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“Why was there historically no doomsday machine as the ultimate deterrent?”

Dear Matthias,

I am feeling nostalgic for our time together at Stanford and grateful that you planned ahead by creating a virtual space for us to share. The following text is the comment you offered at my presentation (http://cisac.stanford.edu/events/nuclear_weapons_and_the_fetishism_of_force/)
last year, in which you not only took the logic of my argument one step further than I had, but also made meaningful reference to the dialog from Dr. Strangelove in the process. Taking my work one step further was the greatest compliment anyone had ever paid me. As I’m sure you remember, all I could say at the time was “touché.”

According to The Dead Hand by David Hoffman, the Soviets did design a doomsday machine, but they stopped short of building it, instead creating a semi-automatic hybrid that still required human initiative. So, technically, your question still stands.


“Thank you Anne. Your work really opened a completely new way to combine several intellectual endeavors of mine, philosophy, nonproliferation and a new one since I am at CISAC: International Relations Theory.

The theories on which Anne?s work is philosophically based, were part of my own education – namely, german idealism with hegelian dialectics, Marx and political economy and especially Zizek and his unique dialectical merging of them with french structuralism, postmodernism, psychoanalysis and german critical theory.

So what in general is the interesting thing about using these theories, which were born in german idealism? It is about the use of an paradigmatic shift in epistemology basically saying that what we conceive as objective reality is only accessible through the subject, and this in turn makes it impossible to symbolize a phenomenal reality without infecting the description by subjectivity. In return this paradigm shift also melts the perceived adamant unchangeable objective world out there and opens possibilities to shape what is usually considered to be given. How exactly this is happening and what exactly is the relationship between subjectivity and objectivity is under debate since.

The problem is that it is easy to fall into the illusion that the reality, the social order or sub-entities of it, like the role of nuclear weapons and the current political structure of nation states is simply given and almost or even completely unchangeable. Against this paradigm of a fixed “nature of things”, which is at the core of numerous different theoretical frameworks including those who have the noun ?realism? in them, all the mentioned theories are articulating skepticism and try to open up a space for new thinking. I think this effort is important.

Let me cite Michael J. Shapiro a political scientist Good social analysis does one or more of the following:

It adds voices and perspectives to a domain of thought or inquiry that has generated silences that narrow the scope of “the political.” It invents new concepts. It disrupts the process by which we have assumed that we are attaining a deeper understanding […]. It substitutes contingency for certainty. It historicizes what is treated as timeless. In short, it unsettles the process of settling how we should interpret the social and political world.


Policy advice:

I do not want to discredit the use of theory, and I know that the constant demand to please break down complex theories into two sentences of policy advice can be annoying. But of course disarmament and nuclear weapons has to be also thought of as a problem of practice, and I sense that more could be done to connect the theory of nuclear fetishism to more direct policy advice to help disarmament. This is not a fundamental critique but meant as encouragement to think further.

Power and Materiality

According to Anne?s work nuclear weapons ultimately neglect the vulgar truth of treating violence as synonymous with power by bringing this identification to a final contradiction. In short: the most powerful weapons cannot be used in a warthey finally have no use value, they are useless, powerless.

But they are usable to threaten somebody. So if states or at least some states believe in such threats, then simply “possessing nuclear weapons can serve as proxy for the experience of power associated with winning a war” (Anne 11). Power here is still based on military strength AS IF nuclear weapons were a direct measure of power regardless of the use of them in a real battle. The hope of deconstructing this link of power to nuclear weapons is one of the main points in Anne?s work. And is it not also the hope of the four horseman to decouple power from nuclear weapons in thinking about different non-nuclear forms of deterrence? And is it not also the hope for disarmament that power is decoupled from military strength?

So let us assume we want to decouple power from nuclear weapons. Which role has the materiality of the weapons expressed in their use value. Anne states that the “materiality of nuclear weapons is very important, but it is not the source of their power” (Anne, 38).

One way to decouple power from nuclear weapons would be the dream of transforming the use value into a threat value. First dismantling the weapons, so the threat would be incorporated in fissile materials, then dispose the fissile materials so the threat would be in production facilities and in information about weapons. Without the use of nuclear power one could go even further and scrap all production facilities transforming the production technologies into knowledge about them. Finally the threat of nuclear weapons would fit onto a couple of DVDs and simulations on supercomputers. But still the use value is looming and one could argue that the world is not disarmed only the timeframes changed to load the gun.

And if we look at the topology of nuclear fetishism the use value is still incorporated in the threat value. The analogy of money and nuclear weapons, and Anne is well aware of this, obscures and thereby highlights an important difference. The difference is that the use-value of a nuclear weapon, the implication of the bomb to explode, is always going to be a part of the exchange value, as the term threat value itself implies. I cannot threaten with toothbrushes or with numbers on a Cayman island bank account. Money instead is a medium, it has no necessity for a material counterpart. It can become purely virtual.

Despite the efforts of the theorists to make sense out of the existence of nuclear weapons and to overwrite the use-value with the threat value, the use value is still quite factual as can be seen e.g. in the event of nuclear terrorism. In trying to decouple force from power, and despite all sympathy to constructivist descriptions of the symbolic order, I am not willing to forfeit the materiality of the world as being completely dissolvable into the symbolic order. It is precisely the excess of the materiality which cannot filled completely in the symbolic order. The destructive force, especially the one threatening to destruct the symbolic order itself is not dissolvable in it completely. Thus force cannot be completely separated from power, and nuclear weapons are therefore always a source of power by their very nature.

So in a nutshell, I think that deconstructing nuclear weapons as reified objects symbolizing power is a very compelling narrative to reflect on the current events like NPT, Nuclear Postures, Arms Control, Disarmament and is truly revealing. Defetishizing their role in international relations as falsely incorporating power relations is revealing. But does this critique fail to take into account the invisible symbolic structure which regulates these same social power relations? Could it be that the fetish narrative hides the very nature of nuclear weapons as structuring the symbolic order itself? Is it then the social order reifying itself in a nuclear weapon or the materiality of the nuclear weapon structuring the social order? Of course Anne?s work is reflecting this reciprocal relationship, but I sense that some more thought could go in that direction.

Let us return finally to Zizek and I cannot finish without falling back into his jargon:

I would like to offer Anne a different explanation why nuclear weapons have a sublime quality or maybe even a sublime beauty as can be experienced in the aesthetics of nuclear explosion as expressed in movies like Koyaanisqatsi. NW are sublime objects because they participate at the symbolic death. It is the absolute death, the death of the network of meaning itself which is a lack in the symolic order and cannot be represented. This lack has to be concealed by feigning to have power over the artifact which allows to access and embodies the lack: nuclear weapons. But the truth is that absolute and failsafe control over nuclear weapons is not possible.

Symbolic death was always out of the grasp of human kind until nuclear weapons allowed the human species to wield ultimate destruction over itself. There is a homology between symbolic death and individual death. The finitude of one?s existence inscribes itself into the subject and makes it ultimately responsible for what it is doing thus making it an ethical subject. Likewise with NW the finitude of the human species described itself into the symbolic order of the human society. Thus we are now radically responsible for what we are doing as human species. And exactly this excess, the connection to the possible symbolic death, is a feature of the materiality of nuclear weapons. So the conclusion is that the bomb taught human kind maturity. What will happen if we get rid of it? Will the historic lesson prevail?

According to dialectics ala Zizek sometimes we can glimpse a bit of truth in the identification of the radical extremes of a contradiction, to see the hidden solidarity between the extremes or, to put it into hegelese, the speculative identity:

So let us give it a try here: The truth of the bomb is that it is sublime. Disarmament is secretly participating in the contradictions of the bomb and keeps the nuclear order alive, in short: disarmers love the bomb. And the bomb loves us. So, as strange as it is, stop worrying and love the bomb.

Now, here, in very thin air, and in this absurd moment, it is time to hand the microphone over to the ultimate fetishist: Dr. Strangelove. He is like myself a German and unlike myself displaces the contradiction of his former Nazi identity onto his left arm, which is alienated to him and lives a live of his own trying to kill himself the U.S. collaborator. The U.S., because of a crazy air force commander, so to say by accident, is currently conducting a first strike on the Soviet Union and the Soviet Ambassador, invited to the U.S. war room, is going to expose the existence of the russian doomsday machine and stating the identity of weaponization and disarmament with regard to the russian desire for washing machines. From Dr. Strangelove we are then going to hear the essence of deterrence theory [click here].

The question this will leave behind is: why was there historically no doomsday machine as the ultimate deterrent?”

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