World Projects: Global Information Before World War I

by Krajewski, Markus, and translated by Charles Marcrum II. University of Minnesota Press, 2014. 328 pp. $82.50 (hardcover). ISBN 978-0-8166-8351-2.

In the first chapter, Krajewski draws on network theory to explore the formation of the transit networks that he regards as the “media-technological a priori” (32, 199) of the global and of the world projects whose histories he recounts. His point of departure is the ontological discomfort caused by the existence of single transit or communication line, which, because it is not connected with other lines or other modes of communication, can only take the traveler on an incomplete voyage. However, this experience of communicatus interruptus, Krajewski argues, provided a permanent stimulus for the extension of the communication networks, their multiplication, their interlinkage, and their increasingly seamless synchronization. The logic of this process pointed, on the one hand, toward the integration of the globe into a single communicative space and, on the other, to the development of increasingly fine-meshed networks, which would in theory insure that—like a spatial form of differential calculus—every single point within this global space could be individually addressed and rendered accessible to the movement of people, goods, and information. The end point of this process was the idea of remainderlessness (Restlosigkeit), which was the theoretical complement to the “world” and the main title of the original German edition.[1] To the extent that one can speak of such, the transcendental subjects to whom these complex networks appeared in their intelligible unity were the published compendia of timetables and intermodal connections, such as Bradshaw’s Monthly General Railway and Steam Navigation Guide for Great Britain and Ireland (9-12), which became thicker and thicker as the density of communications networks and their mutual articulation increased. However, the nature of the globality described by Krajewski is as much logical as spatial, and its master concepts are totality, individuality, and remainderlessness; systematicity and “organization”; universal addressability, calculability, and accessibility; and energy, economy, and standardization.

The core chapters of the book deal with three sets of world projects. The focus of chapter 2 are the projects for a world language, a world currency, and a world format for paper (which was the primary medium for the circulation of information) that were spawned by Wilhelm Ostwald, the winner of the 1909 Nobel Prize in chemistry. Chapter 3 provides an account of the efforts of the self-educated historian Franz Maria Feldhaus. He aspired to write a world history of technology through the compilation of a universal library aspiring to contain all of the facts that constituted this discrete domain or “world” of knowledge. Chapter 4 deals with Walther Rathenau, who is important for Krajewski’s argument primarily for his wartime efforts to organize within the self-contained space of the nation the efficient and economical flow of raw materials that prevailed in the prewar years at the global level. If in the first chapters, Krajewski was interested in the “cultural and media-technological configurations, structures and figures of thought [that] smooth[ed] the way from the local to the global” (xv), the perspective is reversed with Feldhaus and Rathenau:  rather than the intensive circulation of goods between continents, Krajewski focuses on the condensation, “reduction, centralization, bundling…unification, and economic and organizational standardization” that made possible the reproduction of the global within the local (172). The final chapter examines the dialectic of totality and remainderlessness. 

All of the projects described by Krajewski were faced with the challenge of establishing the universality of the norms they proposed and then insuring their institutionalization at the global scale. The authors of these projects displayed an optimistic, cosmopolitan faith that, once the relevant publics recognized how much time and energy these world projects could save, they would be adopted in a quasi-automatic manner that would render national power unnecessary and national boundaries meaningless. However, the irruption of the (geo)political in 1914 shattered this cosmopolitan optimism and led instead to the nationalist reformulation of these projects – a shift that can be seen most clearly in Ostwald’s turn from Esperanto to a simplified form of German as the proposed world language and in Rathenau’s national inversion of the global economy.

Krajewski’s account of the media-technological a priori and of the infrastructure that allowed it to function has permanently shifted the way that we think about communication technologies and their role in globalization at the turn of the twentieth century. Yet this achievement comes at a price. Although the projects for a global language were rendered plausible by the reduction of communication from the exchange of symbols to the exchange of signals, Krajewski does not reflect on the consequences of this shift for the nature of these world projects. Moreover, with the exception of Rathenau, all of the people discussed by Krajewski were minor figures whose work was peripheral to the great forces of the day. Although their projects may have provided Krajewski with a privileged medium for teasing out the logic of globality, the actual process of globalization was intensely political, and there is no obvious path from these world projects to the analysis of the power relations that determined the specific contours of both the global exchange of raw materials, products, people, and symbols and the development of the media-technological infrastructure itself. Nor does the book allow us to see that these world projects were by no means the only important attempts to combine global reach with access the individual. One need only recall Weber’s bureaucracy, the department store, and the variety of state-sponsored infrastructural projects that were likewise designed to render people and resources legible and accessible so as to make control over territory into a source of social power.

In conclusion, I have to say a few unkind words about the English text. The second sentence of the book speaks of the “Irish town of Bandoran, eighty-five kilometers southwest of London” (ix). Needless to say, it is impossible for any Irish town to lie eighty-five kilometers southwest of London. The reference, which could only be clarified through interlibrary loan, was actually to Londonderry, not London. The text (11) erroneously speaks of the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, rather than George Bradshaw, as the publisher of the Continental Railway Guide. Lastly, the English text generally seeks to emulate Krajewski’s German style, rather than to render it accessible to the Anglophone reader. On more than one occasion, however, I caught myself doing quick translations back to the German, while in other places I felt that the translation was leading me down a syntactical rabbit hole.[2]

Lawrence Frohman, Associate Professor of History, SUNY

[1] Restlosigkeit. Weltprojekte um 1900 (Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 2006).

[2] For example: “Where it—ironically—approaches the literal definition of catalysis, above all the circumstance of not appearing in the end product, in this case of a new physical worldview, remains the fundamental characteristic of catalysis” (35).