Porous skins, digestive tracts, and pulmonary tissues trace a precarious border between human bodies and nonhuman natures. Like all geographic borders, this one is more permeable than it appears, and is regularly traversed by materials that are both biologically necessary (oxygen, food, water) and harmful (industrial chemicals, airborne particulates, viruses). Environmental justice scholars have long demonstrated that the more harmful exposures are unevenly distributed across social worlds, falling disproportionately on the shoulders of racialized, Indigenous, and poor communities. Yet at the same time, the very distinction between human and nonhuman bodies, and the liberal premise of the separate self, denies the metabolic inextricability of biological relations and risks violent disavowal of political communities that rest on unfamiliar intimacies—intimacies that may appear menacing, even toxic, within normative scientific orders, but that nonetheless mitigate harm. In the context of uneven environmental exposures and proliferating technoscientific “solutions,” where do we draw lines to distinguish between the embodied self and material natures, between noxious and nurturing intimacies? What are the political stakes of these decisions?
This conference examines the intimate entanglements of human and nonhuman natures in the context of everyday exposures to toxins in air, water, food, soil, and infrastructure. Environmental injustices are always intimate in that they leave material traces in the body, in forms such as reduced pulmonary capacity, dermatological lesions, and cancerous cells. Building on this embodied approach, this conference also explores the intimate ways that toxic matters and toxic knowledges are politically animated in everyday configurations of social life, as well as struggles over sovereignty, public space, and citizenship. How are toxic matters simultaneously remaking human bodies and emergent social formations? In the wake of exposure, how do communities condense around particular senses of what is harmful or healthful, and how do they remember or mobilize around shared histories of bodily subjection? How do technoscientific practices of containment, mobilized either to reduce harm or reduce social contestation, shape baselines for “safe” exposure and normalize specific typologies of harm? Working at the intersection between nature, science, and justice, this conference rethinks what politics can look like in the aftermath of embodied and place-based contamination.
This conference overlaps with a graduate seminar taught by Dr. Andrea Marston in Spring 2021 titled Nature, Technoscience, Justice. The students enrolled in the seminar are participating in the conference as moderators.
Artwork by Kae Yamane