This paper was developed for a panel “The Ethics and Itineraries of Visual Data”, in which I was invited to participate at the recent 2015 meeting of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, Montreal. It represents some of my thinking thus far with the drones project.

Visual Itineraries of the Sovereign: The Drone Gaze

In his seminal essay “Necropolitics”, Achille Mbembe (2003) opens with the following polemic: “…the ultimate expression of sovereignty resides, to a large degree, in the power and the capacity to dictate who may live and who must die” (11). This short paper brings Mbembe’s understanding of the sovereign to a discussion of how technologies of drone warfare produce and map the limits of human life as a vector of visuality. My understanding of visuality is drawn from Gregory’s (2011) concept of “scopic regimes”, which extends “vision as a purely biological capacity” to include “culturally or techno-culturally mediated ways of seeing” which are historically variable (190). I employ the term the ‘drone gaze’ to refer to these scopic regimes and how they are articulated as social and cultural relations. Exploring the drone as a prosthetic of violence that distributes the intimacy of killing from the human to the machine, I consider UAV’s as one form of “aerial life” (Adey 2010) that shapes and defines the sovereign. To do this, I discuss how the drone gaze produces human life via the rhetorics of “pattern of life analysis” (Chamayou) – the technologies of data gathering and interpretation used by drone operators and analysts in determining strike targets.

Drawing on Gregory’s (2014) argument that the drone gaze is more than an “optical affair”, but rather an “embodied, techno-culturally mediated process that involves a series of structured dispositions to view the other as Other (and often dangerous Other)”, I explore “pattern of life analysis” as an itinerary of data production that produces the sovereign as violence. Such violences, however, are not absolute. I reflect on two artistic projects that use visual narratives to resist and refigure the data itineraries of the drone gaze: “The Drone Survival Guide”, a downloadable and portable info-metric created by Dutch designer Ruben Pater ( and IOCOSE collective’s “Drone Selfies”, an artwork that explores “the life of the drone after war and terror” ( This paper is part of a larger project, “The Cultural Life of Drones”, that explores, through a variety of case studies, the ways in which drones operate as apparatuses of contemporary colonialism that animate particular “imaginative geographies” (Gregory), practices and performances of being human.

I’m at the preliminary stages of my thinking with this project and so this paper is an opportunity to play with some ideas and to generate questions. I begin by parsing out what I mean when I use the phrase “the cultural life of drones”. I’m particularly interested in the idea of embodiment and how one’s corporeal and affective responses to military drones become part of one’s knowledge of the social relations of war. Andre Green (1999), in his monograph that surveys the status of affect in psychoanalytic discourse via a reading of Freud, describes affect as having two overlapping dimensions: it is both somatic (of the body) and psychical (of the mind). We might understand affect as the urge to bring a bodily experience that has yet to be named into representation via the work of psychic symbolization (8). Affect is thus an internal phenomenon through which the self is called into presence in relation to an encounter with the outside world. With regard to the cultural life of drones, I am therefore interested to explore the affective dimensions of our relationships to drone technologies and the discourses that surround them – those generated from within drone industries as well as those reflecting popular vernaculars, political platforms, and scholarly analyses. With each of these different (and yet overlapping) discursive regimes, I am interested to think about how conflict as it is represented in the world outside touches upon ones own archive of conflicted experience. To do this, I’m going to experiment with a particular method of cultural analysis that I have been working with for some time and that I have found particularly generative as a way to trace the movement between affect and thought. Here I draw on Mieke Bal’s (2009) insistence that “cultural analysis should not be taken literally – or analytically – as meaning the “taking apart” of culture. Rather, cultural analysts interpret the way in which cultures take things, people and themselves “apart””(227). In this sense, cultural analysis is an interpretive practice aimed at exploring how culture implicates and undoes us rather than concretize experience. Likewise, interpretation seeks not to authorize elusive truths about culture, but instead to disrupt our methods of meaning making and so provoke new questions about what culture can mean.

It is my view that the work of artists can help us here. Rather than analyze the works by Pater and the IOCOSE collective according to their formal aspects or theoretical underpinnings, I am interested in how these projects perform an aesthetic intervention into theory. The word intervention conjures the idea of the action of coming between – an interference – into the order of things. My desire is therefore to explore how these two aesthetic projects interrupt, or interfere with, the recognized scripts of cultural analysis and to privilege the free associative qualities of thought. To this end, as I read my paper, I will provide certain visual prompts that juxtapose the theoretical with the aesthetic. The intent is to provoke a more open ended reading of the theory against the creative projects and vice versa, and so to generate new questions about the cultural life of drones.

Adey’s (2010) work on aeromobilies can start us off (2010). His interest is with the ways in which technologies that take us to the air shape and define the scope of our social movements, including “the places we may go; the kinds of violence we may inflict; the scale, extent and manner of our surveillance…” Thinking with the affective realm of experience, I would add that the ways in which we psychically symbolize our relation to drone technologies – as terror, or the monstrous, or the uncanny, for example – should also be theorized as a dimension of aeromobility. As one form of aero mobility drones “alter the shape and sovereignty of the space above us…” but also the ways in which we think of ourselves as sovereign subjects and indeed as human. Who are the others, Adey asks, “identified, targeted and produced through the lived techniques and practices of drone life?” To think about this question I want to work closely with two short chapters from Chamayou’s (2013) recent thought project, “A Theory of the Drone”. The chapters are titled “Surveillance and Annihilation” and “Pattern of Life Analysis”.

Image 1


Quo Modo Deum – the eye of God [Image 1]. Chamayou begins his reflection on surveillance and annihilation with a reproduction of a 17th century wood cut from a book on alchemy. The image shows an unblinking eye hovering in the sky over a man made landscape. A literal translation of the Latin is “this is the way of God”, suggesting a celestial subjectivity that both sees all and points the way. There are other, more recent translations of this visual imagery, for example the Great Seal of the United States, designed in 1782 by Charles Thompson, and which appears on the US $1 dollar bill. With the phrase Annuit Coeptis, loosely translated as “providence has favored our undertakings”, the Great Seal binds the eye of God to the development of military might and the project of US sovereignty as perpetual war. In more contemporary terms, references to the eye of God and divine regimes of sovereign visuality are common to military parlance: referring to drones, Colonel Theodore Osowski, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force Warfare Center says that “It’s kind of like having God overhead. And lightening comes down in the form of a Hellfire” (Chamayou, 37). In this phantasy – God is the drone that sees all, but his is not a benevolent gaze – indeed, with the right purpose and target sovereignty is delivered in the form of a Hellfire missile. Donna Haraway foretells this “violence of seeing from nowhere” in which vision “becomes unregulated gluttony; all seems not just mythically about the god trick of seeing everything from nowhere, but to have put the myth into ordinary practice. And like the god trick, this eye fucks the world to make techno-monsters’ (Haraway 1991: 581). Haraway’s characterization of an all-seeing eye that fucks the world reminds us that the monstrous is not just out there but also an “ordinary practice” of cultural life. If we think about cultural analysis and social theory as ordinary practices that orient our ways of thinking and knowing, how do they also refract such myths of monstrosity?

“The drone dreams”, Chamayou purports, “of achieving through technology a miniature equivalence to that fictional eye of God” (37). The drone dreams, he writes. But of course we know that the drone, an inanimate machine, cannot dream. Dreams, Freud tells us, are the royal road to the unconscious and make manifest our deepest wishes and impulses. The drone’s wish may be for omnipotence, but at the core of that dream is a human whose gaze is merged with that of the drone. One drone pilot, who completed over 6,000 flight hours during his six years in the US Air Force, recalls his inability to sleep because of his violent dream life, an occurrence he attributed to his work with drones. Many of his missions were conducted at night using infrared technology. Having left the military, debilitated and broken by his experience, the pilot relays somewhat melancholically, “I haven’t been dreaming in infrared for four months” (Bryant in Abe, 2012). How do we understand narratives such as these as part of a conversation about how drone technologies, and the laboring bodies that produce them, function as the “domestic labor” of the nation (Georgis 2011)?

This techno-cultural merging – of the eye of god, of the drone gaze, of the human field of perception – is one principle of the cultural life of drones. Chamayou outlines six more that underlie the relationship between surveillance and annihilation. I read these principles for the ways in which they help us parse out the overlapping dimensions of visuality as sovereign violence. The first is “persistent surveillance or permanent watch” (38). The drone is a mechanical eye with no lids – it does not sleep – and so the operators on the ground share this extended temporality. It also means that those who are subject to the drone’s disciplinary gaze are under permanent visual observation. What are the affective dimensions of this logic, both for those who develop and operate drone technologies and those who are subject to them?

Image 2

Image 2

The second principle Chamayou describes is that of the “totalization of perspectives or synoptic viewing” (38) [Image 2]. Through technologies of “wide-area surveillance” for example, the drone’s field of vision is spatially as well as temporally extended. This is exemplified by the US military’s Gorgon Stare video capture technology, a spherical array of 9 cameras attached to a Reaper drone and capable of capturing the motion imagery of an entire city. Recalling Greek mythology, the Gorgon are three female figures – one of whom is Medusa – whose stare could turn one to stone. It is somewhat telling that drone developers have readily adopted this metaphor in their marketing language. In technological terms, the Gorgon Stare references the ability to freeze a real-time scene view for later analysis, as well as the capacity for increased efficiency; in other words, a shortened kill chain as well as targeted precision.

Image 3

Image 3

The third principle outlined by Chamayou is that of “creating an archive or film of everyone’s life” (39) [Image 3]. “Optical surveillance”, he submits, “is not limited to the present time. It also assumes the important function of recording and archiving” (39). The idea behind creating a giant visual archive, a digital document that captures the quotidian life of a city, is to generate “an informative catalogue”, writes Chamayou, “in which everyone’s life would become retrospectively visible” (41). Derrida (1998) theorizes the archive as the human drive, under the pressure of death, to leave a trace. Put in more banal terms, the archive solves the problem of recollection: we archive so that we can forget. Memory is kept safe in an external substrate so that it can be accessed, forgotten until the time at which access is needed. In this way the archive is never only about the past, but the coming of the future, and Derrida argues, a messianic one at that (17). The archive, he submits, “determines the structure of the archivable content even in its very coming into existence and in its relationship to the future. The archivization produces as much as it records the event.” (17). What can these insights means for the big data produced by technologies of wide-angle surveillance? What future is being anticipated by the creation of such scopic regimes?

Image 4

Image 4

One answer is anticipated by Chamayou’s fourth and fifth principles of the relation between surveillance and annihilation – data fusion and schematization of forms of life. The archival aim is to combine the scopic with other regimes of representation – for instance the sonic or the thermal – to create a searchable, 3-dimensional document [Image 4] as the basis for engaging, following Gregory, a “cartography of lives”. What is mapped out (and the archive anticipates this) is a possible future in which supposed targets deviate from their lived norms and so reveal themselves as suspect. Indeed, ESRI, a global leader in GIS development, which netted over $1.1b last year, markets their own technology for reading and analyzing such archives. Named AcrGIS, the technology “renders critical geospatial intelligence for the reporting and prediction of social networks and cell behaviour” ( [Image 5].

Image 5

Image 5

The goal, they suggest, is to identify a person’s day-to-day interaction with their environment, including family and social interactions, frequented locations and personal habits through geospatial referencing. This data is then available for “pattern of life analysis”, an algorithmic approach to identifying individuals not by their identities but rather how their behavior fits a particular profile. An archive of the future; and the future – in the cultural life of drones – is annihilation. Chamayou describes the work of schematization as “the detection of anomalies and preemptive anticipation” (43). As one Air Force intelligence analyst states: “You’re now getting into culture study…you’re looking at people’s lives” (43). It is this ‘looking’, the specific scopic regime of the drone, that configures the sovereign as the anticipation of violence and that manifests, in Mbembe’s (2003) terms “the power and the capacity to dictate who may live and who must die” (11).

To open a conversation about how one might begin to refigure and resist these data itineraries of violence, I now turn to the artists [Image 1]. I’ve included here an image by US artist James Bridle (2012), whose work attempts to make explicit the scopic regimes that underlie the drone gaze ( This statement made by a drone operator talking about targeting an IED site, inspired the work:

“We call it in, and we’re given all the clearances that are necessary, all the approvals and everything else, and then we do something called the Light of God – the Marines like to call it the Light of God. It’s a laser targeting marker. We just send out a beam of laser and when the troops put on their night vision goggles they’ll just see this light that looks like it’s coming from heaven. Right on the spot, coming out of nowhere, from the sky. It’s quite beautiful.” (quoted in Omer Fast, “5000 ft is the best”, 2011)

Unable to locate any pictures of the phemomenon, Bridle digitally constructed this one, based on laser targeting night systems and a photograph of the Iraqi desert. The image plays on the relation between surveillance and annihilation suggested by Chamayou and reflects a number of his principles. In historical terms the sublime is associated with the Light of God, perceived perhaps only by the chosen few but nevertheless omniscient. However, to see a laser beam under conditions of darkness, itself an aesthetic experience (the color green is chosen for night vision because of its visible light frequency), one must have access to certain technologies, as the military certainly do. Bridle’s image makes explicit the relations between aesthetics, technology and the killing gaze in order to draw our attention to the scopic regimes of annihilation that support the sovereign project.

Dutch designer Ruben Pater’s “Drone Survival Guide” explore similar themes, though with a more educational aim. His goal with this project is to “inform citizens about the dangers and capabilities of drones used by governments worldwide” ( Created in 2012, the portable document is available in 32 languages and shows the silhouettes of 27 military drones. On the reverse, are a series of countermeasures explaining how to disrupt and avoid drone sensors. Obviously a fiction, because a piece of mirrored paper is not going to protect anyone from the gorgon stare, the project nonetheless raises a series of questions about how people might resist the increasing use of drone technologies, in both their domestic and military applications.

[Image 2]. Pater credits this painting by Prussion artist Bernhard Rode as an inspiration for his Drone Survival Guide. As the myth tells us, Perseus defeated the Gorgon sisters’ deadly stare by using a mirror to deflect their gaze. Perseus’ use of the mirror is not for his self-reflection but rather his self-preservation – he is now able to view the Other without fear of being destroyed. But this myth contains a clever twist when we think about subject formation. For Lacan, the ‘mirror stage’, instantiated in infanthood but a structural element throughout ones’ life, establishes the ego as dependent on something external to the self. The mirror represents a regime of visuality through which one learns to recognize oneself as distinct from others and yet dependent upon them. Perseus finds a way to symbolize death while witnessing himself in relation to it, which gives the myth its force. But what of Pater’s Drone Survival Guide? [Image 3] It too alters the violence of the gaze that seeks annihilation, not because it protects the wearer but because it makes apparent the scopic regime that seeks to produce it as well as the ways in which we are differently implicated through practices of everyday life.

I’ll close with a short discussion of the IOCOSE collective’s Drone Selfies, one of two artworks as part of their “In Times of Peace” project [Image 4]. Exploring “the life of the drone after war and terror”, their project seeks to answer the question: what would a drone do if war and terror were over? Inspired by Virilio’s idea that war is an anticipatory attitude of the sovereign that finds footing “in times of peace”, the artist’s explore what it means to live in peace as merely a strategic condition of sovereignty [Image 5]. We can see a play between the directive of pattern of life analysis to “draw conclusions from relationships” and this image title “Bedroom”. In the absence of targets, the suggestion is that the drone gaze seeks itself, an act of vanity that mutes its’ visual violence. But, as with Perseus’ mirror, a new kind of relation is reflected: one that raises the question of the self as distinct from the other and yet dependent upon them. Who am I, without the targeted Other? Who am I, without war? Who am I, in times of peace? For me, the provocation raised by Drone Selfies is: where is human aggression and how do we theorize its affect as part of the anticipatory attitude of sovereign wars?


Abé, Nicola. 2012. Dreams in Infrared: The Woes of an American Drone Operator Spiegel Online, Dec 14, 2012. Retrieved March 23, 2015 (

Adey, Peter. 2010. Aerial Life: Spaces, Mobilities, Affects. Oxford: Wiley & Sons.

Chamayou, Grégoire. 2013. Théorie du Drone. Paris: La Fabrique.

Derrida, Jacques. 1995. Archive Fever. Trans. Eric Prenowitz. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Gregory, Derek. 2014. Theory of the Drone 3: Killing Grounds. Retrieved August, 27, 2014.

Haraway, Donna. J. 1991. Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. London: Free Association Books.

Lacan, Jaques. 1949 (1980) “The Mirror State as Formative in the Function of the I as Revealed in the Psychoanalytic Experience”, p.502-509 in Écrits, A Selection, Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock.

Mbembe, Achille. 2003. Necropolitics. Public Culture 15(1):11-40.

Virilio, Paul and Sylvere Lotringer. 1983. Pure War. Semiotext(e)/Foreign Agents.

Virilio, Paul. 2001. “Strategies of Deception”, p 173 in The Kosovo W@r Did Take Place: interview with John Armitage. Virilio Live, John Armitage (ed.). London: Sage.


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The Brian J Wilson

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