Traci Brynne Voyles – Wastelanding

26 August, 2021 - examPrep

Traci Brynne Voyles Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country is a ghastly tale of zombies, marxistly vampiric corporations, the Naayéé’ of carnotite ore and tailings piles rearing its ugly head from up behind Mount “Taylor”, the Ragnarok of nuclear weapons and attendant industries that will, in the words of Leslie Marmon Silko, be lain “across the world / and explode everything.” This world is replete with the toxic residues of radioactive leachate and racial, gender, sexual, economic, and environmental oppression, depositing and inhering in the sedimented layers of Diné Bikéyah and of American society. Wastelanding is about the rhetorical construction of othered places as empty and therefore pollutable, (effectively) unpopulated (at least of people who count as people) and therefore depopulateable, as backward and primordial and therefore catapult-able into the future. It is also about, thanks to the suasiveness of this rhetorical construction, the large scale uranium mining and milling operations that have taken place in Diné Bikéyah since the 1940s. Its first chapter opens to an epigraph from Val Plumwood’s Feminism and the Mastery of Nature which prophesies that when the “four tectonic plates of liberation theory— those concerned with the oppressions of gender, race, class, and nature— finally come together, the resulting tremors could shake the conceptual structures of oppression to their foundations.” Wastelanding is an attempt to inch those tectonic plates a little closer together, skillfully weaving analyses of the gendering and racializing of Navajo bodies, landscapes, and knowledge with the racist, classist, gender-oppressive, and ecocidal consequences of the uranium industry in Navajo Country.

Voyles’s Wastelanding obliterates the nature-culture divide of Western epistemology. Sometimes this obliteration takes place outside human bodies, as when Oppenheimer’s “two great loves” — physics (read, culture) and New Mexico’s desert (read, nature) — literally fuse (read, the physical process of plasmic fusion) minerals into radioactive trinitite. More often, though, this obliteration of the nature-culture divide directly implicates human bodies. The only potential ontological barrier between humans and the non-human world — the material envelope supposed to separate us from that which is not us, i.e., skin — is a permeable membrane constantly conducting ordinary material exchanges of water and minerals between us and our environment. For extra-ordinary exchanges, of alpha, beta, and gamma radiation acquiring ever-increasing ordinariness in a nuclearized world, skin can hardly be called “permeable” or “a membrane” at all — the “barrier” between us and that which is not us becomes nothing more than another frictionless medium through which ionizing radiation passes. Drawing on Ned Blackhawk, who posits that the ultimate symbol of colonial progress and modernity is the indigenous body in pain, for Voyles, wastelanding is the territorial equivalent: the process by which environments are ravaged in the performance of colonial progress and modernity. In the Voyles’s story, the wastelanding of Diné Bikéyah is inextricable from the wastepeopling of the Diné themselves. Radioactivity neglects to recognize the Western artifice that is the nature-culture binary, rendering it materially meaningless. The material boundarylessness evinced by ionizing electromagnetic radiation necessitates an epistemological boundarylessness between environmental, racial, gender, sexual, and economic injustice, ontologically reifying, with all too horrifyingly real consequences, the intellectual projects of environmental racism, “the environmentalism of the poor”, eco-feminism, queer ecology, and others. Voyles writes a history of a technology of great complexity with the only intellectual infrastructure that makes sense in the context of such categorically transcendent injustice — an intersectional one. Voyles captures wastelanding’s irreverence of environments and bodies alike and its transcendence of material and intellectual realities through its multiscalarity:

Wastelanding, too, is multiscalar: in uranium country, destroying the environment through uranium mining does not just mean destroying the nonhuman world and ecosystems. It means to wasteland, to render pollutable, the lungs, the cells, and the respiratory tracts of everyone involved in the nuclear cycle. It also means to wasteland Navajo worldviews, epistemology, history, and cultural and religious practices.  In order for uranium mining to occur on the level it did (and still does), indigenous ways of knowing landscapes and their worth must be themselves rendered pollutable, marginal, unimportant.


In this way, Voyles establishes linkages between the territorial colonialism of uranium mining and its epistemic colonialism, something I think could be very instructive for my own scholarship. Voyles does much of the work to establish this linkage through the political contests over access to Tsoodził (Mount Taylor). On first reading, the case of Tsoodził, with its overlapping tribal jurisdictions, centuries old nuevomexican land grant claims, “private” settler property, and the mineral rights of uranium and vanadium prospectors, represents a purely territorial contest. For the Navajo and other indigenous people with claim to the mountain, however, Tsoodził is not just a geologic entity reducible to the strictures of topographic delineation and cartographic representation and therefore the moot application of US property law, it is a site of ritual performance and cultural continuance, the loss of access to which is not simply a loss of access to U3O8 or x acres of pasturage, but the loss of access to cosmological and natural knowledge essential to their survivance and existence. I think there are many aspects of this book that will be directly applicable to my research, but I struggle with the applicability of “wastelanding”. Changing agricultural practices like seed development and the chemical composition of the fertilizer used does not make for as spectacular or dramatic a change in the landscape as uranium mining. In thinking through this while I read Wastelanding, did Mexican and Rockefeller agronomists rhetorically construct campesino and ejido land in the way that, or in ways analogous to, mining companies and American colonizers constructed Navajo country? There were certainly efforts (especially by the Mexican federal government and its agronomists) to represent campesino and ejidal farms as insufficiently or inefficiently productive, but I am not sure if this rhetorical framework sought to connote the same kind of “worthlessness” on the land to make possible its interventions. Curiously, the most (financially) successful implementations of the Green Revolution in Mexico were in the northern borderlands ecologically very similar (and actually directly adjacent to) Arizona and New Mexico, and so this connection is worth investigating there. Similarly, the Green Revolution is constructed by its detractors as having analogous kinds of deleterious environmental consequences, especially in terms of chemical pollution — all of which is to say that I need to think deeply about the applicability of Voyles’s terminology and methodological approach to my own project.






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