This week I am in Geneva working on my British Academy/Leverhulme Trust funded project on the history of disease eradication. I'll share more on my findings in the archives of the Smallpox Eradication Programme at a later date. I must admit that, perhaps unsurprisingly, I have enjoyed the time away from classes and the early morning commute! I've also found myself having plenty of time to catch up on reading - the archive I am working at is only open 9am-12pm, 2-4pm!
In my time away from the archive, I have frequently been found sunning myself in the squares of the old city. I have managed to finish a book that has been on my shelf for a while now: Grégoire Chamayou's excellent Drone Theory (Penguin, 2015). I have been following Chamayou's work for several years now - I discuss his Les corps vils (La Découverte, 2014) in a forthcoming paper - and this latest polemic has been discussed at length, most notably in a series of posts by Derek Gregory. As the length of Gregory's account testifies, there is a lot in here for geographers. And yet it was also refreshing to discover that Chamayou acknowledges a significant debt to geographers (Gregory, Stephen Graham, Alison Williams and others) in his theorisation of the spatial-sensitivities of late-modern warfare. This is a philosophical and genealogical account, that deftly weaves a compelling and critical narrative moving from the empirically-rich discussion of the kill-chain to the broader theorisation of political bodies and the repercussions of dronisation/automation for the theorisation of sovereignty, responsibility and care. It's a short and easily-accessible book, so I won't go into a blow-by-blow account of its strengths (please, go read it yourself) but I do want to draw attention to a brief paragraph that piqued my interest in which Chamayou justifies his method.
Having made strange the recent shift to drone warfare, Chamayou poses the question: "what might the theorisation of a weapon signify?" (p. 14). Here, he draws on the work of philosopher Simone Weil to remind us that an ethical discussion of conflict cannot solely meditate on the ends of warfare ("is it just?"), but must also be attentive to the means through which war is waged. For Weil (1999, 174), "the very essence of the materialist method is that, in its examination of any human event whatever, it attaches much less importance to the ends pursued than to the consequences necessarily implied by the working out of the means employed." In other words, we should avoid fixating on the moralisation of violence and do something else: examine the means through which violence is meted out, and examine what is determined through the choice of these particular means (as opposed to other possibilities). As Chamayou suggests:
Wonderful! This is a call to remember the ways in which political problems are rendered technical; it is a call to re-evaluate the socio-political impact of this "new" technology and to use that as a way to highlight the moral implications of these developments. While I'm not working on drones or human warfare, I do see similarities here with the manner in which the question of disease eradication (a war on nature, if you like) is approached through a moral language (the "farewell to harms") and ignores the productive avenues of inquiry that a focus on the technical means facilities - an approach that allows us to re-examine, and problematise, questions of public health and underdevelopment.
"Become a technician" is a wonderful place to start a polemical account: familiarise in order that you may problematise. A lot to think about over the course of my final few days here in Geneva!