«Louise Lawler. No Drones. 2013. Louise Lawler. No Drones. 2011. Installation view. Louise Lawler: No Drones MIGNON NIXON It is a queer experience, ...»
Louise Lawler. No Drones. 2013.
Louise Lawler. No Drones. 2011.
Louise Lawler: No Drones
It is a queer experience, lying in the dark and listening to the zoom of a hornet, which may at any point
sting you to death. It is a sound that interrupts cool
and consecutive thinking about peace. Yet it is a
sound—far more than prayers and anthems—that
should compel one to think about peace.
—Virginia Woolf, “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid”
1. Doodlebugs Hitler deployed the first pilot-less flying bombs, the doodlebugs, as weapons of terror over London. “The drone of the planes,” Virginia Woolf related, is “like the sawing of a branch overhead. Round and round it goes, sawing and sawing.” It falls to the civilian under aerial attack to “fight with the mind” by “thinking against the current, not with it.” Thinking in darkness, thinking in bed, thinking with the unconscious—Woolf defends the supposedly “futile activity of idea-making” as a counterpoint to the drone of war.1 Artistic resistance to war is often faulted for its futility. It is as if artistic responses to war succeeded only in stripping art, and its audience, of their political dignity. All antiwar art is not equally scorned, of course. Documentary and
1. Virginia Woolf, “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid” (1942), in Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid (London: Penguin Books, 2009), p. 1. First published in The Death of the Moth and Other Essays.
Commenting on “Living Under Drones,” a recent Stanford/New York University report on the effects of American drones on the civilian population of Waziristan, Clive Stafford Smith compares them to the flying bombs that menaced London in World War II: “When the doodlebugs (as V1s—Hitler’s drones—were called) came over,” he observes, citing the experience of his own mother, the buzzing of the engine signaled temporary reprieve; sudden silence meant imminent death. The droning sound became a weapon of terror in itself, as it has in Waziristan, where “the Predators emit an eerie sound, earning them the name bangana (buzzing wasp) in Pashtu.” Clive Stafford Smith, “Drones: The West’s New Terror Campaign,” Guardian (September 24, 2012). http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/ 2012/sep/25/drones-wests-terror-weapons-doodlebugs-1 (accessed January 30, 2014).
activist modes may be counted as extensions of journalism and politics.
Memorializing and witnessing gestures bear the import of history. Protest art defies authoritarian repression. And while any of these may be dismissed as naïve or ineffectual, a special contempt is reserved for those modes of artistic resistance that refuse or mock the rhetoric of war.2 Woolf furnishes some reasons. War is not an event that suddenly comes along, she explains. It is already here. “The desire to dominate and enslave” defines everyday life, she writes, and the prevention of war, like war itself, therefore begins at home, with ourselves. 3 In her expansive text of 1938 on the prevention of war, Three Guineas, Woolf argues that the cleavage of public and private spheres is the foundational violence of militarism, placing war beyond reach of the everyday.4 War as we know it is a ruse of militarism, in other words.
Louise Lawler’s sly interventions in contemporary war discourse underscore this point. Apart from an extensive body of work on American militarism, culminating in her 2011 exhibition No Drones, the artist’s antiwar ephemera and non-works (including the double-page spread that opens this essay) resist the efforts of militarism to monopolize and mystify war, to cut it off from the everyday.
Woolf sharpened her pen on the spectacle of militaristic display, the frippery and finery on parade in military, parliamentary, and academic pageantry alike. Lawler trains her attention on the rituals of the art world, implying that militarism runs through them like a steady line, smoothly connecting the dots. At the same time, her art reveals another trend of militarism, which is the colonization of daily life, the relentless intrusion of state violence into our so-called private lives. To expose the ruse of militarism, Lawler suggests, we must open our eyes to its most intimate and most insidious effects.
Militarism distinguishes “war inside” (as Gertrude Stein referred to our birthright of destructiveness) from “war outside,” the violence of the state.
Predicated on a fastidious separation of subject and state, militarism cultivates our sense of estrangement from war, discounts our insider knowledge, and discourages questions like the one Stein recollected from childhood in her 1945 memoir Wars I Have Seen: “What is it inside in one that makes one know all about war?”5 For Stein, war is always already part of one, inside one. The mystery of war is that it lays its claim on us from the inside out.
2. An example of such contempt is the critical response to Yayoi Kusama’s performances against the nuclear arms race and the American war in Vietnam. Mignon Nixon, “Anatomic Explosion on Wall Street,” October 142 (Fall 2012), pp. 3–25.
3. Woolf, “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid,” p. 3. Woolf’s prolific insights about the continuities of tyranny and destructiveness in everyday life and in war underpin much essential feminist writing on war culture. See, for example, Rosalyn Deutsche, “Un-War: An Aesthetic Sketch,” in this issue.
4. Woolf, A Room of One’s Own/Three Guineas, ed. Michèle Barrett (London: Penguin, 1993).
5. Gertrude Stein, Wars I Have Seen (1945; London: Brilliance Books, 1984 ), p. 9. On Stein’s war
memoir and contemporary artistic responses to war, see Mignon Nixon, “War Inside/War Outside:
Feminist Critiques and the Politics of Psychoanalysis,” Texte zur Kunst 17, no. 68 (December 2007), pp.
65–75; and Rosalyn Deutsche, “Un-war: An Aesthetic Sketch,” in this issue.
“Wars. So many wars. Wars inside and wars outside.” This line carries the cadence of Stein, but it is actually Bruno Latour, in a lecture delivered in the spring of 2003, some two weeks after the U.S.–U.K. invasion of Iraq. He begins to list the wars. “Culture wars, science wars, and wars against terrorism. Wars against poverty and wars against the poor. Wars against ignorance and wars out of ignorance.” Then he comes straight to the point: “My question is simple. Should we be at war, too, we, the scholars, the intellectuals?”6 Latour could almost be channeling Woolf now, except that she would never have associated herself with “the
scholars, the intellectuals,” whose vanities she read as symptoms of militarist culture. The difference tells when Latour abruptly pivots to what he calls his worry:
“Quite simply, my worry is that we might not be aiming for the right target.” With this swerve from the question of whether we, the self-professed thinkers, should also be at war to the worry that we might simply have the wrong target in our sights, Latour abandons the question of intellectual and psychical responsibility for war in order to embrace the very symmetries between academe and militarism that Woolf decries. “To remain in the metaphorical atmosphere of the time,” he remarks, “military experts constantly revise their strategic doctrines, their contingency plans, the size, direction, and technology of their projectiles, their smart bombs, their missiles; I wonder why we, we alone, would be saved from those sorts of revisions.” For Latour, what counts is to be rhetorically current, or “in the metaphorical atmosphere” of one’s time, and to be quick to recognize “new threats, new dangers, new tasks, new targets.” Once upon a time, he reminds us, “intellectuals were in the vanguard.”7 The cultural avant-garde not only kept up with rhetorical change but set the pace. Now it is the military-scientific-industrial complex that drives the agenda.
Woolf, by contrast, makes a virtue of hesitation and delay. “Three years is a long time to leave a letter unanswered,” she announces in the arch opening line of Three Guineas, “and your letter has been lying without an answer even longer than that.”8 Setting aside the abundant appeals that pile up on her desk, waiting for more dust to gather before lifting her pen, the author ruminates at leisure before replying at length to a question styled, in the now familiar way, to flatter prospective patrons of a new society: “How in your opinion are we to prevent war?” Woolf’s response runs to some two hundred pages in small type. “It is true that many answers have suggested themselves,” she confides, “but none that would not need explanation, and explanation takes time.”9
A twenty-first-century Woolf, one imagines, would not “donate now” to stall next week’s war or circulate an online petition to her address book with an urgent personal message. It is difficult to conjur her tweeting advice to the prime minister: to bomb or not to bomb. Offered opportunities to sign a petition, attend a political meeting, and donate to a fund, she declines all three. Belated as it is, Woolf’s thick, chiding letter to the founder of the new society does not conclude by enclosing a check. Instead, it promises a guinea for the rebuilding fund of a women’s college. The prevention of war, she reasons, rests on a new model of education, one not beholden to the arms industry. She imagines a “poor college,” experimental and nonhierarchical, with a curriculum devoted not to “the arts of dominating other people” (which “require too many overhead expenses”) but to “the arts of human intercourse.”10 Latour’s call to academic arms is an exercise in devil’s advocacy, to be sure.
Yet it touches on a real problem: how does critique adapt to a war footing?
Suggesting that the humanities have an obligation to move with the times, “to press ahead, to redirect our meager capacities as fast as possible,” he charges the humanities, and himself, with debunking and deconstructing while Rome burns.11 Latour borrows yet another military analogy, that of “fighting the last war,” to diagnose the malaise in which the humanities, circa 2003, were plunged. For military doctrine has it that war, unlike history, does not repeat itself. “Would it not be rather terrible,” he wonders, “if we were still training young kids—yes, young recruits, young cadets—for wars that are no longer possible... leaving them illequipped in the face of threats we had not anticipated, for which we are so thoroughly unprepared?”12 When Latour extolled the superior competence of military experts who constantly revise “the size, direction, and technology of their projectiles,” the current wars were in their infancy. Since then, it has become de rigueur for the humanities to court legitimacy in a culture of techno-militarism, even as the credibility of that culture has inexorably declined. Close to home, militarist thinking is detectable even in some revisionist histories of postmodernism, which reduce those debates to
culture wars, and in a broad revival of fantasies of mastery that feminist, psychoanalytic, and poststructuralist work had once discredited. The prospect of a humanist academy on the militarist model—a drone academy—seems rather different now. Even as a rhetorical weapon, the smart bomb seems disastrously ill equipped to alleviate the cultural malaise of anti-rationality bordering on nihilism that Latour warned against back then and that has only deepened in our prolonged time of war. Rather than restrain us, “the scholars, the intellectuals,” from “add[ing] ruins to ruins”—by which Latour intended the absurdist gesture of reflexively invoking deconstruction in a public discourse already conducted under
10. Woolf, A Room of One’s Own/Three Guineas, p. 155.
11. Latour, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?,” p. 226.
12. Ibid., p. 225.
No Drones the sway of the death drive—today’s drone culture has conferred on Latour’s rhetoric a tragic reality. To the extent that we in the humanities are willing to assume responsibility for the current wars, the question “is it really our duty to add fresh ruins to fields of ruins?” can no longer be deemed safely rhetorical.13 The “young recruits, young cadets” of the current generation have assimilated the streamlined training regimes dedicated to applying “meager capacities as fast as possible” to urgent contemporary debates, as Latour admonished. But at what cost? Have we inadvertently conspired to abet a techno-militarist fantasy of the humanities themselves as a “fresh ruin,” a ruin overdue for being added to the “field of ruins”?14
3. No Drones Posted on the door of my office at the Courtauld Institute of Art is a tattered souvenir from Louise Lawler’s 2011 London exhibition No Drones. A few eyebrows were raised when the poster went up. Its pale and faintly shimmering echo of “No Nukes”—a political slogan that lingers on the fringes of British protest culture—offered an uncomfortable reminder of past failure. And that was part of the point: War is retro, however futuristic it appears. When artistic resistance to war summons the past, it reminds us of this. The posting of No Drones was also intended as one small way of highlighting the nexus of militarization, art, and the humanities in the everyday life of an academic institution. It was, of course, not only the students I was addressing but, more particularly, myself.
In November 2011, Lawler’s exhibition No Drones coincided (coincidentally) with a retrospective of Gerhard Richter at Tate Modern.15 Lawler in effect transferred two works by Richter, Announcement Mustang Squadron (1964), based upon a photo- for No Drones.
graph of Allied bombers over Germany, and Sprüth Magers, London. 2011.
Skull (1983), to the Sprüth Magers gallery at the dead end of an elegant Mayfair street. Printed on
13. Latour, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?,” p. 225.