Nuclear/National Intimacies


More than just a detector, the NukAlert™ is a patented personal radiation meter and alarm. Small enough to attach to a key chain, the device operates non-stop, 24/7 and will promptly warn you of the presence of unseen, but acutely dangerous levels of radiation.

A little ‘uncanny’ that I encountered the ad for the above product just after having finished reading Joseph Masco’s captivating The Nuclear Borderlands. Masco describes ‘the bomb’ as a ‘national fetish’ — a sort of subject/object that becomes an intense focus of quasi-sacred patriotic awe even as it conceals its own mechanisms of production. Technologies and institutions built to produce nuclear weapons, Masco argues, not only reconfigured American culture, they have literally transformed nature globally (by polluting it with contaminants that will be around for hundreds of thousands of years). And yet, partly because of U.S. government protocols of secrecy (that verge on the hilariously absurd), the actual operations of nuclear weapons research and production have remained largely concealed from public view. Thus, in the national-cultural consciousness, the nuclear, the atomic, the subterranean (literally) plutonium economy leaks into awareness as the uncanny return of the repressed. As for example, in the mobilization of cold war fears in the service of the ‘global war on terror.’ Masco writes:

Many Americans, for example, were gripped by an experience of the nuclear uncanny following the September 11 terrorist strikes, intuitively understanding the attack on New York and Washington, D.C., through a nationalized notion of violence developed during the Cold War nuclear stand off. One of the most powerful effects of the bomb, I believe, has been to nationalize a sense of apocalyptic violence in the United States, unifying the nation through images of its own end. The cultural effects of the Cold War nuclear standoff — the decades of life situated within the thirty-minute temporal frame of a nuclear war that may have always already started — has produced a new kind of psychic intimacy with mass violence. (pg. 334)

One has only to think of ‘ground zero,’ as Masco notes. And not just psychic: these days, you can wear that ‘new kind of intimacy’ in your pocket — with Nukalert.

Masco’s ethnography had me thinking about the forces behind contemporary globalization, and especially about John Kelly’s argument that rhetorics of ‘modernity,’ ‘the nation-state,’ and ‘American empire,’ conceal the unique and historically-specific circumstances that account for the shape of global relations today: viz., American military power deployed in specifically anti-imperial forms to secure access to and remunerative exploitation of global markets. (I hope to initiate a discussion of this argument in future posts.)

In any case. What forms of intimacy with violence does American global hegemony generate? There is the unthinkable (extraordinary rendition, followed by [by what? torture? that’s a secret…]), and the mundane (your toothpaste confiscated at a small airport in the Arctic Circle). We are invited to imagine disaster, we are interpellated as subjects of terror, in innumberable and everyday ways. But we have our keychains to protect us.

One thought on “Nuclear/National Intimacies

  1. Having read the description of the Masco title I thought you might be interested in Stacey’s work. She is preparing an ethnographic account of the DEW line region in the arctis. Her PhD Dissertation Prospectus is online here.

Comments are closed.