Toxic Toxins by Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz

The starting point for our upcoming project, which we will realize at Les Laboratoires d'Aubervilliers, is the figure of the "toxic". There is a toxic threshold, a toxic load, and toxic waste, there are toxic agents, toxic doses, toxic effects, toxic substances, and toxic assets. Recent debates range from toxic flowers and toys over toxic assets of financial institutions, over the gulf catastrophe and Fukushima to drug use or obesity. Mel Y. Chen (2011) discusses how non-human materials are sexually and racially instantiated by building on the discourse of toxicity: lead for instance became recently racialized as Chinese, radioactivity and its endurance as Japanese. These debates around toxicity are, as Chen argues, most often employed to differentiate‒to sustain and produce hierarchies: people who consume toxic products from workers who produce those products, able bodies from non-able bodies, middle class bodies from working class bodies. The hierarchizing effects of toxins are installed through proximity: not only proximity between people and people, but also proximity between people and travelling/traded products or by-products.
The toxic seems to threaten the norm and normality. It shows the vulnerability of bodies, it disturbs the fantasy of autonomy and of ableism. It forestalls a bourgeois-heteronormative biography and lifestyle (such as the ability to raise children, to match the accepted rhythm of work load and leisure time, and to earn a sustaining income). Exposure to toxic substances is associated with inability to work, with no future, with cognitive delay, enhanced aggression, with allergies and cancer.

toxic toxins, aubervilliers 2011
Wild plants growing in the neighborhood of Fort d'Aubervilliers. The Fort is a former military warehouse and repository for uranium tests led by Pierre and Marie Curie © Pauline Boudry

But it seems that the ambiguity in the figure of the "toxic" is even more complex: a toxin could be a medicine, a so-called hard or soft drug, or a toxic waste. As a medicine a toxin might sustain health. In contrast you might be accused‒or accuse yourself‒of poisoning yourself, of elevating your toxic load, or of enhancing your lethargy and depression (by drinking alcohol, smoking marihuana, eating bad food...), instead of improving your readiness of mind, your happiness, your speed, fitness and health. Lauren Berlant (2007) thus argues that health can be a side-effect of successful normativity, while obesity (or drug use) might be the only form of agency possible under the pressure of a long working day and additional family work. Eating‒for instance‒could thus be an exercise that violates any definition of sovereign identity. Berlant sees eating as a kind of self-medication through self-interruption. It might be a fitting response to a stressful environment, like a family. It might also be part of being in a community organized through promises of comfort.
But the idea of securing the body against toxic substances is already built upon the notion of a previously abled body. For people who can’t or won’t connect their bodies to the idea of ableness (for different reasons such as racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, illness, lack of money to sustain health or to gain education, the desire to experiment with life and sexual concepts...), the body might be more vulnerable against toxic substances as well. Chen counters her critique of the racial and homophobic dimensions of the discourse of the toxic with her own anxieties and sensitivities against toxic substances:
"Some passenger cars whiz by; instinctively my body retracts and my corporeal-sensory vocabulary starts to kick back in. A few pedestrians cross my path and before they come near, I quickly assess whether they are likely (might be the "kind of people") to wear perfumes or colognes, or sunscreen. I scan their heads for smoke puffs or pursed lips prerelease; I scan their hands for a long white object, even a stub. In an instant, quicker than I thought anything could reach my liver and have it refuse, the liver screams hate, hate whose intensity each time shocks me. I am accustomed to this; the glancing scans kick in from habit whenever I am witnessing proximate human movement, and I have learned to prepare to be disappointed. This preparation for disappointment is something like the preparation for the feeling I would get as a young person when I looked, however glancingly, into the eyes of a racist passerby who expressed apparent disgust at my Asian off-gendered form."¹
Even if the body that can’t or won’t pass as able has to protect itself against toxic substances it is paradoxically identified with the toxic: "Suited up in both racial skin and chemical mask, I am perceived as a walking symbol of a contagious disease like SARS and am often met with some form of repulsive affect."² The condition of toxicity might not allow for an agency through enhanced drug use, but it could as well produce another very specific kind of "queer sociality": "a stasis, a waiting until it passes, a distance in the home as condition of humans living together."³

While Chen argues that toxic figures populate increasing ranges of environmental, social, and political discourses, the toxic seems to have been quite active since colonial times. Drugs such as coffee, tea, tobacco or opium and medicine were important products from the colonies. And there were also books or brochures warning the colonial emperors against the use of toxic substances by indigenous people. Sometimes toxic plants were planted close to watering places and after being thrown into the water the plants poisoned the water (and thus animals and humans who came to drink). There were settlers who were poisoned out of revenge when poisonous plants were put into their drinks and meals. Also their cattle was poisoned or the milk became toxic through rubbing the udders of cows with toxins.

- Mel Y. Chen (2011), "Toxic Animacies, Inanimate Affections", in GLQ 17:2-3, Duke University 2011, p. 265-286.
- Lauren Berlant (2007), "Slow Death (Sovereignty, Obesity, Lateral Agency)", in: Critical Inquiry 33 (Summer 2007), The University of Chicago, Chicago, p. 754-780.
- Golf Dornseif, "Giftmord und sonstige Kolonialkriminalität" (, November 13. 2011).

Text published in Le Journal des Laboratoires, January-April 2012

¹ Mel Y. Chen (2011), p. 273
² Ibid.
³ Ibid.