Sensing Distance: The Time and Space of Contemporary War


What’s left to be said about time or space or war? Let’s face it — in the piles of books and papers written on violence in modernity, on time-space compression, on spatialization vs. temporalization, on the militarization of everyday life, what can we say anymore? I am writing these words as Israeli forces conduct targeted airstrikes against Gaza — the distance between an Israeli home and one in Gaza could equal the space one of us might traverse on a quick shopping trip in any major city in the US. There are dead and ruined buildings, homes and roads on both sides but the damage is exponentially greater in Gaza. Here in the US, for the most part, despite the grave inequities and insecurities that generate misery and vulnerability, we are not living officially in a war zone. We get to choose whether or not to pay attention when war is waged elsewhere.
But we are living in a time of war in which we are deeply implicated.  This is a very specific way of life, a postcolonial way of life; living through war that one never knows directly, that one cannot experience viscerally, but that is inalterably structuring of everyday life. I am talking about those of us lucky enough to never serve in the military during time of war or to live under organized and consistent military occupation or bombardment. For us, wherever we are, we experience war at a distance. And it is my contention that there is much more to be said about this experience of war that moves beyond commonsense platitudes, hand-wringing guilt, or superficial sentiment. Rather, the experience of living through war at a distance is an opportunity to explore what sensing at a distance means, what modes of sensibility become possible when we are linked to extreme violence that we cannot see or feel first-hand, and how representational practices produce specific divisions between possible and impossible ways to know and feel. This moment, in other words, spatialized as distance, is full of connections. It is, however, a bringing together of space and time that is globalized through transnational media and other avenues while remaining always already beyond possible for those targets of direct violence at extremely close range.
We might say that the age of “terror” unites us all but I do not want to go that route. We could say that thanks to new legal channels for governmental surveillance post 9/11 that “we” are all subjects of terror and vulnerable to extraordinary incursions into civil liberties. And we could argue that the immense reach of digital culture especially via social networking and instantaneous formats of visual communication and data transmission render an entirely new form of political organizing and response to oppression possible. All of these particular elements are important to consider and to keep in mind but they can never be understood to affect or constitute “all” of “us.” You don’t have to be an old-school Marxist to insist that social theorizing about networks take the terrible conditions of production of our electronics into detailed account as well as the para-military modes of distribution logistics and uneven consumer practices under the sign of globalization.
We also must acknowledge that while the wars are far away, violence looms at home. Not only through the continual propaganda of the age of “terror” which promises sudden and irrational catastrophe as the price of defending “democracy,” but more concretely through the iterations of diverse patriarchal systems that endanger female subjects and children in the domestic realm, through precarity of shelter or food, through any slippage in security that leaves the individual or community at risk, vulnerable to harm or death. More people in the US are in danger of experiencing violence at the hand of a close relative than from an anonymous and bloodthirsty “terrorist.” So violence can be close, proximate, intimate. Safety is relative. But war, we are quite sure, is distant. Everyday life in the US is predicated on not being in a warzone.
Indeed, airpower was promised to the American taxpayers as the most humane way to conduct war, to keep US military as far from harm’s way as possible, and to push battlefields away from the continental landmass of the nation. As our newly re-elected President continues the program of targeted drone assassinations initiated by his right-wing predecessor it is abundantly clear that war at a distance remains the alibi for war — if we operate in this way we will not need a draft, war will not take place in your home, and violence will remain so distant that you will not be obliged to acknowledge that it exists.
But my premise is that even when war is presumed to be at a far distance or even unknown to conscious thought, it may still be felt or perceived throughout everyday life. Emphasis on something I am learning to lean towards: felt, sensed.  This affective dimension of distant war in everyday life operates somewhat paradoxically since feeling suggests connection — one feels something about something or someone else even if only in relation to oneself but also in relation to others. Thus, war at a distance, rather than only structuring relations of separation or false consciousness or repression (see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil — to which I would add, hey that means I do no evil!) creates modes of connection and possibilities of admittedly uneven but discernible links. If we follow John Law and Ruth Benshop’s argument that all representations create divisions, we can only understand these connections to be uneven, asymmetrical networks of power and politics, but linked nonetheless. This recognition invites us to trace, apprehend, recognize networked connections–but lightly. Sometimes the best protection is to remain unperceived or camouflaged.  In this formulation I am refusing the argument that distance leads to alienation via objectification. Objects may very well bring us together. That is, ontological politics open up the very bitter situation in which we are immersed.
I have learned some of these things from spending some years looking at aerial photographs. Aerial photographs came about, undeniably, as part of a war machine–indeed, from that moment in the early 1780s when Joseph Montgolfier imagined that hot-air could fill an envelope of coated fabric and cause it to float, he also thought of war and how France might bomb the heck out of the British by floating over them in a balloon carrying troops or armaments. It seems as if every balloonist who cared to write down a thought on paper had the same idea. In the mid-19th century, Félix Nadar, the first person to manage to take a photograph using a wet collodion plate while aloft in a balloon, had the exact same idea. The combination of aerial observation and means of waging war captured the imagination of writers such as Jules Verne and HG Wells and by the time the Wright brothers beat their competitors to haul their contraption up into the air and actually fly, the merging of camera and airplane produced a seemingly infallible weapon — as Virilio puts it a “chrono/camera/aircraft/weapon” that shifts the logics of perception from an authentic real of embodied lines of sight to the automated or mechanized virtual hybrid killing machine.
This powerful camera eye in turn has to be differentiated between analogue and digital formats as well as between upper atmosphere and space platforms. Without space here to discuss in detail these versions of 20th and 21st century remote sensing, I would point to the pivotal mythology of the so-called “Revolution in Military Affairs” of the 1980s and 90s. According to some master narratives the RMA marked a complete transformation in the conduct of war, moving from analogue technologies and paper of airpower to electronic communications and screens of digital imagery intrinsic to satellite information systems. In this supposedly seamless “system of systems” topographical information would be standardized and integrated into a universal database, available for waging precise and effective war on the desert locales of the Middle East and North Africa, avoiding the disastrous quagmire of the war in Indochina which symbolized the limit-case of conventional airpower.
Yet there have been previous and simultaneous pivots–such as the emergence of analogue aerial reconnaissance itself in the period surrounding World War I. And arguably with each instance in the history of military technology that engages optics or vision in strategy and tactics, a critical turning point can be posited. The revolution in military affairs or operations that interests me in terms of the sensing of war at a distance takes place at two key moments. First, WWI when Mesopotamia becomes the key testing ground for standardizing aerial survey methodologies via reconnaissance photography as well as the practice arena for biopolitical control of anti-colonial rebellions and revolts. And 2nd the first Persian Gulf War when two iconic technologies signaled the prosthetic powers of distance — the televisual so-called “smart bomb” that transmitted images of missile strikes as they occurred and the highly touted precision of the newly launched satellite global positioning system. Both of these moments, separate temporally, yet linked geo-spatially, operating through differential technological modalities, make connections between seemingly incommensurable subjects.
Without space to do more than gesture to this complex history I would just underscore that the pervasive ubiquity of aerial views, the quotidian habits of cartographic modes of communication; weather charts, navigational aids, informational maps in news reports, the establishing location shot in the opening of most movies and televisions shows, the interactive locational applications that pinpoint through representational practices that stretch back, anachronistic aerial scenes as picturesque. Aerial imagery surrounds us and gives us a sense of place, it produces the geo-spatial real and it is referenced in innumerable embodied actions large and small every day. This “revolution in military affairs” structured so much supposedly non-military life from the advent of flight to the charting of land masses on earth and in space, to the creation of models and exhibitions, the birth of urban planning, the inspirational engagements of abstract expressionism and other aesthetic movements, the geosciences and computerized information systems, the endless so-called “small wars” as decolonial struggles surged and resurged and the superpowers engaged each other by proxy. The discussion at this point often turns to video games and their newer iterations as generations entertain themselves by emulating wars on small screens — but as much as I learn from the literature which has grown by leaps and bounds over the last ten years or so, that is not where I want to go.
The intense abstraction of vertical aerial imagery from high altitudes lends itself to a commonsense apprehension of the image as object, as lacking any affect, as utterly devoid of human figures. It is utilitarian, the antithesis of the picturesque, seemingly spit out by a machine rather than fostered in the creative consciousness of an auteur. In coming to believe that the remote aerial image does important work for us that documentary photojournalism makes impossible, I am drawing on Mary Favret’s line of argument in her important book War at a Distance. In exploring the problematic of what she calls the “dislocated experience” of “war mediated,” of “feeling intensified but also adrift”, Favret argues that there can be a potential tradeoff between “information and affection,” “close and far,” “picturesque and sublime.” (9, 190). In this case she is examining visual depictions of sieges in India in the 19th century, painted by British civilians, but her discussion of scenes “foreign but intimate,” “distant but visibly present” resonate with our most immediate circumstances. These landscapes are pre-photographic, pre-telegraphic, yet dedicated to removing any sight of violence in action. It’s an impossible art–insufficiently informative, worlding and unworlding, disturbing.
Favret argues that there are several responses on the part of the homefront to such bloodless, uneasy scenes, scenes that we might extend in our time to the heavily censored views offered by our cable news stations or to the imagery generated relentlessly by tourism agencies, or even the more overtly cartographic or surveillance representations.  The first response to war at a distance Favret argues is to make it academic, a move towards abstraction, an objectification of war itself as it becomes an object of knowledge, as it threatens to become “all you know” (10). A second response is a sense of atomism and despair, inertia and apathy, even the absence of feeling–and I think this very much characterizes the condition of everyday life in the US for the most part vis a vis our endless wars of the early 21st century. And Favret proposes a third possibility, what she calls a “productive” response, “suspended between abstraction and numbness” — an affective acknowledgement of war’s unsettling and disturbing uncertainties through tracing and giving shape to feeling, to sensing.
I am going to suggest then that remote sensing is as good a route to Favret’s engaged affective disturbance as intimate proximity, that rather than reinforcing distance as security or protection from feeling that the imagery of distance can be read in other ways that overturn apathy, that reveal connections not through sentimental identification but through the shared emotion that war is hell, that we are affected, that we can learn more about how we wage war but learning is not enough, that we do not want to feel this way, that we want it to stop.
In arguing that closeness is no panacea for waging war, I would not offer remoteness as an alternative. Rather, in situating objects like reconnaissance images I am suggesting that artifacts of distance permeate our everyday life. They exist and they are familiar to us. If we engage them against the grain of subject-object relations and consider that they are always already connecting us to places and times at a distance from us our feelings may change. We may perceive and make other differences, other representations as our bodies see and feel and we become alive to learn what we cannot imagine.
Top image: Burning oil facility at Rumalia, Iraq. Image available in the public domain. Downloaded on January 11, 2013.

caren kaplan