Regarding Japan Part 2: Affective Loops and Toxic Tastings

Eleven weeks have passed since the earthquake and tsunami hit northeastern Japan.  Although bodies are still being found amidst the wreckage, the rest of the world has long since moved on.   The media waves of shock, horror, heroism, heartbreak, and heart-warm continue to push and pull us through a relentless series of events: from Libya to Tuscaloosa, Kate and William to Bin Laden, Donald Trump to Strauss-Kahn.

The affective loop is dizzying as it moves us between distant places and local homes, political upheavals and natural disasters, raging storms and individual stories, the serious and the absurd. Unable to catch my breath between blows or steady myself according to some sense of scale, I feel like so much has happened since the tsunami struck. And yet, I don’t know what to make of any of it.  Are we just bracing ourselves for the next thing?

In an April article entitled “The Half-life of Disaster” Brian Massumi discusses how this media cycle leads us into a perpetual state of foreboding that brings together natural, economic and political threat perception in a configuration that fuels what Naomi Klein termed “disaster capitalism”. The horror is never resolved or replaced; rather, it is archived, infinitely accessible over the Internet.  Cast into the web of other events, the unendurable tragedy of a particular event dissipates, or as Massumi says, “it decays”.  In today’s catastrophic mediashpere, observes Massumi, the half-life of disaster is at most two weeks.

Why have we let the situation in Japan recede into the background of other “big news”?  Massumi and others suggest that this “post-shock pre-posturing” increasingly delegates collective response to the national security apparatus, obscures the structural causes of “natural” disaster (Katrina as well as Fukushima illustrate this point well), and feeds the increasingly centralized global economy which capitalizes on the instability created by the very disasters it helps potentiate.

While I discussed responsibility and resistance in relation to mass-mediated affect in my last post, here I want to offer another mode of response: stepping out of the affective loop.  While feeling with others in the context of suffering is perhaps the only appropriate response when faced with the immediacy of another’s pain, undoing the social causes of suffering requires a continuously engaged critical perspective. I’d like to offer that the ongoing events in Japan are terribly important to us right now in an unfolding global context.

What’s perhaps most important about the aftermath of the disaster was not what happened in the first two weeks, but what is happening twelve weeks out.  Not only does the US public need to step out of the media-driven affective whirlpool, but we need to step back into the global conversation about energy sustainability and the political, social, economic, and environmental disasters brought about in the effort to maintain the current levels of profit.

The meltdowns at Fukushima temporarily unmask the social and environmental dangers always present in nuclear power.  Likewise, the uprisings in the Middle East reveal the grave economic disparities and instability generated in oil-based economies.  We mustn’t let these revelatory and revolutionary moments pass away.

As proposed by Silvia Federici and George Caffentzis in a letter addressed to Japan, the “international capitalist power-structure” is terrified that the disempowered will seize upon the explosive political potential of these moments.  Their letter suggests that if disaster capitalism runs on an ever-present low-level threat perception, its leading industrial sector—energy—runs on the public’s perception that everything is fine and dandy:

Company men and politicians are aware that the disaster at Fukushima is a tremendous blow to the legitimacy of nuclear power and in a way the legitimacy of capitalist production. A tremendous ideological campaign is under way to make sure that it does not become the occasion for a global revolt against nuclear power and more important for a process of revolutionary change. The fact that the nuclear disaster in Japan is taking place in concomitance with the spreading of insurrectional movements throughout the oil regions of North Africa and the Middle East undoubtedly adds to the determination to establish against all evidence that everything is under control.

Claims like these and others (insert link) about “ideological campaigns” in the name “global revolt” may be motivated by a romantic view of political agency. But the history of nuclear power in the US and Japan suggests that Federici and Caffentzis are right to expose the neoliberal interests that inform the framing of recent events.

Historically, the nuclear-friendly PR machine (with Eisenhower and the “Atoms for Peace” campaign at the helm) played a huge role in Japan’s acceptance of nuclear power.  Of course it did.  How in the world, we might ask, would a country like Japan—the only country ever gutted by a nuclear weapon—come to accept nuclear powered energy at the behest of the very country that dropped the bomb??

Historian Peter Kuznick answers precisely this question and explains the process of propaganda and acceptance in a recent essay.  Putting Japan’s nuclear history Pointo perspective, Kuznick writes: “their nuclear program was born not only in the fantasy of clean, safe power, but also in the willful forgetting of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the buildup of the US nuclear arsenal.”  While the human scale of suffering and loss initiated in northeastern Japan will always remain incomprehensible, the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown are being fashioned at this very moment into historically comprehensible events. The social, political and economic stakes in these repertoires of fantasy and forgetting are high.

Most blatantly, perhaps, we find these repertoires rehearsed in mainstream media stories about Fukushima.  Last week President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea and Chinese premiere Wen Jiabao visited Japan to speak with Prime Minister Naoto Kan in a tripartite summit in order to discuss Japan’s handling of the nuclear crisis and foster trade relations.  The conservative Yomiuri Shimbun (Japan’s most widely circulated paper, and one with long-held stakes in the nuclear industry…from the time it conspired with the CIA to promote nuclear development in Japan in the 1950s up until the present day) wrote:

Kan was particularly enthusiastic about realizing the visit by the three leaders to a quake-hit area… Some in the government expressed anxiety over security for the leaders. But Kan said: “The sight of us three eating produce from Fukushima Prefecture will definitely be reported overseas. That’d be the best protection we can get against harmful rumors,” and the plan went forward.

Kan links “security” to “protection … against harmful rumors” and asserts that foreign press coverage will provide the protection. One must assume that these “rumors” consist of statements about the ongoing harm by radioactive materials to people in the area of Fukushima and the hazards of all forms of nuclear energy more broadly.  By using the term “rumor” Kan is delegitimizing these claims, while simultaneously taking them seriously enough to situate their threat within the discourse of national security.  Regarding the stakes at play in controlling this information dissemination, Japanese scholar Yoshihiko Ikegami writes:

The government calls the information shared on the internet “rumors” and repeatedly urges the public not to believe them. In addition, a public advertising organization called Advertising Council Japan is airing a TV commercial asking people not to believe rumors and not to buy-up. (The head of the organization is the president of TEPCO.) The commentators in news programs single-mindedly repeat similar messages.

These widespread attempts to dismiss information circulating in the public sphere as “rumors” has led some anti-nuclear activists to re-appropriate the term in explicit calls for revolution.

The linking of rumor and revolution, however, is probably not the most pertinent point about Kan’s statements.  By shifting the role of “security” from that of protecting individual human bodies (Lee and Wen) to that of protecting the nuclear industry—and by exposing these same bodies to potentially poisonous produce—Kan’s statements foregrounds the devaluation of human life that Federici and Caffentzis attribute to capitalism: “What we are witnessing, most dramatically, in the response to the tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan, especially in the US, is the beginning of an era in which capitalism is dropping any humanitarian pretense and refusing any commitment to the protection of human life.”

If supporting Japan and Fukushima means eating poisoned produce, it is because maintaining current economic trajectories and the continued use of nuclear energy has become more important than the well-being of individual bodies.

At the time of the meeting between the three leaders, the Japanese government had raised acceptable levels of yearly radiation exposure for children from 1 mmSv (the limit set by the WHO) to 20mmSv and was failing to pay for removal of contaminated topsoil at schools.  Children were regularly being exposed to levels of radiation allegedly higher than Chernobyl and traces of radioactive material were being found in the breast milk of women as far away as Chiba and Ibaraki.

Like those displaced by the tsunami, many of the 80,000 evacuees from the 20km radius around Fukushima lacked adequate shelter and provisions.  What’s more, if human life has been undervalued, non-human animal life even more so.   Evacuees were not allowed to take their animal companions with them when they evacuated.  Despite appeals that intensified during the weekend of the summit (and continue thousands of cats and dogs, and ten thousands of farm animals have been starving to death.  Meanwhile, according to prejudices (with historical precedent) about nuclear contamination, people with license plates from Fukushima are being refused service at gas stations and turned away from hotels. Coding discrimination as “reputation damage,” the government is able to claim that supporting the people of Fukushima means ignoring exposure and buying their products rather than worrying over their exposure and accepting them into our communities.  (Japanese Political scientist Chigaya Kinoshita writes about these dual modes of containment in an essay about the uglier aspects of civil society.) In the midst of all this, the three leaders chewed their veggies and posed for the press.

On cue, as if obliging Kan’s earlier statements and this perverse show of solidarity, the first paragraph of the New York Times’ brief coverage of the meeting reads: “The leaders of China, Japan, and South Korea publicly munched on farm produce grown near the stricken Japanese nuclear plant on Saturday in a show of solidarity with Japan’s recovery efforts.”  Nowhere mentioning that this was the fourth in a series of annual meetings since 2008 intended to foster economic relations between the three countries, the article eventually continues, “Before entering the shelter, a converted gymnasium, Mr. Kan steered the group to a table displaying strawberries, cucumbers and other produce grown in Fukushima Prefecture. The leaders, who did not appear to have been surprised by the photo op, smiled and nibbled gamely. “Very delicious,” Mr. Wen said.”

The tone of the Times’ article seems slightly bemused as it acceptingly acknowledges, along with the Chinese and Korean leaders, that this was a highly choreographed theatrical spectacle. What’s troubling in such a tone, however, is the implication that an acknowledgement of posturing somehow exempts the reporting from any responsibility to analyze the scene—both what it stages and obscures.

Why doesn’t the New York Times explain exactly how munching on cucumbers displays solidarity with the people who can’t get the government to clear away debris, rescue their animals, and remove dangerous dirt from children’s playgrounds? Of course these are the very things obscured in the staged scene.  The Times seems to capitulate to the regime of “everything’s fine” that ensures Kan’s “security”.  No matter how ironic the tone, this article portrays solidarity as participating in an anti-panic business-as-usual patriotism, exactly the sort critiqued by Kinoshita in the essay mentioned earlier. While catastrophe and panic were appealing headlines in the initial weeks of the disaster, now in the moment’s fading half-life, they seem to have no place.


Since writing this piece the New York Times has just published an article that exposes the government’s exploitation of poor rural towns and the means through which it makes them financially dependent on nearby reactors.  Although this coverage finally starts uncovering the secrets silence hides, the emphasis on “a lack of widespread grass-roots opposition in the communities around [Japan’s] 54 nuclear reactors” fosters the impression that there isn’t much in the way of anti-nuclear activism taking place in Japan.  Hopefully, the New York Times will start covering the massive demonstrations (of scales rarely seen in contemporary Japan) like the one on April 10th that brought more that 17,500 people onto the streets of Tokyo.  Cries of protest from the public have brought a halt to development of the Hamaoka Nuclear Plant, and forced the government to revoke the change in acceptable radiation levels for children.  Until these stories earn headlines in mainstream media, I ask you to find projects like Japan – Fissures in the Planetary Apparatus which is translating critical essays by Japanese activists and intellectuals about the ongoing situation in Japan.

As the contours of the disaster accrete into what is undoubtedly a pivotal event, the larger frameworks within which meaning hinges are highly contested.  How the disaster, now officially called the Great East Japan Earthquake, gets spun will depend on which historical and political contexts are acknowledged, and which are ignored.