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  • Writing the Hyper-DisasterEmbodied and Engendered Narrative after Nuclear Disaster
  • Emily Jones

The accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on April 26, 1986 was caused by both faulty design and operator error (Kortov and Ustyantsev 12–13) and the resulting radioactive plume affected a broad swath of Europe, most dramatically in the area of Ukraine surrounding the plant. Approximately 120,000 people were evacuated from the area around the Chernobyl plant and it is impossible to know how many people across Europe were affected by radiation from that disaster. A United Nations study estimated that approximately 4,000 deaths might ultimately result from the drifting radiation, but a report commissioned by the Green Party members of the EU Parliament suggests that the numbers might actually reach into the tens of thousands (Northcoast Environmental Center).

The Tōhoku earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant of March 11, 2011 and the following weeks are easier to conceptualize as a "natural" disaster than Chernobyl, but have decidedly "unnatural" effects related to the ongoing difficulty of containing and decommissioning the Fukushima power plant. The 9.0 magnitude earthquake that occurred on the East coast of Japan caused a tsunami that reached 40 meters in height and reached up to 10 kilometers inland (Steinhauser, Brandl, and Johnson 801). The official death toll of the "Great Eastern Japan Earthquake" totaled 15,833, but by August 2011, more than two thousand were still missing (Saito 100). It is interesting to note that this disaster has come to be known colloquially as Fukushima, eliding the geological and focusing on the anthropogenic facets of the disaster. Coupled with the ongoing spread of radiation from Fukushima and the risks related to its cleanup, the number of missing persons adds an element of uncertainty about the ultimate damage done by the quake that is reminiscent of the ongoing speculation about Chernobyl's long-term effects.

While quantitative studies can help us understand the physical and some mental effects of disaster, catastrophes like these quickly outstrip human scales of time and space and resist our comprehension, becoming something like what Timothy Morton calls hyperobjects:

things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans. […] They are viscous, which means that they 'stick' to beings that are involved with [End Page 93] them. They are nonlocal […] They involve profoundly different temporalities than the human-scale ones we are used to.

(Morton 1)

Such hyper-disasters have complex geneses that combine both human and other-than-human agencies and resist representation by conventional means: in order to represent the disasters in their entirety—if that were possible—an image or a narrative would have to simultaneously represent effects occurring around the world and over thousands of years. As a result, representations of disasters like Chernobyl and the Tōhoku earthquake are necessarily fragmentary, frequently focusing on individual victims, isolated geographies, and individual phenomena that result from them. While fragments perhaps invite the audience to generalize and extrapolate a more universal depiction of such a disaster, such representations fail to convey the complex interactions and incomprehensible timescales and geographies involved.

Christa Wolf's Accident: A Day's News and Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being focus on the two aforementioned disasters in Europe and Japan. While these novels orbit the central disasters, the narratives range far beyond either the single day represented in Wolf or the seemingly isolated locations of Ozeki's text. In both texts, scientific concepts become both guiding metaphors and structural models for grappling with the unrepresentability of the hyper-disaster: Wolf creates an atomized narrative that both criticizes and lauds technology's ability to shape human life while Ozeki's text meditates on the metaphorical potentials of climate science and the philosophical quandaries posed by quantum entanglement. Both of these texts make the global effects of disaster clear through narrative structures that emphasize the way in which these disasters' effects cross national and geographical boundaries, but simply demonstrating the transnational consequences does not suffice. Thinking hyper-disasters solely transnationally and transtemporally, while perhaps necessary, moves all too easily toward Morton's brand of "ecology without matter," (Morton 92...


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pp. 93-117
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