Summer 2014

Drone Semiosis

Weaponry and witnessing

Mark Dorrian

The mythic figure of the blind seer embodies a longstanding theme of Western thought—the idea of a powerful, far-reaching, and penetrating vision which, because its sentience exceeds or transcends the quotidian world of the senses, is symbolically registered by, and perhaps even requires, their cancellation.[1] This trope today finds a technological translation in the morphology of the drone, in which the disappearance of any normative visual point in the form of an occupied cockpit supports fantasies of absolute visual domination. In contrast to earlier technological artifacts to which a kind of anthropomorphism inevitably accrued as a result of their being piloted through direct human vision, the new era of robotic weapons presents us with a properly post-human image, one whose smooth surfaces sit outside any logic of faciality. As such, the drone confronts us with a striking image of non-reciprocality, an unresponsive blankness that forms the iconographic counterpart to its distantiation from its targets, whom the missiles hit without warning and as if “from nowhere,” and that echoes the fabled impassiveness of the robot as a thing beyond subjectivity—“a nonhuman foe,” as one proselyte of the psychological effects of robotic weapons put it, “that is relentless.”[2]

The post-human morphology of the drone—“a strange extraterrestrial-looking gray airplane without a cockpit or windows”[3]—brings it into proximity with popular cultural depictions of the alien as manifested in science fiction and horror films, which so clearly underpin the conception of menace held by the military and their weapons-industry contractors. The schlock horror names Predator and Reaper bestowed by General Atomics on their two widely deployed drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), reflect this, as does the moniker Hellfire, used for the missiles with which they are armed. In 2004 in Fallujah, “marines set up loudspeakers around the city and broadcast the sinister laughter of the alien from the Predator movie”[4]—which involves a creature that uses thermal imaging technology to hunt its human prey—while its robotic namesake circled overhead. At the same time, mythic and magical attributes are implied by the names of the visual technologies carried by drones, which invoke archaic monsters of vision. Thus, to take one example, we have the Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Gorgon Stare surveillance system, which was first carried by UAVs in Afghanistan in 2011. Explicitly developed to surveil urban areas, it is capable of capturing motion imagery from within a four-kilometer radius by mobilizing an array of cameras and then dispersing the images to multiple users. In its manufacturer’s factsheet, complete with Medusa emblem and the motto oculus semper vigilans (“always watchful eye”), Gorgon Stare—whose “mission” is described as “city-sized, 24/7 persistent surveillance”—is promoted as providing three tiers of simultaneous imagery: “synoptic, wide-area coverage, full field of regard”; “multiple sub-views” of this; and “best resolution tactical chip-outs.” To these correspond three different kinds of use, characterized as: “forensics/pattern of life (30-day mission data archive)”; “areas of interest overwatch”; and “tactical consumers/first responders.”[5]

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