About the author: Thomas Pringle is currently a postdoctoral researcher at SIFK. He is a media theorist drawing on documentary studies, environmental sociology, and environmental and computer history.
A blog post issued by Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU) documents an event in 1945 when x-ray photographers first felt the impacts of continental nuclear testing, even if they didn’t recognize it as such. This event is an epistemological watershed in the history of environmental risk communication. Late in the summer of that year, the Eastman Kodak Company located in Rochester, New York, began receiving customer complaints about defective x-ray photographs. Upon development, the exposed film returned to consumers as a wash of beige, absent a defined picture. One of the ruined images, provided to ORAU by environmental scientist Merril Eisenbud, helps illustrate the surprise experienced by Kodak’s customers. In place of silhouetted bones and organs, they received a square image the color of parchment that shaded darker toward the corners, punctuated by small, irregular spots. One can imagine the disappointment when this film returned from processing with a seemingly blank representation. Was this a defect? Or a picture of something else entirely?
No “blank” image is absent information. Scientists working at Eastman Kodak were well aware of how radioactive particles could “fog” x-ray film prior to exposure, even when still packaged. The shared media history of photography and radiation is something I’ve written about before, as artists and scientists in the twentieth century came to understand that gamma rays and the ionizing particles released during nuclear events impressed upon undeveloped film even when not exposed to visible light. This occurs because gamma rays are a form of non-visible light—an electromagnetic wave with higher energy and frequency than the light we see—that can penetrate matter, much like other modes of radioactive energy such as beta particles.[i]
Given the sensitivity of celluloid film to all forms of light, gamma rays, x-rays, and beta particles can leave their mark on even encased and otherwise unexposed stock (just as anyone who has been unlucky enough to pass a new or exposed roll through an x-ray machine at an airport can attest.) Film even became an evidentiary marker of bodily health, as film badge dosimeters became commonly used as indicators of radiation exposure in workplaces where radiation was present. Workers, like film, are gradually exposed to radiation in toxic environments, and the stronger the image produced upon developing dosimeter film badges the more radiation encountered by the body. A double exposure, so to speak. The use of film in dosimetry to indicate worker exposure becomes a narrative device in fiction film, too, as seen in Rebecca Zlowtoski’s Grand Central (2013). Grand Central dramatizes the physical relationship between environmental media and radiation, passing risk from plot to the reality shared by film’s materiality, bodily health, and atomic energy.
Considering this knowledge about their product, Eastman Kodak knew that their production operations needed to be far removed from the radium and then-booming uranium industries, where paper could sometimes be salvaged and reused for packaging purposes. Thus, a paper mill in Indiana was selected to manufacture Eastman Kodak film containers in an effort to ensure commercial unexposed film would not encounter radioactive energy. As Matt Blitz recounts of the occurrence in 1945, a company physicist named Julian Webb set out to find the source of the contaminant, eventually arriving at the plant in Indiana. He had isolated the source of the film defect as radiation present at the mill, which paradoxically had been commissioned to prevent such exposure events. However, Webb soon learned that the radiological signature ruining the film could not be explained by energy naturally issued by elements like radium or uranium. The contaminant was something else entirely: “a new type of radioactive contaminant not hitherto encountered,” or Cerium-141, a fission product of atomic weaponry.[ii]
The culmination of this story is well documented. On July 16, 1945, less than a month before the United States committed war crimes by dropping atomic weapons on civilian targets in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the American government conducted the Trinity test in Alamogordo, New Mexico. An atmospheric nuclear test, the detonation sent a plume of radioactive material into the sky, which would eventually fall as rain onto Midwest rivers and water systems over 1,900 miles away. Two disparate places were linked through technological use, under a novel and shared epistemological condition of environmental risk. Toxic matter was created and lifted from the Tularosa Basin, entering flows of atmospheric transport before descending on the Mississippi watershed in a grotesque and anthropogenic ecological cycle. It is common today to think about how industrial activity in one area can be linked to a disaster at far geographical remove. Climate change depends on such thinking, as petrochemical industries can be identified as a source for carbon emission while supercharged storms, wildfires, and rising sea levels that occur in separate places are thought its outcomes. In 1945, both citizens and scientists had no reason to suspect that governmental actions had entered the whole continent into a regime of nuclear environmental risk defined by the extraction and refinement of uranium, the production and testing of nuclear weapons, and the US government’s abject failure to either plan for or find a way to deal with the waste. Auditing at a second Eastman Kodak plant in Iowa turned up similar results.
The ORAU x-ray print, then, is a remarkable media historical illustration of American awareness of environmental risk. Many specify the onset of environmental risk as a public health epistemology with the mass readership of Rachel Carson’s 1962 study of the adverse ecological effects of pesticide use, Silent Spring, or media reporting on the contamination of the Japanese tuna fishing boat Daigo Fukuryū Maru, which encountered fallout from an American hydrogen bomb test on the Bikini Atoll in 1954. In the latter case, while much of the Japanese fishermen’s haul was thrown away on arrival in Japan, public concern regarding radioactive tuna gave rise to fear as well as commodity inspections and trade restrictions. The fishermen encountered severe health problems, and several died within years of the event. Ralph E. Lapp authored a book about it in 1958, and a New York Times review brought knowledge of the risk home.
The ORAU print, though, signals knowledge of environmental risk with significantly less certainty than the Daigo Fukuryū Maru or Silent Spring. The image, it could be said, exhibits ignorance.[iii] It at once indexes the secrecy of American governmental practice as well as the total lack of knowledge required for publics to misunderstand the risks that they had been unwittingly exposed to.[iv] As media consumers, x-ray photographers first bore witness, without knowing it, to the risk society theorized by Ulrich Beck, wherein “society is made into a laboratory” by modern technology that places communities in harm’s way without sanction, advisory input, or full understanding of what the risk might actually entail.[v] New considerations began to shape the knowledge politics of how media communicate forms of environmental violence that can’t be seen: technological safety failures, side-effects, and military-industrial recklessness (in their lack of foresight and the absence of shared contingency agreements in advance of implementation).
In this way, uncertainty becomes immanent to society as communities traverse overlapping risk realities that do not always have discernible origins and are often experienced without knowing it. Beck develops the term “manufactured uncertainty” to describe this condition.[vi] He uses “manufacture” because uncertainty is an anthropogenic material reality literally manufactured by industrial processes that place people’s bodies at risk, while uncertainty is also a social construction diagnosed through both expert and lay research before becoming popularized through the broadcast of media communication channels.[vii] As the ORAU photograph testifies, imperceptible ecological risks will, in the first place, need to be mediated. But they won’t always be knowable as risks.
Against some of Beck’s more provocative statements, my research identifies how ecological risks, and how we come to know them through media, have a history.[viii] Risks are often intersected by other risks and span great lengths of time with varying intensity, making them indeterminate. However, the conditions necessary for a risk to appear in a society can be traced and discerned through media analysis and historical contextualization. This is what makes the ORAU photograph so fascinating. For most who encountered such images as consumers of x-ray photographs and film development services, the product was simply a defect or failure. But, for a few insider experts, it was a sign of a much wider set of epistemological concerns that opened up alongside the emergence of what I’ve called “test subjectivity.”[ix] It would be years until knowledge of the harmful effects of the uranium industry and atmospheric nuclear testing reached a broad public audience, described in American environmental history through episodes of ecocide, internal colonialism, and environmental racism.[x]
My research looks for how histories of film and media have participated in the dissemination of knowledge surrounding risks. Climate change proves a great example in the American context. As is well known, the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been a very gradual process. “Climate” generally indicates about twenty years’ worth of weather in a place. Accordingly, the irregularity of weather on any given day is a poor indicator of changes in the long-term average. Thus climates and how they change – much less their risks – are not easily experienced, but recent research by Julia Leyda has fascinatingly suggested that media and cultural objects register these long-term changes in ways unconscious to both producers and consumers of media.[xi]
Adopting such reading strategies to look for historical instances that indicate how unconscious knowledge about a changing climate has impacted both narrative form and content helps produce a media history describing how an object as obscure as a “climate” came to be well known as a risk. Hollywood films like Holiday Affair (1949) display characters talking about how nuclear weapons testing could be changing the weather, a popular sentiment in the early atomic age regarding the bomb and its presumed anthropogenic effects.[xii] Another film I’ve published and spoken about, The Unchained Goddess (1958), shows how climate became known as a risk through documentary channels. The Unchained Goddess is an educational television special and part of The Bell System Science Series which publicly articulated the theory of global warming through mass media using terms closely resembling the theory advanced by Hans Suess and Roger Revelle in 1957, wherein industrial production was giving rise to the “large scale geophysical experiment” that we now call climate change.[xiii] The Unchained Goddess is definitively one of the first documentary productions to discuss the risks of global warming. Remarkably, similar language made its way into the dialog of fiction films like Indiscreet (1958), released just one year later, where characters played by Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant casually discuss news reports of global warming. While many years away from the popular conception of what we now call “climate change,” Indiscreet demonstrates how popular knowledge of ecological risk becomes embedded within fictional narratives as indices of how scientific discourse circulates in a society. It gives a view to how people in the 1950s read about global warming in the newspaper and idly chatted in elevators about the uncertain danger that we now experience imminently.
My book project, The Climate Proxy, takes up this reading strategy in media history. By embracing a media genealogical approach to the ecological risks so apparent in the present, my work shows how risks move from theoretical abstraction to politicized dissemination in media culture, and I illustrate how social interests and actors shape that knowledge. A climate, and its risks, can be represented as many different things and in manifold disparate ways. Interdisciplinary methods synthesizing environmental studies and media studies are required to illustrate how the climate came to be known as a risk in the full variety we experience. As much was suggested by Carson in Silent Spring, who utilized and commented on the epistemological value and urgency of interdisciplinary environmental research in her own work:
When one is concerned with the mysterious and wonderful functioning of the human body, cause and effect are seldom simple and easily demonstrated relationships. They may be widely separated both in space and time. To discover the agent of disease and death depends on a patient piecing together of many seemingly distinct and unrelated facts developed through a vast amount of research in widely separated fields.[xiv]
As made so clear in the pandemic, the language of cause and effect in public health is overtly political. As my SIFK colleagues Anastasia Klimchynskaya and Alexander Campolo have also commented in Formations, science fiction narrative has been important to comprehending the experience of uncertainty during the pandemic, and Beck’s Risk Society offers key insights to discerning the knowledge contests of COVID. In my view, certainty and uncertainty remain hazy but useful terms to describe how people rely on media to understand the risks they traverse on a daily basis. Risks, and knowledge of risks, are manufactured, and thus have a history. Compiling and analyzing media is one way to understand it.
[i] Susan Schuppli, “Powerful Particles” in Material Witness: Media, Forensics, Evidence, MIT UP: 2020, 259-63.
[ii] J. H. Webb, “The Fogging of Film by Radioactive Contaminants in Cardboard Packaging Materials,” Physical Review 76.3 (1949): 375.
[iii] On the field of agnotology, or ignorance studies, see: Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance, eds. Robert N. Proctor and Linda Schiebinger, Stanford UP, 2008.
[iv] On nuclear secrecy, see: Joseph Masco, The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico, Princeton and Oxford UP: 2006.
[v] Ulrich Beck, “The World as Laboratory,” in Ecological Enlightenment: Essays on the Politics of the Risk Society, Humanities Press International: 1995, 104.
[vi] Beck, World at Risk, Polity: 2009, 47.
[vii] Pringle, “Documentary Ascertainment: Climate, Risk, and Realism,” in The Documentary Moment, eds. Joshua Malitsky and Patrik Sjöberg eds, Indiana UP: forthcoming 2021.
[viii] Beck, “Are Risks Timeless?” in “From Industrial Society to the Risk Society: Questions of Survival, Social Structure and Ecological Enlightenment,” Theory, Culture & Society 9.97 (1992): 97-8.
[ix] Pringle, “Photographed by the Earth,” 144.
[x] Valerie Kuletz, The Tainted Desert: Environmental Ruin in the American West, Routledge, 1998.
[xi] Julia Leyda, “Post-air-conditioning futures and the climate unconscious,” Screen 62.1 (2021): 100-6.
[xii] Masco, “Bad Weather: On Planetary Crisis,” Social Studies of Science 40.1 (2010): 14.
[xiii] Roger Revelle and Hans E. Suess, “Carbon Dioxide Exchange Between Atmosphere and Ocean and the Question of an Increase of Atmospheric CO2 during the Past Decades,” Tellus 9.1 (1957): 19-20.
[xiv] Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, Houghton Mifflin, 1962: 189.