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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

December 27, 2011: Year in Review 2: Nuclear Reactions

[This week I will be highlighting five of the year’s most significant events, and noting some of the ways an AmericanStudier might contextualize and analyze them. This is the second in that series.]
The year’s worst natural (and then human) disaster can, despite its distance from America, help us analyze a number of national narratives.
In mid-March, in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake-tsunami combination that had rocked the island nation, the nuclear reactors at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant melted down. The event’s central stories are of course the dueling (and ongoing) tales of horrific and destructive catastrophe and stunning sacrifice and recovery, both of which focus as they should on the Japanese people. Yet like every other 21st century world event, Fukushima cannot be, and from its first moments has not been, entirely separated from American issues and narratives; as I wrote in this post, one of the most prominent recent trends in AmericanStudies has been the turn to transnational subjects and analyses, and while those analyses have extended back to every period and aspect of our national history, they have undoubtedly been inspired by our increasingly globalized and interconnected 21st century world. And from Fukushima to the Arab Spring, the Norwegian massacre to the European financial crisis, every significant international story this year has exemplified those interconnections.
Even if we turn our AmericanStudies lens more fully to specifically national narratives and histories, Fukushima’s echoes still resonate. Almost exactly 22 years earlier, in late March of 1979, the United States experienced its own worst (to date) nuclear incident, at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island Unit 2 power plant. Despite the event’s specific causes and details, the national responses to it can certainly help reveal an apocalyptic trend in 1970s American popular culture and narratives; amazingly enough, the meltdown disaster film The China Syndrome (1979) was released just twelve days before the Three Mile Island incident, highlighting how much concerns of nuclear meltdown (along with nuclear war) figured into the period’s apocalyptic visions. The 1980s debates over and pop culture representations of nuclear disarmament, Cold War policies and approaches, and the concurrent benefits and dangers of technological advances—all captured in another successful film, the Matthew Broderick computer-nuclear war-vehicle War Games (1983)—can only be understood in the context of Three Mile Island and these related concerns.
Such concerns about new technologies predate the nuclear age, however, and could also be connected to the long-standing, even foundational American debates over the ideal or preferred relationship between technology and nature, the machine and the garden (as seminal AmericanStudier Leo Marx put it). As I wrote in this post, one inspired in part by the September death of one of America’s most influential technological innovators (Steve Jobs), such debates reveal core and complex national dualities and tensions, ones related not only to nature and technology but also to the individual and the community, leisure and work, and social class and status. If events such as Fukushima highlight the continuing and real dangers at the heart of the uneasy relationship between nature and technology, they also can and must be contextualized as part of these other conversations over how we connect to the world around us (natural, human, and otherwise), and with what goals.
Another significant 2011 event tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?
12/27 Memory Day nominee: Cyrus Eaton, the hugely successful industrialist who both embodied mid-20th century capitalism and yet went on to advocate for peaceful alternatives to the Cold War and to co-found the Pugwash Conferences, conversations toward such international relationships that would win the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize and continue to this day.

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