The starting point is a novel entitled Gas gegen Gas (Gas against Gas) written by the chemist, editor, and translator Dora Sophie Kellner (1890–1960), which was serialized in a number of newspapers between 1930–32. The novel takes place between Berlin and a number of islands in the Adriatic Sea in the interwar years. It centres on two female protagonists, one of whom assists in the invention of a gas that might shield urban populations from the effects of chemical warfare: an antidote to chloroacetophenone, or tear gas. It is a work of ambiguous genre, suspended between capitalist crime novel, bourgeois family drama, and feminist sci-fi, born out of the traumatic events of the First World War, foreshadowing years of conflict to come.
Gas gegen Gas builds on a short piece of journalism, entitled ‘The Weapons of Tomorrow’ (1925), which was subsumed into Kellner’s husband Walter Benjamin’s Gesammelte Schriften, though it is likely to be, at least partially, written by her. If this article describes in terrifying detail the body’s experience of contact with chemical gases, inflicted by a conspiracy of technology and the state, the novel is an attempt to map its technical, scientific, and political resistance.
Eva Weissweiler’s recent biography of Dora Sophie Kellner, Das Echo deiner Frage. Dora und Walter Benjamin — Biographie einer Beziehung (2020), has made Kellner’s intellectual career and this novel in particular more widely known in the German-speaking world. Over the past year, Sam Dolbear and Flossie Draper (who is also the great-granddaughter of Dora Sophie Kellner and Walter Benjamin) have collected and collated the novel’s installments from the three different periodicals in which they were printed and embarked on its first complete publication in both German and English.
This symposium will begin with a synopsis of the novel, followed by an exploration of its various themes. It aims to introduce the life and work of Dora Sophie Kellner and place the novel within its contemporary and subsequent historical contexts, particularly anti-war aesthetic and political currents in the 1920s; to consider the place of the city and the vulnerability of the body in the endurance of, and resistance to, war and state violence; to investigate the relationship between the technologies of war and colonialism, capitalism, and science, and the place of tear gas within the histories of riot, protest, and insurrection; and to explore histories of science fiction, questions of forensics, trauma, genre, and seriality, the possibility of an anti-militarist or feminist science, and the politics of breath and turbidity.
14:00 Sam Dolbear:
Welcome and Introduction
Flossie Draper and Marisa Eva:
Gas gegen Gas (synopsis/performance)
In conversation with Arnd Wedemeyer
15:00 Coffee Break
15:20 Flossie Draper reads
‘The Weapons of Tomorrow’ (1925)
The Theft of Breath
Party Gas: Some thoughts on (CHCl=CH)3As (Levisite)
Response by Esther Leslie
16:30 Coffee Break
17:00 Screening Forensic Architecture:
Plaza de la Dignidad, Santiago de Chile
Introduction by Sam Dolbear
A Human Eye: Adrienne Rich vs. the State
Breathing Science Fictions
Responses and Reflections by Özgün Eylül İşcen
19:30 Keynote Esther Leslie:
These Tears, This Gas, These Turbulent Times
Moderated by Sam Dolbear
Sam Dolbear and Flossie Draper
This event is partly supported by an Initiativstipendium from the Deutscher Übersetzerfonds, who is supporting Sam Dolbear and Flossie Draper to explore the possibility of a publication of Gas gegen Gas in both German and English.
Image credit © A photograph of the front page of the Südwestdeutsche Rundfunk Zeitung from 19 October 1930, which is captioned (in German) ‘Camilla from Zöllnitz, the heroine of our new novel Gas against Gas’. The photograph was taken of a microfilm screen of the newspaper at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin in October 2021 by Sam Dolbear.