Nuclear Ghosts

Workshop report by Jenny Stümer

The derealization of the ‘Other” means that it is neither alive nor dead, but interminably spectral.

Judith Butler, Precarious Life

Bringing a long and interesting semester to an ‚end‘, I organised (with exceptional support from Theresa Meerwarth) a workshop on nuclear ghosts from 25 - 27 July 2023. The workshop developed out of a special issue for Apocalyptica, which I am currently editing and which initially emerged as a response to the latest resurgence of interest in nuclear politics (and anxieties!) in the context of the War in Ukraine. 

Negotiating a variety of fantasies, speculations, and suppositions about ‘the end of the world’, nuclear politics dominated the post-Cold War years, but have since fallen into a curious mode of collective forgetting. Nuclear politics, it seems, are treated as something of the past and something that does not ordinarily concern “us”, and now only newly concerns “us,” as a kind of “haunting from the future” (Schwab 2020) or a peculiar form of “retro-anxiety” to quote workshop participant Marisa Franz. 
This sentiment is remarkable, given the ongoing repercussions of previous nuclear events, the enduring perpetuation of nuclear testing, and the ever-emerging entanglements, in Karen Barads (2007) sense, between nuclear violence and ongoing assaults of colonialism, racial capitalism, sexism, militarism, climate injustice and so on. 

In fact, it appears that there is a friction between nuclear anticipation and nuclear practices, and that this friction is ripe for a different kind of conversation, while also gearing towards something amiss in familiar fantasies about the end of the world or ends of worlds in the context of nuclear threat.

Workshop Nuclear Ghosts 2023

In this sense, the pressing forward of nuclear apprehensions in recent years is symptomatic of what Avery Gordon (1997) identifies as “ghostly matters” or a particular idea of haunting that allows us to “think through repressed forms of violence that bring ‘something to be done’ in the present.” It beckons the question of what kind of worlds and what kind of endings become imaginable through the lens of nuclear threat - and vice versa, what worlds and endings are rendered unimaginable, inconsequential, or ghosted.

Bringing together scholars from decolonial, feminist and Anthropocene studies, the workshop provided an opportunity to challenge the systematic silencing of (anti)nuclear debates, theorizing the unfinished business of nuclear disaster and positing a meaningful politics of re-membering – both in terms of memory and piecing together the world – nuclear catastrophe and trauma, also in their intersecting forces with other ongoing structures of violence and oppression.

Steered by the keenly incisive, tremendously energizing, and thought-provoking keynotes by Gabriele Schwab, who recently wrote a much-debated and spear-heading book on Radioactive Ghosts and Karen Barad, whose work on quantum physics and nuclear entanglements has been nothing short of ground-breaking and field-shifting in the humanities and beyond, particularly with regards to debates about nuclear violence and end-of-world-politics, participants were concerned with the formation of nuclear imaginaries and their material reconfiguration of individual and collective experience. They were concerned with the emergence of haunted landscapes and troubled subjectivities and they grappled with the allocation of agency, the identification of political intention, the acknowledgement of historical complexity and claims of ethical accountability, rethinking scales of apocalypse and considering the cultural, material, and ethical implications of radioactivity as everyday familiarity, as structure of feeling, as political injustice, and intimate apocalypse.

Working at the intersection between nuclear politics and decolonization, Jessica Hurley, Lisa Yoneyama, Annelise Roberts and Roxanne Panchasi discussed the many entanglements between colonial power and nuclear assault, in the Pacific, Japan, Canada, Australia and the Sahara, highlighting that these forms of violence had never in fact been separate forces and exploring the many modes of living on, connecting, returning and “co-conjuring” provoked by these histories. Katherine Guinness, Marisa Franz and Sonali Huria shed new light on nuclear experiences, uncovering the intricacies of nuclear intimacies in the thick of the everyday and exploring the ghostly through media, writing, art, and activism. Melanie LeTouze and Anaïs Tondeur further gave invaluable insights into the myriad ways in which their artistic practices are uniquely concerned and often enmeshed with nuclear pasts and mythologies. These presentations encouraged lively and enduring conversations among participants, culminating in a rich group discussion about the many intersections between nuclear ghosts and apocalypse at the close of the workshop.

In this way, the workshop approached haunting as something that “registers the harm inflicted or the loss sustained by social violence” (Gordon 1997) as well as the impacts felt in everyday life where ghostly matters incite “the something to be done,” as a form of historical materialism. 
All participants in one way or another challenged the notion of the void or acts of avoidance at the core of exclusionary politics and instead looked to produce what Gordon calls “finding a route” or “access to that which is marginalized, trivialized, denied, disqualified, taxed and aggrieved.” As such the workshop embraced the opportunity to conjure up ghosts as “a matter of redistributing respect, authority, and the right to representability or generizability,” as Gordon would also say, and thereby meaningfully expanded what she further calls “the right to theorize” – resonating with a long-standing determination at CAPAS to open up the apocalypse as a field for thought, beyond its theological tradition and towards a generative means of contemporary cultural politics and academic analysis.

Two things about haunting, then, remain particularly insightful or even instructive in the ‘aftermath’: Firstly, for Gordon, haunting is not a supernatural abstract, but a social phenomenon, a politics and a form of knowledge production. And secondly, for Schwab and Barad, “hauntings are not immaterial. They are an ineliminable features of existing material conditions” (Barad, 2007). 

Notes of the Workshop Nuclear Ghosts

So when we come together to discuss nuclear ghosts and apocalypse, we are interested in the impacts of nuclear violence on concrete landscapes and bodies. We are interested in how haunting shifts our understandings of temporality, how it animates repressed or unresolved forms of social violence and how it reveals opportunities for overdue justice. We look to haunting as a means to read one history through another, thereby stitching up the wounds invoked by administered forms of forgetting and political denial that ultimately sanction the repetition of political violence and thus need to be disrupted. And we are interested, to borrow Eve Tuck’s (2013) words, in “the relentless remembering and reminding that will not be appeased by settler society’s assurances of innocence and reconciliation,” precisely because, as Avery Gordon concludes her Ghostly Matters – and I this brief account – “the ending which is not an ending at all belongs to everyone.”

I want to thank all participants, fellows, team members and invited speakers for their generous contributions and for coming together to think about this important subject — for all the enthusiastic questions, productive errors and highly entertaining lessons in etymology.