John Beck and Ryan Bishop (eds), Cold War Legacies: Systems, Theory, Aesthetics

John Beck and Ryan Bishop (eds), Cold War Legacies: Systems, Theory, Aesthetics (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press 2016) 320 pp. £75.00 PDF, £24.99 Pb, £75.00 Hb. ISBN: 9781474409483

The historical picture of Cold War Legacies is, as its title suggests, one of continuities and intensifications, rather than dramatic ruptures. The appellations we use to distinguish our present moment – the ‘digital era’ or the ‘information age’ – are often attended by the implication that the material and conceptual architecture of our society is unprecedentedly different to what has come before. These phrases stress discontinuity, as though the configuration of the present were so disjoined from former iterations as to be incomparable. John Beck, Ryan Bishop, and their collaborators set out to counter this belief. While our collective dreams may no longer be haunted by nuclear apocalypse, this diverse collection of essays on temporality, technology, literature, and the visual arts is unified by the premise that our waking lives continue to be structured by the mutations of Cold War technologies and modes of thought.

The editors’ co-authored introduction to the book casts a multiplicity of contemporary phenomena – from networked technologies and telecommunications, simulation and virtual realities, terror-related anxiety, globalisation, and structuralism – as the uncontainable seepage of a temporally bound period. In the opening essay of the collection, Beck concentrates his focus, charting the longevity of futures research from its initial role in forecasting the consequences of nuclear catastrophe to its contemporary preeminence in the corporate realm. In both instances, Beck argues, the ideological biases of futures research – often neoliberal and technocentric – are reinscribed into the predicated future, preventing practitioners from imagining truly revolutionary innovations. Beck’s archaeological approach sets the pattern for subsequent essays. Many of the contributors consider the amplifications of Cold War technology. At times, these essays can be overly recondite, presuming a high level of familiarity with the programmes and procedures described, but the historical parallels they draw often yield compelling insights. Mark Coté’s essay on ‘Bulk Surveillance’ makes a persuasive case for sketching a trajectory from the spying practices of the Stasi to those of the NSA and the UK’s GCHQ, while Fabienne Collignon explores how ‘Safeguard’ – a US anti-ballistic missile system – anticipates the insectile machines which have augmented our all-too-human capacities for conducting global warfare.

Largely, the rest of the essays focalise our Cold War inheritances through an aesthetic optic. Daniel Grausam considers the salvage and refabrication of Thomas Pynchon’s paranoid aesthetic in the novels of James Flint and Lydia Millet, proposing that these authors render Pynchon’s elusive conspiracies manifestly visible by depicting ‘the banality of the radioactive economy, its presence in, rather than absence from, suburban American life’ (142). Adam Piette pairs the philosopher Paul Virilio’s Bunker Archeology with the fictions of Beckett and Elizabeth Bowen to reconnoitre nuclear ‘underground consciousness’ (105). Piette indicates how the fallout shelters which nation states once carved from the earth have shape-shifted in our imaginary from refuges into time capsules, tombs, and repositories for radioactive waste, thus ‘preserving Cold Wartime in endless continuity’ (113). Following in the theme of ongoing navigations of toxicity from the first nuclear era, Ele Carpenter considers the efforts of Japanese artists to reembrace the radioactive in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima Dai-ichi disaster. Other essays take the form of interviews with contemporary artists Aura Satz and Neil White on the intersections of multi-media art, military hardware, and scientific research.

Cold War Legacies' emphasis on the war’s traversal of the long twentieth century and the present day usefully complicates periodised definitions of the Cold War, but it does so by making use of a methodology born in that very period. Demonstrating the porousness of the boundaries between eras, between the arts and technologies, documents and fiction, civilian and military domains, the essays gathered in this collection make use of a conceptual apparatus premised, as Bishop and Beck argue, upon a ‘radical spatio-temporal plasticity’ (4). The Cold War popularity of General Systems Theory, a mode of thought characterised by a preoccupation with identifying common properties in seemingly unrelated or temporally distant phenomena, is a legacy this book bears. It is its allegiance to systemic logic which allows the book to make such striking conjunctions, to recall for us long forgotten, newly pertinent facts and events. When it is easy to believe in the unprecedented instant of digital time, it seems critical for us to be reminded that our contemporary paradigms have been unhappily modelled on, and mediated by, earlier precursors. But as the collection’s editors point out, ‘the holism of systems thinking, its capacity to scale up or down, to follow iterative patterns, seams, rhythms, networks and flows, is at once enticing yet suffocating’ (9). Ideally, the recognition that we may be, as Marshall McLuhan warned, ‘marching backward into the future’ would be attended by a complementary sense that prospects for a true future – an outside to Cold War systems – were being forged and pursued. On this front, whether by accident or design, Cold War Legacies discovers little by way of escapes from an otherwise pervasive sense of systemic asphyxia.

Adelais Mills, UCL