Presence and Absence: Melancholia and confusion in the digital age
A psychoanalytic perspective drawing on the experience of US drone pilots
This essay draws attention to how today’s digital society transforms not only the material world (how wars are fought), but it also changes our psycho-social world i.e. how people relate emotionally to their inner-selves, to each other, and to the social contexts in which they live and work. It offers a psychoanalytic interpretation of how working across the virtual and physical realms, creates dissonance, melancholy and confusion in the digital age.
The essay draws on the example of US Air force drone pilots, operating from a home base in the USA, attacking and killing enemies ‘virtually’ then returning to their homes after their ‘killing work’. As reported in a recent NY Times article1 (cited in this essay in italics) drone operators are suffering stress on an epidemic scale so that flights are being cut back.
Our affective and emotional states, are not simply a soft after-effect of experiencing the material world, they are symbiotic to each other. The material world shapes our affective state and vice versa. In this case drone pilots are impacted by the work, families are affected, in turn flights are seriously reduced due to high stress levels, (and perhaps the errors made by pilots are also linked to their high stress levels, which is ignored in the NY article). Emotions and affects are a life and death matter. In particular the essay reveals the problematic of working between the virtual and real world, and how this complicates our emotional and psychological experience of being present and absent.
The experience of drone operators
Drone pilots are worn down by the unique stresses of their work “We’re at an inflection point right now,” said Col. James Cluff, the commander of the Air Force’s 432nd Wing”
Putting aside the question of whether or not USA drone attacks are ethical, rational or desirable, I want to explore the impact of using computer technologies and operating in the virtual domain, and how easily we make wrong assumptions about the psycho-social dynamics that occur. This recent NY times article challenges 3 assumptions that are made, and two other points are raised by myself.
Point 1. Assumption Physical distance from the warzone makes the killing less real, and more easily dealt with for the ‘pilot’
Correction 1. Physical distance doesn’t make any significant difference, in fact it may be worse. In some ways the drone operator is closer to the killing and gore, because unlike an airline pilot who sees the damage from a great height and speed whilst flying over the strike area, the drone operator revisits the site and the video replays are studied in close up detail to assess the strike. Whilst the drone operator is thousands of miles away, emotionally they may be a lot closer to the consequences and violence inflicted on others by their actions. This is particularly horrifying when innocent civilians and children or their own men get killed in error.
Point 2: Assumption . ‘Virtual’ killing mediated through a computer screen is less ‘real’ and therefore less stressful than when in the warzone.
Correction 2. The killing appears to be no-less real in its impact on the operators.
A Defense Department study in 2013, the first of its kind, found that drone pilots had experienced mental health problems like depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder at the same rate as pilots of manned aircraft who were deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.
As mentioned in point 1. the close up reviewing of the killing can make it more real, and the assumption that it’s like a fantasy war-game seems to underestimate our human capacity to differentiate between reality and fantasy games. Perhaps in reverse when a susceptible person plays fantasy war games they may be more vulnerable to shoot up a school, or commit a terrorist act because their real and virtual worlds are blurred, but mature drone operators seem as equally vulnerable to stress as ‘real’ pilots, suggesting that they know the difference at a deep level.
Point 3:. Assumption Being close to family and community gives the drone operator more support.
Correction 3. The stress of transitioning on a daily basis between war and Walmart’s, killing at work and the kids school run; seems far too difficult to manage psychologically. The problem is increased a) because whilst air pilots are deployed to a war zone for a limited time period, the drone operators are ‘perpetually deployed’ there is no looking forward to an end or a break, b) because being deployed with ‘a band of brothers/sisters’ in a war zone provides certain rituals and camaraderie that helps contain the stress.
Having our folks make that mental shift every day, driving into the gate and thinking, ‘All right, I’ve got my war face on, and I’m going to the fight,’ and then driving out of the gate and stopping at Walmart to pick up a carton of milk … and the fact that you can’t talk about most of what you do at home….
Point 4. The impact of killing whilst being free from danger oneself
This final point isn’t mentioned in this NYT article, but I hypothesize that it might also be a factor in the drone operator’s stress. Pilots and soldiers in a warzone put their lives at risk and see colleagues at risk. Drone operators unleash violence upon others (and sometimes on innocent others) when their lives are free from danger. Does this make the killing more difficult to rationalize internally? Even if consciously they believe their killing is an act of a ‘just war’, perhaps unconsciously it is less easy to psychologically adjust to killing from afar. Does killing in rational, clinical circumstances, without the danger and risk, without the adrenalin of being in the warzone, without fear, make those doing the killing more psychologically vulnerable to an unacknowledged guilt, a dissonance between what is believed and what is felt, leading to anxiety, stress and depression?
Point 5. Techno-Utopian War without Casualties
The Drone operators may also be experiencing the fall out from the techno-utopian idea that a clean, digital war can be fought without casualties (‘our’ side) which represses and disavows the reality that war is always ugly and violent. When something is repressed it always returns, but not in obvious ways. The return of the repressed here may occur in three ways: 1) ‘Friendly fire’ and killing of their own soldiers by error, 2) the unleashing of arbitrary terrorist acts on civilians back home, that are almost impossible to defend against. 3) the repression returns in the form of internalised ‘violence’ i.e. stress, depression, anxiety and other forms of mental illness as seen in the drone operators. There are always casualties!
Discussion: Melancholia, presence and absence
Critics against drone attacks, and those who planned the drone operations believed that drone operators are less psychologically present due to their physical absence, but it seems much more complex than this. Freud writing about melancholia says;
“It must be admitted that a loss has indeed occurred, without it being known what has been lost”2
Freud theorized that when mourning and grieving doesn’t get fully processed, this leaves the person in a debilitating state of melancholia. This might help us understand the psycho-social dynamics that occur when we are constantly working between the real and virtual. When working in the virtual domain, loss occurs in many ways sometimes due to physical separation and sometimes due to more nuanced factors. Whilst we feel the affect of the loss, we rarely recognize what is actually lost in translation between the virtual and physical domain. As Freud says ‘we experience the feeling of a loss but are not sure what has actually been lost’ and therefore we cannot mourn it, leaving us with the experience of melancholia.
Loss can also be enhanced by presence. Just because we are not physically present, doesn’t make us absent. Physical absence can also enhance our emotional presence, and our virtual presence can evoke an affect of loss. For example the teenager in constant contact with parents or friends on cell phones and social media are virtually more present but may experience the loss of autonomy, freedom and personal space to be themselves. Another example is when talking to my children on video links when working abroad. Our live presence on the screen to each other is both a joy, but at the same time it enhances the absence i.e. the loss we feel because we are apart and know it more because of the screen presence. This experience of loss and absence of a physical presence, in turn paradoxically enhances their emotional presence within me. My children become more present to me and I then experience greater loss of not being able to hug them or be with them, and of my absence from the family and home is ever-more present in me and in them. This cyclical reinforcing of emotions that dance between presence and absence, virtual and real is a condition of our digital times.
It seems the drone operators are also experiencing a loss and melancholia that becomes somatised to depression or other mental health conditions. Perhaps a pilot fighting in the warzone processes their killing and their own personal losses of being absent from family more fully because they have a tangible context to work this i.e. they share an experience of killing, danger and loss of fallen comrades which they collectively mourn (and if they don’t they often suffer when returning to civilian life).
The drone pilots loss is unrecognized and unnamed; they are at home so it’s easier right? I would suggest their loss is of being active with comrades the warzone- the adrenalin, the fear, the danger, the comraderie and the rituals that enable soldiers at war to contextualize the meaning. Also they experience the loss of being separate from civilian life during their ‘war work’, freed from some of the intimacies of family and home life The absence of the family is tough when deployed, but perhaps the presence of the family is tougher as it raises such inner conflicts and tensions. The Air Force didn’t account for this in their planning. The assumption was that their absence from the war zone would make their killing work less stressful, so they planned perpetual deployment, which meant relentlessly flying drones on potential killing operations. It seems the reverse may be true; their absence from the warzone may make the killing more present to them. Finally; the unconscious guilt or dissonance that occurs when killing the other, when not in danger one-self perhaps inflicts another hidden loss. A loss of humanity and of self-esteem at an unconscious level, that cannot be integrated or spoken of, as it breaches the agreed narrative of fighting righteous war.
We have a lot of work to do on understanding the dynamics of our unfolding digital world and the psycho-social meanings and implications it evokes. The blurring between the real and the virtual worlds are creating new dynamics that are not easy to read. Assumptions about our emotional and psychological experience of physical distance and virtual engagement need constantly re-working in this digital age. The meaning of presence and absence are key to our understanding of the fluid boundaries between virtual and real.
2 Sigmund Freud, ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, in Collected Papers, Vol. XIV, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1957) p. 252.