Linear Perspective, the Modern Subject, and the Martial Gaze

The second post in our series on Antoine’s The Eye of War (University of Minnesota Press). Antoine opened the series with a summary of the project earlier this week, and we now welcome Dr Katharine Hall’s contribution. Katharine is Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary, University of London and publishes in the fields of political geography, science and technology studies, and security studies. Her recent works include ‘The Technological Rationality of the Drone Strike’ in Critical Studies on Security and ‘The Emergence of Lethal Surveillance’ in Security Dialogue. Her current projects focus on pilotless aircraft and air power in the interwar period, and on racialised violence and militarised urban policing.

One of the things the distinguishes The Eye of War from many of the books about contemporary drones strikes and military targeting technologies is its historical focus. In analyzing the martial gaze – the linking of perception and destruction, surveillance and targeting – Antoine Bousquet looks not just at the development of this gaze in technologies and practices across the 20th century, but also seeks to situate it within a much longer modern history of perception and representation. The former links Eye of War to a body of critical scholarship attentive to the historical geographies and ‘lines of descent’ of contemporary Western war (ex. Derek Gregory, Caren Kaplan, Ian Shaw, Gregoire Chamayou, Kyle Grayson), while the latter links the investigation into the martial gaze to the birth and development of modern science and the modern (liberal) political subject.

Bousquet calls this historical approach a ‘machinic history.’ This methodology is part assemblage theory, part genealogy, and part intellectual history. The main body of the book is devoted to detailing three functions or logistics of perception: sensing, imaging, and mapping (followed by its opposite: hiding).  Through this investigation he aims to show how perception has become technical, which is the root of his argument. Each of these functions have become increasingly absorbed by and embedded in technical apparatuses, not a new phenomenon but one that has been intensifying. Ultimately this is an argument about the relationship between the human and the technical. Bousquet is concerned with human agency and the removal of this agency from processes of perception, especially where the stakes are so great like in targeted killing. As Bousquet writes, “This book’s ultimate wager is that by plunging into the heart of the machine, we may obtain a truer sense of the potential and limits of our agency within it, political or otherwise.” 

Part of this dive into the machine is to the birth of linear perspective and the Italian renaissance, which Bousquet identifies as the foundational site of the martial gaze. One of the central figures here is Leon Battista Alberti, whose book On Painting details a method for translating what is seen from the eye to the paper, keeping proportions and perspective in scale.  In these foundations (and they aren’t the only ones) is the creation of a system or apparatus to represent the world and to do so through a particular regime of accuracy. In other words what develops from this is a system of seeing and knowing the world – of sensing, imaging, and mapping. The central figure in this system, of course, is the eye.

The eye was an important organ for Alberti, so much so that he included it in a bronze self-portrait he created in 1435.  He placed an eye with wings under his chin, perhaps an early conceptual precursor to the ‘eye in the sky’ that frame contemporary Western warfare. 

albertini eye

The eye was given primacy among the sense organs, and the geometry of translation from the world to the eye to the page served as a basis for Cartesian knowledge production about 200 years later. Descartes was extremely doubtful of the senses. In Meditation I, he argues for the veracity and superiority of geometry and mathematics for knowledge production by first detailing his deep mistrust of his senses in a bizarre and captivating narration of him sitting by the fire in his bathrobe. Questioning his hands, his body, and even whether he was awake, he asks: “How often have I dreamt that I was in these familiar circumstances, that I was dressed, and occupied this place by the fire, when I was lying undressed in bed?” Because of this, Descartes radically rejects the senses, finding truth and security in geometry and in the logics of the mind: “for whether I am awake or dreaming, it remains true that two and three make five, that a square has but four sides…” Descartes’ mistrust of the senses and placement of truth within the mind forms the basis of his proof of the existence of God later in the Meditations as well as his famous “I think, therefore I am” statement in the Discourse on Method. It also shapes Cartesian rationality – a mode of knowledge production linking the world and the body to the truth of the mind through a geometry that privileges the eye. This way of knowing as a particular way of seeing (the techniques of which were really developed in the Renaissance, as Bousquet details in the chapter “Perspective”) is the epistemological framework of the martial gaze, and recognising this allows us to see how easily it has been martialed into techniques and narratives of automation. As Bousquet writes about contemporary techniques of sensing, “If a perceptual nominalism now extends far beyond the narrow confines of visible light and accordingly relies on different sets of scientific principles, it remains nonetheless fundamentally tributary to that originary geometric correlation of vision and space. Most fateful of all, the discovery of linear perspective set in motion an autonomization of perception and spatial reasoning, the technical realization of which is still unfolding today before our humbled eyes.” 

descartes optics

The implications of this development (detailed through the main chapters on the logistics of perception) centre around the question of the fate of the human subject, and here there are parallels with Ian Shaw’s investigation of the human condition in Predator Empire. Bousquet concludes that under the regime of the martial gaze we see the emergence of globalised and increasingly individualised targeting. In this molecular war, vulnerability becomes defined through perceptibility, especially as the martial gaze moves into the domestic realm (or rather blurs the distinctions of war), and we can see the effects of this not only in the spread of contemporary drone wars but also, as Robin D.G. Kelley (in Policing the Planet) has argued, in the global system of the use of force that operates through the criminalisation of bodies – from the thug to the terrorist – linked to a racialised mode of perception. (I’ll note here a serious absence from Bousquet’s book, which is how this machinic history is connected to, and often a key driver of, racial violence – the fate of the human subject that Bousquet is concerned with might look very different from this perspective.)

For Bousquet this future of globalised targeting that the birth of linear perspective has brought us to throws the role of the human into question. With the move of perception into the realm of the technical, Bousquet sees that perception has become a process without a subject, and as human agency is increasingly reduced, so does the possibility for politics – leading, perhaps much like the concerns of the Frankfurt School, to passivity and a closing of the space of critique. For Bousquet the figure that captures this positioning or transformation of the human, and the image that ends the book, is the bomber instructor recording aircraft movement within a dark camera obscura tent. As Bousquet concludes, “…the camera obscura’s occupant is both a passive object of the targeting process and an active if compliant agent tasked with the iterative process and optimization of its performance. Perhaps this duality encapsulates the martial condition we inhabit today, caught between our mobilization within the circulatory networks of the logistics of perception and the roving crosshairs of a global imperium of targeting – and all watched over by machines of glacial indifference.” 

If this is the figure that encapsulates the condition of the present, Bousquet has shown in Eye of War how its foundations are found in the early modern period. And in tracing this history, it is clear the future does not look promising for humans (both as passive subjects and as objects of lethal surveillance). But Bousquet does not give us a sense of how we might change course. Eye of War does not ask, where is the space for politics in this analysis of the present?

This is a question I struggle with, and I’m not going to outline an answer here, but perhaps any attempt to grapple with this question also needs to return to the early modern period, to add to this machinic history a critique of Cartesian rationality. One might be found in Spinoza, who was also very familiar with the field of optics – himself a lens grinder.

Unlike Descartes, Spinoza did not doubt the senses, at least not in the same way. For Spinoza, the senses – part of the affects, the superstitions, the imagination, the first kind of knowledge – are an unavoidable part of knowledge production, not a defect of the human or something necessarily to be overcome. While truth is located in the second and third types of knowledge, we never stop being affected by the imagination, and the path to truth cannot ignore experience. Consider this passage in contrast to Descartes’ doubtful narrations by the fire:

So, again, when we look at the sun, we imagine that it is distant from us about two hundred feet; this error does not lie solely in this fancy, but in the fact that, while we thus imagine, we do not know the sun’s true distance or the cause of the fancy. For although we afterwards learn, that the sun is distant from us more than six hundred of the earth’s diameters, we none the less shall fancy it to be near; for we do not imagine the sun as near us, because we are ignorant of its true distance, but because the modification of our body involves the essence of the sun, in so far as our said body is affected thereby. (Spinoza Ethics Pt. 2, Prop 35 Sch.).

The stakes of not understanding this are great for Spinoza and centre on how human will and agency are conceptualised. As he writes in the Appendix to Book I of the Ethics, detailing a critique of the common prejudices that stand in the way of understanding his philosophy: “All such opinions spring from the notion commonly entertained, that all things in nature act as men themselves act, namely, with an end in view.” In what reads like a counter statement to Descartes’ call for mastery and possession of nature he goes on to write:

Further, as they find in themselves and outside themselves many means which assist them not a little in the search for what is useful, for instance, eyes for seeing, teeth for chewing, herbs and animals for yielding food, the sun for giving light, the sea for breeding fish, &c., they come to look on the whole of nature as a means for obtaining such conveniences. Now as they are aware, that they found these conveniences and did not make them, they think they have cause for believing, that some other being has made them for their use. As they look upon things as means, they cannot believe them to be self—created; but, judging from the means which they are accustomed to prepare for themselves, they are bound to believe in some ruler or rulers of the universe endowed with human freedom, who have arranged and adapted everything for human use. (Spinoza Ethics, Pt. 1 Appendix).

For Spinoza, the idea of the mastery and possession of nature must have seemed like the ultimate horrific consequence of Descartes’ philosophical and scientific project. And this can apply to technology as well – the assumption that technology can be directed at some desired ends for the transformation of nature not only displaces our misperception of means on to God, but puts that power of God back into our own hands. We risk placing too much faith – and devoting too much of our analysis – in the displacement of human agency by machine that we don’t see how we are actively participating in the creation of this world of the martial gaze, and the potential then for it to be made otherwise. Spinoza’s question of how people come to desire their own servitude follows in this vein. Maybe it is in coming back to this and to the affects that the question of the potential for politics can be formulated today in our world mediated by “machines of glacial indifference.” 


6 thoughts on “Linear Perspective, the Modern Subject, and the Martial Gaze

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