Friday, June 22, 2012

Foucault and Drones: "Surveiller et Punir" Indeed!

It was several years ago that I first drew the connection between the work of Michel Foucault and drone surveillance and drone killing. At the time I pointed out that "Foucault understood [surveillance] to be symptomatic of the much larger project of societal rule. To Foucault, prior to the physical and bodily aspects of control and manipulation, there are aspects that have to do with seeing, knowing, naming, and categorizing."

We now know far more about how the Obama administration carries out drone surveillance and drone killing, especially in light of the New York Times article exposing Obama's "secret kill lists" several weeks ago. It seems like an appropriate time to revisit Foucault's dissection of surveillance and punishment.

The fundamental insight of Foucault's work, "Surveiller et Punir: Naissance de la prison" (published in English as "Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison") is that through a set of practices (observation, norm-imputation, examination), extra-legal compulsion in diverse forms comes to permeate society. These practices are, in part, mimetic of the truth-finding and justice-dispensing practices of a true legal system, but fall far short of judicial due process.

Why speak of "rights" and "justice" when you have the means to impose power -- i.e. "train" your subjects -- unilaterally?

According to Foucault, one of the principal marks of modern social organization is that observation is so important that whole categories of roles are reserved for simply watching what others are doing; in fact, organizations now institutionalize armies of watchers, as well as watchers of the watchers. (Got supervisors?)

Drone operators are certainly quintessential "watchers" of this kind. But Foucault's insight that these systems tend toward hierarchical (and total) observation alerts us to the fact that what lies ahead will almost certainly be worse. Work is being done to make drones "autonomous," that is, fully computer-controlled. "Signature strikes" -- in which observations are processed according to an algorithm to determine if a strike should be carried out, independent of human judgement about the actual identities of the people observed -- are a first indication of how this will be done.

In other words: "drone surveillance"? You ain't seen nothing yet!

All of the surveillance done by the watchers can only be put to use if there are standards of "normal" or "right" or "acceptable" behavior against which to compare the observations. This sets up both a fiction that there is a "right" way to be, and that the watchers are qualified to sit in judgement over the judged.

As the New York Times' description of Obama's secret kill list makes clear, Obama and his national security team sit as judge, jury, and executioner over a process of judgement of people subject to drone observation in Pakistan.

What is less clear is the "norm" against which the people there are judged. Is any adult male in the relevant areas of Pakistan assumed to be a "militant," unless proven otherwise?

What is similarly unclear is the qualifications of the "judges." As Eric Holder made clear when he (partially) divulged the rationale for the Administration's killings during his speech several months ago in Chicago, "due process" does not necessarily mean "judicial process."

Inherent in the scheme of "training" that Foucault understands to be at the heart of modern imposition of control is a third step: examination. If everyone is subject to observation, and everyone is subject to comparison to some "acceptable" measure of behavior, there must be some ritual(s) wherein the individual is required to stand and prove that they "pass the test."

The strange thing about the current state of U.S. drone killings is that they do not yet hint at what the "examination" stage will look like. At present, people are observed, and judged, and then unilaterally killed. But is that where it will all end?

If Foucault is right, the killings are just the beginning; they are just the leading edge of a much broader pattern of social control.

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In the old order of things, power places itself on display, and hopes that the population sees fit to obey. In the new order of things, power compels every member of the population to display himself or herself.

In the old order of things, individualism is the way of the world. In the new order of things, individualism is relegated to the margins - the abnormal - and the cost of extreme individualism is extermination.

In the old order of things, all of society's capability for science and humanism is focused on the operating of due judicial process. In the new order of things, the courts are bypassed and the instruments of discipline -- observe, classify, examine -- run rampant.

Related posts

The biggest idea coming out of the 2013 Drone Summit? We will only deal successfully with the crimes being committed using drones when we understand them as part of the much larger war against communities of color . . . .

(See Drone Gaze, Drone Injury: The War on Communities of Color )

The panopticon was a prison design that reversed the old paradigm, in which prisoners were stored away, "out of sight, out of mind," and instead arrayed them in a way in which they could be observed as efficiently as possible by the fewest number of managers.

(See Drones, 1984, and Foucault's Panopticon)

Re-reading George Orwell's 1984 recently made me see at least 15 ways 2013 is like the world he describes in the book . . . .

See 2013 = 1984 ?

More at: Can we stop the DRONES?

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Image sources:
Predator cockpit from Drone Wars UK
Situation room from Churls Gone Wild