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<nettime> Unmanned
Jordan Crandall on Tue, 22 Apr 2003 13:48:47 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> Unmanned


Unmanned
Jordan Crandall

Text of presentation given at the "Visual Arts in a State of Emergency" =
conference at Cornell University, 4-5 April 2003


  On a scale never before seen in the American military, around 500
  journalists have been assigned positions alongside combat and support
  troops -- intended to give us all "front row seats to the war."
  Previously trained by the Pentagon in week-long media boot camps,
  these "embedded" journalists are not of course allowed to carry guns
  but they are allowed to carry cameras. If the first Gulf War (where
  the reporters were confined to hotels) was something like a war game,
  this war would seem to be something more like reality TV. Buoyed by
  its collaborations with Hollywood -- which is riding high on an
  unprecedented wave of revenue from reality TV programming that now
  constitutes over half of the top 10 shows in the US -- and
  increasingly information-savvy, the Pentagon now knows that
  stage-managed "real life" is where the action's at. It will no longer
  be accused, it thinks, of withholding or controlling information. It
  will give us real life on the front lines, truth behind the facades,
  Ted Koppel in a tank.

  However, like the overproduced reality television show that ends up
  squeezing out any sense of spontaneity, these images turn out to be
  as misleading as those of the first Gulf War. There are rules of
  engagement that all embedded journalists have sworn to abide by.
  There is a social code of conduct among personnel as to what can be
  said. The details of military actions can only be described in
  general terms and journalists are prohibited from writing about
  possible future missions, classified weapons, or sensitive
  information. The commander of an embedded journalist's unit can block
  any reporter from filing stories via satellite connection at any
  time. Much of what appears to be live was actually recorded hours
  earlier. And the whole thing gets fed into the graphics-heavy,
  soundbyte-oriented news machine anyway, itself a primary interface to
  a media-driven market of investors who "play the war" and trade based
  on news. Embedded reporting is itself embedded within a host of now-
  familiar conventions, accompanied by scrolling updates,
  computer-generated flyovers over Baghdad, animated EarthViewer
  satellite imagery, drum rolls, and links to websites that allow us to
  fondle 3D animations of munitions. The war doesn't end up looking
  like reality TV so much as a media Olympics.

  Standing out prominently alongside these embedded images are the
  familiar echoes of the first Gulf War: those haunting images from
  camera-mounted bombs (or rather, bomb-mounted cameras) that explode
  upon impact and mask any repercussion at groundlevel. Those flying
  points of view to which we have only virtual access.

  Camera handheld on the ground. Camera precision-mounted in the sky.
  Which viewpoint are we to assume?

  One wonders, as always, what the real artillery is in this war --
  images or bullets. Perhaps the soldiers should be allowed to carry
  cameras, or the camera and gun should simply collapse into one
  another. For the military, the distance between has been narrowing
  for quite some time anyway. It has been narrowing in terms of what
  has been called the military-entertainment complex. (Already it is
  difficult to distinguish between managed combat information, news,
  and entertainment.)  It has been narrowing in terms of the windows
  between detection and engagement, "sensor" and "shooter,"
  intelligence-gathering and deployment -- which in many ways drives
  military development and especially its aerial imaging.

  There are two modes to this collapse.  We might call them the manned
  and the unmanned.

  A channel of reembodiment opens up via reality media and its focus on
  unfiltered immediacy. At the same time, a channel of disembodiment
  opens up via automated vision and the "umanned." Think of two modes.
  One is the handheld camera, live and on the scene. We watch seemingly
  immediate, raw footage through it. The other is the disembodied gaze.
  We don't watch through it. It is the gaze that belongs to everyone
  and no one.  The camera-riding bomb is only one example.  There are
  many other examples that we can't see.  In many senses, this gaze has
  moved into the status of a condition.  That is, it has moved from
  something that we can represent to something that helps to structure
  representation itself, as if lurking behind the visual field.

  So which is it?  If we think of perception as being relocated -- and
  in many ways warfare is about such relocation -- can we say that it
  is becoming re- physicalized, or not?  I want to consider both of
  these modes.  In so doing, I want to also introduce another element
  -- in a sense, outfitting these concepts with armaments.  I want to
  suggest that the condition of this relocation of perception is its
  subsequent arming -- its subsequent backing by an apparatus of
  conquest and defense. Can we think of perception as becoming armed in
  this way?  How could such an increasingly ephemeral and distributed
  capacity be simultaneously fortified, couched within an apparatus of
  warfare? Dematerialized, yet weighted?


  The Drone
  ---------

  The current star of the unmanned vehicles is the Predator, which had
  its major debut in 1995 in Bosnia.  The Predator is a toylike and
  windowless vehicle, originally built for reconnaissance missions,
  that is flown by both the military and the C.I.A.  There is no pilot
  in its cockpit -- there is an operator who sits hundreds or thousands
  of miles away at a console.  The Predator beams a continuous live
  video feed to military and intelligence personnel around the world.

  The Predator was not initially used to fire upon targets.  It had on
  many occasions captured potential targets on video but was unable to
  do anything about it.  In other words, it had "got them in its
  sights" but was unable to fully capture -- i.e., shoot -- as if it
  were impotent.  For example, a Predator drone once captured a "tall
  turban-wearing man" on video in Afghanistan that many officials
  believe was bin Laden.  But there was nothing to be done except to
  relay the information back to command posts, who may then channel it
  to other vehicles equipped for interception.  There was no chance to
  eliminate that which appeared in the image, an act which seems to
  negate the very purpose of photography.  Meanwhile, the target
  slipped from view.

  The impotence of the image led to the reengineering of the vehicle.
  In the new regimes of the image, there can be no possibility of
  escape. Vision must be outfitted, the body retooled, the apparatus
  armed.

  Institutional effect:  The military has always been seeking to reduce
  the time from "sensor to shooter" to almost zero.  It has sought to
  more closely integrate the apparatuses of detection and engagement.
  The growing urgency reached its culmination after September 11.  Now
  Predators were being hastily equipped with Hellfire missiles and
  laser-targeting systems.  On the nose and underside of the Predator
  now stood video camera, targeting system, and missile launcher, which
  could work in tandem.  Missile and video camera sit side-by- side,
  pointed toward the ground, aimed to capture, mounted on the belly of
  a windowless airplane.  Recording-launching.  Seeing-aiming-firing.

  Photography was once an accurate replica of the world, driven by the
  need to remove the human from direct physical contact with the site
  of experience. The need to place the human "on the other side" of
  representation as a kind of shield from reality. The need to protect
  one from the vicissitudes and dangers of physical presence and to
  allow a form of disembodied presence.  Presence through removal.  I
  am there yet not there.  The image and its technical support act as
  protector, as life-giver, yet they are bound up in a technical
  development that threatens the human with obsolescence.  They provide
  a means for its extension, yet a means for its removal.  Warfare:
  protection through the aid of the image, countered with the
  anniliation that the image also facilitates.

  Who are its agents? During the conflict in Afghanistan, Air Force
  officers monitored ground level activity at the C.I.A. headquarters
  in Virgina, where, as reported by ~The Washington Post~, they
  were occasionally "surprised to see an explosion, only to learn later
  that the C.I.A. was firing a missile."  Who is watching, who is
  analyzing, who is flying the plane, who is shooting? Such capacities
  are suspended within an uneasy alliance between agencies, who are
  themselves often in competition.

  We have the narrowing of divisions between the technologies of
  detection and engagement, as well the blurring of the roles of
  intelligence-gathering and deployment. Think of the blurring of the
  roles and limits to the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. and the creation of the
  new intelligence unit within the Department of Homeland Security.
  From this consolidation "erupts" the technology itself.  Or is it the
  other way round?  Then there is the image, and the role of seeing.
  The image both tracks and aims, traces and targets, its framings
  operating as a new development of perspective.  If we think of
  perspective as a way of locating relationships between objects in
  space and their representations, what is it, then, if we seek to
  collapse that space?  Is this a perspective aimed at obliteration?  A
  final collapse of the referential fallacy, an implosion in the midst
  of an explosion? A precise freezing in time and space, a precise
  sedimentation of image, referent, and projectile in realtime, in
  order to guide and mark an annihilation?

  Strike 1.  In February of 2002, several men on the ground in
  Afghanistan, after having been monitored for some time by the US
  military and the C.I.A, were shot down dead by a Predator drone. The
  men were determined to have been involved in "suspicious activity"
  and one of them was suspected to be bin Laden himself. The strike was
  a mistake.  The men were subsequently thought to have been simply
  foraging for scrap metal on the ground. The Pentagon defended the
  attack, but at the same time, it tried to distance itself and blamed
  the C.I.A. It was the first time that the public learned that the
  C.I.A. was involved in firing missiles.

  Strike 2.  About three months later, on May 9, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a
  suspected Afghan factional leader, was also shot at by a Predator
  drone.  He survived. It was the first confirmed mission to kill
  someone who was not officially part of the fallen Taliban government
  or the Al Qaeda network.

  Strike 3.  On November 3, 2002, a missile fired from a Predator drone
  killed Qaed Salim Sinan Harithi, also known as Abu Ali, a senior
  leader of Al Qaeda. He was traveling by car in Yemen with five
  low-level associates who were also killed.  The car and the bodies
  were incinerated.  The attack was the first using an armed Predator
  against suspects outside of Afghanistan.

  In each of these cases, in each of these strikes, I remember trying
  to picture the scene.  One man -- standing alone or in a group, or
  traveling by car -- is suddenly fired at from the sky, as if zapped
  by a lightning bolt.  He is singled out for destruction among the
  others standing nearby, as if by an act of God.  To what remote
  hidden bunker was this image sent, whose hidden hand released its
  payload?  In ~The New York Times~, Walter Kirn wrote that, from
  the perspective of his sofa, this latest incident had the quality of
  an "immaculate destruction."  "It may well have been Thor doing the
  shooting," he wrote. "Or me."  He said that "with no individual human
  being to take credit for the hit - - no swaggering flying ace, no
  deadeye tail gunner, no squinting rifleman -- it felt like a pure
  projection of my will."  It felt like a pure projection of his own
  continuing anger about terrorism.

  One can immediately picture a peculiar kind of armed couch potato,
  caught somewhere between a videogame and the news. We hold our own
  remote devices that give us the fictions of instant command, and
  sitting in front of our television sets or computer screens, we are
  oddly enough about as close to the action as the actual pilots get --
  as well as those secret teams who have their fingers on the triggers.
  Part of a distributed mass with no fixed contours, with no one person
  to locate at the helm, the unmanned system is no ONE yet everyone.
  Its projectile: the extension of some inner combative state? A
  distributed, armed intent?

  One can think of the action of slamming the phone down as somehow
  "getting back" at the person on the other line, or of blasting the
  horn at a stupid driver who nearly caused an accident. We transfer
  anger through our devices. Through remotes of all kinds, we can
  picture the very common gesture of the "point and shoot." None of
  these actions are anywhere near that of launching an actual missile,
  of course.  But we can identify with the gesture, the response
  mechanism, the conditioning process, the interceptive goal. We can
  speak of mechanisms behind the "decision to engage."  One can speak
  metaphorically of "pushing one's buttons," which means that someone
  is deliberately exploiting one's soft spots, inciting anger in a
  knee-jerk reaction. The device marks a loop between perception,
  technology, and the pacings of the body.  Eye, viewfinder, and
  trigger.  A structure for orienting attention and facilitating
  differentiation or division.  Subject/object, me/you, friend/enemy.
  We choose this over that.  We locate ourselves to "this side" of
  image, to the safe side, against the enemy it protects us from.  We
  draw lines in the sand; we say, "I stand here against you," defining
  ourselves by that which we oppose.  How far are we willing to go to
  defend it?  What kind of technology backs us?


  The Reporter
  ------------

  The surprise attack on the Iraqi command bunker that launched Gulf
  War II was supposed to be the mother of all smart strikes. Think of
  all of the computational power and intelligence that went into the
  determination of that one precise moment. It was supposed to be the
  apex of the entire operation, the magnum opus, the punctum, the
  crowning glory of the American military machine. Imagine: to
  obliterate Saddam Hussein himself in one enormous zap, one precise
  blast from the sky, as if God himself had struck the man down. The
  blast over Baghdad that morning shook the city and the entire world.

  Later, Donald Rumsfeld, who likes to simulate forms of combat
  machinery in his gestures, gripped both sides of his lecturn, elbows
  up and head thrust forward, as if morphing into an Apache helicopter
  looming above its prey. Such precision we could have never before
  dreamed of, he says.

  Meanwhile, battalions of soldiers and reporters were already
  advancing into the country.

  It has been said that there is so much reporting today, it often gets
  ahead of the news. Think of the swarms of reporters in Washington DC
  during the sniper attacks confronting the police force as if they
  were swat teams. In a cutthroat commercial news media world, timely
  information is artillery, and journalists are fighters. Paul Virilio
  once said that it is now reality that has to keep up with media,
  rather than the other way round. It is easy to see how embedded
  journalism would arise in a culture of "behind the scenes"
  entertainment, immediacy, and rapid media technological advance, and
  impatient with the kind of secrecy such as the Pentagon has shown in
  the past. "Truth is the best defense" said Col. Jay DeFrank, the
  Pentagon's director of press operations, as legions of Americans
  grabbed their popcorn.

  Camera and weapon, in the trenches together on the battlefield.
  Trigger click, camera click. With the Predator, the distance between
  was narrowed in the drive for "capture" in its most violent sense.
  That is, there could be no escape for the represented. It fuses with
  its image as it is obliterated. An image and a life are both "taken"
  as eye and projectile join. The distance for human error shrinks
  since it is a machine that coordinates. Here at groundlevel, however,
  camera and weapon cohabit a space through the agency of a fallible
  human. The camera shakes. Its bearer's life is on the line. In the
  field between seeing and shooting a human is not removed but
  reintroduced. In a sense, it is the human that is deployed to serve a
  need within the workings of the apparatus.

  What is that need?

  It is well known that, within the scrims of hyperreality, a mode of
  witnessing has been lost. An indexical bond has been severed. Through
  a verite of the everyday, real life media arises to fill the gap.  It
  purports to put us on the front lines.  Media moves into the space of
  the audience by allowing its "authentic" participation. A sense of
  unscriptedness counters the polished quality of the media
  mis-en-scene and opens up an entry point. The deceptive character of
  the media is suspended for a moment, and one can project oneself
  inside. I do not abandon myself to the image, or live in the world of
  images. Rather, this "realness" allows a seamless interface between.
  A port of synchronization is opened up that allows a shuttling back
  and forth. "Real feelings" and "real people" are what code
  authenticity. We identify with the people on screen because they are
  somehow more like us, in situations and under conditions that are
  more like life.  The distance that voyeurism relies on for its source
  of pleasure migrates into other geometries.  These real-time image
  streams, life-like settings, "real actors," and seemingly live
  actions and effects however could only have opened up a site of
  identification for a populace that had already been conditioned to
  see itself through media self- reflection. This could not have taken
  hold unless the media mis-en-scene had already arisen, as it has, to
  form the sole authenticating construct of our time -- the cultural
  background for awareness, identity, and representation, the
  background against which subjectivity and social relations are
  formed.

  Through embeddedness, I am put back in the place that photography had
  once purported to remove me, in order to protect me.  I am
  (seemingly) reintroduced at the other side of the shield, dropped
  onto the battlefield of the Real and (seemingly) subject all of its
  dangers.

  Embeddedness, then, constitutes a language that signifies the real --
  a real that has been under siege in more ways than one -- by helping
  to develop new coherencies and cohabitations against a violent other.
  It offers a form of indexical compensation. The handheld, grainy
  video verite mode that we know well from television shows and movies
  has come to signify a mode of real presence -- and here the staggered
  motion and artifacting brought about by limited transmission capacity
  serves as a new mode of the real, a kind of transmission verite. The
  "real" equals credibility via its sense of unfiltered immediacy.  The
  reality of representation is substituted for the representation of
  reality. That is, "authenticity" arises less from the authenticity of
  reality per se than the authenticity of the means by which reality is
  portrayed.

  The compensation works linguistically as well. Listening to the
  embedded reporters, one notices that they sometimes seem to talk like
  they are soldiers instead of journalists. They will use
  military-speak and say "we," as if they were part of the combat
  force. "'We' went out on patrol." "'We' took out about 30 or 40
  Iraqis" in a firefight. Warfare is always about such divisions and
  cohesions, as they traverse language. Newscasters say "we" or "us" in
  order to create an interior of cohesion against an exterior of
  disarray.  An interior of safety against an exterior of danger.
  Through such mechanisms, which include stacks of
  hierarchically-arranged worlds, sartorial and acting codes, graphics,
  and other carefully ordered conventions, a cohesive world is
  constructed that contains its viewer in a comforting here-and-now. As
  Margaret Morse has written, we see in such news constructs a public
  being taught its place according to the conventions of power and
  position in discourse. Through carefully arranged divides within the
  news, where, for example, newscasters can address the viewer directly
  but the represented public cannot, positions are reinforced,
  battlelines are drawn and power is maintained. If we see a process of
  differentiation actively at work, we can regard this as part of a
  machine of subjectivity. An arsenal, in effect, of producing an
  interior/exterior divide.

  Such mechanisms do not only represent the war. They ARE the war.

  In the heat of battle, one does not think too much. One acts.
  Especially in a crisis state (increasingly the norm), the military
  machine does my thinking for me. In civilian terms: The construct is
  couched within what Elaine Scarry would call a mimesis of
  deliberation -- a simulation of deliberation that replaces one's own
  thinking. The media construct is such that it does its own thinking
  through mirroring one's own thought processes, seducing one into a
  direct interface, a mind-meld. Automated deliberation, seamlessly
  achieved.  I am there on the front lines and I virtually witness what
  is shown on the screen, it is real. This occurs within a news
  construct that virtually does my thinking for me. The image that I
  see -- the smart image of high technology weaponry or the smart image
  of the multiformat newscast with its text crawls and weblinks - - is
  the image that thinks for itself, harboring cognition within its own
  confines. In some cases, as when image and ammunition coincide, it
  even destroys itself.

  The "sightless gaze" of the unmanned system tends to acquire
  exceptional power since its bearer cannot be pinned down. The
  reinforced gaze of the embedded eye acquires its power precisely
  because it can.

  Perhaps it is both that turn out to be equally "unmanned" -- the
  latter being more insidious because it traffics in the guise of its
  opposite.


  Postscript
  ----------

  A few weeks ago I saw a scene on CNN that was shot with a night vision
  camera. Someone was panning the area, casting it in the famiiar green
  glow of combat. But this time the camera was not focused at the
  enemy. It was wielded by an embedded reporter, who scanned the
  soldiers in that battalion -- his battalion, "our" battalion -- as
  they, in turn, scoped out the landscape, their weapons poised. A
  concert of gazes both armed and unarmed. In the place of the cold
  unflinching stare of the military machine, the presence of a human --
  a civilian -- is reinstated behind the lens. Could it be me? What is
  the difference between the way that I see and the way that the
  military sees? I look for something out of the ordinary, something to
  reinforce me or to militate against.

  Critic? Seducer? Victim?


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