Repackaging the Archive (Part XI): Decadence and Sincerity in the Risk Society: Partying Until the World Ends

August 22, 2014

I originally delivered the following remarks at the 2012 Mid-Atlantic Popular and American Culture Association Conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They seem oddly appropriate at the moment.

It is a familiar trope in the rhetoric of the American jeremiad to draw a comparison between the high decadence and subsequent fall of the Roman Empire and the similar decadence of the contemporary United States. So it is tempting to make such a comparison when considering a recent series of pop songs released in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis that celebrate “partying.” Since Lady Gaga’s first single, “Just Dance,” appeared,[1] a series of prominent female pop singers have released music videos that unambiguously celebrate decadence. Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok” (2009), Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” (2011), and Britney Spears’s “Till the World Ends” (2011) all portray gyrating bodies having simply way more fun than anyone could possibly have, reveling in their own meta-celebration.[2] Such images easily invite a critique of these videos’ lack of self-awareness, their problematic support of binge drinking, and their apolitical celebration of decadence as a mode of being in a time of global financial crisis and austerity. Inarguably outgrowths of a specific brand of American exceptionalism and a youth culture in which hedonism has become an end-in-and-of-itself, what is perhaps most disturbing about this party program, however, is its relative sincerity.

By focusing on Ke$ha’s invitation to an eternal party, Perry’s strangely sincere meta-filmic nod to the 1980s, and Spears’s dance club at the end of the world, I will argue that these videos should be read not as jubilant affirmations of existence and individuality, but as particularly cynical expressions of life in what Ulrich Beck calls the “risk society.”[3] These singers signal a cultural inability to imagine a coherent future in the face of the present multiplying networks of global risk, and exemplify a need to perpetuate and maintain a decadent cultural fantasy by erasing the disasters and crises that define the present through the spectacle of nostalgically reappropriating the past or fervently anticipating the end.

Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance,” released in April 2008 roughly six months before the full impact of the financial crisis became apparent, functions as a kind of template for the decadent party anthems that would follow:

[4]

Notice here that Lady Gaga is already presenting a number of features that will get repeated by both Ke$ha and Perry. The house Gaga enters at the beginning of the video has clearly already been a site of revelry and substance abuse, as the previous night’s passed-out party goers have merely to await Gaga’s arrival before reawakening and resuming the party. Gaga is not separate or detached from the hedonism, but rather a full participant in both the revelry and the blacked-out aftermath of binging. She has perhaps had more to drink than “a little bit too much,” as she asks, “Where are my keys? I’ve lost my phone,” but the deleterious effects of alcohol—e.g. not remembering the name of the club one is in—are “alright, alright” because the solution to whatever problem the world of this song presents is simple: “just dance”; everything is “gonna be okay” if one simply dances.

The logic of this song is repeated almost verbatim to the point of plagiarism in Ke$ha’s own debut, “Tik Tok.” Unlike Gaga’s video, however, when Ke$ha sings, “Wake up in the morning feeling like P Diddy; / Grab my glasses, I’m out the door, I’m gonna hit this city. / Before I leave, brush my teeth with a bottle of Jack, / ‘Cause when I leave for the night, I ain’t coming back,”[5] it is difficult to perceive any irony in her voice. For whether considered by itself or with the considerable retrospect provided by Lady Gaga’s subsequent career, “Just Dance” at least holds out the possibility of critical self-awareness toward the hedonism the song appears to be advocating. For not only does “Just Dance” acknowledge that something may actually not be all right with the world—that things need to be made okay, somehow—but that perhaps “just dancing” is not an adequate or acceptable solution to the problems being presented. In other words, an ironic reading of the video is not foreclosed, and the call to “just dance” might very well mean something else.

The partying Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok” advocates, on the other hand, appears to foreclose any reading other than full-blown support for the decadence of the video, as it is difficult to argue that its hyperbole is in any way tempered by self-awareness. The partying Ke$ha portrays is not in reaction to anything or offered as the solution to any problem, but rather is something that she says, quite clearly, never stops. Partying, even if it doesn’t start until Ke$ha walks in, is a state of being in “Tik Tok.” (If the party starts when she walks in, then it is going on around her all time time.) Decadence becomes a kind of perpetual present, a nightmare eternal return of partying and drunkenness, resulting in hangovers that, one might imagine, also never end. Ke$ha cannot stop partying, whether she’s doing something as banal as brushing her teeth or whether she’s being groped (“boys tryin’ to touch my junk”) “the party don’t stop, no.”

In this way “Tik Tok” is emblematic of life under late capitalism. The logic of Ke$ha’s nonstop party wagon depends, like current theories of the free market, on the exploitation of illimitable resources so that it can grow without end toward no goal other than its own disastrous perpetuation. Further, as someone once pointed out about the cultural logic of late capitalism,[6] the song has no sense of history (other than an incoherent reference to Mick Jagger), and it is incapable of acknowledging the history of its own form (i.e., its blatant indebtedness to Lady Gaga). Simultaneously, the video is unable to posit any coherent sense of the future (let alone imagine some kind of utopian project). The song and its title, “Tik Tok,” while acknowledging that time exists, subsumes the human experience of temporality within the regime of its party-ontology, foreclosing any past or future. If Frank Kermode were once able to famously read the poetic expression “tick-tock” as “a model of what we call plot, an organization that humanizes time by giving it form,” then Ke$ha’s song remains only “the interval between tock and tick [a] purely successive, disorganized time of the sort that we need to humanize.”[7] In other words, the experience of the perpetual present of Ke$ha’s decadence eschews any narrative structure, any sense of a beginning or end that would make sense of the actions of the party’s participants. Consequently, there is something deeply inhuman about Ke$ha’s call for constant partying, and I do not think it too much of a stretch to equate the inhumanity of Ke$ha’s pursuit of unending decadent pleasure that has no other aim than the production of more pleasure with the inhumanity of being implored to constantly enjoy that is so much a feature of the contemporary experience of late capitalism. “Tik Tok” thus evinces a profound despair about the state of the world, one in which the fleeting present of youth, with its all-too-brief but ultimately damaging and disastrous holiday from history, is the only option left in the wake of the global financial crisis. Both the past and the future have been foreclosed, and Ke$ha’s song only holds out one incredibly cynical alternative: forget about the world and turn toward a solipsistic and uncritical pursuit of pleasure at the expense of everything else. And the most disturbing part of this injunction-to-enjoy is how sincerely this message is delivered, with no alternative imagined or even hinted at.

Something similar occurs in Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)”[8] and Britney Spears’s “Till the World Ends.” If “Tik Tok” is a nightmare glimpse of an eternal present with no sense of a past or future, Perry and Spears are emblematic of further failures to engage with history or imagine a future from within the regime of contemporary decadence. To turn first toward “Friday Night,” consider the following moment from the video, right when Perry receives the classic 1980s filmic makeover that turns a nerdy girl into a (more-or-less) conventionally attractive one:

[9]

The logic of this video is persistent. The alcohol-fueled regime of (poorly remembered) contemporary decadence is framed by the nostalgic (and anachronistic) reappropriation of the 1980s. Perry’s nod toward this period, however, glosses over the deep and abiding irony of 1980s popular film that she draws upon so heavily, an omission perhaps best evidenced in the video’s use of saxophonist Kenny G. Not even the sax player on the original track, Kenny G’s “lip-synched” sax playing functions strangely. Rather than being used ironically—i.e., everyone knowing that Kenny G is thoroughly uncool, but pretending to like him in an ironic, hipper-than-thou manner anyway, as would have been historically appropriate—Kenny G is presented as the apotheosis, both musically and visually, of the video’s nostalgia. In Perry’s historical vision, it is Kenny G that fully represents the past, even though anyone who could actually remember him would have thoroughly reviled him and his music. Juxtaposed against party-goers playing Just Dance 2 (2010) and the presence of the house band, the pretty much always reprehensible late-1990s boy-pop group Hanson, history from within the logic of Perry’s decadence becomes merely a playground of now empty cultural signifiers that can be strung together in whatever loose fashion serves the video’s own fairly obscure ends. This is only exacerbated by the appearance of Corey Feldman and Debbie Gibson as Perry’s parents near the end of the video, serving to reinforce how incoherently popular culture from the relatively recent past is perceived from the decadent alcohol-haze of contemporaneity.

Though he was describing a possible future for American fiction rather than what I am calling “Lady Pop in the Age of the Networked Star,” David Foster Wallace’s comments on sincerity that conclude his 1996 essay, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” on the relationship between irony and postmodern cultural production, might equally apply to the strange sort of sincerity I would like to suggest that “Friday Night” displays:

The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-conscious and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backwards, quaint, naïve, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal.” To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness.[10]

Though clearly Perry is neither “literary” nor much of a “rebel”—even in the sense Wallace gives the word—she most assuredly appears “willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs,” for she does not appear to be desiring any other reaction to this video. Rather than be impressed by her hyper-self-aware postmodern recursive reflexivity, her anachronistic, Pynchonian use of reference used in the necessary service of debunking and exposing the illusions of postmodernity, her audience is merely encouraged to affect a cool smile of knowing (but not really knowing) that Kenny G’s presence in the video is slightly off, a bit too sincere even as it attempts to produce the kind of ironic stance that once was not a staple of popular culture, but a violent critique of its implicit and uncritical assumptions. In other words, in the same fashion that Wallace once relentlessly critiqued postmodern televisual production for cashing in on the literary irony of Thomas Pynchon et al, Perry is cashing in on the naïve sincerity of the present, a sincerity perhaps best captured in the phrase, “just express yourself.” Even in something that on its surface first appears to be hyper-referential and recursively ironic becomes, in Perry’s vision, yet another articulation of the overwhelming call of contemporary mass media to: just be yourself, express yourself, be true to yourself, in other words, to be sincere. What the self is that is being expressed, however, is anyone’s guess.

Britney Spears takes this sincerity, as she puts it, “to the next level”[11] in a video that unintentionally contemplates the eschatological horizon of the solipsistic, yet empty sincerity of contemporary decadence. Her video for 2011’s “Till the World Ends” is set on 21 December 2012—the purported date of the Mayan Apocalypse—as what appears to be a meteor approaches the Earth. In the video Spears and a gang of rejects from the Mad Max films, in light of this dire situation, have decided to stage a dance party at the end of the world:

[12]

There are a number of striking things about this video and, to my mind it is a fairly incredible allegory for certain contemporary approaches to global risk. First, the disaster Spears and her cadre of orgiastic pre-post-apocalyptic dancers anticipate is thoroughly fantasmatic. We are not within the realm of the (still realistic) cultural fantasy of Mutual Assured Destruction that Donald E. Pease and others have located as the dominant US national fantasy of the Cold War,[13] nor are we within a postmodern simulation in which the disaster explodes into reality that Slavoj Žižek finds when he analyzes the attacks of 11 September 2001.[14] Rather, the disaster fantasy here is a loosely fabricated fringe-eschatology thrown together by people trying to sell books by exploiting the historical deferment of the millennium, something that Norman Cohn pointed out long ago has been going on since at least the Middle Ages.[15] For Spears, in other words, the Mayan Apocalypse is just the most convenient and visible contemporary sense of an ending, and its lack of any correspondence to the very real, very persistent contemporary sense of disaster, whether it be ecological, economic, or political, matters not in the least. What matters is merely the fantasy of apocalypse. We are living in what Ulrich Beck calls an era of “global risk,” so the pervasive and ubiquitous sense of disaster that characterizes the world risk society gets transformed in Spears’s eschatological vision into whatever old disaster she wants. Divorced from the realities of the last decade, the natural disasters, the various wars being fought by the US, and a time characterized by what Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism,”[16] Spears is able to sublimate the anxieties and fears of contemporaneity and turn them into a dance party that, even with disaster looming literally right outside of its door, cannot seem to concern itself with the impending doom nor step away from the decadent enjoyment of the club long enough to attempt to avert.

So second, it is further striking that in “Till the World Ends” the disaster appears to have actually been averted. One is encouraged, I believe, to imagine that the dancing was so good, that Spears and her pals got “on the floor” so well, that the meteor was diverted, and though there is little-to-no diegetic evidence to support such a reading, this redemption-through-dancing speaks to the pervasiveness of the fantasy on display so blatantly in Spears’s video and the depths of its cynical despair. Not only does the video exemplify a cultural inability to imagine other modes of being or a coherent sense of the future that is not eschatologically foreclosed by the conditions of contemporaneity, and its redemption-through-partying validates solipsistic decadence as a proper mode of reacting to disaster in an age of global risk—i.e. ignoring it—but “Till the World Ends” suggests that this decadence actually might save us from disaster—i.e. that if we all just partied enough, kept dancing hard enough, the world might not end.[17] The horizon of this stance, if we recall Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok”—and it should be mentioned that Ke$ha also co-wrote “Till the World Ends”—is that if we just let capitalism run its course far enough, that if we all just ignore the increasingly dire ecological realities, economic catastrophes, global violence, and just keep enjoying ourselves, everything will be “okay.” This is in no way to suggest that we should be looking to these female pop stars to articulate a coherent politics, that if pop music was less decadently fantasmatic it might solve problems, et cetera. But it is to suggest that these videos brilliantly capture contemporary modes of decadence and put on display, with very little window dressing whatsoever, the solipsistic sincerity that ideologically props up this decadence. And of course it is fitting that I am delivering this paper mere days after Hurricane Sandy devastated the East Coast of the US and only a week before an election in which climate change and the environment have been discussed precisely zero times by the candidates. In other words, the world is ending and we need to stop dancing.

[1] Lady Gaga, “Just Dance” (Santa Monica, CA: Interscope Records, 2008), 12” single. The single was released on 8 April 2008, and her full-length debut album, The Fame, was released 19 August 2008 (Santa Monica, CA: Interscope Records), mere weeks before the full impact of the financial meltdown became apparent. Like so much else in her career, Lady Gaga was ahead of her time with regard to post-crisis decadence.

[2] For these videos see http://bradfest.wordpress.com/2012/07/17/abstract-decadence-and-sincerity-in-the-risk-society-katy-perry-and-britney-spears-partying-at-the-end-of-the-world/.

[3] See Ulrich Beck, World at Risk, trans. Ciaran Cronin (New York: Polity Press, 2009).

[4] http://bradfest.wordpress.com/2012/07/17/abstract-decadence-and-sincerity-in-the-risk-society-katy-perry-and-britney-spears-partying-at-the-end-of-the-world/.

[5] Ke$ha, “Tik Tok” (New York: RCA, 2009), CD single. The single was released 7 August 2009, and Ke$ha’s full-length debut, Animal, was released 1 January 2010.

[6] See Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism; or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991).

[7] Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction with a New Epilogue, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 45, emphasis mine. I would also mention that Robert Lowell’s “Fall 1961,” in which “Back and forth, Back and forth / goes the tock, tock, tock,” is really about “All autumn, the chafe and jar / of nuclear war; / we have talked our extinction to death” (Collected Poems, ed. Frank Bidart and David Gewanter [New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003], 329).

[8] Hereafter “Friday Night.”

[9] http://bradfest.wordpress.com/2012/07/17/abstract-decadence-and-sincerity-in-the-risk-society-katy-perry-and-britney-spears-partying-at-the-end-of-the-world/.

[10] David Foster Wallace, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments (Boston: Back Bay Books, 1997), 81.

[11] Britney Spears, “Till the World Ends” (New York: Jive Records, 2011), CD single.

[12] http://bradfest.wordpress.com/2012/07/17/abstract-decadence-and-sincerity-in-the-risk-society-katy-perry-and-britney-spears-partying-at-the-end-of-the-world/.

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

[14] See Slavoj Žižek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real!: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates (New York: Verso, 2002).

[15] See Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages, rev. and ex. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970).

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

[17] As David Foster Wallace once said of something else, this is so stupid it practically drools.


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

May 14, 2014

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

December 20, 2013

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- ).

The-Manhattan-Projects_3_Full

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.

the-manhattan-projects-zone-000

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]

manhattan-projects3

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).


“The Inverted Nuke in the Garden” Receives SLSA’s Schachterle Prize

October 6, 2013

I am honored to have received this year’s Schachterle Prize from The Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts for my essay, “The Inverted Nuke in the Garden: Anti-Eschatology and Archival Emergence in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest,” which appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of boundary 2. This year’s conference was nothing short of incredible, and it remains one of the most vibrant, stimulating, and humbling conferences I have attended. I will probably post my own paper from the conference in a few days.


SLSA 2013

October 3, 2013

I’m headed off to this year’s Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts Conference at Notre Dame this weekend. I will be presenting my paper, “Infinite Oppenheimer’s and Postnatural Metahistory: Jonathan Hickman’s The Manhattan Projects” Sunday Morning at 9:30. I posted an abstract of the paper previously, and I will probably post the entire paper this coming week. Looking forward to a fun conference.


Reconsidering Southland Tales and an Old Conference Abstract

July 4, 2013

southland tales

Appropriately, as today is 4 July, an old friend directed me to Abraham Riesman’s reconsideration of the absolutely wonderful Southland Tales (2006) and interview with its director Richard Kelly, “The World Ends with a Handshake: Unraveling the Apocalypse of Southland Tales.” (Thanks Robin!)

This is a film I have taught and written about (though before this blog’s time). The incomparable Steven Shaviro talks about it here and in his most recent book. And I guess there’s a pretty decent fan site for it: Fuck Yeah, Southland Tales.

I also presented on Southland Tales at my first academic conference ever, SLSA 2008. Here is an abstract for the paper I gave there (since I’ve never posted it):

Apocalyptic and messianic narratives have traditionally taken place in a stable, teleological temporal space, and for good reason.  The affective impact of their grand narratives have depended upon the necessity for certain forms of meaning to be stable in a world with a distinct beginning and ending.  Richard Kelly’s 2006 film Southland Tales, however, takes reiterating the present, and consequently the past and the future as well, as its dominant structural mode.  From Justin Timberlake’s lip-synched music video of a Killers song, to reversing T.S. Eliot’s famous line: “Not with a whimper but with a bang,” to the division of the protagonist into two distinctly instantiated embodiments, the constant reiteration of various cultural detritus in Southland Tales reveals not so much a postmodern “mash-up” of reference and self-consciousness, as it does a reiteration of Nietzsche’s metaphor of the gateway of the Moment from Thus Spoke Zarathustra.  In other words, Southland Tales offers an alternate history of the present, a view of temporality in which, in Zarathustra’s words, “Must not whatever can happen have happened, have been done, have passed by before?”  This paper will investigate how Kelly’s film reiterates Nietzsche’s critique of the scientific enlightenment through his figure of Zarathustra and the Eternal Return, while simultaneously reiterating the very eschatological messianism that so dominates apocalyptic narratives (and Nietzsche’s own critique) in a manner that emphasizes a much more fluid, synchronic view of history, and hence the unstable present as well.

I will hold off on posting the paper, as it is definitely old graduate work that should not necessarily see the light of day. But all this is making me want to return to Southland Tales, as I do not imagine exhausting the film anytime soon. (This also makes me want to get on Twitter, just so I can follow Richard Kelly.)


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

June 23, 2013

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

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

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


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