The Nuclear Borderlands
The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico
by Joseph Masco
2014 J. I. Staley Prize
Update: On December 5, 2014, Joseph Masco was honored with a presentation ceremony and reception at the American Anthropological Association annual meeting for his book The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico. Corinne A. Kratz, who nominated the book, gave a speech at the reception in which she said, "Joe's book blew me away." The full text of Kratz's speech is included below.
Staley Prize Awarded to Dr. Joseph Masco
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 Bioinsecurity and Vulnerability, which was released in the fall of 2014 by SAR Press.
Corinne A. Kratz gave the following speech at the Staley Prize reception held for Joseph Masco on December 5, 2014, at the American Anthropological Association annual meeting.
When I nominated Joe’s book, The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in
Post-Cold War New Mexico for the Staley Prize, I began the nomination letter by saying:
Nuclear Borderlands is a masterful and nuanced account of far-reaching cultural
and political economic transformations that emerged from the Manhattan Project
and the broader nuclear state project centered at Los Alamos National Laboratory
(LANL). Tracing the shifting social engagements, experiences and meanings of
LANL's work and presence from the 1940s through the early 2000s, Masco
examines how they have become embedded in the lives of communities working
in and neighboring LANL, as well as in national imaginaries and institutions and in
global relations and futures. Nuclear Borderlands is a book about changes
wrought in "our concepts of nature, security, power, and citizenship, as well as the
terms of everyday life," about what he calls a "multigenerational biosocial
experiment" (p. 337). The results and implications touch every being on the planet.
In other words, Joe’s book blew me away. Joe and I were resident scholars
together at SAR in 2004-2005. That’s when I really began to notice his work – as it also
began appearing in American Ethnologist, Cultural Anthropology, Public Culture, Radical
History Review, and became a steady torrent of articles in journals and books. Nuclear
Borderlands was in press that first time we were in Santa Fe together, so I followed the
issues with production, illustrations, and so on and was able to get Joe to write a short
piece for an edited book I was just finishing, Museum Frictions. So when Nuclear
Borderlands appeared, I was eager to read it. As I said, it blew me away.
The first part, "Everyday Life in the Plutonium Economy," is a quartet of chapters
written from the perspectives of different groups in New Mexico involved with LANL:
scientists doing nuclear research, neighboring Pueblo and Nuevomexicano communities,
and anti-nuclear activists in Santa Fe. We get a kind of prism that creates a detailed
historical and ethnographic sense of the daily experiences and contradictions of these
multiple engagements. Joe analyzes conflicts and convergences in worldviews, different
relations to and understandings of nature and land, different secrecy regimes and notions
of security, diverse institutional effects and divergent, intersecting stakes in LANL and its
The final section, "National Insecurities," shows how insecurities and uncertainties
have become embedded in national and local life as part of what Joe calls the nuclear
uncanny and radioactive nation building. Two key events are his starting points.
Accusations of spying and insecurity in 1999 that included the Wen Ho Lee case
illuminate the structures and workings of secrecy, knowledge, racialized nuclear risk, and
the security state. Then he turns to the Cerro Grande forest fire of 2000, which burned
thousands of acres and destroyed hundreds of homes. It also released fears of nuclear
apocalypse through which Joe traces the "mutant ecologies" that have redefined
American understandings of nature, health, and contamination, from the giant mutant
ants of the film Them (1954) to the sentinel honeybees and secret tissue collection
projects through which LANL tracked the ecological and human consequences of
I wanted to describe the book to give you a sense of why and how it blew me away. It’s multifaceted community ethnography and regional analysis with acute attention
to broad state organizations, deftly showing how local, regional, and global processes
interconnect. It takes science studies out of the laboratory, even as it maintains attention
to changing social and cultural processes involved in the lab’s scientific work and
meanings. It’s full of astute—and sometimes alarming—analyses that integrate telling
details with sweeping scope and implications. Every chapter has narratives and
commentaries from people in northern New Mexico that might be simultaneously
touching, dramatic, or horrifying—ranging from such intimate bodily experiences as
flashblindness or an accidental dousing in radioactive toxins that means leaving one's
underwear at work, to social processes that render events "unthinkable," to barely
imaginable futures when the effects of the nuclear project will still be unfolding, redefining
worlds and how people think, recasting notions of nation and citizenship, border and risk,
space and time. Joe maintains a clear-eyed view of the political stakes at each scale as
well as the changing aesthetic/intellectual appeal that the nuclear project has held for
scientists over time.
Nuclear Borderlands is beautifully written and meticulously researched. Joe artfully
integrates historical and archival sources, interviews, press reports, film, museum
exhibits, accounts of meetings and rallies he attended, and participant observation’s
accounts and detail of daily life across diverse settings and experiences. Exegeses of key
passages from documents, commentaries, and interviews zero in on striking and
revelatory vocabulary, phrases and sentences to elaborate their assumptions, logics, and
entailments. Joe brings to bear concepts and approaches from classic and contemporary
critical theory—from Mauss, Freud, Simmel, Gluckman, Benjamin, and Marx to
McClintock, Buck-Morss, Foucault, Escobar, Latour, and Chatterjee. In each case, he
gives smart and generous readings of the concepts he borrows or applies, and then deftly
redefines and reinvigorates them to illuminate aspects of the nuclear project and its
effects and implications.
So that’s why Joe’s book blew me away. It’s a fresh, imaginative, and insightful
work that combines profound intelligence and theoretical rigor with clear, graceful writing
and elan, consistently attentive to the human dramas, concerns, and dilemmas that have
defined the nuclear borderlands. It sets a standard for interdisciplinary work even as it
upholds the best standards of ethnographic research and analysis. It illuminates a half
century of transformations that have come out of the Manhattan Project and offers a
glimpse of what might be in store for all of us and for the planet for millenia to come.
Joe continued work on his larger project on the security state—his next book has
just appeared from Duke University Press—The Theater of Operations: National Security
Affect From the Cold War to the War on Terror—two others are near completion, and he
has begun framing his next project. So we are likely to see him back again at award
ceremonies in the near future.
“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