Caring as Chemo-Ethnographic Method

Photo by Eben Kirksey.

This essay is part of an online supplement to the Openings collection on “Chemo-Ethnography,” which was edited by Nicholas Shapiro and Eben Kirksey and featured in the November 2017 issue of Cultural Anthropology.

“Caring implicates different relationalities, issues, and practices,” in the words of Maria Puig de la Bellacasa (2017, 3). The work of care “involves affective, ethical, and hands-on agencies of practical and material consequence,” but while “it can do good; it can oppress.” My approach to chemo-ethnography is grounded in personal experiences of caring for loved ones with cancer, whose bodies and subjectivities have been remade by the specters of radioactive elements and then shocked with poisonous cures. My mother, my peers, my mentors and teachers have lived with cancer and chemotherapy, the suite of modern drugs that embody the properties of the pharmakon, perhaps more than any other.

The pharmakon, the poison which doubles as a cure, “can mutate into its opposite, depending on the dose, the circumstances, or the context” (Stengers 2011, 29). Corporations and governments have long profited from playing with the toxic valences of chemicals with indeterminate properties. One of the largest companies that historically produced carcinogenic pesticides, Imperial Chemical Industries, also made a cancer drug called tamoxifen. “Money made from treating cancer aligns a little too comfortably with the profits made from causing cancer,” Lochlann Jain (2013, 11) insists. It is thus important to follow trajectories of capital accumulation and desires that fuel industrial chemical interventions, even as we think with care about emergent conditions of life within the toxicological dose-response curves of modern medicine (Dumit 2012).

Chemotherapy has produced new pharmakon-subjectivities—with frictions from scientific knowledge, capitalism, destructive processes, and entheogenic compounds (from entheos, Greek for trance or possession; see Preciado 2013, 145). Chemo blunts the sensorium. Cancer treatments reshape “physical experiences of touch, taste, smell, architecture, and eye contact” (Jain 2013, 219). Lived experience of recovery from altered cognition, proprioception, emotion, and pain in bathrooms, on a good friend’s couch, and in waiting rooms with soft-rock radio, are described by Jain.

While caring for the altered body and subjectivity of my mother, Jane Kirksey, I kept insights from Karen Barad (2014, 234) in mind: “Ethics is not about the right response to the other, but about responsibility and accountability in lively relationships.” Cisplatin, one of the drugs shunted into my mother, is notorious for killing taste buds, dulling the sense of smell, and causing hearing loss. As a retired audiologist who tested hearing during her professional life, she is particularly articulate about how chemo dulled her own senses: “I have a hearing loss, but it is in a pattern that is characteristic of people who are getting older. My senses of smell and taste are gone.” While living within an altered phenomenological world, she is nonetheless resisting the volley of pharmaceutical initiatives that have tried to turn her into an inherently ill person, a patient in need of chronic treatment and care (Dumit 2012). Since earlier chemical treatments produced dramatic changes to her body and her senses, Jane Kirksey remains ever skeptical of new drugs that are prescribed as cures.

Shortly after my mother’s hair and eyebrows grew back, as the possibility of a relapse became an increasingly distant probability, one of my peers and friends was diagnosed with metastatic brain cancer. Beatriz da Costa, a digital media practitioner and biological artist, gathered groups of friends around her in New York City for periodic celebrations during the final year of her life. Care in this emergent community meant sharing meals, walking the dog, doing dishes together, and other mundane tasks to help Beatriz and her partner Robert Nideffer maintain and repair their world so that they could continue to live within it as well as possible (see Puig de la Bellacasa 2017). Beatriz was diagnosed and aggressively treated for cancer at age fourteen. The cancer recurred twice, when she was aged nineteen and twenty-one, before the cells lay dormant for more than a decade. Beatriz da Costa’s artwork and writing on tactical biopolitics (da Costa and Philip 2008) engaged with issues related to power and social justice in the biological sciences. Hopes pinned to the prospect of new drug discoveries prompted Beatriz to turn herself into an experimental subject.

Beatriz da Costa's "Dying for the Other" triptych video installation (2011–13). Video courtesy of Robert Nideffer.

One of Beatriz da Costa’s final artworks before she died juxtaposes her own lived experiences with the suffering of pink mice with visible tumors, whose lives and deaths were also entangled with cancer research. This video shows da Costa chopping vegetables, practicing fine-motor skills, and laboriously walking through hallways as mice are weighed, fed, prodded with scalpels, and decapitated by technicians. “Dying for the Other” illustrates how ethnographers might embrace animals to share the suffering of literal and figural kin (see Haraway 2016). Her broader corpus of writing and art shows the importance of artists as activist intellectuals who can expose and derail dominant practices for managing life. She illustrates how chemicals can create possibilities for life while simultaneously enfeebling one’s own body and kindred species of experimental subjects (see also Roberts 2010).

Practices of caring for people in my immediate social world with altered abilities and subjectivities inform my approach to the toxic methodology of chemo-ethnography (Shapiro and Kirksey 2017; see also Chen 2012). These toxic methods also depart from a collective space of mourning—grief for departed loved ones and respect for experimental animals who continue to sustain our lives. Transforming grief into communicative and collective action, chemical ethnographers are starting to conduct performative experiments to playfully expose sprawling chemical infrastructures that have made us sick and disenchanted (e.g., Kirksey et al. 2016). Others are starting to enhance dulled memories and altered sensoria with novel tactics and technical apparatuses—monitoring everyday sites of toxic exposure and crafting their own tools for guerrilla remediation. Turning away from death, anthropologists are caring for emergent chemo-social conditions of life.

Vibrant Matter, the classic book on “thing power” by Jane Bennett (2010), makes an argument for flattening ontologies. Bennett suggests that differences between things like a dead rat, oak pollen, a plastic glove, and a bottle cap need “to be flattened, read horizontally as a juxtaposition rather than vertically as a hierarchy of being” (Bennett 2010, 9). Instead of sharing Bennett’s enthusiasm “about the liveliness of ‘matter itself’,” though, ethnographers are starting to study “the complexities, frictions, intractabilities, and conundrums of ‘matter in relation’” (Abrahamsson et al. 2015, 13). While Bennett (2010, 117) insists that “everything is, in a sense, alive,” other forms of existence (not-Life, other-than-life) have specific affordances and propensities (Povinelli 2016, 55). Echoing geographers Bruce Braun and Sarah Whatmore (2010, xxix), chemo-ethnographers are paying “closer attention to the specificity of the matter at hand, as opposed to a generic analogy to ‘life’ that could be described as a metaphysics.”

As ethnographers start to follow the chemical species (cf. Marcus 1995), tracing reagents and enzymes as they transform ontologies and epistemologies, new insights are emerging about multispecies worlds. Encounters between organic and inorganic matter—between rock and water, among biological organisms, metabolites, and toxins—produce distinct entities and agents that do not precede, but rather emerge through, molecular intra-actions (Povinelli 2016, 39–41; Barad 2014, 236). Chemical weapons are structuring emergent ecological communities and some pollutants are having surreal, rather than directly lethal, consequences (Kirksey 2015, 39). Toxic environments are animating transgressions—producing queer birds that possibly experience the dangerous pleasures of intoxication (Pollock 2016, 185).

It is urgent to unflatten ontologies and instead attend to the situated effects and propensities of reagents, catalysts, and chemical reactions in shared worlds where life and death are at stake. Rather than simply reinstate a “hierarchy of being,” Elizabeth Povinelli (2016, 44) insists that we attend to geological forces that show a planetary trend of becoming-nonliving. “Life and Nonlife breathe in and breathe out. And if Nonlife spawned Life, a current mode of Life may be returning the favor.” Carbon emissions into the atmosphere, radioactive technologies of energy and war, pesticides from agricultural fields, plastic packaging for consumer goods, and toxins from industrial production are producing thanatological becomings on a massive scale (e.g., Nixon 2011; Pandian 2016). Forms of nonlife are overcoming the living world as geological forces eclipse human agency, in Povinelli’s (2016, 56) words, “by becoming something that will potentially extinguish that world and the way we exist in it.”

Chemical decay can be an important process that “releases nutrients and increases the fertility of the surrounding substrates, allowing for the emergence of new forms of growth” (DeSilvey 2017, 11). But processes that uncouple life and death, diminishing death’s capacity to turn dying back toward the living, have produced what the Australian anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose (2011, 85) terms “double death.” Rose describes how chemicals like 1080 poison, which is used to kill dingoes in Australia, can easily move through generations and across species boundaries. The process of double death occurs as living creatures feed on poisoned carcasses, or accumulate pesticides in their tissues, and are killed in an ongoing cascade of death. Double death stops the dynamic relationship between Life and Nonlife. As toxic assemblages proliferate, life is becoming not-life, other-than-life—destroying precarious human and multispecies worlds (cf. Thacker 2005).

Dakota scholar Kim TallBear reminds us that Indigenous nations have been living in a postapocalyptic world for centuries now. Indigenous groups in many different cultural and historical locations are nonetheless finding hope in landscapes blasted by nuclear weapons and chemical pollution, gardening in industrial ruins, and surviving in situations of toxic and compromised sovereignty (Tsing 2014; Povinelli 2016). Amid apocalyptic endings, as well as the happy accidents accompanying significant beginnings, mestizo thinkers and tinkerers are playing with the pharmako-logical properties of hope itself (Kirksey 2015). Caring and tinkering in shared worlds is messy and demanding work (Abrahamsson et al. 2015; Haraway 2016). Chemo-ethnographers are learning how to become accountable in lively relationships. Rather than just passively accept toxic sites and states of being, it is critical to join Mel Chen (2012, 202) in surging forward with energy and love. Chemo-ethnographers are embracing emergent convivialities while learning to live with unexpected deadly outcomes. Our world includes our bodies, our selves, and our elemental chemical components, all of which are interwoven in a complex, life-sustaining web. Recoupling life and death, turning the process of dying back toward the living, it is urgent to engage in the care work required to maintain and repair this shared world.


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