The Desolation of Urban Centers

In the overview, I mentioned that Matheson laments the inadequacy of the concealment thesis to affectively respond to “the nuclear security state” which inflicts violence upon large groups of people. As hinted at in the previous section on War Games and Survivalism, this violence is primarily ordered around the concept of urban destruction/sacrifice. Matheson digs deep into this concept in chapter 3, “Desired Ground Zeroes,” where he convincingly argues that the Bomb as a signifier has thinly disguised the classism and white supremacy which has led to cities being seen as (and eventually becoming) places of decay.

While cities as signifiers have often been viewed as places of chaos and sacrifice (usually targets of enemy armies in times of war), the discourse surrounding the Bomb “marked the first time in recorded history where rational city planning and the possibility of massive, near-instant destruction of urban spaces coincided” (pp. 81-2). The results for urban centers are disastrous: “Thus the depiction of cities as zones of chaos helps to make them so, as resources are channeled elsewhere, spaces are segregated, and repression is meted out through physical violence” (p. 82)

The trope of the city as a “wasteland” – a place that will be sacrificed in the event of nuclear war – provides “cover for white flight and industrial relocation, demonstrating the capacity for one powerful trope to conceal other logics – racism and neoliberalism in this case” (p. 82). The potential for violence caused by those with privilege responding to the Bomb is already evident, but Matheson highlights the sacrificial nature of cities by looking at nuclear war strategies. The United States intentionally left its urban centers vulnerable to nuclear attack as a form of defense – it upheld the inevitability of Mutually Assured Destruction in the case of war with the Soviet Union, thus deterring nuclear war itself (p. 87). While the image of powerful governments hiding behind tens of millions of their citizens is gruesome enough, this sacrificial logic also loops around to racism and classism – American nuclear war plans refrained from targeting parts of the USSR with high concentrations of ethnic Russians for fear that the USSR would in turn target concentrations of white Americans (p. 89).

When it came to cities, “the threat of nuclear war created an alibi” for white supremacy and neoliberalism “in the form of transcendent, incomprehensible danger, a possibility so awful that it had to be avoided at all costs” (p. 94). Drawing in Lacan’s theory of the unconscious and applying it to the United States as a nation, Matheson sees the racism and classism that truly fueled white flight and urban decay as “the set of metonymic and metaphorical connections that are obscured by powerful sites of cathectic investment” – in this case the Bomb and the threat of nuclear war (p. 95). The metonymic connection of the city as a nuclear target buried all the other racist and classist metonymic connections in the national unconscious which caused wealth and privilege to drain from urban centers, leaving them to become the wastelands they had already been labeled as.