Programme

(T122)
Elements Thinking
Location 115
Date and Start Time 03 September, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 2

Convenors

  • Maria Puig de la Bellacasa (University of Leicester) email
  • Dimitris Papadopoulos (University of Leicester) email
  • Natasha Myers (York University) email

Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

Elements are substance and metaphor, scientific and poetic, natural and manufactured, indivisible and relational. Carbon, Plutonium, Bromine, Air, Water...This panel experiments in thinking with elements and the elementary in chemistry, media, biology, pharmaceuticals, warfare, ecology, toxicology.

Long Abstract

Single-world ontologies are increasingly contested and alter-ontologies proliferate. But elements are back. In the midst of ontological daring, we attempt thinking from the perspective of elements. Elements are omnipresent in science, featured neatly arranged across the Periodic Table of Elements. Biology tells us that life is made possible by four organic building blocks: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. Chemistry and physics see them as the primary constituents of matter, with organic and inorganic worlds ultimately breaking down into Hydrogen, Helium, Iron ... Mineralogists classify some metallic elements -- aluminum, gold, copper -- as "uncombined forms of distinctive structure." But elements are also industrially manufactured - uranium, plutonium, nitrogen -- for warfare, agriculture and pharmaceutics. They are sold as precious commodities and dreaded as excessive toxics. Classical elements in turn refer to comprehensive ontological forces: Earth, Fire, Water, Air (Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water energies in Chinese systems). Ecofeminists, ecopoets and neopagans also name the elements to contest their reduction to natural resources for humans. This session plays with elements thinking, to tell stories, experiment and wonder. Starting from an undetermined sense of the word element as substance as much as metaphor can open up what could be at stake (conceptually, ethnographically, ethically, practically) in reactivations of the elementary. What does it mean to think from elementary forces rather than from the meta-relational perspective of systems, networks and ecologies? How does a world look when we think it from its elementals and their composabilities and decompositions?

SESSIONS: 5/5

This track is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Elementary Relations - Bromine in Self, Society and World

Author: Joseph Dumit (UC Davis)  email

Short Abstract

While elements may appear to be individuals, they are relations and relational in ways that offer social theory and STS a wider analogical vocabulary to play with. Taking on bromine, this paper explores reactive and responsive chemistry, biology, industry and sociality.

Long Abstract

Relations, connections, affinities, affects are concepts as important as actors, interests, and forces. While elements may appear as individuals, they offer STS a wider relational vocabulary to play with. Ironically combining three previous 4S presentations, bromine relates fracking, fascia, and improvisation. A hyperreactive halogen, bromine is a widely used pesticide, flame retardant, and coat for power-plants to reduce mercury emissions. That same reactivity in animal bodies is carcinogenic. Often banned, bromine exceptions to the law are repeatedly permitted because it is cheap. Bromide salts are used in drilling fluids to make the fluids heavier, and also brought up in wastewater from fracking operations, where they poison rivers and drinking water. This same reactivity inside bodies was in 2014 discovered to be essential to life. Bromine was found to crosslink collagen IV elastic proteins in tissues allowing the formation of basement membrane and fascia scaffolds. These dynamic structures serve as insulation, glue, guides, and barriers that dynamically mediate cellular growth and signaling. Bromine thus forms the relations (membranes) that form the relations (integration, connection, differentiation) between parts of the body as parts. As one researcher wrote, "it is still difficult to discern the balance between a role for the ECM (extra-cellular matrix) in simply providing a permissive structural support or actively directing changes to cell and tissue morphology." A balance between permissive structure and active direction is precisely the definition of an improvisational game. Bromine will thus be used as its own model for relation in self, society, and world.

Expansive Affinities, Anti-affinities, and Industrial Chemical Alterlife

Author: Michelle Murphy (University of Toronto)  email

Short Abstract

This paper seeks to experiment with alter-ontologies for industrial chemicals and their relations with living-being. How might life forms be understood to be enfleshed through expansive affinities and anti-affinities within the molecular beings of capitalism, colonialism and militarism?

Long Abstract

An apprehension of chemicals as isolatable elements in the world -- as PBDEs, PCBs, BPA - has shaped the logics of 20th century toxicology and environmental politics. Thinking with methods from Marx, one might call this a chemical fetish, or better yet, a concrete abstraction, that eschews the extensive relations that make this materialization of the elementarity of chemicals possible. In this normative way of apprehending industrial chemicals, chemicals enter bodies and then alter the metabolics of life forms. The elementarity of Industrial chemicals puts them outside of life. This paper seeks to experiment with alter-ontologies for industrial chemicals. It aspires to interfere with ways of tracing entanglements of chemical registers and life forms in a moment when all humans, and perhaps all life forms, have industrial chemical relations within them. Starting inside contemporary chemistry theory, with its attention to apprehending affinities, attractions, bonding, and potentiality within the wave/particular duality of molecules, this paper tries to follow the expansive affinities of industrial chemicals into understandings of symbiogenesis, and then more extensively into capitalism, colonialism, and militarism. How might life forms be understood to be enfleshed through expansive affinities and anti-affinities of the material molecular beings of capitalism? How might an alter-ontology of industrial chemicals, which is aware of the historical production and politics of elementary logics within the disciplining of both chemistry and life, attend to the attractions, transformations, persistences, anti-bonding, and phobic relations that partake in the generation of the more-than-assemblage relations of Industrial chemistry and living-being.

Chemical Futures

Author: Dimitris Papadopoulos (University of Leicester)  email

Short Abstract

Chemical futures is the becoming chemistry of life and the becoming ecological of chemical practice: how matter and the living emerge through chemical experimentation. And the equation chemistry + ecology = x can be solved in many different ways.

Long Abstract

This paper investigates the becoming chemistry of life and the becoming ecological of chemical practice. The equation chemistry + ecology = x can be solved in many different ways. / Toxins, semiochemicals, interaction and the environment inscribed on the biomolecular level. Here x = chemical ecologies. In epigenetic research in humans, for example, different aspects of the environment (such as stress, social adversity, care) are considered cues instigating the biochemical changes that regulate the genome and suppress or promote gene transcription. Chemicals as signals, as organising devices, environmental conditions as biochemical events. / Reversing chemical ecology allows to solve for x in a different way. x = ecological chemistry. The release of manufactured chemicals: eutrophication, acidity, environmental persistence and, of course, global warming. The proliferation of novel bonds, traces, planetary circuits of pollution. The afterlife of a chemical when it is worlded. / Chemical pressures on the environment have mobilised research on waste-free, non-toxic, low impact compounds. x = green chemistry, driven equally by finance and entrepreneurship as well as policy and the popular imaginary of catastrophe: speculating on the valuation of green chemical futures as a way to balance the frenetic intoxication of Gaia through extraction and synthesis. / In chemical futures chemical practice itself becomes dispersed: the distributed invention power of amateur scientists, indigenous knowledge practitioners, clandestine chemists, DIY biochemists, remediation ecologists, biodegradable designs, underground labs, interspecies collaborations, community technoscience… Entheogens and healing compounds, ethnobotanical knowledges and kitchen chemistries. Here x = chemical alter-ontologies.

Elementary Forms of Elemental Media

Author: Stefan Helmreich (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)  email

Short Abstract

Recent conceptualizations of the classical elements of earth, fire, air, and water as elemental media demand attention to those processes that both constitute and disturb these forms. This paper looks at waves as processes that can both generate and jam such elementary forms of elementary media.

Long Abstract

In his 2015 book, The Marvelous Clouds, media theorist John Durham Peters argues that we should think of media as elemental, as already part of the substance of the given world. He unfurls this argument by working through the classical elements of earth, fire, air, and water, showing how each can serve as a channel for communication and creation for various sorts of Earthlings, from humans to birds to cetaceans. Waves — of sound and of water — skitter through the text as elemental epiphenomena, both facilitating and disturbing communication. In this paper, I dig into Peters's claims about elementary forms of elemental media, reading The Marvelous Clouds alongside Durkheim's and Lévi-Strauss's writings on the elementary as well as through contemporary writings on watery and geological media from such scholars as Mel Chen, Melody Jue, Eva Hayward, and Jussi Parikka. By asking what happens when waves both secure and undo the elementary forms of elemental media, I seek to unsteady what will count as figure and ground in cultural and scientific accounts of the biophysical world.

Breathers Conspire - On Drawing Breath Together

Author: Timothy Choy (UC Davis)  email

Short Abstract

This paper draws together scenes of conspiracy, "breathing-with." Across smell chemistry, graphic sf, and respiratory research, it amplifies techniques and forms for marking atmospheric qualities, relations, and differences. These are elements for composing a political crowd of/as breathers.

Long Abstract

This paper experiments with atmospheric abstractions through three scenes of conspiracy. "Conspiracy," say the etymologists, derives from the Latin _conspirare_, (_com_ "together" + _spirare_ "breathe") denoting a breathing-with, a situation of intimately shared air in which one might find oneself emplaced, huddled together in a corner, whispering tactics, or holding breath and bodies close in a town square or university quad as tear gas settles. The conspiracy at play in this paper here is literal-figural, a political ecology and ecological politics of breathing-together, emergent in moments of doing and recognizing kinships and inequalities of capacities to inhale. Activating examples from such fields as smell chemistry, graphic sf, and respiratory research, this paper explicates and amplifies techniques and milieus for marking atmospheric qualities, relations, and differences, including the making of experimentally attuned bodies or equipment. Such techniques and scenes function as potential forms for conspiring, i.e., elements for composing a political crowd of/as breathers.

Elemental Thinking, Alternative Carbon Imaginaries, and Living Matter at the Edge of Life

Author: Astrid Schrader (University of Exeter)  email

Short Abstract

Reading ancient elemental theory together with scientific accounts of ecologies of marine microbes and their viruses, and their importance for the global carbon cycle, this paper seeks to develop a less anthropocentric 'carbon imaginary' that no longer opposes life and non-life.

Long Abstract

This paper explores how an elemental thinking interrogates what anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli calls our 'carbon imaginary' the governance of life through a fundamental distinction between life and non-life or bios and geos. According to Povinelli, the 'carbon imaginary' can no longer adequately account for power formations in an age of climate change. The anthropocentric figures that emerged from a Foucauldian biopolitics are in need of replacement with figures that e.g. are indifferent to a distinction between life and non-life, such as the virus. Viruses can be viewed as alternating between living and non-living phases (Dupre and O'Malley 2009) between chemical substance and living process. Similarly, ancient elemental theory (based on the four elements: earth, air, water, and fire) offers a mode of understanding materiality that does not center the cosmos around the human (Cohen 2015); rather than revealing the vitality of inert substances an elemental thinking - thinking from within entanglement of humans and nonhumans - challenges the opposition between substances and processes and organic and inorganic life. Reading elemental theory together with scientific accounts of ecologies of marine microbes and their viruses, their lively and deadly interactions, and their importance for the global carbon cycle, this paper seeks to develop an alternative carbon imaginary that figures carbon not as a substance but perhaps as an 'elemental relation' in transformation.

Ubiquitous Elements

Author: Joseph Masco (University of Chicago)  email

Short Abstract

Plutonium was only invented in 1940 but now is found everywhere on planet earth because of atmospheric nuclear testing. This paper considers both the ubiquity and the emerging terms of accountability for globally distributed toxic elements.

Long Abstract

The paper explores the ubiquity of new toxic elements in the world and the emerging terms of accountability for planetary-scale environmental impacts. Plastics, synthetic chemicals, and radionuclides that were invented mere decades ago are now distributed through the global environment, creating a wide range of effects across species, ecologies, and earth systems. This paper tracks the life course of one such element - plutonium. One of the latest additions to the periodic table, it was invented in 1940. Oddly mutable and unstable, plutonium is now distributed globally via decades of atmospheric nuclear testing and industrial production. In the earth science search for the marker of a new geological period associated with human industry, plutonium offers a clear stratigraphic signature of human impacts on the planet. As a ubiquitous but also artificial element, plutonium now offers up a new space for planetary accountability, as the authors of nuclear weapons science are well known. Tracking the glow of this nuclear material as it remakes both social contracts and world systems, the paper asks what if we do more than simply document anthropogenic industrial effects? What if ubiquitous elements also offer a new domain of accountability for planetary ecological damage? The paper considers plutonium then not as an element of national power but rather as visible signature of industrial damage, one that offers an emerging new kind of accountability for anthropogenic-industrial regimes.

Elemental Breakdown

Author: Maria Puig de la Bellacasa (University of Leicester)  email

Short Abstract

Soil bioreclamation works with organisms to tackle harmful chemical compounds, recirculating substance in the ecosphere. This paper looks at these earth-remediating biogeochemical experiments as a modest promise of alter-ecological rebalancing, conveying an obligation to support elemental breakdown.

Long Abstract

The formation and breakdown of chemical compounds is a continuous process. Elements such as nitrogen and carbon circulate and recombine through a variety of complex biogeochemical choreographies vital for life in the ecosphere - e.g. water, nitrogen and carbon cycles. A myriad of organisms - plants, fungi, bacteria - are involved in constantly generating and breaking down compounds, retaining and passing substances around, making them available for reuse. These biogeochemical relations that took aeons to be established started to become affected by human activities about ten thousand years ago; becoming increasingly disrupted since the industrial and agricultural revolutions in particular by the spread of manufactured chemical compounds. Within an atmosphere of deep concern about the ecological effects of these global disturbances some scientists and activists engage in bioreclamation of disrupted soils, working with specific organisms to support them in breaking down compounds, bioprocessing toxic or excessive substances. While breakdown usually reveals the vulnerability of the world and the need and importance of repair, it takes another meaning as a deliberate undertaking in efforts of microbial, phyto- and myco-remediation, in biodegradation research or in the processing of human toxic waste by treatment of biosolids for fertiliser. The fragile promise of ecological rebalancing in experiments with supported breakdown is impure and situated, as substances can be released back into ecologies already disrupted by elemental excess and intoxication. Yet these efforts also suggest a more than human ethos that acknowledges the vital necessity of breaking down in earth remediating alter-ecologies.

Photosynthetic Mattering: Welcome to the Planthropocene

Author: Natasha Myers (York University)  email

Short Abstract

Photosynthetic organisms rearrange the elemental composition of the planet. This paper reckons with the power of plants in order to speculate on forms of collaboration for earthly survival.

Long Abstract

Photosynthesis circumscribes a complex suite of electro-chemical processes that spark energy gradients across membranes inside the symbiotic chloroplasts of green beings. Textbook diagrams familiar from high school biology class are simplistic renderings of that utterly magical, totally cosmic process that tethers earthly plant life in reverent, rhythmic attention to the earth's solar source. Lapping up sunlight, inhaling carbon dioxide, drinking in water, and releasing oxygen, photosynthesizers literally make the world. 2.3 billion years ago, photosynthetic microbes spurred the event known today as the oxygen catastrophe. Rearranging the elements, they dramatically altered the composition of the atmosphere. Photosynthesis made this planet liveable and breathable for animals like us. We now thrive off plants' wily aptitude for chemical synthesis. All cultures and political economies turn around plants' metabolic rhythms. Plants make the sugars that fuel and nourish us, the potent substances that heal, dope, and adorn us, and the resilient fires that clothe and shelter us. What are fossil fuels and plastics but the petrified bodies of once-living photosynthesizers? We have thrived and we will die burning their energetic accretions. And so, it is not an overstatement to say that we are only because they are. In an era so focused on the anthropogenic forces shaping climate futures, this paper investigates the elemental power of plant life to remind us that we are not alone. It proposes we check ourselves out of the Anthropocene and root ourselves into the Planthropocene, an aspirational epoch in which people learn to collaborate with the plants.

This track is closed to new paper proposals.