Christopher Zebrowski – Falling-out: Examining the problematising capacities of danger


Event Date: 21 February 2011
The River Room
King’s College London, Strand Campus
London WC2R 2LS

Problematising Danger

ESRC Seminar Series- Contemporary Biopolitical Security


Co-sponsored by the Biopolitics of Security Network,
and the Emerging Securities Research Unit @ Keele University

Chris Zebrowski
Keele University





The contamination of the crew of the Japanese fishing vessel the Lucky Dragon brought worldwide media attention to what were intended to be secret American H-bomb tests conducted in the Bikini Atoll in March 1954. It also announced, in spectacular fashion, the emergence of the threat of fallout: radioactive dust kicked up by the blast of thermonuclear weaponry and spread by the vicissitudes of the wind. Historians have located the advent of thermonuclear weaponry as a turning point in British logics of Civil Defence (Cf. Grant, 2010, Hennessy, 2010), which had until then maintained a common trajectory from the Second World War. While historians have centred attention on the massive amplification in blast power offered by the H-bomb (no doubt because the blast itself would be directly and indirectly responsible for the majority of casualties), my research into this area has focused on the ‘discovery’ of fallout in problematising British civil defence thinking. In my intervention I would like to move beyond the distinction between risks and threats and focus specifically on the event of fallout’s ‘discovery’ and, specifically, its capacity to problematise sufficiently stabilized and technologized logics of civil defence.

From the Second World War British Civil Defence was guided by the allied priorities of protecting the British population and maintaining UK war-fighting capabilities. Over the course of the war, a Civil Defence apparatus originally designed for strike-breaking purposes was ameliorated through application of the emerging science of Operational Research (OR) within the Civil Defence and Research Committee. Research focused on the effects of high explosives on both the body and the material infrastructures of the city. Research was particularly influenced by the controlled experiments of Solly Zuckerman, a primatologist, on direct and indirect effects of ‘blast’ on lab animals (Cf. Zuckerman, 1978, Zuckerman, 1941, Zuckerman, 1940) which would be used to inform both Civil Defence and, in later years, Allied strategic bombing campaigns. Adey (2010: 155-61) suggests these studies “had important consequences for understanding the process of aerial bombing, scientifically perpetuating the analogic and affective amplifications of morale and panic through the trope of the explosion and the body’s susceptibility to indirect environmental effects” (Adey, 2010: 159). A strong understanding of the material and affective effects of blast were reflected in the bunker logic of Civil Defence: the prophylactic securitization of material bodies which underpinned the broader objective of protecting the collective national psyche from fear.

This bunker logic would continue to inform Civil Defence thinking from the Second World War until 1955 despite the advance of weaponry including the advent of the atomic bomb. This can be explained, I believe, by the extent to which each of these advances could be conceptualized by operational researchers as simply representing an amplification in blast-power: something which was already well-understood, and could be responded to by simply by ‘scaling-up’ existing metrics (Cf. Smith, 2009). Fallout however could not be sufficiently absorbed into these metrics. This was made clear within the 1955 ‘Strath Report’, officially titled The Defence Implications of Fall-out from a Hydrogen Bomb. In contrast to the direct blow to the materiality of the body perpetrated by blast, fallout threatened to poison the environmental milieu in which biological life subsists. It was a threat which integrated with the multiple flows comprising the atmosphere to spread its deadly effects over a wide geographic area—an instance of what Peter Sloterdijk (2009) would term ‘atmoterrorism’. Contaminated agriculture and livestock would be unusable for a minimum of two months whilst contamination would ‘immobilize considerable areas of the country and force inhabitants to cover for some days and in certain areas for a week or more.’  Rather than attempting to target the circulatory infrastructures directly as in doctrines of strategic bombing, fallout would arrest these circulations through the poisoning of the environmental milieu itself. Strategic studies suggested that the condensed geography of the UK meant that as few as 10 ten-megaton bombs, strategically placed on the Western seaboard and ground-detonated to maximize fallout, would ensure “no part of the country would be free from the risk of radio-active contamination.”[ Ibid.]

While blast and fire were expected to claim many more lives—estimated at 3 deaths to every 1 caused by radiation—it is the advent of fallout which appears to have initiated a fundamental reorganization of British Civil Defence. Focusing specifically on the ‘problematic potential’ of fallout, I’ve been tempted to place a greater emphasis on the epistemological insecurity—or uncertainty—related to fallout, than its capacity to highlight vulnerabilities within a civil defence apparatus designed to protect against blast. Specifically, I’m interested in the way in which the danger of fallout was amplified to the extent that it exceeded a stabilized framework of intelligibility for understanding, and thus controlling, threat based on calculative metrics of assessing blast. In thinking about this issue, I’ve been influenced by Foucault’s thinking on problematisation as an event which inspires (reflective) thought on a practice which has been technologized (reduced to instrumental knowledge, know-how, or savoir-faire). I’d also be interested in exploring with the audience similarities between Foucault’s notion of panic, and contemporary thinking on trauma within discourses of PTSD, which similarly stress the significance of an event which exceeds the subjects framework of intelligibility.


<== back to main conference page


share this entry: