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Your Inner "Hysteric" May Just Be Right

Laurie Essig teaches at Middlebury College and is the author of American Plastic: Boob Jobs, Credit Cards and Our Quest for Perfection. This post originally appeared on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Brainstorm Blog.

Essig1-512x547 When I was in grad school, in my first incarnation as a Russian Studies type, I made money all summer by working as a tour guide and interpreter. Not a bad gig. Sometimes I could make $5,000 for a few weeks and spend the rest of the summer on research. One summer I was asked to lead a group of nuclear scientists from Chernobyl and Three Mile Island around the TMI plant for a trans-national exchange about the two worst nuclear disasters in history. The money was good, the timing was right, and off to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania I went.

Needless to say, no amount of money could have made that experience worth it.  The nuclear scientists from both sides of the Cold War were an unruly lot. They drank themselves sick every night and tried to push themselves into my hotel room or just stood outside calling my name, demanding that I let them in. During the day they were worse. They forced me to translate more misogynist and homophobic jokes in those few weeks than I had heard in my entire life previously. They mocked my ridiculous “nuclear phobia” as irrational and uninformed. This got much worse after a TMI exec handed me a pretty orange jumpsuit and told me to put it on since they were going into the contaminated area and needed me to translate. He was so shocked when I refused (seriously, radiation exposure was not in my contract) that he insisted I translate to everyone why I wouldn’t do it and then listen to their “rational” explanations as to why I was being “hysterical” and an “idiotic girl.”

I bring up this time of interpreting nuclear disaster because like everyone else I am glued to my screen, watching the disaster take place in Japan and wishing there were something, anything, I could do. This sense of being utterly useless is made more poignant by the fact that I am an academic, a status synonomous with superflous, isolated, and in no way, shape, or form relevant.

As I feel the weight of the Japanese disaster and my isolation in the Ivory Tower this week, I am simultaneously spending an inordinate time at work—my useless, unimportant, irrelevant work—helping to run a conference on feminism. Ah the irony. At the moment of feeling most academic, I am engaged in the seemingly most academic of projects: epistemology and knowledge production through feminist theory.

And yet, I am struck by how feminist theory might have changed both TMI and Chernobyl and how it might still save the United States from a similar nuclear disaster. In both America and in Japan, there has been a willingness to ignore the many groups warning of nuclear catastrophe. For instance, in both countries states and industry have decided to leave spent fuel rods near the reactors and this turns out to be creating a much larger disaster in Japan than had to happen. It might, in the future, happen here. In both the U.S. and Japan, a certain sort of voice was heard saying “don’t worry,” “stop being hysterical,” and “nuclear power is rational.” For instance, over at Slate, William Saletan calls us “nuclear overreactors” and says that fear of nuclear power is not based in fact, but feeling.  According to Saletan, the rational thing to do is study what went wrong and fix it since

If Japan, the United States, or Europe retreats from nuclear power in the face of the current panic, the most likely alternative energy source is fossil fuel. And by any measure, fossil fuel is more dangerous. The sole fatal nuclear power accident of the last 40 years, Chernobyl, directly killed 31 people. By comparison, Switzerland’s Paul Scherrer Institute calculates that from 1969 to 2000, more than 20,000 people died in severe accidents in the oil supply chain. More than 15,000 people died in severe accidents in the coal supply chain—11,000 in China alone. The rate of direct fatalities per unit of energy production is 18 times worse for oil than it is for nuclear power.

As rational as that seems and as much as we’d all like to have the voice of authority explain to us how to interpret the nuclear disaster happening in Japan, I think feminism might have more important answers to give us.

First and foremost, feminism is a situated knowledge. By that I mean that feminism doesn’t pretend to have a view from above, looking down at the world imagining that some sort of scientific method removes it from power. Indeed, power is everywhere—what we write, how we write it, what we claim to know, and what we claim not to know. What would have happened differently at TMI, at Chernobyl, and in Japan if scientists understood that their knowledge was not perfectly objective, but perfectly human? What would happen if feminist nuclear scientists had insisted that their particular form of knowledge also stopped them from considering nuclear power from other forms of expertise and therefore limited how they imagined everything from how the plants were built to whether building them was a good idea in the first place.

The hubris that is “rational science” is built on those forms of knowledge that claim to be outside the bodies producing that knowledge. This hubris is rooted in gendered (and raced and classed) power. They are “objective” and the rest of us are “biased.” If only nuclear physicists were required—as any feminist theorist is—to consider the limits of knowledge, the very human messiness of its production, and the deadly consequences of dismissing your critics as hysterical.

(A&A illustration derived from photos by Flickr users bagalute and Will Hart)