Irradiated Burdens: The Violence of Technological Progress
Efe Igor, Yale University
Near the unseen Namibian salt mining pans, the footprints and tire treads allude to the violence of empire. The dichotomy seen in this image by Namibian visual artist, Nicola Brandt, of the mechanized and the human articulate the tension between scientific progress and African landscapes. Popular tropes that pathologize Africa as a site of underdevelopment and primitivism typically place Africa outside narratives of scientific innovation and progress. Revisions in the historiography have attended to this oversight, citing “Africa as a living laboratory.” They chart how colonial cities were often the site to develop new techniques of surveillance and hygiene; African cities acted as satellites of the metropole where colonial officials could construct what it meant to be “modern.” However, this definition leaves out Africans, the very subjects of experimentation. The perception of Africans as “savage and starving, inferior and infantile, superstitious and corrupt” provided the justification to import European science, technology and medicine. Thus the civilizing mission was, itself, a technoscientific project.
The abstracted body in this image—a body that I imagine to be black—is inscribed in the landscape. The enduring legacy of the technoscientific project of modernity has inscribed the invisibility of Africans in commodity chains and transnational capital accumulation. Thus it is not merely the geography of knowledge making processes that I take issue with but the power relations that inscribe the invisibility of African bodies in capitalist production. For example, although Namibians supply the world with both uranium and the physical labor needed to extract it, they are rarely understood as essential to the nuclear industry’s workings. As Gabrielle Hecht artfully articulates in Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade, “Experts noted decades ago that workers in uranium mines were ‘exposed to higher amounts of internal radiation than … workers in any other segment of the nuclear energy industry.’ But neither workers’ radiation exposure nor their role in the global nuclear power industry was enough to render uranium in these countries a ‘nuclear activity.’” As a result, Africans were not subject to the regulation and safety measures that would make their workplaces safer. The toxic exposure to uranium in African landscapes further marginalized Africans. Recognizing toxic exposure provides a means to access the resources needed to provide for one’s self and family, but it also erodes the environment and the body, leaving invisible and visible scars that capital cannot compensate. What looks like a bloodstained landscape relays a poetic critique of mining activity in the region; it alludes to the destruction brought about through transnational capital, science, and modernity—markers of Western progress.
 Helen Tilley, Africa as a Living Laboratory: Empire, Development, and the Problem of Scientific Knowledge, 1870-1950 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 314.
 Bruno Latour: “The adjective ‘modern’ designates a new regime, an acceleration, a rupture, a revolution in time. When the words ‘modern’, ‘modernization’, or ‘modernity’ appear, they define an archaic and stable past. Furthermore, the word is always apart of a fight where there are winners and losers, Ancients and Moderns.” Found in Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 10.
 Gabrielle Hecht, Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012), 16.
 Ibid., 13.