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On Nuclear Criticism


Christopher Daley


In 1984, the journal Diacritics set out to define what it labelled as the developing academic terrain of ‘nuclear criticism’. The opening section of the journal entitled ‘Proposal for a Diacritics Colloquium on Nuclear Criticism’ established that ‘critical theory ought to be making a more important contribution to the public discussion of nuclear issues' [i] and proceeded to list a series of nuclear themes that required immediate consideration. Among these were an examination of the nuclear arms race and the ‘dialectic of mimetic rivalry' [ii] it provoked, ‘the power of horror' [iii]  and most pertinently ‘the representation of nuclear war in the media as well as in the literary canon' [iv]. This last topic was all the more powerful for a mid-eighties audience as the early years of the decade had seen a re-emergence of nuclear anxieties that were reminiscent of the fears twenty years earlier during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and his subsequent verbal assaults on the ‘evil empire' [v] of the Soviet Union, energised the ferocious ideological divide between the two superpowers that had ebbed and flowed in intensity throughout the Cold War. Meanwhile, in both the United States and Britain a variety of cultural and media productions speculated on the consequences of such intense political rhetoric. While these texts were predominantly non-canonical and therefore often overlooked by the nuclear critics, they nonetheless question and evaluate the purpose of the nuclear referent in the political power struggle of the Cold War.          


Examining the nuclear referent in post-Cold War art and literature [Image by chiaralily under a CC-BY-NC license]


The most spectacular visualisation of nuclear warfare was found in the ABC Network’s television film The Day After (1983), yet it was a series of British productions that would grimly capture the effects of thermonuclear devastation and have a lingering impact on popular consciousness. During the late seventies, successive British governments had re-established an interest in civil defence, producing the now famous Protect and Survive pamphlets and videos in the early eighties. Their production brought scrutiny from both The Times and the BBC, with the latter broadcasting an edition of the popular science programme Q.E.D. called A Guide to Armageddon in 1982, before also commissioning Barry Hines’s drama Threads (1984), which depicted the effects of nuclear war on Sheffield. Protect and Survive is treated pejoratively in both programmes, with Q.E.D. using stark scientific facts about heat, blast and fallout to undermine the guidelines in governmental literature, whilst Threads gloomily exposes the reality of post-apocalyptic existence in a world reduced to medieval levels of production, infrastructure and population. In literature, a similar coupling can be found with Raymond Briggs’ graphic novel When the Wind Blows (1982) exposing the futility of preparation by charting the diligent actions of an elderly couple as they naively assume that the attack will be comparable to the Blitz. Similarly, Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980) imagines a world struggling to rise beyond Iron Age hardship some two thousand years after nuclear war.

The purpose of nuclear catastrophe in these works is twofold. Not only is the full extent of thermonuclear weaponry highlighted in depressing detail – Q.E.D. demonstrated the impact of nuclear heat on human flesh by incinerating meat from a butcher’s shop – but the pretence of civil defence is also undermined. As James Stafford argues, the overt critical reaction to Protect and Survive had broad-ranging political consequences that contributed to ‘declining public trust in the state’s capacity and willingness to act consistently in the interest of the majority of its citizens' (Stafford 24). Furthermore, earlier periods of nuclear tension in the fifties and sixties had relied upon what Stafford calls ‘a deferential political culture' (Stafford 23) to restrict public debate, while also calling upon memories of the Second World War to sustain a sense of national duty. By the eighties this culture was in terminal decline, partly as a result of Thatcherite free-market individualism which led to an increasingly fragmented social topography, but also, in scientific terms, it became increasingly difficult to downplay the sheer size and sophistication of thermonuclear weapon systems and the unspeakable devastation they would cause.        

Despite the end of the Cold War following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the final flashpoint in nuclear tensions during the early eighties has led to a permanent jumpiness about nuclear weaponry even as the likelihood of thermonuclear conflagration has, ostensibly, diminished rapidly. Interestingly, it may be argued that Western governments – particularly in the US and UK – recognised public hostility towards the idea that civil defence may sustain a role in the event of nuclear attack by arguing, in its place, for a policy of interventionism whereby pre-emptive action was taken to halt ‘rogue’ states from developing nuclear capabilities. Such a policy would seek to neutralise the opposition as seen in eighties literature and culture by largely abandoning the conceit of civil defence in the event of all-out nuclear war and instead policing access to nuclear technologies. However, while the public and government may have achieved consensus through general opposition to nuclear proliferation in the 1990s and 2000s, another consequence of 1980s defence policy and the counterattacking artworks it inspired was increased public scrutiny of the political motives underpinning military action.


One consequence of 1980s defence policy was increased public scrutiny of the political motives underpinning military action [Image by darylfurr under a CC-BY-NC-ND license]


The protests against the 2003 invasion of Iraq – a conflict that was allegedly fought to remove weapons of mass destruction – attracted up to a million people in London on 15th February 2003 [vi], symbolising an unwillingness to accept at face-value governmental grand-narratives for military planning. This, therefore, echoed the questioning of government civil defence plans during the 1980s, with Stafford stating that Protect and Survive represented ‘for many, […] either simple incompetence or outright malice on the part of their own government' (Stafford 24). The contested dossiers produced by the UK government [vii] and the subsequent invasion of Iraq saw public anxiety of ‘rogue’ states and weapons overcome by the more pressing question of the underlying political motivation of Western leaders.

Indeed, in a recent interview, the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, argued that the present Iranian nuclear programme may lead to ‘a new cold war in the Middle East’, with his statement presumably calling up memories of nuclear anxieties during the Cold War in order to counteract concerns about Western interventionism. However, historical hindsight determines that the Cold War also conjures images of state duplicity and espionage, which in itself calls for a deconstruction of the codes of meaning hiding behind official state lines. For Hague, this is problematic as his speculation as to the likelihood of ‘a new cold war’ not only necessitates a questioning of Iranian nuclear policy, but it also raises the intriguing question of Western involvement or positioning within this new political order. Simultaneously, the evocation of Cold War nuclear build-up does not necessarily supply an appropriate motivating argument for pre-emptive intervention. As John Mueller has recently argued in an article for The Guardian, it may seem alarmist to assume that Iran will use the weapons for anything other than deterrent:

Iran would most likely "use" any nuclear capacity in the same way all other nuclear states have: for prestige (or ego‑stoking) and to deter real or perceived threats. Historical experience strongly suggests that new nuclear countries, even ones that once seemed hugely threatening, like communist China in the 1960s, are content to use their weapons for such purposes.

Whilst the Cold War, and particularly its final ‘hot’ moment in the 1980s, remains a nightmarish demonstration of apocalyptic brinkmanship, the near half century period is also recognised as an era where the policy of deterrent ultimately succeeded. The Bomb persists in the popular imagination as one of the likely causes of apocalypse, yet the Cold War’s legacy is also sustained through a broader scepticism as to the ideological drive of military strategy, coupled with a persistent uncertainty as to the trustworthiness of official state information in light of prior clandestine operations.


The 1990s and 2000s saw the emergence of a fragmented terrain of apocalyptic anxieities [Image by Vladimir Klepikov under a CC-BY-NC license]


Furthermore, with the all-encompassing prospect of nuclear war between superpowers markedly diminished, the 1990s and 2000s saw the emergence of a fragmented terrain of apocalyptic anxieties. As Ann Larabee notes when discussing the nineties; ‘the apocalypse has been shifting to the more subtle forms of viral invasion, global warming, sperm count loss from pollution hazards, and the like’ (Larabee 153). Add to this the threat of terrorism following the attacks of September 11th 2001 and the nuclear referent soon becomes just one concern in a burgeoning array of apocalyptic scenarios. The removal of the omnipotent vision of all-out nuclear war has led to apocalyptic indeterminacy which finds its most prominent contemporary articulation in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), where the cause of catastrophe is never fully uncovered, but is nonetheless persistently described in imprecise terms: ‘The wet gray flakes twisting and falling out of nothing. Gray slush by the roadside. Black water running from under the sodden drifts of ash. No more balefires on the distant ridges’ (McCarthy 15). McCarthy’s ‘gray flakes’ are never conclusively expressed as fallout or as products of an environmental disaster. Instead, the novel’s deliberate refusal to detail the exact nature of catastrophe demonstrates the broad-ranging constructs open to the apocalyptic imagination of the reader in the post-Cold War era. Despite this, nuclear criticism’s examination of the nuclear referent still remains relevant in the aftermath of the Cold War. Jacques Derrida curiously declared in his essay ‘No Apocalypse, Not Now’ (also contained in the special edition of Diacritics from 1984) that ‘the nuclear epoch is dealt with more “seriously” in Mallarme and Kafka, or Joyce’ (Derrida 27-8) than in contemporaneous writings that are actually directly about nuclear warfare. While Derrida’s statement can be read as an appropriation of the canonical over popular forms, it may also signal, as Roger Luckhurst explains, ‘a strategic and temporary move, one that never rejects “literal” nuclear war fictions but would argue that the more indirect the route the more directly might the argument advance, circle and return to those texts initially displaced' (Luckhurst 91). Turning to twenty-first-century writing, Derrida’s statement seems to have greater resonance. The nuclear referent is now rarely the precise source for the apocalyptic imagination and it accordingly requires a nuclear critic to dig-out its underlying role, its residual or dormant strain that lurks beneath contemporary representation.


CITATION: Christopher Daley, "On Nuclear Criticism," Alluvium, Vol. 1, No. 2 (2012): n. pag. Web. 1 July 2012, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v1.2.04.


Christopher Daley is a final year PhD student and Visiting Lecturer at the University of Westminster. His PhD thesis examinines the influence of the Cold War on British science fiction between 1945 and 1969.



Works Cited:

Derrida, Jacques. ‘No Apocalypse, Not Now (Full Speed Ahead, Seven Missiles, Seven Missives)’, Diacritics, 14 (2) (Summer 1984): 20 – 31, http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/464756

Hague, William. Interviewed by Robert Winnett and Benedict Brogan, ‘Iran risks nuclear Cold War’, Daily Telegraph, 17 February 2012, accessed online: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/iran/9089995/Iran-risks-nuclear-Cold-War.html (accessed 29 February 2012).

Larabee, Ann. Decade of Disaster (Urbana and Chicago: Illinois University Press, 2000).

Luckhurst, Roger. ‘Nuclear Criticism: Anachronism and Anachorism’, Diacritics, 23 (2) (Summer 1993): 88 – 97, http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/465318

McCarthy, Cormac. The Road (London and New York: Picador, 2006).

Mueller, John. ‘Iran: false nuclear fears cloud the west’s judgement’, The Guardian, 16 February 2012, accessed online: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/feb/16/iran-false-nuclear-fears (accessed 29 February 2012).

‘Proposal for a Diacritics Colloquium on Nuclear Criticism’, Diacritics, 14 (2) (Summer 1984): 2-3

Stafford, James. ‘“Stay at Home”: The Politics of Nuclear Civil Defence, 1968–83’, Twentieth Century British History, Advance Access, published 23 September 2011, pp.1-25, http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/tcbh/hwr034.



[i] ‘Proposal for a Diacritics Colloquium on Nuclear Criticism’, Diacritics, 14 (2) (Summer 1984),  pp. 2-3 (p. 2).

[ii] Ibid, p. 2.

[iii] Ibid, p. 2.

[iv] Ibid, p. 3. 

[v] Ronald Reagan in his address to the National Association of Evangelicals. Orlando, Florida, 8 March 1983. A full transcript of his speech can be found online through the University of Virginia’s Miller Center: http://millercenter.org/scripps/archive/speeches/detail/3409  (accessed 29 February 2012).

[vi] The level of attendance at the protest march in London has been widely contested. Figures in this article are provided from the BBC news story ‘“Million” march against Iraq war’, 16 February 2003. Available online: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/2765041.stm (accessed 29 February 2012).

[vii] The September 2002 dossier containing the infamous 45-minute claim regarding Iraq’s biological and chemical weapons capability can be found online at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/nol/shared/spl/hi/middle_east/02/uk_dossier_on_iraq/html/full_dossier.stm#pt1 (accessed 29 February 2012).



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