This essay takes exception with two widespread attitudes toward war and technology. The first is a shopworn optimism that produces an absolute distinction between war and peace by celebrating the peacetime applications of weapons technologies. The second understands peace as nothing more than an efficacious fiction used to mask a state of perpetual war, one in which civilians are the primary targets and anything that can be seen can be destroyed. (The latter attitude, curiously, is held both by military elites and by many of their critics in war and conflict studies.) In resisting these two positions, the essay turns to Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow as a novelistic meditation on the target ontologized—that is, on the emergence of a world in which to be is ostensibly to be seen through crosshairs. Although Pynchon's novel at once implicates itself and schools its reader in high-tech reconnaissance and targeting systems, it does so in order to put those systems themselves in the viewfinder, exposing their glitches, their contingencies, and their susceptibility to boosterism. Through its subplot involving the Zone Hereros, Gravity's Rainbow spotlights the colonial violence occluded by the concept of “total war” even as it probes the limits of “visibility” as the field on which military elites and their critics would both construct and target the social totality.
Paul K. Saint-Amour; War, Optics, Fiction. Novel 1 May 2010; 43 (1): 93–99. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00295132-2009-068
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