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The Devil’s Rope: A Cultural History of Barbed Wire by Alan Krell

(223 pp. 118 Illustrations, 14 Colour)

by Marita Bullock

© all rights reserved.

In the postscript to The Devil’s Rope, A Cultural History of Barbed Wire, Alan Krell invokes Itamar Harari’s sculpted pair of glasses, each lens of which is strung with three miniature pieces of barbed wire. Exhibited at Tel Aviv’s Ascola School of Design in 2001, Harari’s image, titled 'Sharp Sight', engages with the complexities of looking from within the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However the image is particularly suggestive for the way in which it resonates with the leitmotifs of ‘vision’, ‘touch’ and ‘control’ that recur in Krell’s analysis of barbed wire. More specifically, 'Sharp Sight' captures the complex ways in which the figure of barbed wire is employed in Alan Krell’s cultural history. In one sense this pun signifies the shift in methodological focus that occurs in Krell’s practise of using barbed wire as a framing device. In another sense, it gestures toward the ways in which the practise of looking at, or looking through barbed wire, is tied up in a history of pain.

Krell’s analysis of barbed wire is novel in the way that it undermines traditional methodological distinctions between the analysis of ‘art’ and the writing of ‘history’. Engaging with texts as diverse as painting, photography, poetry, personal memoirs, cartoons, advertisements, films and fashion, Krell’s well-illustrated history eschews the narrative register of officialese in favour of a history of symbolic dimensions. Barbed wire is anything but a reliable, rusty backdrop in a history of ‘great’ achievements in human development. Rather, for Krell, barbed wire becomes a figurative marker through which to draw history into the terrain of cultural politics; it defines a cultural-historical landscape that is, more often than not, inflicted with suffering and division.

The early sections of Krell’s study discuss the ways in which barbed wire has operated as a vicious tool of constraint in the modern experience – a technology of “defence and demarcation” devised to keep out or to keep in (45). Having been conceived as an ideal solution to the problem of controlling cattle in France, Krell traces the ways in which barbed wire was implemented in the ‘taming’ of America’s West, where it became synonymous with capitalist expansionism, and an integral part of the American dream. Krell notes that it was most likely due to this context that barbed wire received its epithet ‘the devil’s rope’; folklore has it that Indigenous Americans cursed the wire for the way in which it alienated them from their traditional hunting grounds. This epithet anticipates the way in which barbed wire became an integral part of the mechanised landscape of modern warfare. Krell gives a lengthy analysis of the ways in which barbed wire was used as a tool of war, tracing its use as a defensive weapon in Kitchener’s blockhouses of the Boer war and its implementation in the trench fortifications of the first world war. He also undertakes an interesting analysis of the way in which the electrification of barbed wire in the Nazi concentration camps changed the way in which prisoners regarded their incarceration. This notion is touched on in Krell’s discussion of the Auschwitz-Birkenau saying, “embracing the wire,” which was a form of slang used by the prisoners to describe the suicides that frequently occurred inside the concentration camps. Krell suggests that the prisoners’ form of irony successfully negated the camp’s prerogative of death in that it reconfigured the wire as a marker of love and empowerment.

This saying gestures toward the Janus-like character of wire, its ability to both contain and release, and for Krell, it is this ambiguity which marks wire as a startling symbol of modernity. Thus Krell not only focuses on the way in which barbed wire has been embroiled in the painful histories of territorial expansion, international conflict, incarceration and extermination. His later chapters set out to discuss the ways in which various post-war cultures have exploited its indeterminate status. He analyses various representations which place barbed wire in the quotidian, where it is simply “lived with, re-adapted or ignored” (88) as well as a range of texts which use barbed wire in the figuration of the body. He gives a particularly interesting analysis of the ways in which barbed wire is used as a signifier for the sexual body, analysing the ways in which it is conflated with the ‘dangers’ of the female prostitute in the propaganda posters of the second world war, through to its figuration in the painful pleasures of S/M practises. These analyses of the perversions of the wire feed into Krell’s final chapter, in which he discusses the way in which a diverse range of visual and performing artists and writers play upon the normative functions of barbed wire in order to engage in various social and political issues.

Krell’s elucidating take on a seemingly dull material offers an important contribution to a cultural analysis of art and history. It also offers a significant addition to the bourgeoning interest in material cultures and the ways in which materialities are invested in the shifting meanings of the social imagination. However, to the extent that Krell’s history of barbed wire promises to be an important investigation into the nexus between ‘vision’, ‘touch’ and ‘control’ in the modern context, the omission of any serious theoretical engagement with these issues thwart these expectations. Even a cursory nod to Foucault’s analysis of the interstices between vision, power, and modernity would have opened up the discussion to more complex readings and situated the analysis in productive frames of reference. Despite the absence of theoretical analysis, Krell’s eclectic methodology and his careful attention to historical detail ensure that the text is a highly pleasurable read which would most likely appeal to a general audience. Krell’s text is engaging in the way in which it takes a seemingly banal material into a diverse range of cultural settings: Who would have imagined that barbed wire would be used to facilitate free telecommunications in the American West at the turn of the century, or that this seemingly featureless and invaluable material would, by the 1970s, be classified into 1500 varieties and, consequently romanticised by over 65,000 American collectors, many of whom identified themselves under the title ‘barbarians’?

For many of these so-called ‘barbarian’ collectors, barbed wire embodies the rusty romance of an outdated technology of the nineteenth-century. Understood in this context, Krell’s cultural history is particularly significant for the way in which it textualises barbed wire in such a way so as to make it speak to our immediate historical situation. The timeliness of barbed wire is best illustrated by way of a seemingly inane piece of historical trivia that Krell invokes. The article from Time magazine, titled ‘Mir’s Untold Tales’, details the way in which Russian cosmonauts perform a ritual of urinating on barbed wire fences surrounding their launch pad, just prior to take-off. While this practise originated in the necessity of checking the security of space suits, the practise of urinating on the wire continued despite the fact that the modernisation of suits made this exercise redundant. For Krell, this superfluous piece of historical data is telling for the incongruity of the situation: highly trained professionals involved in a sophisticated space programme feel the compulsion to urinate on a site, in a manner which evokes the animal’s basic desire to control territory. It might be suggested that this superstitious act reveals the threat that the image of barbed wire poses to the ideal of technological development and its associated claims to transcendence. The rusty presence of barbed wire may operate as an unsettling reminder of the failed attempt to control and contain unknown territories. Indeed, as Krell’s analysis of wire indirectly shows us, the ideals of the Enlightenment - its fundamental tenent of Western transcendence - is tied up in a history of pain and suffering. Read in the context of the current mythologisation of a technologically ‘clean’ war – a war that proclaims to be smart, efficient and, finally, incorporeal – Krell’s history of barbed wire becomes particularly cutting.

Marita Bullock is completing her PhD in the school of English, University of New South Wales. Her topic analyses the interstices between waste, modernity and representation in contemporary Australian visual culture.

The Devil’s Rope: A Cultural History of Barbed Wire was published by Reaktion Books in 2002.

In Australian Humanities Review, see also