Radiation as a sort of contagion is doing a number of things here in Japan—some old and familiar; others quite new. Ritual pollution is well-known here in Japan, pointing back to a time of seriated spaces and disciplinary boundaries (of insides and outsides in uchi/soto, of fronts and backs in omote and ura), where govermentality and subjectification were both coherent and effective processes; to a time when Mary Douglas and Takeo Doi could show us how transgression across these boundaries was dangerous and dirty, and thus to be avoided; back to a time when paranoid states sought to manage populations and extract surplus through such boundedness; where liminality was stigmatized and paradigms were stable enough to allow us to obscure the contradictions between capital and politics.
And in these first months after 3.11, in an attempt give the impression of control, we try to behave as if we could control this new radiation contagion in the old way; grim men in flimsy white paper suits hosing the radiation off of crying children with panicked mothers standing on the margins of the frame. One problem with our modern purification rituals is that their efficacy is no longer assumed from their performative enactment. Something else is needed, we feel, some sort of “science,” but we do not know what it is or and are starting to lose confidence that it even exists. But regular people are not fooled: children evacuated into new schools are bullied as ‘radiation kids’; trucks with Fukushima license plates are not allowed into the food distribution centers. Matter out of place—but sometimes matter has no place to be anymore.
We are starting to see the contagion of radiation as somewhat different: a modulation strong enough to ionize an atom, destabilize cells and cause cancers. We are told that some radiation is everywhere anyway, so not to worry. But we worry because it is free flowing, invasive, unimpeded by the boundaries we set up. As if to teach us this lesson early on, every network TV station showed the same clip, run on an endless look, taken by a helicopter, of cattle in Fukushima, the most "domesticated" of animals, running away from the camera, across open washed- out ground, out of control, both icons and indexes of the danger running rampant around us. Of course, we had to kill all of the horses. Some were burned, cremated, so to speak.; others left to starve still in their enclosures. We would have to ask, is it worse to die in man-made structures—pens and barns, building, houses, shelters—or in attempts to escape? Two symbolically different ways to die, neither any less gruesome. The message it sends? You can run or hide—it does not really matter. Japan is doing both.
We are starting to see that the contagion of radiation is about instantaneous connections, not division and segregation. Radiation is a contaminant well-suited to today’s neoliberal world because it is without borders, temporal or spatial. Iit is privatized stigma, unconnected to institutionalized features; it is opportunistic and entrepreneurial, uncontained, and hugely powerful—productive (not just limiting, like the old pollution) of life-style and increasingly of life itself. It is also out of control in Japan—out of the control of the ritual operators—the state, the scientists in the nuclear industry-supported scholars (御用学者, goyou-gakusha ), and of course, Tepco, who right from the start, could not contain, let alone kill it. But now, months in, we realize that that the real problem is just the opposite: that Tepco cannot make it come back to life, cannot make it productive again. Yes, their greed in trying to protect their investment, especially during the first few days, probably cost millions of dollars and put thousands of lives in jeopardy. But that won’t be the reason if we let it go bankrupt. If they can just make it live again, all will be forgotten, and the collusive state will probably bail them out with our tax dollars.
But radiation does still more in its refusal to be contained; it is also creating a new sort of politics, a politics of critique. Even the mainstream media have begun to link disaster and sacrifice to, of all things, protection of surplus profit. Not just the realization that disaster was compounded by the greed of poorly managed containment efforts aimed at protecting their investment, but news stories about irregular labors being sacrificed to clean up the mess-- the reaction of many in Tohoku that they should not have to sacrifice for the extravagant consumption of a Tokyo-centric Japan. Uncontrolled radiation prevents the state and industry from obscuring their own incompetence and negligence, forcing us to question their request for us to sacrifice, and finally, exposing the deep circuits of capital flow under these fault-lines.
Radiation is also creating a politics of connection and common cause. It is connecting (rather than separating), moving through and out of Japan in a way that is linking Fukushima to the rest of the world. Radiation is denying Tokyo’s attempt to localize disaster as either a Tohoku or “Japanese” problem. If the cause of contamination can be identified—dare we call it by its real name, capitalism—protected by a collusive state and corrupt scientists, then the radioactive connections can link different spaces, and become part of a larger collective citizen’s movement, both inside and outside of Japan, not something that pits citizens against citizens. Through the connective contagion of radiation, new alliances are being build—age, class, gender and geography—not as collective victims who must share common hardship and sacrifice, but as a wider alliance who might begin to fight for survival.