All things pass, but the poor remain. We are the people of the Apokalis. Tomorrow there will be more of us.
—Indra Sinha, Animal’s People
IN LYDIA MILLET’S 2005 novel Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, three of the scientists at the core of the atom bomb’s genesis pass out of time at the moment of the first nuclear detonation in 1945 and wink back into it in 2002: Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi in Santa Fe and Leo Szilard under a cafeteria table at the University of Chicago, rib-kicked by a startled freshman. The detonation, Millet reminds us early in the narrative, held the potential to destroy the world in an instant, and no one knew that it wouldn’t; Fermi, the joker, invited bets “against first the destruction of all human life and second just that of human life in New Mexico.”1 Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, however, constructs a different kind of apocalypse narrative around the atom bomb. When Oppenheimer visits the Bradbury Science Museum in Los Alamos, he finds in the endless video loops of the Trinity test an unexpected record of loss: he registers not the mushroom cloud but the emptiness around it, “sucking a vacuum on the ground, blistering a hole in the sky. It was vengeance on them all: it was the unspeakable and the divine. It had taken everything” (26). For Oppenheimer, “everything” means the life that he had the second before the explosion: the wife now long dead, the children grown up and finished even with their mourning of him. As the novel progresses, however, both the group of resurrected scientists and the flat narrative voice that provides paragraphs of historical information come to a different understanding of how a handful of dust, unspeakable and divine, might take “everything.”
The scientists are horrified, it turns out, neither by the drama of the mushroom cloud nor by the specter of nuclear war that hangs over us but rather by the everyday world that the nuclear complex and the logics that produced it have in turn produced. The “sterile and terrible future” (28) that Oppenheimer now occupies is not one of Planet of the Apes–style ruins or Children of Men–style irradiated populations unable to reproduce but the one that we live in, that we think of as nonapocalyptic, as everyday life. Oppenheimer cannot bear this “poor sad world,” a world “conquered” by cars, a “world . . . grown old” in environmental degradation and whose guiding desire is to build ever-more-perfect mechanisms for its own destruction (120, 121, 126). The unfocalized narrator, something like the voice of history, both describes and enacts at the end of the novel the brutal facticity of the world that the atom bomb has made:
Between the invention of nuclear weapons and the turn of the twenty-first century the U.S. spent over five trillion dollars building and maintaining its nuclear arsenal—about one-tenth of the country’s total spending since 1940. In America, annual spending on past and present military activities exceeds spending on all other categories of human need; approximately eighty percent of the national debt is estimated to have been created by military expenditures.
The so-called “military–industrial complex” about which Eisenhower warned is thus, in a sense, the single largest consumer of the country’s resources. It might fairly be seen as the prime mover of the U.S. government. (482)
Oppenheimer’s emotive language contrasts with the affectless presentation of fact, but both representations have the same outcome: they defamiliarize the present, estranging us from the everyday world that we inhabit in the idea that it is nonnuclear and nonapocalyptic and revealing the most quotidian elements of our daily lives—the highways, the air travel, the industrially produced food, the toxic environments, the daily roster of species extinction—to be saturated with nuclear logics, an apocalypse in progress. “[Oppenheimer] once told me he did not think the end would come from bombs because there was not time. He thought it would come earlier than that, from all the changing of the world and the destruction of it. He said to me once: it is the mind that made the bombs that is killing the world. For that purpose the bombs are not needed” (487, emphasis original). It is not the annihilating bomb that will cut off time; the bomb is not where the end of history resides. The bomb is too slow for that, and its infrastructure is too fast; there is neither world enough for nuclear war nor time.
By repositioning the locus of nuclear apocalypse from atomic bombs to nuclear infrastructures, Oh Pure and Radiant Heart articulates a critical yet often unrecognized theme in the American cultural imaginary after 1945. While many in the United States understood the arrival of atomic weaponry through the lens of what historian of science Gabrielle Hecht has called “nuclear exceptionalism,” experiencing it as an absolute novelty and historical rupture, subaltern writers, thinkers, and activists immediately connected the new technology to existing forms of historical and structural violence: “the atom,” Langston Hughes wrote in 1945, “belongs to white folks.”2 In novels and films, stories and plays, a diverse array of authors utilized the emplotted worlds of narrative fiction to interrogate the racist, sexist, colonial, and homophobic logics that structured nuclear infrastructures, connecting antinuclear perspectives with liberatory movements for civil rights, AIDS justice, and decolonization. At the same time, as this study will show, they used fiction to repurpose the apocalyptic emplotments of the nuclear age for liberatory purposes, deploying the futureless horizon imposed on them by nuclear infrastructures to interrupt the normative time of social reproduction that reproduces the future in the image of the present.
Infrastructures of Apocalypse takes as its object of study the world that Oh Pure and Radiant Heart describes: a world remade in 1945 in the nuclear image and maintained every day since in the ongoing commitment of the United States to nurturing nuclear technology at the expense of any other interest: national, human, nonhuman animal, or environmental. The book argues that American literature has responded to the atom bomb not only as an unthinkable paradox or a future threat but also as a new national infrastructure that has determined the flow of resources and risks across the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Moving beyond current critical understandings of atomic destruction as an exceptional event, this book analyses the apocalyptic force of nuclear technology as it manifests in the most mundane environments of everyday life. In so doing, it delineates a new literary history of post-1945 America, expanding the archive of atomic literature to include a wide variety of authors who have written against the nuclear–military–industrial complex from within the communities that are most vulnerable to its infrastructural violence, from James Baldwin’s critique of the racialized urban spaces of civil defense to Leslie Marmon Silko’s analysis of nuclear waste as a colonial weapon.
Through its foregrounding of analyses of the nuclear complex from below, Infrastructures of Apocalypse develops a new theorization of apocalypse in twentieth- and twenty-first-century literature and culture. When I began this project, it was to address a simple but urgent question: what does apocalypse do for people whose futures are already impossibly threatened or foreclosed? The etymology of apocalypse has traditionally allowed for two interpretations of its meaning: ending and revelation. Drawing on the texts in this archive, texts that position the consequences of an apocalyptic future not in that future but in the present, Infrastructures of Apocalypse offers a third term through which we might understand what apocalypse does: transfiguration. By radically changing the imagined future, apocalypse allows for different realities to become imaginable in the present. The writers in this project, bound to damaged and damaging futures by the nuclear complex as it intersects with the other histories of damage left in the wake of modernity, use apocalypse to transfigure the present: to see the other possibilities that reside in it and to couple those possibilities to their own pasts and their own futures, constructing not only a transfigured instant but wholly transfigured timelines, worlds with a solidity of their own. As contemporary thought begins to reckon with the foreclosure of its own futures by environmental and social crisis, Infrastructures of Apocalypse animates futurelessness as a starting point for thought rather than its end, as a place for struggle and resistance and somehow, impossibly, for hope.
From the Nuclear Sublime to the Nuclear Mundane
During the Cold War, the looming threat of World War III kept the eyes of much of the world fixed on the threat of the future explosion, the mushroom cloud over the New York skyline that signals the end of the world. For this reason, even post–Cold War accounts of the nuclear condition tend to think of the atom bomb as the one that, at least after its Japanese debut, never went off. Looking out over an artwork made from decommissioned fighter planes, Nick, the protagonist of Don DeLillo’s Cold War retrospective Underworld (1997), contemplates the science of nuclear fission before remembering that “the bombs were not released. . . . The missiles remained in the rotary launchers. The men came back and the cities were not destroyed.”3 Nick’s conceptualization of the almost ontologically undetonated atom bomb is widely shared in literary and cultural studies, which largely focus on the future nuclear apocalypse to the exclusion of all other nuclear realities. Daniel Cordle’s States of Suspense: The Nuclear Age, Postmodernism, and United States Fiction and Prose (2008) and Daniel Grausam’s On Endings: American Postmodern Fiction and the Cold War (2011) offer the most productive attempts to historicize American literature after 1945 in the context of the nuclear age, reading canonical works by Thomas Pynchon, Richard Powers, and Don DeLillo as articulations of the anxieties around world making, endings, and the archive circulating in the shadow of nuclear annihilation. For these critics, as for most scholars working in the intersections of literature and the nuclear, the atomic crisis is defined by its pure textuality, its absence from the material world.4 States of Suspense, Cordle writes in his introduction, “is a book about things that did not happen, and the cultural consequences of their not happening,” while Grausam argues that the historiographic crisis registered in postmodern aesthetics is a response to the nuclear weapons that “made newly possible—at least in the imagination—an ending . . . so final that it would preclude any position from which it could retrospectively be represented.”5 In such interpretations, literature registers the nuclear age as a crisis of narrative, a textual imprint of a textual technology whose apocalyptic violence exists only in the imagined future while the present is marked only by a damaging anticipation of disaster, the psychic wound of a bombing that might take place any second but that hasn’t, so far, not yet, not here.
In fact, the United States has detonated 942 atomic bombs within the continental United States since 1945. The total number of bombings by the United States worldwide is 1,149: an average of two nuclear tests per month between the Trinity test in 1945 and the Divider test in 1992. Here, now, taking place in the present and yet strangely invisible both in and after their moment, these attacks go by the name of tests and thus are rendered acceptable, compartmentalized into a different category than “disasters,” “crises,” or “acts of war.” Indeed, as Rebecca Solnit has argued, such a categorization arises from a profound misunderstanding of both the nature of nuclear weapons and the scientific culture that produced them. There is no partial test of an atom bomb; there are no laboratory conditions: “a test is controlled and contained, a preliminary to the thing itself, and though these nuclear bombs weren’t being dropped on cities or strategic centers, they were full-scale explosions in the real world, with all the attendant effects.”6 These full-scale explosions have been devastating: each detonation has been larger than those at Hiroshima and Nagasaki; each detonation has released, on average, as much radiation as the 1986 meltdown at Chernobyl. A recent statistical analysis suggests that atmospheric nuclear testing in the United States killed between 145,300 and 429,400 Americans between 1952 and 1988, and the damage continues.7 “From a human-environmental point of view,” Barbara Rose Johnston writes, “nuclear war began with the first use of radiogenic materials for military purposes, and the assault on the world’s environment and its peoples has continued ever since.”8
Given these historical realities, why is it so plausible for both characters and readers to imagine atomic weapons as having refrained from unleashing their violence and to see the potential violence as inhering only in nuclear bombs and not in their surrounding infrastructures? The answer to this question lies at the intersection of historical fact and critical heuristic. Historically, the realities of the ongoing violence of the nuclear complex have indeed been hard to see. This is not, however, because all infrastructures are inherently invisible, as much of the scholarship in the recent “infrastructural turn” in the humanities has argued, but because the nuclear complex has made itself into what Michelle Murphy calls a “domain of imperceptibility” that renders elements of the material world invisible, unnoticed, or incomprehensible.9 Such domains are neither natural nor inevitable but are hot spots of political contestation; the fact that the damage caused by long-term exposure to low doses of radiation seems unknowable to us is not because there is no way to establish knowledge about it but because for decades the state-sponsored corporations and government agencies that could monitor doses and health impacts and generate such knowledge have refused to do so.10 The nuclear complex is a domain of imperceptibility that makes certain aspects of itself hypervisible in specific forms; the imbrication of “nuclear violence” with “mushroom cloud” was produced by the extensive infrastructures of technological reproduction that surrounded each nuclear detonation (Operation Crossroads at Bikini Atoll has been described as “the most photographed event in history,” captured in 1.5 million feet of film and more than a million photographs).11 Meanwhile all other aspects of the nuclear complex are rendered invisible through overlapping regimes of secrecy, misinformation, and bureaucratic boringness designed to deflect attention. Many nuclear complex fictions are thus dramas of perception in which characters come to realize that indirect violence is being done to them; in Mike Nichols’s biographical Silkwood (1983), for example, the narrative development is structured not around the direct violence of Karen Silkwood’s mysterious death in a car crash but around her slow realization that lax safety standards at the Kerr-McGee plant are habitually exposing workers to harmful levels of radiation.12
Conceptually, meanwhile, the fields of Cold War and nuclear literary studies have been organized around two “charismatic mega-concepts”: the textuality of the bomb and the nuclear sublime.13 The origin of the bomb’s textuality, an organizing concept for both Cordle and Grausam, can be traced to an influential essay by Jacques Derrida, published in the 1984 issue of diacritics that launched the field of nuclear criticism. In “No Apocalypse, Not Now (Full Speed Ahead, Seven Missiles, Seven Missives),” Derrida defines the atom bomb as “fabulously textual.”14 For Derrida, nuclear war can only be a referent: since it has yet to take place, it exists only in the form of the language that circulates around it. Literary criticism has unsurprisingly been drawn to the idea of the nuclear weapon as fabulously textual, as with this descriptor Derrida opens up a field usually claimed by politics or science as an area desperately in need of the kinds of analysis that scholars of literature are trained to provide.
Unlike most of his critical heirs, however, Derrida insists equally on the concrete materiality of the bomb’s paratextual infrastructures. The world-ending nuclear war may be a fable, but if that fable is purely textual, then its effects are not: “it is the war (in other words the fable),” Derrida writes, “that triggers this fabulous war effort, this senseless capitalization of sophisticated weaponry . . . this crazy precipitation which, through techno-science, through all the techno-scientific inventiveness that it motivates, structures not only the army, diplomacy, politics, but the whole of the human socius today, everything that is named by the old words culture, civilization.”15 The fictionality of the bomb exists only in a dialectical relationship with the technical and social infrastructures that produce it and that it in turn produces.16 As Millet suggests in her alternation of fictional representation and the description of historical realities in Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, there can be no nuclear fiction without nuclear fact.
Derrida’s insistence on atomic weaponry’s power to structure material realities has not had the same kind of influence on nuclear criticism as has his theory of the bomb’s textuality. Instead, nuclear criticism has both theorized and been held somewhat captive by the operations of what Frances Ferguson has called the “nuclear sublime.” Ferguson coined the term in the same 1984 issue of diacritics to describe the epistemological challenge posed by the threat of atomic annihilation. Here “the notion of the sublime is continuous with the notion of nuclear holocaust: to think the sublime would be to think the unthinkable and to exist in one’s own nonexistence.”17 The nuclear bomb as the limit point of thinkability has been a recurring trope in both literary criticism and other forms of discourse surrounding the bomb; the phrase “thinking the unthinkable” comes from Herman Kahn’s famous book of the same name that stemmed from the RAND Corporation’s nuclear war games, and the atom bomb shows up as a paradigmatic example in David Nye’s influential account of the “technological sublime.”18 As I have argued, however, when we speak of the nuclear as an always-absent referent, as that which we cannot think, we limit our object of study to the bomb itself, and then only to its imagined futures: the mushroom clouds that we imagine blooming across the continents and destroying life on this planet.19 At the same time, the operations of the sublime itself challenge our capacity to challenge it: as Ferguson writes in her gloss of Edmund Burke, “we love the beautiful as what submits to us, while we fear the sublime as what we must submit to” (6). The nuclear sublime is an aesthetic quality inherent in the mushroom cloud and amplified by its mass mediation that inculcates submission in its viewers: the nuclear sublime as embodied in the mushroom cloud is designed to reduce the capacity for critical thought and induce habits of submission to the nuclear complex for which the mushroom cloud serves as both metonym and disguise.
It is for this reason that I propose a third heuristic through which to approach the nuclear age: the nuclear mundane. The nuclear mundane approaches the nuclear age with an eye for its material realities, focusing on the environmental, infrastructural, bodily, and social impacts of nuclear technologies and the politics that prioritize them. Working in conversation with the recent critical turn by literature scholars like Elizabeth DeLoughrey and Molly Wallace toward a more materialist and ecocritical nuclear criticism, it is attentive to moments where nuclear infrastructures intersect with structures of power, making visible things like the co-constitution of nuclear technologies and compulsory heterosexuality in the mid-century lesbian novels The Price of Salt (1952) and Rubyfruit Jungle (1973), where the men who figure the marriage plot that the protagonists are trying to escape are both students of nuclear engineering.20 By only ascribing nuclearity to the bomb, nuclear criticism risks being blinded to the negotiations of power, wealth, status, and vulnerability that are constantly in play around nuclear and contestably nuclear things, from bodies and rocks to highways and international treaties.21 When the sublime teaches us to submit and the bomb blinds us to all that we are submitting to, we find ourselves unable to gain critical purchase on the multiscalar infrastructures of the nuclear age. By redefining the nuclear object as continuous with a set of militarized infrastructures rather than as their exceptional end point, the nuclear mundane makes the nuclear visible both in its extent and reach into every aspect of everyday life and in its contestability, as something that can be named and challenged.
The infrastructural perspective of the nuclear mundane turns our attention from the psychic damage of future wars to the material and cultural impact of militarization after 1945.22 When President Eisenhower coined the phrase “military–industrial complex” in his 1961 Farewell Address to the Nation, he warned that the “total influence” of the new confluence of corporate and military structures would be “economic, political, even spiritual,” affecting “the very structure of our society.”23 This “total influence” is what we now call militarization: “the contradictory and tense social process by which civil society organizes itself for the production of violence.”24 Militarization involves obvious structural transformations, such as increased military spending, the transfer of public and private land to the military, and an increased share of the labor force being dedicated to military purposes; for these changes to seem acceptable to the public, it also requires that the public change—or be induced to change—their perspective about what percentage of national resources should be dedicated to the production of violence. Violence is therefore glorified and prioritized in the culture and politics of militarized societies, as we see today in everything from the immense popularity of movies that aestheticize war to the absolute rejection of gun control legislation in U.S. politics. In addition, militarization impacts the nature of social hierarchies of race, class, gender, sexuality, disability, indigeneity, and citizenship, redefining the boundaries of “acceptable” masculinity and femininity, for example, such that to be masculine comes to involve a willingness to become soldierly and to be feminine means to raise soldierly sons from within a traditional home.25 As a total system in the Maussian sense, militarization produces, at every scale, what C. Wright Mills called in 1956 the “military definition of world reality.”26
It is certainly the case that militarization did not begin in the United States with the arrival of the military–industrial complex; “a nation made by war, the U.S. was birthed not just by the Revolution of 1776, but also by wars against Native Americans and the violence required to capture and enslave many millions of African people.”27 The arrival of nuclear weapons onto the military scene did, however, change the nature of militarization after 1945. Catherine Lutz refers to historically specific organizations of violence as “modes of warfare,” arguing that with the invention of nuclear weapons, the United States transitioned from the industrial mode of warfare that had characterized the two world wars to a new, nuclear mode of warfare. This new technopolitical regime had different requirements and imposed different obligations than did the earlier industrial mode of warfare. Where industrial warfare required large amounts of manpower for manufacturing and soldiering and was therefore required to offer increased financial and social compensation to a large number of men (and sometimes women) of all races (though unevenly), the nuclear mode of warfare requires a much smaller number of highly trained, mostly white-collar workers, resulting in the centralization of power and resources to a much smaller, whiter, and more masculine workforce in the nuclear age. The nuclear mode of warfare also changed infrastructures around human knowledge, directing state financial resources toward specific fields (engineering, physics, psychology, area studies) as well as producing entirely new ones (earth sciences, climatology, oceanography, ecology, computing) and, by requiring security clearances to work on federally funded projects, restricting access to those fields and resources to those whose citizenship, race, gender, sexuality, disability, or political orientation would not give the FBI pause. Finally, the nuclear mode of warfare at least partly undoes the distinction between civilian and soldier, since the entire nation is vulnerable to atomic attack. As a result, the home front—and especially the city—began to be seen as a battlefield, producing new national infrastructures such as the highway system and the suburb as well as the redistribution of manufacturing bases to mostly white, mostly nonunion areas in the South and West, radically altering the geographies of race in the United States.28
The nuclear mundane thus asks us to combine an environmental and infrastructural perspective on the nuclear age with an intersectional understanding of how those environments and infrastructures have been structured by, and in turn continue to structure, existing distributions of power along axes of race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and indigeneity (which, following Caroline Levine, we might also define as infrastructural inasmuch as they “[impose] order on social relations”).29 Infrastructure, social theorist Lauren Berlant has argued, is not an object or a set of objects but rather a set of relations in movement: “structure,” Berlant writes, “is not what we usually call it, an intractable principle of continuity across time and space, but is really a convergence of force and value in patterns of movement that’s only solid when seen from a distance. . . . Thus, I am redefining ‘structure’ here as that which organizes transformation and ‘infrastructure’ as that which binds us to the world in movement and keeps the world practically bound to itself.”30 Nuclear infrastructures are enviro-techno-social systems that keep disparate elements in mobile relation to each other. America’s first plutonium processing plant at the Hanford site in Washington State showcases such a system: the technological infrastructure of the reactors is an envirotechnical system in which the Columbia River is an integral part of the infrastructure as it flows through the Site and serves as coolant for the reactors. At the same time, the Site is a sociotechnical system whose ongoing work is enabled by racially structured federal subsidies that allow white blue-collar workers to live a white-collar lifestyle and keep them segregated from Black and Latinx workers, making white workers more likely to accept the bodily harm that they risk by working at the Site.31 Settler colonialism forms an equally important part of the Site’s infrastructural relations; the first uranium ore to be processed at the Site in 1944 was mined by Indigenous workers on Navajo land in the United States and in what was then the Belgian Congo, and the ongoing cleanup of the Site since its closure in 1986 was mandated by treaty obligations to the Umatilla, Nez Perce, and Yakama tribes on whose sovereign land the reactors were built (I discuss this further in chapter 4).
To look at nuclear infrastructures within existing patterns of structural violence is thus to follow Gregory Bateson’s assertion in Steps to an Ecology of Mind that “what can be studied is always a relationship or an infinite regress of relationships. Never a ‘thing.’”32 Relational infrastructures allow for domination, as when the government employed the potent combination of eminent domain and settler-colonial white supremacy to claim the Hanford site land, but they also allow for resistance, as when the Umatilla, Nez Perce, and Yakama nations used those same legal infrastructures to mandate the site’s remediation—as well as for unpredictable outcomes in even the most tightly structured infrastructures, as when the wind patterns that planners had thought would be a helpful environmental buffer between the reactors and the populace turned out to be depositing concentrated amounts of radioactive particles in built-up areas.
Berlant’s definition of infrastructure as relations in movement, beyond Benson’s more static model of relationships, also suggests the importance of narrative for our representations, understanding, and analysis of the nuclear mundane. The infrastructural perspective of the nuclear mundane requires that we see objects in four dimensions: as networked with other agential objects in three-dimensional spatial relationships structured by racism and other socially structuring principles but also as having what Matthew Eatough calls “infrastructure’s temporal dimension” constituted by both the historical forces that produce the infrastructure and the disposition of the infrastructure itself to produce specific outcomes.33 The title of this book, Infrastructures of Apocalypse, attempts to capture something of the mutually constitutive relationship between infrastructure and narrative form in the nuclear age. Nuclear apocalypse, often imagined as coming suddenly and out of nowhere, in fact requires a planetary infrastructure to bring it about and a deep and ongoing commitment to maintaining its possibility; it is unique among potential apocalypses in that, as anthropologist Joseph Masco writes, “to prevent an apocalypse the governmental apparatus has prepared so meticulously to achieve it.”34 At the same time, the infrastructures of the nuclear complex that compose this preparation are themselves the product of apocalyptic narrative forms that have long defined U.S. understandings of its geopolitical situation (as I discuss in greater depth in chapter 2). The consensus fictions through which reality becomes shared are key determinants for what infrastructures get built and how, meaning that temporality itself gains an infrastructural function; narratives of nuclear apocalypse centered on America’s cities produced the highway system in the 1950s, whereas in the 1980s, new narratives of nuclear winter produced a massive nuclear freeze movement that accelerated arms control treaties and the reduction of nuclear stockpiles.35 Narrative forms, then, are themselves infrastructural forces that determine the movement of resources. During the Cold War, the narrative form of apocalypse motivates the reshaping of the environment while the structural form of racial hierarchy shapes the environment that will be produced; apocalypse gets the suburb built, but anti-Blackness determines who will live there.
Infrastructure is thus produced by narrative forms, and at the same time it also establishes—at least partially—the kinds of narratives that can play out within its space. The narrative component of infrastructure is what architect Keller Easterling describes as its disposition. Easterling insists that the “meaning” of infrastructure cannot be captured simply by describing the network of objects of which it consists. Rather, infrastructure always has a futurological dimension because a part of what defines it is its disposition, an “agency or capacity” to determine how things will go:
Infrastructure space possesses disposition just as does the ball at the top of an incline. Few would look at a highway interchange, an electrical grid, or a suburb and perceive agency or activity in its static arrangement. Spaces and urban organizations are usually treated, not as actors, but as collections of objects or volumes. Activity might be assigned only to the moving cars, the electrical current, or the suburb’s inhabitants. Yet the ball does not have to roll down the incline to have the capacity to do so, and physical objects in spatial arrangements, however static, also possess an agency that resides in relative position. Disposition is immanent, not in the moving parts, but in the relationships between the components.36
The idea of the ordering disposition of nuclear infrastructures is central to the most canonical works of nuclear apocalypse literature, from Mordecai Roshwald’s infrastructural melodrama Level 7 (1959), whose apocalyptic unfolding emerges from the spatial arrangement of its underground fallout shelter community; to the ghostly nuclear reactor that organizes Riddley’s journey through postapocalyptic England in Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980); to the nuclear blueprint in Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) that determines the course of historical progress over thousands of years to produce a second nuclear apocalypse. These texts capture something of what it means for apocalypse to be infrastructured, narrativizing the paradoxes of a society whose most expensive infrastructures, far from being dispositioned to perpetuate the common good, are designed to produce no outcome other than human extinction.
Nuclear Apocalypse from Below: Hot Spotter Aesthetics
In their depictions of a universal nuclear apocalypse in the future, however, novels like Roshwald’s, Hoban’s, and Miller’s cannot capture the gradated levels of harm that nuclear infrastructures produce in the present. The nuclear mundane is the slow violence of the atomic age; like all slow violence, it distributes its damage unevenly.37 Poor people, people of color, Indigenous people, queer people, and women receive the least benefit from the nuclear complex and are most exposed to its harm: the most toxic nuclear technology sites are located on Indigenous land and in proximity to poor communities and communities of color; predominantly Black cities are established as nuclear bait to protect the white suburbs, with the result that by 1984, an estimated 88 percent of the African American population would have been wiped out in the first minutes of a full-scale atomic conflict; safety standards regulating exposure to radiation are established based on the male body when women exposed to the same sources are 37.5 percent more likely to develop cancer; homosexuals are purged from the government at twice the rate of communists as the security of the nuclear complex is perceived to be threatened by their vulnerability to blackmail.38 As the activist Jan in Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters (1980) argues to a friend who semijokingly wants to keep the struggle focused on “good ole-fashioned” racism, “They’re connected. Whose community do you think they ship radioactive waste through, or dig up waste burial grounds near? Who do you think they hire for the dangerous dirty work at those plants? What parts of the world do they test-blast in? And all them illegal uranium mines dug up on Navajo turf—the crops dying, the sheep dying, the horses, water, cancer, Ruby, cancer. And the plant on the Harlem River. . . . Hell, it’s an emergency situation, has been for years. All those thrown-together plants they built in the forties and fifties are falling apart now. War is not the threat. It’s all the ‘peacetime’ construction that’s wiping us out.”39
This damage is occluded by conceptualizations of nuclear apocalypse that can only imagine it as universal, even when that universality is being invoked to antinuclear ends; as Peter Coviello notes, “one of the primary discursive effects of something like ‘nuclear criticism’ . . . is the radical leveling of all markers of difference—most notably class, race, and nationality—in response to a threat constantly invoked as ‘universal’” such that “talking about nuclear weapons became a way to avoid talking about other, rather pressing inequalities.”40 Indeed, this critique might be extended in that speaking of nuclear danger as universal biopolitically enables the state violence that it also conceals. Taken as a national or species-level threat, nuclear annihilation justifies any action that might be taken in the name of its prevention. Such actions tend to sacrifice certain populations in the name of the survival of the whole; when the Nixon administration proposed dumping nuclear waste in Native reservations and redefining them as “national sacrifice zones,” the sacrifice of Native lives and land was justified by invoking the nation as that which must be saved.41 What Lisa Yoneyama has called “nuclear universalism” thus not only obscures the violence of the nuclear complex but also permits its flourishing.42
Infrastructures of Apocalypse therefore offers a nuclear criticism from below—a “below” that invokes both the etymology of infrastructure as that which is below structure and the “history from below” that narrates history from subaltern perspectives. In this, it works to counter the focus of the overlapping fields of Cold War, nuclear, and apocalypse studies on white Western thought and culture, fields that, as Andrew Hammond has argued, kept themselves remarkably isolated from the postcolonial theory that was reshaping the academy at the time of their emergence with the result that they came to share a “tendency to define ‘Cold War’ by the conditions where war was coldest.”43 By turning to nuclear criticism from below, this book contributes to the growing body of criticism that seeks, instead, the Cold War’s hot spots.44 In Hot Spotter’s Report: Military Fables of Toxic Waste (2013), cultural geographer Shiloh Krupar activates the nuclear term hot spot as a critical heuristic. Radiation hot spots are locations where, thanks to environmental, social, and political factors, radioactive particles collect over time. For Krupar, hot spots “are areas where something remains unassimilated and nagging; they are reminders of the ‘stickiness’ of radiation and the impossibility of pure spaces, pure categories, or a pure self”; the practice of “hot spotting” is a diagnostic involving “the operations of identifying, making visible, and keeping open the possibility that more will be identified.”45 Krupar’s focus is on military spectacle and the visual realm, and her hot spotting is a critical practice based in social science. Taking up her term to analyze literature in relation to the nuclear complex requires a slight reorientation, which I propose to call hot spotter aesthetics.
In this project, hot spot will refer to spaces and subject positions that are historically and structurally positioned to receive the most damage from the nuclear complex. Failing to adhere to the concentric “bull’s-eye” diagrams of fallout that define the nuclear imaginary, hot spots appear in unexpected places and produce zones of intense vulnerability; hot spots might be literal, producing bodily exposure to radioactive damage, or metaphorical, in that indigeneity, for example, places persons in a position of extreme vulnerability to various forms of violence from the nuclear state. Hot spotter aesthetics emerge in hot spots both literal and metaphorical wherever subjects and collectives are most vulnerable to the violence of the nuclear complex. A hot spotter might be someone like Youngman Duran, a Hopi/Tewa Pueblo Indian deputy in Martin Cruz Smith’s apocalyptic horror novel Nightwing (1977), whose innate skill in perceiving infrastructures lands him an army promotion in Vietnam, reading night photos of enemy installations to guide bombers. When he begins to perceive his own connection to the brown-skinned Vietnamese that he is bombing, Youngman starts diverting planes to bomb the ocean instead and is subsequently jailed. Upon his return home, his ability to sense both infrastructure and infrastructural violence enables him to perceive the ways in which the nuclear complex has become embedded into Hopi and Navajo land, rendering his heroic aversion of a vampire bat apocalypse deeply ambivalent in its juxtaposition with the slower apocalypse wrought by the demand for uranium and oil.46 Requiring a critical perspective that can perceive the differentially distributed vulnerability of the hot spot, hot spotter aesthetics provide a subaltern imaginary for the nuclear age, foregrounding modes of imagination, knowledge production, and representation that are developed under conditions of imposed futurelessness.
Infrastructures of Apocalypse turns to a diverse range of locations to identify the expertise and aesthetic interventions that are produced in hot spots. Each chapter locates a hot spot where structural and historical violence intersect with the nuclear mundane: Orientalism comes to define how white Americans receive the threat to individual sovereignty posed by the legal infrastructures of the nuclear complex in chapter 1; legacies of slavery and logics of white supremacy intersect with civil defense in chapter 2; the weaponized nostalgia expressed by the Strategic Defense Initiative shapes the murderous nonresponse to the AIDS epidemic in chapter 3; and the history of settler colonialism and Indigenous genocide determines the placement of nuclear waste in chapter 4. Each chapter then turns to one or more artworks that have emerged from within these hot spots: Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (1957); James Baldwin’s Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone (1968) and Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren (1975); Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (1996); David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996) and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead (1991).47 Across the four chapters, hot spotter aesthetics emerge as both response and resistance to the apocalyptic foreclosures of the future imposed by the infrastructures of the nuclear mundane.
What kinds of aesthetics, then, emerge from within hot spots? Or to rephrase the question more broadly, what forms are appropriate to the task of liberation, when the world is structured to foreclose its possibility? In his analysis of Black nuclear poetics, Joshua Bennett has argued that “this is where one turns for critical instruments in the Anthropocene. To those who have already survived against all odds; those who have already seen the end of the world, and have managed to build new ones in its wake.”48 Inhabiting the apocalyptic position that Bennett describes, the texts in this study take up the foreclosed futures imposed upon them and intervene with a particular mode of apocalypticism that I will argue is central to their liberatory projects. To understand this intervention, however, it is first important to specify what apocalypse means in this project.
Throughout this book, I put into articulated opposition two different apocalyptic modes. The first is the teleological Genesis-to-Revelation temporality that has structured both Christian and secularized time in the West. Feminist theologian Catherine Keller captures this temporality beautifully: history organized through its relation to the events foretold in Revelation, she writes, produced “the temporality of creation-fall-cross-church-eschaton. Its linearity conducted the multiple spatiotemporalities of the earth into a single forward-moving momentum. In the next millennium this surged powerfully forward in the secularized translations of progress, with its vastly uneven distribution of rewards. Modern optimism horizontalized the heavenward eschatology, while modern pessimism cast the perduring shadow of apocalypse.”49 Time becomes linear in relation to its foretold ending; as Kath Weston notes, “if Apocalypse had a fifth rider, it would be Foreshadowing.”50 This trajectoral apocalyptic mode is the object of Frank Kermode’s analysis in his influential study The Sense of an Ending (1968), which linked the end-directed macrostructure of apocalyptic history with the end-directed microstructure of the novel. In both apocalyptic imaginaries and the novel, Kermode suggested, the end is what allows the unity of the whole to be grasped as such, making its meaning available to the viewer (here we find the overlapping meanings of the word apocalypse: ending, but also revelation). Standing as we do in the middle of time, we imagine a past and a future that are consonant with each other, forming a meaningful whole that charges our own position with meaning.51 In Kermode’s famous example, we experience time in relation to its end as the charged interval between the tick and tock of a clock; if the clock runs tick tick tick, then we are reduced to mere succession. As emplotters of narrative time, novelists “have to defeat the tendency of the interval between tick and tock to empty itself; to maintain within that interval following tick a lively expectation of tock, and a sense that however remote tock may be, all that happens happens as if tock were certainly following. All such plotting presupposes and requires that an end will bestow upon the whole duration and meaning.”52 The art of the novel is, for Kermode, the art of creating consonance between beginnings and endings that will create humanly meaningful time in the same way as does eschatologically structured history.
It is important to note that while we think of apocalypse as in some way threatening the future, the apocalyptic mode that Kermode theorizes fully depends on an imagined future that provides the outer limit of time such that we can see time whole. Such a relationship to the future tends to produce conservative effects in the present in two primary ways. In the first, the future is something that exists out there in front of us as something desirable, something that should be protected from the apocalypse that threatens to destroy it. Any Hollywood movie that harvests its dramatic tension from the imminent destruction of the world by asteroid, alien, or virus serves as an example of this kind of futurity; it also appears in negative form in apocalyptic works, such as Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (1957) and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), that mourn the passing of that potential future by depicting elegiacally the final days of a dying world. In texts such as these, a determination to save the future works simultaneously to invest the present with a vulnerability that is essentially conservative; when McCarthy’s protagonists have a quasi-mystical encounter with a can of Coke, it makes readers clutch their Coke cans a little tighter, newly aware of the possibility of their loss. A conservationist attitude toward an imagined yet valued future also organizes much of progressive politics, in both activism and theory; as Robin Wiegman wrote of “Feminism’s Apocalyptic Futures” in 2000, movements that rely on an affective attachment to what we are progressing toward often find themselves experiencing the “hyperbolic anxiety that the future may now be unattainable because the present fails to bring the past to utopic completion.”53 In such cases, the drive to “save” a future in which one has invested one’s dreams becomes a limit on the kinds of presents that feel acceptable, unfailed, with the result that only the past’s futures become worth fighting for.
The second apocalyptic relationship to an imagined future sees a chosen community surviving beyond the end of Man or civilization in a New Heaven/New Earth scenario in which whatever the present sees as bad has passed away and whatever the present sees as good is able to flourish. This can be defined variously: as a fantasy of absolute patriarchy in novels like Robert Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold (1964), where the nuclear destruction of society creates the necessity of pastoral father-dominated communes; as the creation of a world in which Evangelical Christians are uniquely equipped to survive, as in Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’s Left Behind series (1996–2004); but equally in texts that earnestly try to think beyond the human of humanism, as in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), where, after planetary starvation and a near-death-by-his-own-mansplaining experience, the protagonist is redeemed by becoming the “alien” for which he has been searching. Such postapocalyptic fantasies also tend toward conservative ends; in Claire Colebrook’s trenchant critique of posthumanist theory and literature, “this seeming revolution of over-turning man for the sake of the life that man has denied is—far from being man’s other—the very hallmark of the end of man. Man has always existed as a being who ends himself: as soon as the human is given some natural or limited definition, man discovers that his real, creative, futural being lies in some not-yet realized becoming that will always save him from a past that he can denounce as both misguided and as at an end.”54 Cartesian Man is dead; long live Deleuzian Man!
In contrast to the apocalypse that depends on an imagined future to give the present coherence or inspiration, I trace in this study an alternative form of apocalypse that I see practiced by Black, queer, ethnic, female, and Indigenous writers in their engagements with the nuclear complex: apocalypse as radical futurelessness, as a formal afuturity that transfigures the present. Apocalypse is not, here, a historical rupture after which things continue differently than they did before, either better or worse; indeed, this pattern of crisis and new beginning has been central to the colonial project in America where, as Darieck Scott observes, “the rhetoric of new Edens, new slates, New Worlds has long constructed the historical as a narrative abruptly ended and then begun anew.”55 I therefore diverge from Kermode’s canonical account of apocalyptic narratives, which states that by imagining the End, “we project ourselves—a small, humble elect, perhaps—past the End, so as to see the structure whole, a thing we cannot do from our spot of time in the middle,” as well as from more recent theories of apocalypse after 1945 that argue for a general sense of postapocalypticism that defines the period, as in James Berger’s definitive After the End.56 Apocalypse is not, in this account, an opportunity to access the future anterior, the “will have been” that makes sense of the present according to how it will appear from an imagined future, the imagined future apocalypse that, as Rebekah Sheldon has argued, protects “against the possibility of a harmed future . . . through the fantasy of a fully formed future already present in the present.”57 Rather, I focus on minoritarian texts that depict a present that is oriented toward futurelessness and transformed by this orientation.58
The importance of a futureless present for hot spot writers lies in the politics of time itself. Apocalypse is often thought of as the end of time, but the exact quality of the time that is being ended is rarely questioned or defined. For subaltern writers, however, the chronopolitics of white Western society has serious material consequences, and the writers in this project all have a very clear idea of the temporalities into which they are intervening with their apocalyptic foreclosures. These temporalities have been theorized in the field that we might call critical temporality studies, a transdisciplinary research focus across the humanities and social sciences that finds its sharpest expressions in Black, queer, Indigenous, ethnic, and postcolonial studies. Such scholarship analyses how power and legitimacy are activated through different temporal frameworks, whereby time becomes, in Johannes Fabian’s influential argument, “a carrier of significance, a form through which we define the content of relations between the Self and the Other . . . [and] give form to relations of power and inequality.”59 In Against Race, Paul Gilroy describes the Enlightenment origins of what Fabian calls the “denial of coevalness” to racialized others, showing how Kant and Hegel theorized modernity as “mediated by ‘race’ as both period and region”; while white Europeans were the proper subjects of a teleological history ever moving in the direction of progress, Africans were fundamentally outside of history and thus excluded from participation in social life, understood as “not only prehistoric but prepolitical also.”60 This temporal exclusion from the political space of the present was easily transferred to other minoritized subjects, as Valerie Rohy has demonstrated with regard to queerness in Anachronism and Its Others and Mark Rifkin has analyzed in the Indigenous context in Beyond Settler Time. By the twentieth century, the concepts of race, sexuality, and imperial position had become temporally fixed to produce an understanding of the racialized, Indigenous, and/or queer subject both as excluded from an active or political role in history and as occupying a different point in the historical timeline altogether, from the “sterility imagined as deathly regression” ascribed to queerness against the futural demands of what Lee Edelman has termed “reproductive futurism” to the trope of the “Vanishing Indian” that “constitutes one of the principal means of effacing Indigenous sovereignties.”61
Hot spot writers thus enter the nuclear age already marked by a particular kind of imagined futurelessness imposed upon them by the racist, homophobic, and colonial chronopolitics of settler capitalism. The world as it is understood within the framework of the nuclear complex is one where atomic science is the natural result of white mastery over nature, fitting easily into existing teleological frameworks of modernization, progress, and predestination.62 And as these teleological frameworks enter the nuclear age, they necessarily bring their abjected others with them. In practice, this divides both the practices and the imaginaries of the nuclear complex down existing social lines. Educated white men benefit from increased opportunities for work, while the white suburban family is the only imagined survivor of a future atomic war and thus the only community for whom fallout shelters are designed, making their survival in fact more likely.63 Black, queer, and Indigenous Americans, meanwhile, remain futureless in the dominant imaginary, which then follows its own logic to render access to a flourishing future ever more diminished in practice: what’s the point in investing in the inner city, mid-century governments reasoned, when either atom bombs or its minoritized residents will ensure its future destruction?64 The disposition of nuclear infrastructures has, in other words, been structured by the politically potent denial of coevalness and continues to structure the world according to its logics.
Taken in this context, apocalypse as radical afuturity becomes visible as a targeted intervention into the social temporalities that structure and perpetuate the infrastructural violence of the nuclear complex. If the dominant culture pairs white heterosettler futurity with minority futurelessness along a determinately teleological timeline, then cutting out the future from this timeline becomes a way of disrupting the temporal structures that organize social domination. Such a disruption holds the potential to alter the dispositions of infrastructures themselves, as it does in John A. Williams’s radical historical/nuclear novel Captain Blackman (1972). After constructing a counterhistory of American nation building that centers Black soldiers, unsettling the hegemonic historiography that recognizes only whiteness as capable of making history, Williams ends the novel in the speculative mode, imagining an alternative history of the nuclear age in which white-passing African Americans have infiltrated the nuclear infrastructures of the military and redispositioned them to destroy white supremacy instead of upholding it. In Captain Blackman’s analysis, militarization has rendered the white nation “more vulnerable now than at any other time in history, man, since all aspects of its society were gathered at the toe-jam-smelling feet of its military monuments.”65 Given such centralization, it doesn’t take much to recruit light-skinned African Americans and “set them in NORAD, the Skylab probes, SAC, the Pentagon; to the tracking stations at Kano, Tananarive, Santa Cruz, Canton Island, Kauai, Woomera, Houston, Kennedy; to Grand Forks, Denver, Cheyenne, Omaha, to the ice stations. And sit there looking white, but be black as a mothafucker.”66 After an internationalist pan-African alliance takes over the nuclear complex in one fell swoop, forcing its infrastructures to produce a story of Black liberation, Williams declines to describe the future that his apocalyptic ending might produce. Like the rest of the subaltern texts with which this book engages, Captain Blackman does not offer a political program that would fix the future into a better shape. Instead, the apocalyptic ending serves an Adornian function within the scope of negative dialectics: to negate the imagined future of white nuclearity that would legitimize the repeating cycles of the white production and exploitation of Black injury that structures the rest of the novel. Williams, along with Baldwin, Delany, Kushner, Silko, and Ozeki, raises the possibility that changing the structure of history by destroying hegemonic futurity might yet change the world.67
Apocalypse and Transfiguration: Toward a Narratology of Futurelessness
It should be clear by now that time, emplotment, and imagined trajectories structure the world in a concrete sense.68 Literary analysis is therefore an appropriate critical practice to bring to bear on a world that thinks about and structures itself in profoundly literary ways. But how do we think about literary texts themselves as not only representing a narratively constructed world and experimenting with alternative emplotments in a kind of textual laboratory but also as reemplotting the world in a way that has real phenomenological impacts on readers? Taking up a mostly forgotten term from narratologist Paul Ricoeur, transfiguration, this book proposes a new narrative theory by which to analyze the interaction of worldly and textual emplotments and, in particular, how emplotments without futurity can alter our lived experience of the world.
Ricoeur’s three-volume Time and Narrative (1984–88) establishes emplotment as the link between the phenomenological experience of time and narrative representations of reality. Ricoeur “[sees] in the plots we invent the privileged means by which we re-configure our confused, unformed, and at the limit mute temporal experience.”69 He begins phenomenologically, with a reading of the twelfth book of Augustine’s Confessions, where Augustine attempts to solve the problem of where, exactly, the past and future reside. For Augustine, the human experience of time simultaneously requires that the past and future be real, because we experience them as real and time consists nowhere but in our experience, and acknowledges that the past and future have no proper location. Augustine thus develops the model of the threefold present, a lived experience of present time that includes the act of remembering and the act of predicting. The nouns of past and future become adjectival, such that “what is in question here is an entirely different present, one that has also become a plural adjective (praesentia), in line with praeterita and futura, and one capable of admitting an internal multiplicity.”70 Past and future are located within the present of the soul, Augustine writes: “It might be correct to say that there are three times, a present of past things, a present of present things, and a present of future things. Some such different times do exist in the mind, but nowhere else that I can see.”71 Ricoeur characterizes the threefold present, “an extended and dialectical present,” as the lived experience of time, in which the horizons of the past and future act upon the present as we experience it despite having only a virtual presence.72 When we think about futurelessness, then, we can think about it as something that significantly alters our experience in the present: the third fold of our threefold experience of the present, futurity, has disappeared.
Ricoeur then turns to the question of how fictional emplotments act in relation to the world. The world, he insists, is already temporally figured (“prefigured”) inasmuch as “time becomes human to the extent that it is articulated through a narrative mode, and narrative attains its full meaning when it becomes a condition of temporal existence.”73 Textual emplotment, what Ricoeur will call mimesis2, takes up the existing emplotment of time in human experience (mimesis1) and configures it through mediation between the real world and the reader (with the reception of the text by the reader performing the final operation, or mimesis3). In the simplest possible terms, the world for us is composed temporally (mimesis1). Literature configures the already emplotted world through its own emplotments and formal structures (mimesis2). In the act of reading, the world of the text opens into the world of the reader, acting upon it through the juxtaposition of the world’s original configuration and the text’s refiguration of it (mimesis3). This action of the text upon the world is what Ricoeur calls transfiguration, whose action lies in “the plots that configure and transfigure the practical field.”74
All narrative texts thus have the potential to be transfigurative for Ricoeur, although Ricoeur does not seem particularly invested in the term; he uses it only a handful of times across the three volumes of Time and Narrative and does not acknowledge any difference between it and his most common synonyms, configuration and reconfiguration (although I concur with George H. Taylor’s analysis that “transfiguration accounts for change and its deep possibilities to recast reality, while configuration and reconfiguration seem to project a more modest reworking”).75 In taking up the term here, I both adopt Ricoeur’s sense of literary emplotment as something that can “transfigure the everyday” and seek to explore further the trans aspect of transfiguration that takes one figure and moves it “across” to some other semantic field where it will signify differently.76
Looking back to Erich Auerbach’s classic essay “Figura” gives us a starting point to think from. Just as Ricoeur wants to keep mimesis (the act of representing) and muthos (the act of emplotting) as active verbs, so Auerbach seeks to restore to figuration the active sense of the classical figura as “something living and dynamic, incomplete and playful.”77 The figure for Auerbach should never be seen as fixed in meaning, because “the notion of the new manifestation, the changing aspect, of the permanent runs through the whole history of the word.”78 Auerbach traces the ways in which this fluid conception of figura became tangled up with emplotment, as through Christian models of biblical exegesis Western readers and writers were trained to see historical people and events as figures or types that will be fulfilled by the arrival of future people and events (antitypes). The meaning of the figure in this tradition is established by that which comes after it in time; the Law of Moses is fulfilled and superseded (in this hermeneutics) by the spiritual Law of Christ, while Christ himself is both the fulfilment of Moses and a new figure that will be fulfilled in the Second Coming. Figures gain their meaning from their position in an emplotted history, and the final arbiter of meaning can only be the Second Coming and the end of time. Thus, while our tradition of figural reading trains us to seek the postapocalyptic perspective from which all figures could authoritatively be interpreted, as Kermode describes in his theory of narrative consonance, Auerbach insists that from the mundane perspective, figures—including plots themselves—“have something provisional and incomplete about them,” a meaning that can only be fixed from the perspective of eternity.79 It is this provisional aspect of figuration within varyingly emplotted time frames that the trans-ness of transfiguration captures so beautifully: in different emplotments, figures will come to signify differently, moving across realms and orders of signification. And in the futureless emplotment that I am calling apocalypse, figuration in the present must remain provisional, for there is no future to serve as meaning’s guarantor.
For hot spot writers, the provisional nature of figuration and meaning in the futureless present takes on a crucial political significance. Where oppressive chronopolitics seek to fix the potential meanings and emplotments of minoritized subjects, apocalypse as futurelessness restores a liberatory flexibility of both meaning and emplotment to the present. Situated in the heart of the nuclear complex’s hot spots, Bambara’s The Salt Eaters exemplifies such an emancipatory transfiguration. The world that is being configured by the novel, as the excerpt quoted earlier in this introduction describes, is one that is structured by environmental as well as other kinds of racism; the Black community of Claybourne is situated next to a nuclear power plant, and unmarked trucks regularly carry radioactive waste through the center of the town; the town’s medical clinic and educational centers have been built to counter unequal access to health care and schools; and the story is organized around the healing of Velma, an activist whose spirit has been fractured by the never-ending nature of the struggle for justice. Throughout the novel, Bambara juxtaposes the linear, teleological time of dominant temporalities with both deep, circular connections to African pasts and antifutural emanations of nuclear apocalypse. In the most intensely suicidal moment of her breakdown, for example, Velma longs to become an hourglass: “To be that sealed—sound, taste, air, nothing seeping in . . . to pour herself grain by grain into the top globe and sift silently down to a heap in the bottom one” (19). Identical and sequential, the time of the hourglass that Velma longs to lose herself into is the manifested temporality of what Walter Benjamin called the “homogenous, empty time” of the oppressive state.80 Similarly, the nuclear complex is characterized in microcosm by the board game that Campbell, café worker and nuclear-issues writer, develops after hearing nuclear engineers from the power plant talking about their work.81 “Disposal” captures the enervating routines required to stay one step ahead of unruly nuclear materials; each square represents a storage location, but each location necessitates another move merely to stay in the game: “‘trench’—but one had to move within the next throw before the food chain was affected, ‘storage plant’—but there was a card announcing build-up which obliged the player to move off the spot” (208). “Disposal” embodies the empty teleology of the nuclear complex, as pieces move around the board in a single direction that in the end leads them nowhere.
Both of these images and temporalities are exploded in the apocalyptic transfiguration of the world that takes place at the end of the novel.82 Something that might be a storm also appears to be more: “A grumbling, growling boiling up as if from the core of the earthworks drew a groan from the crowd huddled together under the awning, in the doorway, as if to absorb the shock of it, of whatever cataclysmic event it might turn out to be, for it couldn’t be simply a storm with such frightening thunder as was cracking the air as if the very world were splitting apart” (245). This splitting apart of the world, a transition of the world and grammar of the novel into the apocalyptic mode, produces a multiplicity of figurations and a constant switching between them: transfiguration. The final event is one yet multiple: it is an accident at the plant, an atom bomb dropping, the destruction of the earth by the gods, the energy released by Velma’s healing, an environmental disaster; each of these figures of apocalypse is equally real to the text at the moment that it is being narrated. This multiplicity of figuration signifies in the text the arrival, through the arrival of an apocalyptic futurelessness, of “new possibilities in formation, a new configuration to move with” (293). The imminent end of the world suspends the teleological forward drive of the hourglass and the board game: “Rain. Delay. New possibilities in formation, a new configuration to move with” (293). The ending of the novel can seem jarring, switching genres into something like sci-fi as it incorporates radically new potentialities within the present; added to the inventory of ways that Velma could have died before this (at birth, in a fire) are now potential deaths in a resource war over burial grounds or by feral child attack (273–75). The apocalyptic scenario is not the “real” future of the novel, however, but rather the suspension of futural definitions of possibility to produce the “new possibilities in formation” that transfigure the experience of the present to include such outlandish potentials.83
The Salt Eaters is a profoundly disorienting novel, and the experience of reading it is certainly not one of apocalypse-as-revelation, where the ultimate Truth of the world becomes clear. It shares this quality with the rest of the texts on which Infrastructures of Apocalypse draws, texts that not only represent the transfiguration of reality but produce this experience in readers. Subjectively, these texts are sticky, like Krupar’s radiation; they permeate the reader’s consciousness and alter, at least for a while, the lived experience of the world, foregrounding how “we are transfigured—the narrative acts upon us—rather than our being simply active agents of refiguration.”84 Part of this transfigurative power stems from genre: they share a peculiar formal relation to the world as it is that falls under neither realism nor science or speculative fiction. They might be set in the near future, as in Atlas Shrugged, Infinite Jest, and Almanac of the Dead, or in a present where the rules of reality are slightly different (at times in Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone and more fully in Dhalgren and Angels in America), but they are not set in another world. Rather, they are set in a transfigured version of our world, which makes the boundary between the world projected by the text and the world of the reader more porous than in more overtly science fictional worlds. In the opening out of the text’s world onto the reader’s that Ricoeur describes as the transfiguration of the everyday, their foreclosure of the future makes the facticity of the real world seem somehow contingent, as if things might signify differently under the text’s futureless emplotment.85 By suspending the trajectory of the social and its objects, they restore a politically vital dimension of contingency to lived sensations of reality, a sense, as in Bambara’s novel, of the otherwiseness immanent to the world as it is. Apocalypse emerges in these texts as a way of inhabiting a provisional life-structure in the present, a way of making the present always provisional.
Bambara and the other authors with whom this book will speak thus use apocalyptic emplotments to produce a shift from the politics of fulfilment to the politics of transfiguration, an opposition theorized by philosopher and social theorist Seyla Benhabib. According to Benhabib, “the politics of fulfillment envisages that the society of the future attains more adequately what present society has left unaccomplished. It is the culmination of the implicit logic of the present.” Conversely, “the politics of transfiguration emphasizes the emergence of qualitatively new needs, social relations, and modes of association.”86 For most of The Salt Eaters, the activist characters are working to ameliorate the existing conditions of the social world, within the logics of the politics of fulfilment. The arrival of the apocalyptic horizon, however, produces in the novel the qualitatively new imaginaries that define the politics of transfiguration. While Benhabib does not engage with apocalypse directly, she does draw on Marx and the Frankfurt School thinkers in a way that suggests apocalypse as one mode of access to transfiguration: “The term ‘transfiguration,’” she writes, “is intended to suggest that emancipation signifies a radical and qualitative break with some aspects of the present. In certain fundamental ways, the society of the future is viewed to be, not the culmination, but the radical negation of the present.”87 As a narrative form that negates both the future and the present’s claim upon the future, apocalypse facilitates the politics of transfiguration as, under its futural foreclosures, the present begins to imagine itself otherwise.
For Benhabib, the counterrealist tradition connected to the politics of transfiguration is that of utopia. Hot spotter apocalypticism, however, has a very different relationship to histories of damage than utopia does, one that forms an important part of both its apocalyptic mode and its political project. Unlike utopian texts, which can only imagine a better future if it is absolutely ruptured from the present either in time (Edward Bellamy’s century-long enchanted sleep in Looking Backward ) or in space (Thomas More’s distant island in Utopia ), or dystopian texts, which see the future evolving unavoidably from the worst conditions of the present, hot spotter texts use apocalypse to imagine a present that neither abandons the past nor is determined by it. This is a particularly vital task for populations whose pasts are defined by destruction and whose futures promise to perpetuate that destruction—often, in America, by wiping the history of destruction from the historical record (think of the resolute antihistoricism that allows for the ongoing onslaught against Black communities by the police and justice systems today). As Christina Sharpe writes of Black life in the afterlife of slavery, “in the wake, the past that is not past reappears, always, to rupture the present.”88 Apocalypse here is a specific form of historical consciousness: not the end of time or the abandonment of history but a way to mourn and remember histories of damage without making those histories the determining feature of the now, to reckon with the realities of infrastructural violence without acceding to its colonization of the future. Velma’s healing in The Salt Eaters requires that she gather to herself the long histories of pain and resistance that accompany Blackness in America; we might also think of the queer melancholia that defines camp for Elizabeth Freeman, a figure that refuses to let drop the cheap, cracked, precious objects of its history, or the backward glance of queerness toward histories of damage in Heather Love’s Feeling Backward.89
Transfiguration is not a New Heaven and Earth, here, to walk upon unencumbered by the past. Instead, it is a commitment to create a world in which all those destroyed things—including, sooner or later, ourselves—can be treasured. This transfigured time might be something close to the jetztzeit that Walter Benjamin describes in “Theses on the Philosophy of History” as a time wrenched from the “empty, homogenous time” of the dominant class and replete with revolutionary potential. “Redeemed” mankind, according to Benjamin, will be that for whom the past has “become citable in all its moments”; the apocalyptic mode on which I draw here is less redemptive than Benjamin’s historical materialism and less triumphal, often failing to be “man enough to blast open the continuum of history.”90 Nonetheless, the transfigured present holds itself, as does Benjamin’s jetztzeit or time of the now, in constellation with the past, refusing the colonial desire for utopian new beginnings at the same time as it insists on radical social transformations that will honor the things we carry, the ancestors who sustain us and the damage we sustain.91
The transfiguration of the present under the sign of futurelessness also suggests an ethical reorientation to contemporary social theory’s thinking about the future. Arjun Appadurai, drawing on the writings of Ernst Bloch, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, and David Harvey, has offered a powerful theorization of the importance of access to futurity and hope for subaltern subjects in the contemporary world. In The Future as Cultural Fact, Appadurai proposes two possible ethics of futurity: the ethics of possibility and the ethics of probability. The ethics of probability is the most structurally powerful and the least desirable; it is “those ways of thinking, feeling, and acting” that stem from a statistical or risk-management approach to the future and “is generally tied to the growth of a casino capitalism which profits from catastrophe and tends to bet on disaster” as well as “amoral forms of global capital, corrupt states, and privatized adventurism of every variety.” Conversely, the ethics of possibility are defined as “those ways of thinking, feeling, and acting that increase the horizons of hope, that expand the field of the imagination, that produce greater equity in what I have called the capacity to aspire, and that widen the field of informed, creative, and critical citizenship”; it is “part and parcel of transnational civil society movements, progressive democratic organizations, and in general the politics of hope.”92 Against a probabilistic ethics that seeks to profit from the risk of damage, the ethics of possibility stands for an expanded sense of social potential, a commitment to improving the future through hope and aspiration.
Juxtaposing Appadurai’s theoretical framework with that of Benhabib, however, reveals the similarities rather than the differences between the two sides of his binary opposition. The “progressive” vision of the ethics of possibility and the risk-analysis approach of the ethics of probability are both examples of a politics of fulfilment, a present that seeks to ameliorate itself by gradual change into an imaginable future. Bambara’s novel makes the limits of such a politics clear, as Velma’s capacity for emancipatory struggle is slowly stifled by remaining trapped within the imaginative limits of an oppressive world. The transfigurative apocalypse at the end of The Salt Eaters conjures a present that is oriented neither toward a probable future nor a possible one but rather toward a set of impossible futures. It suggests that subaltern justice in the nuclear age demands an ethics of impossibility that is oriented toward the abjected outside of our capacity to think the social future: a life lived to produce liberation that we consistently fail to imagine but work to bring about anyway. Bambara captures this sense of impossible action beautifully elsewhere when discussing Black women’s activism: “I despair of our failure to wrest power from those who have it and abuse it; our reluctance to reclaim our old powers lying dormant with neglect; our hesitancy to create new powers in areas where it never before existed, and I’m euphoric because everything in our history, our spirit, our daily genius—suggests we do it.”93 The ethics of impossibility implies those ways of thinking, feeling, and acting that are not guided by what seems possible or probable in the collective vision of the future. It is designed, instead, to orient toward those whom the collective future tends to exclude: the Black, queer, Indigenous, disabled, and other subjects who are marked as futureless in the nuclear complex as elsewhere. Such an ethics will be pursued throughout Infrastructures of Apocalypse, as we turn to hot spot writers seeking to transfigure the capacities of the present through their engagement with their own impossible futures.
Chapter 1, “White Sovereignty and the Nuclear State,” opens the book with a demonstration of how the most empowered subjects of the nuclear age experienced themselves as threatened by it and how they countered their own apocalyptic loss of privilege by denying futurity to others. The chapter argues that fundamental changes in the legal relationship between the individual, the market, and the nuclear state in the 1940s and 1950s created a crisis of democratic sovereignty that was understood primarily in racial terms. A wide variety of public and state discourse, fiction, and film shows that white Americans represented this crisis as a new form of Orientalism for the nuclear age, a reflexive yellow perilism whereby being subject to state-sanctioned nuclear terror was also a form of racial degeneration. Through a reading of Ayn Rand’s treatment of race, self-determination, and nuclear weapons in her 1957 apocalypse novel Atlas Shrugged, I demonstrate the ways in which whiteness was constructed in the post-1945 period as a violently sovereign force that could prevent the white American population from being recoded as a racialized mass: incoherent, powerless, and endlessly vulnerable.
Chapter 1 establishes settler-colonial masculine whiteness as having a unique, if threatened, access to futurity that it protects by casting all others into an apocalyptic futurelessness. My subsequent chapters explore how this paradigm comes to shape the nuclear complex itself and, subsequently, how writers who have been disallowed futurity transform their imposed futurelessness into a political and aesthetic position, taking up the apocalyptic mode to deemplot the present from its position within the overdetermined narratives of infrastructural violence and create the possibility of new, more liberatory emplotments. Chapter 2, “Civil Defense and Black Apocalypse,” turns from legal and bureaucratic infrastructures to environmental ones, examining the reconfiguration of urban environments according to the racialized logics of civil defense. This chapter charts the discursive and infrastructural imbrication of civil defense and white millennialism through the reemergence in literature, politics, and the burgeoning field of American studies of the image of the City on a Hill. Through readings of mid-century speeches and maps, novels and urban environments, I show that white America’s exceptionalist future, as encapsulated in the image of the City on a Hill, was based on the promise of Black annihilation, as the inner city became both predominantly African American and a target that would protect the surrounding suburbs from nuclear attack. In opposition to these racialized infrastructures, James Baldwin’s Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone (1968) and Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren (1975) develop narrative forms that dismantle the determinate relationship between race and the city. Rejecting the typological emplotment of history that structured both mid-century liberalism and African American civil rights movements, Baldwin and Delany deploy an apocalyptic futurelessness to reject the politics of fulfillment and demand a politics of transfiguration that would produce qualitatively new ways of being.
Chapter 3, “Star Wars, AIDS, and Queer Endings,” extends my investigation of competing apocalyptic temporalities into the 1980s. Here I draw on the overlapping discourses surrounding the Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars) and the AIDS epidemic to argue that the obsession with the 1950s in 1980s America was part of a larger political and ideological shift involving the emergence of what I call retrocontainment: a replacement of the failed spatial borders of the Cold War containment doctrine with the temporal boundaries of a nostalgic return to a past that had been ideologically reconstructed as safe. Retrocontainment came to define both the AIDS body and the infrastructures of state responses to the epidemic, as fears of failed bodily boundaries promoted (non)responses that were oriented more toward a forcible recloseting of gay culture in an imagined return to a heteronormative 1950s than toward saving lives. This oppressive temporality is, I argue, both staged and critiqued in Tony Kushner’s 1991–92 epic play Angels in America through its portrayal of Roy Cohn and Ethel Rosenberg, which, through formal techniques like simultaneous staging, makes retrocontainment only one of multiple temporalities in play at any given moment. Connecting my discussion of AIDS to Kushner’s staging of the Cold War’s ghosts, I historicize the emergence of queer temporality studies in the 1990s as a response to the apocalyptic experience of the AIDS epidemic. In the face of the singular timeline of retrocontainment, the multiplicity that defines queer temporalities becomes legible as a form of resistance to normative constructions of time that predicate the survival of the nation on queer extinction.
The final chapter, “Nuclear Waste, Native America, Narrative Form,” returns to the first-order materiality of the nuclear complex: the millions of tons of radioactive waste that will continue to be dangerous to humans for billions of years. While most ecocriticism argues for a move from an apocalyptic mode to a realistic one when depicting environmental hazards, this chapter argues for the continuing importance of apocalypse to disrupt conservative realisms that maintain the status quo. Through a reading of Department of Energy documents that use both fictional description and probability modeling to produce a “realistic” account of the future Southwest that allows for the opening of a dangerous nuclear waste depository, I show how realism is used by the state to distribute risk unevenly onto Indigenous nations. I read David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest as a critique of both nuclear colonialism and the form of realism that perpetuates it before turning to Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead (1991), a novel that uses apocalyptic form to transform nuclear waste into a prophecy of the end of the United States rather than a means for imagining its continuation. This revised emplotment of history transforms the present into an apocalyptic space where environmental catastrophe produces not only unevenly distributed damage but also revolutionary forms of social justice that insist on a truth that probability modeling cannot contain: that the future will be qualitatively different from the present, while the present, too, might yet be utterly different from the real that we think we know.
The book closes with a brief coda, “Nuclear Entanglements,” that turns to the Fukushima Daiichi disaster to consider the nuclear problem at the planetary scale in the twenty-first century. Drawing on the history of nuclear power in the Atoms for Peace program and Ruth Ozeki’s transoceanic novel A Tale for the Time Being (2013), I bring together the entangled fields of nuclear science and quantum physics to argue that the nuclear condition requires an ethical engagement with the world through the model of quantum superposition and entanglement, in which distant objects resonate with each other, cause and effect are unpredictable, and impossibilities flourish. The nuclear age in which the human species will now always live reveals us to be something other than we thought we were, unstable beings entangled with an unknowable planet. And if this revelation appears apocalyptic, then apocalypse is where we must reside, with futurelessness affording the chance to keep the present open to radical change just a little longer, suspended between the unbearable past and the impossible future, here, at the end of the world.
Why Apocalypse, Why Now?
These chapters, taken together, intervene in a central problem in contemporary environmental and social theory: how counterhegemonic work can continue when all avenues of possibility appear to be foreclosed. As late capitalism grinds inexorably on, as more and more lives are precarious, as the protections and promises of liberalism become increasingly hollow, as overt white supremacy seizes power, and as the irreversible environmental catastrophes of climate change, toxification, and the sixth mass extinction project an uncertain future for life itself, the affective function of hope and a belief in progress comes under increasing pressure. This is hard, as all of us know: it’s hard to keep working when you don’t know what you’re working for; it’s hard to keep working when you don’t feel optimistic about your chances of generating change; it’s hard to invest in action that doesn’t fit into a narrative of amelioration, that doesn’t promise that things will get better. Futurelessness is not a politics that feels empowered, agential, directional. Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing takes up this problem in The Mushroom at the End of the World: we think that we have grown out of progress narratives, left them in the last century where they belong, but at the same time, “progress felt great; there was always something better ahead. Progress gave us the ‘progressive’ political causes with which I grew up. I hardly know how to think about justice without progress.”94 Progress is how we know how to feel good, and progress requires futurity.
“It’s hard for me to even say this: there might not be a collective happy ending.”95 I know what I’m asking. In Conscripts of Modernity, David Scott describes the crisis of postcolonial politics after Bandung when the horizon of utopian possibility that had defined earlier anticolonial movements seemed to contract into a “dead-end present,” what Raymond Williams described in reference to modern tragedy as “the loss of hope; the slowly settling loss of any acceptable future.”96 This state of mind is both shared by the contemporary moment and intolerable to it, for all of the reasons described above. Scott diagnoses it, but his project is explicitly to find a way to get out of it. Mine is not. I’m asking us to stay there, to see what apocalyptic transfigurations of the world might be produced if we ceased to be oriented toward a futural horizon even if it doesn’t feel good, even if it can’t sustain the momentary punk euphoria of Edelman’s “fuck everything” and for the most part is kind of depressing, even if it means by definition that we can never get anywhere.
Contemporary theory sees little of value in apocalypse. Addressing the question of how we live in precarious times, Donna Haraway asks, “How can we think in times of urgencies without the self-indulgent and self-fulfilling myths of apocalypse?”97 Rebecca Solnit uses apocalypse as a synonym for “easy despair,” while Timothy Morton argues that “the strongly held belief that the world is about to end ‘unless we act now’ is paradoxically one of the most powerful factors that inhibit a full engagement with our ecological coexistence here on Earth.”98 Kath Weston’s note on the topic in Animate Planet establishes the conceptual outlines of the opposition between apocalypse and a serious/radical engagement with a precarious present that these thinkers share: “The perception that environmental changes are rendering life more precarious,” she writes, “is not to be confused with an apocalyptic narrative, although the two may feed off one another. Meteor strikes, nuclear winters, and climate change–induced disasters all draw audiences to cinemas, especially in North America, but these stories focus on the end game, the time when human history stops, not the insecurities of a now. With their teleological bent, apocalyptic accounts are affectively quite distinctive.”99 Apocalypse, here and elsewhere, is the bad object (teleological, determinate, an overly aestheticized distraction) against which good thinking about present-day crisis defines itself.
But what if “the insecurities of [the] now” demand that we take apocalypse more seriously? Tsing defines precarity as “that here and now in which pasts may not lead to futures.”100 To be precarious, to be in crisis, is to exist in a condition of foreclosed futurity. The reaction formation to this is to double down on ideologies of survival, but this comes with its own problems; “in popular American fantasies, survival is all about saving oneself by fighting off others. The ‘survival’ featured in U.S. television shows or alien-planet stories is a synonym for conquest and expansion.”101 Even in less overtly Hobbesian fantasies, the logic of survival, as we noted with regard to the nuclear complex, is essentially biopolitical, such that survival as an ideological determining horizon makes the actual living-on of situated bodies less likely, especially if they are already precariously positioned. What if we were to think about life, and the social, and the here and now, in other ways? What if acknowledging our own foreclosed futurity led not to a commitment to survival at all costs but somewhere else?
The wager that this book makes is that radical apocalypticism, a commitment to struggle in a present that is oriented to futurelessness rather than to survival, an apocalypticism that interrupts teleologies rather than reproducing them, produces valuable forms of work, thought, solidarity, and care.102 It traces the operations of such a struggle in hot spot writers in the hope that retrieving a counterhistory of apocalypse from below can help us reclaim a strategic apocalypticism as a weapon in the fight for liberation. In the face of a future whose impossibility seems to sediment with every new report on climate change, in a moment when the United States is committing itself to another $5 trillion nuclear buildup, where Blackness and Brownness are a license to be killed slowly by water or suddenly by cop, Infrastructures of Apocalypse offers a timely theorization of futurelessness not as an obliteration of possibility but as a place to stand, a place where we might yet construct a world in which to live.