Toxic

A Symposium on Exposure, Entanglement, and Endurance

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

Essentially Late Industrial

Kim Fortun, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

 Ads from an American Chemistry Council campaign in the mid 2000s called essential2life, a "360(degree) communication effort" to show “how connected we all are and how central chemistry is to the health and growth of our nation.”

Ads from an American Chemistry Council campaign in the mid 2000s called essential2life, a "360(degree) communication effort" to show “how connected we all are and how central chemistry is to the health and growth of our nation.”

With many apologies for posting late…. I’ll wrap my comments here around the concept of “late industrialism,” which I’ve worked to empirically ground and theorize over the last few years – striving to weave environmental problems – particularly problems with toxics – into sociocultural theory. A key premise of this work is that late industrialism harbors a key contradiction: while characterized in notable and sobering ways by environmental degradation, it remains notably difficult to make environmental sense – to recognize, name and address environmental degradation as a defining problem of our times.  One way to explain this is by drawing out how “industrial logic” actively marginalizes and disavows environmental problems by privileging production and products – what goes on inside factory fence lines and our beloved electronics and plastics – while discounting polluting byproducts (what off gasses and leaks – what isn’t essential).  This explanation builds from a common argument in feminist and postcolonial theory: that systems of production (of goods and meaning) both produce and depend on subalterns – which can’t be articulated in dominant forms of representation. Environmental problems, then, are subaltern– systematically produced but disavowed by industrial logic. And these environmental problems (cultural as well as technological) – produce raced bodies: bodies that are different not because of some originary difference but because they live and come to be what they “are” in toxic conditions.  Exposure produces identity.  Context and bodies are entangled.  And context is always historically sedimented.  History endures, often in a nonlinear, hard to capture way akin to the action of toxics in bodies.

This, then, begs an important question: if, in late industrialism, environmental problems have trouble being articulated, how does this implicate articulations of race and inequality more generally? This is one of the question that I want pursue.