November 18, 2003


A frightening world is an interesting one to live in....
- Magazine

The head of Strategic Air Command, General Tommy Powers, was famous for laughing off the effects of nuclear radiation on genetic mutations with the quip: 'Nobody has yet proved to me two heads aren't better than one.'

And then you start to think about drugs and the bomb and you remember back to all those 50s movies where all these kids are doing nuclear drills, the air-raid siren goes and all these kids get down on their hands and knees and they hold their arms over their heads. You think: what's going on here? and it's obvious - they're worshipping the bomb, they're like atomic Muslims, the mushroom has become this Mecca and they're pointing towards the East. The bomb is mutation and the kids are going "mutate me, mutate me", "melt me, meld me".

The plan that he inherited was, "Mr. President, you just tell us to go to nuclear war and we'll do the rest." And the plan called for devastating, indiscriminately, China, Russia, Eastern Europe - it was an orgiastic, Wagnerian plan

Really fascinating piece - beautifully researched and written - by Oliver at Citta Violenta on the Cold War. The Cold War - and particularly those moments in the early Sixties when it nearly went thermonuclear hot - has always exercised a grim fascination for me. It's certainly impossible to imagine the k-punk canon - Joy Division, Foxx, Magazine, Cabaret Voltaire, Grace Jones - without its 'influence', although 'influence' is too weak a word for the deep level psychic insistence of the Cold War on that generation. 'Death disco' was it: this was a music that repudiated pleasure and identified with the nonorganic and the fatal. Their implied worlds were either teetering on the edge of annihilation (Joy Division's 'Exercise One') or had actually imagined the unthinkable. Check the way the guitar feedback on the intro to 'Exercise One' resembles pterodactyl (sp?) screeches, almost as if it were anticipating the stone age to which we were about to be bombed back.

Nothing exposes the redundancy of 'privatized psychonalysis' - the view that the unconscious can be understood in opposition to the social - than the recurring nightmares of total annihilation we all routinely had back then. But another Freud - the Freud of Beyond the Pleasure Principle and Civilization and its Discontents - seems to speak as the prophet of the Cold War.

What we have to come to terms with, this Freud says, is that as a species we desire destruction and death. In this sense, we are profoundly and deeply irrational. Yet, in that familiar paradox Freud makes his own, our drives have their own ineluctable logics and rationales.

Freud's perspicacity here can easily be apprehended when we consider the cold eagerness with which Kennedy's military advisors were contemplating their 'orgiastic, Wagnerian' plans for massive pre-emptive nuclear strikes. On one level, their preferred option was purely 'rational', a detached calculation based upon probabilities and outcomes. On another level - but at the same time - it has to be seen as a rationale, the finding of reasons for a pre-existing drive towards total destruction. What can account for this enthusiasm except a terrible libido, a monstrous desire?

And that's the fascination of the kata-punk music. It isn't 'protesting against' nuclear war, its desires cannot be 'socialized' or humanized; it is in fact the most socially unacceptable desire possible. The libido of impersonal death. Death drive pop. Annihilism.

Posted by mark at November 18, 2003 08:37 PM | TrackBack

Didn't Jung have something to say about that 'everyone thinking the same thing' experience.
And yes....who was it that sang: "All I preach is: destruction".

Posted by: Baal at November 19, 2003 10:46 AM

the new feted kennedy biog reckons that his run ins with the thanatoids in the navy brass in ww2 was enough to convince him to never trust the state dept

and upon leaving a pro first strike briefing in 62 was heard to exclaim: "THATS the human race?"

Posted by: Peter M at November 19, 2003 11:59 PM

that link is not working for me...

Posted by: Peter M at November 20, 2003 12:02 AM

the cold war isn't the only time that wide-spread dreams of annihilation have hit the human race. apocalyptic visions were a regular fixture of the middle ages - and embedded in much of the material culture of the time. in this view, the cold war is a return to "business as usual" after the optimism of the enlightenment and the industrial revolution - ironic as nuclear weapons were a direct product of both rationalist nuclear physics and the kinds of organisational and manufacturing processes only available in an industrial society.

Posted by: Daniel at November 20, 2003 03:22 AM

the death drive permeates pop all the way thru e.g "the leader of the pack". it's the kind of death craved that changes from genre to genre. with the early industrialists, they wanted a death that matched their aesthetic - impersonal and mass-produced. making nuclear war an ideal candidate.

arguably death drives all human endeavour so this shouldn't come as a surprise.

Posted by: Daniel at November 20, 2003 03:28 AM

Peter, that new Kennedy biog was one of the starting points of my research into this - there are copious quotes from it in my piece, including the one you mention. Considering that it's possible to reckon all American Imperial power as essentially the same - they're all as bad as each other - it was striking to me, reading the book, the chasm between JFK's attitudes to, say, the current administration - take, for example, the debate about invading Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis. it's hard to imagine George W's administration articulating the same quarms. In fact, they didn't: look at Iraq, all potential problems bypassed, and the agenda FAR less urgent than during the 62 crisis.

It's an excellent book, by the way, I suggest you all read it. Another perspective on the 60s, eh Mark?

Posted by: oliver at November 20, 2003 10:45 PM

And Daniel, I fucking love your perspective: nuclear weapons as the apocalypse expectation of the Middle Ages intensified - and brought into realisation - by science, its roots in the Enlightenment. One of the strands in the rejection of Enlightenment thought in post-war French philosophy, for example - wasn't this also to do with the destruction it had precipitated, and the terrible consequences for humanity it had orchestrated (potential extinction)?

Posted by: oliver at November 20, 2003 10:50 PM

still can't access that link

oliver can you hook me up?

Posted by: Peter M at November 24, 2003 10:41 PM

yeah, of course. Sorry which link? Me?

Posted by: oliver at November 25, 2003 01:27 PM

found it...d'oh

great stuff


Posted by: Peter M at November 26, 2003 01:29 AM

Just reading Freuds "Thoughs for the time on war and death" and the correspondence w/ Einstein -- certainly support yr take Mr K.

Posted by: Peter M at November 26, 2003 01:32 AM