Drone Bodies

Presented at ICFA 35, Orlando 2015

The body has always been a central concern for SF, whether it is a matter of robots, cyborgs, aliens, or posthuman manifestations. Often, bodies are viewed in a utopian light, a light where we will develop transhuman abilities, leaving the limited and limiting human body behind for something better. What this better is never clear, but it is definitely better and usual immortal too.

Recent science fictions project a world where our bodies become remote controllable, and as a result our relation to the world alters fundamentally. Examples include James Cameron’s Avatar where a paraplegic marine is allowed to once again feel the freedom of a moving body, significantly portrayed in all three dimensions. Robert Vendetti’s Surrogates both comic and film portray a more ambivalent future where we grow tired of our bodies and desire surrogate ones, as a liberalization of N. Katherine Hayles’ posthuman nightmare of bodies as accessories. These science fictions essentially view these drone bodies as a technologically transcendent solution to the failings of human bodies. Human bodies come with limitations but human ingenuity knows no bounds and so we can solve the problems our bodies represent. The body is a problem to be solved. This is the transhumanist impulse of the human body and runs straight from the traditional Western view of the body subordinated to mind, and mind being the sole location of identity, what Sherryl Vint has called the post-body tradition of SF.

However, there is a countercurrent to this utopian view of posthuman bodies. Alex Rivera’s astonishing film Sleep Dealer (2008) dramatizes how not all drone bodies are utopian technologies but are just as much technologies of control. Sleep dealers are factories where node workers connect to a massive network in order to work drones on the US side of the US-Mexico border. Discarded when spent, these networkers are examples of how technologies inscribe human bodies in a biopower relation.

I wish to suggest that Sleep Dealer produces a response and reaction against the utopian drone bodies of contemporary science fiction cinema. Here I am less interested in the film as cinematic expression and more interested in the speculative scenario the film expresses.

As Grégoire Chamayou has pointed out in his A Theory of the Drone, “The drone is the weapon of an amnesiac postcolonial violence.”1 In other words, drone bodies obfuscate that not all bodies are equal, nor are all bodies allowed to gain access to transcendent technologies. The definition drone that I work from is basic and drawn from Chamayou’s stellar work. While we think of drones today as aerial vehicles, any vehicle that no longer has a human crew is effectively “dronized”.2 The real purpose of a drone that it is unmanned but rather to be a projection of power.3 As Chamayou notes,

If the drone lends itself in particular to this kind of approach, it is because it is an “unidentified violent object”: as soon as one tries to think about it in terms of established categories, intense confusion arises around notions as elementary as zones or places (geographical and ontological categories), virtue or bravery (ethical categories), warfare or conflict (categories at once strategic and legal-political).4
I believe that the drones in Sleep Dealer express a similar intense confusion about the sate of the human body. Sleep Dealer presents a different view of drone bodies and how such technologies reconfigure human corporeality. The film more radically exposes the exploitation of not just workers’ bodies but also our feelings, sensations, and emotions.

The film’s plot is straightforward enough. Memo Cruz is an unsatisfied farmer in a future Mexico turned almost completely to dust. He unwittingly sets in motion events that cause the death of his father and so travels to Tijuana to work as a drone operator in a sleep dealer factory. Along the way he meets Luz Martinez, an aspiring writer, and they fall in love. The drone pilot Rudy Ramirez who murdered Memo’s father tries to locate Memo to make things right, feeling guilty that he killed a farmer, rather than a terrorist.

In Tijuana, both Memo and Luz are caught up in connected labor; they are both required to labor through the global network in ways that are less then ideal. Luz wants to be a writer and reporter but has to resort to uploading her memories to TruNode, an online memory trading company. Uploading to TruNode means uploading feelings rather than simply an account of what happened. The consumer is jacked into someone else’s experiences, bodily and sensorially. Luz’s predicament is an example of what Michael Hardt has termed affective labor. Quite literally, Luz sells her affects and memories, which in the world of Sleep Dealer dampens your own affects and memories. Selling your soul for capital has never been so literal.

For Memo, the situation is not much different. With the help of Luz, Memo gets the node implants that allow him to interface with the global, digital network and goes to work at a sleep dealer factory. Risking exhaustion, Memo works overtime to earn money for his family back in Mexico, although the transfer fees between his account and his brother’s takes most of what Memo earns.
Both Luz and Memo are cast as nodes in this larger network, reduced to something less than fully human; they are treated as “as components of the machine world that can be cast aside, or recast into new forms, when no longer needed.”5 We can already glimpse here the reversal that is inherent in drone work: the human slowly becomes the slave of the machine master. Generally speaking, the relationship between a drone and its human operator is that of an alter ego. Chamayou quotes John W. Clark, an early engineer of drone technologies, where Clark points out the transfer of the operator’s consciousness as transferred to an invulnerable mechanical body.6 In the ideal form of the drone, the only thing lacking in the secondary body (that is, the drone body) is the “living flesh” of the primary body. As Chamayou points out, “therein lies the great advantage: the body that is vulnerable is removed from the hostile environment.”7

Slightly differently in Sleep Dealer, the question is not one of vulnerability but access to the world, both in terms of access to working in the U.S. and in terms of accessing the global network. However, access to both comes at the cost of entering into a different relationship with the world, one that is inherently contingent on network technologies. In his recent book Feed-Forward, Mark B.N. Hansen discusses the nature of 21st century media. Here Hansen points out the microsensorial changes that digital, networked media visit on the human body. These changes take place before consciousness, but that does not mean that they do not impact consciousness. In fact, much of Hansen’s argument is that we must recognize media technologies as the precondition for human consciousness. Hansen’s feed-forward experience is a relation of multiple causal efficacy where presence and agency are dispersed across bodies, both human and nonhuman. Media, especially 21st century media technologies, shape our conscious emergence within the world.

For Luz, she loses her own sensible engagement with the world by selling her feelings for profit, while Memo becomes little more than the motor of the drone inside the US. They are tightly integrated into the network but not as controller; instead they become the controlled.

For Sleep Dealer drone bodies become a technology of control. Drone bodies render our bodies as they become integral to our experience of the world. Both Luz and Memo’s worldly sensibility is filtered through their pre-affective labor, they work to make affect possible for others. Donna Haraway has termed this process corporealization: the relation between people is reified as a thing-in-itself, a relation that has a kind of phantom objectivity, and so presents itself to us as immutable and fixed. Haraway defines corporealization as “the interactions of humans and nonhumans in the distributed, heterogenous work processes of technoscience.”8 Haraway’s argument here is centered on the rise of the concept of the gene.

Haraway’s argument about the gene is straightforward enough: “A gene is not a thing, much less a ‘master molecule’ or a self-contained code. Instead, the term gene signifies a node of durable action where many actors, human and nonhuman, meet.”9 Since the gene is so often thought of as biological entity, Haraway’s argument appears controversial but that is precisely the strength of her argument: it makes us see the gene differently. In fact, in much popular discourse the gene takes away human agency, shifting that agency on to the gene instead, with terms such as genetic predisposition.

We need to understand the drone in a similar way, as a node of durable action where many actors, human and nonhuman, meet. Precisely because of this node logic, the drone also complicates human agency and even removes much of this human agency by shifting agency to the drone. The drone asserts itself as an autonomous unit, blurs the human and nonhuman work that go into it. For Sleep Dealer the corporealization of drone work is even more insidious. On the one hand, since affect is a part of being human, letting people work through pre-affective networks robs them of their humanity, producing a network age of alienation.10 All the node workers are corporeally bound to whatever machines they work through, yet they are nothing more than these machines. The worker goes from being a person to being a node along the network, a distribution of agency rather than a self-contained entity.

Concretely we find this in the way that biometrics render the bodies of drone workers. If they fall asleep during work, their salary will be adjusted. There is no longer any way of goofing off on the job, but productivity is also no longer measured in output but in brain activity, a kind of intensification of Jonathan Crary’s 24/7 thesis; that we are all so obssessed with diversion all the time, that there is no outside of work. This new subject that emerges as an aftereffect of media technologies is what Tony Sampson has termed the somnambulist, a kind of affect-less sleepwalker.11

The node workers are animated marionettes, all they provide is the energy to run the machines. For the drone worker, their work no longer has a body. Instead, these workers are articulated through their nodes: there is a dissolution of their bodies into the network. We disappear into the global economy, if not exactly the sex organs of the machine world, then instead the fuel cells of the machine world, thus fulfilling a basic capitalist fantasy: all the work, none of the workers, as the voice-over narration announces.

In a moment of perfect synchrony, the scenes where we see Memo’s drone working are all digitally animated. The little cute worker drone resembles WALL-E of the Pixar film of the same name, making it unthreatening and cute. What is more, Vivian Sobchack has discussed at length how animation works though obfuscating its own labor, appearing light and easy when the physical animation is replaced with computers.12 In a similar way, the worker disappears into the cute little drone. Sobchack points out, rightly I believe, that the cultural ideals of animation and automation are inseparable and give rise to a transitional moment where the boundaries between humans and nonhumans become increasingly blurry, participating in the various configurations of the posthuman as a cultural imaginary.13

Drone bodies participate in the production of a corporealization of human bodies as a figure where machines are more active than humans, merge on a corporeal level and produce a new and differently embodied subject. There is no pre-existing human subject that exists fully articulated before a deployment of nonhumans. Instead, our bodies and our sensibilities become articulated in conjunction with nonhumans, machinic and nonmachinic alike. Emerging technologies produce new connections and new conjunctions and allow for new sensibilities to emerge. In the case of Sleep Dealer, of course, the utopian ideals of Avatar are rejected. The bodies of Memo or Luz are not enhanced by new technologies, but rather stultified.

For Sleep Dealer the liveliness is on the side of the machines, they suck out human affects giving no compensation. While the inertia of human bodies and the liveliness of machines is not a new idea, what is new is the concept that machines need our affect, rather than vice versa. Traditionally technologies and media have been viewed as machines that produce affect for humans, but Sleep Dealer’s speculative scenario is one of humans producing affect for machines.14 The drone as a projection of power reverses into a curtailment of power. This inverse scenario should not be seen as a luddite indictment of technology, as the production of drone bodies is partly a human endeavor. Rather, Sleep Dealer remands us to consider a different relation between human and nonhuman technology than our current preference for the cyborg image.

The cyborg is, as we know, a hybrid figure, both in SF and critical theory. Haraway exulted the cyborg as a hybrid figure with no origins in her “Cyborg Manfiesto”. By emphasizing that nonhumans have always already been part of the human, we can regenerate the destructive binaries through which Western culture has progressed.15 I have no wish to jettison Haraway’s eminently useful figure. However, the drone and the human-drone relation is resolutely not a cyborg relation.

There is no hybridity inherent in the drone relation, nor is the drone an extension of the human. This last part might sound counterintuitive, since on the face of things, a drone extends human agency. I would argue, however, that the human-drone relation is a substitution rather than an extension. Memo goes as a drone where he himself cannot go, is not allowed to go. Human capacities are substituted with technological capacities, but with this substitution comes also a transformation. The bounded human body is opened up into a heterogeneous collectivity of multiple bodies acting in concert. Yet this acting in concert also indicates that Memo is not the one who is in control rather, control emerges as an assemblage.

When Memo jacks into the network, he is no longer simply Memo but one among many. While this jacking in gives access to new capacities, it comes at the cost of losing individual control and individual embodiment. Both Luz and Memo hand off their capacity for affect, sensation, and feeling in order to enter into the network. Such drone corporealization reproduces existing power structures, and in fact embeds them even deeper into material reality through endless repetition and imitation: there is no alternative to working in the network. Drone bodies are therefore not utopian nor liberating, but simply a new technology of control.

While the film concludes with the destruction of the dam that starves Memo’s family, there is no real victory over the drone network. A brief moment of joy quickly collapses back into the same state of going on. Memo has no choice but to stay in Tijuana and work, even though that will inevitably kill him. The posthuman is no solution for neither Luz nor Memo but simply another dead end.

  1. Chamayou, Theory, location 1460. 
  2. Chamayou, Theory, loc 336. 
  3. Chamayou, Theory, loc 348. 
  4. Chamayou, Theory, loc 392. 
  5. Kochhar-Lindgren, TechnoLogics, 123-124. 
  6. Chamayou, Theory of the Drone, ? 
  7. Chamayou, Theory of the Drone, ? 
  8. Haraway, Modest_Witness, 141 
  9. Haraway, Modest_Witness, 142, emphasis in original. 
  10. For more on the corporeal consequences of the network age, see Steven Shaviro. Connected, or What it Means to Live in the Network Society. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003. 
  11. Sampson, Virality
  12. Sobchack, Vivian. “Animation and Automation, or, the Incredible Effortfulness of Being”. Screen 50(4), 2009. 375-391, 383. 
  13. Sobchack, “Animation and Automation”, 378. 
  14. Steven Shaviro explicitly refers to film and other media works as machines for producing affect in Post-Cinematic Affect. Winchester: Zero Books, 2010. 
  15. Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, 181.