ON ENDURANCE, CARE AND THE MICROPOLITICS OF ABANDONMENT
By Dr Leila Dawney
Senior Lecturer, School of Environment and Technology
University of Brighton
In the face of structural change and upheaval, where macroeconomic decisions bear down on our lives and over which we are largely powerless, we find ways of world-making, of giving meaning, of attaching to possible futures. We love, we dream, we medicate, and we shore up our lives as a means of going on. We turn backwards to what we have made, and turn forwards to what we might make again. Grand projects emerge, make cities, forge dreams, then move on as the State gives way to the trade bloc. On the ground, things carry on as best they can.
The decommissioning of the Soviet-built RBMK-1500 reactors of the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) continues, while negotiations regarding the possibility of building a new reactor as part of an integrated Baltic power infrastructure falter. Old style reactors are gradually being taken out of operation; the spectres of Chernobyl and Fukushima never far away. The world turns its back on these edifices of power generation, and the fear of contamination renders those who make their lives alongside them abject, dirty, and irresponsible. Promises of investment into industries that capitalise on the skills and expertise of Visaginas once again fail to materialise: the city is forgotten, a shameful relic of the first nuclear age. As governments, corporations and NGOs battle over the future of Ignalina NPP, the slow work of decommissioning carries on. Uncertainty has given way to resignation. These photographs are, for me, about persistence, endurance and keeping going, in the face of precarity and futurelessness.
“Precarity” describes the lived experience of insecurity: a condition invoked by the breaking of the state’s role in ensuring the welfare of its citizens. Recently critical theorists have become interested in trying to understand these experiential modes of being, and in ways of coping and living with conditions that are at once deadening, unsettling, enervating and anxious. To this end, thinkers such as Lauren Berlant have reframed the critical study of everyday life away from problems of resistance and practices of freedom towards persistence: towards the forms of dissociation, atmospheres and attachments that give shape to the everyday. These contemporary pathologies of late liberal flux provide a means of making sense of the images here: images of the present, of the folding in of the spectacular and the banal, of what Berlant calls the “crisis ordinary”[i]. She argues that structural transformations taking place over the late twentieth century and early twenty first have begun to tug at the stories that hold us together, stories of family intimacy, job security and social mobility, leading to the emergence of what she calls a “precarious public sphere, an intimate public of subjects who circulate scenarios of economic and intimate contingency and trade paradigms for how best to live on, considering”[ii]. Through such articulations of the relationship between structure and felling, Berlant, and other writers from the University of Chicago’s Public Feelings Project provide a means of getting a handle on the affective lifeworlds that accompany structural change.
Monoindustrial places are, of course, more fragile than others, more at the behest of market forces. Divorced from Soviet planned economies, towns like Visaginas are rendered as vulnerable as other deindustrialised spaces, and in this way can be compared to mining communities that were always finite yet never really felt so. The first nuclear age promised near limitless power, in contrast to coal, oil and gas: what seemed like the future of fuel generation is increasingly uncertain. Turning to the literature on deindustrialised spaces in the West can thus provide ways of articulating and understanding more fully the experiential modes through which structural change takes place. Walkerdine and Jimenez’ sensitive discussion of affect and community after the closing of a steelworks in a monoindustrial-deindustrialised town in South Wales, dwells on the role of masculinity, family life, where the closing of the steelworks was seen to rupture a community’s “sense of continuity of being”, as the residents experienced collective trauma[iii]. Similarly, in Kathleen Stewart’s work, we see the embodied and traumatic effects of the closure of coal mines in West Virginia:
The bodies wheezed. They reeled. They were hit by contagious outbreaks of “the nerves.” People “fell out.” They said it was like they were being pulled down by a hand that grabbed them in the middle of their back. The force of things amassed in floods of stories and in ruined objects that piled up on the landscape like an accrual of phantom limbs. This was not just some kind of resistance, or even the resilience of a way of life, but the actual residue of people “making something of things.” The material, sensory labor of attending to an emergent and enduring hum that stretched across the world as they knew it. People said the place smothered them and they “wouldn’t never want to leave”[iv].
Similarly, the short stories of George Saunders tell of the frustrations, the petty violences and callous worlds of late American capitalism, of investment in material objects and the overwhelming sense of being out of control[v]. All three of these authors shed powerful light on the lived experience of structural change – the affective, emotional and sensorial shifts that take place as the tectonics of livelihood, dwelling and belonging pull apart. These narratives of the human effects of post-industrial decline focus largely on making sense of loss. They draw out and bring to visibility the knock-on traces of economic change, the making abject of communities, the “slow death” of those who are no longer productive leading to high incidences of alcoholism and obesity that is a way of “forging pleasure in the now beyond which there is no future”[vi]. The photographs in this book draw out such visibilities, although here more than anything it is through material culture and the products of material making that we gain some purchase on the lived experience of the overlooked and the disregarded: through the spectacular powerscapes of the reactors, to the detail paid to the fixing up of a staircase.
The anthropologist Elisabeth Povinelli’s Economies of Abandonment discusses the questions of social belonging, abandonment and endurance in late liberalism, in part with reference to the low-level “infra-events” that wear people down, that make life difficult and end in exhaustion. Povinelli demonstrates how certain groups of people are governed such that life become more and more of a struggle, such that exhaustion is inevitable, while at the same time stories are told of their sacrificial status in pursuit of greater goods and comforts for everyone else. Here, the sacrificial story concerns the promise of Europe and the sacrifice of those attached to the Soviet megaproject. Promises of new reactors at Visaginas consistently fail to materialise, yet the city is offered up to the EU in return for Lithuania’s accession, a symbolic revoking of Soviet history in the uncertain expectation of European liberty and prosperity. Meanwhile, migrants from more recent member states face hostility and exploitation in Western Europe.
In the absence of a future, Europe becomes the icon to which the city turns. This, after all, is the trade-off: the promise of Europe has much to live up to, given the sacrifices made here on the ground. For those forgotten in the rush for Europe, turning west can only offer hope. Tucked behind a gold curtain in Visaginas’ gymnastics centre is a home-made podium, painted deep blue and decorated with a ring of gold circles. Looking closer, we can make out the way the gold circles have been cut out by hand and stuck on to the wooden box with glue, and we cannot help but evoke the care and attention, the practical and material investment in an idea of a European future yet to come – a new set of attachments and hopes through which meaning is made in the present. Thus material culture and material making give substance to these nebulous psychic investments and attachments: it makes them tangible and palpable – something to hold on to.
Throughout these photographs, worlds are being made and cared for. In the garages and workshops, in the playgrounds, in the neat piles of swept leaves, in the spotless corridors of the power plant, in the tying of a scarf. This is not the iconography of abandonment, of a people laid to waste. Rather, it concerns the micropolitics of abandonment, the activities and material practices through which lives are made meaningful and liveable. Endurance involves taking care, taking stock, looking inwards. Under the glowing sodium lights of the turbine hall, four workers in overalls and hard hats pose for the camera. There are things to do.
[i] Lauren Gail Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Duke University Press Durham, NC, 2011). p9
[ii] Ibid. p.3
[iii] Valerie Walkerdine and Luis. Jimenez, Gender, Work and Community after De-Industrialisation: A Psychosocial Approach to Affect (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) -.p. 91.
[iv] K. Stewart, 'Atmospheric Attunements', Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 29/3 (2011), 445-53. P. 447
[v] George Saunders, Tenth of December (London: Bloomsbury Paperbacks, 2014) -.
[vi] Gesa Helms, Marina Vishmidt, and Lauren Berlant, 'Affect & the Politics of Austerity: An Interview Exchange with Lauren Berlant', Variant, 39/40 (2010), 3-6. P.