Robot wars: drones and the hegemony of the molecular

by Sam Kriss

Something interesting’s happening in the East China Sea. The dispute between China and Japan over the uninhabited Senkaku Islands has seen Japanese businesses torched in cities across China, fighter jets circling each other over the barren rocks in question, and printouts of flags heroically ripped in half. Now both China and Japan are stockpiling drones. If it happens, the drone war for the Senkaku Islands will be the first of its kind: pure war, war in the abstract, war fought without armies or soldiers. Two fleets of faceless robots knocking each other out of the sky, a war that takes place on a plane of virtuality. It makes a sort of sense. For all their posturings, China and Japan are economically codependent. Maybe the drones will allow them to have their war and their trade links at the same time. Maybe the result will be something completely different. In any case, the conventions of warfare that have been in place for five thousand years might be approaching their overthrow.

It’s not just in East Asia. Hezbollah is building its own drones and flying them into Israeli airspace. The United States has set the precedent here: drones are not contained by borders; drones can operate anywhere in the world. I’m convinced that someone in the CIA’s been reading Deleuze. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the United States is fighting real nomads, Pashtun herdsmen with goats and rifles and monotheism who recognise the border for what it is: a meaningless and obsolete dividing line between the British and Russian spheres of the late 19th Century. The US has done well; it’s adapted by turning its machines of war back into warmachines, becoming more nomadic than the nomads themselves. Drones don’t just operate according to smooth rather than striated space, they obliterate space altogether. In the place of spatiality comes something like distribution. In Langley, a man pushes a button on an Xbox controller; in Waziristan, fragments of houses and pieces of people are scattered across a half-mile radius. Drones operate outside the structures of the Law: deterritorialised from their human controllers, they exist everywhere at once. There is no field of combat, only pure exteriority. Somalia, Yemen, the Philippines: they’re all separated only by the width of a fibreglass wing. War itself is a second-order concern. War is an invention of the State, a part of its stratification. For the autonomous warmachines it doesn’t exist. Instead the drone continually produces its own object. In casualty reports from drone strikes, any male over sixteen years is considered to have been a militant: if they weren’t an enemy, what were they doing in the strike area? If you’re not a threat to us, then why did we just kill you? Unlike tanks or planes drones don’t identify and eliminate their targets, they create them; you become a target by virtue of having been killed by a drone. President Obama maintains a personally approved ‘kill list’ of enemy targets. As soon as a target is destroyed another emerges to take its place. The drones have a logic all of their own; politicians are caught up in its spirals. There can be no end, not until every last building is flattened and the horizontality of the nomadic desert re-establishes itself.

For the State, capture of the warmachine is necessary for its process of continual stratification. We’re seeing something different here: the capture of the State by the warmachine. Wall Street is a warmachine par excellence, obliterating any boundary to the free flow of capital, describing lines of flight that arc across the surface of the Earth at the speed of light. Austerity programmes make warmachines out of schools and hospitals. Microfascism has taken over the world. In his critique of Deleuze, Baudillard writes that power and desire operate along the same channels. Beware of the molecular, he warns. To be fair, Deleuze and Guattari never say that the molecular is any nicer than the molar. It’s here, I think, that we reach the horizon of Deleuzian radicalism. When molecularity is hegemonic, resistance may have to take on new forms.