Bernard Wolfe wrote his novel Limbo in 1952, responding to the escalating conversation around mathematician Norbert Wiener’s theory of cybernetics. Cybernetics is a theory proposing the use of computational feedback systems to enhance biological systems and their possibilities, and Wolfe describes the discourse around this theory as a schema of “badly posed questions” that misunderstand the realms of social life they attempt to regulate—thereby misapplying computational interventions. Once applied, Wiener’s computational intelligence would develop through feedback systems, forming its own inscrutable and violent logic to which humans are subjected. Wolfe here envisions the “cybernetic-managerial revolution […] carried to its logical end.”
The misunderstandings and anxieties upon which the cybernetic revolution in Limbo is predicated draw from the geopolitical and corporeal anxieties of the age it claims to have transformed. The novel is set in a not-so-distant future after World War III, a catastrophe exploding into an incommensurable outbreak of violence between two cybernetic empires, Russia and the United States. The ensuing mass annihilation and cartographic restructuring are managed through computational systems while the humans within these systems are produced as servants. Limbo’s societal order emerges post-apocalypse, through a reactionary drive to generate an new, pacifist state through the reconfiguration of individual bodies. Out of the remains of the United States, a strip called “Inland” congeals as a zone where nearly everybody under the age of forty has been voluntarily immobilized through amputation.
Although some athletes use prosthetics, the status quo for most people (so-called Immobs) is limblessness, a physical category whose proponents argue will eradicate violence. The body here is construed as the instrument of apocalyptic violence. A new cybernetic order is established through an increased reliance not on human minds but on human bodies— on machines. In this society, a network of reductive computational and material calculations belie the abstract telos of pacifism in a process that serves only to produce fresh violence.
By envisioning this transforming society, Wolfe plays with narratives of apocalypse and frontier. The totalizing technological shifts that the novel envisions within cartography, biology, and the state, are, like the apocalypse itself, a recurring American literary trope. America’s imaginary apocalypses operate alongside and intertwined with fantasies of new frontiers. Limbo reveals that the apocalypse stages a drama of nothingness. It is a climactic moment that paves the way for a tabula rasa of a new expansionism, a new start to the production of the same system. This totalizing destruction paves the way for new consumption. Featured prominently in this colonial fantasy are barren lands and a barren earth—daunting, but exhilarating. Daunting, but profitable. But Wolfe replicates the fantastical, expansionist apocalypse that seems to produce a blank slate only to recreate the technocratic, or cybernetic, world order that produced it. The apocalypse is not 81 the new start Wolfe proclaims if its seeds are dispersed among its ashes. This imagination, which Wolfe both participates in and critiques, intimately informs an enacted space of cybernetic violence—the United States military.
The United States military is a very real, managerial, self-perpetuating cybernetic system, invested in the production of technologies that aim to supplement and substitute embodied aggression. The dual fictions of apocalypse and frontier expansion undergird the self-understanding of the military’s technology research wing, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). DARPA states its purpose on its website as a “commitment by the United States that, from [the time of Sputnik] forward, it would be the initiator and not the victim of strategic technological surprises.” United States aggression—explicitly referred to as “initiation” of “strategic technological surprises” and grounded in a system of research production and enactment that places it at the forefront of technological design—remains here couched in the language of defence and victimhood. But the source of the aggression that the military is protecting against is not tangible or clearly located. It is a hypothetical threat. “We will not,” the military asserts, “be surprised.” The threat that justifies DARPA’s mission is fictive. It is unknown, intangible, a “surprise.” This fictive quality expands the threat to the full realm of possibility—technically, it could be anything and from anywhere. Because of the intangibility of this threat, DARPA positions itself as an engine of constant invention with no explicit end-goal. The language of radical, totalizing change is omnipresent: DARPA’s interventions are “break-through,” “gamechanging,” “transformational.” The statement also emphasizes a condensing of time— the “signature DARPA urgency to achieve success in less time than might be considered necessary in a conventional setting.” This is the language of emergency, even paranoia— DARPA imagines itself as detached from ordinary conventions, responding to an urgent, immediate threat.
This justification through urgency works to materialize a system strikingly similar to Wolfe’s disastrous cybernetic world order in which surveillance and violence are practiced in increasingly disembodied ways. In fact, Thomas Armour, the director of DARPA’s Genoa II program, describes humans as the weakest link in data collection and military defense in a world in which “however capable our cognitive apparatus is, it too often fails when challenged by tasks completely alien to its biological roots.” Echoing Wolfe’s preapocalyptic (pre-World War III), subservient humans, Armour instructs analysts for the Total Information Awareness program to “begin the trip to computers as servants, to partners, to mentors.” The threat of “technological surprise” is digested by a slide into technological assimilation. His benevolently phrased progression “from servants, to partners, to mentors” elides the deep threat of a non-cooperative cybernetic system.
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Despite this elision, the technocratic apocalypse of Wolfe’s World War III is a genuine fear and fantasy of some of the most influential members of the United States scientific, military, and science fiction communities. When Michael Goldblatt, a transhumanist, biologist, and venture capitalist, began calling the Pentagon with his ideas for post-corporeal military technologies in the 1980s, he laughed off as outrageous. At the time of his calls, he was running the venture capital efforts at McDonald’s and developing projects like self-sterilizing food 82 wrappers, products he aimed to sell to the military. Sharon Weinberger, a researcher on DARPA, contends that Goldblatt found inspiration in science fiction films like Firefox, a Clint Eastwood movie where humans could control weapons with their minds. Decades later, as the director of DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office (DSO), Goldblatt would publish an office overview asking, “What if, instead of acting on thoughts, we had thoughts that could act? Imagine if soldiers could communicate by thought alone.” This time, his question was directed to some of the country’s highest paid researchers. “This is not science fiction, but science action,” Goldblatt proudly writes. Formerly on the margins of the Pentagon, Goldblatt’s ideas became mainstream within military circles even as his ideas abstracted from their context remained “science fiction” in the public eye. DARPA’s inspiration from fiction and desire to materialize these imagined futures draw from an emphasis on possibility—the way DARPA structures its work as “transforming seeming impossibilities into practical capabilities.” The threat of apocalypse as emerging from an undefined realm is what drives and justifies DARPA’s very existence.
Contemporary investigations into this apocalyptic possibility are now situated beyond the literary. Goldblatt’s rise in the Pentagon ranks coincided with new formulations of the body by American scientists and science fiction writers, perhaps best encapsulated by the emerging singularitarian movement. At NASA’s 1993 symposium, “Vision 21: Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering in the Era of Cyberspace,” science fiction writers and scientist Vernor Vinge introduced the term “singularity” to describe these new formulations. “Singularity” is a concept borrowed from physics. In its original context, it refers to the dimensionless point at the center of a black hole where the laws of physics break down. Within the “event horizon” around the singularity, nothing, not even light, can escape. It is a point of no return. Drawing on this language, singularitarianism predicts that the profound intertwining of humans and technology will culminate in a “point-of-noreturn” akin to a black hole, beyond which the power balance between humans and their technologies will be radically altered. Like Wolfe’s Immob population, humans would depend on machines, either out of distrust or disdain for their bodily selves.
For Singularitarians, the black hole is a symbol of total submission and total consumption. The singularity imagines a universal humanity subsumed into technology, a universal human body bound into a digital space and unbound from its flesh and blood. Ray Kurzweil, an engineer and contemporary of Vinge’s, has reconstrued the singularity as an explicitly disembodying moment. Kurzweil assumes an inevitable singularity in which the human body is rendered vulnerable and useless, and therefore promotes increased research and spending on machine learning and artificial intelligence through organizations like the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence. In 2005, Kurzweil published The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, re-articulating singularitarianism according to biology and physics. Michael Beight and Steven Reddell, fans of his work, shared his book online, praising its recognition that this generation, both human and posthuman, stands “both before and after, balancing on the razor edge of the Event Horizon of the Singularity.” That singularity, according to Kurzweil, will be spurred by artificial intelligence. The body has no place in this imagined future.
And yet, while the singularity is presented as 83 a universal event that will radically change the course of all humanity, it is in fact a very particular one. Despite the universalizing language of Vernor Vinge’s “Coming Singularity,” the singularity actually predicts a point-of-no-return in which the power balance between some humans and their technologies will be radically altered, and the control that some humans have continuously exercised over their technologies will be rearranged. The luxurious fantasies of a benign singularity are confined to a small class of people, given the massive inequalities of wealth, natural resources, and toxic exposure exacerbated by the unequal distribution of electronic waste and extraction today. Likewise, the power dynamics of domination and subordination that singularitarians fear so much are the lived reality of the majority of the planet, human and non-human. No major singularitarians have hinted at an awareness of the radically different relationships different people in different geographies, class positions, genders, and proximities to various kinds of governmental power have to technology. The post-body singularity is therefore a very particular kind of fictional American event.
Contesting singularitarianism’s prediction of a future of disembodied unity is not mere speculation. The reality of radically differing relationships to technology is made evident by another version of the cyborg that is already tangibly coming into being. As early as DARPA’s 1983 Smart Weapons program, where the first autonomous robots were designed, the new Pentagon motto was that “the battleground is no place for human beings.” And yet, bodies are consumed on the battlefield. The disembodiment of the American military is a factory farm model of warfare. Machines will slaughter, the American corpus will consume.
The singularitarian fantasy is the Immob reality. Humans, as the servants of technological masters, submit to a technocratic order that is supra-intelligent and relinquish their bodies along the way. Bodies, in the singularitarian imagination, are a historical artifact, what Thomas Armour called “the weakest link” in modern warfare. While the apocalypse was initially disastrous for the United States citizens of Wolfe’s Limbo, the apocalypse that some singularitarians predict more closely reiterates Goldblatt’s interpretation of the new military status quo, “not science fiction, but science action.” Goldblatt’s technocratic world order, like the singularitarian submission to technology, fetishizes technology and therefore experiences a future apocalypse in rapturous terms. It is a moment of total negation, stripping the world and setting it bare for a new cartographic manipulation. It is the frontier apocalypse.
Goldblatt and singularitarians do not only share a fetishistic relationship to technology, but also a similar logic of a future imperative. Apocalyptic fantasies, after all, only exist in psychology and literature. They are powerful for their imaginative potential, and all the more so when that imagination is embedded in one of the world’s most wealthy and powerful military research agencies.
The international effect of a disembodied American future is already restructuring cartographies of violence in war. Goldblatt’s logic works seamlessly with singularitarian logic in the context of the “War on Terror,” which is predicated on the constant assumption of future violence and apocalypse. In the “War on Terror,” the singularity is always near.
In contemporary United States military practices, AI and human intelligence-based machinery are staples of warfare. The “What 84 We Do” series of United States Air Force recruiting advertisements sensationalizes drones, planes, and computer simulations with a Goldblatt-esque caption, “It’s not science fiction. It’s what we do every day.” Indeed, since the CIA’s first targeted drone killing in Afghanistan in February 2002, drone warfare has become routine to military policy. President Bush conducted at least 45 drone strikes during his presidency. By 2012, Obama had already carried out 292.
Grégoire Chamayou’s A Theory of the Drone cites a 1964 essay by American engineer John W. Clark on human engagement in war via “remote control in hostile environments.” In these situations of remote control, writes Clark, “the machine may be thought of as an alter ego for the man who operates it.” Prosthetic weapons, like those of Wolfe’s Limbo, would create a symbiotic relationship between humans and their capacities for war: “his [the machine operator’s] consciousness is transferred to an invulnerable mechanical body with which he is able to manipulate tools or equipment almost as though he were holding them in his own hands.” Drones are one form of military prosthetics and they channel human minds into mechanical bodies.
By eliminating a destructible body as the source of antagonism, drones penetrate national boundaries, maintaining eyes, ears, and a disembodied muscle anywhere in the world. This post-body style of warfare gives United States intelligence and military unhindered access to the rest of the world. Drones reorganize geographies, Chamayou shows, by reconfiguring notions of “safe” and “hostile” war territories, expanding the zones of safety for the nations they represent, and producing zones of warfare in nearly all lived spaces for those that they attack. Human bodies and mind are, despite transhumanist attempts to imagine a posthuman that would prove otherwise, completely intertwined. Removing a body from a war may remove accountability and direct physical harm, but it does not prevent the drone manipulator, the remote controller, from experiencing the physical and psychological repercussions of violence. Furthermore, the reduced accountability, of course, has dire consequences for the victims of strikes.
In November of 2016, Sonia Kennebeck released National Bird, a documentary following three whistleblowers who were formerly part of the U.S. drone program. Heather is a former imagery analyst struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. She was thousands of miles from the strikes, but the psychological trauma and body dysphoria she experiences as a result of her work haunt her. Over the course of her time in the program, Heather saw many of her friends become psychologically unravelled. Her family fears that she might turn to alcohol or suicide. One moment in the documentary shows Heather reading a script of a drone strike, where the imagery analysts warn those controlling the drone that they see women and children in the shot. Eager for some action, the shooters dismiss her claims and go ahead anyways, killing several members of a family in a matter of moments. On the one hand, the spatial distance seems to produce a kind of ambivalence about shooting. On the other, the normalization of the violence is psychologically unbearable for the minds and eyes that operate the drone strikes, in this case, Heather.
The post-body’s most intense ramifications are on the people targeted by this “boundary-less” warfare. A former technical sergeant, Lisa, feels remorse for her involvement and travels to Afghanistan with a friend. Civilian deaths are incredibly common to drone warfare, 85 which is based on a strategy of “preventative war.” Chamayou summarizes this according to George Crawford’s idea of “manhunting as a foundation of US national strategies.” Suspects are often merely predicted suspects, as “militarized manhunting… is not so much a matter of responding to actual attacks but rather of preventing the development of emerging threats by the elimination of their potential agents.” Such preventative action subjects nearly anybody in a criminalized country to a drone strike, which can kill several people in a matter of moments. Here, the “possible” threat that DARPA defines itself against is materialized on random bodies.
According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London, the 423 drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004 have killed anywhere from 2,497 to 3,999 people, 423 to 965 of which were civilians. When Lisa’s friend meets with the civilian survivors, they describe the pervasive presence of drones in their daily lives. One family member, a teenage boy, could not come because of intense post-traumatic stress. Due to the constant presence of surveillance drones, all outside space represented violence. The boy had hardly left his home since the strike killed his relatives. The drone is one of the military’s most visible forms of post-body warfare, but its repercussions reveal the ways in which some bodies are kept safe, while others are subjected to perpetual physical danger. In the case of National Bird, the American military body is kept safe as a legislative entity, as it protects American citizens from legible physical harm. Yet the employees of the drone program react in a process of hyperembodiment, where their relationships with their bodies and actions become sensitized by attempts at disembodiment. And for the victims of drone warfare, bodies and minds are in a state of perpetual crisis.
The drone program’s intense ramifications on people’s relationships with their bodies, like other forays into creating a productive post-body subject, reveal the difficulty of actually separating the laboring mind from the laboring body. Virtual reality, such as that experienced by drone operators, problematizes the notion of corporeal submission, in that it simultaneously produces a sensation of disembodiment, immersing you into a cyber reality in which you are bodiless, and produces this reactionary sort of hyper-embodiment. The latter is the physical reaction to entering cyberspace, to attempting to cognitively escape where you physically cannot, producing a heightened awareness of corporeality. Hyperembodiment is the intensified awareness that you are feeling your body, which is in fact a product of destabilization. When your body is in a state of relative health, whatever that may look like for different individuals, your body is homeostatic and normalizes itself.When you are sick, you feel your body and develop a corporeal self-consciousness precisely because that homeostasis is no longer functioning. Virtual reality therefore makes you feel your body because it destabilizes it, creating a feedback loop that incorporates itself and your physicality unequally. This situation has been a significant barrier to the development of virtual reality projects like Facebook’s Oculus Rift, where programmers struggle to make a virtual reality that will not result in nausea or vomiting.
Artificial intelligence is the singularitarian alternative to drone warfare and a solution to problems of disembodiment. War prosthetics would not be corporeal so much as cognitive. If the Immob are analogous to drones, relinquishing their bodies but maintaining control of their minds, then Limbo’s contrasting characters, the indigenous Mandunji, are a vision of cognitive posthumanity. The problem of virtual reality nausea disappears, as controlling the mind 86 supersedes the control of the physical body because it polices corporeality. In Wolfe’s post-Word War III, indigenous Mandunji live on Tapioca Island, where a former American doctor named Martine has been living for years. The Mandunji practice lobotomy in order to reduce aggression and deviation from their community. Transgressive bodies are blamed on transgressive minds.
The post-body cyborg makes national frontiers irrelevant to the United States military, but so long as its icon is drone warfare, human minds risk resistance. Attempting to abstract and distance the body from humanity consistently produces hyper-embodiment. In the case of drone warfare, this risks pushing operators to the edge. On the scale of global violence, this has already produced an extensive cartography of hyper-embodiment, where people’s bodies are perpetually vulnerable to the omnipresent eye of the drone.
Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo was written in the aftermath of a period of mass-annihilation and mass hope. The atomic bomb was in the works. The apocalypse teetered on the horizon of people’s minds, fabricating new relationships between people and their bodies, bodies and communities. In the face of apocalypse, the constantly looming singularity, the militaristic reconfiguration of bodies is today creating a new cartography of the world, consumed and created by United States cameras and screens.
Anne-Laure White is a writer from Brooklyn. She is graduating from Columbia University this spring with a major in American Studies.