Drone Aesthetics – Eugénie Shinkle 2014

Drone Aesthetics

Eugénie Shinkle



I. the technological sublime


What does it mean to speak of drone aesthetics? The term has been used to describe artwork – by artists like James Bridle, Omer Fast, Trevor Paglen, George Barber, and others – that takes drone warfare as its subject.  Drone aesthetics is a modern idiom, a shorthand for new modes of representing war from the extraterrestrial perspective of a machine. But like ‘aesthetics’ itself – called upon variously to designate the artistic or the beautiful – the term is an imprecise one, naming a specific practice but obscuring the more complex relations that drive it.


As it was first conceived in the eighteenth century, aesthetics was an ambitious category, concerned with the relationship between the body, the self, and the sensual world. It engaged with unruly affects, with the limits of human subjectivity and sensibility, with ‘the whole of our sensate life together – the business of affections and aversions, of how the world strikes the body on its sensory surfaces, of that which takes root in the gaze and the guts and all that arises from our most banal, biological insertion into the world.’ [1] Aesthetics asked what it meant to be a subject, bodied forth in a world of objects and sense impressions; it was less concerned with what cultural forms were, than with what they did – their effects on an embodied self.


New technologies – many of them visual translation instruments – have extended dramatically the range of the human sensorium, transforming the relation between body, self and world. Machines allow us to see deep into the human body, to measure infinitesimal and astronomical units of time, matter and energy. We can view, in real time and intricate detail, events as they unfold on the other side of the planet. We can collect and process vast quantities of information in an instant. And as the boundaries of human perception shift, so too does the nature of aesthetic experience.


The same technologies also bring new ways of making and experiencing war. This is the terrain in which Lisa Barnard works. Barnard’s subject matter is the machinery of contemporary conflict – the increasingly virtual spaces within which war is waged, and the digital weaponry that is used to wage it – and the ways that this machinery alters the parameters of human experience. Her work presents the concept of drone aesthetics as a series of boundary confusions – between the close and the distant, the body and the machine, the real and the unreal, too human and not human enough. And it suggests that the type of aesthetic experience most closely allied with drone aesthetics is that of the technological sublime.[2]


The technological sublime is a modern formation, emerging in North America around the 1820s, free of the cultural aspirations of European philosophy, and more representative of the social and political concerns of an emergent middle class. Emptied of some of the nuance that characterized earlier philosophical definitions, the technological sublime replaced disinterested aesthetic judgement with elevated emotions such as terror and awe.[3]


More recently, the technological sublime has been linked to the idea of a posthuman other; a form of nonorganic being that bears no relation to nature or the natural. Technology, as Fredric Jameson writes, is a ‘distorted figuration’ of contemporary society’s other: a shorthand for the unimaginably vast global network of power and control that is the present-day system of multinational capital.[4] Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe identifies the contemporary sublime with technology as both self and other, ‘terrifying in thelimitless unknowabilityof its potential, while being entirely a product of knowledge …  at once unbounded by the human, and, as knowledge, a trace of the humannow out of the latter’s control’.[5]


This ‘othering’ of technology is a commonplace in definitions of the technological sublime. Barnard’s work, however, opens up the term in a more nuanced way. It suggests that the technological sublime is also about new ways of ‘being with’ technologies. In place of the ‘terror and awe’ of earlier forms of sublime experience, we find an affective coupling that draws together the incommensurable and the banal – that which inspires awe, and that which is most essentially human.



II. real enough


The use of video games in military training applications has a long history. Since the 1960s, the military has provided funding and technical expertise to game developers in return for the creation of proprietary technologies used to recruit, to train, and, more recently, to treat soldiers. The term ‘military-entertainment complex’ describes the synergistic relationship that has developed between the army and the commercial videogame industry. It also refers to the increasingly blurred boundaries between the two, as new digital technologies drive forward the speed and complexity of conflicts, and combat simulations act as popular entertainment in civilian life.[6]


Barnard’s Virtual Iraq (2008) is a multimedia project exploring the psychological impact of screen-based warfare. Her focus is the virtual reality and interactive media environments developed by the US military at the Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) – a world-leading research facility housed at the University of Southern California. Many of the programmers at ICT are interns studying Game Development at USC, and there is significant leveraging of assets between the two, with ‘off the shelf’ tech created for the game industry repurposed for military use, and vice-versa. ‘Flatworld’ is a mixed-reality simulator designed for training in specific combat situations. Digital rear-projection screens are combined with physical props, lighting effects, synchronized audio and 4D sensory features to create sophisticated mock-ups of real-world locations. Virtual environments are also used in clinical and therapeutic contexts to treat combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder. In ‘exposure therapy’, heads-up displays and sensory props are used to simulate traumatic experiences, allowing the subject to confront them in a controlled setting.


Immersion in virtual and mixed-reality environments involves a kind of Faustian bargain with the technology, a handing-over of real-world agency in exchange for agency within the virtual world. We exist in reduced form in such environments, our sensory choices limited, our physical actions restricted. In exchange, the virtual environment offers a manageable reality with clearly drawn boundaries. Virtual environments need not be perceptually complete or fully immersive in order to be credible, but they must be perceptually coherent. It’s not necessary to produce a perfect simulation of reality, in other words – just one that is real enough.


These reduced environments are real enough to sustain an instrumental relationship between human and computer – a relationship in which the difference between the two seems to disappear. This seamless merger with technology has been said to mark the appearance of a ‘posthuman’ subject, one in which ‘there are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulation.[7] But Barnard’s images remind us that the matrix of the posthuman is a fleshy, sensorially-involved body. In Flatworld, screen-based visual information is combined with various effects and props including real objects and sounds, spaces, and textures. The environments in which PTSD therapies take place incorporate a range of sensory simulations including a palette of synthetic scents such as body odour, cordite, and burning rubber. The union of body and machine is further enabled by an infrastructure of anonymous architecture and equally anonymous clinical settings; sustained by real spaces carefully finished with the material of daily life in a war zone – heaps of rubble, dusty carpets, tins of tea. The posthuman is clothed in the skin of the everyday.



III. bored witnesses


The drone pilot spends his 12-hour shift in a windowless trailer on an air force base in the middle of the Nevada desert. His only company is a camera operator and a battery of computer screens displaying maps and images of the areas under observation. The take-off and landing of the drone is carried out by ground teams on or near the surveyed site, but the pilot is responsible for its in-flight operations including the release of weapons. Most of the time, the drone flies one of a number of preprogrammed holding patterns.


Barnard has described the drone pilot as a ‘bored witness’ – the majority of his workday is spent monitoring the real-time video feed constantly, intently, looking for minute variations in the patterns of everyday life. Most of the time, nothing happens. This uncomfortable, extended duration is interrupted only sporadically, as targets are identified and weapons fired and boredom is replaced by frantic activity. When the pilot is finished his shift, he leaves the trailer – understood as being part of the combat zone – steps back onto American soil, and goes home.


Sianne Ngai uses the term stuplimity to describe the intertwining of long periods of boredom with short bursts of affective overload. Stuplimity draws together boredom and agitation – paralyzing affects that impede normal actions and responses – and holds them in tension, indefinitely, without resolution. Stuplime affect is characteristic of the experience of much contemporary art and culture. It is a negative affect, confronting us ‘with the limitations of our capacity for responding in general’.[8]


Stuplimity also characterises the experience of the drone pilot. And it is not a side effect of his job, but an integral part of the specific form of military labour that he carries out. Unlike sublime affect in its classical sense, which ends in transcendence – with the subject’s realisation that its own powers of reason affirm its superiority from brute nature – stuplimity arises out of a feeling of obstructed agency. For the drone pilot, the ostensible freedom of the posthuman condition is compromised by a kind of meta-anxiety, a confusion about what he is feeling. Lost ‘on his own ‘cognitive map’ of available affects’[9], he is both human and inhuman, remote from the acts he performs, but closely bound up with them.



IV. too  real


The military simulation is a controlled environment. That of the drone pilot is not. His setup may resemble a sophisticated videogame, but the drone is not a make-believe weapon in a virtual setting – it is a real object in a real location and its actions have real consequences. The distance between the pilot and the machine he controls is usually around 10,000 kilometres, but his view of the battlefield is crystal clear. Rather than being held apart from the acts they commit, drone operators are deeply implicated in them, viewing them in graphic detail (seeing the moment of death perhaps more clearly than ground troops would), and intimately linked to the machines that do the killing. For soldiers engaged in remote warfare, the consequences of acting at a distance are both ethical and existential and they can’t be modelled in a simulation.


John Johnston uses the term ‘machinic vision’ to describe the way that processes of seeing are recoded through our interactions with information machines. This recoding signals not just a change in the human sensorium, but a change in consciousness itself, as ‘functions that were formerly attributed to the brain have been autonomized in machines operating as parts of highly distributed systems.’[10] We might also think of the relationship between subject and technology along Deleuzian lines, as an ‘assemblage’ – a distributed system comprising sentience, memory, and communication. Under these circumstances, it is less evident that the drone is simply an unthinking machine or tool. Instead, it begins to act as an extension of the self.


Emotional and empathic factors creep in: rogue affects, unwelcome in the theatre of the clinical strike and the precision-engineered war. The drone pilot must walk a fine line between being human enough, but not too human: ‘we need [drone operators] to have an emotional connection, we want them to imagine that they are about to kill someone’s father or son, that way they won’t make mistakes …but at the same time we don’t want them to be affected by what they see …it’s a double edged sword.’[11] What was real enough in the simulation is confounded, redoubled in the too real of actual combat. Here, distance does not equal detachment; freedom from the limitations of human form does not mean freedom from responsibility. Unsurprisingly, drone pilots have been found to experience PTSD at the same rate as pilots of manned aircraft in combat zones.



iv. the incommensurable


Seven images, shot from the air. The exact location is unclear, but we are somewhere over Waziristan. Cloaked in a deep blue atmospheric haze, the landscape looks peaceful and not quite real; it’s difficult to identify anything on the ground. Each image in Barnard’s 2011 series Too Thin Too Blue corresponds – often imprecisely – to the location of a drone strike, the details of which, equally vague, are displayed next to the image. Alleged militants, possible civilian deaths: the identity of those who have died on the ground may never be confirmed. All that is certain is that these deaths took place, the fabric of the everyday torn apart from above, usually without warning.


In his essay Too-Blue, after which Barnard’s series is titled, Brian Massumi writes of a failed experiment in which a researcher asked a subject to match the colour of an absent friend’s eyes.[12] The subjects almost always chose a colour that was in some way excessive: too bright, too saturated, too blue. This excess emerges, Massumi claims, when language is asked to describe singularities of experience that it can’t accommodate.[13]


We can think of this – and of sublime affect more generally – as a problem of incommensurability. In the Critique of Judgement, Emmanuel Kant claimed that sublime sensation arose where the imagination was unable to resolve particular sense presentations – those occasions when perception exceeded the limits of the understanding. The source of sublime affect was not things in themselves, but the sensation of the failure of the imaginationto grasp those things in their entirety.[14]


Thomas Hirschorn sets the idea of the incommensurable in the context of contemporary warfare in his eponymous artwork of 2008. This 18-metre long banner displays images gathered from the internet – images which depict, in graphic detail, the violent destruction of human bodies by industrial weaponry; images which attack the senses with equal intensity, presenting death as a grotesque display of flesh. They’ve been compared to pornography in the way that they render individual bodies interchangeable, displaying and depersonalising the brutality that has been acted out on them. Once the shock fades, we are left to contemplate the banality of that which remains after life is extinguished – the human materiel of meat, bone, and viscera.


The incommensurable – the unplanned excess – is the human cost of war. It is the experience of an extended self, bodied forth at a distance and asked to behave as both a machine and a moral agent. It is the difference between the lived complexities of technological warfare and the hothouse environment of the simulation. It is the jarring, visceral responses that materialise without warning and escape the grasp of reason. It is a paralytic sublime, a sublime without transcendence.




v. drone aesthetics


‘Technologies belong to the human world in a modality other than that of instrumentality, efficiency or materiality. A being that was artificially torn away from such a dwelling, from this technical cradle, could in no way be a moral being, since it would have ceased to be human…’[15]



To speak of drone aesthetics is to acknowledge a new kind of technological sublime: a state of shock and awe, where we can no longer count on essential difference or moral vocation to set us apart from our killing machines. Military technologies have transformed the boundaries of perception, of the body, and of human subjectivity. But the product of these transformations is not a posthuman other. It is a new and uncertain configuration of the human, bringing with it new varieties of aesthetic experience, and, inevitably, new and complex moral issues.


The political dimension of drone aesthetics shows itself, in part, as a lingering unease about the sort of jobs that we ask these machines to do. But this unease is not simply a consequence of the uses to which the technology has been put, and the questions it poses run even deeper than those concerning the legitimacy of the wars of liberal intervention in which they play an increasingly significant role. Our disquiet around virtual warfare also arises, in part, because these new alliances between war, entertainment, and technology present us with the impossibility of rendering actual death as digital information – the unpredictable, incommensurable distance between real enough and too real.


The boundary between human and machine is no longer as certain as it may once have seemed. Bruno Latour has identified technology as ‘a mode of existence, a particular form of exploring existence, a particular form of the exploration of being.’[16] Morality, too, is an ontological category; both are deeply bound up with the question of what it means to be human.


So the dilemmas that haunt these conflicts won’t be resolved with more efficient machines or more effective strategy. Morality and technology go to work on the same human material, but the relation between them is far from straightforward: instead, they ‘multiply anxieties … forbid the straight path … [generate] possibilities for the one, and scruples and impossibilities for the other.’[17] As technology extends the human subject beyond its physical boundaries, morality reaches out to draw it back.


Virtual wars and computerised conquests don’t lead us away from human experience – they cut right to the heart of it, right to the heart of our banal, biological and immensely complex insertion into a world that has been made over by technology for as long as we have been human. This, I think, is the conviction that lies at the heart of Barnard’s practice: the desire to explore the unruly affects that tamper with our attempts master distance and time and mortality – to seek, at the limits of human cruelty and ingenuity, that which continues to ground us in the everyday.


[1]Terry Eagleton, (1990). The Ideology of the Aesthetic London: Blackwell, p13.

[2]The present paper extends and develops ideas discussed in my earlier essay‘Video Games and the Digital Sublime’, in Digital Cultures and the Politics of Emotion: Feelings, Affect and Technological Change. Athina Karatzogianni and Adi Kuntsman, eds. London: Palgrave-MacMillan (2012)

[3]See David Nye (1996). American Technological Sublime. Boston: MIT Press.

[4]Fredric Jameson (1991). Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London: Verso, p38.

[5]Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe (1999). Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime. New York: Allworth Press, p128.

[6]see Corey Mead (2008). War Play: Video Games and the Future of Armed Conflict. New York: Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.


[7]‘In the posthuman, there are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot technology and human goals.’ Hayles, N. Catherine (1999). How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, p3.

[8]Sianne Ngai (2005). Ugly Feelings. Cambridge, Mass, and London, England: Oxford University Press, p262.

[9]Ibid, 14.

[10]John Johnston (1999).  ‘Machinic Vision’, Critical Inquiry vol. 26, no. 1 (Autumn 1999), pp27-48; p45.

[11]Lisa Barnard in conversation with the lead psychologist for RPA pilots (name withheld for security reasons), just outside Creech AFB, Las Vegas, (2013).

[12]The fist part of Barnard’s title, ‘Too Thin’, is taken from Errol Morris’s 1988 Documentary The Thin Blue Line. Morris’s film tells the story of Randall Dale Adams, a man convicted and sentenced to die for a murder he did not commit. In the words of the trial judge, the ‘thin blue line’ was the only thing separating society from anarchy.

[13]see BrianMassumi (2002). Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham & London: Duke University Press.

[14] ‘What is sublime, in the proper meaning of the term, cannot be contained in any sensible form but concerns only ideas of reason, which, though they cannot be exhibited adequately, are aroused and called to mind by this very inadequacy, which can be exhibited in sensibility.’ Immanuel Kant (1987). Critique of Judgement. Werner S. Pluhar, trans. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, p99.

[15]Bruno Latour and Couze Venn (2002). ‘Morality and Technology: The End of the Means’, Theory, Culture & Society vol. 19, no. 5/6, pp247-260; p248.

[16]Ibid., p248.

[17]Ibid., p257.