Sonja Schillings - University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia

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Sonja Schillings

Conditioning the Law: Nature and Nuclear Energy in the Comic Form

Law is traditionally about limits: the limits set to state power, to private property, to the duration of contractual arrangements, and to the escalation of conflict. Since 1945, the use of nuclear energy has forced a reconsideration of many of these constitutive limits, and of their philosophical foundation.

Nuclear energy has brought an awareness of pollution and contamination as human-made influences that affect the very properties of life for generations. The atom bomb in particular recalls the existential situatedness of the human not just in the world, but in the universe. In various ways, nuclear energy has fundamentally eroded any hard line that could be drawn between human and non-human existence, between nation states and a “nature” that is claimed to surround but never to condition the law. At the same time, nuclear energy’s usage as a technology has created a greater urgency to formulate new concepts of responsibility and agency in the face of this power, and in relation to nature.

Because nature, or “the environment,” has never been afforded a coherent language of its own in the modern West, the most influential and pervasive traditional representations of “nature” are visual. Comics can evoke these visual traditions not just as illustrations of storytelling, but as its defining and proper context. Comics are thus particularly able to make full use of the visual reservoir on nature in trying to making sense of the philosophical questions raised by nuclear energy.

From the short political cartoon to the serial epic, comics open starting points to imagine the law as conditioned by nature, and thus to rethink the human. This talk will especially draw on German and Japanese examples from the 1980s, such as the work of Marie Marcks, Katushiro Otomo, and Chlodwig Poth.


Sonja Schillings is a German researcher in American Studies whose work focuses on the fields of law and culture, and literature and philosophy. She has held postdoctoral positions at Freie Universität Berlin and Giessen University. She has published on themes of maritime piracy, American popular fiction, race and colonialism, and human dignity. Her first book, Enemies of all Humankind: Fictions of Legitimate Violence was published with University of New England Press in 2017. Her current book project focuses on human dignity in American literature of the post-1945 period.


Sonja Schillings