Devastating memory: Abstraction and the M1895

(the following is completely unedited, not intended to be anything other than kind of elaborate notes, and more of a primer on Lefebvrian dialectics than anything noteworthy. Also I wrote it on an airplane on 2 hours of sleep)


This talk is an attempt to solidify ideas I am currently thinking through about the historical character of war, not as teleological escalation but as a contingent social process. This is a talk about history as it moves and is moved by space.

Basically, I begin by rejecting any view which treats war as a special case or interruption of society, economics, and politics. The proposal here—that the character of military fortifications, for example, of a war economy happens and then reverts to peacetime—is ludicrous. War “as event” fundamentally misunderstands the shifting continuum of history, conceiving of it as, usually, a string of moments contributing to unceasing progress which abstractly proceeds on its own. This is a simplistic, turnkey, universal history which seems appropriate because, in the words of Georg Lukács, it is “a simplified presentation that simplifies the problems and solutions themselves, rather than the historical constellations of problems and solutions”. War is always coming, always going, weaving its way through the social totality.

Focusing on military space allows a different angle on the problem. Of course, to think about space, one usually finds themselves at some point looking at Henri Lefebvre, particularly to his concept of abstract space, a representation of space as a universal which is a lodestar of spatial power. Japhy Wilson notes that for Lefebvre, abstraction is “a concrete historical process in which capital accumulation and technocratic rationality—materiality and representation—are dialectically intertwined”. In a spatial sense, abstraction refers both to a sort of universal, Cartesian conception of space, and the concomitant administration of that space as a technocratic plaything. Abstraction, for Lefebvre, is the materialization of alienation. The central figure of alienation within capitalism is the commodity-form, which bends all of modern capitalist life and social activity to its logic. Lukács insists that any commodity of any type “must not be considered in isolation or even regarded as the central problem in economics, but as the central, structural problem of capitalist society in all its aspects”. (p181-182) (So, when we talk about the commodity, in some sense we are talking about capitalism.) Lefebvre jumps back in to develop the commodity in another arena: “[a]ll Marxist concepts”, he writes in The Production of Space, “are taken to a higher level without any one stage in theory disappearing. The reconsideration of Marxist concepts develops optimally by taking account fully of space”. (So, when we talk about the role of commodity-logic in space, we are talking about abstract space or the attitude of capitalism in space.

The title of this talk—‘devastating memory’—is an allusion to a passage of Lefebvre’s from The Production of Space: “there is a violence intrinsic to abstraction, and to abstraction’s practical (social) use…For abstraction’s modus operandi is devastation, destruction…[t]he violence of abstraction unfolds in parallel with what we call ‘history’…”. Put another way, the devastating memory simultaneously refers to the slow-motion annihilation of life under capitalism as well as reclaiming spatial memory from an indifferent power that sees space as empty substrate. If abstraction contains within it devastation, what is to be made of space which is conceived for the purposes of devastation? This is a peculiar question; one can’t realistically say a space’s usage is ‘military’ in nature, full stop, and expect this to be enough. Military uses can be concrete (this barracks at this base in this country) or may describe, as in the case of this paper, a valence or attitude shared across spaces.


The method of abstraction

Lefebvre’s spatial framework analogically transfers Marx’s method as elaborated in the Grundrisse: concepts are developed by moving from the “from the abstract to the concrete”. Marx describes his method against both his favorite punching bag “the classical economists” and Hegel. For this talk, I can’t start with abstract space itself and arrive at the concrete realities of space which has become a commodity. This process would take a long time—a book, a career—but luckily Lefebvre has already handled the dirty work. All that remains to do is supply another twist of the knife (by returning to Marx).

Most commentators on Lefebvre address his analogical treatment of space as a simple copying-over of Marx’s analysis of the commodity in the opening pages of the Grundrisse. Marx mentions the idea of “production in general” (20). This “general category, this common element sifted out by comparison, is itself segmented many times over and splits into different determinations”—basically, this means that though production may be a constant (writers such as Lukács will identify production qua labor as the origin of human social being itself). From production in general, there are the determinations, and from there, a “particular branch of production” (such as agriculture, vehicle manufacturing, being a barista, hauling freight, and so on). This is not a ‘new rung’ or ‘topographical division’ within the dialectical movement from abstract to concrete: the determination is not an object on its own but rather a movement within the method. The determination may be seen as a sort of speciation or heuristic of abstraction in general. What this means in terms of military space is as Edward Thompson wrote about the nuclear bomb in Notes on exterminism, the weapon is “thing of menace…[as well as a] component in a weapon-system”, taking care to understand that “producing, manning, and supporting that system is a correspondent social system”. That social system—that which administers the bomb, the gun, etc.—is the determinant. Feminist critical conflict studies does important work in this arena, exploring the military social system and exposing its violent, patriarchal perpetuation, the reproduction of its social relations left to bloodthirsty imperialists and soldier males.

I would like to focus on two attitudes, among many which begin to define military space. Military space disappears and projects. It hides and it explodes outwards. To attempt to define the contours of military space and its relationship to abstraction, I would like to make a case study of the Endicott fortification system, a distributed coastal defense network on both the East and West coasts of the United States and the Gulf of Mexico.



In 1885, then-US President Grover Cleveland asked his Secretary of War, William C. Endicott, to create a ‘Board of Fortifications’, tasked with the creation of recommendations to significantly upgrade the United States’ coastal defenses, which had ceased since the 1870s. After the Civil War—in which the bulk of military budget and development had gone into ‘monitor ships’ for river warfare—the United States’ Navy was woefully out of date. Endicott’s report proposed $127 million (or $3.2 billion today) be poured into developing a reticulated system of fortifications and defensive batteries at strategic locations all along the coast of the United States, with a particular focus on urban centers. “The recommendations were enormous and arguably unrealistic, covering 27 locations…[and] including armament, floating batteries, submarine mines, and torpedo boats”.

Endicott’s program was never fully realized, and didn’t truly come into effect until 1890, hitting its stride in 1898 as a response against the Spanish in the Spanish-American War. In 1910, another Board of Fortifications was convened, and the Endicott period was brought to a close. However, the Board under Endicott represented a significant leap forward, both in terms of spatial understanding and technological capacity. The variegated approach the Endicott recommendations took towards coastal defense challenges both military operational procedure and ideas of concrete space. “Seacoast artillery…primarily served at separate harbors, manning varying numbers of batteries with widely differing sizes and number of guns”. There is no concrete aspect which is true for all Endicott fortifications; at the same time, it would be difficult to say it is fully abstract. Rather than a cohesive clockwork structure, coastal defense requires a conceptual acceptance of fluidity.

In many ways, the formal character of the fortifications—commonly, open-roofed concrete depressions surrounded by earthen glacis—was a substrate for the true star of the Endicott modernization: the “large caliber-breech loading artillery”, such as the 12-inch M1895 cannon which sat behind and inside the concrete defenses.



To fortify is to spatialize and technologize logistical knowledge. The foritified position spatializes the social hierarchy of military order by making legible the order in the territory. With respect to the Endicott system, the establishment of the concrete walls establishes the position: high, out of sight, with quite literally a commanding view of the territory. When constructed on a continental scale, we can identify some commonalities between the most disparate military spaces.

Position alone is not enough to truly disappear. Defense must be total when it comes to the military determination of space. This is evident, of course, in the M1895 gun. In its ‘coastal defense’ configuration the M1895 was mounted on an M1896, M1897, or M1901 ‘disappearing carriage’, which allowed the massive bulk of the gun to drop behind its concrete walls, into a hollowed out part of the battery. The nature of the fortification was such that even its offensive emanations must be concealed unless absolutely necessary.

Military disappearance is also a historical phenomenon. The Endicott system lasted until 1910; the M1895 gun in service until 1945. After this, there were two further disappearances. Abstract space’s indifference to usage is present here in a militarily contingent way: with ocean-facing coastal defense obsolesced in favor of air defense, the former forts of the Endicott system undergo a rapid transformation culminating in dissolution. Take, for example, Fort Tilden. After World War II, the coastal guns were retired and Nike Hercules anti-aircraft missiles soon took their place. Other forts disappeared into sprawling peacetime complexes, hidden behind fences and guard posts or under overgrowth.. Before long, even these were made obsolete, superseded by the advent of the Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles such as the Minuteman III. And even here was a further, dialectically unfolding disappearance: the ICBMs into hardened bunkers, and Fort Tilden into the control of the Park Service. The total indifference of abstract space continues unabated. One may imagine a future in which, for whatever reason, New York may again need coastal defenses, and the seamless transition the parks may make back to a hardened—which is to say, disappearing—military emplacement. This is the conditionality of abstract space: there is no condition at all. There is only abstraction’s “devastating conquest of the lived by the conceived”.



Disappearance is paired with projection. This appears concretely as the projection of force—a military term which means exactly what it sounds like. The Endicott system fortifications display this acutely—they are designed to make the here everywhere. The weaponry guns alone which each fortification wielded allowed for the projection force as much as 9 miles beyond its walls. Projection of force is inherently a colonial spatial practice, which allows for the explosion of a territory beyond its natural borders. The bounded character of military fortification obtains an annunciatory power that goes beyond the materiality of the weapon and into an institution. Projection entails an expansion of the rational logics of the military power prior to the construction of any structure or the placement of any gun. The area within the gun’s reach becomes oceanic—treated as flat and infinite, a projection on a map—and the oceanic becomes naturalized as the targeting field. The gun reorganizes space around it, in polar rays stretching out from the mouth of the gun; war space is not geometric but volumetric. At the same time, the flat sea requires projection upwards the arcing shot, the orbital strike, the fort on the bluff above the waves to use the infinite plain to its fullest extent. Space itself must take on strange, non-cadastral directions—a volume whose perfect 3D grid is interrupted only by the languid arcs of falling shells.



military space—not a new representation of space but a spatial practice (that is, of the triad) which occurs in, but does not diminish, the tendencies of abstraction (which are informed by the application of knowledge and power). To both appear and disappear, to become massive and shrink to nothing, is dialectical—it is about negation, and the negation of the negation. It is hard to separate the two: disappearance enables projection, and projection (keeping enemies at bay) makes disappearance all the more useful.

Not about supplying specificity to the overall condition of abstraction, but rather an attempt to describe two attitudes which abstraction may be thought of as having

The precise relationship of the determination with both the abstract and the concrete remains something I am unsure of.

Simulating Like a State

“Sufficiently advanced simulation is indistinguishable from the real thing”, to twist Clarke’s aphorism. Simulations can take place at levels anywhere from modeling markets, to predicting sea level rise, to the staging of wargames. It is at the level of the wargame that simulation truly becomes artful in the pursuit of the temporal “God-eye”, the unified site of utter anticipation.

But the notion of “utter anticipation” is fraught in the first instance, haunted by a single question: can we actually think like the enemy? Manuel De Landa sums this problem up nicely in War in the Age of Intelligent Machines: “In most cases Red [the enemy] becomes simply a mirror image of Blue [the allied group]”.

But what happens if Blue can think Red? Instead of what may be commonly assumed—that losses would promote in Blue a greater understanding, the simulated loss opens up onto an existential nightmare, a confrontation with Blue’s own fragility. The problem then is that, of course, the wargame will always be weighted in favor of Blue.

Part of this bias is institutional, but there is also the fundamental problem of information: the true nature of Red’s tactics and materiel will forever be draped in a “ludigital” fog of war, no matter how complete Blue’s intel may be. The wargame, constructed with faulty information and to provide a satisfactory outcome, is revealed to not be a strategy tool at all, but rather, a machine to produce in Blue assurance in its own supremacy.

When this supremacy is violated, the effects are internally destabilizing, forcing Blue to come to terms with the specter of its own death, touching down on the plane of abstract horror. De Landa relates for us an anecdote: “…in the early 1960s…Richard Bissell from the CIA, father of the U-2 spy plane and co-engineer of the Bay of Pigs invasion, played Red in a counterinsurgency war game and was able to exploit all the vulnerable points in the American position.” This sent shivers down the US’s spine: Bissell’s win was enough to get the files of the game’s proceedings classified, never to be released.

San Clemente Island MOUT complex, Vasquez Marshall Architects’ website

In roughly the same mid-century milieu, the ‘Hot 60s’ forces the hand of the war makers to break out from abstraction, and the wargame graduates into physical space and human players as a response to civil unrest in NATO countries. With the ‘peacetime’ arrival of full-size “war cities” such as Hammelburg, (West) Germany and later, San Clemente Island off the coast of California, the wargame begins to draw ever nearer to realism. These Potemkin complexes were (and indeed, are) created entirely for training in the minutae of urban operations and neutralization of enemy combatants, appearing as a heterotopic everywhere, crammed into nowhere, a consolidation of the whole world in a top-secret blacksite.

But the spatial revolution of the wargame still was not complete. As detente collapsed, and with an ever-increasing fetish for realism and complexity, the war simulation exploded out of the city and went runaway to continental scales, with millions of machine parts. Perhaps the best kept secret of this variety was US/NATO operation Able Archer 83, a simulation that achieved such a high degree of realism that it threatened to erupt into actual nuclear conflagration.

Able Archer 83 took place from 7-11 November 1983, the culmination of nearly a year of “naval muscle-flexing” and PSYOPs designed to rattle the USSR, such as sporadic “air and naval probes near Soviet borders”, undertaken specifically to “rattle the Soviets”. These actions led to the creation of Operation RYaN by the Warsaw Pact to “prevent the possible sudden outbreak of war by the enemy”. In this already-heightened climate, US/NATO held their annual Able Archer event, designed to “practice new nuclear weapons release procedures”, specifically the “[transition] from conventional to nuclear operations”. From the official SHAPE description:

“The exercise scenario began with Orange (the hypotheticalopponent/[Red]) opening hostilities in all regions of ACE [Allied Command Europe] on 4 November (three days before the start of the exercise) and Blue (NATO) declaring a general alert. Orange initiated the use of chemical weapons on 6 November…All of these events had taken place prior to the start of the exercise and were thus simply part of the written scenario… As a result of Orange advances, its persistent use of chemical weapons, and its clear intentions to rapidly commit second echelon forces, SACEUR [Supreme Command Allied Powers Europe] requested political guidance on the use of nuclear weapons early on Day 1 of the exercise (7 November 1983)…the weapons were fired/delivered on the morning of 9 November.”

Able Archer 83 was unique with respect to past simulations, which one commentator referred to as “special wrinkles”. These include a new battle language and encryption, which made the maneuvers of NATO completely opaque to the USSR, forced to rely on observations and extrapolation as units and materiel were moved across the ACE theater and routines were executed within SACEUR/SHAPE. These terrifying machinations forced the USSR to ask a new epistemological question: if armies and nuclear weapons are being moved into position by the enemy, does it matter what reason its for? At what point does war, occurring in a liminal, ludic space, breach the gap into reality altogether? Is there functionally any difference between war and its simulation? Or, even more to the point, is simulation itself an escalation of hostilities?

Max Ernst’s Europe After the Rain

Jean Baudrillard’s famous definition from Simulacra and Simulation states that “the simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true.” “The virtually is fully real insofar as it is virtual.” In Able Archer 83 the “apotheosis of simulation” is itself simulated, a nesting torus of that-which-never-quite-comes-true. The ragged era of the early 80s’ “Cold War II” takes the apocalyptic promise of atomic apocalypse and plugs it in to the motor of banal politics (and indeed, routine wargames), in which “the unknown is precisely that variable of simulation which makes of the atomic arsenal itself a hyperreal form, a simulacrum that dominates everything”. Able Archer 83, in which SHAPE takes part in producing a simulation of nuclear hyperreality, contained within it the possibility of finally crashing Baudrillard’s hyperreality of infinite deterrence (warding off Europe After the Rain), and inaugurating the climax, the real event of nuclear war.