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No Man's Land: Bodies and Technology in WW1

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BerichtGeplaatst: 19 Nov 2006 9:53    Onderwerp: No Man's Land: Bodies and Technology in WW1 Reageer met quote

No Man's Land: Bodies and Technology in
The First World War.

©1995 Eric Rodenbeck.

The term "no man's land" came into use during World War I to describe the zones of fiercest
fighting between Germany and the Allies. Literally uninhabitable for unhuman beings, these
landscapes were subjects of tremendous fascination for soldiers and those on the "home front" alike,
and as such they were comprehensively investigated in essays, poems, drawings and photographs
throughout the duration of the War. The rotogravures of The New York Times' Current History
Magazine depict no man’s land using scenes of total destruction, vast areas stretching to the
horizon with "all signs of civilization completely obliterated." Often illuminated only by the deadly light
of exploding shells, these images vividly illustrate the new nature of industrial warfare, its capacity to
utterly refigure the world according to its own set of rules.
There were, however, remnants of the old amidst the rubble of this new landscape, and figures
still moved through it, though they would have been unrecognizable to those not familiar with the
conditions they fought and lived in. The new soldiers fighting in and around "no man's land" are
investigated in the pages of Current History as thoroughly as the landscapes they moved through,
and in these descriptions and photographs may be found the tentative recognition of a crisis that,
through its descriptive immediacy, often paints a more vivid picture than the memoirs and
retrospectives which followed the War. Existing language was stretched to accommodate a new set
of conditions, and the often-conflicting claims regarding the new soldiers, their machines, and their
bodies before, during, and after the War play into the derivative definition of no man's land as "an area of uncertainty or ambiguity": in this new landscape the condition of the human was in no way
That a dialogue of the body can be said to exist at all serves as an indication that the status of
the body is being contested: much of the language used describes a new set of conditions as
though the means of definition had not themselves been changed by the newness of these
conditions. Through this emerging dialogue of the body, up for grabs, in and among all this
dangerous newness, the War is figured as a conflict in which the narrative status of, as well as the
continued survival of, the human itself is at stake. Definitions of the human become dependent on
the status of the body, and the concurrent separation and dependency of the two provides a context
for much of the linguistic and ontological tension that characterizes this dialogue.

Gas Masks and Tanks: Tools or Prostheses?

For the purposes of this essay it will
be useful to set up two mutually
exclusive 'technological categories':
the tool and the prosthesis. A tool,
generally, develops in response to a
perceived need or want (I could do
this thing if I had this tool) and
therefore functions as an
anticipatory addition. The functional
intent of a tool, by this logic, is to
change the world through its use,
and in this sense is disruptive,
altering what would normally occur.
It is this logic that informs the
rhetoric surrounding the introduction
of labor-saving devices into the
home or industry: this vacuum
cleaner will make your life easier,
free up your time, etc. The body, in
this equation, remains unchanged.
A prosthesis, on the other hand
(on another hand?), is a device
which aims at replacing a part of the body which has been rendered missing or useless through
accident or genetics (I used to be able to do this thing, or I should be able to do this thing alone, but
now I need a prosthesis to do what my body was formerly sufficient for) and is thus a replacement
for something lost or missing. Prostheses are retroactive in regard to the body and anticipatory in
regard to the world: they either aim at restoring the damaged body to its previous condition of
wholeness or impose a normalizing effect on bodies congenitally deficient. The disruption to the
body has already occured by the time a prosthesis is introduced, and the overriding intent of such
devices is to allow the body to function as it did before, in anticipation of a world that remains the

Missing from these definitions is an understanding of the reciprocal nature of human-technological
relations. Both assume that one side or the other of the body/world relationship remains constant
despite the introduction of a new element. Their primary value for us will be in their demise: a clear division between tool and prosthesis, and thus in the anticipated status of both body and environment, becomes problematic concurrently with the first real advances in the development of
prostheses, in their ability to function as working elements and not merely as cosmetic devices or as
stumps. Though linguistically it seems possible to define the body and the environment as mutually
exclusive objects of intended change or constancy, these differences begin to collapse as part of the
process of their construction. The status of the human at the intersection of body and environment
occupies an increasingly ambiguous position as prostheses begin to anticipate, and tools function
Beginning in November 1917, widespread shelling with poison gas made the wearing of gas
masks essential in and around the zones of no man's land. Use of the masks was so vital that life in
the zone was impossible without it, and the extensive training that soldiers received in their use
emphasizes precisely the helplessness of the body without them:
...[the gas] can kill, and no doubt about it. But for every poison there is an antidote, and we
have found it. Your helmet is perfect, and you simply must believe in it, you must trust to it.
We have made full provision for your safety...During an attack, after putting on the respirator,
just stand and wait. There is nothing you can do for yourself exceept to keep your helmet on.
Your skill, your strength are nothing...
After exposure to gas, all food, water and wells are poisonous...remember, you must believe
what I say—keep your helmet on in time of danger, and you are perfectly safe.

Which technological category does the gas mask belong to? On the one hand it is obviously a
tool—it allows the body to exist in a place where it could not before, just as snowshoes and fur coats
allow for existence in climates otherwise too cold for unclothed bodies. The difference, of course, is
that snowshoes are designed in response to a natural environment, not a manufactured one as no
man's land decidedly was. This distinction is problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of
which is the issue of what "natural" means: by claiming that tools designed for effectiveness in
technological environments are inherently prosthetic you have to, by extension, claim that all tools
are prosthetic and that all environments are technological. This is precisely what I want to argue, but
what's crucial is the shift, that after immersion in a technological environment of such global
application it's no longer possible to sensibly argue for the difference between natural and
technological environments.
Yet the language of the speech, described as sounding "strangely like a sermon," is strong
enough to warrant closer attention: something else is going on here. The degree of trust in the
helmet necessary for survival is such that it begins not only to augment but to actually replpace a
part of the body: in the statement "Your skill, your strength are nothing" may be read an implicit
"Your nose, your lungs, all the parts of you that normally allow you to breathe, are nothing without
the mask." "You simply must believe in it, you simply must trust to it": in other words, place as much
trust in its workings as would normally be placed in the sinuses and the throat. The mask is
emphasized as a technology to be taken for granted, since it is already "perfect." It thus becomes an
addition to the body, a replacement survival apparatus for the "skill and strength" that are now "as
nothing." A part of the body has been declared useless, and is replaced by the mask: a prosthesis.
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BerichtGeplaatst: 19 Nov 2006 9:56    Onderwerp: Reageer met quote

Me or My Tank?

The tool/prosthesis becomes further
blurred in descriptions of the body in
relation to the new armored cars, or
"tanks." Developed early in the
conflict, they were prime examples of
the new degree of coordination
necessary for the waging of industrial
warfare: built in Illinois as caterpillar
tractors by the Holt Manufacturing
Company, they were sold by the
thousands to Britain, where they were
armored and sent to the front. They
made relatively safe negotiation of the
blasted landscapes of trench warfare
feasible due to their peculiar
construction: their centers of gravity
were located well to the rear and they
could thus cantilever out over
trenches and negotiate shell craters far better than people could. They were, in other words, very
much at home where humans could not in what was literally a new landscape.
Just as importantly, they provided a moving physical shield within which soldiers could operate in
relative safety under extremely inhospitable conditions: the first tanks were in fact little more than
shields on wheels used to provide shelter while cutting barbed wire entanglements. They were so much more suited (better suits?) than unarmored humans at this kind of warfare that they often
seemed to be players on the scene in their own right, with motivations and emotions of their own:
"...a ‘tank’ had been coming along slowly in a lumbering way, crawling over the interminable
succession of shell craters, lurching over and down, and into and out of old German trenches,
nosing heavily into soft earth, and grunting up again, and sitting poised on broken parapets
as though quite winded by this exercise, and then waddling forward in the wake of the

That tanks really were ontologically regarded as individuals does not of course follow from this
one example of stylistic excess: soldiers have traditionally anthropomorphized ships, guns, and
other technologies upon which their lives depended. Yet this language is being used to introduce a
technology and situation that were quite new (the article is prefaced with the first photograph of a
tank to be published in the United States) and deserves special attention in light of the writer’s claim
that although
"these things sound incredible...they are true. I write them in fantastic style, because that is
really the nature of the thing.”

The language’s "fantastic style" changes at time to something more complicated and ambigiuous
than the repetition of an historically validated trope, as the machines and theor operators are
referred to interchangeably as the originators of actions:
"A curious experience befell the crew of a ‘tank’ that helped to clear the Germans out of
Foreaux (High) Wood. It climbed into the enemy trenches and did terrible execution with its
guns, when the occupants tried to bolt to their support trenches. After raking the ground for
half an hour, the commander found that the infantry had not arrived in accordance with his

Here it becomes unclear who is actually doing the fighting: is the tank "razing the ground for half
an hour," or the commander? If this language is, as claimed, "appropriate to the nature of the thing,"
then what emerges here is the consignment of both human and machine to an uneasy space from
within which the actions of one are easily confused with those of the other. The tank serves as a tool
for the use of those inside it but also, in descriptive terms, as a replacement for them. Those inside
are so unable to act without it that their actions are inseparable from its actions. The tank within this
rhetoric serves as a replacement for the entire body: a body that, when not entirely absent from the
action, is unimaginable without its machine prosthesis. The non-prostheticized human has no place
in no man’s land

Where’s the Connection? Additions To and
Subtractions From the Body

The dialogue accompanying the widespread
application of prosthetics in attempts to
rebuild soldiers is no less ambiguous than
that surrounding the intense dependency on
tools described above. Here the use of
language becomes even more crucial an
issue, as rhetoric is called upon to present
prosthetic devices as simultaneously
allowing an easy return to "normal" body
functions and also as affording possibilities
for improvement and more intense
integration into industrial assemblages.
Considerable effort was spent in the
development of artificial limbs "almost
perfect in their imitation of nature," usually
made of wood and flesh-colored rubber.
These naturalistic limbs were, however, "for
dress only," intended as cosmetic
attachments and thus functioning as
prostheses in a very limited and specific
sense, namely to make the body appear as
it had before. The attachments that actually
allowed the body to function again took any
number of non-naturalistic forms: "tools,
hooks, chucks, which [could] be
interchangeably adjusted."

These devices received far more
attention from surgeons, journalists and
photographers than their naturalistic
counterparts: there are no photographs and only passing mentions made of the latter in the pages of Current History, while the former are
rigorously documented.
In order for these prostheses to fucntion as working elements and not simply as stumps with
specialized sockets attached,
"the specialized Italian System, the theory of which was laid down by Vanghetti, of making the
amputation so that the muscles from the living part of the arm can be attached in such a way
to the artificial limb as to get an organic muscular connection."
was developed. This "organic muscular connection," in light of the above machine-body blurrings,
may reservedly be seen as applying to the entire assemblage of body and prosthesis, thus further
complicating the dialogue: where exactly is the connection when body and machine become one
functioning system? In order for the body to be returned to "normal," the amputation is performed
according to the demands of the prosthetic. The human, or what is left of him, begins literally to be
shaped in anticipation of being prostheticized. Partial bodily replacement through technological
means requires a body without any unity other than the required by the prosthesis: the body
returning from the battlefield is already incomplete by virtue of its passage through no man’s land
and its integration into an assemblage of tanks, gas masks, and artificial limbs
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BerichtGeplaatst: 19 Nov 2006 10:01    Onderwerp: Reageer met quote

Bodies as Prostheses: Writing Of and On the
Incomplete Body

In certain cases, however, notably in instances of severe facial disfigurement, a return to some
kind of normal appearance was obviously the primary goal. Advances in medical technologies,
spurred on in part by huge numbers of readily available incomplete bodies, had made possible the
transfer of tissue from one part of the body to another, to the concurrent amazement and revulsion
of those who witnessed the process:
"Major Gilles is about to operate. The patient’s position is not quite suitable. He puts a yellow
gloved hand upon the patient’s yellow shoulder and touches him. The effect on me is
something like a shock. What was something like a man, seems of a sudden to be a figure
stuffed with straw. The figure flops to one side, soulless, boneless.
"‘You understand what we are going to do?’
I shake my head.
Major Gilles points with his knife to the man’s chest. There, faintly marked on the reddish-
yellow flesh, is the shape of a face. ‘These spots here are the eyes, this is where the nose
will be, and here you see the mouth which we shall give him.’
Good God, it searches me to the bone! That penciled face on the man’s chest, like a mask; and above that penciled face on the chest, the old blasted and shattered face that a few days
ago had the beauty and freshness of youth; why do surgeons speak of these things as a
landscape gardener of his plans?"
A new situation again stretches the use of language and thus the status of the human: the writer,
in "shock," recoils from the rendering of the body in surgery as just as secseptible to human
intervention as is the physical terrain of no man’s land. This passage is vital because it describes
the reaction of a "whole" person as the human is wrenched from the body in an immediate and
horiffic way, and the wasted flesh in vivid contrast with the new plainly illustrates the real difference
between the two kinds of bodies. This separation, however, has already occurred on the battlefield:
the observer, though not understanding what the surgeon is "about to do," recognizes beforehand
that the the body without a face "was something like a man," almost but not quite human. His shock, hen, is located in the immediate and visceral recognition of the pre-existing condition of the
battlefield body as incomplete. Specifically, the observer recognizes through the blatant
objectification of the body having passed through an industrial zone that its status has already been
changed by its passage through no man’s land.
Using the body itself as a surface, surgeons wrote on it with the same language used for working
prostheses. Their new body is malleable, shifting, literally inscribed with a new and startling face,
and its parts are as interchangeable as the tools, hooks and chucks that serve it as attachments:
"At the Hammersmith General Hospital, London, for example, six useless muscles were taken
from a patient’s wrist and transferred to the other, with the result that the hand, previously
paralyzed, could be used once again."
Here missing or defective parts of the body are replaced not by a technological apparatus but by
other parts of the body. Muscles are retroactively declared useless but are given a new function in
the service of missing parts, and the body becomes a prosthesis for itself.

Natural Bodies vs. Rational Prostheses:
Dangerous Organs and an Absent Humanity

Both in no man’s land and returning from it, the body of the soldier was considered incomplete:
unable to function without a prosthesis, the body is available for additions and modifications which,
paradoxically, restores it to a "new and improved" state. This rewriting was hardly limited to the
battlefield—a literal retrofitting was, in the words of one journalist, "bound to have its reaction for
good towards those disabled in industrial life."

This statement is meant to refer to the maimed and wounded in factories, on railroads, and other
similarly "industrial" occupations. The explicit and hopeful causal relation between battlefield and
civilian bodies, however, demands the close examination of the domestic industrial body in terms of
the military industrial body. If the body in industrial warfare is considered incomplete even before
being maimed, then what of those whose lives daily include routine bus rides, factory work, and
electric lamps? What this seemingly and innocuous optimistic expression of hope for a better life
points towards is the incomplete body existing not merely as a result of industrial warfare but as a
condition of industrial existence as such. "Those disabled in industrial life," then, begins to include
not only the amputees produced by the new factories and railroads but all bodies in an industrial
This understanding of a disabled body informs the anxiety pandered to by an advertisement for
"Nujol" which ran in the back of several issues of Current History between 1914 and 1918. The non-
prostheticized body is presented as coarse, brutish, that of a "cave man." This body, having failed to
adjust itself to the conditions of "civilized man," is as much a danger to itself as the gas and shells of
no man’s land are to the unarmored battlefield body. It possesses an outdated "internal mechanism"
which poses a "constant threat to health" and needs to be "adjusted." The body has been presented
with a changed set of conditions within which the digestive system itself becomes as useless without
Nujol as the breathing apparatus is without the mask in no man’s land, and now requires a
prosthetic substance to survive.
Disability here is no longer confined to those with missing limbs or ruined faces, but is instead an
essential condition of the "different kind of life" brought on by civilization. The body in a technological
context is already, inherently incomplete and requires a prosthesis in order to satisfy the condition of
being human. Man the tool-maker is replaced by the human within a perpetually disabled body.

Shock at the Old, Not the New: The Contemporary
Body Has Already Been Incomplete

The treatment of the body as a site for improvement in the pages of Current History is so blatant
and seemingly naive as to appear almost comic to the contemporary reader: the ads read as entirely
transparent to a jaded TV watcher and the photographs of prostheticized humans seem as freakish as something out of Barbarella or Flash Gordon. Yet our laughter is not entirely innocent, of
course—a note of nervousness informs my cynical reaction. My unease is in many ways similar to
that of the face-lift observer, edgy while watching the landscape gardener sculpt and plan a body
according to their own set of drawings. I recoil at the suggestion: that my body might right now be
available to the same kinds of inscription as the not-quite-human body on that World War I operating
table, but what underlies my discomfort is a bit subtler and, in the end, more disturbing.
My mouth is full of silver, I can’t see farther than my arm without contact lenses, and the stitches
in my hand have been there for more than a year and are, I assume, literally part of my body by
now. My back problems, it’s been explained to me, stem not so much from anything I might be doing
wrong as simply from the fact that my body has not been "designed" to walk upright very well. My
"caveman internal mechanism" simply hasn’t caught up yet with civilized life and, what’s worse, it
doesn’t work in the modern world without prosthetics.
What disturbs me about these articles and photographs is precisely the blatancy that fascinates
me and makes me smile. Specifically, these documents present an historical picture that, when held
against contemporary notions of the body, are as much a cause for shock as the wasted face
compared with the new face on the patient’s chest. This comparison forces a recognition that my
body, with its lenses and additions, has been changed by its passage through no man’s land, is in
fact already incomplete without prostheses and has historically already been incomplete without
them. An historical shock, then, which through an exaggerated poetics leads to an understanding
that the contemporary body is already incomplete, and has been since 1914 at least.

1. Thanks toScott Bukatman for help in the development of this distinction.
2. Eddy Sherwood, "Poison Gas in Warfare: The Deadly Mustard Gas Now Employed—The
Methods of Gas Training," in Current History. New York, ca. 1913, p.293
3. Anonymous, "British Armored ‘Tank Cars,’" in Current History New York: ca. 1915(?), p.244
4. ibid p. 245
5. ibid p.244
6. Anonymous, "War Surgery: What Medical Science and the United States Army Hospitals are
Doing for Wounded Soldiers," in Current History, ca. 1915, p. 124.
7. ibid p.125
8. Galeazzi, Ricardo, "Rebuilding Disabled Soldiers: Wonderful Work that Italy is Doing to Render
Maimed Men Self-Supporting," in Current History. New York: July 1918, p.101Bebie, Harold, "A
Miracle of the New Surgery," in Current History. New York, ca. 1915, p. 125-6.
9. Anonymous, "Wonders of War Surgery," in Current History. New York: ca. 1915, p.906.
10. ibid p.905.

Further Reading/Sources
(interactive investigation of prostheticized WW1 soldiers)
The Codex Series v2: 2000_Investigation
(examination of relationships among digital image technology and body definitions)
Harpers Magazine, July 2001. “Dr.Daedalus,” Lauren Slater. pp.57-67.
(Radical plastic surgery for aesthetic reasons)
The Atlantic Monthly, December 2000. “A New Way to Be Mad,” Carl Elliot. pp.72-83.
(Emergence of wannabe amputee desires as a legitimate and recognized psychosis)
The Sexual History of the World War. Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld. 1934, The Panurge Press, Inc., New
(Sometimes lurid descriptions of wartime sexuality. Available for download:
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