Pixels/Tissue – Drone Wars and Suicide Attacks

Dana Bönisch

Suicide bombing and drone strikes, both radically ultimate, occupy opposite ends of the spectrum of asymmetrical warfare: while the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle combines maximum destructiveness with zero physical danger for the pilot, a suicide attack is, following Baudrillard, the ‘gift of one’s own death’ that cannot be reciprocated (29). At the same time, both destroy bodies with such force that, mostly, only fragments remain; both leave no images of the actual act and usually no images of the immediate aftermath – or, in the case of the drone strike, a constant stream of data and pixelated images, but no close vision images on the ground. In this sense, they might be seen to perpetuate Michel de Certeau’s ‘view from above’, a violent over-view that, as opposed to a movement on the ground, is invested with power and claims a panoramic completeness (see Certeau 1984, 117): the image is the weapon, or a crucial part of it.


Suicide bombings and drone strikes perpetuate Michel de Certeau’s ‘view from above’, a violent over-view that is invested with power and claims a panoramic completeness. 

[Image by Thierry Ehrmann under a CC BY license]

While a digitalized and highly technologized war takes the combination of increased distance, reduced risk and vilification[i] to its extreme, it is characterized by a specific spatial-visual configuration: Visuality [as] techno-culturally mediated vision [plays] a strategic role […] in linking and de-linking ‘sight’ and ‘site’ in late modern war through the spatialities of targeting and the virtualization of violence”, as Derek Gregory writes (68). It is precisely this reciprocal entanglement and isolation of visuality and space – “linking and de-linking ‘sight’ and ‘site’” – that I will get back to and render productive with regard to some literary texts.

Based on (and at the same time, critically examining) the thesis that the global ‘war on terror’ is a war of the screen and a ‘view from above’, I will analyze two novels and a film with regard to their production of different modes of vision: Thomas Lehr’s September. Mirage (2010; trans. 2013), David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks (2014) and Julia Loktev’s film Day Night Day Night (2006). Bringing into focus different forms of globality, I will argue that the response to simplifying narratives and their cross relations with visual regimes can be framed by the concepts of topology and proximity.

In Thomas Lehr’s September. Mirage, a kind of long prose poem on four lives affected by 9/11 and the Iraq War, a techno-military view from above is set against a ground level vision:

[C]owering objects / can be seen moss-green jade-green rush-green suddenly sprinkled with maggot-like whitish spectres (the brighter the warmer) […] on the ground / distance stops  […] everything is torn to pieces the trunks of palm trees trucks tanks the bodies of several hundred soldiers of one of Saddam’s elite divisions and also the plantations the toolshed the old navy-blue VW and its owner a 40-year-old gardener who used to drive out here from Baghdad every two weeks […] on the next day you have to once more see clearly what you’re killing / in the sights of the tanks / the torn-off arms legs heads […] (304-5)

The narrator voice dives from the Apache’s screen’s vision down into the cataclysmic events on the ground, contrasting aerial warfare with the perspective of the tank and, at the same time, linking what had been de-linked, turning the pixellated silhouettes into persons with jobs and relatives. On a macro-structural level, the text works similarly. Linking the stories of two father-daughter pairs in Iraq, the US and Germany, it is a topological narrative, collapsing physical distance and destabilizing a logics and rhetorics of ‘us against them’ at the same time. Topology is understood here as the realm of connectivity and relationality, as opposed to metrical and stable distance. What is geographically, topographically distant, can be ‘close’ in terms of topology: the philosopher Michel Serres calls topology ‘la science de voisinages et dechirures’ (93), the science of nearness and rifts.


In Lehr’s piece, the narrator’s voice dives down into the cataclysmic events on the ground, turning the pixellated silhouettes into persons with jobs and relatives. 

[Image by AK Rockefeller under a CC BY license]

Decategorizing ‘wormholes’ also exist on the level of signifiers: For example, both George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein are referred to as the ‘PRESIDENT’, and it is not always easy to decide which one is which (e.g. 76, 303). The text does not only work through topology and reflect on globality, but also on urban spatiality in times of war; in Baghdad’s Green Zone, Saddam’s dictatorial architecture is still existent, the old epicentre of power still intact, just that it is under the control of an other type of war machinery (see 439).

A very different novel, one that is quite unlikely to ever be called a ‘Post 9/11’ text, also has a topological structure, and also reflects on Baghdad’s spatiality during the occupation. In David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks (2014), one of the many interwoven storylines focuses on a British war reporter. For Ed Brubeck, the ‘Green Zone’ in the heart of the city is not only a segregated heterotopia with a complicated entry system, but also a kind of US-American theme park (or, also, a mirage):

Three more checkpoints […] and you find yourself inside the Emerald City – as the Green Zone has inevitably come to be known, a ten-kilometre-square fortress maintained by the US army and its contractors to keep out the reality of post-invasion Iraq and preserve the illusion of a kind of Tampa, Florida, in the Middle East. […] Black GM Suburbans cruise at the 35 m.p.h. speed limit on the smooth roads; electricity and gasoline flow 24/7; ice-cold Bud is served by bartenders from Mumbai wo rename themselves Sam, Scooter and Moe for the benefit of their clientele. (216)

While repeatedly pointing at this war’s close ties to neoliberal privatisation and general globality in that way, the text also reflects on the inner zone as a kind of cyber-colonial power centre that is not actually in Iraq; the Green Zone topographically borders with the messiness of ‘real’ Baghdad, but is, topologically speaking, much closer to the USA. It could be argued that a similar, but inverted spatial stretching occurs in long distance warfare:

A drone circled above us. It would be armed. I thought of its operator, picturing a crewcut nineteen-year-old called Ryan at a base in Dallas, sucking an ice-cold Frappuccino through a straw. He could open fire on the clinic, kill everyone in and near it, and never smell the cooked meat. To Ryan, we’d be pixellated thermal images on a screen, writhing about a bit, turning from yellow to red to blue. (233)

The ice-cold frappuccino and other clichéd markers of americanness in this passage serve as objective extensions of ‘Dallas’, indicating how two distant places are virtually knotted together in the non-place that is the drone operating room and in a one-way, deadly screen vision – a vision that, counter to what the usual video game analogy suggests, does get close to the ‘target’, but not in the sensual, physical sense of a Deleuzian ‘close view’. The fact that ‘Ryan’ is actually imagined by a journalist on the ground, being eyed and turned into electronic information by the drone at this very moment, adds another twist to this spatial-visual complex.


A drone operating room

[Image by Sascha Pohflepp under a CC BY license]

It is worth a closer look at how this topological configuration is situated within the structure and relates to the themes of the novel itself. Like Thomas Lehr’s September and Teju Cole‘s drone tweets, but in a less didactic way, The Bone Clocks collapses distance in different forms. Not only do its storylines connect Cambridge, a ski town in Switzerland, Australia, Iraq and other places scattered globally, they also span 59 years in the frame narrative and millenia in the stories-within-the-story, from early antiquity to a dystopian 2043. Taking up the theme and structure of atemporal, global interconnectedness that was already present in Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas, Mitchell‘s newest novel is now indeed and unmetaphorically a story of old souls. ‘Marinus’, one of the ‘returnees’, previously lived as a surgeon-scholar in the 18th century, a peasant girl turned wunderkind in 19th century Russia, and a male Chinese NHS psychiatrist in Thatcher’s England. When a concept of reincarnation, as fanciful as it may be, is played out like this, it necessarily cuts through the categories of ethnicity, class and gender. Everyone is everything, and no-one knows where, as who or with what social status they will be born again. Thus, it points to arbitrary othering through its own arbitrariness, to simplifying narratives through its built-in indefinite biograpical complexity – a structure of equality that the logics of drone warfare and a rhetoric of ‘us against them’ inherently ignores.

In Lehr’s September, as in other recent Post 9/11 novels, there are a lot of narrative close-ups on wounds and body fragments, which is striking especially against the backdrop of a seemingly virtualized war. It is only in the age of suicide bombing that such an extreme ‘close vision’ on human tissue even becomes thinkable and virulent. Those microscopical narratives may well be a late, displaced after-affect of the absence of bodies in the dominant 9/11 narratives and images, but they certainly are also a reaction to the alleged non-physicalness of drone attacks, and work against the discourse of ‘surgical precision’ bound up with late modern warfare. At the same time, it would certainly be too simple to regard fictional texts as counter narratives against such discourses and the military ‘view from above’ per se; September, for example, does fall back into orientalist stereotypes and, at times, indulges in a totalizing over-view rather than interrupting it.


It is only in the age of suicide bombing that an extreme ‘close vision’ on human tissue becomes thinkable and virulent.

[Image by Sean Ferguson under a CC BY license]

While affirmative reports on drone warfare use said surgical terminology, coupled with narratives of rationality and necessity (execution of alleged terrorists as necessary to save other people’s lives, civilian casualties as an uncomfortable by-product), suicide attacks are portrayed as deeply irrational and inconceivable. The radical otherness of self-sacrifice is sought to be stitched up by an array of explanation patterns, usually emphasising religion and downplaying political motivation; those patterns are often gendered, orientalist and sexualized.

In Julia Loktev‘s film Day Night Day Night (2006), a young woman prepares for a suicide attack on Times Square. There are a lot of close-ups, amplified small sounds – chewing, breathing – and infuriatingly little dialogue. The only verbal interaction takes place between the unnamed protagonist and her handlers, who make her repeat the self-commands for her suicide mission over and over again: ‘I wait till the red lights turn green. I wait till…’ This structure of repetition seems to emphasise that the act is controlled by others and therefore literally monstrous. At the same time, the absence of dialogue prevents both a didactic ‘I am telling you my side of the story’ and simplifying explanation patterns. Loktev’s film does not only avoid gender-specific stereotyping, but any kind of motivational narrative or markers of background, undoing the presumption that this suicide bombing is linked to Islamist terrorism. Everyone speaks accent free American English; the handlers wear masks, and the girl’s ethnicity is undefined.  There is a strong focus on corporality: in long, silent sequences we see her washing herself, close-ups of her nails being clipped etc. This might be understood as the martyr ritual of cleansing, but also simply points to the body itself, its intactness and presence as what is at stake, and as the site and ultimate instrument of killing – ‘Necropolitics’ (Mmembe 2003) as the inversion or underside of a Foucauldian biopolitics. The proximity mode, here, is not necessarily a Deleuzian ‘close vision’ (although it does emphasise the haptic and auditive), but points to the singularity of the act as opposed to the ‘view from above’ of overarching explanatory narratives.


Visualising human pixels/tissue in ‘Dead suicide bomber’ by artist Rookuzz

[Image by Rookuzz under a CC BY license]

As other films with suicide bomber protagonists (e.g. Paradise Now), Day Night Day Night never gets to an actual attack. The black screen – repeatedly occurring when the protagonist plays with a light switch, anticipating the detonation mechanism – could be said to reflect both the invisibility[ii] and the destructiveness of the act itself. Where the text can always evoke close vision, even when it comes to the abject and incredibly violent, the film, its vehicle being the mimetic image, is almost forced to leave an empty space on the visual level.

Ultimately, all three texts offer more than a simple ‘counter narrative’ to the war on terror’s ‘view from above’: they copy, affirm and expose the apparatuses and tactics of late modern warfare, both technological and discursive, in the same move. All three texts show that, just as topology and proximity are not binary opposites, ‘close vision’ and ‘distant vision’ in this context are not necessarily related to scale. The smallest unit of the screen image is the pixel, short for ‘picture element’. The pixel is, so to speak, the micro body fragment’s Other: pixels and human tissue structurally, indexically, repeat the configuration of proximity and distance on a micrological level. Tissue can become smaller and smaller and is microscopically magnifiable: the closer you look, the more you see. Tissue is texture, inseperably interwoven with surrounding areas (it is the interweaving); a pixel, the pronoun points to it, is a monad closed off and unto itself. It joins up with others to form a picture when seen from a distance, but it does so only optically, its orthogonal borderline staying intact. The novels remind us that when a digital image is magnified, its pixels eventually drift apart: the closer you look, the less you see.

CITATION: Dana Bönisch, “Pixels/Tissue – Drone Wars and Suicide Attacks,” Alluvium, Vol. 4, No. 2 (2015): n. pag. Web. 13 May 2015, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v4.2.04

Dana Bönisch, author of the novel Rocktage (2003), currently works in the department of Comparative Literature at the University of Bonn where she is also working on her PhD exploring narratives of terrorism from the 1970s until the war on terror.


[i]  Analogous to the visual reduction to pixels, the ‘war on terror’, according to Edward Said works through orientalist stereotyping. The view from above is linked to simplifying narativesEdward Said not only in a metaphorical way: Carl Schmitt argued in his writings on aerial war that the more technologized a war is, the more its justification hinges on the vilification of its victims.

[ii] While a suicide attack itself cannot produce photographic evidence because it is so punctual and forceful, virtually obliterating the person carrying it out, the highly formalized video messages usually recorded before the act certainly form a media-oriented communication structure.

Works Cited:

Baudrillard, Jean. L’Esprit du Terrorisme. Paris: Galilée, 2001.

de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley / Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

Gregory, Derek: “American Military Imaginaries and Iraqi Cities: The Visual Economies of Globalizing War” in Globalization, Violence and the Visual Culture of Cities. Ed. Christoph Lindner. London: Routledge, 2010, p. 67 – 84.

Lehr, Thomas. September. Mirage. Trans. Mike Mitchell. London / New York / Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2013.

Mbembe, Achille. “Necropolitics”. Trans. Libby Meintjes. Public Culture, Volume 15, Number 1, Winter 2003, pp. 11-40. http://dx.doi.org/10.1215/08992363-15-1-11

Mitchell, David. The Bone Clocks. London: Sceptre, 2014.

Said, Edward. A Window on the World. The Guardian, 2 August 2003.

Schmitt, Carl. Der Nomos der Erde im Völkerrecht des Jus Publicum Europaeum. Köln: Greven Verlag, 1950.

Serres, Michel. Éclaircissements:Cinq entretiens avec Bruno Latour. Paris: Flammarion, 1994.

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