Planetary bombing

NORAD's Santa

You’ve probably read the tinsel-and-glitter story about NORAD tracking Santa Claus on Christmas Eve – like Santa’s sleigh, it goes the rounds every year – but Matt Novak provides an appropriately explosive rendition of it here.

It was a smart move for the military. When American kids asked their parents what NORAD was, the U.S. parents would be able to respond “those are the people who help Santa” rather than “those are the people who are ensuring our second strike capabilities after you and everyone in your play group are turned to dust by a nuclear attack.”

Among other plums in the pudding, Matt pulls out a syndicated story from AP in December 1955, in which the military promised that it would ‘continue to track and guard Santa and his sleigh on his trip to and from the U.S. against possible attack from those who do not believe in Christmas‘ (emphasis added).

Atomic Weapons Requirements Study for 1959 JPEG

Just before Christmas this year, while NORAD was busy preparing to track Santa’s sleigh again, the National Security Archive at George Washington University released US Strategic Air Command’s Atomic Weapons Requirements Study for 1959, produced the year after that AP story.  The study

‘provides the most comprehensive and detailed list of nuclear targets and target systems that has ever been declassified. As far as can be told, no comparable document has ever been declassified for any period of Cold War history.’

Based on the Bombing Encyclopedia of the World, the Air Force planners proposed

the “systematic destruction” of Soviet bloc urban-industrial targets that specifically and explicitly targeted “population” in all cities, including Beijing, Moscow, Leningrad, East Berlin, and Warsaw. Purposefully targeting civilian populations as such directly conflicted with the international norms of the day, which prohibited attacks on people per se (as opposed to military installations with civilians nearby).

The study ‘listed over 1200 cities in the Soviet bloc, from East Germany to China, also with priorities established. Moscow and Leningrad were priority one and two respectively. Moscow included 179 Designated Ground Zeros (DGZs) while Leningrad had 145, including “population” targets.’  Every target was preceded by an eight-digit code from the Bombing Encyclopedia.

Selected SAC targets 1959 JPEG

William Burr provides an excellent, detailed commentary to accompany the Study here; you can also find more from Joseph Trevithick on this ‘catalog of nuclear death over at War is Boring here.

But all of this is prelude to the real plum in my Christmas pudding, the best paper I’ve read all year: Joseph Masco‘s ‘The Age of Fallout’ in the latest issue of History of the Present [5 (2) (2015) 137-168].

Being able to assume a planetary, as opposed to a global, imaginary is a surprisingly recent phenomenon. Although depictions of an earthly sphere are longstanding and multiple, I would argue that the specific attributes of being able to see the entire planet as a single unit or system is a Cold War creation. This mode of thinking is therefore deeply imbricated not only in nuclear age militarism, but also in specific forms of twentieth-century knowledge production and a related proliferation of visualization technologies.  A planetary imaginary includes globalities of every kind (finance, technology, international relations) – along with geology, atmosphere, glaciers, oceans, and the biosphere – as one totality.

What is increasingly powerful about this point of view is that it both relies on the national security state for the technologies, finances, and interests that create the possibility of seeing in this fashion, but also, in a single gesture, exceeds the nation-state as the political form that matters. A planetary optic is thus a national security creation (in its scientific infrastructures, visualization technologies, and governing ambitions) that transcends these structures to offer an alternative ground for politics and future making. Proliferating forms of globality – including the specific visualizations of science, finance, politics, and environment – each achieve ultimate scale and are unified at the level of the planetary. This achievement ultimately raises an important set of questions about how collective security problems can, and should, be imagined.

It’s a tour de force which, as these opening paragraphs show, is beautifully written too.  Joe begins with a richly suggestive discussion of the idea of ‘fallout’:

‘Fallout comes after the event; it is the unacknowledged-until-lived crisis that is built into the infrastructure of a system, program, or process. Fallout is therefore understood primarily retrospectively, but it is lived in the future anterior becoming a form of history made visible in negative outcomes.’

Its horizons are as much spatial as they are temporal – though Joe makes the sharp point that radioactive fallout was initially conceived as ‘the bomb’s lesser form’ and that it was the ‘explosive power of the bomb that was fetishized by the US military’ – and that fallout involves ‘individual actions and lived consequences, a post-sociality lived in isolation from the collective action of society or the war machine’ that mutates into what he sees as ‘an increasingly post-Foucaudian kind of governmentality’.


When he elaborates the multiple registers in which radioactive fallout appears as an atmospheric toxicity Joe moves far beyond the nostrums of Peter Sloterdijk and others – which, to me anyway, seem to be based on almost wilfully superficial research – and connects it, both substantively and imaginatively, to contemporary critical discussions around global climate change and the Anthropocene.

In a cascade of maps and images, Joe shows how

Space and time are radically reconfigured in these fallout studies, constituting a vision of a collective future that is incrementally changing in unknown ways through cumulative industrial effects. The logics of a national security state (with its linkage of a discrete territory to a specific population) becomes paradoxical in the face of mounting evidence of ecological damage on a collective scale, not from nuclear war itself but rather from nuclear research and development programs. It is important to recognize that while cast as “experiments,” U.S. atmospheric nuclear tests were in reality planetary-scale environmental events.

In short, ‘since 1945 human beings have become post-nuclear creatures, marked with the signatures of nuclear weapons science.’

Towards the end of his essay, Joe says this:

In applying the lessons of the twentieth-century nuclear complex to contemporary geoengineering schemes to manage climate change, we might question 1) the claim to both newness and absolute crisis that installs a state of emergency and suspends normal forms of law and regulation; 2) a process that rhetorically reproduces the split between the event and its fallout so completely; and 3) the suggestion that geoengineering is a novel activity, that it is not an ancient practice with many antecedent examples to think with in assessing our current moment. We might also interrogate how the past fifty years of multidisciplinary work to create detailed visualizations of the planet has installed a dangerous confidence in globality itself, as increasingly high resolution visualizations come to stand in for both objectivity and sovereignty, and thus enable psychosocial feelings of control over vastly complex earth systems that remain, at best, only partially understood.

It’s an immensely provocative, perceptive paragraph; it not only makes me retrace my own wanderings through the nuclear wastelands (see here, here and here) but it also obliges me to rethink what I once called ‘the everywhere war’, to map its contours much more carefully  (the original impulse was simply to provide a counterpoint to those commentators who emphasised war time – ‘the forever war’, ‘permanent war’, ‘never-ending war’ – and who never noticed its spaces), and – particularly with that remark about ‘high resolution visualizations com[ing] to stand in for both objectivity and sovereignty’ in mind – perhaps even to see it as another dimension of Joe’s ‘Age of Fallout’.

Zizek on Disposable Life

Zizek on Disposable Life

I discussed the History of Violence project’s Disposable Life series when it was first announced here.  Introducing the series, the Project’s Director Brad Evans explains:

“Mass violence is poorly understood if it simply refers to casualties on battlefields or continues to be framed through conventional notions of warfare. We need to interrogate the multiple ways in which entire populations are rendered disposable on a daily basis if we are to take seriously the meaning of global citizenship in the 21st Century”.

Nine videos have been produced so far, and you can access the first eight here; the latest comes from Slavoj Zizek:

For Zizek, the issue of ‘disposable lives’ in the contemporary period does not simply relate to some small or invisible minority. According to the new logics of global capitalism, the vast majority of the worlds citizens (including almost entire Nations) are deemed to be worthless and superfluous to its productive needs. Not only does this point to new forms of apartheid as the global cartography for power seeks to police hierarchies of disposability, it further points to a nihilistic future wherein the aspirations of many are already being sacrificed.

You can access the video through the links above or directly from vimeo here.  Not my favourite theorist or commentator, but worth watching not least for the one-liner about Sloterdijk (at 4.06 if you’re really busy).  What he takes from Sloterdijk is this:

‘”global” means there is a globe which is not all-encompassing, it’s a globe where from within you think it’s endless, all encompassing, you see it all, but no, it excludes…’

I agree with Brad’s framing of the project – impossible not to, I think – but once you start to imagine the global in these (un)exceptionable terms,  both conventional and unconventional modes of warfare start to seep back in to the discussion.  For on those now radically dispersed and discontinuous battle spaces whole populations are being rendered disposable on a daily basis.

‘Books constitute capital’

HARVEY Seventeen contradictionsIntroducing his interview with David Harvey at the Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this week, Scott Carlson notes that

‘The American stage has recently been set for questioning capitalism, with the U.S. tour of academe’s rock star of the moment, Thomas Piketty. The French economist’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century has highlighted capitalism’s drift toward inequality and criticized economists’ focus on pure theory.’

The interview was prompted by the publication of David’s latest book, Seventeen contradictions and the end of capitalism: see also this interview with Jonathan Derbyshire here.  En route, David has good things to say about Piketty’s project – its empirical detail, its humanistic flourishes (see also Paul Krugman here) – but he is evidently dissatisfied with its analytical and, in consequence, its political reach.

Since he spoke to the Chronicle, David has fleshed out his critique of Piketty here.

The book has often been presented as a twenty-first century substitute for Karl Marx’s nineteenth century work of the same title. Piketty actually denies this was his intention, which is just as well since his is not a book about capital at all. It does not tell us why the crash of 2008 occurred and why it is taking so long for so many people to get out from under the dual burdens of prolonged unemployment and millions of houses lost to foreclosure. It does not help us understand why growth is currently so sluggish in the US as opposed to China and why Europe is locked down in a politics of austerity and an economy of stagnation. What Piketty does show statistically (and we should be indebted to him and his colleagues for this) is that capital has tended throughout its history to produce ever-greater levels of inequality. This is, for many of us, hardly news. It was, moreover, exactly Marx’s theoretical conclusion in Volume One of his version of Capital. Piketty fails to note this, which is not surprising since he has since claimed, in the face of accusations in the right wing press that he is a Marxist in disguise, not to have read Marx’s Capital.

If he had – David’s central point – he would have realised that capital has to be conceived not as a thing but as a process: the insight that has animated so much of his own work ever since he made his celebrated ‘transition’ in Social justice and the city from liberal to socialist formulations.

But we might also note the reference in the passage I’ve highlighted to difference, to the macro-scale differences between the US, Europe and China, and by implication to the production of a variegated and highly uneven capitalist space.  David’s insights here have surely been his crowning achievement – and, significantly, the Chronicle interview is captioned ‘Mapping a new economy’.

SLOTERDIJK World Interior of CapitalHe’s no longer alone, of course, and many critics have also been enthralled by another rock star release, Peter Sloterdijk‘s In the world interior of capital (memorably described by Carl Raschke as a ‘philosophical docudrama’):

‘No point on the Earth’s surface, once money had stopped off there, could escape the fate of becoming a location – and a location is not a blind spot in a field, but rather a place in which one sees that one is seen.’

It’s also, as Harvey shows, rather more than that.  Sloterdijk shows that too, hence his ‘spherology‘ and his emphasis on ‘spatial multiplicities’.  But their analyses – like their philosophies and their politics – take us to radically different destinations.

So back to my title: these three books ‘constitute capital’, in exactly the sense Thomas Jefferson meant, but they also enable us to apprehend capital – in the double sense of comprehending its exactions and, ultimately, indicting its deformations.