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GROUND ZERO: THE CITY, THE BOMB AND THE END OF HISTORY Ann E. Larabee At the height of violence during the Persian Gulf War, MacNeil/Lehrer introduced its war coverage with this striking backdrop: a target image with the words "Ground Zero" printed across it. Viewers knew very well what "Ground Zero" was: the ancient, exotic city of Baghdad, where a fairy-tale, dark-skinned demon lurked underground in a hardened bunker, magically avoiding surgical strikes. Despite the Bush administration's high moral ground on civilian casualties, the nuclear referent was omnipresent in wartime's political spectacle. Bush's New World Order, born from neoconservative proclamations of the end of history, was represented in an archetypal nuclear sign: concentric circles imposed on a city. During the Gulf War (an Orwellian mass-culture event), this sign was publicly purged of its apocalyptic nuclear meanings and subsequently of any ambiguous ethical questions about weapons technology.1 Though under the sign of the Bomb, the city at Ground Zero was not incinerated in concentric blast waves; its citizens were not sent roaming eyeless across the scorched earth. Baghdad was bombed back to pre-modern conditions, but the Bush administration declared its high-tech war humane, because it preserved innocent lives. The rhetoric of nuclear strategy--in which surgical strikes decapitate the command, control, communications and intelligence of an enemy capital--was now redeemed as a means of establishing utopian order and refuting the "law of the jungle." The "end of history' no longer meant nuclear apocalypse, as Henry Kissinger once intended, but became a political slogan for the war system's triumph as humane dictator, timelessly preserving and containing the world's populations. 2 The target's concentric circles represented spatial order and control imposed on a distant, shifting cityscape of struggle, history and change. My purpose here is to dig through some archaeological layers of this newly-appropriated, expurgated sign, to relocate its history, its radioactive traces. Throughout the twentieth century, strategic alignments between the rhetoric of nuclear war and utopian ideas of the re-ordered city have recurred in Western cultural production. In the United States, these 264 Ann E. Larabee alignments were pre-dated by the Puritans' millennial views, which, as Ross Miller points out in his study of the Great Chicago Fire, combined "the threat of imminent destruction" with "the euphoria of settlement and new beginnings.113 This traditional conceptual system provided a framework both for the city's and the atom's cultural meanings. 4 The city represents the historical ground of purification and transformation, while the atom is the twentieth century's transcendent apocalyptic sign. Both have a shared geometric imagery, which allows for their continual conflation and refiguring in narratives of power. When early-twentieth-century atomic scientists and urban planners needed a convenient symbol for their respective subjects, they both chose the mystic radiant circle, metaphysical symbol of death and regeneration. The atom had a nucleus, as did the ideal city, and at this center was the unassailable logos,the ordering principle of being. Both atom and city were surrounded by eschatological rhetoric; both represented pinnacles of Western analyticalthought tentatively sheltered against disintegration. Eric Zencey has noted that "entropism" is a root metaphor of modern discourse, recapturing "the psychic economy of the walled city." The walled city, struggling against natural forces to preserve the fragile elements of culture is, of course, a circle around a center: an ancient urban image, having its origins in the neolithic village.5 Its concentric form is profoundly utopian, patterned after the harmonious interaction of celestial spheres. One of the ancient Celtic capitals, Uisnech, for example, was circular, symbolizing the generative principle and the reconciliation of order and chaos. Ancient texts referred to its center as a navel, or well; in Judeo-Christian tradition, Eden is often portrayed as a circle, with the Tree of Life at its center.6 From these mystical origins, the secular radial city emerged, replacing symbolic navel with fortress and palace. Neo-Platonic Renaissance architects took the mystic circle as the ideal civic form, citta felice, representing heavenly correspondence, mathematical perfection, benevolent governance and harmonious (though hierarchical) social relations. Their radial design had practical application...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 263-279
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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