Rethinking Approaches to Nuclear Discourse

Through four chapters of exploring the intrusion of the Real into the Symbolic via the signifier of the Bomb, and humanity’s futile (yet harmful) attempts to feel a false sense of control over it, Matheson has brilliantly blended rhetorical and psychoanalytical analysis to show that the concealment thesis simply does not work. War Games that supposedly reveal the gruesome reality of nuclear warfare still have players coming back for their guilty pleasure of world destruction, and the post-apocalyptic hellscape is actually desired by survivalists who view the Bomb as a way to “purify” the world and build society anew. In other words, simply throwing back the veil and revealing the “truth” about nuclear war in public discourse has done little to prevent it. Matheson’s solution to this conundrum is to show how the signifier of the Bomb “is a way to understand desire, namely the desire to experience the Real beyond mediation” (p. 121).

When rhetorical scholarship takes a page from Lacan’s book and starts seeing nuclear discourse as a product of the Bomb (i.e., an eruption of the Real into the Symbolic order), the focus in nuclear discourse can shift from the concealment thesis toward exploring what, in any given “network of signification,” exceeds mediation. This shift of inquiry leads to a focus on revealing “the places where these things collapse into incoherence, and explore the mechanisms by which speaking subjects attempt to salvage their order” (p. 125). Matheson’s entire project has, in essence, done just this: he has sorted out the various ways in which subjects have attempted to integrate the interrupting Real into the Symbolic.

Perhaps the only disappointment in an otherwise excellent treatment of the Bomb, Matheson gives the reader precious little to actually do in the final few pages of the conclusion. After lamenting that humanity will always be trapped by its inability to finally achieve its desire to attain the Real – “We will probably always desire continuity that we cannot have,” and “we turn on each other and do great violence to ourselves and others” because of it – Matheson asserts this: “Instead of questioning after impossible utopias and deferring fulfillment to a place always just over the horizon, we must learn to love imperfection, uncertainty, and ambiguity” (p. 131). While humans will always have desire they cannot truly fulfill, they must learn to enjoy the challenge and frustrations of the death drive itself, rather than allowing enjoyment to always be deferred to an ever curving-away horizon. This grand concept remains quite nebulous; Matheson briefly envisions survivalism retooled as a hobby in which community, camping, and food-growing becomes its own source of enjoyment, rather than something that defers enjoyment to the “big payoff” of surviving a nuclear apocalypse at the expense of societal destruction. Especially as someone new to the big concepts of psychoanalysis, I would have greatly appreciated further and more detailed examples of what it might look like for scholars to help non-scholars better understand and re-orient their relationship to the death drive.

I believe Desiring the Bomb is worthy of being read by anyone whose scholarly interests involve the intersection of rhetoric and psychoanalysis, though it also speaks more broadly to scholars of American culture and history, especially those interested in how the nuclear age has impacted the shape of American life and society. More niche areas of scholarship that Matheson touches on include mythology in survivalist communities and the political and economic effects of specific municipal development, such as the American highway system and the rise of the American suburbs (both intertwined with white flight and the subsequent urban decay). For readers of Computers and Composition whose interests align with these topics, Matheson’s first full-length work is worth a closer look.