Apocalypse Tomorrow

Liam Sprod, Nuclear Futurism: The Work of Art in the Age of Remainderless Destruction

Zero Books, 146pp, £9.99, ISBN 9781780994338

reviewed by Callam Green

It is reasonably safe to say that ‘end-times’ have been an obsession of every culture-producing civilisation throughout human history. The English language itself is terrified of non-ending, the sentence without a full stop signifies the boundless potentiality for language; how can a sentence mean anything when it isn’t formally ended? And ellipses? Their terror is slightly more palatable but only in the paradoxical sense of its formal signification of ending where there is plenty left unspoken. Ends exist so that we can cope with everything that occurs prior to that end with all of that unknown terror pushed out of sight, beyond punctuation. So what happens when that terrifying unknown future rears up on the horizon again? We simply write a bit more of the story and the end-point is hurled onwards by this constant narrative.

The publication of Nuclear Futurism, in the final months of 2012, coincided with the rising media interest in the forthcoming conclusion of the Mesoamerican long-count calendar. Although much ridiculed as a logical end to human civilisation, the ‘Mayan apocalypse’, and to a lesser extent 2011’s ‘Rapture’, caught public attention - which I would argue was exactly the point of them in the first place. If we are preoccupied by fictional finality our own inevitable destruction remains unthought-of. In fact, theories of the apocalypse seem to have proliferated in the 20th and 21st centuries despite their general scientific impossibility. There is a very definite spike from the beginning of the 1960s—where the first notions of total nuclear war appear with the onset of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

This, specifically nuclear apocalypse, is the starting point for Liam Sprod’s investigation, perhaps because it is the first 'worlds-end' narrative that cannot be dismissed as simply fantastic. Like any other end-narrative, total nuclear war would be catastrophic for humankind; however, unlike any of the other narratives this outcome would rely solely on human action, rather than divine intervention. Thus the nuclear age destroyed the parabolic ends-narrative because of its scientific inscrutability; the question with nuclear annihilation was when, rather than how. Sprod’s achievement in Nuclear Futurism is to deftly align this very modern type of end-of-world narrative with other ends, specifically the end of art and the end of history. In making this leap a space is opened up for an investigation into the workings of futurity as a progressive present rather than a distant time ahead.

By focusing on one of Jacques Derrida’s minor texts, ‘No Apocalypse, Not Now’, and the forgotten school of ‘nuclear criticism’, Sprod finds a niche in which Derrida's and Heidegger’s work can be explored in an original manner which is in itself an achievement considering the extent to which these totemic figures of the twentieth century have been focused on over recent decades. The crowning achievement of Nuclear Futurism is some very adroit close reading of these two philosophers, and it is clear that this is the author’s strong point; he handles their oeuvres in such a way that their larger bodies of work play a part in the construction of his critique without the thrust of the argument becoming lost, and this is achieved through some clever and very necessary qualification.

The hinge of the main argument in Nuclear Futurism is that Heidegger’s ‘mine-ness’ of death and Derrida’s ‘hauntology’ are methods by which the narrativisation of the future can be examined. What is in reality quite a simple argument - that the future is written in the present and thus the future exists in the present and not some inaccessible potential history - is handled with great adeptness. The aporetic nature of hauntology is negotiated in such a way that the paradox of being and non-being becomes a three dimensional and active philosophical concept, rather than lapsing into reductive or simplistic messianism.

The central thesis of the book, that this hauntological futurity is applicable to a study of Italian Futurism, remains an interesting topic, and my only criticism would be that I would have preferred a longer study which pays greater attention to Futurist works of art themselves, as well as the famous manifestos. The care and attention paid to the construction and qualification of the arguments in Nuclear Futurism is both admirable but also the reason why you wouldn’t exactly pick this book up unless you had a specific interest in doing so. It is most definitely ‘difficult theory’, not because it is particularly difficult per se, or lacking in clarity, rather, the arguments are so dense and well qualified that any clumsy turns of thought are banished, and what remains is 120 pages of taut and challenging philosophical investigation. The book doesn’t let up until the endnotes, so anyone spying its slim spine and considering a quick theory fix should be warned off - this is hardcore.