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World Projects: Global Information before World War I

by Markus Krajewski; translated by Charles Marcrum II
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2014
328 pp., illus. 17 b/w. Trade, $82.50; paper, $27.50
ISBN: 9780816695935; ISBN: 9780816683512 $27.50.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

Markus Krajewski's book, originally published in 2006 and immediately perceived as an outstanding contribution to the now well-established field of media archeology, is much more than a study of globalization before the current era of total globalization (as one would say "total war"), in this case the two first decades of the XXth Century. For if the subtitle of the book is slightly deceiving (Krajewski does not only address the prewar years, he also studies the impact of WW1-hence my allusion to total warfare-and its immediate aftermath), the two words of the title, "World" and "Project," give a perfect summary of the author's work. On the one hand, the book is a study of the ubiquity, so to speak, of the global in this period. Krajewski is mainly focusing on Germany, where the noun "world" functions as a prefix to virtually anything else, and World Projects is above all an attempt not just to observe and describe but also to describe in a medial framework the necessity and inevitability of this globalizing movement, which goes much deeper than the often quoted political, economic, and ideological needs and motivations of it (they are of course the basic impetus of this turn of the century globalization, but not the only ones). On the other hand, Krajewski insists a lot on the specific role of a new type of globalization, no longer initiated by the 19th Century nation-states but by a new kind of heavily networked and networking actor, namely the "projector", i.e. the individual who proposes new plans to link the local and the global and who tries to get them implemented with the help of private capital.

The most important contribution of Krajewski to the history of globalization and media is definitely that the notion of "project," which helps him establish an essential relationship between both. It is, of course, common knowledge that media follows globalization follows media, in an endless circle: no globalization without media, no media without globalization. World Projects takes this cliché as its starting point, obviously, but succeeds in rereading it in fascinating ways. In the opening chapter, which is both a perfect synthesis of globalization theory and a strong programmatic text for the kind of project work the author is disclosing, Krajewski initiates his research by scrutinizing some particularities of the gradual normalization and standardization of time and space during the 19th Century. He thereby emphasizes the multimedia character of all these channels (i.e. the fact that in order to be efficient channels have to complete and complement each other: a road and a telegraph, for instance, or a railroad and a postal system) as well as the networked character of these channels (i.e. the fact that each medium channel is also related to other media channels, so that the network can become a meshwork linking the local to the global in a very material way, step by step). The spatio-temporal unification of the world, more or less achieved at the end of the 19th Century, is not an endpoint, however, for it produces two (interrelated) side effects that will prove the trigger of all projects. On the one hand, "boredom" an existential metaphor borrowed from Heidegger: Since the multichannel meshwork does not always work as it should, the system produces new forms of emptiness and gaps that the projectors will aim to delete by proposing supplementary types of standardization. On the other hand, the very readability of the newly unified world, which constitutes an invitation to exert always tighter and stronger control, while making room for the emergence of a new category of social and economic actor, the projector: The one who sees more than others the possibilities offered by the not yet completed transformation of the world into one global system.

Krajewski's book develops three major case studies, which all highlight not only a historical figure and the specific domain or domains in which he has been active (I will come back on the gendered dimension of the project-making business), but also the cultural logic that one may find behind these various types. The examples chosen are: 1) Wilhem Ostwald, the promoter of a universal language (he was a key figure in the defense and eventual transformation of Esperanto), of a universal currency (he was an advocate of the gold standard), and, among many other things, of a universal paper format (he gave an important impulse to the system that we still use today, at least in Europe); 2) Franz Maria Feldhaus, who elaborated a world history of technology that relied heavily on the recording of "facts" via a refined index card system; 3) Walther Rathenau, the one-time president of AEG who during the War, and as an answer to the blockade of Germany and the subsequent shortage of vital materials and resources, reorganized the country's industry in order to make it self-sufficient in war times (a system that will be immediately taken as a model by the new Soviet Union).

The differences between these three figures are tremendous. The nature and scope of domains they tried to manage did not share many properties. In addition, the methodology of all these projectors was also completely different (for Krajewski, Oswald represents induction: he launches an idea and, thanks to his belief in the universal power of "energetics" he takes for granted that this idea will grow in an organic way; Feldhaus symbolizes infinitesimal calculus, which will try to find the perfect coincidence between one fact and one index card; and Rathenau illustrates reduction, since he had to reinvent a total network in an environment that separated Germany from the rest of the world). Finally, the social and economic status of these characters was beyond comparison (there is not much in common for instance between Rathenau's upper class background and Feldhaus's poor and adventurous youth and his more than problematic relationship with the scientific and political establishment, even in the pre-Nazi years). Nevertheless, in spite of all these disparities, all three of these "projectors" are fundamentally the same. In this regard, Krajewski stresses two characteristics.

First of all, projectors are not project "undertakers": They do not simply implement a feasible idea that is just waiting for its realization; they are dreamers, visionaries, but not of a utopian kind, and their method relies on a particular division of labour. "One could divide the process of projection into three functional positions: planning, execution, and financing" (p. 87). If the projector is alone in being in charge of the planning, he will not be able to implement his idea without financing (and Krajewski insists with great length on the impossibility to perpetuate in modern times the no longer existing nation-state support system: The projector is not a tenured public agent, he is something who is permanently looking for money, a highly problematic issue since it is never clear who may profit from the projector's idea; it is certainly not the case that the first benefiter of the economic value of the project is the projector himself) and without using a team of collaborators, no projector would be able to implement his idea (these collaborators are often women, either poorly paid and exploited or totally unpaid and ruthlessly exploited, as tragically visible in the case of Feldhaus, an extreme example of patriarchy that we can now add to the Kittler's analysis of the role of women in the mechanization of writing).

Second, projectors are also "parasites," according the terminology coined by Michel Serres, whose thinking is influential throughout the whole book. Projectors are both included and excluded: They are part of the larger system they plan to reinforce and change, yet at the same time they are also mavericks (Krajewski also uses words such as marginal, amateur, or dilettante). They are those who use the flaws of the system as it exists at a given moment in order to use it for themselves, true, yet not without profit for the system in question. First they use it, then, they give it back in a new form. This explains why so many projectors have been forgotten or may seem "losers." Most of them do not have the backing and the inside knowledge of the system to institutionalize what they are doing, and their position as mavericks and underdogs does, of course, not soften the stubbornness, ambition and -not infrequently- crazy megalomania of their characters, while making them very vulnerable to for instance plagiarism. However, more than losers they are "catalysts:" They transform and accelerate a process, which would not have been possible without them, although the final state of this process does no longer contain any trace of their activity. In that sense, the study of the pre-WW1 years may offer an excellent blueprint for a better understanding of the cultural changes of today. For all this, Krajewski is a wonderful guide, and his book a must-read.


Last Updated 1 August 2015

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