Finding the Human in "the messy, contingent, emergent mix of the material world": Embodiment, Place, and Materiality in Stacy Alaimo's Bodily Natures

Finding the Human in "the messy, contingent, emergent mix of the material world": Embodiment, Place, and Materiality in Stacy Alaimo's Bodily Natures

Veronica Vold
Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self
Stacy Alaimo
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010

In this review Veronica Vold charts the posthuman environmental ethic in Stacy Alaimo’s Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self and notes how the text draws together issues of race, (dis)ability, and the environment in a way that disrupts the boundaries between bodies and places.

Stacy Alaimo’s Bodily Natures articulates a vigorous posthuman environmental ethic for negotiating the dangers of our 21st century risk society. Building on the risk theory of Ulrich Beck, the “intra-active” vision of material life developed by Karen Barad, and models of academic hybridity advanced by Bruno Latour, Bodily Natures poses an optimistic intervention in the field of toxic discourse by analyzing critical entanglements of body and place. Alaimo’s ultimate achievement is the synthesis of so many diverse, yet mutually reliant fields in her pursuit of what it means to be human when risks to the body are inseparable from risks to the environments around it. Theories of the embodiment as explored in ecofeminism, science studies, and disability studies each contribute to Alaimo’s central theoretical tool of trans-corporality, a concept that recognizes the perpetual flow between the body and the active materiality of place. When microscopic toxins collect in the lungs of migrant African-American workers and in the West Virginian air, and run in the blood of well-heeled white housewives and in the roots of their suburban lawns, traditional assumptions of the human as separate and closed off from nature no longer hold. Analyzing trans-corporeal bodies and places as represented in early 20th century erotic poetry, civil rights histories, environmental histories, memoir, photography, film, fiction, and environmental justice literature, Alaimo shows that humanity and nonhuman nature are in fact coextensive: “the human is always the very stuff of the messy, contingent, emergent mix of the material world” (11). Alaimo argues that conceptualizing the human as embedded within a dynamic, reciprocal relationship with nonhuman nature enables readers to develop ethical positions on environmental problems that require new methods of holding political systems accountable for toxic exposure. Bodily Natures convincingly demonstrates how scholars, activists, and ordinary experts might respond to environmental risks by recognizing the material agency of our own bodies caught up in the active enfolding of the world.

Bodily Natures extends Alaimo’s argument for a trans-corporeal ethic as put forth in her 2008 essay, “Trans-corporeal Feminisms and the Ethical Space of Nature.” In this earlier work, which first appeared in the collection, Material Feminisms, co-edited by Alaimo and Susan Hekman, Alaimo posits that “a material, trans-corporeal ethics would turn from the disembodied values and ideals of bounded individuals toward an attention to situated, evolving practices that have far-reaching and often unforeseen consequences for multiple peoples, species, and ecologies” (253). To loosen the idealized, bounded individual into a more realistic, permeable concept of the posthuman, “Trans-corporeal Feminisms” argues that feminism and environmental scholarship must work together to reject humanistic domination and mastery over human and nonhuman life. Trans-corporeality as explored in Bodily Natures deepens this interdisciplinary call as it “opens up a mobile space that acknowledges the often unpredictable and unwanted actions of human bodies, nonhuman creatures, ecological systems, chemical agents, and other actors” (Bodily Natures 2). Alaimo doesn’t mean for trans-corporeality to act as “some sort of rarefied, new theoretical invention,” but as a concept that works across traditionally separate fields to expose alliances between human and nonhuman life at risk from toxic exposure (3). Alaimo argues that a truly environmental trans-corporeal ethic must recognize the moral stakes of nonhuman animal life, as the ecological thinking of environmentalism rejects the sovereignty and closed individualism of traditional humanism. Trans-corporeality is thus both an imagining of the human as radically open to the concerns of nonhuman nature, as well as a theoretical position that enmeshes academic disciplines in advancing mutual environmental concerns.

Bodily Natures unfolds in six comprehensive chapters that offer close readings of trans-corporeality as it emerges in traditional and new media. Following the text’s introduction, which succinctly defines the critical stakes of interdisciplinary scholarship about environmental dangers in risk culture, Alaimo devotes two chapters to explore the tension between socially and materially discursive bodies, and the role science studies plays in shaping this tension. Bodily Natures thus joins the recent material turn in poststructuralist theory to account for the experience of the body as codeterminate with the social forces that construct human experience. Alaimo aims to show how textual performances of the trans-corporeal body inspire ethical action, and her persuasive readings of a range works from poetry to film to activist websites seek to endow social and linguistic theory with flesh. She contends that unless the body is understood as materially as well as socially constructed, feminist and critical race scholars bracket the political connections between peoples and places that might otherwise inspire us to resolve 21st century risks. Alaimo wants to reconfigure the valuable feminist axiom, “the personal is political,” as, “the political is not merely personal,” but always interrelated with all life (124). As her text ruptures “ordinary knowledge practices” and assumptions about the human being as a closed creature, Alaimo also aims to center her work firmly in the political discourse of environmental justice (17). By reframing the materiality of the human as codeterminate with social forces, Bodily Natures succeeds in defining the body’s materiality not as inert or formless matter, or the empty substance molded by social forces, but as an active and compelling force in its own right.

Alaimo argues that the racialized body, that is, the body as constructed by systems of language and the social superstructures that advance racial oppression, is codetermined by environmental factors that surround, permeate, and interact with the body. Following Latour’s argument that nature and culture, because they are at once joined and distinctive, are reciprocally transformative, Alaimo suggests that scholars must account for the trans-corporeal exchanges that shape the meaning of race, rather than exclusively focus on the effects of social forces. While pursuing social theories of the racial body is vital work, “environmental justice science, literature, and activism must to some degree focus on actual bodies, especially as they are transformed by their encounters with places, substances, and forces” (61). For Alaimo, socially discursive bodies are always already material, active and tangible. The meaning of race is sociobiological to the extent that environmental flows touch real skin and bone and tangibly damage human and environmental health, often disproportionately among people of color. To demonstrate how the materiality of racialized bodies participates in the larger toxic discourse of environmental concerns, Alaimo analyzes Muriel Rukeyser’s 1936 poem, “The Book of the Dead”, a work that folds “scientific, medical, and legal evidence into a literary form” (45). Rukeyser’s work exposes the “hazardous trans-corporeality” of the Hawk’s Nest Incident, in which a West Virginian construction firm exposed 3,000 African-American migrant workers to lethal amounts of silica dust (45). Alaimo argues that Rukeyser’s poem maps “an ontology in which the body of the worker, the river, the silica, the ‘natural,’ and the industrial environment are simultaneously material and social,” ultimately constituting a “trans-corporeal landscape” (48). By investigating trans-corporeality in Rukeyser’s work, Alaimo shows how the embodied data of toxicity lends itself to a trans-corporeal ethic. Rukeyser’s poem imagines the journey of microscopic glass as it fills and shreds African-American lungs and appears in autopsies of the dead that surviving families demand. Tracking and proving the movement of silica becomes key evidence in holding the construction firm accountable for failing to safeguard human health. Rukeyser enacts the interdisciplinary work of joining science and the humanities that Alaimo seeks to valorize in Bodily Natures as the poet weaves scientific ethos into her epic poem. By scrutinizing Rukeyser’s use of the scientific data of those injured and killed by the construction company’s neglect, Alaimo critiques the ethical uncertainty of using human bodies as ghastly monitors of toxic risks in industrial life. Alaimo’s analysis of an environmental racism that is as materially embodied as it is socially constructed allows her to put pressure on the scientific ethos that might hold larger political systems accountable for toxic exposure, a critique she deepens in subsequent chapters on fiction and memoir that explore environmental illness and toxic exposure.

Disability studies is deeply invested in the tension between socially discursive bodies and real material agency, and Alaimo assembles critical claims from prominent disability scholars to engage this tension in chapters on material memoir and environmental illness. Drawing on the scholarship of Rosemarie Garland-Thompson, Tobin Siebers, and Simi Linton, Alaimo argues that because disabled bodies contradict any purely social or material category, disability studies has much to offer a trans-corporeal environmental ethic. Alaimo cites Garland-Thompson’s definition of disability as the particular intersection of body and place to show how this definition of disability anticipates her own model of trans-corporeality: “Disability studies reminds us that all bodies are shaped by their environments from the moment of conception. We transform constantly in response to our surroundings and register history on our bodies. The changes that occur when body encounters world are what we call disability” (Garland-Thompson qtd in Bodily Natures 12). Yet while this clear resonance suggests promising correlation between disability studies and trans-corporeality, rather than elaborate on the significance of an environmental humanities that incorporates disability studies, Alaimo positions the correlation as a call for future interdisciplinary work. Bodily Natures particularizes the contribution trans-corporeality might make to disability studies in specific instances of memoir and first person narrative, yet Alaimo relies on broad strokes to show how “disability studies may be enriched by attending not only to the ways in which built environments constitute or exacerbate ‘disability,’ but to how materiality, at a less perceptible level - that of pharmaceuticals, xenobiotic chemicals, air pollution, etc. - affects human health and ability” (12). Indeed, this is Bodily Natures’ most unrelenting challenge to readers: Alaimo’s eloquent explanation for the need for more interdisciplinary scholarship often gestures toward further analysis of particular interdisciplinary relationships, such the relationship between the environmental humanities and disability studies, or the connection between animality and food studies, which often leaves us wanting more explicit and thorough conclusions. Yet the inspiration for further work validates the text’s rich accumulation of claims and questions. Bodily Natures throws a broad critical net, and invites passionate scholars to pursue more deeply the glittering analytical intersections caught in its ropes. Alaimo deliberately poses more complex questions than definitive answers about these intersections, demanding that readers enter the ethical debate that the risks of toxic discourse require.

While Alaimo most expressly discusses the creation of a posthuman environmental ethic in the text’s final chapter on Greg Bear’s science fiction, her strongest case for trans-corporeality as an ethical catalyst for environmental justice emerges in her critique of the traditional medical model of the body. Bear’s science fiction offers a meaningful model of trans-corporeality in that it evokes a posthuman life that may “suggest an environmental ethic that begins from the movement across - across time, across place, across species, across bodies, across scale - and reconfigures the human as a site of emergent material intra-actions inseparable from the very stuff of the rest of the world” (156). Yet Alaimo’s moving critique of the medical model of the body as it operates in memoir, autobiography, and in multi-media portraits of people living environmental illness offers a trans-corporeality that slides directly into the contemporary intra-actions between body and place. In these two chapters, Alaimo explores the origins of illness in the microenvironments of the body that flow with the life beyond the body, often resulting in confusing and unpredictable symptoms that confound accepted medical assumptions. Alaimo’s close readings of photography, film, and autobiography pose a vital resistance to the contemporary medical models of health as purely determined by one’s genes. In these fluid, generically diverse texts and images, a trans-corporeal posthuman ethic takes root that denies the fetishism of genetics and embraces the shared systems of reciprocity between all life.

For so many people living with environmental illness (EI) or multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), electronic literature provides vital resources about dangerous chemicals, their bodily effects, and their possible treatments that contemporary medical discourse fails to recognize. As “medical models of bounded human bodies make no sense for MCS, since the body is not separable from the environment,” everyday researchers dedicated to developing new models of the body must synthesize available information from mainstream medical discourse with alternative resources (124). These resources include online literatures that detail evidence of toxic risk, as well as print media like MCS autobiographies and first person accounts of EI. Such electronic literatures enact Alaimo’s ethic of trans-corporeality as these sites gather scientific, personal, and public data and experiences into new bodies knowledge that cross traditional disciplinary boundaries. For example, Alaimo shows how the informative site for PBS’s televised documentary about toxic exposure and human health, Trade Secrets, links to activist website Scorecard: The Pollution Information Website, which enables users to search for the presence of environmental toxins by zip code. The Trade Secrets website also links to a 37,000-page archive of chemical industry documents assembled by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a group that also operates the Human Toxome Project’s “Mapping the Pollution in People.” Links to this project provide users with a catalogue of particular toxicants found in human bodies all over the world. The project couples this chemical data with detailed portraits of real people who have tested positive for various toxicants and chemicals. Alaimo argues that such electronic literatures combine scientific data, medical narratives, and political calls to action to provide new practice of meaning-making for ordinary experts to use in the effort to remap the human body as coextensive with the rest of the world.

Bodily Natures is not only a strident appeal for interdisciplinary research in the environmental humanities; the text is a passionate call for principled engagement with the problems of environmental racism, environmental illness, and toxic exposure. Alaimo argues that because we are unable to predict, plot, or plan human health along neat categories of being, environmentally minded citizens and scholars must accept new methods of resolving risk that are overtly uncertain, partial, and collaborative. Her concept of trans-corporeality as an ethic aligns with Ulrich Beck’s claim that “the determination of risk is itself a form of ethics,” requiring the deliberate symbiosis of “everyday and expert rationality” (21). In its agile assessment of risks posed to human and nonhuman life using creative, hybridized strategies of academic engagement, Alaimo’s Bodily Natures explores the assembly of flows and exchanges between bodies and places that determine who humans are and who we might choose to be.

Works Cited

Alaimo, Stacy. “Trans-corporeal Feminisms and the Ethical Space of Nature.” Material Feminisms. Eds. Stacy Alaimo and Susan J. Hekman. Indiana UP, Bloomington IN: 2008. 237-64. Print.