- Addressing the Atomic Specter:Ginsberg'S "Plutonian Ode" and America's Nuclear Unconscious
Ah civilizations stupidly industrious!
Canker-Hex on multitudes learned or illiterate! Manufactured Spectre of human reason!—Allen Ginsberg, "Plutonian Ode" (1982)
The story behind "Plutonian Ode" is nearly as epic as the poem itself. After learning that Plutonium-239's half-life and the Platonic zodiac year were both 24,000 years long, Allen Ginsberg wrote without ceasing through the night of June 12, 1978, completing a draft of the ode just before dawn. After a few hours of sleep, he was awoken by fellow members of the Rocky Flats Truth Force, who informed him of imminent action on the train tracks leading to the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant near Boulder, Colorado. Ginsberg, along with his partner Peter Orlovsky and a few others, spent the rest of the day chanting and meditating on the tracks to block a shipment of fissile materials to the factory. After the train rounded the bend, braking at the sight of the protestors, Ginsberg experienced his first arrest for direct action in the antinuclear movement. When asked to defend his non-guilty plea during his arraignment later that month, Ginsberg responded by reading "Plutonian Ode."1
The poem, prophetic in its moment of writing, anticipated the larger social movement in which it would participate and addresses what I will call America's nuclear unconscious. In the years following, during the peak of antinuclear protests in the United States, Ginsberg continued to revise and perform the poem. However, when the antinuclear protests of the late 1970s began to separate the issues of nuclear disarmament and power plant decommissioning, despite their many linked environmental, social, and political consequences, Ginsberg's poem tried to hold them together.2 Composed at [End Page 185] the edge of cold war détente, "Plutonian Ode" articulates what would soon be subsumed under Reagan-era escalation by figuratively drawing together nuclear weapons, waste, energy, and raw materials—forms of the nuclear that had been disarticulated in service of proliferation and what cultural historian Joseph Masco calls America's "radioactive nation-building project" (2006). It is the repression of the relations between nuclear forms that forms America's nuclear unconscious. And it is the work of the poem to manifest the contradictions that structure this enduring site and condition.
The nuclear unconscious is buried inside teeth and beneath feet. It is both the literal accumulation of waste and the psychological condition of a nation that has repressed the accumulating consequences of the atomic age, especially the "slow violence" that designates certain people and places as sacrifice zones. This violence, Rob Nixon explains, "occurs gradually and out of sight…dispersed across time and space" and poses a representational challenge due to its imperceptibility (2011, 2). With nuclear weapons, this challenge is compounded by the inextricable link between performance and function: the display of a nuclear arsenal and its imagined destruction is what makes a strategy of deterrence feasible. Thus, the nuclear arsenal tends to be over-represented, a saturated symbolic presence that meanwhile overshadows the slow violence that is already underway in buried networks of proliferation. Unsurprisingly, the majority of what might be called "nuclear literature" directs its attention toward the spectacle of nuclear weapons, as the ontological, ethical, and environmental problems posed by less visible forms of the nuclear are difficult to represent.3 And while antinuclear movements during the Cold War did in fact generate awareness of weapons, energy, waste, mining, and fallout, they often chose not to contend with these forms as part of the same atomic network. How to represent these networks presents a formal challenge, as the relations that organize them are often hidden or buried.
Ginsberg, however, does not represent nuclear forms in "Plutonian Ode." Rather, he addresses them. He does so with an iterative apostrophe in the poem itself and by using the poem in demonstrations, which together articulate the material relations in which the poem is embedded. In fact, demonstration also functions as a trope within the poem as Ginsberg articulates, again and again, his actions, which vary from speech to movement: "I yell," "I chant," "I enter...