American Apocalyptic: A Conversation with Jessica Hurley

Black and white photo of brick wall with "Fallout Shelter" sign

Speaking over the phone, Jessica Hurley and I discuss her new book, Infrastructures of Apocalypse: American Literature and the Nuclear Complex. Hurley explains Lauren Berlant’s legacy in her project, which asks how our attachments to the future reproduce a form of cruel optimism. In answer, Hurley cites the default liberal temporality of eschatology seen in Ayn Rand, a bad apocalypse that enacts the Second Coming’s conservative politics especially in the genre’s American form. Hurley turns to the futurelessness found in Black, queer, Indigenous, and Asian American perspectives as examples of apocalyptic storytelling that reject the closed circuit of “the end of history,” choosing instead an ethics of impossibility. Topics include climate chaos, positionality and doom bros, and the ways settler colonial masculine whiteness expresses in scientific and legal fictions, state documents, and even our most intimate experiences of time.

Stream or download our conversation here.

Interview highlights

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

April Anson: I’m so honored and excited to be talking with you today, Dr. Hurley. Before we turn to your incredible book, I just want to briefly acknowledge that I’m speaking to you from the unceded territories of the Kumeyaay people, who are the original inhabitants and continual caretakers of their homeland, from what’s currently called San Diego and Imperial County in California to 60 miles south of the Mexican border, for over 12,000 years.

The Kumeyaay people, together with the O’odham peoples of the Sonoran Desert, have been in a fight to protect their territorial sovereignty, ancestral burial sites, and sacred places from the destruction of border wall construction. This is just one of their ongoing fights in a county that’s home to more federally recognized tribes, and the second highest level of biodiversity in the nation. And Dr. Hurley, your book, among other things, speaks to this convergence—the material intersections of Indigenous sovereignty and environmental concerns. So I’d like to just begin by hearing you talk a little bit how you came to this work.

Jessica Hurley: Thank you so much for having me and inviting me to have this conversation today. I’m calling in from Manahoac land in Northern Virginia. And I want to start by voicing my support for land back and decolonization initiatives across the continent.

Book cover with a cloudy-appearing sky blue background and a shiny black object in the center

We’re having this conversation only a couple of weeks after the passing of Lauren Berlant. And I’ve been thinking a lot about how their work has shaped this project on a really foundational level. The question that this project started out from really was: what if our attachment to the future is one of cruel optimism? What if it harms us and limits our potential to flourish—and not just our attachment to a specific future, but to the future kind of per se.

This is particularly intense within my research field around nuclearization because this is a space where scientific and military and state actors are always using the threat of apocalypse—and the protection of the future—as a way of getting what they want in the present and trying to bring their own desired future into being.

But as Lauren always understood so powerfully, these kinds of attachments are also deeply intimate and personal. I came to this work because temporality has always been something that excited me, and thinking about real-world applications of apocalypse has always had very clear stakes. But I think I stayed in it because that key question was one that I found to be useful and clarifying at multiple scales. It helped me understand America and environmentalism and nuclearization. And it helped me understand why a certain set of forces wanted to disattach us from the future as a primary orientation. It also helped me to live my life, especially over the many years that I was applying for long-term academic employment, when my own future in the profession was so intensely in doubt. As more and more people have a lived experience of precarity, the question of how we relate and attach to an imperiled future is becoming a motivating one for lots of people.

AA: It makes a lot of sense to describe Berlant’s work as a background to thinking about those tethers, especially as I think environmental humanities work is increasingly called to situate ourselves in relation to the work that we’re producing and the work that we’re reading.

In chapter 1, you read Atlas Shrugged. This lays a lot of theoretical ground for the book as it establishes settler colonial masculine whiteness as having a unique, if kind of threatened, access to futurity. It protects that access to futurity by casting all others into an apocalyptic futurelessness. What does starting with a text like Atlas Shrugged afford you?

JH: That’s a great question. I certainly cannot recommend that anyone go out and read Atlas Shrugged or spend years of their life writing about it. But I think one major reason that Atlas Shrugged is in here is that it felt important to me to include whiteness as a positionality being analyzed because that’s my own positionality.

A professional headshot of a white woman with glasses and dark hair with bangs
Dr. Jessica Hurley, Assistant Professor of English at George Mason University and the author of Infrastructures of Apocalypse.

While my positionality does intersect with some of the writers in the book, I felt like not including whiteness as a major analytic framework would be doing what Alexis Shotwell has recently described as “disavowing your bad kin.” You can’t actually disarticulate yourself from whiteness, and it’s important not to act as if you can. Whiteness is also a main character in each of the rest of the chapters, so it was helpful for me to take the time in the first chapter to really unpack the complexities of nuclear whiteness so that those resonances could continue to play out in the rest of the book.

I was particularly interested in Atlas Shrugged to fulfill this role because it’s an anti-nuclear pro-genocidal white supremacy text, which is a bit counterintuitive when we think about how well nuclear weapons and genocidal white supremacy go together.

I think this is what Arundhati Roy is getting at when she describes nuclear weapons as the very heart of whiteness. I wanted to unpack exactly how Rand’s form of white anti-nuclear politics is in itself white supremacist—because it’s basically saying, Don’t treat me as collectively vulnerable, like all of those people of color—and then show how easily this white anti-nuclear politics can become pro-nuclear weapons when it’s told that it gets to be the one in charge of them, not the one vulnerable to them. This explains a lot about how the twentieth century would play out in terms of white support for nuclearization. And it allows us to see the whiteness-nuclearization nexus as something that’s multidimensional and fluid, not flat or static.

And that, of course, is useful because it opens up a capacity for change. So maybe it’s still possible for an anti-genocidal anti-nuclear politics to emerge, not within whiteness as a racial formation, because I would say that that’s inherently genocidal, but certainly within white people.

AA: This makes me want turn to a question about the nuclear doom bro cohort, whose argument relies on exactly what you’re articulating here: the threat of imminent doom as a justification for the inherent risks in nuclear power. How does the threat of the atom bomb relate to this kind of nuclear power fetish that we see with the doom bro cohort, for lack of a more graceful way to describe them?

JH: It’s definitely the kind of “bad apocalypse” that I’m talking about throughout the book: you raise this specter of an apocalyptic threat to make the thing that you’re pushing be the only viable solution. I suppose it’s a slight expansion of the incredibly closed circuit that plays out earlier in the atomic era, where the threat is of nuclear annihilation. The only solution to avoiding that apocalypse is more nuclear weapons, which is always kind of alarming and horrifying. And now climate change has kind of taken over that role. Nuclear power is the only viable solution, seeing us through the next 50 years.

Like apocalypse, the nuclear age also looks very different when you see it from below.

One of the things that I hope the book demonstrates is that there is absolutely no version of nuclear power that doesn’t perpetuate and amplify the harms done by a settler colonial racial capitalism—which, when the doom bros talk about it, I kind of secretly suspect is the point. They have attachments in that direction: they want to feel invulnerable, they want to feel in control of how this is playing out. It’s also something that we increasingly see in environmentalist movements, which I think is based on a very different set of attachments and a genuine desire to help fix things. But I think we need to acknowledge that trying to expect this set of infrastructures that is disposed to produce one set of outcomes to do anything else is disavowing this basic truth.

Aside from the fact that nuclear power is not even good at reducing carbon emissions— it’s a very carbon-intensive power supply—this logic of necessary risk is literally a logic of human sacrifice. There’s just no way of doing it without great and permanent human and environmental harm. Giving some people the power to inflict that harm on the present and the future . . . there’s no way of doing that that isn’t profoundly and inherently unjust.

AA: Throughout this book you emphasize futurelessness as a kind of transfiguration, especially in chapters 2 and 3. Through engagement with queer theory and queer ecology, you write that futurelessness “is not an obliteration of possibility” but “a place to stand, a place where we might yet construct a world in which to live.” I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit more about how you see futurelessness as at once un-fixing but also a different form of rooting in place?

JH: Chapter 2 was where I first came to understand that I had thought that I was writing about time, but, in fact, I was also writing about place. And, in fact, that when writing about America, there’s no way to write about apocalyptic time, in particular, without writing about space, and vice versa.

I was trying to understand what it meant to think of a city or a space as apocalyptic, particularly in this colonized continent. And to answer that question, I ended up back with Cristóbal Colón (aka Christopher Columbus), who, upon arriving here in 1492, had immediately framed the New World as the New Jerusalem. This was a pretty big switch in standard explorer-colonizer theology. Throughout the Middle Ages, new places had generally been framed as the lost Eden, not the New Jerusalem. So what this does is collapse space and time into a single kind of geographic apocalyptic spacetime. The prophesied apocalyptic New Jerusalem is no longer something that you wait for in time, it’s something that you go to in space. And this spatializes the entire white redemption story that is the Christian apocalypse narrative. When you walk the ground of the New World, you’re literally walking through that narrative.

This brings a whole bunch of terrible ideas with it, of course: you need to clear the Indigenous people out because they have been put there by the devil to stop the New Jerusalem from coming into being (that was Cotton Mather’s take); or we’re helping to bring the New Jerusalem into being by bringing enslaved people here and converting them to Christianity (that was a whole bunch of slave owners’ takes). And eventually this becomes the basic structure subtending American exceptionalism, where the U.S. is eventually going to perfect itself into heaven on earth and bring about the Second Coming.

What this ends up meaning is that so many of these seemingly secular decisions of the nuclear age are, in fact, based in these wild Book of Revelation logics: build your city on a hill in the suburbs to help secure the New Jerusalem in the event of nuclear war and leave the Black, Jewish, queer, poor people in the city as atomic fate because they’re only standing in the way of the New Jerusalem. The apocalyptic logic that we tend to think of as something happening in time becomes a spatial logic that makes certain spatial arrangements make instinctive sense to white Christian decision-makers. So race and Indigeneity, especially, get coded into the landscape, with the reservation and the urban center becoming spaces marked by futurelessness while the suburbs get coded as spaces of white futurity and redemption.

I think of the space of futurelessness as something that can open up to radical politics.

And this is why I really love the Ralph Ellison line “Harlem is nowhere.” On the surface, this seems like a bad thing, right, like something that wouldn’t allow for a kind of passionate inhabitation of space. We automatically think, Of course it’s better to be somewhere than nowhere. But America seeks to fix people in place so that it can control their futures and the way that they move through spacetime. What James Baldwin and Samuel Delany and Ellison all do is compose a kind of fugitivity in space that seeks to disrupt this fixity. If we think about everything as spacetime, then an inhabitation of space that you do differently is a way of disrupting the narrative that you’re written into, and vice versa.

They’re all interested in these kind of disorienting spaces—spaces without the physical or temporal or racial coordinates that make the white world makes sense. It’s a particular genre of Black speculation that’s not often included in sci-fi per se, but it’s doing that work of world unmaking. So when Ellison says that Harlem is nowhere, he’s evoking a Black space that can’t be pinned down, that can’t be locked into a particular ending, whether that ending is nuclear or other forms of genocide. Futurelessness is the temporal kind of equivalent or side of this moment of refusal to cohere into sense, to be fixed into place.

I think of the space of futurelessness as something that can open up to radical politics. And my hope is that this can allow for the construction of communities that are orientated toward collective flourishing. But it doesn’t come with guarantees. All I know is that the futures that we have now don’t allow for that. So we need these moments of futurelessness to clear a spatiotemporal space where they might come into being.

A professional headshot of a white woman with curly red hair and bangs
Dr. April Anson, Assistant Professor of Public Humanities at San Diego State University.

AA: I also want to ask you about your concept of “hot spotter aesthetics,” which I just think is so compelling. I’ve been thinking with it since I read your words. Would you mind giving us an overview of that concept and how it works in your in your book?

JH: The idea of hot spotter aesthetics comes from a couple of deep frustrations with canon formation. When I first started reading about apocalypse for my dissertation, the most recent critical wave of work on the topic at that time was all about this sense of post-apocalyptic ennui in mostly works by a straight white men after 1945.

The general argument that this produced was that the traumas of World War II had led to this overarching sense of cultural PTSD, and a sense that the big politics were behind us, and now we’re living after “the end of history.” I had two problems with this. Firstly, I found it pretty problematic to universalize the idea of trauma this way. One thing that’s usually contained within the list of traumatic events is the American atomic bombing of Japan; it seemed unfortunate to me to suggest that white Americans are going to be traumatized in the same way as people that it happened to are traumatized. Second, the idea of the post-political “end of history” is so clearly a kind of unmarked whiteness, straightness, maleness, and able-bodiedness in action, since literally everyone else spent the second half of the twentieth century engaged in fervent political struggle.

This wasn’t originally a nuclear studies project at all. When I first wrote the proposal for this project, the basic principle was apocalypse by people who were experiencing genuinely apocalyptic shifts. It was trying to find an alternative to the existing apocalypse canon that actually led me to nuclear infrastructures.

Maybe it’s still possible for an anti-genocidal anti-nuclear politics to emerge.

What I found in these texts by minoritized authors writing about real-world apocalypse was a shared attentiveness to an interest in the way that the world was being reshaped by nuclear infrastructures to produce futurelessness for minority populations in ways that were enmeshed with the interlocking apocalypses of racial slavery and oppression, the AIDS epidemic, and the long genocide of Indigenous people. Yet none of these authors—James Baldwin, Samuel R. Delany, Tony Kushner, Leslie Marmon Silko—is primarily thought of as a nuclear writer. With the exception of Silko’s Ceremony, you won’t find them in the existing work on nuclear literature, which tends toward Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Richard Powers. And so, perhaps unsurprisingly, the critical work that focuses on these straight white men tends to treat nuclear apocalypse as something that we’re waiting for—something that hasn’t happened yet. But, like apocalypse, the nuclear age also looks very different when you see it from below. So you start to see nuclearization not as a future event but as an infrastructure that’s already producing apocalyptic outcomes for some people in some places.

This is what I’m trying to get at with this concept of hot spotter aesthetics. I take the term “hot spotter” from Shiloh Krupar, who uses it to describe subject positions that are particularly exposed to nuclear harm and have a particular kind of knowledge about it. Hot spotter aesthetics get made from these subject positions, in contrast to the more kind of distanced thought experiments that get produced in the more traditional nuclear canon. I don’t think that futurelessness—or the kind of futurelessness that I’m analyzing—is the only form that hot spotter aesthetics can take. My hope is that this is a piece of shorthand vocabulary that will expand the range of what and who we think about when we think about nuclear culture.

AA: And apocalyptic writing and apocalyptic writers. Yes, yes. Thank you for that.

Featured image: Fallout shelter sign. Photo by Thomas Hawk, 2012.

Jessica Hurley is an assistant professor of English at George Mason University and the author of Infrastructures of Apocalypse: American Literature and the Nuclear Complex (University of Minnesota Press, 2020). Her work has appeared in symplokē, Comparative Literature Studies, Commonwealth Essays and Studies, American Literature, and Extrapolation, among others, and has been recognized by the Don D. Walker Prize in Western Literature, the 1921 Prize in American Literature (honorable mention), and the Jim Hinkle Memorial Prize. She is currently working on her next book project, “Nuclear Decolonizations,” as a 2021–22 fellow at the National Humanities Center. Twitter. Contact.

April Anson is an assistant professor of public humanities at San Diego State University, where she also serves as core faculty for the Institute for Ethics and Public Policy and affiliate faculty in American Indian Studies. Previously, Dr. Anson was a Mellon postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania with the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in boundary 2, Resilience, Environmental History, Western American Literature, and others. In all, she remains committed to anti-racist and anti-colonial knowledge production and social movements. Website. Twitter. Contact.