Live Stream Notes

Toxic: A Symposium on Exposure, Entanglement, and Endurance

TOXIC: Jody Roberts, Naa Oyo A. Kwate, Elizabeth Hoover

Respondent: Chloe Taft


“The Street as Disease Agent,” Naa Oyo A. Kwate

1) Show some of the ways in which racism produces toxic exposure on the street.

2) Show some ways to counter that racism.

The Street & Commercial Exposure

The Street & Interpersonal Exposure


The Street as Health Intervention


“Industrial Contamination as Settler Colonialism in a Mohawk Community,” Elizabeth Hoover



Respondent: Chloe Taft

Question: What do you mean when you use the word “exposure?”

Question: Are there other instances where you were listening to narratives and noticed places of silence?


Question: Naa Oyo, When you were talking about RISE, was one of the phrases you used “confronting the effects of social and political confinement?” Can you expand on how you define and see that in relation to toxicity exposure?

Question: Can you talk about the process and the decisions you made about positive and negative messaging?


Question: Elizabeth, how are you thinking through the way environmental science focuses on PCBs and not all the other chemicals in the Super Fund sites? PCBs are one of these rare things that are already regulated by the state and consistently monitored, amidst all the other chemicals that are erased in monitoring and regulation. How are the studies you’re looking at wrestling with the toxic erasures that accompany the surfacing of PCBs?


Question: Is there any way in which your work has pushed you to think about what bodies are and how they’re connected? Infants’ bodies are becoming another site of GM’s Super Fund. Racism has the effect of premature aging. What is happening to people’s bodies through violent colonialism and racism?


Question: My question is about time. I’d be curious to hear you reflect on the future. For example, the mobilization of the ad form to create a different kind of space on the street. Or the chemical half lives and the projecting of toxicity into the future.


Question: Elizabeth, you mentioned that the community adopted this magic number and the federal government had to observe it?

Question: Was this enforced by the EPA?

EXPOSURE: Elizabeth F.S. Roberts, Tiffany Lethabo King, Lindsey Dillon

Respondent: Sara Smith


“Elizabeth Roberts: Soda, Lead, Love: Bio-Ethnography in Mexico City”

Tiffany Lethabo King: Black Porosity: Exposure, Entanglement, and Endurance


Lindsey Dillon: Soil Remediation and Sea Level Rise in San Francisco

Sara Smith: comments


ENTANGLEMENT: Catherine Fennell, Mel Y. Chen, Kim Fortun

Respondent: Laura Barraclough


Wasted House, Leaded World: The Ends of Domestic Infrastructure in the Urban Midwest, Catherine Fennell

·      Detroit’s Green and Healthy Homes: mitigating hazardous housing conditions.

·      Freddie Gray and sister: exposure to peeling paint

·      Environmental and public health advocates: lead poisoning hits black children especially hard.

·      Hundreds of thousands of houses—how felt and understood as inflictors of abuses with specific racial past.

·      The toxic ends of infrastructure

o   Infrastructures are things, but also draw others into relations.

o   Subsidized housing: welfare state’s premier infrastructure.

o   Federal housing policies in 30s: key to expanding wealth.

o   Promise of a better life, enough wealth accrued to pass onto one’s children.

§  But restrictive loan practices

§  Promises of ever-expanding wealth, but abandoned properties cannot generate revenue.

o   Detroit’s vacant houses are things in their own right, once provided shelter, instantiated rel. between citizens and polities, between children and parents.

o   2014: Mayor of Detroit announced take down of decrepit houses. Today, city is 80% black. Demolitions began in the summer.

o   “Toxic assets”: mortgage-backed securities.

§  Removal of “blight”

o   Higher occupation rates à public health risks.

o   Demolition dust can contain heavy metals, and program coordinators worry about spread. Want to suppress “fugitive dusts,” airborne that could cause health hazard to the public.

o   Wet-wet demolition, wet the house and the debris pile. How should we understand attunements to something as ephemeral?

·      Leaded entanglements

o   Built environments: social order impresses its cosmologies, complex and contingent negotiations in which contest and rework ideals of projects.

o   Infrastructural studies: hitch recovery to breakdown.

§  E.g., electric grid: things with unpredictable resonances

§  Entanglements become visible to the analysts of every day life. Good to think with but mobilization can take for granted the figure of the user. The user is a body, capacity to notice entanglements, to recognize this question as relevant to life is important one.

o   Process by material form gives way to real implications.

§  Infrastructures draw together but also set of forms separate from purely technical aspect.

§  Aesthetic, semiotic.

§  Impingements: route to awareness, but also alter the bodies themselves.

o   Lead: drinking from leaded pipes, sleeping under leaded roofs. House paints. With electrification, people want brighter walls. Leaded paints make easy to clean, most “hygienic” way to coat interior surfaces.

§  Cognitive, developmental, and behavioral developments.

§  “contain” rather than remove lead: metal has become ubiquitous in our lives.

§  Housing always as a cornerstone of the economy.


Leaded impingements

·      Lead’s “sweetness”: ingesting 3 particles the size of a grain of sugar.

·      Demolition: you’ll know it when the air turns “sweet.” Suggests a reconfiguration of collective obligation around toxic waste.

·      Two public health students: measuring dust from demolition.

o   Door hangers: steps to take to stay away from the dust.

o   Exposure can’t be prevented through parental vigilance.

o   Children could not but ingest the substance as they move about their world.

o   Everything becomes a risk in an age of atmospheric toxins.

“Race” and its reinscriptions

·      Environmental threat could affect anyone—solidarity? Cooperation? “We are all Flint.”Ubiquity of lead pipes.

·      Arguments can’t hold water because “We are not all Flint.” Not any children who are endangered, but those living in marginal, rural, urban spaces.

·      Lead poisoning as a “leaded bullet”?

·      1) Lead and impairment—effects mirror the list of the “culture of poverty” constructions.  

·      2) Racism has material effects—“racialized” presumes stable framework.

·      3) Power of ritual, discipline, practice to reshape bodies. Move away from seeing bodies as available for endless reshaping, rather than incremental accretions of our life experiences.

Mel Y. Chen, Intoxication in the Making of Race and Disability

·      Long history of humans and substances, environmental justice. Two historical cases that get at stories of toxicity that don’t follow narrative of increase of industrialization. How do time and responsibility get understood?

·      Reflection on meaning: parties who claim toxicity aren’t necessarily working with the same politics. What is the toxic? What isn’t? Intoxication?

o   Does privilege inform intoxication but not toxicity?

o   Thinking with fields: gender and sexuality studies, disability studies, critical race

o   Disability studies: rejects pathologization, protests disablement. Combination of affirmation and protest. Accepts partiality, states of damage, position of a cripple.

·      The possibility that some bodies must endure: duratively intoxicated, mental challenge. What makes bodies toxic beyond biochemical definitions, both metaphorical and toxicity aren’t easily distinguished. Toxicity is a racialized concept.

·      Who is imagined to be already toxic? But to become one with toxicity? Making detoxification unthinkable.

o   Flint: neglect but also conflation of lead with poverty, blackness, stereotype, historically racialized assumptions. Toxicological theorizations of lead.

·      Entanglement of race and disability: both as fictions of colonial imaginaries and also violences that are discursive and material

·      Neoliberal structuring and limits on the imagination, make questions of deciding neglect complicated. But instead think of racial ontology. Think transnationally, some bodies, are effectively made constitutionally equivalent, co-participating in same kinds of chemical combination.

·      Slow constitution.

·      Developmental delay: “mongoloid idiocy” introduced by Down in 1866.

o   Hospital administered opium.

o   Patients “white,” but “atavistically Asian”

o   Opium intoxication not same as impairment but close enough to need to be distinguished. Where did “slowness” come from?

o   “Mongol” came to sit in for “developmental delay,” according to this ideology.

·      What does it mean to think about developmental time? Co- mingling of race and disability.

o   Queensland, 1890s: concern in government that had to do with fear that Chinese immigrants were delivering poor forms of opium to aboriginal communities, leading to addiction or death.

o   1897 law: rationale for instituting first forms of protective control.

o   Single strongest legal act on aboriginals in Australia.

o   Colonial ministrations: developmental temporalities

o   Displacement of aboriginal and mixed race children after this Act.

o   Attention to human and “non-human” entities: what about accountability and mutual entanglement?

o   What role does this history need to play in the present?

o   Degrees and forms of opium. Government claims toxicity on the part of a group, in the name of “protection”

o   Aboriginals constituted as subjects of dependency.

·      We can think of what is judged normal and non-normal sex, but also the governance of intimacy, context. Much more to say about reproduction than making people through sex.

·      Wonders whether one lesson: allow to become intoxicated by the opium, interhuman temporalities, urgent demands. Workings of own cognitive mechanisms.

o   How do we constitute our own awareness of a “thing”?

o   Iterativity, ungivenness

o   Not sensory cosmopolitanism as way of understanding other people, but approximating a method that may converse with people’s methods of survival to affirm. To acknowledge that something akin to the intoxication may already be there.

·      Fiona Foley: “Black Opium”

o   Approach of juxtaposition, what does it say to the questions of accountability?

o   How to understand accountability of Chinese communities in the opium trade?


Kim Fortun, Essentially Late Industrial

·      What are we doing as community to engage with this work? Asking “What is globalization” is part of the problem.

·      “Late” – the industrial has stayed with us, “postindustrial” doesn’t capture.

·      Modes of thought and habits of language.

·      Nascent essentialism in our language practices that undercut our ability to make environmental sense.

·      Houston—no zoning laws at all. Biggest petrochemical region, but why does it make sense to sight schoolyards to proximity to industrial site?

·      Bhopal: American chemical plant on the cusp of being shut down. Most affected community was Muslim.

o   Toxins can engender social strife.  

o   Attempt to make environmental sense has been this project’s main driver

o   What would be a critical anthropology of science?

·      Set of theories in the mid 80’s: postcolonial, feminist, risk society studies. What’s it look like to refresh that body of theory to meet needs of today?

·      Late Industrialism

o   What legacies of industrial order shape and delimit contemporary conditions?

o   What hazards, harms, etc are produced in late industrialism?

o   Why is it so difficult to make environmental sense of contemporary conditions? What cultural formations work against this?

·      Late industrialism as produced across scales of systems. Political, discursive, etc. We lac a language to talk about this. Splice out the micro, mezzo, macro, into additional layers.

o   Focus on the nano.

o   Late industrial history in the present. Entanglement across spatial boundaries, across systems and scale, etc

o   Essentialism crops up in…

§  Ads from the American Chemistry Council’s PR movement to counter realization that chemical industry is toxic on so many levels

§  assumption of bounded body. The body in exposure science is this way.

§  products as bounded. The simple glass of clean water. The idea that things end where their edges do.

§  idea of national boundaries. (US Supreme Court case about regulating cross-state pollution shows how slow we are to get anything dealing with cross-border anything)

§  methodologies of toxicology. Language of mechanism.

§  in clean-up. The Kingston, Tennessee coal ash disaster. What counts as clean up is moving debris across the border to Uniontown, Alabama (mostly African American town). Politics and ethics of clean up, when clean up working conditions are incredibly toxic

§  in environmental education: they want an early view of only beautiful nature. Don’t teach climate change until they’re at least in 5th grade. You can’t love nature unless you learn about it as beautiful bounded glory first.

o   What are seeing and what are we not?

§  If you want undergrads to understand toxics as cultural problem, not just environmental problem?

§  Corporations of concern are out there working right alongside you. Chemical companies like ExxonMobil have programs to visit gradeschools, etc, to spout their agenda

§  We have high ethos of taking care of our children, yet do this…

·      Binaries that have sustained our discourse for decades. We need a practice that allows us to shift frames.


Laura Barraclough, respondent

·      Exposure as a process produces identity

·      Perceived ability to contain and manage postindustrialism effects: so much undergirding peoples’ beliefs and identity categories (whiteness, masculinity, etc)

o   But toxicity moves across  boundaries in invisible ways that often can’t be articulated

o   Investment among priviledged people in containment, etc. Need to disavow that investment.

§  Politics of solidarity that would disavow containment, etc

§  NOT “We’re All Flint.” But what would it look like?

·      Mel Chen’s stories of opium: the productive strain of entanglement that is not universalizing, but is a better politics of solidarity in entanglement across space, time, etc

o   The right to appropriate space

o   The right to participate in the social production of space

§  First trace out different kinds of kinships. Take into account the constraints of entanglement, but also its productive responsibilities.

o   How to get at the question of accountability?

§  Are there ways to think about a strategic fixity? Chen’s “slow constitution” that becomes a resource for some people?

ENDURANCE: Soraya Boudia, Gabrielle Hecht, Michelle Murphy

Respondent: Phoenix Alexander