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NEITHER FIRE NOR ICE: POSTMODERN REVISIONS OF AMERICA'S POST-COLD WAR APOCALYPTIC NIGHTMARE Charles E. Gannon On March 6, 1990, The Bulletin ofAtomic Scientists set back its famous "Doomsday Clock," signifying, for the first time in many years, that we had moved away from, rather than closer to, the horrors of a nuclear midnight. Just as this long-awaited adjustment of the "atomic clock" signaled the brighter dawn of a post-Cold War world, so too did it offer mute testimony to the pervasive presence of metaphoric imagery in the discourses ofArmageddon. However, as the fears ofnuclear annihüation diminish, so does the cultural dominance of the imagery with which it was associated, thereby making room for new, post-Cold War anxieties and iconographies. Indeed, much of the imagery with which these new neuroses are now routinely associated made its debut during the last decades of East-West atomic anxiety. Consequently, many of the narratives that first explored and exploited these now-contemporary concerns and images are not recent works, nor postmodernist per se. However, they are informed by similar sensitivities to the uncertainty, incoherence , and incipient chaos that problematizes contemporary attempts to retotalize our cultural and cognitive realities. Towards a Typology ofNew Armageddons In the wake ofthe Cold War, the thoroughly depopulated cities of Stanley Kramer's On the Beach (1959), along with Arch Oboler's Five (1951), Ranald MacDougall's The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (1959), and Mick Jackson's Threads (1984), have become increasingly anachronistic previsions, fading along with the memory ofthe Soviet Union, its rapidly deteriorating strategic arsenal, and the hair-trigger anxieties of a world eternaUy poised on the brink of seU-immolation. Ofcourse, the image of the bomb has not entirely left us, but it has undergone a change in social valence. Nuclear weapons are now increasingly associated with terrorist activity, thereby engendering a narrative trend in which the atomic bomb is no longer represented as a globe-smashing behemoth, but as a backpack-sized expression of radical—or Third World—wrath and vengeance. However, even as the scope and danger of nuclear weapons shrink, new technologies of mass-destruction loom large in our immediate future . The toxic terrorism conducted in Japanese subways is only a minuscule precursor ofgreater dangers, according to a swelling tide oftexts obsessed with biological and ecological catastrophes. New images have begun evolving to replace the old mushroom-cloud specter of nuclear decimation. We are now invited, often urged, to refocus our fears upon Vol. 23 (1999): 152 ??? COHPAnATIST carefully expressionless researchers in orange bio-isolation suits, upon panic-stricken laboratory workers fleeing an escaped virus, and upon epidemiological maps where bright red tides of contagion flow rapidly outward, consuming whole countries or continents. Naturally, the roots of this new "aesthetic of the Apocalypse" had already taken hold in the Cold War era. As is so often the case, today's trends and concerns were first explored by yesterday's authors, who looked beyond the crises of their own moment and anticipated those to come. Consequently, the images and warnings that were advanced by Michael Crichton in TheAndromeda Strain (1969), by Richard Matheson in / Am Legend (1954), and by John Brunner in The Sheep Look Up (1972) found increasing use as we moved toward a post-Cold War era. Texts such as Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985), Nancy Kress's Beggars in Spain (1994), and Robert Sawyer's The Terminal Experiment (1995) are only a few examples of this trend. In film, the graphic depictions of eco/biological devastation deployed in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982) and Terry GiUiam's Brazil (1985) became the seminal, tangible referents for the terror inspired by more recent films, such as GiUiam's Twelve Monkeys (1994), Wolfgang Petersen's Outbreak (1995), Stuart Orme's The Puppet Masters (1994), and Michael Bay's The Rock (1996). These premonitions ofinfection, epidemic, and hysteria are amplified by the growing awareness—and media explanations—ofjust how easy it is to create a plague: the technology to produce and deliver viruses in lethal concentrations is both simple and inexpensive, and samples from which to grow cultures of everything from anthrax to the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-0887
Print ISSN
0195-7678
Pages
pp. 152-159
Launched on MUSE
2012-10-03
Open Access
No
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