Wednesday, January 23, 2008
On Scheerbart's The Development of Aerial Militarism and the Demobilization of European Ground Forces, Fortresses, and Naval Fleets
Ugly Duckling Presse has recently re-published, as part of its Lost Literature series, this quizzical and provocative "flyer" (itself an intentional pun) by German writer Paul Scheerbart, The Development of Aerial Militarism and the Demobilization of European Ground Forces, Fortresses, and Naval Fleets (1909, and ably translated by Michael Kasper, published in 2007). One is tempted to read this quasi-Swiftian pamphlet alongside the sundry modernist manifestoes of the time, which proclaim (a la Marinetti) the triumph of technology for modern man, yet Scheerbart appears to have been parodying such triumphalist gestures.
The flyer's tones range from the bombastic to the tragicomic; note the opening: "We're on the brink of a tragedy. The magnificent military culture of the nineteenth century will soon be 'demobbed'...one would as soon assume the world was ending" (1). Scheerbart's "argument" is clear from the title: air power will end war culture as we know it.
Though clearly, prior to World War I, glorification of the military and European power was very much in evidence, countervailing views also existed, and it is probable that Scheerbart enlists himself in that latter category. But such is the Swiftian cleverness of the flyer that he never completely reveals himself and his own opinions. Does he believe air power will make armies obsolete, or is he just miming the gestures of the triumphalists?
That ambiguity is precisely what makes this flyer such a discomfiting, and critical, read, for those of us interested in war resistance texts. Does the text merely perform a Swiftian "Modest Proposal" for the armed forces? Absolutely not. After all, every new military technology that was created has been heralded as the end of warfare (Nobel's dynamite, the nuclear bomb, etc.), and yet immediately has become yet another weapon in the arsenal of potential or actuated threats.
In fact, perusing a list of contemporary "non-lethal" weaponry researched by the Pentagon is to enter into a horror movie without end. Every human sense is threatened with ray guns, acoustic sonic blasts, malodorants, rubber and plastic projectiles, etc. (a list shortly forthcoming). The military admits that such "non-lethal" weaponry is, of course, not an attempt to make war less lethal, but to supplement its lethality regimes and to lessen protest. In Department of Defense Directive 3000.3 (July 19, 1996), the (heavily-Latinate) language goes: "Nonlethal weapons should not be required to have a zero probability of producing fatalities or permanent injuries."
The Development of Aerial Militarism and the Demobilization of European Ground Forces, Fortresses, and Naval Fleets is an essential read for helping us think about how literature might intervene in questioning our ongoing celebration of technology. At the same time, it offers a sobering picture of how imagination itself is harnessed to violent ends, in the weapons industries of our time. "Use your imagination," as Military Intelligence exhorted the soldiers at Abu Ghraib.
Finally, it is suggestive of the contradictions of the avant-garde project: how satiric and parodic gestures can become so easily co-opted, commodified and domesticated, and how all attempts at resistance come to resemble the object of critique; from Dada to Beat, from Pop Art to Punk, from Language Poetry to Flarf, avant-garde texts and practices often dwell on the liminal space between resistance and complicity, between oppositionality and top of the pops.