An Interrupted Connection

By Melissa DinsmanOctober 12, 2015

World Projects: Global Information Before World War I by Markus Krajewski

THE IDEA OF GERMAN PUBLIC RADIO, with its goal of “radio for all” (Rundfunk für alle), was born in 1913. This simultaneously national and international network was the dream of Hans Bredow, the “father of German radio,” whose project to acoustically connect Germany to the world (Weltfunkverkehr or World Radiocommunications) began on a ship in the Atlantic. On his return trip from New York, where he had traveled to discuss the burgeoning wireless medium with like-minded radio hams, Bredow realized the democratic potential for radio. Up to this point, radio had been a private passion of isolated enthusiasts around the world. Bredow claimed that the inspiration for his wireless world project resulted from a farewell message the American radio society sent to him. This wireless message, which traveled over land and sea and out of a nation, prompted Bredow to consider the significant impact radio technology could have for all people — both national and international users. Of this epiphanic moment Bredow would later remark:

For the first time, on the high seas, I discovered that what was advanced here was no longer just a technical experiment whose success pleased me; instead, I had the inkling that here was a new thing in progress, a thing that would have an impact on all mankind.

His plans to transform radio into a large-scale public medium with international reach, however, would be interrupted by the outbreak of World War I. Only one year after he imagined a world radio network, wireless networks in Germany and in other warring nations were confiscated and reserved for government and military use.

Hans Bredow’s world project highlights the central connecting threads of Markus Krajewski’s failed global ventures prior to World War I. Like Krajewski’s three German protagonists in World Projects, Bredow is an originator of a global-sized project; he is a “projector” par excellence who had a “Welt”-sized plan. After working as an engineer for AEG in the early 1900s (the same company over which Walther Rathenau — the third subject of Krajewski’s study — presided), Bredow spends the years prior to Nazism’s rise trying to connect the world bit by bit, station by station. And despite gaining ground post–World War I with the formation of national German radio in 1923, real strides toward a truly democratic medium are not made until after the Second World War. Bredow’s project to connect Germany to the world is also very much of its imperial time. He never imagined a scenario in which Germany was not the hub. The heart of his project is not connecting the world, but rather connecting Germany to the world. Thus Bredow’s aims, like those of Krajewski’s projectors — businessmen who developed enterprises with the potential for global impact — contain within them a striking tension between national self-interest and a democratic desire for international unity.

This desire to unify the world is far from new, and it is also far from over. From Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which host learners from around the world in the virtual classroom, to Twitter, which invites people across the globe “to discover,” there remains a human impulse to use new media networks to foster understanding between disparate peoples. Lest this sound too optimistic about the state of affairs in our current digital climate, such democratic impulses are not altruistic. As is the case for MOOCs and social media, key motivations also include financial gain, public relations campaigns, and the never-ending need to collect and control information. Both sides of this “connecting” coin find their prototype in the early–20th century projector. Although Krajewski never discusses our current century, his recovery of the history of three projectors (The Receiver: Wilhelm Ostwald, The Sender: Franz Maria Feldhaus, and The Interference: Walther Rathenau) demonstrates that it is not the desire to connect that is new, but rather, it is the optimistic hope that finally, by the early 20th century, such connection through world projects is possible. The potential realization of worldwide connectivity — of languages, goods, currency, information (and even sound) — emerges due to the “finely detailed expansion of a worldwide transport multimedia system as well as the unlimited connectivity promised by the organization primacy of the postal system.” Here, as throughout much of the book, the acknowledged influence of German media theory, specifically Friedrich Kittler and Bernhard Siegert, is present. Because of this influence, World Projects is, in part, a study of media objects and the networks used to transport them. In the early 20th century these networks were, as Krajewski notes, rail and mail. These media, by which much of the world was connected, determined the situation for projectors at the beginning of the last century, and this situation enabled them to dream big. This connection between transport networks and world projects is also at the center of Hans Bredow’s wireless inspiration. From a ship on a predetermined cruise liner path between Europe and America, Bredow, fixed with (we assume) a made-in-England Marconi wireless, imagines a world communications network that moves beyond sea and land and national borders.

But make no mistake; while Krajewski certainly shows the lasting impact of a materialist media theory à la Kittler’s Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, or Siegert’s reflection on the postal system in Relays, World Projects does not divest the human from the media network. In fact, World Projects is in many ways a stark contrast to Krajewski’s other well-known monograph, Paper Machines. Whereas Paper Machines centers on the history of a medium (the card catalog), World Projects focuses on the projectors more than the projects. Perhaps this is because these projects were, from the beginning, destined to fail. Thus, while Paper Machines is firmly invested in the media archaeology tradition of recovering the history of a media object, World Projects moves beyond the objects and instead explores how they work in conjunction with networked systems and human determination and how these human-technological networks, formed at the beginning of the 20th century, have had a lasting impact on how we understand globalization today.

In order to explore the creation of these new global transmedia networks, Krajewski sets out to answer three main questions:

What conditions and contexts make such a boom possible? What are the cultural technologies and technical media that produce such projects? And finally, what strategies succeeded in the translation of those plans into practice?

From these questions Krajewski’s threefold focus — historical moment, media object, human intervention — is revealed. With its historical/media/human concentration, World Projects is, without explicit acknowledgment, embracing recent work in network theory by scholars such as Bruno Latour as well as Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker: each of the modern networks described by Krajewski invites the human and nonhuman into the networked system as equal players.


THE SENDER: Before diving into the three main case studies, World Projects very carefully sets up the historical and political moment for projection in the early 1900s, for the world had vastly changed since the “Age of Projection” 200 years earlier when European nations were racing to compete with Britain’s empire and her global influence. No longer financed by independent patrons, 20th-century projectors tied themselves to big business, which had embraced internationalism thanks to the newly interconnected transport media that stretched around the globe. As Krajewski notes, “global transit is the media-technological a priori of the global projects.” One of the most prolific projectors to make use of this new globalized transportation network prior to World War I was Wilhelm Ostwald. Trained in chemistry, for which he won a Nobel Prize, Ostwald focused his research on physical reactions, particularly as they pertained to catalysts. Thus, when it came to his work as a projector, Ostwald’s desire to create something new while conserving energy informed the types of cultural projects he supported, such as a world language to simplify scholarly communication, a world currency to ease travel and the sale of goods, and a world paper format to aid in organization across multiple disciplines. If his projects were successful, not only would time and energy expended be saved, but also a unification (or rather homogenization) across national borders would begin to take shape. This was certainly the hope behind Ostwald’s advocating of Esperanto as a global auxiliary language. Through such organizing measures, Ostwald believed that the world and its communication could be improved.

Of course, the immediate success of each of these world projects was impossible, not least because of the contentious political climate prior to the First World War. Ostwald, like his fellow projectors, fails to consider the political implications of globalization — of attempting to homogenize the local. Take, for instance, Ostwald’s foray into Esperanto. Although the creation of an auxiliary language came from the intention of making a politically neutral linguistic system to ease international scholarly communication, Ostwald fails to realize that language is inherently “(geo)political.” It is tied intimately with a nation’s cultural history and production. (Ostwald’s monolingual project is also not helped by his eventual advocating of Weltdeutsch (a simplified German) as the solution to international communication difficulties after the outbreak of the war.) The same difficulty also arises when creating a standardized currency, what Krajewski describes as a fantastically naïve adventure at the height of imperialism. Like language, he notes, “A nation’s currency was regarded too strongly as a decisive element contributing to the state’s identity.” Therein lies the larger problem that projectors, but particularly Ostwald as the sender of projects out into the world, faced. There is in the projector’s language, and at times even in Krajewski’s, a false equivalency made between “Welt” (or world) and “wholeness.” “Welt,” Krajewski writes, “professes to denote absolutely everything.” This is the imperial “Welt,” one that marks the Wilhelminian age of expansion, one that does not make room for locality and difference. But this easily homogenized, malleable “Welt” does not exist, thereby making world projects doomed from the beginning.

THE RECEIVER: Unlike Ostwald, who took on numerous world projects, Franz Maria Feldhaus claims only one. His life’s work consisted of creating “The World History of Technology” by collecting information on all technologies throughout time on little scraps of paper and storing them in a card catalog. Yet despite Feldhaus’s lack of projects, Krajewski makes a convincing case for him as a projector, noting that his one massively impossible undertaking enabled the creation of numerous smaller research projects by those scholars who consulted — and would pay for access to — his collection. In fact, Feldhaus-as-collector (Sammler) taps into a much larger bibliographic project that had been shaping libraries for centuries and had only just been standardized in 1878. The story of “The World History of Technology,” then, is really a story about the modern library as a means to circulate information globally and the ways in which this information (or data) is collected, stored, and distributed. Feldhaus, in Krajewski’s depiction of him, is as much a projector as he is the builder of a “universal library” on the history of technology, where his copious notes are meant to be “shredded and woven together in new combinations and patterns.” His project — to collect all the scraps of technological history — is the quintessential modernist undertaking reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s assemblage of historical scraps of 19th-century Paris in The Arcades Project, or even James Joyce’s rearranging of world literary history in Ulysses’s “Oxen of the Sun” episode. Yet Feldhaus’s project of creating a “‘complete’ world” from fragments was bound to fail. And this failure speaks to the larger struggles of libraries even today. Like any universal library, Feldhaus’s collection was by necessity always incomplete: it “must remain trapped in the belatedness of recording” and remain “always out of date.” This state of perpetual incompleteness is exacerbated by the purpose of any collection meant to be of use to others. By its very structure, Feldhaus’s world project needed to be “divided” and “dismantled,” just as the library is continuously changing its composition as books perpetually move in and out.

THE INTERFERENCE: If Ostwald’s role as sender was to work toward standardizing global media and cultural processes, and Feldhaus’s role as receiver was to use advances in data management for academic and financial gain, then Walther Rathenau could only, according to Krajewski, be categorized as the interference. Rathenau’s association “with a drastic and momentous reordering of economic discourse itself” marks him as the disruption of the networked system, whereas his national (as opposed to global) focus makes him the disruption of World Projects. But this is, perhaps, what Krajewski intended all along, especially if we read World Projects as a larger study of network functionality. Rathenau’s position as the interference in Krajewski’s text is further supported by his position in historical time. Whereas Ostwald and Feldhaus have their projector moments before World War I, Rathenau’s world project succeeds because of the war: “[R]ather than intensive circulation of goods between the continents, a path must be found … that leads from the global to the local.” Rathenau’s system of forming specialized departments within companies so that goods moved within a nation at war more efficiently created a new “condensed” definition of “Welt.” Yet Rathenau’s explicit focus on the nation-as-world is, in reality, just a more obvious form of national self-interest that is better disguised in the projects of Feldhaus and particularly Ostwald. Thus Krajewski’s title, World Projects, is in the end slightly misleading, as the “world” to which we are introduced as readers is one that never ceases to imagine Germany at its center. This is, I think, part of the beauty of having an English translation of this book, especially for Anglo-American readers. This is a history and a way of thinking with which most would be unfamiliar.


In some ways World Projects falls victim to the same globalized thinking as the early–20th century projectors. In its media-centric focus, there is some problematic slippage in terminology around the word “Welt.” Perhaps most problematic is the lack of clear definitions for terms such as “globalization,” “internationalism,” and “cosmopolitanism.” While Krajewski makes numerous winks and nods to the imperialist undertones of “globalization” and “internationalism,” he fails to fully engage with what a true cosmopolitan project might look like. This is clear from the very first page of World Projects, on which he describes Sandford Fleming’s massive railway venture as both “cosmopolitan” and one which was intended to “[adapt] all local times in the entire world to a global schema of twenty-four time zones which should, moreover, be oriented around a politically neutral prime meridian.” There are a number of problems with Krajewski’s terminology that highlight the larger tensions that exist within his book. If, as Kwame Anthony Appiah writes, cosmopolitanism is “universality plus difference” — a starting point for cultural conversation and not a process of homogenization — then Fleming’s world project, like each of the projects in Krajewski’s study, is decidedly not cosmopolitan. But Krajewski is not really interested in true cosmopolitanism, nor is he interested in the necessary political implications and power struggles associated with networks as, say, Galloway and Thacker are in The Exploit. Instead of challenging the thinking of imperialist world projects, Krajewski inhabits their nation-centric world that fails to engage with the power dynamics of who is connecting the local with the global and why this connection is needed in the first place.

Yet this lack of political engagement with regard to world networks also allows Krajewski to make two very important claims for the field of media studies. The first is that projectors are media: Krajewski repeatedly describes Ostwald, Feldhaus, and Rathenau as catalysts of their world projects. As idea men, they push network formation forward by seeking the aid of financiers and architects. World projectors, then, are merely one node within a very large system. Thus Rathenau is described as the “ideal marriage broker” for corporations, and Feldhaus can only be understood through his collection, as he is “the sum of his index cards.” But as a catalyst, the projector’s incorporation into the network is by its very nature only temporary. The projector’s place within the system is fleeting, as once the project is born, he must move on to the next thing. This brings me to the second significance of Krajewski’s work: that networks can simultaneously fail and succeed. In this line of thought, one can see obvious parallels to “clogs” in the work of Bernhard Siegert. But Krajewski gives these system disruptions a historical basis that is missing from much of the current work in new media studies. Often a medium’s or a network’s success can only be understood through the long lens of history, and this is what World Projects provides. Overall, World Projects is a richer engagement with media culture and history than Krajewski’s previous Paper Machines. By focusing on three case studies in a narrow time frame and by incorporating into this narrative the unusual combination of media object, network, and human resolve, Krajewski provides readers with a fuller understanding of the imperial world and its projects prior to World War I. World Projects carves out a much needed space for human involvement in networked systems and, by doing so, comments on our own struggles for agency within our highly, dare I say, “globalized” networks today.


Melissa Dinsman is the CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow in Data Curation for Visual Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and the author of Modernism at the Microphone: Radio, Propaganda, and Literary Aesthetics During World War II (2015).

LARB Contributor

Melissa Dinsman is the CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow in Data Curation for Visual Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and the author of Modernism at the Microphone: Radio, Propaganda, and Literary Aesthetics During World War II (2015). Dinsman’s research focuses on the intersection of modernist literature and media aesthetics, and her first book brings together her interest in late-modernist radio broadcasting, archival recovery, information networks, and the Frankfurt School. Dinsman is currently working on a new book project, America’s Blitz, which looks at the ways in which British and U.S. writers, directors, and broadcasters translated British wartime experiences for American audiences during World War II, and how these translations often resulted in a melodramatic genre-framing of Britain’s struggle. Her work can be found in journals such as Contemporary Women’s Writing, The Space Between, and Literature Interpretation Theory.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!