Toxicity at the Interstices


interstice [ in-tur-stis ]


1. an intervening space.
2. a small or narrow space or interval between things or parts, especially when one of a series of alternating uniform spaces and parts:the interstices between the slats of a fence.
3. Roman Catholic Churchthe interval of time that must elapse, as required by canon law, before promotion to a higher degree of orders.
4. an interval of time.
      This essay examines forms of toxicity located at interstitial places, broadly conceived. Interstitial spaces are those located between structures: in the body, these are the spaces left forgotten until they are met with excess of fluid or aberrant cellular activity; in architecture, these are the spaces built into hospitals and laboratories to accommodate physical infrastructure; interstitial art is that which is situated between genres. The interstitial defies convention and representation.
     Toxics are characterized by their pervasiveness, their permeability, their ability to lurk in these in-between places. These images look to the interstitial--bodily, architecturally, temporally, conceptually--in order to illustrate how the challenge of pinning down place produces particular challenges in apprehending military toxic exposures.  
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Bodily Interstices

In this image, cellular interstitial space is represented via the negative--the space around the blood vessel and proteins diffusing across the cellular membrane. While recently lauded as the "newfound organ" (Benias et al. 2018), the interstitium--the contiguous fluid-filled space connected by a protein lattice--remains elusive. Characterized by its inbetweenness, the interstitial is located relative to its location to other, more material structures. In its relative immateriality, the interstitial is understood only through its ability to be filled with excess fluid or pathogenic cells. For U.S. veterans exposed to burn pits--large pits used on U.S. military bases to burn war-related waste using jet fuel--interstitial lung diseases are common, though still poorly understood. 

Benias, Petros C., Rebecca G. Wells, Bridget Sackey-Aboagye, Heather Klavan, Jason Reidy, Darren Buonocore, Markus Miranda et al. "Structure and distribution of an unrecognized interstitium in human tissues." Scientific reports 8, no. 1 (2018): 1-8.

Third Spacing

It is that Third Space, though unrepresentable in itself, which constitutes the discursive conditions of enunciation that ensure that the meaning and symbols of culture have no primordial unity or fixity; that even the same signs can be appropriated, translated, rehistoricized, and read anew

Homi Bhabha (1994, 37)

"Third spacing" is a clinical term used to describe the abnormal movement of fluid from intracellular to interstitial spaces, commonly associated with burns or edema. When this fluid shift occurs, the body can experience hypovolemic shock, which is further complicated by the ways the fluid loss proves difficult to quantify as these interstitial spaces can accommodate incredible volumes of fluid. Like the Third Space in postcolonial studies, corporeal third spacing defies representation. As depicted in this image, in order to "see" the third space, the body must be altered to a state of unrecognizability; even then, in these depictions it remains unclear what the interstitial is, represented through the blankness between material structures.  

Bhabha, H. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge, 1994, p. 37.

Euliano, T. Y., J. S. Gravenstein, N. Gravenstein, and D. Gravenstein. 2011. Essential Anesthesia: From Science to Practice. Cambridge University Press, p. 34.

"Ward in the Hospital in Arles" van Gogh (1889)

In hospitals and laboratories, interstitial spaces are spaces designed adjacent to regular-use floors to contain mechanical infrastructure. Designing these as separate spaces allows for the possibility for rearrangement of regular-use floors (e.g. turning patient rooms into operating theaters) and allows for infrastructural maintenance to be completed without interruption of patient care. But hospital interstices, I argue, are found beyond those formally demarcated by architects and hospital engineers. The interstices, as depicted in van Gogh's 1889 painting, are sites of intense engagement between patients, practitioners, and families. They are the hallways and waiting rooms and storage closets. While the "cell" of the patient room is often imagined as the center of care, the hospital corridors are often where the most important consultation and communication takes place. These are spaces of fluidity: where specialty and hierarchy bleed, where patients--waiting for their formal admittance into a cell--dwell, often unaccounted. 

"Ordination and First Mass of St. John of Matha" Carducho

Interstices, in Roman Catholicism, are periods of time required by Church law between grades of Holy Orders. Under particular circumstances, a bishop may shorten the period, though it typical lasts for three months, sometimes longer. 

Interstitial time can obscure recognition of toxicity. For both clergy and soldiers, interstitial time (between Holy Orders, between deployments) are built into practice as protective mechanisms in order to ensure the subject is "ready" for the next stage of their service. Yet, during interstitial periods, the body often becomes dislocated from the site of toxicity. Once toxicity is recognized, it becomes difficult to apprehend without colocation of the body. 


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Ward of Arles Hospital by Vincent van Gogh


Created date

February 29, 2020