Fort Hamilton, NY

Devastating Memory


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”.

Minuteman III missile launch


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.