- Aerial Aftermaths: Wartime from Above by Caren Kaplan
by Caren Kaplan. Duke University Press. 2018. $99.95 hardcover; $27.95 paperback; also available in e-book. 312 pages.
Drones lurk at the periphery of Caren Kaplan's new book on the history of aerial imagery; their presence is felt rather than seen. The structure of the book reinforces this feeling, as the introduction situates us in the present by diving into aerial photographs of 9/11, and the afterword discusses the questions the book raises about aerial views in modernity in the context of unmanned aerial vehicles (known as UAVs), or drones. The author even professes that the "entire project of this book is a prologue to considering the observational and sensing capacities of machines like drones."1 But what one realizes after reading Aerial Aftermaths is that even if Kaplan never mentioned drones, a contemporary reader would weave them into the book's narrative anyway. I, the reader, am always already created by and of wartime aftermaths, the author less argues than points out. In other words, targeted killings, drone imagery, and perpetual war are indelibly familiar to me; as a recipient of the twenty-first-century military media I cannot unsee the videos of drone strikes that pervade contemporary visual culture or the aerial views I have seen on television—and from plane windows—my whole life.
To ask better questions about modern-day aerial imaging and surveillance, Kaplan looks back to the beginning of aerial imagery: the First Military Survey of Scotland, conducted between the years 1747 and 1755. In chapter 1, the author deftly dispels the myth that aerial views of geography—or even geography itself—are "empirically knowable, objectively real."2 She argues eloquently that we must consider "not only the ways in which aerial views are deeply entangled in the formation of modern geographical knowledge as a quantifiable [End Page 190] science but also the ways in which that knowledge is repeatedly limited or undone by affective forces."3
What are those affective forces? The violence, trauma, and grief of wartime aftermath, says Kaplan. Although the Military Survey is often lauded for its systematic and scientific approach to mapping from a distance, one must not forget that "the surveyors traversed a terrain marked by warfare: burned villages, sites of executions, new prisons and garrisons under construction, and a population undergoing deprivation and displacement."4 The surveyors rendered their map in an allegedly objective format that appeared as though it were a view from above, but they relied on sensory information from their walks through the Scottish Highlands to do so. In addition to the gruesome sights they saw and the resentment they likely encountered, the surveyors were also affected by the embodied experience of wandering across difficult terrain for a long time. Their physical experience, as well as the "unruly intensities"—a term Kaplan borrows from what Kathleen Stewart calls "rogue intensities"—produced by wartime, were thus embodied in the Military Survey itself.
"The map they created," the author writes, "vibrated with conflicting affective forces and intensities even as it was intentionally formatted to produce a more universal, scientific standard."5 The survey was conducted by the British, the victors, in their recently conquered land. It was a wartime project, intended to map a relatively unknown locale and enable the British to occupy it more wholly and effectively, but it also became a scientific one by creating a new, more comprehensive, more accurate standard for mapmaking. The two projects were inextricably intertwined; the one affected the other. Although it seems clear that this type of surveying was an imperfect science, one that was likely subject to the emotions of wartime aftermaths and the physical conditions of the people surveying the ground, I was left wondering, how exactly did these emotions manifest themselves in the map? How do we differentiate between the emotions and "unruly intensities" of the people doing the surveying and the people ordering the survey? How much agency did they have, and how can we attempt to prove it? The survey "disseminate[d] an emotional disposition through the production of definitive...