Theory and Inquiry in a Toxic World

by Jessica Hurley

Theory and Inquiry in a Toxic World

This March marks the ninth anniversary of the 3.11 disaster in Japan, when a massive earthquake and tsunami led to the catastrophic meltdown of the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant. Thousands lost their homes, and the ongoing impact on both ecosystem and human health is incalculable. Yet the disaster has also seen new forms of community spring up, from mothers coming together to campaign for radioactive soil to be removed from playgrounds to transnational mutual aid networks between Belarus, itself the victim of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, and Japanese doctors. Disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima may be technological in nature, but they are also profoundly human. How, then, can the humanities help us to think about them?

This is just one of the questions that my students and I are exploring this spring in Toxic Humanities, a section of ENGH 308: Theory and Inquiry. In this class, we are reading critical theory from across the humanities as well as novels by Indra Sinha, Ruth Ozeki, and Jeff VanderMeer that address the most fundamental questions of what it means to live in a toxic world.

Toxicity troubles some of our most basic organizing categories: it doesn’t adhere to national borders; it is often invisible and imperceptible, making it hard to see the very things that are affecting us; it works in long-term and intergenerational timescales that make it difficult to track cause and effect; and it confuses the distinction between “natural” and “man-made.” When you get mercury poisoning from fish or lead poisoning from water pipes, where does “you” end and the metal begin? The humanities come in here at the most basic level: our old categories and definitions of what it means to be a human in the world are failing in the face of the toxic world. Literature and theory will have to work together, now, to imagine and conceptualize new ways of being human.

But sometimes even speaking at the level of the human body isn’t specific enough. As we’ve learned from our reading in postcolonial studies, risk theory, feminist theory, queer theory, critical race studies, and disability studies, the risk of global toxicity is unevenly distributed towards the poor, people of color, women, Indigenous nations, LGBTQ people, the disabled, and the Global South. No one is safe in a toxic world, but we’re not all equally at risk, either: some of us are written off as “acceptable risks,” as the deaths and injuries that have been agreed to whenever somebody signs a risk assessment. Literature helps to make the invisible visible: not only the toxins or radiation that impact human and non-human life, but also the social and economic conditions that systemically produce exposure for some people and not for others. Indra Sinha’s novel Animal’s People, for instance, which fictionalizes the long biological, social, and legal aftermaths of the 1984 Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, teaches us to apprehend not only the ongoing terror and harm of toxicity’s victims, but also the global systems of power and capital that produce this terror and harm.

It’s hard, intellectually and psychically, to spend this much time thinking about ecocide, carelessness, malfeasance, environmental injustice, and the maiming of our shared world. And it’s particularly hard because toxicity challenges so many of the ways we know how to address things: we can’t make individual choices to protect ourselves because toxicity is invisible; we can’t opt out of systems that produce toxicity because they are constitutive of modern life; we can’t act individually to make giant transnational corporations take fewer disastrous risks or clean up after themselves. However, there is also hope. What we’re learning from our reading is that while toxicity does challenge, at the deepest level, our experience of things like agency, safety, sovereignty, political community, and even the very idea of the human, the way that we conceptualize those things is exactly what has created the current ecological crisis. The idea that we are separate from nature and that we have complete agency over it is the kind of hubris that leads to thinking that you can simply dump toxins in the river and it’ll be fine.

Our key concepts for thinking about being human and our place in the world are out of date and destructive. We have to figure out new ones that can allow us to do a better job of taking care of the world and each other. And literature becomes important here because literature, especially the novel, has long been a kind of laboratory space for theorizing and testing out different versions of social relationships: how the individual connects to the social, and how different parts of the social and ecological world connect to and interact with each other. This capacity for experimentation is something that we need now as our old forms of social and ecological connection are revealed to be out of date and we find ourselves in urgent need of new ones. Working in tandem, theory and literature allow us to interrogate the concepts that we take for granted and to generate new hypotheses for how to create equitable forms of flourishing even in the midst of our current unfolding catastrophes.