- Culture in Camouflage: War, Empire, and Modern British Literature
In our habits of argument, most of us are modernists these days. Not content simply to advance a reading, we outfit our scholarship with methodological manifestos, declamatory battle plans, and self-branding campaigns, all of them intended to maximize the visibility and positionality of our work. It is not enough for our claims to be [End Page 650] usefully new; they must shock received wisdom. We write as if only the radically discontinuous could further our thinking, yet that claim of breakage is propped, and often belied, by the work’s massive citationality. Theory, meanwhile, acts as the chief portal through which the counterintuitive enters and upends the self-evident, the consecrated, and the flat-footedly empirical. Patrick Deer’s Culture in Camouflage quietly signals its awareness of those theorists (Deleuze and Guattari, Hardt and Negri, Schmidt and Agamben, Benjamin, Derrida, Scarry, and Virilio) in relation to whom recent war studies scholarship situates itself. But this intelligent, unstrident book understates its interventions and its theoretical stakes, preferring to keep company with its primary texts. Culture and Camouflage leaves it up to its readers to recognize it for what it is: a major contribution to scholarship on the literature and official culture of World War II and on twentieth-century warfare’s intimate links with imperialism.
Scholars of peace and conflict have lately been much concerned with “total war,” an expression coined in 1916 by Léon Daudet to denote the complete mobilization of a nation’s resources in a bid to eliminate its adversary, irrespective of distinctions between combatants and noncombatants. The totality that most occupies Deer, however, is neither the limitless extent of targeting nor the engulfing reach of the war economy; it is, instead, the totalizing energy of official war cultures whose manufactured traditions aimed, as he puts it, to “cure and unite the diverse, fragmented spheres of everyday life” (6). When, as in the British case, such official cultures were disseminated through propaganda and enforced by state censorship, they exercised an enormous power to disparage or promote a given aesthetic mode along with its practitioners and political valences. During the Great War, for instance, the emerging official culture stigmatized modernism as bohemian, foreign, degenerate, and unmanly while looting it for battle-ready innovations. Deer joins other critics in seeing camouflage—the deployment of Cubist, Vorticist, and Expressionist painters and techniques in advancing covert optics—as the cardinal example of this dynamic. But unlike some of its interlocutors, Culture in Camouflage refuses to read wartime writers simply as dupes, victims, or disciplined instruments of the militarized state. For Deer, “camouflage” principally tropes wartime writers’ practice of challenging official narratives while appearing to comply with them, producing ever mutating hybrid forms that could ferry innovation, criticism, and even subversion past the state’s censorious gaze. Deer names that high-altitude gaze the “strategic” perspective after the war planners who employed it (4). In contrast to them, the writers who resisted the totalizing war culture did so through tactical appropriations of the panoramic viewpoint and, more, by dwelling on the partial and [End Page 651] the particular—on haunted localities, effaced and unofficial memory, occulted continuities, and the wartime collapse of distance.
Although it opens with compelling chapters about the Great War and the interwar period, Culture in Camouflage is above all interested in refuting the common claim that the 1940s were a failed or fallow period for British literature. This refutation involves a three-pronged rescue and recovery mission: World War II literature, says Deer, needs to be repossessed from postwar neo-realists (for example, the Angry Young Men and Movement poets) who constructed a British literary canon that excluded both wartime literature and a great deal of interwar modernism from current scholarship that relies too narrowly on ideology critique and trauma studies in examining the period, and from “recent mobilizations of the memory of the Second World War, which symbolically invoke the cause of that ‘good war’ in the name of new imperialisms” (242). Deer...