Below is an abstract for a paper I will be presenting / discussing at a seminar / roundtable at the 2012 Northeastern Modern Languages Association Conference (NeMLA), taking place March 15-18 in Rochester, NY. The panel/seminar will address nuclear criticism, and is titled “Nuclear Criticism and the ‘Exploding Word.'” Michael Blouin at Michigan State is organizing the seminar.
“Literature has Always Belonged to the Nuclear Epoch”?: Interrogating Nuclear Criticism’s Fabulous Textuality
During the brief heyday when nuclear criticism was a visible and viable critical practice—from around 1984 to 1993—one of its principle debates raged around a provocative statement made by Jacques Derrida in the founding document of nuclear criticism, “No Apocalypse, Not Now.” Derrida famously remarked that global nuclear war is “a phenomenon whose essential feature is that it is fabulously textual, through and through.” Critics such as Peter Schwenger, Avital Ronnell, and, to a lesser extent, Richard Klein embraced this statement in quite productive and interesting ways. J. Fisher Solomon, William J. Scheick, and others, though clearly indebted to Derrida, took issue with nuclear criticism’s emphasis on the textuality of the nuclear referent, wanting instead to practice a more ethical nuclear criticism, one that constantly stressed the reality (rather than poststructural textuality) of nuclear weaponry. This debate culminated in Christopher Norris’s Uncritical Theory (1992), a considered response to Jean Baudrillard’s infamous article, “The Gulf War Has Not Taken Place.” Right around the time Roger Luckhurst, Klein, and Ken Ruthven were considering the “future of nuclear criticism,” however, not only did the debate end, but the explicit practice of nuclear criticism disappeared with the end of the Cold War. (Ruthven also suffered the curious fate of publishing the first and ostensibly last study of nuclear criticism in 1993).
As one of the goals of this panel is to seriously take up the question regarding the function of nuclear criticism at the present time, an endeavor I consider to be of paramount importance for a number of reasons, this paper will return to this historical debate in light of our contemporary moment. Rather than situating this debate between the “archive” or “text” and the “real,” however, my aim is to interrogate an equally provocative statement of Derrida’s that, to my knowledge, has not been seriously discussed anywhere: that literature “has always belonged to the nuclear epoch, even if it does not talk ‘seriously’ about it. . . . I believe that the nuclear epoch is dealt with more ‘seriously’ in the writings of Mallarmé, of Kafka, or Joyce, for example, than in present-day novels that would describe a ‘true’ nuclear catastrophe directly and in a ‘realistic’ fashion.” What does Derrida mean by this offhand remark? What could Kafka or Joyce have to do with the “nuclear epoch”? I will argue that for the practice of nuclear criticism to go forward, we must take Derrida’s statement quite seriously, for it points to a more fluid, rigorous, and historically adaptable form of nuclear criticism than what has previously gone under that name. Specifically, I will consider the final scene from the “Cyclops” chapter in James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), and the “Nausicaa” chapter more generally, as definitively nuclear moments. To do so not only returns us to the past of nuclear criticism’s internal debates, but forces us to ask the serious questions: what is nuclear criticism, what are its current or possible roles, and what is its appropriate critical object? If something as canonically inscribed into the archive and as exhaustively studied as Ulysses can still benefit from the practice nuclear criticism (especially considering it cannot really be called explicitly nuclear at all), then we must take very seriously nuclear criticism’s current possibilities, not only in a world circumscribed by disasters of all kinds, but to imagine a world free from the threat of nuclear annihilation.