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Real Time/Zero Time

Author(s): Tung-Hui Hu
Source: Discourse, Vol. 34, No. 2-3 (Spring/Fall 2012), pp. 163-184
Published by: Wayne State University Press
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Real Time/Zero Time

Tung-Hui Hu

Like hard-core pornography, about which U.S. Supreme Court

justice Potter Stewart notoriously said, I know it when I see it,
the phrase real time may be much easier to spot than to define.1
What digital media scholars see as evidence of real timethe
copresence, for instance, of an event and its live stream on the
Webis different from what computer scientists refer to when they
talk about real-time computing, which is a systems mission-critical
aspect: for example, an air bag inflates before a driver is thrown
through the windshield. Or consider the phrase itself: real time is
not real-time or realtime; the noun refers to a certain temporality, while the adjective form can refer to speed, rate of change, or
interactivity; real time can be a synonym for virtuality, or even its
putative opposite, realness.
The trouble with real time is not the proliferation of definitions,
which should be welcomed; the trouble is that we too often confuse
real time with the medium that manifests it. Whereas digital media
scholars see real time as synonymous with the temporality of computer networks, television scholars might see real time in terms of
the liveness of television broadcasts, while film scholars may find it
in the moving images seeming continuity, a motion simulated by
twenty-four frames a second. This leads to confusion between cause
and effect. Consider, for example, art historian Michael Newman,
who invokes the term when writing of the ethical stakes of analog
cinema in the face of digitization. For Newman, digital technology
Discourse, 34.23, Spring/Fall 2012, pp. 163184.
Copyright 2013 Wayne State University Press, Detroit, Michigan 48201-1309. ISSN 1522-5321.

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Tung-Hui Hu

leaves in its wake interchangeable media in the global simultaneity of real time.2 The words he uses to discuss the regime of the
digital are striking, because real time aptly describes the very
thing he opposes to digital media: analog cinema.
Quoting a character of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who exclaims
that by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a
great nerve, Mary Ann Doane has suggested that electricity produced instantaneity roughly a hundred years before digital technologies such as the Internet.3 In her investigation of films such
as the Execution of Czolgosz (1901), in which bodies were burned
with electricity and other stimuli, she notes that electricity generates a virtually instantaneous bodily responsethe nerve of the
world. By annihilating delay, electricity tied together the globe,
producing its own global simultaneity.4 Electricity also pointed to
the delay or dead time that occurs between action and response
in everyday life. Doane uses this idea to argue that by structuring
time through narrative and editing, cinema achieves a maximum
reduction of wasted time, a real time that is much more real
than real time itself.5 In other words, a hundred years before
Newmans critique of global simultaneity, cinema too was billed as
global, simultaneous, a real time medium that annihilated all earlier forms of media.
What my example suggests is that real time may at the present
moment be synonymous with digital technology, but the term is
much more malleable; it has a way of adhering to the latest technology. Within the history of computer technology, the effort to
locate the earliest moment of real time often results in ever more
diffuse examples. We know that real-time technologies came largely
out of the machine of war; we know, for instance, that the SemiAutomatic Ground Environment (SAGE) system, deployed in 1958
to track incoming Soviet bombers, was the first computer system
that offered the ability to interact with the screen in real time and
led to the first real-time business applications.6 The phrase is first
used in J. P. Eckerts 1946 description of a digital real time computing machine that might replace analog (or true) computing
machines in gun positioning, missile guidance, flight simulation,
and industrial control.7 Eckert limits himself to four applications,
because analog devices would have been considered more suitable
for real-time applications than their cumbersome digital counterparts. It would take a decade and a half for this advantage to
change. But open our historiography to analog technologiessuch
as the radar screen, which Lev Manovich argues was the first screen
continuously updated with real-time information8and locating a
start to real time becomes very complicated indeed.

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Real Time/Zero Time


My main reservation about such historical detective work is

its implicit investment in real times assumed inevitability. Stories
of ever-advancing technological speed or progress always end the
same way: with the invention of real time. We discover, inevitably, a result that begs the question of what exists beyond the real.
When Paul Virilio says, for example, that real time means we
have reached Terminaland finalsedentarization . . . a live (livecoverage) society that has no future and no past,9 only the present, he ironically echoes the presentness constructed by digital
rhetoric. The risk is that focusing on this presentness comes at the
expense of other temporalities that often arrive later. While data
centers enable the almost instantaneous retrieval of data, for example, the coal plants that power them have delayed environmental
and health effects that will only come to light decades from now. It
seems crucial to approach the question through other means.
What would it mean to think of real timeand the technology
that exists within itas a historical, fragile, and even mortal phenomenon with its own time span, rather than as a limit case in the
evolution of media? This essay turns back the page to the 1950s,
an era when computer speeds were slow enough that digital technology was not synonymous with instantaneity and when the very
idea of real time required explanation. In that period, the threat
of nuclear attack, quantified in the four-minute warning said to
describe the time between a Soviet missile launch and its impact
on American soil, lent urgency to the development of computer
networks. These anxieties thus offer a window into a postwar discourse about time and delay, and with it a fantasy of medias immediacy.10 In todays moment, real time has become part and parcel
of the digital cloud; network transmissions are so quick that files
and applications are said to be stored in the cloud. But the impetus
for real-time technologies in the 1950s came from another kind of
cloud: the mushroom cloud.
A brief 1956 promotional film by IBMs Military Products Division makes these atomic fears explicit by linking real time to the
time zero of the bomb. The opening sequence of On Guard! The
Story of SAGE cuts from a shot of children playing to bombers in the
sky, from dreadful black-and-white footage of a bomb detonating
to the mushroom cloud that follows it. The next sequence immediately returns to status quo ante as it displays a shot of the clock
on IBMs headquarters, leaving little doubt of SAGEs purpose: to
reedit the timing and sequence of events to avoid the atom bomb,
to turn back the clock on the horrors of the atomic age. When the
narrator asks rhetorically, What is the most precious commodity
that electronic defense wins us? a shot of the school clock (one

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Tung-Hui Hu

Figures 1a and 1b. On Guard! The Story of Sage (1956), IBM Corporation,
Military Products Division.

of five such shots) serves as the answer: Time. Time is everything.

This is electronic defense in debt (figures 1a and 1b).
But this is not any sort of time: it is a new temporality that still
feels difficult to describe. So the narrator tries several approaches
to explain real time. First, in contrast to normal computers,
which print out data in batches, a real-time computer is a way of

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Real Time/Zero Time


translating volumes of changing data into a continuous flow of

interpretations. Lest the phrase become too abstract, however, he
offers an analogy: this continuous flow is something like the electronic scan of radar. A shot of a radar screens sweep precedes a
match cut to the sweep of the clock hand.
The narrator latches onto a more concrete metaphor when
he describes the newest and most revolutionary advance in data
processing: the displayscope. Displayscopes, the narrator explains
ominously, may look like the offspring of a marriage between a
television tube and a radar screen, but they do not show physical
images transferred from elsewhere. As he speaks, a chord progression more typically found in a horror film plays in the background.
To watch the narrators contortions as he labors to explain this
freakish device is amusing to us, because the displayscope is now
ubiquitous and common: it is what we call a computer monitor.
But the narrator must resort to explainingand thus understandingthe monitor not just in its physical resemblance to a television
set, but also in contrast to televisions live broadcast. When he later
describes computer memoryand its ability to go backward in
timeas one feature possessed by neither a television nor a radar
screen, he is referencing the presentness of television moments
before the invention of rewind. Ampex video recording technology would come to the television industry that same year.
The computer screen is something like televisions frightful
offspring, combining the properties of liveness with the possibility
of interacting with the image.11 This contextthe real-time computer as a further evolution of televisual mediasuggests the main
direction for my inquiry. If SAGEs big innovation was to give operators the liveness of television broadcasts (plus or minus the radar
screen), recall that liveness, in the context of television studies, is
a myth. As Jane Feuer and others have amply shown,12 liveness is
an ideological construct rather than a function of the broadcast
technology itself, a product of stylistic codes and modes of address
that cover over the fragmentary nature of television programming.
This construction has carried over to the digital media. Developing
a phenomenology of Web surfing, Tara McPherson reminds us that
as with television, this much touted liveness is actually the illusion
of liveness.13 This was the case with SAGE: it could only refresh
its displayscope every 30 seconds, leaving a lengthy delay between
event and image. The displayscope pictured in On Guard! was, in
fact, a mockup.14
Where did this shared fantasy of liveness come from, and how
did it take root? To find out, the next section proceeds inductively
from a single historical event. I have suggested that time zero was

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Tung-Hui Hu

the disaster that SAGE was meant to anticipate and also forestall,
a disaster that always threatened to happen more quickly than
SAGEs displayscope could register. As it turns out, time zero was
also the elusive goal of the national television networks, which
finally managed to broadcast a live detonation of an atomic bomb
on April 22, 1952.15 We typically think of television and computer
networks as separate entities that are only recently converging, but
in the 1950s, SAGE used the same microwave relay stations and Bell
System circuitsthe same root structure, as it werethat carried
television signals.
This suggests a curious overlap between early television networks and even earlier computer networks in 1952. The telecast
was the first time that an electronic image of local liveness fed
back into and became network live, to use the terms of television scholar Mark J. Williams.16 Using a newly built series of microwave relays, a local station, KTLA, fed live signals from the bomb
test into the national network, setting the stage for local and network data to become fused into a bidirectional structure of liveness. Television signals, in other words, could no longer be cleanly
categorized as network or local; they were increasingly something
of both.17 SAGE later adopted this bidirectional or feedback structure in its data link network. Connecting more than one hundred
radar installations around the country to its twenty-four Direction
Centers, SAGEs network relayed signals to its computers, which
then flowed back to the world in real time. SAGEs data links
influenced ARPAnet, and in turn the present-day Internet, where
the definition of the word network includes and is inextricable
from local transmission.
The Internet did not directly evolve out of television networks.
Nevertheless, the story of the first televised weapons test, related
below, will allow us to uncover a moment of coincidence around
the idea of time. Just as the speed of nuclear missiles challenged
SAGEs real-time displays, the quickness of the bombs explosion
strained at the limits of televisions ability to capture it (or, after
1963, to mobilize the population quickly through the Emergency
Broadcast System). The mediums glitches and failures resulted in
a corresponding fantasy of real time that would cover over those
very failures. After describing the weapons telecast, I then turn to
one of its afterimages to ask how we can imagine the time of the
real differently. Calling attention to a mediums capacity to register alternate temporalities, a found footage film by Bruce Conner, Crossroads (1976), may offer a different way to understand the
recording of time in a digital age.

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Real Time/Zero Time


*An atomic bomb detonates over Yucca Flat, Nevada in 1952 and
appears on national television. But the one place you could not
watch the test, strangely enough, was in Nevada, for the state was
not yet connected to the national network.18 Crossing through the
northern part of the state, the coaxial cable relay left Las Vegas and
its surrounding area out of the transcontinental system that had
just arrived the previous winter in California. To feed the national
broadcasters, the Atomic Energy Commission turned to KTLA,
an independent television station in Los Angeles that took on
the challenge of building its own connection to Yucca Flat. KTLA
head and Paramount vice president Klaus Landsberg rigged his
own microwave relay system across 275 miles of desert, engaging
U.S. Marine Corps helicopters to parachute four relay stations onto
nearby mountain peaks.
Engineers were concerned not just with the jury-rigged system
but also with the optics. Billboard reported that Its feared that the
power of the blast will blow out the cameras even from the 11-mile
distance from Frenchmans Flat and the Mount Charleston camera site. . . . [M]otion picture cameras will be on the scene to take
footage of the explosion in case the blast knocks out the TV connections.19 Radio interference from televising the event was also
a concern: television frequencies were largely identical to those
used by nuclear test equipment. In the end, the engineers fears
came true, but not in the way they had imagined. Atomic Energy
Commission generators and, in turn, the camera feed failed before
detonation time.20 The power went out at 9:16 a.m., fourteen minutes before time zero; the newsmen worked frantically to cool off
the television tubes and restart the feed from the backup camera
forty miles away. Three minutes after detonation, the closest camera had finally warmed up; the feed switched back to it, showing
the aftereffects of the smoke. The transmission was so variable that
some newspapers declared the test a success, while others reported
only a blank screen on their television sets.
First Atom-Bomb Telecast a Dud, Billboard proclaimed a week
later. Varietys headline was snarkier: A-Bomb in TV Fluff Fizzles
Fission Vision.21 An officer at the Atomic Energy Commission
recounted the event: The response in those precious seconds of
the burst and formation of the fireball apparently depended on
individual [television] sets. Two newspapers in Los Angeles got
good pictures all the way through. The sets in the other two newspaper offices got only a black flicker and then the picture tore
up for almost a minutethe most important minute in the telecast.22 Other viewers reported geometric swirls and diagonal bars

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Tung-Hui Hu

Figures 2a and 2b. KTLA telecast of the April 22, 1952, atomic test, via
Critical Commons.

in the telecast. As Thomas Doherty explains, even the pinhole-like

image that many viewers took for proof of the bombs detonation
was actually a technical flaw. The tiny white spot in a wall of pitch
black . . . resulted from an optical malfunction: the orthicon tube
in the pickup camera had blacked out under the blinding light of
the blast (figures 2a and 2b).23

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Real Time/Zero Time


What is striking about the telecast is how flat it feels.24 A contemporary viewer of the recording can barely make out a puff of
smoke above a grainy and overexposed black-and-white image
while the commentator describes the beautiful, tremendous, and
angry spectacle. ...Looking into the cloud you see the orange,
the brown, and the dirty black, and the fringe white. You cant
see, and therein lies the reason for the voice-off, for the temporary
shift from image to voice and the temporary reversion from television to radio. Because even the auditory shockwave is delayed
by about thirty seconds, the viewer is blind. The viewer is almost
entirely reliant on the military announcer counting seconds after
the bomb has been dropped (bombs away, 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30)
and seconds until the explosion is about to happen (5, 4, 3, 2, 1).
The atomic test manifests itself primarily through the sound of
the countdown: when viewers cant actually see what is going on,
the only thing they can be sure about is the time to the detonations time zero.25
Yet if the countdown hinges on how many seconds before or
after time zero, the actual moment of detonation is a bit of a fantasy.
As the Atomic Energy Commission officer put it, those precious
seconds of the burst ... the most important minute in the telecast
are lost.26 And the mushroom cloud itself is, by definition, an aftereffect. Any sense of presence from the April 22 telecast is due to
an imaginative slippage between the pinhole spot and the detonation, between the absence of any image on the television tube and
the plenitude of the bombs explosion. The bomb also bursts far
too quickly for traditional optical technology; scientists have since
turned to Harold Edgertons Rapatronic film camera, which can
shoot the nuclear explosion at ten nanosecond intervals and generate thousands of meters of film in less than a second. Time zero is
precisely the moment that can never been seen, recorded, or filmed
by conventional means; it can only be approximated.
We are left to conclude that the moment of time zero may
always be a lacuna, a missed moment. Time zero is zeroed out; it
becomes zero time.27 Like melodrama, the pathos of the telecast is
that we are always too late to see what happens; we are delayed, and
those precious seconds are irretrievably lost. There is no question that the network feed quickly improved.28 But the blackout
of the orthicon tube may be a more honest take on the bombs
true nature as a light weapon (as Virilio terms it), a weapon that
disrupts the optical order, than the beautiful, tremendous, and
angry spectacle of the mushroom cloud itself.29 At least the blackout preserves that loss, just as a fizzle may be a more honest way of
capturing the belatedness of any countdown.

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The first moment of feeding local liveness back to the national

television networka moment that anticipates SAGEs data links
results in a technical glitch: a pinhole, the sign of a delay in switching between cameras. The pinhole points to the dialectical opposite
of live transmission, the zero time or dead time of the network, and
allows us to observe that covering over such (temporal and occasionally visible) holes are at the very center of real time. This is the
case in all networks today, not just the prototype in 1952. The first
Internet protocol was designed to allow a series of delayed packets
to be reassembled back in order, and the Internet continues to be
full of gapssuch as the evocatively named black holesas well
as the mechanisms to gracefully switch over to backup networks
without the user noticing.
Yet as John Harwood writes, we tend to forget that the fundamental basis of real-time computing lies within the dimension of
timedelay, a delay that is rendered imperceptible to the human
sensorium by the familiar tactics of cinematic projection.30 Even
Harwood does not go quite far enough: delay is a fundamental part,
not just of real-time computing, but of real time itself, whether on
television, in film, or on computers. Media operate within a general structure of disavowal, suppressing zero time to produce a feeling of liveness (TV) or interactivity (the Web). We see fullness and
presence in these imaginative or virtual reconstructions of the real.
Real-time media leave us with images that seem (artificially, phantasmatically) alive. But in their rush to capture the next instant,
however, we lose the sense that any time has been lost at all: a loss
of a loss. Understood correctly, real time is not the present tense;
real time is a melancholic imagination of the present from the perspective of the future, which is always just a short interval away. We
always miss the precious seconds, the most important minute
even if the interval is now counted in microseconds or milliseconds
in the digital age.
After the 1952 broadcast, atomic tests continued to be widely
rebroadcast on television; the U.S. Air Force even branched out to
other live weapons tests by the end of the decade. The bomb, the
ultimate bearer of mass death, was repeatedly remade live, and in
the process death became an image to be displaced by the next
image or sound onscreen. Death is normally the complete rupture
of everyday signification; it is unviewable. But television extends
the duration of the explosion to become an event. At the same
time, the watching and waiting within original film footage of the
bombthe temporality that might accompany actual deathis
considered dead time, time cut and reordered so as to bring the
event to life. Visual technologies substitute the petite mort of the

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Real Time/Zero Time


bombs cloud, a cloud that Bob Mielke calls the expensive money
shot of this nuclear technoporn,31 for the grande mort of the
actual bomb. We think we are seeing death onscreen, but in fact we
have missed it; we are seeing something related but imperceptibly
Now there is something like a biopolitics of media at work
whereby the injunction of contemporary power to make live, as
Foucault puts it, to manage, control, and even produce life, tilts
the mediation of time toward liveness.32 In contemporary visual
culture this takes the form of technologies that allow moments of
deathfor example, a weapons strike in Afghanistan or a database
of casualties in Iraqto be mapped, visualized, streamed, and
rebroadcast, and even to become interactive.33 Although the image
of death requires time to bear witness, grieve, or mourn, real time
sutures over this death and transforms the event into a melancholic
reconstruction of it.
Yet real time is not the only way that these events can be mediated. In the next section, I move to another way to look at the
bomb and, in turn, to inhabit its temporality differently.

Image/afterimage. This time, the atomic test is Operation crossroads, the maritime detonation at Bikini Atoll in 1946 that was
the most widely filmed event in the world. Mielke reports that the
test exposed 1.5 million feet of motion picture film at various slowmotion camera speeds, causing a worldwide shortage of film for
months afterward.34 It was, again, a miracle of liveness: to avoid
flying too close to the detonation a television camera mounted
on a drone plane beamed the signal to television receivers.35 The
tests afterimage comes from experimental filmmaker Bruce Conners Crossroads (1976). Using footage that had been declassified
and stored at the National Archives,36 Conner edited together several takes of Operation crossroads underwater test into a film
that plays havoc with the expected temporality of the countdown
(figures 3a and 3b).
Crossroads is a frustrating film by intention. It moves from stillness to explosion and back again, layering an electronic soundtrack
by Patrick Gleeson and Terry Riley to capture the desperate rhythm
and pacing within the explosion. The spectacle itself comes from
what is outsidethe sea that initially appears to be empty background but then abruptly swells up, roiling, the water itself turned
into part of the cloud. Then the explosion ends, the water is calm,
and we are again waiting for the test to commence. This effectthe
time counter reset to a few minutes before the event, the extreme

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Figures 3a and 3b. Bruce Conner, Crossroads (1976).

slow motion of the footagedisrupts our basic expectations of causality and resolution.
Grappling with the film shortly after its release, William Moritz
and Beverly ONeill document the rush of questions that it raises

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Real Time/Zero Time


about the phenomenology of viewing: What are we seeing? Is this a

trick for our eyes? This list leads to a larger question: Are we seeing any real-time (whatever that is) shots?37 Given the extended
duration of each shot, the last shotlasting more than six and a
half minutesoffers the most provocative answer to Moritz and
ONeills question, which they describe thus:
[T]he image cuts to blackness which is held on-screen for several minutes
while the music finishes.
The duration of this shot is crucial. The screen remains neutralized
for so long we suffer excruciating resentment, ennui, and helpless rage.38

Conners shot subverts the finality of the detonation. What Moritz

and ONeill call the true nothingness of the black screen is infuriating; the death of the image is the death that must be continually
disavowed in cinema.39 Like dead air on radio or the blacked-out
KTLA transmission, this shot reveals films inability to contain and
structure its contents, the unpleasure that intrudes onto the visual
pleasure of the spectacle.
But Crossroads offers another, perhaps more meaningful, lens
for reenvisioning real time. By reprinting found footage, Conners
film acts as a preservative: it keeps and exposes qualities within the
original film stock. Film was a resolutely material concern during
Operation crossroads; military pilots had to take extravagant
measures to avoid damaging the film. To avoid moisture condensation on the emulsion, pilots would descend slowly, taking up to
an hour to land. Some cameras were installed inside special pressure chambers on the aircraft. On Kwajalein Atoll, a cooled and
dehumidified lab was built to process the film.40 Despite these measures, the film suffered. The catalog description for Conners Crossroads notes that some of the original film shot by the U.S. military
appears to be fogged by radiation. All the footage is marked by the
duress of its original production.41
Like a film badge worn in radioactive environments to warn
the wearer of dangerous exposure, the test film is fogged: trauma
bypasses the optical mechanics of the camera and exposes the
film by blurring the image. This is visible in one sequence about
two-thirds of the way through the film, where individual frames
are intermittently fogged over (see figure 3a, fogged, and figure
3b, several frames later, unfogged; when viewed at film speed, the
effect is something like a flicker or pulse). Damaged by radiation,
the film is shown to be mortal. Yet because mortality describes
the qualities of a living being, the films finitude suggests that it
is also, paradoxically, alive.42 If each new mediumphotography,

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Tung-Hui Hu

television, digital storagecontains within it a sign of its finitude,

then as a medium ages, it becomes less and less transparent, and its
real and material aspects become visible in inverse proportion to
the virtual image that it carries. While the process of decay is concealed in other media, film makes the process of its decay explicit.
As a film perishes over time, the events depicted within the reels
of lost or damaged footage take on a new temporality. Because this
temporality is a lived time, we might call it not the time of liveness,
but instead of something like livedness; we might write, instead of
real time, the time of the real.
Within the surface of the decayed film is a dormant image.
Lagging behind the presentness of the event, it emerges when we
internalize the trauma of these decaying films. Aligned with latency
and forgetting, the image only becomes visible after the initial
event has been lost. Walter Benjamin, quoting Andr Monglond,
states that the past has left . . . images comparable to those registered by a light-sensitive plate. The future alone possesses developers strong enough to reveal the image in all its details.43 The
damaged film asks that we acknowledge the mediums mortality; it
may even connect us, via the mediums decaying body, to the body
of history.
Following Conners lead, it is worth tracking those images
back to their physical (and material) locations in the archive. In
1997, as part of an initiative to improve government openness,
Secretary of Energy Hazel OLeary announced that a selection
of nuclear test films would be declassified; this continued until
2001, when funding was not renewed amid the general hysteria
around security after the September 11 attacks.44 During this fouryear window, the Department of Energy located roughly sixty-five
hundred nuclear films produced by Lookout Mountain Studios in
the 1940s that were stored in vaults underneath Kirtland Air Force
Base in Albuquerque; others were found in Wright-Patterson Air
Force Base in Dayton. Announcing this program, the Department
of Energy wrote that: many of these [celluloid] films have been
lost or destroyed. Others have been stored under conditions less
than ideal for preservation. The DOEs Albuquerque Operations
Office is currently engaged in transferring these old, deteriorating films, many of which are marked as classified, to digital data
(Betacam) and stored on videotapes to capture the information
before it is lost.45
The archivists found the films in fragments, cracked, brittle,
and color-faded. Their filmmakers had never intended to preserve
the test films, as they were simply documents of transient events.
In their ephemerality, they resemble the in-the-air liveness of

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Real Time/Zero Time


Figure 4. Operation Castle (1954), test film #0800013, U.S. Department of


television broadcasts before they could be recorded.46 As a note

accompanying the films in the Prelinger Archives indicates, there
were disturbing results in archiving these extremely historic
events in color, related directly to the properties and instabilities
of Kodachrome I film of the time. The pigments of these color
films reacted with the lacquer coating meant to protect the films
in common storage conditions, causing very disappointing fading of blue dye, as well as changes in other dye components in
these films.47 Although the change in color is seemingly a marker
of loss, it contains valuable information: the faded artifacts are
a viewers tactile counterparts to the virtual image. Like invisible
ink, the image of instability activated by the bomb only becomes
visible after time in storage.
Despite this fading, the events within the films still carry a
barely containable potency, as if the destructive force of the images
contained within had threatened to erupt into the archive. A sense
of the ninety-five films declassified during this four-year window is
possible by examining the catalog of videotapes available for order;
the catalog promises dramatic scenes that are spectacular and
awesome, featuring boiling, tumbling, rolling fireballs and a
brilliant aurora that is a special feature of [certain] explosions.48

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These descriptions seem to hint at the orgasmic pleasure contained

within the test films. As if to echo this implication that each tape
contains knowledge of the obscene (literally, knowledge ob skene,
offscreen), the tapes have been sanitized. Each videotape begins
with an intertitle noting that classified footage has been removed
(figure 4). The tapes were censored at the same time that they were
preserved, and their images cleaned simultaneously for content
and physical damage, foregrounding the ways that curatorial desire
is braided into each object of the archive.
These cuts and ruptures within the body of the test films
acknowledge what we have known all along: the films could never
be a complete documentation of history because history itself is
incomplete. Ninety-five films out of an acknowledged sixty-five
hundred is not much, and we are seeing at best the smallest tip
of the iceberg. Yet if part of the archive has been lost, it activates
the Nietzschean sense of forgetting, one that allows the viewer an
imaginative engagement with the past. The missing frames of history release the viewer from the spell of liveness and melancholy
and allow her or him to experience the films not as the indexes of
truth but as they have always been: virtual images shot through with
a grain of the real.
Commenting on the footage of the first Trinity test, filmmaker
Jon Else has written that for maybe ten or fifteen frames . . . the
heat from the first atomic bomb burned a hole through the film
in the camera. . . . Its not just an image on the emulsion, its
actually a hole in the film. Else calls attention to a barely visible
artifact around the moment of detonation, a piece of footage that
he calls the ultimate movie because it is the most direct trace of
light imprinting itself onto film ever recorded.49 The obverse of
the pinhole on the television set during the 1952 broadcast, the
burned hole forms a circuit between us and an outside hidden
from us, an abrupt puncture of actual violence onto the realm of
the virtual.50 Not only an image of violence, it is also a tangible
interface between the viewer and the time of death, between real
time and the time of the real.
The hole is the result of the bomb touching the film negative
or the orthicon tube, but also represents the event that touches us
across history, implicating us, as creators of the bomb, in its making. When we discover there is only a hole where the image of time
zero should have been, we retroject this knowledge back into the
film or recording, and the event that initially felt instantaneous at
time zero now expands in time, as a detail in a photograph once
did for Roland Barthes.51 No longer a single instant, the event of
the film frame works on us like the delayed rays of a star.52

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Real Time/Zero Time


Barthes once wrote that light is a carnal medium, a skin I

share with anyone who has been photographed.53 Here we discover, belatedly, that this sharing of carnal affect goes beyond what
we had imagined. If the equation of the virtual constructs the cameraman or a screen as a proxy for our vision, here the equation
is revealed to be commutative: our vision is affected by what the
cameraman sees. The bomb is alarmingly present; it overwhelms
us. A film viewers perception is traditionally described as a process
of voyeuristic identification with the image onscreen. Nuclear test
films, I argue, are different: the hole is not a signifier for but the
index of a real, unrepresentable explosion. To recall Virilios earlier definition of an atomic bomb as a light weapon, the atomic
bomb is light incarnate; this is no image made of light but rather
pure light itself.
Watching the footage, it is as if our bodies have been turned
into instruments for receiving light. The blinding light that overwhelms or blackens the screen retroactively invites us to participate
in a mode of perception in which all parts of our body have the
potential to receive the event. We are not merely photographers of
the bomb; the bomb has photographed us, too.54 This is the reciprocal touching that goes on: we view the film or the broadcast, but
through the hole, the event sees and even reaches us. An almost
imperceptible touch reminds us that inside each moment of liveness is a delayed moment of death.

This essay began by claiming that the real time of the digital is a
construct that has less to do with its technology than with disavowing the dead time or zero time at its center. In different but related
ways digital media, television, and film convert war and death into
live, interactive events; this is readily visible in TVs around-theclock coverage of 9/11 and the websites that allow users to map
and aggregate civilian deaths. The way we watch is always tinged
with melancholy. Unable to recognize that our vision is always
enabled through zero time, we are barred from the recuperative
time of mourning.
In addition, a second story is at work. At the same time that
the speed of nuclear strikes motivated the development of what
we now call real-time computation, the bomb left its own trace on
film and television. Exposed and irradiated by the light weapon,
optical media recorded the bombs violence through nonpictorial
meansthrough the fogging of film stock, for example. In turn,
years after the event, the media begin to transfer that sense of violence and loss back to us. The essential unrepresentability of death

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gradually becomes perceptible, even if the ways it does sodecayed

emulsion, a videos erasureare latent effects of the very technologies developed to obscure that moment of zero time from us.
Digital media leave us with nothing but real time, but that time
also contains the potential of its mortality. Computer scientists, for
instance, refer to the decay of magnetic data as bit rot. But given
the way that digital media have suppressed their own materiality,
what is zero time for digital media? What are the digital equivalents
of film or televisions dead time? The task of a media scholar is to
locate finitude within the world of the digital, or, as I have been
suggesting, to look for it, always knowing that it is visible only in


Justice Potter Stewart, concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio (378 U.S. 184
[1964]): [C]riminal laws in this area are constitutionally limited to hard-core pornography. I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to
be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed
in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved
in this case is not that.
Michael Newman, Medium and Event in the Work of Tacita Dean, in Tacita
Dean, edited by Clarrie Wallis (London: Tate Gallery Publishing, 2001), 26.
Mary Ann Doane, The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the
Archive (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 150.

Ibid., 151.


Ibid., 16263.


See the numerous references to real time and SAGE in, for example, Paul
Edwards, The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997); Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Programmed Visions:
Software and Memory (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011); Patrick Crogan, Gameplay
Mode: War, Simulation, and Technoculture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,
2011). Note that SAGEs predecessor, the 1951 Whirlwind computer, was the first
computer that did not receive input in batches to be output later but instead processed input as it was received.
Eckert begins by cautioning us that real time is not the same thing as speedy
or quick; a real time computer instead takes in account reaction time. A non-real
time computer, Eckert explains, might compute results too quickly (or too slowly)
for a human to handle. John Presper Eckert, Continuous Variable Input and Output
Devices, in The Moore School Lectures, eds. Martin Campbell-Kelly and M. R. Williams
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985), 394.

Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001),


Paul Virilio, Open Sky, translated by Julie Rose (London: Verso, 1997), 25.


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I am by no means suggesting that time and delay are exclusively postwar
phenomena, but instead am building on a recent scholarly conversation that uses the
intersection of cybernetics, war technology, and media studies to investigate postwar
anxieties about time. This conversation includes Pamela Lee, Chronophobia: On Time
in the Art of the 1960s (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), and Charlie Gere, Art, Time,
and Technology (Oxford, UK: Berg, 2006).
This is a formula that Doane, revisiting an earlier essay on television history,
writes as follows: real time = liveness + interactivity. Mary Ann Doane, Epilogue (2003)
to Information, Crisis, Catastrophe, in New Media, Old Media: A History and Theory
Reader, edited by Thomas Keenan and Wendy Chun (New York: Routledge, 2005), 263.

Jane Feuer, The Concept of Live Television: Ontology as Ideology, in

Regarding Television, edited by E. Ann Kaplan (Los Angeles: American Film Institute,
1983), 1221; Robert Vianello, The Power Politics of Live Television, Journal of
Film and Video 37, no. 3 (Summer 1985): 2640; Mary Ann Doane, Information,
Crisis, Catastrophe, in Logics of Television: Essays in Cultural Criticism, edited by Patricia
Mellencamp (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 22239.
Tara McPherson, Reload: Liveness, Mobility and the Web in The Visual
Culture Reader, edited by Nicholas Mirzoeff (New York: Routledge, 2002), 461.
As one Internet commenter, JimT, claims. On Guard! The Story of SAGE
(ca. 1956), The Internet Archive,
The April 22 telecast was an inversion of the first (surreptitiously obtained)
telecast in 1951, when KTLA engineers crawled up to a mountain 150 miles away and
with little lead-up broadcast the detonation live to its local viewers.
Mark J. Williams, Paramounts KTLA: Considering the Independent Station
as a Factor in the Rise of Network Television, Spectator 7, no. 2 (Spring 1987): 29.
When the atomic telecast happened, the local network suddenly became a source of
network live, if only for a day, feeding local news back into the national networks
of NBC and CBS. But this triumph is an ambivalent one; a few years later, KTLA
acceded to the programming schedules of the national network. Thus, the first atomic
telecast of 1952, for Williams, encapsulates the history of liveness in a single moment;
it serves as both a symbol of immediacy and the symbolic ending (or, I would suggest,
subsuming) of local liveness by or into the national networks.
Television, of course, grew out of radio networks, and radios interactions
between local and national programming offer an intriguing precedent. Early radio
sets invariably both transmitted and received signals, and amateur broadcasters were
common, but in the 1920s, radio stations inaugurated the era of chain broadcasting,
which copied transmissions from one station to the next and eventually formed
the network monopoliesNBC Red and Blue, CBS, and Mutualthat squeezed
out independent stations. Despite many similarities between television and radio
networks, there is one subtle distinction: video transmissions of television were
understood as one form of data among others (for instance, audio). The bandwidth
necessary to accommodate multiple forms of data led to the rapid expansion of
network infrastructure. AT&Ts new transcontinental microwave relay of 1951 carried
TV signals along with phone and teletype transmissions. As a result, the post-1951
national network, which AT&T dubbed the electronic skyway, was increasingly
seen as a data network rather than a network tied to a specific medium (e.g., radio
network, telephone network).

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Vegas Linked: First Telecast of Atom Bomb Set Tuesday, Billboard, April
26, 1952, 2, 6.

Ibid., 2.


First Atom-Bomb Telecast a Dud, Billboard, May 3, 1952.


A Bomb in TV Fluff Fizzles Fission Vision, Variety, April 23, 1952.


Charter Heslep was chief of the Radio-Visual Branch at the Atomic Energy
Commissions press office and was assigned to the joint Atomic Energy Commission/
Department of Defense information office during the time of the telecast. Heslep,
They Said It Couldnt Be Done, in New Horizons in Journalism: Press, Radio, Television,
Periodicals, Public Relations, and Advertising as Seen through Institutes and Special Occasions
of the Henry W. Grady School of Journalism, 195152, edited by John Eldridge Drewry
(Athens: University of Georgia, 1952), 72.
Thomas Doherty, Cold War, Cool Medium: Television, McCarthyism, and American
Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 9.

This flatness is particularly felt when viewed next to the Atomic Energy Commissions film of the same blast, which was released later as Operation Tumbler-Snapper.
(The press dubbed the event Operation Big Shot, but the military refers to the
April 22 event as Charlie shot in Operation tumbler-snapper.) For more on the
telecast, see Mark J. Williams, History in a Flash: Notes on the Myth of TV Liveness,
in Collecting Visible Evidence, edited by Jane Gaines and Mark Renov (Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 309.
In an editorial cited by Heslep, the Dayton News wrote that the hazy and erratic
. . . dim image of the telecast was vastly exceeded in quality by the atomic monster
movies popular at the time, even if it nevertheless gave a sense of the physical,
momentary presence. . . . It was a living event. Heslep, They Said It Couldnt Be
Done, 73.

Ibid., 72.


Here one might recall John Cages use of the term zero time (as in his
piece 0'00"): Zero Time exists when we dont notice the passage of time, when we
dont measure it. Cage derived the term from musician Christian Wolff, who had
used the term to designate variable duration. See John Cage, For the Birds: John Cage
in Conversation with Daniel Charles (London: Marion Boyars Publishers, 1981), 207.
The Wolff reference, in the context of real time, comes from Gere, Art, Time and
Technology, 104, who calls zero time the inchoate time of the now.

Heslep, They Said It Couldnt Be Done, 72.


Paul Virilio, A Landscape of Events, translated by Julie Rose (Cambridge, MA:

MIT Press, 2000), 81.

John Harwood, The White Room: Eliot Noyes and the Logic of the Information Age Interior, Grey Room 12 (Summer 2003): 31.
Bob Mielke, Rhetoric and Ideology in the Nuclear Test Documentary, Film
Quarterly 58, no. 3 (2005): 30.
Foucault contrasts sovereign power, the power to take life, with the power
to regulate and even promote life: this technology of biopower . . . is continuous,
scientific, and it is the power to make live. Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended:

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Lectures at the Collge de France, 19751976, translated by David Macey (New York:
Picador, 2003), 247.
In a parallel tactic, Chun has described the way that software produces a series
of real-time crisis points; by doing so, it creates a false sense of a user as the ultimate
decision maker. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Crisis, Crisis, Crisis, or Sovereignty and
Networks, Theory Culture & Society 28, no. 6 (2011): 91112.

Mielke, Rhetoric and Ideology, 29.


United States Joint Task Force One, Operation Crossroads: The Official Pictorial
Record (New York: W. H. Wise, 1946), 77.

Scott MacDonald, The Garden in the Machine: A Field Guide to Independent Films
about Place (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 438.
Williams Moritz and Beverly ONeill, Fallout: Some Notes on the Films of
Bruce Conner, Film Quarterly 31, no. 4 (Summer 1978): 37.

Ibid., 38.




United States Joint Task Force One, Operation Crossroads, 74.


Box cover for Crossroads and Looking for Mushrooms, DVD, by Bruce Conner (Los
Angeles: Michael Kohn Gallery, 1996). Fogged film was a pervasive problem; Kodak
even threatened to sue the Atomic Energy Commission because of it. In a settlement,
the Atomic Energy Commission agreed to secretly warn the company in advance
of nuclear tests. Kodak apparently discovered the problem in the 1950s after film
packed in irradiated corn husks became fogged. Matthew L. Wald, US Alerted Photo
Film Makers, Not Public, about Bomb Fallout, New York Times, September 30, 1997.
The term mortal, from the Latin mortalis (meaning subject to death;
human), is understood here in contrast to the immortal, who is deathless and
therefore atemporal.
Walter Benjamin, Paralipomena to On the Concept of History, in Walter
Benjamin: Selected Writings, Vol. 4, 19381940, edited by Howard Eiland and Michael
W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003), 405.

William J. Broad, The Bomb Chroniclers, New York Times, September 13,

Department of Energy, National Nuclear Security Administration, Nevada
Field Office, Historical Test Films,

This point is made elegantly by Wolfgang Ernst, Between Real Time and
Memory on Demand: Reflections on/of Television, South Atlantic Quarterly 101, no.
3 (Summer 2002): 634.
Operation DOMINIC Nuclear Tests 1962, The Internet Archive, http://

Respectively, the descriptions for Atomic Weapons Orientation Part Five and
Six (Videotape, No. 800070, no date), Operation Dominic FireballsPacific Testing
(Videotape, No. 800029, 1962), Operation Doorstep and Operation Cue (Videotape, No.
800033, 1953), Atomic Blasts, Operations Greenhouse through Upshot-Knothole (Videotape,
No. 800042, 195153), and Starfish Prime Test Interim and Fishbowl Auroral Sequences

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(Videotape, No. 800062, 1962), all available for ordering via the U.S. Department of
Energy, National Nuclear Security Administration, Nevada Field Office, Historical
Test Films,
Jon Else, on the footage of The Day after Trinity, quoted by Michael Renov,
Filling up the Hole in the Real: Death and Mourning in Contemporary Documentary
Film and Video, in The Subject of Documentary, edited by Michael Renov (Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 2004), 120.
As an analog, one might think of Bruce Conners film Report (1967), where
holes punched into the leader accompany the radio announcement of President John
F. Kennedys death. These perforations are normally visible only to film projectionists,
but in Report, they serve as visible lacunae in the heart of the films body.
The punctum could accommodate a certain latency. Roland Barthes, Camera
Lucida, translated by Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 53.

Ibid., 81.




Akira Lippit, Atomic Light (Shadow Optics), (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), 80.

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