Cram (2015): "Becoming Jane: The making and unmaking of Hanford’s nuclear body."

"... building the nuclear body has ultimately meant first defining life [as being, in essence, a young white able-bodied American male], and then defining the conditions in which that life should be considered liveable." (p.802)

In this paper, Cram performs a critical archaeology of the nuclear body: "a statistically calculated human template" (p.798) used to assess the risk of radiogenic illness as a result of exposure to radioactive materials. Cram begins with the Atomic Bomb Survivor Study, through which the US government sought to exploit the "scarce and precious intellectual resource" (in their own words) represented by the hibakushas -- "the exposed ones", the survivors of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; she then moves on to discuss Standard Man, later renamed Reference Man, created by the International Committee on Radiation Protection  (ICRP) to be the "official body through which such information [as gathered from studying the hibakushas] could be applied and understood" (p.800)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Reference Man was not only male but young, Caucasian and able-bodied, and assumed to partake in "Western European or North American [...] habit and custom". Realising that not all people exposed to radiation quite fit the template, but unwilling or unable to develop a standardised female model, policy-makers generally utilise a tweaked model in which "they simply give Reference Man breasts, ovaries and a uterus -- creating a hermaphroditic human in order to 'solve' the problem of radioactive gender inequality" (p.801). Racial differences are similarly magicked away through the power of statistics, producing impossible "placeless bodies" -- figures without a ground, characters without a context.

"The notion that Reference Man's hermaphroditic trasnformation equalizes gender inequality in risk calculation ignores the appropriative character of his statistical sex change." (p.801)

Cram then goes on to discuss the role of the nuclear body in shaping the political and technical aspects of the remediation of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation -- land which was ceded to a number of native American tribes in 1855, but which also played host to a significant chunk of the US government's nuclear weapons program, with predictable results. The treaty entitles the indigenous population to "full access" to the land -- but the nuclear body as currently constructed makes physiological and behavioural assumptions which do not match the indigenous population and the lifestyles they wish to engage in. What this means in practice is that the "end point" of the remediation process will be defined at least in part with reference to a model of exposure risk that doesn't tally with the population whose risk is being assessed. As a result, indiginous institutions have developed their own model, based more closely on the sorts of behaviour they consider to be normal for their lifeways, only to be told that their model of "physiologically impossible"... which, while arguably true, is certainly just as true of Reference Man.

Cram's point is that the nuclear body plays an active role in remdiation projects such as that of Hannford "by fashioning subjects that can survive in the post-nuclear future. In identifying who can inhabit remediated space, cleanup renegotiates the relationship between safety, security, and the contamination it leaves behind." (pp.806-7) In other words, as part of a remediation process, models such as Reference Man inform not only the environmental standards to which a space will he held, but also the physiological standards and behaviours expected of those whose lifestyles might be safely accomodated by said space.

"... it is this simplicity -- this abstraction from the lived experience of exposure -- that makes the nuclear body politically useful. Nuclear standards must make radiogenic injury generalizable, translating from diverse and often incomplete sources into explicit statements of cause and effect. Indeed, building the nuclear body has required untangling exposure-related illnesses from the social and spatial relations that give them meaning. [...] policies that rely heavily upon biological parameters in determinign risk, ignore and thus reproduce the greater structural inequalities of exposure-related illness." (p.802)

So, while the notion of the nuclear body as a historical ontology appears to be novel, this is the sort of paper that anyone familiar with the canonical riffs of STS will recognise: technoscientific standards and statistics erasing difference. (And those familiar with the secrets of east Prussian forestry will recognise yet another manifestation of "seeing like a state".) This is a particularly interesting case due to the paradoxical and mutual physiological impossibilities of both Reference Man and the alternatives proposed by the indigenous peoples themselves; neither side in the process recognises the other's model, even as both seek to refine their models further.

This paper has particular interest to me because there's potential for tektology here: it's not that huge a metaphorical leap to see Reference Man et al as fictional characters, as is highlighted by the brief narrative describing "Jane" in the paper's introduction. The physiology and presumed behaviour patterns of these characters generate a "story" when they're introduced into a storyworld which includes parameters for radiation exposure risk; their experience is completely determined by their constitution (both literal and figurative). This in turn isn't unlike the notion of the "thin character" from modernist literary theory: the thin character isn't quite a stereotype, but is something approaching one, and while that works well for certain narrative forms (episodic forms in particular -- such as the sit-com, where the narrative arc of each episode is of a renormalisation of the characters to their stock state and circumstance), but really badly for forms where mimesis (which we might describe as a degree of fidelity to reality, or at least to broadly-held conceptions of reality) is a requirement. And more importantly, Reference Man is repeatedly introduced into narratives of futurity, which -- as I have argued elsewhere -- are a metagenre of narrative forms concerned with depicting futures, including not only science fictions, foresight scenarios and design fictions, but also forecasts and models. (A narrative does not have to be verbal: an annual profit forecast graph is as much a narrative of futurity as an H G Wells novel.)

So while I'm not certain what I can immediately do with the notion of the nuclear body (and the broader type of fictionalised subject-construction which it figures), it definitely feels like another tool for talking about the ways in which technoscience shapes narratives of futurity -- not just formally and structurally, but in terms of whose future it is that gets depicted.

UK households owe record £2.1bn in water bills | Money | The Guardian

"... the absolute level of water and sewerage bills has been inflated by surging profits and pay at the companies since privatisation. Average water bills have risen by about 40% more than inflation since the utility companies were privatised under Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1989-90.

This year Thames Water, the UK’s biggest water company, reported profits up by a third and said it would be raising prices again. It also revealed that it had paid no corporation tax."

Classic rent extraction business model; worth noting that when the WaCos were formed, they were given all the existing assets, gratis. Then they invested nothing for decades while running the assets into the ground, and we now have a situation where they're obliged (so they say) to service their shareholders with dividends lest they withdraw their investment.

Renationalise now.

How New England's Turkeys Became City-Dwellers

"The near-miraculous abundance of game in those early years was, itself, very likely an artifact of human intervention—a legacy of the pathogens introduced by Europeans that killed so many of the land’s inhabitants, and which may have led game populations to explode in their absence. There was no frontier dividing nature from civilization—just two different agricultural landscapes, each optimized for a different purpose.

Small wonder, then, that the returning turkeys found the woods so uninviting. Naturalists hoped to restore a pristine wilderness, but that’s not where the turkeys had once thrived. No one was burning the underbrush for them anymore, or promoting the growth of nut-bearing trees. Turkeys had lived in the New England landscape in tandem with Native Americans, who had carefully tended the environment. And once the descendants of European settlers ceased hunting them at unsustainable levels, they moved right back in."

Sing it: "nature" is not natural, and can never be naturalised.

SELFIE by @rachsyme

"Capitalism, as Rowbotham noted, loves to self-reflect. It needs to perpetuate itself, and one of the ways it does so is via imagery — i.e. advertising — that keeps people desirous, that makes people feel incomplete without whatever shiny new thing has just hit the market. Those at the top benefit, naturally, from creating these images. It is bad then for the lust-economy to have people reveling in pictures they take themselves; it is very difficult to control consumers who do not need to look at the media to know what to value, what to buy, who to honor and protect. Selfies are not inherently political acts, but these resonant, addictive, unregulated images are another manifestation of this growing distrust of the mainstream and the swelling desire by many individuals to reclaim their own narratives now that they have the virtual microphone."

A fine and strident essay. Made me realise that my own disapproval of selfies is bound up with exactly the resentment of the self-love of others that Syme describes: why aren't these people as ashamed of their faces as I am of mine? And a reminder that my maleness is, as a result, imperfect: if men are those who are permitted by society to love themselves, then I have never been a man. And hell knows what that makes me, then -- but nonetheless, this is my face.


The Paris Attacks, Refugees, and the Brutal Fiction of Borders | VICE | United States

"Citizenship is our most loaded form of fiction. Our nationalities are invented, nothing but marks on a page, but they can determine who is free and who is not. Or who dies and who gets to live."

Teaching The Camera To See My Skin

"Kodak did finally modify its film emulsion stocks in the 1970s and ’80s — but only after complaints from companies trying to advertise chocolate and wood furniture."

What The History of Fossil Fuels Teaches Us About Renewable Energy - The Atlantic

Those transitions have also been heavily dependent on the energy infrastructure that came before. The age of steam was not possible without human and animal work to mine the coal and build the machines. Even now, the wind turbines we look to to help us escape fossil fuels are steel towers (you make steel in coal-fired blast furnaces) topped by plastic blades (which comes from petroleum), installed by (gasoline-powered) construction equipment. A wind turbine is a “pure expression of fossil fuels,” said Smil during a 2013 lecture at the Perimeter Institute.

So, while Smil agrees with pretty much everyone else that the next big energy transition is from nonrenewable to renewable resources, he is cautious about the timing. At one level, the change is plainly inevitable. There will come a time when non-renewable resources run out, and Smil says it will be advantageous to transition off of fossil fuels long before then, to avoid climate change.

In this, Smil is no different from countless energy advocates from Greenpeace to Al Gore to T. Boone Pickens. Where he does differ is in his opinion about how quickly it can happen. Where Gore calls for a complete conversion to renewables in 10 years, Smil thinks the transition will take generations.

The tragedy of James Bond (Laurie Penny)

The dilemma of James Bond is a pantomime version of the dilemma facing most men who grew up watching the films and wondering what it would be like to be that guy, whom everybody seems to love not in spite of the awful things he does but because of them. In real life, anyone who behaved even slightly like James Bond would be ostracised, arrested, or both. And that is the problem. Bond is still supposed to be a hero but if you knew him in real life, you would be warning all your friends not to invite him to their parties. That disconnect follows men home from the cinema and into their daily lives, because most of the behaviours that are supposed to make you a hero – the things you are still supposed to do if you want to be a strong, respected, manly man – also make you an unqualified arsehole.

Raven, P G & Elahi, S (2015). "The New Narrative: Applying narratology to the shaping of futures outputs."

From the abstract:

Both scenario development and design practices incorporate elements of storytelling, but this use remains undertheorised. This paper will draw upon literary theory, film theory and science fiction criticism to develop an analytical model of narrative structure and rhetorics which speaks to the concerns of scenario developers and designers when engaged in shaping the final outputs or deliverables of a futures project.

After highlighting the differing role of telos in art and futures and defining the metacategory of “narratives of futurity”, this paper then defines the terms “story”, “narrative”, “narrator” and “world” in the literary context. It then shows how those concepts map onto futures practice, before going into detail regarding the variety of narrative strategies available across a range of different forms and media, and the qualitative effects that they can reproduce in audiences. There follows the construction of a 2 × 2 matrix based on the critical concepts of narrative mode and narrative logic, within which narratives of futurity might be usefully catalogued and compared, and from which certain broad conclusions may be reached as regards the relation between choice of medium and rhetorical effect. The implications of this analysis are explored in detail.

This paper, part of a Special Issue of the journal Futures on "Scenarios & Design", is among the outputs of 2014's Oxford Futures Forum on the same theme, to which I was privileged to be invited. Many thanks to my co-author Shirin Elahi (of Normann Partners), and to the many people who contributed ideas on the day.

(Thanks to the generosity of the EPSRC, which supports my PhD research, this paper is free for anyone to download under a Creative Commons license.)