Review: Terror from the Air 29.05.09

Written by 

words William Wiles

Terror from the Air is a book that, once read, seeps into the thoughts in unexpected places and at unexpected times. It becomes pervasive, unavoidable, much like its subject matter: gas and the atmosphere. Sloterdijk's eye-catching premise for this book is that the 20th century dawned in a "spectacular revelation" on 22 April 1915. On that date, in the midst of the First World War, French-Canadian troops in the northern Ypres salient were attacked using chlorine, the first instance of gas warfare in history. In that act, modernity was born.

This is a gratifyingly contentious thing to say, and nicely whets the appetite to discover how Sloterdijk, Germany's leading public intellectual, makes his case. The resulting book - first published in German in 2002 and only now available in translation - is a short but densely woven collection of material that brings together chemical warfare, surrealist art, terrorism, climate change, the mass media and architecture and design.

Sloterdijk sidles towards modernity, slowly gathering up his evidence and rhetorical weaponry before launching a dazzling assault on the target at near the last moment. The first half of Terror from the air is a potted history of poison gas in the 20th century from that moment in Flanders on. 1915-1945 unfolds with an awful feeling of inevitability. After the First World War, cyanide gas is repackaged for civilian pest control under the trade name Zyklon. In 1941, the marketing of Zyklon as a form of "gas hygiene" links up with the Nazi state's anti-semitism in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Sickening connections and premonitions are everywhere: Zyklon B - "which would soon become a household name", Sloterdijk deadpans - first comes to market in 1924, the same year the United States introduces the gas chamber as a "humane" form of execution; Adolf Hitler vows to become a politician while recovering from a British gas attack. The chain of consequences extends to the present day, via the firebombing of Dresden and the United States' frankly terrifying experimentation with weather-control and ionospheric warfare, the implications of which are nightmarish.

This is all eerie and fascinating. It has the air of something Thomas Pynchon might turn into a novel, particularly when Sloterdijk talks about the "black meteorology" of planning a gas attack, a moment that brings to mind the black geometry and statistics described in Gravity's Rainbow. But we're off Sloterdijk's primary point, which is that 22 April 1915 was the first time a military force targeted the enemy's environment rather than his body or equipment. The gas attack was intended to deprive the French-Canadian troops of a milieu in which they could operate. By Sloterdijk's reasoning and definitions, that was the true birth of terrorism, or "atmo-terrorism", and the birth of "environmental thinking". By the latter, Sloterdijk means that it was the moment when breathable air was no longer a "given" - we could no longer take it for granted. And he is magnificent on defining and exploring terror, which "can only be understood when grasped as a form of exploration of the environment from the perspective of its destructibility". The terrorist looks at cities, trains, planes, atmospheres, and calculates how they can be used to kill.

The essence of Sloterdijk's argument is that modernity is an assault on "givens" - it aims to question everything that is taken for granted. It is an assault on our environment, both real and conceptual. Gas warfare snatched away our ability to unquestioningly trust the air, terrorism aims to disturb all placid or complacent enjoyment of life, modern art "wields terror against symbols" and uses the outrage as a measure of success and science is meticulously picking apart life's meaning and replacing old, comforting mysteries with unfamiliar and disquieting ones. And then there's the changing climate. "Living and breathing under open skies can no longer hold the same meaning as before," Sloterdijk says. As we come to understand the havoc that industrialisation has wrought upon our atmosphere, and try to put it right, we are also engaging in design: we have to decide what kind of atmosphere, and planet, we want. Sloterdijk, in his tightly packed and fibrous (sometimes indigestible) style, ties this up with architecture through the invention of climate-control and air-conditioning, and Walter Benjamin's connection of 19th-century arcades with the invention of consumer society.

There is more, much more, in Terror from the Air, an extraordinary feat for a book that is a mere 110 pages long. At times Sloterdijk is hard work, but he more than compensates for that with virtuoso passages in which insight is piled upon insight. It is above all a plea for realism in the face of the monumental difficulties of modernity and in the wake of a century of huge destructiveness. It creeps up on you, and leaves you breathless.

Terror From the Air, by Peter Sloterdijk, Semiotext(e), distributed by MIT Press, £9.95

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