A Symposium on Exposure, Entanglement, and Endurance

Toxic: A Symposium on Exposure, Entanglement and Endurance at Yale March 3-4, 2016.

Alterlife in the Ongoing Aftermath: Exposure, Entanglement, Survivance

Michelle Murphy, University of Toronto

Global biomonitoring studies have failed to find a single living person without PCBs in their blood.  In a project that I am just beginning, I am researching the history and future of PCBs as a manifestation of transgenerational environmental violence in the Lower Great Lakes (composed of the region around Lake Ontario and Lake Erie), which is also the place that I have made home (Toronto) since 2001.  PCBs are a ubiquitous presence in human and nonhuman life in the Great Lakes, and at the same time their localized concentrations are the enfleshments of settler colonialism, environmental racism, capitalism and war.   PCBs are one of the rare chemicals that has had its manufacture banned not only in Canada and US, but globally. Yet they are still present as a “legacy chemical”; they remain built into the infrastructures of electrification, in mid-century buildings, and in sites of industrialization (particularly those that built engines or recycled paper), as well as industrial dumping.  PCBs are persistent organic pollutants, and as such they linger in lake sediments and soils, circulate in the atmosphere, and have spread past their localized emissions to become a globalized entity of capital extending across jurisdiction and into transgenerational time.    Epigenetic research on PCBs (like BPA, mercury and lead) suggests that exposures to these chemicals at low doses can create heritable changes to the metabolics of gene expression, changes to methylation patterns and histone arrangement that can then be passed intergenerationally to children, grandchildren and beyond.  Moreover, prebirth exposures to PCBs are associated with cognitive debilities across the life span.  Thus, PCBs manifest transgenerational chemical violence both through their persistence and their epigenetic and reproductive effects.

While I have been working as a historian of science and feminist STS scholar on the politics of chemical exposure science for some twenty years, in this project rooted in the region and relations in which I live, I am thinking through the decolonial and methodological stakes of my research in new ways that I am still trying to figure out.   Epigenetic and toxicological ways of investigating exposures render legible (and erase) the violence of industrial chemicals by tracking damage in bodies. Focused on collecting the data of damage, much hegemonic environmental biomedical research is entangled in the surveillance and pathologization of dispossessed communities, of black and indigenous youth, and of poor women, while state environmental monitoring is caught in permission to pollute regimes that purposively turn away from chemical violence.  What are other ways of researching exposure that refuse to reproduce damage narratives that pathologize?  Is it possible to create modes of attention for environmental science that reorient tothe histories and presences of chemical itineraries and their production in the infrastructures of settler colonialism, racism, and capitalism?     Might the study of exposure be oriented towards of the tracing of chemical relations that have already been built into the world, and that are enfleshing and unevenly entangling life forms in each others accumulations and miseries?  How might feminist STS offer alternative objects of concern to environmental science and politics? In committing to this question, I find inspiration in the work of Indigenous feminist scholar Eve Tuck who has called for “suspending damage” as a refusal to participation in “damage based research” that concentrates the scope of attention in the examination and dissection of bodies and biologies that are then reductively constituted as pathological and devalued, perpetuating the burdens of settler colonialand racist violence.  This refusal to re-enact damage based research is a challenge to the habits of environmental science, and at the same time generative to creating new kinds of research relations and questions.  Damage based logics run through the environmental epigenetic research that is being mobilized by researchers and communities to support understandings of transgenerational trauma caused by colonial and racist conditions. Studies of environmental epigenetic inheritance risk reinscribing race as inherited pathology, describing communities as perpetually diminished.  The refusal of damage based research is not a call to ignore pain, death, grief or politics, but an invitation to shine critical light on the infernal entanglements of the chemical relations of violence and accumulation, and at the same time to direct creative energy towards the alter-relations of continuing to live in landscapes that are also generative of other kinds of decolonial futurities. I call this project “Alterlife in the Ongoing Aftermath,” as a way to emphasize the particular histories of life already and continuingly altered, by the enfleshments of racist colonial capitalism on the Great Lakes, but also to orient towards the continued capacities to recompose relations to land and sociality, to survive and resist, to destroy some relations and support others, to become alter-wise in the aftermath of hostile conditions.