The promise of modernity’s drone-assisted conquest of air space is far from uncomplicated. As unmanned air vehicles become more ubiquitous, with implementations ranging from intelligence-gathering and covert military attacks to cultural production and everyday logistics, this special issue of Krisis captures the technical, aesthetic, economic, psychic, and political challenges facing the rise of the drone.
To invoke and provoke the everyday, Rob Stone opens the issue by bringing home the unease of displaced technologies through sonic imagination and biomimicry. Moving from patterned cacophonies to discursive shifts, Øyvind Vågnes evaluates the role of euphemism in shaping public perception of the so-called War On Terror. Alex Edney-Browne’s article tackles the prominent image of the drone operator as PlayStation killer head-on by questioning the assumption that the virtualization of violence yields a decrease in empathy, argues that mediation can also constitute feelings of proximity and stimulate peer-recognition. Halbe Kuipers’ article reflects on the metaphysical and ethical implications of image-making when drones participate in filmic world-making. A 2015 debate transcript follows, in which Krisis’s own Eva Sancho Rodriguez moderates a discussion between Willem Schinkel and Rogier van Reekum. The issue ends with two book reviews: Sigmund Bruno Schilpzand on Grégoire Chamayous’s A Theory of the Drone and Tobias Burgers on Ian Shaw’s Predator Empire: Drone Warfare and Full Spectrum Dominance.
In coming upon images that present to us perspectives that seem unfamiliar we tend to search the contents within the frame with a probing gaze: what are we looking at? With Tomas van Houtryve’s photograph (figure 1) placed before us, various captions that have accompanied the picture upon publication might help us on the way: we are looking at people practicing baseball in a sunbathed court in Montgomery County, Maryland. This description, however, does not prepare us for our sense of perplexity in taking in the visual information we are confronted with. For that first question of “what” seems indeed inextricably linked to questions of “how” and “why”: what are the implications of this invitation to take in a very particular pictorial composition that shows us something so familiar in such an unfamiliar way? Furthermore, an image like this pleads with us to consider yet another aspect of its depiction: is there something important that we do not see in the photograph – something unseen that is instrumental in its absence?
The picture is part of the Belgian photographer’s series Blue Sky Days, which consists of images resembling this first one: we are always looking down, from above, often on unknowing civilians who go about their lives, or on carefully controlled landscapes. Tomas van Houtryve travelled across the United States to photograph either the sort of gatherings that have been struck by numerous US-coordinated air-strikes over foreign countries in recent years – weddings, funerals, groups of people praying or exercising – or domestic areas typically surveilled by drones – prisons, oil fields, and borders – by attaching a camera to a small drone, which he then flew over what he wanted to capture. In what follows I will argue that Blue Sky Days ultimately engages the spectator in a critique of what I describe as a “rhetoric of precision”. The portfolio does so, I will argue, by insisting that seeing is never merely a technical question: it is also always an ethical question. I will frame my discussion with reference to three of the photographs van Houtryve took for the series.
The Rhetoric of Precision
The use of armed drones, the argument goes, is “very precise and very limited in terms of collateral damage,” to quote then-director of the CIA Leon Panetta in a much-cited statement that dates back to May 2009 (Panetta 2009). Obama echoed this view three years later, arguing that “drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties,” adding that “[f]or the most part they have been precise, precision strikes against al-Qaeda and their affiliates” (Holewinski 2015, 42). “Drones enable great precision,” argues Michael Waltz, a former counterterrorism advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney and a Special Forces officer in the reserves, according to himself one “among the last of the pre-drone combat generation” (Rotherberg 2015, 214). Thus the rhetoric of precision, perhaps the clearest expression of how arguments for the implementation of new warfare technology are steeped in the calculative logic George Lakoff refers to as “cost-benefit analysis” (Lakoff 1991, 25).
It is my contention that the use of the word “precision” – to describe, and equally importantly, argue for the escalating use of drone warfare in recent years – has become euphemistic under Obama, and represents yet another instance of the imperial ambition to create reality. “Euphemism,” R. W. Holder suggests, citing Henry Watson Fowler’s definition in Modern English Usage in his own Dictionary of Euphemisms, “means the use of a mild or vague or periphrastic expression as a substitute for blunt precision or disagreeable truth” (Holder 2008, vi). In warfare rhetoric it can often figure as a substitute for both. As Lakoff observes, in the context of Clausewitz’s metaphors “War is Politics pursued by other means” and “Politics is business,” war becomes a matter of maximizing political gains and minimizing losses: war is justified when there is more to be gained by going to war than by not going to war. If we set up an alternative metaphor, Lakoff suggests, such as: “War is Violent Crime: Murder, Assault, Kidnapping, Arson, Rape, and Theft,” then war would be understood in terms of its ethical dimension, and not its political or economic dimension (Lakoff 1991, 25-26, 28). Specific systems of metaphorical thought serve to present the language of war as rational: drone strikes are understood in terms of their technological precision rather than their ethical justification (Kaag and Kreps 2014).
Euphemism – “abuse” for torture, “collateral damage” for unintended killing or for unwanted political consequences – is the linguistic equivalent of obstructed, censored vision, Marianne Hirsch wrote in 2004, responding to the U.S. government’s control over images at the time – images of coffins, of wounded soldiers, of scenes of torture. As Hirsch observed, as George Orwell and Hannah Arendt did before her, euphemism is thus also an assertion of the power and danger of language (Hirsch 2004, 1214). Orwell, in “Politics and the English Language”, argued in 1946 that in political speech “words fall upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details” (Orwell 1968, 136-137). Arendt pointed out, in her coverage of the Eichmann trial (1963), that the very word “Sprachregelung” – the strategy used by the Nazis in order to describe their machinery of death – was in itself a euphemism for lying, with terms such as “Gnadentod” (“death of mercy”) for the killing of psychiatric patients, or “Endlösung” (“final solution”) for the systematic extermination of the Jewish population of Europe through genocide. In drawing our attention to this systematic, deliberate obfuscation, Arendt pointed to what can perhaps be regarded as the matrix of the contemporary use of euphemism in power politics. It is no accident that one of the editions of Holder’s euphemism dictionaries has been given the title How not to say what you mean.
The rhetoric of precision is substantiated by the visual culture that surrounds the drone strikes, in which images of drones flood the internet and the media, but few human beings are to be seen. With a few exceptions the drone operators are faceless and voiceless. A faux secrecy surrounds the drone program, which comes to exist as an “open secret” – everyone knows that strikes are carried out, and they are reported, but the military and the US government seldom participate in discussions about the circumstances around specific strikes, and often do not acknowledge the basic facts provided by humanitarian organizations and the like. Victims are often reduced to numbers of deaths in the news. The visual equivalent of the rhetoric of precision becomes a form of abstract, sanitized imagery where all we see are stock images of drones hovering mid-air over unspecified territories. One of the icons of high-tech contemporary warfare, the image of the body of the windowless, unmanned aircraft is a visualization that allows us to glimpse the machinery, but that ultimately renders accountability invisible.
Yet, if the proponents for an ever-escalating use of armed drones keep returning to the figure of precision, so do the opponents, arguing that strikes are in fact imprecise, with reference to high rates of civilian casualties under the drone program. When the so-called Drone Papers were published online by The Intercept in October 2015, containing new information leaked by a whistleblower, it appeared that 90 percent of people killed in recent strikes in Afghanistan were in fact not the intended targets. According to The Intercept’s source, these numbers illustrated the fact that the U.S. military had become overly reliant on signals intelligence, and significantly, on the use of metadata from phones and computers (“The Drone Papers”, 2015). In Drone, his small book in Bloomsbury’s “object lessons” series, Adam Rothstein points out that as of 2004, 50 percent of military drone accidents were attributable to human factors (Rothstein 2015, xiii). The precision of the weapon cannot erase the imprecision of bad intelligence. Furthermore, as Grégoire Chamayou observes, precision in terms of firing accuracy does not mean that the impact of a strike is reduced, since the “kill radius” of the projectile, or the perimeter of the explosion, can be up to 15 meters (Chamayou 2014, 141-142).
The over-reliance on precision technology can turn into a self-serving argument, enabling what Donald MacKenzie describes in Inventing Accuracy as “the plasticity of implications” (MacKenzie 1990, 363). Widely different and often conflicting arguments all tend to lead to the same conclusion: an increased use of armed drones. As MacKenzie points out, the introduction of new weaponry is often described as “modernization,” “as if it were the natural and unproblematic outcome of technological progress,” producing something like a technological determinism in the military (MacKenzie 1990, 383). Thus the persistent myth of precision is used to argue for ever-new generations of warfare technology, even in the face of increased knowledge. Andrew Cockburn has described how enormous amounts of money went into the development of so-called “precision guidance” in the 1970s, and kept flowing, in spite of meager results (Cockburn 2015, 36-37). “The military mission from Desert Storm through this post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan period of no-name war is ever more obsessed with perfecting the process of finding and killing the target,” William M. Arkin remarked in 2015: “only the imprecision of using such a euphemism is left” (Arkin 2015, 219).
As a concept, “precision” and the metaphorical matrix that surrounds it (“surgical precision”) attest to the intersecting lines of scientific and military cultures. “The generalized drive for precision”, M. Norton Wise points out in the introduction to the anthology The Values of Precision, a sort of cultural and scientific history of quantitative precision, “has regularly been linked to attempts to extend uniform order and control over large territories […]. Precision values always have another face, often hidden, the face that reveals the culture in which instruments of particular kinds are important, because the quantities they determine are valued” (Wise 1995, 4, 5). Quantification and calculation are not neutral processes. In fact, when Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794) made use of measuring instruments in his research in the 1770s and 1780s, and quantified methods were introduced into chemistry, quantification was strongly connected with argument, and the scientific use of the language of precision appeared clearly as a rhetoric, according to Jan Golinski (Golinski 1995, 74). The chemist’s precision measurements gained its significance in a specific context of use, as eighteenth-century science was marked by the quantifying spirit, and other disciplines envied the certainty and predictive power of Newton’s Principia (Golinski 1995, 72). The concepts of “accuracy” and “precision” have emerged, and have always been interlinked, with the development of military culture: in the course of the nineteenth century, for instance, precision measurement was manipulable and became infused with political values in the nuclear arms race, observes Kathryn Olesko (Olesko 1995, 126).
An Aesthetic of Precariousness
I would like to argue that what we might think of as an “aesthetic of precariousness,” evident in a range of artworks over the most recent years, has emerged in response to this rhetoric of precision. The aerial view figures prominently in all these works, which tend to confront the spectator with the sense that the unknowing individuals we are looking at are in harm’s way. They all envision an expanded battlefield in what Derek Gregory has deemed “the everywhere war” and many of them hint at a radically pervasive militarization of urban space and of border control (Gregory 2011). Finally, several of them reflect how images currently often circulate in ways that makes it hard to distinguish too sharply between spheres of media, art and public and political culture. They can all be said to share a “documentary impulse,” in the sense that they employ documentary materials and forms, at the same time as they are heavily invested in styles and strategies we traditionally associate with fiction formats, including enactments and stagings of various kinds. Which works am I referring to? I will mention five of them in order to provide a context for Blue Sky Days.
A most central figure in such a context is Trevor Paglen, whose work consistently and deliberately blurs the lines between science, investigative journalism, and contemporary art. “Migrants Seen By Predator Drone, U.S.-Mexico Border,” one of 100 photographs collected for the project The Last Pictures (2012), is a public domain image which lays bare the essential quality of the drone gaze: below us, unknowing individuals attempt to cross the border, as they are caught in the crosshairs of a weaponized, unmanned aircraft. The Last Pictures were collected on a disk encased in a gold-plated shell mounted to a satellite in geostationary orbit, an art show designed to last billions of years, as the ghost ship continues to circle our planet even after we are gone. It was not Paglen’s first use of such imagery. His 2010 video Drone Vision, which exploits a security flaw in the transmission of video from a drone to a pilot in the States, confronts the spectator with a similar sense that the drone is anthropomorphized as a pair of eyes, equipped with something resembling a searching gaze.
Such anthropomorphosis is perhaps nowhere clearer than in George Barber’s unnerving The Freestone Drone (2013), a gallery installation consisting of various objects and video projections combining found and made footage. The work revolves around the journey of a drone that has taken on a life of its own, and as spectators we look down at the machine as it glides over the landscape, sharing its perspective. A few minutes into the video we are introduced to a spoken-word narrative belonging to the drone, which turns out to have a lonely, rather poetic, childlike voice, making it eerily resemble a figure from children’s television (the video makes a direct reference to Thomas the Tank Engine). As the aircraft approaches the southern tip of Manhattan – “I popped over, you know, ignored orders to see it all myself” – and drifts solitarily over the iconic cityscape, inevitably reminding the viewer of the attacks on September 11, 2001 – it confesses to be “lightly armed”. “Underneath I had a couple of missiles,” it says, “nothing much, I could take out an apartment or a car, that kind of thing”. Tiny against the canyons of Manhattan, the aircraft gives expression to a nagging sense of ambiguity: “I didn’t like being me. Even with just two rockets I make people feel uneasy. Could I ever be a nice drone? I admit I give no warning. I’m a bit creepy”.
James Bridle’s Drone Shadow (2012–), a series of installations detailing the outline of a drone in 1:1 representations on the ground in various urban settings such as London, Washington, DC and Istanbul, also brings the drone to town, locating the machinery in environments markedly different from the landscapes of countries such as Afghanistan or Yemen. One of the major effects of the work is that it ascribes size, proportion and materiality to the aircraft, at the same time as it does not visualize it directly. Absent, the drones nevertheless appear remarkably physical in Bridle’s photographs, where the white lines on the ground are visible enough to be documented by a camera from above. Startlingly, the “shadows” appear in the midst of almost quotidian scenes, in which people go about their ordinary lives, as mindless of what might hover above them as the traffic that surrounds them. In the picture from Istanbul, the shadow appears on the forecourt of a Greek Orthodox church, bleeding into what is a busy road in the city, as a yellow taxi passes by; in Washington, DC, we see the contours of the aircraft on the rainy pavement right outside the Corcoran Gallery.
One of the best known artworks to raise questions concerning drone warfare in recent years is Omer Fast’s half-hour-long installation video 5,000 Feet is the Best (2011). Based on days of conversation with a traumatized drone pilot in a hotel room in Las Vegas, Fast’s work combines fictionalized interview reconstruction of these events with aerial footage and segments that resemble narrative fiction film. At times we cannot be certain of the nature of the footage, as when Fast makes use of conventional strategies of anonymization through the blurring of a face. The hybrid mix also raises questions about the relationship between image and sound, as audio from what appear to be the original, authentic conversations with the pilot are incorporated. Visualizing what uncannily resembles the targeting of an individual, a segment forces us to follow a kid on his bike in a suburb in Las Vegas, as we hover over him for unknown reasons. This re-location to suburbia reappears in what can perhaps be called the film’s constitutive narrative, in which we follow a family of four taking off in their car for a road trip. Everything seems relatively normal until they reach a checkpoint. The drive continues, from the freeway and eventually into a hilly, barren landscape, where the family comes upon three armed men digging a hole in the narrow, dusty road. The perspective changes, and we watch the car, now tiny as a toy, from above, as it appears in sharp black and white, under the cross hairs of the camera eye. Then the perspective changes back to the ground again, as a hellfire missile shoots through the air, killing the men, leaving the members of the family bloody and hurt, stumbling out of the car and away from the scene, severely, perhaps mortally, wounded and maimed.
What is it that makes these aerial perspectives so disturbing? In the case of Paglen’s found image, the answer should be clear. Unlike the other images it documents a very real instance of border surveillance. Predator drones are weaponized, and the cross hairs in the image signal the capacity to inflict violence on the individuals we see, who are reduced to mere dark dots in the greyish, blurry landscape. We understand immediately that we are not looking at a conventional documentary image, but rather at what Harun Farocki has described as an “operative image”. Such images, according to Farocki, “do not represent an object, but rather are part of an operation” (Farocki 2004, 17). This influential notion, originally offered in an essay about automated warheads, reflects an understanding of an image that “is not only showing things, but doing things” (Hoelzl 2014). “Images are no longer limited to a political and iconic representation”, Ingrid Hoelzl writes, “they are not only an interface, but play an active role in synchronic data exchanges” (Hoelzl 2014). As Niels Van Tomme observes, the effects of the emergence of operative imagery “points to a man-made reformatting of our entire field of vision, suggesting a world of images that has moved beyond our reach” (Van Tomme 2014, 29). Thomas Elsaesser sees a “more general shift of our culture towards recoding seeing into a form of action,” in which technologies of imaging:
“are not means of assisting sight, whether of real of imagined things, but technologies of probing and penetration. As vision machines, they generate knowledge that has little to do with human perception or seeing, in the sense of ‘I see’ meaning ‘I know’, and more to do with controlling territory, occupying space, monitoring a situation, and mining it for useful information or active intervention’ (Elsaesser 2013: 242).
Re-mediated and re-circulated by Paglen, the image, whose original purpose and operational quality was to assist in armed border surveillance, now plays a different role, as a document of the fact that such an operation once took place.
In doing so, the image comes to represent an aesthetic of precariousness. The image invites us to consider the fact that the very concept of precariousness works, with its connotations of uncertainty and risk, against our notions of precision. The “precarious” individual, etymology teaches us, is “dependent on the will of another,” although its meanings were extended through the decades of the seventeenth century, leading the word to describe a more general sense of insecurity. Antonyms to “precarious,” such as “safe” and “secure,” in fact lead us in the direction of the connotative realm of “precision”: “Precision is everything that ambiguity, uncertainty, messiness, and unreliability are not. It is responsible, nonemotional, objective, and scientific,” Wise points out in the introduction to The Values of Precision.
Drones present a particular risk that technical precision is confused with moral or legal precision, John Kaag and Sarah Kreps argue in Drone Warfare. Whereas the first is an issue of fact, the second is an issue of value (Kaag and Kreps 2014, 132-135). Likewise, Grégoire Chamayou observes the confusion between the technical precision of the weapon and its capacity to discriminate in the choice of targets in A Theory of the Drone. “The fact that your weapon enables you to destroy precisely whomever you wish does not mean that you are more capable of making out who is and who is not a legitimate target,” writes Chamayou: “The precision of the strike has no bearing on the pertinence of the targeting in the first place” (Chamayou 2014, 143).
Now appearing to us as a document of its operative quality and its powers as vision machine, “Migrants Seen By Predator Drone, U.S.-Mexico Border” stirs us into awareness of what kind of aerial view we are confronted with. In her timely interrogation into the ethics of representation in Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, Judith Butler sees an “evacuation of the human through the image” in the contemporary mainstream media coverage of war:
“The war coverage has brought into relief the need for a broad de-monopolizing of media interests, legislation for which has been, predictably, highly contested on Capitol Hill. We think of these interests as controlling rights of ownership, but they are also, simultaneously, deciding what will and will not be publicly recognizable as reality. They do not show violence, but there is a violence in the frame in what is shown. That latter violence is the mechanism through which certain lives and deaths either remain unrepresentable or become represented in ways that effects their capture (once again) by the war effort. The first is an effacement through occlusion; the second is an effacement through representation itself” (Butler 2004, 146).
As Butler points out, “the aerial view” is often preferred to graphic photos of dead soldiers or maimed children, “an aerial view whose perspective is established and maintained by state power” (Butler 2004, 149). But even if the photographs of children burning and dying from napalm during the Vietnam War shocked the US public to its core, the images also, despite their graphic effectivity, “pointed somewhere else, beyond themselves, to a life and to a precariousness that they could not show,” Butler contends (Butler 2004, 150). To her, “[f]or representation to convey the human […] representation must not only fail, but it must show its failure. There is something unrepresentable that we nevertheless seek to represent, and that paradox must be retained in the representation we give” (Butler 2004, 144). Re-mediated and re-circulated by Paglen, the image of the migrants, rendered as shadowy, faceless individuals, unknowingly under threat by an unseen force from above – a visualization that was never intended to reach a general audience – is marked precisely by its failure to represent the precariousness of the human beings it monitors, who appear as possible targets in a surveillance operation in an aerial view now wrested from the control of state power.
Even if the works by Barber, Bridle and Fast make use of collage and staging in their depiction of drone vision, a fact that give them a status that is different from Paglen’s found image, they can nevertheless be said to emerge in response to the rhetoric of precision and represent an aesthetic of precariousness. In creating quasi-operative images, images that pose as operative so to speak, the artists question the capacity of the technology to “see” the individuals that are depicted with various degrees of precision. In Barber’s video the drone flies so high that we are looking down at a city population rather than a group of people, at the buildings and vehicles that house and transport human bodies, rather than the bodies themselves. In Bridle’s and Fast’s works, we are confronted with what Hugh Gusterson calls “remote intimacy,” a conflicted sense of closeness and distance at the same time, as we peek right into their everyday life activities. One would suspect that few things are more familiar than the sight of a kid on a bike riding through quiet suburban streets, and yet the gliding eye in the sky in Fast’s video more than hints at targeting, even without the cross hairs, filling the footage with anticipation of something terrible to come.
Shadows on the Ground
Having outlined what I find to be an aesthetic of precariousness in a selection of contemporary artworks I would now like to return to Tomas van Houtryve’s Blue Sky Days, a series of photographs which share several of the characteristics of the images I have already discussed, but also represents something new. More often than not, van Houtryve’s pictures appear in a narrative context in which the reader or viewer is explicitly invited to reflect on their quality as quasi-operative images – that is, to imagine that what we see are images captured by a possibly weaponized drone used for surveillance and/or warfare. Consulting van Houtryve’s own presentation of the project on his web page (http://tomasvh.com/) for instance, the reader can download a media kit in which the photographer explains his purpose with Blue Sky Days in a two-page statement, where he writes: “By creating these images, I aim to draw attention to the changing nature of personal privacy, surveillance, and contemporary warfare”. Like Bridle’s activist work, van Houtryve’s pictures are motivated by social and political commitment, and the availability of a downloadable kit adds a significant didactic dimension to the project.
The distinctive, defining formal aspect of van Houtryve’s photographs, apparent even to any viewer that would come upon them without any narrative context whatsoever, is their particular rendering of the human individuals on the ground. Either taken very early or late in the day, the pictures consistently create a contrast in scale and proportion between the shadow and its source, inviting reflection on the relationship between the two. The pictures give the spectator a double vision: taking in the visual information in what we can decode to be a playground (figure 2), we first see shadows, and then go on to look for the individuals that correspond to these shadows. This movement, in which we trace the material bodies indicated by the immaterial traces of shadows, is fundamental, since it confronts us with a drone vision which is simultaneously a top view and a lateral view. On the one hand, the physical bodies we see are mere coordinates, reminding us that the drone operator’s perspective is “remote and objectifying” (Gusterson 2016, 8-9), an aerial view that reduces precarious life to “tiny figures” (Chamayou 2014, 114) – a view which in the Blue Sky Days photographs is marked by the technical precision of the high-definition imagery. On the other hand, this sense of precision is threatened by the visual information provided by the shadows, which paradoxically allows us to recognize and “see” the figures on the ground as human beings, and to acknowledge their state of precariousness. It is in this movement from registration to acknowledgment that the central tension of the images lies, their insistence that seeing is never merely a technical question, but also always an ethical question. It lends a performative quality to the pictures in Blue Sky Days, which, in spite of being quasi-operative images, have an operative function of their own: to not as much document what exactly is happening on the ground, as to document the nature of the gaze that observes it.
Carefully chosen by van Houtryve, several of the titles and captions of the project add to this sense of conflicted, double vision. By titling a photograph of a yoga class in a San Francisco public park “Signature Behavior” (figure 3), the photographer draws our attention to the intelligence that allows the US to carry out so-called “signature strikes” based on calculations of patterns of behavior. These differ from “personality strikes,” which are carried out based on information about individuals. Upon publication of the picture of the yoga class, van Houtryve took to asking viewers what they thought they were seeing in the image. About half tend to answer that they see people practicing yoga; as many think they are looking at people praying (Silverman 2014, Radnor 2014). This interrogation of the image and its visual information – the fraught attempts to distinguish its patterns of movement – reflects back on the entire series, including the picture of the playground: the mundanity of everyday life, with all its regularity and repetition, is recognizable in the rhythm of the swing, in the circling motions of the carousel, in the interaction between children and adults on a sunny day, but this social interactivity in a communal space seems to entangle these individuals in a shared precariousness, as they appear in each other’s radius, whether in the playground, on the baseball field, or in the public park.
In Blue Sky Days, the figure of the shadow also appears, then, as a visual trope, as an ambiguous mark of human presence, which resonates with various implications in cultural history. The shadow is of course the constitutive figure of Plato’s cave allegory, but it also holds a particular place in the origin myths of the visual arts; some readers will know Pliny the Elder’s story in Naturalis Historia of how a shadow on the wall, delineated and thereafter recreated as plastic art, is transformed into a token of memory of the absent lover. The figure of the shadow appears both as a metaphor for epistemological uncertainty and for cultural commemoration, and it is often associated with death. In his magisterial reading of the shadow as a trope in poetry, The Substance of Shadow, John Hollander reminds us how shadows “are related to our eternal condition – to our contours, rather than to our more substantial mass. And yet their very insubstantiality has allowed shadows to be seen both as residues or traces of something palpable and more profoundly animated and, more enigmatically, as emanations of something internal to us” (Hollander 2016, 3).
This doubleness informs van Houtryve’s pictures, in which the cast shadows are both a form of signature and indexical trace, and also appear as a visualization of fragile, precarious life – or even as a kind of prefiguration of death. Caught up in their everyday life activities, the individuals on the ground only really appear to us through their shadows, and thus take on an uncanny, ghostly quality – and yet it is through this aspect of their existence, however phantasmatic it may appear, that we are able to see them and recognize them as human.
As Hollander observes, shadows might appear in the depiction of objects and bodies – say, in a human face – or as here, as separate, cast shadows, and then there is also the ”covering, sheltering, beneficent shade,” into which the individuals in Blue Sky Days have not retreated, directly exposed as they are to the sun. The title of the portfolio is certainly accurate, but it turns out to be more than a meteorological description. In fact van Houtryve is quoting Zubair Rehman, the grandson of a 67-year-old woman who died while picking okra outside her house in a drone strike in northeast Pakistan in October 2012. At a briefing in Washington, DC, Rehman, then 13, who was injured by shrapnel in the attack, spoke to a group of lawmakers, and said: “I no longer love blue skies. In fact, I now prefer gray skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are gray”. The clarity that allows for precision in the strike is a source of trepidation and anxiety, because the weather conditions in themselves serve as an argument for a strike. The body that casts a shadow is thus in danger, exposed to far worse a threat then the damaging rays of the sun. Perhaps the most important function of the shadows in van Houtryve’s photographs, then, is to muddle the precision of their technical vision, and introduce an ethical vision into our encounter with the images.
“Every history is really two histories. There is the history of what actually happened, and there is the history of the perception of what happened”. On the face of it, this observation, which opens W.J.T. Mitchell’s 2011 book Cloning Terror, might seem obvious: certainly it has always been so. But as Mitchell goes on to explain, today “[t]he shaping of perceptions of history does not have to wait for historians or poets, but is immediately represented in audio-visual-textual images transmitted globally” (Mitchell 2011, xi). Blue Sky Days intervenes into this ongoing transmission, and problematizes the ways in which a rhetoric of precision is mobilized in order to shape public perceptions of drone warfare. As Donald MacKenzie claims in Inventing Accuracy, technologies are always socially conditioned, and “it follows from this that there may be a very real, and politically important, sense in which accuracy can be uninvented” (MacKenzie 1990, 4). “Precision,” as we have noted, is a concept with its own history, with its own genealogy, but its meanings are not carved in stone. Perhaps one might say that van Houtryve’s photographs, through their double vision, in fact perform a sort of language work, laying bare the euphemistic character of the rhetoric of precision, thus enabling a strategy of “uninventing precision”.