A Symposium on Exposure, Entanglement, and Endurance

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


(In response to presentations by Naa Oyo A. Kwate and Elizabeth Hoover; and Jody Roberts in absentia)

Chloe Taft, Yale University

What is TOXIC?

A central claim of this morning’s presentations is that we must understand toxicity not as an objective thing or chemical compound in isolation, but rather as an accretive and compounding process defined in relation to human actors, structural inequalities, and material landscapes and bodies.

It is difficult not to think of Flint in the context of this conference and these papers. This semester I am teaching two undergrad seminars: History of Housing in America, and American Wastelands and Political Ecology. While these two topics may not seem on first blush to be directly linked, the subject of Flint has repeatedly come up in both.

A dominant media narrative of the crisis is that this is a story of government neglect that began two years ago when the water source was switched.

But negligence implies inaction. The story of Flint, like that of so many other toxic spaces we are discussing today, is instead one of long histories of political, social, and spatial transformations, often by design rather than as a result of an absence of intervention.

Thinking in terms of what Naa Oyo Kwate identified as “what puts you at risk for risk,” in Flint we can look:

  • at least back to the toxicity of the Jim Crow South, and the discriminatory labor policies that African-Americans who moved North to work in the auto plants faced;
  • state legitimated practices of redlining and racial covenants that trapped poor and working-class blacks in substandard homes in the urban core;
  • federally funded urban renewal projects that included cutting highways through low-income neighborhoods of color;
  • while white middle-class families used those same federally funded highways to escape to subsidized housing in the suburbs (though we rarely call those single-family homes subsidized).

As Kwate so clearly outlines in conceiving of the street itself as toxic, these are compounding factors. Toxicity is not just chemicals, but state policies and layers of structural inequality. She sees toxicity in peoples’ everyday encounters with law enforcement, liquor ads, low-wage work, and racism. Jody Roberts, in his blog post, finds toxicity in gentrification. And Elizabeth Hoover highlights the toxicity of EPA remediation and containment policies, fish advisories, and the legacies and ongoing impacts of settler colonialism.

The toxic landscape of urban segregation is a fundamental root of the water crisis in Flint. What does it mean then for the governor to call this Flint’s Katrina – as if it were a natural disaster, and not a social one (though we all know Katrina was not “natural” either)? As if there is no deeper legacy of state action and inaction that is recorded in the segregated landscape and in marginalized bodies?

Hoover’s invocation of the Akwesasne Mohawks’ “seven generations philosophy” – that decisions made today should have people in mind seven generations from now – is so resonant here in drawing attention to the longer histories that make up our present and future. And as Roberts highlights, this extends backwards as well. Memory informs present experience.

Others, including those at this conference, have led us to think not of ruins, but of ruination; not of waste, but of wasting.

1. How might we think of the toxic in these active and ongoing terms? And where is the agency located when we do so?

These papers suggest a multiplicity of sources.

Roberts offers us the phrase “narrating toxics.” As he makes clear, the safe/toxic dichotomy is as much an expression of politics as it is of science, just as terms such as “blight” likewise describe less of an objective condition than act as a political weapon. Perceptions of toxicity change based on one’s positionality. Do we best think of toxicity, then, as a social construction, something that must be brought into being? As something that is recounted and performed, as it was in community responses to Superfund cleanup outside Philadelphia that Roberts wrote about? In each of these sites, how is the discourse of toxicity wielded and by whom?

Roberts is particularly interested in the entanglement of chemical and political, material and cultural legacies. We can think of toxicity in terms of the ways in which policies – whether for housing, public health, criminal justice, or environmental protection – are administered and enacted in specific ways. As the panelists have made clear, and I noted in reference to Flint, toxicity in this sense is emplaced and embodied. It has a stickiness to it.

Each of these two frameworks – of narration and of emplacement or embodiment –still depend on human actors. But what happens when the toxic is itself given agency?

Rather than think of toxicity as a proxy for human action (or inaction), how does the toxic take on a life of its own as it infiltrates social, ecological, economic, and political life? Human actors strive to interpret, define, or contain the toxic, but how are they also acted upon? Or as Hoover put it, what happens when “the body becomes part of the Superfund site;” and in the words of her interlocutor, “the dump is in us?”

2. What is the duality of contamination that emerges when we think of toxicity as an ongoing and morphing process?

Toxicity, illness, violence, and despair are made material in the landscape and in bodies; and at the same time the panelists show that these are spaces of resistance, pride, and cultural preservation.

For Kwate, the street itself is a disease agent, but it is also a platform for community engagement. Hoover shows that Mohawk land that is contaminated by industrial run-off as well as settler colonialism is at the same time vital, life giving, and the source of social activism. Roberts finds in Philadelphia simultaneous stories of social networks being torn apart and of community strength.

How is this multiplicity of toxicity perceived by those who live within this contradiction? Is toxicity always a weapon? When can it become a resource? What is the relationship between toxicity and community formation?

3. Finally there is a question of policy.

All three of these panelists are directly engaged with public policy and public health interventions. They transform what are often invisible and hidden toxins into visible action and articulation. Kwate calls this a “politics of sight.”

Yet their approaches come from and draw on very different disciplinary and professional contexts: chemistry, medicine, psychology, anthropology, public health, environmental science...

What is the relationship between the university or foundation and the on-the-ground activism that they negotiate? What are the disciplinary/professional barriers they face, and what are the opportunities? How does one work within funding structures that privilege individual responsibility and intervention when these presentations so clearly show that toxicity is a structural condition? How do you map toxicity if it is an ongoing process? How can we imagine borrowing from each other’s perspectives or disciplinary toolkits?