MLA 2019 Panel: New Nuclear Criticism

At this year’s Modern Language Association Convention in Chicago (January 3-6, 2019), I will be speaking on a round table discussing the New Nuclear Criticism. I have included the information on the panel and a tentative abstract for the paper I will be presenting below. More information about the panel is available at kristingeorgebagdanov.com.

 

For previous essays of mine on nuclear criticism, see:

““Apocalypse Networks: Representing the Nuclear Archive”;

“The Inverted Nuke in the Garden: Archival Emergence and Anti-Eschatology in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest;

“Geologies of Finitude: The Deep Time of Twenty-First-Century Catastrophe in Don DeLillo’s Point Omega and Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia.”

 

246. New Nuclear Criticism

Friday, January 4, 2019, 10:15 AM–11:30 AM, Hyatt Regency – Randolph 3

The panel is sponsored by the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment.

Presider: Frances Ferguson, U of Chicago

Presenters: Jada Ach, U of South Carolina, Columbia, Bradley J. Fest, Hartwick C, Jessica Hurley, U of Chicago, Kristin George Bagdanov, U of California, Davis, Kyoko Matsunaga, Kobe City U of Foreign Studies, Inna Sukhenko, U of Helsinki

Session Description: The year 2019 marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of the 1984 colloquium at Cornell University on nuclear criticism and the publication of a special issue of Diacritics collecting the Cornell papers. Do we need a new nuclear criticism? Panelists explore what a new nuclear criticism in the context of ecological crisis might look like by drawing on archives, methods, and approaches not previously included in nuclear criticism’s original manifestation.

 

Jacques Derrida’s “No Apocalypse, Not Now” at Thirty-Five

Abstract:  2019 will mark the thirty-fifth anniversary of the 1984 colloquium at Cornell University on nuclear criticism and the publication of a special issue of Diacritics collecting its papers. The conference occurred at a historical moment of heightened tension between the United States and the Soviet Union unseen since the chilling days of October 1962. But in the intervening years, which have seen the end of the cold war, a reduction of the US and Russia’s nuclear arsenal, a nuclear treaty with Iran, and waning cultural depictions of global nuclear war, the project of nuclear criticism has seemed less vital and, indeed, at times rather anachronistic. Though significant contributions in the ongoing discussion regarding literature of the first and second nuclear ages have been made by a new generation of scholars such as Paul K. Saint-Amour, John Canady, Daniel Cordle, Daniel Grausam, Jessica Hurley, and others (e.g., the 2013 collection, The Silence of Fallout: Nuclear Criticism in a Post-Cold War World), and nuclear criticism, for others, has been subsumed under a broader concept of risk criticism inspired by the thinking of Ulrich Beck (e.g., the work of Ursula K. Heise and Paul Crosthwaite’s collection, Criticism, Crisis, and Contemporary Narrative [2011]), most would agree that literary and critical engagements with the threat of nuclear war have taken a back seat to more pressing global concerns, particularly the realities of climate change and the emergence of the Anthropocene as an important cross-disciplinary concept for understanding the present.

It seems apparent, however, that in the dark days since November 2016, literary and cultural theorists must once again confront the issue(s) of global (and limited) nuclear war and the cultural, political, economic, and social conditions that allow the persistence of what Elaine Scarry has called a “thermonuclear monarchy” in the US, particularly as this power now rests in such unpredictable hands. So the time is ripe to not only revisit the concept of nuclear criticism, as this panel proposes to do, but one of its most important, founding documents: Jacques Derrida’s “No Apocalypse, Not Now: Full Speed Ahead, Seven Missiles, Seven Missives” (1984).

This paper will reconsider Derrida’s seminal text in light of two major transformations. First, I will track and assess what Derrida calls the “nuclear referent,” particularly as it has found its way into twenty-first-century depictions of ecological disaster, representations I will suggest have now reinscribed themselves in the contemporary cultural imagination of nuclear war. Second, I will again take seriously “No Apocalypse, Not Now”’s emphasis on the fabulous textuality of nuclear war and its threat to the archive, particularly in light of the dissemination and proliferation of new exceptionalist national fantasies via the internet visible in “fake news” and the resurgence of US nationalism. This paper will argue that Derrida’s essay–and nuclear criticism more broadly–considered at the intersection of these two cultural transformation, might provide us with reinvigorated tools for confronting the new nuclear realities of contemporaneity.

“Eternal, Shiny, and Chrome”: The Fabulous Capitalist Megadisasters of the 2010s

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Apocalyptexts 5: Notes on Avengers: Age of Ultron, Mad Max: Fury Road, San Andreas, Tomorrowland, and Other Gleefully Thanatical Films

After brewing throughout the late twentieth century and 2000s, over the last five years (2010–15) we have seen the full emergence of a new cinematic cultural dominant: the summer blockbuster megadisaster film. Certainly there is a wonderfully long list of antecedent disaster films, but the summer blockbuster of the second decade of the twenty-first century has significantly raised the size, scale, and frequency of spectacular destruction while simultaneously swelling box office profits. The summer blockbuster of the 2010s—one of the most visible and profitable forms of contemporary popular culture—frequently displays what I, loosely following McKenzie Wark, would call “thanaticism”: “a gleeful, overly enthusiastic will to death.”[1] 2015’s summer blockbusters are exemplary: Avengers: Age of Ultron, Mad Max: Fury Road, San Andreas, and Tomorrowland (and others I am surely leaving out, such as Jurassic World), are terribly thanatic films. Each film, to a different degree, embraces or exploits spectacular representations of destruction (San Andreas). Each is clearly thinking about what disaster means in the age of observable climate change, global risk, and hyperobjects (Avengers). And in their better moments, these films ask their viewers what it means to look at and consume megadeath represented with a glorious abandon.[2] Even more rarely, they also dare to ask what it means that people are making money off such images (Tomorrowland, sort of) and maybe even how to talk about changing things (Mad Max, again, sort of). Concerning these latter two points, 2015 might also be a watershed for the summer megadisaster film in that Mad Max and Tomorrowland are critically self-aware of inhabiting this genre, something at this point not frequently seen outside of parody and satire.

It is hardly surprising, however, that these massively expensive films that gleefully embrace pornographic orgies of destruction were released in 2015 and that they are (for the most part) grossing gobs of money. Over the past few years, the big screen has been inundated by ecstatic thanoptic fury during the summer months. 2012 solidified this trend with The Avengers, Battleship, The Dark Knight Rises, Iron Sky, and Total Recall. 2013: Elysium, Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, Pacific Rim, Star Trek Into Darkness, This Is the End, White House Down, The World’s End, and World War Z. 2014: Aftermath, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Edge of Tomorrow, The Giver, Godzilla, Lucy, The Purge: Anarchy, Snowpiercer, SuperMegaDestructionofEveryingEver, Transformers 4: Age of Extinction, and X-Men: Days of Future Past.[3] Such films, diverse as they may be, in varying degrees signal that there has fully emerged a mass-destruction genre unique to contemporaneity, and that, by and large, twenty-first-century disaster films have departed from the twentieth-century postmodern national fantasy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).[4]

I would like to propose a theoretical grab bag of tentative explanations for the extremely successful emergence of what I am calling here the “capitalist megadisaster film.”

First, extending Wark’s discussion of thanaticism, each of these films inhabits—critically, unintentionally, or otherwise—one of the central paradoxes of life in the twenty-first century: that unchecked capitalist production will consume all the carbon resources on the planet, burn them into the atmosphere, and thereby make the planet unlivable. More than merely an update of Sigmund Freud’s death drive,[5] Wark intends thanaticism as an explanatory term that better captures such global economic, environmental, and biological realities than terms such as neoliberalism, postfordism, or late capitalism. Thanaticism is “a social order which subordinates the production of use values to the production of exchange value, to the point that the production of exchange value threatens to extinguish the conditions of existence of use value. . . . Exchange value has to unreel its own inner logic to the end: to mass extinction.”[6] Thanaticism underlies the capitalist megadisaster film. All of these films, knowingly or not, are responses to the despair of contemporaneity: the world is sliding slowly, constantly, and irrevocably toward (a) disaster (that is already occurring), and we appear to be gleefully celebrating this fact. We cannot look away nor can we imagine changing the disaster’s trajectory (with anything less than the intervention of fantasmatic posthuman supergods). Thanaticism is what makes the narratives of Mad Max: Fury Road and Tomorrowland even conceivable as products to be sold to large audiences in the first place.[7] The capitalist megadisaster film is part of the global cultural logic of thanaticism.

Closely related to this, the summer megadisaster blockbuster is also a great example of what Mark Fisher calls “capitalist realism”: “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.”[8] Following Fredric Jameson’s famous quip that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism,[9] Fisher locates in such exemplary texts like Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006) “the suspicion that the end has already come.”[10] The megadisaster film is one of the principle vehicles for capitalist realism, and the blockbusters of 2015 are exemplary expressions of it.

Third, in a variety of ways these films are all (inherently futile) attempts at totalization, attempts to think the impossible totality of contemporaneity. In this, the capitalist megadisaster film grapples with what Timothy Morton calls “hyperobjects . . . things massively distributed in time and space relative to humans.”[11] Hyperobjects in their size and scale far exceed an individual human’s capacity for knowing or comprehending them. Global warming, the Milky Way Galaxy, the totality of the capitalist system, the internet, plastic, all the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—these are all hyperobjects. They are massive in physical scale and extend into deep time, and can be both the result of human activity and/or radically nonhuman. The effects of global warming will still be around one million years from now. In tens of thousands of years one of the clearest indicators of previous human existence will be a thin layer of plastic in the geologic record. Objects that exist at these kinds of scales dwarf our ability to concretely know them in anything except the abstract.

Morton suggests that “all those apocalyptic narratives of doom about the ‘end of the world’ are, from [the] point of view [of hyperobjects], part of the problem, not part of the solution. By postponing doom into some hypothetical future, these narratives inoculate us against the very real object that has intruded into ecological, social, and psychic space. . . . The hyperobject spells doom now, not as some future date.”[12] Though I think that Morton is correct—both about what Jacques Derrida would call the to come of apocalyptic futurity, especially as it pertains to cold war nuclear narratives,[13] and about late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century environmental catastrophe narratives set close to the present as insufficient engagements with contemporary global risk[14]—I would like to suggest that the megadisaster films of the 2010s are beginning to perceive doom not at some point in the future, but in our present, all around us. As Steven Shaviro has written about our attempts to understand hyperobjects: “We may model [a hyperobject] mathematically and computationally; or else we may encapsulate it in the form of a story. One of the great virtues of science fiction in particular is that it works as a kind of focusing device, allowing us to feel the effects of these hyperobjects—of digital technology, or capitalism, or climate change—intimately and viscerally, on a human and personal scale, contained within the boundaries of a finite narrative.”[15]

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Take, for instance, Joss Whedon’s (intolerably boring) Avengers: Age of Ultron. The film is populated by attempts to grasp hyperobjects on a human scale through narrative.[16] We may not be able to completely grasp the awesome power of all the hydrogen bombs in the world, but The Hulk as an indestructible violent force of nature captured by human technological abilities (or accidents) makes a certain kind of sense. A transcendent posthuman singularity may be so far beyond human knowing that it exceeds the combined brainpower of all the seven billion people on Earth, but The Vision walking around, talking, and fighting bad guys is eminently graspable. All the Avengers arguably stand for, allegorize, and allow us to feel the effects of hyperobjects. Captain America, well, is the United States (in all of its exceptionalist, imperialist glory, while still trying to look like a really nice guy who can, like, “lead”). Hawkeye is humanity just trying to get by without any superpowers in a world that has quickly outpaced him (yes, the species is also a hyperobject). Quicksilver is something like duration, or speed, or the fabric of space-time itself. The Black Widow might be said to stand in for the combined intelligence forces of the US and the Soviet Union during the cold war, now divested of their previous ties and operating black sites without any oversight, obliquely hidden from the world stage—such as Blackwater. The Scarlet Witch has unique access to interiority: emotion, memory, et cetera, so she might be a nice analogue for the immense surveillance powers of the contemporary internet, whether the NSA or Amazon, and its ability to understand and track affect through consumerism. I’ve never been clear on Thor. He is, what, like a god? So he acts like one of the new gods, the emergent posthuman beings of the present (like capitalism [recently] becoming artificially intelligent). And, of course, bankrolling the whole thing is Iron Man, a thinly veiled, walking allegory for neoliberalism and its ideological fantasy of the mythical genius inventor-entrepreneur as the ideal subject of the twenty-first century. And who are they all fighting? Ultron, who takes control of the totality of contemporary digital technology, becoming nothing less than the technological or postmodern sublime. With Avengers we are in the orbit of Northrop Frye’s archetypes.[17] But we are also in the thoroughly un-, post-, or superhuman; we are in the realm of hyperobjects.

There have been a variety of explanations for the rise of the superhero genre in the twenty-first century. Most clearly, CGI has made possible the representation of acts of superhumanity, images impossible before CGI’s digitally rendered dreamscapes. Hollywood has capitalized on these new mimetic capacities in the form of serialized meganarratives like Avengers. Grant Morrison, important writer of superhero comics in his own right, has speculated that superheroes have taken the place of myth in modernity, these myths mirroring those of the Greeks but updated for the needs of the present. Batman can be a dark crime fighter against corruption in the 1930s (or really whenever), a campy psychedelic ironic knowing-smile in the television show of the 1960s, a reflection of cinematic excess in the 1990s, and neoliberal crusader in the 2000s.[18] And Dan Hassler-Forest has convincingly argued that the rise of the superhero genre should be understood as reflecting the post-9/11 policies of the Bush administration.[19]

Tying these three explanations together and extending them, Avengers is a failed attempt to think life in the age of hyperobjects, but one that we should nonetheless take seriously, especially because of its failures. It is easy to read superheroes allegorically, as I just have above, but the emergence of a cinematic form that is so thoroughly allegorical and archetypal should be cause for reflection. As Alexander R. Galloway has suggested recently, there is an “unrepresentability lurking within information aesthetics,”[20] and indeed, we can and should say that there is an unrepresentability lurking within hyperobjects; they are difficult to visualize. But the superhero film allows us to construct allegories for them, which is one way of confronting this kind of unrepresentability. Iron Man is not a hyperobject in himself.[21] Avengers does not represent hyperobjects because it cannot. As Shaviro suggests, the speculative nature of science fiction (SF) allows us to see and feel the effects of hyperobjects. And this is what Avengers does. Some of the effects of hyperobjects, at least in Avengers 1 and 2, are massive battles, destruction, catastrophe, alien invasion, wormholes, nukes, an out-of-control Hulk, an imminent galaxial threat, et cetera. The effects are astounding and beyond any individual’s understanding of the world. So more than anything, what Avengers allegorically makes clear is how the rest of us confront hyperobjects: with huge difficulty. The effect of hyperobjects, at least for this SF text, is dumbfounded awe and paralysis.

Avengers presents a world in which the normal human has little to no ability to affect the world. The struggles and conflicts of contemporaneity take place at a level far above and beyond everyday humanity. Humans are just potential victims; buildings are just potential rubble. Avengers imagines a world of warring hyperobjects, beings so far above and beyond human capacities that the human becomes displaced entirely. The scene where the Avengers “escape” and regroup back to Hawkeye’s family farm makes this clear. Humans (and Hawkeye) have no place here, no capacity to understand or converse with hyperobjects. Hawkeye’s contributions to the film demonstrate that humans can participate within the realm of hyperobjects, they can influence, create, and destroy them. They can even be them. But no matter what, humans are in some fashion ontologically displaced by the presence of these new nonhuman superbeings. Giving these transcendent heroes a safe haven is a cruel joke. They do not need any such succor, for humans, at the end of the day, are left standing in awe of these demigods, dumbfounded, waiting to be saved or destroyed, with no capacity for imagining any other response or way of being. (Hawkeye also displays such a reaction at times.[22])

In many ways, too, this is what the film is explicitly about. Avengers lays bare the despair of humanity in the age of global climate change. In the twenty-first century we are all extras in a superhero blockbuster but with very little say in the matter. Further, Morton suggests that the brute reality of hyperobjects is becoming more and more apparent. Recent books like Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (2014), like Avengers, dramatize that our understanding of the world and experience of reality is increasingly one intimately tied to our attempts to narrate hyperobjects. But we need to tell stories not only about capitalism v. the climate (which we certainly do!), but capitalism v. the climate v. hydrocarbons v. energy v. drought v. terrorism v. DNA v. infectious diseases v. the internet v. the NSA, Google, and Amazon v. the US government v. globalism v. radiation v. inevitable human extinction along the scale of deep time v. corporate speech v. et cetera v. et cetera. With its panoply of inconceivable, nonhuman forces, Avengers is evidence of the desperate need to dramatize some of the complicated conflicts and immense objects that define global modernity.[23] That the film cannot imagine any place for humans except as spectators or cliché cinematic heroes going “above and beyond the call of duty” (like Hawkeye or Black Widow) is only further evidence of the foreclosure of the contemporary utopian imagination.

Given that the totality of Avengers is fifty years of comics and a whole lot else, this is even more cause for alarm. What is being called the Marvel Cinematic Universe is (so far) twelve films, two major television network series, five Netflix series, and another ten films that have been announced! Avengers is a cinematic megatext without equal. It is a narrative world that seems to be exponentially accumulating, almost as if it is an organism of its own, and it has absolutely absorbed the popular imagination of the over-developed world during the past few years, more than any other single text (if its box office success is a measure of such things). If SF can help us to feel the effects of hyperobjects through finite narrative, Avengers also reveals the incapacity for infinitely accumulating serial meganarratives to coherently confront anything except the brute, overwhelming reality of hyperobjects. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, twenty-first-century thanaticism is merely met with an outpouring of more thanaticism, which is why it is all so profitable. Within the heterogeneity, hybridity, and difference that some see as defining features of contemporaneity,[24] capitalist megadisasters speak a single global language that it seems like most anyone can understand. In the face of the massive global popularity of both the superhero and megadisaster films, the inability for these forms to do anything except politically, psychically, ideologically, conceptually, and economically proliferate thanaticism should give their audiences significant pause.[25]

The failure of Avengers to do anything but highlight the brute facts of contemporaneity are even more apparent in San Andreas. An awful film that uses megadeath as mere window dressing for an overwrought, boring, and cliché family melodrama, director Brad Peyton’s San Andreas is the capitalist megadisaster at its most insidious and ideologically dangerous. Like Roland Emmerich’s films before it, San Andreas abandons any coherent engagement with contemporary geology or climate science for cheap crisis and peripeteia. Yes, California is due for another major earthquake, and certainly there are real fears about a major quake that has fascinated the US imaginary at least since Earthquake (1974). But for San Andreas to project such hyperbolic levels of destruction only serves to utterly distract from the concrete realities of contemporary global risk. San Andreas does not even need to shrilly deny climate change by screaming on the floor of the House of Representatives about global warming being a liberal hoax. San Andreas just calmly points toward a different, utterly unrelated disaster, which still bears all the markings of spectacular environmental destruction.[26] By doing so, the realities of global warming are sublimated into a fantasmatic image. And because it still looks like an ecological disaster film, we can ignore that it does not address climate change once.

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In this fashion, San Andreas could be considered a baseline norm for how capitalist megadisasters channel the thanaticism of contemporaneity. The film brutally destroys most of metropolitan Los Angeles and San Francisco for the sheer spectacle of doing so rather than for making any point about the need to address the realities of the Anthropocene. Its narrative could be told just as effectively with, like, an-almost-but-not-quite-fatal small house fire or some other real but minor crisis. Nothing in the story it is trying to tell needs a massive earthquake for the narrative’s realization. One might suggest, like Roland Emmerich’s films before it, that the film’s real and only goal is to show destruction, and thus this hackneyed narrative is just a loose vehicle for getting as many falling buildings on-screen as possible. But the intolerable amount of time it spends on the narrative and not on falling buildings suggests the opposite. What if, rather than the actual subject of the film, its massive destruction is just the only way we can understand and represent the banal crises of upper-to-middle class life in the contemporary US? Massive destruction, in this, merely becomes the norm, the constant background radiation of the over-developed world. All activities, no matter how trite or insignificant, can be made meaningful only in terms of the slow violence of the present. How does one address the complexities of dealing with separation, the threat of divorce, and marital reconciliation in 2015? Through billions in property damage and the deaths of hundreds of thousands.[27]

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It is the final scene of San Andreas, however, that captures the audacity of the film’s despair best.[28] The final shots show Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and family, having all survived and lovingly reunited, standing on a hill overlooking a collapsed Golden Gate Bridge, a flooded San Francisco, massive rubble from toppled skyscrapers, and a fleet of ships (and an aircraft carrier!) spearheading the relief effort. The Rock’s wife asks him, “What do we do now?” There is a brief pause here. A pause long enough for me to have thought to myself while watching the movie, “Please don’t say ‘rebuild.’ That would be ludicrous! Did you not see and experience what just happened? That was clearly awful and could have been avoided if, say, one didn’t build massive cities upon fault lines!” But that is precisely what The Rock says: “Rebuild.” I have not seen a cinematic moment that so perfectly captures thanaticism better than this one word uttered by The Rock. Rebuild!

As Mike Davis and many others have made clear at some length, Los Angeles has long been a site of frequent and diverse disaster; geographically, it is a particularly poor place to build a megalopolis.[29] San Francisco, though not as singular a point of potential disaster as the City of Angels, has been hit by major earthquakes multiple times and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. Further, as should be apparent in 2015 with the historic droughts ravaging California, The Golden State will be particularly susceptible to climate change in a variety of ways. At a structural, economic, and civic level, rebuilding hardly seems the answer. Rather than a ringing pronouncement of human fortitude and courage in the face of adversity, the Rock’s incongruous final words signal a radical despair.

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San Andreas is capitalist realism through and through because the film cannot possibly imagine any other response to disaster on this scale. Obviously the earthquake is an analogue for the natural disasters that have occurred around the world over the past decade.[30] This kind of film cannot imagine any alternative to this endless series of present and future disasters except the endless reproduction of an order that will produce more disasters ad nauseam. This is thanaticism. This is the audacious despair at the heart of contemporaneity. As Klein points out about what she calls “disaster capitalism,” neoliberalism particularly thrives on crisis, and in this sense, “rebuild” might be considered disaster capitalism’s mantra.[31] Faced with massive destruction, destruction intimately tied to geography and locality, to places that are not all that optimal for building massive cities, the contemporary imagination can do nothing except produce more catastrophe. Not only does it not occur to The Rock that they could rebuild somewhere else, but it certainly does not cross his mind that they might not rebuild but rethink, or even unbuild. Rebuilding guarantees more disaster, which will be profitably put on screen, which will serve to perpetuate the logic of disaster capitalism, which will be put on screen, which will lead to more and more rebuilding. This is the logic of the capitalist megadisaster film in a nutshell. The genre’s thanaticism is unmistakable.

But if Avengers and San Andreas could be said to represent a kind of apotheosis of despair in the capitalist megadisaster genre, I would like to spend the rest of these brief and experimental notes suggesting that Mad Max: Fury Road and Tomorrowland gesture toward the beginning of a filmic imaginary capable of coherently (and even profoundly) confronting the thanaticism of contemporaneity.

I was honestly shocked by how much I liked and how moved I was by Tomorrowland. The thesis of the film is simple: the beautiful, utopian vision of the future that characterized certain strains of the 1950s imaginary, and which gave birth to the section of theme park at Disneyland that is the film’s namesake, is over. We no longer have any vision of a better future. Utopia is nostalgic, retro, base, naïve, gone. One of the theses underlying much of Jameson’s work, especially on SF—that the utopian imagination has been foreclosed by late capitalism—is the thesis of Tomorrowland![32] Further, the film explicitly says that the waning of utopia, the disappearance of a bright and hopeful future, is because of all the capitalist megadisaster films. The massive proliferation and popularity of the spectacle of disaster in the early twenty-first century is the very thing that forecloses the future because these kind of projections shut down our ability to imagine anything else.[33] The film’s answer to this situation is also straightforward. We need to massively reinvest in an anti-eschatological imagination, in humanistic activity, in art.[34] And all that is not even the most uplifting part: Tomorrowland is a children’s film. Who would not want their children being exposed to such a seemingly necessary and (gasp!) hopeful message?

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But we should also be skeptical of something that may just ostensibly be a vehicle to increase attendance to a waning section of Disney’s theme parks, which has, for sixty years, been nostalgically profiting off of representing a mythical 1950s moment of American exceptionalism that never existed. For we should not mistake Tomorrowland’s primary purpose: to make sure that whatever sense of the future we have, it will be a Disney® future. The imagination and the future have always been among The Walt Disney Company’s principal products. And a movie about (i.e., promoting) an area of a theme park is baldly selling us this particular mode of utopian imagination. (This is something that Jean Baudrillard warned us of a long time ago about Disneyland.[35]) In Tomorrowland, imagining the future and imagining capitalism are inseparable. Further, a true cynic would suggest that Disney is playing the long game with Tomorrowland. They want people to look back upon the persistence of an area of a theme park devoted to thinking about the future even though we are already in it. Fifty years from now, having an old vision of a positive future to look nostalgically back upon will, I imagine, be quite profitable. That we (perhaps, depending on how bleak the future is) don’t have such a vision of the future right now means that it must be manufactured so that there will be something to be nostalgic for—i.e., 2015, a time when the world had not yet descended into water wars and madness and could still imagine a better world (more on this in a moment).[36]

So, with this mind, it is telling that the movie has proved to be a notably expensive box office flop.[37] Neither utopia nor Disneytopia appears to be very profitable, especially within the regime of the sensible created by thanaticism. Perhaps this signals the utter foreclosure of the imagination: not even Disney can make utopia profitable anymore. But this also means that it is perhaps all the more remarkable that Tomorrowland exists. The film refuses to spectacularly display and profit off of the spectacle of mass destruction (and its violence is fairly kid friendly). Tomorrowland’s rather striking commitment to an anti-eschatological imagination asks us economically, formally, and explicitly to think about a different world, one where utopia rather than apocalypse would be profitable. Few films accomplish such a thing, and it seems like a long time since any film has. For no other reason, Tomorrowland is a notable accomplishment.

Mad Max: Fury Road takes a decidedly different, and less rhetorically obvious approach to both inhabiting and critiquing the capitalist megadisaster film, while pointing a way beyond (and through) its form. To be clear, I think Fury Road is brilliant. I am hard pressed to think of a recent major film that have I enjoyed more and that inspired in me such serious reflection on a variety of things.[38] That such reflection was produced primarily through action sequences with astoundingly kinesthetic, violent, fast, and visceral images—rather than dialogue or exposition—I found absolutely remarkable.[39]

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From the moment Fury Road begins, there is something about it that seems inevitable. This is a film that was simply waiting to be made given the aesthetic regime of contemporaneity and the emergence of the capitalist megadisaster film. Spending scant seconds reflecting on the legacy of the first three films, how its world became a postapocalyptic wasteland, and the narrative loosely stretched between Mad Max (1979), Mad Max 2 (1981; The Road Warrior in the US), and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), we are thrust into a chase scene that never truly ends until the film’s teleological, orgasmic finish, punctuated by a flaming guitar ballooning out of the 3D screen in one of the most satisfying conclusions to a chase in the history of its form. Unlike Avengers, with its truly staggering amount of “character development,” or San Andreas, with its family melodrama, Fury Road has stripped away everything inessential. George Miller’s masterpiece has dispensed with any need for a dramatic architecture that develops in a traditional fashion. Long conversations between characters have been replaced by Max (Tom Hardy) barely grunting words while clambering over the remains of mid-century Detroit, speeding toward the blasted horizon. Flashbacks last for mere seconds, and instead we get Imperator Furiosa’s (Charlize Theron’s) foot on the gas.[40] Sinister monologues explaining the villain’s aims and motivations have been replaced by singular images of tyrannical despotism.

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Mad Max: Fury Road is what a capitalist megadisaster film looks like that no longer even bothers to try to hide its thanaticism.[41] Its cinematic accomplishment rests on the fact that, in the absence of heart-felt embraces and middle-class affect, San Andreas and Avengers would be relatively short films, and probably pretty unwatchable.[42] Fury Road can barely contain itself. Its runtime speeds by with nary a desire for the pace to be slowed, for a moment of respite from its relentless barrage of action. In this, Fury Road wonderfully captures the temporality of the present. Relentless, pounding speed fueled by hydrocarbons, ideology, enframing, and heavy metal, human life is willingly accelerating toward its purposeless, unquestioned telos and demise, and it is doing so ecstatically. It seems practically beside the point to say that such a vision of contemporaneity is a logical apotheosis of the form given the current trajectory of megadisaster cinema.

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The film’s vision is captured in the War Boys’ mantra: “May you ride eternal, shiny, and chrome!” An automobile death cult devoted to the tyrant, Immortan Joe, the War Boys are thanatics unquestionably loyal to the regime of blood, oil, milk, and water—the fluids that define the society of Fury Road.[43] Afflicted with lymphoma, anemia, and other cancers, using human “blood bags” to stay alive, and motivated by an afterlife in Valhalla, Miller brilliantly fuses together myth and capital with his creation of the War Boys. In recent years, faced with capitalist realism’s inability to imagine any other world than our own, thinkers such as Slavoj Žižek have suggested that “the solution resides in an eschatological apocalypticism which does not involve the fantasy of the symbolic Last Judgment. . . . This is what a proper political act would be today: not so much to unleash a new movement, as to interrupt the present predominant movement.”[44] Žižek’s point is that only a radical, apocalyptic rupture can change the thanatical trajectory of the present. The War Boys’ “eternal, shiny, and chrome,” however, speaks to thanaticism’s potential ability to traverse apocalypse. Even after the end of the world, Miller shows us the persistence of “a gleeful, overly enthusiastic will to death.”

One of the most important fictions that underlies our present neoliberalism is the idea that resources are rather infinite, that capitalism can keep consuming oil without having to regulate its use, without having to change or question itself. The free market will respond to global realities and create the best of all possible worlds. In the Mad Max universe, however, the apocalypse has come and gone but it has not dislodged the inhuman forces of capital, of thanaticism “eternal, shiny, and chrome.” The shiny, gooey interfaces of contemporaneity, the chrome of automotive infrastructure, the eternity of capitalist accumulation, these all persist after the end. The mythological force of “eternal, shiny, and chrome” in Fury Road, its power to shape the imagination of the War Boys, seems hardly ideologically different than the same mythological treatment of the automobile in something like The Fast and the Furious series (2001–15). Consequently, what Fury Road suggests is something even more bleak than Žižek’s thinking: even a revolutionary eschatology, even an apocalypse that disrupts and destroys the structures of our world, even a blasted wasteland without life, water, hope, or resources, even the reversion to violently oppressive feudal patriarchy, even in the face of all this, the thanatical logic of “eternal, shiny, and chrome” persists. Even after the fulfillment and realization of catastrophe, there will be more fantasmatic images of the same.

Part of Fury Road’s brilliance can be located in how it refuses to shy away from such a doomy, deeply cynical vision of human life. Tomorrowland ethically refuses to dwell on spectacular destruction; spectacle is Fury Road’s raison d’être. It takes the fantasmatic logic of disaster film and pushes it (and without too much CGI!) as far as it can go. It does not resist the genre. Fury Road fully inhabits it, celebrating its excess and hyperbole, its fabulous aestheticism and crass (if wildly complex) kinematics,[45] so that it can push through the genre to something else. For at the end of the day, the mantra “eternal, shiny, and chrome” is everywhere contradicted by Fury Road. Nothing is shiny. The automobiles are all mid-twentieth-century cars running on spit and hope, jerry-rigged for Armageddon.[46] Nothing is chrome. The only chrome available comes in a spray-can that poisons as it beautifies. And eternity? Death is everywhere, human society is barely hanging on to a post-biological planet that is about to enter a deep lifeless geologic nonhuman time.

Even more to the point, Fury Road, like Snowpiercer last summer, offers a rather significant vision of democratic, collective, societal transformation precisely because it pushes through (rather than against) its genre. There is no moment of revolutionary rupture, just a slow movement toward a transformation of the dominant regime by devoted revolutionaries capable of imagining a better world. Fury Road, like Tomorrowland, suggests that eschatology, in whatever form it takes, cannot create the conditions for a sustainable, livable future, nor can apocalypse serve as a way of envisioning significant social change.[47] Evan Calder Williams has powerfully suggested that “what we need, then, is an apocalypse.”[48] Fury Road suggests that apocalypse is part and parcel with contemporaneity, that there is no difference between its own radical “salvage punk” ethic and the continual repurposing of the past, aesthetically and otherwise, that defines contemporary culture. By embracing thanaticism, while coherently critiquing it, exposing it for what it is, Fury Road through the capitalist megadisaster quite astoundingly arrives at something new, emergent, unseen, unheralded.

I left Tomorrowland with the profound realization that the crisis of the imagination has now become so widely acknowledged that even Disney is attempting to suggest the need to reinvest in poetics. I left Fury Road with the realization that, no matter how bleak our present and no matter how widespread the cultural logic of thanaticism and its aesthetic regime may be, there is still the possibility for aesthetic emergence, for the imagination, for new ways of thinking about and understanding our world. That a film that is nothing more than a glorified two-and-a-half-hour chase scene was able to accomplish this I find absolutely remarkable. Thus the important word in my title that might distinguish Tomorrowland and Mad Max from Avengers and San Andreas: fabulous. Mad Max is fabulous because it wholly, complexly, and critically embraces the present in all its dumb stupidity and excess, and it does so by never for a moment shying away from the aesthetic.[49] We are hearing on all sides that the humanities are over and done with, that art has no role to play other than as a commodity, that we need reconceive of, say, the English major as job preparation. In such discussions, the importance of what art is and does can often be radically obscured. Mad Max: Fury Road is a testament to the power of the aesthetic to build worlds and to present the possibility of other worlds; it puts the imagination on violent, spectacular, hyperbolic, ridiculous display. Hopefully there are many more fabulous films to come.

 

Notes

[1] McKenzie Wark, “Birth of Thanaticism,” Public Seminar Commons 1, no. 2 (Summer 2014): http://www.publicseminar.org/2014/04/birth-of-thanaticism/.

[2] Not all the films have such better moments.

[3] N.b. that these are not exhaustive lists, merely the quickest I could generate skimming through summer releases from the past few years. This is also to note that 1) the trend of violent, spectacular, apocalyptic or postapocalyptic film is in no way a new phenomenon in United States or global cinema—i.e., the trend did not “begin” in 2012—only that it seems to have ramped up during the summer months in the past few years, and that 2012 seems as good a place to start as any (2010 or 2011 would be just as good candidates for beginning such a list, but many of those years’ truly postapocalyptic films did not appear during the summer months); and 2) not all of these films might be as spectacularly violent as others, and indeed, some are satires of such violence, but they all, in some fashion or another, revolve in megadisastrous orbit. (In other words, Iron Sky was not seen by many, and it is clearly a spoof on a whole bunch of things and kind of dumb, but it is still participating in the mass-destruction genre.) Also, one of the above films was made up.

[4] By my count, though nukes frequently appear in such films, when they do appear they are thoroughly removed from their historical context as weapons potentially employed in mass quantities by sovereign states. In The Dark Knight Rises a nuclear weapon (which is not even really a nuke) is used for terrorism; in the first Avengers film, Iron Man redirects a nuclear missile aimed for New York (to kill aliens) through a wormhole to kill aliens (saving New York).

capnuke2

The national fantasies involved with such representations of nuclear weapons differ significantly from the nuclear texts of the cold war. For more on the transforming national fantasies of the post-cold war period, see Donald E. Pease, The New American Exceptionalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009). For some of my own further discussion of the ways the post-cold war disaster imaginary has transformed, see Bradley J. Fest, “Apocalypse Networks: Representing the Nuclear Archive,” in The Silence of Fallout: Nuclear Criticism in a Post-Cold War World, ed. Michael Blouin, Morgan Shipley, and Jack Taylor (Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2013), 81–103.

[5] See Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), trans. and ed. James Strachey (1961; repr., New York: W. W. Norton, 1989).

[6] Wark, “Birth of Thanaticism.”

[7] There is evidence that George Miller was developing Mad Max: Fury Road since at least 2002, which makes it all the more telling that it took roughly a decade to get made. Perhaps depicting the despair of the world risk society had not yet registered as a potentially profitable situation for studio executives willing to finance such a film until recently. See Adrian Martin, The “Mad Max” Movies (Sydney: Currency Press and ScreenSound Australia, 2003), 7.

[8] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Winchester, UK: Zero, 2009), 2.

[9] “It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations. I have come to think that the word postmodern ought to be reserved for thoughts of this kind” (Fredric Jameson, The Seeds of Time [New York: Columbia University Press, 1994], xii).

[10] Fisher, 3.

[11] Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 1.

[12] Morton, 104. I also cannot help quoting Morton on the doominess of contemporaneity: “Just to go hog-wild Heidegger-style for a moment, doom comes from doom and dooms doom; this doom marks a decisive moment in which humans doom the nonhuman and thus doom the doom of Earth with greater doom” (148).

[13] See Jacques Derrida, “No Apocalypse, Not Now: Full Speed Ahead, Seven Missiles, Seven Missives” (1984), trans. Catherine Porter and Philip Lewis, in Psyche: Inventions of the Other, vol. 1, ed. Peggy Kamuf and Elizabeth Rottenberg (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007), 387–409.

[14] I am think especially of the work of Roland Emmerich: Independence Day (1996), Godzilla (1998), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), and 2012 (2009). Though all of these films are ostensibly set in the present, their reliance on massive, unbelievable, unscientific, fantasmatic crises occurring and then destroying massive portions of the globe puts them nearer to the tales of MAD than they are stories that dwell on the disaster of the present. For instance, 2012 does not even posit climate change as the catalyst for global destruction. Rather, it explains its global catastrophe through changes in the sun. One might even go so far as to suggest that the fantasmatic nature of Emmerich’s disaster oeuvre represents a willful obfuscation of the realities of contemporary environmental issues for purely financial gain predicated on spectacular fear-mongering.

[15] Steven Shaviro, “Hyperbolic Futures: Speculative Finance and Speculative Fiction,” Cascadia Subduction Zone 1, no. 2 (April 2011): 4.

[16] I owe thinking about superheroes as hyperobjects to Gerry Canavan’s comments on Pacific Rim in, “Vile Offspring of the Long Postmodern: Capital as Artificial Intelligence,” at the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts Conference, Notre Dame University, October 2013.

[17] See Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (1957; repr. with a new foreword, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000).

[18] See Grant Morrison, Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us about Being Human (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2011). On Batman as a stand-in for neoliberalism, see Aaron Bady, “Do Not Go Gentle Into that Dark Knight: Occupy Batman,” New Inquiry (25 July 2012), http://thenewinquiry.com/blogs/zunguzungu/do-not-go-gentle-into-that-dark-knight/. (Also, I wonder what the action figure for “Neoliberal Batman” would look like.)

[19] See Dan Hassler-Forest, Capitalist Superheroes: Caped Crusaders in the Neoliberal Age (Winchester, UK: Zero, 2012).

[20] Alexander R. Galloway, The Interface Effect (Malden, MA: Polity, 2012), 86.

[21] Even if my language above depends upon just such metaphor. It is really quite difficult to discuss hyperobjects without recourse to figurative language.

[22] For a take on Hawkeye that furthers the reading of him as dumbfounded sideline witness to hyperobjects, see Matt Fraction’s recent run on Hawkeye, nos. 1–21 (August 2012-February 2015).

[23] I take this phrase from Arif Dirlik, “Global Modernity? Modernity in the Age of Global Capitalism,” The European Journal of Social Theory 6, no. 3 (Fall 2003): 275–92.

[24] See, for example, Terry Smith, What is Contemporary Art? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

[25] After watching the finale to Season 5 of Game of Thrones (2011–15), one might be tempted to suggest this about contemporary television as well.

[26] The destruction of Los Angeles and San Francisco in San Andreas is indiscernibly different than 2012.

[27] And is this not exceptionalist US individualism at its most absurd?

[28] I owe the phrase “audacity of despair” to a couple different plays upon the title of Barack Obama’s autobiography, The Audacity of Hope (New York: Crown and Three Rivers, 2006). See Donald E. Pease in Black Orpheus, Barack Obama’s Governmentality,” in “9/11/2011,” special issue, Other Modernities, special no. (2011): 1-28, esp. 28, where he shifts “audacity of hope” to “radical despair”; and David Simon’s blog, The Audacity of Despair.

[29] See Mike Davis, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster (New York: Vintage, 1999).

[30] E.g., Hurricane Katrina (2005), the earthquake in Haiti (2010), the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (2010), the Fukushima meltdown (2011), and Hurricane Sandy (2012).

[31] See Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Picador, 2007).

[32] See Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (New York: Verso, 2005). This book is the final chapter in Jameson’s (projected) six volume Poetics of Social Forms.

[33] As Jameson revised his famous quip: “Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. We can now revise that and witness the attempt to imagine capitalism by way of imagining the end of the world” (Fredric Jameson, “Future City” [2003], in The Ideologies of Theory [New York: Verso, 2008], 573).

[34] For my further discussion of anti-eschatology, see Bradley J. Fest, “The Inverted Nuke in the Garden: Archival Emergence and Anti-Eschatology in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest,” boundary 2 39, no. 3 (Fall 2012): 125–49. (This is another way of saying Tomorrowland feels like [the end of] my elevator speech: “In order to have a better future we need an anti-eschatological imagination; literature is one mode of articulating such an imaginary.”)

[35] See Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation (1981), trans. Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994), and America (1986), 2nd ed., trans. Chris Turner (1988; repr., New York: Verso, 2010).

[36] Or rather, in the spirit of the film’s hope, remember back in 2015 when we saved the world with Tomorrowland’s simple message about the imagination?

[37] See Pamela McClintock, “Disney Could Lose $140 Million on Tomorrowland Flop,” Hollywood Reporter, June 10, 2015, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/disney-could-lose-140-million-801244.

[38] And as this particular essay has ballooned far past my initial plans, I will reserve many of these reflections for a later date.

[39] Fury Road, in this, is very much in line with what Steven Shaviro calls “post-cinema” in Post-Cinematic Affect (Winchester, UK: Zero, 2010).

[40] This is to say, of course, that there are a few brief interludes where we get Furiosa’s backstory, but I would like to suggest that her character is developed more powerfully through action than in these brief moments of narrative exposition.

[41] As McKenzie Wark says, “All cinema is anthropocene cinema, but not all cinema knows it. George Miller, it turns out, knew all along” (“Fury Road,” Public Seminar Commons, May 22, 2015, http://www.publicseminar.org/2015/05/fury-road/).

[42] Though I do think it is also inevitable that someone makes a Roland Emmerich film without any of the narrative: just two hours of disaster porn.

[43] On this point, see Wark, “Fury Road.”

[44] Slavoj Žižek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (New York: Verso, 2009), 148–49. Žižek develops these points further in Living in the End Times (New York: Verso, 2010).

[45] Cinema plus kinetics.

[46] The film significantly does not have any later model cars, as they would be impossible to keep running without digital computers.

[47] Recall that radical inequality persists in Snowpiercer’s vision of postapocalypse.

[48] Evan Calder Williams, Combined and Uneven Apocalypse (Winchester, UK: Zero, 2011), 5.

[49] I owe this point about the aesthetic dimension of Fury Road to a conversation with Racheal Forlow.

More June 2015 Links

Environmental, Nuclear, and Disaster

Stephanie Kirchgaessner and John Hooper, “Pope Francis Warns of Destruction of Earth’s Ecosystem in Leaked Encyclical.”

Andrew Hoberek, “The Post-Apocalyptic Present.”

Matt Langione, “Will Art Save Our Descendants from Nuclear Waste?”

Tim McDonnell, “Here’s Why Obama Is Cracking Down on Airplane Pollution.”

“Atomic Explosion Tourism.”

Eric Markowitz, “Poison Prison: Is Toxic Dust Sickening Inmates Locked Up in Coal Country?”

Christopher Daley, “On Nuclear Criticism.”

Margaret DeMarco, “Details of Malmstrom Missile Officer’s Court-Martial.”

Continue reading

July Links

(It’s been a few weeks since I’ve posted links, so some of this is already pretty dated, but heck . . it’s also been a jam-packed couple of weeks in the news.)

 

Nuclear

Nina Strochlic, “Britain’s Nuke-Proof Underground City.”

Forthcoming book: Fabienne Colignon’s Rocket States: Atomic Weaponry and the Cultural Imagination.

 

Environment

Lindsay Abrams, “The Ocean Is Covered in a Lot Less Plastic Than We Thought–and That’s a Bad Thing.”

James West, “What You Need to Know About the Coming Jellyfish Apocalypse.”

Brad Plumer, “Oklahoma’s Earthquake Epidemic Linked to Wastewater Disposal.”

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Abstract: Apoclaypse on Repeat: William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All and the Nuclear Imagination

Below is an abstract for a paper I will be presenting at the 2014 American Literature Association Conference, taking place May 22-25. I will be presenting this paper on a panel organized by the William Carlos Williams society, titled, “William Carlos Williams: The Poet-Doctor as Environmentalist.” The panel will be taking place 11:10-12:30 on May 23.

Apocalypse on Repeat: William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All and the Nuclear Imagination

Long out of print after their initial publication in 1923, the prose sections of Spring and All offer remarkable critical avenues for discussing William Carlos Williams’s environmentalism. Serving as both a frame for some of his more well-known poetry and a theoretical engagement with the volume’s central concern—the imagination—the prose of Spring and All cannot help but strike a contemporary reader with its anticipation of the post-apocalyptic and eco-disaster narratives of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. To begin the aesthetic work of poetic composition, Spring and All enacts total destruction followed by material repetition in order to allow Williams to formulate an imagination distinct from a romantic apocalyptic, a formulation essential for the development of his ecopoetics. The imagination in Spring and All is a material force. It is vibrant, organic, and radioactive. It is scientific and geological, and it is concerned with atomic physics well before the atom was split. This paper will argue that Spring and All articulates what I have called elsewhere a nuclear imagination. Drawing upon current reconsiderations of modernism’s relationship to atomic technology and my own conversations with J. Hillis Miller about Williams’s poetry and romanticism, I will suggest that Williams, through embracing this destructive, recursive, ironic, nuclear imagination, abandons an eschatology that could in any way be positive, even as something to be gone “beyond.” In this way, reconsidering Spring and All opens up a space for the contemporary environmental imagination that is neither apocalyptic nor post-apocalyptic, but rather thoroughly material and ecological.

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

Now that one of the more tense periods of the Cold War is over fifty years behind us, quite a bit of interesting information about the more speculative military activities of the United States during the late-1950s and early-1960s is getting declassified and coming to light.[1] Among the more absurd revelations, it was reported in November of 2012 that “the United States planned to blow up the moon with a nuclear bomb in the 1950s as a display of the country’s strength during the Cold War space race.”[2] In his recent book, Arming Mother Nature (2013), Jacob Darwin Hamblin discusses how in 1958 President Dwight D. Eisenhower commissioned a special committee on weather modification.[3] The committee discussed a number of purposeful modifications to the environment, including “increasing global temperatures, in the hopes that this would increase the quantity of cultivated land and make for fairer weather . . . and melt[ing] the polar ice cap by exploding nuclear weapons on it, thus raising the global sea level.”[4] For those of us who have seen some of the recent photos of this summer’s radically diminished polar ice caps, the postnatural imagination of this earlier period of US history is both chillingly prescient and deplorably, laughably short-sighted.[5]

 Global Warming 02

I begin with such anecdotes for a number of reasons. Among these is an attempt to emphasize the historicity of this year’s SLSA conference theme. Though the “postnatural” is clearly timely, as by all sane accounts we are now living in the Anthropocene, an epoch of observable and often catastrophic climate change, a time when the possibility of reversing or even mitigating humanity’s effects on the environment is looking increasingly impossible, I would also like to stress that there is a long twentieth century history of the postnatural imagination, and that this imagination has been intimately tied to the development of nuclear weaponry in a number of instances. These recently declassified speculative responses to the Cold War are only the most obvious examples of a conception of human technological prowess able to dominate not only our immediate ecological existence, but our extra-global, lunar environment as well. And indeed, we might trace a genealogy of the postnatural from well before the atomic explosions at Alamogordo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. For instance, reflecting on the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris, Henry Adams famously wrote in TheEducation (1916) that with the construction of what he called the “dynamo,” “Man has translated himself into a new universe which had no common scale of measurement with the old.”[6] Or recall H. G. Wells’s prophetic imagining of nuclear war in his 1914 novel, A World Set Free. Or as Martin Heidegger wrote in his 1951 essay, “The Thing”: “Man stares at what the explosion of the atom bomb could bring with it. He does not see that the atom bomb and its explosion are the mere final emission of what has long since taken place, has already happened.”[7] One might easily write a literary, philosophical, and military history of the long postnatural twentieth century.

But I also begin anecdotally with these fantastic yet very serious Cold War proposals because they are precisely the type of thing one might find in the true subject of my talk today, The Manhattan Projects (2012- ).

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First appearing in March of 2012 and still continuing today, The Manhattan Projects is a serial comic book published by Image Comics, written by Jonathan Hickman and illustrated by Nick Pitarra. The premise of the comic is announced on the cover of each and every issue: “What if the research and development department created to produce the first atomic bomb was a front for a series of other, more unusual, programs? What if the union of a generation’s brightest minds was not a signal for optimism, but foreboding? What if everything . . . went wrong?”[8] Or as director of the Manhattan Project Lieutenant General Leslie Groves puts it in the series’ first issue: “We’re protecting the country’s secrets. The problem with these secrets is many of them are wrapped in conspiracy, and nothing tickles like curiosity and mystery. . . . So we hide our most important lies underneath a more tolerable one: ‘That the Manhattan Project is a research and development program tasked with building and deploying the world’s first atomic bomb.’”[9]

Despite the radically alternative, fantasmatic history that The Manhattan Projects is principally concerned with, and perhaps even in spite of the comics’ insouciant humor, it is an incredibly timely text, and one that I think deserves significant critical attention. It has emerged from a contemporary moment in which the limitations of human scientific and technological capability to effect environmental change are becoming clearer. The acknowledgement of these limitations are exacerbated, on the one hand, by the knowledge that climate change was itself wrought by human science and technology, and on the other, by the continuing intransigence of certain US politicians to even acknowledge the present global ecological crisis. By reimagining a grand meta-narrative woven together by densely mixing science, history, and politics together, The Manhattan Projects asks us to reconsider our current relationship to the long postnatural twentieth century and to see that the realities of the contemporary human condition have perhaps long been hidden underneath more tolerable fictions.

One of the most important of these reconsiderations is the series’ engagement with nuclear technology. Rather than concern itself with the dominant specter of the first nuclear age, what critic Donald E. Pease calls the “national fantasy” of Mutually Assured Destruction,[10] The Manhattan Projects acknowledges a truth about the Cold War that has really only become possible in its wake. The Manhattan Projects, by fantastically reimagining nuclear history, dramatizes certain realities of that history that are so often overlooked in the face of apocalyptic nuclear fantasy, a fantasy that still dominates cinema and literature today, albeit often in different forms. The comic acknowledges that the true legacy of nuclear technology for our present post-Cold War contemporaneity is less the bomb’s potential destructive effects, its speculative futurity in an apocalyptic conflict between global superpowers, but rather a number of more insidious, subtle effects. Principal among these is how the comic takes for granted and is deeply concerned with the unstoppable inevitability of technological advance, and that from its position in the wake of the nuclear history the comic is reimagining, technology might very well be considered an emergent property of human activity, something that Manuel DeLanda explores in his early book, The War in the Age of Intelligent Machines (1991). (For instance, as Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency made clear this past summer, it seems that if something is simply possible, it will be done, regardless of whether or not it is something that should be done.) The comic also asks us to pause over a number issues intimately tied to a potential alterative history of nuclear weaponry, a history exemplified in the anecdotes that I opened my talk with. The Manhattan Projects acknowledges that the legacy of the Cold War should be located in nuclear war’s failure to occur, and that it is precisely the non-event of global nuclear warfare and the efforts made to prevent such warfare that have shaped so much of our world today: from ARPAnet and information technology, to the space race, to trying to control the climate, to attempting to master biological life itself. The Manhattan Projects complexly explores how contemporary scientific discourse, current notions about human technological mastery, the “enframing” of the world as “standing reserve,”[11] and a wide array of political and ideological forces are the result of the lasting impacts of the Cold War. And if nothing else, The Manhattan Projects asks us to recall that we are still living in an epoch defined by nuclear weaponry, something we might do well to call, as a number of critics are doing, a “second nuclear age.”

Unlike other notable alternative histories, novels like Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962), Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt (2002), or Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004), The Manhattan Projects eschews narrative and scientific realism in favor of a fantastic, fabulous metahistory closer to something like Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon (1997). The comic understands the development of nuclear technology as a small aspect of a grander alternative history, a madcap, maximalist approach to a speculative postnatural past in which the only bounds to science were the limits of the imagination. In its fourteen published issues, The Manhattan Projects has radically rewritten history, particularly the role that science has played in the twentieth century. The comic’s principal characters are prominent scientists and politicians who are depicted as hyperbolic, at times monstrous caricatures of their historical counterparts.

Cast List

For instance, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the series’ true villain, is imagined to have had a twin brother Joseph who, upon learning of Robert’s invitation to participate in the Manhattan Project, kills Robert, literally eats his body and brain, and thereby absorbs the knowledge and personality of Robert, leading to a fracturing of Joseph’s personalities that approaches infinity. Enrico Fermi, another father of the atomic bomb, is an alien who has been sent to disrupt humanity’s efforts at space exploration and colonization. Harry Daghlian, who in real life was irradiated in an accident with what became known as the “demon core,” and who died twenty-five days later, in The Manhattan Projects has survived as a fleshless, irradiated skeleton housed in a containment suit. Franklin Delano Roosevelt is reincarnated as a rogue artificial intelligence. Albert Einstein has been replaced by another version of himself from an alternate dimension, going on to become what one early reviewer called the series’ version of Wolverine (from X-Men fame).[12]

einsteinprintfreshsmall

German scientist responsible for the V-2 rocket and later a key figure in US ballistic missile development, Werhner Von Braun is a cyborg with a robotic arm, and after a conflict with a cabal led by crazed Masonic Priest Harry S. Truman, has his legs and eyes replaced with technological prostheses. President John F. Kennedy is a drunk, drug-addled frat boy. And Richard Feynman, the series’ protagonist, is a self-absorbed pretty-boy, whose journal entries are interspersed throughout the series, giving the proceedings an intellectual and historical heft that give many glimpses into the deep, complex history that Hickman has imagined for the comic.

At first glance, the actual Manhattan Project, and the development and deployment of the nuclear bomb appear to play only a tangential role in the series. In issue three, in a radically condensed version of historical events, the comic portrays the bombing of Hiroshima. With Oppenheimer sitting in his office, President Truman gets a phone call from Groves informing him of the existence of the bomb and that the Enola Gay is en route to its target, giving the President mere minutes to decide whether to drop the bomb on Hiroshima. Truman screams into the phone, “Don’t drop the bomb. . . . Terminate the operation. Call the plane back. . . . No! No! ABORT THE MISSION.”[13]

Groves pretends not to hear Truman and drops the bomb anyway. The final page of the issue shows a striking, sublime mushroom cloud with no text.

Hiroshima never seemed so straightforward and amazing before The MANHATTAN PROJECTS delivers in a WiLey Coyoted visceral thrill with every page Image Comics prints

Though this image is the centerpiece of the trade-paperback volume collecting the first five issues of the series, it should also be noted that by the next issue, Hiroshima has been seemingly forgotten, the scientists of the Manhattan Projects already moving on to other concerns. The implications are fairly clear. The bomb’s target here is elsewhere. As certain historians read the true motivation behind the bombing of Nagasaki to have been a show of force and a deterrent against the Soviets, as well as something that would prevent Russian military involvement in the Pacific theater, in The Manhattan Projects this bomb’s true “target” is elsewhere. In order to enable the continued secrecy of the more strange activities of the Manhattan Projects, Hiroshima here is both inevitable—something closely corresponding to the “decision” to drop the bomb in the first place—and a cover; it functions merely as the visible, public achievement of the Manhattan Project, thereby effectively covering up the deeper conspiracy the comic narrates. Implicit in this treatment of nuclear war, a treatment that radically departs from many of its other narrative representations in the last seventy years, is an acknowledgment that after the initial horrific destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the bomb quickly comes to serve ends that are largely not motivated by military strategy, but rather by politics and ideology. Certainly this is not a new insight into the cultural role the bomb played during the Cold War, but it is to suggest that in The Manhattan Projects the bomb’s ideological function is its primary role, something that we can also perhaps assert in the aftermath of the Cold War.

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There are other aspects of the comic that should be noted which revolve in nuclear and postnatural orbits. In issues four and five, the Manhattan Projects scientists make contact with an alien hivemind race and send emissaries through a galactic portal to meet their leader. Acting upon the order of Groves, an unnamed scientist cracks open Dahglian’s radiation containment suit, thereby irradiating all of the aliens and consequently eradicating their entire race, as their collective hivemind communicates the radiation to their entire species. As an ominous demon named Raal who appears from seemingly nowhere in the wake of this annihilation says, “But by all measurements, the first extraplanetary odyssey initiated by your world ending in the genocide of a species. . . . Not the best way to make your mark in the cosmos.”[14] Here Dahglian, who is a personification and physical instantiation of nuclear technology, unintentionally realizes nuclear science’s genocidal horizon. If the nuclear threat in the comic dissipates on earth, it in no way undercuts or changes the genocidal, eschatological thrust of human scientific endeavor, here extrapolated to intergalactic dimensions. In other words, even in the absence of the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction, the ultimate result of human technology ends in the unintentional eradication of a species, clearly mirroring the massive current extinction event attending global climate change.

But perhaps the most clear reflection on the more subtle and insidious legacies of the Cold War is how, in issues six and seven, the Manhattan Projects and the Soviet Union’s own secret research facility, Star City, band together. Under the cover of a continuing Cold War, both projects unite, hoodwinking their respective governments into continuing the massive funding of their research in order to pursue the goals and dreams of their respective scientists. As Feynman muses to Einstein in the closing pages of issue seven, a space station they have constructed “says [to him] look at what we’ve achieved. It says sleep well . . . because we are in control, and those dreams you are having . . . we are the men who can make them real. It says we’ve won, Doctor.” Einstein, however, being the voice of reason responds, “Are you really foolish enough to think that Richard? That we have won . . . ? Because we have not—not yet. This is just ze beginning of the oldest story in ze world.”[15]Einstein’s words are prophetic, in that the powers that be, “These lords of commerce. These KINGS. These DICTATORS. These PRESIDENTS,” discover the ruse being propagated by the Manhattan Projects and attack their facility, killing and injuring many of the scientists. But I would also like to suggest that his words resonate on other frequencies. Namely, that this “cooperation” between the US and USSR that Hickman so fantastically imagines looks, in the wake of the Cold War, like perhaps a more accurate description of nuclear and technological development in the twentieth century. In other words, the arms race, in motivating each side to massively fund and escalate research and development, and in the absence of any deployment of that research, essentially acted in tandem, the result being rapidly developing technology. In the absence of this kind of conflict (or “cooperation”), the funding to undertake the very kinds of scientific endeavors that current US public discourse about science so prides itself on, would perhaps hardly have existed as we now know it today. Here, as throughout The Manhattan Projects, the fantastic fiction and radical alternative metahistory it creates captures the unacknowledged realities and legacies of the Cold War.

Though a final assessment of The Manhattan Projects may be a bit premature in that the series looks to continue for a while yet, the timeliness of its simultaneous critique and celebration of twentieth century science can be seen in the concluding scene of the fifth issue, immediately following the annihilation of the aliens. In a revision of Robert Oppenheimer’s famous words about the first nuclear explosion at Alamogordo, staring into the gateway connecting earth to anywhere else in the galaxy, flanked by his infinite personalities, Joseph Oppenheimer says, “Yes, indeed. We have become death, destroyers of worlds.”[16]

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What this moment gestures toward is what the entirety of The Manhattan Projects concerns itself with: that the destructive forces captured by and introduced into the world by Robert Oppenheimer have become multiple and indefinite. No longer is the threat to human existence on earth singular, taking the form of the fantasy of global nuclear annihilation. Rather, the contemporary realities of global risk have multiplied, expanding into a diverse array of potential ecological, posthuman, economic, and archival catastrophes. Further, as Ulrich Beck’s work has so importantly pointed out, the imaginative projection of risk now cannot be coherently separated from the reality of risk.[17] In the twenty-first century, the eschatological horizon of the species has kicked loose of its nuclear origins and multiplied; Oppenheimer has multiplied, and one of the horrors of the postnatural condition may very well be the dawning realization that this multiplication may be infinite, that our ability to imagine various horrific futures both shapes and is shaped by this multiplying horizon. In the wake of the long twentieth century that saw the dissolution of any coherent barrier between humans and their global and extra-global environment, the figure of the infinite Oppenheimer, who is the still largely unrealized evil of the series, is a remarkably apposite figure for the contemporary postnatural condition. If our future depends upon articulating better projections of global risk informed by a more rigorous sense of our postnatural past, then The Manhattan Projects holds out a glimmer of hope that perhaps the human imagination has not yet been made obsolete by the inhuman forces unleashed by the twentieth century.


[1] This paper was delivered to the annual Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts Conference at Notre Dame, Indiana, 6 October 2013. The theme of the conference was: PostNatural.

[2] “Confirmed: US Planned to Nuke the Moon,” at RT (26 November 2012), http://rt.com/usa/news/ us-moon-nuclear-project-631/, emphases mine.

[3] Hamblin’s first book two books also may be of interest to readers of this blog, as they both address the legacy of nuclear radiation and the Cold War: Jacob Darwin Hamblin, Oceanographers and the Cold War: Disciplines of Marine Science (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005) and Poison the Well: Radioactive Waste in the Oceans at the Dawn of the Nuclear Age (Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008).

[4] Jacob Darwin Hamblin, “We Tried to Weaponize the Weather,” Salon (27 April 2013), http://www.salon.com/2013/04/27/we_tried_to_weaponize_the_weather/. This is excerpted from Hamblin, Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[5] See Richard Schiffman, “What Leading Scientists Want You to Know About Today’s Frightening Climate Report,” The Atlantic (27 September 2013), http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/09/leading-scientists-weigh-in-on-the-mother-of-all-climate-reports/280045/.

[6] Henry Adams, The Education (1916), in Henry Adams: Novels, Mont Saint Michel, The Education (New York: Library of America, 1983), 1068.

[7] Martin Heidegger, “The Thing” (1951), in Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Perennial Classics, 2001 [1971]), 164.

[8] The Manhattan Projects 1 (March 2012): front cover.

[9] Ibid., 10.

[10] See Donald E. Pease, The New American Exceptionalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009).

[11] See Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology” (1954), in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), 3-35.

[12] See Chris Sims, “The Manhattan Projects is Pure Mad Science in Comic Book Form,” Comics Alliance (16 May 2012), http://comicsalliance.com/the-manhattan-projects-review/.

[13] The Manhattan Projects 3 (May 2012): 21, emphases in original.

[14] The Manhattan Projects 5 (July 2012): 22.

[15] The Manhattan Projects 7 (November 2012): 25-26.

[16] The Manhattan Projects 5 (July 2012): 24, emphases mine.

[17] See Ulrich Beck, World at Risk (2007), trans. Ciaran Cronin (Malden, MA: Polity, 2009).

“Apocalypse Networks: Representing the Nuclear Archive” in The Silence of Fallout: Nuclear Criticism in a Post-Cold War World

Silence of Fallout Cover

Michael J. Blouin, Morgan Shipley, and Jack Taylor have edited a great collection of essays on nuclear criticism, The Silence of Fallout: Nuclear Criticism in a Post-Cold War World (this links to the publisher page). I have an essay in the collection, “Apocalypse Networks: Representing the Nuclear Archive,” that any reader of this blog would probably find quite interesting. And of course there are a number of other interesting essays by accomplished scholars and nuclear critics. You can preview the table of contents, the preface, and the introduction here. And the book is now readily available for order from Amazon and of course other places. (Probably the quickest way to get it would be going directly to CSP’s site.)

I’ve included the Table of Contents below:

Preface, John Canaday

Introduction: The Silence of Fallout, Michael J. Blouin, Morgan Shipley, and Jack Taylor

Chapter One: “What Works”: Instrumentalism, Ideology, and Nostalgia in a Post-Cold War Culture, Jeff Smith

Chapter Two: Specters of Totality: The Afterlife of the Nuclear Age, Aaron Rosenberg

Chapter Three: Queer Temporalities of the Nuclear Condition, Paul K. Saint-Amour

Chapter Four: Apocalypse Networks: Representing the Nuclear Archive, Bradley J. Fest

Chapter Five: Cut to Black: Nuclear Criticism in a Post-September 11th America, Joseph Dewey

Chapter Six: The Pixilated Apocalypse: Video Games and Nuclear Fears, 1980-2012, William Knoblauch

Chapter Seven: Depictions of Destruction: Post-Cold War Literary Representations of Storytelling and Survival in the Nuclear Era, Julie Williams

Chapter Eight: Allegories of Hiroshima: Toward a Rhetoric of Nuclear Modernism, Mark Pedretti

Chapter Nine: War as Peace: Afterlives of Nuclear War in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Jessica Hurley

Chapter Ten: The Hunger Games: Darwinism and Nuclear Apocalypse Narrative in the Post-9/11 World, Patrick B. Sharp

Chapter Eleven: Legacy of Waste: Nuclear Culture After the Cold War, Daniel Cordle

Chapter Twelve: In a dark wud: Metaphors, Narratives, and Nuclear Weapons, John Canaday