Reflections on Nuclear Power and Insurrection

Photo: Control Rods (制御棒)by Eudoxus


Water, even after having cooled down to below its coagulating point (or fusion point), 0 degrees Celsius, can remain in liquid form. Observed in the case of super-cooling (or super-fusion), the state of a matter or system that remains without a phase shift (structural phase shift from liquid to solid) after having passed the transition point is called metastability.

Water remaining in liquid form, however, is frozen by a slight external intervention (such as vibration or crystallization). This can be compared with an avalanche which occurs by a slight vibration as a sudden collapse of snow accumulated and at a standstill on a slope.

Matter consists of two realities. Matter has a virtual reality composed by power and energy, aside from an actual reality that is grasped in terms of comparisons such as stasis and movement, stability and instability. Water that remains liquid after having cooled down to below the coagulating point, snow accumulated at a standstill on a slope – they have, aside from the visible, actual reality such as being liquid and still, an invisible, virtual reality that assumes a saturation point of potential energy; and it is the latter that leads snow and water to a new phase shift by external interventions as moment.

In other words, super-cooled water and accumulated snow contain problems within themselves. The saturation point of potential energy is a problem, which is solved at once by the chance of external stimulation, and in consequence freezing and avalanches take place.

Both earthquakes and tsunamis can be said to be phenomena that occur as a solution to a problem. An earthquake is a solution to the problem that is posed between multiple rock layers; a tsunami is a solution to the problem that is posed amongst waves curving and standing; in both cases, the saturation point of potential energy in the virtual reality is dissolved in the form of a phase shift in the actual reality.

So too could a nuclear accident be talked about as a solution to a problem (i.e., the problem that nuclear power production has always contained is solved as an outbreak of an accident). But in this case, sensu stricto, the fact that it is an on-going accident cannot be grasped in the same way as can an earthquake and tsunami–those which are accidents that have taken place, that is, as a dissolution of potential energy in a state of saturation. A nuclear accident is an event that corresponds less to freezing than to super-cooled water, less to an avalanche than to accumulated snow on a slope.

In fact, the group of reactors amidst on-going disaster is characterized precisely by the duality of reality. On the one hand is the actual reality that is taken as the subject of announcement (by the government) or report (of the media) stressing a shift from instability to stability. Aside from the reality that exists within visibility and is measurable and actual, is the virtual reality that exists in the domain of invisibility and is immeasurable.

In the wake of the accident, the failure of information revelation on the part of the Japanese government and TEPCO has been thoroughly criticized by media small and large, in and out of Japan as well as by foreign governments. From the standpoint of the Japanese government and TEPCO, the on-going accident belongs mainly to the latter reality. (But, of course, the extent of the failure being criticized by the media and the governments includes the information revelation of the measurable reality.) On the level of the virtual reality, the government and TEPCO are not only losers in their efforts at information publication, but also have no information at all. On top of that, the immeasurable reality — as a pure Being, as it were, in the sense that it does not come into being as a phenomenon of a visible phase – cannot be induced from the measurable reality that appears as a visible phenomenon, as various phases taking place in parallel.

It is not that the nuclear accident has taken place as a solution to metastability (like an earthquake or tsunami) but that it is taking place as a duration of metastability itself–like super-cooled water and snow accumulated on a slope. Even if it is true that the accident is gradually shifting from instability to stability on a measurable spectrum, the essence of the nuclear accident does not exist there, but in the state that the oversaturation of potential energy is sustained, aside from the actual reality. Namely it exists as an excess that the problem remains unsolved, aside from the phase shift being produced as a continuation of solutions on the visible level. The nuclear accident is happening as a continuous movement from metastability to metastability.

Here there is a self-unfolding of a problem, a process through which solutions are continuously actualized from a problem that exists as an excessive power. The only possible measure for the nuclear accident is to control –and not to solve — the self-unfolding of the problem. There is no solution here. The measures adopted by the government and TEPCO – spraying water at present and the encasing in a stone coffin that is expected in the future — are merely to control the movement through which solutions are actualized from the problem as a potential, and neither to solve nor even suspend it. The problem can never be consumed due to its very excess.

From the beginning it is the behavior to control that has always characterized nuclear power itself. While hydraulic power and thermal power exist by way of solving problems (having water fall and burning fuel), the power generation by nuclear energy works only by way of controlling the self-unfolding movement toward a solution of the problem (by way of controlling the production of energy by slowing down the chain reaction of nuclear fission). In terms of controlling, the measures such as spraying water and encasing in a coffin are no different from the routine procedures for power generation. (For that matter, with hydraulic power and thermal power both, measures such as stopping the flow of water or extinguishing fire at times of accident are no different from the common procedures for power generation, in terms of solving problems.)

The fact of nuclear power — that the problem always remains unsolved and the self-unfolding toward a solution is continuously maintained – is true not only in the situations of accident and power generation, but also in the situations of used nuclear fuel (nuclear waste) and used nuclear reactors. In contradistinction from hydraulic power and thermal power that assume problem solving (where the potential energy of pumped water and fossil fuel is dissolved by falling and burning), the problem of nuclear power is never solved even after power generation has been realized. Neither can the problem be solved in the post-energy generation procedures such as decommissioning nuclear reactors, storing and disposal of used nuclear fuel, and their termination; the self-unfolding of the problem continues to be controlled. The characteristics of nuclear waste exist in its being in metastability, even in the situation where the termination is considered to have been complete.

The process of nuclear power knows neither beginning nor end, but only a continuous movement from metastability to metastability. In this continuity there is nothing that unequivocally distinguishes accident from power generation from disposal of waste. It is for this precise reason that the nuclear accident has always been predictable. To be more precise, it is not enough to say that it has always been predictable, but it should be said that the nuclear power plant and the waste disposal themselves are already the accident. The accident is not that which has occurred (begun and ended), but that which simply occurs or is always already occurring.

It is commonly explained that the distinction between nuclear power and the nuclear bomb is that the former is a controlled state of the latter (TEPCO has made a similar remark on its website), but this is a fallacy. A nuclear bomb is distinguished from other conventional weapons of mass destruction in the sense that the explosion is not in the least the same as a consumption of potential energy or a solution to a problem. For the nuclear explosion, the mushroom cloud and what happens on the ground are, no matter how deadly, just secondary effects. What the nuclear bomb marks on the human body and mind is not a period <.> but a suspended quotation <…>, an excessive duration of the problem that remains unsolved. There is nothing that divides nuclear power and a nuclear explosion in the sense that both are time-bombs for which the time has always already arrived and at the same time has not yet ever arrived. For the victims, the flash of light is not that which has come but is coming, and continues to be coming.


In the general sense the 3/11 nuclear accident announced ex post facto the fact that, at least since the late 1950s when the civilian use (in Japan it is called “peaceful use”) of nuclear power began, we have been living amidst the accident and our society has been based upon a constant control of the chronic accident. Thus coming to an end is the society that seeks to solve a problem that is generated as a state of exception, the society that develops following the rhythm produced by the repetition of beginning and end. Today the main stake of the society — where our everyday life consists of an excess of problems remaining unsolved — is to continue to control the incessant self-unfolding movement from metastability to metastability.

This is a shift from a society of solving problems to one of controlling problems, from a society of answers to one of enduring questions. It might be said that what the people came to recognize during the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Plant was the reality in which they have no other choice but to live their everyday lives with unsolvable problems imposed on them. For instance, those people who continue to live in Tokyo are not at all swallowing the view of the government and reports of mass media that Tokyo is safe. Knowing that it would be better off to leave the metropolis and it would be too late to wait until the danger is announced, they just cannot find an alternative to remaining there due to economic limitations, and pretend to believe in the safety while being all too aware of the ungroundedness of their choice.

The shift of the electric power policy to nuclear was an event that could be written in a larger narrative of a shift of a governance model based upon problem solving to that of problem controlling.

For instance, the war against terrorism, as even the US government acknowledges, cannot be said to have been ended by the assassination of Osama Bin Laden. It was totally contemporaneous with the nuclear accident or nuclear power itself, precisely because both are within the frame of the governance model based upon problem controlling. The aim of the war against terrorism is not, as everyone knows, eradication of, namely, the solution of, terrorism as a problem, but a maintenance of terrorism in the state of excessive unsolvability, a subsumption of the entire society by the continuous movement from metastability to metastability.

We might be able to recall here the famous argument by Gilles Deleuze: the shift from societies of discipline to societies of control. Deleuze sees this shift in a number of domains, one of which is wages. In the societies of discipline, the factory sought to stabilize salaries at a point of equilibrium between the highest possible production (for the owner) and the highest possible salaries (for the workers). In societies of control, the enterprise seeks to place the salaries of individual workers in a state of permanent metastability. In short, the major component of wages is shifted from a basic salary to a payment based on ability (although in the factory of the societies of discipline, there was an extra allowance for the piece, it was only a secondary element.) In the present context, this can be seen as a shift from the wage as an answer to the wage as a problem. One could argue that even in the wage system based on ability, there are elements indicating that the monthly salaries of individual workers assume the answers to their monthly pieces, but more determinant is the point that the permanent modulation is imposed upon each worker as an unsolvable problem (or incentive).

As Deleuze says: “There is no need to ask which is the toughest regime, for it’s within each of them that liberating and enslaving forces confront one another.1” In the societies of discipline, solving problems was not only the model for rule and sovereignty, but also the model for liberation. The epitome for liberation as solving problems was revolution. Revolution in this sense is nothing other than to solve problems, to realize a shared answer to all problems. If so, what is liberation for the societies of control? That is, what is liberation as controlling problems, liberation by sharing problems in terms of their excess? It is insurrection.

It is in this sense that the nuclear accident is contemporaneous not only with the war against terror but also with the on-going uprisings world over. Since December 2010, what has been going on in Tunisia, Egypt, Europe, North America and even Japan under radiation has been insurrection rather than revolution. Therein it is no longer that the people solve problems by realizing a common answer shared among them. Their collective action takes place as a series of problems, which always remains insoluble, irreductable to any answer, and, the people live them as such, in their very insolubility. Insurrection does not simply mean an absence of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. It means creating problems and living themas they are, an incessant movement from metastability to metastability, a continuous affirmation of the inconsumable excess of potential energy, an internal resonance of micro signifiers (of problems) that cannot be subsumed into a macro signification (of an answer)… Therefore insurrection knows no leader, no vanguard party.

The joy of revolution is discovered when it has taken place, while the joy of insurrection exists when it is taking place. All the exhaustion in revolution is requited by the joy of having solved problems, while in insurrection the exhaustion of living problems is together with its joy. In the society of solving problems, the exhaustion is put off under the promise of joy that is to come at liberation, while in the society of controlling problems, the exhaustion comes forefront as a condition to sustain the joy of liberation. In short, revolution knows no exhaustion, while insurrection is exhaustion. But at this moment of living insurrection, in Japan and increasingly the world over, the amount of radioactive exposure will increase, and the accumulation will physically open up the fissure running through our bodies and brains, more and more. And then…

1 This article is a revised version of “From Nuclear Power to Insurrection,” included in 3/11 As Ideologies (Tokyo: Kawade-shobo Shinsha, 2011). <> appreciates the author and the publisher.
2 Gilles Deleuze, “Society of Control,” <>.


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