Society for Cultural Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
This paper comparatively explores two affective and discursive configurations emerging around the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in Polesie (northern Ukraine) – a vast, verdant, and heavily contaminated man-made wilderness that surrounds the site of the worst nuclear accident in history.
The first configuration, dominant in mainstream pop culture in Ukraine and Russia, is powerfully captured by philosopher Eugene Thacker's concept of horrific "magic site". Here the Zone is a space associated with preternatural manifestations, apocalyptic omens, and unsettling manifestations of the unhuman – a prefiguration of a "world-without-us" in which "us" indicates humankind at large.
The second configuration, predominant among Chernobyl refugees and Polesie inhabitants, is counter-hegemonic vis-à-vis the former. This understanding of the Zone as a "lost paradise" (poterianny ray) rests upon past-oriented temporalities and topologies, as well as a narrower understanding of "us" – here, a moral community imagined as organically connected to Polesie. Among this community, nostalgic affects are cultivated and cherished, remembrance turns into art (poetry, photography), and practices of reappropriation and returnal (foraging, pilgrimages) recast the Zone as a heterotopic, paradoxical "world-for-us".
This paper argues that both configurations can be read as critical counterpoints to technocratic reason. Yet this critical potential reveals a darker side as each configuration points to, while simultaneously covering over, the fundamental political problem posed by nuclear technology – that of the obsolescence of humankind (Gunther Anders). Haunted by specters of the future and ghosts from the past, the Chernobyl Zone remains a site of equivocation between mournful optimism and blissful pessimism.