Russ Wellen

Vegetarians sometimes challenge meat-eaters to open their eyes and take a good look at the process that reduces animals to food. But few human carnivores, despite the tender spots in their heart that pets often fill, read about, view videos of, or even contemplate, factory farming. Denial and unwillingness to examine not only the harm we cause others, including animals, but the pain they experience, seem to come naturally to us. In an eye-opening piece at Aeon titled Our Anaesthetic Times, Joanna Bourke describes how doctors have insulated themselves from not only vicariously experiencing patients’ pain, but even listening to its descriptions.

At one time, writes Ms. Bourke, it was incumbent upon doctors to zero in on the location and nature of the pain since, sans painkillers and anesthesia, they were left to their own devices when ameliorating a patient’s pain. She writes:

Medical textbooks encouraged physicians to elicit complex accounts of pain from their patients. In 1730, for instance, the influential physician Bernard Mandeville recalled a patient asking his doctor whether he was tired of hearing ‘so tedious a Tale’ of pain. His physician gently murmured: ‘Your Story is so diverting that I take abundance of delight in it, and your Ingenious way of telling it, gives me a greater insight into your Distemper, than you imagine.’

Once anesthesia and painkillers were developed, it was not only a different story, but, increasingly, a lack thereof. Ms. Bourke again:

Writing in the 1860s, Peter Mere Latham (physician extraordinary to Queen Victoria) [was] grumbling that ‘every person’s complaint is interesting to himself, he is apt to discourse about it rather too much at large, and too little to edification’. Latham … confessed that ‘we generally cut [their accounts of pain] as short as possible, in order to get to our plan of investigation’.

“Anesthesia” derives from a Greek word meaning for “want of feeling.” Darned if that doesn’t describe doctors who used the development of painkillers and anesthesia as an excuse to dispense with empathy. Though, in fairness, today many doctors, especially women, have gotten the message and now listen to and credit their patients’ accounts.

Removing “an” from “anesthesia” results in “aesthesia,” which means the ability to feel or perceive. Those are the qualities that enable one to develop a sense of aesthetics. Actually, this is just by way of making a forced transition to a decade-old article I recently read in a scholarly journal called American Ethnologist titled Nuclear technoaesthetics by anthropologist Joseph Masco (August 2004).

Much like doctors who became less sympathetic to pain as medicine developed, scientists who worked on nuclear weapons became insulated to the effects their work had on others. This, Masco contends, was due to the abolition of above-ground nuclear testing, as a result of which, they were no longer witness to nuclear detonations nor their effects. They nuclear scientists began to view the Bomb as a manifestation of pure science, instead of as a devastating weapon. Since the Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty (which banned all nuclear explosions in the atmosphere, sea, and outer space) was signed in 1963, scientists no longer witnessed atomic explosions, afterward performed underground, except through computer and seismic monitors.

As a result, explains Masco, “diminished access to the nuclear sublime,” has resulted in nuclear weapons being viewed “as simply an aesthetic–intellectual form.” By way of contrast, “the first nuclear detonation on July 16, 1945, was not merely an intellectual accomplishment but an overwhelming physical event” for the Manhattan Project scientists. You may have heard its laboratory head Robert Oppenheimer’s famous invocation of Vishnu’s line from the Bhagavad-Gita when he witnessed that test (known as Trinity): “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” The reactions of other scientists in attendance were also recorded. Masco quotes Emilio Segre.

“We saw the whole sky flash with unbelievable brightness in spite of the very dark glasses we wore. ... I believe that for a moment I thought the explosion might set fire to the atmosphere and thus finish the earth, even though I knew that this was not possible.’’

In 1955 a nuclear test also served as a civil defense exercise to test the blast effects on an average U.S. town, with structures built for the occasion that resembled houses, a school, and a library, etc., complete with mannequins. You may have seen it dramatized in the Indiana Jones movie Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. In effect, writes Masco, “this grounded the experimental work of weapons scientists in both Cold War politics and nuclear fear. In other words, the aboveground testing regime was devoted not only to the basic science of producing atomic and, then, thermonuclear explosions but also to researching precisely how nuclear explosions traumatize the material structures of everyday life as well as the human body.” In other words, “the dangers of the nuclear age were viscerally dramatized with each aboveground nuclear test.”

The Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty “limited the ability to test blast and radiation effects, leaving weapons scientists to work on the internal complexities of the nuclear explosion itself; that is, Los Alamos scientists became more narrowly focused on the physics of the detonation … than on the effects of the bomb.” Needless to say, we’re not advocating the resumption of testing.
The result (emphasis added):

The difference between testing the explosive power of the bomb on a model U.S. community in the midst of a nuclear war fighting exercise in 1955 and engineering a ‘‘safe and reliable’’ nuclear device through underground testing in 1975 … reveals a deep domestication of the technology by the end of the Cold War.

In other words (again emphasis added),

… the bomb has been reinvented in Los Alamos in ways that free its aesthetic possibility from its destructive potential, finally allowing the bomb to cease being a bomb at all.

Thus do we dissociate ourselves from life at its most frightening. Crippling pain requires but a prescription from doctors. The degradation and slaughter of animals is just an exception to the rule of our love of animals. Nuclear weapons are no longer a fast track to the wholesale destruction of the world as we know it, but just a science project.

Russ Wellen, who serves as the editor of the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points, is a student of the metaphysics of nuclear weapons.

image via Peachridge Glass.