The Grammar of Rubble

Letter to Tom Keenan


Dear Tom,
Since we last talked, the trail has unfolded in many ways, and the research around the rubble and the questions arising from it have become more tangible.

Following your advice, we tried to stay specific in our questions and look at war and destruction and it’s aftermath—the cleaning up, the sweeping, the burying, not so much in general but more on the basis of a concrete situation.

If you remember, we had talked about the inevitable logic of war and it’s possible alternatives, about how war makes a mess that requires cleaning up, that the procedure of cleaning up can be a process of healing but also that it has been delegated to a large extent to NGOs, almost like an appendix to the crisis management of the war machine itself. You differentiated between two incompatible vocabularies to describe the activity of the humanitarian gesture, where one makes the war manageable or even more plausible and the other “takes the side of the living” and creates the conditions for living, i.e. making it possible for people to lead their own lives by treating them just like people who have lives to lead or people who could have lives to lead if they were able to lead them.

Our discussion continued with reflections on the logic of war and its alternatives in terms of considering it a language, where words, gestures, acts and things are exchanged or imposed. You quoted Clausewitz who stated in On War that the language of diplomacy, of politics and of war is actually the same, only the grammar changes. Clausewitz’s argument is that states are permanently rivals and their competition for power and regional hegemony is generally conducted diplomatically and politically. Occasionally this becomes impossible or unsustainable and they resort to another grammar, but it’s just a continuation of the same conversation by other means. Means and grammar are the same thing. And once they’ve made their point, or once their point has been effectively received by the other party, they don’t need to use that grammar of war anymore and can go back to writing, conversing, parleying, and so on.

You pointed out that quite often different grammars are used side by side, that there is a fuzzyness along the edges of the different grammars—diplomatic pressure, sanctions, the exchange of notes, assassination, computer worms—when does war actually start? One usually has peace talks while one is still fighting, as in two different kinds of conversations that are happening simultaniously using different grammars.
You said that this can create some confusion over when a war starts or ends and what the alternatives could be. You suggested there would be a better chance of finding answers when looking at particular wars, looking at the particular situation of one war.

On my return to the rubble of our Kassel trail I tried to be as particular as possible, working with what is there on the trail: the bricks, the plants, the animals, the talk of the transformations the place has gone through, the stories of people involved, the movement of things, plants, people, destruction, death, reconstruction, roses and art shows.
We tracked the rubble and it lead us to the weapons manufacturers, who brought on the devastating bombardments the allied forces carried out over Kassel. The tradition of weapons manufacture in Kassel goes back to the 18th century. During WW II the production was at its maximum capacity, employing 30,000 workers, 20,000 of whom were forced labour. Not only arms as such were produced; civilian production like trains and trucks also became part of military inventories. It seems the grammar of everything changes during wartime, including the grammar of things.

But what grammar does rubble belong to?

After the war the city was in ruins. For years the rubble was piled up everywhere, the rubble which used to be people’s houses, garages, shops and workshops, but also which used to be the big factories of Henschel, Fieseler and Wegmann. 85% of the city was destroyed. There was so much rubble that they didn’t know what to do with it.

Then in the fifties, at the dawn of the Wirtschaftswunder and in preparation for the BUGA, the big horticultural show, the rubble was eventually cleared away and poured down the slope between Schöne Aussicht and Auepark. It was covered with a thin layer of soil, then with plants that could grow on rubble, or pioneer species, and then with flowers and more flowers.

I wonder whether by referring to Clausewitz’s conception of war one tacitly accepts the language of hegemony—mediating expansionist, dominating, and subordinating policies. Attempts at changing the grammar in this language (for example from military aggression to diplomacy) and not questioning the language makes me wonder about the rubble again. A city produces weapons, is bombarded and destroyed, plants roses on the rubble and continues to produce weapons. Doesn’t this resemble the changes of grammar that Clausewitz proposes—threat, war, diplomacy, threat—without ever questioning the language?

In “Translation, or: can things get any worse?” you describe translation: “a radical translation (as) an active relation between and within languages, not the attempt to overcome language altogether, is the event for which the name politics ought to be reserved.” Clausewitz seems to be saying that politics translates solely within a language, but doesn’t a radical translation necessitate acknowledging other languages as well? The language of (universal) rights comes to mind as one example. 

I would appreciate your comments or thoughts on this.

PS: Pola found this image, Allegory of Grammar, from 1659, after Antoine Furetière’s Nouvelle Allegorique, Ou Histoire Des Derniers Troubles Arrivez Au Royaume D'Eloquence. Furetière was a French scholar working on a universal dictinionary of the French language. What struck me most about this allegory is how implicit the entanglement of language and military strategics is. I am reminded of Allen S. Weiss’ research on the culturalization of military planning found in baroque garden architecture. Like many of these gardens, the terrace garden on the Auehang was also built by a military man. His name was Paul du Ry. The term Bellevue/Schöne Aussicht not only implies a nice view over a landscape but also refers to the vista that facilitates military strategics.

(Walter Benjamin says that allegories are, in the realm of thoughts, what ruins are in the realm of things.)



Allegory of Grammar and Style
Allegory of Grammar and Style Antoine Furetière, «Nouvelle Allegorique, Ou Histoire Des Derniers Troubles Arrivez Au Royaume D'Eloquence», 1659 (Source: Public domain)