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In a series of paintings called “Dronescapes,” Kathryn Brimblecombe-Fox depicts the iconic figure of the Predator drone against a backdrop of aerial landscapes. In blues and reds, the sky forms a space—a kind of abstract landscape—that the drone traverses, shapes, and occupies. In one image titled “Sky-Drone-Net,” a series of straight white lines emanates outwards from the nose of an orange-painted drone and extends to and past the edges of the painting. A play on perspective, it produces for the viewer a sense of enclosure, as if looking up from the ground to a clear dome with the sky beyond. For Brimblecombe-Fox, this and other paintings are motivated in part by the effects that living under drones has had on people in areas targeted by contemporary drone warfare:
“[they] visually express a concern for those who live in fear of the sky. If people are fearful of the sky this represents a denial of individual and collective freedoms at many devastating levels. If the sky is diminished for some, then it also diminished for humanity as whole” (Dronescapes; see also her recent interview with the Center for the Study of the Drone).
Brimblecombe-Fox’s drone artwork resonates with the central themes of Ian Shaw’s recent book, Predator Empire: Drone Warfare and Full Spectrum Dominance. In its conclusion Shaw writes, “Drones are world-making and world-destroying weapons” (259) and the book explores both aspects of this statement in a variety of registers. Drones, like the armed Predator, are world destroying not only for the lives they take but also for the continual terror they produce. Living Under Drones and similar reports have shown that drones literally remake everyday lives and worlds as people respond to their constant circling and patrolling of the skies. As Shaw argues, and Brimblecombe-Fox alludes to in her paintings, the overhead drone affects not just those in the (expanding) geographic regions of the contemporary US drone wars, but raises questions for humanity as a whole, including what it even means to be human in the age of Predator Empire. On the flip side, but related, the drone is world making—a technological object that is creating a new global geopolitical landscape. For Shaw, whose approach to the study of the drone is to take seriously the nonhuman as a significant force for shaping international relations, the rise of the Predator drone signals both important changes to the enactment of state power and the kinds of citizen-subjects that are produced through it.
Predator Empire can be situated within a growing body of recent scholarship, much of it coming from the field of geography, that seeks to place contemporary drone warfare and the proliferation of drone technology within broader assemblages of security and state power and longer modern historical contexts. While there are many affinities between this growing literature and Predator Empire (Shaw’s tracing of contemporary drones back to the Vietnam War [Gregory, 2013] and drawing connections between contemporary policing and targeted killing [Wall, 2016], as examples), what sets Shaw’s book apart, and one of its major contributions to the study of the drone, is its emphasis on the human condition. As he asks, “What does it mean to live on a planet that is enclosing its populations inside controlled, artificial, and dronified environments?” (3).
Drawing heavily on Arendt and viewing technology as an existential force in its own right, Shaw is concerned with the ways that drones are remaking what it means to be human. With continuous surveillance and increasing individuation—to the point of a reimagining of the individual as data or "dividuals"—we are starting to see the emergence of increasingly pacified, yet anxious, subjects. As our lives are mediated and policed more and more by machines, our space for free and critical thinking and our ability for action is shrinking. What is ultimately at stake, as Shaw puts it, is the dronification of the human condition.
The concept of enclosure is central to this line of questioning about the human condition and forms the backbone of Shaw’s construction of the Predator Empire, the name he gives to the contemporary formation of the US national security state. Shaw argues that humans are becoming increasingly enclosed in machine-mediated security bubbles or atmospheres, and as we are constantly surveilled and controlled, we have more and more trouble breaking out of them. What we are secured against, or conversely what causes us to become targets, are threats to civilization, which connects Predator Empire into a history of imperial and civilizing projects. For Shaw, it is today’s technological civilization that Predator Empire seeks to secure, and it is driven and mediated by predominately nonhuman actors. This poses novel challenges for both how humanity is now defined and how threats to it are identified. As he writes:
This means that the epistemological problem of what, where, or who is dangerous is inseparable from the tools used to pose that problem. Surveillance, in other words, does not simply discover danger but simultaneously reproduces it. By delegating the art of killing and surveillance to nonhuman means, humanity is slowly carried along by the momentum of its creations. The diffuse battlespace of the war on terror, one defined by a global manhunt and an amorphous temporality, is enabled by the very technologies deployed by the U.S. military (44).
Scale is also important here, for while Predator Empire works to enclose individuals in localized and mobile “carceral shells” (3) it also operates at a planetary scale, stretching across the globe in a way that previous security states have only dreamed of doing. This double move of targeting at the individual level and the globalization of policing has, according to Shaw, turned the world into a battlefield and stretched military and state control across the planet (123). In Chapter Two, Shaw traces these early attempts at securing atmospheres in the Vietnam War, with the use of early drones and projects like Igloo White. The Vietnam War, as Shaw argues, is a key moment for the emergence of Predator Empire because of the way the atmosphere was targeted and the reliance on technology to do so. (This is also around the time that we see the terms electronic warfare and network warfare come into use).
Enclosure in this sense resonates with Peter Sloterdijk’s work on spheres, Peter Adey’s (2014) concept of security atmospheres, and geographic writing on aerial space and volumetric territory (ex. Elden, 2013; Adey, Whitehead, Williams, 2013). But it also comes into Shaw’s analysis as the enclosure of the commons. This marks another significant contribution of this book: linking the rise of Predator Empire and contemporary drone warfare to the structure and history of capitalism. Hugh Gusterson’s (2016) recent book Drone alludes to this but does not thoroughly follow through the connection. For Shaw, the current security state and technological civilization more broadly is the result of a transition from labor-intensive American empire to a machinic- and capital-intensive form of empire. Because of this, our realities in the contemporary moment are becoming more and more mediated by machines, which in turn produce widespread and universal alienation. For Shaw, the roots of this process are to be found in the English enclosure of the commons, which led to the production of private property, alienated people from the land, and set the stage for an evolving biopolitical and securitizing project. In making these connections, Predator Empire helps to fill a significant gap in the literature on drone warfare, and contemporary military studies more broadly, that largely only engages superficially with the links between capitalism and war, primarily through readings of the military-industrial complex. Shaw’s book begins to unpack the deeper structural affinities (and violences) between the circulation and production of capital and state warfare, policing, and predation.
A book like Predator Empire is difficult to critique as a whole because it takes the reader in so many directions—necessary to trace the complexities of the rise of drone warfare. One area, and important historical "line of descent," that is largely absent from the analysis, however, is that of race and processes of racialization, especially in connection to the US context of Predator Empire. Shaw engages explicitly with this in a few places, in particular in Chapter Five on policing, the city, and algorithmic prediction, but the broader structure of his argument about enclosure and how the Predator Empire is threatening the human condition does not. Drawing from scholarship in black feminist geography, for example, what would it mean to ask not only how the Predator Empire is dronifiying the human condition, but how the category of the human has always been under threat and a contested category? Tying the analysis of Predator Empire more directly to work that has investigated how violence is acted on and through the category of the human (today and historically) would begin to make visible the structures of racialization that underpin contemporary drone warfare and remind us that the human condition itself is not a universal category (see for example, Wynter, 2003; McKittrick, 2006; Browne, 2015).
Finally, Shaw’s project in Predator Empire is not to provide a prescription for what is to be done. In fact, his account shows us how calls for greater oversight or accountability—for applying the laws of war to targeted killing, for banning robotic or automated weapons, and so on—only touch on a small aspect of the ways that the drone and similar technologies of Predator Empire are remaking our lives. Shaw’s aim is to make these broader connections and to ask after their existential effects. However, one is left at the end of the book feeling as though there is no escape from the drone, that Predator Empire has no outside, and that its totalization is already complete. As he writes in the final sentence of the book, “If the godly heavens above once protected us from the demons below, then consider the Predator Empire as our new civilizatory ceiling, enclosing humanity in the last great robotic inside—the best of us, the worst of us, and the last of us” (263). While my sympathies lie more with this dystopian reading of the contemporary moment than not, Predator Empire would do well with raising the question of resistance more explicitly. Shaw does dwell on totalitarianism, especially in his engagement with Arendt, Eichmann, and bureaucracy in Chapter Four, conceptualizing totalitarianism as a form of total enclosure. With the human increasingly sidelined, as Shaw argues, thinking about the challenge of resisting these forms of enclosure is ever more urgent with our current political climate and the (re)rise of fascism, which now carries drones in its toolbox.
Adey P (2014) Security atmospheres or the crystallization of world. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32: 834-851.
Adey P, Whitehead M, and Williams A (eds) (2013) From Above: War, Violence and Verticality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Browne S (2015) Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. Durham: Duke Unviersity Press.
Elden S (2013) Secure the volume: Vertical geopolitics and the depth of power. Political Geography 34: 35-51.
Gregory D (2013) Lines of Descent. In: Adey P, Whitehead M, and Williams A (eds) From Above: War, Violence and Verticality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.41-69.
Gusterson H (2016) Drone: Remote Control Warfare. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
McKittrick K (2006) Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Wall T (2016) Ordinary Emergency: Drones, Police, and Geographies of Legal Terror. Antipode 48(4): 1122-1139.
Wynter S (2003) Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument. CR: The New Centennial Review 3(3): 257-337.