Radiation Ecologies and the Wars of Light
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Radiation Ecologies and the Wars of Light

The fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant.

—Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment

We are creatures constituted by radiation, solar and otherwise. This is a sign of our planetarity, a merger with an environment that exceeds our attempts at total illumination. Our ability to capture, inscribe, and make meaning of light has been defined as heliography, a word used at the advent of photography to foreground the entrapment of solar rays with the aid of the camera, a "pencil of nature" as termed by Henry Fox Talbot, that documents "words of light" (Cadava xvii).1 The concept of heliography is expanded here to represent both the discursive practice of writing about light as well as the inscription of our bodies as they are created, visually ordered and perceived, and penetrated by radiation. Light is an originary source of life in our universe and sustains life on our planet, but its role in modern philosophy as well as physics is profoundly ambiguous. In fact, most genealogies of radiation in modernity emphasize a destructive rather than life-sustaining trajectory. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, writing amidst the state-sanctified violence of World War II, argued that the instrumental rationality of the Enlightenment perpetuates its self-destruction and utilized metaphors of light to warn against the dangers of the "fully enlightened earth." "What men want to learn from nature," they argued, "is how to use it in order wholly [End Page 468] to dominate it and other men" (3). While the start of the twentieth century witnessed Albert Einstein's rendering of the speed of light as the only universal absolute, by midcentury the new technologies of light such as photography, the X-ray, aerial surveillance, the motion picture, and the atomic bomb were understood as constitutive of a heliographic modernity with frightening potential for violence against human subjects, history, and the environment.2

This heliotrope of the "fully enlightened earth," the excess illumination Adorno and Horkheimer warn of in the epigraph, has been a primary concern in the Pacific Islands, a region often deemed peripheral to modernity and yet the site of nearly continuous nuclear weapons testing from 1946–1996. Since their exploration by Enlightenment-era cartographers, painters, and naturalists, the Pacific Islands have been incorporated into an especially visual economy of colonialism in which the ethnicity of the region's peoples, the exoticism of tropical light, and the flora and fauna were studiously mapped, painted, and inscribed for European display and distribution.3 By the mid-twentieth century, Oceania entered an entirely different economy of light when hundreds of nuclear detonations conducted by the US, France, and the UK produced a new atomic cartography and a militarized grammar of "radiation atolls" and "nuclear nomads."4

The irradiation of the Pacific Islands marks an important era of global militarization that has largely been overlooked by the very metropoles that benefited from the economic, political, and technological products of nuclear weapons testing, such as the high-speed camera, color film, and radiotherapy. Overtly using the islands as laboratories and spaces of radiological experiment, British, American, and French militaries configured those spaces deemed by Euro American travelers as isolated and utopian into a constitutive locus of a dystopian nuclear modernity.

In this essay I turn to a heliographic novel by Maori author James George to explore how he inscribes the modernity of the Pacific in terms of the violence of radiation ecologies, particularly through photography and the (nuclear) wars of light. His novel Ocean Roads suggests that the primary way we understand the environment and its relationship to modernity is through the vehicle of light, even if that vehicle often exceeds the limits of representation and comprehension. While ecocritical fictions are often focused on representations of matter and matter's vulnerability to destruction, George turns to radiation ecologies—what illuminates matter but is not necessarily constituted by it. As we know from visual studies and philosophy, the metaphor of illumination is closely tied to knowledge production. We see, we are illuminated, we inspect (Jay 2, Grandy par. 1). Yet light itself cannot be seen; it is absent presence. It is this "revelatory...