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Peter Sloterdijk - Air Quakes

Peter Sloterdijk - Air Quakes

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Published by: JFM on Jun 25, 2010
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Breathless by the tense vigil,Breathless by trepidation in the unbreathable splendor of the night...''Hermann Broch
Der Tod der Vergil 
(1976, page 103)
1. Gaswar, or the atmoterrorist model
If one wanted to say with one phrase and with the minimum of expressions what the20th century, together with its incommensurable accomplishment in the arts, contrib-uted as an unmistakable characteristic proper to the history of civilization, answeringwith three criteria could suffice. Whoever wants to understand the originality of thisage will have to take into account: the praxis of terrorism, the conception of productdesign, and concepts of the environment. Through the first, interactions betweenenemies were established on postmilitary foundations; through the second, function-alism was able to reintegrate itself in the world of perception; through the third, thephenomena of life and knowledge were entwined to depths hitherto unknown. Takentogether, these three criteria indicate the acceleration of explication
of the revealinginclusion of latencies and background data in manifest operations.Additionally, if the task were to be formulated to determine when the 20th centurybegan, the answer could be given with a higher level of punctual exactitude. With thesame date can be illustrated how the three primary characteristics of this epoch wereunited at the beginning in a common primordial scene. The 20th century eruptedspectacularly on 22 April 1915 with the first significant use of chlorine gas as a weapon
Peter Sloterdijk 
Spha «ren III: Scha «ume
(Suhrkamp, 2004), pp 89^126Translated by Eduardo Mendieta, Department of Philosophy, University of New York at StonyBrook, NY 11794, USA
Environment and Planning D: Society and Space
2009, volume 27, pages 41^57
In this excerpt from the introduction to volume three of 
Spha «ren
), subtitle
Scha «ume 
), Sloterdijk argues that what makes the 20th century uniquely singular and creativeis its invention of what he calls here atmosterrorism, the assault not on the body of the enemy, but onhis or her environment. This terrorism of the atmosphere is to be understood as a human-made formof quake that turns the enemy's environment into a weapon against them. Living organisms, amongthem humans, simply cannot not breathe, and it is this double negative that is at the heart of atmoterrorism. Weaving a fascinating narrative that links the development of insecticides and pesti-cides to the first use of poisonous gas during World War I, to the development of the gas chamber asthe tool of supreme punishment in the United States, to the eventual convergence of putative humanekilling and disinfection and delousing into the mobile and stationary gas chambers of exterminationused in the Nazi concentration camps. Terrorism, argues Sloterdijk, reveals the essence of war, the willto exterminate the enemy, with the difference that the former expands the extermination of theenemy to the very world that enables the enemy to exist. In the 20th century, atmoterrorism leadsto the exterminism of total war.
ÀPart of this paper appeared in 2002 in a small book published by Peter Sloterdijk, entitled
Aus den Quellen des Terror
(Air tremors: out of the sources of terror) (Suhrkamp,Frankfurt am Main). A full translation of this book is forthcoming with Semiotext(e). This paper,however, is a modification and amplification of those pages. I have translated
as`Airquakes' because of the obvious echo that Sloterdijk makes to
(earthquakes) and
(seaquakes) (translator's note).
by a `gas regiment' (
created expressly for this purpose
of the GermanWestern Front army against the Franco-Canadian infantry positions in the northernarch of the Ypres. In the previous weeks in this sector of the front, German soldiers,unbeknownst to the enemy, had installed in their batteries thousands of concealedcanisters of a previously unknown type. At exactly 18:00 hours, pioneers of the newregiment, under the command of Colonel Max Peterson, with a strong wind fromthe north and northeast, opened 1600 large (40 kg) and 4130 small (20 kg) canistersfilled with chlorine. Through this `release' (
) of the liquefied element, approx-imately 150 tonnes of chlorine were deployed, becoming a cloud of gas approximately6 km wide and 600 m to 900 m deep.
An aerial picture preserved for all time thedevelopment of this first toxic cloud of war over theYpres war front.The favorable windpushed the cloud to speeds from 2 m to 3 m per second against the French positions.The concentration of the toxic gas was calculated at approximately 0.5%. Prolongedexposure to the gas produced intense damage to the lungs and respiratory system.The French general Jean-Jules Henry Mordacq (1868^1943), who then was 5 kmfrom the front, received a telephone call shortly after 18:20 hours from the fieldin which an officer of the first sharpshooter (
) regiment announced theappearance of yellowish clouds of smoke that stretched from the German to the Frenchtrenches (Mordacq, 1933, cited in Hanslian, 1935, page 123f). Because of that warning,at first questionable but subsequently confirmed by other calls, Mordacq rode his horsewith his adjutants to examine the front in person, and he and his companions quicklyexhibited respiratory complications, bronchial irritations, and acute ear-ringing. Afterthe horses refused to continue, Mordacq's team had to approach the gassed areaon foot. Soon, they were met by swarms of panicked soldiers, running, with openedtunics, throwing their weapons away, spitting blood, and begging for water. Somerolled on the ground, struggling in vain to breathe. Around 19:00 hours a breach of 6 km opened up in the Franco-Canadian front; then the German troops advanced andoccupied Langemarck (cf Martinetz, 1996, page 23f). The attacking units had availableonly gauze pads soaked in a soda solution and a liquid that captured chlorine, thesewere worn over the mouth and nose for their own protection. Mordacq survived theattack and published his war memoirs the year that Hitler took power.The military success of the operation was at no point challenged. A few days afterYpres, Kaiser Wilhelm II had a personal audience with the scientific director of theGerman gas-war program, the chemistry professor Fritz Haber, director of the KaiserWilhelm Institute of Physical Chemistry and Electrical Chemistry at Dahlem, promotinghim to captain.
In any event, the consensus emerged that the German troops weresurprised by the efficiency of the new method and had not gripped their victorioustriumph of 22 April successfully enough. On the contrary, the data on the number of victims differed significantly, then as now. According to nonofficial French sources, therehad been only 625 gas victims, of whom only three had succumbed to poisoning, whileaccording to initial German report there were 15000 poisoned and 5000 dead to be
These figures follow the presentation of Martinetz (1996); slight variations in the identificationof place, time, and quantity can be found in Lepick (1998).
Haber (1868^1934) was at the time of the war also the director of a department for `gas war' inthe Ministry of War. As a Jew, he was forced to leave Germany in 1933, after he gave the Germanmilitary command suggestions for the reintroduction of gas weaponry in the summer of the sameyear. After a stay in England, he died on 29 January 1934 in Basel on his way to Palestine. Someof his associates were executed in Auschwitz. In military science, the Haberian mortality productis derived by multiplying the concentration of poison (
) by exposure time (
) (
product).The awarding of the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1918 to Haber in recognition of his discoveryof ammonia synthesis unleashed strong protests in England and France, where his name was linkedabove all to the organization of chemical warfare.
42 P Sloterdijk
accounted for. These numbers have continually decreased during the period of theresearch. It is evident that interpretative controversies are manifest in these differences,which exhibit in illuminating ways the different military^technical and moral senses of the operation. As a Canadian autopsy report of a gas victim from the hardest hitsection of the front says: ``With the removal of the lungs a considerable amount of afoaming light yellowish liquid spilled out....The veins on the surface of the brain wereseverely obstructed; all the small blood vessels had clearly burst'' (cited in Martinetz,1996, page 24).While the unfortunate 20th century today readies itself to enter into the history booksas the `age of extremes', and as the progressive inactuality of its lines of struggle andmobilized concepts
its scripts for world history are no less yellowed than the proclama-tions of medieval theologians for the liberation of the holy grave
consumes it, theremanifests with greater clarity one of the technical models of the last century. One couldcall it the introduction of the environment into the struggle between adversaries.Since there has been artillery, it belongs to the role of defenders and warlords todirect themselves towards the enemy and the enemy's protective shields with directshots. Whoever intends to eliminate an enemy according to the military rules of theart of killing at a distance has to establish, through artillery cannon, an
intentio directa
at the enemy's body and to immobilize the object in the line of sight with a sufficientlyprecise hit. From the late Middle Ages until the beginning of the First World War,the definition of the soldier was constituted by the fact that he would establish and`maintain' this intentionality. During this time, masculinity was codified, among otherthings, by the capacity and disposition to kill an enemy directly and causally with one'sown hand and one's own weapon. To aim at an adversary is, as it were, the continua-tion of the struggle between two people but with ballistic means. For this reason, thegesture of one man killing another remains closely linked to the prebourgeois idea of personal valor and possible heroism that continues to exercise influence even underconditions of combat at a distance and in anonymous logistical battle, regardless of their anachronism. If the members of the armies of the 20th century could be of theopinion that they still performed a `manly'and, under martial premises, an `honorable'profession then they appealed to the risk of the immediate encounter with death.The manifestation of this idea in technical weaponry is the rifle with a mounted(
) bayonet: if for some reason the (bourgeois) elimination of the enemywith shots at a distance fails, the rifle always offers the possibility of returning to the(noble and archaic) direct running through of an enemy in proximity.The 20th century will be remembered as the period whose decisive idea consistedin targeting not the body of the enemy, but his environment. This is the fundamentalthought of terror in a more explicit and contemporary sense. Shakespeare put itsprinciple prophetically in Shylock's mouth: ``You take my life/When you do take themeans whereby I live'' (
Merchant of Venice
IV, 1). Among those means today, alongwith the economic, are the ecological and psychosocial conditions of human existence,which have moved to the center of attention. In these new procedures to enable theextraction of the enemy's conditions of survival from the environment or surroundings,there appear the contours of a specifically modern, post-Hegelian concept of horror(see Hegel, 1979, page 355f).
According to Hegel, in terror is realized the ``discrete, absolute hard rigidity and self-willedatomism of actual self-consciousness'' (1979, page 359). ``The sole work and deed of universalfreedom is therefore
, a death too which has no inner significance or filling, for what isnegated is the empty point of the absolutely free self. It is thus the coldest and meanest of all deaths, with no more significance than cutting off a head of cabbage or swallowing a mouthfulof water'' (page 360, italics in original).
Airquakes 43

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