PHILOSOPHY
ECOLOGY
POLITICS

Radiation and Revolution

6 March 2021

 

Excerpt from Radiation and Revolution, Duke University Press, 2020. The photographs accompanying the excerpt below are by JASON WAITE.

Image credit: Jason Waite

THE MASTERLESS OBJECT (無主物)

              adiation emitted through nuclear fission is the source of nuclear energy. As we all know now, its leakage is an inevitable consequence of that energy production. It happens sooner or later at some point in time, because the half-lives of certain radionuclides outlive the endurance of any built structures. The facilities wane. Operators make human mistakes. Mechanical accidents take place. Earthquakes or hurricanes hit. That is, radioactive contamination is inevitable, more or less, in our environment. Radionuclides unleashed from the encasement permeate the environment in a way we can hardly control or predict; this permeation embodies what we call chaos. As we have seen, the acts of radioactive/ radiosensitive crowds to deal with radionuclides are opening a new ontological dimension. Hypothetically, I think of this as a shifting ontology from the World to the Earth, but there are unknown elements involved in the shift. It is necessary to approach it in various registers.


///


The Japanese term mushubutsu (無主物) is translated into English as either “masterless object” or “ownerless object” and corresponds to res nullius (nobody’s property) in Roman law. It refers to anything — land, plants, animals, slaves (or labor power), fire, and so on — that is not yet or no longer the object of any specific subject in the legal sense. 


In post – nuclear disaster Japan, this term captured public attention when TEPCO made a shameless yet candid statement at a hearing against it in November 2011, saying that radioactivity is originally a masterless object that does not belong to TEPCO, and that therefore the company is not responsible for cleaning up the radioactive nuclides unleashed from its crippled nuclear reactors. Executives from TEPCO argued that removing these nuclides from the property of the plaintiff, Sunfield Nihonmatsu Golf Course, would be an unheard-of challenge and would cost an astronomical sum, as the nuclides could no longer be separated from the land. (1)


In using the concept of mushubutsu, TEPCO implies that its ownership of the energy commodity — split atoms of uranium — is limited to instances in which atomic energy is confined within constant capital (nuclear reactors) and when these are running smoothly and accruing profit. However, once that encasement is torn apart, the unleashed radioactivity is no longer under its technical mastery and corporate ownership. Simply put, TEPCO claims that once atomic energy misbehaves, the company is no longer obligated or even able to take care of it.

 
The treatment of this special commodity by TEPCO has thus begun to mirror the ways in which the company has always treated another original and special commodity — namely, its variable capital (human nuclear labor), which is disowned once one develops radiation-related diseases and begins to malfunction. This follows the modus operandi of capitalism, which is to extract resources from society and the environment (in the form of capital) and impose back on them the wastes created. Such is the formula of all industrial pollution. But in the instance of Fukushima and all other radioactive leaks, the consequences are catastrophic, as this particular waste cannot be recycled by any known procedure, and its nano activity will ceaselessly continue to attack and genetically mutate all life forms in the surrounding environment, for years to come. 


Nuclear contaminants behave like a group of disowned workers roaming around society and posing threat to its stability. These unleashed objects need to be reowned by the company and remastered by the state in a new way. Otherwise, the situation will lead to an unknown sociobiological mutation — an ontological anarchy!


The self-exemption from responsibility by TEPCO was alarming but anticipated; it is not a surprise that the company would sacrifice anything to its corporate interests. At the time of the 2011 hearing, the desperate entreaty of TEPCO executives for permission to abandon the crippled reactors and evacuate their workers from the area was still vivid in collective memory. This request came during a critical phase when the exploding reactors could have set Armageddon into motion and made most parts of Japan and indeed the world unlivable. Japanese prime minister Kan Naoto rejected TEPCO’s request and issued an executive order demanding that the company remain onsite to continue tackling the devastating conditions. As the world knows, TEPCO is still doing this.

In the years after the disaster, we have learned the following truths about atomic energy: (1) it is fundamentally impossible to manage radioactivity; (2) despite this, the Japanese government, electric companies, and nuclear industries — the nuclear village — insist on restarting offline nuclear reactors and seek to expand foreign markets to sell the nation’s nuclear technology; (3) other nuclear states, consisting of the world’s great powers — the global nuclear regime — give these actions their tacit approval for their own benefit; (4) meanwhile, unrecyclable radioactive waste is accumulating without proper sealing for protection; (5) no political protests or activist movements in Japan or the world can stop the global threat of the nuclear sublime and yet, all the while, people continue to struggle endlessly to protect their lives against the effects of nuclear radiation.


Thus, we are coerced to cohabitate with the unleashed radionuclides, namely, the masterless object. In a strange inversion, the concept of the masterless object shares ontological characteristics with that of the commons. The principle of autonomous communities, “the commons,” puts forth the idea that all natural resources, human labor, intelligence, and technology be put to communal use, not yet or no longer being commodified and privatized. The commons originates in the environment in a broad sense, when the resources there are not yet or no longer owned or mastered by particular humans. This is the state in which the world as an assembly of human communities would be becoming itself in a proper arrangement, not only within itself, but also together with planet Earth. There are many dimensions of commoning, the original form of which is the sharing of solar energy. The Sun offers its free and universal gift of endless energy, which it creates in nuclear fusion of its solar activity, to its daughter, the planetary body and her inhabitants. But in this scenario, the daughter can sustain herself only by keeping a proper distance from her dreadful father. From the vantage point of the planet and its inhabitants, the Sun can be figured as the primary commons.

R

R

                    the World (an assembly of human societies) and the Earth (a material system that [un]grounds the World) are colliding and together appear as a masterless object, a mushubutsu — whose effects are increasingly uncontrollable — as dreadful chaos for us, without any transcendental entity that could possibly master it.

Image credit: Jason Waite

Prometheus, who in Greek mythology stole fire from Olympus and gave it to mankind, and who then suffered Zeus’s eternal punishment, is nowadays spoken of as an allegory for humanity having discovered radioactivity. Similarly, the nuclear reactor is often figured as a “small sun.” In these allegories, the history of nuclear power — beginning with the generation of radioactivity in the laboratory, to its use for producing the nuclear bomb (in the Manhattan Project), and then to the diversion of this military technology to energy production for civilian use — represents humanity’s desecration of the Sun. The eternal punishment inflicted on humanity for this act is the unprecedented threat of nuclear things against all living beings.


The series of modern nuclear catastrophes, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, Lucky Dragon 5 (Daigo Fukuryū Maru) in 1954, Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986, and Fukushima in 2011, has proven that, for the masses, the use of atomic energy — whether through nuclear warfare, inevitable reactor accidents, or the uncontrollable accumulation of unrecyclable waste — ends up having the same effects on living bodies: namely, internal and/or external radiation exposure. Even when it is used intentionally, either as weapon or energy source, nuclear power belongs to the genetic category of the accident, wherein the half-lives of nuclear decay span an astronomical length of time (twenty-four thousand years) — which, in the case of energy production, can be artificially encased only temporarily, as it waits for the wearing away or breaking down of the encasement sooner or later, at some point in the future.


Be that as it may, can we consider nuclear development an act of “humanity”? Furthermore, can we see the catastrophic consequences it exerts as the “punishment” of humanity by a transcendent entity? As we have seen, the answer is doubly No! 


It is imperative to account for the effects of nuclear spillage in light of the political ontology of commons. The principle of commoning prioritizes the willingness and capacity of a community to recycle negative commons — that is, to also treat wastes as commons. In other words, a community must declare itself responsible for taking care of the leftovers of its life processes. Commoning is not only a set of principles for communally organizing access to wealth (natural or social) but also a set of principles for reintegrating wastes, toxins, and hazardous byproducts of production and consumption into the regenerative cycles of distinct ecosystems upon which communities depend.(2) It has proven impossible to do this with radioactive wastes, which remain dispersed in our immediate living environment for an unknowable length of time, and which can never be assimilated into an ecosystem’s metabolic cycles. Radioactive wastes are thus the ultimate form of negative commons or the antiworld, which is displaced from a proper and safe distance — a distance of many millions of miles, which keeps the Earth daughter safe from her Sun father — and now produced within the Earth’s own planetary atmosphere.

 

As a historical fact, nuclear wastes as negative commons have never been generated by a community of people who have adopted commoning. They have instead been created by the specific form of industrial capitalist development backed by technoscientific progressivism that appeared in the twentieth century during the process of America establishing its global hegemony in the Pacific War, then during the Cold War and the concomitant formation of the global nuclear regime. Nuclear projects were created and developed by this specific power apparatus (or the military – industrial complex) and not by humankind in general. Despite this, the potential effects of nuclear governance are imposed on the entirety of humanity and all living organisms. This conjuncture has prompted many thinkers to speak emphatically of nuclear threat as a concern for all of humanity, especially after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the event that defined antinuclear discourse in the postwar period; thus antinuclear discourse came to stress the big picture of all-or-nothing crisis.


In post-Fukushima Japan, despite early expectations and hopes, the collusion of nuclear capitalism and the nuclear state has endured up until today, through nine years of wide-ranging disaster. Many of us expected a big change to come. But it did not. Or it has not so far. Beginning in December 2011, the state and Fukushima Prefecture set forth a line of policy progressing from radioactive decontamination to the return of evacuated residents to the reconstruction of the region. Since the onset, the publicized goals of the state and industry have grown more and more distant from the actual situation concerning radioactive contamination in which many commoners are living and struggling.

Decontamination creates endless piles of radioactive soil and debris simply packed in plastic bags; every attempt to seal the collapsed reactors has been futile and the dumping of polluted water into the ocean continues. Indeed, statements made by the government and corporations today sound increasingly like sheer fantasy. In accordance with this false narrative, state propaganda campaigns have fabricated the image of a “safe Fukushima” by canceling the evacuation order, rearranging evacuation zones, raising the number at which radiation levels are considered safe so that areas can be deemed decontaminated, dismissing consumers’ vocalization of fear as “inciting rumors,” and so forth.
Meanwhile, Fukushima and its vicinity have become a big laboratory for testing the endurance of individuals and communities to radioactive contamination. In Miharu and Minamisoma, Fukushima, the Center for Environmental Creation (Kankyo Sōzō Senta) is being established using 19 billion yen from the budget allocated to the revitalization of Fukushima, an initiative that is being comanaged by Fukushima Prefecture, the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, and the National Institute for Environmental Studies. 
(3) The International Atomic Energy Agency (or Atoms for Peace) will soon relocate one of its offices to Fukushima to conduct research on radioactive decontamination and waste treatment as well as to educate people on how to live with radioactivity.(4)


In this way, the post – nuclear disaster state seeks to absorb the devastating effects of nuclear spillage and to rearticulate them as positive modes for empowerment by means of governance, seeking to make profit from nuclear waste (the masterless object) and recapturing and mobilizing disaster victims, including evacuees (the human form of the masterless object), both for the so-called reconstruction of Fukushima. In collaboration with the pronuclear powers of the World, the Japanese state seems determined to make northern Honshu (and, eventually, the entirety of Japan) a test site for a new type of commercial enterprise in the form of radioactive waste treatment — including the doomed attempts to start the actual operation of Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant in Aomori Prefecture. 

                    Nuclear contaminants behave like a group of disowned workers roaming around society and posing threat to its stability. These unleashed objects need to be reowned by the company and remastered by the state in a new way. Otherwise, the situation will lead to an unknown sociobiological mutation — an ontological anarchy!

Image credit: Jason Waite

It is essential to stress that the primary byproduct of nuclear reactor activity is plutonium, which is used for producing nuclear weapons. (5) The countries that produce the most nuclear energy for civil use as fuel — including, in order of number of reactors, the United States, France, China, and Russia — are overwhelmingly armed with nuclear weapons as well, with the exception of Japan. (6) That is, Japan tacitly reserves the capacity and authority to be armed with nuclear weapons, or at least to take part in nuclear weapons deals in world politics. The escalating rearmament policy of the present Shinzō Abe administration can be seen, then, as Japan’s attempt at reentry into the competition among nuclear states for planetary governance.


///


World History has moved through different and distinct phases by means of migration, trade, cultural interchange, infrastructural and technoindustrial development, and war — all of these in interaction with intraplanetary movements over territories small and large, regional and transcontinental. The driving force behind each phase has always been the impetus of commerce and governance toward totalization/expansion. As more or less blood is spilled in atrocities, different totalities emerge from distinct governmental motivations, producing different “world pictures.” (7)


The dominant world picture today is an extension or end limit of the imperialist West’s colonial expansion and the subsequent formation of global capitalism, with two closings of oceanic space — triangular trade over the Atlantic and the US intervention over the Pacific — which coalesced into the current cartographic configuration of both sovereign states and transnational alliances. The space of the World has been thus closed by the violent acts of the West’s expansion, and yet more expansion continues, for example, by China’s expansionism epitomized by the Belt and Road Initiative. All the while, the scars on the planetary body are getting larger and deeper.


At the same time, threats against humanity are no longer limited to the nuclear. The effects of industrial development, such as global warming, are increasingly imposed upon us. The philosopher Timothy Morton describes both omnipresent and totalizing threats as hyperobjects: “things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans,” that are nevertheless becoming increasingly close to humans, such as “a black hole, the biosphere, or the Solar System”; “the sum total of all the nuclear materials on Earth, or just the plutonium, or the uranium”; and human products whose effects are very long lasting such as Styrofoam or plastic bags or the sum of all the whirring machinery of capitalism. (8) These objects derange the order of our spatiotemporal senses that used to give us the stability of world order. The revelation of hyperobjects is epochal in the sense that they destine our bodies, minds, societies, and the environment. Certainly, recent debates and discourses on the Anthropocene epitomize efforts to grasp the effects of humankind on the planet. 

In such lines of thinking, the World (an assembly of human societies) and the Earth (a material system that [un]grounds the World) are colliding and together appear as a masterless object, a mushubutsu — whose effects are increasingly uncontrollable — as dreadful chaos for us, without any transcendental entity that could possibly master it. Thus, the logic of totality — of humanity, the World, or the planet being on the verge of ultimate catastrophe or apocalypse — captures our real perception on one level. However, on another level, this logic fails to convey the multiplicity of existential sufferings felt by the masses, which are unevenly distributed and engender myriad forms of struggle for survival. This multiplicity can be approached only through the singular experiences of people’s lives-as-struggle. We seem to be lost in the vast and complex realm between totality and singularity. It is necessary for us to find a way to coordinate between the macro or totalizing projections and at the same time the micro or empirical investigations, for further empowerment of our lives-as-struggle toward planetary revolution.


///


What is radiation, after all? Is it really an object? As the concept of masterless object (無主物), uttered by TEPCO for self-exemption, revealed unwittingly, radiation is less an object than a mode of existence or event, wherein split atoms of uranium are merging with the environment in nano dimension, following the complexity of planetary flows. It appears as chaos to our perception, that is, as a messy situation wherein our mind cannot make connection with the overcomplex reality in which our body is substantially thrown. It is radiation that makes our reality that is already chaotic deadly so. After Fukushima, the chaotic permeation of radioactive contamination in small doses has become an irreversible process, with which more or less people must live. One will still have to see the extensiveness of what we must do and the potency of what we can do to outlive its effects. In this sense, the Fukushima nuclear disaster is far from over; it has just begun.


Radiation is deadly and invincible for all vital activities. But it should not be considered transcendent or treated as mere enemy. Instead it must be dealt with through full passion, care, and rigor, both technopolitically and ontometaphysically, for us to live happy lives in the catastrophe. In other words, radiation must be treated differently from the post – nuclear disaster governance that politically and economically forces us to share it. Therefore, our lives-as-struggle in and against the catastrophe would necessitate two different yet interconnected fronts: one against radiation and another against the nuclear capitalist nation-state.


As exemplified in the efforts of radioactive and radiosensitive crowds, the struggle against radiation is the struggle to protect ourselves from chaos or heterogenesis. According to Deleuze and Guattari, art, science, and philosophy are all seeking to deal with chaos by projecting different operative planes: “They open the firmament and plunge into chaos.” (9) Their acts attempt to find a way to deal with chaos on specific planes of operation — by grasping it as varieties (for sensitivity in art), variables (for recognition in science), and variations (for conceptualization in philosophy). While the efforts of radioactive/sensitive crowds are in the midst of expansion and transformation — and thus, undefinable at the moment — it is certain that they are increasingly involving all possible arts, techniques, wisdoms, and ways of thinking. The point is that “the struggle against chaos does not take place without an affinity with the enemy, because another struggle develops and takes on more importance — the struggle against opinion, which claims to protect us from chaos itself.” (10) This is precisely the distinction between the two fronts of struggle against chaos and against the nuclear capitalist nation-state. Furthermore, it is crucial for the former to develop in such a way as to empower the latter. Herein the victory of post-Fukushima lives-as-struggle is at stake.


The concept of mushubutsu thus reveals the most crucial arena of political conflicts in the post-Fukushima world, being fought between people’s lives-as- struggle to confront the event headlong and the strategy of pronuclear governance to absorb it into the capitalist process of accumulation. To repeat, the real enemy is not radiation but the power that imposes the process of radioactive profitmaking and governance on us, as a way of mastering us.

What this arena of conflict embodies is the breach of World History, along which ontological shifts — including one from the World to flows — are taking place, as the decomposition of the metaphysical principles that hold the logos of the World together and the rise of planetary becoming, which appears to us as chaos at the moment. Along with these shifts, people are fighting against the power of pronuclear governance and the global nuclear regime; however, the modes of their struggles are varied, according to their singular positions in the combined and uneven tentacles of this power. It is the heterogeneity of lives-as-struggle and the reverberation among them which, though effaced by the dominant world picture, contain unrealized potentialities to create other worlds, thanks to their ways of preserving and creating different social relations as well as different relations with the planetary body. In this manner, the concept 無主物 ironically reveals to us the ontological horizon of the antiworld from which many worlds can be created. This is the horizon of our lives-as-struggle: anarchy in the apocalypse.

                    ontological shifts — including one from the World to flows — are taking place, as the decomposition of the metaphysical principles that hold the logos of the World together and the rise of planetary becoming, which appears to us as chaos at the moment.

                    It is imperative to account for the effects of nuclear spillage in light of the political ontology of commons. The principle of commoning prioritizes the willingness and capacity of a community to recycle negative commons — that is, to also treat wastes as commons. In other words, a community must declare itself responsible for taking care of the leftovers of its life processes.

NOTES

1. Motoyuki Maeda. “Puromeiteusu no wana” [The trap of Prometheus]. Asahi Shimbun, November 15 – 27, 2011. http://digital.asahi.com/articles/list/prometheus.html?ref=comr_cnt_pr.


2. This point is addressed in both Caffentzis, George. “Against Nuclear Exceptionalism with a Coda on the Commons and Nuclear Power.” Presentation, Crisis and Commons: Prefigurative Politics after Fukushima, Tokyo University, December 2, 2012; and Mies, Maria, and Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen. “Defending, Reclaiming and Reinventing the Commons.” Canadian Journal of Development Studies 22, no. 4 (2001): 997 – 1023.

3. Ironically, the word sōzō means “complete restoration of the body, soul and spirit; to save, heal and deliver; to be made whole.”

4. Muto Ruiko. “Fukushima genpatsu kokuso-dan no hōkoku” [Report of the Fukushima nuclear prosecution team]. In Posuto-Fukushima no tetsugaku, 178 – 83. Tokyo: Akashi Shoten, 2015.

5. There are two types of plutonium: weapons-grade and reactor-grade. It is unclear whether the reactor-grade variety produced in Japan can be used to create atomic bombs, which require at least 92 percent pure Pu-239. Bombs made with larger amounts of reactor-grade plutonium would be unstable, unpredictable, and dangerous to their creators.

6. Statista website, “Number of Operable Nuclear Reactors as of June 2019, by Country,” accessed March 9, 2020, https://www.statista.com/statistics/267158/number-of-nuclear-reactors-in-operation-by-country/.

7. Heidegger, Martin. “The Age of the World Picture.” In The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, translated by William Lovitt, 115 – 54. New York: Garland, 1977.

8. Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

9. Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. What Is Philosophy?  Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994, 300.

10. Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. What Is Philosophy?  Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994, 240.

Philosophy World Democracy

It will not be a world democracy, since it must be the people themselves who create themselves and arrange themselves. Rather, we affirm a democratic essence of the world: peopled by all the living and by all the conversing, wholly configured by their existence and by their words.