Most of my blog posts are musing, repetitive affairs, but in this one I want to make a more scholarly case for something that I think is necessary, and which would be helpful for historical geographers, historians of geography and geopolitics, and related circles. Namely, I want to try and show why I would like to see the works of a German geographer, Ernst Kapp (1808-1896), translated from their original German into English. I’ve tried to link to openly available sources throughout, but some of them are behind paywalls. And as ever, this is far from a thorough, detailed story or explanation, but merely – and quite literally – my thoughts on a Monday lunchtime, during my first day back after Christmas…
Anyway. Kapp was a philosopher of technology and a geographer who was born in the Upper Franconian town of Ludwigstadt in Germany in 1808. He studied philology at the University of Bonn before completing a PhD in History on the role of the Athenian fleet in securing Athenian hegemony between 900BC and 400BC. After becoming Professor at Minden Gymnasium, he became fascinated by the new scientific approach to geography and – inspired by Hegel and the writings of eminent German geographer Ritter – subsequently published a number of books on geography and history, such as Leitfaden beim ersten Schulunterricht in der Geschichte und Geographie (‘Guidelines on First School Education in History and Geography’) in 1833 and Philosophische oder vergleichende Erdkunde (‘General and Philosophical Comparative Geography) in 1845. These works borrowed from and argued for Ritter’s organic conception of the state. As Frank Hartmann recalls, it “was especially Ritter who influenced Kapp to think of geography in a physiological way in which elements of the earth were considered to be like inter-related organs.” After becoming disillusioned with Prussia’s political repression, he emigrated to Texas in the United States, where he owned a farm and wrote in favour of the abolitionists during the American Civil War. He subsequently returned to Germany for a family visit in 1867 but became too unwell to make the return to the United States, and so settled down in Dusseldorf where he lived out the rest of his life. He continued writing, however, and in 1877 published what is now considered his magnum opus, Grundlinien einer Philosophie der Technik (‘Elements of a Philosophy of Technology’, a nod to Hegel) before his death in 1896.
To my knowledge, Kapp’s work is entirely untranslated into English. Furthermore, he is far more recognised in the field of the philosophy of technology than he is in geography, and is heralded by authors such as Carl Mitcham as the first authentic philosopher of technology (most of the biographical detail in the above paragraph is also from Mitcham). Today, his thought lives on mostly in the form of ‘extension theory’ in the philosophy of technology, which (broadly speaking) theorises technology as an extension, augmentation, and reproduction of human bodily capacities. In his 1877 book, Kapp defined technology as Organprojektion – as a direct prolongation and projection of human organs. He believed, moreover, that particular technologies were the projections of specific organs only and not in a more general sense. Thus the human hand was projected in a number of different ways – the cupped hands in which one held water was projected in the hollow coconut, the fists were projected in weapons such as the hammer, the bent finger was projected in the fishing hook, and the teeth were projected in the knife. Kapp’s notion of Organprojektion therefore referred to the externalisation of an interior, whereby the human body was protracted and given force unto the world in and through its projection by technology.
What was absolutely crucial, however, was that Kapp insisted technology was not a simple extension of human reason, intention, or judgement that worked in a kind of ‘one way street’ fashion. He proposed that Organprojektion was a recursive and co-constitutive process, and emphasised the active, agential role that technology played in the reproduction, transformation, and distortion of the figure of the human. Technology was not reduced to its utility value, but instead became “a fundamental functional element in the biological and cultural evolution of homo sapiens […] what is projected as an outside, the technological objects, gets confused with the very inside, the origin of projection, which is the body” – as Paul Väliaho nicely puts it. In other words, technology is as constitutive of the human as the human is constitutive of technology, to the point where upholding an ontological distinction between the two is entirely untenable. The evolution of humanity for Kapp is in fact a coevolution of humanity and technology; a constant process of recursive production and reproduction.
I first became interested in Kapp because of my PhD thesis, which looks at the relationship between transcontinental railways and geopolitics in the rough period that Eric Hobsbawn described as the Age of Empire – 1875-1945. Kapp’s thought was appealing to me in a rather roundabout way. I was thinking with the German historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s concept of circulation – which is distinct from while having similarities to the one offered by Foucault in his Security, Territory, Population lectures – as a way of conceptualising how transcontinental railway systems were connected to geopolitical imaginations of non-European continental space as inert, unconscious, and fundamentally entombed within nature. I won’t bore you with the details, but Schivelbusch pointed to how technological, social, and economic institutions and processes underwent a biologisation in the late nineteenth century, with railways in particular being referred to in terms of all manner of biological metaphors – the pathways of the human cardiovascular system’s veins and arteries; the structure of the musculoskeletal system such as the spine, ribs, and fingers; the sinews of the nervous system such as nerves; and finally different parts of plants and trees such as roots, trunk lines, offshoots, and branches. The biologisation of railway discourse was apparent before the invention of the railway itself, emerging after James Watt drew an analogy between steam power and horsepower in 1784. This inaugurated the notion that technological and mechanised power could and should be represented and discussed in terms of natural, biological energy, culminating in the symbolic description of the railway as an iron horse.
Schivelbusch proposed the concept of circulation as a kind of ‘catch-all’ term for these processes. He thought that the vitality of social, political, and economic institutions became connected to the existence of a functioning circulatory system of one kind or another, choosing this word circulation because it reflected both biological (cardiovascular) and technological (the movement of traffic on railways) imperatives. As the common rendering went, national railways thus circulated the ‘lifeblood’ – labour, resources, etc. – of the state. In a good example, Felix Konrad Jeschke, in a recently completed PhD at UCL, shows how railways were imagined as the veins and arteries that would transform the newly ordained Czechoslovakia from an artificial nation-state to an organic whole in the interwar years. Kapp was of interest to me here precisely because of his musings on railway technology in his 1877 book – in Chapter Seven he discussed railway networks as an extension and externalisation of the human circulatory system. “Like the organism,” Kapp proposed, “the steam engine circulates energy and needs ‘food’ in the form of coal in order to survive”. As the work of Schivelbusch, Jeschke, and indeed my own PhD demonstrates, Kapp was no means alone in using such language, but he was novel in that he proposed all of this as an ontology of technology, rather than just an appropriate analogy, metaphor, or comparison that could be made.
I have probably by now begun to bore you with details, so suffice to say that by placing Kapp alongside Schivelbusch – Schivelkapp, as I affectionately dubbed them – I was able to think more clearly about the relations between railways, technology, and geopolitics around the end of the nineteenth century through the concept of circulation. But as I have mentioned, none of Kapp’s work – not even the 1877 so-called magnum opus – has been translated into English. This meant I had to rely on the voluminous secondary literature in the philosophy of technology to piece together Kapp’s thinking on technology for myself (I was aided, it should be noted, by an endlessly kind and patient German colleague with some of the passages from Kapp’s book itself). But it was this voluminous secondary literature on Kapp’s theories of technology that got me thinking. Why was it that there was a huge (Anglophone) literature on Organprojektion, but barely a mention in (Anglophone) geography of Kapp or his work? Perhaps his geography was rubbish, and perhaps this is why he shifted towards writing about technology. But it was clear to me that his thinking on technology was clearly influenced by geographers such as Ritter – Organprojektion is surely wedded to Ritter’s thinking about organic cultures in some indiscernible way. Given that my PhD was on railways, not Kapp or lineages of the German geographical tradition, I didn’t dwell much on this.
But recent work has surely disembowelled the idea that Kapp’s geography is unrecognised because it is insignificant or rubbish. Most prominently, much recent scholarship has connected Carl Schmitt’s provocative political thought to Kapp’s thinking on geography and technology, following Schmitt’s own discussion of Kapp in his book Land and Sea. For example, in a paper by Peter Murphy on Carl Schmitt’s thought on land and sea power, it is noted that Schmitt’s “model of world-historical epochs is borrowed from Ernst Kapp”. Not only this, it is suggested that Schmitt also borrowed from Kapp’s thinking on technology to explain the difference between (English) sea power and (German) continental land power, and the replacement of the latter by the former in a way we still associate most prominently with the British geographer Halford J. Mackinder. This is surely of relevance, given the recent upswell of interest in Schmitt in critical human geography, historical geography, and beyond. Giorgi Tavadze also notes this intersection, noting how Kapp’s apparent description of Venice as a ‘lagoon-state’ and his analysis of the sea as a ‘great liberator of humans’ foreshadows (at minimum) Schmitt’s work on land and sea. Kapp is also mentioned in similar ways in Michael Heffernan’s chapter in the book Spatiality, Sovereignty and Carl Schmitt: Geographies of the Nomos and in William Hooker’s Carl Schmitt’s International Thought: Order and Orientation. In a slightly different register, Dean Bond – in an article on Hegel’s geographical thought – postulates that a study of the links between Hegel and Ritter could also consider Kapp, and the ways in which Kapp took forward and developed the ideas of each in his own geographical work.
I am no expert in any of this, and my interest in Kapp was entirely accidental. However, my frustration, more than anything (and this speaks to an inherent Anglocentrism that I recognise and acknowledge), is that I am not able to read Kapp on his own terms, and must therefore rely on the secondary literature to understand Organprojektion and the snippets of work mentioned above to begin to make sense of what his geography was. However, it seems clear to me that any analysis of the ‘German geographical tradition’ (if we may call it that), or more narrowly of Carl Schmitt’s (geo?)political thought, that does not properly consider Kapp will be impoverished. Off the top of my geopolitics-inflected head, the German geographical tradition sort of runs through Hegel to von Humboldt and Ritter to Ratzel to Haushofer and Schmitt, and it would appear that Kapp is a link of sorts that was important to the development and shaping of this tradition.
It is for this reason I’d like to see his Philosophical Geography translated or at least some more detailed work done on it, as well as his foundational work on technology. I can also imagine An Historical Geography of Ernst Kapp as a brilliant PhD thesis that could and should be written, and which would be an excellent and worthwhile contribution to the history and historiography of German geographical and geopolitical thought. This might contain a proper and thorough analysis of Kapp’s oeuvre; a review and evaluation of German scholarship on Kapp for an Anglophone audience; placing him within, and comparing him to, the thinking of Ritter, Hegel, Schmitt, and others; a consideration of how place and power (his formative years at Minden, his feelings on Prussia, and perhaps particularly Kapp’s time in the United States, which is sometimes flagged as being transformative for him) shaped his geographical thinking; and finally a thorough excavation of the relation between Kapp’s thought on geography and technology. Alas, if I could speak and read German, it might be something I’d want to do myself.
However, given that I’ve tried and failed at learning German twice, I’d just like to be able to read him. So in the exceedingly unlikely event that any translators, geographers, publishers, etc. are reading this, go on, do it. I promise I’ll buy two copies of everything, one to keep, and one to scribble all over.