Ethics of Network Subjectivity
#NotABugSplat, an art piece serving as a commentary on the United States’ drone war, features a portrait of a young girl installed in a field in Pakistan, sizable enough to be seen from an aerial view. Critics dismiss #NotABugSplat as “internet heroin” because of its unlikeliness to dissuade a drone pilot to abandon her mission. Yet, a closer look explores the possibility of a symbol that constitutes its own audience and calls it into being. This audience becomes a collective subject enlivened through the network—the network subject. In this convergence of subjectivity, the network subject realizes its own complicity in the drone attacks. The subject acts to bear witness to the once-covert event of the drone strike, dismantling the secrecy upon which the U.S. relies to carry out its drone war. This collective witnessing can be seen as the network subject’s ethical act.
In April of 2014, aerial surveillance drones discovered a large-scale portrait of a young girl installed in a field in North West Pakistan. The child’s face could only be viewed from an aerial distance in the form of the drones’ surveillance imagery; from the ground one could only see the large swath of pixels printed on the 100-by-70-foot tarp, completely consuming one’s view of the subject. Her hair cut short, she holds a piece of unrecognizable rubble and stares directly at the camera. Her large dark eyes display an ineffable intensity which is unsettling to the viewer. The portrait is rendered in black and white and is cropped just below the chest, while the background has been replaced with a pattern of variously sized dots arranged into a gradient. This girl is unknown—we do not know her name or any other specifics related to her situation.
Pierced by her gaze, the incongruity of this portrait within its surroundings of the lush green field and a grouping of simple mud structures leads, at first, only to questions: why was this portrait put here and by whom?
The child pictured was reportedly orphaned in an attack by U.S. military drones in the region. The installation’s creators intended for the little girl to stare up at the drone operators who fly their vehicles via remote control as part of the United States’ counter-terrorism program. This piece, titled #NotABugSplat (notabugsplat.com), is a public art installation created by a cooperative of Pakistani and American artists inspired by French street artist JR’s project “Inside Out,” which calls for “people to share their untold stories and transform messages of personal identity into works of public art” (“About the Inside Out Project”). Human rights lawyer Shehzad Akbar and the artists teamed up to create the poster of the young Pakistani girl who reportedly lost both parents and a sibling in a U.S. drone attack (Goodman & Gonzalez; Saifi). The large-scale portrait was then installed in the Pakistan field (see Fig. 1), with the “hope that this will create empathy and introspection amongst drone operators, and will create dialogue amongst policy makers, eventually leading to decisions that will save innocent lives” (#NotABugSplat).
The campaign gets its name from the dehumanizing rhetoric that drone operators use to describe their targets: “bug splat” is military slang for the visual phenomena of seeing dead bodies and scorched terrain through the pixelated, aerial view of the drone camera in the aftermath of an attack (Goodman and Gonzalez). The piece was ostensibly titled with a hashtag (#) for the purpose of creating a cohesive online discourse critiquing the inhumane gaze of U.S. drone operators and policymakers.1 One of the co-creators of #NotABugSplat explained that the rhetoric of drone attack agents was a primary impetus for the piece’s creation: “…when we heard about the kind of the language and the lexicon with which it was used—‘bug splat’—we were kind of appalled by the insensitivity of the issue” (Goodman and Gonzalez para. 5). The artist statement of #NotABugSplat implies that the campaign is an attempt to not only talk back to the drone operators using imagery conducive to the operators’ medium of choice—satellite photography—but also to interrupt the targeted terrain with the human face of an innocent victim, reminding the agents of drone strikes that their targets are human beings, not insects.
Soon after the launch of #NotABugSplat, Vice Magazine published an article titled “This Giant Art Piece Won’t Be Making Drone Pilots Feel Empathy,” in which author Mike Pearl argues against the effectiveness of the piece as protest. Although protest art commonly refers to creative works that act as both aesthetic and political interventions, Pearl’s argument implies that the efficacy of protest art should judged not by aesthetics, but on utility alone2. In other words, Pearl argues that the only way to ascertain whether #NotABugSplat is a successful piece of protest art is to reduce the evaluation of the piece to the effect on its intended audience.
According to Pearl, one would be hard pressed to believe that #NotABugSplat would directly cause a drone operator to abandon her mission, so the artists’ claims that the piece targets drone operators is false. Instead, observes Pearl, #NotABugSplat can be understood more as “Banksy meets Kony 2012: straight-up, uncut internet heroin” (para. 3). Pearl’s classification of #NotABugSplat as “heroin,” coupled with its comparison to viral film Kony 2012 (circulated in an effort to expose child militia leader and indicted war criminal Joseph Kony) and political street artist Banksy is a telling one: this criticism alludes that #NotABugSplat offers well-meaning but misinformed internet citizens a way to experience the satisfaction and complacency of having fought oppression without engaging in any of the structural changes that would remediate the problem or change the behavior of the agents behind drone attacks. “The reality is that this isn't meant for drone pilots at all. It's meant for us, [the] internet…” (para. 5). Who is this “us, the internet” to which Pearl refers? Could he mean the actual infrastructural technology of the internet? The internet as a medium? The inclusion of the word “us” indicates that the Pearl is referring to an audience, but what type of audience could be constituted by “us, the internet”?
In order to make sense of Pearl’s assessment, one must look past the Internet as a piece of technological infrastructure and conceive of it as a subject. The Internet, in fact, has a subjectivity all its own. Acknowledging this subjectivity requires looking beyond the limitations of the individual toward a type of plural subject that is both constituted by and summoned through the communicative network of the Internet. Pearl’s “us, the internet” as a subjectivity is more than the addition of one plus one (times the many) of individual subjects of which it is comprised; more than a collection of individuals, this plural subject is greater than the sum of its parts. In fact, I argue that this subject’s significance exists within the in-between of these individual bodies—within the flow of the network itself. This expanding and fluid subjectivity constitutes what I call the network subject: a presence beyond individual human agency and a binding force that expands subjectivity far past the barriers of the skin.
However, Pearl’s assessment that #NotABugSplat is for “us, the internet” rather than for the drone operators leads him to conclude that the piece is “internet heroin” a deceptive shortcut that makes us feel something without having to do anything to achieve it. In other words, by pacifying our collective ethical unease about the United States’ drone war, Pearl claims that #NotABugSplat acts as a substitution for our own agency in stopping or protesting the attacks. Therefore, if we are to follow Pearl’s logic, there needs to be an act that the art piece leads the network subject to take, in order for #NotABugSplat to function as a genuine instantiation of protest and not just a fallacious media drug. I argue that we can, in fact, trace the reverberations of the network subject to a materialized act of protest; this act can be described as bearing collective witness to the once-covert event of the drone strike. The flowing convergence between the drone operator, the terror suspect(s), the innocent victims and the public that these acts are supposed to protect creates a collective witness which dismantles the secrecy upon which the United States relies to enact its drone war. In the ethics of network subjectivity, the witnessing—as presence of subjective expansion beyond the realm of individual human agency—is the doing.
The terrain of subjective expansion beyond the form has been explored by previous scholars within the post-structural turn in cultural theory. Deleuze and Guattari, for example, offer assemblage theory to understand subjectivities as arising out of relations between material processes and are credited with leading the movement beyond acceptance of pre-determined structures such as the “self” or the “body” (4). Deleuze himself was thought to have been heavily influenced by Simondon’s concept of pre-individual fields—movements of affects and flows of information across structures, bodies and forms, a process that creates the effect of a perceived individualized experience, but should not be mistaken for the ontological pre-givenness of the individual (Iliadis 84). Additionally, Actor Network Theory scholars such as Latour paved the way for thinking about subjectivity and agency beyond the realm of the human or even the “animated” in its traditional configuration: Latour argued that environmental, architectural, and technical factors have as much agency in shaping events as humans and other living beings (10). Finally, Mark Hansen relates these philosophies to the conundrum of the networked age in which we now live: he argues that technology acts upon us as a process of “embodied prosthesis” (78) in which we incorporate technologies into our very sensorial capacities in a sort of dispersed and shared agency that expands our subjectivities beyond the body. These conceptual turns, among many others, paved the way to think about the network subject that is awakened within the liminal space of virtual relations, where individual identities converge, creating a material presence to which #NotABugSplat speaks.3
In this essay, I describe the true power of #NotABugSplat—a form of rhetorical power, measured in relation to the constitution and transformation of an audience (Mailloux xii)—the plural subject who bears witness. I make this argument by answering three questions that arise from an examination of Pearl’s critique. First, by what criteria are we to judge #NotABugSplat as a piece of protest art? Here, I trouble Pearl’s tendency to assess the art piece on utility or instrumentality alone; I argue for a consideration of aesthetic choices as also fully encompassing the piece’s politics. Second, what is the nature of “us, the internet” and how is this audience shaped by #NotABugSplat’s dissemination through the network? How does a network model of agency function as an ethical commentary on drone warfare? Finally, I ask the question: what does “us, the internet,” as a network subject, do? Does a collective witnessing of the once-hidden activities of the United States drone program constitute an ethical act? How does this act of witnessing interrupt the master narrative that has allowed the U.S. drone war to continue unchecked? I conclude that new narrative formed by #NotABugSplat’s interruption suggests that the networking of our very subjectivities equally bloodies the hands of all involved in such atrocities.
The Network Image
As far as Pearl’s implicit argument that the aesthetic choices of #NotABugSplat as an example of protest art only matter inasmuch as they contribute to the political impact of the piece, a close reading of the portrait reveals that aesthetic sensibility and rhetorical strategy are, in fact, inextricably linked. Regardless of intended audience, #NotABugSplat relies on the fact the that face of the pictured girl is visually arresting. In the context of the predicted aerial-view terrain of rolling green hills and dwelling roofs, the girl’s face—with its affective intensity that cannot be named—is significant in that it confronts the viewer with the one element that is completely obscured by aerial drones. A look at the aesthetic choices of #NotABugSplat indicates that the artists, as well, were all too aware of the rhetorical significance of the face: not only is the actual portrait framed by a section of white space formed by the edges of the tarp (the image is intentionally designed to not bleed off the edges), but the background surrounding the girl’s face has been removed and replaced with variously-sized dots to form a gradient, helping to further frame the face.
The aesthetics of #NotABugSplat constitute the piece’s politics in the sense that the girl’s face becomes a pool of affective overflow onto which the digital public may focus its ethical unease when it comes to the murky and obscure subject of drone warfare. While information about the United States’ drone war within the digital public is both varied and dispersed, the face of #NotABugSplat is an example of Muñoz’s “anticipatory illumination of art…a surplus of both affect and meaning within the aesthetic” (3). The dispersal of our drone war’s flow of information across the network becomes condensed in the eyes of the little girl as we are confronted with the face of the victims that are perhaps considered, but never named within public discourse.
Images that Puncture Ideology
Reports indicate that there were at least nine drone attacks in the three months following the launch of the installation, three of which took place in Pakistan (Begley). If one were to measure the success of #NotABugSplat by the instances of drone strikes occurring within the country of origin following its installation, one might question the effectiveness of the project. However, I argue that #NotABugSplat’s success hinges upon its ability to anchor the dispersed ethical unease of the digital public, not upon its ability to deter an actual drone strike. The problem is rhetorical acts—which is how, by focusing on its instrumentality toward change, Pearl implicitly classifies #NotABugSpat—are often myopically interpreted according to the direct relationship between the author and the audience—or, as Biesecker calls it, the logic of influence (10). Pearl is guilty of this very error, for the assessment of the piece’s “success,” according to his logic, is based on the effects on its assumed audience—that is to say, drone operators. What we find, however, is that the picture itself is a site of emerging meaning, a gateway constituted by the portrait’s “being-in-the-world” (Heidegger 49).
#NotABugSplat is a means through which an assemblage of abstract events, affects and narratives surrounding the ethical unease of the United States’ drone war is made visible and tangible. The obscuring of accountability through physical, technological, and geographic remoteness has been a contributing factor to the lack of sustained public outrage and political discourse surrounding United States’ drone war (Cabello 10-11). However, #NotABugSplat, through both it’s use of the portrait and the revelation of the dehumanizing phrase “bug splat” used by drone operators to describe their targets, offers a condensation symbol at which the network subject may direct its ethical unease. Condensation symbols, explained by Graber, are “certain terms which have acquired very distinctive highly emotional meanings…because they condense a whole coterie of ideas and notions into symbolic words or phrases” (134). I move to apply Graber’s conceptual definition to the very image of #NotABugSplat, which viscerally embodies the condensation symbol of the “bug splat,” a term that viscerally focuses the dehumanization of certain lives within U.S. drone policy within the face of the orphaned child.
Hariman and Lucaites argue that images can indeed constitute condensation symbols in their surfacing and focusing of dispersed fields of intensities “which together provide a public audience with sufficient means for comprehending potentially unmanageable events” (38). By positioning the excess of meaning within an image as explanation for what a condensation symbol is, Deluca and Peeples posit their description of the image event as what the condensation symbol does: image events as mind bombs viscerally link certain images to social movements, collective narratives and shared sentiments as visually-delivered rhetorical devices. The dissemination of imagery surrounding culturally-significant phenomena creates “image events that explode ‘in the public’s consciousness to transform the way people view their world’” (136).
Barthes recognized the ability of the image to “puncture conventional beliefs” (Hariman and Lucaites 37) as “aesthetic mediations of political identity that include but also exceed ideological control” (38). Because they are delivered through imagery rather than text, image events lend themselves to the type of subversive spectacle that transgresses taken-for-granted norms and narratives. Image events, in this way, can act on both the subconscious and the emotions of the digital publics, inextricably linking picture with movement (DeLuca and Delicath 325). Through the virtual dissemination of imagery, the little girl’s portrait operates via channels outside of the drone operators themselves to create a new relationship between the networked public and the phenomenon of the drone strike.
Furthermore, the portrait of #NotABugSplat opens up a field of convergence between individual identities, bodies and subjectivities in its interpellation4 of the networked public’ ethical response: “In addition, the photograph becomes a condensation of public consciousness to the extent that, while it provides figural embodiment of abstractions, it also keeps the lines of response and action directed through relationships among strangers rather than specific individuals or groups” (Hariman and Lucaites 58). In this case, the image fulfills the constitutive role of shaping a network subjectivity that becomes a presence, bound by an ethical call to respond.
The little girl of #NotABugSplat represents such an image event: the campaign gained traction almost overnight, getting picked up by CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera and other major news outlets and reaching over 115 million impressions in less than two months (Lions Festivals). The piece won a Cannes Lions award in the category of Best Low Budget Direct Campaign, the first ever win for a Pakistani entry (Sethi). Museums and other cultural institutions throughout the Middle East began contacting the agency that printed the poster and asking for copies to display (Sibtain). The image of the little girl became a symbol of anti-drone sentiment, with a search on Google Images for “bug splat” and “drones” bringing up almost an entire page of entries for the photo at the time of writing this essay. Because the phenomenon of drone warfare is both complex and obscured within public discourse, the simplicity of the little girl’s gaze was needed to anchor the digital public’s understanding of these problematic practices.
Whether or not the physical installation is still present in the Pakistani field, it has already been captured by satellites and made into a lasting presence associated with the terrain, so that the faces and lives destroyed by drone attacks have become etched into the virtual topography of the target areas. The young orphan’s face has become a condensation symbol representing the ethical unease surrounding the dehumanization of drone victims. The message that “someone is watching” delivered by #NotABugSplat’s image event introduces a presence that, like a mind bomb, cannot be unexploded. The presence of the network subjectivity, once apprehended, cannot be shaken, permanently altering the public's relationship to the act of drone warfare.
Photograph and the Ethical Interruption
It is particularly significant that the network subject can only view the installation via satellite photography. As a physical artifact, the portrait carries a different meaning than it does as a digitally-mediated and -disseminated image on the ground—the viewer cannot even see what the portrait captures. Yet as a digital artifact, the photograph carries with it a deep contextualization of meaning as the flow of terrain is literally cut with the face and gaze of the little girl. The eyes of the portrait arrest us, the digital public, in two ways: first, it interrupts the expected abstracted view of surveillance with the very element that surveillance always obscures (the face); second, it interrupts the “seeing-yet-unseen” mode of surveillance that we have come to expect from satellite imagery, as the eyes of the little girl appear to be staring directly at us.
As Kember and Zylinska describe, the medium of photography represents a fundamental interruption of the flow of time. Humans are temporal beings, and our experiences position us as “collectors of memories, viewers of moments of captured temporality, and producers of such moments” (76). Yet photography, as both the act of cutting and the cut itself, arrests duration, stilling the flow of time, and translating the still-in-flux phenomenon of experience as frozen, static, and representable to the eyes in an instant. As Kember and Zylinska go on to describe, the relationship between the flux of lived experience and the cut of photography enlivens an intuitive—rather than cognitive—and affective response: “Arguably it is precisely the dialectical relationship between flux and stasis, between duration and the cut that organizes the conceptual and affective universe for us.” (79). This immediate, impressionistic mode of sensorial awakening is likened to Henri Bergson’s (38) concept of “automatic vision” which asserts that a human can “see with the body” in an unconscious sensing of movement, patterns and flux.
Similarly, Donna Haraway also insists on “the embodied nature of all vision” (191). The idea that one can see with a body allows various individuated bodies to flow together into a hybrid and collective subject through visual interpellation. In the case of #NotABugSplat, the photograph demands that we interrupt our own narratives of normalization in order to reassess our complicity in the phenomenon of drone warfare. As Kember and Zylinska put it, photography can be thought of as “both a technique (an ontological entity encapsulating something that is, or something that is taking place) and an ethical imperative (as expressed by the command: ‘Cut!’)” (71, emphasis mine). The cut of #NotABugSplat’s photograph forces an abrupt change in perspective, and even creates an aesthetic interruption in the way that it plays with form within the genre of satellite imagery. In confronting us with the face that the surveillance drone normally obscures, we are forced to think about what normalized forms of surveillance leave out. This interruption remaps the relationship that the digital public has to the act of the drone strike.
#NotABugSplat within the Digital turn in Protest Art
#NotABugSplat is just one example of the digital turn within the genre of public protest art. Other examples in this genre further illustrate a movement to critically interrupt the ubiquity of technologies with events that viscerally confront one’s virtual consciousness with the remote atrocities of the United States’ drone war. @Dronestream is a Twitter project that tweets every U.S.-sponsored drone strike (often accompanied by a photograph of the scene), created by net artist Josh Begley in 2013 (Begley). Similarly, Dronestagram, a net art project created by James Bridle, posts images from Google Maps Satellite view to Instagram and syndicates this feed to Tumblr and Twitter, bringing together “invisible, distancing technologies and a technologically-disengaged media and society” (Bridle, para. 6). Sprinkled into a virtual milieu of posts about food, fashion, “selfies” and other superficialities of the everyday, @Dronestream and Dronestagram affectively shock the digital public from its state of distracted immersion to achieve a more critical distance to its complicity in the phenomenon of drone warfare.
@Dronestream and Dronestagram’s interruptions parallel how drones violently interrupt the daily lives of the people, families and communities in target areas. These works of art produce profound commentary on the complexities of hypermediation, or the idea that technologies can be both distancing and ubiquitous at the same time. #NotABugSplat—along with @Dronestream and Dronestagram—clarify and make visible the enigmatic and obscure contours of the United States’ drone war by exposing often-hidden realities. Furthermore, these projects’ use of photography incorporates the ethical interruption of the cut by inserting these images into audience members’ ever-emerging feed of social media streams, creating a new reality of which we are now aware, thanks to the dissemination of the networked image.
The Network Subject
Returning to both the rhetorical and aesthetic choices of #NotABugSplat’s creators, one cannot ignore a significant element that is present even in the piece’s title: the hashtag. Although originally created as a feature for content aggregation, the affordances of the hashtag have evolved with its increased use among the digital public. Today, in addition to the purposes of archiving the flow of information across disparate media platforms, the hashtag infuses digitally-disseminated media with both subtext and connectivity, and is now such a commonplace rhetorical device that it can be seen outside of mediated contexts that afford hashtagging—platforms such as text messages or even oral communication. The hashtag responds to a common critique that virtual communication erases affective cues like communicative tone: now, hashtags can be used to generate irony through an addendum strategically placed to allow audiences to “read between the lines” of messages. For example, in March of 2015, in response to media accusations that blamed rap albums for racist attitudes within college fraternities, Twitter users began tweeting titles of rap albums altered to reflect antebellum culture (i.e. “Massa Said Knock You Out” (@BullhammerPT)) along with the hashtag #RapAlbumsThatCausedSlavery (Merda para. 6). Hashtags also contextualize individual messages within a larger, collective conversation: #NotABugSplat’s hashtag, in addition to carrying a subversive tone with the rhetorical revelation of military operatives’ use of the term “bug splat,” connects individual mentions of the project into a networked flow of discourse.
In the sense that it contains the capacity to remap the digital public’s relationship to both the meaning of the content and its mode of dissemination, the hashtag #NotABugSplat can be seen as a vital feature of the network subject that emerges from the art piece. Hashtags afford a wide dispersal of circulation as trending topics spread across disparate platforms—a process that Jenkins calls “transmediation”5—but also allow rhizomatic threads to converge as a single “body.” This dual expansion-aggregation process remaps subjectivity beyond individuated parameters and entangles various flows of information and affect beyond predetermined boundaries. The new communicative era marked by the virtual circulation of images exposes the affective power of the digitally-disseminated photograph. By interpellating a digital public across geographic and identity boundaries, the face of the little girl in #NotABugSplat not only makes tangible the obscurity and invisibility of drone warfare atrocities, it also converges bodies and subjectivities in collective responses to the portrait as an image event. The emergence of the network enlivens the liminal space between Self and Other, between human and artifice, agent and technology—allowing us to not only see, but touch, immerse ourselves in, and combine with a collective subjectivity.
Through this reminder that the network is something human, a space imbued with subjectivity, #NotABugSplat punctures the shield of the perceived “closedness” of the military network. To be clear, the network through which operators control drones remotely at the Creech U.S. Air Force Base in Nevada is not the same as the openly-accessed digital public sphere. Drone operations are communicated through closed data links established between ground control or satellite and the drone’s data system, protected through stringent network security architecture and protocol such as encryption (Whitlock). However, the influence of surveillance operates through the mere possibility of being surveilled. By “hacking” the military network via the appropriation of drones’ target terrain with an image of a little girl, #NotABugSplat reminds its beholder of the collective gaze of the network subject as the act is written in history.
The Collective, the Virtual, and the Subject
At this point, it is necessary to draw out the conceptual contours of this notion of “subject” and “subjectivity.” Such terms have been defined in many ways, but I take my conceptualization from the post-structural turn and its foray into the study of virtual communication, illustrated by both Manovich and Hansen’s theoretical foundations in the scholarship of Bergson. Hansen describes Bergson’s concept of a body as a “center of indetermination,” (59), meaning that subjectivity is centered between a reception and a reaction—between perception and action, between being touched and touching back. Similarly, Manovich argues that the interactive affordances of the virtual, which compel an expressive output in the entanglement between the body and the mediated environment, interpolates the subject “between the roles of viewer and user, shifting between perceiving and acting, between following the story and actively participating in it” (208). As such, the theoretical basis for a concept of subjectivity can be taken from the very same ideas that we use to understand the virtual: the in-between, liminal space of entanglement, where the flow of the surrounding milieu collides with internally-felt intensities and affects, a collision which compels an automatic response.
This network subjectivity more closely resembles the original notions of “the virtual” that predate contemporary associations with cyberspace and digital technologies. As Shields explains, the virtual was originally defined as something that exists in essence but not in form; the virtual can be conceived as an overlay of the collective experiences of all subjective beings (2). As such, the virtual inhabits the liminal space between and across organic and architectural boundaries (Shields 31). The virtualness of #NotABugSplat’s portrait acts as a gateway to this collective, the activator of the network subject. The network subject, marked by both its heterogeneity and its commonality, is at once drawn together and compelled to respond to both the specific face of little girl and the universal face of a humanity that allows—and therefore perpetuates—these remote killings.
In Bergson’s conception of the virtual, the Self is not enclosed within a form, but rather is constituted through the performance of memories, anticipations and intensities; the virtual is the layering of all these interactions that occur within the duration of time (R. Shields & R.M. Shields 66-67). Similarly, the network can be seen as a technologized embodiment of the virtual, where intensities flow beyond the unit of the individual and overlap into a living collective. The virtual network is subjectified beyond measure, suggesting a human collectivity that bears witness to all. Through this conceptualization of the network, Pearl’s “us, the internet,” as the subject which #NotABugSplat calls into being, is reframed.
The virtual of the network allows the individual to be dissolved in its immersion within the networked milieu, where a multitude of individuated subjectivities combine to form a collective witness. Through the virtual world of the network, #NotABugSplat demonstrates the interpolation of the subject between an apprehension of the little girl’s gaze and an automatic response to it. The hashtag of the project is vital to the emergence of the network subject, because it allows individual responses to the piece to be connected to the larger public discourse surrounding an ethical response to the problematic of drone strikes. The hashtag helps to make visible the reverberations of a renewed collective scrutiny of the U.S. drone war, and this collective gaze dismantles the secrecy of these acts. Contrary to Pearl’s criticisms, I argue that it is not to the drone operators that #NotABugSplat speaks, but to this collective witness that I call the network subject.
The Collective Witness and The Network Subject's Ethical Art
If we return to Pearl’s critique, having established #NotABugSplat’s constitution of its own audience, the network subject, we still have to address the matter of what the network subject does. Pearl’s argument hinges upon the categorization of #NotABugSplat as “internet heroin” in that it tricks its audience into complacency without action. At the end of the day, for Pearl to assess #NotABugSplat as a successful work of protest art, there must be an action that the collective subject takes to alter the conditions that afford the continuation of the United States’ drone program. That action, I argue, is what we may call a collective witnessing; as alluded to above, the materialization of a collective gaze dismantles the secrecy of the drone strikes themselves. The idea that someone—or something—is bearing witness to the act of a drone strike sows doubt into the “closedness” of the operation itself. But can this witnessing be considered a true act of protest?
Without falling prey to the short-sightedness of a “logic of influence,” we can look at the act of witnessing as that which alters the perception of the the drone strike for all involved. The network opens up our plane of perspective and creates within our perception the presence of a witness from beyond the screen. The network as the possibility of being surveilled surfaces the apprehension of the collective subject’s gaze. Deluca and Peeples describe this experience as “the familiar made strange, the shock of recognition that the familiar is not necessarily innocuous, the hint of the ‘banality of evil’” (145). Through the constitutive force of #NotABugSplat, the subject within the network realizes its own complicity in the systematic reliance upon drone operations.
The perspective of the drone operator is opened up to the network public, as we can now see what the drone operator sees, while seeing through the eyes of a drone what the drone can never see: the face of its victim. In the process of this fluid convergence of subjectivity, where the individual allows herself to flow beyond the individually-marked body into the network of humanity, the network subject realizes its own complicity in the drone attacks. In the infinite regress of the orphaned child’s eyes, I am the drone operator, the drone operator is me. These shifts in perspective, I argue, alter the material conditions that have allowed the United States drone war to be enacted in a relative dearth of public scrutiny. This change is a result of the ethical act of the network subject, an act I call collective witnessing.
Ethical Witnessing as Protest
It is not particularly novel to conceive of the process of ethical witnessing as an act of protest. “The intimate and collective process of embodied witnessing, where listeners take responsibility by attempting to translate into narrative form these unarticulated histories, is integral to the possibility of seeking out non-violent forms of belonging, intimacy and friendship in the performative assemblage of power” (McCormack 5). Witnessing can be conceived as a material presence that co-constitutes other flows of subjectivity in an act of recognition, and in this way it helps to surface historically silenced ways of being.
For example, Ioanide posits witnessing as an ethical response to racially-motivated police killings in the United States: “The fearlessness birthed from participation in collective acts of ethical witnessing give us the strength not only to continue testifying to the truth of systemic racial violence, but to build abolitionist epistemologies and ontologies” (para. 10). She points to the act of video recording incidents of police brutality as not only a tool to expose and disseminate underreported atrocities, but also as a stand-in for the collective gaze of the larger oppressed community. Furthermore, she points out the limitations in fixing the problematic of racial oppression within the lens of the individual: “It is easy to individualize racism, to point our fingers to those who commit egregious acts of bigotry in order to evade the ways racism’s logics might also live in us. A more honest approach concedes that our American cultural context constantly encourages us to become emotionally, pre-consciously and institutionally invested in racism” (para. 5). In addition to surfacing othered subjectivities through a process of relationality, ethical witnessing exposes the imbrication of the collective subject within systems of violence in revealing the ways in which economies of oppression also take root within our own embodied subjectivities.
Within the virtual sphere of the collective subject, #NotABugSplat allows us to conceive of the issue of drone warfare as more complex than simply pointing a finger at the drone operator—after all, the defense of the freedoms that afford our participation in the digital public sphere is often given as justification for such acts of warfare. In the affective overflow of the orphaned child’s eyes, the network subject perceives itself as both the witness to and the perpetrator of such targeted killings. Thus, the same fluidity that binds the digital public together within the child’s gaze also implicates it within the agency and act of the drone operator. Critics such as Pearl, who reduce #NotABugSplat’s rhetorical act to a simple message delivered from artist to drone operator, gloss over the nuances and complexities that the art piece opens up through its constitution of a network subject. In the complex network of subjectivities enlivened by #NotABugSplat, we see that a shared agency in remote killings equally bloodies the hands of all involved. No longer can the perceived divide between our subjectivities and technological artifice absolve us of accountability from actions that take place within the virtual.
Additionally, the power of surveillance, engendered by the ability to look from within the safety of invisibility, is dismantled by the gaze of the orphaned girl. The gaze of #NotABugSplat’s portrait punctures the safety of invisibility that we all assume from behind a screen. Furthermore, the entanglement of subjectivities the flowing convergence of the drone operator, the terror suspect, the innocent victims and the collective public that these acts are supposed to protect interpellates us all within the sphere of the surveilled as well as the surveillor. The power of this gaze engenders a realization that the Other is not outside of the Self, but within. This realization as a convergence of perspectives that alters the material conditions that allow drone strikes to occur constitute the network subject’s ethical act.
The creators of #NotABugSplat are not the first to be concerned with how the rhetoric of targets as “bug splats” relates to a mentality of desensitization to remote killings. As Mackey points out in his New York Times article on #NotABugSplat, the ethical inquiry into such distance between attacker and target is reminiscent of Carol Reed’s 1949 film noir The Third Man, in which Orson Welles’ character, a war profiteer, muses, “Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever?” (para. 10). At the root of the ethical unease generated by the increased embeddedness of human-technology relations is the notion that human sensibility is being replaced with a technologically-distancing “computer vision” in the targeting and killing of human beings. However, it is just as problematic to assume that the emergence of the network as realm of the virtual precludes the possibility of an ethical act by the audience constituted within it. As Kember and Zylinska argue, “…it is both false and reductive to propose such a cause-and-effect model of understanding digital media, whereby technology is treated as a mere instrument, a discrete entity that can be said to have one-way ‘effects’ on other entities, rather than as an environment or a field of forces” (77). Within an ethical framework that questions the myth of individuation, technology does not erase human subjectivity, but simply alters the flow of it.
The conception of a network subjectivity is shaped by idea of what a subject does versus what a subject is. Such theorizing is based on the idea that a subject cannot be essentialized: the network subject is bound together because of the ways in which the network can afford the circulation of imagery, the shaping of a collective witness, and the radical questioning of perspectival narratives. All of this is possible within the flow that allows subjectivities to converge. I have illustrated why Pearl’s critique of #NotABugSplat based on the simplification of its message from artist to drone operator is simply a straw man argument because it ignores the constitutive capacities of the piece as both an aesthetic and rhetorical movement.
Human use of technology has always confounded dominant concepts of discrete bodies and individualized agency; in this sense, we have always been hybrid beings. Our sensorial capacities have always been primed to entangle with our milieu, fielding intensities and affects from other beings and combining to create movements and responses to images and events. The definition of what it means to be human as a form of hybrid life that dances alongside a milieu of infinite convergences can essentially remap our relationships to ourselves, our neighbors, our communities and our environments.
- 1. A hashtag is a way of labeling and grouping online content for aggregating, searching and tracking trends.
- 2. Many within the field of art criticism view the expanding discipline of protest art as coexisting with the postmodern turn of the ephemeral, embodied and performative, which necessitates that different criteria be applied to assess each piece’s success. For example, cultural theorist T.V. Reed argues that judging disparate forms of protest art “by the same criteria has often led to dismissive evaluations of all political art” (302).
- 3. This summary is not intended as a comprehensive review of posthuman or transindividual concepts of subjectivity. The conceptualization of the network subject is indebted to countless other works, such as Salter’s Entangled: Technology and the Transformation of Performance; Manning’s Always More than One and Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, among others.
- 4. By interpellation, I am using Louis Althusser’s redirection of the term to mean the subject as produced or shaped by social forces, or interpellation-as-hailing (11). This usage is deliberately different from interpolation,which refers to the placement between two poles, which appears in a quote by Manovich later on in the essay.
- 5. For more on transmediation, the process of a narrative experience unfolding across multiple platforms and mediated formats, see Jenkins, Chapter 3.
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Kate Drazner Hoyt is a Graduate Teaching Instructor in the Communication Studies department with a specialization in virtual and digital communication at the University of Denver. She holds a Master of Fine Arts in Emergent Digital Practices from the University of Denver and is working toward her PhD. She is interested in affect, the body and technology-human hybridity. More specifically, her work examines the role of the body within virtual spheres of communication.
© 2014 Kate Drazner Hoyt, used by permission