Reflections on Jenny Perlin's Bunker (2021)
On All Hallows’ Eve October 31, 2022, and as part of our apocalyptic cinema programme, CAPAS screened a classic double feature of two bunker specials back to back at the Karlstorkino location in Heidelberg. Robert E. Kirsch, a current fellow at CAPAS took the audience on a tour of the multiplicitous manifestations and neoliberal logics of what he calls bunkerization. The following is a revised version of said commentary.
This article offers five theses about how to theorize doomsday prepping in the United States, and the phenomenon of those who build, maintain, or even reside in bunkers. The occasion for this discussion is the documentary film Bunker by Jenny Perlin, which follows the everyday lives and logics of five subjects in various degrees of bunkerization.
Before offering these provocations, to say a little about the film: one thing the documentary does exceptionally well is avoiding the opportunistic “gawking” at preppers and turning what seems like odd behavior into a curio for consumption. First, this is uninteresting; if that is what one is after, there are a dozen reality television shows to view. Second, and perhaps more importantly, is that it shows that these prepping behaviors and the bunkers that result from said behavior, while perhaps extreme, are not out of sync with a broad consumer culture of prepping and stockpiling. It is easy to see how the logics of accumulation in our own everyday lives are perhaps less extreme, however they are of a part with the accumulation of consumer goods of these preppers. In other words, while these five subjects in the film are varying distances from mainstream respectable behavior, I want to draw a continuity between these people and our current milieu of broader social forces that produce preppers, bunkers, and everything leading up to it.
In my work I refer to this phenomenon broadly as “bunkerization,” namely, the process by which the logic of the bunker becomes an organizing principle for everyday life. In this regard, the term itself, “bunker,” is equally broad; I define it as a process of encasement wherein people try to reproduce a world at miniature scale to weather a perceived existential/apocalyptic exterior threat. This process has many vectors, of course, from the array of wartime bunkers in Europe,1 to current iterations of statecraft, such as post-9/11 United States and its notion of hardening its borders to make a Fortress America.2 Bunkerization uses the same logic of NATO’s zone of defense, or the sci-fi fantasies of Ronald Reagan’s “Strategic Defense Initiative.” To wit, the logic of bunkerization involves demarcating a boundary, hardening that zone, and managing information with the idea that inside this boundary, people can ostensibly be kept safe. Whether this is an international bloc of nations or a repurposed blast shelter in the Great Plains of Kansas, the logic holds.
The following provocations will follow the same scale as Jenny Perlin’s Bunker (2021); however, also how the Cold War-inspired personal fallout shelter, and how the phenomenon of doomsday preppers in America can inform a broader social theory of bunkerization. What follows is a brief history of consumer bunkers as policy in the US.
In the mid-1950s, the Federal Civil Defense Administration urged Americans to build their own personal fallout shelters to prepare for the threat of nuclear war to survive the radiological aftermath.3 Here, it is important to distinguish between a blast shelter and a fallout shelter. Blast shelters are an active defense against the point of impact, i.e. if one is in a blast shelter one would ostensibly survive a direct nuclear attack. Fallout shelters, on the other hand, are passive defenses, i.e. anybody not immediately vaporized by the initial attack could ostensibly avoid the ravages of the attack’s subsequent nuclear fallout. Bunkers, then, in the American imaginary are constructed as either active or passive structures designed to withstand the impact or effects of some catastrophic event.
As a national defense strategy, the United States did not recommend blast shelters for the general population in the case of nuclear conflagration. There are multiple rationales undergirding this recommendation. One was that because large-scale social preparation plans, such as building “deep rock” shelters under major urban centers like New York City, were too expensive and had dubious feasibility it was unrealistic.4 People were advised to keep potable water and food for 14 days, but by 1957 a report to Congress already pointed out that civilian methods were unlikely to withstand the force of a nuclear attack and that we simply did not know enough about a “post-attack” environment to say whether it was even rational to do so.5 Indeed, as one Rand Corporation nuclear strategist put it, the calculus of a post-attack world would be a ghoulish utilitarianism to avoid the point where the “survivors would envy the dead.”6
With this in the background, DIY bunkering became very popular in the United States. Indeed, home fallout shelters are in many ways a uniquely American manifestation of preparedness, in part due to official government policy (as opposed to countries like Switzerland). The Federal Civil Defense Administration (after 1958 the Office of Defense Mobilization) published multiple pamphlets on citizen preparedness for withstanding nuclear conflict.7
The bunker is an attempt to reproduce everyday life
It is clear that the United States government knew that these personal bunker units 1) did not meet the severity of the threat: the policy of individual construction of fallout shelters only works well outside the blast zone; 2) were not widely adopted – most Americans could not afford to build an underground dwelling in their backyards due to cost or not having a backyard – and 3) that many were constructed so poorly that people might have suffocated in them, or worse.8
Thus, rather than looking at the functional efficacy of bunkers, looking at them through the lens of maintaining patterns of consumer society is more illuminating. The vision of the bunker, for all its functional failings, was that it would allow people to keep their everyday lives more or less intact through the careful stockpiling of shelf-stable consumer goods. The sirens would go off, the attack would be far enough away to give a family time to run to the backyard and get in the bunker. Awaiting them is a continuation of the Rockwell fantasy of Americana; they would eat corn flakes for breakfast, play board games with the kids, and after a few weeks they could pop out and see what was going on outside (though this depiction of what the world outside the bunker would look like is notably absent from the government pamphlets).9 Consumerist continuity, in that case, looks like the bargain of the nuclear age; if people build the bunker and stock the goods, perhaps life can continue as it is now, just in a slightly smaller, windowless place for a little while. In the face of an inability or unwillingness to ramp down the nuclear arms race or to invest in a public infrastructure that could provide some level of protection, this fantasy of everyday life continuing in the bunker with enough consumer goods was perhaps the best that people could hope for, inadequate as it was.
The personal bunker, then, is emblematic of state failure, broken-down institutions, and an acceptance that there are no mechanisms of collective action worth engaging in. Instead, a frontier approach that valorizes personal responsibility dominates: “Common prudence requires that the Federal Government takes steps to assist each American to prepare himself [sic] – as he [sic] would through insurance…When a free America was being built by our forebears, every log cabin and every dwelling had a dual purpose – namely, a home and a fortress. Today, the citizens should be called upon to make the same contribution as our forebears – not for building a free America, but for sustaining a free America.”10 Each home is thus responsible for being a fortress that can reproduce the everyday life of a free America, and this attitude is a key component of bunkerization, American style.
Bunkers preserve social class
The kind of bunkering that one does reflects class identities/anxieties and are, in many ways, an extension of showing class distinction as a form of conspicuous consumption. This happens in a couple of important ways. First, as Perlin shows, there are bunker outfits to fit every budget, from a pre-fabrication plant out of Texas, to a do-it-yourself repurposing of a decommissioned nuclear missile silo, to a luxury bunker real estate developer in Kansas (also from a decommissioned nuclear missile silo). If it were just about the raw biology of survival then it really should not matter how good the soup is, but these disparate bunkers show that class status may outlast us all. Second, and related, these attempts at using prepping and bunkering as a mainstream mode of consumption is also a conspicuous consumption prior to the catastrophic event. Consider the photo below of Silicon Valley survival startup Preppi offering a “bug out bag” in the swag bag of a Modern Family season 11 premiere party. Looking at such a tastefully appointed bag leads one to ask whether the underlying anxiety of bunkering is the loss of class status, and part of the project of bunkerization is thus transporting the class status into the bunker. Bunkering is thus a way of “consuming in place” to preserve a certain kind of life, the anxiety people feel about uncertainty is not exclusively because of the threat of nuclear war (though that is a real threat) but the idea that something might happen that render all of these social hierarchies meaningless.11 Consider in Perlin’s film how often people mention Netflix, grocery stores, or other consumer comforts.
Bunkering/Prepping avoids naming the event
One striking thing about Perlin’s film is that, by my count, nobody states what the threat for which they are preparing for is in a concrete way. When they do broach this topic, the film’s subjects get tentative, vague, and abstract. While part of this abstraction is perhaps subconscious, it is also indicative of bunkerization as an ideology for a few reasons. First, they would have to confront the inadequacy of their preparatory measures as noted in the official government documents noted above. Second, in a consumer culture register the business model of prepping, especially of land developers who sell bunkers, relies on the event not happening to keep developing and selling units. These two acts of avoidance show that a bunkerization is the act of prepping itself as an end; building the stockpile as accumulation for accumulation’s sake is the goal, and not survival per se.12 This mirrors the broader consumer culture of acquisitiveness; in the same way now that people hoard money, goods, food, energy and to which end is not always visible, but the goal itself is to accumulate, grow the economy, and produce. Prepping and endlessly building bunkers are simply (perhaps peculiar) versions of this same impetus; they are the ends itself of consuming for consuming’s sake. People selling luxury condos in bunkers in Perlin’s film are in many ways typical real estate hucksters when it comes down to it, it just so happens that (if they can be believed) all sorts of city slickers are banging down his door to get a spot in his luxury bunker, fully stocked, fully armed, fully securitized, with a crypto-feudal fiefdom vision of social engineering. But they’re just selling condos at the end of the day. The apocalypse may be a real estate developer’s hook, but it is not something to be taken seriously; after all, in Perlin’s film, one such developer admits that he does not live in the bunker himself. Location, location, location, as the saying goes.
The bunker and the home merge
There is a spatial aspect to the imaginary of the Cold War bunker; it is separate and distinct from the home. A place of refuge, somewhere to go when disaster strikes that reproduces, in some form or another, the life that is currently under threat; a sort of backup or auxiliary everyday life. This spatial arrangement may seem odd, anachronistic, or even a little quaint in the current context.13
There is good reason, however, to challenge this distance. While the external bunker may no longer be ubiquitous (to the extent that it ever truly was), the direction simply goes the other way; that is, rather than extending everyday life by pouring resources into the backyard to reproduce it, the current context instead bunkerizes the home to “harden” it against threats to preserve everyday life in situ. Of course, this does not preserve everyday life but rather changes it, thus every home becomes a miniature version of Fortress America with surveillance technologies, panic rooms, fortified and reinforced walls, failsafe backups for energy production, and heavy arms maintenance.14 This should come as no surprise given the frontier discourse of bunkerization that every home is simultaneously a fortress, and its attendant carceral urbanism.15
But in the face of state failure – to deal with wildfires in the Pacific Northwest (and the wildfires springing up everywhere else as global climate change intensifies), heat waves, tidal flooding, super hurricanes and F5 tornadoes, and the buckling of power grids during extreme weather; to say nothing of the government mishandling of a pandemic – it starts to make sense why bunkerizing the home is a perhaps rational response, especially if the state is unreliable. This leads to the final provocation.
Bunkerization is a neoliberal logic
This brings us to the general social diagnosis. Bunkerization is an increasingly mainstream response to the last 40 or so years of neoliberal logics that order our lives. In broad strokes, that means that the state undertakes a managed absence, leaving it to the market for individuals to take responsibility for individually solving social problems through personal consumption patterns.16 In the case of bunkerization it presumes that, as part of the broader neoliberal condition, savvy consumer choices as an existential exercise of responsibility will result in better life chances.17 In some cases that looks like seasteading for billionaires,18 or perhaps buckets of shelf-stable foodstuffs at the wholesaler to sustain a masculine frontier ideology.19 These vectors are not too dissimilar to the consumer exhortations to save the environment by purchasing the right kind of dish soap or making other savvy purchases. In these cases, political and collective action is stripped of any meaning save for the ability to individually purchase our way to safety.
Thus, in a neoliberal logic, individuals are invited to purchase the stuff of stockpiles as they retreat into our hardened, bunkerized homes to monitor the safety and welfare of their miniature Fortress Americas. It is worthwhile then to consider that outside of the fortress, this means that other spaces can be sacrificed, which brings up an important tension in neoliberal logics: that the state absence is managed. There are large scale plans to facilitate military movement and flows of global capital even if the state is unconcerned whether the lights come on when people flick the switch; that is a matter of personal responsibility but maintaining a safe dry dock when Norfolk, VA is overtaken by climate change is of paramount importance to the US Navy. Thus, macro scale efforts of geoengineering and eco-managerialism are rationalizing these zones of sacrifice, leading to theorizations such as “half-earth” solutions where 50% of the earth is left on its own.20 Of course which half, who that impacts, and why is largely ignored. It is large scale statecraft but even then, it reveals that same kind of bunker logic: here is the line of safety, outside of which, individuals are on their own. The state is effectively broadcasting the same message from 1958: “There will be no federally-financed shelter construction program.”21
The point of these theses was to try to think through what bunkers are telling us in a broader social register. Perlin shows peoples’ underground homes in ways that are very visible and extreme examples of bunkerization logic, but in a way that shows a continuation of American consumer society patterns. The point of these provocations is to suggest, in a complementary way, how these patterns emerge and how they feed into a broader social condition of bunkerization. It is vital to confront the fact that these individualized responses of prepping at whatever intensity are wholly inadequate. Instead, it might be time to reanimate the public sphere to meet the moment. There is indeed massive disruption from climate change, and the threat of nuclear war is alarmingly high in the context of the war in Ukraine. It is rational to think through what a sustained preparation for bad scenarios might look like. The choice is thus: will the public continue the folly of buying their way to safety under the auspices of an uninterested state, or think through what kinds of collective action and preventative measures might be possible?
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Robert E. Kirsch is Assistant Professor of Leadership and Integrative Studies, and Senior Global Futures Scholar at the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory at Arizona State University. His research areas include doomsday prepping, environmental political theory, and heterodox theories of political economy. He has published and edited work around “do it yourself” doomsday prepping movements, political economies of energy extraction, and economic development, as well as the impact of Frankfurt School critical theory in contemporary politics. Robert is the co-author (along with Emily Ray) of the forthcoming Worst-Case Scenario: The Politics of Prepping in America, under contract with Columbia University press for 2023.