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Bunker is the gripping story of Bradley Garrett’s encounters with contemporary survivalists and the structures they build as an antidote to their existential dread. In grappling with this phenomenon, Garrett darts across North America, Asia, Europe and Australia, descending into panic rooms, converted missile silos and urban assault vehicles to meet with lone-wolf and off-grid preppers, militarized Mormons and an impressive number of property developers. He finds a growing sub-culture which is driven by a shifting blend of anxieties about nuclear war, extreme weather events, immigrant invasions, electro-magnetic pulses, asteroid impacts and, over and over again, an intrusive state.
From the prison to the plantation and from the gated community to the refugee camp, human geographers have long developed an interest in modernity’s architectural archetypes and the subjectivities they have shaped. Over the last decade, an interdisciplinary field of research has examined the bunker as an attempt to create a biopolitical membrane between the self and a hostile world. Whereas existing studies have predominantly explored the politics and afterlife of twentieth-century air raid and fallout shelters (Beck, 2011 Bennett, 2017; Berger 2016; Klinke, 2015; Masco, 2009), Garrett is the first to produce an in-depth study of early twenty-first-century private bunker construction. This makes Bunker an original and indeed timely snapshot of an emerging world which has the tendency to hunker down and bug-out rather than confront its self-made problems.
For those familiar with his work, it will come as no surprise that this is hands-on research. Yes, Kierkegaard, Freud and Heidegger all make appearances, but there is plenty of adventure to help the story along. Indeed, Garrett ventures into the Australian outback with his own mobile 4x4 bunker, camps out underground with some lost souls and journeys on foot into the radioactively contaminated forests surrounding Chernobyl. And yet, the book always provides historical context, including a thorough account of North American civil defense and survivalism, the two most obvious precursors of the current wave of doomsday prepping.
Bunker has two argumentative strands. The first poses the question of the bunker as an adequate response to a world which is heading for anthropogenic destruction. Here, the subterranean citadel emerges as a spatial insurance policy against a broad range of threats and is assessed against its ability to deliver on this promise. The second, and in my view more interesting avenue, examines the bunker as a source of collective anxiety, rather than merely its symptom. The bunker is approached here as an object of fantasy sold by ‘dread merchants’, who offer their clientele survival, often in luxury. And yet, much of what they are selling seems to be, on closer inspection, hot air. We learn about large construction projects used to launder money and bunkers which are advertised online with glossy photos despite their failure to receive planning permission. Here readers may hear the voice of the late Paul Virilio, who insisted that the bunker was in essence a performance of impenetrability, designed to mask insecurity and fear.
Most of all, the book lives off its (male) protagonists, all of whom are introduced with an eye for detail. There is Larry Hall, the control-freak ex-Northrop Grumman employee with a degree in business studies, whose luxury bunker offers yoga classes, a swimming pool and a deli with three types of tilapia. It also features remote controlled sniper rifles installed against intruders, so, as Hall happily clarifies, ‘you can kill people like it’s a video game’. Then there is the creepy narcissist Robert Vicino, whose construction company builds bunkers which are resilient against a second great flood (caused of course by the passing planet Nibiru) and who fantasizes about chaining teenage waitresses up in his bunker (yup). Even more ominously, we encounter Blake, a devout evangelical, who longs for a post-apocalyptic world in which he is finally free to use his gun without guilt: ‘I won’t feel remorse, I won’t feel bad, I’ll kill anybody that gets in my way, I’ll kill anybody that tries to get into this facility, and I won’t think twice about it.’ There is relief, he adds, in the simplicity of naked survival, comfort in a bunkered space without anxiety or guilt.
The language of subterranean cruise ships and bullet proof insurance policies which the dread merchants use to advertise their products made me think of Herbert Marcuse’s one-dimensional man. Marcuse wrote in 1964 about a late capitalist existence which was enslaved by false needs and which had unlearned the capacity for critique. Noting the way in which deluxe fallout shelters had by the 1960s become a part of the suburban family home in liberal democracies, he saw one dimensional man as emerging at the intersection of consumerism and survivalism, a subject which found it more difficult to imagine forgoing its comfort than to question the nuclearization of the society it inhabited. He warned that the threat of nuclear annihilation served itself ‘to protect the very forces which perpetuate this danger’ in that the attempt to prepare for such a catastrophe had replaced the quest for its causes (Marcuse, 1964: xxxix). Although a key reference point for the social movements that emerged in the late 1960s, Marcuse’s book seems to have had little imprint on prepper ideology.
Garrett’s preppers seem to be guided by a very familiar (Trumpian) compass, which features a desire for militarized boundaries and self-sufficiency, a concern with comfort and class privilege and a rejection of urban life and politics. Some of them are more on the libertarian spectrum whilst others are Christian conservatives. And yet, what sets them apart from Marcuse’s subject of advanced industrial society is their insatiable desire for conspiracy theory. In this, the prepper is in fact a subject with a rampant capacity for critique which is inflicted on all existing forms of authority and knowledge, though never on the ideology of survivalism itself. The prepper then strikes me as an over-interpellated social Darwinian zombie for the post-truth age. As one of Garrett’s respondents concedes, he is but a cheaper version of Elon Musk, who has replaced the conquest of new living space in outer space with a more modest descent into the earth.
I was unsurprised to find that, with only a handful of exceptions, the dread merchants and their customers are middle-aged, white and often wealthy men who are obsessed with the idea of forging sealed communities, shielded from their overwhelming sense of dread. There are female preppers in Bunker, but they are not the central characters. The men, however, strike me as subjects for whom maternal femininity is something mysterious that needs to be controlled and recreated. Preppers think of bunkers as having ‘umbilical cords’, they talk about ‘serious mother-fucking bunkers’ and fanaticize about returning to a hardened womb, quiet and safe from societal pressures and intrusions, only to be ‘reborn’. I was particularly intrigued by the recurring trope of a secure subterranean family space. The latter seems to me a tamer version of the fantasy that motivated the Austrian Josef Fritzl in the 1980s to begin an incestuous ‘second family’ in a soundproof bunker, which he had built over the course of two years underneath his family home. Fritzl was no doomsday prepper, but was certainly driven by paranoia, an obsession with control and the quest for a safe space for his violent fantasies. When convicted in 2009 of murder, enslavement and rape, he stated that he had only ever tried to protect his daughter from the dangerous world above ground.
The Fritzl case may be a particularly abhorrent version of a subterranean paternal fantasy, but I think there are traces of this fantasy in the statements of Garrett’s respondents. I wanted to hear more about the internal conflicts individual preppers seek to resolve underground and wondered whether they are making sure that their toxic masculinity too will be reborn into a post-apocalyptic world. At some points in the book, the preppers’ dread seems to have rubbed off on the author, as he admits to longing to descend back into the simplicity of a bunkered existence. Much like Kezia Barker (2020), he attempts to resist, or at least complicate, the pathologizing gaze upon preppers that pervades journalistic accounts. His desire to tell a different kind of story risks a partial identification with his prepper subjects and does at times get in the way of a fuller investigation of the paranoia that structures their inner world.
Even if the current pandemic seems to prove the survivalists right, the most pertinent question is perhaps not ‘are they right to be paranoid?’, but ‘what function does paranoia play in sustaining the prepping subject?’. There is a crucial difference between an affective reaction to the threat of human extinction, caused by a nuclear war or indeed a pandemic, and persecutory anxiety, especially when it is paired with an obsessive investment in human extinction. What is crucial about paranoia is less that it is specific to the current age, which it is not (think anti-Semitism, McCarthyism etc.), but that it is an active shaping of the world. As one of Garrett’s preppers recounts, some members of his ‘Almost Heaven’ community split off in the 1990s and formed a paramilitary group. They were ‘looking for Armageddon, and if it didn’t come, they were going to cause it’. Paranoia can thus never be proven wrong because it always already inhabits a world of alternative facts.
None of this should distract from the fact that this book is a magnificent achievement, packed with fascinating reflections on patterns of anxiety and written for a broader audience which no doubt will receive it with great interest. It has little of the often-apolitical dreaminess of Robert Macfarlane’s 2019 Underland and also manages to steer away from the Nazi-centrism that marks much writing on bunkers, including my own. The book benefits tremendously from the fact that the preppers are so keen to speak to Garrett, either in the hope that he will help them advertise their products or because they desire for him to immortalize them in his writing. Bunker is a must read for anyone interested in the types of future subjects who might inhabit a society organized entirely around the principle of human survival. We can only hope that we won’t be here if and when its time comes.
Barker K (2020) How to survive the end of the future: Preppers, pathology, and the everyday crisis of insecurity. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 45: 483–496.
Beck, J. (2011) Concrete ambivalence: Inside the bunker complex. Cultural Politics 7: 79–102.
Bennett, L. (2017) In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker: Affect, Materiality and Meaning Making. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.
Berger Ziauddin, S. (2016) (De)territorializing the home: The nuclear bomb shelter as a malleable site of passage. Environment and Planning D 35: 674-693.
Klinke, I. (2015) The bunker and the camp: Inside West Germany’s nuclear tomb. Environment and Planning D 33: 154–168.
MacFarlane R (2019) Underland: A deep time journey. London: Penguin.
Marcuse H (1964) One dimensional man: Studies in the ideology of advanced industrial society. London: Routledge.
Masco, J. (2009) Life underground: Building the bunker society. Anthropology Now 1: 13–29.
Ian Klinke is an associate professor in human geography at the University of Oxford. He is the author of Cryptic concrete: A subterranean journey into Cold War Germany (2018, Wiley).