UNMANNING

HOW HUMANS, MACHINES, AND MEDIA PERFORM

DRONE WARFARE

UNMANNING

noun

Unmanning performs a mechanical field of war, disavowing human action as technological advance. A substrata of race, gender and nation underwrite experiments by the United States military to build and deploy pilotless planes in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Networking human, machine and media, drone aircraft paradoxically enact the "man" they deny.

 

The overlay between surveillance and targeting enables the U.S. government and military to claim an all-the-more "total view" of the battlefield. But this picture does not correspond to the ground. Rather, the networked parts of the drone create the conditions "it" attacks.

 
The name drone contains the possibility that the actions of the pilotless aircraft exceed the human, while at the same time defanging any potential threat: a drone, after all, has no stinger.
 

NOBODY’S PERFECT

THE MYTHOS OF DRONES IS TIED TO FAILURE

PROJECT DRONE

A classified project launched by the US Navy during the decade prior to World War 2. Project Drone was a pilotless plane used to simulate air war.

AMERICAN KAMIKAZE

Radio Corporation of America received its first major contract for television cameras and receivers from the United States navy. The televisions were used in a drone assault weapon known both by RCA scientists and navy officials as "American Kamikaze."

BIG SAFARI

The program which funded the Firebee reconnaissance in 1962 was called Big Safari. A metaphor for the outsized ambitions the projects held, the program name references the “natural” hierarchy and colonial history of big game hunting.

PIONEER

A technological innovation that presaged the Predator drone, Pioneer was initially known to the American public through a major military corruption scandal involving millions of dollars in bribes.

BUFFALO HUNTER

Buffalo Hunter was a code name for reconnaissance drones flown in the 1960s over Southeast Asia. The name references America's settler colonial history to explain the aircraft's utility in Southeast Asia.

 
 
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REVIEWS

"Unmanning offers detailed histories that deconstruct the most persistent mythologies of air war... to offer completely new perspectives on one of the most significant technological trends in contemporary warfare."

Caren Kaplan, author of Aerial Aftermaths: Wartime from Above

"This book is an invaluable resource for everyone concerned with the erasures of human agencies that enable claims for technical autonomy in contemporary warfighting."

Lucy Suchman, author of Human-Machine Reconfigurations

"Drone theory tends to replicate the god’s eye view enjoyed by its object. Katherine Fehr Chandler bucks this trend, grounding her new theory of 'unmanned' aerial vehicles in their wayward and failure-ridden history as human–machine–media assemblages... Unmanning is a timely and fascinating book."

Paul K. Saint-Amour, author of Tense Future: Modernism, Total War, Encyclopedic Form

 

Q&A WITH AUTHOR

What does drone failure teach us?

Drone failure shatters a simple alignment between US imperialism and a "god's eye view" of the world. At their core, unmanned aircraft are state pedagogy. Yet, the unsatisfying and messy reality of drone experiments contrast with the smooth narrative of technological progress and all-seeing power they purport. When drones crash or fall apart, human actors recover the pieces and put the technology back together. In the process, they expose the drones' political basis and their divisive logic.

What is a key theme and/or message in your book?

Drone technologies are are made by the organization of the state and actors who create and maintain them. Unmanning is political action: the evolution of aerial warfare is not a foregone conclusion but a constructed one. The drone teaches us how the "symbolics of the top" are organized by humans, machines and media and how race, gender and nation fit within these networked parts.

© 2020 by Katherine Chandler