Special Series: Sensorial Engagements with a Toxic World

Curated by Chisato Fukuda, University of Wisconsin-Madison

We dwell in an atmosphere of uncertainty. From visible ambient matters like smog to odorless contaminants from radiation, toxic conditions force us to continually adapt to, resist, and make sense of the spaces we inhabit. Bodies are exposed to an array of materials, from particulates, chemicals, and pathogens that circulate in the air we breathe, to the food and water we ingest and the soil on which we walk. An anthropological inquiry into our sensorial orientation to toxic environments is ever more crucial.

This digital series aims to place value on sensorial engagement, focusing on how the sensory can be ethnographically informative in understanding how people live in an environmentally hazardous landscape. Authors in this collection reveal how sensory attunements enable a deeper inquiry into how toxicity spans timescales, absorbs into bodies, and flows with ecologies.

The series also reveals how different senses – sight, smell, taste, hearing, touch – are constantly evolving in response not only to environments but also to social conditions, strategies, and devices that attempt to alter, enhance, and suppress sensory experience with the toxicants that circulate around and within us. Enfolding sensory objects and sensory experiences into the realm of medical anthropology, this digital series aims to confront some of the most pressing public health and environmental issues of our time.

The contributions here span various ethnographic and sensorial contexts:

  • Chloe Ahmann (George Washington University) questions what it means to engage on a sensory level with an object that does not materially exist by examining a campaign to stop the construction of a trash incinerator in Baltimore.
  • Amelia Fiske (Christian-Albrechts-Universität) examines the limits of tools for calculating harm among Ecuadorian farmers living alongside oil operations.
  • Maxime Polleri (York University) explores how citizen scientists employ sensory technologies to detect radioactive contamination in post-Fukushima Japan.
  • Alison Kenner (Drexel University) shows how asthma sufferers use sensory practices and knowledges of atmospheric conditions to cultivate breath control.
  • Chisato Fukuda (University of Wisconsin-Madison) examines how citizens in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia employ sensory and bodily knowledge of pregnancy loss to reconfigure air pollution into a pressing public matter, demanding urgent political action.
  • Alex Nading (University of Edinburgh) reflects on the collection as a whole, highlighting how an anthropological attunement to sensory engagements with chemicals provides ethnographic grounding to medical anthropology’s notion of place.

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