Review: Hard War/Soft War


Note: In the interest of providing a window on to contemporary German theory, we are publishing a series of translations of reviews first published in the Dutch periodical Mediamatic. These reviews were written by the media theorist Geert Lovink. Lovink as part of the collective BILWET, and has recently written: Medien Archiv published in German by Bollman.

Review: Hard War/Soft War

Hard War/Soft War, Krieg Und Medien,
Martin Stingelin/Wolfgang Scherer (ed),
Wilhelm Fink Verlag (pub) Muenchen 1991,
ISBN 3 7705 2716 x, German text, pp. 312. DM 68

Hard War/Soft War is the third volume containing the results of a study by the Kassel project Literature and Media Analysis. After writing about the labour pains of the technological media, the project has now moved on to the crucial period of the two world wars. The ignorance of and playful attitude to the new media by artists are abruptly dismissed and the oppressive question arises: how conscious were the interbellum-period artistic contemporaries of the materiality of the new mass media with which they came into contact?

The phrasing of questions in the practice of ‘archeology of the present’ (as Stingelin characterizes the Kassel method in his introduction) cannot be completely unbiased, in light of the great influence of Virilio’s War and Cinema and Kittler’s Grammophon Film Typewriter on the study of ‘war and media’. The Gulf War gave this direction of research immense credibility. But Stingelin cautions against too easily transplanting the hypotheses to the real time war on TV (“since we simultaneously see too much and too little”). The Kassel school always takes the ‘necessary detour’ via history to expose hidden connections (like that between literature and machines). Observed from our present day digital network, the past doesn’t so much provide nostalgic pictures, but shows rather the (military) efficiency of strategic media use.

Hard War/Soft War consists of twelve very diverse contributions, ranging from classical literary analysis to polemical criticism. Peter Berz opens with an analysis of texts describing the destructive effects of the first machine gun in 1914. The hallucinations and religious apparitions that appeared before over-exhausted soldiers during mass long-range mow-downs immediately materialized in literary texts. There were mentions of patron saints, ghost armies and clouds of insects hanging above the killing fields. These texts in turn served as material for scientific interpretations of the psycho-physical effects of machine war. Wolfgang Schaeffner continues in this vein, criticizing the way psychoanalysts handle war neurosis, on the basis of Alfred Doeblin’s Hamlet. Traumatic bomb explosions were usually traced back to psychosexual conflicts in the family. Psychoanalysis (which during World War I stood at the point of breakthrough) stylized the enemy into the enemy within, and rallied with it on the side of power.

At first the structure of the collection drifts all over the place and it is impossible to discern a connection between the articles. After a detailed essay on Luigi Pirandello’s ‘literary identification’ we mercilessly shift gears to the father of group dynamics, Kurt Lewin, whose ‘field theory’ is said to have been born on the battlefield, before switching over to a completely different logic of ideas, namely that of conservative legal philosopher Carl Schmitt. Armin Adam delineates in clear terms the ‘space revolution’ which Schmitt saw taking place during World War II. The consequences of the switch from a land to a (total) air war for international law have gradually become familiar through the work of Virilio, sufficiently demonstrating Schmitt’s timeliness. Textual interpretations of ‘incorrect’ Nazi thinkers a la Schmitt which aim to vindicate their ideas no longer cause scandal, but neither do they by definition offer new insights.

Hard War/Soft War hits its stride with the piece by Christopher Asendorf, the writer of the book Stroeme und Strahlen on the gradual disappearance of matter since 1900. His article is about the influence of artificial light on the experience of space. Referring to Moholy-Nagy, Mendelssohn, Man Ray and Rietveld and the concept of ‘light architecture’, Asendorf shows that electric light abolishes static space and becomes the carrier of the design itself. Like illuminated advertising it transforms a peeling urban space into a magical, kinetic construction. The Frenchman Charles Grivel surfaces in this academic environment with a remarkably poetic piece on the automobile experience. Heedless of existing debates, he stays close to the authentic high evoked by riding in a car. According to Grivel, being in a car mainly inspires rapture, and the ‘medium on wheels’ relieves us of having to carry the baggage of transportation. In his ecstatic car theory the space we cut through becomes filmic: it offers tele-vision without reflection. As stirring, but harbouring a bitter undertone, is Wolfgang Ernst’s splendid essay on the ruin as the terminus of the museum. Drawing on the rich history of the museum, he shows that “the archeological gaze has ruinous consequences itself.” Ernst begins with Soane, the English ruins designer, moves through the bombings of German and English museums, and ends with the Jewish museum in Prague, which had to collect the relics that were left under Nazi supervision, until the staff were put on transportation to Auschwitz.

The last three articles in Hard War/Soft War come closest to the undercurrent in technological history which the Kassel school are concerned with writing about. Clemens Pornschleger examines Martin Heidegger’s attitude to the radio medium (without, by the way, referring to Avital Ronell’s Telephone Book, which discusses Heidegger’s thoughts on the telephone). Heidegger’s radio address of early 1934 bearing the title, Creative landscape — why do we stay in the provinces?, represents itself as an indirect criticism of the Nazi metropolis of Berlin. According to Pornschleger, this not only denies that the Nazis are outstanding media experts, but completely leaves the nature of radio itself out of consideration. Heidegger’s radio propaganda for the townsfolk is technically speaking directed at the ‘global village’. He is thus assimilated into a medium which has become a pillar of technocratic Nazi power.

In a long article Wolfgang Hagen (of Radio Bremen) discusses a number of chapters in the history of radio. He tells of its birth via telegraphy and the (limited) role radio played at the end of World War I. In the 20s and 30s, as entertainment was blossoming in the chaotic ether in the United States, intellectuals like Brecht, Benjamin and Arnheim pondered the question of what a real ‘radio culture’ would mean, until Goebbels got involved in radio and exploited it optimally for his state propaganda. Things have never been put right since between Germany and her radio. People in Germany still fear the bad consequences of the medium. Radio official Hagen, too, arrogates mainly negative characteristics to the radio. He says that today only “forgetting music” is played, and that radio has deteriorated into an “emotional means of expression, archaic and a- verbal.” And the radio editor, who would be all too glad if the listener took in the broadcast texts quietly and attentively, is not happy about this. This is a remarkably moralistic conclusion which indicates that radio is still a problem child, in Kassel media theory, too.

Mueller and Spangenberg conclude Hard War/Soft War with a history of the link among television, radar and war. In contrast to Virilio and Kittler’s claims that there is no direct connection between the development of television and military research, they are more ambiguous in the conclusion to their study. “In spite of countless attempts TV was not so much a weapon as a medium for amusement.” There is, however, an indirect connection, via radar research, which enlisted television specialists in order to improve radar screens. “Of course these television people understood much more about cathode-ray tubes than we did,” explains a military researcher. The writers point out that what was sought during the war was not so much an extension of the eye as its substitute, with the help of infrared, radar and sonar. They do make mention of experiments in which ‘electric eyes’ were built into airplanes and bombs. These tests failed, but sound futuristic to our ears. Prototypes of the video-controlled ‘smart bombs’ of the Gulf War were already under development in Germany in the early 40s. That amusement on TV was already a success during World War II and broke loose with great intensity after the war, rouses a certain ‘uneasiness’ in Mueller and Spangenberg. With great disdain they speak of “television as a drug” said to produce a one- dimensional reality. Why is it a disappointment to have to acknowledge that “from the perspective of the ‘Soft War’ amusement was more effective than the use of television technology as military ‘Hardware’?” What is missing here are English ideas from the cultural studies corner, where pleasure is taken as a cultural a priori. The German fixation on technology, which in the Kassel case has yielded many fruitful results, comes up against its own (German) borders and turns into a wretched moralism. With constant attention to the technological a priori of the media, they dismiss electronic amusement all too readily as the insignificant residue of military research. Seen from a historical materialist viewpoint it may be so, but that does not yet explain the predilection of the public at large for wallowing in the residue. So we can obviously leave the deconstruction of the ‘Soft War’ to someone else.

Translated by Laura Martz.

Geert Lovink is a writer and journalist living and working in Amsterdam. He is a member of the editorial board of CTHEORY, and has written extensively on nomadism and digital culture.