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Drone Form: Word and Image at the End of Empire


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At the British Library, dispatches from the frontlines of England’s merciless 1857 to 1858 counterinsurgency campaign in India are collected into folders marked “Miscellaneous Indian Mutiny Papers” and “India Office Records and Private Papers.” They read as a perverse and staccato kind of poetry, shaping tidings of insurrection and its suppression into the idiom of war-state bureaucracy, a jargon further formalized during its compression into the argot of electronic telegraphy.

One of these communiqués, marked “Copy of message received by Electric Telegram” and dated August 17, 1857, was sent from General Havelock in Cawnpore (Kanpur) to his superiors in Calcutta, and reports a qualified victory over the massed peasants then arrayed against British paramountcy. Insurgents captured some cannon, Havelock relays, “But enemies’ dead strewed the town—I estimate their loss of three hundred killed & wounded.” It is an everyday update during this long campaign, an event hardly worthy of notice and occasioning nothing beyond straight accounting of enemy casualties: part of the paperwork of empire. The message is copied in barely legible handwriting; the form is marked, “Calcutta, Elec. Tel. Office, 17 Aug’t 1857,” verified again (“A true copy”), and finally signed in pencil with a clerk’s name. These signatures verify the contents’ correct transcription from the telegraphic original. They show us that this act of state killing has been reported by dictation, transcribed into writing, configured into telegraphic code, transmitted over vast distances of copper wire, received, decrypted, transcribed by hand (in pencil) onto a telegraphic form, and then copied longhand and finally double verified by a functionary who signs his own name: J. S. Seale, LT. Elaborately mediated yet insisting via seal and signature on its perfectly lossless transmission, the document, like many others during the Victorian era’s long war—no single year of the Queen’s reign was without armed conflict—is a document of asymmetrical warfare that insists most of all on its status as an act of mediation.

A century and a half after the “liberation” of Cawnpore, in our own era of endless war, it is clear that the question of liberal violence and its mediations is not only a Victorian one. In The Long Twentieth Century, Giovanni Arrighi draws attention to the way that successive cycles of imperial power echo one another. In macroeconomic terms, he parses the wave-based logic of accumulation by which “patterns of recurrence and evolution” stretch over successive phases of world leadership: Genoese, Dutch, British, and American all in a row.] (London: Verso, 2002), 6.] We can certainly hear more than a little of Pax Britannica in the rhetoric of late American empire. Today, however, forms of mediation that were central to the normatively demarcated “culture” of the nineteenth century—poetry and the literary novel, say—are no longer dominant but have become residual or even niche categories, boutique commodities for a narrow subset of often self-consciously nostalgic consumers. The technologies for delivering violence have changed, too; bayonet, telescope, and cannon have been replaced by illuminated night-vision and long-distance drone strikes. What is the relationship between our contemporary means of distributing death, and the aesthetic forms by which that death is transmitted, recoded, mediated? And do these shifting relations tell us anything about our place in the cycle of American empire that Arrighi sees as already showing “signs of autumn”?

My sense is that militarized drones, those machines for remote seeing and killing known in military jargon as “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles,” should be understood to signify an end of empire in two senses. First, an end as in conclusion, or terminus. Hannah Arendt argued that proliferating death is not a sign of an emerging or persisting hegemony but its waning: “rule by sheer violence,” she notes, “comes into play where power is being lost.” This means that the assassinations proliferating in the name of the American phase of accumulation are the sign not of its strength but its incipient weakness; never mind autumn, we could say that drone war is a sign of the coming winter. Second, I mean an end in the Aristotelian sense of telos, or purpose. If we take seriously the fact that empire is best understood not as a culture or as a discourse but as the monopoly on putatively legitimate violence—the stretching of the state’s power over life and death past the boundaries of its “own” populace—then the power of sovereign decision crystallized in globally operated, remote assassination machines is the very essence of empire: its telos, or end. President Obama’s now-infamous “kill list meetings” sharpen to an obscene purity the American state’s power of judgment over life and death beyond its own citizenry and constitute the distillation of imperium as such.

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