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Social Text 19.1 (2001) 1-18

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The Contours of a Political Ecology

Piyush Mathur

How are we to comprehend those events that muscle their way into shaping the manner in which we understand them? On the assumption that the May 1998 Indian nuclear tests constitute one such event, I attempt in this essay to evince the means of such a comprehension. Toward this tantalizing objective, I find a useful start in the following witticism from Ashis Nandy's response to the tests: "The culture of nuclearism is one of the true 'universals' of our time. Like Coca-Cola and blue jeans, it does not permit cultural adaptation or edited versions. It is the same in Paris and Pokharan, Lahore and Los Alamos." 1 There are several levels to Nandy's comment: It is about nuclear technology; it is about culture; but it also is about technology and culture, technology as culture, and technologies of culture. More generally, then, Nandy obliges us to pay attention to a certain exemplary interfacing of technology and culture--"the culture of nuclearism" --against its concomitant geopolitics, which disallows "cultural adaptation or edited versions."

Insofar as Nandy refers to this interface as an "-ism," he points up the need also to look at technology--nuclear technology--as a coherent framework of ideas and actions with political and psychological underpinnings and ramifications. More specifically, Nandy's characterization captures well the paradox whereby an exact technology--invoking universality of application and effect--is localized as a homogenizing norm across various cultures such that it constitutes a universal culture of its own, an "-ism." Accordingly, nuclear technology is not merely a defense or energy infrastructure or a scientific force running against "culture," nor is it to be upheld simply as culture-free or value-neutral. In addition to these sometimes conflicting ways, the nuclear technology should also be viewed as the prime expression and producer of a treacherous universality.

Nandy, in fact, goes beyond the technology-culture interface at once by pointing to the eerie idiomatic semblance between a technological behavior ("nuclearism") and a cultural behavior (symbolized by "Coca-Cola and blue jeans") that has evolved through globalization. Taken to its conclusion, Nandy's "nuclearism" implies a homologous relationship between cultures of globalization and globalizing technologies, inducing us, in [End Page 1] the end, to place nuclear technology in the cultural politics of the global order.

Accordingly, to situate nuclear technology requires considering the ways through which the global hierarchies of military and economic power have come to create a larger cross-cultural psychological environment that tacitly accepts the technology as the final arbitrator of power and prestige. As countries attempt to respond to this global order by actively participating in nuclearism, as India and Pakistan have done, they inescapably incur unprecedented costs to the local populations and commit violence regionally. In other words, like most universals, nuclearism is a costly and violent enterprise in regional terms, but it outclasses all other universals both quantitatively and qualitatively. The material and psychological contingencies of nuclearism have been powerful enough to generate an environment of their own across geographies, which I shall refer to as nuclearism's "political ecology."

What follows is my attempt at briefly characterizing the nature of this political ecology in the context of the recent Indo-Pak nuclear tests. More specifically, I shall try to explicate the kinds of relationships that played themselves out through nuclearism between technology and society at the behest of the Indian state and the Indian scientific establishment. Insofar as nuclearism is a technological universal specified as an unrelenting, uncompromising cultural universal, the issue of democracy becomes central to my consideration of its political ecology. Hence, I raise the question --and attempt to unravel its theoretical complexities--as follows: What may it mean for a nation-state or a national institution to be democratic while the former goes (militarily) nuclear?

At this point, I am inclined to believe that perhaps it is more difficult for a political and cultural theorist than it must be for a determined government to be able to identify a...


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