Review of Stacy Alaimo's Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self

Review of Stacy Alaimo's Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self

2011-09-14
Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self
Stacy Alaimo
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010

Beginning his review by reflecting on the book’s cover art, John Bruni speculates that a punk aesthetic runs throughout Alaimo’s posthuman environmentalism. Providing brief treatments of each chapter, he argues that the book’s trans-corporeal understanding of the relationship between bodies and places disrupts “the very heart of what we know about ourselves.”

Pay close attention to the book’s cover art, Fawaz AlOlaiwat’s “Toxic Girl.”The artwork can be viewed at http://fawazo.com/portfolio_mod/toxic-girl/ A tattooed female with rifle belts across her chest glares at us, a figure rendered in hot pink and set against a lime green background. It reminds me of the cover art of a punk rock record, angry and apocalyptic. Perhaps, even, a comment on how environmentalists might embrace a punk aesthetic: a loud and noisy negation of the overly positive thinking pumped out by the advertising industry that encourages us to “feel good” by over-consuming, to the eventual detriment of the planet and ourselves. Punk rock, after all, has long been (in)famous for offering resistance to dominant cultural values in as shocking a manner as possible, by satirically celebrating disposability and trash in consumer society, by providing vitriolic commentary on the ways that self- and environmental destruction go hand in hand.

Apparently, the book’s cover has a similar effect. Seeing it on my desk amidst a pile of (yet to be graded) student papers, a colleague remarked that the artwork disturbed her. And I think that is the intent, for the cover to depict Stacy Alaimo’s provocative thesis: the “traffic in toxins” can - and must - change our thinking about bodies (human and non-human) and the environments they inhabit (18).

Just as punk rock’s D.I.Y. ethos, moreover, collapses distinctions between performer and audience, Alaimo questions the separation of theory and practice. What has been for me a welcome development, ecocritics moving towards, rather than away from, theoretical models of an environmental ethics, is taken up in the book with admirable force and energy, as she shows why the theories of Karen Barad and Ulrich Beck are crucial for enabling environmental activism.

Barad proposes that there is not a subject, endowed with agency, set apart from the environment; rather, her insistence that matter itself is active, not passive, denotes an “agential” material world where “things, as such, do not precede their intra-actions” (21). Beck suggests that we all live in a “risk society” where the absolute probability of harm to us cannot be easily calculated. The implications of Barad and Beck’s theories for an environmental ethics unwind over the course of the book. It seems to me that Alaimo reads Barad and Beck in quite opposite (but equally thoughtful) ways. Barad’s complicated ideas about materiality, it turns out, have rather simple, but significant consequences, for, due to what Alaimo calls trans-corporeality, human bodies and non-human natures are open to one another - thus what we do to the environment (such as pollute the soil, water, and air), we do to ourselves. Conversely, her innovative reading of Beck’s risk society, an idea somewhat easier to grasp, develops into a complex critique of scientific/cultural knowledge production. As part of her critique, she instigates an important conversation about what the idea of environmental justice really is - and what it can be. If we are not sure to what degree what we do to the environment harms us, how can we develop a tenable ethical stance, much less a plan for political, social, and/or legal action against environmentally irresponsible corporations? How do we address the paradox that while all are at risk, some are at more risk (for example, due to environmental racism, that is, the failure to address the disparate exposure of minority communities to toxins) than others?

Such questions, in concert with the image of Toxic Girl and trans-corporeality, do more than usefully shake up our complacency (as if we still had that) about environmental issues; they strike at the very heart of what we know about ourselves. Alaimo elaborates,

[T]he pursuit of self-knowledge, which has been a personal philosophical, psychological, or discursive matter, now extends into a rather ‘scientific’ investigation into the constitution of our coextensive environments. Science, however, offers no steady ground, as the information may be biased, incomplete, or opaque and the ostensible object of scientific inquiry-the material world-is extremely complex, overwrought with agencies, and ever emergent. (20)

From her perspective, bodies can neither be reduced to discursive constructions, nor essential(ist) “beings.” Her introductory chapter pressures the inability to take seriously the natural environment as matter(ing), which, as she points out, is endemic to feminist theory and its influence on cultural studies, for, “feminist theory’s most revolutionary concept - the concept of gender, as distinct from biological sex - is predicated upon a sharp opposition of nature and culture” (5). She finds that even more recent “models of materiality” nevertheless may reinstall the division between humans and non-human natures (9). That bodies are active matter and do not exist before or beyond the material relations with their environments comprises the starting point for the book’s analysis of the literature, science, and popular culture of late-twentieth-century environmental health and justice movements.

Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins’s “proletarian lung” is a striking example of trans-corporeality that defines how bodies, and their parts, are historically connected to the social realm. Under the modern regime of capitalism, Alaimo insightfully points out, workers do “possess” their own bodies, and, yet, their bodies become displaced through the struggle of making visible the physical signs of their oppression, as they become subject to the gaze of “experts in medicine, law, ‘industrial hygiene,’ occupational health, insurance claims, and union organizing” (28). The second chapter, “Eros and X-rays,” focuses on Meridel Le Sueur’s writings and Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead, tracing the repressive political control over nature and labor and the subsequent beginnings of the environmental justice movement in the early twentieth century. Alaimo examines Le Sueur’s working-class politics through recurring images of humans joined with the earth as a critique of and resistance to capitalist exploitation. While she notes Le Sueur’s challenge to gender tropes in her vision of a masculine nature and feminine desire, Alaimo comments that Le Sueur’s “enthusiasm for a kind of maternal, proletarian vitality betrays exactly the sort of essentialism that mires the (reproductive) female body within the relentless fecundity of nature” (38). That said, Alaimo’s close reading of Le Sueur’s article, “Women Know a Lot of Things,” extends the power of the proletarian lung to transform the female body into a biological newspaper where the rise and fall of wheat on the stock market can be read: an instance of a direct engagement with matter.

The difference between Le Sueur and Rukeyser is that, for the former, interactions between workers and the environment are positive, and their imprints are easily recognizable on bodies; for the latter, the case is the opposite. Rukeyser’s poem sequence addresses the 1930 Hawk’s Nest tunnel tragedy in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, where workers, mostly African-American migrants, without their knowledge or approval, were exposed to silica dust. The scandal, whereby an unknown number of workers died from silicosis of the lungs, was covered up for eighteen months, the workers and their survivors never receiving relief or compensation even after national hearings.What intensifies the scandal, from an environmental activist view, is that the tunnel was a crucial part of a “dam that would not provide electricity for local people but instead power the electrometallurgical complex in the town of Alloy,” a town that Union Carbide, the company that instigated the project, “owned” (45). Experimental in style, incorporating “scientific, medical, and legal evidence,” the poems show how medical technology, in particular, the use of X-rays, could be used to both discriminate against workers (by dismissing those who were diagnosed with silicosis) and provide evidence for their court cases (45). As Alaimo explains, the negative effects of trans-corporeality are staged in a landscape of widespread risk, yet she sees an opposition between human justice and environmental justice: The Book of the Dead remains unconcerned about the non-human animals affected by the construction.

Currently, risk society is underscored by how environmental activists move beyond “everyday” knowledge bases to appropriating sophisticated technologies and sciences for detecting “invisible” environmental hazards such as toxins and radioactivity. Throughout the book, we glimpse how risk promotes the crossing of disciplinary and institutional barriers. As science edges closer to social activism, this crossing, Alaimo writes, questions that science is an “objective, separate sphere of knowledge making” and provides “an opportunity to transform science into something more accountable, more just, and more democratic” (65).

The book’s third chapter, “Invisible Matters,” looks at literary and activist narratives that dramatize the transformation of science. Alaimo views realistically the challenges activists face; as she puts it earlier, “there is a pervasive sense of disconnection that casts ‘environmental issues’ as containable, eccentric, dismissible topics” (16). She brings out how novels, such as Percival Endicott’s Watershed and Ana Castillo’s So Far from God, memorably raise the stakes for debates about environmental health and justice. Structured both as an “environmental justice mystery” and a western, with a standoff at the end between the FBI and Native Americans, Watershed features David Hawks, a black hydrologist, who discovers that a polluted creek endangers a Native American community (65). He then becomes an activist, which links him with his grandfather, a physician who secretly treated a Black Panther’s gunshot wound: “Hawk’s rather solitary, scientific, yet physically heroic action - he escapes from the armed standoff, hiking through the mountains to deliver evidence of the crime to an environmental organization - echoes the solitary heroic acts of his grandfather” (67). The postmodern narrative, full of random disruptions, stages the “real” danger, a secret U.S. army anthrax dump, as unexpected, yet implying the threat has been there all along. As Alaimo comments, Hawks therefore has likely been exposed to anthrax in a “landscape of trans-corporeality, where people and place are substantially interconnected” (68). Non-human animals also figure into the landscape: seeing a dead elk just before finding the dump, Hawks dreams of becoming that elk and connects with its suffering. Thinking about the anthrax that might be in his own blood impels us to consider the larger associations among blood as an image of racial identity, as a historic marker of racial discrimination (Endicott references the syphilis experiments on black men in Tuskegee), as a signifier of violence and environmental racism.

Like the narrative disruption in Watershed staged by the anthrax dump, in So Far from God, the treatment of Fe’s death departs from the novel’s magical realism (she is not resurrected, like her sisters, and vanishes from the story). While her husband comically starts making a sheep-like noise (a trans-corporeal indicator of the family heritage as sheepherders), Fe chases the capitalist dream in industrial society, gets promoted for her work ethic, and dies from cancer caused by unknowingly handling toxic chemicals (but not before solving the “mystery” of why she is dying). Her tragedy is treated as environmental injustice rather than as an industrial accident, because like magical realism (which is both real and unreal), so is envisioning risk. And, like Hawks, Fe undertakes environmental detective work to determine that the risk has been there all along, but, unlike Hawks, she has potentially harmed the environment by pouring the chemicals down the drain, which more than likely has polluted the community water supply.

By now, we realize that risk is both socially complex and intensely personal. Yet the tendency persists to view risk as exclusively a matter of self-survival. Take, for example, “green living” campaigns which, in reality, hold people “responsible for threats they cannot possibly subdue” (92).5 The fourth chapter, “Material Memoirs,” looks at those who write about health threats, from their own experiences, in order to make a collective call for environmental activism. Alaimo’s discussion of Sandra Steingraber’s Living Downstream: A Scientist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment sheds light on the difficulty of becoming a “citizen-expert,” for, even as a scientist, Steingraber finds it arduous to glean “reliable scientific data” from mountains of documents (97). To Alaimo, self-determining how toxins in the body got there, by, say, visiting a dairy farm is not a “look back toward origins”; instead, it is an avowal of “an environmental ethic that understands world and self to be coextensive” (98). This avowal, though, admits the difficulty of establishing a one to one correspondence between toxin(s) and disease, because bodies are so interconnected with their environments. The desire to be “knowers” rather than “objects of knowledge” separates writers, such as Steingraber, from the mass media versions of material memoirs: citing the environmentalist theme in the October 2006 issue of National Geographic, Alaimo observes a disturbing passivity in the portrayal of those affected by toxic chemicals in economically impoverished and politically disempowered regions (107-09).

Detailed in the fifth chapter, “Deviant Agents,” the effort to remain an active knower is the most challenged in the controversial case of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), because what it is and how it might be contacted has been hotly contested. While here the uncertainty of risk reaches the highest levels, MCS, as Alaimo reminds us, forcefully depicts trans-corporeality, since “chemically reactive people” suggest that “material entanglements-no matter how small or seemingly benign” should be taken into account (130). For instance, she references Jacob B. Berkson’s A Canary’s Tale, a self-published account of struggling with MCS, that depicts a shared environmental relationship with insects targeted by pesticides.Alaimo points out that accounts of MCS are disseminated by non-traditional media outlets, since companies, such as pesticide manufacturers, that are complicit in environmental illness cases, have lobbied to restrict the spread of information about MCS through more mainstream channels. Alaimo’s nuanced analysis of Todd Hayne’s Safe revisits her critique of environmental self-reliance, exposing “the New Age psychobabble in which patients are led to blame themselves-not the toxins, not the lax government regulations, not the industries-for their illness” (137). Rather than self-help platitudes, the film promotes the “deviant agency” of “lived” bodies that differs from “both the ableist norms of the dominant culture and the New Age spiritualism of the Wrenwood subculture” (138).

According to Alaimo, the prior chapters in the book “dramatize that one of the central problematics of trans-corporeality is contending with dangerous, often imperceptible material agencies” (146). The final-and most intriguing-chapter posits that, viewed in a more favorable light, material agencies are crucial for setting the latest incarnation of the trans-corporeal, the posthuman, against “genetic fetishism,” a belief in “techno-scientific mastery of all life forms” (150). To support her critique of genetic engineering as a catch-all remedy for environmental risk, she demonstrates how Greg Bear’s science fiction novels, Darwin’s Radio and Darwin’s Children, downplay the gene as a universal determinant of life, instead wrapping within their narratives multiple (and competing) origin stories that feature a proto-Darwinist human ancestor, the role of non-human bacteria in creating life, and a mysterious SHEVA virus that creates a new posthuman species, “virus children,” through female human bodies. The novels project Alaimo’s discussion into a speculative future, where now there is incontrovertible evidence that “humans are always already ‘other’ ” (155), our alien-ation performed through the enfolding of “various ‘natures’ within the human” (156).

Re-viewing the book’s cover, Toxic Girl seems to me a close relative of Bear’s “virus children,” who lead the way for “an ethics that is not circumscribed by the human but is instead accountable to a material world that is never merely an external place but always the very substance of our selves and others” (158). What Alaimo calls a “posthuman environmental ethics” resonates with Cary Wolfe’s proposal for the academic rethinking of our shared relationships with nonhuman animals: “one can engage in a humanist or posthumanist practice of a discipline, and that fact is crucial to what a discipline can contribute to the field of animal studies” (123). As Alaimo convincingly argues, to make the posthuman matter, in/as disciplinary practice, requires us to make matter matter. It requires us to regard the idea of our being alone in the universe as nothing short of delusional.

Works Cited

Wolfe, Cary. What Is Posthumanism? Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2010. Print.