Japan: Some Thoughts

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I've been thinking about Japan a lot in the last few days. A horrible history is unfolding and, as an academic, I'm grasping for ways to express emotions that might be easier to suppress. So, I'm following Lukas' current events lead here in hoping that we can get a discussion going about how history of science and science studies are relevant to both making sense of and intervening with technological catastrophes of unfathomable magnitude.

I'm by no means an expert on nuclear disaster, but historian Susan Lindee's 1994 _Suffering Made Real_, on American scientists' engagement with the survivors of Japan's previous atomic tragedy has been on my mind. As has anthropologist Adriana Petryna's 2005 _Life Exposed_, a study of the ways in which the Chernobyl meltdown mutated bodies as well as ideas about citizenship in post-Soviet Ukraine. Lindee's book tracks the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, wherein hybrid forms knowledge production and anxieties about accountability linked American and Japanese scientists and citizens. Petryna's study examines how, amidst uncertainty about the long-term impacts of exposure to radiation, people used their bodies as a way of making claims for resources administered by the state.

There are many themes shared between these books . . . how global forces are experienced and mediated in decidedly local ways; that science and citizenship can be mutually constitutive; and that the disciplinary boundaries we draw between the histories of physics and biology are actually fundamentally enmeshed -- and profoundly embodied -- in the postwar period. However, what I think makes these works particularly important is that they strenuously resist the dehumanization that can accompany 'dispassionate' accounts of human destruction. What I mean is that they take as their subject the moment where human bodies become mutated and, in that moment, they locate new forms of social relations and responsibility.

There is nothing natural about the disaster in Japan. So, let's train our focus on the central tension of what makes us human: our struggle to survive despite our capacity for destruction.

What else does history of science have to say?


Joanna: I'm thinking about your charge to do "dispassionate" without "dehumanizing." In my own work and in working with colleagues and students, I often struggle to find the right place for moral judgment. As a historian I don't want judgment in my analysis, but I have always loved books like Don Worster's _Nature's Economy_ that bring a moral vision born out of dispassionate analysis. Your distinction might be even better, however. The historian need not make any moral judgment; s/he must simply preserve the humanity of historical subjects.

I've just been reading bits of Ann Fabian's _Skull Collectors_, which revisits the familiar character of Samuel Morton, but with a greater emphasis on Morton's community of skull collectors and the cultural background to skull collecting generally. Fabian strives throughout to keep the humanity of those whose remains were removed and those who grieve lost remains, even as she brings to life the collectors/robbers.

Of course, the book also reminded me of your earlier question about archives. Fabian picked up on Morton's story after the descendants of Native Americans whose burials were excavated came to Philadelphia to reclaim those remains. Morton's archive of skulls remains, but little by little it is being interred.

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