Archive for the ‘Essay’ Category

Modulomag Art Notes: Susan Sontag and “Art’s flight from interpretation”

September 19, 2010

Lately I’ve been rereading Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation and other Essays, the titular title essay of which I would like to discuss a little…

Susan Sontag smokes a cig and is herself smokin'

In Against Interpretation Sontag explains what in her view is the problem with “modern art,” or art in general, as a delicate substance pulled taut between theory and praxis, where it often ruptures, over-interpreted by its theory and overdetermined in its praxis, and moreover that interpretation itself has very little to do with actual work in all its sensual peculiarities. Hence why she offers the following quote of Oscar Wilde’s in an epigram, that “it is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.” Right on.

Monsieur Wilde!

Now, the idea that interpretation always constitutes or at least begins with dissatisfaction felt towards a work of art and a concomitant desire to replace it with something else, perhaps one’s own “version” of it, is a very interesting one indeed. And yet, when taking this above example along with, say, this extract from Sontag’s text (talking about Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence)—”Taken as a brute object, as an immediate sensory equivalent for the mysterious abrupt armored happenings going on inside the hotel, that sequence with the tank is the most striking moment in the film. Those who reach for a Freudian interpretation of the tank are only expressing their lack of response to what is there on the screen.”—and though this might sound stupid of me to say (or “philistinic”, in Sontag’s parlance), does this all not comprise an interpretive reading of what it means to interpret? What’s more, the language here is hardly only “descriptive,” as per what Sontag advocates, but ventures into what cannot be only immediately gleamed from the film’s represented events, where the “tank” is taken in its capacity as a sign or cipher, which she then interprets.

While I really do agree with her final, somewhat ridiculously presented statement, I would instead rephrase it: that we need is less of a hermeneutics and more of an “erotics” of art, or to at least read alternately between these lines. (And then again, are these categories in fact two polarities to be read between? I am not so sure.) I also agree that interpretation takes the sensory experience of art for granted, and while we might amend that, as to knowingly pause and explore a work sensually, it is not on the sensual level where our relations with the perceived reside, and ultimately, insofar as there is a life of the mind and not only a life of the body, for they are one and the same, that is, inasmuch as sensing and perceiving find their way into thinking and ideation; the encounter itself is always also an interpretation, e.g. what this means to me, or, even on the most basic level, whether it appeals to me or not, etc. Ultimately, it seems that the awe one feels at the sight of a work of art, that is, upon one’s initial encounter with it, ends up as a mental impression. To merely admire the Nile of Marcel Proust’s language, as Walter Benjamin puts it, for its “Nileness” seems like so much, and yet, just as a river does, this all leads elsewhere, and so too are we taken, we who drift along in its currents. The same of course goes for the visual and the aural; inasmuch as a work impresses itself upon us, it takes on a new life, it inspires new work. The interpretive act is itself what animates the creative process, what allows for the creation of new imaginative space.

Granted, we do not try to look at, say, the Grand Canyon and identify its intellectual “content” or even what it “means” in the same way as we do when looking at a painting or reading a book, yet one was not consciously made and one was; in one there resides the telos present in the willful creation of every singular human work by an equally singular human agent, and in one there is the truly uninterpretable cyclicality of nature, which has no creator, inasmuch as it has no reason-for-being, and that points to nothing but itself and therefore is totally undeconstructible (“what you see is what you get”).

Lascaux: the world's first art gallery?

One thing that I have often overheard said by someone speaking of works of art, or a particular work, which left them in a “state of awe,” is how “God himself could not have done it better” (or at least some variation on that statement).  It might then be said in turn that the extent to which an artwork is sublime is the extent to which it approaches the “condition of nature,” that is, that condition of having no creator or not having been created at all, of never having been touched by human hands. Likewise, nothing can be discovered about the ostensible “products” of nature other than perhaps how they came to be—that is, the total and absolute arbitrariness of natural laws—as where it is solely the position of human works, in their capacity as ciphers allowing the perpetual reconceivability (that is, reformulatability) of their content, that they speak to us, in whose ears their unique signatures register; in this circuit the shared world is crystallized, the void upon which it was founded made, if only fleetingly, traversable. (Though, in the end, we can only recreate the scene at Babel; our world is ultimately doomed to fail, or civilization is a project that will never know completeness.)

"The Tower of Babel" - Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1563)

Above all, art is the organ of meaning (or that which at least approaches meaning); as each individual encounters a work of art for the first time there is born a new reading, and it is this very process which one might see as world-building, as it creates new imaginative space that in turn allows for the creation of new works, which in turn constitute the things of the world, as has been said. For even deconstruction is in a way also itself a perverse and radical construction or reconfiguration, inasmuch as the law must be broken for there to thus be new law; chaos is necessary for order, polysemy for the fixity of meaning, that is, its possibility, which is always deferred, hence why we must keep renewing, rereading, remaking and, above all, re-interpreting all that is being made. It is through the interpretation of a work that the “content” is created; the content of a work of art is the individual’s reading thereof. Only when interpretation becomes institutionalized, or a “project,” so to speak, its aggression building in the perpetual gold rush that is academia, that interpretation becomes destructive in its over-determined, traumatic “excavation” of art, which does violence to its fragile particularity.

Exquisite Excavators: Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault

However much Sontag says that she means not to advocate a “programmatic avant-gardism…[of an] art…perpetually on the run,” that is nevertheless precisely what has and will occur in the wake of such theories as hers. It is not a question of making art accountable for itself, for that would be to suggest that the work of art itself has inherent—that is, as it may exist apart from a reader or viewer—content and is inherently meaningful, which it is not. It is however a question of art remaining human and within any kind human relatability; that art not become self-obsessed or self-conscious, and thus render itself opaque, for art is not merely what is seen in a mirror, it is a mirror into which we look ourselves.

"Pygmalion and Galatea" - Jean-Leon Gerome (1904)

Art’s “flight from interpretation” is a sham, and above all constitutes a new artifice that has totally abandoned itself to the vertigo, the mania of its highness, for it is higher than high. Moreover, inasmuch as that by “art” one really means the “art world,” i.e. a society of artists, the performativity of art, beyond what is actually performed, has never been so overexposed. For to gain entrance into this “society” is to walk onto the set of a colossal 24/7 performance piece. Here all the artist does is attempt to outdo other artists in to what extent they can flout and piss in the face of some iteration of an oppressive “tradition,” all the while tightening the noose of their marriage with theory to the point where the two—that is, art and its theory—grow so proximal that the work of art already has [its] theory behind it, so to speak, that the work was created with its theoretical interpretability in mind, and indeed as its formal justification. While the dust of an atomized jet engine spread across the gallery floor, the giant skull of a sperm whale obscured behind screens and the anodized, lazer-reproduced copies of Brancusi’s Bird in Space (all works completed by artists shortlisted for the 2009 Turner Prize) (this year’s – 2010 – is even worse) might all dodge interpretation, that is, that they leave the audiences who happen to wander into the Tate Gallery in London confused, they however leave the critics, both academic or otherwise enfranchised, pleasingly appeased, their tastes and theories wholly affirmed.

"Untitled" (pulverized passenger jet engine) - Roger Hiorns (2008)

"Untitled" (sperm whale skull) - Lucy Skaer (2008)

"Black Alphabet" - Lucy Skaer (2008)

What is interesting in the above works is how the artist has narrowed in his capacity as such, even disappeared. They only arrange, if at all; the artist’s profanely originating vision is reduced to a function, an algorithm, not rounded down but itself rounded off. They do not originate, and hence obliquely betray their own influences where noticeable, but consciously derive and quote for quoting’s sake, and are made totally incidental. Here uninterpretability has become conceptualized, a way for an artwork to “function” in that it is a way that it may ultimately be interpreted; or rather, art has become the accomplice, the triggerman for theory’s smocking gun. It seems that Walter Benjamin’s rumination on “captur[ing] an image of history,” that one could discover more about present existence from its passively, unconsciously accumulating detritus (Abfall) (and not its garbage mind you, for garbage is consciously discarded) than from its grandest artificial and active attempts at self-representation has been taken literally, that we have consciously set about to artfully simulate this detritus from the back lots of the Enlightenment, achieving nothing but galleries and museums full of garbage.

—O & M

Modulomag Art Notes: What’s in a List? The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40″

September 10, 2010

This summer The New Yorker released its list of the “20 Under 40” fiction writers who, according to Deborah Treisman, the magazine’s fiction editor, are believed to be, “or will be, key to their generation.” As narrow and opinionated as such a list undoubtedly is, it’s no surprise that it has been met with some question and a certain amount of criticism. In a featured comment on the list the editors wildly justify their picks by comparing their first attempt in fiction record in 1999, which boasts writers such as Juno Diaz and David Foster Wallace, whose greatness was obviously foretold within the magazine’s very pages. While the subject is alluring and it has since entertained a sprawling readership, effectively the “20 under 40” is just another list resembling the talent catalogues of Granta and other literary journals, which do more to validate their soverign right to pick and choose than having anything to do with the actual written work.

It seems that nowadays list-making is essential to the literary merit of writers, and The New Yorker is no newcomer. But what does this prove, that lists are entertaining, they are popular, adding to the celebrity of the literati, even going as far as creating a marker, an artifact of the cultural climate. When making a list one tends to follow strict rules of selection; lists, by their very nature, outline purpose. The New Yorker has taken on the responsibility of defining something as vague as a cultural climate. But can you really say who writing today (that is, of who is published) is the most innovative in our world of letters?

Along these lines, believing that a thorough list should include authors both known and up and coming, as it were, the editors were careful to pick those who have had their brush with literary stardom, and those of lesser fame who have either began writing recently, or which is most often the case, have only begun getting published. Of course its no mistake that the list is evenly divided into half men and half women, along with the custom mixture of those born in and outside of the States. The age-spectrum is merely a way of maintaining an artificial limit, trying to stuff as much socio-political range into 20 individuals. Why else would you include a 24-year-old woman from Serbia who doesn’t even have a book out?

What seems so daunting about this particular list is the choice of age as its constraint, rather than something more specific like, 20 immigrant writers, or 20 who write historical fiction. Age here is not random, and there is an allusion to genius that permeates throughout the list that gives the opinion of the editors of The New Yorker an overwhelming sense of power, entrusting themselves with the omniscience to carve out 20 authors and predict their influence.

In their comment the editors seem to make a colossal promise to inspire and captivate audiences by casting a broad net over the authors chosen for their genre, gender and style. As the saying goes, only time will tell if the list proves to be a successful marker of current and lasting prose, or if the faith we put into such lists will be unrewarded and those fortunate enough to “make it” prove to be false (if not increasingly unread) prophets to a generation of already errant readers.

-Olivia

Rhetorical Moves by Olive McKeon

September 10, 2010

RHETORICAL MOVES by Olive Mckeon

1.0 Thinking

1.1 Think in units of debates. Rather than simply taking a position, note the debate between two positions. This way, you can watch debates play out. You can be on the look out for exchanges which reveal a debate. You can also mark events within a debate and name them things like ‘the ___ turn, the ___ question, the ____ problem.’ or mark beginnings and endings within a debate with names like ‘the death of the [author]’ or ‘the advent of [modernity].’

1.2 Deconstruction: take something that looks coherent and show that it is internally incoherent; dwelling within A is non-A. I looked up at the ceiling of a room on the third floor of ABC No Rio and saw that someone had drawn a picture of a book titled ‘The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism.’ Learn how to see not only internal oppositions, but also A inside of B, A hiding in B, A wearing a coat of B. The commodity takes the form of its opposite.

1.3 Examine a place as an event, a thing as a process.

1.4 Watch writers cut and run with each other’s ideas and perhaps try to chart it. X takes this straight from Y‘s (very Z-ist) reading of W in ____, and it is part of Y‘s theory of the ___, which she developed further in___ (not yet translated). [Zizek takes this straight from Althusser’s (very Spinozist) reading of Pascal in Ideology and the State Apparatuses, and it is part of Althusser’s theory of the materiality of ideology, which he developed further in other (recently published) texts such as “Machiavelli and Us”, “Marx in his limits”, and “Philosophy and Marxism.”]

1.5 Marxist methodology. Whenever a rule is invoked as an explanation, you know another reason dwells elsewhere. The invocation of a rule serves the purpose of concealing a latent reason.

1.6 In organizing a set of ideas or works, one can use several organizational schemes: by theme (literary and philosophical works on alienation), by person (the dances of Trisha Brown), by time (Roof Shingle Design, 1845-47), and by place (Quilting in Durham). The axes of space and time, horizontality and verticality.

1.7 The power of metonymy. In Smith’s Wealth of Nations, the term ‘invisible hand’ appears once in the thousand pages of text.

1.8 Take it to the Next Level.

2.0   Reading

2.1 To encounter a text. Encounter variously means ‘to meet as an adversary; to confront in battle, assail;’ ‘to meet, fall in with;’ ‘to meet with, experience (difficulties, opposition, etc.);’ ‘to face resolutely;’ ‘to go to meet;’ and ‘to accost, address.’ Encounters may be hostile, fraught, ambivalent, pleasurable, transcendent, or some combination thereof. One can sit so excited, so excited, so excited, waiting for a reconstruction of a dance that has not been performed since 1971 to begin. One can be destroyed, torn asunder, by a work. One can tremble with the fear of a piece never ending. One can love these encounters, the problems posed by them, how much there is to say, how peculiar the whole apparatus is.

2.2 Read with a set of commitments. Not that these don’t shift and change, but one has a project. The stakes are high.

2.3 Notice when a writer is playing a different role in the text, wearing a different hat. In this passage, he is putting on his accounting hat. Have different hats as a reader: your temporal hat, your safari hat, your poetic hat.

3.0   Writing

3.1 Making distinctions with elegance. Take an idea (the other, the outside, whatever) and modify it by someone’s name. Olive’s outside, not Luther’s. A second method is to use the same word but in a different part of speech, for instance the distinction between politics and the political (e.g. The political is the constituent tensions of a society and politics is the kind of concepts generated by those tensions). You can also do something with capitalization: must we not have a distinction between theory and Theory? You make up different ways of saying the words so they sound different, or use different gestures to use when you are saying them.

3.2 Take a well-known phrase and swap out one word. Where have all the explosions gone? Take a well-known phrase and chop it down to size. I saw a tattoo on S. D.’s arm that read All that is solid…

3.3 Take two words and repeat them with other words sandwiched between. Hell yeah? Hell to the fuck yeah. Steven “all team player” Zultanksi. Steven “no pipes” Zultanski

3.4 State something and then take it back or find someway of nullifying the need to have mentioned it in the first place. I would say I should spend less time in cemeteries, but we both know that would be saying only and that I don’t mean it anyway. There is a bank, about which there is nothing to say, other than it crouches and sweats whitely and that it must be burned.

3.5 Use cinematic cuts when making an argument. Leave a scene, a character, a problem somewhere and skip to something else. We will meet up with Merton and Scholes a little later.

3.6 Restate something to create a moment of risible redundancy. B.G. told a story which involved a sign that read, ‘Here lives the rabbit. The rabbit lives here.’ Sam is a person who cooks and also likes to cook. Historico-historicity

3.7 Name a certain mode of response and then unveil a more thoughtful or complex reply. The one- liner response would be ‘that’s not a pipe! It is a picture of a pipe.’ The trivial point would be…

3.8 Double metaphor. Connect a metaphor to two different referents. Priests among priests. Cops among cops. The trots and administration are hand in glove.

3.9 Layer cultural logics atop of one another. In this interview I transcribed, John Jasperse ran through a long list of personalities, bands, fashionistas, rappers, Baroque composers, and so on in explaining his costume choice of covering his dancers in doilies.

3.10 Take three semi-unrelated things and act like they are generally known to have so much to do with each other. This has become a catalyst for a much more serious discussion about the relationship between death, the University and modern capitalism.

3.11 In titling something, make the part before the colon much longer than the part after the colon. The Frankfurt School’s Interest in Freud and the Impact of ‘Eros and Civilization’ on the Student Protest Movement in Germany: A Brief History

3.12 Take someone’s name and make it into as many parts of speech as possible. Invite me to this party: readings for the evening will include How James Joyce Became Joycean (on Joyce, the Late Joyce, and the Future Joycean), the Joycean psychedelic epic James Joyce Barefoot in Joyce’s Head, and On the Metalanguage of Joyceanism. Photocopies of texts will be made available at the screening.

3.13 Write as if one were in a different setting. Swap contexts – from a seminar to a sportscast to a rock and roll show to a support group. At the bottom of a formal letter of invitation, add: And if there are any ladies left in the crowd, don’t worry—we still do menstrual blood tincture rituals.

3.14 Categorize types of responses. You can do this in terms of content: People tend to fall into two groups in relation to this idea. Also in terms of the form of response: clarification, elaboration, disagreement, and so on.

3.15 Add as many details as possible. Give thought a space, a time, a bodily experience to emerge from. He had this thought while eating a sushi boxed lunch on a bullet train in japan coming from a Lexis factory and hearing about conflict in the middle east. She made the decision while preparing a pot of tea in an attic bedroom in Kentucky staring out at a yard of weeds and thinking about everyone who had betrayed her.

3.16 Self Parody. Do too much of what you think you want to do. Make it ambiguous which is your work and the parody of your work. Attempt to resemble a caricature, a cartoon of yourself. A tagger who writes ‘Don’t Tag.’

3.17 Combine formal speech with informal utterances. Three Songs of Lenin—Like we loved him.

3.18 Use we instead of I. You will feel less lonely.

3.19 In poetry, you don’t have to use all of the words. Look, you can just cross these ones out.

4.0   Talking

4.1 My current research is on x (some subject, contemporary art, biopolitics, what-have-you). I will talk about it next week, but first, let’s discuss y (some other subject, neoliberalism, botany). Everyone came to hear about subject x. And each week, subject x is deferred and subject y is discussed. Over time, y becomes x. We are astonished.

4.2 Anticipate the opposition. I knew that you would ask this question. I must admit that I have prepared an answer.

4.3 State the timing of things to avoid restlessness. okay, now we’re going to listen to a song. it is two minutes and forty nine seconds.

4.4 There is a certain type of dinner table conversation that has little to do with content. More important is motif and the ability to pick up motifs, play them off each other, and make a composition out it. For example, you take the first five things said – warm bread, seeing a lightning bug, coast of Oregon, being tired, kelp – and you attempt to combine them in the most novel and timely ways.

4.5 Historical reference can be used as an intimidation tactic. Learning the history of something can at least prevent someone psyching you out for not knowing it. It can also tame one’s historical audacity.

David Graeber: Well, yes, as you can see, I always try to put things in long-term perspective. One of the vices of academia, and to some degree it washes over into the intellectual life of social movements, is this obsession with rupture, this giddy presentism, this absolute assumption that whatever is happening now is utterly new and unprecedented and marks a fundamental break with the rest of history and human experience. At this point it grows genuinely tiresome. (in an interview with Yiannis Aktimon)

4.6 Censorship as Promotion: Do you see this? Don’t look at it! Denouncing something often has the effect of increasing its circulation.

4.7 If you are making ‘Art’ or something that no one really knows about besides the few friends that are kind enough to ask you about it, act like it is an international force slicing through the totality of the social.

4.8 Take something whose main subject is widely known, and show how the text is about everything other than what it is known for. Richard Dienst made the claim that there is not much in The Coming Insurrection about armed insurrection. Horror movies as being about everything other than horror.

4.9 Specify the criteria of good taste, the knowing of when you have an excellent specimen of something. Like all good graves, it’s smaller than you’d think, and at least partially in shadow. Specify the criteria for when something adequately plays its role, the boundaries of a specific category. Like any good spy, a spy gives a report. Any decent French marxist would deconstruct the film as a critique of the idle and excessive aristocracy.

4.10 Insist on calling someone by a different name of your choosing. I will call you Julius.

4.11 When introducing a work or paper, explain the conditions of how it originated, why you wrote the paper. This envelopes the audience in a project. They are here with you to help in the process and unfolding, not mince you to fine pieces.

4.12 Name someone long dead a posthumous follower of someone alive after them. Marx was a Sraffian. Put a concept into someone’s mouth that they do not have access to historically. Freud had not yet found his body without organs.

Cares and Conceits, v1

August 23, 2010

Ahoy there! So, first things first. Efforts at MODULO are going to start heating up soon, as far as publication is concerned. We’re planning to step up our submissions drive in the next week or so, and to hopefully work on the magazine over the course of the fall. Until then, however, you can look forward to selected works appearing on this blog-roll. Interspersed among these works you will from time to time find something resembling this post, which is the first entry in what I hope to be an ongoing blog-like series…and so along the lines of volume one, or v1, by way of a beginning, my mind takes me on the following journey, through events past and present…

So, Iran has developed its own “long range military drone”, the “Karrar” (or, as Ahmadinejad referred to it, the “ambassador of death”), capable of executing “bombing missions against ground targets and flying long distances at a high speed.” It might be interesting note its similarity to the Yokosuka MXY-7 Ohka (“cherry blossom”) rocket-propelled kamikaze jet or “flying torpedo”

such as was crashed into the USS Essex, as is seen here

or, perhaps more pertinently, one might notice the Karrar’s resemblance to the V1 “robot” or “flying bomb” used by the Nazis to, more or less blindly, strike targets in Great Britain during the Blitz.

Along with the V2 rocket (the dark, unseen arbiter of Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow”), the V1 “Kirschkern” (or “cherry pit,” curiously linking it to the “cherry blossom” of the kamikaze jet) was the weaponized product of an effort led by the young Werner von Braun under the auspices of furthering a then relatively unexplored branch of aeronautics, that is, rocketry, which is itself  the earliest form of man’s long engagement with the science of mechanized flight. It is, however, important to note that ever since the Chinese, around 1000 CE, stuffed gunpowder into bamboo rods, creating the first self-propelled projectiles, rockets in the first sense were conceived of as incendiary weapons,

evolving then into fireworks, then into the ostensible mode of interspacial transportation for the world of tomorrow. The effort of the Nazi’s during WWII was furthermore the realization of a dream engrained in the popular bourgeois fictions of  fin-de-siecle and early 20th century Europe and America, an even more Icarian mutation of the dream of flight. Such fictions as are in question include Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon and it’s sequel Around the Moon (which bear striking similarities to the actual Apollo program),

(etc…)

along with H. G. Wells’ The first Men in the Moon and Fritz Lang’s Frau im Mond, which themselves feature the foreshadowing themes of imperialism (Wells) and capitalistic greed (Lang). In the case of Verne, the fact that his three protagonists are shot into orbit in a bullet-like capsule out of a giant gun barrel, all in an effort organized by a society of weapons designers and enthusiasts known as “The Gun Club” is, well, quite telling.

At any rate, as von Braun later put it, he and his peers had to submit their vision of rocket-propelled space travel to the political demands of the time, and yet, the truth is, von Braun took of advantage of the Führer’s interest in the idea in order to bring it to fruition, albeit as a weapon, and willingly exploited KZ-labor from Mittelbau-Dora to build his rockets in a secret subterranean factory called the Mittelwerk.

In what was referred to by the Pentagon as “Operation Paperclip,” in the final months of the war, German scientists (including von Braun and many other technicians from the Mittelwerk) and rocket materials were secretly scooped up by the Allied forces and ferried back to England in an effort to keep them from falling into the hands of the advancing Russian forces. These scientists, the confiscated rocket engines and fuselages, rocket-propelled aircraft and navigational equipment, which were all decades ahead of the technologies developed in American and British efforts (beyond this, the Nazis were even constructing a heavy water nuclear reactor at Haigerloch), – these Nazi technologies formed the basis for the Golden Age of American Aeronautics (the X-plane and Apollo programs) and themselves fueled the power- and arms-struggle that later instigated the Cold War.

Ultimately, the V1, with its pulse jet, is the forerunner of the modern cruise missile, and the V2, Hitler’s “robot bomb” (in Adorno’s parlance) that was the great terror of the Blitz, the archetype of the 180 million horse-power “Saturn V” of the Apollo program,

which von Braun, along with other German scientists developed and oversaw. The questionable ties of von Braun and his team to the Nazi years – The KZ-labor used, the ultimate ends towards which their inventions were utilized – cast shadows over the achievement of space-flight and the odyssey to the moon, which one might go as far as to say that it is a kind of continuation, in however supposedly depoliticized and -weaponized a light one wants to see them in, of the Nazi rocket programs undertaken by von Braun at Peenemünde and later at Mittelwerk.

Inasmuch as rockets have always been bombs, so too are the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles used today in Afghanistan and (I think) Iraq ultimately related to the radio-controlled flying bomb, inasmuch as they are prone to malfunctions and their strike capabilities inexact, as one document released in the WikiLeaks “Afghan War Diaries” cache seems to evidence. The fact that the afore mentioned case is taken out of context, only one in the tens of thousands of UAV sorties flown in Afghanistan, and that this may or may not be fair ground for condemnation (as is contested, predictably, here), is besides the point. The point is that, along side the many “covert” sorties flown by UAVs in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, resulting often in civilian casualties (how do you really differentiate between a suspected terrorist and an affirmed civilian, anyway?), the strike capabilities of a combat UAV are by nature problematic, because they are, after all, remote-controlled, unmanned aircraft carrying fuel and ordinance.

The idea of the UAV is so attractive because it eliminates the potential for the loss of human life (that is, the lives of pilots), but the fact that the craft’s human operator is oftentimes half a world away makes it impossible to truly apprehend the situation on the ground, and, more importantly, the sortie’s actual parameters within reality. This is the problem with reconnaissance in general, which is itself intensified when it is collected with the UAV.

(Quick aside: I once had the fortunate opportunity to spend 10 days in the psychiatric ward at Landstuhl medical center, where I met a young Floridian NCO about my age who had been assigned to intelligence in Afghanistan, and who had hysterically pulled his M16 on his superiors a few days prior and was sent to the psych ward to await a flight back the states to be court-martialed. Besides telling me of his desire to apply to become a Wiccan chaplain, his interest in the Magic card game and the conspiracies and intransigencies his jealous superiors were plotting and committing against him – besides this he told me of an incident where he was responding to a call from a convoy for recon along a certain juncture of their route known for ambushes. After going over the UAV and ground recon, he told them it was ok to proceed. The convoy was ambushed and several soldiers, including a colonel, were KIA. It was this event, he said, that had caused him to eventually “lose it.” Also, among the other inmates of the psych ward was a certain Captain who, in a tired and rehearsed fashion, as if he had done it too many times to be embarrassed, during a group session told the rest of us that he was the grandson of a famous poet, John Berryman…)

Precision and bombing are two irreconcilable categories; one is an idea that the other, an action, cannot possibly be made to actualize because of its very destructive, hence imprecise, nature; to combine them into one word is to utter an oxymoron, to create an impossible idea, a cipher instrumentalized to ward off any moral or ethical reaction to what is really going on, which is itself camouflaged by the cipher of “precision-” or “strategic bombing” and, moreover, by distance: the distance between the plane and the ground (in the case of WWII, some 25,000+ ft.), the UAV operator in Germany or California and the UAV firing a hellfire missile in Pakistan. America has hidden behind the term precision bombing inasmuch as any enterprising empire has obscured its heinous acts within jargon and behind distance; all the great war crimes – the indiscriminate “strategic” bombing of countless German cities

and the nukes dropped over Japan not excluded from the ranks of the Holocaust – were committed in an effort to keep the enemy at a distance, from gaining a foothold, from growing in strength, from coming closer. This – the capability for the combatant to obscure himself in distance, to be absent from his heinous act – is the basis and the essential truth of the UAV, as it was of the rocket, and of the bullet for that matter, and the sword even. Come to think of it, the first death (according to the Bible) was an act of fratricide, as all murder is, which was itself committed with an instrument: Cain struck Abel, his brother, with a rock. The instrument has always spared the murderer from having to touch the victim, to have to kill him with his own hands; it has served to keep the murderer at a distance from the murdered, and to perhaps erase the act’s memorial claim upon the agent after he has committed it. So that he might say “it was not I” and maybe even believe it himself. What such eventualities as the WikiLeaks release of the AWD’s  more or less offer are moments of clarity – windows into the heart of the inexplicable acts of modern warfare – that, above all, serve to collapse the distance.

Plus, Ahmadinejad just looks so good in an SS uniform…

-mike