Academic journal article New Formations

Drone Poetics

Academic journal article New Formations

Drone Poetics

Article excerpt

This essay is a provocation, which seeks to determine the potential for lyric in the drone age. Prison and flight have long been important tropes for establishing the polarities of aesthetic constraint and liberty, but they also influence writing in more practical ways, as sites of literary production and ways of seeing. The airplane was particularly important in altering spatial perspectives and had far-reaching consequences for the visual arts. Gertrude Stein suggested that cubist landscapes approximated the view from an airplane. (1) Paul Virilio has written provocatively about the intimacy between aerial bombing and cinematic technique. (2) Planes are also an important influence on literary perspective (Time and Space, pp242-7). (3) Filippo Marinetti describes how:

   as I looked at objects from a new point of view, no longer head on
   or from behind, but straight down, foreshortened, that is, I was
   able to break apart the old shackles of logic and the plumb lines
   of the ancient way of thinking. (4)

The airplane produces a new vantage which leads Marinetti to fantasise about bombing language, seeking to 'destroy syntax and scatter one's nouns at random'. Planes are mythologised by Proust and Kafka as a form of the technological sublime, (5) or (in the famous skywriting scene in Woolf 's Mrs Dalloway) regarded by Mr Bentley as 'a symbol ... of man's soul; of his determination ... to get outside his body, beyond his house, by means of thought, Einstein, speculation, mathematics ...' (6) George Oppen worked as a tool and die maker for Grumman aircraft--later the company merged to form Northrup Grumman, producers of the Global Hawk drone. (7)

Since approximately 2010, many poets have engaged with drones in their lyrics, making use of drone operators' chatter, personifying drones (or robotising humans), and offering critiques of the destruction and alienation that drones produce. I will discuss a few of these projects, but the intention of this essay is not to offer a synopsis of poems about drones. Rather, it is to test what effect drones might have on the practice of committed lyric in a time of 'everywhere' war. To do this, I will summarise six ways in which drones are revolutionising perspective and relation, and suggest how they might be applied to the theorisation of contemporary poetry. My aim is not to sublimate the actual experience of assassination into an aesthetic topos; rather, I want to consider the limits of committed lyric through a detailed, materialist examination of the forms of warfare in which it is grounded.

Drones are an epochal technology, the consequence and drivers of profound changes to politics, law and warfare. They alter the way we see and relate to others, the way we conceive space and time. While drones continue to be scotomised by the US public, around the world they are a powerful symbol of US aggression. (8) Drones are the most conspicuous mechanism of American necropolitics, which Achille Mbembe defines as the sovereign power to dictate who may live and who must die. (9) They are also specifically related to carcerality, which has been a crucial metaphor for and site of poetic production for centuries. Although US prison populations have become grotesquely swollen since the early 1980s, in respect of foreign counterinsurgency operations, the US has moved to replace incarceration with assassination. Many historians have argued that the huge expansion of drone strikes under the Obama administration can be attributed to Obama's campaign pledge to close Guantanamo Bay and other US 'black sites'. Though rendition, military commissions and indefinite detention were preserved, Obama and his counterterrorism chief John Brennan pursued a policy of 'kill rather than capture' for suspected militants because--it is alleged --they did not want conspicuously to add to the numbers in Guantanamo. (10) (At the time of writing, Trump has tweeted his enthusiasm for expanding those numbers; his express aim to 'bomb the hell out of Isis' and kill the families of suspected 'terrorists' also makes him unlikely to scale back Obama's drone operations). …

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