The Future of Fallout, and Other Episodes in Radioactive World-Making. Joseph Masco. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019.

Reviewed by Sandra Calkins, Freie Universität Berlin.

While I was reading Joseph Masco’s disturbing book The Future of Fallout, news media reported that China had successfully tested a hypersonic missile, a military technology so advanced it could bypass the US missile defense system. This, many nervous commentators noted, put China ahead of the US in the global arms race, justifying further urgent military investments to catch-up. Masco’s book is a damning appraisal of such mobilizations of existential threat from the outside and the ways they conceptually underpin the US industrial-military complex. After World War II fantasies of imminent threat have taken different forms—from the scenarios of nuclear war in the Cold War to those mobilized since 2001 in the so-called War on Terror. The Future of Fallout examines how these forms of endangerment have seamlessly worked together to colonize American everyday life at the psycho-social and affective level, while diverting attention from actual forms of planetary violence that the petrochemical industry and the military complex commit.

With its 370 pages of text, this rather comprehensive book consists of a prologue, an introduction, an epilogue and 16 chapters organized into four main sections. The first of these, “Dreaming deserts and death machines,” takes readers to New Mexico, the center of US nuclear science and warfare, and shows how nuclear nationalism relies on settler colonialist relations to nature. Central to using the desert as a test site for nuclear weapons was framing it as an empty space—a frontier where progress could be attained through male exploration and sacrifice. This conceptual scaffolding erased the long historical presence of indigenous populations in the area and prepared the chemical violence against people and wider ecologies. Considering that the US has 5 percent of the world population but almost spends more on its military than the rest of the world together (p. 154), the second section, “Bunkers and psyches”, asks how US citizens were mobilized to support such long colossal investments in military and security infrastructures. The answer: nuclear preparedness exercises, rehearsal and drills, and the romance of bunker life firmly embedded nuclear fear into millions of Americans’ everyday lives. Masco further develops this analysis of the psychological consequences of nuclear culture in the section “Celloloid nightmares”, which explores how Hollywood and other film productions have contributed to the “affective recruitment” of the public in support of militarization (p. 198). The last section, “After counterrevolution”, articulates the books concern with the possibility of a demilitarized future and reflects on the ongoing colonization of the social imaginaries with crisis talk, which reinforces reactionary responses instead of promoting systemic change. Across these sections, Masco dissects US cultural atmospheres, fantasies of endangerment, and security infrastructures—spaces that are hard to pinpoint and access ethnographically. The book thus relies on a wide set of visual and textual sources (i.e. film, newspapers, archival materials, interviews) and a few explorations of guided tours of publicly accessible sites of the military industrial complex (i.e. test and nuclear waste sites).

Building on this documentation of the US’s long nuclear anxiety, Masco grounds the contemporary climate predicaments in misguided and excessive post-war politics, which put the US on the track of continuous militarization. This continuous militarization had planetary ecological consequences (e.g. nuclear tests). But beyond this literal planetary toxification, The Future of Fallout argues convincingly that such a politics was successful precisely because it built military infrastructures and simultaneously captured the collective imagination, recruiting citizens affectively. This saturation of American society with militarism, permeating politics, culture, finances, and ordinary affect, contributes to the stability and recalcitrance of security infrastructures. These militarized infrastructures remained stable and unchallenged, even when it became apparent that they were based on a vast overestimation of Soviet nuclear capacities (p. 193). Each chapter analyzes why the US, as an anxious state, became stuck in this path of militarization, while also gesturing to the possibility of an otherwise. At a time when the US has fallen behind many other developed countries in terms of the social services it provides for its citizens, Masco invites the reader to a leap of imagination—to ponder a demilitarized otherwise, a time when the trillions of US-dollars currently spent on military infrastructures would be used for civilian and environmental causes.

While the book is not ethnographic in a conventional sense, it is motivated by a wide-ranging set of contemporary anthropological and political concerns. Written with an acute critical vision and a keen eye for the absurd (i.e. the performer Liberace’s near-death from his toxic sequin dress), it advances contemporary anthropological conversations on toxicity, the environment, and settler-colonialism through its critique of the military-industrial complex. Masco echoes recent ecofeminist and environmentalist critiques of petrochemical capitalism and their quest for less harmful ways of relating and building worlds. One of Masco’s central diagnoses is that the temporalities of the violence done to the earth (and earthly beings)—through both nuclear warfare and petrochemical capitalism—far exceed the planning capacities of contemporary states. In other words, typically short-lived politics are unable to regulate and match nuclear technologies’ temporalities. This is epitomized when Masco, during a guided tour of a nuclear waste site, talks to the engineer, who will only guarantee the facility last one hundred years, instead of the millennia necessary for radioactive components to decompose (p. 98). In the face of such planning, regulative, and imaginative failures, the burning question the book asks again and again is why is it so hard to see alternatives to permanent militarization? The answer sketched amounts to nothing short of a timely critique of the US and its faltering democratic institutions. Across its 400 pages, we encounter a country trapped by its own paranoid fantasies of war and imminent destruction, a country that in the name of its own security has normalized permanent war and is pulling the entire planet to the brink of collapse.

Science and technology here don’t figure as harbingers of peace and prosperity but appear deeply mired in the militarization that has shaped American life and has generated a distinctly bleak imagination of the future. While students of politics and nationalism have long been concerned with the power of collective imagination, this book advances a critical perspective on how American politics are strongly stabilized, mediated and modulated by affect and imagination, or in Masco’s words how the state pursues an “emotional management project” (p. 167). This focus on affect and imagination provides important psychological explanation to the paradox in governance between what is known (the coming climate catastrophe!) and what actually motivates action (fantastical threats of enemy attacks). In this way, Masco magisterially weaves together conversations in law and politics around questions of states’ capacities for affective recruitment, the temporality and harm of contemporary technologies, and acute concern for the futures of democratic states and collective life on this planet. In short, with its sharp-sighted diagnostic of American paradoxes and paranoias, this both terrific and terrifying book will be of great interest to a broad readership across the social sciences and the humanities.

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