Desired Ground Zeroes: Nuclear Imagination and the Death Drive Public Deposited

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  • March 19, 2019
  • Matheson, Calum
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Communication
  • A wide variety of cultural artefacts related to nuclear warfare are examined to highlight continuity in the sublime's mix of horror and fascination. Schemes to use nuclear explosions for peaceful purposes embody the godlike structural positions of the Bomb for Americans in the early Cold War. Efforts to mediate the Real of the Bomb include nuclear simulations used in wargames and their civilian offshoots in videogames and other media. Control over absence is examined through the spatial distribution of populations that would be sacrificed in a nuclear war and appeals to overarching rationality to justify urban inequality. Control over presence manifests in survivalism, from Cold War shelter construction to contemporary "doomsday prepping" and survivalist novels. The longstanding cultural ambivalence towards nuclear war, coupled with the manifest desire to experience the Real, has implications for nuclear activist strategies that rely on democratically-engaged publics to resist nuclear violence once the "truth" is made clear. This dissertation uses examples drawn from imaginations of nuclear warfare and its aftermath to explore how the desire for unmediated experience and its attendant mix of horror and fascination constitutes a death drive that should be a problematic for communication studies. The unprecedented power of the Bomb witnessed first at the Trinity test provided new urgency for ultimate questions about human existence and the failure of language. Discourse surrounding the Bomb is an effort to reestablish a sense of predictability and order threatened by the disruption of the Bomb while still maintaining the sense of contact with its overwhelming power. I relate this operation of the death drive to the tradition of the sublime in rhetoric, an effort to recapture what lies beyond mediation. Instead of a discrete style, the sublime is the aspect of a signifier that permits an affective connection as it stands in for the Real, as also evident in other forms of mediation besides language. The capacity to enjoy control over the conditions of presence and absence is central to this process.
Date of publication
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Rights statement
  • In Copyright
  • Blair, Carole
  • Sharma, Sarah
  • Hillis, Ken
  • Lundberg, Christian
  • Ochoa, Todd
  • Doctor of Philosophy
Degree granting institution
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Graduate School
Graduation year
  • 2015
Place of publication
  • Chapel Hill, NC
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