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  • I'm Your Puppet
  • Robert Cocanougher (bio)
Catherine Taylor, You, Me, and the Violence. columbus: the ohio state university press, mad creek books, 21st century essays, 2017. paper, 166 pages, $19.95.

Video drones, military drones, music drones on and on

Puppets are only puppets when they seem to have no masters. When they seem to act on their own. Autonomous. Alive. Once we glimpse the master, the puppet becomes merely an object. A doll. Puppets are only puppets, are only truly themselves, when they seem not to be themselves, when we forget that they are puppets. This is the paradox of puppets, and our pleasure in them lies within this paradox.


Employing research and poetry, Catherine Taylor's innovative, genre-blurring book examines puppets and military drones in a chilling exploration of human agency in our militarized, digital age. Her book unfolds in a series of quick, almost staccato, notes—paragraphs of prose that I can imagine were often written in a philosophical frenzy on whatever napkin was nearest—and yet the book is anything but sloppy. Taylor mixes this raw style of a mind wandering through a topic with careful clarity, ultimately offering up a series of short and connected meditations on our surveillance age, the distancing of agency [End Page 185] from morality, and what is perhaps one of the most terrifying prospects of the modern era—a possible total loss of agency and the wreaking of anonymous death at the hands of a puppet who has usurped its master.

The book is separated into what we might consider chapters by pictures of a simple hand puppet in the shape of a small lizard, swallowing Taylor's own hand. This graphic acts almost as a stand-in for the author, who never shows her face, but has a one-to-one interaction with this puppet—one hand making simple motions, directing and dictating this little puppet's every action like a composer who literally has her hand in the music. But the strings attached to this puppet seem made of flesh, connecting puppet and puppeteer in new and spooky ways. Is the paradox of puppets fulfilled? Do we find pleasure in watching her control this simple and perhaps joyful thing?

The paradox here is that the author is participating in the very thing she fears. Exploring this in her poetic prose, Taylor is bravely personal, unafraid to let us follow her thinking about existential topics such as free will (or the lack thereof) and identity (or the destruction thereof) with no embarrassment. In this, she lets us face her phobias with her, and she leaves plenty of room for the reader to relate, never turning preachy and playing the expert authority. She presents herself simply as a person with an insecurity and an obsession.

These meditations are interrupted by a real transcript of communications among military drone pilots (revealed to be from the Los Angeles Times, which obtained it from a Freedom of Information Act request), which are jumbled and unclear. The reader is never certain who is speaking as these pilots attempt to identify threats, permissions to fire, and reasons not to shoot. Taylor jumbles their code names and dialogue together so that their words are almost running into each other, and then takes advantage of the extra space on the page to separate and draw out of the conversation, spacing bits and pieces away from the mess of the conversation at hand.

This dialogue seems less like people fighting a war than it does some bros discussing strategy in a video game, which, in some way, is the direction military vernacular has long leaned. And this is exactly what she is tackling in this work. She includes an interview with her brother, a military drone pilot, discussing the way in which politics has been subsumed by technology:

C: What questions do you think U.S. citizens should be asking about drones and about the military? [End Page 186]

C: None. It is a hardware. They should be the same questions you are asking about every weapons systems we have. The questions should be about U.S. foreign policy, not about the kind of...