Jeff Sparrow | Counter Punch
‘Before they were blind, deaf and dumb,’ exults Mark Maybury, chief scientist for the U.S. Air Force. ‘Now we’re beginning to make them to see, hear and sense.’
We know that rhetoric.
‘I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter!’ boasts Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s great gothic novel.
Yet Maybury’s automatons are innately more sinister than Frankenstein’s, since, unlike his creature, they were explicitly designed to kill. In the border areas of Pakistan, drones – yes, that’s what he’s talking about – circle all day and all night at 1500 metres, terrifying the entire population before, every so often, turning large numbers of innocents into bone fragments and puddles of flesh. According to a much-cited report compiled by Stanford and New York Universities, barely 2 percent of their victims could be identified as ‘militants’ (whatever that means) – the rest just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Drones have been hailed as an evolutionary step in warfare, offering a way to pursue unpopular conflicts without the western casualties that spurred opposition to the Iraq debacle.
But Frankenstein is not a novel of scientific success. It’s a book about rebellion. And if we look more closely, it raises intriguing possibilities for the future of mechanised war.
Frankenstein’s literary longevity stems partly from Shelley’s acute sensitivity to the social contradictions embodied in scientific advancement. As David McNally notes in his fascinating Monsters of the Market, Victor Frankenstein constructs his creature from parts taken from the dissecting room; he animates it by the application of ‘galvanic force’ or electricity. In this, Shelley drew upon a number of widely publicised real life experiments. A few decades earlier, for instance, Luigi Galvini had showed that electric currents would cause newly dead animals to twitch; his nephew, Luigi Aldini, extended the principle to humans.