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Button, Button

November 30, 2010

As I am wrapping up my first draft of Chapter One I have been pecking away at the research for the others, and I have been having the most trouble with the chapter on the “red button.” Compared to the mushroom cloud and the fallout shelter, both of which are historically rooted cultural phenomena, the red button has proven the most difficult to track down. This makes sense considering that it is a fantasy–what I am calling an American fable of instantaneous destruction at the twitch of a fingertip–but having grown up with this culturally imprinted idea, I am having difficulty locating it outside of my own imagination.

Unsurprisingly I started with Wikipedia, which actually has a decent page on what it calls the “Big Red Button.” Among the descriptions, I am most interested in this one:

During the 20th-century’s Cold War, the “Big Red Button” (sometimes just “The Button”) referred to a device used to launch nuclear weapons. A person in charge may be referred to as “having his/her finger on The Button”. The disastrous consequences of a full-out nuclear war made the Big Red Button a symbol of the annihilation of humanity.

By representing total nuclear annihilation, the red button symbolizes the limit-case of nuclear fear, which will appropriately be reserved until the third chapter. More than just dramatic symbolism, the red button captures anxiety about human agency, and through a particularly binary set of conditions (pressed/not pressed). (On a somewhat unrelated note, the fact that the ‘red button’ can also refers to a safety switch to shut down nuclear reactors is an idea I may play around with. I have found that the mushroom cloud and fallout shelter each represent a fear as well as a psychological defense mechanism, and I suspect that the red button functions much in the same way.)

In my search for cultural texts to ground my analysis (for the moment, much of my energy is focused on finding relevant Looney Toons and other cartoon episodes), I was delighted to find another Twilight Zone episode. While it doesn’t quite rival the last episode I commented on in this space, called “Time Enough at Last,” this episode, called “Button, Button” explores and captures the red button trope in an enjoyable 20-minute episode (part 1 on YouTube below):

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Operation Crossroads: The Official Pictorial Record

November 13, 2010

Last night I discovered an incredibly exciting book called Operation Crossroads: The Official Pictorial Record. Published in 1946 by The Office of the Historian of U.S. Joint Task Force One, the military coalition in charge of Operation Crossroads, it documents in photographs the setup and deployment of a nuclear test operation that involved over 42,000 people and the detonation of two bombs. From the foreword of the book to its captions, which consistently use the phrase “mushroom cloud” (in 1946, no less), I think I’ve discovered enough rich material to center my mushroom cloud chapter around this particular military operation and its visual and cultural impact. The cover of the Pictorial Record (below) is even embossed with the mushroom cloud, demonstrating a remarkable prescience of the cultural explosion these tests effected.

In fact, I’ve commented upon this military operation before; specifically, about an online painting collection hosted by the U.S. Navy Historical Society which was inspired by it. In the blog post I just linked to, titled “The Beautiful Mushroom Cloud,” you’ll find several of the most interesting paintings; after the break, you’ll find my favorite images among the hundreds that the Joint Task Force-One (JTF-One for short) historian selected.

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Fallout Shelters and Narrative Fetishism

October 31, 2010

As I tried to defend my thesis proposal and chapter outline to a professor during a recent office hour discussion, I realized that I’m much more excited and confident about two of my chapters than the other. The mushroom cloud/deconstruction and Red Button/psychoanalysis pairings were obvious to me from the start–as tropes of the nuclear era, and as critical pairings–but the chapter on narratology and the post-apocalyptic landscape was much harder for me to articulate.

Our conversation eventually strayed to the the trope I had avoided, the fallout shelter: the definitive space of American civil defense at the peak of the Cold War. As I considered why I had selected the post-apocalyptic landscape rather than the fallout shelter, I began to realize that the fallout shelter answers the question I had hoped to pose with the landscape, but better. In my recent thesis proposal, I wrote that the post-apocalyptic landscape can be read in a narrative sense, and that because we read the landscape as continuous from the pre- to the post-apocalyptic, it captures the temporal paradox of “post-apocalypse.” The most crucial point I wanted to advance vis-à-vis literature is that most so-called “post-apocalyptic” texts “disavow the futurelessness that such a landscape predicts, populating it with a vestige of humanity.”

But what is this disavowal but the mental space of the fallout shelter? In creating fallout shelters, Americans shored up continuity from the pre- to the post- apocalyptic, in hopes that they would be part of this “vestige” of humanity. The fallout shelter was as much a physical space as a mental, symbolic space rejecting the total evisceration of mankind the nuclear bomb threatened. But, again paradoxically, the fallout shelter welcomed and confirmed the possibility of nuclear apocalypse, opening up a conditional space that confirmed the apocalypse’s coming.

After the break, I will share how I hope to explore this idea using Freud’s conception of the fetish:

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Research Proposal, round 3

October 19, 2010

Since my first blog post in July, when I resisted choosing a thesis topic, I have come a long way. In August I grappled with the Big Picture in outlining a provisional research proposal, and a little over a week ago I tweaked that into a more formalized research proposal. I sent it to my thesis adviser, who had several insightful questions that cause me to reconsider its stakes and aims, and today we had a productive conversation in redefining these. Accordingly, I have (yet again) another research proposal. This is decidedly the last of the proposals–not because my topic will never change (in a sense, it is always changing)–but because, simply put, it is due to the English Department tomorrow.

After the break, I’ll give the verbatim version of my proposal along with (get excited) its provisional title:

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“One World or None”

October 18, 2010

As I was reading for my “Psychoanalysis and Narrative” class, which this week just happens to link paranoia and 1950s films dealing (in part) with the threat of the nuclear bomb, I came across what Cyndy Hendershot calls, in her book Paranoia, the Bomb, and 1950s Science Fiction Films, “the bible of the scientists’ movement,” One World or None. Made in 1946, it is the first “scare film” to warn the public of the dangers of the nuclear bomb. And, thankfully, it is on Youtube!

After the break, I’ll give a close-reading of this short video. Before reading, I’d encourage you to watch it–it is less than 10 minutes long! (just long enough to properly inculcate fear of the earth’s destruction).

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A Research Proposal

October 8, 2010

One week ago–one might say, one Thesis Friday ago–I introduced my overall ideas towards a research proposal. Since then, after talking them over with various professors and friends, and doing some considerable mulling over of how all the pieces will fit together, I have arrived at what I believe to be my final research proposal:

My thesis might answer the following question: In what ways, and with what consequences, does American literature and culture respond to the possibility of a nuclear apocalypse? To approach this question, I will investigate three tropes that permeate American cultural representations of the nuclear bomb, reading each with a different critical approach taken from contemporary literary theory.

(After the break, I’ll outline my chapters and the conclusions I hope to make:)

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Quick Thoughts: “WTF Bomb”

October 2, 2010

As with most things I’ve seen on Youtube, I have no idea how I stumbled upon the video I’m about to share. I believe I began looking for Looney Toons footage that features the “Big Red Button” (if you have a link to an episode that does, please pass it along!). While I struck out on the Looney Toons front, I ended up finding a slew of videos with the title “WTF Boom.”

I had stumbled upon an Internet meme, the “WTF Bomb” or “WTF Boom” video, in which a clip from a film or television show is cut short by beeping, before mushroom cloud footage appears, which is overlaid with maniacal laughter. Seeking a more comprehensive definition, I went to, my go-to source to demystify slang, but even the most highly rated definition wasn’t too clear. In the ‘examples’ section of the dictionary, wherein a slang term is usually put into use, the author wrote:

Look up “WTF Bomb” on Youtube for examples. It’s hard to put it into text.

Indeed, it is. Without further ado, here is as good an example as any of this strange, yet intriguing, Internet meme:

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