Encounters with nuclear space and time

Reflections on a five-day workshop into the problem of nuclear harm sponsored by the 2016 O’Donnell Endowed Chair in Global Studies.

The obelisk marking the Trinity nuclear test site. In the background are people pressed against the perimeter of the facility in order to read small boards with the official historical narrative.
Image by N.A.J. Taylor

The following is an excerpt from the Prologue (“Encounters with nuclear space and time”) to the instructor’s doctoral thesis, titled The Problem of Nuclear Harm: An Ethical Ecology:


[...] In October 2016, I was invited to design and deliver a course in the emerging interdisciplinary subfield of the Nuclear Humanities to students at a prestigious liberal arts college in the United States. As part of the second day of the course I asked the students to visualise nuclear harm—prompting them to consider what it looks and feels like—in the form of a jig-saw exercise performed on their own and in smaller groups, before regrouping to present what visualisations each group had settled on with the entire class.

Specifically, I asked students to select two images that best depict “the (il)logic[ality] of nuclear deterrence” and “how nuclear harms violate bodies and/or biospheres”, in addition to three images that illustrate “what nuclear pain, suffering and vulnerability looks and/or feels like”. When the class reconvened, each of the groups reported having encountered archival photographic images of atomic survivors—or Hibakusha—of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These sorts of images confronted an underlying “humanity”, or concern for others, many seemed to say. Although, more interestingly still, most of the smaller groups decided it was not appropriate to share these images, even within class, to other students whom they might reasonably expect had seen the images themselves.       

When I probed for reasons as to why, each group’s spokesperson—and also various other individuals—expressed a responsibility for the attacks, either as Americans or as human beings and some felt quite strongly that this burden extended to (re)distributing the images alone. Instead, some groups decided to eschew mimetic representations of the nuclear attacks that graphically depicted human suffering and instead selected artworks, comics or scenes from manga and anime, that in some way stood in for the pain, suffering and vulnerability of the Hibakusha, or atomic survivors (e.g. Group F). Others averted their gaze altogether from depictions of human suffering and towards instead the destruction of built environment, most notably the a-Bomb Dome—or Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall—that still stands in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park today as a marker for human folly and a call for a future peace that we are yet to realise (e.g. Group A). 

In response to the presentations, a debate between students ensued about whether the presence or absence of a human being made any difference to what nuclear harm looks and feels like—just as my string of questions had intended for them to do. Without any of the students expressly acknowledging it, what was at stake appeared to be not merely a battle over the appropriate emotional response, or the limits of responsibility, but a philosophical puzzle concerning the moral status of—and human solidarity with—nonhuman beings and things. As the class adjourned for lunch and the chatter continued down the hall, I reflected upon how unexpectedly effective this experiential and discovery-based pedagogical exercise had been for reaching people with very little nuclear knowledge of any kind. Through visualising nuclear harms my students had grasped how vexing the task of adding ecology to the problem of nuclear harm could be.

It was not until the next day, however, as I led a small number of the students on a fieldtrip to Hanford—where they produced the plutonium for the Trinity nuclear weapons test and the Nagasaki device—in the very early hours of the morning that I realised how formative this encounter had been for them too. As we critically evaluated the ways in which the Manhattan Project was memorialized and commemorated by the government-sponsored tour guides, one of the students remarked how there was surprisingly also “very little to see, but everything to feel”.  

Within days I was travelling interstate with two colleagues—my sponsor Shampa Biswas and long-time collaborator Stefanie Fishel—to the annual open-day of the Trinity nuclear test site at Alamogordo, in New Mexico.  The car trip enlivened the literature I had been reading, as did the opportunity to visit what many were only just beginning to consider the birthplace—or marker—of the Anthropocene.

Located at White Sands Missile Range, a 3200-square mile military facility deep in the New Mexico desert, the site is, to paraphrase Jeffrey Masco (2006), uncannily nuclear. Without such knowledges, as that student had remarked a few days before, one would not sense a thing. As we waited to enter the facility in our car we joked about publishing a co-authored piece on our fieldwork as a piece of narrative nuclear politics. We discussed the possibility—and the need—to evaluate what actually experiencing the commemoration and memorialisation of the Manhattan Project for the first time might mean for the production of nuclear knowledges, but also whether the encounter had any bearing on our understanding of the nuclear Anthropocene. After all, the Trinity test was so-called, Carol Cohn (1987, 702) reminds us, because it symbolises ‘the unity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—the male forces of Creation’.

Although that piece lays dormant in sketch form, it is clear that we each saw and felt differently. For me, the remarkable and unexpected realisation was that the claims to expertise were mediated through technology—still and motion cameras, as well as Geiger counters. Indeed, Fishel and Biswas seemingly experienced an altogether different Trinity. Fishel averted my gaze to how gendered and racialized the site was, wherein predominately white men speak (from mostly potted histories) and women listen (to a man’s highly contestable expertise). For Biswas, the trip only confirmed the colonial order to the nuclear age that she had pointed her finger to in her earlier book, Nuclear Desire

Thinking towards our book project under advanced contract with Routledge on the Nuclear Anthropocene, Fishel and I quickly became preoccupied with the encounter between humanity and ecology that continues to take place at the Trinity site. Despite our common goal, here too our perspectives violently differed: whereas Fishel began documenting signs of struggle and other entanglements within the site’s bounds, as in where mammals had burrowed their way into the site, my mind drifted outside of the bounds of the site itself towards the mountain peaks and national parks that surround the facility. That is, whereas Fishel asked how the National Parks Service would manage the (re)emergence of life within the chain-linked fence, I wondered how the adjacent sites of conservation and refuge, established prior to the nuclear age, were changed by the event. Through her post-colonial stance, Biswas gently reminded us—though never explicitly—that whilst we each sought to break out of the human frame of our intellectual traditions, we were ultimately caged by our own whiteness. 

Several hours later, having seen relatively very little but beginning to talk about feeling a lot, we made our way to our car, and left.

Referenced works

Shampa Biswas, Nuclear Desire: Power and the Postcolonial Nuclear Order, Minneapolis, U.S.: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.

Carol Cohn, ‘Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals’. Signs, Vol.12 Is.4, 1987, pp.687–718.

Joseph Masco, The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico. Princeton, U.S.: Princeton University Press, 2006.

N.A.J. Taylor, The Problem of Nuclear Harm: An Ethical Ecology. Thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at The University of Queensland, December 2018. Examiners: Emeritus Professor Richard A. Falk (Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University) and Anthony Burke (UNSW at the Australian Defence Force Academy). No changes/revisions.

The 2016 Nuclear Humanities intensive workshop was designed and delivered by N.A.J. Taylor, on the invitation of Shampa Biswas, Chair of the Politics Department and Paul Garrett Professor of Political Science at Whitman College. It was sponsored by an O’Donnell Endowed Chair in Global Studies grant.