In last week’s excellent post on drones, Sarah argues that surveillance is what makes an remotely controlled, semi-autonomous robot a drone. As Sarah puts it, “a drone is what a drone does: it watches.” Or, more precisely, it “gazes,” or watches with the eyes/from the perspective of hegemony, and for the purposes of surveillance, normalization, and discipline. In this post, I want to both agree and disagree with Sarah’s definition. I agree on the fundamental premise, that a drone is what a drones does–surveil/normalize/discipline. I disagree, however, that this “doing” is primarily watching, a manifestation of the phenomenon we both call “the Gaze.” Droning, at least as I want to define it here, is a practice of surveillance distinct from Gazing.

Drones drone. This isn’t just a tautology: drone aircraft and drone tones are two different things. It’s just convenient that remotely-controlled and autonomous flying machines (drone aircraft) can make steady, relatively homogeneous, continuous sounds (musical drones). Listen, for example, to Simon Remiszewski’s contribution to the murmuraiton drone festival, the sound piece “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace” (which resonates nicely with Sarah’s post), which you can hear here.

Remiszewski likely recorded a quadcopter drone, not a Predator drone like the US military uses (I could be wrong…but that sounds like a quadcopter). However, those Predator drones are also experienced sonically. In fact, as Nasser Hussain’s “Phenomenology of a Drone Strike” argues, the Pakistanis whom they intentionally and collaterally target experience these drones primarily as sonic phenomena: “they are mostly invisible to the people below them. But they can be heard” (Hussain).  As Kate Chandler notes, Pakistani slang for “drone” is “bangana,” and “refers to the sound drones make,” specifically, their “ongoing buzz.” This sound structures the phenomenological lifeworld (what philosophers might call the “horizon” of one’s experience, the perceptual limit that serves as an organizing foundation for all your perceptions) of the populations whom they patrol. It organizes both actual experience–warning when a strike is imminent, it directs people’s actions–and the psychological frameworks or “mental models” that we use to interpret and make sense of our experiences. As Hussain explains,

one man described the reaction to the sound of the drones as ‘a wave of terror’ coming over the community.In another testimony, Hisham Abrar states, “when children hear the drones, they get really scared, and they can hear them all the time.”

Drones “drone” by creating a consistent psychological timbre or pitch–terror. Or rather, frequent, repeated Predator drone strikes have struck a drone in the psyches of targeted populations. As Hussain puts it,

The buzz of a distant propeller is a constant reminder of imminent death…The same prolonged hovering that produces the terrifying buzzing here adds oversight to sight, combining surveillance with legal scrutiny.

This droning timbre/pitch of terror resembles what Foucaultians might call the internalized (or panoptic) gaze–instead of needing to be watched by police, we police ourselves. This internalized gaze is the whole point of panoptic surveillance–if people feel like they’re constantly being watched, they’ll start watching themselves. And that’s WAY more efficient for hegemony–it effectively outsources policework to the policed themselves. Droning is also a kind of outsourcing of policing, but one that doesn’t rely on internalization. Psychologically droned populations live in constant terror, and this affects their behavior, their health, their politics, their decisions, and their values. They don’t have to internalize a surveiling gaze–“the constant reminder of imminent death” is always there, either in the presence of the drones themselves on in the psychological experience of constant anxiety. This state of terror limits people’s capacity to respond to droning, to one another, to life’s regular struggles. This “oversight” (to use Hussain’s term) doesn’t need to be internalized by people because has become an ambient condition (more on this in the next paragraph). One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot in my theoretical research is the differences between visual surveillance (panopticism) and sonic/affective surveillance (what Jasbir Puar has called “superpanopticism”–super as in over or above, not as in extra intense).  What are the technological, ideological, and phenomenological differences between the gaze and, well, the drone? That is, what’s different between surveillance modeled on vision and surveillance modeled on audition? And, above all, what motivates and makes possible this shift to include sound on top of (or, perhaps, below) sight? (I’ve written down some more carefully developed thoughts about this here.)

“The gaze” is one type of surveillance, one way power manifests, functions, and circulates. “The drone” is another type of surveillance, another way power manifests, functions, and circulates. “The gaze” is a visual paradigm grounded in enlightenment modernity (en-LIGHT-en-ment, get it?); consequently, the gaze presumes and makes use of all the binaries that structure modernist thought–subject/object, active/passive, depth/surface, authentic/alienated–even if only to deconstruct them into post-modernisms. “The drone” is a sonic paradigm grounded in neoliberal values and conventions; modernist binaries have little traction; power differentials are cut in more fluid, complicated ways.* For example, rather than visually objectifying its target, as the gaze does, droning profiles those it monitors. It gathers data and metadata, plugs them into risk-management algorithms, and then targets specific profiles for either intensified or (superficially) relaxed surveillance. In this way, droning is related to the “neoliberal listening” I discuss here. So, where the gaze regulates people by fixing them as objects (as, for example, Frantz Fanon argues the exclamation “Look, a Negro!” does), droning regulates people by creating the conditions that lead them to exhibit the wrong (or right) sort of profile, the sort of profile that puts you on watch lists, that disqualifies you for “discounted” credit, health insurance plans, etc. Think back to Hussain’s article: droning isn’t limited to drone patrols and raids; it has ongoing, lasting effects. “Droning” is a condition of being terrorized, a condition that impacts everything you do. So, it doesn’t require people to internalize a gaze and keep themselves in line, because the practices of droning shape the ambient conditions (geographic, economic, affective, etc.) so that we can only take preprogrammed lines, so to speak.** Droning, in this way, operates like a “free” or deregulated market—instead of regulating people directly, it administers the conditions in and on which they act. Droning doesn’t objectify people because it needs them to act, to be subjects…just “wrong” and “right” kinds of subjects.

The gaze and the drone are absolutely not opposed or mutually exclusive; more often than not, they’re deeply and complexly implicated in one another. That’s why super-panoptic surveillance is above or on top of regular old visual panopticism; it’s an additional layer, not a replacement.


In a Gaze-framework, vision (or rather, a culturally and historically specific account of vision) is privileged, and sound seems alien, foreign, “other.” I think Hussain’s analysis of drone sound relies too heavily on a Gaze framework (which is implicit in the film theory he draws on throughout the article). Because of his debt to Gaze-theory, his article relies on an overly-simplistic dichotomization between sight and sound. “Sight on one side and sound on the other,” he says. The powerful gaze, and the oppressed are droned. Chandler draws a similar conclusion:

For their operators, consequently, drones exist in terms of sight, while, for those surveyed, they are known through their noise. The separation between what is seen and what is heard maps onto uneven geopolitical relations carried out, in part, through drone systems.

For both Hussain and Chandler, the US military sees, the Pakistani people hear; the US military is not seen (but heard), the Pakistani people are seen (but do not ‘speak’). However, this dichotomization seems too neat to be actually true, phenomenologically and politically. I’m very sympathetic to his attempt to center power differentials in their analyses. Using a sight/sound dichotomy to represent imperialist power hierarchies oversimplies both how perception works and how imperialism works. Power and agency are certainly asymmetrical, but they are not so cleanly dichotomized.  As feminist like bell hooks have long argued, it is possible to gaze “oppositionally,” or, as Regina Bradley puts it, to use “sonic ratchet” to complicate visual surveillance and normativity. Similarly, sight and sound are certainly irreducible, but they are not cleanly dichotomized.

Perhaps this (false) dichotomization is appealing because it allows us to treat sound like the solution to imperialist vision. Hussain assumes that sound is what the Gaze excludes:

the layers of supervision effectively evacuate the world of sound and the interpersonal reality that sound produces; to argue about how precise or imprecise, focused or unfocused, such strikes are is to remain within a visual economy….Although the pilots can hear ground commands, there is no microphone equivalent to the micro-scopic gaze of the drone’s camera. This mute world of dumb figures moving about on a screen has particular consequences for how we experience the image…In the case of the drone strike footage, the lack of synchronic sound renders it a ghostly world in which the figures seem unalive, even before they are killed. The gaze hovers above in silence. The detachment that critics of drone operations worry about comes partially from the silence of the footage. (emphasis mine)

The Gaze is alienating—it desensitizes us to sound and in that very same set of gestures, to the humanity, the moral personhood, and the suffering of those whom the US drones. Because we can’t hear them, these targets “seem unalive, even before they are killed.” The Gaze alienates “us” (the US) from our receptivity to others. Hussain’s article implies that sound is a/the remedy to imperialist alienation, which manifests here as the separation of sight from sound. If only “we”—the imperialist drone operators—could hear what our victims hear, then we wouldn’t be so quick to dehumanize them.***

It is certainly true that visual technologies and techniques developed cooperatively with imperialism. But so have sonic ones. My concept of “Droning” shows that sound is not necessarily a remedy to imperialist control. It’s not just vision that can be “myopic” (to use one of Hussain’s terms)–hearing can be similarly structured by ignorance. It structures ignorance in different forms and with different methods. So, for example, instead of alienation, Droning rivets you to material conditions, affects, and sensations that compel you to behave in specific ways, and not in others. So riveted, you might think and feel like “there is no alternative,” to use a catchphrase often associated with neoliberal ideology.

I’m trying to push back against tendencies to reduce sound to sight (or rather, sight’s opposite), and to conflate superpanoptic surveillance–what I call “Droning”–with more conventional panopticism, a.k.a. “Gazing.” It’s important to consider the sonic dimensions of drone tech and drone practices. And de-centering vision and sight means we also have to de-center “the Gaze” as a conceptual framework. That’s what I’m trying to accomplish with this concept of “Droning”.


* For example, women who “Lean In” can participate, to some degree, in bourgeois  white patriarchal privilege. Gender privilege here isn’t a binary (masculine/feminine), because feminine subjects who perform a sufficient degree of bourgeois white patriarchal masculinity get some of the privileges usually reserved for white capitalist patriarchs.

** Droning doesn’t require the inside/outside or surface/depth binaries that organize practices of gazing, and the hierarchical relationship between the too-be-looked-at object (surface) and looking subject (depth, interiority).

*** Hussain’s article treats sound as both (a) what white/Western people are alienated from, but what non-white/non-Western people experience immediately, and (b) the solution to white/Westerners’ alienation. This parallels the Gaze’s treatment of affective receptivity as both (a) what white/Western people are alienated from, but what non-white/non-Western people experience immediately, and (b) the solution to white/Westerners’ alienation. This framework makes white cultural appropriation of non-white/non-Western cultures seem therapeutic (for whites/whiteness). The politics here are, obviously, not the best.


Robin is on twitter as @doctaj.