Staging the landscapes of war – with noises off

NEVINSON The harvest of battle

I’ve been tracing commentaries on Kurt Lewin‘s classic essay on what we might call the topological phenomenology of the battlefield, published in 1917 as ‘Kriegslandschaft‘ (‘landscape of war’ or, loosely, ‘warscape’), which was based on his experience on the Western Front in the First World War. I’ve been particularly interested in his account of the way in which an ordinary landscape is transformed by war.

William Boyd captured what I have in mind in The new confessions:

‘Take an idealized image of the English countryside – I always think of the Cotswolds in this connection… You know exactly the sort of view it provides. A road, some hedgerowed lanes, a patchwork of fields, a couple of small villages… The eye sweeps over these benign and neutral features unquestioningly.

‘Now, place two armies on either side of this valley. Have them dig in and construct a trench system. Everything in between is suddenly invested with new sinister potential: that neat farm, the obliging drainage ditch, the village at the crossroads become key factor sin strategy and survival. Imagine running across those intervening fields in an attempt to capture positions on that gentle slope opposite… Which way will you go? What cover will you seek? … Try it the next time you are on a country stroll and see how the most tranquil scene can become instinct with violence. It only requires a change in point of view.’

lewin_kurtI’ve discussed this passage before, but what interested Lewin was the way in which the landscape changed for the soldier as he approached the front, moving from a ‘landscape of peace’ to a ‘landscape of war’ – what he described as the production of a ‘directive landscape’.  You can find an English translation here, but it’s behind a paywall I can’t scale: Art In Translation, 1 (2)( 2009) 199-209.  (If anybody has a ladder, please let me know).

En route, I stumbled on a fascinating PhD thesis by Greer Crawley, Strategic Scenography: staging the landscape of war (University of Vienna, 2011). I’ve discussed various conceptions of the ‘theatre of war’ several times before (see for example here, here and here), but Greer provides a much fuller and richer account.  Here is the abstract:

This dissertation is concerned with the construction of ‘theatres of war’ in the target landscapes of 20th century military conflict in Europe and America. In this study of the scenography of war, I examine the notion of the staged landscape and the adoption of theatrical language and methodologies by the military. This is a multi-disciplinary perspective informed by a wide range of literature concerning perception, the aerial view, camouflage and the terrain model. It draws on much original material including declassified military documents and archival photographs. The emphasis is on the visualisation of landscape and the scenographic strategies used to create, visualise and rehearse narratives of disguise and exposure. Landscape representation was constructed through the study of aerial photographs and imaginative projection. The perceptual shifts in scale and stereoscopic effects created new optical and spatial ‘truths’. Central to this analysis is the place of the model as strategic spectacle, as stage for rehearsal and re-enactment through performance and play. This research forms the context for an exploration of the extension and translation of similar scenographic strategies in contemporary visual art practice. Five case studies demonstrate how the artist as scenographer is representing the political and cultural landscape.

2011-02-25_0648070 (dragged)

And the Contents (the summaries are Greer’s own):

Chapter 1: Scenographic strategies

Theatre of War/Strategic Fantasy/Staging the Landscape

This chapter identifies the scenographic strategies that produce the performance landscape for the rehearsal and re-enactment of the Theatre of War. The aim is to define what is meant by strategic scenography and to establish the basic theoretical foundations upon which to build my argument.

Chapter 2: The Aerial Perspective

Aerial Theatre/The Stereoscopic View

This chapter focuses on the aerial view and the methodology of the stereoscope. This analysis of the relationship between scenography and topography from an aerial perspective expands on theories of aerial perception and stereoscopy. Drawing on the experiences of the reconnaissance pilots and photo interpreters during wartime, it attempts to understand the scopic conditions under which they visualised the landscape.

Chapter 3: Strategies of Perception

Camouflage Strategies/Fake Nature/The Scenic Effects

This is a key chapter which looks at the work of Kurt Lewin’s important contribution to an understanding of the perception of landscape. The second section deals specifically with the camouflage strategies adopted by the camoufleurs when staging their illusions in the First and Second World Wars. It provides a historical overview of the main camouflage strategies and then focus on particular scenic elements, e.g. scenery, lighting, props, sound, costume.

Chapter 4: The Territory of the Model

Maps, Models and Games/ The Model as Spectacle/The Terrain Model

This chapter begins with an examination of the methodologies of the map, model and games; the role of mimesis and performativity and the representation of the terrain. What follows is a consideration of the model as a strategic spectacle and its use to represent political ideologies, commercial and military interests and utopian visions. Within an historical context, it examines how the application of new technologies and scopic regimes has expanded the scenographic possibilities of the terrain model.

Chapter 5: Artists’ Manoeuvres

Wafa Hourani and Michael Ashkin − Nomos/Gerry Judah − The Crusader/Mariele Neudecker – Seduction Chaff/Katrin Sigurdardottir – Mappings/Hans Op de Beeck – St Nazaire

This chapter is an exploration of the deployment of scenographic strategies in contemporary artistic practice. Through five case studies it examines how the artist as scenographer has adopted theatrical practices and the methodologies of the model, camera and film as means of representing the political and cultural landscape.

Greer is currently a lecturer in Scenography at Royal Holloway, University of London and in BA and MA Spatial Design at Buckinghamshire New University.  You can download her thesis here – it’s a feast of delights, with marvellous illustrations and a perceptive text.

MoratSoundsAs you can see, Greer’s work focuses on the visual, and I’m equally interested in the role of the other senses in apprehending and navigating the battlefield – hence my continuing interest in corpography (see here and here).  So I was also pleased to find a newly translated discussion of the soundscape of the Western Front: Axel Volmar,  ‘”In storms of steel”: the soundscape of World War I’, in Daniel Marat (ed), Sounds of modern history: auditory cultures in 19th and 20th century Europe (Oxford: Berghahn, 2014) pp. 227-255; a surprising amount of the text can be accessed via Google Books, but you can also download the draft version via  More on Axel’s work (and other downloads, in both German and English) here.

And this too takes us back to Lewin:

‘…new arrivals to the front had not only had to leave behind their home and daily life, but also the practices of perception and orientation to which they were accustomed. With entry into the danger zone of battle, the auditory perception of peacetime yields to a, in many respects, radicalized psychological experience—a shift that the Gestalt psychologist, Kurt Lewin, attempted to articulate with the term “warscape”: for the psychological subject, objects lost most of their peacetime characteristics during wartime because they were henceforth evaluated from a perspective of extreme pragmatism and exclusively in terms of their fitness for war….

‘In place of day-to-day auditory perception, which tended to be passive and unconscious, active listening techniques came to the fore: practices of sound analysis, which might be described as an “auscultation” of the acoustic warscape—the method physicians use to listen to their patients by the help of a stethoscope. In these processes, the question was no longer how the noises as such were structured (i.e. what they sounded like), but rather what they meant, and what consequences they would bring with them for the listeners in the trenches. The training of the ear was based on radically increased attentiveness.

The subject thrust to the front thus comprised the focal point of an auditory space in which locating and diagnostic listening practices became vital to survival.’

For more on sound analysis, see my discussion of sound-ranging on the Western Front here, and the discussion in ‘Gabriel’s Map’ (DOWNLOADS tab).

‘A foreign field that is forever England’?

BOYD New ConfessionsI’ve already noted the effect that William Boyd‘s An Ice-Cream War (1982) had on me, but there’s another Boyd novel that also deals with the First World War – this time set on the Western Front rather than East Africa – that also offers much food for thought.

In the early sections of  The New Confessions (1987), an odyssey conducted in the obvious shadows of Rousseau, the protagonist John James Todd is serving in a Public School service battalion of the British Army just before Ypres.  In a chapter revealingly entitled ‘New geometries, new worlds’, Todd recalls the Ypres front in early June 1917 like this:

‘Take an idealized image of the English countryside – I always think of the Cotswolds in this connection…  Imagine you are walking along a country road.  You come to the crest of a gentle rise and there before you is a modest valley.  You know exactly the sort of view it provides.  A road, some hedgerowed lanes, a patchwork of fields, a couple of small villages – cottages, a post-office, a pub, a church – there a dovecote, there a farm and an old mill; here an embankment and a railway line; a wood to the left, copses and spinneys scattered randomly about.  The eye sweeps over these benign and neutral features unquestioningly.

‘Now place two armies on either side of this valley.  Have them dig in and construct a trench system.  Everything in between is suddenly invested with new sinister potential: that neat farm, the obliging drainage ditch, the village at the crossroads become key factors in strategy and survival.  Imagine running across those intervening fields in an attempt to capture positions on that gentle slope opposite so that you may advance one step into the valley beyond.  Which way will you go? What cover will you seek?  How swiftly will your legs carry you up that sudden gradient?  Will that culvert provide shelter from enfilading fire?  Is there an observation post in that barn?  Try it next time you are on a country stroll and see how the most tranquil scene can become instinct with violence.  It only requires a change in point of view.’

The TrenchLater Todd is recruited by the War Office Cinema Committee with strict instructions about what and may not be shown, and some ten years after he wrote the novel Boyd directed his own film, The Trench, set on the eve of the Battle of the Somme. But my point (for the moment) isn’t about photography or film but about the work of war artists on the Western Front.

During the spring of 1916 Charles Masterman, the director of the British War Propaganda Bureau, was persuaded to appoint the first Official War Artist, Muirhead Bone.  Bone was a sketcher and watercolour artist, who was duly commissioned as an honorary Second Lieutenant and arrived in France during the Battle of the Somme.  He returned to England in October, and two hundred of his drawings were published in ten monthly parts, with an accompanying commentary by C.E. Montague.

A View in Flanders behind the Lines, Showing Locre and the Tops of Dug-Outs on the Scherpenber 1916 by Sir Muirhead Bone 1876-1953

‘For many people at home,’ Samuel Hynes remarks in A war imagined, ‘they must have been an important source of their notions of what the war looked like.’  But, he continues,

‘Bone and Montague agreed that what it looked like was England; both the drawings and the commentaries imagine the war in familiarizing English terms…  They made the war look familiar, and they provided images of it from which both the dead and the suffering living had been entirely excluded.’

BONE British troops marching to the Somme

When the first two weekly installments appeared, apparently to considerable public acclaim, Wilfred Owen called them ‘the laughing stock of the army’ because they presented such a pastoralized, picturesque and sanitized view of the war: ‘To call it England!’  Many of Bone’s drawings, like the two examples I’ve shown here, rendered the landscape in the idealized terms of Boyd’s ‘country stroll’.  (There were exceptions, but even when Bone turned to the desolation of the battlefield many of his sketches were devoid of human form, alive or dead.)  To be sure, most commentators noted that in the rear a working countryside persisted, and many of them made much of the shocking transition from a landscape that was indeed familiar, largely untouched by military violence, to something unlike any landscape on earth.

And it’s exactly that anti-landscape Owen wanted to be represented.  In The soldiers’ tale Hynes writes that

‘War turns landscape into anti-landscape, and everything in that landscape into grotesque, broken, useless rubbish – including human limbs.’

C.R.W. NevinsonAnd there were other artists who were developing Boyd’s ‘change in point of view’, a different visual vocabulary for these brutally new warscapes.  One of the most interesting, I think, is C.R.W. Nevinson.  Early in the war Nevinson served as an orderly with the Friends’ Ambulance Unit and then as an ambulance driver with the Royal Army Medical Corps.  He was invalided out in January 1916, a result of acute rheumatic fever, but in March 1916 he exhibited a series of Futurist paintings whose stark geometric planes and mechanised violence conveyed a radically different sensibility, one in which soldiers and machines were fused into shockingly new assemblages and where human bodies were caught up in and overwhelmed by the percussive force of the new military machine.  One of his most famous paintings, of a French machine-gune post, La Mitrailleuse (below), captures what Michael Walsh calls the ‘machinomorphic image’ of the war.

La Mitrailleuse 1915 by Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson 1889-1946

Walter Sickert claimed that La Mitrailleuse ‘will probably remain the most authoritative and concentrated utterance on the war in the history of painting’, but other Nevinson paintings of this period capture other dimensions of the automations of the killing machine, as in Column on the march (1915):

Nevinson Column on the march 1915

They also captured, through what Claude Philips praised as their ‘cold, calculated violence’ and ‘cruel, metallic angularity’, what Henri Lefebvre once called ‘the overwhelming of the human body’, as in The strafing (1915):

NEVINSON The strafing

In invoking Lefebvre here, I have in mind this passage from The production of space where he describes a modern, abstract, geometric space:

‘… space has no social existence independently of an intensive, aggressive and repressive visualization. It is thus – not symbolically but in fact – a purely visual space. The rise of the visual realm entails a series of substitutions and displacements by means of which it overwhelms the whole body and usurps its role.

And yet, of course, the production of this extraordinarily violent space was literally shot through with corporeal investments.

Postcard from Nevinson to MarinettiI’ve described these artworks as Futurist, but two riders are necessary.  The first, and most obvious, is that Marinetti‘s own Manifesto of Futurism expressed a desire ‘to glorify War – the only health giver of the world’, and while Nevinson was fascinated by, even infatuated with Marinetti – he sent Marinetti a postcard (right) of him posing in front of his ambulance, without any discernible sense of irony – this was a claim that Nevinson eventually explicitly repudiated (in a column for the Daily Express called ‘Painter of Smells at the Western Front’).  Bone, incidentally, liked Nevinson’s work.

The second is more interesting.  Paul Saint-Amour has described aerial photography and interpretation on the Western Front not as an applied realism but as an applied modernism – and with good reason (some interpretation manuals described ‘Cubist’ and ‘Futurist’ landscapes) – and if we extend this insight then we might say that in these artworks Nevinson was recovering and reinscribing a scopic regime that was instrumental in the very violence he sought to subvert.

In March 1917 Nevinson was toying with the idea of putting his talents to work in the new camouflage section of the army, but by July he was back in France as an Official War Artist.  He went up in an observation balloon and claimed to be ‘the first man to paint in the air’; in fact he thought his ‘aeroplane pictures the finest work I have done’.  But in many of these later paintings he turned his back on Futurism and the machinations of the killing fields and restored the broken body to the art of war.  The most notable example is perhaps Paths of glory (1917).  Refused permission to exhibit the canvas at the Leicester Galleries in London by the War Office, Nevinson had it displayed with a brown paper sticker across the two dead bodies reading “Censored”…

NEVINSON Paths of glory

There is an excellent gallery of Nevinson’s work here, and for more discussion I recommend David Boyd Hancock, A crisis of brilliance: five young British artists and the Great War (2010); Michael Walsh, ‘C.R.W. Nevinson: conflict, contrast and controversy in paintings of war’, War in History 12 (2) (2005) 178-207, and his two books, C.R.W. Nevinson: This cult of violence (2002) and Hanging a rebel: the life of C.R.W. Nevinson (2008).

‘Imagination bodies forth…’

Following from my previous post, I’ve been thinking a lot about bodies recently, and for two reasons.

DUDZIAK War-timeThe first is the workshop on War & Medicine I attended in Paris just before Christmas.  It became very clear early on how difficult it is to determine when military violence comes to an end; Mary Dudziak has recently written about this in her War time: an idea, its history, its consequences (Oxford, 2012), largely from a legal point of view (and not without criticism), but it’s worth emphasising that the effects of violence continue long after any formal end to combat.  This ought to be obvious, but it’s astonishing how often it’s ignored or glossed over.

Think, for example, of the continuing toll of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, recovered in detail by Catherine Lutz (who was part of the workshop) and her colleagues at the Costs of War project, which shows how ‘the human and economic costs of these wars will continue for decades’.

NIXON Slow violenceOr think of  the toxic environments produced by ecological warfare, by the use of depleted uranium in munitions, and by the continued deployment of land mines and cluster bombs – what Rob Nixon brilliantly calls the ‘slow violence’ produced by ‘ecologies of the aftermath’ (more on this in a later post):

 ‘In our age of depleted-uranium warfare, we have an ethical obligation to challenge the military body counts that consistently underestimate (in advance and in retrospect) the true toll of waging high-tech wars.  Who is counting the staggered deaths that civilians and soldiers suffer from depleted uranium ingested or blown across the desert?  Who is counting the belated fatalities from unexploded cluster bombs that lie in wait for months of years, metastasizing into landmines?  Who is counting deaths from chemical residues left behind by so-called pinpoint bombing, residues that turn into foreign insurgents, infiltrating native rivers and poisoning the food chains?  Who is counting the victims of genetic deterioration – the stillborn, malformed infants conceived by parents whose DNA has been scrambled by war’s toxins?’

(If you think we are winning the war on land-mines, especially in you are in Canada, read this).

These two contributions – and the conversations we had in Paris – rapidly displaced the lazy assumption of a politics of care in which the left mourns civilian casualties and the right military casualties. That there is a politics of care is clear enough, but there’s also a political geography: that’s written in to the biopolitical projects that are contained within so many late modern wars, and in Paris Omar Dewachi and Ghassan Abu-Sitta described how ‘care’ has become a means of controlling populations in wars in Iraq, Libya and Syria – a rather different sense of ‘surgical warfare’ from the one we’re used to – with states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar also funding the transfer of thousands of injured people from the war zones for treatment in hospitals in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon.

And two brilliant medical anthropologists, Ken Macleish and Zoe Wool, brought with them vivid, carefully wrought ethnographies of injured soldiers’ bodies.  The American soldier may appear a figure of unprecedented invulnerabilty and astonishing violence – what Ken calls a figure of ‘technological magic’ produced by a ‘phantasmagoric technological empowerment of the body’ – but, as he and Zoe reminded us, soldiers are not only ‘the agents and instruments of sovereign violence’ but also its objects.  Their studies took me to places I’ve never been and rarely thought about, but I’ve been thinking about two other dimensions of their work that combined to produce my second reason for thinking about bodies.

One is the historicity that is embedded in this process.  Ken paraphrased Walter Benjamin‘s observation in the wake of the First World War – ‘the technological progress evident in modern warfare does not ensure the protection of the human body so much as it subjects it to previously unimaginable forms of harm and exposure’ – and linked it to John Keegan‘s claim in The face of battle that the military history of the twentieth-century was distinguished by the rise of ‘”thing-killing’ as opposed to man-killing weapons’ (the example he had in mind was heavy artillery).  The other is the corporeality of the combat zone.  Ken again:  ‘You need not only knowledge of what the weapons and armor can do for you and to you but a kind of bodily habitus as well – an ability to take in the sensory indications of danger and act on them without having to think too hard about it first.’  In an essay ‘On movement’ forthcoming in Ethnos, Zoe develops this insight through an artful distinction between carnality and corporeality (which may require me to revise my vocabulary):

‘The analytics of movement is a turning toward emergent carnality, flesh, and the way it is seen and felt; proprioception and those other senses of sight, sound, touch, and taste through which a body and a space enact a meaningful, sensible articulation; visceral experiences forged and diagnosed through the trauma of war which also exceed its limits.’ 

an-ice-cream-warAnd so to my second reason for thinking about bodies. Later this month I’m giving a lecture in the University of Kentucky’s annual Social Theory series.  The theme this year is Mapping, and my title is ‘Gabriel’s Map‘.  This is a riff on a phase from William Boyd‘s novel, An Ice-Cream War, that has haunted me ever since I first read it:

‘Gabriel thought maps should be banned.  They gave the world an order and reasonableness it didn’t possess.’

The occasion for the remark is a spectacularly unsuccessful British attempt to defeat a much smaller German force in November 1914 at Tanga in German East Africa; the young subaltern, Gabriel, rapidly discovers that there is a world of difference between what Clausewitz once called ‘paper war’ – a plan of attack plotted on the neat, stable lines of a map – and ‘real war’.   What I plan (sic) to do is arc back from this exceptionally brutal campaign – which lasted two weeks longer than the war in Europe – to the western front.  The two were strikingly different: the war in Africa was a war of movement and manoeuvre fought with the most meagre of military intelligence, whereas the central years of the war in Europe were distinguished by stasis and attrition and involved an extraordinary effort to maintain near real-time mapping of the disposition of forces.

The point here is to explore a dialectic between cartography and what I think I’m going to call corpography.

FINNEGAN Shooting The FrontThe first of these has involved working out the intimate relationship between mapping and aerial reconnaissance (what the Royal Flying Corps called ‘shooting the front’).  There is a marvellously rich story to be told here which, among other things, shows that the stasis of trench warfare was Janus-faced: it was produced by a myriad of micro-movements – advances and withdrawals, raids and repulses – whose effectiveness depended not on the fixity of the map at all but on its more or less constant updating (which in turn means that this capacity isn’t the unique preserve of twenty-first century ‘digital navigation’).  So here I’ll show how a casaced of millions of trench maps and aerial photographs was produced, distributed and then incorporated into the field of action through copies, re-drawings, sketches and annotations by front-line soldiers.  I have wonderful, telling examples, like this one (look carefully at the annotations):

Trench map annotated

Santanu DAS: Touch an dintimacy in First World War literatureBut I also want to show (as the map above implies: all those “full of dead” annotations) how, for these men, the battlefield was also literally a field: a vile, violent medium to be known not only (or even primarily) through sight but through touch, smell and sound: what Santanu Das memorably calls a ‘slimescape’ which was also a soundscape.  This was a close-in terrain that was known through the physicality of the body as a sensuous, haptic geography:

‘Amidst the dark, muddy, subterranean world of the trenches, the soldiers navigated space … not through the safe distance of the gaze but rather through the clumsy immediacy of their bodies: “crawl” is a recurring verb in trench narratives, showing the shift from the visual to the tactile.’

This was a ‘mapping’ of sorts – as Becca Weir suggests in  ‘“Degrees in nothingness”: battlefield topography in the First World War’, Critical Quarterly 49 (4) (2007) 40-55 – and there is a dialectic between cartography and corpography.

I’ve been working my way through a series of diaries, memoirs and letters to flesh out its performance in detail, but the most vivid illustration of the entanglements of cartography and corpography that I’ve found – and that I suspect I shall ever find – is this extract from a ‘body density map’ for part of the Somme.  This shows the standard trench map above a contemporary satellite photograph; each carefully ruled square is overprinted with the number of dead soldiers found buried in the first sweep after the war (between March and April 1919)…

Body Density Map, High Wood, Somme image by shipscompass on flickr

I won’t say more at present because I need to keep my powder dry for Kentucky, but I hope it will be clear by the end that, even though I’ll be  talking about the First World War, I will also have been talking about the wars conducted in the shadows of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.