Review #4: Adriana Petryna’s Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after Chernobyl (2002)
On April 26, 1986, Unit Four of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded in Ukraine, damaging immunities and the genetic structure of cells, contaminating soils and waterways. (1)
From the first sentence of the book the reader is presented with the text’s central theme: the disaster at Chernobyl scarred the people and the land so that citizenship and sickness fused together. The scope of the disaster was greatly augmented by Soviet attempts to downplay the dangers of contamination. Their delay in acknowledging the scale of danger exposed thousands of people living near the plant to high levels of radiation. This number grew substantially with subsequent cleanup operations and as radioactive clouds drifted about saturating the countryside. These operations included the crews of technicians and Soviet soldiers who managed to shut down the reactor and eventually build the giant lead-enforced sarcophagus to enclose that section of the plant. The crews referred to themselves as “bio-robots” because of the extremely high amounts of radiation that they were exposed to despite wearing extensive protective clothing and working short, rotating shifts. As Petryna argues, the figure of the bio-robot, with its connotations of machine-like heroics and sacrificing the few for the safety of the whole, quickly became emblematic of Ukraine’s nascent citizenry.
Petryna explains that the collapse of the Soviet Union and formation of the Ukrainian nation added to the specter of the Chernobyl disaster. To distinguish itself from the brutality of the Soviet Union, the newly formed Ukraine recognized much lower levels of radiation contamination. This action automatically transformed the health status of a large percentage of the population, as thousands of individuals went from being exposed to acceptable levels of radiation to being exposed to very dangerous levels:
The Soviets had established a high 35 rem spread over an individual’s lifetime (understood as a standard seventy-year span) as the threshold of allowable radiation dose intakes… Ukrainian law lowered the threshold dose to 7 rem, comparable to what an average American would be exposed to in his or her lifetime… With the lower dose standard, more and more people became active participants in the system of compensation and social protections. (23-24)
This shift in acceptable dosages also exposed the instability of scientific truth, or at the very least, the instability of the truth surrounding radiation poisoning. How could the Soviets and the Ukrainians have radically conflicting truths concerning something so lethal as radiation?
For the Ukrainian state, radiation exposure continues to function as an effective tool or apparatus that it uses to help govern its population. Faced with the uncertainty of the health and Ukraine’s struggling economy, individuals actively pursue the persona of a radiation victim or sufferer. This process involves citizens attempting to solidify their economic future by finding a doctor with the authority to declare them terminally ill and, as such, subject to state welfare. “The goal of this sick role,” explains Petryna, “is nonrecovery. Only through nonrecovery can the sick guarantee a stable influx of privileges” (106). Corrupt doctors and officials complicate the process, as individuals without sufficient funds to bribe the appropriate people find themselves in an extremely precarious situation, as they are often deemed too unhealthy to work but not unhealthy enough to claim compensation. “In this integration of unstable law and individual economic weakness,” Petryna continues, “clinical structures have become prime sites of social production and power” (106). For thousands of Ukrainians, proving that they are terminally ill and eligible for compensation has become an ongoing battle. The fact that their financial security depends on an incurable diagnosis marks life in Ukraine as inherently bleak. The additional fact that radiation contamination last thousands of years, suggests that this form of biological citizenship, this toxic self-fashioning, will continue into the unforeseeable future.
Petryna uses testimony gathered from various interlocutors to draw her readers into the mangle of negotiating the ins and outs of biological citizenship. Doing her fieldwork in hospitals and by staying in the homes of sufferers, Petryna wades through the bureaucracy, the corruption, and the drama surrounding individual lives. These personal details reinforce Foucault’s famous argument that state power is not a concentrated force exercised from the top down. Instead, it is a fragmented process that individuals participate in to fashion and make sense of their lives. Like any other country, Ukraine is an ongoing construction rather than static channel or vessel containing a passive citizenry. As Foucault asserts, modern statecraft, or what he calls governmentality, depends on the active role of individuals to discipline and shape themselves as citizens-subjects. This form of civic self-fashioning is much different from patriotism. Whereas patriotism is an outward expression of pride and belonging, governmentality is characteristically innocuous or incidental. While it may seem contradictory to speak of Chernobyl and radiation as innocuous forms of citizenship, this is exactly how people got on with their lives in Ukraine. In effect, they normalized the disaster and their illness by integrating it into the decisions and routines of everyday living.
This normalization of Chernobyl is being repeated in Fukushima, Japan. Despite nightly news reports assuring us that the meltdown at Fukushima would be squashed and the fallout would be nowhere near that of Chernobyl, the breached reactor continues to leak dangerous levels of radiation. But as a global issue, Fukushima has receded into the background. The images of the destroyed power plant and the thousands of evacuees have failed to generate serious international debate about the safety of nuclear power. Nor are there riots in Japan. What is the reasoning behind this general complacency? Is it the result of widespread apathy or cynicism; state bread corruption; or a blind faith in technology? Petryna’s text suggests that individuals become complacent and complicit with such disasters, even after suffering horrible consequences, because economic viability or will supersedes all other concerns. The text also suggests that life swallows or engulfs individuals whole, so there is not much room for reflection or radical change. For the sufferers that Petryna encounters, this general sensibility of getting on with the business of living one’s life regardless of the circumstances appears to be a reasonable reaction.
I applaud Petryna for taking on such a formidable subject: How does one make sense of Chernobyl? How does one account for a hole ripped into the biosphere and a sarcophagus that can be seen from space? How do you make sense of radiation exposure, an invisible and deadly force that is visited on you as a result of technological advancement and national pride? Rather than getting bogged down in trying to sort out a clear picture of how Chernobyl has affected Ukrainian life, Petryna deploys the ethnographic practice of including testimony from opposing positions. These conflicting voices and stories illustrate how there is no definitive truth or answers to the questions raised by Chernobyl. Instead, Chernobyl continues to serve as an active site (both literally and metaphorically) in which truths are forged, challenged, discarded, and renewed.