Vague Memories of Heliogabulus

Kanad Chakrabarti

The Runit Dome (or Cactus Dome), in the foreground, a large cement dome sitting on a small island just barely bigger than the dome itself. The ocean can be seen all around with some scrub brush on the island as well.

Poised between utopia and dystopia, the island exists in the Western imaginary amidst glossy travel brochures and visions of abandonment. Paul Gauguin, painting in 1892 —long before the discourse critical of orientalisation and voyeurism —presented Tahiti as a riot of violet, lapis and burnt orange, with pliant natives garlanded in mango blossoms, languidly gracing a verdant paradise.

Today, under threat of catastrophic sea-level rises, coral wipe-out and ocean acidification, islands have become active agents of the fight to survive. Yet it remains an awkward, somewhat under-acknowledged fact that they were sites of anthropogenic trauma for centuries: from the earliest touch of missionaries/colonialism and the brutal reality of plantations, through to atomic testing​*​. Even by the time Gauguin painted, imported disease had decimated the native population of Tahiti.

From the 1950s onwards, the remoteness of islands, the requirements of the Cold War, and the post-WWII capitalism, overseen by a new imperial hegemon, prompted a sinister, apparently premeditated strategy on the part of France, Britain and the United States. Pacific islands​†​ targeted for nuclear testing were portrayed as ‘uninhabited’ or ‘isolates’, closed systems where the effects of radiation upon physical, ecological, biological processes could be carefully observed.

Atomic tests would completely alter the geography of certain atolls, irradiating marine habitats, food sources, and, in some cases, islanders themselves. Islands would also experience the earliest societal collapse in the Anthropocene​‡​: in forced resettlements​§​, in radiologically-induced cancers, as well as the disruption of traditional gender relationships​¶​.

In contrast, American TV and print audiences would be fed footage of brave soldiers tearfully bidding families good-bye, off to do important work in some ‘empty‘ tropical other-world. Today, ‘slow violence‘ remains a part of archipelagic life: Runit Dome leaks American plutonium sludge, Moruroa remains littered with the detritus of French tests, and the former U.K. test island of Kiribati simply sinks into the sea. Less visibly, in some cases, islands have been put into a cycle of dependency, their traditional economies unviable, they are fed budgetary handouts or reparations, anyway inadequate, with migration as one of the few ways out​#​.

The Delphic Gaze: Moruroa

1200km southeast of Tahiti, the Tuamoto archipelago is a curious collection of perforated coral rings surrounding shallow lagoons. The atolls of Moruroa and Fangataufa would be used as French testing sites, starting in 1966, when continued testing in the newly-independent Algeria became unsustainable. Some of the islands barely break the ocean surface and there is in fact little to see at sea-level, yet they are stunning when viewed from above. Elizabeth DeLoughrey, echoing Paul Virilio’s extensive history of the aerial view in modern warfare, describes this overhead vantage point, used to document nuclear tests, as ‘Apollonian’​**​, a perspective very different from the lush palm-and-sea view of Gauguin’s paintings or tourist post-cards. Presaging later drones and satellites, the reconnaissance image presented a novel, panoptic, technologically commanding view of the theatre of battle.

Akin to the earlier ethnographic, proselytising gaze, this filmic transparency imposed upon islands appears to have been conceived less as a disinterested pursuit of knowledge, and more as an instrument that furthered military, administrative and control aims. It is notable that, as overt colonialism gave way to a global, deterritorialized capitalism, characterized by centrifugal networks of production and centripetal nodes of control and capital​††​, transparency itself became a major ideological construct, a key term in neoliberal management-speak, that is used to mask motives that are anything but neutral or abstract. In view of the ambiguous benefit of this transparency, it is no wonder that Glissant’s ‘right to opacity’​‡‡​, proposed as an empowering strategy for the colonized, would prove so resonant.

String(s) of Pearls: Bikini

Pacific testing sites were merely the most dramatic case of military instrumentalisation of island territory – islands had long been used as refueling stops, and subsequently, military bases, by the U.K. and U.S. Consider Diego Garcia, in the Indian ocean: ceded from France to Great Britain in 1814, it functioned as a coaling station and naval base until the 1960s, when the Americans, seeking an ‘empty’ site, established a major military facility under a long-term lease. The British government compliantly classified the islanders as a ‘floating population’, who could therefore be forcibly removed to Mauritius and other islands​§§​.

Yet it was nuclear testing that provided the most visually compelling link between war, exploitation, and mass-media​¶¶​. Bikini Atoll, an American possession 6,000 km from Tahiti, hosted the Crossroads test series, filmed by 700 cameras, including the very earliest aerial drones, filled approximately 1 million exposures and half the world’s film supply extant at that time. The footage was used to analyze the dynamics of explosions and more accurately assess their destructive potential, an early example of what Harun Farocki would later term ‘operative images’​##​. De-classified films and stills would feed domestic consumption, demonstrating value-for-money to taxpayers and patriots, safely in their sitting rooms back home. Thusly, the presentation of war-as-spectacle would become a critical element of combat in the expanded field​***​. Hollywood’s machine, and the nascent mass-media of television advertising, played their part – one advert ludicrously asserted that a freshly-painted house would better survive a nuclear attack.

By the new millennium, celluloid would give way to bitmaps. The physical image would itself become de-anchored from the fixed, collective loci of TV and cinema halls. Sepia aerial shots of tropical islands were replaced by the cross-hairs and grainy night-vision sequences of the first Gulf War, theorized by Baudrillard and Mark Fisher as a made-for-media war​†††​, and subsequently explored by Harun Farocki in the Eye/Machine series. As the wheel of technology continues to turn, today it seems that such human-accessible images might again become non-‘operative’ in the sense that they are redundant to the war machine’s operations. Surveillance, targeting, and attack systems, connected via machine learning and AI can execute missions from start-to-finish: the image is mostly for the benefit of human overseers or the PR people​‡‡‡​. Like the hunter-seeker in Dune or the ‘slaughterbot’ these ‘machines of loving grace’ remain aloft, watching and waiting, raining death down with (apparently) clinical precision and negligible ‘collateral damage’.

Mosura’s Song: Infant Island

An irradiated, barren rock with quixotic Oceanic traditions, is home to the giant caterpillar-moth Mosura that first threatens Tokyo and subsequently saves the city from Gojira (Godzilla)​§§§​, who was awakened from the deep by the American Castle Bravo test at Bikini Atoll. Infant Island does not exist, other than in a Japanese post-apocalyptic film and video-game franchise.

Incorporating aspects of older moving-image and software media, videogames, being programmable and running on fast hardware, can generate hyper-realistic visual worlds. At the same time, echoing both webpages and documentary film​¶¶¶​, the unitary image is often perforated by screens-within-screens (i.e. head-up-displays), presenting text, quantitative information, diagrams, or multiple images within a single integrated interface. Players have full access to the game-world, walking, flying, diving underwater, passing-through-walls​###​. Using sound, VR and AR, players can feel and manipulate the worlds, not just see them. Each experience of a world, whether by the same player through time, or by different players, can be unique and customized. Navigation thus replaces montage as the primary structuring device for moving images​****​. Further, as game-space is fully explorable, the implied volume extraneous to the frame —that which remains un-filmed — largely ceases to exist, removing some of the imaginative contingency, the negative-space, of cinema. Lastly, in another departure from cinema, games dissolve the boundary between director and viewer as players curate their own trajectories​††††​. In this aspect, games are arguably closer to how one views a photograph, painting, or sculpture, media in which the viewer largely controls his/her subjective spatio-temporal experience of the artwork.

Contemporary gaming, a far cry from the pre-built, fixed arcade consoles of the early days, is both highly customizable​‡‡‡‡​ and inherently networked — teams comprising tens or hundreds of gamers, geographically dispersed, play each other, their in-game moves accompanied by video feeds and social media commentary. In-game purchases, an example of capitalism’s signature ‘markets-in-everything’, increasingly merge real and virtual lived experience. Games can be connected to the sensors, lights, and speakers that comprise the so-called Internet-of-things (‘IoT’). At first glance, this creates a new class of consumer product, and associated opportunities to financialise yet another slice of consumer time — one more move in capital’s war upon the human. A more immediate, if less ideologically-tinged threat: as every element of the ‘smart home’ is networked​§§§§​, another ‘attack surface’ opens to private or government hackers. A global web of weaponizable gaming computers, with their pulsating fuschia LEDs, echoes the glittering net of garrison islands that made the American, French, and British imperia possible. Notably, China is currently, if belatedly, playing catch-up: the ‘string of pearls’ chain of deep-water harbors and airstrips across the Indian Ocean projects force and denies the seas to others.

Gaming culture is often criticized for not, with some exceptions​¶¶¶¶​, trying to critique the state, technological, socio-economic or cultural apparatus that makes the game possible. This is in stark contrast to its moving image antecedents: Soviet cinema, Italian Neorealism, Marker, Godard or Watkins’ aforementioned work​####​. For instance, many games have weather models — yet almost none realistically depict the rising seas and violent storms that are expected to be the future in many parts of the world. Instead, the focus lies with maximizing believability and a more-or-less standardized ludic logic of action and goal-seeking. Moreover, as in other mass-media of the 1990s onwards, we find the persistent re-hash of tropes —a sort of mise en abyme of derivative work — epitomizing the ’nostalgia mode’ that Mark Fisher, quoting Frederic Jameson, identified​*****​.

Gaming’s lack of criticality, as concrete illustration of the military-entertainment complex​†††††​, perhaps recalls computer simulation’s specific genesis in Cold War research. For at the heart of nuclear weapons development lay an issue of visibility: subatomic scales and nanosecond reaction times lie outside of direct human observational experience. This very literal opacity, false echo of Glissant’s metaphor, pervades the nuclear archive: dark glasses of American test observers in the Marshall Islands; rows of mechanical blinds, snapping shut in unison at France’s Dindon control bunker; engineering texts on weapons design that emphasize the opacity of various elements to neutrons. The opaque resistance of the atom also forced a revolution in computing. Using the early supercomputers, so-called ‘rocket scientists’, gamblers who would be omnipotent, created streams of (almost) random numbers, tracking the myriad paths neutrons could take as they zipped around the fissile core of a bomb, the aggregate sum of these paths a Pythian augury of the chain-reaction’s health.

There are other examples: the underlying physics of Farocki’s wave simulator is described by the Navier-Stokes equation used to model movement of liquid plutonium; while the same ray-tracing ‘engine’ that is part of every CGI water glass, is also used to study how radiation behaves within nuclear reactors or weapons. Virtual Reality (VR) can be traced to defense programmes of the 1970s, and Steam’s game-platform runs on the ARPANET’s successor. More generally, by 1996 when the last French test was conducted, computer simulation would be seen to fit perfectly with neoliberalism’s promise of win-win progress: the island-as-laboratory could be simulated cybernetically, theoretically hurting no one, and of course requiring no irksome reparations.

Perhaps not coincidentally, testing’s end came five years after the collapse of the USSR, which opened up vast new consumer territories while freeing up resources that were quickly deployed under a market-friendly, globalist consensus. Mathematicians and computer scientists, newly unemployed after the Cold War, discovered that the frenetic movement of subatomic particles also elegantly described how stock prices behaved. They found lucrative employment at investment banks and hedge funds, deploying many of the same computational techniques to price financial derivatives (‘financial weapons of mass destruction’). We learned then about convex payoffs, exploding hedge ratios, and Taleb’s ‘Black Swan’, which ironically today re-emerge within Global Climate Model simulations – in dire predictions of non-linear surges in temperatures and sea-levels, so-called ’tipping points’, that lose a one-to-one relationship with anything we do to mitigate them​‡‡‡‡‡​.

From Rue Reaumur to Runit Dome

The island is a locus where capital and empire meet. A concrete example of this assertion is the CFP Franc (CFP originally stood for Colonies Française du Pacifique), established by France for her Pacific administrative units Wallis and Futuna, New Caledonia, and French Polynesia (within which Tahiti and Moruroa are located). Although the currency is pegged to the Euro, it is not a liability of the Banque de France or the European Central Bank, and is instead managed out of a semi-public entity based in Paris, which acts as de facto monetary authority and development bank for the islands.

The CFP’s visuals recall Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’ and depict cultural artifacts, such as spears, outrigger boats, and insular ecology: palms, turtles and fish. While different from the romanticized paradise of a postcard, the images nevertheless seem to obscure the negative impact of economic colonialism upon indigenous communities, and clearly ignore the brutal reality of French testing in the islands.

More historically accurate images might be the decaying hulks of Dindon and Denise bunkers on Moruroa, or Runit Dome, built on Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The latter is a concrete domed sarcophagus​§§§§§​, holding 3.1 million cubic feet of plutonium-laced waste with 24,000 years of radiation left in it. Known locally as The Tomb, this containment structure, exposed to the open sea, is an instantiation of Virilio’s ‘museum of accidents’​¶¶¶¶¶​. Runit Island, read as impending ecological disaster, points to a conundrum: a global nuclear war, happening over a matter of hours and probably impartial in its desolation, could have been read as an apocalypse, an discrete event, an ‘unveiling’ in the original Greek meaning. Thus it seemed possessed of a hypothetical or literary quality, something dreaded in the collective imaginary, but having no factual referent​#####​. In contrast, climate-induced societal collapse, as on Runit Island or Kiribati, happens slowly and in-real-time. It is also likely to be differentiated by geography, race and wealth. How do we, collectively avatars of Benjamin’s Angel of History, grasp an eschatology so unevenly experienced and so lacking in temporal locus?

  1. ​*​
    DeLoughrey, Elizabeth M. Allegories of the Anthropocene. Durham, NC and London: 2019, pp. 33-62.
  2. ​†​
    DeLoughrey (2019), pp. 67-76, 170-175.
  3. ​‡​
    Decamous, Gabrielle. Invisible Colors: The Arts of the Atomic Age. Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 2018, pp. 159-201.
  4. ​§​
    DeLoughrey, Elizabeth. 2017. ‘The sea is rising: Visualizing climate change in the Pacific islands.’ In Meteorologies of modernity: Weather and climate discourses in the Anthropocene, edited by Fekadu, S, Straß-Senol, H, and D¨oring, T, pp. 237-253. Tu¨bingen: Narr Francke Attempto.
  5. ​¶​
    Kahn, Miriam. ‘Tahiti Intertwined: Ancestral Land, Tourist Postcard, and Nuclear Test Site’ American Anthropologist, vol. 102, no. 1, 2000, pp. 7-26. JSTOR, Accessed 14 Feb. 2020.
  6. ​#​
    This narrative, however, simplifies a more complex reality, as Epeli Hau’ofa’s 1994 essay Our Sea of Islands argues, well-worth reading in entirety.
  7. ​**​
    DeLoughrey (2019) pp. 171-172.
  8. ​††​
    Hardt, Michael and Negri, Antonio, Empire, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000, p. 297.
  9. ​‡‡​
    Glissant, E´douard. Poetics of Relation. Betsy Wing (tr.), Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2010, pp. 49, 189-194.
  10. ​§§​
    Ruth Oldenziel, ‘Islands: The United States as a Networked Empire’, in Entangled Geographies: Empire and Technopolitics in the Global Cold War, Cambridge, London: The MIT Press, 2011.
  11. ​¶¶​
    The triumvirate of imperial control – namely, the absolute violence of thermonuclear force, the exorbitant privilege (though they don’t use the term) of money, and telecommunications networks – is theorized in Hardt & Negri’s Empire, pp. 345-347. Similar points, albeit with a more cyber inflection, are found in Matteo Pasquinelli’s On Solar Databases and the Exogenesis of Light and Benjamin H. Bratton’s The Black Stack, available at e-flux.
  12. ​##​
    Saucier, Nathan Operational Images and the Interpretive Turn. MSc Thesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, 2017, p. 8.
  13. ​***​
    Virilio, Paul. War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception, Patrick Camiller (tr.), London/New York: Verso, 1989.
  14. ​†††​
    Mark Fisher, ‘The Labour of Simulation’ in Simulation, Exercise, Operations. Robin Mackay (ed.), Falmouth UK: Urbanomic Media Ltd, 2015, p. 47.
  15. ​‡‡‡​
    See this essay by Trevor Paglen, but also S˘tˆep´an Kment, ‘Programming Worlds’ in Simulation, Exercise, Operations. Robin Mackay (ed.), Falmouth UK: Urbanomic Media Ltd, 2015, pp. 27-28.
  16. ​§§§​
    Decamous (2018), p. 161.
  17. ​¶¶¶​
    Peter Watkins’ documentary The Journey (1987) is an example.
  18. ​###​
    Galloway, Alexander. Essays on Algorithmic Culture Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press, 2006, pp. 64, 123.
  19. ​****​
    Farocki covers this, as well as Galloway, pp. 64-65.
  20. ​††††​
    See p.45 or card 061 of the online version 2.0 of Wark, Mackenzie, Gamer Theory . Multiple versions/dates.
  21. ​‡‡‡‡​
    Epic, producers of the Fortnite game series, makes the source code for their Unreal Engine software freely available to the gaming community, who can create new extensions, or plug-ins. Fortnite Creative is itself structured as an island where everything is customisable by players, not unlike the 2011 game Minecraft. Also, see Galloway (2006) pp. 112-113.
  22. ​§§§§​
    Chinese-owned Razer produces gaming hardware and software, lighting, sound systems, routers, all of which are, at least theoretically, also listening and surveillance devices. In 2019, the American government identified surveillance cameras as potential vectors for cyber- warfare.
  23. ​¶¶¶¶​
    Exceptions include artist-made hacks of commercial games, or possibly the 2019 Death Stranding by Kojima Productions. Conflicted ecological criticality of the 2013 title ARMA 3 is discussed in Abraham, Benjamin. ‘Video Game Visions of Climate Futures: ARMA3 and Implications for Games and Persuasion’, in Games and Culture, Vol. 13(I) pp. 71-91, 2015.
  24. ​####​
    Galloway, pp. 119-123 and 72-78.
  25. ​*****​
    Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism, Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2009, pp. 54-61.
  26. ​†††††​
    See Mckenzie Wark Gamer Theory
  27. ​‡‡‡‡‡​
    See David Spratt and Ian Dunlop’s paper ‘Existential Climate-related Security Risk: A Scenario Approach’ as well as David Mackie and Jessica Murray ‘Risky Business: the climate and the macroeconomy’ in J.P. Morgan Economic Research, January 14, 2020, available at here, accessed March 2020.
  28. ​§§§§§​
    There are varying views on how risky Runit Dome actually is, from this fairly phlegmatic assessment to a more urgent prognosis.
  29. ​¶¶¶¶¶​
    Virilio, Paul. The Museum of Accidents, in Art Press, no. 102, April 1986, pp. 13-14, tr. Yvonne Lawrence, accessed 18 Feb. 2020.
  30. ​#####​
    Derrida, Jacques, et al. ‘No Apocalypse, Not Now (Full Speed Ahead, Seven Missiles, Seven Missives).‘ Diacritics, vol. 14, no. 2, 1984, pp. 20?31, JSTOR