Dissertation Defended

On a bit of a personal note, yesterday I defended my dissertation, “The Apocalypse Archive: American Literature and the Nuclear Bomb.” As I move now toward turning it into a book, the first thing I’m gonna change will probably be the title. Onward toward more nuclear criticism and hyperarchival realism.

Repackaging the Archive (Part VII): CIV II and Nihilism

Only in extinction is the collector comprehended.

—Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking my Library: A Talk about Book Collecting”

So Jesse Miksic’s article and a recent account of a decade playing Sid Meier’s Civilization II (Microprose, 1996), Alexis Madrigal’s “Dystopia: What a Game of Civilization II Looks Like After 10 Years” in The Atlantic, have got me thinking about the profound melancholy one can access in video games, a melancholy that other forms of media simply cannot produce. As Miksic points out, part of this is simply a result of time and repetition, of the experience of continually dying, of the near-catastrophic levels of frustration produced by, say, getting to the end of Ninja Gaiden (Tecmo: 1988), and finally beating the boss only to learn there is another (and another) and immediately dying. Or, more recently, inspired by Madrigal’s article I spent some time playing Civilization II the past few days, and experienced something I perhaps never had when playing in my youth. If you actually put the game on an even relatively low difficult setting (“prince”),[1] one can access an acute and nearly overwhelming sense of their ultimate futility, like, to do anything.

Having guided my group of Spanish imperialists into a prominent global position (this isn’t the futile part, but the opposite. . .), every other nation in the game decided that I was the big, bad aggressor, and weren’t having it. Shortly, in the span of a few turns, I found myself at war with the entire planet. I was behind technologically, if ahead in other ways. Mine was a pre-nuclear military. And Greece, Japan, America, the Russians, and the Vikings all indiscriminately nuked me to an appropriate level of global obsolescence, whereby they proceeded to turn their attentions away from me and nuked each other. I had fought back only b/c there was no choice. A war on five fronts and a production line churning out tanks only to have them quickly destroyed. The scenario was beyond my abilities. After the dust had cleared, and I was in a state of détente with everyone but the Greeks, I found myself still a large civilization, but unable to do anything about the quickly heating planet. I finally launched some nukes at the Greeks, thereby ending my war w/ them, but it was more an act of revenge and frustration than strategic. (I have no trouble admitting such petty human emotions as jealousy, envy, and hatred. . . for a computer.) The Americans were quickly decimating them anyway. I could see that the game could very easily go toward the nightmare scenario described by Madrigal, or else my defeat and erasure from the planet. In another game, I hadn’t even attacked anyone when I got nuked.

The experience of getting nuked in Civilization II, esp. if you have not nuked anyone yet, can be deeply unsettling. There is a brutal game-theory logic to it: if someone doesn’t have nukes, nuke them, they can’t fire back. Last night, my Athens (I was playing the Greeks), a high seat of learning and culture—I had built many Wonders of the World There—got  nuked out of the blue, decimating the city, raising the temperature of the globe, causing famine all over. I had it. I shut off the computer, sick of being so utterly destroyed, with so little agency over anything (I also could probably be a better player). No matter what I did, no matter my peaceful nature, utter destruction, or, what’s even worse, a very obvious continuing inability to do much of anything in the face of a thousand year war marked by broken treaties, collapsing governments, and untold (virtual) suffering, appeared to be the only world I could provide the denizens of my “civilization.” Sadly, this seems to be how best to describe reality.

Perhaps a better title for the game would be Endless Total War. It has obviously been critiqued, and rightly so, for its reinforcement of: a progressive, teleological sense of history and its implicit celebration of Western imperialism. But I feel like the deep logic revealed by playing the game, even for a little while, is the manner in which it continually emphasizes the utter depravity and violence implicit in the course of empire. The world and history, as it is “represented” by Civilization II, is simply horror-show. Any of the “higher” activities of humanity, especially “culture,” get subsumed into the universal violent antagonism the game never relents in emphasizing.[2] Constructing Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel is just a means to further global domination. Da Vinci, a means of issuing new “versions” of troops: legionnaires 2.0, howitzer redux. Religion is represented as a tool of pacification. Shakespeare a means to an end. Abraham Lincoln a genocidal maniac. Eleanor Roosevelt a demagogue.

Civilization II is, quite literally, nihil unbound.


[1] I never did as a kid, preferring the hubristic grandiosity of conquering the world, building all the wonders, launching the space-ship, not using nukes for some sort of weird ethical reason (even though I slaughtered nations indiscriminately), and etc. winning. I was obviously more well-adjusted as a teenager.

[2] It must also be noted, I was playing the “bloodlust” setting, where you can’t win by going to the stars. We aren’t going to the stars.

The Archive of Nuclear Texts & Contexts

A good find today: The (relatively) short-lived newsletter devoted to all things nuclear and nuclear criticism, Nuclear Texts & Contexts (1988-1995), published by the International Society for the Study of Nuclear Texts & Contexts (ISSNTC) has its first 8 issues (1988-1992) here. This is how scholars archived the bomb and bombed the archive before the internet. The newsletter contains some essential nuke crit., excellent bibliographies, and is simply of great historical interest. I’d known about this newsletter for a while, but didn’t realize that a vast chunk of it was available (without a univ. library). Thanks to Paul Brians for making this available.

NeMLA 2012: Nuclear Criticism and the “Exploding Word”

I am very excited for this roundtable discussion on nuclear criticism that I will be taking part in at this year’s Northeast Modern Languages Association Conference in Rochester, New York. I posted my abstract for this previously:

March 15th, 2:15-4:15 2.11 Aqueduct Room AB

Nuclear Criticism and the ‘Exploding Word’ (Seminar)

Chair: Michael Blouin, Michigan State University

“Hippie Mysticism, Zen Visions, and the Poetical Diffusion of the Nuclear Crisis,” Morgan Shipley, Michigan State University

“‘Literature has always belonged to the nuclear epoch’? Nuclear Criticism’s Fabulous Textuality,” Bradley Fest, University of Pittsburgh

“Time Bombs: Theories of History in the Nuclear Age,” Rebecca Evans, Duke University

“Repress, Reuse, Recycle: Fallout in the Age of Terror,” Aaron DeRosa, Purdue University

From a Nuclear Critical Perspective, Firestorm is Bonkers

I’ve been testing out DC’s New 52, now and then wandering down to the comic shop, and today I wondered why the hell I hadn’t picked up the first three issues of The Fury of Firestorm: The Nuclear Men. The book is written by Ethan Van Sciver and Gail Simone, drawn by Yildiray Cinar, in what sometimes looks to be watercolor, and it is crazily nuclear.

Um. Here is the premise: Some corporation, who supposedly runs the world, is after the missing “Firestorm Protocol.” Unbeknownst to the kinda deepish highschool quarterback in who knows USA, the kid who just so happens to have written a fairly scathing article about the jock in the highschool newspaper, who also happens to be a genius level nerd, has been given the missing protocol by its creator as the result of a private msg board. So when the jock confronts the nerd in the library, and they go out in the hallway to settle it, and the evil corporation (who probably isn’t all that evil, I mean, they are chasing the power to become a nuclear man perhaps so it doesn’t fall into the “wrong hands”) attacks to retrieve it, and to save their lives own lives, the nerd and the jock become Firestorm!? And are able, with their powers combined, to create Fury, a big Power Ranger unleashed by their anger at one another!? And their primary conflict has already been drawn along racial lines. And the nerd is black. It is very promising right now in terms of narrative trajectory. Oh yeah. Firestorms’ powers? So far they seem to be able to turn guns into flowers. And shoot nuclear fire from their hands.

At a certain level it almost doesn’t matter, because this is all really an excuse to post these gorgeous covers. It makes me wanna start a band called The Fury of Firestorm. Oh yeah, and there’s a bunch about the SuperCollider.

Abstract: “‘Literature has always belonged to the nuclear epoch’?: Interrogating Nuclear Criticism’s Fabulous Textuality”

Below is an abstract for a paper I will be presenting / discussing at a seminar / roundtable at the 2012 Northeastern Modern Languages Association Conference (NeMLA), taking place March 15-18 in Rochester, NY. The panel/seminar will address nuclear criticism, and is titled “Nuclear Criticism and the ‘Exploding Word.'” Michael Blouin at Michigan State is organizing the seminar.

“Literature has Always Belonged to the Nuclear Epoch”?: Interrogating Nuclear Criticism’s Fabulous Textuality

During the brief heyday when nuclear criticism was a visible and viable critical practice—from around 1984 to 1993—one of its principle debates raged around a provocative statement made by Jacques Derrida in the founding document of nuclear criticism, “No Apocalypse, Not Now.” Derrida famously remarked that global nuclear war is “a phenomenon whose essential feature is that it is fabulously textual, through and through.” Critics such as Peter Schwenger, Avital Ronnell, and, to a lesser extent, Richard Klein embraced this statement in quite productive and interesting ways. J. Fisher Solomon, William J. Scheick, and others, though clearly indebted to Derrida, took issue with nuclear criticism’s emphasis on the textuality of the nuclear referent, wanting instead to practice a more ethical nuclear criticism, one that constantly stressed the reality (rather than poststructural textuality) of nuclear weaponry. This debate culminated in Christopher Norris’s Uncritical Theory (1992), a considered response to Jean Baudrillard’s infamous article, “The Gulf War Has Not Taken Place.” Right around the time Roger Luckhurst, Klein, and Ken Ruthven were considering the “future of nuclear criticism,” however, not only did the debate end, but the explicit practice of nuclear criticism disappeared with the end of the Cold War. (Ruthven also suffered the curious fate of publishing the first and ostensibly last study of nuclear criticism in 1993).

As one of the goals of this panel is to seriously take up the question regarding the function of nuclear criticism at the present time, an endeavor I consider to be of paramount importance for a number of reasons, this paper will return to this historical debate in light of our contemporary moment. Rather than situating this debate between the “archive” or “text” and the “real,” however, my aim is to interrogate an equally provocative statement of Derrida’s that, to my knowledge, has not been seriously discussed anywhere: that literature “has always belonged to the nuclear epoch, even if it does not talk ‘seriously’ about it. . . . I believe that the nuclear epoch is dealt with more ‘seriously’ in the writings of Mallarmé, of Kafka, or Joyce, for example, than in present-day novels that would describe a ‘true’ nuclear catastrophe directly and in a ‘realistic’ fashion.” What does Derrida mean by this offhand remark? What could Kafka or Joyce have to do with the “nuclear epoch”? I will argue that for the practice of nuclear criticism to go forward, we must take Derrida’s statement quite seriously, for it points to a more fluid, rigorous, and historically adaptable form of nuclear criticism than what has previously gone under that name. Specifically, I will consider the final scene from the “Cyclops” chapter in James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), and the “Nausicaa” chapter more generally, as definitively nuclear moments. To do so not only returns us to the past of nuclear criticism’s internal debates, but forces us to ask the serious questions: what is nuclear criticism, what are its current or possible roles, and what is its appropriate critical object? If something as canonically inscribed into the archive and as exhaustively studied as Ulysses can still benefit from the practice nuclear criticism (especially considering it cannot really be called explicitly nuclear at all), then we must take very seriously nuclear criticism’s current possibilities, not only in a world circumscribed by disasters of all kinds, but to imagine a world free from the threat of nuclear annihilation.