Catherine Fennell, Columbia University
As the material turn turns along, it has also turned out concept metaphors through which scholars interrogate humans' relationship to a world pulsating with non-human entities. One of them -- entanglement -- underscores just how much any discrete thing's properties expand beyond the surfaces that house them and become caught up in those trailing off other things. These vibrant things then gather persons and other matter into meshworks or assemblages. Here, humans do not so much inhabit the world as they emerge as the effects of their entanglements with dense and interlocking entities whose unpredictable resonances have force and efficacy in that world (1). For scholars preoccupied with obsolete built environments, entanglement seems to be especially good to think with. It highlights human contact with a host of substances that make up these environments, even as it nudges us to consider how these substances will unfurl within places defined by neglect and decay.
Take lead, a metal that humans have long prized in building projects. For centuries, people have been drinking from leaded pipes, sleeping under leaded roofs, and moving across leaded floors. In the United States, house paints have thrown children directly into this potent neurotoxin's path. Consumer appetites for bright domestic interiors grew during the 1920s, and leaded paints satisfied them by making everything they covered cheerful, durable, and easy to clean (2). And over the next several decades, physicians grappled with a childhood lead poisoning epidemic associated with everything from convulsions, weight loss, and death, to, more recently, cognitive, developmental, and behavioral impairments (3). During the 1970s federal regulations emerged that restricted leaded paints in residential contexts. Yet with respect to our already leaded world, containment has prevailed as the primary management strategy. Leaded paints, experts have told homeowners and renters, pose little risk when covered neatly by another layer of paint, paper, or tile. And leaded pipes, experts have also told municipalities, pose little risk if they will guard against their corrosion by pumping phosphate into them. This advice, for containment rather than an outright ban on lead and its total removal from built environments, points to just how much Americans' entanglement with this metal has become a normalized and ubiquitous part of their lives.
In recent weeks, that normalization and ubiquity has sent sentiments like "We are all Flint" careening through national and regional media outlets. Varied invocations of this phrase underscore the presence of leaded pipes within many municipalities, even as they would summon the moral resolve to address the threats that those pipes pose to the health of citizens in and beyond Flint. Yet sentiments born of shared entanglements with this neurotoxin should give pause, for the simple reason that when it comes to built environments and the bodies they raise in and through place, we are not all Flint. It's not any children who are endangered by their entanglements with lead, but those who live in marginal rural and urban places. And it's not any children whose bodies are understood to become inflexibly different through these entanglements, but those belonging to the very groups that yesteryear's eugenicists singled out as inflexibly inferior -- black and impoverished white people. For these reasons, it is worth thinking through what other investments entanglements with lead might now be reviving, besides those bound up in calls for collective protection. My recent work on house demolition and efforts at lead containment in the urban Midwest concerns itself with those investments born of racialist thought.
(1) Ingold, Tim. 2011. Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description. New York: Routledge.
Bennett, Jane. 2010. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press.
(2) Warren, Christopher. 2000. Brush with Death: A Social History of Lead Poisoning, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Markowitz Gerald and Rosner, David. 2002. "Cater to the Children: The Promotion of White Lead,” in Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution. Berkeley: University of California Press.
(3) Markowitz Gerald and Rosner, David. 2013. Lead Wars: The politics of Science and the Fate of America's Children. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Nevin, Rick 2007. "Understanding International Crime Trends: The Legacy of Preschool Lead Exposure." Environmental Research 104: 315-336.