The Chemical Refrain: An #AmAnth2016 Panel Review

The Chemical Refrain

Chair: Eben Kirksey (University of New South Wales). Presenters: Nicholas Shapiro (Chemical Heritage Foundation), Jason Pine (Purchase College, State University of New York). Discussants: Elizabeth Povinelli (Columbia University), Anita Hardon (University of Amsterdam). Sponsor: Society for Cultural Anthropology.

If anthropology is about making the strange familiar and the invisible visible, then the presentations at the panel on “The Chemical Refrain” were paragons of anthropological inquiry. Each explored the politics of chemical in/visibility, interrogating the boundary between life and nonlife. As Eben Kirksey postulated, “chemicals have become ethnographic objects.” Driven by this understanding, the participants in “The Chemical Refrain” brought forward theorizations of chemical ecologies of life, neurochemical subjectivities, temporalities of acting and waiting, actual and metaphorical chemistries of nonhuman agency, the biopolitics of toxicity, and other ways of thinking chemically. Yet as Nicholas Shapiro explained, such chemical epistemologies were not a radical “turn” in an intellectual trajectory of our discipline, but rather “a refrain” or, as he elegantly suggested, a “melody within the larger discourses of anthropology.” Indeed, as the panel progressed, I saw that thinking chemically did not imply the abandonment of anthropological concerns with biology, culture, and power, but called for reflecting upon profound engagements across human and chemical agents.

Since the idea of “The Chemical Refrain” was to widen the scope of ethnographic studies by looking into nonhuman and nonliving assemblages, it was not surprising that the panel was chaired by Kirksey, who is well known for his work in multispecies ethnography. Just as advances in microbiology and other life sciences have made it possible to detect the myriad species that constitute human bodies, progress in engineering fields and the development of new chemical sensing technologies have revealed profound mutuality of humans and chemicals. Here, chemicals are not just inanimate elements, but species (although chemical species have a shorter life than species in biology). Just as multispecies ethnography has challenged anthropologists to reconsider the very definition of humanness, asking whether a seemingly incontestable boundary between the human and nonhuman has analytical value, the participants in “The Chemical Refrain” encouraged scholars to broaden their disciplinary horizons, going beyond the social and the biological into a neurochemical fabric of human life.

Developing the idea of sensorial and embodied entanglements of human and chemical species in the era of late capitalism, Jason Pine’s paper invited the audience to look into the everyday life in northeast Missouri. There, the residents of small towns have been unknowingly exposed to toxic agents of modern industrial infrastructures while also voluntarily engaging in neurochemical relations with another potent substance—methamphetamine. Pine highlighted the ways in which people’s quotidian practices, experiences, and aspirations were tied to the regimes of embodied capitalism within which value is produced through the assemblages of human body, chemicals, and material structures. The audience was visibly moved by his captivating analysis of the chemistry—or rather, alchemy—of cooking meth and the emergence of what he called “a chimærical chemical figure” whose biology, desires, and labor are both abused and cultivated by late industrial capitalism, unemployment, and cravings for toxic goods.

Nicholas Shapiro took the question of human–chemical interactions further to critique what he called the eventfulness model of policy discourses under which environmental disturbances carry the illusory promise of social change, yet do not always bring a better life. “Things happen but nothing happens,” Shapiro remarked. By reflecting on his work on indoor air spaces which are filled with contaminants, most commonly formaldehyde, Shapiro showed how the imperceptibility of chemicals can disguise hazards as improvements. For example, a temporary housing project which was launched to provide relief for people affected by Hurricane Katrina turned out to be a terrain of exposure to formaldehyde, because of a dangerously high concentration of the chemical in construction materials for the project. As Shapiro argued, the attention of anthropologists to invisible substances can be instrumental in revealing similar paradoxes “when shelter becomes exposure,” illuminating how the state fails to ensure the safety of built environment.

Industrial pollution
Industrial pollution. Photo by Agustín Ruiz.

As many anthropological studies intimate, the hidden and the invisible is often threatening and even malevolent. Similarly, “The Chemical Refrain” painted a rather gloomy picture of dark realism and the ubiquity of invisible toxicity, uncovering once again the vulnerability of human bodies. But I kept wondering if chemical ethnography might also allow a space for hope. In his presentation, Shapiro questioned a line of reasoning such that “if we can make [toxic] exposures and harms perceptible and eventful enough, we will yield a less toxic world.” But can visibility lead to security? According to Shapiro, the answer is negative: mere ethnographic documentation or even mitigation of chemical toxicity is not enough for change, he argued, since these projects would simply perpetuate existing systems of exposure. The most efficacious step would be to cultivate alternative desires and practices that render toxic infrastructures unnecessary, but this is hard to achieve.

Listening to these cases of what Sherry Ortner (2016) has called “dark anthropology,” I mused on the potentials of a more hopeful chemical ethnography. Similar to revelations by medical anthropologists that so-called pathogens and parasites are not necessarily deleterious agents, could pollutants and toxins be viewed outside the framework of vulnerability and exposure as carriers of strength and protection? These thoughts were echoed by one of the two discussants, Anita Hardon, who invited the panelists to question the techniques by which chemicals are defined as bad or harmful. In her remarks, Hardon drew broadly on common themes across the papers presented at this panel and another session entitled “Chemical Permeations and Relations,” emphasizing multiple ways in which chemicals are enmeshed with human bodies and produce a range of meanings.

As the discussion continued, I also found myself looking for more ethnographic detail pertaining to race and gender. I wondered whether gendered bodies were differently exposed to, abused by, and entangled with chemical agents such as formaldehyde or methamphetamine. I wondered how to think chemically about gendered aspirations and labor in the contemporary political ecology of chemicals: for example, in nail salons, where it is predominantly female migrant bodies that are exposed to chemical hazards. How can we make sense of such gendered chemical citizenships?

Some of these questions were addressed by the second discussant, Elizabeth Povinelli, who spoke about anthropogenic toxicity and its political implications. In her vibrant and beautifully written paper, she shared her childhood memories about fire, pesticides, and gasoline, blurring the boundaries of things fun and toxic. She showed how noxious elements compose us at the level of the body and the level of desire, producing affective states that define who we are. “The past has a specific smell,” as she put it. Reflecting upon the current political climate and the recent U.S. elections, Povinelli also discussed the racialized nature of impoverishment and exposure to potent neurotoxins. She challenged the audience to think about the where and when of chemicals, pointing to the unequal distribution of environmental toxicity. For people with privilege, anthropogenic harm is rather in the future and “there-ish,” Povinelli suggested, whereas for others it is always already happening and “here-ish.”

This is where I see the strongest potential of chemical ethnography. “The Chemical Refrain” has stimulated a tide of challenging frameworks for anthropological inquiry, weaving together multiscalar perspectives on non/life through ethnographically dense and politically focused descriptions. Now it is time to ask how we can move forward, accounting for intersectional aspects of human existence such as race, gender, ability, age, and religion, elucidating how different bodies are enmeshed with the chemical world in not only harmful but also enabling ways, and thereby, perhaps, crafting a chemical ethnography of hope.


Ortner, Sherry B. 2016. “Dark Anthropology and Its Others: Theory since the Eighties.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6, no. 1: 47–73.