THE DEVIL'S ROPE: A Cultural History of Barbed Wire

Alan Krell, Author . Reaktion $25 (240p) ISBN 978-1-86189-144-0

This compact and dense volume's subtitle describes it accurately, warning the reader to expect less narrative or technological material than reflections on the meaning of barbed wire. The opening chapter does summarize the development of this instrument of war, which took the title nickname from the Plains Indians. Its beginnings were somewhat less violent: in a scramble for patents, three men who attended an 1873 DeKalb, Ill., county fair together separately invented barbed wire for cow control. A chapter on military uses of barbed wire focuses on the Holocaust and World War I before it (1,300 miles of wired-in trenches), but only tangentially mentions how the wire (in partnership with the machine gun) came to exert a four-year stranglehold on that war's Western Front. In "Making Familiar," the author devotes section to a cadre of barbed wire collectors. Similarly, chapters on the sexualization of barbed wire and its image in modern art explore many unconventional aspects of both sexuality (gay and straight) and protest art. The plentiful, high-quality graphic material, thorough annotation and occasionally opaque jargon are Reaktion trademarks, and regular readers of the British house will not be disappointed. Along the way, British art historian Krell (Manet and the Politics of Contemporary Life) does justice to the comic book renderings of barbed wire, as well as the movie Barb Wire, the Italian artist Toscani's Benetton advertisements and the Australian Jon Rose's surprisingly tuneful musical instruments made from strands of the wire. (May)

Forecast:This can be read alongside Olivier Razac's Barbed Wire: A Political History, published last year by New Press.

Reviewed on: 04/21/2003
Release date: 02/01/2004
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