The first time Watson died, he was on a gently sloping hill surrounded by hazy mountains. It was back in October 2009, and his fellow soldiers from the US Marine Corps’ First Tank Battalion Scout Platoon were driving their tank across the desert landscape. A few minutes earlier, a helicopter had taken out a tank far ahead in the distance, and the squad was expecting a violent encounter with enemy forces. Veering off the paved road that carved through the valley, the driver pushed up the hillside. As they reached the top, the vista that opened below them under the gray skies revealed numerous insurgents, who soon began to shoot. Perched on top of the tank, Watson, the gunner, returned fire. As the smoke from his crackling quick-fire rounds began to lift, the scene became clear. They were all dead. In the distance, on the other side of the road, two new insurgents unexpectedly appeared. Another tank to Watson’s left immediately eliminated them. But as Watson would soon realize, the danger wasn’t over. The turret of the armored vehicle offered some protection, but out in the open he remained highly exposed. Two dry, barely audible sounds suddenly clicked in quick succession. The second shot hit Watson and sent him tumbling to the ground. He was killed on the spot. But it wasn’t necessarily the last time he would die that day.
Using the training platform Virtual Battle Space 2 (VBS2), Watson had been engaged in a simulation designed to provide soldiers with an immersive virtual experience of war before going into actual combat. Safely ensconced inside the Marine Corps base in Twentynine Palms, California, Watson was located inside the Battle Simulation Center, where he drove along a virtual terrain based on actual cartographic data from a potential combat zone. Playing a “serious game,” Watson and his comrades were immersed in a half-imagined, half-real world where a series of exchanges and transfers took place between the ludic events in VBS2 and the minds of the scout platoon of the First Tank Battalion.
This highly dramatic and entirely uneventful scene itself unfolds inside an art installation by the German documentarist Harun Farocki. Serious Games I–IV is the title of a series of video artworks first featured at the biennale in Sao Paolo in 2010 and since shown in art galleries across the world. Displayed on four separate screens, they examine the complex apparatus that subtends and organizes such simulations. As Watson and the other platoon members play the game, an instructor concurrently builds the simulated world they move around in and creates the dangers they are exposed to. Also visible to the audience, the instructor selects different types of explosive devices and templates of enemies from a drop-down menu and places them at strategic locations with a few mouse clicks. Watson Is Down, the first of Farocki’s four art installations, shows how this martial worldmaking—with its imagined objects and potential events—eventually leads to the fatal shots that bring a temporary end to Watson’s gaming. Observing his own imagined death on the screen in front of him, Watson pushes himself away from the console with an annoyed sigh.
Watson’s death leads us directly into a complex of institutions, technologies, and representations that has decisively come to shape warfare in the twenty-first century. In recent decades, war has become thoroughly pervaded by imaginary worlds in the form of simulations, virtual scenarios, serious games, and synthetic training environments that have created odd passageways, overlaps, and frictions among different realms of war. Actual operations, imagined worlds, and aesthetic representations have been bundled into curious hybrid entities that merge and blend different modalities. Just in this short scene, Watson dies in multiple ways at the same time: he suffers a purely imaginary death in the game, a potential future death in the “serious game,” and an aesthetic death in Farocki’s art installation—an artwork that highlights the paradoxical nature of the entire setup by showing Watson at once dead and alive.
The strange imbrication of warfare with the imaginary, the virtual, and art becomes no less odd if we turn from media and technology to ideas. In recent years, military thinkers have increasingly adopted the language of art and aesthetics when theorizing the nature of contemporary warfare. Creativity, the imagination, artistry, and even genius have become buzzwords in military circles as new tools to handle the complexities of twenty-first-century global warfare; and soldiers are told they must learn to unleash their creative potential to wage war successfully. In 2008 and 2009, during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the highest echelon of the US military lent these ideas its stamp of approval, when General James Norman Mattis issued two memoranda that mandated a shift in how the US understands war.1 Mattis argued that in an environment of extreme volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity—high VUCA in military jargon—older doctrinal concepts such as Effects-Based Operations (EBO) or Operational Net Assessment (ONA) no longer work. Developed for a military world picture largely governed by relatively clear cause-and-effect relationships and a high degree of predictability, these traditional ideas did not seem to be useful guides for the complexities of modern nonlinear warfare. Instead, focusing on the “creative imagination,” Mattis promoted a range of concepts taken from the realm of art. And ever since, aesthetic terms such as artworks, artists, artistry, intuition, creativity, and the creative imagination have migrated into field manuals, doctrinal documents, military theory, and teaching materials in military academies. In other words, the military discourse of war has adopted and actively promoted the figure of the artist as an ideal for the contemporary soldier.
Farocki’s installation Serious Games and Mattis’s memoranda on the creative imagination reveal how contemporary warfare blends two fields and areas of experience that are conventionally considered to be quite distinct from each other: warfare and aesthetics. Traditionally, the discipline of philosophical aesthetics has concerned itself with the nature of artworks, with their construction, their rules, their nature and meaning, as well as with the subjective experience of artworks by readers, spectators, or listeners. What is the function of a work of art? What are the parameters of realistic representation? How do we experience a play? When is a painting beautiful or sublime? And by which aesthetic categories do we judge a work of art to begin with? Such questions form the crux of aesthetic debates from Plato and Aristotle via Kant and Schiller to John Dewey and Sianne Ngai.
The term aesthetics itself, however, is elusive. Today, the term is used in a variety of ways both within and across the fields of literary and cultural studies, musicology, philosophy, architecture, and many others, and there is little consensus about basic definitions. The folk theory of “aesthetics” is often vaguely associated with beauty and, perhaps, art, and the term still has sufficient cachet to market everything from clothing to cars. In recent years, however, a particular understanding of aesthetics, at once new and old, has come to dominate several academic disciplines. This is an understanding that expands aesthetics beyond the borders of art as traditionally delimited. With reference to its Greek etymology (aesthesis denoting sensibility and perception), “aesthetics,” in this sense, designates forms of sensibility that constitute both the shared experience of our common world and the representations of artworks. Although the basis for this understanding of aesthetics can be traced back to Alexander Baumgarten, who founded the philosophical discipline of aesthetics as the science of sensibility, it is Jacques Rancière who has developed it most forcefully in recent years. By reorienting, in both senses of the word, aesthetics toward distributions and relations of the sensible, Rancière has also brought aesthetics into close contact with the political and the social. If we are indeed witnessing an “aesthetic turn,” or if aesthetics is being established as “a new intellectual foundation” for numerous disciplines, as Mark Foster Gage has argued, then it involves a turn away from its traditional association with beauty.2 Against a nonutilitarian pure aestheticism that proclaims with Oscar Wilde that “all art is quite useless,” aesthetics in the twenty-first century has left the comfort of the armchair behind to face the pressures and conflicts of our collective and political existence.
These shifts have opened up new possibilities. By reorganizing our perception of social relations, creating space for more voices on the public stage, and rendering visible what has been pushed to the margins of our shared field of vision, art has come to be seen as an argument, an aesthetic intervention in the political debate. But this alleged power of aesthetics may also be turned on its head—that is, the potential that Rancière, the philosopher of emancipation and dissent, finds in aesthetics can also be co-opted and redirected to other purposes or subsumed by other logics. Indeed, both as a trove of concepts at the level of theory and as the production and organization of forms of sensibility, aesthetics has in recent years come to occupy a central place in Western militaries. By retooling established aesthetic categories and propagating creative violence at the level of theory, and by inventing lifelike digital war imaginaries that format soldiers’ perceptual apparatus and increasingly blend into actual operations, Western militaries have transformed aesthetics into a powerful tool of warfare. Subjecting it to a logic of optimization, military institutions have drafted aesthetics in the quest to imagine the best of all possible wars and to inculcate it as an experiential fact before it is implemented in the real. The military has thereby become an agent of some of the most radical experiments in contemporary aesthetics. It has emerged as an unexpected avant-garde in which the aesthetic and the military sense of the term have merged to form the cutting edge in the production, management, and thinking of war. It is the process of this merger, the products it generates, and the ideas that govern it that I gather under the term martial aesthetics.
As weird and uncanny as all this may sound, it is not new. Watson’s multiple deaths and Mattis’s “creative imagination” may bring us into the heart of contemporary martial aesthetics, but they also form a prismatic vantage point onto a much deeper history. For even as twenty-first-century military institutions have merged war and aesthetics, we are merely witnessing the contemporary development and elaboration of a process with origins dating back several hundred years. The emergence of a martial aesthetics—considered both as a technological artifact and as an idea within military theory—harkens back to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries with the invention of the modern wargame and the first sustained theoretical conceptualization of warfare as an art form. This period marks a decisive shift from an even older set of premodern war media and ideas that had governed warfare from antiquity until the early modern period. To grasp the emergence, development, and ethical pitfalls of martial aesthetics, a deep historical perspective is therefore essential.
To this end, the book begins in the first chapter by taking us far back in time to examine one of the most important premodern war media—the celestial orbs. For more than two millennia, astrological war media decisively shaped the conduct of warfare. Military commanders relied on the imagined futures that astrologers elaborated from astrolabes, horoscopes, and star charts. Devised as tools to handle uncertain futures and as guides for decision-making within the military realm, these contingency media were also at the center of heated debates. A famous exchange between Johannes Kepler and Albrecht von Wallenstein, then supreme commander of the armies of the Holy Roman Empire, spells out the disagreements about the reach and force of such projective imaginaries and the media that subtend them. Taking Schiller’s war play Wallenstein as its point of departure, chapter 1 charts the rise and demise of astrological war media along with the emergence in the eighteenth century of a set of ideas within philosophical aesthetics that effectively disconnected art from any practical engagement with warfare. In Kant’s famous and somewhat inelegant formulation, art is art because it displays a “purposiveness without purpose” and has no practical utility outside the realm of art itself.
Yet as theorists and philosophers of high art sought to cordon off aesthetics as a self-contained, autonomous realm, a group of military thinkers invented a self-contained artifact whose imaginary scenarios and projections of potential futures served the practical purpose of waging and optimizing war—the wargame. Transplanting foundational ideas from aesthetics to the realm of war, these inventors sought to unite creativity, play, sensuous perception, and cognitive as well as emotional interpellation into an autonomous artifact, a self-contained imaginary world that would allow them to invent, test, and realize the optimum bellum—the best of all possible wars. Chapter 2 traces their endeavors as they begin to incorporate aesthetic concepts and objects into the field of war. It is through their efforts and seemingly quaint inventions that the military first developed a martial aesthetics, one that has since morphed into new shapes through the affordances of contemporary digital technologies.
In chapter 3, I show how military inventors and designers moved to the forefront of a new operational aesthetics. Breaking down the wall that philosophers of aesthetics had sought to erect between art and craft, between autonomy and functionality, and between the imaginary and the real, operational aesthetics effects a collapse of these distinctions. Situated at the exact threshold, the new artifactual military worlds straddle war and aesthetics and unite them as a liminal phenomenon. They form the site for a demiurgic production of war, for the invention and implementation of factitious futures in a process of martial worldmaking.
Where the first chapters of the book lead us into the virtual military worlds generated by media technologies old and new, the later chapters take us directly into the military brain. The second part of the book examines the provocative idea within military theory that war is an art form. Chapter 4 delves into the origins of this claim by engaging the work of Carl von Clausewitz and Otto August Rühle von Lilienstern. Clausewitz and Rühle von Lilienstern do not simply advance the old idea that war is a practical art rather than a precise science governed by laws (as suggested, for example, by the inaccurate but well-known English translation of the famous ancient Chinese military treatise commonly ascribed to Sun Tzu—The Art of War).3 Rather, they consider warfare as an aesthetic art form in its own right. Clausewitz’s and Rühle von Lilienstern’s writings on aesthetics and war effect a transfer of concepts from the realm of art to the military realm. They begin to associate genius, artistry, virtuosity, intuition, and creativity with soldiers as much as with artists. Indeed, they cast officers and commanders as “war artists” and war itself as “a work of art.” Tracing the development of this aesthetic theory of war in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the chapter discusses the epistemological and ethical dilemmas that pertain to the transfiguration of collective violence into an art form.
These dilemmas are even more relevant because of the return of the aesthetic frame of war in the twenty-first century. Following General Mattis’s adoption of the vocabulary of creativity, genius, and virtuosity, a movement of military thinkers, educators, and scholars has formed that promotes these ideas around the globe under the guise of a new discourse on “military design.” Design thinking now pervades militaries from Great Britain to Denmark, from Australia to Canada. Chapter 5 examines contemporary military thought and the aesthetic frame that organizes it. Ostensibly a method for problem solving and managing the complexity of contemporary warfare, military design inscribes itself in the deeper historical trajectory as the current manifestation of the aesthetic theory of war. Modeled on the figure of the free artistic genius, military design projects a vision of liberating self-realization and creative martial worldmaking that lends war the aura of a noble, even desirable activity.
In short, from a contemporary vantage point, Martial Aesthetics traces how military inventors and thinkers have co-opted aesthetic artifacts and concepts. Charting this eerie and dark phenomenon through several historical manifestations, the book seeks to extract a theoretical frame from these historical examples that may lead to a better understanding of the truly strange character of contemporary warfare. In other words, I have written this book in the belief that there is indeed something to be learned from our violent past that is of immediate relevance for our violent present and for the violence to come.
Martial Aesthetics continues a larger investigation into war and its role in the history of knowledge. My previous book, Empire of Chance: The Napoleonic Wars and the Disorder of Things (Harvard University Press, 2015) analyzed the shift in the epistemology of war against the background of mass warfare. Adopting a synoptic perspective, I charted the emergence of chance as a pervasive problem across the literature, historiography, military theory, games, and mapping efforts of this momentous historical period. I showed how in their attempts to manage the chaos and contingencies—which they diagnosed as the essence of modern warfare—military thinkers, literary authors, game designers, and mapmakers invented new representational forms and new knowledge models to handle uncertainty. Martial Aesthetics similarly examines war as a field of knowledge, but it proceeds to trace the constitutive role of aesthetics within military science and technology. Then as now, the field of military knowledge is permeated by aesthetic artifacts and concepts that frame war as an art form, and a historical account of the birth of martial aesthetics may cast a new light on the powerful digital tools and ideas that shape war in our present moment.
A book of this kind has many limitations. First, it does not pretend to offer an exhaustive account of the multiple overlaps and intersections of war and aesthetics. For example, one of the more striking and already well-documented encounters took place in the early twentieth century when the artistic avant-garde made war into the engine of a radically new aesthetic. Even after the senseless mass slaughter of World War I, the futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti continued to rebel against the idea that war is “anti-aesthetic.” In his 1935 manifesto, The Futurist Aesthetic of War, Marinetti insisted on the beauty of flame-throwers, gas masks, tanks, and even the fragrance of putrefaction, and he repeats, almost as an incantation, that “la guerra ha una sua bellezza” (war has its own beauty). By reframing and expanding the concept of beauty, Marinetti sought to claim war as a valid and desirable object of representation in works of art.4 Walter Benjamin reflected on Marinetti’s credo the following year in “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.” In an equally famous statement, Benjamin argued that fascism turns politics into an aesthetic spectacle—a process of aestheticization that can only lead to war. In Benjamin’s view, the aestheticization of politics by fascism realizes the futurist vision as it transforms war into the ultimate artwork. Indeed, for Benjamin, fascist warfare becomes “the consummation of l’art pour l’art.”5
Marinetti’s conception of aesthetics as a matter of beauty and Benjamin’s analysis of the aestheticization of politics are emblematic for a whole field of inquiry that I will occasionally remark on. In Martial Aesthetics, however, I seek to redirect aesthetics away from its traditional association with “beauty” and even away from art itself, in order to examine the militarization of aesthetics. This involves an inversion of perspectives. The question is not that of the futurists—how war may be claimed for aesthetics—but when and how aesthetics has been claimed by the military. In other words, the line of inquiry pursued here focuses on the media and the concepts of creative worldmaking developed by the military as tools for planning, training, and waging war. War is an aesthetic phenomenon not only because it can be placed in the category of the beautiful, as Marinetti did, but because military institutions import aesthetic products and aesthetic concepts to train soldiers for war and because the very act of waging war is framed as an artistic discipline in its own right.6
This aesthetic approach to the military itself is a departure from some dominant ways of thinking. Since the turn of the century, scholars of literature, film, and art history have developed a rich trove of analyses of the multiple ways in which war has shaped individual works of art. How, for example, modernist painting and sculpture developed a particular aesthetic language in response to World War I. Or how the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria have left their stamp on the representational patterns that pervade the literature of these recent wars.7 Such treatments of cultural products generally regard war as the originary agent or force whose often devastating consequences are subsequently recorded and refracted in works of art. Implicit in many of these accounts is a conception of war as a historical force that precedes and impacts on its aesthetic depiction in art.
At the same time, other scholars have examined the history of military representational media and technologies, charting the mutations of wargames, mapping, and various optical media. Paul Virilio, for example, famously charted the history of the “logistics of perception” and the overlap of imaging techniques, or “watching machines,” as he once called them, with military targeting. In his account, the parallel emergence of cinema and aviation marks a turning point when mediated representations produced by the camera transformed the character of warfare as the immediate perception of the martial world was supplanted by a world of images.8 Following Virilio’s lead, Antoine Bousquet has more recently unearthed the deeper technoscientific foundations underlying the gradual convergence of perception and military targeting.9 Meanwhile, the media theorist Friedrich Kittler has argued throughout most of his career that war has been the driver of technology—that the media and technologies that today sustain our civilian lives are spin-offs of military inventions and thus owe their existence to the exigencies of armed conflict.10 For Kittler, too, war is a primary force, if not the primary force, that shapes the media and the life forms of civil society.
Together, these efforts have greatly enriched our understanding of both the aesthetics and the technologies of war. But the general separation of warfare and aesthetics into distinct realms and the primacy given to military technologies over civilian technologies neglect the ways in which war, aesthetics, and technology have frequently intersected and entwined to form closely knit structures in which creative technoaesthetic imaginaries are integrated directly into the war effort.11 Artists have long been positioned as the belated observers of the horrors and the devastation of war, but this construction has overshadowed how creative imaginary worlds have themselves served as engines of violence and destruction. Martial Aesthetics unearths this creative dimension of war in its double manifestation in a set of media and technologies as well as in the military’s aesthetic self-fashioning as it reframes its own violent activities as a creative art form. In other words, the book seeks to bring to light the martial force of aesthetics—that is, the transformative, operational power that aesthetic artifacts and concepts acquire the moment they are plugged into the military apparatus. And it puts pressure on the dilemmas that arise once war becomes a form of violent creation.
This latter point is important. Within German media studies it has long been an acknowledged but uncomfortable truth that Friedrich Kittler’s writings display an obsession with war and its media that at times seems to spill over into a fetishistic reverence for war as the driver of history and an active promotion of military media and technologies.12 Even though military media and ideas are often presented as closed systems boasting admirable technological or conceptual sophistication, their endpoint and ultimate purpose lie outside these systems—in a world of violence, displacement, and brutality. Even the abstract and often abstruse language of military doctrine is an instrument of force that translates directly into injury and death. Broaching the subject of a martial aesthetics therefore involves a careful balance of perspectives. On the one hand, I argue that there is an aesthetic dimension to war that we cannot simply ignore. To grasp it, we must trace its various historical manifestations. But I also argue that the militarization of aesthetics has a number of dire, but unacknowledged, ethical consequences. Lurking in the background, we find an aesthetic martialism that promotes war as an aesthetic phenomenon.
Indeed, a central purpose of Martial Aesthetics is to make evident the dark side of framing war as an art form. When the German composer Karl-Heinz Stockhausen made his infamous statement that 9/11 was “the greatest artwork there has ever been,” he may well have referred to a satanic figure in a personal artistic myth of creation and destruction. And in the same interview, he assured the interviewer that such a satanic work of art that cost thousands of lives was evidently a crime.13 Regardless, this offhand statement caused a global moral outcry and led to a public apology. Meanwhile, the much more pervasive and systematic attempts to frame war in terms of artistry and creativity that are currently taking place inside the military have met with barely any form of critique.14 Thriving silently out of the public eye, this far more influential discourse contains an inherent justification for war, and it shapes the way many military institutions are coming to understand the use of violence. Martial Aesthetics attempts to bring this discourse into the open and to complement a sober assessment of historical developments with a critical outside perspective. By historicizing and theorizing martial aesthetics, we may begin to counter the fetishization of war media and the ennoblement of war into an art form.
My approach takes its methodological cue from several thinkers who have brought the analytical apparatus from the humanities to bear on matters of concern within contemporary society. Eyal Weizman, for example, has examined architecture as a strategy of occupation, and he has teased out the historical background and philosophical underpinnings of the humanitarianism that has dominated perceptions of military intervention since the Cold War. In particular, I owe a debt to his appraisal of the performative role of philosophical concepts within military organizations.15 Martial Aesthetics also builds on Elaine Scarry’s classic study of torture, The Body in Pain, and her reflections on “making and unmaking” as they enable us to put the particular nature of contemporary martial worldmaking into relief. To gauge the effects and tease out the underlying ideologies inherent to media and technologies, I follow the lead of scholars such as Hans Belting, Pasi Vähliaho, and Jonathan Crary who situate concrete objects and inventions within larger assemblages of events, institutions, and power. As Crary writes about optical media, they are “points of intersection where philosophical, scientific, and aesthetic discourses overlap with mechanical techniques, institutional requirements, and socioeconomic forces.”16 Situating war media in a broader context of institutions, knowledges, and aesthetics, I analyze not only the forms of martial worldmaking implicit in their particular configurations but also the explicit debates that surround them. I therefore discuss a diverse array of texts and materials: classical works of philosophy and aesthetic theory—Leibniz, Baumgarten, Kant, and Schiller, among others—are juxtaposed with a series of war media from premodern horoscopes via early wargames to recent digital scenarios and synthetic training environments, which are in turn related to military texts from Clausewitz and Rühle von Lilienstern to twenty-first-century military doctrines and army manuals. The method, in other words, is to align and entangle a story of aesthetics, a story of media, and a story of military theory.
This approach brings the book within the orbit of Ryan Bishop and John Phillips’s work. In their examination of the “technicities of perception,” they relate modernist avant-garde aesthetics to twenty-first-century military technology.17 The unusual rapprochement between worlds seemingly apart also structures Martial Aesthetics. But whereas Bishop and Phillips show the resistance of aesthetic thought to the logic of military technological development and the gap between them, my study traces their increasing infiltration.18 While the beginning of the twentieth century witnessed a plethora of radical aesthetic experiments performed by several artistic avant-gardes, in the first decades of the twenty-first century such aesthetic experimentation is conducted under the aegis of the military.
By tracing this entanglement, Martial Aesthetics follows the impulses of Joseph Vogl’s genealogical critique of the forms of contemporary capitalism, but redirects it to a different field. Across several books, Vogl has shown how economic theories since Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” have been structured by philosophical and moral imaginaries and how the current regime of finance that governs the world economy is deeply entwined with, and to a large extent constituted by, a spectral host of fictions, imagined scenarios, and projected futures.19 As I argue in this book, the field of war is in a similar fashion informed by powerful creative imaginaries that profoundly shape military practice and military theory. In the field of war, too, such imaginaries are pervasive and performative. Anything but airy nothings, they make and they shape the wars that militaries seek to realize. They are the creative demons that now inhabit the war machine, that lend aesthetics a diabolical force far beyond its previous reach, and that transform contemporary war into an alluring aesthetic phenomenon.
1. James Norman Mattis, Memorandum for U.S. Joint Forces Command: Assessment of Effects Based Operations, August 14, 2008. https://smallwarsjournal.com/documents/usjfcomebomemo.pdf; Memorandum for U.S. Joint Forces Command: Vision for a Joint Approach to Operational Design, October 6, 2009. http://www.jfcom.mil/newslink/storyarchive/2009/aod_2009.pdf.
2. Mark Foster Gage, introduction to Aesthetics Equals Politics: New Discourses across Art, Architecture, and Philosophy, ed. Mark Foster Gage (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2019), 3–8, 7.
3. There is widespread scholarly agreement that the influential treatise is a compilation of texts that was composed by several different authors during the second half of the fourth century and the beginning of the third century BCE and later ascribed to an obscure individual who lived at the turn of the fifth century BCE called Sun Wu (Master Sun). A more faithful translation of the Chinese title, Sunzi bingfa, would read Master Sun’s Military Methods or, more loosely, Master Sun’s How-To Book about Armies. I thank Haun Saussy for this latter suggestion. See further the discussion by Victor H. Mair in Sun Zi, The Art of War: Sun Zi’s Military Methods, trans. Victor H. Mair (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007). See also Huiwen Helen Zhang and Haun Saussy, “War and Chinese Culture,” in War and Literary Studies, ed. Anders Engberg-Pedersen and Neil Ramsey (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2023).
4. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, “Estetica Futurista della Guerra,” Stile Futurista, nos. 13–14 (November 1935). See also Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” in Selected Writings, vol. 3, 1935–1938, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, 101–33 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006).
5. Benjamin, “Work of Art,” 122.
6. Among the phenomena that lie just outside the purview of the present investigation are the more immediately military forms of propaganda material and recruitment videos whose allure and efficiency they to a large extent owe their aesthetic elements. See, for example, Helle Malmvig, “Soundscapes of War: The Audio-Visual Performance of War by Shi’a Militias in Iraq and Syria,” International Affairs 96, no. 3 (2020): 649–66. In this connection, it is also worth recalling the development of camouflage in the early years of the twentieth century. During World War I, the invention of the “razzle dazzle” painting technique whose striking angular designs were applied to warships in order to confuse the enemy’s targeting efforts also saw several artists at work for the military. Among them were cubist painters as well as Lucien-Victor Guirand de Scévola, who coined the term camouflage in 1914. Although these artists did not invent full-fledged imaginary worlds, they did go well beyond the traditional propagandistic work of recruited artists. See Hanna Rose Shell, Hide and Seek: Camouflage, Photography, and the Media of Reconnaissance (New York: Zone Books, 2012); and Antoine Bousquet, The Eye of War: Military Perception from the Telescope to the Drone (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018).
7. Among several excellent studies, see Santanu Das, Touch and Intimacy in First World War Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Mary Favret, War at a Distance: Romanticism and the Making of Modern Wartime (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010); Kate McLoughlin, Authoring War: The Literary Representation of War from the Iliad to Iraq (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), and Veteran Poetics: British Literature in the Age of Mass Warfare, 1790–2015 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018); Jan Mieszkowski, Watching War (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012); Stacey Peebles, Welcome to the Suck: Narrating the American Soldier’s Experience in Iraq (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016); Christine Strandmose Toft, “‘This Isn’t a Real War’: The Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in Fiction” (unpublished dissertation, 2021); and Neil Ramsey, Romanticism and the Biopolitics of Modern War Writing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022).
8. Paul Virilio, War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception (London: Verso, 1989).
9. Bousquet, Eye of War.
10. The clearest articulation of these ideas is found in Friedrich Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999). See also Friedrich Kittler, Optical Media: Berlin Lectures, trans. Anthony Enns (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010); Friedrich Kittler, Operation Valhalla: Writings on War, Weapons, and Media, ed. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, Michael Wutz, and Ilinca Iurascu (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2021); and Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, “Drill and Distraction in the Yellow Submarine: On the Dominance of War in Friedrich Kittler’s Media Theory,” Critical Inquiry 28, no. 4 (Summer 2002): 825–54.
11. Evidently Virilio was concerned with similar questions, but even as he describes the co-emergence of cinema and (military) aviation and thus examines “the osmosis between industrialized warfare and cinema,” the point of comparison and his main focus remain the camera as a technology rather than cinema as an art form. Similarly, his reflections on the rise of simulations rarely touch on their aesthetic nature. War and Cinema, 73. A fascinating exception is Caren Kaplan’s account of how military technologies of aerial imagery overlap with a wide array of other disciplines, including aesthetics. See Aerial Aftermaths: Wartime from Above (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018).
12. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young has recently pointed out that Kittler’s view of the relation between war and media tilts back and forth between the “martial a priori of media” and the “medial a priori of war.” While the first vision inserts war as the origin of technology and in the second, new technical innovations enable and expand the field of war, Kittler also suggests that war is the ultimate purpose and end goal of human–machine interactions. See Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, “Introduction: The Wars of Friedrich Kittler,” in Operation Valhalla, 1–48, 23. For a broader discussion of the martial temptations of media studies, see Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, “War and Media Studies,” in War and Literary Studies, ed. Anders Engberg-Pedersen and Neil Ramsey (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2023).
13. Karl-Heinz Stockhausen, “Huuuh! Das Pressegespräch am 16. September 2001 im Senatszimmer des Hotel Atlantic in Hamburg,” MusikTexte 91 (2002): 69–77, 76–77.
14. One notable exception is Dan Öberg’s article “Warfare as Design: Transgressive Creativity and Reductive Operational Planning,” Security Dialogue 49, no. 6 (December 2018): 493–509.
15. Eyal Weizman, Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation (London: Verso, 2012), and The Least of All Possible Evils (London: Verso, 2011).
16. Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992), 8; Hans Belting, An Anthropology of Images: Picture, Medium, Body, trans. Thomas Dunlap (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011); Pasi Vähliaho, Biopolitical Screens: Image, Power, and the Neoliberal Brain (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014).
17. Ryan Bishop and John Phillips, Modernist Avant-Garde Aesthetics and Contemporary Military Technology: Technicities of Perception (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010).
18. In the broader political environment of corporate liberalism during the Cold War, the neo avant-garde of the 1960s also ran afoul of the emerging military-industrial ideology. Inspired by the earlier artistic avant-gardes, the postwar art-and-technology movement brought together artists and engineers in a series of remarkable collaborations during the late 1960s. The collaborative efforts were driven by a shared belief in creativity, innovation, and experimentation and involved, among others, MIT, Bell Laboratories, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The movement eventually foundered due to the disjunction between the progressive ethos of the artists and the corporate, commercial, and military concerns of think tanks, private companies, and government institutions. See John Beck and Ryan Bishop, Technocrats of the Imagination: Art, Technology, and the Military-Industrial Avant-Garde (Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 2020); and Pamela M. Lee, Think Tank Aesthetics: Midcentury Modernism, the Cold War, and the Neoliberal Present (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2020).
19. See Joseph Vogl, Kalkül und Leidenschaft (Berlin: Diaphanes, 2007); The Specter of Capital (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014); The Ascendency of Finance (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017); and Kapital und Ressentiment: Eine kurze Theorie der Gegenwart (Munich: C. H. Beck, 2021).