The ontology of toxicity

My notes on Liboiron, M., Tironi, M., & Calvillo, N. (2018). Toxic politics: Acting in a permanently polluted world. Social studies of science48(3), 331-349.

The authors of this paper take “a permanently polluted world” as their starting point. It is one where toxicity is ubiquitous, even if unevenly distributed. Unfortunately, “[t]he tonnage, ubiquity and longevity of industrial chemicals and their inextricable presence in living systems means that traditional models of action against toxicants such as clean up, avoidance, or antidote are anachronistic approaches to change ” (pg 332). The pervasiveness is such that we need to move beyond the traditional repertoire of management (separation, containment, clean up, immunisation) which is premised on a return to purity whiled depoliticising the production of that toxicity by treating it as a technical problem to be managed. In doing so, we can begin to see how toxic harm can work to maintain systems rather than being a pathology which ensues from systemic failure

There is conceptual work required if we are to grasp the politics of toxicity, encompassing how we conceptualise toxic harm, provide evidence for it, formulate responses to it and grasp the interests reflected in its production and management. This involves rejecting a view of toxicity as “wayward particles behaving badly” (pg 333). As they explain on pg 334, toxicity is relational:

Toxicity is a way to describe a disruption of particular existing orders, collectives, materials and relations. Toxicity and harm, in other words, are not settled categories (Ah-King and Hayward, 2013; Chen, 2012) because what counts as a good and right order is not settled.

They suggest a distinction between toxins and toxicants. The former occurs naturally in cells, whereas the latter are “characterized by human creation via industrial processes, compositional heterogeneity, mass tonnage, wide economic production and distribution processes, temporal longevity, both acute and latent effects, and increasing ubiquity in homes, bodies and environments” (pg 334). This includes naturally occurring minerals which are rendered problematic through industrial processes that lead them to occur in specific forms, locations and scales productive of harm.

Laws surrounding toxicants are based upon threshold limits, usually in relation to effects on human bodies. These are supplemented by cost benefit principles based around the avoidance of ‘excessive costs’ given available technologies. In this sense, the breakdown of order on one level (enabling toxicants to spread because it wouldn’t be ‘feasible’ to prevent it) facilitates the reproduction of order on another level (ensuring viable conditions for the continued reproduction of the commercial sector involved). I really like this insight and it’s one which can be incorporated into the morphogenetic approach in an extremely productive way.

This focus on toxicity enables us to links together these levels, providing a multi-scalar politics of life. There is a temporality to toxicity in which a slow disaster is not easily apprehended. For this reason agents seek to make it legible as a event through actions like photography or protest actions. But this easily gives rise to a politics of representation, seeing the claims of environmentalists as (at best) on a par with the claims of commercial firms. Rendering these processes legible through mechanisms like sensational images can reproduce existing differences between centre and periphery, the heard and the unheard.

Their interest is in modes of action “beyond governance-via-policy, in-the-streets-activism and science-as-usual” (pg 337). I’m not sure what their motivation is for this beyond the drive to “no longer privilege the modern humanist political subject and epistemologies based in claims and counter claims”: are they saying that a narrow politics of evidence and judgement has its corollary in public activism around public issues which have been established evidentially? I can see the analytical case for trying to get beyond this dichotomy but I’m not sure I see what is at stake politically in doing so. Their interest in actions such as  “the everyday, obligatory practices of tending to plants and others as toxic politics that do not necessarily result in scaled-up material change” doesn’t seem politically fruitful to me precisely because of the multi-scalar mode of analysis they offer (pg 341). Why should we challenge “activism as heroic, event-based and coherent” (pg 341)? Again I can see an analytical case for this, even if I disagree with it, but I don’t see what is at stake in this politically. It might be there are unintended consequences to thinking in terms of ‘effective outcomes’ but the force of this argument rests on an implicit claim about outcomes. Why is it important to “make room in dominant political imaginations for multiple forms of local, low resolution, uneventful, uneven, frustrated, desireful, ethical, appropriated and incommensurate forms of justice” (pg 343)?

 

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