Unreal Nature

December 27, 2009

Photography and Modern Warfare

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:14 am

… secondhand experience, from the newspapers, the news-reel, the wireless, is one of the dominating realities of our time. The many people who are not in direct contact with the disasters falling on civilization live in a waking nightmare of secondhand experiences which in a way are more terrible than real experiences because the person overtaken by a disaster has at least a more limited vision than the camera’s wide, cold, recording eye, and at least has no opportunity to imagine horrors worse than what he is seeing and experiencing. — Stephen Spender, Guernica

This is from an essay, Modernism and the Photographic Representation of War and Destruction by Bernd Hüppauf in the book, Fields of Vision: Essays in Film Studies, Visual Anthropology, and Photography eds. Leslie Devereaux and Roger Hillman (1995).

… The representation in photography and film of modern warfare provides us with a disturbing example of the fading link between experience and knowledge and an asymmetrical relation between abstract and pictorial representation based upon an unresolved contradiction between images and structures.

… Aerial photographs are symptoms of and at the same time forces in the process of changing the mode of perception by fusing aesthetic effects and highly functional military information. Their space is emptied of moral content and experience. A reconstitution of the soldiers’ self went hand in hand with the destruction of experienced and morally charged space and its reconstitution in technical terms. The new landscape, a “dreamlike landscape like a furnace,” as Ernst Jünger called it, provided no source for empathy.

… The question has to be asked … whether a position based on empathy and moral value judgements in relation to the nature of technology will find a space in the discourse of modern warfare that would enable it to unfold political power, which is its prime objective.

… The domination of abstract and mediated constructions made possible strategic operations with modern armies of millions of soldiers and long-term planning involving huge spaces. In opposition to abstraction as the precondition of modern warfare, the antiwar film of the late 1920s created a visual code that emphasised the closeness and concreteness of the experience of individuals and groups. The structural dilemma seems inevitable: the ethical motivation of these films required an aesthetic regression behind the modes and techniques of production and destruction practised in modern warfare. … This dilemma between the modernity of the war and the archaic quality of each and every individual death — even if repeated millions of times — had to be faced by film and photography to a much greater extent than by traditional media, partly because of the intrinsic nature of each medium and partly because of the commercial conditions under which it is produced and distributed.

… The construction of war by analogy with aerial photographs would now have to be linked to the conception of nonemotional and basically empty space. It is this geometrical and abstract space that makes strategic mobility of mass armies and related gigantic logistics possible. The effectiveness of the moral antiwar film, however, is based on the creation of a space of experience. In such a space, constituted through human action, emotion, and evaluation, no modern war could be conducted. While, from the Trojan War through to the wars of the turn of this century, interaction with structured space formed part of the warrior’s identity, this is no longer required in modern warfare when — as World War I after 1916 illustrated — complete devastation of an environment creates ideal conditions for the operation of modern armour, communication, and surveillance devices and is linked to a technologically induced desert of the mind. It was the antiwar film and photography that maintained an emotionally laden space, thereby involuntarily contributing to the maintenance of obsolete images of war, because the space of suffering is also the space in which images of heroes have survived the end of its period. The representations are separated by political associations, but they are also part of the dual structure of a moral space. Only mathematical space emptied of human experience but structured in abstract detail will provide the smooth sphere for the “pure” war of technology.

Attempts to develop an image of warfare that simultaneously reflects the human ideal are linked to the imperative of creating a space within which suffering and terror can be experienced by the victim and located and spatially assessed by the viewer. These images are based on the assumption that an antiwar mentality will never emerge without such an anachronistic framework. The modern technological definition of warfare, however, has no room for experience and reduces time, space, and motion to abstract mathematical and physical quantities that enter into calculable operations. … Compared with this mathematical-strategic construction, the image that most antiwar films create of a space constituted by fighting, suffering, and dying soldiers is an anachronistic image designed as a life support system for a threatened moral position.

… It might … remain the task of film and the electronic media to fill in the empty space and counterbalance the technological vision of pure war. In the apparent absence of any justification other than that of an anachronistic morality it seems unlikely, however, that the image of the human face will have an impact on the self-regulating system of technology. Attempts aimed at an education of the senses have remained marginal, and a more powerful project of a new aesthetic seems unlikely to emerge.




  1. Two thoughts come to mind: first, the insidious development of video game warfare, i.e. drones and smart bombs, extends the concept in an interesting way. Indeed, the “space” through which a drone flies is often entirely intact (vs the moonscape of WWI); however, the physical remoteness and security of the “pilot” makes for a strange morality. Take this disturbing video. I think I hear the word “boys school.” How does the person in California handling the joystick on this attack know that these are terrorists? Where is any moral accountability? On the other hand, Tibbets stated “…I sleep clearly every night.”
    Secondly the landscape around http://web.telia.com/~u58602288/index.htm is now peaceful, rolling hills (a little more rolling than usual, but that is getting better). So is Chickamauga battlefield. It is strange to go to an outdoor evening conference where so many men died. You don’t even think of it. Of course I think Matthew Brady did a good job of connecting the horrors of war with humanity. Maybe not.

    Comment by Dr. C. — December 27, 2009 @ 4:59 pm

  2. The Economist recently had an article about how technology is now flowing from the civilian to the military rather than the reverse. Also, I’m sure that ideas gleaned from video games are framing how pursuit and targeting might “best” be developed.

    On the Civil War, Alan Trachtenberg (a well-known writer on photography theory) has argued that the photographic portrayal of the Civil War was/is highly misleading. That the divide between the making and the seeing of the pictures, and the myths and ideology that they were/are used to support by those who came to possess them were/are not … innocent.

    Comment by unrealnature — December 28, 2009 @ 2:22 pm

  3. I don’t know. There isn’t much myth in the Brady picture of dead bodies at Antietam. I suppose if one harbored residual feelings about Yanks and Rebs one would either gloat or get mad. On the other hand, these Dead, particularly to have died so miserably, should sober any soul.

    Comment by Dr. C. — January 2, 2010 @ 1:23 pm

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