the drone imagery provides for rather ‘blurred’ and abstracted visual content from above. Thus depicted individuals become dehumanized through fogging of the very emotional constituents that make them humans.

Connecting the drone imagery to international relations, we point out that the real, or the actuality simulated via the visual, provides sporadic justification for policy-makers to unconsciously enact and consciously enter the so-called mode of abstraction. Such mode of abstraction which objectifies the subject through the visual targeting also encourages the general public to escape compassion as an accompanying emotion and eventually results in a particular policy outcome.

The ‘dehumanized real’ becomes the substitution for the often murderous and vicious actuality that is left somewhere beyond the screen. Thus such ‘dehumanized real’ that masks the emotional dimension of the targeted, serves as a legitimizing ground for enacting certain policies by those who are detached from the real, which is not hidden, silenced or obscured by the medium (e.g. drone footage). Based on such internal logic of drone imagery, we extracted two essential dimensions that in our view (re)produce the effects of aerial visuality.

The first one we call the political internal dimension. It reproduces itself through an intersubjective creation of meanings within the internal circle of policy-makers that have exclusive access to knowledge produced by drone imagery. Thus, rephrasing Foucault, we may conclude that power, which produces this knowledge, lays in the hands of those who provide the medium, or who have the direct access to the input of the medium. One could thus plausibly argue that power in the age of visual mediums has increasingly shifted from the policy-makers to the ‘masters of medium’.

The second important aspect that should be taken into account is what we indicate as the social external dimension. It is already filtered via the internal policy circle and allowed to the general public, and thus serves primarily as reinforcing and legitimizing factor of the policy-making procedure. Nevertheless, this dimension operates within its own internal (re)productive logic. It builds upon the public potential to aestheticize the politics. Thus, reiterating Walter Benjamin, we could plausibly argue that public perception of politics as an art form in today’s drone imagery is an act of aesthetic abstraction that values life less and less the more distanced it appears to the observer.

Separating these two dimensions is of vital importance since it clarifies the theoretical aspects of aerial visuality, in our case that of drone imagery, and connects the visual to the political that, as it was noted before, lays in the gap between the represented and the representation. Our video attempted to demonstrate this gap between the real and the simulated real through pointing out drone imagery’s astounding resemblance to video games, i.e. virtual reality; and crucially, to re-humanize the dehumanized subjects made devoid of their social contexts in drone imagery through the interview excerpts, thus bringing back the emotional dimension.

Conclusively, it should be noted that the medium we chose, a rather short youtube video collage, comes with its limitations. Rather than explicitly presenting all our theoretical considerations via the piece of art we made, we wanted to evoke a certain emotional response in the viewer that might lead them to question the dominant scopic regime with regards to drone imagery. In this sense it can be said that our goal was to create a video that is above all thought-provoking.

Bibliography

  • Bleiker, Roland (2009) Aesthetics and World Politics, Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Gregory, Derek (2011) ‘From a View to a Kill: Drones and Late Modern War’, Theory, Culture & Society, 28 (7-8): 188-215.
  • Rose, Gillian (2016) Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to Researching with Visual Materials. London: Sage.
  • Stahl, Roger (2013) ‘What the drone saw: the cultural optics of the unmanned war’, Australian Journal of International Affairs, 67 (5): 659-674.
  • Wall, Tyler and Monahan, Torin (2011) ‘Surveillance and violence from afar: The politics of drones and liminal security-scapes’, Theoretical Criminology, 15 (3): 239-254.

Videos used (in order of appearance)