- World Projects: Global Information before World War I by Markus Krajewski
In his first published book, which appeared just before the dawn of the eighteenth century, Daniel Defoe noted “that it seems not at all improper, by way of distinction, to call [this] the Projecting Age.” In this Essay upon Projects, Defoe prefaced his own set of proposed schemes for reform with a capsule “History of Projects,” as well as a kind of archetypal portrait of the figure of the projector, in both its malignant and benign incarnations. [End Page 673] A quarter-century further into this original Age of Projection, the same (already stereotyped) figure would become the target of Jonathan Swift’s satiric pen, as Lemuel Gulliver, during his tour of the Grand Academy of Projectors in Lagado, is subjected to a “very close embrace” by a fecessmeared inmate of the Academy, witnesses the inadvertent execution of a dog by rectal inflation, and reports on numerous other risibly bad schemes for the improvement of the human condition. Media studies professor Markus Krajewski’s World Projects conveys something of the spirit of both of these approaches—the chronicler’s and the ironist’s—in arguing for a general recrudescence of the Zeitgeist identified by Defoe, almost exactly two centuries later.
Of the many differences between the world of 1700 and that of 1900, Krajewski homes in on precisely the transformed conceptual status of “world” itself, in the Western mind at any rate. Specifically, he is interested in the emergent sense of global space (or space-time) attributable to the spread, and increasing mutual interpenetration, of the networks of transport and communication developed in the nineteenth century. Of course, these networks had antecedents, as did the modern conceptualization of an interconnected world-space. There is no question, however, that the cable-girdled world of 1900 induced global thinking on an unprecedented scale, a fact evidenced by the runaway use of “world” as a prefix, doubtless least surprisingly—though by no means exclusively—in the German language. Examples adduced here include: Weltacademie, Weltsprache, Weltgeld, and Welt-Hauptstadt, among many others. This new world-apprehension (the compounding habit is contagious, once you have spent some time with Krajewski’s study) is presented here as a necessary, and perhaps sufficient, precondition for an efflorescence of grandiose projects—as the globe shrinks, the scale and scope of the projector’s imagination swells in proportion. As Krajewski puts it, “Global transit is the media-technological a priori of the global projects” (p. 32).
The bulk of the book comprises expansive portraits of a trio of Wilhelmine-era polymaths and their outsized schemes. The first Projektmacher in Krajewski’s gallery is Wilhelm Ostwald, the Nobel Prize–winning chemist who, upon resigning his academic position in 1906, turned his mind to totalizing schemes of standardization involving language, currency, and even the proper format to be used for printed matter. Next Krajewski considers Franz Maria Feldhaus, a pioneering figure in the historiography of technology whose massive archive of index cards calls to mind the fiction of Jorge Luis Borges (Krajewski notes entries on “the nullification of gravity, travel lightning rods, moon telegraphy, mouse power, and salad machines” [p. 94]). Lastly we turn to politician and industrialist Walther Rathenau, whose inclusion here is chiefly owing—paradoxically enough, at first glance at any rate—to a project of deglobalization, namely Germany’s withdrawal from world markets during the Great War, as Rathenau “reduc[ed] [End Page 674] the entire German economy in a short period from a global standard to national scope” (p. 138). A final chapter explores the trope of Restlosigkeit or “remainderlessness” (the title of the original German edition of the book) in relation to the collection of projects discussed here.
The book thus focuses primarily on the German scene, offering its chosen subjects as synecdochically representative of a far more widespread commitment to Weltprojekten in the early twentieth century. These connections with the broader Western context might have been more fully developed. Krajewski...