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)?


From Joshua Clover’s Riot. Strike. Riot pg 2. He argues that the return of the riot reverses a long term trend observed by Charles Tilley, in which the riot had given way to the strike as the foremost tactic in socially available repertoires of contention:

As the overdeveloped nations have entered into sustained, if uneven, crisis, the riot has returned as the leading tactic in the repertoire of collective action. This is true both in the popular imaginary and the realm of data (insofar as such matters give of statistical comparison). Regardless of perspective, riots have achieved an intransigent social centrality. Labor struggles have in the main been diminished to ragged defensive actions, while the riot features increasingly as the central figure of political antagonism, a specter leaping from insurrectionary debates to anxious governmental studies to glossy magazine covers.

From the Guardian. A foretaste of more to come?

The French government has cancelled marches planned for international climate talks in Paris at the end of the month, citing security concerns.

All demonstrations organised in closed spaces or in places where security can easily be ensured could go ahead, foreign minister Laurent Fabius said in the statement.

“However, in order to avoid additional risks, the government has decided not to authorise climate marches planned in public places in Paris and other French cities on Nov 29 and Dec 12,” it said.

Environmental activists had hoped the marches would attract 200,000 people to put pressure on governments to cut greenhouse gas emissions. They have had to rethink their plans following attacks in Paris last Friday that killed 129 people. More than 2,000 protests in around 150 countries are planned during the talks.

Emma Ruby-Sachs, deputy director of the campaign group Avaaz, said: “The police have just informed us that the tragic attacks in Paris have made the march there impossible.

“Now it’s even more important for people everywhere to march on the weekend of November 29th on behalf of those who can’t, and show that we are more determined than ever to meet the challenges facing humanity with hope, not fear.”

Earlier today I came across this wonderful passage by Frederick Douglass in this book by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco:

Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

– Frederick Douglass