Everything Is a Target

Lt. Col. Charles Ross Greening’s caricature of a B-17 Flying Fortress, created while held prisoner at Stalag Luft I, Barth Germany, 1944–1945. First published in his 1944 book Not As Briefed.

New Inquiry editor-at-large Maryam Monalisa Gharavi held a long-ranging conversation with historian of science, physicist, and filmmaker Peter Galison. Galison is author of the books How Experiments End, Image and Logic, Objectivity (with Lorraine Daston), and Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps, about revolutionary sciences of the 19th century that portended scientific and political encounters of the 20th century. The interview delves into the last century and its long shadow over the security regimes of the 21st: how military landscapes and nuclear sites, secrecy and paranoia, technology and terror wars, conflict zones and no-zone zones, and materiality and mortality shape contemporary life. If there is one thing that distinguishes the world of yesterday from today, it is that the illusion of shelter and containment can no longer be safeguarded.

Appropriately, the author’s first encounter with Galison was in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon blast. Galison is distinguished not only by his keen investigations at the border edge of physics and scientific experimentation, but science’s relationship to art and art’s claims to objective truth. At the time of the interview, his collaboration with South African artist William Kentridge Refusal of Time opened at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Galison was a 1996 MacArthur Fellow and a 1999 Max Planck Prize winner. He teaches as a professor of physics and history of science at Harvard University; the conversation took place at his office.

{Note: “Containment,” the latest film by Peter Galison and Robb Moss, is discussed below. For more information about the film, including recent and upcoming festival screenings and Q&A’s,  click here.}

Maryam Monalisa Gharavi: Where did you grow up? What were you reading and doing? What led you to physics and science history? 

Peter Galison: I grew up in New York City. Most of my family was much more interested in the arts than science. My great-grandfather—who lived till he was almost 100—had worked in Edison’s laboratory at the turn of the century. I knew him quite well—he lived till I was 15, 16 years old. He had an electrical engineering lab in New York City and I would go visit him. That made a huge impression on me. These beautiful double pole switches, arcs of electricity going between poles. He turned his own screws on a lathe. Bottles of mercury. He could blow glass. It was a kind of late-19th century German, or Edisonian, lab. It left a huge impression on me.

I was younger than the ’68 generation but I grew up knowing them. New York City was full of demonstrations. I got a couple of years ahead in my studies. I didn’t want to come to college that young. So I went to Paris for a year and worked in a wonderful laboratory at École Polytechnique. I took a course from a terrific mathematician named Laurent Schwartz. But if it was possible, Paris was in even more turbulence than New York. There were riots and demonstrations every day. There was a bookstore I would go to every day where people would have discussions. One day it would be political interpretations of Kafka, and the next day it would be the debate between the seven most active Trotskyist parties about who had the right line! And Maoists fighting with fascists on the street. It was pretty wild.

MMG: After Secrecy (2008) you and filmmaker Robb Moss began working on a film about nuclear waste in Nevada. What did you discover and what can we expect? 

PG: My interest in general is the way ­physics—broadly conceived—relates to other domains. I think what’s astonishing about physics is that it occupies a territory that on the one side is linked to the most practical, consequential issues of nuclear weapons, nuclear power, vast industries of radar and military equipment, civilian electronics, and so on. On the other side, very longstanding philosophical questions about the nature of causality, what is time, simultaneity, how do you understand the origin and fate of the universe—these very abstract questions. That sudden juxtaposition of the highly abstract and the highly concrete is what interests me most in the world, and physics seems like a good way to get at it, for me.

This film that Robb Moss and I are finishing now is called Containment. It’s about this necessary and impossible problem of containing nuclear materials for the very long term. Plutonium has a half-life of about 24,100 years, which means that it’s half as radioactive in 24,100 years as it is when it’s created. And we’ve created a lot of this stuff. So where’s this all going to go and how can you stop it from getting out in a period much longer than human civilization? We have a huge legacy of nuclear waste from the 70,000 or so nuclear weapons that the United States produced and that the Soviets produced in equivalent number. Every country that has a nuclear weapons program has a vast quantity of nuclear waste. Then there’s nuclear waste that comes out of nuclear power. And every nuclear power plants discharges spent nuclear fuel which is much more radioactive than when it enters the plant. So what are you going to do with it?

In famous incidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear fuel accidentally and explosively entered into the environment and we’re desperately trying to keep it from spreading. So we have to deal with it and yet it’s unbelievably difficult and expensive. And that combination—of it being necessary and impossible—is completely riveting to me. It forces us into a domain that really makes us question very basic things about our world. What are our obligations to hundreds or even thousands of generations into the future? Should we dispose of things in a way that’s completely inaccessible or should we give each generation a chance to intervene in new and technologically more sophisticated ways? Countries disagree about that. People within our own country disagree about that. What are these lands that are nuclear contaminated? One nuclear factory that we’ve been filming (the Savannah River Site) has a whole biological branch which biologists there identify as the most biologically diverse site in the eastern, maybe whole, United States.

But would you eat a tomato there? 

You better not eat a tomato there. You better not eat a turtle there! People in the southeast eat turtle and alligator meat and there are radioactive alligators and radioactive turtles. So it raises these very hard questions and I like that.

I’d like to talk about two articles of yours from the early millennium, “War Against the Center” (2001) and “Removing Knowledge” (2004). I think they’re incredibly important pieces of work. In the first, you pose the question of how we departed from centered modernism to aesthetic, architectural, even metaphysical placelessness. But you seek the answer not in the oil crisis, economic downturn, literary theory of the 1960s, or even the Internet but in “bombs of the long war.” 

Well, one of the things that really struck me is how we have a certain idea of how the self—the collective self or the individual self is formed—and that leads us to build certain kinds of technology. And then those technologies then act back on us and transform that self in certain ways. One example is that during World War II there were thousands of people in the United States and in Britain thinking about how to bomb. They thought they could stop the Nazi war machine by figuring out a key linchpin—that if you pulled out that linchpin, if you destroyed that one thing—the whole apparatus would stop.

There were times when it was thought to be oil, ball bearings, and various other theories of what that linchpin might be, but it was predicated on a picture of a kind of collective self, a city as self, that was based on an almost human body. If the heart stops body the whole body stops living. This had been deeply woven into the way bombing was conceived and cities were conceived in the 1920s and 1930s when the idea of bombing from an airplane became a reality. There were thousands of people—representatives of the oil industry, the ball bearing industry, the steel industry, and so on—and that each of them was asked the question, “What would stop your whole industry from functioning?” And then figuring out what the analog was on the Nazi side and bombing it. That was the idea that founded strategic bombing in the war, with devastating consequences. But then after Hiroshima and Nagasaki when the American evaluation teams went over to the bombed cities in Japan and their first question was, “What does this mean for our cities in the future?”

Right. It wasn’t until the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey investigators began to see a resemblance between buildings, structures, and shelters in Japan and ones in the United States. There is a major historical moment when the American elite begins to see itself in the destruction it has caused and begins adjudicating the need to decentralize large American cities and commit to what you refer to as defense industrial dispersion. You wrote, “They began, quite explicitly, to see themselves, to see America, through the bombardier’s eye.” Did it surprise you to discover that it took an actual social practice of training Americans to see themselves as vulnerable—and resembling others’ vulnerability—amid the regular activities of profits, markets, and the like? 

It proceeded in several steps. During the war, the Germans dispersed industry so that all the Messerschmitts were not all built in one place. They would build the wings in one place, the fuselage in another, parts of the motor in one place, and the final assembly in another. The Germans were quite successful at continuing industrial production until late in the conflict, because of this dispersion. That didn’t really register at the highest levels of Americans’ thinking of our own cities. Until Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And then the sudden idea really came home. This could be our cities. This could be us on the wrong side of a nuclear bomb. When that happened they looked back at what happened, in Germany especially more than Japan, about industrial dispersion. Then comes the crucial step: They began to try to train American city planners and industry leaders, in fact, distributed grids that were clear plastic targeting sheets over the maps of the cities that would teach you how to create a score that would tell you how effectively dispersed your city, industry, and population centers were. It’s at that moment that this goes from being a discussion among a rather small groups of experts—industrial and population centers, targeted evaluation teams, and so on—to being an ordinary city.

We learned to target ourselves as a way of anticipating how we would look targeted by the enemy. It really is a practice. It’s laying these sheets over a map of the city with radial distances and a scoring mechanism giving a number to how dispersed your city and industrial and population centers, and giving money—tax credits—to ensuring that dispersion. We have an idea of the city with a centered entity with organs that are like a target—when police or soldiers are learning how to shoot at a target of a human silhouette there’s different zones—and this idea that there’s a sort of fatal zone here and a non-fatal zone there was partly how they conceived of our own cities and industries. Then that was projected onto the enemy.

By the end of the war the enemy became a model for how we should think of ourselves at the pointy end of the stick. That led to this training ourselves to being a new way, to conceive of a city in its dispersed form as the ideal rather than the centered form found earlier. There are other things that push our cities towards dispersion, and I don’t mean this to be reductive, but it was intensely interesting to see how this worked. I mean, there’s returning soldiers, the GI Bill, suburbanization, new roads, the breaking up of trains, the rise of trucking, lots of other things going on that are encouraging dispersion. But that reciprocal action—building an enemy in the understanding of ourselves and rebuilding ourselves based on what happened to the enemy—is very important, I think.

If the mid-century sees the effect of cities like Gary, Pittsburgh and New York and Chicago mirroring their enemy cities in Berlin and Nagasaki and Tokyo—you acerbically call this a “Lacanian mirroring”—what happens in the following decades of the 70s and 80s? The 50s and 60s foreshadow a very technically advanced enemy. How consistent is the U.S. government’s position of assigning power and advanced capabilities to its enemies? 

You could think of a single long war that goes from the 30s through the 80s. The enemy changed from Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union and its allies. But it was a mirror war. Whether it was the hot war of World War II or the Cold War to follow, it was predicated on an enemy that was built much like us. In the Cold War, we had nuclear submarines with nuclear-tipped missiles and the Soviets had nuclear submarines with nuclear-tipped missiles. We had main battle tanks and they had main battle tanks. Each time one side would get an advantage—we had a language in the Cold War that was encouraged in the time of Kennedy, and even before, of the “gap.” If they had more missiles then we had a missile gap—

And reciprocity—

And a gap and reciprocity leads to a kind of mirror world. Luckily we didn’t destroy ourselves. But instead formed an unstable equilibrium where everything that existed on one side existed on the other. The assumption was that the other side acted in ways similar to us or would respond to threats the way we would respond to threats, and that this would somehow stabilize the world. Game theory came into play here where we actually began to quantify and make a science out of the study of this. Everyone could imagine that they had a counterpart. We had nuclear scientists, they had nuclear scientists. We had plutonium plants, they had plutonium plants. We had naval yards, they had naval yards. They didn’t want to die, we didn’t want to die.

What happens at the end of the Cold War—more than I think the ’70s and ’80s—is that the Cold War begins to come apart as the Soviet Union comes apart. You don’t have these mirrored sides. I remember this moment in the early 90s hearing senior figures from the military and politics saying asymmetric warfare is what’s going to be happening. Nobody exactly knew what that meant. But it meant there wasn’t going to be a replacement, a third term in the relationship—Nazi Germany, Japan, the Warsaw Pact—it was going be something else. Maybe it was going to be guerrilla warfare, or terrorism, but it was going to be something other than what we had experienced. The successor to the long war is the terror wars. That is where things begin to disequilibrate from that regime that we were discussing.

Could one say accurately that the flattening of Iraq, where everything is a target—children’s milk manufacturers, diaper factories—produced a frictionlessness? Has that cast a long shadow on the question of “everything is a target”?

It’s a progression that goes from 2001, which has aspects as I say, of an earlier concept. An attack directed at the United States was directed at a headquarters of symbolic and real power. The Pentagon, the World Trade Center, the Capitol. They still had a residue of an older way of thinking, but very rapidly morphed to something different.

You would see in newscasts in 1943 in American and German cinemas, they would show you the front. In Vietnam, you would take a hill, leave the hill, you would come back and take the hill again. There wasn’t a kind of stable configuration but there was nonetheless an idea of where the conflict zones were, even if they were shifting in an irregular way. But where is the conflict zone now? In a way the question doesn’t even make sense anymore. When you drive into a garage and someone takes a mirror on a stick and looks under your car—I mean, it’s because everything is a target. It’s both aggressive and defensive. It becomes a concept of the world as in a ubiquitous conflict, everywhere and all the time. If you think that, then the response is the one you see: A whole raft of technologies designed for that kind of surveillance.

Take an airport. You go through an airport. People are very aware of the security and getting scanned and putting your knapsack through an X-ray machine. But the surveillance of you as a passenger begins long before you get to the airport. They’re already looking at previous travel patterns and data mining about you. So it isn’t even a point-specific surveillance. I think that’s characteristic of our time. In a way you could see it as an intensification of what began earlier but it has led to a different regime of security, one that I think of as qualitatively different. It begins as an intensification that’s quantitative but at a certain point when you say “We’re gonna monitor the whole of the Internet and archive it and be able to mine it!” that’s a different concept—that isn’t point-specific at all. It’s not just that there are a lot of targets, it’s that we are all targets. Always.

I agree. It’s not just drones or just surveilling passenger’s lists. It’s a completely different structural organism. You anticipated the question I was going to ask. The Strategic Bombing Survey was founded in the same year that the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses were pounding away in Europe. What do you make of the relationship between the oligarchies of the long long war—up to and including the “War on Terror”—and today’s contemporary missile weapons? The long-range Flying Fortresses flew overseas and returned home, even when badly damaged. The drone operating centers of the West are separated by oceans from the killing fields of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. Then there are the 350 acres of the National Security Agency’s physical site at Fort Meade. Has a novel static fortress been established?

The asymptotic limit of where we are both offensively and defensively is that there are no shelters. There is no fortress. The people flying drones are in trailers. There are air-conditioned trailers on an air force base. But they could be anywhere. It doesn’t really matter. It’s not as if we had the equivalent of Iron Mountain in the Cold War, you know, a mountain in the inner-most recesses with nuclear weapons-capable doors, giant steel slabs, and water and food supplies and currency to keep a continuity of government. All that has decayed. It feels antique now. The NSA headquarters is only a piece of the NSA and nobody thinks of that campus as being particularly well-protected in the sheltering sense of being deep in a mountain where Vice President Cheney would go hide deep underground in a suburb of Washington.

You can’t stay in the bunker forever. The idea of a bunker only makes sense for a limited-time conflict, even if that conflict was apocalyptically devastating. So the picture that people had was, The war is short, it lasts for hours or days, there’s an exchange of nuclear missiles, the key people to extend the continuity of government of the United States or their equivalent in Russia would go into these shelters, they’d stay down there long enough for the radioactive levels to subside to a level where they could come out again, and then society would begin to reconstruct such as it could. But nobody thinks that the conflicts that we’re in have a scale of hours or days or weeks or even years. We live in a much more permanent set of conflictual relations. The surveillance and drone systems are not for a punctiform conflict.

Your film seems to be an answer to this question because if we can’t contain nuclear waste, if there is no such thing as a bunker for it—and I just read that the levels of radioactivity in Fukushima are several times greater than those of Hiroshima—then it would almost seem to logically speak to the idea of no more bunkers.

I do think there are no more bunkers. It’s interesting to compare Fukushima and Hiroshima—one has to be careful, but it is interesting. In Hiroshima, the primary radiation takes place—the bomb explodes in a millionth of a second, there’s maybe a couple of seconds of radiation that follow as some of these isotopes decay. It’s exploded 2000 feet above the ground so if you’re hit by that radiation—if you’re not killed by the blast or the fires—the radiation you get was mostly from that initial blast.

One hundred thousand killed in one night.

A lot of what we know about the danger of radiation exposure comes from Hiroshima and Nagasaki because we know quite precisely—if you know where you were relative to the bomb we can calculate how much radiation you got. There wasn’t very much radiation on the ground. If the bomb had been exploded on the ground there would have been a vast amount of fallout, and we had bombs in the Cold War that did that, and the nuclear testing led to all sorts of radiation dispersed all over the world. But not Hiroshima and Nagasaki where bombs were exploded 2,000 feet up to maximize their blast damage. In terms of the residual radiation on the ground Hiroshima was relatively quickly rebuilt and reoccupied. It’s now a thriving city and it has been for decades. The reason for that is that the bomb did not cause the ground to be radioactive. The radiation was entirely in the form of gamma rays—like X-rays only much more energetic—they are dangerous but once they’re produced they’re absorbed and that’s it. They don’t create further radiation.

Fukushima is a very different thing. Of course nowhere near the number of people that were killed at Hiroshima but the amount of radiation on the ground is much higher. Robb Moss and I have been filming in Japan, particularly the cities Futaba and Nanae and other myriad abandoned towns in the hills in the area. It’s because those towns have high levels of radiation. Probably 100,000 were told to evacuate by the government and another 50,000 that left on their own because the towns were—once the doctors are gone and the schools are closed and the economy’s gone, you can’t continue to live there, if you’re a fisherman you can’t fish, if you’re a farmer you can’t farm—so about 150,000 people have left. It’s a kind of ghost area. Some people will say, “People should go back.” How do people go back? Would you go back? Would you, as a young person, or if you had a baby? If you did go back, what school would they go to? Where would you buy bread? How would you earn a living?

What’s interesting in the contrast that you raise is that on the one side, we had bunkers that were protecting us—or some people, not us in general, but some people—from the radiation. These are bunkers to keep the radiation in and away from us. One was saying, we’re going to dig a hole in the mountainside and our leaders will go hide there and direct things until they can come out again, to be safe from the blast of a nuclear attack. Now we’re burying the nuclear waste to try to keep it in. The problem for something like Fukushima is that every attempt to try to contain this waste keeps failing. First they tried to put contaminated water in tanks.   Then they tried to use chemicals to make a kind of wall underground to keep the radioactive groundwater from going through. Now they’re talking about building an ice wall, a giant underground system with pipes of liquid nitrogen that will freeze the ground so the water that’s now contaminated won’t get to the ocean. That will surely overflow too. Hundreds of tons of water are going into the Pacific now that are very contaminated. But it could get worse too. And no one really knows—certainly the Tokyo Electric Power Company doesn’t know—how to contain this. It just keeps getting out.

What did the Japanese denizens that you and your crew encountered reveal to you about their deep fears of what’s happening?

It’s interesting. I’ll give you a couple of examples. We talked to an older guy in his 80s whose family has lived in an area near Fukushima up in the mountains for over 300 years. There are trees that his ancestors planted 16 generations ago. He gradually harvests and runs this forest. All the younger generations below him have left, his children, his grandchildren. Nobody wants to stay. They can’t stay. As I say, there are no schools, there are no doctors. Even he can’t really stay there—he’d like to die there if he could, to live throughout the rest of his life, but there are no doctors, there no hospitals, there’s nothing here. So every other day he drives from his temporary housing to his old house and just sits there because he wants to be in the place that his ancestral home is. He feels it as a terrible loss but it’s the only way forward for him. And he understands that only an older person would want to do that, because if you were 28 with a baby you just wouldn’t.

We talked to a young woman who has children and she’s left. She went back to look at her house and said: I can’t live here. I can’t grow vegetables, I can’t—how’s that going to work? There’s a cattle farmer we talked to who’s really quite remarkable. He had cattle and they were sold for meat, so it’s not a show farm, it’s a real working farm. But a couple of days after the Fukushima accident the government ordered all the farmers in this area to kill the cows. He refused. There are signs that say, WATCH OUT WILD COWS, because there are just cows wandering around the countryside, abandoned. The farmers left, and so he’s gathered all the cows—his and other people’s—and he says, I see this as an act of resistance. I won’t leave. The government’s ordered me to leave and I won’t leave. They ordered me to kill the cows and I won’t kill the cows. You can’t sell the cows, you can’t milk the cows—I mean you can milk them, but you can’t sell the milk—so it’s all valueless in some sense. But he thinks the idea of killing a cow because it lost its monetary value is immoral.

We talked to fishermen, and you know, you see fishermen just sitting in the docks. They test a statistical sample of the fish—we went to the fish-testing factory and some of them have high radiation and some not—but you can’t sell fish. So some of them have been trying to make it a place for deep-sea fishing. But if you want to take a deep-sea fishing vacation and someone said, Well, would you like to go to Fukushima? It’s not a promising economic road. So they don’t know what to do. They’ve been fishing all their lives.

The rice is contaminated. At TEPCO headquarters they sell rice from the Fukushima area in the lunchroom. We went there but I don’t know whether the people eat it or not. But it’s served, and there’s a sign that says FUKUSHIMA RICE.

What did you eat?

We tried to be careful but it’s like, you still have to eat. What water do you drink? What do you trust? A lot of food there is very carefully tested but a lot of things are tested statistically, not individually. You can’t test every fish that comes out of the sea. So you test one out of every thousand or ten thousand and you try to get an idea. There are supermarkets that have Geiger counters at the checkout counter in that area. It’s not all of Japan but it’s a much bigger area than I had realized before I went. You drive for a long time going town after town after town that is abandoned. It’s not a tiny area but Japan’s an island country. How this is going to play out in the long run, no one really knows.

The only thing I can compare to this stupefying account is Iraq. My father went on a medical mission there and I went with him. In Baghdad we were forced in our place of shelter to drink from the Tigris. We didn’t know it was the river but the water facilities had all been badly damaged and there weren’t truck coming in with water you could buy. You have the choice to either drink no water or drink water that gives you diarrhea. 

When you have areas that are contaminated they enter a new kind of landscape. I’m finishing a book now called Building Crashing Thinking. One of the chapters is called “Wastelands and Wilderness” and it’s about how nuclear wastelands and the idea of wilderness have actually come to converge in certain ways. Instead of seeing it as this great irony I actually think it’s an extension of an idea: identification of certain kinds of lands without us as having a special status. These nuclear-contaminated zones—or “national sacrifice zones” as some people have called them—become what we call wilderness in many respects.

It’s remarkable, not ironic but very understandable, that the most bio-diverse site is a nuclear weapons laboratory because that’s where we don’t go. In the future it may be that we look on at these sites that they don’t seem like the opposite ends of a spectrum that go from defiled to sacred purity but rather that they come together more like a circle, and that the lands are identified by their being without our presence. I think that this concept of waste wilderness, when I try to think about how to identify that and call it by a single name—“waste wilderness”—may be the right way of thinking about these sorts of territories.

That seems to be more prescient than the discourse of permanent endangerment or extinction. You’re promoting the idea of the convergence of the consequences of our actions.

Yes. And you know, I’m neither celebrating nor mourning this. I’m simply saying I think that’s where this goes and in a certain sense where we already are. There’s a category of nuclear tourism that people go to visit nuclear sites. That should be unnerving and give us pause but I think it’s already in motion.

Can you speak to your collaborations with William Kentridge, Lorraine Daston, Mike Einziger [from Incubus], and others? On some level is collaboration—especially with people whose orientation toward the world is, at least superficially, different—crucial to your practice?

I do see it as crucial. One of the greatest pleasures and honors for me of the work that I’ve done is the opportunity to work with these people. It’s been productive and also very fun. I really enjoy it.

For instance, a mutual friend—David Edwards who teaches at the engineering school at Harvard—introduced Kentridge and me. Very soon we understood there was something we were both really interested in, and that was the way in the early part of the 20th century there was a kind of exposed modernism. Technology wore its function on its sleeve so to speak. You would build a motor or mechanism that could do very modern things, but you could see how it worked. It was like a car before it was blackboxed and built into printed circuits and controlling the flow of air and gas into the pistons. Everything was visible. We both found that just entrancing. We began our conversation. I had seen Kentridge’s exhibit at the Modern and he read Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps. So we began to meet and talk. He said to me, “I don’t want to do an artistic illustration of a scientific lecture. This isn’t an illustrated explanation.” And I said, “I don’t want to be a scientific adviser to an art project to give it, like in Hollywood, scientific authenticity, to give it a feel of ‘What do cops really say when they get to a crime scene?’”

But you’re also an unusual practitioner of film, not because you’re a historian of science but because you’re connected to the idea of materiality and image and yet your primary areas of concern are things like time, secrecy, waste—things we don’t typically associate with materiality or image. I’m imagining what challenges you encounter when you approach setting up a scene around time, secrecy, or waste. 

One of the things—say, with Kentridge—that I found funny as a kind of philosophical joke is there’s a point in the 19th century when they pumped a time signal in pipes underneath Paris. This idea that time could be pumped just seemed to me incredibly funny. When I told Kentridge about this and showed him pictures of the machines that pumped time, he also liked that. That was one of the places that we began to talk about setting up machines and this pneumatic time could actually be something very interesting. I liked it originally because it was a way of materializing something abstract—that it was materialized. That’s how people reset clocks in every arrondissement in Paris, for example, or Vienna. You had a clock that was set to a pump that was set to the observatory and it pumped this sudden blast of air through the pipes and it reset the clocks. That’s a place we could begin to think, How can we use this? How can we riff of this more than metaphor? Each of the three stages of the Kentridge collaboration—the idea of coordinated clocks, the relativistic time, and then the black hole time—became the structure for Refusal of Time.

I remember hearing you say how smoke during Einstein’s time was seen as an artifact of modernity, a material of great contemporary importance. What your work illustrates is that our current moment does that too. And you’re simultaneously de-archiving the idea of the modern by saying, “Hey, they used to pump time in Paris.”

Just along those lines, I like ideas that are, like time and secrecy, both literal and metaphoric at the same moment. That really intrigues me—it’s central to an idea of humor and it gets deep at something. I think of it in a way as both philosophically and scientifically but also politically to re-literalize our concepts. To regain what can pass into pure abstraction into the referential materiality of our world. And to think about: what are secrets? How are they actually transmitted? That article you read—“Removing Knowledge”—is one of a series of pieces that I’ve done about the question, How does it actually work? How is it removed? How do you distribute it? There’s an original classifier. And the derivative classifiers. And here are their rules of operation. The theory that lies behind the question, How do they actually make things secret? That’s interesting to me.

The same with time. How do you actually go about telling time? The centerpiece of the Einstein, Poincaré book is about this moment—which I consider to be one of the decisive moments in the whole history of science—where Einstein says, The problem is what does it mean to coordinate clocks? What does it actually mean? How do you actually go about doing that? Or with waste: what does waste look like? What does it do in these million-gallon tanks, 177 of them in Hanford and 51 of them in Savannah River Site filled with this stuff. It’s got the consistency of peanut butter, it’s leaking out, some of it is boiling with these big hydrogen burps. It’s leaking into the ground. It’s gotten into the Columbia River. It matters that you understand that waste isn’t an abstraction. That there’s stuff.

And once you begin to see it in its literal form it also immediately takes you into a metaphorical and metaphysical domain. If it lies in a kind of midrange, we don’t hear it. It’s like we’re a strange kind of creature that can understand real metaphysical or physical abstraction, and we understand materiality, but when you leave things like, “Oh yeah well, there are a lot of secrets.” Well, yeah, there’s a lot of nuclear waste, and where is it stored? “Oh, it’s stored somewhere.” It doesn’t mean anything. That’s not real abstraction. That’s just hiding out from what it is.

So if you want to act, if you want to understand this, you need to understand it in its material, quantitative, geo-located form. Then you can begin both to associate what it is and you can understand it. But you can also riff off it and understand how it signifies to us in a metaphorical and often political way. For instance, in the beginning of my work on secrecy I thought it’d be very interesting to tie practical, national security secrecy to personal, Biblical, sexual secrecy. Wouldn’t that be interesting, if people saw some connection—but I had no idea whether they would or not. One of the things that surprised in making the film with Robb—I did most of the interviews, and when I’d be talking to one of the people—without exception, anybody, people who wanted to expose secrets, reporters from the Washington Post and New York Times, ordinary citizens, people caught up in it, the people with the National Security Agency, CIA interrogators, everyone saw an immediate connection between the more personal, abstract notions of secrecy and concrete national security secrecy. The film—I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to see the film—

Of course.

It starts out with this very senior fellow from the National Security Agency who believes very strongly that protecting secrets is necessary for our national security. He’s a tough, pragmatic guy. The film starts by him saying, “Secrecy is like forbidden fruit. You can’t have it. It makes you want it more.” The idea that you’re back at the Garden of Eden, and desire, at the same moment that you’re talking about the National Security Agency was characteristic of everybody we talked to. I thought that was extremely interesting.

The same with the nuclear waste and the same with the work on time. You talk about time and you already always talk about mortality. Time and finitude and death and the fragility for all things—it’s there all the time. We might change our ideas of time from medieval painting that includes an hourglass in it, or debates between Hawking and others in contemporary string theory. But you’re always talking about something more than that.

There’s a moment in a film that Errol Morris did—A Brief History of Time—where one of the young physicists that worked with Hawking did a calculation and Hawking said that time will cycle around. It’ll come around and things will recur. The physicist did this calculation and said, “No Stephen, it doesn’t do that. It doesn’t go back.” Hawking says, “Do the calculation again.” And as this young physicist tells this story about this insistence that Hawking said there mustbe another round of time you suddenly realize that Hawking is talking about his own mortality, his struggle with his devastating illness, with the hope for renewal, even if it’s a cosmic renewal that’s not going to help him personally. There’s a way in which time is never just about time. It’s not like angular momentum: you may not have a view about angular momentum. But you have a view about time.