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The Doomsday Machine

August 1, 2010

I’ve decided to kick off August with a clip from Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, directed by Stanley Kubrick in 1964.

A few weeks ago, when I first watched Dr. Strangelove, I took occasional notes to remind myself of parts to revisit. That is, until I hit this section of the movie, at which point my frantic scribbling gave way to a more concise “watch this part over several times”:

This section is chock full of interesting ideas and language; it is also when we meet the namesake Doctor and learn of the “doomsday machine” that looms over the remainder of the film. It epitomizes and summarizes the movie’s satiric take on the idea of a nuclear apocalypse, and has a mushroom cloud, to boot!

It took a bit for me to figure out how to take a clip without purchasing Quicktime Pro; thankfully I found a freeware program for that purpose. After snipping the excerpt I uploaded it into Youtube, with the caveat that I intend to use it under the fair use doctrine. After the break, I’ll make good on my legal obligation to provide commentary and criticism:

Before I discuss the scene itself, I must note that its imagery is perfect for what is to unfold. At the scene’s center is a giant round table of important military officials, who sit in front of giant maps of Russia and the United States. Based on what we already know in the film by this point, the map of Russia tells a narrative of inevitable destruction: the small lights that dot the map chart the progress of American bomber planes, which were irreversibly commanded to nuke the country from all directions. All that is missing, it seems, is a red button that the President of the United States could push to end the world.

That is, until the “doomsday machine” is introduced, a computerized network of bombs that could eradicate life on earth, developed in secret by the Russians in efforts to “close the doomsday gap.” In a tremblingly ominous voice, the Russian ambassador explains the terrible power of the machine, breathlessly using fictional nuclear jargon that only adds to the terror he proclaims (thanks to this site for the full script):

DeSadeski: When it is detonated, it will produce enough lethal radioactive fallout so that within ten months, the surface of the earth will be as dead as the moon!

Turgidson: Ah, come on DeSadeski, that’s ridiculous. Our studies show that even the worst fallout is down to a safe level after two weeks.

DeSadeski: You’ve obviously never heard of cobalt thorium G.

Turgidson: No, what about it?

DeSadeski: Cobalt thorium G has a radioactive halflife of ninety three years. If you take, say, fifty H-bombs in the hundred megaton range and jacket them with cobalt thorium G, when they are exploded they will produce a doomsday shroud. A lethal cloud of radioactivity which will encircle the earth for ninety three years!

With his quivering voice, the Russian ambassador becomes a prophet (an ambassador of the future?), predicting a lifeless planet enshrouded in a radioactive cloud of death. At the phrase “doomsday shroud,” his words pivot from the realm of science fiction to eschatology, especially considering the religious connotations of “shroud.”As the scene progresses, the machine becomes increasingly entrenched in the register of eschatology, its scientific credibility giving way to grander ideas and paradoxes.

For example, after the ambassador explains that the machine is designed to automatically detonate if attempts are made to disarm it, he justifies its logic to the President:

Muffley: But this is absolute madness, ambassador. Why should you build such a thing?

DeSadeski: There are those of us who fought against it, but in the end we could not keep up with the expense involved in the arms race, the space race, and the peace race. And at the same time our people grumbled for more nylons and washing machines. Our doomsday scheme cost us just a small fraction of what we’d been spending on defense in a single year. But the deciding factor was when we learned that your country was working along similar lines, and we were afraid of a doomsday gap.

Muffley: This is preposterous. I’ve never approved of anything like that.

DeSadeski: Our source was the New York Times.

DeSadeski, a wonderful actor, satirically underscores the paradoxes he introduces, especially the “peace race” and the “doomsday gap.” By pushing familiar Cold War language a little too far, this scene paints a believable, yet ridiculous, picture of two countries competing for peace by threatening to eradicate all life in an apocalypse. The specific Cold War idea that is mocked is the principle of nuclear deterrence, which is explained in perhaps the most important summary of the bomb:

Strangelove: Mr. President, it is not only possible, it is essential. That is the whole idea of this machine, you know. Deterrence is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy… the fear to attack. And so, because of the automated and irrevocable decision making process which rules out human meddling, the doomsday machine is terrifying. It’s simple to understand. And completely credible, and convincing.

Strangelove makes a small gesture as he says “machine” in the second sentence: with a wave of his hand he dismisses not only the President’s insistence that he explain the technological reality of the machine, but the machine as machine. Because he frames it in abstract terms like “simple to understand,” “credible,” and “convincing,” it ceases to have specific reality, becoming instead an abstraction.

The last line of the previous quotation, “Our source was the New York Times,” is my favorite in this section, not just because it parodies shoddy espionage and miscommunication, but because it shifts the locus of power from the military/government to civilians/culture, exemplifying one of Derrida’s key points in his essay “No Apocalypse, Not Now (Seven Missiles, Seven Missives, Full Speed Ahead),” which was in the 1984 issue of Diacritics dealing with “Nuclear Criticism”:

In our techno-scientifico-militaro-diplomatic incompetence, we may consider ourselves, however, as competent as others to deal with a phenomenon whose essential feature is that of being fabulously textual, through and through. Nuclear weaponry depends, more than any weaponry in the past, it seems, upon structures of information and communication, structures of language, including non-vocalizable language, structures of codes and graphic decoding. But the phenomenon is fabulously textual also to the extent that, for the moment, a nuclear war has not taken place: one can only talk and write about it.

Reading through this passage, I realize that this scene in Dr. Strangelove is a comprehensive demonstration of Derrida’s ideas. For instance, the “techno-scientifico-militaro-diplomatic incompetence” that Derrida mentions, which refers to the widespread opacity about the particularities of nuclear technology and diplomacy, is realized by the discussions of the farcical, incompetent politicians and military officials in this scene. Even the expert of these technologies, Dr. Strangelove, ultimately uses abstract language to describe the ‘doomsday machine.’ His concluding words about it, that it is “credible” and “convincing,” demonstrate that the bomb is only powerful insofar as it is apprehended. Derrida’s conclusion, that “one can only talk and write about it,” rings true, especially in the last line of the clip: “Yes, but the… whole point of the doomsday machine… is lost… if you keep it a secret! Why didn’t you tell the world, eh?”

There are several other parts of the scene that I find very interesting, but I felt that expanding on them might be too much for one day. I’ll merely summarize here. Dr. Strangelove’s German nationality and lapses into Nazi mannerisms struck me, as they seem to comment on how the terror of the Holocaust is displaced by the terror of the nuclear bomb. This is a problem I have read a little about, but plan on exploring more. Furthermore, I am interested that this scene portrays computers as arbitrary, impersonal, and uncontrollable. I couldn’t help but thinking about y2k when I was writing this blog post. Perhaps the apocalypse threatened here is more alarming, but I think some of the same ideas are at work.

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