“Don't you know that you’re toxic?”

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“Don't you know that you’re toxic?”

Mel Y. Chen talks about race, toxicity, and intimacy

by Karli June Cerankowski on Tuesday, April 9, 2013 - 11:23am

Lit cigaretteImagine you are walking down the street on a clear, sunny day. Your body feels well. You enjoy the fresh air and the ability to stroll about on foot.  But you must stay ever alert as you scan oncoming pedestrians for any indication that they may be wearing perfume or smoking a cigarette. Just one whiff of these toxic fumes can be disabling. You see a group approaching, but it is too late. The cigarette, the cologne – they overwhelm your neurological system and they tax your liver. You make it home where you lie on the couch, unable to rise, touch, or speak. You must simply wait for the toxic period to pass.

For most people, this may seem like an unlikely, perhaps even unthinkable, event. But for people with multiple chemical sensitivity, it is a very real part of everyday life. Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies Mel Y. Chen narrates moments of dealing with multiple chemical sensitivity in Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect. In this work, Chen invites readers to rethink our own bodily permeability, the ways we consume and are consumed by others, and the hierarchies we create around disability. Elsewhere in the book, Chen considers similar hierarchies around race, gender, and sexuality.

Animacies probes questions of social and environmental justice “that are deeply aligned with humans but also other creatures and maybe even non-creatures.”

Chen recently sat down with members of the Feminist and Queer Book Salon to discuss Animacies. The book, says Chen, probes questions of social and environmental justice “that are deeply aligned with humans but also other creatures and maybe even non-creatures.” According to Chen, these non-creatures include the molecules and chemicals that permeate our everyday life, even the couch where Chen finds respite during those toxic periods due to chemical exposure. 

“The reach of biopolitics seems to be compellingly moving beyond questions of living beings. What if we were to take that very seriously? How do we take these non-living things into account?”  In other words, Chen asks the reader to examine ways of relating to both the living and the non-living, including the basic molecules that compose the scents we spray on our skin, the exhaust we inhale from passing vehicles, the objects we furnish our lives with, and the minerals that make up the earth we walk on.

The meaning of "animacy" and the uses of language

Animacies book coverTrained as a linguist, Chen begins with the constructions of language in order to explore how the molecules in a spray of perfume can seemingly take on a life of their own, or how inanimate objects can suddenly seem so alive. Chen explains this occurrence using the linguistic concept of “animacy,” which refers to the sentience (or "aliveness") of nouns in the grammatical sense.

To show how animacy works, Chen offers the phrase “The hikers that rocks crush.” The average English speaker will have difficulty making sense of this sentence upon first read because “hikers” are usually more animated — or considered more alive — than “rocks.” Most people will want to switch the sentence around to give the hikers the active agency, such as, “the hikers who crushed the rocks”—instead of thinking about rocks as an animated object. This tendency comes from inherently privileging “hikers” as a noun with more liveness—or animacy—than rocks.

According to Chen, language has real-world effects because it’s through language that we learn to value things with more sentience. Animacies reveal the hierarchies we form based on sentience, where there is a “naturalized logic where able-bodied maleness is at the top,” Chen explains.

Language has real-world effects because it’s through language that we learn to value things with more sentience.

It is a logic, says Chen, that places certain humans, such as people of color, women, queers, and the disabled, closer to nonhuman animals or plants.

One example of this logic includes the history of slavery in the United States in which African and African American people were often treated like work animals. Another example is the popular tendency to refer to people with brain trauma as “vegetables” or as being in a “vegetative state.”  

Animating metals

The animated language of toxicity pervades our culture—even pop singer Britney Spears takes part, as her lyrics ask us "Don't you know that you're toxic?" The word “toxic” spans multiple meanings.  Those meanings come together in a hierarchy that affects how bodies that are deemed toxic are governed, such that toxicity is viewed as a problem of non-white Others, according to Chen.

Vintage can of Dutch Boy lead paintIn the final section of the book, Chen discusses metals, such as lead and mercury, which are known to have toxic effects on the human body. The book shows how these metals not only gain animacy through their toxic connotations, but also how racial hierarchies are created around the treatment of these toxic metals.

For example, Chen points to the 2007 “lead panic” in the United States, during which fear and suspicion circulated around Chinese-manufactured products. Chen explains that during this panic, lead—an inanimate metal—became racially animated through representations of China as a threat to United States livelihood and as a country terrorizing American babies with poison toys. This panic led to a discourse of protecting the middle-class white child from toxic Chinese lead. This discourse was ironic, considering that children of color, specifically African American children, and poor and working-class children, are routinely exposed to lead in the paint on the walls in public housing projects in the United States.

Lead, says Chen, is not the only metal that can become animated. In the final chapter of the book, Chen tells a personal story of experiencing mercury poisoning, which resulted in multiple chemical sensitivity—toxic reactions to scents and other airborne chemicals. Chen probes mercury’s toxic effects to offer new ways for thinking about intimacy.

Toxic intimacies

The movement of heavy metals at the molecular level reveals how porous and permeable we are. Chen’s experiences with the toxic ramifications of mercury exposure led to an understanding of how our bodies are constantly exchanging molecules through breath and touch.

"When physically copresent with others, I ingest them,” Chen said. “There is nothing fanciful about this. I am ingesting their exhaled air, their sloughed skin, and the skin of the tables, chairs, and carpet of our shared room."

"When physically copresent with others, I ingest them. There is nothing fanciful about this. I am ingesting their exhaled air, their sloughed skin, and the skin of the tables, chairs, and carpet of our shared room."

The myth that we all cherish of our neatly contained individuality, our separateness, is shattered.  We are bundles of molecules that are ever-moving and bonding with other molecules that move from other subjects and objects. In fact, the lines we draw between the living and the non-living, between subject and object are now up for question and revision.  We are constantly intimate with each other, with nonhuman animals, with furniture, with chemical elements in ways we may have never realized. 

This molecular intimacy really gives us pause to rethink our social hierarchies: how and why do we classify certain people, based on race, ability, gender, or sexuality, as more or less worthy? And how do these hierarchies affect how we treat non-human animals, plants, and inanimate objects? And vice versa: how does our treatment of non-human animals, plants, and objects perpetuate racist, ableist, sexist, and heterosexist categories?   

It gives you a lot more to think about the next time you reach for that spritz of perfume, brush shoulders with a stranger, or find comfort in the plush upholstery of your couch.


The book salon event was hosted by the Program in Feminist Studies and was co-sponsored by the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, and the LGBT Community Resources Center.


Mel ChenMel Y. Chen is Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of California, Berkeley and an affiliate of the Center for Race and Gender, the Science and Technology Studies Center, and the Institute for Cognitive and Behavioral Sciences. Chen is the author of “Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect.”


Karli CerankowskiKarli June Cerankowski is a PhD candidate in the Program in Modern Thought and Literature at Stanford University. She is a member of the Clayman Institute's Student Writing Team.