The time capsule and the cut-up: Negotiating temporality, anticipating catastrophe

John Beck, Mark Dorrian

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The first feature film made about the design and deployment of the atomic bomb, The Beginning or the End (1947), begins with fake newsreel footage depicting the burial in a time capsule of a copy of the film and a projector to show it on. The scene, with its funereal overtones yet grim optimism that, even in the face of catastrophic destruction, the germ of civilization will endure, recalls the ceremonies surrounding the interment of the Westinghouse time capsule at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. Time capsules, this article argues, stand in a complex relation to war and temporality, seeking to at once anticipate and work through the challenge posed to futurity by the threat of global conflict. As a container, the capsule attempts to deliver and control the reception of a legible inventory of the present, yet the principle of selection and the impossibility of predicting how information might be received in the deep future – if it is received at all – threatens this aim. The dilemma faced by time capsule curators is, we argue with reference to William Burroughs’ and Brion Gysin’s so-called cut-up method of writing, one of control. By reading the time capsule through the cut-up, anticipated catastrophe can be seen to be functioning proleptically in the in the present and already active as a challenge to the capsule as proof against disaster.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-20
Number of pages20
JournalTheory, Culture & Society
Early online date13 Oct 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 13 Oct 2020


  • time capsule
  • cut up
  • Cold War
  • temporality
  • World's Fair
  • future
  • catastrophe
  • heterotopia


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