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The ethics of violent technologies

As innovations in military technologies race toward ever-greater levels of automation and autonomy, debates over the ethics of violent technologies tread water. Discussions about whether lethal drones are the most moral and effective tools to combat terrorism, or whether killer robots could kill more ethically than humans, often end up conflating efficiency with morality and legality with ethicality. Such conceptual confusions raise urgent questions about what is at work in the relationship between lethal technologies, their uses, and the ethical justifications provided for technologised practices of political violence. What enables the framing of instruments for killing as inherently ethical? What socio-political rationale underpins these processes? And what kind of ethical framework for violence is produced in such a socio-political context? Death Machines reframes current debates on the ethics of technologised practices of violence, arguing that the way we conceive of the ethics of contemporary warfare is itself imbued with a set of bio-technological rationalities that work as limits. The task for critical thought must therefore be to unpack, engage, and challenge these limits. Drawing on the work of Hannah Arendt, the book offers a close reading of the technology-biopolitics-complex that informs and produces contemporary subjectivities, highlighting the perilous implications this has for how we think about the ethics of political violence, both now and in the future.

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The conditioned human

This introductory chapter sets out the scope, aim, and structure of the book. It makes the case for using Hannah Arendt’s work as a foundation for contemporary biopolitical analysis, and advances an extension of her work on the socio-political conditioning of the human. In particular, the chapter identifies and outlines three core modes of conditioning (the biopolitical, the technological, and the ethical), which serve as a framework for the analysis undertaken in the rest of the book.

in Death machines

In contemporary scholarship the notion of biopolitics is typically associated with the late work of Michel Foucault. This chapter argues that Arendt provides resources for biopolitical analysis that are lacking in Foucault. It begins by mapping the overlaps and divergences between Foucault and Arendt’s views on biopolitics, linking these to their respective use of other key concepts (such as essence, telos, and power). It then highlights how Arendt’s attention to technological conditioning puts the production of technologised subjects at the heart of modern biopolitics. The chapter ends by stressing how such a view provides for a form of biopolitical analysis that concerns more than mere governmental management or administration.

in Death machines
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This chapter transitions away from Arendt and begins to analyse the ethical implications of violent political practices. Throughout the focus is on how a specific form of ethics is produced through contemporary biopolitical regimes and the violent technologies associated with these. The chapter begins by mounting a critique of practical or applied ethics, which is the conception of ethics that dominates contemporary debates over war and armed conflict. It is argued that such a conception not only reduces ethics to technical practice (rendered as code and facilitated through algorithmic operations), but also puts ethics beyond contestation through its reliance on professionalism and ostensibly superior modes of technology. The result is an adiaphorised form of ethics that not only justifies but in many cases also legislates for violent interventions on the basis of a deep techno-biopolitical logic.

in Death machines

This chapter focuses on the ethical implications of political violence in the context of recent developments in military robotics. It argues that the biopolitical underpinnings of killer robots institute a hierarchical relationship between man and machine, whereby machine technologies become necessary means of improving and protecting human life. The chapter begins by showing how contemporary military practices conceive of human life in and as code. It then uses a series of examples to illustrate how in this context, algorithmic modes of analysis represent a novel ideology in which human life is measured in and against machine standards of capacity, functionality, and performance. Finally, it argues that the resulting appearance of the human as a ‘weak link’ in contemporary warfare serves to further advance the legitimation and deployment of new violent technologies.

in Death machines
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Ethics beyond technics

This chapter calls for a move beyond technologically informed conceptions of ethics, making the case for a more proactive engagement with the possibility for an ethics of responsibility. In so doing, it returns to Arendt’s notion of politics proper, arguing that its constituents – uncertainty, plurality, vulnerability – are the sine qua non of ethics proper, and that with a properly political form of biopolitics we might be able to restore some ethicality to contemporary ethics. The chapter ends by mapping out the broad contours of what an ethics beyond technics might look like, as well as making the normative case for freeing our ethical deliberations over killing from the machine logics we use to take lives.

in Death machines

This chapter establishes Hannah Arendt as a biopolitical thinker particularly attuned to the powers and implications of modern technology. The chapter identifies and articulates the two key trajectories that Arendt associates with modernity. The first is a growing prioritisation of life processes within politics. The second is a politicisation of such life processes through the use of new calculative technologies. In discussing each of these trajectories, the chapter argues that biological life and technological reason are best viewed as two distinct but related aspects of modern politics. It also suggests that these are always in tension with one another as the cyclicality of life processes runs up against linear projections of human progress.

in Death machines

This chapter analyses the consequences of techno-biopolitics for the possibility of politics proper. The main argument is that in such a regime, the possibility for political action and contestation is narrowed through mandates that oppose key aspects of politics, such as plurality, speech, and a tolerance of uncertainty. I also highlight how such impediments to politics proper promote the emergence of political violence as a means of producing predictable outcomes.

in Death machines
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This chapter applies a biopolitical lens to the use of armed drones in targeting killing operations. It argues that lethal drone technology and the military practices associated with it constitute the starkest indication to date of just how deeply anchored violent technologies are within contemporary biopolitics, as well as how morally dubious it is to make claims of ethical superiority on their behalf. The chapter thus provides a detailed, real-world illustration of the influence that advanced biopolitical technologies exert on practices of war and conflict, as well as a normative critique of the biopolitically informed justifications for violence that such technologies tend to produce.

in Death machines
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This chapter focuses more closely on the place of violence within techno-biopolitical regimes. It begins by excavating the linkages between Arendt’s biopolitical analysis and her writings on power and violence. It then argues that the anti-political essence of contemporary biopolitics opens up a pathway for instrumental violence, enabling violent practices to appear as expedient tools in the administration of humanity. Finally, it suggests that such an understanding of violence-as-politics overlooks the futility of violence as a political practice in important but rarely acknowledged ways.

in Death machines