- Cinema's Hot Chronology (5:29:21 Mountain War Time, July 16, 1945)
In the history of film and media there are banner periods in which technology, aesthetics, and politics collide in especially striking ways. In the US context, we could rattle off years (e.g., 1896, 1927, 1946) that exemplify what James Chandler, borrowing from Claude Lévi-Strauss, calls "hot chronologies," dates that are overrepresented in historical accounts relative to both their duration and as compared with other periods that are "less eventful." The "thermometric metaphor," explains Chandler, has nothing to do with actual temperatures. In Lévi-Strauss's anthropology, hot chronologies emerge out of advanced "hot societies," those "in which time may be said to count and be counted" in the annals of world history. This is in contrast to "primitive" cultures, which are so seemingly invariable or "cold" that they "lack internal temperature deviations" and therefore appear to have an "internal environment" resistant to periodization and therefore to elucidation by history.1 [End Page 146]
This essay focuses on a hot chronology of a different and perhaps more literal order that takes stock of rising temperatures and radioactive fallout and also connects a hot chronology to the first-world hot society most responsible for global warming. Yet this chronology encapsulates utterly incommensurable scales of time and space, so vast and so small that it should fall outside of what "counts" as history altogether. It also enfolds film, a particular film that hardly registers as significant in the histories of film, into an expansive geological past and an apocalyptic end of human innovation. What are cinema's hot chronologies in the Anthropocene epoch? How can we "do" film and media history against the deep time of a geological record and planetary future that far exceed humanity, much less cinema? I propose one such chronology here and consider the reading practices and aesthetic attunements that this instant summons forth.
Two Epochs, One Instant
The time stamp 5:29:21 Mountain War Time, July 16, 1945, is etched in both historical memory and the planet's geological record as the precise beginning of two different epochs: the nuclear and the Anthropocene, each producing a new kind of human, a different kind of world, and a peculiar relationship of humankind to both history and the future. At this moment exactly, the American military and scientific establishment detonated the most powerful weapon the world had known. The Trinity nuclear test marked the onset of a new, soon-to-be-global paradigm in which weapons of mass destruction were a reality of twentieth-century life. German-Jewish philosopher and antinuclear activist Günther Anders summed up the meaning of Trinity in 1956 when he remarked that the test had given rise to a new ontology of the human as "cosmic parvenus . . . usurpers of apocalypse," who had now replaced the godly power of "creatio ex nihilo" with its demonic other, "potestas annhiliationis" or "reductio ad nihil."2 The concentration camps, he explained, expanded the truism that "all men are mortal" into a new lethal proposition: "All men are exterminable." But nuclear weapons initiated "a new historical epoch" with an even more expansive caption: "Mankind as a whole is exterminable."3 Previous wars had destroyed "'merely' people, cities, empires or cultures," but humanity in some form always survived.4 Now humanity and everything that grants the species immortality, its history and archives, was subject to immediate and remainderless erasure. Like many midcentury philosophers, Anders envisions a future thermonuclear war so devastating that it erases time altogether, catapulting our dead planet into a cosmic no-man's-land and inhuman temporality. "All history [before Trinity] is now reduced to prehistory." In this, "the Last Age" ("even if it should last forever"), human existence is summed up in the paradox of "not yet being non-existing." Trinity marks the beginning of "the possibility of self-extinction" that "can never end, but by the end itself."5
In 2015 the Anthropocene Working Group of the International Commission on Stratigraphy returned to the Trinity time stamp as the start date for the Great Acceleration and thus also the proposed Anthropocene epoch. The fallout from...