Nuclear in the Arts and the Duty of the Artist

Artists, myself included, have often been drawn to the landscapes of American industry. Nuclear power, while no different in its attraction, has alas, a different emotional response from many writers, visual artists, and musicians. Still, no matter one's politics or opinions, there is a duty to be informed in all we do—and that includes the arts. Drawing in pencil and Copic markers of an industrial landscape by the author.

In 2004, Judith Vollmer, a respected poet and professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, published a book of poems entitled Reactor. It was published by the University of Wisconsin Press and in all ways had the trappings of a serious, noteworthy, work of literature. The central theme of Reactor is the Yucca Mountain project and the concept of shipping nuclear waste from various locations across the United States to the Yucca Mountain site. While unique, this topic is a worthy one for a book of poetry and perhaps poetry can better meet the needs of a real-world topic such as this which is both technical and political, as poetry can consider issues within the realm of the literary arts without getting into fictions that could distort what is real with what is pure fantasy. We’ve seen in the movies—and indeed I’ve written about this exact problem in this blog before—how fictional versions of all things nuclear can come to be the popular, public, understanding of nuclear science even when the specific information presented is wrong or misleading. However, yes, poetry seems apt for something like the entire soap opera of Yucca Mountain's politics: perhaps poetry can add to the discourse where politics alone have fallen short?

Alas, Vollmer’s book did not take up the challenge very well. The fact that the author was against Yucca Mountain did not surprise me nor worry me much—she’s certainly entitled to her opinions—but what did concern me is the way she presented her images of Yucca Mountain in her poems. She resorted to the trite men in protective white suits and other Silkwoodian fanfare that is designed to provoke an emotional response over an approach that adds to any real discourse about Yucca Mountain. That’s a problem: while Vollmer’s book certainly did not reach as many people as a Hollywood thriller would or even a mainstream novel, it still without any doubt reached readers—educated, intelligent, people interested in literature—who may well in part have formed their own opinion of Yucca Mountain as an actual, real-world, project, based on Vollmer’s caprice of a literary approach to the topic. I’ve already mentioned in a previous post that I was once in a sociology class as an undergrad and the professor expressed a negative view of nuclear power and I asked her why she felt as she did only to have her respond “oh, you know, like in the Simpsons”. 

. . . The Simpsons? Really, Professor?

Nuclear, as an industry, deserves better than that. It deserves people who teach college students—people with doctorates in their fields and a supposed sense of value and honor when it comes to information and the clarity of what is just opinion versus what are the facts—to not be informed about nuclear power via cartoon characters. It deserves poets who write with some real understanding of nuclear power and the issues germane to nuclear power whether they are pro-nuclear or anti-nuclear. It deserves more than the continued use of a cast of characters in protective suits, props in the forms of cooling towers and flashing lights and alarms, and a general sense of gloom and doom around anything and everything nuclear for no reason than simply because, hey, it is nuclear. If this type of bias was launched at any other industry, I suspect there would be an outcry. Granted, mountaintop-removal coal mining and offshore oil production both have had their fair share of artistic critique, too, but most industries would be immune to what nuclear oft encounters in the arts. Again, I’m not even objecting to an artist or writer or film-maker being anti-nuclear per se, but I am objecting to any form of unscientific, distorted, presentation of the topic. 

As an aside, it's interesting to note that there are some social scientists who are keenly interested in nuclear science and associated material and sociological culture—which is fine, indeed, it's great. One such social scientist is Hugh Gusterson who has written about the professional culture of the scientists working on our nation's nuclear weapons and other nuclear-associated topics. You may have heard of his wife if you're in the industry: that would be Allison Macfarlane. Yes, that Allison Macfarlane. 

In some ways, I feel as if I’m in a fairly rare—and rather good—position to approach this issue. I write about technology including nuclear, I design software, and I’ve worked as a lab-based researcher before in biomedical research, so I have a high respect for the importance of facts and unbiased understanding of a scientific or technological topic. However, I also write about literature and have published book reviews and other work in a variety of literary and academic journals and books. (My writing for the Coal Hill Review’s blog can be found at this link, including a review of one of Vollmer’s other books: http://www.coalhillreview.com/?cat=45 ) I also—as anyone who has read my blog here before probably has noticed—draw a lot, and actually I also write music. My own personal interest and involvement in the arts—in several arts—makes pretty clear that my critique of Vollmer’s book and works like it in no sense stems from some blanket view of the arts as silly, unimportant, or invalid. I feel in fact that the arts—and the ability of the arts to add to the critical discourse on contemporary political issues—is vital and essential, but I also feel like any such discourse, it must be fully informed by fact. If you wish to write about dragons in a fantasy world of kings and castles, or space aliens and super-warp drives that can shift the foundations of time itself, go right on and do it, but if you wish to write about a real-world topic like Yucca Mountain, please, whatever your views, do it with real-world facts and also avoiding taking things to extremes of accidents and doomsdays. Vollmer, certainly, is not alone in her approach nor the worst offender by far, but we—all of us who care about nuclear—need to be aware of how every aspect of public discourse is forming people's opinions.

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Speaking of music, reading about the history of the Hanford Site inspired me to write music about it—about what it must have been like at the apex of its service to our nation. I believe that music and the creative arts can in some regards address complex topics better than straight-forward non-fiction or historical writing, but again, if you’re going to take a stance on something—in any arena—be informed and be fair. My composition, The Hanford Suite, can be found here:

https://soundcloud.com/thiscloudboy/sets/the-hanford-suite

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