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September 25, 2017 | by  | in Features |
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The Fury of [our] own Momentum: Twin Peaks, Protest, and the Bomb

Hope was for me the belief in the unknowability of the future, the sense that its outcome was not fixed (and that we might intervene in it)… an argument for the wildness of the world, for its unpredictability.

Rebecca Solnit

 

Third picture of a series of the Licorne thermonuclear test in French Polynesia. 1970. The Atlantic.

Third picture of a series of the Licorne thermonuclear test in French Polynesia. 1970. The Atlantic.

The world is a funny place. In what is perhaps the most experimental (read: weird) episode of the latest season of Twin Peaks, visionary-auteur David Lynch’s extended exploration of trauma, viewers are presented with an atomic explosion, ostensibly the world’s first and the literal schism responsible for the creation of evil known in the Twin Peaks universe as BOB.

The scene that follows is excruciating, both for its length and apparent pointlessness. We watch, growing increasingly bored and confused, as the camera shakes and the explosion crackles, tracking along and into its core — for a gargantuan eleven minutes. In more than one sense, there is no escape.

The music set to the bomb is that of Krzysztof Penderecki, “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima”, a fraught, tension-filled piece — and as the explosion’s creations, the coal-grey, tramp-looking Woodsmen, swarm a petrol station, take over a radio broadcast and put the town to sleep (yes, Twin Peaks is weird as fuck), there is a disconcerting sense, that of which Lynch has proved himself master, time and time again, that all is not well in the world.

It is not a metaphor.

*

In the lead-in to their use in World War II, nuclear weapons were tested just once, in the desert at White Sands, New Mexico: the explosion dramatised in Twin Peaks. The bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were numbers two and three respectively — and since? More than 2053 explosions, shared among eight nations: the United States, the USSR, France, the UK, China, India, Pakistan, and, most recently, North Korea.

Of these tests, the US is by far the most prolific, with an excess of a thousand explosions, the large majority conducted at the Nevada test site, some 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas. For those of us in the southern hemisphere, the focal point has been Mururoa Atoll in French Polynesia, and the tests carried out there by France from 1966 until 1996. But for every nuclear nation there is a test site, and their stories are the same.

As Rebecca Solnit explains in her book Savage Dreams, the process of obtaining the land in Nevada mirrors that of the bomb’s effect, displacing the Native Americans who lived there and casting all those who live nearby as collateral — with the areas downwind suffering from marked increases in birth defects and cancer. For nukes aren’t just an explosive force, but a radioactive one too: a fundamental reworking of life. As Oppenheimer, one of the bomb’s so-called fathers, was to say, looking back on that first explosion, its power brought to mind a passage in the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu holy text, where Vishnu reveals his universal form, both terrifying and sublime: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

*

Anti-nuclear opposition has a long history in New Zealand. The first protest march for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) took place in Easter 1961, when 36 people walked from Featherston to Parliament; not exactly a majority movement. However, the protesters knew that they would be filmed and televised, with their banners and slogans seeking to take advantage of the new medium — an idea that seems laughably quaint in today’s bubble-saturated environment.

Anti-nuclear protest in Auckland. 1976. Sunday Star-Times.

Anti-nuclear protest in Auckland. 1976. Sunday Star-Times.

 

But the protest worked, and the ideas gained momentum. It was followed by marches in a number of different centres, an 80,000 person petition (“No Bombs South of the Line”), and, in 1972, direct action by the Greenpeace yacht Vega, sailing from New Zealand up to the Mururoa Atoll and into the test zone. Vega was soon joined by other boats, one with Matiu Rata, a sitting cabinet minister, on board, and both the New Zealand and Australian governments took France to court over the atmospheric testing.

It was, as former Salient editor Roger Steele notes, “a wild time.” Steele spent two years at the helm of Salient, one as co-editor with Peter Frank in 1973, and the following year alone — although as Steele explained to me, he was far from solo: “It was an absolutely pivotal point in history. People were flouting authority and not following the traditional path of study and then job, they were taking time out and they were exploring freedom and much more… it was a time of big social change between that older generation who hadn’t really changed since colonisation to a generation that was aware of [a host of issues] worth supporting.”

Nukes were just one piece of the puzzle. As the archived versions of Salient show, there was no shortage of news to cover. From the Vietnam war to apartheid, sexism and Māori rights, gay rights, environmental rights and even student rights, it was a period of growing awareness of the injustice of the world, a time when the mainstream media seemed woefully silent and Salient, jokingly referred to as “one arm of the revolution,” stepped willingly into the breach.

 

The explosion from a French nuclear test at Mururoa in French Polynesia. 1971. Radio New Zealand.

The explosion from a French nuclear test at Mururoa in French Polynesia. 1971. Radio New Zealand.

 

 

Steele describes their role as “part of the university’s tradition as critic and conscience,” but it wasn’t one limited to words: “We wore our colours on our sleeve.” The Salient team were on the front line of a number of different direct actions, gifted a van and ready to go at a moment’s notice — be it to a protest or, in the case of their work for the Tenancy Protection Association, using the van to reappropriate and transport tenants’ possessions back to the Student Union Building, where they were kept under guard overnight.

It’s a sign of how far we’ve come. For just as it’s hard to imagine today’s Salient team doing the same (love you guys), it’s equally hard to imagine a landlord cancelling your lease without notice, removing your possessions, and locking you out of your flat. As Roger explained over the course of our interview, “a lot of the change has happened… but people aren’t aware of the battle it took to achieve those rights; they just take them for granted and aren’t encouraged to look beyond the status quo to the people still missing out.”

While there’s no denying that today’s students operate in a different environment to those of their ’70s forebears, I couldn’t help but think of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History, and his episode on moral licensing: the process whereby one good action justifies future bad ones — or, in the case of society, how a period of social change and steps towards equality actually helps to entrench inequality. The logic being that we’ve made some progress — we’re not as bad as we were — and so we don’t need to stress about what’s still to come.

*

As Twin Peaks proceeds, and writers Frost and Lynch unpack more of the hurt from the bomb (and the war that birthed it), we come to see it as a symbol, an example of the division that defines our time. In the death of Laura Palmer, the woman around who the show centres, is the rise of an evil — that represented in the heart of the explosion: a black ball with the face of a squinting, demonic man — BOB himself and the essence which will come to possess Laura’s father, setting in motion the abuse that leads to her murder.

It is this trauma to which Lynch speaks, and the metaphorical death that is required of both Laura and us: we must forget to continue on. But even as Laura seeks to deny the knowledge of her abuse, it continues to affect her. In this sense, division is only ever a coping strategy. The evil has been cast within, and in absence of confrontation, continues to spiral out, affecting all in the town where she’s from.

Laura isn’t the cause of her evil, and nor is the bomb the cause of our division — but rather its apex. For as Twin Peaks shows, such escape demands a return, resolution towards a whole. In the efforts of Special Agent Dale Cooper to solve both Laura’s murder, and the larger cosmic schism of which it is representative, is the struggle we all must face, the search to be one with the world. As with the show itself, there are no easy answers: it’s the journey that matters most.

*

And what then, of our journey? The New Zealand of 2017 is vastly different from that of the early ’70s, but the same factors remain, here as around the world: social inequality, violence, and exclusion — products of our competition and the presumed hierarchy that drives it. To what do we owe our complacency?

The number of nuclear tests has declined considerably, and with them, the threat of nuclear war — with the frantic heights of the Cuban Missile Crisis now more than 50 years in the past. But just as the horror of World War II remains — in the words of Roger Steele: “a strong shadow” — so too does the bomb, now stronger than ever. In 1996 the United Nations adopted the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, resulting in an end to tests by the major players. However, eight states haven’t ratified the treaty, and no one has given up their nukes. On the contrary: they remain armed and ready to strike.

In the rise of North Korea as a nuclear power (and the tiny-handed tweeter who would stop them) is a reminder not only of the control that America, the declining global empire, exerts, but also of the exclusion that this drives. For just as North Korea is to be sanctioned for their display of power, so too does the global corporatocracy for which America stands decide who is worthy of wealth, and who is not.

New Zealand has been officially nuclear free since 1987 — but the same can’t be said for our participation in the business of which nukes are just a part: the military-industrial complex. In October Wellington will host the New Zealand Defence Industry Association’s annual Weapons Expo — in the words of Peace Action Wellington: “a gathering of major arms manufacturers and war profiteers from across the globe.” The expo is sponsored by none other than Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest arms company and manufacturers of — yup, you guessed it — nuclear weapons.

Peace Action Wellington is co-ordinating a series of protests against the expo, including a blockade: “Peace Action Wellington maintain that companies profiting from the weapons trade is morally indefensible. Te Whanganui-ā-Tara should not be tarnished with the business of war. We encourage the people of Wellington to stand up and show resistance to war profiteers by joining us at the protests on October 10–11.”

All of a sudden it comes together. Nukes (and the military technology they represent) are about so much more than just violence. They are about the movement of our world, the model of growth, progress, and the elites its financing services — no matter the cost, or collateral. When the first free neutron encounters an atom, it knocks other neutrons free, releasing their energy and sparking a chain reaction that gives rise to the explosion, a momentum of indescribable power and an easy metaphor for the process that brought them into being. Power always demands more power. For as David Graeber explains in Debt: The First 5000 Years, a debt is nothing without the threat of violence behind it. And our world of exclusion is nothing without its debts. The military-industrial complex doesn’t just produce profits: it protects them — a key tool in the preservation of our vast, unequal system.

(A quick response to those who would argue on libertarian “but-it-was-earned” grounds: if hard work is the basis of wealth, then how is it that the vast volume of the rich’s fortunes accrues passively in the form of inheritance, accumulated interest, dividends and other financial services? Either the premise is wrong — and the so-called “lazy poor” are undeserving of their plight — or the premise is right, and it is the system that is wrong, leaving the rich in possession of an enormous, unearned wealth. Can you smell a reckoning?)

*

War has long been a reason for protest, a direct cause that requires a direct action. In this as in all things, our scale becomes too big. The power that nuclear weapons represent, both physical and financial, is the same power that threatens our planet, the same power that threatens us. In the fury of our momentum we have allowed power and wealth to accumulate — and the gap grows ever large.

 

-George-, the third test of Operation Greenhouse at the Pacific Proving Grounds in the Pacific Ocean. 1951. US Department of Defence.

George, the third test of Operation Greenhouse at the Pacific Proving Grounds in the Pacific Ocean. 1951. US Department of Defence.

 

When Reverend Māori Marsden, author of The Woven Universe, returned from his service in World War II, the elders at his wānanga queried him on the bomb. In reply to his explanation — that Pākehā scientists had managed to tear the fabric of space — one of the elders asked, “But do they know how to sew (tuitui) it back together again?”

In standing against power, in engaging with what Roger Steele described as that ascendant in the ’70s — “a general feeling that a communal society was better than a conflict-driven society” — in laying our fragile, human bodies against the impersonal business of bombs and guns, in engaging the solidarity and commitment such business and war deny, we come close to the very first stitch. Protests against the Weapons Expo take place on October 10–11: consider this an invitation to join.

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