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Unwanted Intimacies: Technostruggle and Radioactive Embodiment after 3.11

Kath Weston
University of Virginia


Not all forms of intimate encounters with “resources” such as food, water, and energy are desirable, or desired. The radioactive isotopes associated with the production of nuclear energy are distinguished by their imperceptibility to the body’s unaided senses.  In the months after 3.11, as data on radiation releases from Fukushima Daiichi supplied by the Japanese government and plant operator TEPCO proved unreliable, ordinary people in Japan began to take their own radiation measurements.  They set about making or acquiring Geiger counters and dosimeters, then used digital technologies and social media to disseminate the results.  “Unwanted Intimacies” characterizes these developments as a form of technostruggle in which people seize the (technological) means of perception in order to produce knowledge about their intimate bodily engagements with potentially lethal derivatives of resources that are supposed to sustain them.  To make sense of statements such as “we are becoming nuclear fuel rods,” I distinguish between ecological models grounded in interdependence and conceptions of biointimacy that treat bodies and environments as co-constituting.  In the longer version of this paper (available upon request), after applying Ulrich Beck’s account of sovereignty over knowledge production work in my analysis, I go on to question whether sovereignty as a concept is adequate for understanding technostruggle as a movement organized around the need “to protect” (mamoru) people, especially children, from radiation. The longer version of the essay concludes with a look at the post-3.11 phenomenon of the “radiation divorce” by way of considering how biointimacies can affect intimacies more conventionally conceived, such as those entailed in kinship.


Kath Weston is Professor of Anthropology and Women, Gender, and Sexuality at the University of Virginia and the author of several books, including Families We Choose and Traveling Light: On the Road with America’s Poor, as well as STS-oriented essays that link scientific research on blood to finance and kinship (“Kinship, Controversy, and the Sharing of Substance: The Race/Class Politics of Blood Transfusion” [2002], “Biosecuritization: The Quest for Synthetic Blood and the Taming of Kinship” [2013], and “Lifeblood, Liquidity, and Cash Transfusions: Beyond Metaphor in the Cultural Study of Finance” [2013]).  Her current work in political ecology and political economy focuses on biointimacy, technointimacy, and organic analogies.


[The abstract above is of a Draft MS submitted to the STS Forum on the 2011 Fukushima/East Japan Disaster, Berkeley, May 2013.  Draft MS is an abridged version of chapter from a longer book project (The Intimacy of Resources: Technology and Embodiment in the Synthesis of Nature, forthcoming from Duke University Press, 2015). The draft MS has been circulated to Berkeley Workshop participants. Comments may be posted below by participants.]

  1. Nicolas Sternsdorff permalink

    These comments are based on the shorter manuscript.

    Kath, your concept of unwanted intimacies is a provocative analytic to think about the interaction of bodies and radiation. I heard at numerous events in Japan people describe radiation as particularly scary because it has no smell and cannot be detected with the naked eye. We depend on machinery to tell us if it’s around us, which on the one hand can make it easier to ignore, but also brings up issues of access — who has access to geiger counters and other pieces of equipment. Insofar as the machines to test food, I’ve been told that they were largely unavailable to the public until the summer of 2011, when imported machines and some domestically-produced began to arrive. These machines, however, are many times more expensive than a geiger counter and required groups to put down a substantial amount of money or ask members for contributions. The machines allow people to see different things — geiger counters tell you about ambient radiation, while the food machines can isolate the radiation inside the product much more accurately, but in the end both machines are an imperfect interface to visualize radiation.

    Your concept of co-constitution and fluidity of bodies and environment reminds me of Peter Kirby’s “Troubled Natures,” where he tries to write an environmental history of Japan treating the pollutants and their properties as actors in the account.

  2. The notions of unwanted intimacy and bio-intimacy are indeed very helpful to put on a continuum the damage caused to the environment and the damage caused to human health. I find also interesting your idea of cuting with the illusion of “inter-action” (that will not please adepts of ethnomethodology!) and shift to “co-constitution” of bodies and ecologies: the pollutants make us as much as we make the pollutants. What you emphasize here reminds me the beautiful work of Nancy Langston on DES (by the way, the front cover of her book “Toxic bodies” pictures the womb of a pregnant woman that looks like a planet), as well the book “Landscapes of exposure” (edited by Gregg Mitman, Michelle Murphy and Chris Sellers, which includes among others articles by Linda Nash, Adriana Petryna and Kim Fortun).

    Your approach of “protection” (mamoru) is also very interesting as regards the cultural interpretation of anonymous and standardized risks. I like it because it means familiarity with Japanese daily life with a “safe distance” from culturalist clichés. You could also extend this analysis to “radiation protection” (hôshasen kanri).

    The long version of your paper offers also a nicely written personal testimony of 3.11 seism and many interesting remarks about the perception of radiation risks by average Japanese citizens in the following months, from apathy to resistance, what you call technostruggle.

  3. Monamie Bhadra permalink

    I just want to apologize right off the bat, because I realized most of my comments constitute comparisons to India. Maybe it’s because I’m still in the field and it’s hard to think of little else!

    But I really enjoyed reading your essay, and think that the analytic category of “unwanted intimacies” is a great way to talk about not only becoming radioactive, but also about genetic contamination in GMOs, or any sort of environmental justice issue dealing with the coproduction of the environment and people. In Indian anti-nuclear protests around places where nuclear reactors are slated to be built, this co-constitution is deeply understood. People repeatedly refer to their land as their mother. And if mango orchards become radioactive, people feel that they, in some sense, will become radioactive too.

    The other thing I thought of is that the idea of technostruggle is certainly a tool of democracy and can only occur in cases where everyday citizens have the means to take control of a technology, like Geiger counters, to wrest knowledge production from experts. In places like Tarapur, one of the oldest reactors in India, and in Jadugoda, the oldest uranium mine in India, there is very little technostruggle. People have to rely on political channels, unsuccessfully, to try to rebuild a wanted biointimacy.

  4. unixj4zz permalink

    Your discussion is really helpful in highlighting new forms of technopolitical experience and perception of the environment post-3.11.

    The longer manuscript was very insightful and made me think of other research areas which intersect with your presentation of “biointimacy” and “co-constitution” of environments/people. It comes to mind the work of Tim Ingold and the ‘ecological paradigm’ in anthropology (which is fundamentally about co-constitution of organisms and organisms-persons). In ethnology, the work of Philippe Descola (on forms of intimacy among animals and humans) and Viveiros de Castro (on ‘Amerindian Perspectivism’ and ‘multi-naturalism’) contributed to a renewal of the debate concerning the modernist divide between nature and culture. I think your work is well positioned to contribute substantially to this debate.

    It is not part of the longer manuscript, but I would like to understand how do you position your work in relation to the discussion around the concept of “embodiment” (we can think about several alternatives grounded in studies of body, sexuality, power, and perception).

    The concept of ‘unwanted intimacy’ is also a very powerful contribution to the workshop: it helps us re-frame our own field experiences in Japan (during and post-3.11) and the work we did in describing different ways in which radiation has became an intimate reality and an inescapable condition.

  5. Laura Beltz Imaoka permalink

    I really enjoyed reading your chapter! Two things that struck my interest greatly and I am thinking more about: the history of how the Geiger counter became socially constructed as a standard and trusted radioactive exposure testing device to the point that it now takes the place of officials and experts in restoring sovereignty over knowledge (technostruggle). Secondly, while certain citizen scientists are particularly tech-savvy, understanding the workings of the counters and the meanings of their readings, I can’t help but think the majority of Geiger counter adopters, those who helped empty the shelves of them following the disaster, or purchased the smartphone apps on a whim to try, may be simply consuming risk and spreading it via social media channels furthering the cycle. How do you parse out the science and tech-savvy from those consumer-citizens following a trend (to invalidate truth claims, participated in DIY-culture) and not necessarily contributing knowledge production?

  6. In contrast to others, what I find most interesting is the concluding sentence and the issue of “forgetting” dangers/disasters. All of us are aware of the ignored danger markers in Tohoku that noted the impact of the Orphan Tsunami of 1700, but this forgetting, revealed here in the world of science, too, is the basic premise for developing new neighborhoods and suburbs in high risk flood plains in Japan, the U.S. and elsewhere. Multiple examples can be drawn from other regions and focused on other risks. A number of the papers here theorize about recovery, and the Cornell conference a week or so ago dealt with “imagining the unimaginable,” but we also have our hands full with remembering what we know.

  7. Karena Kalmbach permalink

    Kath, thank you for your paper! Alike Monamie, I want to apologize that all my comments have a certain bias: the question of transnational networks and exchange. I would love to hear more about this aspect in relation to the ‘technostruggle’ after 3.11. In your account you mainly talk about national, local or regional sources of knowledge, such as the example of ‘reactivated legacies of the Pacific War bombings’ that led to ‘people reminded others not to go outside if it rained.’ I know about many Western European anti-nuclear groups that were eager to supply information and material, such as Geiger counters and trainings how to use them. I am very interested in learning more about how these activities were perceived in Japan: for example, if people preferred to rely on ‘local knowledge’ or if, for example in terms of consulted websites, looked for knowledge located outside of the national context. Any information on this aspect is very much appreciated, thank you!

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