Saturday, March 12, 2005

Don't call it a comeback

I must have been in a dotcom bubble when I suggested a couple posts ago that the computer was cold-war defense spending’s greatest gift to capitalist power; obviously our nuclear arsenal deserves this title. This is argued persuasively by Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival, which reminds us that our ongoing nuclear strategy is the frame within which any threat to US interests must be understood. The rarely spoken N-word is the lullaby of the investor class, which sleeps more soundly knowing that its overseas investments are insured against nationalization by the ultimate policy. Our nuclear potential and our unique willingness to actualize it have been historically demonstrated by great liberal presidents like Truman and Kennedy; renewed for the alleged post-cold-war world under Clinton, whose US Strategic Command rearticulated in Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence the madman-theoretic value of our nuclear dominance in reshaping the choice situation of any would-be threat to US interests abroad; and reassuringly affirmed for the allegedly post-9/11 world by Bush’s National Security Strategy of 2002, the audacity of which lies not so much in its principle that the US will brook no challenge to its global hegemony as in its willingness to endorse publicly this former trade secret of bipartisan US foreign policy.

Thus, I read with interest in today’s FT a review of Bryan Appleyard’s Aliens: Why They Are Here, a work of kremlinological Traumdeutung that sets Americans’ very real belief in extra-terrestrials within the context of dimly perceived but omnipresent nuclear anxiety. On the face of it, interest in accounts of alien abduction seems belated, a throwback to the preoccupations of the 90s, but a casual glance at the newspaper will confirm that everything old is new again: Condoleezza “The Soviet Union and the Czechoslovak Army, 1948-1983: Uncertain Allegiance” Rice is the representative of what is called US diplomacy; our relentless, extravagant, and contrascientific pursuit of National Missile Defense is recharging an arms race, though with a wider field of players, for whom nuclear armament is just another part of industrialization; Russia is experiencing some sort of atavistic—and probably rational—nostalgia for superpower and nuclear prominence, as exemplified this week by the news of their recent threat to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, a disarmament agreement between the U.S and the Soviet Union that is widely considered the keystone of late-cold-war arms reduction; most obviously—and most distractingly, and probably most influentially with respect to the psychic life of average Americans—there's the don’t-let-the-smoking-gun-be-a-mushroom-cloud redux, Persian edition, that is echochambering through our media.

Appleyard, a journalist who apparently specializes in how science figures in contemporary culture, has written a part-psychiatric, part-mythographic study of western belief in encounters with alien forms of life. Appleyard suggests that like magic and shamanism, UFOism is psychologically real, and that the commonalities in reports of UFO experience aren’t due to mere copy-catting, but rather are independent, parallel responses to anxieties and social pressures that bear on us equally; a shared dream-shape reflecting in fantasy what we deeply feel but aren’t able to say about the forces that constitute our world; spontaneous glimpses of the true nuclear Tristero of disinherited America. Like Jung, Appleyard makes much of the fact that the first UFO sightings came two years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and he suggests that UFOism developed parallel to Cold War nuclear anxieties. As the doomsday clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists ticks toward midnight, we dream of grey men with almond eyes suspending us in a ray of light, rotating us on a gurney, and dumping us in the backyard.

Don DeLillo has suggested that the bomb is at the center of all conspiracy theories, their sense and telos; Fox Mulder’s paranoia is Noam Chomsky’s is Jim Garrison’s is Oedipa Maas’s. The history of western metaphysics may have run its course, but logocentrism is alive and well; if political power grows out of the barrel of a gun, then the logos is mounted atop an intercontinental ballistic missile, within whose arc alone intelligibility is possible—this is gravity’s rainbow, the spectrum of coherent experience preserved within the parabola inscribed by a nuclear projectile. Call it the madman theory of meaning: the prospect of annihilation is the condition of the possibility of semantic coherence; the bomb is “the signifier intended to designate as a whole the effects of the signified” (Lacan, quoted out of context but not really).
A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.
Postscript: the Slavophiles who would reanimate the taxidermized Lenin with the spirit of ‘48 and redact the embarrassing bits of Stalin might also consider rehabilitating Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who, when his proposals for deescalating the arms race were rejected by Eisenhower, embarked on unilateral reduction despite strenuous military protest, and whose policies were known to Kennedy and ignored in favor of the US strategy of overwhelming build-up rather than reciprocal disarmament (Chomsky, 224-25). And no rehabilitation is needed to praise as a hero Vasili Arkhipov, the “Soviet submarine officer who blocked an order to fire nuclear-armed torpedoes on October 27 [1962], at the tensest moment of the [Cuban missile] crisis, when the submarines were under attack by US destroyers. A devastating response would have been a near certainty, leading to a major war” (Chomsky, 74).


Blogger Bryan Appleyard said...

Thanks for this remark about my book. I would add the importance of hypnosis. I had myself hypnotised and at once saw a flying saucer - with absolute conviction, though this vanished when I was brought out of the trance. I suspect self-hypnosis of some kind is involved in many sightings, notably Kenneth Arnold's in 1947. Self-hypnosis may be a far more common phenomenon than is generally realised - and a more significant one.

4/21/2006 11:41 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home