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.