What are the symptoms of toxicity and how are they named (or not)?


Enter a comma separated list of user names.
Monique Azzara's picture
February 9, 2020
In response to:

The symptom of toxicity in the archive begins with exclusion which produces gaps and emptiness. The overrepresentation of particular people and ideas are utilized to create history through a bias lens, imposing a kind of toxic violence.

February 3, 2020

In our work as social scientists, as well as in common discourse, the word toxic is applied to a wide variety of phenomena from chemicals and venoms, to viruses and bacteria, to affects, relationships, and forms of masculinity, etc. If we are seeking a clearer understanding of toxicity, it makes sense to me to ask what each of these applications have in common. That is, what is the "transcontextual syndrome," to borrow Bateson's term, that enables the analytic purchase of this widely applicable metaphor?

Although Gregory Bateson was not thinking in terms of toxics when he developed his theory of schismogenesis, this framework is helpful for understanding some of the more stubborn and bewildering qualities of toxicity. In his essay "Cultural Contact and Schismogenesis" Bateson identifies his goal as "to cover the conditions of differentiation inside a single culture [and] to use our knowledge of these quiescent states to throw light upon the factors which are at work in states of disequilibrium" (1973, 74).

Bateson begins by qualifying the terms "culture" and "contact." Rather than focus on cultural bounded wholes, he approaches them as composed of internal subgroups. Thus, "contact" happens across cultures as well as within them "between the sexes, between old and young, between aristocracy and plebs, between clans, etc., groups which live together in approximate equilibrium. I would even extend the idea of 'contact' so widely as to include those processes whereby a child is molded and trained to fit the culture into which he was born" (Bateson 1973, 74). These groups or units of analysis are identified by sets of relations that Bateson describes as 5 types of unity: structural, affective, economic, chronological and spatial, and sociological.

Having these terms defined, Bateson then proceeds to identify two types of differentiation (Symmetrical and Complementary) that, if left unchecked, become progressive in ways that result in system breakdown or reconstruction. Note his examples of these two forms:

Symmetrical: we shall see that there is a Iikelihood, if boasting is the reply to boasting, that each group will drive the other into excessive emphasis of the pattern, a process which if not restrained can only lead to more and more extreme rivalry and ultimately to hostility and the breakdown of the whole system.

Complementary: If, for example, the series, O,P,Q includes patterns culturally regarded as assertive, while U,V,W includes cultural submissiveness, it is likely that submissiveness will promote further assertiveness which in turn will promote further submissiveness. This schismogenesis, unless it is restrained, leads to a progressive unilateral distortion of the personalities of the members of both groups, which results in mutual hostility between them and must end in the break-down of the system.

To bring this conversation back to our terms, I believe it is safe to say that the term "toxicity" implies a certain set of assumptions that are explicated here by Bateson.

Number one, "toxicity" implies a given system of relations of unity or, at the very least, the potential for such a system to form that is, shall we say, "healthy"  or ontogenetic. Bateson uses the term equilibrium, but this implies a level of closure that I am uncomfortable with. Thus, I prefer the concept of "ontogenesis," which signifies differentiation with continuity, or simply "growth." This concept is much more amenable to ethnography as it enables thinking in terms of "open systems" (See Ethnography In/As/Of Open Systems (Fortun 2002)). Secondly, it also necessarily implies contact, or a relation between this system and an agent that is defined as external to the system. Or, in other words, an agent that does not share these relations of unity. It need not matter whether this external agent be one or many, inorganic or organic. Third, this relation between the external agent and the system must be progressively disruptive to the unifying relations of that system in a way that resembles complementary or symmetrical schismogenesis. Or, alternatively, it must serve as an obstruction to the development of a unified system.

Monique Azzara's picture
February 2, 2020

The author argues that toxics are akin to the “subaltern.” Toxics resists “representation, narration and generalization,” and are rendered illegible through the logics of industrial culture. Toxics resist explanation through binary oppositions, they are constantly changing and unstable, there are differences in the ways people respond to toxics, and toxics are not always visible. Toxics are what industrial culture ignores. Toxics demand a shift in the way science is practiced and conceived, rather than being dependent on essentialist views in which objects have inherent and stable meanings.  

Tim Schütz's picture
February 2, 2020

The work highlights the easily overlooked "social and psychological impacts" of the nuclear disaster. His photo essay documents "the personal, embodied, and everyday perspective" of people facing toxic conditions at the edge of the zone. Participants in his used disposable cameras to picture the mundane forms of toxicity they live in. Hence, it builds on a classic move: people are offered the ability to diagnose the symptoms of their own condition.

In a related article, he uses "double exposure" as a name for  the specific form of toxicity that people living in zone endure. According to him, they "have been exposed twice: once to radiation and again to a state that fails to protect or adequately help them. Liquidators, for example, have fallen victim to this ‘double exposure’. Not only have they faced very dangerous levels of radiation, but they were then forced to falsify their documents with the result that today they cannot." 

He concludes that the power to visualize and name toxicity in Chernobyl relies only partially with the state:

"The state, with its technology and processes of “nuclearity” has the power to “see” the harmful radiation and make it (in)visible, and yet it fails to (or chooses not to) recognize the informal economic activity that occurs in Chernobyl’s forgotten borderlands. The marginalized, meanwhile, who have suffered the indignity of ‘double exposure’––subvert the deindustrial Exclusion Zone, using hidden spaces of resistance and local understandings of radiation risk to survive from day to day. They remain unable to officially ‘see’ harmful radiation, relying instead on a privileged sense of place and local knowledge to come to terms with a threat that remains in “everything you can touch, that you can see, that you can feel.” Both the state and those it has marginalized have only a partial view."

Tim Schütz's picture
February 2, 2020

Southern Louisiana has the highest concentration of petrochemical companies in the US. According to the 2003 article, the state accounts for at least one-fourth of production, known to be "cheap, accessible, and welcoming" to companies (227). Due to alarming health consequences, the region is fairly well known as "Cancer Alley", a term invented by environmental justice activists. These are straightforward symptoms of toxicity.

The author analyzes "toxic tours", organized excursions by environmental justice groups that take outsides to sites of environmental harm. She argues that such tours not only create ironic resemblances with the local tourism industry but have the power to the sites into places of public concern. To achieve this toxicity and its places need to be "sacralized" through "naming, framing/elevation, enshrinement, mechanical reproduction, and social reproduction" (229). 

She concludes: "toxic tours in general can move activists both on and off the bus closer together, flooding our cultural memories with what is left to be done when we (re)build our communities, contest official tourist histories, and recognize the worth of joining the movement for environmental justice." (247)

Isabelle Soifer's picture
January 30, 2020
In response to:

"We are all Flint." Toxicity is generalized, spoken of as an issue impacting everyone equally. Much like "All Lives Matter," it presumes that toxicity has consequences for all who drink water. This statement is professionalized: according to doctors, journalists, and activisits, lead is an ongoing presence in everyday lives of all Americans, especially in older cities. Yet this discounts the fact that America is a place built on enduring racial and economic inequalities. This statement elides the toxicity embedded in the lives of some groups of people more so than others, whether it's via housing or other infrastructural and environmental factors. As Fennell argues, such a statement "blunt[s] any serious criticism of those inequalities by diluting them in a wash of misdirected solidarity...it's whitewash." Narratives aimed as solidarity regarding toxicity are in themselves toxic. And they ignore the other risks that certain groups of people are exposed to via other toxic infrastructures, including housing. The issue of toxic housing is invisibilized due its not being percieved as a collective good, and thus does not get nearly as much widespread attention. Housing is considered a responsibility of the individual, and thus a publics cannot make demands on that which is not centrally administered (like water). The symptom is higher rates of childhood lead poisoning, and the silencing of the toxics that render such rates higher in the first place.