Toxic Capture: Rendering Difficult Subjects Visible

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This essay seeks to expand theorization on toxicity by tracing the ways in which "toxic injury" and "toxic stress" have emerged as categories for clinical and juridicial claims making. I am particularly interested in the ways in which toxic injury as is both enrolled and undermined as a useful explanatory model for conditions which resist diagnosis. Given the ways in which toxic subjects are rendered invisible by dominant understandings of transmission, injury, and time, new forms of visualization and reading are called for. The images I include seek to illustrate the various tools patients and clinicians use in order to render toxic conditions visible in both clinical and legal domains.  Through these images I hope to demonstrate the promise and difficulty of “toxic capture.”

Morgan, Alli. 2019. “Toxic Capture: Rendering Difficult Subjects Visible.” In Visualizing Toxic Subjects Digital Exhibit, curated by James Adams and Kim Fortun. The Center for Ethnography. March. http://www.centerforethnography.org/content/toxic-capture-rendering-diff...

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Toxic Capture

Toxic Capture: Rendering Difficult Subjects Visible

This essay seeks to expand theorization on toxicity by tracing the ways in which "toxic injury" and "toxic stress" have emerged as categories for clinical and juridicial claims making. I am particularly interested in the ways in which toxic injury as is both enrolled and undermined as a useful explanatory model for conditions which resist diagnosis. Given the ways in which toxic subjects are rendered invisible by dominant understandings of transmission, injury, and time, new forms of visualization and reading are called for. The images I include seek to illustrate the various tools patients and clinicians use in order to render toxic conditions visible in both clinical and legal domains.  Through these images I hope to demonstrate the promise and difficulty of “toxic capture.”

Jasper Johns' Flag Moratorium (1969)

Found Image: Jasper Johns' Flag (Moratorium) (1969)

Look briefly at John Jasper’s Flag (Moratorium) and one will see what appears to be the United States flag, painted in Army greens and orange, with a small pin—or dare I say bullet?—hole at center. Yet glance away after gazing at the painting, and one will “see” the United States flag projected in its familiar red, white, and blue, as if materializing out of nowhere. The intensity of the specter directly correlates with how long the viewer has been staring at the original painting.
What the painting is remains unclear: is the primary image the orange and green painting or is it the illusion? Which did the artist intend for us to see? Which do we remember? Without guidance, the viewer likely does not know that the illusion even lies beneath (beside?) the painting. Yet, once the illusion is known to the viewer, it becomes difficult to un-see, simultaneously seeing multiple things at once. A variation of the famous duck-rabbit illusion, in which both, and neither a duck and/nor a rabbit are pictured in the same illustration, the flag is multiple things at once, though not simultaneously sustained visually by the viewer. Wittgenstein’s (1953) famous rumination on the duck-rabbit conundrum helps to further this point, explaining how viewers will first see either a duck or a rabbit, but cannot report seeing something that they are unfamiliar with (193-196). Like toxics, the image lingers after exposure.

Annotated map of burn pit in Balad

CREATED IMAGE: MAPPING BURN PITS

REVISION

This Google Maps screen capture shows Balad Air Base an Iraqi Air Force base occupied by US troops from 2003-2011, at which time it was named Joint Base Balad. The site of the largest burn pit (10 acres), several tons of waste was burned each day until 2008. Annotated by a US Army veteran stationed at Balad from 2005-2006, the red circle outlines the pit and the blue, the housing quarters located downwind from the pit. The proximity of sleeping and living quarters to the burn pits is an often cited metric in claims of exposure by both veterans and environmental scientists.

Waiting room four chairs

Created Image: Waiting as Method

"You wouldn’t think I was retired the amount of time I spend at the VA. Part of it is the turnover they have. No one wants to treat us, especially the older guys. We spend forever waiting for an appointment, and then a follow-up and then the moment you mention something involving Agent Orange it’s like they lose your file." --J, Vietnam Veteran

“I probably  had a relatively normal relationship with my children compared to most of the guys here.  I knew about the connections between AO and birth defects but we thought we were in the clear because none of my children seemed to have any effects. But my granddaughter was born without any legs, and we’re now thinking that two of my daughters' thyroid and  fertility issues might be related.” --G, Vietnam Veteran

Patients, particularly those with chronic disease conditions, spend extensive periods of time waiting. Waiting for appointments, waiting for test results, waiting for insurance approvals, waiting for symptoms, the waiting room is a physical instantiation of these waiting practices, where a diagnostic liminality is quite literally embodied. For toxic subjects who have known or presumed exposure, waiting also takes on complicated political and social dimmensions in the wait for science and the wait for recognition. 

In my research, I spend a significant time in waiting rooms, from conducting formal interviews with families in between appointments and treatment, to accompanying my interlocutors to their appointments, to my formal roles as a victim advocate. While medical anthropology devotes significant time and space to the study of the clinical interaction, I am particularly interested in how meaning is made in those interstitial times and places patients occupy when moving between the houses of formally recognized expertise.

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A polaroid photo with the words "toxic capture" written over top

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Created date

November 8, 2018