Drones Are Not Queer Bodies: Cara Daggett, queer necropolitics, and 'the imperialism of theory'.

My working title for this piece was Drones Are Not Queer Bodies (and other sentences I can't believe I have to write). I've been trying to write a response to Cara Daggett's 2014 article 'Drone Disorientations: How "unmanned" weapons queer the experience of killing in war' for several weeks now. Trying, but not succeeding—because every time I open Daggett's text and begin to read, I find myself consumed with an anger that is far from academic. This is, I suppose, another example of the violence of academia (what Derrida (1978, p.104) called 'the imperialism of theory'): in adopting a particular language and subject-position, the author implicitly invalidates any response that does not join them on the exclusive and exclusionary playing-field they've marked out. I find myself gasping, not for words, but for the smugly detached academic calm—the aloof and sneering, impermeable smile—that is the 'proper' position from which to respond. 

 How I felt every time I tried to write this.

How I felt every time I tried to write this.

But then I think: fuck it. If Daggett can (ahem) "queer" drone-mediated murder, perhaps I can "queer" academic discourse by inviting in and demanding space for my own (potentially uncharitable) rage (This is, I think, a far less egregious an appropriation of the term 'queer' than Daggett's initial one.) So, in what follows, I'll try to respond to the article not on its own terms—its terms are, frankly, ridiculous; a pantomime of scholarship—but on my own terms. In other words, I take Daggett's article not as a serious argument, but as a provocation and as a symptom: an incursion that demands a response, but a response that takes it for what it is, rather than continuing to elevate it to the rarefied position it seems to have occupied thus far. I'm going to write and see what comes out, and where it takes me.

Daggett's central thesis is that "drones queer the experience of killing in war" (p.362), and so "drone warfare [is a] potential... site for queer politics" (ibid.), wherein "drones are genderqueer bodies" (ibid.). The article reads like an extended literature review: the author skips from "Sarah Ahmed [sic]"¹ to Donna Haraway to, bizarrely, a brief description of an Anne Hathaway film, arguing along the way that the experience of being a 'drone operator' (what a deceptively mundane job description!) is "both hypermasculine in its technological achievements and emasculating in its removal of the US soldier’s body from mortal danger" (p.374). (Note this reference to the US soldier's body: it is an important and unexamined distinction that Daggett makes again and again in her text.) Despite her earlier assertions re. the phenomenological status of drones as putative bodies, Daggett concludes that "drones are not inherently queer, but they may serve a queer politics" (p.375). I'm going to show how the queer politics served by drones is in fact what Jasbir Puar (2007) has called "queer necropolitics"—and, indeed, that Daggett's article represents a sort of sine qua non of the necropolitical genre.

Queer Necropolitics: u wot m8?

So let's talk about what I mean when I refer to 'queer necropolitics'. 

The term 'necropolitics' was coined in 2003 by Achille Mbembe, in a landmark essay that both critiques and extends the Eurocentric, Foucauldian notion of biopolitics. In his essay, Mbembe asks:

...under what practical conditions is the right to kill, to allow to live, or to expose to death exercised? Who is the subject of this right? What does the implementation of such a right tell us about the person who is thus put to death and about the relation of enmity that sets that person against his or her murderer? Is the notion of biopower sufficient to account for the contemporary ways in which the political, under the guise of war, of resistance, or of the fight against terror, makes the murder of the enemy its primary and absolute objective? War, after all, is as much a means of achieving sovereignty as a way of exercising the right to kill. Imagining politics as a form of war, we must ask: What place is given to life, death, and the human body (in particular the wounded or slain body)? How are they inscribed in the order of power? (2003, p.12)

In other words, while biopolitics is about the ways in which life is controlled, necropolitics accounts for the ways in which sovereignty is exercised or attained at the expense of life, and for the unacknowledged calculations that determine which lives matter: who lives, and who dies. Queer necropolitics, then, takes Mbembe's theory and applies a queer lens, asking, "How can queer theory emerge and converse with the mass corporeal losses and debilities of war?" (Mikdashi and Puar 2016, p.220). Further, and as the introduction to the edited collection Queer Necropolitics (2014) makes plain, the concept functions as

a tool to make sense of the symbiotic co-presence of life and death, manifested ever more clearly in the cleavages between rich and poor, citizens and non-citizens (and those who can be stripped of citizenship); the culturally, morally, economically valuable and the pathological; queer subjects invited into life and queerly abjected populations marked for death. (Haritaworn, Kuntsman, Posocco 2014, p.2, my emphasis)

There is, then, a certain resonance between the concept of queer necropolitics and Judith Butler's question: "When is life grievable?" (2016). Writing from the perspective of mainstream North American culture, Butler explains that "an ungrievable life is one that cannot be mourned... because it has never counted as a life at all" (p.38). In the next section, I'm going to look at how Daggett's text uncritically (mis)represents the lives of those who must endure drone bombardments as being ungrievable.

Grievability as life-giver.

The bodies Daggett describes are acted-upon; their deaths described in fine-grained, visceral detail; their names unimportant; their lives ungrievable and ungrieved. The drone 'operators', on the other hand, are presented as whole beings: named, aged, claiming disorientation whilst simultaneously being anchored and oriented within the text in a way not afforded to brown, "foreign" bodies. Daggett describes warfare in erotic detail—there are ejaculations and explosions,  "exposed balls" (p.369), and references to masturbation, penetration, pornography, and (heterosexual) sex—whilst simultaneously (and apparently without a trace of irony) making the case that killing with drones 'queers' traditional masculinities. 'Queerness' is often conflated with 'freedom': public discourses in the US have (ironically) mobilised LGBT rights as justification for acts of imperial violence (see Butler, p.26). Indeed, Mikdashi and Puar rightly ask "why is the critique of the production of US nationalism within queer theory itself not central, rather than incidental, to queer theorizing, given that the privileged site of the United States so thoroughly shapes what queer is, what it can do, and how it forms a field of knowledge that can affect the rendering of queer bodies elsewhere?" (p.217). 

Daggett's article, then, can be read as an example of, as Sara Ahmed says, "how the language of freedom can be a technology for distinguishing ‘an us’ from ‘a them’". The act of killing via. drone, Daggett seems to imply, holds the potential to be a liberatory act—a path towards queerness—for those who carry it out. And what of the lives taken by those same drones? Those precious, precarious lives, perhaps even themselves queer? The silence yawns back in response: some lives are not grievable. Some deaths are functional. In Daggett's system, the body of a pregnant woman or stereotypically macho army man (p.374), directing a drone to fire on a target, holds more potential (for queer liberation, for a hopeful future) than any of the bodies and lives about to be torn apart. "Grievability," as Butler notes, is a presupposition for the life that matters" ( Butler p.14). The "targets" to whom Daggett refers, then, are no longer people or lives but "bodies" or "patterns of life" (Daggett p.371)—they are, to hearken back to a favoured phrase from the second Gulf War, collateral damage. But, as Mikdashi and Puar remind us, the phrase itself contains a challenge; it challenges us to ask

which deaths or injuries are internationally nameable and mournable and which deaths are merely “collateral damage” in the contemporary Middle East? What gendered and racial archives are being invoked with every deployment of those now ubiquitous words, collateral damage? (p.220)

To frame the issue in broadly Kantian moral terms, Daggett takes the victims of drone-mediated violence as means to an end—the end in this case being the 'queering' of US militarised masculinity. In the second formulation of his dreaded Categorical Imperative, Kant challenges us to "act so that you use humanity, as much in your own person as in the person of every other, always at the same time as end and never merely as means." (Kant/Wood (trans.) [1785] 2002, Ak 4:429) This is not the place to begin on a lengthy digression into Kantian moral theory, except to say that, for all my problems with him and his accursed imperative, this particular formulation strikes me as being a fairly good place from which to begin the work of ethics. And what could be more crucial to theorising around practices of war than ethics? If, as Butler reminds us, "moral theory has to become social critique" (Butler p.35), then social theory too has an ineluctably ethical dimension. If, as scholars, we choose to avoid it—well, then that choice must be recognised as such. Our words make worlds. We must select the right ones with which to build.

Taking Daggett at her word.

The worst of it is, I don't think that this was the article Daggett intended to write. Early in her text, she acknowledges that "there are certainly callous and triumphant narratives about killing with drones" (Daggett p.363); she seems to locate her own research within that realm of "discomfort and even trauma... prominent themes that deserve further analysis" (ibid.). And yet her own work regrettably falls into the callous and triumphalist camps. There simply isn't enough textual evidence to support any other view. Daggett doesn't use the words 'imperialism' or 'necropolitics' once. Rather, she speaks frequently of the 'hope' she sees as being offered by drone warfare. The problematics presented by Daggett, a white American settler, appropriating the work of Sara Ahmed (a brown queer woman whose father was born in one of the several countries the US currently bombards) in order to uncritically depict drone warfare as hopeful and vital, offer fertile territory for exploration and reflection. Daggett chooses not to—or is oblivious to the need to—follow this path. Some of the phrases she uses—and which I have quoted in this piece—may well have been selected with critical intent; but this is not clear from the writing. Daggett presents, without criticism or comment, certain approaches to warfare, global politics, and US military supremacy; and as she is a trained scholar, one cannot but assume that this was a deliberate choice. We have to take her at her word.

The text is, then, a perfect representative of how 'Western' academia approaches the ongoing issues presented by imperialism: a question of life and death that has been neutralised, rendered into keywords, cloaked in a fog of pseudo-Deleuzean jargon. A text that simultaneously claims and denies its position in the world: a symptom of Enlightenment thinking, where the scholar is situated above, removed; detached and supercilious, as though watching a faintly diverting game of chess.  A text that sings of mass murder, and the optimistic outcomes that might follow, without ever once grieving for—or even naming, or attending to—the victims. Whole lives reduced to props, to broken bodies, to stepping-stones along the path towards white American queer liberation. 

This is the imperialism of theory.
This is how a text can be violent.


This has been the saddest, most disappointing post to write.

 

ACADEMIC WORKS CITED. 

Butler, Judith. 2016. Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? London: Verso.
Daggett, Cara. 2015. 'Drone Disorientations: How "unmanned" weapons queer the experience of killing in war'. International Feminist Journal of Politics, 17:3, 361-379.
Derrida, Jacques. [1967] 1978. Writing and Difference, translated by Alan Bass. London: Routledge.
Haritaworn, Jin, Adi Kuntsman, Silvia Posocco (eds.). 2014. Queer Necropolitics. London: Routledge.
Kant, Immanuel, Allen W. Wood (trans.). [1785] 2002. Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Mbembe, Achille and Libby Meintjes (trans.). 2003. 'Necropolitics'. Public Culture, 15:1,11-40
Mikdashi, Maya and Jasbir K. Puar. 2016. 'Queer Theory and Permanant War'. GLQ, 22:2, 215-222.
Puar, Jasbir K. 2007. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

 

FOOTNOTES.

  1. Daggett has, unfortunately, misspelt the name one of her key theorists. That this error made it all the way through the drafting, rewriting, proofing, and editing processes, passed through independent peer review, and escaped the notice of the judging body for the Enloe Award (which her paper was awarded), is regrettable. More so in light of the tone of the paper: to misrepresent the name of a brown queer woman in a paper that treats brown bodies as collateral rather solidifies the impression that white American lives are the only ones that matter to the author.
 

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