Context certainly matters. Yet so much of even the best news coverage of the so-called ‘drone wars’ is defined precisely by a lack of context. I have written about this previously, and at the time I warned against accepting forms of reportage which are both radically decontextualised or without context at all (see my NYT death reports post).
I may, however, have been wrong. I neglected to think about art and creativity.
My dear friend Ellana Nolan alerts me this week to the brilliant work of Teju Cole. Cole, a Nigerian-American writer, has been playing around with a literary form called fait diver and recently drones have caught his attention. A fait diver according to Cole, is a
French expression, in common use for centuries, for a certain kind of newspaper piece: a compressed report of an unusual happening. What fait divers means literally is “incidents,” or “various things.”
[…] he fait divers is about: an event, usually of a grim nature, animated sometimes, but not always, by a certain irony. A fait divers is not simply bad news. It is bad news of a certain kind, written in a certain way”
What do they look like then? Cole has many (and he writes about them in beautiful prose here), but given the focus of this blog I’m interested in how he has applied them to the reportage of drones. Remember, fait divers are a truth, but not the whole truth: a strange truth perhaps, but one with an immensely powerful rhetorical effect. In the following examples, Cole takes the first line(s) from classic literature and follows them with snippets from short drone news reports. The effect is wonderful
1. Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. Pity. A signature strike leveled the florist’s.
2. Call me Ishmael. I was a young man of military age. I was immolated at my wedding. My parents are inconsolable.
3. Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather. A bomb whistled in. Blood on the walls. Fire from heaven.
4. I am an invisible man. My name is unknown. My loves are a mystery. But an unmanned aerial vehicle from a secret location has come for me.
5. Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was killed by a Predator drone.
6. Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His torso was found, not his head.
7. Mother died today. The program saves American lives.
The title to this post is my own – rather unoriginal – attempt at one, but the possibilities really are endless. It is precisely the lack of context (combined with unusual syntax and jarring taxonomical sentence structure) that makes the fait diver such a powerful device. I read and re-read these lines and still don’t know what to think of them, and this is surely part of their allure. Some invoke a dark humour, while others puzzle but foremost, I think, they force the reader to ask questions: how are these linked? Did x cause y? What happened? Why did it happen? These questions won’t be answered by the device and this is not its purpose: that it moves us toward intrigue is enough.
As an academic, and one who has gained expertise in law (and specifically international humanitarian law) so that I may write a PhD on the law and geography of targeted killing, I am increasingly of the opinion that law has very little to offer by way of a response to ‘drone warfare’. Even worse, and as I will be arguing, law has become part of the problem. I will elaborate on the reasons why I think this in a future post, and there is fortunately a whole intellectual tradition to help me when I do. But what draws me immediately, and what links the bankruptcy of law as an ethical language to these fait divers is the potential of non-formal, independent, creative and artistic forms of representation to respond to the multiple and complex horrors of drone warfare.
Cole’s literary form is just one response and there have been many more, ranging from the photographic, to the architectural and the videographic. There is much to say about each of these, but for now I’ll just note some of my favorites:
An Architectural Defense From Drones by Asher J. Kohn is an imaginative attempt to design a city – Shura City – that is completely impenetrable by drones and their surveillance technologies. One imagines the design to be both impractical and yet purposeful, especially as both civil and military uses of drones and unmanned technologies are increasing exponentially (see Al Jazeera short documentary here). Here in Tel Aviv (and elsewhere in Israel) such bomb-proof architecture is very much a reality.
The Commonwealth Project’s video ‘5,000 feet is the best’ has done the rounds, but for those who haven’t seen it it is well worth watching. It troubles the distanced optics of the drone:
Dronestagram by James Bridle is a cheeky yet serious attempt to tweet drone strikes and link each strike to an Instagram photograph. As Instagram does, it aesthetices and makes beautiful even the most mundane: in this case Bridle takes a google map satellite image of the approximate location of drone strikes.
Just to mix the mediums, I should also mention Himanshu Suri (aka HEEMS) music video, “Soup Boys”:
These just scratch the surface, of couse. By placing these artistic responses alongside one another I do not mean to imply that they all achieve the same thing, or that they are even effective in achieving whatever aims they have: this would require a more full appraisal. However, what interests me about these forms of responses to drone warfare is that they signal a new and vibrant public conversation about drones that just a few years ago was lacking. The legal debate has been going on for more than ten years and the paramaters have been set, if not formally legally speaking then through practice and as Derek Gregory has argued there are very few paramaters to what he calls the ‘everywhere war‘. In such times we require new vocabularies and new modes of expression. I leave the last words then to blogger Chapati Mystery (who hosted A. J. Kohn’s ‘Drone City’), and to his observation:
“where legally or morally we seem to be getting no where [with drones], perhaps creativity is the only ethical space left to marshall a defense”
The title of this piece is taken from two different news sources about two different – but related – drone stories. The first is a Guardian piece about how the new drone base in Nigeria will host only drones with a surveillance capacity: i.e. the promise is that they will not be armed…for now. The other piece of information – 2629 lives – is from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism fatalities report: the minimum estimated number of people killed from strikes in Pakistan (see here).
— But relatedly, there is also the news from the NYT two weeks ago that the U.S. is giving ‘Spy Drones’ to Afghanistan: thanks for the heads-up Wes Attwell.