The Society for Cultural Anthropology is proud to award the 2016 Cultural Horizons Prize to Nicholas Shapiro (Chemical Heritage Foundation) for his article “Attuning to the Chemosphere: Domestic Formaldehyde, Bodily Reasoning, and the Chemical Sublime,” which appeared in Cultural Anthropology 30, no. 3 (2015): 368–93.
In his theoretically evocative article, Shapiro examines at once public and private, corporate and domestic, and ultimately intimate socialities emerging from low-level exposure to formaldehyde. The ubiquitous household chemical is present in domestic building materials, fabrics, cabinetry, and carpeting, with particularly high concentrations in manufactured homes. In the early stages of exposure it is an invisible agent—its presence unknown to vulnerable residents. But as formaldehyde vapors offgas and accumulate in the home, the body absorbs them through mucus membranes, producing formic acid as they are metabolized. Only then do a wide range of ambiguous symptoms begin to appear, including the insomnia, fatigue, seizures, and cancers that Shapiro’s interlocutors report. His ethnographically rich article chronicles how bodies, individuals, families, and communities respond in class-specific, gendered, and sometimes racialized ways to this invisible harm. The body becomes, as such, a perceptive somatic instrument that registers toxic exposure even as subjects are not cognitively aware of the source of these symptoms.
Existing ethnographic work on environmental exposure has focused on perceptible (often olfactory) sensations or radioactive contamination. The slow-moving, undetectable presence of formaldehyde presents a theoretical opportunity in the face of an undertheorized phenomenon. Shapiro posits the existence of a “chemical sublime,” a process wherein “minor enfeebling encounters [are elevated] into events that stir ethical consideration and potential intervention.” Here, “indistinct and distributed harms are sublimated into an embodied apprehension of human vulnerability to and entanglements with ordinary toxicity, provoking reflection, disquiet, and contestation.” Engaging scholars from Kant to Joseph Masco, Shapiro documents and theorizes the ways in which the body becomes both an instrument of measurement and its evidence.
Shapiro’s work is innovative and important in its attention to the ways that embodied engagements with late industrial environments are gendered and classed, as is the potential for political action they inspire. Shapiro’s interlocutors are caught in a state of precarity, between the knowledge of exposure produced through their bodies and environmental and political forces that were never theirs to choose. Shapiro’s theorization has the potential to inspire and inform incipient scholarship, while his ethnography substantially and elegantly backs an innovative and experimental framework.
The jury also awarded an honorable mention to June Hee Kwon (New York University) for her article “The Work of Waiting: Love and Money in Korean Chinese Transnational Migration, which appeared in Cultural Anthropology 30, no. 3 (2015): 477–500.
Kwon's article is an ethnographically rich consideration of the so-called Korean Wind: Korean Chinese migration to South Korea in the wake of economic reforms of the 1990s. Rather than follow Korean Chinese migrants, Kwon chooses to focus on botoli, the spouses of migrants left behind. Kwon argues that these spouses, many of whom receive remittances from their partners, are performing critical labor in maintaining intimacy and a shared temporal experience. Her reformulation of waiting not as a passive experience, but as an active (and risky) practice that enables and shapes migration, is a vital contribution to literatures on mobility, kinship, and the state. Kwon treats the analytics of gender and kinship as essential to our understandings of migration, citizenship, and ethnicity. Her careful attention to dynamics of affect, intimacy, and power strengthen this thoughtful and timely piece.
The Cultural Horizons Prize
The Cultural Horizons Prize is awarded annually at the meetings of the American Anthropological Association and carries a honorarium of $500. This year’s jury of doctoral students included Tristan Jones (Rutgers University), Eda Pepi (Stanford University), and Alix Johnson (University of California, Santa Cruz).