Nuclear Iconography in Post-Cold War Culture Bryan C. Taylor University of Colorado, Boulder


I wish in this paper to sketch a project involving nuclear iconography and post-Cold War culture. At the heart of this project is the claim that the current historical moment forms a legitimation crisis for the scientific, military, industrial, governmental, and "cultural" institutions whose interests are configured in the design, manufacture, deployment, and "use" of nuclear weapons. Within this moment, a variety of progressive and regressive movements have been intitiated through the production and reception of nuclear weapons rhetoric. The role of visual iconography in nuclear hegemony has traditionally received minor attention (e.g., compared with the "nukespeak" of foreign policy, mass media news coverage, and literary works). Recent scholarly articles and books have attempted to correct this verbalist imbalance by examining the genres and discourses of nuclear art (e.g., painting), cinema and photography. Collectively, this work establishes that the Bomb is -- after W.J.T. Mitchell -- an "imagetext" in which verbal and iconic discourses interanimate to produce ways of (not) seeing and forms of (not) feeling that have historically positioned cultural subjects in relation to the technologies, policies, figures, locations, events, and institutions (in both senses as "customary practices" and "formal organizations") which have constituted the nuclear condition . . .

"Now Do You See It?": Post-Cold War Nuclear Iconography

I am interested in the role of visual rhetoric in maintaining this "war of position" between military, environmental, arms-control, pacifist, industrial, scientific and federal interests [in post-Cold War culture]. Issues in this research include the nature of verbal and visual codes in nuclear representations (e.g., in critical disagreement over the success of nuclear landscape photography in evoking viewer knowledge of the deadly, invisible radiation which "really" suffuses its depicted objects), the uses to which images are put in various social contexts (e.g., in museum exhibits commemorating the Japanese atomic bombings), and the consequences of images for existing power relations between nuclear authorities and citizens (e.g., in legitimating the "accelerated" -- and arguably incomplete -- cleanup of contaminated nuclear weapons plants by federal agencies and their contractors) . . .

. . . A preliminary survey of prominent nuclear weapons images suggests [this] "new" theme in this process, unique to the post-Cold War era . . .

. . . "Museumification"

This theme describes the inter-related processes by which the partially decrepit and moribund nuclear apparatus is being dismantled, appropriated, recycled, commodified, and memorialized in contemporary culture (e.g., in the recent recommendation by a pyrotechnics expert to convert disarmed ballistic missiles into fireworks celebrating the coming millenium). One outcome of this process is an official archive of nuclear history (e.g., the inclusion of nuclear weapons plants in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places), and a shared resource for popular memory and nostalgia (evoked, for example, in a recent volume of poignant photographs of Manhattan Project workers and their families). Occasionally, this process becomes reflexive as the historical agents and practices of nuclear representation are themselves taken as an object of representation (e.g., in a recent film celebrating the work of Air Force photographers responsible for visually documenting nuclear weapons tests). Another outcome, however, involves a self-consciously unofficial bricolage and pastiche of forms created from the fragments of nuclear culture (e.g., when a California media production company creates a "warplane theme" in its office by using parts of decommissioned B-52 bombers that also signify its aggressive "psychological warfare" in the marketplace).

This theme encompasses tactical and entrepeneurial attempts to develop nuclear-historical resources for "profitable" ventures (e.g., the conversion of abandoned missile silos into domestic residences, and the recycling of ICBM rocket propellant as commercial heating fuel). Ideally, these ventures open up new operational "markets", and return desperately needed revenue and legitimacy (e.g., when the famous RAND think tank -- the original developers of nuclear war strategy -- diversifies to become the nation's largest private health policy analyst). The agents of this development can be individuals, commercial organizations, local and state governments (e.g., Los Angeles recently converted a former Nike missile command center into a park with hiking trails and picnic tables), and federal agencies (e.g., the ultra-secret National Security Agency recently opened a gift shop in their headquarters). Often, this development reflects a mandate adopted by post-Cold War nuclear organizations to reduce their historical secrecy, and increase -- to an extent -- public awareness of and investment in their operations. The Illinois Argonne National Laboratory, for example, has literally opened a "window into and onto the laboratory" by creating an educational exhibit that allows visitors to remotely observe and participate in actual experiments being conducted by employees.

This theme also encompasses the manner in which defense conversion -- the widespread economic "rehabilitation" of Cold War subjects and institutions -- becomes an object of media scrutiny (e.g., in news coverage of "killer" Russian dolphins originally trained to locate mines that are retrained to work with autistic children). This media treatment occasionally borders on the comic, as in a 1996 news photo of two senior U.S. and Russian defense officials, posed in a Missouri cornfield and appearing equally awkward with the actual performance of destruction, jointly setting off an explosion to "retire" an empty ICBM silo. The concreteness of this image produces incongruity which clarifies the disorienting rate of change in post-Cold War politics, in which former enemies are now collaborators. The ironic tone of this image is echoed in copy accompanying a newspaper photograph depicting a milestone demolition at a former nuclear weapons production facility: "Most companies hold a ceremony when a building is erected. Rocky Flats celebrated Monday as a building came down." Potentially, these depictions can evoke popular-cultural images of of Cold War military operations -- as when a news article announcing the termination of U.S. submarine patrols under the Arctic ice cap leads its reader to fondly recall Alisdair Maclean's 1960's espionage thriller (later made into a film), Ice Station Zebra. Intertextuality can also be generated in the performance of a media event, like one that evoked the the complex relationship between the development of nuclear power and nuclear weapons. On a recent visit to Chernobyl's "menacing monument" to nuclear "mistakes," U.S. Vice President Al Gore cited that 1986 reactor disaster as an instructive lesson for the Indian and Pakistani governments currently engaged in a regional nuclear arms race.

While Gore's warning demonstrates the diverse political ends served by museumification, this process usually produces visual texts connoting reduced nuclear risk. These texts punctuate the nuclear age as essentially closed. Often -- as in treatments of the Cuban Missile Crisis, or the so-called "Soviet Doomsday Machine" -- they generate morbid excitement based on the retrospective revelation of narrowly-averted (but temporally contained) disaster. The scenario of "if only . . ." provides the payoff. Vast, secret bunkers dedicated to the preservation of national leaders, policies of succession, and communications "hotlines" are recurring tropes. These images and artifacts, however, can potentially blunt critical appreciation of continued nuclear weapons development. They are prematurely memorialist, even as they perform the function of revelation. Occasionally, however, this genre is countered by image-texts reflecting surprise and suspicion (generally mild in the mainstream media). One recent news article about the Pentagon's expensive renovation of existing missile silos, for example, provided the following hook: "Nuclear warriors? These days?" In another, stronger example, Richard Misrach's recent work of landscape photography concludes by proposing the conversion of Nevada's devastated Bravo-20 bombing site into a National Park whose features and exhibits would condemn the Pentagon's massive "withdrawal" of public lands for seemingly unnecessary environmental destruction.

Additionally, this theme encompasses multi-media images that depict the "retirement" and disassembly of nuclear weapons systems, and that exploit reduced security restrictions to reveal the vast scale of historical Cold War operations. One example is an Internet Website whose spelunking authors provide an "unofficial" photographic tour of an abandoned missile silo. Don DeLillo's recent Cold War epic, Underworld, contains a related scene depicting a massive, eerie "boneyard" of B-52 bombers resembling the thousands currently "stored" in the Northern Arizona desert. The "mortality" of these weapons systems is mirrored in photographs accompanying the obituaries of their human designers, administrators, and military operators -- many of whom served as part of the famous Manhattan Project cohort. These tropes of "retirement" and "death" become reflexive when some of these elderly white men reject their professional socialization (a.k.a., "the retirement syndrome") to urge deeper and more rapid nuclear disarmament (e.g,. complete "abolition").

Finally, this theme encompasses the visual rhetoric by which nuclear weapons are symbolically and literally appropriated as elements of museum and tourist sites. A "Bureau of Atomic Tourism" Website, for example, organizes information (e.g., brief site histories, hotel amenities, local transportation) about locations promoting themselves as destinations for nuclear-themed leisure. At these locations, tourists may consume mediated depictions of "actual" nuclear weapons production ("Savannah River Site -- See where Plutonium 239 and Tritium were made") and use ("Nagasaki -- Last Wartime Use of an Atomic Bomb"). Some of these facilities are quite popular: thrice-weekly tours of the Colorado Springs NORAD facility (popularized in Hollywood films as the panoptical but unreliable nerve-center of nuclear warfighting) are sold out six months in advance. This tourism website clarifies a larger body of journalistic and promotional "travel" discourse which emerged during 1995, and framed the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombings as an opportunity to "explore" historically forbidden regions of (inter)national space and identity. The jaunty, breezy tone of some of this discourse ("Los Alamos Is More Than Just a 'Hot' Time In the Desert") suggests some lingering awkwardness in the marketing of these communities, which have strategically developed their tourist economies to supplement declining federal budgets. Not all nuclear-historical sites, of course, have chosen this path. In its recent massive redevelopment, for example, the city of Berlin has chosen to minimize its famous sites of Cold War confrontation, such as "Checkpoint Charlie." A related genre of public spectacle, finally, involves the restoration and operation of Cold War weapons systems as elements of "live" civic and commercial entertainment (e.g., the display and piloting of Soviet MiG fighters at travelling air shows).

The textuality of these sites and events forms an important opportunity for the study of the post-Cold War production and reception of nuclear history. Collectively, these processes construct a visual archive of Cold War culture that selects, organizes and interprets the significant elements of this period (e.g., a one-ton steel, 1955-vintage bomb shelter donated to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, subsequetly restored to include 1950's board games, canned goods, sleeping bags, and water purification tablets). The elements of this archive form the textual resource for the popular construction of nuclear history as an ongoing narrative with malleable relevance to present conditions. The inevitable politics of this process form a principal opportunity for a revived post-Cold War criticism . . .



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