THE POLITICS OF PHOTOBOOKS: FROM BRECHT'S WAR PRIMER (1955) TO BROOMBERG & CHANARIN'S WAR PRIMER (2011)
Bernadette Buckley for Department of Politics and International Relations, Goldsmiths, University of London, 2018
Abstract: This essay intervenes in debates about the depiction of conflict since 1945, by comparing two highly significant photographic ‘hacks’: Brecht’s War Primer (Kriegsfibel) 1955; and Broomberg & Chanarin’s War Primer 2, 2011. Kriegsfibel is a collection of images, snipped from wartime newspapers and magazines, which Brecht selected and situated alongside the four-line verses that he used to comment upon and re-caption his pictures. These acerbic ‘photo–epigrams’ captured Brecht’s view, firstly, that photography had become a ‘terrible weapon against truth’ and secondly, that by repositioning the individual image, its political instrumentality might be restored. When, more than half a century later, Broomberg & Chanarin decide to re-work Kriegsfibel to produce War Primer 2, they effectively crash into and redouble the Brechtian hack; updating and further complicating Brecht’s insights; re-animating his original concerns with photography as a form of collective historical elucidation and mounting, literally on top of his pictures of wartime conflict, images from the ‘war on terror’. This essay argues that the re-doubling of War Primer performs multiple critical tasks. It explores the Kriegsfibel as a dynamic confrontation with images of war and stages the enduring need to interrogate and actively re-function images of conflict from WW2 to the present day. It re-examines debates about images as weapons of war in themselves, and finally, it situates the Kriegsfibel assemblage in relation to contemporary understandings of ‘post-truth’.
Keywords: Brecht’s Kriegsfibel; Broomberg & Chanarin; war/anti-war photography; hack/hijack; radical pedagogy; truth-games; anachronism; interventionist thinking
Imagine a man standing in a valley and making a speech in which he occasionally changes his opinion or simply utters sentences that contradict one another, so that the accompanying echo brings them into confrontation. (Brecht 2014, pp. 229–55)
Given the colossal literature that has developed around Brecht’s writings and theatre in the course of the last century, it seems a little surprising that this highly evocative quotation is so frequently passed over without comment. After all, ‘The Short Organon for the Theatre’, from which the quote derives, is habitually declared to be one of Brecht’s most important expositions of his work—at once a defence of his aesthetics and a politically-driven account of his experimental methods (Brecht 2014; Parker 2014). So it seems remarkable that an image as poignant and instructive as this one is not more extensively analysed. On the other hand, the very neglect of the image is perhaps what makes it such an apt ‘announcer’ for another shockingly under-analysed piece of work—Brecht’s Kriegsfibel (literally translated into English as ‘War Primer’), 1955.
There is a second, deeper reason however, as to why Brecht’s image is useful here. For the image of the duplicitous speech-maker, whose echoes resound and clash with his original utterances, very effectively heralds the relationship between Brecht’s original work and Broomberg & Chanarin’s War Primer 2, the latter of which arrives nearly six decades later, like a long-overdue and noisily contradictory echo, brazenly purporting to “inhabit” Brecht’s work. (Broomberg and Chanarin 2011, p. 3). For Broomberg & Chanarin, Brecht’s photobook was the perfect vehicle by which to interrogate the politics of conflict photography. Their collaborative practice (which grew out of a picture-editing post at Colors magazine) had initially been spurred by a mutual abhorrence of press photography’s “abusive” methods—what they saw as the “one-way flow of power . . . inherent in traditional photography.” (Mirlesse 2014). Later, they had gone on to photograph and interview soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and this deepened their criticisms of press and photojournalistic images purporting to be ‘representative’ of conflict and trauma. (Stallabrass 2013, p. 132). Similarly, their work in 2008, during which they were embedded with the British Army in Afghanistan, led them to question how “access to the theatre of war” was “carefully designed to control what images are produced in conflict zones.”(Jackson 2013). It was their shared, deeply-held suspicion of pictures of conflict that propelled the duo to interrogate the ‘wartime’ press images that formed the bulk of Brecht’s Kriegsfibel. Part homage, part critique, they set about transmogrifying Brecht’s photobook into War Primer 2 (2011)—a series of ‘poor’ digital images and screengrabs dredged up out of the blogs of insurgents, soldiers, activists and ordinary civilians. And so, Brecht’s self-echoing, self-contradicting speechmaker of the valleys pre-emptively performs the ping-pong relay between the two Primers, which at once double and dramatically diverge from one another.
There is however, a third reason as to why the Brechtian image makes for a crucial prologue to this essay’s discussion about War Primers 1 and 2. This has to do with the fact that, though it comes to us as a quotation from a text, the Brechtian speechmaker is, more precisely an image—i.e., an immaterial, theoretical picture (Mitchell 2005). Not only this, but it is an image that demonstrates how images work over time. For if the speechmaker’s echoes both resound and clash with his original utterances, so too do images survive over centuries, bouncing about like the speechmaker’s words in the valleys of the past, only to boomerang back on us, still recognizable but at the same time irrevocably altered, having transmuted into different forms or media (including memory, narrative, and fantasy) (Didi-Huberman 2017, 2003). So not only does the image of the double-dealing speechmaker demonstrate the echoing-confronting-contradictory movement from Brecht’s to Broomberg & Chanarin’s work, but it also adumbrates the way that images complicate chronological schema as they move across time: the speaker’s words do not remain in the past, but come back to echo, confront and contradict both his later and his previous pronouncements—in this way then, Brecht’s image anticipates the way that images don’t so much endure through time as they perdure diachronically or heterochronically across it. By opening history up to the present, they gather-in the past, which then resonates and reverberates out in many directions, before pinging off on some unforeseeable path into the future. This is anachronism as method rather than as mistake, and it is an important aspect, as we will see below, of the intense dialectical relationship between the two Primers.
So the paradox of the confrontational echo acts as a kind of parable4 that narratises the disorderly relay, or put better, the crossfire between Brecht’s, and Broomberg & Chanarin’s projects. In relating the parable, we start to understand not just how images of conflict echo, multiply and mutate, but why the deliberate production of contradictions, or the doubling of Brecht’s dialectical method5 necessarily generates a certain amount of temporal feedback (here, I mean to suggest feedback in the sense of static interference, for instance of the kind caused by multiple loudspeakers and microphones). And once War Primer 2 has entered the scene, one can never encounter Brecht’s (now it is a) version, in quite the same way. Any obvious chronology is forever upset by the multi- directionality and contradictory effects that are produced over time, as the self-differing speechmaker, whirls, as we shall see, like a loose and fickle figurehead, between these two critical experiments. It’s worth saying too, that this twirling motion creates considerable difficulties for understandings of both Brecht’s and Broomberg & Chanarin’s projects as ‘appropriations’ of images of conflict—a point that again, will be developed below.6 The relay of rebounding, antagonistic echoes suggests, I will argue, a very different kind of event to that of ‘appropriation’—one that is more chaotic, two-directional and oppositional. To that end, the ‘hack’ or the ‘hijack’ are better suited, I will argue, to evoke the provocations of both Primers.
Act 1. The Kriegsfibel Machine
To develop my argument more fully, and to demonstrate the disorientating, multi-chronological and inherent contradictoriness of the Kreigsfibel assemblage, it is necessary to set out the rather convoluted story of both Brecht’s ‘original’ project and its relationship to that of Broomberg & Chanarin’s. The Kriegsfibel, as it is mostly referred to in the world of Brechtian scholarship, develops slowly, in fits and starts over a period of almost thirty years, before eventually being published, after “a scandalously delayed and attenuated reception”, just one year before Brecht’s death (Kuhn 2008a, p. 182). Progress is complicated, even tortuous at times. There are insertions, substitutions, censored omissions, revisions. There are readings from “something called Brecht’s Contemporary Picturebook accompanied by projections” (Brecht 1998, p. xi). There are unpublished versions and published versions in German, French and eventually English, which differ substantially from one another. There are questions about who has inserted what and where; how much of the work is Brecht’s, how much is that of Ruth Berlau and how much is that of the designers. Sixty odd years pass by before Broomberg & Chanarin decide to re-function the project.
As time unfolds, and more and more revisions are made, it is as if Kriegsfibel is not really ‘a’ book at all, (though for convenience it is referred to as such, here and elsewhere) but a shifting assemblage that changes incrementally over time. Indeed, Kriegsfibel is better understood as a “little machine” in the Deleuzian sense—a specific, yet never entirely stable ‘assemblage’ in which the component parts (much like the speechmaker’s words and their contradictory echoes) are periodically modified. For instance, depending on which version of the Kriegsfibel one refers to, the War Primer assemblage consists of sixty-nine, (or seventy one, or eighty-five) ‘war-time’ images, cut from newspapers and magazines and juxtaposed against one of Brecht’s own, often paradoxical and frequently acerbic four-line epigrams. These ‘photo-epigrams’, as Brecht called his combined picture-quatrains, languished for many years in a humble folder stashed away in Brecht’s map drawer, until the project materialised again in various unpublished and then eventually, published forms. Its problematic progress has been succinctly summarised by Didi-Huberman as follows:
“A first version was completed in 1944–1945, when Brecht was still in the United States: he offered it to his friend, the playwright Karl Korsch and it is still in the archives left by the latter to the Harvard Houghton Library. Three other versions followed—the third being the one printed in East Berlin, comprising sixty-nine plates—until twenty additional plates, censored in 1955, were published in 1985 by Klaus Schuffels and, in 1994, by the Eulenspiegel edition.”
But making matters still more complicated, the photo-epigrams also had a kind of half-life in Brecht’s Arbeitsjournal (work journal), into which he pasted both some of the images used in Kriegsfibel, as well as one or two of the photo-epigrams—and indeed, for critics such as Didi-Huberman the Kriegsfibel is the mere “iconographic excrescence of the “work diary” that Brecht began to keep when he was in exile, as of 1933.” So all of this suggests a much more complex and indeed voracious assemblage that eats up all sorts of half drafts and versions, before appearing in the various published editions of the Kriegsfibel machine which, as noted above, are then also censored, re-inserted, reordered, chopped up and changed again and again over the decades.
Eventually, transmogrified into a ‘book’, albeit of several versions, Kreigsfibel follows a jerkily erratic chronology of ‘war-time’ events. Beginning with images of Hitler’s appearances at the podium, it continues with depictions of industrial plants and weaponry; allusions to the Spanish Civil War; the advance of German troops into France; the destruction of European cities in various raids and sorties; the propaganda of politicians on all sides of the conflict; pictures of the dead and of the victims of war (both military and civilian) in Europe, Japan, Africa and Russia; the defeat of the German counter-offensive; the return to homelands at the end of the war; the Addendum image of “bathing beauty”, Bunny Waters, selling defence stamps to passengers on a train in New York (in the English version).
The pictures are positioned, mounted on black (or grey) on the right-hand page of the book, with the facing page, either left entirely blank, or carrying translations of the cuttings’ original captions. Though the shape and dimensions of the photograph vary considerably, the quatrains are positioned prominently below the image, on a white ground that is sometimes superimposed over the photo (Brecht 1998, Plates 6, 10, and 75) in ways that seem to recall at once, the ‘inter-titles’ of silent cinema that Brecht so loved (Double and Wilson 2006) and the simple style of a domestic scrapbook album. (See Figure 1 overleaf.) Undoubtedly, the visual style of Kriegsfibel was influenced too by the photographic combinations that Brecht encountered in the pages of the German Workers’ Illustrated (Arbeiter illustrierte Zeitung [AIZ], which printed hundreds of John Heartfield’s photomontages, as front and back covers, or as double-paged spreads.
Figure 1. Plate 43. From Brecht. War Primer. 1998. Rommel’s flight across Libya.
Today, Kriegsfibel, whichever version of it one encounters, is a still-edgy, politically-charged collection of photo-epigrams. And indeed, its continuing dynamism and relevance is apparent not least from the fact that, many decades after it was initially conceived, long after “Brecht fatigue” has come and gone, it is re-worked (re-doubled, re-loaded, re-functioned) into yet another version, now by Broomberg & Chanarin, entitled War Primer 2 (2011). The artists, who do not so much set out to revise the book as, in their words, to “hijack it” (James 2011, pp. 18–27) offer the following line by way of clarification in their foreword:
“While War Primer was concerned with images of the Second World War, War Primer 2 updates Brecht’s piece with images of the conflict generated by both sides of the so-called ‘war on terror’”. (Broomberg and Chanarin 2011, p. 3)
But rather than duplicating the Brechtian project, the Broomberg & Chanarin 2011 version accelerates it in a spiral of self-anachronising activity. Retaining Brecht’s original epigrams, they physically dissever and laboriously chop into the 100 copies of the Libris version of War Primer that they possess. They then forcibly silkscreen their own updated collection of images literally on top of hard copies of the 1998 version of Brecht’s Kriegsfibel. A digital version is then also welded into the Kriegsfibel machine—precipitating and augmenting the screen-based rendition of Primer 2 with critical and academic essays about ‘both’ projects. (See for example Figure 2 below).
Figure 2. Plate 43. From Broomberg & Chanarin. War Primer 2. 2011.
In this way then, the photo-epigrams have become part of a larger, faster, and far fiercer engine of activity in which representations of war, violence and its aftermath, echo and rival one another in an accelerating motor of repetition and rivalry. With the advent of War Primer 2, the images included in Brecht’s project are now ‘monstrously doubled’, to misquote Girard, in a forcible overwhelming of the ‘original’ book. And indeed, Girard’s warning—that violence “if left unappeased . . . will accumulate, overflow its confines and flood out into all surrounding areas” (Girard 1977, p. 10)—seems, in the passage between the two Primers, to be realized before our very eyes, as the books are literally hacked apart and mutated. And yet the very forcefulness of this act reminds us that it is not so much the violence of war per se, or indeed the pictures of war and violence which are the target of both Primers, but the operation and control of violence by means of images and pictures of war. As Tom Kuhn had once pointed out of Kriegsfibel, the aim was not to ‘document’ war, so much as it was to object to the way that pictures of war are managed and to “make a conscientious critique of the medium of press photography itself.” (Kuhn 2007, p. 74. My italics.)
In this way then, War Primer 2 makes the same forceful demand as that of the ‘original’ Brechtian project: readers should wake up and understand the inherently violent management of images of war and conflict. We are urged to see images as weapons of war that attempt to obscure or to manage perception. We are forced to ask why (for example) some images circulate and others don’t, and to consider whose interests are served by the release of particular images. Alternatively put, the Kriegsfibel assemblage insists that we attend to the ways in which power (states, political parties, ‘mainstream’ media organisations) uses images to structure dominant ideologies (what Brecht calls ‘worldviews’) about war. The point of the Kriegsfibel machine, into which Broomberg & Chanarin’s work is forcibly interjected, is not to chronicle war, but to thrash away at readers’ Weltanschauung (worldview): to disrupt it, make it seem unfamiliar, point to contradictions and in so doing, to interrogate the socio-political order that asked readers to swallow some given perspective as a reliable one (Squiers 2014, p. 35).
But crucially, the Kriegsfibel project wants more than merely to expose the interests that lie behind both war and its representation. Of course, what is imperative from a Brechtian perspective is that we learn how to challenge and question the very tools of perception that by picturing war and conflict, construct particular understandings of them. But in all parts of the Kriegsfibel machine, the concern is not just with particular pictures of war, but more specifically, with the relationship between images—i.e., with the broader operation of images of war and the ways that they build, manipulate, sustain and spread larger theoretical ‘images’ (conceptions) of conflict.
Act 2. Learning to Read Images, or, How to Load a Weapon
“Never forget that men like you got hurt
So you might sit there, not the other lot.
And now don’t hide your head and don’t desert
But learn to learn and try to learn for what.”
This poignant quatrain—the concluding one in the Libris 1998 edition of War Primer—is accompanied by a full-page image of worker-students seated, studiously attentive, in a tiered lecture theatre. (See Figure 3)
Figure 3. Brecht. 1998. War Primer. London: Libris. Plate 85.
The intense, concentrated power of Brecht’s original epigram remains undiluted, even now, more than half a century after the end of WW2. Here we are, as Didi-Huberman puts it, “comfortably installed in front of our picture-book”, being suddenly reminded that we owe a debt to the past (Didi-Huberman 2009, p. 197. My translation). And here, in addition to the quatrain’s unambiguously anti-war tone, we find a central precept of Brechtian radical political and aesthetic pedagogy. Part entreaty, part stipulation, the call to the reader to learn to learn permeates the whole of the Kriegsfibel machine: from its framing title, to its closing Plate in Broomberg & Chanarin’s War Primer 2.29 The critical role that this radical pedagogy plays in both War Primers thus, warrants further exploration.
For exiles like Brecht, who changed their “country more often than their shoes” (Arendt 1948, p. 307) ‘learning to learn’ was arguably, a fundamental part of life. But Brecht’s pedagogical ambitions, fueled by his Marxian politics, went deeper still. There isn’t sufficient space here for any expansive engagement with Brecht’s rather complex approach to Marxism, but generally, scholars agree that Marxism provides him with a “coherent philosophical framework for his critique of bourgeois society” (Squiers, p. 32). And as Anthony Squiers has convincingly shown, there is little point in trying to separate Brecht’s ‘art’ from his Marxist critique of society and politics.” This is spelled out clearly too, in Ruth Berlau’s introduction to the 1955 edition of Kriegsfibel, (which is conspicuously absent from both Libris’ and Verso’s English-language editions) Berlau writes that the book aims:
... to teach the art of reading images. Because it is, for the untrained, as hard to read an image as any hieroglyphics. The great ignorance about social relations, which capitalism painstakingly and brutally maintains, turns the thousands of photos in the illustrated magazines into true hieroglyphic tablets, which are undecipherable for the unsuspecting reader. (Berlau 1955, p. i; Bajorek 2006, pp. 99–100)
For Brecht, who repeatedly returned to photography throughout his career (Long 2008, pp. 197–224; Kuhn 2006, pp. 261–83) and who well understood both “the opportunities and the risks involved in the use of pictures”(Brady 1978, pp. 270–82), ‘learning to learn’, in this context, meant learning to interpret and decipher the ‘historical’ context behind photographs of war.31 Don’t simply, Brecht urges, “hide your head” in passive acceptance of what you see, but learn to interrogate the press photos of war that you routinely encounter in daily newspapers and magazines, so that you can better understand the ways that they are driven by power and ideology (whether of Fascism, or capitalism). Elsewhere, Brecht had raged, notoriously, against the deluding force of photography as a tool of domination implicated in ideology:
The tremendous development of photojournalism has contributed practically nothing to the revelation of the truth about the conditions in this world. On the contrary, photography, in the hands of the bourgeoisie, has become a terrible weapon against the truth. The vast amount of pictured material that is being disgorged daily by the press and that seems to have the character of truth serves in reality only to obscure the facts. The camera is just as capable of lying as is the typewriter.
This is not to suggest of course, as Susie Linfield does, that Brecht “really did loathe photographs” (Linfield 2010, p. 20). Photography, it is true, is cast here in no uncertain terms, as an obfuscating force wielded by ideology. However, as J.J. Long points out, despite his apparent indictment of it, Brecht goes on in the same piece of writing to praise the Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung (A-I-Z, Worker’s Illustrated News)—which sourced photos not just from picture agencies but from worker-photographers—for its role in supporting a break with the bourgeoisie. And if the camera is to be used as a weapon against the truth, then so too, it is tacitly suggested here, can it be enlisted for a better cause (Long 2008, pp. 197–224). A similar point is made by Tom Kuhn, who stresses Brecht’s fascination with photography, arguing that his critique is not of the medium per se, but of the assumptions and uses of photographic reportage (Kuhn 2008a, pp. 179–80). Finally, the point is reinforced by Philip Brady who argues that, for Brecht, photography’s value lies not in its ability to document, but its ability to capture assumptions about the social order and to “expose those assumptions as vulnerable” (Brady 1978, pp. 270–82).
Kriegsfibel’s appeal to readers to ‘learn how to learn’ is clearly positioned then, in a re-deployment of photography’s radical force and emancipatory potential. Wrested away from bourgeois ideology, photography can be exploited—precisely as a weapon—to break people’s identification with those same ideologies. The epigram is thus a kind of irritant that leaks into the routine press photos of war that Brecht has ripped from the pages of Life or gleaned from the illustrated Fascist weeklies. It creates interference in the reception of the photograph: dominant ideologies are undermined, and readers are provoked into interrogating the world of social relations within which they are embedded.
‘Learning to learn’ does not just produce a Marxist corrective to a capitalist system of picture production, or to a western history of WW2. Instead, readers are roused to practice a more “complex seeing” (Brecht 2014, pp. 70–85). What is necessary is not just that people learn to ‘decipher’ the world of press images, but ultimately, that they start to generate a livelier, more productive consciousness so that they can start to alter the world of social relations and the relations of social forces within it (Benjamin 1973a, p. 4; Squiers 2014, p. 42). In this way then, Brecht’s Marxian-aesthetic is the trigger for conceiving of the Kriegsfibel precisely as a fibel—an introductory primer of the kind used to help schoolchildren learn their alphabet. And so Brecht gradually starts to amalgamate a paradoxical picture-book of war photographs—paradoxical because it is a book that one has to learn how to read—as if, as Didi-Huberman puts it, “it were possible to invent a particular kind of water in order to learn how to swim.” (Didi-Huberman 2009, p. 198. My translation).
The vitality of Brecht’s emancipatory pedagogy is palpable right through his career. His Lehrstücke or ‘learning plays’ similarly exemplified the principles of his emancipatory political aesthetics, in which audiences were invited to participate actively in plays that were described as “collective political meeting[s]” (Brecht 1967, p. 118; Kellner 2010, p. 34). And, as Brecht himself says in his introductory note to The Measures Taken, “the learning play [Lehrstück] is essentially dynamic; its task is to show the world as it changes (and also how it may be changed)” (Brecht 2015, p. 6). Even his ‘great’ plays are pedagogically driven: Mother Courage, for example, as Frederic Jameson has shown, “is laid out end to end, like a negative learning process” (Jameson 1998, p. 44).
The connection between pedagogical theory and praxis is thus very evident in the early part of the Kriegsfibel project. Press images of the war are presented as both vulnerable and suspect. They are not there to be consumed but actively interrogated in an effort of memory and thought that is based on a historical debt. “Comfortably installed” as Didi-Huberman puts it, in front of our picture book of the past (Didi-Huberman 2009, p. 195. My translation), we must “never forget that men like you got hurt/so you might sit there, not the other lot.” (Brecht 1998, Plate 85, not paginated.) Thus, images of war are positioned both as weapons and at the same time, as part of a larger ethical imperative. Readers are primed not just to mistrust ‘historical’ images of the war, but to do their bit in a deadlier ideological conflict—to intervene in the dominant Weltanschauung.
Act 3. War Primer Re-Loaded
Kriegsfibel’s interventionist approach occurs then, precisely in the context of pictures of war and conflict, which are construed as weapons of war rather than mere documenters or depicters of it. This is the case for both Brecht’s and as we shall see, for Broomberg & Chanarin’s project—where images of war do not so much represent ‘historical’ conflict, as they knowingly carve into it, pulling it apart and putting it back together again before sending it out into the world as something else. On one level perhaps, this is an obvious enough point to make. But in a world in which photojournalists still win major prizes for their ability to ‘report’, ‘capture’, ‘inform’, ‘portray’, ‘document’, ‘cover’, ‘testify’ and ‘expose’ ‘news’ of conflicts around the world, it nevertheless bears repeating. In stark contrast with photojournalistic values of ‘war coverage’, the Kriegsfibel assemblage that Brecht initiates, pushes back against the mere consumption of pictures of war and conflict, and instead attempts to provoke active interrogation of the images presented and ‘interventionist thinking’. Take for instance, Plate 63, first in Brecht’s (Figure 4) and then in Broomberg & Chanarin’s Primers (Figure 5).
Figure 4. Bertolt Brecht. 1998. War Primer. London: Libris. Plate 63.
By the time Kriegsfibel came to be first published in the German edition of 1955, this image (Figure 3) by Life photojournalist Robert Capa had already become one of the most influential of WW2. The now infamously blurred close-up seems to evoke a scene of adrenalin-pumping chaos—as a US soldier under fire, half swims, half crawls through the surf. Just faintly perceptible in the background of the picture are the iron ‘hedgehogs’ used by German defences to rip through enemy landing craft. And of course the fate of the depicted soldier is mirrored, just out of shot but equally palpable, by that of the war photographer. It’s an image that can only have been taken a yard or so away from the soldier, from within the same roiling surf. It is this image perhaps more than any other, that secured Robert Capa’s status for years to come, as the very epitome and model of ‘heroic’ war reporters. It presents an out-of-eyeshot eidetic picture that is at least as vivid as that of the depicted US soldier. Not only this, but the image is soon supplemented by Capa’s own intensely dramatic account of the landing at Omaha, as he dodges “between floating bodies”, pausing only to take pictures, bullets chasing him from all sides (Capa 2015, p. 16). Here, the very blurriness of the image seems to chronicle, or so it is assumed, something of the chaos and the carnage against which the soldier and the photographer both struggle. The blur seems to indicate that, in the heat of the moment, ‘professional’ standards have been compromised by the urgent need just to fire the shutter. It is the blur, not the represented scene, that persuades readers that the conflict is ‘real’—by suggesting that the photographer is simply too busy staying alive to have time to manipulate or stage-manage the pictured events.
In this way then, the rhetorical qualities of the blur produce ‘truth-effects’—in a knowledge-power interplay that operate in the image, pace Foucault, at an ‘archaeological level’ (Foucault 1995, p. 96). By 1955, the date of Kriegsfibel’s first publication, the war is well over. “The catastrophe”, as Roland Barthes once said of photography generally, “has already occurred” (Barthes 1982). But with the act of looking back at the war, the rhetorical effects of the blur now take on additional mnemonic force, in the depiction of what seems to be a ‘historic’ event. The ‘bona fide’ blur gradually becomes a technique for eventalising an image of war—it orders war around what Foucault might have called a discursive “truth-game”—i.e., “an ensemble of rules for the production of truth . . . which can be considered in function of its principles and its rules of procedure as valid or not”. As time passes, the events of Omaha Beach are increasingly subject to memory and discourse, the combination of which, as Foucault suggests, produce a truth-game that “act[s] as a real force” (Foucault 2007, pp. 32, 61). Brecht however, responds forcefully to any such ordering of ‘historic events’, slicing off the caption provided by the editors of Life and plonking in his own quatrain:
A Summer day was dawning near Cherbourg
A man from Maine came crawling up the sand
Supposedly against men from the Ruhr
In fact against the men of Stalingrad.
In one fell swoop, the apparently obvious ‘truth’ of the picture comes under heavy ideological fire. Thus repositioned by the quatrain, any “supposedly” (to use Brecht’s term) valiant attempt on the part of the US to liberate the oppressed peoples of Western Europe, is now interrogated and positioned as part of a larger American mission to impede the Red Army’s advances into Europe. In this way then, the ‘obvious’ or official rationale for American involvement in the war, is frankly undermined and made to look “phoney”. Capa’s image, complete with signature blurring, apparently the very register of authenticity and urgency, is immediately disavowed.
Of course, Brecht may well have been right to be suspicious of the image and its captioning. Life Editors used the magazine caption to suggest that the blur was caused by “the immense excitement of [the] moment” (Capa 1944, pp. 25–31) or alternatively, by “seawater that had seeped into his [Capa’s] cameras” (Whelan 1994, p. 214). In later years however, it was widely accepted that the blur was caused by a banal darkroom accident which led to the film’s emulsion being melted (though more recently, this theory too has been strongly contested).
Broomberg & Chanarin’s entry for Plate 63 in War Primer 2 appears at first glance, to be a somewhat abstract response to Brecht’s ‘original’ photo-epigram. The artists’ foreword has stated that War Primer 2 will “update Brecht’s piece with images of the conflict generated by both sides of the so-called ‘war on terror’” (Broomberg and Chanarin 2011, p. 3). But now Brecht’s quatrain, though positioned just as before, seems to bear no relation to the image that Broomberg & Chanarin now interpose into Plate 63. With only the outer edges of Capa’s black and white photograph visible, the newly inserted colour picture seems to have been processed using Photoshop’s ‘Twirl’ feature. The image is now a digital morass, at the centre of which, one can just make out a man’s upper torso and head with some kind of strapping attached to it. The accompanying note in War Primer 2 offers little assistance: the internet source is cited only as “http://?” Printed in a larger red type directly on top of Brecht’s (in the 1998 Libris edition of War Primer), the effect created is that of a self-clashing palimpsest in which both sets of notes take part in a confrontational, intertextual battle. Similarly, the two Plates vie with one another in a confrontational jockeying of genres, technologies and discursive effects.
One clue to Broomberg & Chanarin’s insertion is offered by David Evans, who suggests that the image depicts a “digital distortion probably caused by a Photoshop filter in the case of the anonymous downloaded image from an American soldier’s blog” (Evans n.d.). Certainly, it is the paradigmatic blur, rather than the emblematic battlefield which is now subjected to interrogation in the artists’ intervention into and expansion of the Kriegsfibel assemblage. Re-versioned into War Primer 2, Capa’s picture—or rather, Brecht’s Capa—is partly erased, partly resurfacing, in a dynamic and complex clash of media, themes, techniques, moods, and registers. It is not the depiction of conflict per se, but the blur that has survived the passage of time, in transmogrified form. What once was taken as a register of eventful intensity—is now merely a standardised effect, reproducible by any ordinary Photoshop-user. Capa’s distortion has been pixelated—digitally out-manoeuvred. The blur has been separated completely from what Barthes once called “photographic knowledge” (Barthes 1982). No longer of a chemical order responding to the action of light on substances; the blur has now become fully procedural—a code-able technique, an ‘image operation’. And in the stand-off between two versions of Plate 63, there is no contest—the chemical image is clearly in retreat.
But this shift from chemical to electronic images and from photographic event to photographic operation, is worth marking for another reason too. Because, in the passage from Brecht’s Plate 63 to Broomberg & Chanarin’s “re-activation” (Buckley 2017, n.p.) of it, a parallel shift has occurred in the military use of images. ‘Image operations’ and ‘visualisation technologies’ are now routinely integrated into ‘electronic warfare’ as part of what are now known as “Information Operations”. Interestingly, this ‘integrated environment’ is attested to in quite another kind of War Primer—that of the US Army College’s Information Operations Primer which describes ‘Information Operations’ as “the integrated employment of the core capabilities of electronic warfare, computer network operations, psychological operations, military deception, and operations security, in concert with specified supporting and related capabilities” (US Army College 2008). In this way then, Broomberg & Chanarin’s intervention into Plate 53 reminds us that images do not depict military conflict, so much as they are embedded and deployed within the integrated environment or network of operations that is the diffuse horizon of electronic warfare. This situation is perhaps more obvious in other images used in War Primer 2, which, unlike those of Brecht’s (whose selections, with very few exceptions, are almost entirely made up of printed press images) are not taken by press or professional photographers, but instead are ‘automated’ or in some way procedural. Broomberg & Chanarin’s Plate 71, for instance, depicts the ‘7/7 bombers’ caught on CCTV at Luton railway station; Plate 24, shows 9/11 hijackers passing through airport security, in Portland, Maine; and Plate 21, consists of a still from Collateral Murder—the notorious helicopter gun-sight video released by Wikileaks. Similarly, War Primer 2 evidences different forms of ‘image-procedure’, for example as evidenced by Plate 16 which depicts a ground control station for an MQ-9 Reaper drone, or again, by Plate 12, which shows the US army’s use of iris and fingerprint scanning—a standard operating procedure, following battlefield deaths. Likewise, the ‘image operations’ suggested by Plate 63 (Figure 5), are intensified elsewhere in War Primer 2, for example, to show that the deliberate use of digital images as ideologically-loaded weapons49 is virtually impossible to control.
Figure 5. Broomberg & Chanarin. 2011. War Primer 2. London: Mack. Plate 63.
The spread of ‘propaganda by image’ for example, is attested to by Plate 69 (Figure 6), which shows a still from video footage generated by Chechen militants in the Moscow Theatre Siege. These, after all, are images of conflict that are generated for the camera, rather than by it. Once made, they are fired out into the world in ways that can no government can regulate against.
Figure 6. Plate 69. Broomberg & Chanarin. 2011. War Primer.
And of course, military-mandated images too, are also released into the media in an attempt (albeit not necessarily a successful one) to act as ideological missiles in the ‘battle for hearts and minds’. Take for example, Plate 55 of War Primer 2—the 2003 Associated Press image depicting US Army officer Joseph Dwyer carrying a wounded boy to safety in Iraq. (See Figure 7).
Figure 7. Plate 55. Broomberg & Chanarin. 2011. War Primer 2.
This ‘iconic’ Associated Press image was widely read as strategically supporting the US’ government’s official justification for Operation Iraqi Freedom. The strategy rebounded dramatically in 2008 however, when the image was used once again to report on Dwyer’s premature death from a drug overdose, after failing to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder. Obviously, as the Kriegsibel assemblage overall makes only too clear, the attempt to deploy images as weapons, regardless of their success at hitting their intended ideological targets, is in no way new. In this respect, the electronically-generated or electronically-circulated image, simply gives a new twist to a plot that has undeniably been around for a lot longer. But it is partly too, the very unreliability of images as ‘weapons’ that gives Kriegsfibel its rhetorical and resistive force. It recognizes the persuasive power of images and sets out deliberately to challenge and re-set that power, prodding readers to object to the ‘hieroglyphs’ of conflict, goading them (this is certainly the case in War Primer 2) into a more confrontational and “complex seeing” (Brecht 2014, pp. 70–85).
Act 4: Ceci n’est pas une Appropriation
In the final act of this essay, we come full circle back to the image of the duplicitous speechmaker with which we started.
The image (Figure 8) casts Hitler at his lectern—not just as a soldier but as an artful speech-maker and politician posing before multiple microphones. The accompanying quatrain gives the image a typically Brechtian, interventionist twist, making it clear that it is not merely the Nazi faithful that Hitler is addressing, but we, the readers of War Primer:
As one who has often ridden it in his sleep
I, chosen by destiny, know the path,
That narrow path that leads to the abyss:
I could find it in my sleep. Coming?
Figure 8. Plate 1. Bertolt Brecht. 1998. War Primer. London: Libris.
The poem manages to capture both the prophetic tone of the bible and that of Nazi rhetoric, re-tuning both in a deeply ironic Brechtian key. Here we readers are, being led down “the narrow path” (Matthew, 7:14) under the visionary leadership of the Führer, when all at once, the words “I could find it in my sleep” click together with the image of Hitler’s arms, gesticulating outwards and upwards. On second look, we realise that we are being taken down this path “to the abyss” by a sleepwalker. But more than this, the image of Hitler conjured by the photo-epigram is a cartoon sleepwalker—his arm outstretched in quasi-comic style, in a gesture that can only be described by invoking another of Brecht’s neologisms—that of the gestus. The combination of text with image thus has the effect of re-casting Hitler as a kind of sleepwalking, Chaplinesque, performing clown.
It’s worth dwelling for a moment here on the way that this situates Kriegsfibel’s use of war photography as essentially strategic: pictures of conflict are deployed, not for their representational qualities but for their ludic potential. They are ordered, arranged and positioned like chess pieces in a game, the object of which, if not to destroy the ideological opposition, is to back it into zugswang. Brecht had long since played with the idea of Hitler as a kind of comedic actor, referring to him as “the housepainter” (Double and Wilson 2006, p. 30), and repeatedly mocking him as a political clown. The Chaplinesque potential of this image would have been immediately evident to him. In this way then, the opening move in the Kriegsfibel game has been played for its gestic, not its representational qualities, in a point-blank attack on idealised heroism. The picture of Hitler at his podium is clearly ‘staged’ not to ‘document’ a ‘historical’ leader’s powers to rally the party faithful, but to set up a political clown who can, in the War Primer assemblage, be moved around as part of a two-dimensional, ludic version of Epic Theatre. And, if the Hitler that is ‘cast’ by Brecht for Plate 1, has more in common with Chaplin’s Hynkel/Hitler in The Great Dictator (1940) than with Leni Reifenstahl’s Hitler in Triumph of the Will (1934), then so much the better. Disconcerting readers would not only help bring out the inadequacy of the Nazi ‘pose’, but would help puncture the reader’s prior familiarity with the image, “engender[ing] pleasurable distance” in a perfect rendition of Brechtian Verfremdungseffect. By the time War Primer 2 comes to make its move then, the dice thrown down by Brecht’s Plate 1, are already fully loaded.
In the context of the Iraq occupation and the ‘war on terror’, the image of Donald Rumsfeld on a unicycle (Figure 9) is now set up, literally, to fit into and magnify out the Brechtian gestus: Rumsfeld’s out-stretched hand is montaged together with that of Hitler’s, the latter of which pokes out from Rumsfeld’s own, like the over-sized comedy-glove in a clown-costume. Hitler’s inclined face and always-erect microphones continue to poke up over Rumsfeld’s shoulder. As Donald McManus explains:
Brechtian characters, like all clowns, are not meant to be probed by the audience for hidden meanings or motives, rather, they display their motives by concentrating on economy of motion and striving for precision of action in order to show the audience the reason for their emotions and intent behind their actions as clearly as possible”. (McManus 2003, p. 46)
Thus, not only does the re-working of Plate 1 re-double and intensify the absurdity of the Brechtian verfremdungseffect, but it forces the reader to have “two thinks at a time” (Joyce 1992, p. 583) as they are led back and forth between the two clowns, in what is now a fully-blown satire on the continued dramas of imperialistic war-making. There is no catharsis for the reader here, nor are there for that matter, any grandstanding villains—only your average clowns that continue to wheel their merry ways around and around in cycles into the abyss.
Figure 9. Plate 1. Broomberg & Chanarin. 2011. War Primer 2.
In this way then, the Kriegsfibel machine does not so much attempt to depict the violence of war as to startle us into recognition of the symbolic violence of power and ideology, when mobilised in picture form. What is required of readers, as Didi-Huberman observes, is to take a position. Of course, as Didi-Huberman also acknowledges, there is “nothing simple in such a gesture”. Rather, “it is a question of confronting something. It is therefore necessary to stand in two spaces and in two temporalities at a time.” Not only this, but for the reader’s complacency to be disrupted, a cut is necessary: “you have to get involved, agree to enter, go to the heart, do not tack, cut.” (Didi-Huberman 2009, p. 11. My translation).
It is this formal, physical act of cutting, that is at the heart of the Kriegsfibel machine: for Didi-Huberman, montage necessarily involves the mounting, remounting and dys-posing [dys-poser] of images (Didi-Huberman 2009, p. 33. My translation). It shows, only by dismembering, disfiguring, disorganising the given order of appearance. The cut is necessary, in response to a prior symbolic violence, to move images “to another order [ . . . ] to another level of intelligibility, readability. Because a document contains at least two truths, the first of which is always insufficient” (Didi-Huberman 2009, p. 33. My translation).
With Broomberg & Chanarin’s dialectical response to Brecht, this ‘cut’ becomes even more physical: as Adam Broomberg describes, in order to silkscreen onto their one hundred copies of War Primer, the artists had physically break the books’ spines: “No professional silk-screener would do it . . . we had to break each copy . . . literally the spine”. (Buckley 2017, n.p.). Here we have a physical demonstration of how, as Brecht once put it, “the new must overcome the old” but it must also “contain within itself the old that’s been skipped over, it must ‘sublate’ it” (Brecht 2003, p. 235).
This then is no ‘appropriation’ by Broomberg & Chanarin of Brecht’s ‘appropriated’ images of war. Rather, it recalls again, Brecht’s duplicitous speechmaker from ‘The Organon’ discussed at the very start of the essay. It’s not the “good old things” that come back to haunt the speech-maker’s words, but the “bad new ones”. The term ‘appropriation’ is ill-equipped to capture the clashing, dialectical, two-way process at work in the cross-fire between the two War Primers. In the Kriegsfibel assemblage what counts is the dialectical relationship between Brecht and Broomberg & Chanarin. As mentioned above, after War Primer 2, Brecht’s Kriegsfibel is never quite the same, and vice versa. This is what Jameson describes as a Brechtian dialectics—i.e., a re-ordering process in which juxtapositions are re-structured, producing and multiplying new dissonances. Not only this, but it is now impossible to conceive of an understanding of ‘appropriation’ divorced from the characteristics it acquired in the 1980s, the latter of which are now the paradigmatic settings for any ‘art historical’ understanding of the term. However, this ‘selecting and taking possession’ of an external source is entirely against the spirit of the Brecht’s Marxian project which, rather than ‘appropriating’ images of the war, seeks more often than not, to vandalise them, by effectively scrawling all over them in a kind of poetic hijack. The effect is less to ‘appropriate’ a prior image than to demolish it, ideologically speaking. Similarly, Broomberg & Chanarin’s re-visioning of the Brechtian manoeuvre, does not so much re-appropriate a prior appropriation than it hacks into a Brechtian hijacking. The latter, as Broomberg suggests, is a more “brutal gesture”—one that links suggestively back to Didi-Huberman’s emphasis on the cut. And indeed, the term ‘hack’ is as redolent of chopping as it is of hiring. By comparison, the term ‘hacking’ evokes links with computing and the production of new code in the creation of potentially infinite versions of some pre-existing programme. Indeed, McKenzie Wark’s ‘Hacker Manifesto’ expressly defines ‘hacking’ in terms of the production of new knowledge, rather than the ‘appropriation’ of the old.
Whatever code we hack, be it programming language, poetic language, math or music, curves or colourings, we create the possibility of new things entering the world [ . . . ] in any production of knowledge where data can be gathered [ . . . ] new possibilities for the world are produced, there are hackers hacking the new out of the old [ . . . ] We do not own what we produce—it owns us. (Wark 2004)
The stress here is a on hacking as a collective, creative endeavour, as well as a highly political task. Not only does hacking build and create, but it explicitly re-versions a Marxist-inspired rejection of private property:
As the abstraction of private property was extended to information, it produced the hacker class as a class. Hackers must sell their capacity for abstraction to a class that owns the means of production, the vectoralist class—the emergent ruling class of our time.
The collective struggle which Wark’s Manifesto appeals to, is certainly one that Brecht would have endorsed and the hacker ethic—which is precisely bent on ‘interventionist thinking’—seems to generate a better context for the Kriegsfibel assemblage. The point is not just to smack the reader over the head, so to speak, but to rouse him/her to collective, creative action. Brecht hacks into press images of World War 2 and Broomberg & Chanarin hack into Brecht’s hack, as well as into images of the ‘war on terror’. And these moves prompt more and more dialectical encounters with ever more readers, artists and fellow hackers. Still more hacks are produced: for example, Ali Cherri’s Ventriloquism2013, which “brings War Primer to Syria”, or Lewis Bush’s War Primer 3 (2015), which restructures War Primer around the text of Brecht’s poem A Worker Reads History. Photographs traditionally were supposed to stop time, by “preserving fragments of the past, like flies in amber” (Wollen 1984, p. 118). But the continued re-versioning of Kriegsfibel first reminds us of the photograph’s historicity, only to then renege on it by eschewing any obvious historical chronologies, and by building up a network of deliberate anachronisms that reveal the epistemological status of representation (Didi-Huberman 2009, pp. 21, 68. My translation). To reiterate Didi-Huberman’s point once more, the Brechtian “art of historicizing breaks the continuity of narrations” by exposing heterogeneities that deliberately “dys-pose the truth” [dys-poser la verité] in an artistic act of ‘showing’ that exceeds rationally constructed arguments and “disarticulate[es] our usual perception of the relations between things or situations” (Didi-Huberman 2009, pp. 68, 93, 69, consecutively. My translation).
Rather than ‘appropriating’ the past then, the hack creates two-way (or multiple) passages between it and the present. In this way, it cultivates anachronisms that layer up on one another before again knotting together in a determined act of artistic freedom and political intervention. If Brecht’s Kriegsfibel can “gesture[s] insistently forward” in ways that “still resonate for us today, even with a certain urgency” (Giles et al. 2003, p. 3), then so too can Broomberg & Chanarin’s work reach back into history, to unhinge Brecht’s work from any vertical chronology and to inject it deeply with echoes of the future. Thus the present and the past are woven deeply together, re-figuring one another in a perpetual play of renegotiations, reworkings, re-versioning. For if, as Brecht claimed, photographs are “weapons against the truth”, then so too, as we have seen, can they be re-made and re-functioned for better use (Brecht 1967, p. 42f). Or as Roland Barthes once put it, “photographs are signs which don’t take, [but] which turn, as milk does” (Barthes 1982, p. 6). Images can always be turned. And it is precisely their capacity to turn and to be turned that makes photographs of war such formidable and at the same time, such unreliable weapons.
Indeed, for all his talk of ‘truth’, Brecht showed remarkable prescience in terms of what we now call ‘post-truth’. Some seventy odd years on from Brecht’s Short Organon, the image of the speech-maker whose echoes (or tweets, perhaps) return to contradict him is after all, a hugely suggestive one in a post-Trump, post-Brexit, context. Indeed, it seems unlikely that the architect of Kriegsfibel would have been in the least surprised by the concept of ‘post-truth’, as latterly conceived. Kriegsfibel’s attempts to re-function photographs of Hitler for example eating stew with ordinary folk or shaking hands with elderly ladies (Brecht 1998, Plates 26–27), springs from Brecht’s deep anxiety about our ability to dismiss the facts of war as inconvenient barriers that could be crashed through with enough rhetoric, sentiment and ideological determination. “The flood of sentiment and wilful ignorance of social conditions” produced by such images were, Brecht realised, powerful enough to “overwhelm even the starkest document of real reality.” And indeed, Brecht’s critiques of the ideological power and sentiment that lay behind the use of terms like ‘volk’ (as opposed to the term ‘population’) or ‘soil’ (rather than ‘landownership’) seem to confirm this. From this perspective, the Kriegsfibel assemblage seems to speak readily to any ‘post-truth condition’ in which “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Certainly for Brecht, it was the perceived ‘naturalness’, “the irresistible flow of events” in pictures of war that itself constituted a kind of ‘fake news’ and on this point, Broomberg & Chanarin, whose War Primer 2 reproducesinfullBrecht’s‘FiveDifficultiesinWritingtheTruth’,seem fully to concur. Inthis way then, the very truthfulness—perhaps one should say ‘truthiness’ of historical events are the target of the Kriegsfibel assemblage as a whole. But the sword is of course, edged on both sides. Leaders, even powerful ones, can be opposed, confronted, contradicted. The mechanisms of truth production can and should be, as the Kriegsfibel assemblage proposes, actively intervened into—by “anyone who want[s] to fight lies and ignorance” (Brecht 2003, p. 14). In a Brechtian register then, it is not just a question of opposing truth to lies, but a question of producing “a practicable form of truth” (Brecht 2003, p. 147. My italics). Images of war need not just to be ‘interpreted’, situated, re-framed, but ultimately re-mastered so that readers can themselves practice “the art” of making the truth manageable “as a weapon” (Brecht 2003, pp. 141–57). The Kriegsfibel mission is not merely to wake us up to how ‘hieroglyphs’ of war work. If Kriegsfibel attempts to show us how to re-load the weaponry of truth production, then that is because it understands that the real struggle is for our imagination. The future depends on our abilities to re-invent and experiment with the far from perfect imaginaries of the present and the past.
Acknowledgments: I am deeply indebted to Rod Dickinson for his incredible generosity, wisdom and indefatigable support. My thanks go also to Mary Ikoniadou and Jim Aulich for their intellectual and editorial guidance; to the blind reviewers for their kind words and insightful suggestions; to Adam Broomberg who very generously agreed to be interviewed at an inconvenient time; to Nora Mercurio of Suhrkam Verlag and Morgan Crowcroft-Brown of MACK, who kindly gave permission for the reproduction of images. All photo-epigrams from Brecht’s War Primer 1998 have been re-printed here, courtesy of the Bertolt Brecht Heirs and Suhrkamp Verlag Berlin. © Bertolt Brecht Erben/Suhrkamp Verlag. All images from War Primer 2 have been reprinted, courtesy of Broomberg & Chanarin/Mack.
Conflicts of Interest: The author declares no conflict of interest.