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AAA 2013 Roundtable: Narrating the Nuclear

Narrating the Nuclear:
Anthropologists and Others Engage
with the Atomic Era
Date & Schedule
November 24

Part I “Nuclear Weaponry”: 8:00am-9:45am, As part of AAA Executive Program Committee (executive session)

Part II: “Nuclear Energy”: 10:15am-12:00pm, As part of Society for East Asian Anthropology (invited session)


American Anthropological Association, Annual Conference (Conference theme: “Future Publics, Current Engagements.”)

Hilton Hotel, Downtown Chicago, Grand Ballroom

Mark Auslander
(Central Washington University)
Tomomi Yamaguchi
(Montana State University)
Wiki Forum

Narrating the Nuclear is a support space for activists, scholars, artists, museum professionals, students and others interested in sharing ideas and resources on how people around the world have sought to tell significant stories -through language, art and other media–about the impact of nuclear weapons, nuclear weapons production and nuclear power generation on human communities.

Roundtable Abstract

Since the 1940s, nuclear energy and weaponry have occupied paradoxical positions in human moral imaginations. On the one hand, the cataclysmic destructive power associated with thermonuclear weapons, the development of secret nuclear security apparatuses, world wide nuclear testing, environmental contamination from the plutonium manufacture, and the scientific enigmas of nuclear energy have posed profound challenges for those seeking to narrate the nuclear era–often undercutting prior representational frameworks. On the other hand, nuclear scenarios have inspired rich works of fiction, poetry, visual arts, theater, film, music, dance, and other genres, often reworking older ritual strategies used in evoking realms of mystery or transcendence. Control over nuclear energy and weapons has been central to many forms of postwar nationalism, even as spectacles of nuclear annihilation and struggles over radiation have helped catalyze emergent forms of post-nationalist consciousness, and inspired pan-indigenous forms of solidarity. In turn, images of victims of nuclear weaponry, catastrophic accidents, and radiation release have frequently been interpreted in reference to seemingly self-evident universal “human nature”, even as such imagery has challenged the rights or capacity of any outside observer to know or represent the suffering of others.

This roundtable panel brings together anthropologists, scientists, and activists engaged in the challenges of narrating nuclear energy, nuclear and radioactive weaponry, nuclear weapons production, and nuclear site cleanup. We give particular attention to collaborative efforts between anthropologists and others to document or develop new modes of story-telling about the nuclear age, partnerships that often must negotiate deep distrust for academic and scientific institutions within communities impacted by nuclear-associated environmental damage. We discuss novel museum and exhibition strategies, emergent forms of experimental ethnography, and new modes of ritual performance inspired by the epistemic challenges of the nuclear.

Seven decades after the dawn of the nuclear age, Chicago is an appropriate locale for critical reflection on how diverse human communities have sought to narrate the nuclear. The first controlled nuclear chain reaction took place at the University of Chicago in 1942 as part of the Manhattan Project; emerging out of the Manhattan Project, Argonne National Laboratories has played critical roles in the development of the U.S. nuclear industry. With eleven operating nuclear reactors, the state of Illinois has more such facilities than any other state in the nation.

In order to maximize discussion, this roundtable has two 1.75-hour sessions: Part I on nuclear weaponry, and Part II on nuclear energy. The interdisciplinary roundtables include scholars and curators who work on the immense impacts of the atomic age, and specialize in anthropology, literary studies, toxicology and religious studies. The panels also include activists engaging with issues of nuclear weaponry and energy and the resulting struggles of their own communities. The sites that the panelists work in include Hanford, Los Alamos, Marshall Islands, and Hiroshima for Part I, and Chicago/Illinois, Savannah River, Fukushima, Rokkasho and Kaminoseki for Part II. Each panelist will have 5 minutes to briefly address their reflections, after which there will be a discussion among the panelists and audience.


Part I: Nuclear Weaponry

Chair: Mark Auslander, Central Washington University (Hanford)

Roundtable Presenters:

  • J. Hope Amason, Central Washington University, Anthropology (Hanford)
  • Steven Gilbert, Washington State Physicians for Social Responsibility (Hanford)
  • Larry Carucci, Montana State University, Anthropology (Marshall Islands)
  • Robert Chavez, youth coordinator of Honor Our Pueblo Existence and Think Outside the Bomb (TOTB), from the Ohkay Owingeh and Santa Clara Pueblos, NM, (New Mexico)
  • Yuki Miyamoto, DePaul University, Religious Studies (Hiroshima)

Part II: Nuclear Energy

Chair: Ellen Schattschneider, Brandeis University (Rokkasho, Tohoku)

Roundtable Presenters:

  • Haeng-ja Chung, Hamilton College, Anthropology (Fukushima)
  • Norma Field, University of Chicago, emerita, Japanese Literature (Fukushima and Chicago)
  • David Kraft, activist, Nuclear Energy Information Service in Chicago IL (Chicago/Illinois)
  • Bobbie Paul, activist, Georgia WAND, Atlanta GA (Savannah River)
  • Tomomi Yamaguchi, Montana State University, Anthropology (Kaminoseki, Fukushima)

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