Targeting and technologies of history

Vectors from USC has reappeared after a (too) long hiatus.  I first encountered Vectors through Caren Kaplan‘s Dead Reckoning project that tracked what she called ‘Aerial Perception and the Social Construction of Targets’.  This was in 2007, when my own interest in targeting and bombing was just kicking in as a reaction to Israel’s war on Lebanon the previous year (see ‘In another time zone…’ in DOWNLOADS).  She introduced the project like this:

‘”Dead reckoning” has a number of different meanings. For many of us, it simply means the ways in which we figure out where we are or what we are aiming at by using the naked eye-it is, then, the first order cultural construct of directional sight. In strictly navigational terms, especially at sea, it refers to the use of measured distances between points to discern longitude. A reckoning is also a form of retribution or punishment as well as a collection of accounts. Many of these meanings come into play in a militarized context where the determination of position enhanced by technology enables the annihilation of enemies. In this piece, Raegan [Kelly, her Vectors programmer and designer] and I came to see this term as the one best suited to describe what we were working through over many discussions. Although many other techniques of sight are involved in this piece, the reckoning of the cultural politics of sight in modernity leads, unfortunately, to state-sponsored death as much as to anything else and, thus, the aptness of the term becomes almost unavoidable.’

Since then Caren has continued to push the boundaries of inquiry and presentation – and the connections between the two – in extraordinarily imaginative ways, constantly circling around what she calls ‘the view from above’: see, for another example, her Precision Targets: GPS and the militarization of everyday life.

The new digital issue of Vectors contains Steve Anderson‘s Technologies of History, which intersects with my still continuing work on bombing and its representations, though its ostensible subject is different. Editor Tara Macpherson on Anderson’s project:

Within the confines of this piece, author Steve Anderson observes, “We should not ask film or video for the truth about the past, but we can look to them for clues, myths, and symptoms of historical fixations.” The project takes as its central object of analysis one of those moments of historical fixation that seems indelibly engrained in the American consciousness, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Jr. in November, 1963. In exploring multiple mediations of this event, Anderson and designer Erik Loyer repeatedly draw our attention to the textured, layered and unstable nature of both historical representation and historical memory.

This is an argument about the truth claims of media that is instantiated via media, both through the curated collection of media artifacts assembled here and through their formation into a new interactive experience. The assortment of clips runs the gamut from historical footage to televisual re-imaginings to video game reenactments, providing a rich compendium of the tenacity of this moment within the nation’s collective memory. Various tonal registers collide: the somber, the flippant, the intimate, the nostalgic. Disparate visual styles intersect and refract one another. But this argument does not unfold solely at the level of content. The form of the piece also reconfigures and undermines the possibility of a single, authoritative history. As the user engages the piece and assembles these historical fragments into new forms, building her own history along the way, the primacy of any one meaning is collaged away.

Before the digital era Alexander Kluge had experimented with the collisions of testimony and artefact, and in particular with montage-collage, to convey an American air raid on Halberstadt (his hometown) in 1945 (I drew on this in “Doors into nowhere”). Der Luftangriff auf Halberstadt am 8. April 1945 was first published in German 1977 and has been available in both his Collected Works and as a separate book for some time, but I’m thrilled to discover that an English translation by Martin Chalmers under the title Air Raid is at last due from the University of Chicago Press/Seagull Books in December 2012 with an afterword by the much lamented W.G. Sebald.

Frederic Jameson, in one of the few English-language commentaries on the text, raises a question that speaks directly to Anderson’s project:

“The Bombing of Halberstadt” is another such collage, in which individual experiences, in the form of anecdotes, are set side by side less for their structures as the acts of traditional characters … than as names and destinies, the latter being reduced in many cases to peculiar facts and accidents, of the type of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. The juxtaposition of these anecdotes with quotations from academic studies on the history of bombing and on RAF techniques, from scholarly conferences on the relation between aerial strategy and ethics (“moral bombing” is, for example, specified as a matter, not of morals, but of morale), and from interviews with the allied pilots who participated in this raid—all these materials, which we take to be nonfictional (although they may not be; the interviews in particular bear the distinctive marks of Kluge’s own provocative interview methods), raise the question of the fictionality or nonfictionality of the personal stories of the survivors as well. Halberstadt is, to be sure, Kluge’s hometown, and he is perfectly capable of having assembled a file of testimonies and eyewitness documen- tation and of using the names of real people. On the other hand, these stories, with their rich detail, afford the pleasures of fictional narrative and fictional reading. Is this text (written in the 1970s) a non-fictional novel? I believe that we must think our way back into a situation in which this question makes no sense…’ [‘War and representation’, PMLA 124 (2009) 1532-47]

Perhaps.  But Jameson’s exegesis never grapples with what is also so compelling in Anderson’s project – and, as Kaplan’s work shows, no less avoidable in any discussion of bombing – which is to say Kluge’s determination to confront the multiple visualities involved in, productive of and produced through bombing:

Cyrus Shahan [‘Less then bodies: Cellular knowledge and Alexander Kluge’s “The Air Raid on Halberstadt on 8 April 1945″‘, Germanic Review 85 (2010) 340-58] provides one of the richest discussions of Kluge’s use of montage in ‘Luftangriff’; I can’t convey the artfulness of his argument here – a blog surely isn’t the place to do so! – but here’s an extract that, again, speaks to Anderson’s project too:

‘“The Air Raid on Halberstadt on 8 April 1945” consists of thirty vignettes. The majority are accounts of what the residents of Halberstadt did during the air raid, where they were, what they were thinking, and whether they survived. These stories “from below” are interrupted for a twenty-two-page segment about “Strategy from Above,” a documentary montage of interviews with pilots, images of bomb schematics and flight formations, and pictures of pilots. The documentary aspect of Kluge’s Halberstadt essay and his Neue Geschichten [‘New Histories’] as a whole is a ruse. Rather than lend the text authenticity, Neue Geschichten uses a feigned documentary to debunk the authority of the documentary, to undermine the validity of a singular point of view, and thereby to buttress the usefulness of montage. For Kluge, montage is superior to documentary because it is “the form-world of connectivity.” In other words, while montage creates quasi-unreal perspectives with hyperconnectivity, it simultaneously contains productive political processes in which fractured factual elements articulate within a field of possibilities.’

One thought on “Targeting and technologies of history

  1. Pingback: Visual culture and battles for Algiers « geographical imaginations

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