Apocalyptic Blindness and the Atomic Bomb

Hannah Monsrud Sandvik
ESST MA Student

The mere existence of the atomic bomb carries with it the possibility of the complete annihilation of all forms of life. Through an investigation of the nature of the bomb, we can better understand the relation between technology and the effects machines have on our lives.

Technology is persistently praised for its ability to connect and unite us. In perhaps no case is this more apparent than with regards to the atomic bomb, which in an absolutely inclusive sense affects us all simply by existing. The increasing power struggle between the US and North Korea, and recent reports that the latter has successfully tested hydrogen bombs, only serves to underline the fact that the current atomic situation should be our greatest worry.

Few have written as extensively and profoundly about the atomic bomb as the Austrian philosopher Günther Anders (1902-1992). For Anders, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945, marked the beginning of an era where the entire world at any moment could be turned into post-nuclear ashes. The atomic bomb is more than a weapon of mass destruction: because the bomb makes it possible to obliterate all life on earth, we are confronted with a new existential condition. As Anders writes, “the possibility of our final destruction is, even if it never happens, the final destruction of our possibilities.” (My translation.)

In the 1960s, Anders started a correspondence with Claude Eatherly, the American reconnaissance pilot who declared the weather conditions satisfactory to drop the bomb. Their writings were subsequently published in the book Burning Conscience, a collection of letters reflecting upon the human condition in the atomic age1. Eatherly was the living example of everything Anders thought about the bomb. After Hiroshima, Eatherly was celebrated as a war hero, but he struggled to come to terms with his role in the bombings. Subsequently he attempted suicide, went through a divorce and performed several armed robberies, though never actually stealing anything. In Anders’ view, these were acts of repentance: a way of seeking a punishment Eatherly felt he deserved but didn’t get.

The reason why the Eatherly case is so interesting is that it shows how technology turns us into cogs in large machineries and removes us from the relation between cause and effect. Anders calls the gap between our ability to imagine something and our ability to produce it the promethean gap2. The fact that I push the button seems unrelated to the fact that millions of people die as a direct result of this. It is paradoxical how pushing a button is l easier than killing one single person, but this is the case because the larger the possible effect of a certain act, the more difficult it becomes to imagine the effect. Adolf Eichmann, one of the lead organizers of Holocaust, used this line of argument to make the case that he was not guilty for the role he played in murdering thousands of Jews – he was merely following his superiors’ orders. In the Eatherly letters, Anders turns the argument around. Morally speaking, Anders argues, there is no such thing as ‘mere co-acting’ – whatever we’re partaking in doing, promoting or provoking is being done by us, and using Eichmann’s excuse is the same as abolishing the freedom of moral decision and the freedom of conscience. Eatherly’s feeling of guilt, therefore, was an entirely appropriate response.

The underlying question is the following: How do we act when faced with the looming menace of the end of the world? If we know and understand the disastrous consequences of the bomb, why are we not doing more to stop it? The reason we are not currently collectively panicking, is that we are unable to imagine that the atomic bomb could strike and the consequences of this, even though it has already happened. In this sense, we are inverted utopists, to use Anders’ terminology: while regular utopists are unable to produce what they imagine, we, on the other hand, are unable to imagine what we have produced. When confronted with things we cannot classify, we deal with them as if they didn’t exist at all. The real menace, then, lies not in the bomb itself, but rather in our apocalyptic blindness towards it.

The only solution, according to Anders, is a radical expansion of our imagination – we have to bridge the promethean gap between the produced and the imagined3. This is not an exercise that is limited to space; we also have to widen our sense of time. While the bomb has contributed to making the world geographically smaller, it has also made the possible futures into neighbouring regions of our present time. Anders’ argument can, for example, be extended to cover the effects technological advances and our consumption have on the environment. We are making the Earth uninhabitable, causing the same effects as an atomic bomb, but over a longer period of time and through a more complex relation of events, making the consequences even more difficult to grasp.

The critique of the bomb, then, is not limited to the atomic age. The atomic bomb, in Anders’ view, is the archetype of all technology: It stresses the point that the more technology develops, the more conditional our existence becomes. While technological objects are often framed as neutral because they can be used for good or bad depending on the intentions of the user, they are in fact better understood as the configuring elements of the way we think, feel and interact with each other. Technology, as it turns out, is no longer a means to an end; it has become an end in and for itself and the real subject driving history. Each technological advance actualizes a possible world, but it remains to be seen whether there can be room for us in it.

1 While this book offers insight into Eatherly’s thoughts, it should be approached with a certain skepticism. Eatherly was in a psychiatric hospital during the time of their correspondence, and the two never met. More than two thirds of the book consists of letters written by Anders, and he can easily be accused of using Eatherly for his own agenda. All the same, the letters offers insight into Eatherly’s thoughts and serves as a useful illustration of Anders’ thoughts about the relation between the machine and its user.
2 Footnote introduction to Prometheus because of space restrictions: Prometheus was a Titan in Greek mythology who is best known for stealing fire from Mount Olympus and becoming the greatest benefactor of humankind, a pretty miserable group of people prior to this. The gift of fire, according to the usual interpretation of events, signifies technology and the beginning of humanity as we know it. The myth of Prometheus suggests that humans are unfinished beings who need artifacts in order to be in the world, and in his texts, Anders’ uses this symbolism for what it’s worth. (It didn’t end well for Prometheus: Zeus became concerned with the growing power of mankind and decided to punish Prometheus for the role he had played in enabling this, so he chained him to a rock and had an eagle eat his liver, which regrew every night.)
3 Anders’ own way of doing this is shown through his philosophical method, which is one of exaggeration. In Anders words: “If one were to amplify viruses a million times and screen their devastating workings, would this amplification of the format also co-exaggerate the danger? Or would the danger here rather become visible for the first time?.”

Photo: Ruins of Nagasaki after the atomic bomb on the 9th of August 1945
© Everett Historical/Shutterstock