Sunday, March 2, 2014

Bikinis Anyone?

Sixty years ago today, the world awoke with one less landmass.  On March 1, 1954, the United States detonated a 15 megaton thermonuclear hydrogen bomb in the 'secret' Castle Bravo test.  At about 1,000 times the strength of the bombs used on Japan during the second world war, this test was over 150% more powerful than the nuclear physicists and engineers had anticipated and erased one of the islands in the atoll off the map.  In the years to follow, radiation sickness, death, miscarriages and genetic anomalies were the visible specters that haunted the world and persistent lies, assurances of safety later proven to be erroneous, and secrecy were the more phantasmal and ephemeral legacies.

Four days following the first nuclear test over the islands in 1946, a French mechanical engineer unveiled a new swimming fashion which was named "bikini" in response to the sudden media frenzy over the nuclear test.  Louis Réard clad at 19-year old nude dancer from Casino de Paris - Micheline Bernardini - in 30 square inches of cloth winning the distinction of creating the "smallest bathing suit in the world".  He insisted that, to qualify as a true bikini, the swimsuit material had be sufficiently scarce to easily "pass through a wedding ring".

Two 'accidentally larger than intended' explosions - one gargantuan and one itsy-bitsy - both bear the name of an island in the Pacific that was obliterated by a colossal lack of humanity.  And few people alive today pay the legacy even a passing thought.  While we could be distracted by the bikinis, it's worth considering what both of these legacies say about how we've become the society that is manifesting today.

The Illusory Value of Secret

The reason why the U.S. tested nuclear weapons was to instill fear in those who didn't share our capitalist, consumer-first mandate.  Fearing the specter of communism in which autocrats select economic winners and losers (can anyone say bailouts?) and an intrusive authoritarian state in which the state would senselessly pry into the private lives of its citizens in an effort to manipulate and control them (oops, can anyone say Edward Snowden?), the U.S. decided that it should secretly test a device that would create fall-out across the world jeopardizing populations that we didn't see as human and poisoning  water and land we didn't really wish to foul.  Through the cunning use of code names, we blew our cover across the globe to insure that all knew that we'd stop at nothing to pursue our quality of life which was so superior as to require fear and military strength to promote and defend it.  Through the veil of secrecy, billions of dollars were poured to enrich the secret programs that would serve to propagate our 'values'.  By keeping the project 'secret' we would capture the imagination (and the patronage) of the public who were willingly kept in fear and intrigue.  

Let's face it, a bikini as an article of clothing, doesn't keep much 'secret'.  In point of fact, the strategically placed triangular fabric swatches actually draw attention to the faux modesty they supposedly intend to defend.  By keeping certain anatomical parts 'covered' we maintain the illusion of discretion while in fact promoting their distinction. 

In bombs and bathing suits, the value of 'secret' and 'discretion' is a fallacy.  To the contrary, it is by promoting what you're not supposed to see that the cultural obsession is transacted and consummated.

Sensational Sells

Réard first called his two-piece wonder the Atome, assuming that it would conjure the idea of small.  But when the public went ballistic about the atomic tests, the name 'bikini' was on everyone's lips and, seizing the opportunity, he quickly jumped on the mushrooming phenomenon leading to the name that persists to this day.  

By 1954, the U.S. knew that atomic bombs worked with terrifying effectiveness.  So did the rest of the world.  But it also knew that the public wasn't so sure that these weapons were a good idea.  As a result, continuously upping the tonnage was a wonderful way to increase the funding frenzy required to proliferate ever increasing stockpiles of weapons - weapons whose existence was justified because "the Russians" could do unto us what we were demonstrating we could do to them.

It's amusing that neither the bikini nor the hydrogen bomb's societal effect was fully appreciated at the time of their detonation.  Both of them succeeded by landing on a particular moral paradox - offensive enough to discuss with moral derision but powerful and revealing enough to hold the public's fascination.  And I find this particular dynamic a fascinating study in macabre mercantile genius.  Create an object that society finds objectionable enough to proliferate in conversation but tantalizing enough to empower an aspirational attraction and you're likely to have a commercial bonanza.  The bomb didn't create the military industrial complex nor fuel the Cold War - it merely served as a larger-than-life example of our capacity to enforce our ideology.  The bikini has nothing to do with modesty or morality - it merely lampoons our incapacity to deal with our abject failure to understand eroticism, beauty, and sensuality.  Both of these sensational predations work because they share an implausible, incredulous scale (albeit at opposite ends of the spectrum in size) that sates a particular seductive power.

On this anniversary of the bombs (and bombshells) I wonder if we've progressed much over the past 60 plus years.  When Wolf of Wall Street and Gravity fill theater seats and when we breathlessly watch tired ideological oppression justify senseless suffering from the Ukraine to Syria, I find myself longing for more examples of human-scale, naked, modesty where we're known by what we offer humanity rather than define ourselves by how inhumane we can be.  The Bikini illusion of 60 years ago made a splash on the canvas of humanity's meandering story but it preyed upon the worst of our consensus fears - the fear of the 'other' and the fear of our own desires.  It seems that it would be fitting to mark this moment with a call to transparent living and engagement in which we've got nothing to hide.  The fallout from this idea wouldn't keep us off the beach!


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Thank you for your comment. I look forward to considering this in the expanding dialogue. Dave