We have always been at war with our emotions. When we’ve been at our most uncertain, machines carried us through to safety. Hysteria is the commonest way to describe a loss of control over one’s emotions, and its diagnosis has, not coincidentally, been applied to women far more commonly than men. Hippocrates imagined it as a malfunction of the womb, which he suspected to be a quasi-independent animal within a woman’s body. When she became overworked or lacked proper “irrigation” from male sperm, the uterus would wander into the crowded upper areas of the torso, causing erratic and troublesome symptoms, from muscle spasms and difficulty breathing to intensified sexual arousal and short-temperedness.
Masturbation was the prescribed treatment for hysteria in women, and because the patient could not be trusted to masturbate herself, doctors were ready with a helpful hand and a bill for services rendered. Yet physicians were frequently perplexed by their task, which could take more than an hour to induce the “paroxysm.” In 1660, Nathaniel Highmore lamented the difficulty of causing orgasm in his lady patients, which was “not unlike that game of boys in which they try to rub their stomachs with one hand and pat their heads with the other.”
In a speech to a joint session of Congress nine days after the hijackings and attacks of September 11, 2001, George W. Bush announced America’s military response would be a limitless war against an emotion. “Our war on terror starts with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there,” Bush said. He explained the motive of these exponents of terror, people who “kill not merely to end lives, but to disrupt and end a way of life. With every atrocity, they hope that America grows fearful, retreating from the world and forsaking our friends.”
The object of the war would be to quell our feelings by killing all the people who had an interest in using violence to cause emotional unease. A person became the enemy not when he killed, but when he considered the thought that other people could be made afraid by killing.
Fittingly, this has been a war effort where Americans have made increasing use of unpeopled drones to attack the enemy, to kill free from the fear of being killed in return.
In the 18th- and 19th-century, spas emerged as places women could go to have their hysterics treated by specially built machines, the most common of which shot out a stream of cold water at the clitoris. French doctor Henri Scoutetten described this method of treatment as painful at first but soon became “so agreeable a sensation that it is necessary to take precautions that [women] do not go beyond the prescribed time, which is usually four or five minutes.”
One of the first electric vibrators appeared in the 1880s. Designed by a British doctor and powered by an internal battery, the cylindrical machine was made to vibrate with an oscillating motor and came with several attachments to adjust for size preferences. Variations on this basic design flourished, and by the early 1900s vibrators were advertised as household appliances in a wide range of women’s magazines, from McClure’s to Modern Women. The Sears, Roebuck & Co. sold them in their catalog as “Aids That Every Woman Appreciates.”
The first drone strike in the War on Terror was in over a century later, in February 2002. The victims were three men who’d been gathering scrap metal in the hillside to sell off at market. CIA surveillance had footage had determined one man
Similarly, the spread of the vibrator was largely to the benefit of the male diagnosticians who were relegating their sexual and
Q: It seems the things that you are announcing, for instance, the attack at Zhawar Kili and the attack north of Kandahar, later to turn out to be mistakes. Are you worried that this is turning into some kind of public relations disaster where the headlines in the newspapers, the preponderance of them, are on mistakes rather than accomplishments?
Rumsfeld: Well, I mean, the first thing one has to say is that any time there is a suggestion that U.S. forces have, as you characterized it, made a mistake, it is something that we take very seriously as a country, and certainly the armed forces and the Pentagon do. When that occurs, we ask the appropriate people to undertake an investigation and to look into the charges or the allegations that have been made. We do that because we care that things be done as well as it’s humanly possible to do them.
You say that everything we do is being called a mistake. I don’t know that that’s the case. Maybe I didn’t quote you quite right.
This “androcentric” view of sex through the ages defined the act by “three essential steps: preparation for penetration (‘foreplay’), penetration, and male orgasm. Sexual activity that does not involve at least the last two has not been popularly or medically (and for that matter, legally) regarded as ‘the real thing.’”
Men’s sexuality could be seen as essentially productive: every ejaculation was, at least in theory, creating the potential for procreation. That it happened to also feel good was incidental. Because there was no obvious effect on fertility from a woman’s orgasm, the desire to experience it could be taken as a superfluity, the by-product of an unhealthy mind dangerously fixated on a hopeless apparition.
Women’s conviction of their own orgasms was tolerated as a philosophic matter, but as soon as their intellectual interest translated into physical demands, they became abnormal, unwell, and in need of treatment. As soon as it was possible to delegate the task of inducing orgasm to machines, it was seized upon by sore-armed doctors everywhere, a blessed reprieve from the indignity of having to interact with the mammalian undercarriage of the fairer sex. One would hate to imagine having such an encounter without the mediation of a machine.
In the 10 years since Kili was killed, drone attacks have likely killed more civilians than targets, and in many cases the CIA has retained the right to define enemies post facto. The accountability is never on the drone pilot firing on a wedding procession or a crowded civilian neighborhood but always on the victims, who must explain their presence in an area that had been designated as a target. Presence in a war zone is, according to the logic of the drone attack, an implicit admission of guilt.
Ironically, the creation of machines to spare men from having to encounter a woman’s orgasmic needs would lead to the dissolution of the andro-centric view of sexuality, making it as unfathomably bizarre as the 14th century idea of a flat earth. The advent of the armed drone carries with it the same seed, inevitably bound to destroy the philosophic foundation of war, and the privilege of defining the enemy that comes with it. The greater the ability to wage war without putting soldiers in harm’s way, the more absurd war becomes: an expression of inflexibility and sanctimony, fearfully condemning the unknown based on strangely inhuman interpretations. Everything looks like a threat from above, every body a terrorist, someone who hates us for being who we are.
Like vibrators, drones will inevitably proliferate far beyond the clinical confines of their original use. The devices of warmaking have already bled into amusement culture, subverting the seriousness of the act by turning its implements into playthings, from the use of radar screen to make the worlds first videogames in the ‘50s to reappropriation of wireless radio communication in toy walkie talkies. Drones offer a unique example of a destructive technology that has already been transformed from a weapon to toy, and now back to weapon again.
While the drones that fly in Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan, and elsewhere remain an order of magnitude more sophisticated than the remote controlled airplanes of suburban childhood, time will erode the distance. Last year, a Massachusetts man unconnected to any explicit terrorist cause was arrested on the suspicion of having planned to load his F-86 Sabre remote controlled airplane with C4 and fly it into the Pentagon.
Over time vibrators became the social equivalent of a handkerchief, an over-elaborate and ornamental item whose basic purpose was, if not embarrassing, at least not worth bringing up in polite company. When Freud and the school of psychoanalytics began re-imagining the psychosexual landscape of hysteria, the commonplace diagnosis began to seem like an artifact of how thoroughly wrong men had been in understanding women’s health and sexuality. The assumption that women who behaved erratically were victims of their meandering uteruses was brought up less and less, and the parochial diagnosis disappeared. But the sound remained of millions of electric motors droning away behind closed bedroom doors.
When the skies are filled with drones — as they are already becoming, from border surveillance planes to those monitoring various sea life groups in Alaska — we will be confronted again with the foreboding question that revives the old terror: Whose drone is that above me, and what does it intend to do? The machines intended to quell terror will instead propagate a permanent sense of uncertainty in the places we’d most intended to protect. A walk through a parking lot or a quiet lunch hour spent in the park have a new background noise, a buzzing motor that could be a toy or an implement of death. If we are to have a sense of security in times like these, it will have to be self-administered. We can never seem to have it from one another.