Precision and the one mile blast radius

There’s been so much scholarship on why the face of neoliberalism is female. The language of precision, targeting, and the “surgical” transforms the weapon into the scalpel, makes the wound into the kind of cut that heals.

Against genius, against charisma, the technocrat wields this scalpel; someone detail-oriented. A woman.[1]See Schor. As Bayard de Volo and others note, you don’t need upper body strength to operate a drone, complicating narratives of military masculinity.

In my thinking about Marianne Moore, I’ve often run into the way that Moore is represented, or represents herself, as the kind of woman who wields “various scalpels”; she is the kind of poet who prides herself on making “tough decisions” that take the form of cuts: “Omissions are not accidents.” Through Moore, we can see how an ambivalent, queer femininity is embedded in historical uses of precision. “Détailler: to cut in pieces.”[2]Schor, Reading in Detail, p. 53. (Here ends all discussion of Moore in this post.)

Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention last year exemplified this dynamic: contrasting her defense policy with that of her Republican opponent, Donald Trump, Clinton fashioned a persona of female executive power predicated on the use of military strength in a “precise, strategic” way. The linking of the “precise” to the “strategic” (not to mention the “smart”) fully upholds the ideology of the drone. The agile and smart, this idea goes, defeat the merely strong.[3]Insert mangled parable about foxes and hedgehogs here.

Donald MacKenzie and Caren Kaplan have, in different ways, outlined how the ideology of precision produces deaths. As MacKenzie points out, you develop precision targeting for weapons that you actually plan to use. If the stockpiling of weapons is theoretical, meant for deterrence and not for use, there is no reason to have sophisticated missile guidance. Conversely, if you develop sophisticated missile guidance, sooner or later it is going to seem like a good idea to use it. Strategically, of course.

Neoliberalism holds that these are kinder cuts, surgical cuts, healing cuts. That we kill only to save. That smart drone targeting based on smart metadata analysis of smart surveillance (that other form of targeting, as Kaplan explains) means we are most definitely cutting out a cancer, as ISIS is so often called (1, 2, 3).

The blunt, openly retrograde machismo of the Trump campaign went hand in hand with his rejection of the agile and smart.[4]It also explains the deep streak of left sexism against Clinton; there was a genuine way in which her neoliberalism manifested through the way she performed her femininity, and indeed her feminism, … Continue reading Trump hated women, and he wanted everyone to know it. Most especially, he hated the woman as expert, the woman as thinker and overachiever, the kind of detail-oriented person who might use weapons in a “smart” way. It is easy to see why his sexism was seen as a rejoinder to neoliberalism. He even wanted to know why he couldn’t use nuclear weapons. He didn’t even comprehend the concept of deterrence. Details; girl stuff.

Yesterday, the US military dropped a 22,000-pound bomb in Afghanistan. Reportedly, it has a blast radius of up to a mile. It is difficult to comprehend, although not more difficult—indeed, not as difficult—as comprehending the countless smaller bombs the US has dropped in the Middle East and elsewhere in its state of permanent war.

I’m not really interested in which kind of killing is worse. I’m not in favor of killing. What still astonishes, months after the election, is how unprepared we seem to have been (or how unprepared I was, at any rate) for what looks for all the world like regression—and not just in the form of the infantile narcissism on constant display. It is “old” models—the World War I era “unstrategic” bombing that the ideology (if not necessarily practice) of precision bombing replaced (see Crane); obvious displays of force, ye olde kleptocracy—that seem to describe the present and the future. For decades now all attention has been on “innovation” and “the future,” an ever-speeding horizon toward which we breathlessly ran and, in so doing, made. Universities chased DARPA grants, built neuroscience and HCI centers, closed Slavic Languages departments. How will capitalism (by which we in the university of course meant war, our major source of funding) mutate next? we all wondered, and how can we get on the right side of it? (Robotics? Self-driving professors?)

Well, would you believe primitive accumulation in its most obvious and violent forms? What do we do when the next thing is not a new thing, not even an interesting thing, just an old and obvious brutality, uncanny and seemingly out of place because out of time? Are there thinkpieces to be written about The Way We Bomb Now (Same As Before)? About the New New Jim Crow (Suspiciously Familiar Voting Restrictions)? This shift from scalpel to hammer seems to me to be different from the lapsarian story of postcriticality, which was at any rate a story about neoliberal cynical reason. (I have enormous reservations about that story and especially the temporality it presupposes.)

What recent events seem to me to make visible is the baseline assumption that they violate: that the future would be new.[5]McKenzie Wark has floated the possibility that capitalism is over, replaced by something worse….


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Chow, Rey. The Age of the World Target: Self-Referentiality in War, Theory, and Comparative Work. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.

Corsani, A. (Antonella). “Beyond the Myth of Woman: The Becoming-Transfeminist of (Post-)Marxism.” Translated by Timothy S. Murphy. SubStance 36, no. 1 (2007): 107–38.

Crane, Conrad C. Bombs, Cities, and Civilians: American Airpower Strategy in World War II. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993.

Daggett, Cara. “Drone Disorientations.” International Feminist Journal of Politics 17, no. 3 (July 3, 2015): 361–79. doi:10.1080/14616742.2015.1075317.

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. New York: Penguin, 2004.

James, Robin. Resilience & Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism. Alresford, UK: Zero Books, 2015.

Kaplan, Caren. “Precision Targets: GPS and the Militarization of U.S. Consumer Identity.” American Quarterly 58, no. 3 (2006): 693–714. doi:10.1353/aq.2006.0061.

MacKenzie, Donald A. Inventing Accuracy: An Historical Sociology of Nuclear Missile Guidance. Inside Technology. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1990.

Morris, Adam. “Drone Warfare: Tiqqun, the Young-Girl and the Imperialism of the Trivial.” Los Angeles Review of Books, September 30, 2012.

Parks, Lisa. “Drones, Vertical Mediation, and the Targeted Class.” Feminist Studies 42, no. 1 (2016): 227–35. doi:10.15767/feministstudies.42.1.227.

Porter, Theodore M. “Speaking Precision to Power: The Modern Political Role of Social Science.” Social Research: An International Quarterly 73, no. 4 (2006): 1273–94.

Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Schor, Naomi. Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine. New York: Routledge, 2007.

Tiqqun. Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl. Edited by Ariana Reines. Semiotext(e) Intervention Series 12. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2012.

Virilio, Paul. War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception. London: Verso, 1989.

Wise, M. Norton, ed. The Values of Precision. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.


1 See Schor.
2 Schor, Reading in Detail, p. 53.
3 Insert mangled parable about foxes and hedgehogs here.
4 It also explains the deep streak of left sexism against Clinton; there was a genuine way in which her neoliberalism manifested through the way she performed her femininity, and indeed her feminism, although I don’t think this excuses the sexist terms on which she was so often attacked.
5 McKenzie Wark has floated the possibility that capitalism is over, replaced by something worse….