An Anthropogenic Table of Elements: An Introduction

From the Series: An Anthropogenic Table of Elements

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In the 150 years since its construction by Russian chemist Dmitry Mendeleev, the periodic table of chemical elements has become an iconic and ubiquitous expression of scientific thought. In its tidy arrangement of substances, identities, atomic weights, and other properties, it illustrates the chemical sciences’ argument about the elemental and universal structure of nature. The table is a product of Mendeleev’s Aristotelian leanings: he abstracted the elements from their material forms in the pursuit of “simple substances” (Scerri 2007, 113). Though this was neither the first nor last effort to chart the chemical “order of things,” Mendeleev’s perspective was arguably vital to the table’s success, lending it an idealism and structure that came to feel almost clairvoyant. The 1869 version of the table left space for entities that had not yet been discovered or documented, but that would exist if the universe had the rational sense to provide an element for every atomic weight.

It is this same “functionalist bent” in chemistry that Michelle Murphy (2017, 495) suggests underwrites the problematic governance paradigms used internationally today. Conceptualizing chemicals as discrete entities allows them to be more easily inserted into national regulatory frameworks, such as the Australian Industrial Chemicals Act 1989, and international agreements, such as the 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, one suspect actor at a time. The elemental thinking captured by convoluted names such as Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) or Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) “pushes aside [their] complex reactivity with living- and nonliving being,” obscuring the complexity and inequity of our entanglements with toxicity (Murphy 2017, 495). As Murphy explains, it is hard not to talk about chemicals in universalizing, abstract terms. New methods need to be found to track and narrate “the infrastructure of chemical relations that surround and make us” (Murphy 2017, 496; see also Hecht 2018).

In a recent essay, geographers Sasha Engelman and Derek McCormack (2018, 242) note that “the elemental is alluring because it both captures something tangible about the world and also remains excessive of human agency or intervention.” We, the editors of this collection, were likely under the influence of these charms when selecting the elemental as the theme of the four-day Anthropocene Campus Melbourne event held in September 2018. We pursued two particular meanings of this term, as outlined by McCormack (2017). According to the first, the elemental names the environmental milieu, or material substrate, in which we are irrevocably and particularly embedded. Thinking elementally, as Peters (2015) suggests, means staying with the taken-for-granted material background of our habits and habitat, the media in which different forms of life are immersed, enveloped, and take shape. In the second sense, embodied in the work of Empedocles, Aristotle, Mendeleev, Galen, and many others, the elemental is a philosophical claim about the conditions of possibility of being and matter themselves—namely that there are forces or forms from which all else is derived, but which are not themselves derivative. An elemental ontology, in this account, is one not built on composites or hybrids.

In hindsight, the friction between these meanings proved useful for considering both the agents essential to our respective milieus—toxic in their individual ways—and the diagnostic and discursive value of thinking essence at all. The essays collected in this series push this tension further, purposefully taking an ironic stance toward the functionalism and naturalism of the chemical sciences, nominating materials, beings, forces, and other entities that are elemental to our present predicaments. Against the telos of an Aristotelian elemental ontology, the elements presented here have been selected precisely because they are in dialogue with hybridity. Rather than hew close to the obvious relatives of Mendeleev’s elements, we have therefore sought out more ontologically provocative substances such as aquifers, malhar, seeds, and cement. Other authors offer compounds, such as poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), and thus illustrate the persistent commingling of allegedly discrete chemical identities. All are described through their significance to place, time, history, and people.

Resisting abstraction by “staying-with-the-trouble” these elements cause, the essays collected here gesture to the always implacable hybridity of elemental life (see Haraway 2016). In this way, they offer an elementality more akin to that of Galen or Empedocles, insisting that it is not matter alone that constitutes the building blocks of life, but the relations between. The elements are thus never in isolation but are part of an irreducible milieu, intra-acting in ways that subvert claims to balance or logical ordering. Reconceptualized in this way, this collection uses elements as a means to narrate the complexities and failures of anthropogenic life. This revised table of elements, like Mendeleev’s, thus also serves a functionalist purpose: it aims to question and provoke scientific speculations about the “fundamental” structure of nature, and, in doing so, to foreground the ethics and responsibilities of such speculations.

Collectively, these essays begin to sketch a new table of elements that might, 150 years after Mendeleev’s intervention, better represent the constitutive elements of our current moment. While at first glance several of these newly promoted elements seem to fall into the old categories of poisons (1080) and micronutrients (calcium carbonate), forms of life (mold) and agents of death (strontium), the essays here show that even the deadliest substances can make a livelihood (mercury), and even the most essential can precipitate environmental death (phosphorus). In tracing the various paths elemental substances now take through worlds and lives, the authors construct a portrait of what living in the Anthropocene means. As with Mendeleev’s table, we also leave space for speculative elements, those with the possibility to inspire what Karen Barad (2010) calls “justice-to-come.” Indeed, in her work on science and justice, Barad (2010, 242) writes: “science and justice, matter and meaning are not separate elements that intersect now and again. They are inextricably fused together, and no event, no matter how energetic, can tear them asunder.” The indivisibility of the elements from the political and moral questions of the Anthropocene is precisely what this collection seeks to impress.


We acknowledge the research assistance of Zoe Coombe in this collection.


Barad, Karen. 2010. “Quantum Entanglements and Hauntological Relations of Inheritance: Dis/continuities, SpaceTime Enfoldings, and Justice-to-Come.” Derrida Today 3, no. 2: 240–68.

Engelmann, Sasha, and Derek McCormack. 2018. “Elemental Aesthetics: On Artistic Experiments with Solar Energy.” Annals of the American Association of Geographers 108, no. 1: 241–59.

Haraway, Donna J. 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Hecht, Gabrielle. 2018. “Interscalar Vehicles for an African Anthropocene: On Waste, Temporality, and Violence.” Cultural Anthropology 33, no. 1: 109–41.

McCormack, Derek P. 2017. “Elemental Infrastructures for Atmospheric Media: On Stratospheric Variations, Value and the Commons.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 35, no. 3: 418–37.

Murphy, Michelle. 2017. “Alterlife and Decolonial Chemical Relations.” Cultural Anthropology 32, no. 4: 494–503.

Peters, John Durham. 2015. The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Scerri, Eric R. 2007. The Periodic Table: Its Story and Its Significance. New York: Oxford University Press.