{"'Liebchen, this is the other half of the earth. In Germany you would be yellow and blue.' Mirror-metaphysics." - Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow}

Mind the captions

Maybe I should have called this blog: Mirror Metaphysics – a blog on Fashion, Food, Philosophy & War (or rather Fighting, to stick to the F-alliteration thing). Because, yes, I admit it, my fascination for war stretches further than a uniform fetish.

I used to teach philosophy (ranging from an introductory course to philosophy of culture and media, to aesthetics and art theory) to Fine Arts students. They work with images every day but to them images seem to be mere objects that yearn to be photoshopped, cut up, or scribbled over, and sometimes objects that simply ought to be created for the glorious satisfaction of creation ex nihilo (well, pro magistro to be more precise). In any case images are certainly nothing that deserves any kind of reflection other than ‘what grade would I get for this’. So, as I had to tell them something, I decided to discuss Susan Sontag’s essay Regarding the Pain of Others.

The first thing that captures the attention when reading Regarding the Pain of Others is that even though Susan Sontag’s text deals exclusively with images there is not a single reproduction of an image in it. Sontag describes the images she builds her argument around extensively so that the viewer can imagine them, but they are not shown. This concurs with her thesis that images can only affect, whereas narratives can effect understanding. Only when furnished with captions can images be ‘read’ comprehensively. In this respect Sontag’s text could be regarded as one ultra image-caption: the whole essay is one huge caption to a collection of images that are ultimately not shown. Is this a strategic move to prove her point that it’s all in the captions, that only a narrative (even of images analyzed) can provoke thought, while images alone lead merely to (mindless?) affect as they ‘haunt’ their viewer? (Would an image-essay, a line-up of every image Sontag talks about yield the same conclusions she draws – with or without captions?)

In her book Frames of War. When is Life Grievable? Judith Butler makes an interesting point. She states that by the end of Regarding the Pain of Others Sontag seems to conclude that photography can effectuate at least some form of understanding in that it “brings us close to an understanding of the fragility and mortality of human life, the stakes of death in the scene of politics.” (96) Butler points out that the frustration Sontag experiences when confronted with pain-depicting photographs lies in the fact that while these photographs succeed in causing outrage because of what they depict, they fail to canal this outrage towards political action. This shows clearly from Sontag’s analysis of Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas and Ernst Friedrich’s Krieg dem Kriege.

Sontag blames Woolf for being naive (and ‘tartly’) in her idea that there exists a one-on-one relation between experiencing indignation when seeing (photographic) evidence of violence and the automatic response to desire the immediate ending of this violence and the atrocities it creates in its wake – at least to the rational mind. After dealing with Virginia Woolf, Sontag moves on to Ernst Friedrich. Friedrich, a WWI veteran himself and as ardent a pacifist as they came in the Interwar Years, published the book Krieg dem Kriege in 1924. The book consists of a collection of photographs, mostly of horrifying scenes and mutilated bodies (I must admit I have the book lying next to me but I shudder to leaf through it). In the true spirit of the International the book is composed in four languages. It carries the same strong anti-war message that Friedrich tried to convey in the Anti-Kriegs-Museum that he founded in Berlin in 1925. Friedrich, Sontag argues, is one step further than Woolf in that he recognizes the power and the necessity of captions in the effective employment of photographs against war. But to both Woolf & Friedrich it is simple: they believe in a direct causal connection between seeing atrocities and the need to abolish their origin, i.e. war and violence. Sontag claims that position has become untenable: we have been bombarded with so many gruesome pictures that we have become numbed, anaesthetized, no longer shockeable, hence her dictum: “The image as shock and the image as cliché or two aspects of the same presence.” (23)

Until the twenties and thirties one could be a total pacifist. Public intellectuals like Einstein, Woolf or Russell could argue against war – all war. The really heinous & vicious thing today is of course that war itself has gotten an entirely different interpretation. Whereas until the thirties it could be considered as a pure act of violence that leads to carnage and is therefore reprehensible, war today is (roughly) represented as either something unlawful that primitive states engage in (Congolese tribesmen and the like) or as something lawful in which case it is often connected to the idea of a just war, a humanitarian necessity. The idea of war as a bad thing has become tainted. One of the evil-doers in this respect is definitely Michael Walzer. Just one example from his book Just and Unjust Wars. A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations which is permeated with statements which are as formalistic as they are pernicious, such as this one:

But war is hell even when the rules are observed, even when only soldiers are killed and civilians are consistently spared. Surely no experience of modern warfare has etched its horror so deeply in our minds as the fighting in the trenches of World War I –and in the trenches civilian lives are rarely at risk. The distinction between combatants and bystanders is enormously important in the theory of war, but our first and most fundamental moral judgment doesn’t depend on it. For in one sense at least, soldiers in battle and nonparticipating civilians are not so different: the soldiers would almost certainly be nonparticipants if they could. (30)

So in war, apparently, we encounter the following categories, nice and neat: soldiers, civilians and the idea of (non)participation. It almost seems as though for Walzer donning oneself in a uniform automatically turns one into a soldier, that all soldiers are professional soldiers (even if they are conscripted), and that by becoming soldiers they become an ontologically separated category from civilians. Well, if you hold that conviction the statement that most soldiers in battle wish to be non-participants does not make sense: professional soldiers know there will be fighting and generally they realize what they have signed up for. (Has the man never read Jünger?) By claiming that most soldiers wish to be nonparticipants Walzer acknowledges in a way that they are not real soldiers, that in fact maybe they are just civilians dressed liked soldiers. Freud was correct when he referred to the Austrian-Hungarian army of the First World War as a ‘Volksheer’, an army of conscripted civilians. They say the clothes do not make the man, but the uniform does seem to make the soldier for Walzer. (And another thing: I am always suspicious when a book claims to offer a ‘moral’ analysis.)

Walzer appears to start from the idea that (almost) all human beings are rational & moral beings that do not desire war (after all mayhem & chaos don’t make for a rational order of things and they do tend to be morally challenging), but every now and then the necessity of war forces itself upon even the most rational & moral minds. Luckily enough we have a set of rules available for when this unfortunate situation occurs. Strangely enough in this respect Walzer, Woolf & Friedrich seem to concur: they all seem to depart from the idea that a) humans are rational & moral (or at least possess the innate capacity to be so), and b) that the rational & moral thing to do is not to want war and all the horror that comes with it. The difference is that some claim that the horror has to end immediately, whereas others believe that you have to fight – and produce some more horror first - if reason and moral call for it.

Friedrich is abhorred by the massive death & destruction of the First World War (and is willing to fight war manu militari). In his book he shows in pictures (with snappy captions or juxtaposed in a lugubrious ‘before & after’) what writers such as Erich Maria Remarque, Carl Zuckmayer, Arnold Zweig & loads of others describe. But I would argue that the main difference between these two approaches is not so much the fact that one works with words and the other with images and captions. The main difference lies rather in the observation that Friedrich employs ironic (cynical even) humor whereas the others remain devoid of humor when discussing the horrors of war.

Here are some random German examples of descriptions of the horrors of war, one in the form of an autobiography, one a war diary and one as a novel based on personal experiences.
Ernst Toller, Eine Jugend in Deutschland:
An Krücken humpelt mit zerrissenen und blutbefleckten Kleidern einer, dem sie das Bein weggeschossen haben. Ich sehe zum ersten mahl einen Verwundeten. [a classic topic: almost every single one of them recounts their rite of passage into soldierhood at their first experience of wounds and death]. Ich sehe ein lehmgelbes, eingefallenes Gesicht, müde, blicklose Augen, .... Wir begraben unsere Toten nicht …. Oft warden ihre Körper so zerrissen, dass nur ein Fetzen Fleisch, an einem Baumstumpf klebend, an sie erinnert. ...“

Egon Erwin Kisch, Schreib das auf, Kisch! Das Kriegstagebuch von Egon Erwin Kisch:
Die Kolonne der Verwundeten, die zu Fuss kommen, wird dadurch nicht geringer. Von Schüssen zersprengte Knochen ragen aus dem Fleisch, Hautfetzen hängen von den Gesichtern, Bluse, Mantel, Verband imprägniert mit einem einzigen Farbstoff: mit Blut. Immer dichter, immer ergreifender wird der Totentanz. Einer hat die Stirn verbunden, zwei tragen ihn mehr, als er geht, er hält den Kopf weit zurück in den Necken gedrückt, damit er trotz der Bandage nicht verblute. Aber der Fuss fliesst nach hinten.
Barfüssig schleppen sich andere vorwärts, beide Füsse verbunden, der Stock ist ihr einziges Bein, weinende Burschen, deren geröteten Hosen Schenkelwunden verraten, hunderte anderer Jammerbilden. Dann ein Gruppenbild: ein Hilfsplatz des Inf.-Regts. 102. Tote liegen da, die Füsse hochgezogen vor Schmerz, bevor sie Erlösung fanden. Einer liegt, den Kopf nach links geneigt, auf der Bahre, seine starren Hände halten die Photographie einer jungen Frau und zweier Kinder.
Einer brüllt, einer wimmert, die meisten haben die Hände gefaltet und murmeln Unverständliches, warscheinlich Bitten und Gebete.

A.M. Frey, Die Pflasterkästen. Ein Feldsanitätsroman
Funk sieht zum ersten Mahl grosse Verwundungen in Masse. Einem Pionier ist die Bauchdecke weggenommen. Die Därme quellen hervor, blaugrau, träge sich rührend, als wollten sie über die zerfetzte Uniform davonkriechen. Der Mann liegt auf dem Rücken, er blutet erschreckenderweise kaum. Er sagt nur unablässig mit hoher, entsetzlich kläglicher Stimme: „Hu, mich friert – hu, mich friert!“ Er hat den jäh einsetzenden Frost der Schwerverletzten. Er selbst scheint nicht zu merken, dass auch seine Hand am Knöchel glatt abgeschlagen ist, sie hängt nur noch an einem Hautstück und baumelt leise mit verkrallten Fingern, denn er hält den Arm im Ellbogen aufgestützt. Auch hier keine Blutung bei in sich gerollten Adern.
Andern sind die Arme zerschmettert, die Brüste aufgerissen, die Hälse zerfleischt.

These three reports are all written by left-wing writers who share Ernst Friedrich’s pacifism. Friedrich relies on captions and juxtapositioning as an instrument for inserting contemplation into the pictures he presents. The writers cannot add a text balloon or a notation in the margin of their text to express how they feel about the scenes they portray. They express their individual interpretation of the events by their own specific style (ranging from cold and matter-of-factly to pathetic laments) and often by adding some sort of condemnation after the description of the repulsive effects of brutality. A depiction of vileness is regularly followed by an exclamation along the lines of ‘this is bad’, e.g. in Frey: “Funk mustert die Leichen, voll neugierigen Grimms. Schau es dir an, das Antlitz des angeblichen Heldentums, das Schandalantlitz des Krieges!“ This does not differ so much from Friedrich’s collage of the heroic German ‘pride of the family’ before and after the battle. The main difference here is that Friedrich’s rendition of the same problem (heroism can lead to a gruesome death) incites a kind of ironic power that Frey’s account does not convey. It would seem that Friedrich’s ironic comments and bricolage succeed in adding a dimension that only the fragmentary loneliness of those two images connected by a remark that is at the same time callous and compassionate can suggest. To Sontag these images don’t incite political action. Even the shock they produce is cliché. Maybe that is the case. But Friedrich’s captions certainly aren’t mere clichés. Their ironic power evokes something that reaches beyond the cliché and touches the universal.

(By the way, it’s quite unbelievable but Ernst Friedrich does not have an English Wikipedia page!!)

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