Chemicals Sit in Places

By Alex Nading, University of Edinburgh

Anthropological attention to sensory engagements with chemicals promise to expand and enrich medical anthropology’s notion of place. At a time when global health and the Anthropocene are (for lots of good reasons) in vogue, the essays in this collection ask us to dwell in specificity. Toxicity resists standardization and toxic politics resist co-opting by universalizing technocratic solutions. For better or for worse, in late industrialism, it is chemicals that shape “senses of place” (Feld and Basso 1996). In places, chemicals are triggers, potentials, and even queer kinds of companions.

Maxime Polleri’s story of a new prosthesis (the Geiger counters worn by people near Fukushima, Japan) gives us a beautiful reminder of the double-binds that shape our engagements with toxics, as well as how persons and selves are made through those engagements. As I see it, the argument here is that notions of citizenship and science must pass through processes of sensory knowledge-making. Polleri shows what it means to feel connected to a place, and, through devices like Geiger counters, to infuse a feeling of belonging to place with a kind of expertise. In Japan, feeling like a citizen also means orienting oneself to toxins or poisons. Like the abstract counts given by the ubiquitous Geiger apparatus, the “empowerment” in citizen science is deceptive.

One would not normally think about Geiger counters as akin to inhalers, but that’s just what these essays ask us to do. Ali Kenner’s contribution pushes us to move discourse on respiratory distress away from talk of triggers—of causes and effects or numerical levels of exposure—and towards ordinary encounters with anti-asthmatic tools and the chemicals they contain. Indeed, for asthmatics, the feeling of being medically protected is impossible to completely disentangle from the feeling of being compromised by smoke or smog. As Polleri and Kenner show in different ways, the term “exposure” seems less and less helpful for comprehending the chemosphere (Shapiro 2015) either as a political entity or as an affective space. Both acts of taking on relationships and acts of taking breath open up persons and make them vulnerable. We are dealing here not with isolated instances of harm or help, but with unfolding, meaning-laden relationships. There is no air without such relationships, only chemicals.

As Kenner reminds us, air sits in places. The nebulizer, the bedroom, the schoolhouse are imbued with meaning and feeling. Even the inhaler has its own comforting tactility. I can’t help but make the link here to the sense of comfort and ease that cigarette smokers get – not from inhaling tobacco fumes, but by turning a fresh pack over in their pockets or rolling out a fresh fag.

By pulling us into places, these papers also pull us into times. The asthmatic’s attunements to caring chemicals, developed over the life course, are temporally akin to the Curtis Bay residents’ senses of the toxic potential of the incinerator. As Chloe Ahmann notes, Curtis Bay residents imagine a future that looks dangerously like the toxic past. I was reminded here of Michelle Murphy’s (2013) observation that chemical infrastructures are often felt, rather than seen.

If Curtis Bay is a place, as Ahmann tells us, it’s seen, smelt, and breathed as much as it is measured and documented. The story of this once and future “toxic neighborhood” shows how a kind of synaesthesia distinguishes places of attunement from mere sites of exposure. Can toxic potentials—at once smelled, seen, breathed, and heard—ever be adequately represented? I see the story of Curtis Bay as one about the poesis of risk. Here’s where the papers really start to be in conversation with one another: if breathing is a sense-making act, it’s of a different order than enumeration by Geiger counter, or of rendering risk in a “pollution picture.” Breathing should not ideally be sensed at all. If one is conscious of the breath, that’s a problem, right? But then one realizes how important conscious breath is, in playing music or doing yoga or smoking or taking a welcome hit of Albuterol. A heightened consciousness can be either problematic or empowering, disquieting or pleasurable. One wonders whether, for the Curtis Bay activists, rendering toxic concerns into visual art isn’t all these at once.

Amelia Fiske’s ethnography of oil-saturated Ecuador illustrates how place is made not just through the mix of memory and anticipation but also through equally important entanglement of the acute and the chronic. Injuries wrought by petroleum extraction are both frequent and difficult to trace to a common origin. Pollution in Ecuador’s oil zone is everywhere and nowhere at once—in stark contrast to, say, Curtis Bay and Fukushima, where its origins are singular and well known. It is also a more than human problem. What if oil and its attendant chemicals damage plants, animals, or livestock? Like Polleri’s participatory engagement, Fiske’s more-than-human approach reminds us (as if we needed reminding) that toxic sensibilities transcend not only sensory boundaries of sight and sound and touch but also ecological boundaries of soil, water, and air. The invisibility of the harm in contaminated beings in Ecuador is striking, since at one time, those nonhumans were our biosensors (think Silent Spring). Places, as media for sensation, produce both particular forms of toxicity and particular forms of concern.

This is a point that’s taken up in Chisato Fukuda’s paper. Air can be counted, painted, broken down into colors and smells and components. Still, there’s a sense in Ulaanbaatar that pollution is ubiquitous object, now floating in the air, now settling into lungs and landscapes. That, at least, seems to be how ger residents lived with pollution. Interestingly, in an earlier version of this essay, Fukuda noted that they categorically divide pollution from dirt. Dirt was something for which one could be responsible, while pollution was not.

Earlier this year, all that seemed to change overnight. 

While many of these papers are about people doing sensing, Fukuda’s is the only one that’s also about people being incensed (a term that, I note with some delight, can mean both enraged and perfumed). All of a sudden, it seems, the general acceptance of pollution as something that’s immanent and inevitable in Mongolia has given way to a political (even global) demand for action. Or so it seems. Fukuda’s essay is a marvelous example of why ethnography matters for global health and global environmental politics. If one simply watched the events unfold in early 2017, one might get the sense that the protests were a stark tipping point—an acute exposure. In reality, they are the result of a slow accretion, not unlike the one Fiske describes.

Here and elsewhere in Fukuda’s work, sensory engagement with the air nuances our understanding of its violent effects. What’s striking in her stories of how women link miscarriage to air pollution is how a sense of air’s effects (again) subvert categorical borders. Bad air is signaled by burned lungs and clogged throats, also by stiff abdomens and achy backs.  Even though the protests are clearly about Ulaanbaatar’s environment, they are also about the somatic place of women’s bodies. By gendering toxicity, the protestors have turned it into a particular kind of disaster, even as they self-consciously link themselves to a global mediascape of hashtags and human rights claims.

Amid the many “global” forces that threaten to lead anthropology astray from its historical commitment to place, it is somewhat surprising to find that chemicals, so frequently cast as symbols of late industrial decay and alienation, are leading us back. Sensation, care, attunement- and, yes – disaster, always happen somewhere.

Works Cited

Shapiro, N. (2015). Attuning to the chemosphere: Domestic formaldehyde, bodily reasoning, and the chemical sublime. Cultural Anthropology, 30(3), 368-393.


This essay is part of Sensorial Engagements with a Toxic World, a special series curated by Chisato Fukuda.

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