Drones: Sum Ergo Sum Rectum

Descartes’ famous undeniable aphorism, “I think; therefore I am”, is perhaps the most recognizable artifact of the modern philosophical movement. Furthermore, as a piece of the ideological edifice of modernity, the cogito ergo sum also provides the rationale for the entirety of philosophical projects undertaken by the moderns: the entire world can be understood, controlled, and manipulated via the thoughts of a single man. (Man was used intentionally here.) If Descartes’ saying was perhaps the onset of modernity in earnest, then the last grasp of power by modernity ideologically is the use of drone warfare. Drone warfare, more accurately described as drone executions, follows a logic similar to that of Descartes but with a more sinister tint. Descartes and modernity worked within the boundaries of “fairness” in a sense; modern science and modern philosophy were part of dyadic relationship that attempted to keep each other in check. (It didn’t work in the end, but whatever– at least it was somewhat fair.) There is no such sense of fairness when it comes to using drones to execute targets. Death by drone comes quickly, practically invisibly, and completely unilaterally. For centuries, war has generally carried the risk of physical harm or death even to the most powerful militaries; however, drones completely undo that dyadic relationship of balancing self-harm and desire. To really get a sense of the arbitrariness and unfairness of drones, one should really read the white paper (linked to above) that describes the ‘limits’ to the use of drones on individuals. When drones take to the skies, the only logic functioning is “I am; therefore I am right.” That is to say, since the necessary antipodal foil to the gesturing and functioning of the agent (Drones/Descartes) has been removed, there is no longer a precursor to validity, except for existence.

Drones are quintessentially modern but also morbidly modern; drones strive for two goals of the major ideological systems prevalent in the West today: Modernism and Capitalism. One of the goals of modernity is controlling reality, and the second goal that drones achieve is the fantasy of contemporary capitalism concerning creating reality. Where modern philosophy and ideology usually had a semblance of balance, modernity after capitalism proper attempts to remove these balances in an effort to become creator, i.e. when the system is threatened, the invisible hand of the markets becomes another ideological tool to secure power. Drones do not abide by rules, laws, or judges—what has been done by a drone cannot be undone. Drone warfare is a creative enterprise where the drone itself has ceased to be an agent in reality and has become the ultimate creator, and thus controller, of reality. After losing the conditionality of Descartes’ axiom, the fabric of reality is not something to be controlled; it is something that is created. By creating reality, one no longer must abide by the legitimating clause of the ultimate modern axiom: I think, therefore I am. Instead, to legitimize one’s existence, one must be the creator of reality itself: I am; therefore I am right.

In summation, this late capitalist deviation of modern attempts to understand the world are emblematic of what it means to be postmodern. More than revealing something appalling about society and technocratic warfare, drones reveal a liberating thought by emulating this thought’s opposite, i.e. drones cannot, by definition, be wrong in their judgment. What has been killed by a drone has been killed for real. A drone assumes that what an individual does must be right. This necessity of being right reflects the dire seriousness with which modern fundamentalism (in all of its forms) sees the world as on the precipice of apocalypse. These fundamentalisms say, “Our actions/thoughts/beliefs must be right because the entire world depends on them.” The postmodern sentiment when it comes to being right is that I am not a drone: I am; therefore I am– everything else is an empty space to be filled in. There is no movement embedded in this axiom. Various movements can be attached to it, liberated by it, or critiqued against it, but at the end of the day, the postmodernist can change her ways. When drones dream, they dream of the actual world, not as bizarre, perfect, or desired; drones dream of the world that is, because it is the only world they can possibly see.

One should append to the Cartesian aphorism the temporal duration of what it means to be; when Descartes discovered his indubitable being, he discovered it for eternity. The “I” of modernity does not fall in and out of existence, because it is believed to not be a construction. Descartes’ claim is not just “I think; therefore I am,” he claimed (rendered in ironic Judeo-Christian fashion) “I think; therefore I am what I will be.” The fairness of modernism comes from its insistence on the ability to be wrong and to correct those wrongs. Drones cannot dream of a new world, because identity in the late-Capitalist ideology is cemented by a self-affirming existence; thus, one sees the renewed prevalence of avowed conservatives taking a page from liberal or postmodern movements by saying, “You only think gays should get married because that’s your personal opinion.” For identity after Capitalism is something that is neither a construction nor a practice. Identity after capitalism, in the age of drones, is the uncaused justification for material existence; identity is now the primacy of what it means to live in “bad faith.” Nietzsche speaks here to this sentiment by way of a song from the prelude to The Gay Science:

“Lured by my style and my tendency,

you follow and come after me?

Follow your own self faithfully,

take time– and thus you follow me.”

I hope it’s clear at this point that drones are no longer the central issue. What is at stake in the age of drones is the creation of a paradigm of identity that is morbidly, defectively modern. By following a logic of “I am; therefore I am right,” the process and performance of identity is not recognized as a construction but is, instead, posited as a transcendent Big Other. This Big Other is not a typical manifestation of ideological construction; for the Big Other becomes the self. Existence that is self-adjudicated and necessary is not compatible with the phenomenology of what it is to be a human. It is the existence of a drone.  Only when the individual is in complete control of her fate (when she can say I did/do/will do things wrong!) can identity become an enterprise liberated of this necessary eternity. When drones murder people in faraway lands, it is not only a question of military might or regional stability, but a question of the very ability to have a non-necessitated identity.


White paper link: http://msnbcmedia.msn.com/i/msnbc/sections/news/020413_DOJ_White_Paper.pdf

Double Taps: http://www.dailykos.com/story/2012/12/20/1171594/-Any-outrage-about-Double-Tap-Drone-Strikes-Killing-Rescuers-and-Children-Any-sympathy


7 thoughts on “Drones: Sum Ergo Sum Rectum

  1. Thanks for this. I think there’s definitely something to the idea that drones are symptomatic of a rather scary understanding of subjectivity. I wonder if you can help me with your use of the terms “liberal” and “conservative” here, though. What do these words mean, in your view? I just ask because I worry about a form of ideology that seems to be pernicious in North America: namely, that somehow the word conservative contains within it a latent support of, say, the military-industrial complex (among other bad things). This seems plainly false, because much (if not most!) of the dissent re: drones has come from people who seem to be conservatives.

    • When I mentioned conservatives taking a page from the liberal camp by using an argument based on relativity, I was being a little bit subtle but mostly lazy I think. In actuality, I should have described the “conservative” as not a political ideology (i.e., Fox News) but as a more traditional modern picture of the metaphysics of being and identity. While the “liberal” probably should have just been left out completely, it pertains more to the earlier turns towards what was interpreted as complete relativity via postmodernism.

      Thus, they are political ideologies, per se, but they do affect typical manifestations of an individuals political ideology. Instead, conservative and liberality refer explicitly to how closely one falls in line with the modern (Cartesian) idea of metaphysical identity.

      Does that help at all?

      • Okay, fair enough. Perhaps I am too nit-picky. I just wanted help on that because when I think of ‘conservative’, I think virtue tradition, natural law, etc.–not modern subjectivity. I do agree that there is a lot of interesting work to be done re: drones and subjectivity, though, so I appreciate the post. Cheers.

  2. I wonder whether drones are so fundamentally different from other weapons that kill at a distance. Is the drone controller a radically different kind of soldier from, for example, the sniper? To answer this question might help us to see what work the word “fair” is doing in your opening paragraph, which is obscure to me. The notion of “fairness” as between science and philosophy would appear to imply that there’s some field of value to be divided between them and even less intuitive to me that they can be seen as subjects, to bearers of rights (which seems difficult to me to separate from the idea of fairness). Applied to warfare “fairness” also seems odd, can one be “fair” in killing, which is total exclusion from right-bearing).

    • In the terms of the opening paragraph, fairness is not really functioning as a means to evaluate the ethics of what is going on; so, drones, for example, are unfair because of the qualitative difference in confrontation as opposed to unfair because they violate the inalienable rights of human beings. (Though I agree that drones are unfair in the sense of infringing upon rights bearers as well!)

      The use of fair here is more similar to seeing a group of professional basketball players play a basketball game against a group of professional hockey players. Commonly, this game would be described simply “unfair” to the hockey players due to the qualitative advantage of the basketball players. Modern philosophy, at least early moderns, worked in tandem with science as the qualitative equivalent to their world-controlling philosophy. However, when this equivalency in confrontation is subverted by the shift from controlling the world to creating the world, fairness becomes an important marker of ideological and philosophical shifts.

      To the question of snipers and long range weaponry, it seems fair for the most part because of the generally equivalency of weaponry on both sides. I’m going to make an assumption here for a minute and claim that given the world arms trade (and the fact I just looked up how much a sniper rifle costs on The Armory), any country can field a sniper who reasonably challenges an enemy sniper. When it comes to drones, drones can be bought but drones are nowhere near as affordable. Thus, I think drones are currently a distinct qualitative shift in the typical paradigms of war that exemplifies the metaphysical shift in late capitalist conceptions of identity of self and world.

      • I am really very uneasy about applying a nature of “fairness” appropriate to the artificial confrontations of sport, where the point is to create uncertainty of outcome to either of the domains where you’re deploying it.

        What would it mean to adjudicate “fairness” between someone with false (or less adequate) beliefs or methods and someone with true (or more adequate ones?

        Similarly in war the point is to win, not to create a “fair contest”. Do you imagine, for example, that the overwhelming industrial power of the United States created a deplorable unfairness in their struggle with the Axis powers to which we should object? Just war theory is uninterested in fairness (whether you accept it or not). Indeed being reasonably certain you are going to be able to achieve your ends (i.e. win the war) is a condition for its being just, not an argument against it.

        • Fairness in this essay is not about Just War. In fact, there is very little in this essay that is concerned with war per se. Drones and their essential unfairness is a way of talking about an evolution of modern notions of metaphysical identity. That is to say, the modern philosophers were paired with a commensurate opponent (modern science) that checked the philosophers’ notions of identity and their attempts to control the metaphysics of the world. Drones represent an evolution of this idea of controlling the actuality of reality by the moderns into the creation of reality by late capitalist ideologies.

          It’s true that there is no necessary reason for drones to be outlawed. In fact, drones do all sorts of great things right? Save white people’s lives, police entire populations of ‘radicals’, and help Western countries make sure that all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. However, these moves are completely unchecked by any other reasonably powerful notion or entity. Thus, the ideological edifice represented by the drone has no conditionality into the necessity of its being right and being necessarily right. This is why the aphorism of Descartes is mutated by the drone ideology to contain the appearance of conditionality while not containing any content of conditionality. Drones need not worry about justifying themselves via a Just War doctrine or a show of force.

          All in all, I’m not writing about war in itself. I’m writing about a tool of war that showcases the ideology that has evolved given a specific set of historical, material conditions. So, in response to your questions about drones as fitting into Just War theory, I don’t have any answers.

          However, thank you for not assuming I take Just War theory to heart (because I don’t). That was very kind. Cheers.

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