The Affective Map of Drone Warfare

“Sometimes, [Oligoptic sites] are easy to pinpoint because physical connections do the tracing for us in the same way as with laboratories: it is obvious, for instance, that an army’s command and control center is not ‘bigger’ and ‘wider’ than the local front thousands of miles away where soldiers are risking their life, but it is clear nonetheless that such a war room can command and control anything—as the name indicates—only as long as it remains connected to the theater of operation through a ceaseless transport of information. So the right topography here is not to include the front line ‘into’ some overarching power, but to localize both and to connect through some sort of well-fed cables what in French is called connectique. This is what I mean by flattening the landscape.”

“We, however, are not looking for utopia, but for places on earth that are fully assignable. Oligoptica are just those sites since they do exactly the opposite of panoptica: they see much too little to feed the megalomania of the inspector or the paranoia of the inspected, but what they see, they see it well…”


Preparing for this presentation and coming up with the topic that would inform my prototype, I ended up going down several passages, re-reading Pickles, which led me to Latour, which led to just reading a whole bunch of Latour. I cannot say with certainty that I will be applying his concepts perfectly, but I am interested in looking at the concept of affective mapping in the arena of the all-to-familiar Drone Wars of the last 6-12 years (as far as the major period of time during which most fatalities have occurred). In doing so, I am hoping to identify some of the common attributes of what one might call “mapping the Drone War”, a process that has been underway through the skill and application of a number of different artists, reporters, researchers, etc. And looking at this, I wanted to raise the idea of the Oligopticon, as defined and used by Latour. As he defines it above, and in my reading of the concept, it seeks out spaces that are not the speculative sites of magisterial power and influence, but rather the nitty-gritty of how that power interfaces with the mathematics and logistics that allow it to function. The “bottom-up” method of analysis here seems super useful for analyzing issues around the application of technological apparatae in the course of modern warfare. His example of the war room, which I posted in its entirety rather than try to over-explain in my text, fascinated me, and got me thinking about Drones, and how this concept might work as a means of thinking about the “two theaters” (to borrow the Military term) of modern warfare: the sterile, automated “war room” of both the real experience (the presumptive “rooms” that are wired for war) and the imagined (Dr. Strangelove’s environs of utter annihilation, power, and confusion). I won’t presume to be a Latour scholar here, but dealing with the affective reality of warfare, and in particular the brutal reality of a Hellfire Missile explosion, seems a pertinent task to undertake; we can’t suppose to know what the actual embodied sensations of this warfare might involve, but we can try to put ourselves through the messy process of understanding the infrastructures, sonic, tactile, even olfactory, that go into the killing of a suspected enemy combatant. 

This is an elaborate explanation, but that’s largely because this is a rather difficult series of things to put together. In choosing a map to critique under this rubric, I shuffled through many different visualizations of Drone attacks in Waziristan over the course of the WoT. Ultimately it seemed best to go with what I estimated to be the most exhaustive of the bunch, coming maybe closest to carrying a degree of affective quality. With this in mind, I chose the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s “Drone Strikes in Pakistan” interactive map. Their work, in coordination with SITU Research, does an amazing job of collating the data involved in chronicling the sites of the war, as well as allowing a degree of personal and affective inquiry, as it lists the names of everyone they have been able to ascertain who died in the strikes. This doesn’t add up to much on the scale of 0-to-Affect, as you’re probably thinking. I chose this particular topic and this particular map because I thought it would provide an opportunity to take a terrific, let’s say “data-driven,” map and speculate about possible routes to making it better embody the violence that is ultimately at issue here.  


So, turning to the specifics of the map, we are faced with an elegant interface, portraying not only the clear “satellite vision” of Waziristan, but also putting into perspective, at least for me, the vastness of this region, and naturally of Pakistan as a nation. The unclear territorial nature of this region, with its very specific regional methods of governing, its conflicts with the Pakistani government, and now its designation of being one of the more violent arenas in the WoT, makes this region a perfect elaboration for me of this split between the venues: one in, let’s say Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, a secluded base with a secluded room in which a pilot operates a Drone remotely, and the “on-the-ground” (again stealing Military parlance) location of Waziristan. So how do we make these two reconcile with one-another? What kind of map could be drawn up that would allow for both the sterility of the base and the tactility of the ground? 

Well, a few possibilities come to mind, and I have done a little mock-up of how it might play out. My thinking here is to highlight both the brutality of being near or, god forbid, being IN an explosion of a Hellfire Missile (the most common Drone Missile) and the mundanity of being there when it’s fired. I looked to your piece on the various tours of infrastructure as a bit of a guiding light here; looking to a few choice quotes about some of the projects, some clear strategies are available: 

“Thus the stops on the audio tour highlight not the usual city or landscape sites but rather the ‘underbelly, circuitry board, and dumping ground — sites of extraction, exchange, and expenditure, the Other to those of capital’s obvious accumulation.'” (Mattern, PlacesJournal) [my emphasis]

Here, we get a major point of interest: the “underbelly” of the whole crazy system. So, to my map, there needs to be an acknowledgment of the infrastructure that makes possible the Drone strike. For instance, here is an example from The Intercept of a map that demonstrates the some of the unseen parts of the Drone attack infrastructure: 

This bears a lot of similarity to how the Military itself diagrams these issues; they speak of a “loop” in which humans and robots, and all the various instruments, participate so as to accurately and carefully administer the USA’s foreign policy. This map is obviously very dry and meant to communicate only basic information. But having it as part of a larger assemblage of intersecting maps, visualizations, affective registries (sounds, moving images), and data, it becomes a much more potent tool to explain his process. 

“…the tour attempts to link ‘those who travel along the interstate corridor to those who live there’; the ultimate goal is ‘to intervene in the unjust conditions at hand.'” (Mattern)

This raises a question of how to implement the personal portion of the map, the “ground” part. Waziristan is enormous, but it is at least partially administered to by a series of small rooms built of technical devices; this brings up questions of Sovereignty of course, but to look at “those who live there” one need not get too bogged down in those questions for the moment. Waziristan, for any number of complicated and region-specific reasons, may be one of the least “known” portions of the world to the average American (naturally this is not a very high bar, but nonetheless). Given that many people, and I include myself in this group, can talk as though we know the first thing about the region, but know very little other than the Wiki-version of it, it would seem important to bring this ground to the foreground. Immersing us in the sounds and feelings of the region, only to bombard us with Hellfire. Here are a few videos that could be worked into this project:


THEN THE STARTLING INTERVENTION OF THE HELLFIRE MISSILE (replete with laughs and yells from the assholes firing it)

But of course this would have to be a complex of different maps, a scape of interlocking assemblages. And naturally, it would be foolish, and far too typical of the data-driven methods of the Military and reporting worlds, to try and make this too coherent. As you mention in your description of the Invisible-5 project:

“…one of the goals of Invisible-5 is, in her words, to ‘disrupt coherent representations of space, simultaneously highlighting the fragmentary nature of knowledge itself and critiquing, for instance, the God’s-eye view inherent to traditional maps.'” (Mattern)


“…[highlight] what usually remains ‘at the periphery of visibility,’ what seems illegible or even un-mappable, what might be evoked instead by the sounds bubbling below the surface, or by the personal narratives of those palpably harmed by imperceptible dangers.”

This is a bit of a hard thing for me to actually show, so my hope is these various already-existing entities, reassembled and repurposed, can stand in for whatever software trickery a more technically-inclined version of me might be able to do. Here is another example of how someone has attempted to properly visualize this phenomenon:

So, to finish with a more exhaustive description: I’m imagining an interlocking series of maps/visualizations/interfaces/graphs/videos/sounds and perhaps even a kind of video-game of piloting a drone, a la Killbox:

This would need to be a part of the package, but it would not necessarily need to be “first” in the succession of things one would encounter. It might be a better reflection of the process to get to know the ground first, then travel “backwards”, as it were, through the infrastructures, eventually landing in the nest of the pilot, a quiet little cube (quiet except for of course the devices and their ever-present affective qualities). 

Turning back quickly to the Latour, I really did want to make clear my attempt at applying his idea here; in much the way he describes these Oligopticons, and how he views through his Actor Network Theory a means of describing a number of interacting actors serving to create this complex of places, non-places, and the whole-wide-world, I would want to clearly demonstrate how it can be a misnomer to disconnect these elements when discussing a topic like this. One might want to just tell the story of a victim, one of the many seen in a list like the one posted by Josh Begley on his really informative Twitter account @dronestream…

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…and not spend too much time on the crass Militaristic components, a world many are immediately turned away by. I’ve always believed in staring your enemy or that which you fear/are suspicious of, right in the face. The more information the better, and adding this affective element to an analysis of the Drone War could work wonders in driving home the approximate reality of the damage being done.