Sunday, December 10, 2017

Imagining and Communicating Nuclear War: Materially Inscribing the Irrational Symbol

Today's news is crowded with headlines on the escalation of nuclear tensions with North Korea and increased volatility in the Middle East. A nuclear crisis appears imminent and a conventional crisis of war seems inevitable.


This semester I taught courses on crisis and risk communication. In these classes I taught my students to think about risk and crisis as both material and symbolic.

For example, although the Fukushima Daiichi disaster was precipitated by an earthquake, the strategic conception and construction of the plant and the failure to imagine and act upon hazardous risk scenarios were ultimately responsible for producing the nuclear crisis:

In the same sense, a massive Earth directed solar flare or small asteroid are hazards that in the past might have been survivable for humanity, but today could wreck catastrophic disruptions to our interdependent and digitalized global infrastructure.

We saw multiple chemical explosions at the Arkema chemical plant (see here) and chemical releases at refineries resulting from Hurricane Harvey's sustained electrical outages. Imagine what a sustained electrical outage would do to nuclear power plants that require electricity to keep cool hot fuel in reactors and spent fuel pools.

So, crisis is engineered into our social infrastructures as a result of our failure to imagine, communicate and mitigate risk for hazards that are both material and socially engineered. This is the observation of German Sociologist Ulrich Beck, who theorized and described risk accordingly.


Crisis and risk are imagined in our ideas, which are materially encoded and shared across media forms, ranging across speech, marks on paper, electronic signs, etc.

The ideas about crisis and risk encoded in our communication systems represent the central area of my research. I study, contrast and compare competing representations offered by various authorities ranging from governments, scientists, mass media representations, activist online representations, etc. about political, economic, environmental, and health risks and crises.

I am particularly interested in the problem-solution frames and value criteria that govern particularly efficacious constellations of ideas, such as the one circulating now that there is a safe threshold for additional radiation exposure to chemically toxic radionuclides, such as radiocesium and uranium, and that radiological emergencies should therefore be governed using a neoliberal logic of individualization and responsibilization as the exposed person gets represented as capable of adapting (usually using words such as “resilience”) to environments contaminated by nuclear accidents.

There is another solution frame that is accompanying this neoliberal logic of “safe, resilient radiation exposure” and that idea is predicated upon the utilization of radioactive weapons as a reasonable weapons option.

It is very clear in the communications of the day that that many key authorities in politics, in the military forces, and in the weapons-industry can easily envision and communicate nuclear war as a legitimate strategic option.

Some military authorities may even know of small-scale deployments of “tactical” nuclear weapons in clandestine operations on foreign battlefields.

What they don’t realize is that every tactical assault is represented in a chain of ideas/communications that will act back upon the world, shaping the conditions of understanding among many different types of social actors.

The war is never over, at least, not until we are all dead.

The idea that nuclear war is scaleable and winnable has been demonstrated as flawed by many scientific, activist, and governmental risk assessments emphasizing cascading effects as nuclear war becomes thought as a legitimate strategic paradigm, leading to ever-more escalating deployments and ever-greater radioactive contamination.

Indeed, the communications constituting the fundamental irrationality and non-survivability of nuclear war no doubt exceed the communications positing its tenability.


Yet, for some reason the idea of nuclear war and the material inscription of the nuclear injunction are in danger of spiraling out of human control as the US modernizes its nuclear weapons and as Japan upgrades its missile delivery systems:
Trump Claims To Have Modernized The U.S. Nuclear Arsenal (August 9, 2017). NPR. Available, accessed December 10, 2017.

On Wednesday, President Trump tweeted that he modernized the U.S. nuclear arsenal as his first act in office.

Reuters. (2017, December 9). Japan to acquire air-launched missiles able to strike North Korea. The Asahi Shimbun, available accessed December 10, 2017.

Japan is to acquire medium-range, air-launched cruise missiles, capable of striking North Korea, a controversial purchase of what will become the longest-range munitions of a country that has renounced the right to wage war. "We are planning to introduce the JSM (Joint Strike Missile) that will be mounted on the F-35A (stealth fighter) as 'stand-off' missiles that can be fired beyond the range of enemy threats," [Defense Minister Itsunori] Onodera told a news conference. Japan is also looking to mount Lockheed Martin Corp.'s extended-range Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM-ER) on its F-15 fighters, he said.
Sometimes a set of related ideas and communications will circulate especially widely and rapidly, drowning out other representational frames and the alternative options available within them. Clearly this is happening with communication about North Korea.

The rush toward nuclear war is very clear in our communications. Although this option is considered non-rational in many, many expert and vernacular representations, it is circulating widely and increasingly in mass media and policies with impact on our built infrastructures.

Nuclear war is imminent in our imaginations and communications, yet we know it is the sudden or protractive end of our civilization.

We are imagining our worst catastrophes into being.

And the leadership of our most powerful institutions – the military-industrial complex, the media, and the executive branches of political leadership are entirely responsible because most everyone else is well aware of the psychotic nature of their communications.

We must mobilize to imagine otherwise or we will cease to imagine at all.


  1. The United States, is probably the most Radionuclide Contaminated place in the world. The Nuclear Security State in america, has always been a secretive and Massively funded machine, for mass murder. Nuclear energy has always been here as a part of nuclear weapons programs, a charade to justify nuclear proliferation. Between it and the military complex, shich is its partner, it is moving for totalitarian power.
    This belligerent cash machine has Uncle Sam caught in a strange cycle of taxpayer-funded dependence that may ultimately be the most expensive -- and least productive -- jobs program in human history.

    The top five overall recipients collectively pulled in $109.5 billion in FY2016,

  2. Replies
    1. Looks like Trumps corruption, propaganda, and lies know no bound. The United States already spends 100s of billions a year on numerous Secret Police organizations it has created. CIA, FBI, NSA , PIA, USNI, USAI, DIA, NGA, OICI, etc. Etc. Too numerous to list. These organizations terrorize and spy on Americans and, people around the world.
      Now Trump wants his own private army of secret police. He wants them to probably do the most nefarious things possible.. Even assassinate rivals or perceived threats. It also enriches Blackwater creep, Eric Prince, who stole trillions from american taxpayers in Iraq. Blackwater Eric Prince was also responsible for the murder and torture of many innocent men, woman, and children in the Iraq blood bath.
      How much more awful can it get? How much more grotesque can it get?

  3. The more you learn about nuclear weapons and nuclear energy, the more you are against them. They are psychotic tools of psychotic- totalitarian oligarchs and military death machines for short term profit, mayhem and the the murder of the planet.


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