From the Series: Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen
Distribution in an atmospheric key begins from a reckoning with how things lift off, move, or settle: tracking agitations, suspensions, and sedimentations;, following condensations when enough of something collects around a speck to precipitate; and, noting how microsubstances attach to, become, or catalyze something else. In the middles of air’s substantiations (Choy 2011, 139–68), distribution presses the question of how atmospheric things disperse and accumulate in unequal concentrations.
Substantiation—a long, slow word. I love its sibilance and stop; it folds you into the bumps and drags of coming to matter. In that pleat, distribution, too, is both stop and drawn-out hiss; a long exposure or snapshot; a map of reds, yellows, and blues; or a fractionating gas column breaking a mixture into chemical parts. Distribution is at once a moment—a present condition—and an ongoing happening, a conditioning of atmospheric differences.
Put another way, distribution, pressed against atmosphere, amplifies and gathers questions of how things are arranged, the frequency of their occurrence throughout a unit of space or time. Distribution flags the problem of accounting for differential concentrations and relative densities. These questions of arrangement hint at the form for questions of about atmosphere's politics,: questions about of what conditions the variant compositions of this medium. Conditions of suspension (Choy and Zee 2015) and conditions of distribution.
Distribution is a trigger word for an atmospheric conspiracy, a commitment to breathing together from and in an unequally shared milieu, an unevenly constituted planetary medium for respiration where concentrations of well- and unwell-being accumulate, sometimes quickly and, sometimes slowly. Con + spirare. “Conspirators huddle together,” writes Larry Bogad, “quietly and cautiously sharing the intimacies of breath and ideas.” Thinking conspiracy literally, what political forms might transpire from an assembly caught in and metabolically dependent upon an atmospheric uncommons?1 The political problem of reckoning with being together, with the possibilities and impossibilities of breathing with in late industrial, racializing, engineered worlds, might be posed thus: what is conditioning the differential distribution of the difficulties or impossibilities of breath for particular forms of life? It is hard to breathe in many places—in some places more than others, for some bodies more than others. What would it take, what would it mean, what would it do, to face the conditions of distribution where I inhale the cough or choke of another?
I have many guides in this. Among them: #ICantBreathe; Michelle Murphy (2013) on distributed reproduction and chemical infrastructures along the St. Clair River; Jerry Zee (2015) on the political conditioning of saltating sands in the Tengger Desert; Alison Kenner (2013a, 2013b) on divergent embodiments of asthma and breath; Nicholas Shapiro (2014) on the grey-market dispersal of formaldehyde off-gassing FEMA trailers in the wake of Katrina; Kim Fortun (2012, 2014) on the uneven present of late industrialism; Joseph Masco (2015) on the fallout of engineered worlds; Deborah Cowen (2010) on shipping and logistics as economic form in global supply chains.
Most palpably, I learn from Stefanie Graeter’s (2015) ethnography of the possibilities and impossibilities of a politics of lead in the face of a brutal state-corporate extraction machinery in Peru. Graeter tracks not only lead’s figurations among residents, activists, and scientists, but also the metal’s movements: its distribution into and accumulation in bloodstreams and bodies and its shipment in pulverized form on tarp-covered trucks. Lead is heavy, Graeter reminds us, but as powder it kicks up easily. Workers water the dust to tame it, but it dries quickly. Lead-laden trucks stop on a street in a town named Frigorífico. While its neighboring town, the notoriously contaminated Puerto Nuevo, has garnered enough media and political support to stop trucks from passing through, Frigorífico has not. So trucks stop there. Dusts blow, and robbers lift the tarps of stopped trucks or pry open hard tops to stuff handfuls of lead into sacks. This theft is another moment of distribution, conditioned as much by low pay for mine work as by the absence of other employment. The powder reanimates, redistributed in sackfuls, inhaled in lungfuls, coating the hands and faces of robbers and the children they hire. With Graeter’s help, we grapple with lead’s distribution through its tendencies in molten and pulverized form, but – crucially as well – along its shipment on the bumpy road from smelter to port, through the decision to pass through one town to avoid another, and with the bodies who are once a new vector for distribution and surface of deposit.
Distribution asks after conditions. Questions of condition include questions of medium, state, and form, as well as the hardening circuits and thickening conjunctures where elements and effects move one way rather than another, concentrate here rather than there. Distribution, then, is a reminder to hold together the capacities of a substance—its properties, its tendencies to spread or to hold—with the conditions and conditioning of its uneven manifestation and movement. It is a reminder that atmospheres do not equalize, and that breathing together rarely means breathing the same. And moreover, it is a way of positing other conspiracies, where the distribution of harms and hopes in a shared medium may draw us together otherwise.
1. I poach here from conversations with Marisol de la Cadena on the ecopolitical uncommons. For de la Cadena, “the ‘uncommons’ is a response that wants to join, rather than detract from, the possibility of life as and in a ‘commons,’ yet it is also mindful of what exceeds modern politics.” She terms this excess the “Anthropo-not-seen.”
Choy, Timothy. 2011. Ecologies of Comparison: An Ethnography of Endangerment in Hong Kong. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
_____, and Jerry Zee. 2015. “Condition—Suspension.” Cultural Anthropology 30, no. 2: 210–23.
Cowen, Deborah. 2010. “A Geography of Logistics: Market Authority and the Security of Supply Chains.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 100, no. 3: 600–20.
Fortun, Kim. 2012. “Ethnography in Late Industrialism.” Cultural Anthropology 27, no. 3: 446–64.
_____. 2014. “From Latour to Late Industrialism.” Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory4, no. 1: 309–29.
Graeter, Stefanie. 2015. “Mineral Incorporations: Lead Science, Ethics, and Politics in Central Peru.” PhD dissertation, University of California, Davis.
Kenner, Ali. 2013a. “The Healthy Asthmatic.” M/C Journal 16, no. 6.
_____. 2013b. “Invisibilities: Provocation.” In “Invisibilities,” Field Notes series edited by William Girard, Cultural Anthropology website, June 15.
Masco, Joseph. 2015. “The Age of Fallout.” History of the Present 5, no. 2: 137–68.
Murphy, Michelle. 2013. “Distributed Reproduction, Chemical Violence, and Latency.” Scholar & Feminist Online 11, no. 3.
Shapiro, Nicholas E. 2014. “Spaces of Uneventful Disaster: Tracking Emergency Housing and Domestic Chemical Exposures from New Orleans to National Crises.” PhD dissertation, University of Oxford.
Zee, Jerry. 2015. “States of the Wind: Dust Storms and a Political Meteorology of Contemporary China.” PhD dissertation, University of California, Berkeley.