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n a scene from Don Delillo’s classic novel White Noise (1985), Jack Gladney accompanies his colleague Murray Siskend on an excursion to see “the most photographed barn in America.” Located near the College-on-the-Hill where Jack and Murray both teach, the roadside attraction is crawling with camera-toting tourists eagerly awaiting their chance to capture the barn against its arresting rural Midwest background, or purchase postcards with pictures of the barn ‘taken from an elevated spot.’
In a striking observation of the scene, Murray, an adjunct lecturer in popular culture (Jack is Professor of Hitler Studies), posited the following snap analysis: ‘No one sees the barn.’ ‘Once you’ve seen the signs for the barn,’ he tells Jack, ‘it becomes impossible to see the barn.’
’We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies.’
There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.
‘Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception. This literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.’
Another silence ensued.
‘They are taking pictures of taking pictures,’ he said.
If Delillo was cautiously optimistic on the possibilities of technology, particularly photography, in his early work, then he had taken a decisive turn by White Noise: “Technology creates an appetite for immortality on the one hand. It threatens universal extinction on the other. Technology is lust removed from nature.”
In his new book, The Eye of War: Military Perception from the Telescope to the Drone (2018), Antoine Bousquet unearths a similar path running between the practices of technological perception, the appetite for immortality and threat of universal death, as they manifest in late-modern military technologies. In this extraordinary survey, Bousquet examines the promises, mysteries, and anxieties that undergird ‘perceptual technologies,’ and their strange pride of place in executing contemporary warfare. The richly illustrated book is a worthy successor to the late Paul Virilio’s War and Cinema (1989), which trailblazed the interrogation into the ‘logistics of perception.’ While inspired by Virilio, Bousquet nevertheless offers several novel insights into a particular theme in War and Cinema that was largely abandoned by Virilio in his later work on ‘dromoscopy’; namely, the displacement of embodied soldier sense-perceptions into a spectrum of socio-technical apparatuses, which Bousquet calls the ‘martial gaze’ of war.
The Eye of War is dedicated to a genealogy of this socio-technical ‘martial gaze,’ although the title of the book is misleading insofar as Bousquet explores a wide range of technologies beyond the visual field (sonar, radar, electro-magnetic fields, etc.). The book amounts to an enlightening survey of various technological configurations and devices that have aligned perception with targeted destruction in war over the past two hundred years. Bousquet structures the book around three ‘functional constituents’ of the martial gaze: sensing, imaging, and mapping, as well as a chapter on ‘hiding,’ to which I will return below.
The chapters on sensing, imaging, and mapping cover a number of inventions, experiments, and machines that have worked to disclose targeted objects from a distance – from telescopic lens developed for sniping and cameras attached to aeroplanes in World War I, to aerial photomosaic intelligence, satellite imagery, and eventually a Global Positioning System (GPS) in late-modern targeting systems. Bousquet’s book does not provide much in terms of a new understanding of remote sensing and the achievement of the ‘view from above,’ themes which have been exhaustively explored elsewhere (cf., Haffner 2013; Kurgan 2013; Saint-Amour 2003). However, his account remains valuable, if only due to the sheer number of military technologies brought to bear for analysis – amounting to an encyclopedic catalogue of successes and failures – which far exceeds what has been provided in other accounts, putting meat on the bone to themes explored by other critics.
Bousquet’s outlook does not offer much by way of optimism in these technological developments. At once fascinated and disturbed by the accomplishments in the technological art of killing since the nineteenth-century, Bousquet’s account of military technologies, like Delillo and Virilio, harbors deep misgivings over the fate of the human within contemporary military socio-technical arrangements; as well as an unease, if not dread, at the emergence of a late-modern world order where seemingly any location in time and space can instantly become a point of destruction in the ‘global imperium of targeting.’ Bousquet offers little by way of escape from the techno-target imbroglio, except, perhaps, the palatable alternative of death—experienced in all its brutality by the late Qasem Soleimani. If the threat of drone strikes disproportionately affects those currently living in the detritus of the global ‘war on terror,’ the threat of nuclear annihilation may not be as remote as most wish in our daily forgetfulness (Moniz and Nunn, 2019).
The Delillo-like existential anxieties one reads between the lines in Eye of War fruitfully opens up pathways for future work, although Bousquet does not explore these threads to their fullest potential. The primary existential anxiety Bousquet raises is the ‘untethering’ of the martial gaze from the human subject whom is situated and distributed into a wide range of machine apparatuses. However, unlike Virilio, who privileged early-twentieth century advancements in photography and the ‘moving images’ of film as the activities responsible for displacing the perceptual immediacy of situated soldier subjects in combat, Bousquet’s book takes a much longer view.
For Bousquet, the operations of sensing, imaging, and mapping that evolved over the past two centuries are rooted in the 16th century developments of linear perspective in visual arts and surveying. The geometric procedures used for creating the illusion of depth on flat surfaces, allowing objects in space to be faithfully rendered into 2-D representations, is the point of origin for the design logics in contemporary military technology. In the perspectival methods developed by Filippo Brunelleschi, Leon Battista Alberti and others, Bousquet argues, vision was rationalized according to a geometric order. Furthermore, space became a seemingly limitless resource for mathematical rendering and measurement. This two-fold effect of a rationalized vision and mathematized space aligned in a geometric order that is, for Bousquet, the condition of possibility for the martial gaze: ‘In ordering visual space according to an abstract system of linear coordinates, perspective binds subjective perception and objective spatial extension through mathematical convertibility’ (Bousquet 2018, 21-22). The significance of this development, and the reason, for Bousquet, that it is the root for sensory displacement, is that the field of vision becomes rationalized and ordered according to abstract principles rather than embodied perception.
It is indisputable that the nascent humanism of the age [16th century] was accompanied by an increased capacity for control over a desacralized world. However, the notion that this control issued straightforwardly from a sovereign human subject is problematized when we consider that this very subject was being simultaneously rendered as a new object of rational knowledge located in the same homogenous mathematized space, its embodied perception now subordinate to abstract laws of vision. From this point on, an incremental but inexorable disembedding of perception from the site of the living organism was propelled through the instantiation—initially partial and then increasingly comprehensive—of its mechanisms in technical apparatuses (Bousquet 2018, 29).
The ultimate achievement of this long process of dis-embedding perception in the homogenized field of mathematized space is the operation of sensors and visual apparatuses in the machine gaze of computers, robots, and drones. Indeed, it is a legitimate question whether these algorithmic machines actually ‘see,’ severed as they are from the human eye. Instead, we are increasingly several degrees removed, as spectators watching machines take pictures of taking pictures. ‘The development of the sociotechnical gaze traced throughout this book,’ Bousquet writes, ‘entails the objectification of perception itself as its mechanisms are formalized and externalized. Perception becomes a process without a subject—or at least one that produces its own modes of subjectification’ (2018, 195).
Unfortunately, one of the weaknesses of the book is that these ‘modes of subjectification’ remain largely unexplored. Unlike Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, whose book Objectivity (2007) maps specific modifications in subjectification that attended the changes in technological production of scientific images in the 19th and 20th centuries – what they call ‘epistemologies of the eye’ operating alongside historically contingent ‘epistemic virtues’ (truth-to-nature, objectivity, trained judgment; cf. Crary 1991) – we get little sense in Bousquet’s book of the epistemological consequences of the various technologies analyzed in their military application. Instead, there is a resort to the Foucauldian language of ‘general procedures’ and ‘diagrams of operation,’ where the human itself becomes a vanishing point, and the master-subject relationship between the human and machine increasingly confused.
Of course, the ‘fate of the human’ has become a perplexing question in recent scholarship on the power of socio-technical systems and ‘surveillance capitalism,’ with Shoshana Zuboff (2019) and Rosi Braidotti (2019) arguably comprising the most articulate (if entirely opposing) sides in this debate. Despite his existential anxieties, it is unclear whether Bousquet would stand with Zuboff or Braidotti, ultimately remaining agnostic (or resigned), perhaps seeing the ‘human-machine problem’ as beyond the purview of his book to resolve.
However, the relationship between humans and machines does remain a problem in terms of the kind of history told here. While Bousquet deftly steers clear from writing an evolutionary or teleological history of military technology, it is difficult to discern which historical movements or actors enact the instantiation or change in military technologies surveyed in Eye of War. The gradual “unfolding of general sociotechnical dispositions” (Bousquet 2018, 17 & 196) as the force driving technological change is vague and unsatisfying. The role of military contractors and the profit motive in shaping military technologies (rather than the other way around), is at best underemphasized. And, although there is a lively chapter on ‘hiding,’ there is very little on the long history of subterfuge carried out by resistance fighters against technologically-superior militaries, and the role of that resistance has in technological change.
For example, prior to American involvement in Vietnam, Viet Minh fighters routinely cut the telegraph wires of the French communications company, the Postes, Telegraphes, et Telephone, thus compromising the extensive telegraph network that linked remote military outposts and plantations to French colonial administrators in Hanoi and Saigon. In the 1950s, these guerrilla actions prompted all sorts of developments by Americans in radio technology and signals intelligence that was not prone to simple wire-cutting sabotage. In 1950-51, the first year of the US aid program to the French, 3,500 American radio sets were distributed to the French Army (Bergen 1986, 6). Fast forward to the present, and the scenes in Iraq and Afghanistan tell the tale of the U.S. military adopting Silicon Valley networked technologies to combat supposedly ‘technologically inferior’ insurgencies (cf. Giustozzi 2007). Without considering either the political economy behind military technologies, or the role of resistance in technological change, the Eye of War opens itself up for critique on the grounds of a ‘weak’ technological determinism undergirding its historical narrative. Moreover, the complexity and effectiveness of this monkey-wrenching resistance is not adequately captured within the mode of ‘hiding.’
Needless to say, Bousquet’s book remains an admirable achievement both for its breath-taking scope and execution, as well as the thought-provoking anxieties he sparks in the reader. Coupled with his previous book on The Scientific Way of Warfare, Bousquet offers an original perspective on the techno-politics of late-modern warfare, and the violent dismembering of the human both within and without the killing machines.
 ‘The possibilities of film seemed unlimited. I felt I could do things never done before. A hawk glanced off the sun and I plucked it out of space and placed it in the new era, free of history and death (Delillo, Americana, 1971, 33).’
 The flash-like reminder of possible nuclear annihilation that can emerge from nowhere in our daily forgetfulness is also the primary theme in Delillo’s End Zone (1972) and Underworld (1997)
Bergen. J. 1986. Military Communications, A Test for Technology: United States Army in Vietnam. Washington, D.C.: Center for Military History
Bousquet, A. The Scientific Way of Warfare: Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity. New York: Columbia University Press
Braidotti, R. 2019. Posthuman Knowledge. Cambridge: Polity Press
Crary, J. 1991. Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. Boston: MIT Press
Daston, L., Galison, P. 2007. Objectivity. New York: Zone Books
Delillo, D. 1971. Americana. New York: Penguin
Delillo, D. 1972. End Zone. London: Picador
Delillo, D. 1985. White Noise. New York: Penguin
Delillo, D. 1997. Underworld. New York: Scribner
Giustozzi, A. 2007. Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop: The Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan 2002-2007. London: C Hurst & Co Publishers
Haffner, J. 2013. The View from Above: The Science of Social Space. Boston: MIT Press
Kurgan, L. 2013. Close Up at a Distance: Mapping, Technology, and Politics. New York: Zone Books
Moniz, E., Nunn, S. ‘The Return of Doomsday,’ Foreign Affairs 98(5): 150-161
Saint-Amour, P. 2003. ‘Modernist Reconnaissance,’ Modernism/Modernity 10(2): 349-80
Virilio, P. 1989. War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception. London: Verso
Zuboff, S. 2019. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. New York: Profile Books
Oliver Belcher is an assistant professor in the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University. He is a human geographer with interests in late-modern warfare, history of computation and environmental politics. He is currently writing a book titled The War Machine on the role of IBM in the Vietnam War. His work also explores the US military as a global climate actor.