Abstract: Infinite Oppenheimers and Postnatural Metahistory: Jonathan Hickman’s Manhattan Projects

Below is an abstract for a paper I will be presenting at the 2013 Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts Conference, taking place October 3-6 a Notre Dame University.

Infinite Oppenheimers and Postnatural Metahistory: Jonathan Hickman’s Manhattan Projects

From the perspective of what number of young scholars and nuclear critics are calling a second nuclear age, I would like to suggest that one site of the “postnatural” can be found in the remarkable cultural intersection between narratives of nuclear history and contemporary ecological understandings of catastrophe and risk. Though there are any number of instances of such aesthetic correspondences and dissonances, for instance the spectacle of cinematic destruction that dominated the last decade, one might do well to look to texts that, parallel to the non-event of Mutually Assured Destruction, eschew moments of narrative disaster. Writer Jonathan Hickman and artist Nick Pitarra’s The Manhattan Projects (Image Comics, 2012- ) is such a text, imagining that work on the atomic bomb at Los Alamos was “a front for a series of other, more unusual, programs.” Hickman’s writing picks up a tradition of re-imagining nuclear history, familiar to any reader of Thomas Pynchon, and adds a superheroic twist: J. Robert Oppenheimer is consumed by his infinite personalities, Enrico Fermi is an alien, F.D.R. is reborn as an A.I., Albert Einstein plays the role of Wolverine, etc. This paper will argue that Hickman’s work emerges from a particular moment in which nuclear, information, and biological sciences are raising a host of interesting questions for contemporary narrative. Hickman’s radically alternative history of twentieth century science and politics emerges from a postnatural perspective whose horizon surpasses the globe, positioning nuclear history within a galactic ecology in order to rigorously problematize the posthuman.

Eco-Disaster and Surveillance, Some Links

So some articles of interest.

At Jacobin, Alyssa Battistoni has followed up her piece on disaster in the wake of Hurricane Sandy with “Back to No Future,” a pretty bleak essay on environmental change and the (lack of a) future.

Jeff Goodel has a piece in Rolling Stone“Goodbye, Miami,” about what (now inevitably) rising sea-levels will do to Miami.

And here’s a number of links re: the ongoing NSA drama.

Philip Bump has reported at The Atlantic Wire that the US has filed espionage charges against Edward Snowden.

Naomi Wolf raises a number of questions about Snowden, and then raises some more.

Falguina A. Sheth writes for Salon, “Snowden’s Real Crime: Humiliating the State.”

And Michael McCanne has a very interesting essay, “Total Information Awareness,” at The New Inquiry.

And linking ecological disaster and surveillance together, Nafeez Ahmed wrote a piece for The Guardian, “Pentagon Bracing for Public Dissent Over Climate and Energy Shocks.”

Notes on This is the End

This is the End 2013

So, let’s get this out of the way quickly. This is the End (dir. Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen, 2013) is a terrible movie. (I had a previous inkling that it was going to be pretty wretched.) It is adolescent (if self-consciously so), puerile (viz. Satan’s giant phallus), and misogynist, among its other sins. Perhaps most damning: it is poorly imagined. There are a number of other ways that actors playing themselves in a movie about the end of the world at James Franco’s house could have gone. Seriously. This is a brilliant premise[1] but This is the End is embarrassing.

Despite this pretty damning opinion, the spirit of The Hyperarchival Parallax’s subtitle obliges me to give this onanistic bropocalypse its due. For if nothing else, the film is somewhat fun. This is largely due to the constant metafiction the film is engaged in: Michael Cera is a degenerate, the Back Street Boys exist(ed) (right!?), Aziz Ansari is not generally liked, etc. And this is funny/interesting b/c each actor plays themselves.[2] (Or at least it is supposed to be [and often is] funny.)

But the true failure of This is the End lies in never asking itself what its basic premise means.[3] Namely, what does it mean to make a film about the “Christian” Apocalypse with a cast of goofballs (who made it big for whatever reason) playing themselves in 2013? Yes, the film is self-aware about how indulgent of a film it is (is it really though?), but if you are going to parody the currently (very) popular craze with representing megadeath and mass-destruction[4]—and in a time of danger, a time of surveillance, climate change, war, revolution, torture, and disaster—without once asking why one might make such a film nor why such a film might be interesting, timely, or important at this late and exhausted date in 2013 . . . this is a mistake.

To my mind, This is the End is a product of the 2013 orgy of disaster (see fn. 3) finally turning in on itself. And it is about time. (Whatever one may think about David Foster Wallace’s irony or sincerity) This is the End is very necessarily ironic in this time of serious-ass superhero movies destroying significant amounts of urban real-estate over and over. But it is not ironic enough. There are too many dick and fart jokes, and not enough acknowledgment of what it is and what it is doing: that it is metafiction satirizing contemporaneity and its multiplying disastrous projections of national fantasy. This is the End, if nothing else, emphasizes that we should be wary of the sincere expression of eschatological national fantasy at the present time.

[1] It really is. Though I will refrain from speculating too much how differently this film could have gone, it is a tempting activity.

[2] Though this is also to assuredly stress that the film could have benefitted from a quick refresher course on John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Cynthia Ozick, David Foster Wallace, etc. Maybe especially Wallace’s “Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way” (1989).

[3] Its other true failure rests upon its mistaken idea that, at the end of the day (literally), experiencing the end of the world w/ your friends would be kinda fun.

[4] It appears that every week a new film that imagines really massive destruction or post-apocalyptic waste will come out for the remainder of the summer. (In fact, there are a number of them playing right now!) In 2013 (just off the top of my head) we’ve seen: Olympus has Fallen (dir. Antoine Fuqua), which imagines a terrorist attack on the White House; there is the forthcoming White House Down (the new Roland Emmerich joint), also imagining a terrorist attack on the White House; there will be the xenocide of Ender’s Game (Gavin Hood); the nepotism of After Earth (M. Night Shyamalan); the (weirdly) promising looking Elysium (Neil Blomkamp); Oblivion (Joseph Kosinski) . . . ; Pacific Rim (Guillermo del Toro), which looks like it will bomb; The World’s End (Edgar Wright), another eschatological buddy-movie; World War Z (Marc Forster), Brad Pitt’s “adaptation” of Max Brook’s compelling and interesting novel of the same name (2006) (that came out today and according to Vanity Fair the film looks to be wanting); and of course finally there is Man of Steel (dir. Zack Snyder, 2013), a film I’m still puzzling over, which imagined something like two trillion dollars in damage to downtown Metropolis. There are many more such films coming out this year.

Quite simply, 2013 is the year of disaster porn. It’s everywhere. It even comes in the guise of children’s fantasy. Transformers (1984-1987) and Action Comics (1939- ) have been repurposed into visions of Armageddon and mega-death. Think about this for a second.

More selfishly, this summer blockbuster movie season is yet another reminder that a critic of the writing of the disaster will never be out of work. We are in the age of frequent, diverse, ubiquitous, and excessive disaster. It is multiplying. This is the point. The multiplication of real or imagined disaster scenarios in contemporaneity requires its own archive. Trying to deal with the reality of this requires what I have been and will continue to call hyperarchival realism.

Repackaging the Archive (Part X): The Hyperarchivalism of the NSA’s Prism with Links

In a recently published essay, I have defined the term “hyperarchive” as “an archive whose goal, whether stated or not, can be seen in an attempt to gather together as many documents and texts as it can, regardless of content.”[1] This term clearly applies to the recent revelations about the National Security Agency’s (NSA) data collection. In fact, Prism may well be the best example of a hyperarchive to date (besides the Web). To not at least gesture toward talking about Prism and massive data collection on this blog would constitute gross negligence.

One of the things that this blog consistently tries to demonstrate, draw attention to, and complicate/challenge, is the relationship between technologies of destruction and accumulation, even if only by noting (and sometimes enacting) such relationships with little-to-no commentary. I have refrained from saying much about the recent and developing story about Prism and the NSA,[2] both because it seems too “obvious” and too complex. Prism is an accumulatory technology with clear dangers and evils (which I do not think I have to spell out). Some of these dangers and evils are quite old now, and quite familiar.[3] Others are just emerging, and the potential for misusing the kind of data collected by Prism appears to be limitless. Given the parameters of the hyperarchival impulse of contemporaneity, and the reality of ubiquitous access to massive amounts of information, it is not even vaguely surprising that the NSA has been amassing massive amounts of data. And obviously there is quite a bit wrong with this (part of which is the fact that Edward J. Snowden’s revelation is not surprising).

Glen Greenwald, the writer for TheGuardian who broke this story and has been consistently reporting on it, asked nearly a month ago, “Are All Telephone Calls Recorded and Accessible to the US Government?” Most of us have probably been asking this question for a number of years. The fact that we have been asking this question seriously, for a sustained amount of time,[4] only reinforces the realities of contemporary informatics: that many of us have always tacitly assumed that we were being watched, recorded, etc., pretty much all the time. The fact that we are not much, much more upset about this scandal is probably due to this reality of contemporaneity. Thus Snowden’s whistleblowing is functioning as a confirmation of what everyone always already knew: the emperor is naked, we know, are not pretending otherwise, and don’t seem to mind. This is disturbing, to say the least.[5]

Basically, the issues being raised by the NSA scandal, the implications for thinking about information, surveillance, discipline, and control, issues regarding archives and literature, technology and war, media and communication, contemporaneity and the risk society, immigration, the nation, and the state, are many. I will not dwell on them here, in hopes that thinking about these issues will take the form of an essay (hopefully destined for a more permanent home in a [slightly] different kind of archive). In lieu of more sustained reflection and further remarks, here is a pretty decent smattering of links related to the issue in (more-or-less) chronological order. I imagine I will continue to post links regarding Prism well into the future.

A collection of Glen Greenwald’s articles (sometimes with co-authors). Greenwald has been the principal journalist covering the scandal.

“Are All Telephone Calls Recorded and Accessible to the US Government?” The Guardian (4 May 2013).

“Obama’s Terrorism Speech: Seeing What You Want to See,” The Guardian (27 May 2013).

“NSA Collecting Phone Records of Millions of Verizon Customers Daily,” The Guardian (5 June 2013).

“Verizon Forced to Hand Over Telephone Data—Full Court Ruling,” The Guardian (5 June 2013). (Has a .pdf of actual court ruling.)

“NSA Prism Program Taps into Apple, Google and Others,” The Guardian (6 June 2013). (The big one.)

“The National Security Agency: Surveillance Giant with Eyes on America,” The Guardian (6 June 2013).

“Edward Snowden: The Whistleblower Behind the NSA Surveillance Revelations,” The Guardian (9 June 2013).

Other Links:

John Markoff, “Pentagon Plans a Computer System that Would Peek at Personal Data of Americans,” The New York Times (9 November 2002).

Kieran Healy, “Using Metadata to Find Paul Revere,” Kieran Healy (9 June 2013).

“Daily Report: Dismay in Silicon Valley at N.S.A.’s Prism Project,” The New York Times (10 June 2013).

John Cassidy, “Why Edward Snowden is a Hero,” The New Yorker (10 June 2013).

Ewen McAskill, “Edward Snowden: How the Spy Story of the Age Leaked Out,” The Guardian (11 June 2013).

Aaron Bady, “Massively Open Online Police State,” The New Inquiry (12 June 2013).

[1] See Bradley J. Fest, “Apocalypse Networks: Representing the Nuclear Archive,” in The Silence of Fallout: Nuclear Criticism in a Post-Cold War World, eds. Michael J. Blouin, Morgan Shipley, and Jack Taylor (Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013), 102, n. 41. I also use the term “hyperarchive” in Bradley J. Fest, “The Inverted Nuke in the Garden: Archival Emergence and Anti-Eschatological Aesthetics in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest,” boundary 2 39, no. 3 (Fall 2012): 141, 147. And obviously I have used this term extensively on this blog.

[2] For the breaking of this story, see Glen Greenwald, “NSA Prism Taps into User Data of Apple, Google, and Others,” The Guardian (6 June 2013), http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/06/us-tech-giants-nsa-data?guni=Network%20front:network-front%20main-2%20Special%20trail:Network%20front%20-%20special%20trail:Position1.

[3] Of course, as Felicity Capon reports for the The Telegraph, sales of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) have unsurprisingly skyrocketed in the wake of the NSA scandal. See “Sales of Orwell’s 1984 [sic] Rocket in the Wake of US Prism Surveillance Scandal,” The Telegraph (12 June 2013), http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/10115599/Sales-of-Orwells-1984-rocket-in-wake-of-US-Prism-surveillance-scandal.html.

[4] In 2009’s Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon wonderfully goes back to the beginning(s) of the Internet and retroactively inserts contemporary paranoia about data surveillance into the 1970 of his novel. The NSA scandal might very well justify Pynchon’s famous and now fifty-year-old paranoia.

[5] Especially as someone who, for my first “serious work of literature,” read Nineteen Eighty-Four around the sixth grade.

Nuclear Pasts and Presents

Mark Frauenfelder, founder of Boing Boing, has reported about this little gem he found on Realtor.com: 87 Hale Hill Lane, Lewis, NY 12950. Or, to be less precise, an old missile silo that has been converted into a home. It’s on sale for only $750,000. Scott Garner (who I assume is the listing agent) has explicitly advertised it as: “Live in the Launch Control Center of this Cold War Missile Silo.”

missile silo

On the phenomenon of old missile silos and bunkers being repurposed, see photographer Richard Ross‘s Waiting for the End of the World (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2004), a fairly wonderful photo-essay on the subject. Sarah Vowell also interviews Ross in the book.