Submarine Object

Faslane, Gare Loch, HMNB, Clyde
Faslane, Gare Loch, HMNB, Clyde

A preliminary sketch of ideas at the back of the studio overlooking Loch Long…

This project starts with the nuclear submarine. Nuclear submarines are powered by nuclear reactors, and sometimes they carry nuclear warheads, but they can also carry any kind of missile, or none. But for the purposes of this discussion we will take the definition of a nuclear submarine to include nuclear weapons, because that is the nature of the submarines that float past the window where I write.  The weapons are deemed unlawful to use as a threat or to detonate (Johnson & Zelter, 2011). But now they are here, it seems very difficult to take them away.

Whilst Johnson & Zelter argue for the abolition of nuclear weapons on legal grounds. This paper aims to contribute to a cultural reading of the nuclear submarine by sketching out the philosophical nature of the submarine as object, being and tool; and a sociological understanding the networks in which they play a part. The discussion raises questions about their ontological impact and how they change our state of being in the world. Bringing us closer to an understanding of the culture of submarines and how we might deal with them as objects. There is something about the submarine as an object that has it’s own character, and could be repositioned as an object so powerful that, like a monster, it orchestrates the relational networks around it.

Submarines have particular characteristics – vessels that disappear for months on end. Submerged they loiter out of range of radar, out of sight and undetected. The form of the submarine is a hydrodynamic silhouette, a shadow of a distinctly a cold-war icon. Unlike its partner nuclear technologies this is not an image of a shiny utopian future, but it’s dark underside: a machine that stalks foreign continents and threatens nuclear annihilation (Derrida’s ‘age of remainderless destruction’ as revisited today by Liam Sprod). The surface of the boat seems to reveal very little of its interior, a simple black tower above the waterline provides human access and vision. Submerged it’s invisible from the shoreline. Inside submariners adapt to cramped living conditions and isolation from the world.

The object of a nuclear submarine is potentially a philosophical bottom line. Whilst many philosophers discuss the ethics of the weapon as object, it’s hard to argue that the nuclear weapon has a benign or creative potential. They are widely recognized as symbols of power never-to-be-used, not incompatible with their embodiment of apocalypse and dystopia. The nuclear submarine is a fetish object of the cold war – a project of power and an obsession with fear. It’s a symbol of modernity, a failure of restraint, of the desire to build something because we can, to create awe through an object that can hang the end of the world in balance with the end of capitalism. In this way the nuclear sublime overwhelms humanity with the power to allow and take away life. Here on the Rosneath Peninsula sublime nature and the nuclear sublime (Sprod, p18) blur into each other through the Scotch mist

The boats floating in the loch are also assemblages of people, materials and radioactive elements compressed into tight spaces. A network of companies, roads, trucks and boats produce, transport and service the weapons. Pringle & Spigelman describe how American infrastructure was fast-tracked to build the first nuclear bomb in the 1940s: roads were built to reach the factories that were built to make the pipes to build the factories to enrich uranium. Today the smooth circulation of uranium from power station reactors to weapons closes the loop of the nuclear industry.


Being in the world with a nuclear submarine

The object of the submarine is more than just a thing in the world or a movement of things in the world. Nuclear weapons challenge the nature of being: the relationship between scientific knowledge and how that knowledge is instrumentalised affects subjectivity. Nowhere is this more apparent than the shock of seeing a nuclear submarine first hand: an unexpected confrontation with fear. Liam Sprod has two main areas of discussion helpful for understanding this moment of shock in his book on Nuclear Futursim (2012). The first is an explanation of Heidegger’s philosophy of the ontic-ontological difference:

“that is, the difference between particular scientific, technological, cultural or scientific knowledge in the world (which is ontic) and the conditions of possibility of both the world and that knowledge (which is ontological).” (Sprod, 2012, p15)

As the submarine floats by, it is an embodiment of some of the most sophisticated scientific knowledge we have. But the conditions of its possibility are another thing entirely, and it is haunting.

To investigate the notion of spectral materialism, Sprod (p54-56) discusses how Derrida uses ideas of hauntology and the specter to examine “the appearance of the ‘thing’ in question – the specter – as both ‘something’ and a ‘not nothing’ of Heidegger’s fundamental question of metaphysics”(p54). The submarine is both present and absent in terms of its visibility, and its agency as a never-to-be-used thing. This confusion of a tool to be used and not used lies somewhere between the two kinds of tool-being or object-being in Heidegger’s tool theory of ready at hand and present at hand tools. The broken tool-submarine reveals the material conditions of the aging tool, and the constant maintenance and renewal of the nuclear age. One of the responsibilities of the SDP-AG is intergenerational equity – not to pass on the costs of today to the next generation.

The deployed submarines are both active and inactive. The ethical maneuvers required to operate and renew these things have been smoothed out by transference of ethical responsibility to a government, which is, in turn, led by military rhetoric (Johnson & Zelter, 2011). The efficacy of the tool is in its demonstration rather than use, where modes of display compete with the actual thing itself (a dummy weapon may have the same affect). In this case the submarine object as a tool is both visibly and invisibly active in the world and broken at the same time.

To understand the submarines as failures of modernity, it could be helpful to understand a little of their spectral use-value and commodity fetishism.  Sprod writes:

“… Derrida uses his spectral materialism to develop an alternative ghostly critique of capitalism and reinvigorate Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism. To outline his theory of commodity fetishism as “the mystification of the thing itself” Marx introduces the image of the table made to stand on its head and dance before the market, perceivable only in its exchange value. As such it has abandoned the phenomenological good sense of the object and its perception and is now a sensuous non-sensuous supernatural thing.” (p56-7)

This can be helpful for understanding the spectral shadow of the submarine, and to try a search for the meaning of the ‘use-value’ of its condition ‘never-to-be-used’. As Sprod cites Derrida – “The commodity thus haunts the thing, its specter is at work in use-value” (p57).

Whilst the deployed nuclear weapon is somewhat outside the market (it’s not for sale), it’s production takes place through a network of commercial and military interests paid for by the taxpayer. But perhaps the use-value of the submarine is its specter, as an object haunted by confused forms of value.

Although the above discussion is a sketchy construction of a philosophical understanding of nuclear submarines, it seems a necessary and very human precursor to attempting to apply Latour’s Actor Network Theory to submarines as actors in the world, and a later discussion on submarines as material.