As Jaime Semprun notes ironically in his 1980s post-Situationist pamphlet La Nucléarisation du monde, “nothing is more discreet than radiation.” As an infra-sensible phenomenon that can, however, result in very visible physical consequences, the nuclear is an aesthetic-political problem. In The Radiant (2012), The Otolith Group investigates the wake of Fukushima though a sonimage that makes audible and visible radiation and its effects—for instance through the sounds of Geiger counters and avant-garde sonic performances, and through luminous images of nocturnal Tokyo.
The Radiant engages with the fatal logic of Japanese necropolitics even—and perhaps especially—in those beautiful shots. After all, the city’s spectacular radiance is dependent on the dark glow of nuclear radiation. The bright lights of the big city represent the lure of the nuclear regime; this is the hypervisible obverse of the malignant waves that have now made part of Japan uninhabitable.
Throughout The Radiant, the film hovers around the edge of visibility, suggesting a partial transmutation of the infra-sensible into the photosensitive. A sequence that was inspired by a video by Sean Snyder shows a photo camera being patiently disassembled. Musing on how Japanese traditions conceives of the landscape as traversed by wind as well as by spirits, the photographer speculates on the addition of a “new kind of invisibility” after Fukushima. The camera may well have to be retooled for a new form of “spirit photography” to come to terms with radiation.
As The Otolith Group’s Kodwo Eshun has put it, The Radiant tests “mythologies of radiation” against an actual event, against a reality. The film repeatedly references anime and popular fantasies of mutation, for instance in a shot of a lounge with monitors on which we see the mythical mutants of anime. In the context of Fukushima, these beings are suggestive of the systemic incapability of Japanese society to abandon nuclear energy. Better to change biology than the economy.
In Japan as in the US, the post-war era saw a proliferation of both superheroes and monsters whose existence was in many cases—from Spiderman to Godzilla—explained by references to radiation. For the photographer in The Radiant, the traditional gods inhabiting the landscape and radiation are two conflicting forms of invisibility. Will radiation ever be turned into a god? Under what circumstances could that happen? The new gods of anime and manga seem to be one answer to that question.
In La nucléarisation du monde, Semprun’s persona asks if the invisibility on which the nuclear regime depends is not the ultimate, “autonomous” manifestation of “this limitless social power that is the existence of commodified relations.” If the commodity fetish depends on the concealment of labour, then does it not, in the nuclear age, also depend on a concealment of the dead, anorganic labour of nuclear power? And, conversely, does the nuclear regime not depend on willing submission to the mechanisms of commodity fetishism?
Commodity fetishism depends, in Stewart Martin’s words, on the “illusion of the commodityʼs sensuousness. The illusion is ʻseen through’ by knowing that value is not sensuous, but abstract, a quantum of abstract labour time. But seeing through it does not dissolve it, since it is generated by the social relations of private labour.” This is why just substituting ‘alternative energies’ for the nuclear and leaving everything else in place will not work; under present conditions, such alternatives must remain weak and inadequate substitutes. Just “making visible” is indeed insufficient as long as the social relations that are enabled (or co-produced) by the nuclear regime remain in place.
The Radiant abstains from Enlightenment gestures. Rather than trying to ‘bring to light’ a hidden truth it presents a messy dialectic of the sensible, the infra-sensible, the supra-sensible—and the senseless. It shows survivals and mutations, deterritorialized flows, gridlocks and struggles. It asks no questions and provides no answers. Like any good sphinx, The Radiant poses a dangerous riddle, and it insists on doing so again with each viewing.
1. Jaime Sempun, La Nucléarisation du monde (Paris: Éditions Gérard Lebovici, 1986), p. 30. Originally from 1980, La Nucléarisation du monde was quickly republished after the Chernobyl disaster by Éditions Gérard Lebovici, a publisher closely associated with Guy Debord. The entire book is written as through from the perspective of an advocate of nuclear energy.
2. Kodwo Eshun, remark during a seminar with research master’s students at Casco, Utrecht, autumn 2014.
3. Semprun, La Nucléarisation du monde, p. 39.
4. Stewart Martin, “The Absolute Artwork Meets the Absolute Commodity” in Radical Philosophy no. 146 (November/December 2007), p. 22.
This text is based on a section from “Apocalypse (Not) Now,” an essay written for an upcoming issue of the Nordic Journal of Aesthetics.