The Nuclear Borderlands

The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico

by Joseph Masco

2014 J. I. Staley Prize

The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico2006. Princeton University Press2006. Princeton University Press

The winner of this year’s prestigious J. I. Staley prize is Dr. Joseph Masco for The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico. The book is an exploration of our national amnesia about the dawn of the nuclear age and its institutionalization. Situated in Los Alamos, NM, Masco's ethnography portrays five communities—Puebloan, Nuevomexicano, and Anglo residents, as well as nuclear scientists and anti-nuclear activists—that have not forgotten. Masco examines the secretive nuclear enterprise, the communities most intimately involved with it, and their mutually constitutive interactions. It brings together a vast array of information about the nuclear industry, including the hazards of plutonium, the seduction of technoaesthetics, and the recent medicalization of aging bombs. Masco highlights people’s voices, selecting particularly eloquent phrases to explore the realities, meanings, and motivations behind them. Through these voices he creates an epic narrative, giving us a new vocabulary—mutant ecologies, nuclear uncanny, and nuclear sublime. Masco raises troubling questions about the way the nuclear age has redefined modern life and nation states, and the immense risks of forgetting.

Excerpted from The Nuclear Borderlands:

Looking back across the temporal surface of the Cold War, the purple fireball and glassified green earth created in the deserts of New Mexico at exactly 5:29:45 a.m. on July 16, 1945, can only be narrated as a moment of historical rupture and transformation. For the detonation of the first atomic bomb marked the end of one kind of time, and the apotheosis of another, an uncanny modernity that continually exceeds the language of “national security,” “mutual assured destruction,” the “Cold War,” or even “terror.” For this reason alone, we might profitably return to the northern Rio Grande to assess the legacy and implications of one of the twentieth century’s most enigmatic, yet lasting, achievements.

Dr. Joseph Masco is a professor of anthropology and of the social sciences at the University of Chicago. He writes and teaches courses on science and technology, US national security culture, political ecology, mass media, and critical theory. His book, The Nuclear Borderlands, also received the Rachel Carson Prize from the Society for the Social Studies of Science and the Robert K. Merton Prize from the Section on Science, Knowledge and Technology of the American Sociology Association. He is a contributor to the book Pre-empting Biosecurity: Futures, Threats, Fantasies, which is scheduled for release in the fall of 2014 by SAR Press.

The Nuclear Borderlands alters the meaning of 'ethnography' in a way that will challenge all of us in anthropology. It will certainly take its place among the classic texts assessing the cultural politics of the bomb, and it will join the must-read ranks in the literature on American nationalism and nation-making in the late twentieth century.”—Susan Harding, University of California, Santa Cruz, author of The Book of Jerry Falwell and Remaking Ibieca

“No account of the post-Cold War environment can afford to ignore this study and the tangle of economic, political, and cultural rights, interests, and imperatives it maps. Joe Masco pushes the ethnographic agenda firmly forward into an ambivalent twenty-first century, where Los Alamos is both dangerous polluter and lifeline employer, where rival eco-cultures, ethnicities, and social hierarchies fight over control of nature, and where the technological future can exacerbate or redeem the nuclear past. Neither antinuclear environmentalists, nor Native Americans, nor Nuevomexicanos, nor the Los Alamos scientists, nor the Washington politicians have a monopoly on the answers, and Masco shows us why.”—Michael M. J. Fischer, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, author of Emergent Forms of Life and the Anthropological Voice

Joseph Masco, Professor of Anthropology and of the Social Sciences, Department of Anthropology, University of Chicago