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Mediating No One('s) Anthropocene

This also brings Kathryn Yusoff’s argument in A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None into sharp focus: “As the Anthropocene proclaims the language of species-life–anthropos–through a universalist geologic commons, it neatly erases histories of racism that were incubated through the regulatory structure of geologic relations. The racial categorization of Blackness shares its natality with mining the New World… racialization belongs to a material categorization of the division of matter (corporeal and mineralogical) into active and inert.”Kathryn Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018): 2.  What’s at stake here, and the study of nuclear culture would do well to heed, is that the universalist discourse of anthropos (and the need to save it from the nuclear destruction that it makes possible) is a product of colonial design: it is borne out the violent negation of the non-White bodies (rendered inert and lifeless matter) that are its conditions of possibility. For Yosuff, the racial dimension of geology allows a wholly different geologic come into view (rather than a more “inclusive” universal humanism): “The history of Blackness,” she writes, “by its very negation in the category of nonbeing within economies of Whiteness, lives differently in the earth.”

Without going any deeper into Yosuff’s argument, the issue I want to underscore is that the production of nuclear energy through Promethean efforts of human design is inextricably tied to violent entanglements of race and earth in the ongoing practices of colonial extractivism. And these practices need to become the centerpiece of any biopolitics of nuclear matter that aims to resist the reproduction of universalist frameworks that deem only certain lives worth saving.

To recap, if one of the goals of the nuclear culture roundtable was to examine the ways in which humans and nonhumans are and will be affected by radioactivity, then what the panel also made clear is that we are in dire need of critical theories capable of addressing how radioactive matter ontologically reshapes human and nonhuman life. More than this, we require new theories of mediation that express the geopolitically violent conditions under which nuclear radiation became a medium for organisms to grow, reproduce, and die on earth. These are media ontologies that can no longer erase the lives and subjectivities that have been negated in order for radioactive presents and futures to emerge; nor can they fail to address the lives that continue to be reduced to non-being when we hear the cries of responsibility (for nuclear futures) in the name of “universal humanity” resound. In short, these are media ontologies that must be sensitive to the biochemical transformation of organisms, as well as to the racial, subjective, and discursive materials upon which these radioactive transformations are built. The nuclear mediation of life does not respect modern divisions between nature and culture, subject and object, and the living and nonliving; indeed, this is a form of elemental mediation designed at the intersection of various geologies, histories, subjectivities, labor practices, state apparatuses, economies, and more.  

If we are going to hold out hope for anti-racist nuclear futures, futures that do not regard some lives more grievable than others (as Judith Butler would say), then it is because we believe in the possibility of creating pluriversal (and not universal) practices that resist all pleas to save the anthropos that “we” hold in common. And while I started this roundtable review by noting that Nuclear Culture seems like an ill-defined field that lacks prescribed frameworks and well-rehearsed arguments, I would also like to add that these are precisely the characteristics that need to be preserved lest research on Nuclear Culture falls prey to an onto-epistemological colonization that risks destroying the very thing it wishes to preserve: life on earth.

AJ Nocek, PhD is Assistant Professor, Philosophy of Technology, Arizona State University, Founding Director, The Center for Philosophical Technologies, Arizona State University, Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), Visiting Professor, Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis, University of Amsterdam.