Joseph Masco’s Nuclear Secrets

In my constant search to find that book I can hand to students and say: here is anthropology, I am two books richer in 2007. The second book (the first I reviewed below (above?)) is Joseph Masco’s Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico, Princeton University Press, 2006. Whereas Xiang’s book was excellent for its simplicity, Masco’s is excellent for its controlled complexity. Masco seems to have taken to heart the tension between anthropology and science studies: on the one hand science studies too often fails in its understanding of what long-term intensive fieldwork can do; on the other anthropology too often fails to get directly into the heart of science and technology the way it always has language, spirituality and economy. Masco’s book is fusion (that impossible goal of our nuclear culture) of the best kind.


In some ways, in keeping with the various “posts” of the book (Post-Cold War, Post-9/11) this is post-multi-sited ethnography. The focus on New Mexico is inevitable: it is the site of Los Alamos National Labs. And while the nuclear weapons industry is huge and spread around the globe, LANL is the defacto, iconic, and central entity. But Masco’s book is not really about the nuclear weapons industry, nor about LANL per se, nor is it only about the impact of the lab on the people who live around it. Nuclear Borderlands is a frankly cosmological book; it is about how the bomb makes us who we are today. The naive anthropology student might approach New Mexico as a place with many different populations: anglo scientists, pueblo indians, neuvomexicanos, hippie anti-nuke activists–each with their own distinctive lifeworld and worldview. But Masco is having none of that: for him, the bomb is the bomb. It has determined nearly every aspect of our lives (and “our” means basically everyone on the planet) for 50 years… to say nothing of our futures. Thus, in the chapters that explore the lives and thoughts of these different groups, the same cosmological questions about the impact of Nuclear Weapons and the Cold War keep coming up–and keep providing ways to connect these seemingly diverse groups to each other: through the lab, through secrecy and hypersecurity measures, and through politics of race and sovereignty.

It is in some ways striking that for all the attention to “globalization” in anthropology there hasn’t been more obsession with the cultural signficance of the bomb and its apparatus. It was, after all the largest and most complex single industrial undertaking in history. It was completely secret, and yet hysterically public (from the ants of Them to the ubiquitous nuke-wielding terrorists of contemporary film and tv). Generations, around the globe, have ground up in and around the bomb and its bizarre, “unthinkable” possibilities. Among recent work in anthropology, Hugh Gusterson’s (1 and 2) and Adriana Petryna’s work are the only two that leap to mind, and in Masco’s work is a delightful extension of ideas and problems broached in these two works (indeed, the three together would make for a great set to teach the intersection of STS and anthropology).

Them, 1954

The reason I might use this book as an introduction to anthropology is because of the way it handles complexity and the manner in which it handles its concepts and theories. Throughout the book, certain concepts return: secrecy, security (and hypersecuirty), mutation, econnationalism, radioactive nation-builiding. These concepts help connect the diverse and complex stories and interactions in New Mexico to that oft-used, ill-explored notion of a “cultural logic.” In Masco’s book, it is not the fact that these people are all in New Mexico that renders them interesting or researchable, it is the fact that they all relate to nuclear weapons, security and secrecy on a daily basis. As such they represent a microcosm of the rest of the world which does not live next door to the bomb–but which is no less determined by it. I’m not sure this is a logic… in fact I’m positive that it isn’t (cultural or otherwise) but I do know that it is systematic: it includes not only the fact of the bomb as a threat, but the massive infrastructures created to deal with it, the massive economic expeditures devoted to it, the worldwide health impacts, the geo-strategic reality and so on. It just so happens that the Pueblo and Nuevomexicons of the Pajarito plateau are really close to this system.

I love the way these concepts become the focus of the book, rather than simply applications of some theory to some setting. Indeed, one might expect an array of hip and emergent theorists to people an account of post-cold war, post-9/11 security: a dab of Agamben, a soupçon of Empire, but that would render the book forgettable. Masco is bolder, and in some ways more stubborn: the only two concepts adequate to discussing the bomb are the bomb itself: Marx’s fetish and Freud’s uncanny. Since the bomb, according to Masco, is not just one object of study among others, it resolutely and profoundly orders the cultural landscape of the contemporary–before and after the Cold War. Hence it requires concepts adequate to it: Freud’s uncanny and Marx’s fetish are (modern) concepts similarly ubiquitous, determining and mis-understood. Masco does this elsewhere with skill, as in the introduction, where Walter Benjamin’s discussion of shock and phantasmagoria is twinned with the experience of “flashblindness” that occurs directly after seeing a nuclear explosion. It’s much easier to communicate (and critique) Benjamin’s ideas when they are given such specific and textured forms.

Part one explores four separate groups engaged with nuclear culture in and around LANL: the scientists at the lab; the pueblo Indians and the reservations of New Mexico; the Nuevomexicano population; and the anti-nuclear activists who connect their local concerns to wider social movements. The first part ranges from the weird conundrums of scientists’ “science-based stockpile stewardship” to the literal cosmologies of the pueblo Indians and their struggle to preserve the sacred sites on the Pajarito plateau. In examining the lives of the four intersecting groups, Masco demonstrates how to hold things apart and explore their co-existence at the same time: the uncanny occupation of a world transformed by the bomb permeates to the heart of each of these groups–even as they continue to make claims based on difference and equality. As Masco insists, there is no one model that would capture the lived complexity of the place (37). Part two explores the impact of the end of the cold war on nuclear secrecy and the biological effects of nuclear culture. The Wen-Ho Lee case provides a jumping off point for exploring secrecy and “hypersecurity” inside and outside LANL, and the ways in which these security concerns are racialized in new ways. Wildfires in 2000 provide a starting point for thinking through “mutation” and the new political ecology of the post Cold War. These last two chapters are great examples of how to connect ethnographic detail to broad, complex contemporary problems like (hyper)security and new forms of biological life. Masco’s book should give us a way to make sense of something that is far too close to everyone to miss, and yet all too often ignored.

A shorter version of this review will appear in American Anthropologist.


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

9 thoughts on “Joseph Masco’s Nuclear Secrets

  1. Not to be a party pooper but just based on the subject of both books, these seem like the types of books that students might dismiss as “liberal” propoganda or too political. I haven’t read them but from just the description, the subject matter of both books seems to be the type of stuff which leads to knee jerk responses from intro class students. Could you elaborate on thes books have been received by students (if you’ve used them in class) and what types of students you generally teach. I know at my current institution students tend to have negative reactions to any book that they perceive as inherently political.

  2. Chris, I °loved° this book. I read it like a sci-fi novel over break last year in conditions approximating nuclear winter: I was holed up in a cabin in Pyha, north of the Arctic Circle. It was just me, Masco’s book, my boyfriend, and the frozen darkness outside. I agree with what you have written here and I would just underscore what I think makes the book so good: it elaborates good old fashioned critical theory. Although the subject matter pertains to science, Masco does not slavishly reproduce the latest in science studies rhetoric to make his points. Instead, he takes his cue from critical theory of the 20th century.

    I would emphasize, as I did earlier on SM about the book, that what makes it so great is the way that it crosses institutional orders and draws them together within an interpretive frame. So for example, there is a great deal of attention to popular culture and social relations of different kinds. This I think distinguishes Masco’s approach to ‘security’ from your colleagues at the ARC, who seem to want to confine themselves to the rather grey discourse of experts. I think I understand the methodological reasons why ARC folks confine themselves to ‘experts’ (something to do with a technical notion of discourse as pertaining to serious speech acts, those subject to standards of intelligibility). But their discussions of ‘security’ end up being, I think, too careful in a sense, too bureaucratic: they lack imagination precisely because they do not incorporate imagination (terror, affect, fantasy, the visual) into their analyses (from what I have read so far). By contast, Masco weaves an analysis of the sensibilities of physicists together with the zeitgeist of the nuclear uncanny. Reading against the grain of institutional division, Masco enables us to imagine something like ‘national culture’ (and compare his work to his colleague John Kelly at Chicago in this regard).

    In other words, I think what makes this book good anthropology is precisely that it is informed by a background sense of ‘the cultural’ (or even ‘a culture’), a sensibility out of which ethnography as genre and method was born.

  3. I just wanted to say it is interesting that you pointed out that this, combined with Hugh Gusterson’s and Adriana Petryna’s work would make a great class about the “intersection of STS and anthropology.” Masco himself teaches such a class at the University of Chicago. I took this class last quarter and just wanted to say that Masco had an incredible grasp of everything that covered.

    On the subject of the “Nuclear Borderlands,” one facet Masco himself placed some emphasis on (and which particularly interested me) was the notion of the layering of cultures on a specific environment. With each wave of newcomers, with the anti-war activists being the latest, we have a situation that becomes incredible complex, not only on the global scale (for example, in terms of geopolitics and culture), but at the home of the atomic bomb, where lives are even more directly affected.

  4. Strong… I agree, though I am honor-bound to disagree re: ARC. At some point in the future, perhaps it will become clear why the grey flannel approach makes sense, but for the time being, I too think Masco’s approach more fun and certainly if I had to choose which to bring to the Arctic…

    and Grad Student Guy… might this be a case of the well meaning liberal bias of reality? In all honesty, I have no idea of the political leanings of either author, but when students issue blanket rejections like that under my tutelage, I usually use that as an occasion to challenge them to respond. When they cannot, there is no hope, when they can, there is dialogue. I teach in Texas, for the record. I also don’t teach anything that is not inherently political. Can you give me an example?

  5. Thanks for giving me yet another book to order for the library, and to consider using in class! I’ve used an essay by Gusterson and other similar essays in the past (for an intro to STS anthro class); in terms of ethnography of a lab, this sounds like a monograph that can cycle with Traweek or Knorr Cetina.

    I strongly agree with ckelty, in that everything I teach is inherently political. I teach in a small liberal arts college in North Carolina, with a religious affiliation (Prebyterian, PC-USA) – my students tend to be more interested in the sociopolitical implications of anthropology. For them, I think this makes anthropology seem relevant (of course, we all know that anthro is extremely relevant!). Of course, anthropology classes tend to attract the “save the world” social justice types (I don’t mean this in a disparaging sense), and typical undergraduate students have that youthful optimism about life that I so miss in my 40s, though my incoming college first-year teenager believes that my role in life is to stamp such nonsense out.

    What I’m not sure about, though, is what ckelty means when he talks about “the well meaning liberal bias of reality.” I’m guessing he means the reality of academia, and not “the real world” (definitely not the MTV show).

  6. no, that refers to Stephen Colbert’s routine at the White House Correspondent Dinner in 2006. He said something like “and as we all know, reality has a well known liberal bias”… it’s hilarious if you can find it…

  7. The book I was specifically thinking of when I referred to students rejecting books as political was Serena Nanda’s “Neither Man Nor Woman”. It’s about the the Hijra third gender role in India. It’s a popular book for many intro classes. In those classes for which I TA’d which used the book, students had a tendency to extend the behaviors of some Hijras described in the book (prostitution, sex, etc.) as evidence of the deviance of third gender roles in all cultures (i.e. that all people in these roles were involved in morally wrong behaviors). Many students also saw the very fact that we assigned a book about third gender roles as evidence that the professor was trying to politically brainwash them.

    While I don’t necessarily see as extreme a reaction for books about labor migration and the effects of the nuclear program, I can easily see students assuming that these topics in of themselves representing a radical agenda by professors. I’d rather have students get an example of ethnography that won’t be immediately rejected as political. I’m not saying that ethnography isn’t political, only that we have to tailor the ethnographies we assign to our particular intro student audiences (within reason). This means we have to find ethnographies that both encompass contemporary cultural anthropology, have topics that most students won’t immediately reject and that aren’t boring.

    (One of the few ethnographies that I have seen which meets all of these criteria is William F Lewis’s “Soul Rebels” about the Rastafari movement. While it was published in 1993, it is a multi-sited ethnography that is global in scope, it is seen as cool by many students and the writing is definitely not boring.)

  8. So let me get this straight: your students think an ethnography of the brave men and women defending our country by building bigger and better weapons is an attempt to induce some sort of liberal brainwashing, but an ethnography of a bunch of ganja-smoking rasta dropouts reaffirms their core moral values? And somehow their _instructors_ are culpable for the fact that they feel this way?

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