Nuclear radiation is in our food; it’s in our medicine and it’s in the technologies used to diagnose and study disease. Nuclear energy is what powers our light bulbs, and it is also what provides nations in the Global North with cheap, low-carbon electricity. Nuclear radiation is also, and misleadingly, deemed a “clean” source of energy. Ionized radiation has been proven to induce cancerous gene mutations, and this becomes all the more problematic when nuclear waste can remain radioactive for tens to hundreds of thousands of years. Nuclear power is also used for geopolitical leverage all the while nuclear power plants are increasingly vulnerable to terrorist attacks, human error, and natural disaster. For these and other reasons nuclear power is a matter of pressing public, scientific, and governmental concern. As a consequence, the Nuclear Culture Roundtable hosted by Het Nieuwe Instituut, and convened by Ele Caprenter, couldn’t be more timely.
In general, the panel performed the important service of demonstrating the need for a more sustained and critical conversation concerning the ecological, aesthetic, and geopolitical consequences a planet bathing in nuclear radiation. And in this regard, each of the panelists raised essential questions about the viability of our prevailing paradigms of knowledge and expertise for engaging with the unknown effects of radioactive matter. Instead of rehearsing individual arguments, I will underscore some of the major themes (pertaining to narrative, geopolitics, colonialism, and media) that emerged over the course of the two and a half hour session in order to raise a series of questions and concerns that invite much further reflection.
But before I do so, I want to emphasize that “Nuclear Culture” is an area of research that is under development. This is not meant to be a criticism, but it is rather an observation gleaned not only from my own knowledge of the emerging field, but also, and perhaps more tellingly, from the range of discursive and disciplinary alliances represented on the panel, as well as the absence of a shared conceptual framework capable of responding to the questions that brought the panelists together in the first place. For if interrogating the vicissitudes of nuclear matter is what framed the afternoon session, then for whom and in what way this issue comes to matter most was left unanswered.
However, the fact that explicit agendas and well-rehearsed responses could not be found during the afternoon session is precisely what makes research on nuclear culture so important. While the topic of the panel could not be more pressing for a species whose time on earth may be nearing its end, what’s clear is that there are no ready-made answers, already-established academic frameworks, or grand metanarratives capable of being easily and widely deployed to silence difficult questions from being asked. Indeed, questions about radioactive matter and the future of life on earth are not only posed in the hallowed halls of academia or within the sanitized spaces of the art gallery, but they are also of deep concern to the billions of lives affected by nuclear waste, to the marginalized bodies that continue to bear the burden of militarized global development, and to the neoliberal bureaucrats, the dictatorships, and the modern nation states who weave stories about our relation to radioactive matter.
In this respect, the organizers succeeded in showcasing an impressive range of concerned voices. For instance, Ewoud Verhoef, a scientist who works for the Central Organisation for Radioactive Waste (COVRA), which is the only company in the Netherlands qualified to collect, process, and store radioactive waste, gave a rather pro forma overview of how radioactive waste is isolated, controlled, and monitored. He discussed COVRA’s treatment and storage facility in Zeeland and drew particular attention to its use of visual art (HABOG) to visualize (on the outside of the building) the process of waste disposal (what’s happening on the inside). In short: visual art is used to mediate the public’s relation to nuclear waste.
If Verhoef’s presentation seemed unsurprisingly naïve to critically minded readers of material culture, then the last presentation, given by Svitlana Matviyenko on citizenship and contamination, provided a necessary rejoinder to Verhoef’s state-sponsored optimism. Drawing on historical archives, extensive fieldwork, and a broad range of discourses in the theoretical humanities, Matviyenko reconceptualized the Chernobyl disaster in relation to Cold War secrets and posthuman politics. For Matviyenko, not only does the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone index a Soviet “technocratic catastrophe,” but it also, and much more profoundly, marks the production of distinct biopolitical phenomena: an accidental biological citizenship where membership is determined by the actions of a technocratic state (the Zone) being inscribed into flesh of its population – a “post-human post-Soviet” citizenry.
The Anthropocene by Design
What emerged from these two presentations, however, is more significant than a simple opposition between critical and optimistic views of the state in the age of ubiquitous radioactivity. Rather, it became clear that we are also being presented with different, though related, ways to conceive of the state’s management of narratives about nuclear waste and disposal. The state apparatus (whether Soviet or neoliberal) is in the business of mediating (via Cold War secrecy or visual art) how its citizenry relates to nuclear matter and to geological and atmospheric transformations more generally. Of course this raises important questions about the relation between the state apparatus and its control of the rhetoric of radioactivity, and whether this rhetoric serves to reinforce and intensify the state-form that produced it.
And yet, what was curiously missing from this discussion about the rhetorical technologies of the state (save a brief mention by Ruby de Vos) is the most recent global nuclear incident: the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011. But if the Japanese government was famously underprepared for the disaster and mismanaged the narrative from the beginning (leaving little confidence that the state could handle nuclear crisis), then the incident also catalyzed artistic responses that experimented with alternative possibilities for communication during nuclear disaster. As the media theorist Thomas Lamarre notes, Makoto Shinkai’s anime feature, Your Name (2016), explores how non-state actors can take control of narratives to generate alternative possibilities for civic engagement. Citizen groups, as opposed to the military (the Jietai), are mobilized through alternative communication channels to save communities during nuclear disaster. The proposal for autonomously designed citizen action groups also raises a number of questions about those marginalized populations that are (biopolitically) excluded from state-sponsored narratives, and how to design the conditions for their protection and wellbeing (more on this below).
Art, Nuclear Futures
But if technologies of political discursivity stood out as especially relevant for thinking about nuclear disaster, then so did art’s capacity to challenge many of our dominant assumptions about the temporality and significance of radioactive waste. Indeed, Andy Weir’s art-research project, which is also a featured in the Neuhaus exhibition, investigates the many scales of time and experience (both human and nonhuman) involved in the communication of safe waste disposal to future generations. To address this challenge, Weir borrows the notion of an “interscalar vehicle” from Gabrielle Hecht in order to (re-)design (ancient) relics to communicate with a distant future, and thus fold scales of space and time together that are generally thought to be separate. By bringing the ancient past (the mythological figure of Pazuzu, from the ancient Mesopotamians) into contact with the far future through a technological present (via open-source 3D scanning), Weir problematizes dominant narratives about the (linear) time and meaning of radioactivity.
Although Weir’s presentation was conceptually rich and full of useful insights and playful reveries, it was nonetheless exemplary of a more general tendency among the panelists: namely, to focus on radioactive futures, and pay far less, if any, attention to how geopolitical, racial, and colonial asymmetries condition what nuclear futures will emerge. If Ruby de Vos’ response to Weir primed us to reflect on our responsibility in the present, then, once again, it was posed in terms of “future generations.” And if Matviyenko gave us a rich conceptual genealogy of a “post-human post-Soviet” citizenry, then it left us wondering about the bio- and necropolitical exclusions on which this citizenry is built. In short, difficult questions about the histories of racial and colonial violence that make nuclear production possible were not addressed, despite the fact they frame how we think, act, and live with radioactive matter.
Here is the larger point: our nuclear futures cannot be separated from the forces of colonization and racial violence that condition what futures are possible and for whom they matter. Consider the nuclear colonization of Niger by France. Uranium mining is a huge industry in Niger (it has the forth largest uranium reserves in the world), but the small sub-Saharan nation receives a fraction of what it is owed in terms of national GDP. What’s more, uranium mining continues to pose serious health and environmental risks to a nation that lacks the infrastructure and resources to combat the devastating effects of colonial extractivism. Meanwhile, France continues to assert its dominance on the world stage of nuclear power (France derives about 75% of its total energy from nuclear power) thanks to the energy and labor extraction it derives from its (former) colony.This is but one example of nuclear colonialism (which includes practices of testing and disposal) that, unfortunately, illustrates the geopolitical rule rather than the exception.
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.