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Anders Engberg-Pedersen reviews Operation Valhalla

Friedrich Kittler. Operation Valhalla: Writings on War, Weapons, and Media, trans. and ed. Ilinca Iurascu, Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, and Michael Wutz. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2021. 312 pages.

Review by Anders Engberg-Pedersen

When Wagners’ Valkyries morph into forerunners of Napoleonic partisans, when Being and Time (1927) is presented as a treatise about storm trooping, and when Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) becomes the roman à clef for the twentieth century, you know that you have entered the singular mind of Friedrich Kittler. Operation Valhalla: Writings on War, Weapons, and Media collects a series of the German media scholar’s shorter essays hitherto untranslated into English along with two unpublished texts. They display the same mixture of irreverence, humor, controversial claims, unexpected juxtapositions, occasional blunders, and flashes of brilliance that readers of Kittler have encountered in his major works.

These essays, however, highlight the central obsession of Kittler’s long career—warfare, and in particular, the fraught relationship between war and media. Whether tracing the development of German freeways, the invention of the searchlight, the radio, V-2 rockets, or tanks, Kittler always seeks to draw the curtain on the intimate embrace of, on the one hand, army material, weapons technologies, and communications media and, on the other, large-scale violence.

It has long been a commonplace that for Kittler, war, to paraphrase Heraclitus, is the father of all media and thus the ultimate subject of any media history worthy of its name. Seemingly innocuous cultural phenomena such as the radio play or rock music are simply civilian spin-offs of military research and development—“the abuse of army equipment”—like the famed German Autobahn, essential to modern tourism, being at base a military infrastructure (p. 2). As Kittler concludes his essay on the freeway: ”Peace is the continuation of war with the same means of transportation” (p. 33).

Unearthing the often hidden military basis of modern civilization, however, Kittler’s essays equally point to the more sinister phenomenon that Geoffrey Winthrop-Young in his smart and lucid Introduction labels the “medial a priori of war” (p. 3). Not only do media enable ever greater violence; in Kittler’s view, the inherent goal of media technologies may well be war itself. In this distinctly non-anthropocentric perspective, human beings are merely appendages attached to different war machines fighting for supremacy.

Kittler’s reduction of warfare to a matter of communications media and military hardware is often disturbing. At times his fascination, if not obsession, with the technological intricacies of firearms, bombs, and rockets seems entirely detached from the violent purposes these weapons serve. In the unpublished lecture from 1999 titled ”Manners of Death in War,” however, the victims of these violent technologies come clearly into view. He even defines war as ”the production of various manners of death brought about by weapons and technologies” (p. 151). Such statements bring some measure of nuance to the general picture of Kittler as a mere technofetishist. Indeed, his own comments on the topic of his lecture apply equally to his broader examination of war and media: it is ”not a pleasant subject to talk about but a necessary one” (p. 151).  Operation Valhalla is the best resource available for understanding the central role of warfare in Kittler’s thought and an all too relevant book for our troubled times.