In writing about visuality, I learned one major lesson that I keep having to re-learn: visuality is a colonial technique and it is best understood from the places of it application–the plantation, the colony, the neo-colony–looking back at its metropolitan sites of deployment.

As nuclear counterinsurgency continues, it is time to consider how an atomic countervisuality might be developed and from where. For the paradigmatic tools of GCOIN are now being used in Japan, where Global Hawk Unmanned Aerial Vehicles have been flown across the destroyed reactors of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, while they are also directing aerial observation in Libya.

The Global Hawk UAV

The Global Hawk is designed, as the name suggests, for extremely long-range missions and is capable of circumnavigating the globe. It has no standard equipment for radiation detection but is a surveillance and/or targeting platform, using synthetic aperture radar, infrared and other systems.

It was striking to me that the Global Hawk over Japan was launched from a U. S. base in Guam, the major military outpost in the Pacific.  Guam was recently rebranded as the “tip of the spear” in GCOIN operations, after troops had to be relocated there from Japan, following recent elections. Here, then, is one “atomic”  location from which we might counter the increasingly odd fusion of nuclear politics with counterinsurgency. In countering the fission of the nuclear with the singularity of the atomic, I hope to map the complex “entanglement” (Achille Mbembe) produced by nuclear counterinsurgency, linking the Second World War, the Cold War, nuclear weapons, decolonization, the global war on terror and climate change.

Whatever the Global Hawk missions revealed has been kept secret. At the same time, so-called experts are advising that the “safest way to deposit radiation is in the ocean.”  It seems that residents of Oceania, including  those in U. S. territories like Guam– and other nearby island nations operating under the Compact of Free Association with the U. S., like Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia–are once again invisible to Western and Japanese eyes alike.  The “plume” of radiation that is said to have no chance of reaching the mainland U. S. will certainly reach those islands, especially now that it has become clear that large quantities of iodine-131 and caesium-137,  highly carcinogenic isotopes, are already in the sea.

Bikini Atoll 1946: Operation Crossroads Baker

Perhaps it is just assumed that there is so much residual radiation from the 67 above ground nuclear weapons tests conducted by the U. S. from 1945 to 1962 in the Western Pacific that a little more is neither here nor there. Or perhaps the scientifically-accredited but nonetheless magical view of the period that it “seemed logical to believe that water would cleanse Bikini” of radiation is still operative. In fact, the former residents of Bikini Atoll (above) are still in exile, 65 years after the tests that irradiated their island in the interests of discovering whether naval ships (visible in the photo above) could survive nuclear attacks–answer:  yes, but in so radioactive a state as to be unusable.

Bikini islanders leaving in 1946 Today in exile on Kili

The disastrous but forgotten history of these people from the expropriation of their homes to their emiserated exile, radiation-induced cancer epidemic and sustained marginalization in the name of some greater good may indicate what is in store for Northwestern Japan.

The islands that are being used to launch the UAVs are most at risk from the rising sea levels caused by anthropogenic climate change. At the same time as 20,000 troops are being redeployed to Guam, the Army Corps of Engineers–the people who brought you Hurricane Katrina–are busy building sea walls to try and hold back the ocean.

A newly-built sea wall on Guam is already at risk

As this photo taken in August 2010 shows, the walls are barely keeping out the rising tides. Scientists have shown that the rising sea levels in the Pacific have been concentrated in the Western half of the ocean for contingent reasons of tide and wind patterns. At an IPCC meeting in Kolkata that I have not seen reported here,  Rajenda Pachauri attributed the severity of the tsunami to the  additional water mass caused by climate change.

There is, then, a further irony that the U. S. and its allies are using Western Pacific islands as counterinsurgency prisons. Five Chinese Uighurs, formerly detained at Guantànamo Bay, have been relocated to Palau, an independent nation whose budget entirely depends on revenue from the Compact of Free Association with the U. S. These islands were mandated to the U. S. at the end of the Second World War, after Koror had been for some thirty years capital of the Japanese empire in the Pacific.

View of the district of Koror where the Uighurs now live, August 2010

Living in a house in downtown Koror, whose location is known to all locals, the Uighurs are the subject of some resentment because they do not work but spend most of their time in religious observance. A few hundred meters away, Koror floods on a regular basis at high tide.

Flooding in downtown Koror, Palau

This less-than-secure location was presumably selected as a prison because it is so “remote” but it is only a two-hour flight to the Philippines. Elsewhere in the region (broadly defined–see the map below) the Australian government detains over 2,000 asylum seekers on Christmas Island, some 350 km south of Java. Held in facilities designed for several hundred people, the detainees rioted on March 17 and one person recently committed suicide there.

Xmas Island and Palau

Here, then, are a set of “invisibles” from post-war histories, and forced exiles, radiation, detainees, sea level rise, climate change to aerial surveillance that a countervisuality needs to bring into view as a tactic to displace the hegemonic logics of nuclear counterinsurgency. I am well aware that they cut across academic disciplinary lines, perhaps exceeding individual competences (including of course my own). I’d be curious to hear your thoughts about how (and indeed if) such tactics might be developed in the current crisis: comments are open and all will be approved



  2 Responses to “Atomic Countervisuality”

  1. Hey Nick. I’m very excited by the cluster of ideas you’ve laid out in the last couple of blogposts, but I’m still struggling slightly with the structuring of visuality / countervisuality.

    Am I right to read countervisuality as an umbrella term for some kind of visual imaginary cast in opposition to the forces of power? Or is it something simpler, referring to the kind of visual practices that emerge from the grassroots, instead of being imposed from above?

    Nuclear visuality = something like this image? Or, as a weaponised spectacle, this?

    In which case, it’s hard to imagine a nuclear countervisuality. This is more architecturey, and its relationship with power is relatively neutral, but something about the architecture of Francois Roche? The film Stalker, and it’s premediation of Chernobyl?

    (more to come)

    • Hi Justin–this is a great set of ideas and images–long story short: visuality imagines/visualizes the world as a battlefield so any visuality always already implies a countervisuality it is trying to overcome. For those actively attempting to counter visuality, there is a double requirement to think conceptualize the countervisuality that a given mode of visuality takes to be its opponent and then develop a further alternative. I’m in-between classes and realizing that this is too compressed so I’m going to come back to this topic in a proper post next week–thanks for the alert:)

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