Submarines as Actors in the World

Astute and Jimmy Carter, Faslane, Feb, 2013
Astute and Jimmy Carter, Faslane, Feb, 2013

An observational study of nuclear submarines through Latour

Like many of us Bruno Latour is troubled by modernity, climate change, and the division of science and the social; his writing on modernity (1993) attempts to untangle the separation of subjects and disciplines which have prevented us from joining the dots of the network in which humans, ideas, things and technologies interconnect.  These ideas all contribute to Latour’s ‘Actor Network Theory’ (ANT) (2005) a critique of the social which positions objects as well as humans within a network of actors.

In the introduction to this paper I argued that the nuclear industry emerged from utopian modernism. Latour carefully deconstructs the grand narratives, singular disciplines and certainty of modernism to reveal that ’We Have Never Been Modern’ (1993).  By subjecting cultures of the north/west to the scruples of an anthropological study of networked relations, he advocates an integrated interdisciplinary understanding of thought and life. He doesn’t separate science and technology from nature or knowledge, or power and politics. Instead he argues that everything exists within a collective of human and non-human things.

Trying to understand of the world through ANT still provides a challenge as to where responsibility lies and how things might change. Nevertheless Latour’s examination of the social through network relations rather than political formations is a useful exercise for us to rethink our own assumptions about how we define and describe what we do, and the role of the objects, processes and institutions that we work with.

As a starting exercise I will work though some of the basics of Latour’s chapter ‘First Source of Uncertainty: No Group, Only Group Formation’ (2005, p27–42) to rethink the submarine as an object with a network of social relations from the perspective of the SDP-AG and being at Cove Park. For it is only by being here, and being confronted with the submarine and all its paraphernalia and networks that all this paper can be written at all. In many ways it is an observational study.

ANT proclaims “there is no group, only group formation”(Latour, 2005, p27), as poet Zayneb tells me about an American airbase in Sardinia that has been turned into a hotel designed by architect Zaha Hadid, and I remember that USAF Greenham Common Airbase has been returned to common land; proof that the actors that come together to create military installations can as easily dis-assemble. Their temporary permanence relies on tying things together, wrapping them in layers of fences, marking territory, speaking in an official singular voice, and sometimes creating new laws. The miles of barbed wire, security cameras, police guns, cars, bikes, cleaning products, GPS systems, hats, lumps of uranium, caravans, explosives, canteens, as well as submarines are all part of the collection of things that define and are defined by the Faslane Naval base. But something else is happening here. Not all objects are equal, and here the network is distorted in the favour of the submarine. The boats have started to configure the network around them. This particular object is the most crucial player within social relations, yet we ignore its materiality. What is it?

Watch the pull of the submarine through the water, the synchronized flotilla of little boats in tow. The bus driver tells us the sub is going to have its GPS reset. It could easily be reloading fresh warheads driven up from Aldermaston. The sheep watch its movement. Do they know?

ANT could be used to analyse every part of this set of relations, the resistance of water, the displacement of narratives, the community bus, the global positioning devices mapping the transition between road and sea networks, (we might need to look to animism for the viewpoint of the sheep). But the point is the submarine is there whether the sheep see it or not, it’s there whether we see it or not (Bryant).

The activists build asymmetrical networks which blockade the weapons and spill over the fence to make tangible the provisional nature of the base. Their actions make visible the arbitrary nature of the divisions between things, especially where civilian and military networks overlap: warhead convoys drive along civilian roads, protesters reclaim the fence, tip computers into the sea, submariners wait for the local bus outside the peace camp. And we all watch the submarines (artists, locals, poets, the mechanics, peaceniks, naval officers, sheep), everybody watches the submarines.

As Latour describes, each group is determined by its spokesperson to make claims for a certain network of objects as distinct at any one moment in time. The military body, taught, crisp creases, shiny shoes, hard contours mark a sharp line between the technologies of control conquering the wilds of nature. In contrast to these sanitized objects collected within the perimeter of the base and shipping channels, the peace camp makes claims for nature: knitted jumpers, vegan milk, mud, animals, plants, fire. Of course these collections of objects are arbitrary groupings: the submariner walks his dog, the base commander wears his mothers knits at home, the peace woman polishes her boots (maybe), drives a vehicle, her son has enlisted for the navy, and everyone wears a good raincoat in Scotland. There is fluidity between groups of objects, people, technologies and things. The protester and policeman compare cameras.

The Submarine Dismantling Project Advisory Group (SDP-AG) is a grouping where these boundaries are relaxed. There is a chair, but no spokesperson, it’s a facilitated grouping which repeatedly meets in different places always on neutral ground. Here everyone leaves their clan and comes together in an interdisciplinary mix of compromises to try and understand how all these asymmetries interrelate around a submarine; and to witness the expanded grouping for a few hours. The traces of these meetings travel deep into the cultures of the participants, affecting the language of objects, traditions, friendships, journeys; always bringing the materiality of the object into play. The group coalesces around a specific material problem: How to dismantle a nuclear submarine? What depth of steel? What level of radioactivity? How many jobs? How long the storage? How big the boxes? How real the solutions? In many ways the SDP-AG tries to get closer to the facts of the submarine dismantlement process to understand its material constraints and affordances, and through this articulates concern regarding very specific questions. But AG members don’t all agree on the scope of the actors involved, on where to draw the boundary around a distinct set of processes, and who should be involved or for how long.  The SDP-AG is not a group in the traditional social sense – they have not come together because they agree. It is a group formation, a group that has managed to come together because they disagree. It has both an intermediary and mediating role in the sense of Latour’s distinction between intermediaries and mediators:

“An intermediary, in my vocabulary, is what transforms meaning or force without transformation: defining its inputs is enough to define its outputs. For all practical purposes, an intermediary can be taken not only as a black box, but a black box counting for one, even if it is made up of many parts. Mediators, on the other had, cannot be counted as just one; they might count for one, for nothing or several, of for infinity. Their input is never a good predictor of their output: their specificity has to be taken into account every time. ……”(Latour, 2005, p37):

The active submarines, as carriers, are physical mediators of weapons, but as a political intermediary their role shifts and morphs, adopting the fears and insecurities of the day, and perhaps more clearly embodying the fears of the past and the future. The laid up submarines, decommissioned from service await their dismantlement. These old subs are Heidegger’s broken tools, and now we know what they are. Now we can see them, go inside, and find out how they are made by taking them apart. In their dismantled state they enter back into the civilian world.  And for all these reasons they have spawned the formation of the SDP-AG.

The Advisory Group (AG) is an intermediary between the military and the community, messages can pass through, recognized or unrecognized, translated or untranslated. But there are moments where the gathering affords moments of mediation, where there are variable options, multiple ways of thinking about things, and they are all explored, reinterpreted, reflected, absorbed, not necessarily embodied but certainly informed. But the AG is not a formation for itself, it is formed around the problem of clearing up broken submarines, 27 of them to be precise. And in this way, the submarine object is an intermediary between activists, engineers and the military.

It is only the submarine in its broken state that enables the military to open up the discourse, to admit that it is a matter of concern, and to seek advice. In it’s broken state the object submarine reveals its material conditions and becomes a catalyst for dialogue. The rusting hulks mark the end of an era, or the shifting of the generations of classes of submarines. But whether old or new, they still represent the lingering crisis of modernity and the cold war.

The end game of modernity is often cited as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the end of the Cold War, succeeded by capitalism as the dominant ideology (Sprod and Latour included). So if we understand the nuclear submarine to be a relic of this era, a transformation of its value has to take place, from cold war deterrent to object of capital.  And subsequently its only deterrent value can only be based on cold war nostalgia.

Latour sums up a symmetry between dismantling the Berlin wall and the realization that there is a limit to the natural resources that capitalism demands the right to exploit:

“The perfect symmetry between the dismantling of the wall of shame and the end of limitless Nature is invisible only to the rich Western democracies. The various manifestations of socialism destroyed both their peoples and their ecosystems, whereas the powers of the North and West have been able to save their peoples and some of their countrysides by destroying the rest of the world and reducing its peoples to abject poverty. Hence a double tragedy: the former socialist societies think they can solve both their problems by imitating the West; the West thinks it has escaped both problems and believes it has lessons for others even as it leaves the Earth and its people to die. The West thinks it is the possessor of the clever trick that will allow it to keep on winning indefinitely, whereas it has perhaps already lost everything.” (Latour, 1993, p9)

Within this symmetry, the submarine (and the nuclear industry) had to undergo the transition from modernist utopian vision consuming infinite natural resources, to a fetish object within capital, restrained by finite resources. It is this moment of environmental awareness that brings the SDP-AG into existence, otherwise the submarines would have been dumped at sea. The nuclear submarine’s new role as symbolic capital has yet to be fully analysed in the new context of finite resources, leading towards its replacement with other kinds of symbolic capital. But there is still the problem of the object itself, perhaps the last object of modernity.

Latour acknowledges the problems of separating out the modern from the “archaic and stable past” (1993, p10) which is reflected in the problem of separating craft and art, the non-nuclear and the nuclear world, as if there is no point of return (McKenzie’s paper on unlearning knowledge of how to make nuclear weapons is relevant here). These ideas inform the discussion of nuclear semiotics and folklore, which will be explored in another chapter.

Latour’s self-confessed “coarse hypothesis” is perhaps useful for nuclear critique:

“… we are going to have to slow down, reorient and regulate the proliferation of monsters by representing their existence officially.”

(Latour, 1993, p12)

To do this a different kind of democracy may be necessary, and a different approach to thinking about and making art. The SDP-AG and the nuclear culture project have the opportunity to take up the challenge.


This is the last of four posts written at Cove Park overlooking Britain's Nuclear Submarines. The posts will form the basis of a paper which will be presented at the International Congress of History of Ideas, Technology and Science in Manchester, July 2013. The final paper will include two more reflections on submarines from the perspective of materiality and time.