Canary Narratives: Visualizing Gender, Chronic Illness, and Exposure

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Canary Narratives: Visualizing Gender, Chronic Illness, and Exposure

People with illnesses caused by toxic exposure are often referred to as canaries: like canaries in coal mines, they warn others of the mounting harm of everyday exposure to the toxic products of capitalism, from personal care products to industrial effluent. As part of the Chemical Entanglements initiative at the UCLA Center for the Study of Women (CSW), we are exploring how visual representations of canary narratives can serve as activist tools and challenge gendered conceptions of chronic illness as imagined or hysterical.

 In collaboration with artist and poet Peggy Munson, CSW has produced a series of cartoon-like provocations designed to confront viewers with the violence and harm caused by toxic personal care products, particularly to women, people of color, LGBTQ individuals, and other already-vulnerable persons. Building on this work, we aim to produce imagery to accompany a forthcoming series of oral histories. These oral histories will document the lives of activists who work to expose the accumulating damage caused by toxicants, and in so doing, advocate for change at both individual and institutional levels. How, we ask, can visualizing their narratives underscore how toxic exposure is a gender equity issue? How might these visualizations work in concert with data visualizations to persuade policymakers to take action to protect the public health? In addition to creating new visualizations, we will collect and invite crowdsourced commentary on existing artistic representations of the symptoms of toxic exposure (from graphic novels, zines, films, etc.) created by chronically ill individuals. In so doing, we will ask what a feminist approach—one that is intersectional, which advocates without objectifying, which centers marginal perspectives--to visualizing canary narratives might look like.

References

Hyland, Tara. 1999.  “Creative Meaning-Making: Reading the Bookworks of Lise Melhorn-Boe.”  Journal of Artists' Books 11: 11-15.

International Programme on Chemical Safety. 2002. Global Assessment of the State-of-the-Science of Endocrine Disruptors. Geneva:World Health Organization. 2002. Accessed November 20, 2018: http://www.who.int/ipcs/publications/new_issues/endocrine_disruptors/en/

Johnston, Jill E., and Andrea Hricko.2017. “Industrial Lead Poisoning in Los Angeles: Anatomy of a Public Health Failure.” Environmental Justice 10 (5): 162-167. http://doi.org/10.1089/env.2017.0019

Miller, Claudia S.1997. “Toxicant-induced loss of tolerance--an emerging theory of disease?” Environmental Health Perspectives,105 (Suppl 2), 445–453.

Porter, Catherine A., et al. 2009. Overexposed and Underinformed: Dismantling Barriers to Health and Safety in California Nail Salons. Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative. Accessed November 20, 2018: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5783e9b9be6594e480435ffe/t/58f449...

Zwillinger, Rhonda. 1998. The dispossessed: living with multiple chemical sensitivities. Paulden, AZ: Dispossessed Project.

An image of bottles on a shelf. The height of each bottle corresponds to a data point, indicating how many individuals of a particular gender agreed or disagreed with a given statement regarding fragrance-free policies.

REVISION - Created Image: Data on Gender Differences in Attitudes toward Becoming Fragrance-Free

Substantive Caption:

In 2018, CSW researchers surveyed 700+ UCLA undergraduates to understand how fragranced products impact educational outcomes and how gender can influence attitudes and behavior regarding fragrance use. We aimed to assess how EDC exposure presented a potential barrier to students with MCS or aversions to fragrances.

The comments demonstrate that more females reported being personally impacted by fragranced products. Males were more accepting of fragranced product use in the context of adhering to social norms. One male commenter wrote: “still would rather have fragranced smells than a smelly classmate who is made fun of or ridiculed for smelling bad.

Respondents were asked to evaluate the statement: “Aerosol sprays, scented personal care products, and/or hand soaps do not contain chemicals.” Eighty-nine percent of respondents (n = 631) disagreed. Fifty-one percent (n = 618) stated that the survey did not cause them to reconsider their fragranced product utilization. Responses revealed that personal attachment to fragrance and fear of bodily odors overrode willingness to alter fragrance product use despite knowledge of toxic exposure. This suggests a gap between knowledge, attitudes, and behavior. While some respondents understand the risk of using such products, some possess a low self-perceived risk, which is not adequate enough to cause a behavior change.

 

Design Statement:

We present this visualization because:

  • Spaces to write comments regarding whether the survey respondent has learned anything from the survey instrument conventionally function as closing vehicles to check whether the aims of the survey have been achieved.  In the spirit of “canary activism,” the most desirable yield on this question would be something like 51-100% of responses indicating “From the survey I learned the potential health hazards of fragrances and now wish to become fragrance-free to support those with MCS and the health of my own body.” Real life observation and provocation yields more arrayed responses that can be further analyzed.

  • We approached data-coding from an ethnographic perspective. Dwelling on these comments has raised the prospect that our previous presumption (see above on “low hanging fruit”) was likely incorrect.  Individuals are attached to masking bodily scents with fragrances despite health risks, and worry about social stigma from “smelling bad.”


Source

Found Image: Textures and Textiles in Teaching Toxicity

Substantive Caption:

The early works of Canadian artist Lise Melhorn-Boe inquired into the thwarted, deferred, and transferred artistic desires of women.  In Color Me Dutiful (1986), Melhorn-Boe collected stories elicited from women as to why they wear make-up, printing those desires and recollections on oval paper leaflets (i.e., faces) collected in a receptacle whose cover is a plaster cast of her own mienne.  After becoming ill with breast cancer and, then, felled by exposure to mold, Melhorn-Boe returned to the oval leaflets with a new awareness of environmental toxins that had likely contributed to her own health. Toxic Face Book (2008) returns to the landscape of the face and lists the chemical ingredients of the many emollients and hues that women use regularly.  The artist’s life history of exposures to heavy metals are also rendered via a pop-up book, No Safe Levels (2006), figuring a topography of rolling hills and peaks, the overall shape based on her body’s profile while lying sideways and inscribed with the heavy metals that turned up in her laboratory panel.  In What’s for Dinner (2011), a textual homage and spin on Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party,  she prompts the picnic goer to unfold a series of meals that list the contaminants in food that contribute to total body burden. The large (40 inch) fold-out work, Body Map (2009), features a photograph of the artist’s post-mastectomy figure, with a personal and public environmental history inscribed across various body parts.

Design Statement:

We selected this visualization because:

  • Melhorn-Boe’s “thick description” art,  detailing encounters with toxicity, has been less quick to sell than earlier work. Though her table-top treasure boxes, origami-ed landscapes, and pop-up book/ quilt mashups cry out to be touched, they also record how we are contaminated and in constant contact with EDCs. The art provides an ethnographic encounter, making tactile the invisible chemicals that surround us. However, the lay public wishes to keep the knowledge about the risks of living in (post)industrial ecologies at a distance.

  • The visual art represents something soft that might offer solace against the ominous lists of chemicals/EDCs. Melhorn-Boe sews and folds stories of living in non-purity, in contaminated and disabled canary being into missives of tactile communion.

Created Image: Incorporating POC into Canary Activism

Substantive Caption:

Allergist/immunologist Claudia Miller has proposed that, once individuals reach a threshold of total “body burden,” they are susceptible to TILT (Toxicant Induced Loss of Tolerance) thereby reacting to small amounts of previously tolerated chemicals.  Diagnosis of MCS (Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) for TILT-ed individuals is more common among white populations, suggesting a disparity in treatment among minorities. The educational and activist aims of these postcards, commissioned by the Chemical Entanglements Project at UCLA’s Center for the Study of Women, includes acknowledging people of color who have been at the forefront of environmental justice efforts. All three images created by disability artist Peggy Munson (who herself has MCS) feature individuals with masks over the faces. One card features an Asian woman resting at an abandoned gas station repurposed as a beauty salon, to draw the connection between toxic ingredients in many salon products and their petroleum rootstocks.  Another image shows an African American woman and her dog as they debark from a camper with a label “SAFE” scrawled on its rear. This card acknowledges the difficulty for those with MCS to find safe housing because of off-gassing chemicals in building materials. The third postcard presents a woman wearing a respirator, her arms around an African American gender non-binary individual--an image of mutual alliance and support. Each postcard has a set of check-boxes that evoke the medical questionnaires given to patients. Here, the sender of the postcard would put an “x” in a box linked to phrases such as “My symptoms grow urgent around scented detergent,”  and “Modern people have the vapors from chemical capers” that serve as messages warning that access for those with MCS runs inversely to the distribution of accessory fragrances by chemical manufacturers.

Design Statement:

We present this visualization because:

  • By commissioning art from someone in the Multiple Chemical Sensitivity/ Environmental Illness community, we hoped to make insider knowledge available to a wider public.

  • It represents our naiveté around what constituted the “low hanging fruit” in explaining the under-regulation of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) to a wider public.  The sources of EDCs are myriad. We thought it surprising, and little known, that EDCs comprise common cosmetics, toiletries and household cleaners whose scents are advertised to odor-fearing consumers. We mistakenly assumed that the general population would only need to be made aware of the potential hazards in “fragranced” products. However, these images struck many as more offensive than informative.

A set of two bar graphs, in blue and purple, that reveal how men and women responded to questions about their perceptions of fragrance-free policies. Comments by survey respondents are included in circles suspended above the graphs.

REVISION - Created Image: Data on Gender Differences in Attitudes toward Becoming Fragrance-Free

Critical Commentary

Substantive Caption: Between April and July, 2018, CSW student researchers surveyed 700+ UCLA undergraduates on the way fragrance shapes their learning environments. The survey project had multiple goals. The primary objective was to determine the extent to which EDC exposure from fragranced products presented a barrier to accessible education to students with MCS or related illnesses and aversions to fragrances. We also wished to assess the extent to which UCLA students were receptive to the implementation of fragrance-free policies in classrooms and test settings.

Survey questions spanned many topics, all pertaining to the impact of fragrances on a participant’s concentration, learning ability, and health. The survey revealed attitudes towards fragranced products and the likelihood that the respondent would be willing to change or even reconsider their fragranced product utilization habits. One survey question asked respondents to evaluate the statement: “Aerosol sprays, scented personal care products, and/or hand soaps do not contain chemicals.” Approximately 88.59% of respondents (n = 631) stated that they disagreed with the statement suggesting that respondents are aware of the chemical makeup of some of the products they use on their bodies daily. However, when asked if the survey caused them to reconsider their fragrance product utilization, 50.97% (n = 618) stated that it did not. This suggests an interesting gap between knowledge, attitudes, and behavior in regards to the impact of chemical toxins on adverse health effects and perceived risk. While some respondents may understand and even acknowledge the risk of using such products, some seem to possess a low self-perceived risk, which is not adequate enough to cause a shift in behavior. Others acknowledge the health impacts even stated that it was an issue that was too trivial for them to consider.  The latter was an attitude that emerged in the free-response component of the survey.

The last survey question asked:“Did taking this survey cause you to reconsider your use of fragranced products?” Students were invited to explain their answer. Responses revealed the extent to which personal attachment to fragrance and fear of bodily odors overrode the respondents’ willingness to alter fragrance product use despite toxic exposure.

We were particularly interested in understanding if gender was a salient factor in whether students reconsidered their own use of fragranced products. In addition, we wanted to visualize whether their responses revealed concern for their own health or consideration for the health and comfort of others.  We hypothesized that female respondents would be more likely to discuss the need for fragranced products in the setting of social norms but would also be more likely to suggest that they were willing to reconsider their fragranced product usage. The comments demonstrate that females reported being more personally impacted by fragranced products (9.45% of n =127), relative to males, with no male commenters similarly reporting being personally impacted (n = 43). Furthermore, there was a similarity in the percentage of female (24.41%) and male commenters (20.91%) who were willing to reconsider their fragranced product usage to be mindful of those around them. We also found that it was males, not females, who possessed the highest relative percentage of individuals who believed fragranced product use was acceptable in the context of adhering to social norms for both themselves and those around them. Respondents often equated good hygiene with smelling “nice” and felt that avoiding fragranced products would compromise this. One male commenter wrote: still would rather have fragranced smells than a smelly classmate who is made fun of or ridiculed for smelling bad.” 9.3% of male commenters stated they prioritized the social norms while 3.15% of females comments suggested they prioritized social norms. One female commenter wrote: It occurred to me some people might be distracted by fragranced products. However, most of the time if I'm using a fragranced product, it's because I smell bad, and I think the world would rather smell my deodorant or body spray than body odor..”

Design Statement: We present this visualization of “Data on Gender Differences in Attitudes toward Becoming Fragrance-Free” for the following reasons:

  • Spaces to write-in comments regarding whether the survey respondent has learned anything from the survey instrument conventionally function as closing vehicles to check whether the aims of the survey have been achieved.  In the spirit of “canary activism,” the most desirable yield on this question would be something along the lines of 51-100% responses indicating “From the survey I learned the potential health hazards of fragrances and now wish to become fragrance-free so as to support those with MCS and the health of my own body as well.” Real life observation and provocation yields more arrayed responses that can be further analyzed when the data is disaggregated along lines gender identification.

  • We used ethnographic and community health styles of coding the qualitative data recorded in the comments section. Dwelling on these comments has raised the prospect that our previous presumption (see above on “low hanging fruit”) was likely incorrect.  Individuals are quite attached to masking bodily scents with fragrances (even when revealed for their toxicant effects), and worry about social stigma from “smelling bad.”

  • The survey aimed at quantitative data collection.  The negative space drawing, so to speak, of that method emerged in the “comments” section.  We nonetheless reapplied visualization methods appropriate to quantitative data in this representation.

  • The play with what can be represented quantitatively and qualitatively or in a blend or moebius-like crossing of quantitative and qualitative approaches is intentional.

Source

Lee, Rachel; Bullock, Hannah; Maju, Mehar; Westmoreland, Drew; Apolloni, Alexandra. 2018. “Created Image: Data on Gender Differences in Attitudes toward Becoming Fragrance-Free.In Canary Narratives: Visualizing Gender, Chronic Illness, and Exposure, created by Rachel Lee, Alexandra Apolloni, Molly Bloom, and Mehar Maju. In Visualizing Toxic Subjects Digital Exhibit, curated by James Adams and Kim Fortun. The Center for Ethnography. March.

Created Image: Data on Gender Differences in Attitudes toward Becoming Fragrance-Free

Substantive Caption: Between April and July, 2018, CSW student researchers surveyed 700+ UCLA undergraduates on the way fragrance shapes their learning environments. The survey project had multiple goals. The primary objective was to determine the extent to which EDC exposure from fragranced products presented a barrier to accessible education to students with MCS or related illnesses and aversions to fragrances. We also wished to assess the extent to which UCLA students were receptive to the implementation of fragrance-free policies in classrooms and test settings.

Survey questions spanned many topics, all pertaining to the impact of fragrances on a participant’s concentration, learning ability, and health. The survey revealed attitudes towards fragranced products and the likelihood that the respondent would be willing to change or even reconsider their fragranced product utilization habits. One survey question asked respondents to evaluate the statement: “Aerosol sprays, scented personal care products, and/or hand soaps do not contain chemicals.” Approximately 88.59% of respondents (n = 631) stated that they disagreed with the statement suggesting that respondents are aware of the chemical makeup of some of the products they use on their bodies daily. However, when asked if the survey caused them to reconsider their fragrance product utilization, 50.97% (n = 618) stated that it did not. This suggests an interesting gap between knowledge, attitudes, and behavior in regards to the impact of chemical toxins on adverse health effects and perceived risk. While some respondents may understand and even acknowledge the risk of using such products, some seem to possess a low self-perceived risk, which is not adequate enough to cause a shift in behavior. Others acknowledge the health impacts even stated that it was an issue that was too trivial for them to consider.  The latter was an attitude that emerged in the free-response component of the survey.

The last survey question asked:“Did taking this survey cause you to reconsider your use of fragranced products?” Students were invited to explain their answer. Responses revealed the extent to which personal attachment to fragrance and fear of bodily odors overrode the respondents’ willingness to alter fragrance product use despite toxic exposure.

We were particularly interested in understanding if gender was a salient factor in whether students reconsidered their own use of fragranced products. In addition, we wanted to visualize whether their responses revealed concern for their own health or consideration for the health and comfort of others.  We hypothesized that female respondents would be more likely to discuss the need for fragranced products in the setting of social norms but would also be more likely to suggest that they were willing to reconsider their fragranced product usage. The comments demonstrate that females reported being more personally impacted by fragranced products (9.45% of n =127), relative to males, with no male commenters similarly reporting being personally impacted (n = 43). Furthermore, there was a similarity in the percentage of female (24.41%) and male commenters (20.91%) who were willing to reconsider their fragranced product usage to be mindful of those around them. We also found that it was males, not females, who possessed the highest relative percentage of individuals who believed fragranced product use was acceptable in the context of adhering to social norms for both themselves and those around them. Respondents often equated good hygiene with smelling “nice” and felt that avoiding fragranced products would compromise this. One male commenter wrote: still would rather have fragranced smells than a smelly classmate who is made fun of or ridiculed for smelling bad.” 9.3% of male commenters stated they prioritized the social norms while 3.15% of females comments suggested they prioritized social norms. One female commenter wrote: It occurred to me some people might be distracted by fragranced products. However, most of the time if I'm using a fragranced product, it's because I smell bad, and I think the world would rather smell my deodorant or body spray than body odor..”

Design Statement: We present this visualization of “Data on Gender Differences in Attitudes toward Becoming Fragrance-Free” for the following reasons:

  • Spaces to write-in comments regarding whether the survey respondent has learned anything from the survey instrument conventionally function as closing vehicles to check whether the aims of the survey have been achieved.  In the spirit of “canary activism,” the most desirable yield on this question would be something along the lines of 51-100% responses indicating “From the survey I learned the potential health hazards of fragrances and now wish to become fragrance-free so as to support those with MCS and the health of my own body as well.” Real life observation and provocation yields more arrayed responses that can be further analyzed when the data is disaggregated along lines gender identification.

  • We used ethnographic and community health styles of coding the qualitative data recorded in the comments section. Dwelling on these comments has raised the prospect that our previous presumption (see above on “low hanging fruit”) was likely incorrect.  Individuals are quite attached to masking bodily scents with fragrances (even when revealed for their toxicant effects), and worry about social stigma from “smelling bad.”

  • The survey aimed at quantitative data collection.  The negative space drawing, so to speak, of that method emerged in the “comments” section.  We nonetheless reapplied visualization methods appropriate to quantitative data in this representation.

  • The play with what can be represented quantitatively and qualitatively or in a blend or moebius-like crossing of quantitative and qualitative approaches is intentional.

Toxic Capture: Rendering Difficult Subjects Visible

A polaroid photo with the words "toxic capture" written over top
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Toxic Capture

Toxic Capture: Rendering Difficult Subjects Visible

This essay seeks to expand theorization on toxicity by tracing the ways in which "toxic injury" and "toxic stress" have emerged as categories for clinical and juridicial claims making. I am particularly interested in the ways in which toxic injury as is both enrolled and undermined as a useful explanatory model for conditions which resist diagnosis. Given the ways in which toxic subjects are rendered invisible by dominant understandings of transmission, injury, and time, new forms of visualization and reading are called for. The images I include seek to illustrate the various tools patients and clinicians use in order to render toxic conditions visible in both clinical and legal domains.  Through these images I hope to demonstrate the promise and difficulty of “toxic capture.”

Jasper Johns' Flag Moratorium (1969)

Found Image: Jasper Johns' Flag (Moratorium) (1969)

Look briefly at John Jasper’s Flag (Moratorium) and one will see what appears to be the United States flag, painted in Army greens and orange, with a small pin—or dare I say bullet?—hole at center. Yet glance away after gazing at the painting, and one will “see” the United States flag projected in its familiar red, white, and blue, as if materializing out of nowhere. The intensity of the specter directly correlates with how long the viewer has been staring at the original painting.
What the painting is remains unclear: is the primary image the orange and green painting or is it the illusion? Which did the artist intend for us to see? Which do we remember? Without guidance, the viewer likely does not know that the illusion even lies beneath (beside?) the painting. Yet, once the illusion is known to the viewer, it becomes difficult to un-see, simultaneously seeing multiple things at once. A variation of the famous duck-rabbit illusion, in which both, and neither a duck and/nor a rabbit are pictured in the same illustration, the flag is multiple things at once, though not simultaneously sustained visually by the viewer. Wittgenstein’s (1953) famous rumination on the duck-rabbit conundrum helps to further this point, explaining how viewers will first see either a duck or a rabbit, but cannot report seeing something that they are unfamiliar with (193-196). Like toxics, the image lingers after exposure.

Annotated map of burn pit in Balad

CREATED IMAGE: MAPPING BURN PITS

REVISION

This Google Maps screen capture shows Balad Air Base an Iraqi Air Force base occupied by US troops from 2003-2011, at which time it was named Joint Base Balad. The site of the largest burn pit (10 acres), several tons of waste was burned each day until 2008. Annotated by a US Army veteran stationed at Balad from 2005-2006, the red circle outlines the pit and the blue, the housing quarters located downwind from the pit. The proximity of sleeping and living quarters to the burn pits is an often cited metric in claims of exposure by both veterans and environmental scientists.

Waiting room four chairs

Created Image: Waiting as Method

"You wouldn’t think I was retired the amount of time I spend at the VA. Part of it is the turnover they have. No one wants to treat us, especially the older guys. We spend forever waiting for an appointment, and then a follow-up and then the moment you mention something involving Agent Orange it’s like they lose your file." --J, Vietnam Veteran

“I probably  had a relatively normal relationship with my children compared to most of the guys here.  I knew about the connections between AO and birth defects but we thought we were in the clear because none of my children seemed to have any effects. But my granddaughter was born without any legs, and we’re now thinking that two of my daughters' thyroid and  fertility issues might be related.” --G, Vietnam Veteran

Patients, particularly those with chronic disease conditions, spend extensive periods of time waiting. Waiting for appointments, waiting for test results, waiting for insurance approvals, waiting for symptoms, the waiting room is a physical instantiation of these waiting practices, where a diagnostic liminality is quite literally embodied. For toxic subjects who have known or presumed exposure, waiting also takes on complicated political and social dimmensions in the wait for science and the wait for recognition. 

In my research, I spend a significant time in waiting rooms, from conducting formal interviews with families in between appointments and treatment, to accompanying my interlocutors to their appointments, to my formal roles as a victim advocate. While medical anthropology devotes significant time and space to the study of the clinical interaction, I am particularly interested in how meaning is made in those interstitial times and places patients occupy when moving between the houses of formally recognized expertise.

Visualizing the chemistry of regret

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A chemical typewriter, circa 1970.

Visualizing the Chemistry of Regret

My challenging toxic subject is the molecule. Not any particular nanoscale unit of potentially hazardous substance, nor any particular substance in the aggregate. Rather, I am interested in the material and historical grounds for the peculiar idea that molecules and only molecules may be the proximate causes of (chemical) toxicity. This principle that a toxin is a chemical is a molecule defines the stage on which most modern dramas of toxic chemical perceptibility and epistemology play out. It sustains, among other things, the perverse pattern of "regrettable substitution" (whence this essay's title), also known as "chemical whack-a-mole"—the replacement of a hazardous substance by a substitute that turns out to be just as toxic. The origins of this history lie in visualization: the late 19th century convention (much the same today) of representing chemical substances using doodles of letters, representing atoms, and lines, representing bonds. The principle of toxin-as-chemical-as-molecule came about through the transformation of such doodles into fixed chemical names and notation. Deployed within the authoritative information technologies of chemistry, from many-volume print reference works to present-day digital databases, this molecular vocabulary ordered the chemical world for the convenience of chemists and, especially, the synthetic chemicals industry. I would like to reverse this process. By foregrounding the contingency of the molecule as toxic agent, I wish to open space for remapping environmental toxicity along dimensions new and forgotten, such as that of 19th century Alsatian chemist Charles Gerhardt, for whom chemicals were beings “defined by their metamorphoses, that is, by their past or by their future."

Evan Hepler-Smith

Boston College

PFAS "family tree"

A toxic family tree (revised)

Substantive Caption:

“PFASs as a whole, much more than solely PFOS, PFOA, and their precursors, are an intractable, potentially never-ending chemicals management issue” (Wang 2017, 2511).

This image depicts the “family tree” of the chemicals PFOS (perfluoroctasulfonic acid) and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid). PFOA and PFOS are persistent environmental chemicals associated with a range of toxic effects including increased incidence of liver disease, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, decreased vaccine efficacy, decreased fertility, pre-eclampsia, and several types of cancer (ATSDR 2018). PFOS—formerly the key ingredient in the stain-resistant coating Scotchgard—is among the two-dozen persistent organic pollutants restricted or banned under the UN’s Stockholm Convention. PFOA—a key constituent in Teflon production until the mid-2000s—is under consideration for addition to the Stockholm Convention in April 2019.

As these two toxic chemicals have been phased out, they have been replaced, Hydra-like, by diverse related chemicals from the broader class of PFCs or PFASs (perfluoro chemicals / per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances). Environmental toxicologists are concerned that the same structural similarities that make other PFASs useful substitutes for the industrial uses of PFOA and PFOS may also make the entire class just as hazardous as these two substances that have become major public health concerns. This figure, from a 2017 review article addressing PFAS toxicology, is intended to illustrate the molecule-by-molecule breadth of this toxic hazard and the comparatively narrow scope of research and regulation. The molecule-by-molecule detail of the figure is overwhelming, inscrutable, frustrating, intractable. That is the point. The authors wish to argue that, as long as environmental science, law, and politics hew to molecule-by-molecule conceptions of what's toxic, the task of controlling environmental toxicity will remain overwhelming, inscrutable, frustrating, and intractable, too.

The authors of this article explain, “The most common current industrial practice of phasing out one PFAS is to replace it with another (or multiple other) structurally similar PFAS. Such a strategy is easier and less costly than identifying a nonfluorinated substance to be used in the same or similar process (i.e., chemical replacement) or inventing a new process that does not require PFASs (i.e., functionality replacement).…. [B]ut such a replacement strategy will not solve issues in relation to PFASs as a whole group—it will only increase the numbers of PFASs on the market and the difficulties in tracking them” (Wang 2017).

This image portrays environmental toxicology and toxic substances regulation as trapped in a molecular double bind. On the one hand, the quantity of studies dedicated to PFOA and PFOS attest to how much work it takes to begin to understand the long-term, low-dose toxicity of a specific chemical compound—let alone to take action to address it. On the other hand, the molecule-by-molecule list of PFASs at right illustrates how focusing on specific compounds risks missing the chemical forest for the molecular trees. And yet this forest—the white noise of ubiquitous multiple chemical exposure (Murphy 2006)—is precisely the white noise that makes it take so much work to pick out a toxic signal associated with an individual substance in the first place.

In sum, according to this figure, there are too many molecules to know, and it’s very hard to know anything at all about any of them, in large part because there are so many of them to know. This is a fruitful starting point for asking historical and ethnographic questions about the ontology of the agents of environmental toxicity. Where did we get the idea that the environment (or the hazardous anthropogenic bits of it, anyway) is made up of molecules? What is a molecule? Are there alternative ontologies on offer, within or outside of the chemical and toxicological sciences?

One place to start: The impression that there is just too much to know is a general feature of the “informating of environmentalism” (Fortun 2004). Historically, such concerns have tended to emerge in the wake of novel technologies that afford new practices and imaginaries and scales of information management (Blair 2010).

Design Statement:

In this essay, I take data visualization and image-based arguments as subject matter for historical and ethnographic analysis. My particular interest is in the relationship between, on the one hand, genres and conventions for making and interpreting images, and on the other hand, databases and reference works containing data that gets visualized in such images. By attending to the connection between information infrastructure (Bowker and Star 1999) and image-making, we can investigate the interdependence between the ways data gets stored and the “ways in which [a community of practice] attunes to, interacts with, and shapes its objects in its various and varied practices.” (Mol 2002, vii; see also Hacking 2002). To oversimplify: visualization method + data structure = ontology.

Methodologically, this essay aims to model the sort of approach that ethnographers and historical ethnographers might apply reflexively to assess their own methods of data visualization and image-making—especially methods drawing on data and techniques developed within other fields. My work shows how, as chemical databases and visualization methods are taken up outside their fields of origin, cross-disciplinary user communities can fall into a “certainty trough” (Mackenzie 1990), taking inscriptions created as index terms (where can you find data about a certain substance?) and granting them ontological status (what substance is this data about?). This is not necessarily a bad way of enacting the world, but we should be aware that we’re doing it!

Cover image

I want to avoid the temptation of getting lost in a hall of mirrors of representation and re-mediation, when it comes to this screenshot of a database-accessed copy of a digital scan of a newsmagazine article with a figure reproducing a soft-focus photograph of a chemical typewriter typing a diagrammatic representation of a chemical substance that never was. Instead, I want to emphasize the proliferation of articles containing figures like this in mid-20th century chemical journals, extolling the capacity of this or that chemical typewriter to type legible and interpretable structural formulas rather than hand-drawing them (or employing a professional graphical artist to do so). Across pen-and-paper, chalk-and-slate, mechanical, and digital media, the genre of the structural formula representing the molecular structure of a chemical substance has remained remarkably consistent since the late 1860s. Digital ethnographers might ask whether phenomena of interest are best explained in terms of digital media, in terms of genre, and/or along other dimensions of continuity and change.

This image

The taxonomic tree is a common visual genre for expressing a collection of relationships. Taxonomic trees reflect, imply, or constitute a hierarchical classification, pinning down entities to specific positions within it. Yet these trees also afford a certain flexibility, permitting the viewed to lump or split, emphasize sameness or difference, depending on which specific taxa or taxonomic level one chooses to privilege. Indeed, natural historians have at times interpreted trees as illustrations of the unreality of species as natural kinds. By this view, what’s arboreal is arbitrary.

Rhetorically, such images are frequently employed to overwhelm, confronting the viewer with a surfeit of complexity, employing an all-encompassing order to emphasize the incomprehensible scope of specifics. The tree in this figure, for instance, presents an impression of order-cum-overload supporting the article authors’ argument that the variety of fluorine-rich synthetic chemical substances subsumed in this hierarchy is in part responsible for their “Never-Ending Story” (per the article’s title) as persistent organic pollutants.

References:

ATSDR (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, United States Department of Health and Human Services). 2018. Toxicological Profile for Perfluoroalkyls (Draft for Public Comment). https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/tp200.pdf.

Blair, Ann. 2010. Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Bowker, Geoffrey C., and Susan Leigh Star. 1999. Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Fortun, Kim. 2004. “From Bhopal to the Informating of Environmentalism: Risk Communication in Historical Perspective.” Osiris 19: 283–96. doi: 10.1086/649407.

Hacking, Ian. 2002. Historical Ontology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Mackenzie, Donald A. 1990. Inventing Accuracy: A Historical Sociology of Nuclear Missile Guidance. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Mol, Annemarie. 2002. The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice. Durham: Duke University Press.

Murphy, Michelle. 2006. Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty: Environmental Politics, Technoscience, and Women Workers. Durham: Duke University Press.

Wang, Zhanyun et al. 2017. “A Never-Ending Story of Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs)?.” Environmental Science & Technology 51 (5): 2508–18. doi: 10.1021/acs.est.6b04806.

(Revision of May 9, 2019)

A screen capture from ChemMaps.com

Toxic chemical space (revised)

Substantive Caption:

Screen capture from the web app ChemMaps, depicting a view of “chemical space” from the perspective of PFOA. Each “star” in this map represents a chemical compound of a distinct molecular identity. The relative positions of these stars indicate structural similarity, according to “a complex compendium of 1D, 2D and 3D pre-computed molecular descriptors to generate the chemical space in three dimensions” (Borrel, Kleinstreuer, and Fourches 2018). Based on the assumption that chemical properties are correlated with molecular structure—a bedrock of modern organic chemistry—the proximity of substances in this map is supposed to be an index of chemical and toxicological similarity. Like most work in cheminformatics, ChemMaps was originally designed to expedite drug discovery. However, “ChemMaps.com aims to become the go-to website for anyone wanting to search, mine or visualize chemical space” (Borrel, Kleinstreuer, and Fourches 2018). This includes those concerned about environmental toxicity of chemicals like the PFASs.

Here, hovering just over the shoulder of PFOA, the viewer floats in a purely molecular galaxy. This chemical holism purports to represent the constituents of the material world of Teflon and Scotchgard and cancer. However, this form of visualization unintentionally dramatizes how far removed this holism of molecules is from the world of materials. It is one realization of a trend that the philosopher François Dagognet associated with the representation of chemical substances in abstract molecular terms: “whereas the poets have always suffered from the gap between things and signs, chemistry tranquilly effects the miracle of their coincidence. The neologisms, however, lose their attachment with sensible reality, qualities, and appearances. In order to be able to go to the depths of substances, on the ocean of their relationships, it’s necessary to break the moorings. The learned words, kinds of algebraic polynomials, cease then to touch us. Uprooted, they address themselves only to the intelligence of structures.” (Dagognet 2002 [1969], 158).

Framing the problem of environmental toxicity as a problem of information overload tends to suggest computational solutions. Molecules are extremely well adapted to computer modeling and large-scale comparisons. But the intensification of computational methods is suspiciously analogous to the intensified production of new, putatively safer chemicals as a solution to environmental toxicity. It may be that the computational tractability of molecules is an index of their intractability as toxic subjects. Perhaps here, as in other domains, “the simplification of ontology has led to the enormous complication of epistemology,” (Viveiros de Castro 2004).

Design Statement:

This image is a data visualization expressing calculated estimates of toxicity-relevant properties of chemical substances. Like most (all?) visualizations, it is a visual metaphor: here, chemical substances are stars, and spatial proximity is toxicological similarity. As Lily Kay (2000) points out, scientific metaphors have ontological force – the ways they render the world may beget ways of interacting with and remaking it. Molecular structures are abstractions, not material substances; one might define chemical identity in many other ways. The visual metaphor of the star map enforces a conception of chemical individuality that strongly privileges the molecular structure – each molecule, forever alone and itself, in the chemical heavens.

Two methodological points: first, ethnographers may wish to reflect on the implications of the visual metaphors they employ in data visualization and other image-making practices. Second, if we wish to create ethnographic images that contest and situate putative views from nowhere, we should be careful to avoid (or at minimum ironize) data visualizations practices that reproduce such a view.

References:

Borrel, Alexandre, Nicole C. Kleinstreuer, and Denis Fourches. 2018. “Exploring Drug Space with ChemMaps.Com.” Bioinformatics 34 (21): 3773–75. doi: 10.1093/bioinformatics/bty412.

Dagognet, François. 2002 [1969]. Tableaux et langages de la chimie : essai sur la représentation. Seyssel: Champ Vallon.

Kay, Lily E. 2000. Who Wrote the Book of Life?: A History of the Genetic Code. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo Batalha. 2004. “Exchanging Perspectives: The Transformation of Objects into Subjects in Amerindian Ontologies.” Common Knowledge 10 (3): 463–484. doi: 10.1215/0961754X-10-3-463.

(Revision of May 9, 2019)

"Index workers" in 1938, plus a paper form used to computerize molecular identity

Making molecular identity (revised)

Substantive Caption:

The main image depicts the editorial offices of Chemical Abstracts, circa 1938. For most of the 20th century and through the present-day, the abstract journals, collective indexes, and databases of Chemical Abstracts (now Chemical Abstracts Service, or CAS) have been the authoritative source for bibliographic and regulatory information about chemical substances and the chemical sciences, including allied fields such as toxicology. In this image, “index workers” are engaged in compiling an annual or decennial index of the publication. In the early 20th century, the new specialization of "literature chemistry," demanding considerable chemical expertise, presented professional opportunities seized by chemists belonging to groups marginalized within lab-based chemical occupations--most prominently, women.

The vast majority of these cards refer to individual chemical substances rather than subject headings or author names. Much index labor involved writing, rewriting, cross-referencing, and error-checking the systematic chemical names that were the key to the whole enterprise, since they allowed for the arrangement of hundreds of thousands (today hundreds of millions) of substances in chemically-meaningful alphabetical order. This work was particularly challenging because the research chemists who wrote the journal articles abstracted and indexed in Chemical Abstracts often did not themselves use systematic names. This was both because the names were cumbersome and because the uniform chemical ontology that they expressed was sometimes a poor fit for how chemists defined the substances that their research addressed. Sustaining the molecular ontology of chemistry and chemists' access to information was crucial, challenging work.

 “Among personal characteristics for this type of work accuracy perhaps should rank highest, and with that conscientiousness, patience, a meticulous attentiveness to detail (without a loss of perspective of relative values, since a great deal of work has to be turned out, at times under considerable pressure), power of concentration, good judgment, and interest in words as words, a love of puzzles and of guessing and digging out elusive ideas, meanings, words, and formulas. An interest in things rather than people is likely to lead to greater satisfaction in this type of work, since the opportunities for personal professional contacts outside the office are relatively few. The analytical rather than the creative type is probably best suited to this kind of work. Good eyes (at least strong ones) are absolutely essential, while the ability to sit hour after hour without much relief is a requirement not to be laughed off. Work of this nature is not for the overly energetic or restless person” (Scott 1938, 275; italics in original).

The inset image depicts a form of the sort that was used when CAS re-created this whole operation on digital computers during the 1960s.

Molecular identity is not given by nature. Rather, it was made in meeting rooms and editorial offices, for the purposes of organizing information about chemical substances, in order to support research and development within the turn of the century synthetic chemicals industry (Hepler-Smith 2015a; Hepler-Smith 2015b; Hepler-Smith 2016). And both making and maintaining this system of molecular identity took (and takes) a whole lot of *work*.

My intention in juxtaposing these images is to direct historical and ethnographic attention to the situated practices—including especially bureaucratic practices—through which the simplicities, complexities, and uncertainties of environmental toxicity are constituted. They are typically taken to be baked into the material nature of chemical substances and bodies. To a certain degree, they are; but they are also the product of a way of ordering the world of substances that I am calling “molecular bureaucracy” (Hepler-Smith 2019). The institutions, practices and technologies that render the world molecular (cf. Myers 2015) entail simplifications, frustrations, fortuitous affordances, and regrettable consequences. Training our vision on easily-overlooked legal definitions, information technologies, administrative procedures, clerical labor, and nomenclature conventions can help shed light on why toxic subjects get visualized in the ways they do.

Design Statement:

This is a pairing of two images, one copied from a chemical journal article published in 1938, one a photograph of manuscript material from an archive.

The main image and the article from which it is drawn, written by an editor at the publication Chemical Abstracts, describe the enormous labor of keeping this foundational, taken-for-granted information resource up to date. It is an exercise in infrastructural inversion (Star and Bowker 1999) avant la lettre. The inset image, the author’s photograph of a manuscript page produced circa 1960, depicts a notation designed by an information entrepreneur to enable the application of mechanical and digital tools to the sort of work illustrated in the main images.

The main image anchors databases and the mechanical objectivity that they embody (Porter 1995, Daston and Galison 2007) in the material and social world of information labor. The inset image exemplifies an effort to shift the social location of judgment and expertise from people intimately engaged with a specific database to machine- and algorithm-makers. Ethnographers and historians can and should ask what knowledge and what social relations, embodied in both people and artifacts, lie behind their databases and visualization methods. Sometimes, the answer may be relatively epistemologically and ethically insignificant vis-à-vis the story at issue; other times, the answer may be the story (e.g. Radin 2017).

References:


Bowker, Geoffrey C., and Susan Leigh Star. 1999. Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Daston, Lorraine and Peter Galison. 2007. Objectivity. New York: Zone Books.

Hepler-Smith, Evan. 2015. "'Just as the Structural Formula Does': Names, Diagrams, and the Structure of Organic Chemistry at the 1892 Geneva Nomenclature Congress." Ambix 62 (1): 1-28. doi: 10.1179/1745823414Y.0000000006.

Hepler-Smith, Evan. 2015b. “Systematic Flexibility and the History of the IUPAC Nomenclature of Organic Chemistry.” Chemistry International 37 (2): 10-14. doi: 10.1515/ci-2015-0232.

Hepler-Smith, Evan. 2016. “Changing Names and Naming Change: Transformations in the ‘International Machinery’ of Chemical Information.” Proceedings of the International Workshop on the History of Chemistry, March 2-4 2015, Tokyo. 68-76. http://kagakushi.org/iwhc2015/proceedings/.

Hepler-Smith, Evan. 2019. "Molecular Bureaucracy: Toxicological Information and Environmental Protection." Environmental History 24 (3). Forthcoming.

Myers, Natasha. 2015. Rendering Life Molecular: Models, Modelers, and Excitable Matter. Durham: Duke University Press.

Porter, Theodore M. 1995. Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Radin, Joanna. 2017. “Digital Natives”: How Medical and Indigenous Histories Matter for Big Data. Osiris 32 (1): 43–64.

Scott, Janet D. 1938. “The Chemist at Work. XIV. My Work with Chemical Abstracts.” Journal of Chemical Education 15 (6): 271–75. doi: 10.1021/ed015p271.

(Revision of May 9, 2019)

PFAS "family tree"

A toxic family tree

Substantive Caption:

“PFASs as a whole, much more than solely PFOS, PFOA, and their precursors, are an intractable, potentially never-ending chemicals management issue” (Wang 2017, 2511).

This image depicts the “family tree” of the chemicals PFOS (perfluoroctasulfonic acid) and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid). PFOA and PFOS are persistent environmental chemicals associated with a range of toxic effects including increased incidence of liver disease, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, decreased vaccine efficacy, decreased fertility, pre-eclampsia, and several types of cancer (ATSDR 2018). PFOS—formerly the key ingredient in the stain-resistant coating Scotchgard—is among the two-dozen persistent organic pollutants restricted or banned under the UN’s Stockholm Convention. PFOA—a key constituent in Teflon production until the mid-2000s—is under consideration for addition to the Stockholm Convention in April 2019.

As these two toxic chemicals have been phased out, they have been replaced, Hydra-like, by diverse related chemicals from the broader class of PFCs or PFASs (perfluoro chemicals / per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances). Environmental toxicologists are concerned that the same structural similarities that make other PFASs useful substitutes for the industrial uses of PFOA and PFOS may also make the entire class just as hazardous as these two substances that have become major public health concerns. This figure, from a 2017 review article addressing PFAS toxicology, is intended to illustrate the molecule-by-molecule breadth of this toxic hazard and the comparatively narrow scope of research and regulation.

The authors of this article explain, “The most common current industrial practice of phasing out one PFAS is to replace it with another (or multiple other) structurally similar PFAS. Such a strategy is easier and less costly than identifying a nonfluorinated substance to be used in the same or similar process (i.e., chemical replacement) or inventing a new process that does not require PFASs (i.e., functionality replacement).…. [B]ut such a replacement strategy will not solve issues in relation to PFASs as a whole group—it will only increase the numbers of PFASs on the market and the difficulties in tracking them” (Wang 2017).

Design Statement:

  • Scientists, regulators, and those who wish to work within scientific and regulatory frames typically address environmental toxicity on a chemical-by-chemical basis, where chemical substances are defined by their molecular identity.
  • Framed in this way, the problem of toxicity appears to be well-nigh intractable.
  • There are just too many molecules. But maybe molecules are the wrong toxic subjects to be looking for. So maybe we can figure out how discussions of environmental toxicity got framed in molecular terms in the first place.

This image portrays environmental toxicology and toxic substances regulation as trapped in a molecular double bind. On the one hand, the quantity of studies dedicated to PFOA and PFOS attest to how much work it takes to begin to understand the long-term, low-dose toxicity of a specific chemical compound—let alone to take action to address it. On the other hand, the molecule-by-molecule list of PFASs at right illustrates how focusing on specific compounds risks missing the chemical forest for the molecular trees. And yet this forest—the white noise of ubiquitous multiple chemical exposure (Murphy 2006)—is precisely the white noise that makes it take so much work to pick out a toxic signal associated with an individual substance in the first place.

In sum, according to this figure, there are too many molecules to know, and it’s very hard to know anything at all about any of them, in large part because there are so many of them to know. This is a fruitful starting point for asking historical and ethnographic questions about the ontology of the agents of environmental toxicity. Where did we get the idea that the environment (or the hazardous anthropogenic bits of it, anyway) is made up of molecules? What is a molecule? Are there alternative ontologies on offer, within or outside of the chemical and toxicological sciences?

One place to start: The impression that there is just too much to know is a general feature of the “informating of environmentalism” (Fortun 2004). Historically, such concerns have tended to emerge in the wake of novel technologies that afford new practices and imaginaries and scales of information management (Blair 2010).

References:

ATSDR (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, United States Department of Health and Human Services). 2018. Toxicological Profile for Perfluoroalkyls (Draft for Public Comment). https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/tp200.pdf.

Blair, Ann. 2010. Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Fortun, Kim. 2004. “From Bhopal to the Informating of Environmentalism: Risk Communication in Historical Perspective.” Osiris 19: 283–96. doi: 10.1086/649407.

Murphy, Michelle. 2006. Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty: Environmental Politics, Technoscience, and Women Workers. Durham: Duke University Press.

Wang, Zhanyun et al. 2017. “A Never-Ending Story of Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs)?.” Environmental Science & Technology 51 (5): 2508–18. doi: 10.1021/acs.est.6b04806.

A screen capture from ChemMaps.com

Toxic chemical space

Substantive Caption:

Screen capture from the web app ChemMaps, depicting a view of “chemical space” from the perspective of PFOA. Each “star” in this map represents a chemical compound of a distinct molecular identity. The relative positions of these stars indicate structural similarity, according to “a complex compendium of 1D, 2D and 3D pre-computed molecular descriptors to generate the chemical space in three dimensions” (Borrel, Kleinstreuer, and Fourches 2018). Based on the assumption that chemical properties are correlated with molecular structure—a bedrock of modern organic chemistry—the proximity of substances in this map is supposed to be an index of chemical and toxicological similarity. Like most work in cheminformatics, ChemMaps was originally designed to expedite drug discovery. However, “ChemMaps.com aims to become the go-to website for anyone wanting to search, mine or visualize chemical space” (Borrel, Kleinstreuer, and Fourches 2018). This includes those concerned about environmental toxicity of chemicals like the PFASs.

Here, hovering just over the shoulder of PFOA, the viewer floats in a purely molecular galaxy. This chemical holism purports to represent the constituents of the material world of Teflon and Scotchgard and cancer, but this form of visualization dramatizes how far away we are. It is one realization of a trend that the philosopher François Dagognet associated with the representation of chemical substances in abstract molecular terms: “whereas the poets have always suffered from the gap between things and signs, chemistry tranquilly effects the miracle of their coincidence. The neologisms, however, lose their attachment with sensible reality, qualities, and appearances. In order to be able to go to the depths of substances, on the ocean of their relationships, it’s necessary to break the moorings. The learned words, kinds of algebraic polynomials, cease then to touch us. Uprooted, they address themselves only to the intelligence of structures.” (Dagognet 2002 [1969], 158).

Design Statement:

  • Framing the problem of environmental toxicity as a problem of information overload tends to suggest computational solutions.
  • Molecules are extremely well adapted to computer modeling and large-scale comparisons.
  • But honestly the intensification of computational methods is suspiciously analogous to the intensified production of new, putatively safer chemicals as a solution to environmental toxicity.
  • It may be that the computational tractability of molecules is an index of their intractability as toxic subjects. Perhaps here, as in other domains, “the simplification of ontology has led to the enormous complication of epistemology,” (Viveiros de Castro 2004).

References:

Borrel, Alexandre, Nicole C. Kleinstreuer, and Denis Fourches. 2018. “Exploring Drug Space with ChemMaps.Com.” Bioinformatics 34 (21): 3773–75. doi: 10.1093/bioinformatics/bty412.

Dagognet, François. 2002 [1969]. Tableaux et langages de la chimie : essai sur la représentation. Seyssel: Champ Vallon.

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo Batalha. 2004. “Exchanging Perspectives: The Transformation of Objects into Subjects in Amerindian Ontologies.” Common Knowledge 10 (3): 463–484. doi: 10.1215/0961754X-10-3-463.

"Index workers" in 1938, plus a paper form used to computerize molecular identity

Making molecular identity

Substantive Caption:

The main image depicts the editorial offices of Chemical Abstracts, circa 1938. For most of the 20th century and through the present-day, the abstract journals, collective indexes, and databases of Chemical Abstracts (now Chemical Abstracts Service, or CAS) have been the authoritative source for bibliographic and regulatory information about chemical substances and the chemical sciences, including allied fields such as toxicology. In this image, “index workers” are engaged in compiling an annual or decennial index of the publication. The vast majority of these cards refer to individual chemical substances rather than subject headings or author names. Much index labor involved writing, rewriting, cross-referencing, and error-checking the systematic chemical names that were the key to the whole enterprise, since they allowed for the arrangement of hundreds of thousands (today hundreds of millions) of substances in chemically-meaningful alphabetical order. This work was particularly challenging because the research chemists who wrote the journal articles abstracted and indexed in Chemical Abstracts often did not themselves use systematic names. This was both because the names were cumbersome and because the uniform chemical ontology that they expressed was sometimes a poor fit for how chemists defined the substances that their research addressed.

 “Among personal characteristics for this type of work accuracy perhaps should rank highest, and with that conscientiousness, patience, a meticulous attentiveness to detail (without a loss of perspective of relative values, since a great deal of work has to be turned out, at times under considerable pressure), power of concentration, good judgment, and interest in words as words, a love of puzzles and of guessing and digging out elusive ideas, meanings, words, and formulas. An interest in things rather than people is likely to lead to greater satisfaction in this type of work, since the opportunities for personal professional contacts outside the office are relatively few. The analytical rather than the creative type is probably best suited to this kind of work. Good eyes (at least strong ones) are absolutely essential, while the ability to sit hour after hour without much relief is a requirement not to be laughed off. Work of this nature is not for the overly energetic or restless person” (Scott 1938, 275; italics in original).

The inset image depicts a form of the sort that was used when CAS re-created this whole operation on digital computers during the 1960s.

Design Statement:

  • Molecular identity is not given by nature – not entirely, anyway.
  • Rather, it is the product of human choice and human work, entrenched within systems of information technology and bureaucracy.
  • Recognizing this and tracing its history can help shed light on the default ways in which toxic subjects have come to be visualized and not-visualized.

Molecular identity is not given by nature. Rather, it was made in meeting rooms and editorial offices, for the purposes of organizing information about chemical substances, in order to support research and development within the turn of the century synthetic chemicals industry (Hepler-Smith 2015a; Hepler-Smith 2015b; Hepler-Smith 2016). And both making and maintaining this system of molecular identity took (and takes) a whole lot of *work*.

My intention in juxtaposing these images is to direct historical and ethnographic attention to the situated practices—including especially bureaucratic practices—through which the simplicities, complexities, and uncertainties of environmental toxicity are constituted. They are typically taken to be baked into the material nature of chemical substances and bodies. To a certain degree, they are; but they are also the product of a way of ordering the world of substances that I am calling “molecular bureaucracy” (Hepler-Smith 2019). The institutions, practices and technologies that render the world molecular (cf. Myers 2015) entail simplifications, frustrations, fortuitous affordances, and regrettable consequences. Training our vision on easily-overlooked legal definitions, information technologies, administrative procedures, clerical labor, and nomenclature conventions can help shed light on why toxic subjects get visualized in the ways they do.

References:

Hepler-Smith, Evan. 2015. "'Just as the Structural Formula Does': Names, Diagrams, and the Structure of Organic Chemistry at the 1892 Geneva Nomenclature Congress." Ambix 62 (1): 1-28. doi: 10.1179/1745823414Y.0000000006.

Hepler-Smith, Evan. 2015b. “Systematic Flexibility and the History of the IUPAC Nomenclature of Organic Chemistry.” Chemistry International 37 (2): 10-14. doi: 10.1515/ci-2015-0232.

Hepler-Smith, Evan. 2016. “Changing Names and Naming Change: Transformations in the ‘International Machinery’ of Chemical Information.” Proceedings of the International Workshop on the History of Chemistry, March 2-4 2015, Tokyo. 68-76. http://kagakushi.org/iwhc2015/proceedings/.

Hepler-Smith, Evan. 2019. "Molecular Bureaucracy: Toxicological Information and Environmental Protection." Environmental History 24 (3). Forthcoming.

Myers, Natasha. 2015. Rendering Life Molecular: Models, Modelers, and Excitable Matter. Durham: Duke University Press.

Scott, Janet D. 1938. “The Chemist at Work. XIV. My Work with Chemical Abstracts.” Journal of Chemical Education 15 (6): 271–75. doi: 10.1021/ed015p271.

Static: The Toxic Knowledge Politics of a Post-trust Era

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Static: The Toxic Knowledge Politics of a Post-trust Era

In light of a radical spike in its use, the English Oxford Dictionary (EOD) declared “post-truth” the 2016 Oxford word of the year. Two years later, the EOD decided on an equally troubling descriptor, “toxic”, as best representing “the ethos, mood, [and] preoccupations” of 2018. In this collection of images, I attempt to rethink post-truth and toxicity together, exploring visualization as a tactic for developing and representing a conception of epistemological “static” as a particularly toxic form of contemporary knowledge politics. Building off of Kockelman’s analysis of “enemies, parasites, and noise” (2010), toxicity is here conceived as a particular type of third (a relation to a relation), one that is obstructive, corruptive, and/or corrosive to a previously established and effective channel of communication. Static, then, is a token of this type; it functions by flooding the channel with enough “alternative signals” that messages become unclear or distorted and the channel less effective, if not completely inoperative. In Crowds on Demand, the interference of professional actors taking up as local stakeholders muddled the message received by the New Orleans City Council, therein undermining public trust in the utility of traditional symbolic forms of democratic politics. In Search for California, the equal intensities of contradicting representations of California—as a state of paradise and/or perdition—mimics the unintelligibility of “white noise,” creating a simulation of the paralysis induced when the blurring of fact, fiction, and fantasy impedes our ability to trust even our own impressions and desires.

References:

Kockelman, Paul. 2010. “Enemies, Parasites, and Noise:How to Take Up Residence in a System Without Becoming a Term in It.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 20 (2): 406–21. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1548-1395.2010.01077.x.

“Word of the Year 2016 Is... | Oxford Dictionaries.” n.d. Oxford Dictionaries | English. Accessed May 10, 2019. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/word-of-the-year/word-of-the-year-2016.

“Word of the Year 2018 Is... | Oxford Dictionaries.” n.d. Oxford Dictionaries | English. Accessed May 10, 2019. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/word-of-the-year/word-of-the-year-2018.

Created Image: Crowds on Demand: Toxicity and Symbolic Form

Substantive Caption:

This image points to an instance of “astroturfing” as a practice of converting economic capital into political power through the purchase and/or production of an illusion of grassroots support. The image is composed of a juxtaposition of a photograph of a New Orleans City Council meeting with a screenshot taken from the company website of Crowds on Demand, a freelance publicity firm that specializes in contracting crowds of actors to influence legislation and sway public opinion. In this particular instance, Crowds on Demand was contracted to influence the New Orleans City Council to approve the construction of a new natural-gas power plant in New Orleans East, a predominantly immigrant and minority community that has a long history of struggling against similar instances of environmental racism. The fallout from this astroturfing campaign, as well as the failure of the City Council to respond adequately, has called the very possibility of a meaningful democratic politics into question. The image thus attempts to make use of this particular breach of trust to exemplify and discuss astroturfing as a toxic force that deteriorates the meaning of symbolic forms and therein leaches the potential for meaningful political action.

In 2018, Crowds on Demand was indirectly contracted by Entergy (a New Orleans based energy company) to hire dozens of professional actors to create the impression of strong grassroots support for a new, $211 million natural-gas plant in east New Orleans. Despite attempts to obscure their involvement through subcontractors, the combined evidence garnered through the investigations of The Lens (a local non-profit newsroom) and a city-commissioned law firm suggests that the company intentionally financed the hiring of false advocates to overcome the otherwise formidable grassroots opposition taking hold in the communities living in close proximity to proposed construction site. On two occasions, these trained actors flooded New Orleans’ City Council meetings, providing fraudulent testimony as false constituents while simultaneously preempting actual constituents from entering the meeting and participating in the discussion. The photograph of one such meeting—located the bottom of the combined image—shows the numerous bright-orange shirts and bold printed signs, held by a diverse group of inconspicuous looking actors, that provided a convincing representation of popular support for the new plant. What cannot be captured here, however, are the lists of talking points developed and given to the actors by Crowds on Demand, along with non-disclosure agreements and strict instructions to avoid the media and deny any accusations of monetary compensation for their appearance.

The disciplining of deception in this way enabled Crowds on Demand’s involvement to remain concealed until after the City Council had already approved the controversial power plant in March of 2018. However, with numerous convergences of evidence of Entergy’s willing financial connection to this bout of political theater, crowds of disaffected citizens—this time authentic—soon gathered in protest, calling for the City Council to respond by holding a vote to repeal the plant’s approval. The Council initially appeared to be receptive to this idea but later refused a second vote on the issue, choosing instead to impose a $5 million fine on Entergy for their deceptions. This disappointment prompted further skepticism of the City Council’s allegiances, a mistrust not unwarranted, given that the majority of current council members had either received substantial campaign contributions from Entergy or had previously worked for the energy company. Thus, in addition to the safely-assumed public health impacts of the off-gassed chemicals of the future power plant, this coming to light of evidence of corruption and professionally organized deceit has fomented a sense of fatalist cynicism amongst residents of New Orleans East. Take, for example, the words of one local activist, Ming Nguyen: “We’ve done this community-based process, but I don’t know if it ever mattered, because this decision was made before there was ever a hearing.” Thus, perhaps this instance of astroturfing was a double deception, a falsification of grassroots support that enabled the City Council to act as if they had been persuaded, when in reality, in order to protect the City's vested interests, they were always already going to approve the plant. I am neither able nor particularly interested in endorsing or denouncing this view. Aside from whether or not the New Orleans municipal government is actually plagued with this degree of corruption, the fact that it is being posited cuts to the core of what I mean by post-trust.

One way of understanding toxicity is as a reactive force, a force of deterioration, with the effect of rendering the active passive; toxicity as a leaching of vitality. As such, toxicity is not an essential but a relational property of that which inhabits channels of communication and impedes or alters the signals between senders and receivers, broadly conceived. Like the parasite (Kockelman 2010, Serres 2007), its effect is not simply upon an object or a "host" as a single unit. Instead it takes effect within a system of relations as an impedance, or a corrosive agent. For instance, neurotoxins work by either reducing the production of neurotransmitters or by blocking the reception sites between neurons. Hemotoxins interrupt cardiovascular system by disrupting blood coagulation processes, therein precluding its normal flow. Analogously, the campaigns of Crowds on Demand—and the practice of astroturfing more generally—are toxic because they inhabit the gaps, the interstices of symbolic channels of democratic political participation so as to filter, jumble, or overload these channels in ways that circumvent the democratic process.

If we take democracy to be a uniquely symbolic and performative mode of politics (Matynia 2009), then we must also appreciate the fundamental role of our capacity to trust in the sincerity of these symbolic performances. Like a well-camouflaged parasite, Crowds on Demand hides within the established symbolic forms of grassroots-based political expression (protests, rallies, testimony, letters to congress, etc.), all the while diminishing their value. It sustains itself on the very same trust in the democratic process that it undermines. Accordingly, Ming Nguyen’s quote perfectly encapsulates the potentially toxic effect of Post-trust politics. It denotes an acquiescence, a sense of loss and resentment, of isolation and futility that is symptomatic of losing faith in one’s capacity to act.

 

Design Statement:


This image is an illustration of a mode of political toxicity that takes effect through the manipulation of symbolic forms. It serves as an example, a case in point, of how the inherently symbolic grounds of democratic political action leaves its modes and forms of representation vulnerable to distortion. The ethnographic utility of this image is rooted in its ability to provide a “thicker” conception of what astroturfing is as a concept and practice by providing the viewer with visual access to a single, exemplary manifestation. It manages to do so by taking advantage of the ethnographic technique of juxtaposition. The screenshot of website shows a number of grassroots political tactics that Crowds on Demand lists as potential symbolic forms available to mimicry. The image of the city council meeting then provides a snap shot of this practice, capturing the likeness of this imitation in the moment. Illustrations like these are useful in ethnography to add precision and substance to the concept, situation, or process being described. That is, much like an ethnographic vignette, they enable the ethnographer to reduce the ambiguity of theory by detailing a particular situation, event, or episode of interest.

References:

“Crowds on Demand.” n.d. Crowds On Demand. Accessed May 10, 2019. https://crowdsondemand.com/.

Kockelman, Paul. 2010. “Enemies, Parasites, and Noise:How to Take Up Residence in a System Without Becoming a Term in It.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 20 (2): 406–21. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1548-1395.2010.01077.x.

Matynia, Elżbieta. 2009. Performative Democracy. The Yale Cultural Sociology Series. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.

Serres, Michel. 1982. The Parasite. Translated by Lawrence R. Schehr. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Stein, Michael Isacc. 2018. “Actors Were Paid to Support Entergy’s Power Plant at New Orleans City Council Meetings.” Newsroom. The Lens. May 4, 2018. https://thelensnola.org/2018/05/04/actors-were-paid-to-support-entergys-....

Created Image: Search for "California"

Substantive Caption:

Inspired by the diverse and contradictory results of a Google Image search of “California," this photomontage represents toxicity by simulating the paralysis of over-saturation. Leaving the search term sufficiently broad, Google’s algorithm turned up a siren-song representation of Californian nature and society as simultaneously idyllic and dangerous. Accordingly, the montage includes a glut of images of both devastation and opulence, of alarm and allure. The image also provokes reflection on the enigmatic and protean problem of human desire. In stark contrast to neoliberal musings, this montage highlights the human ability to uphold and perpetuate contradictions and, at times, to act against what individuals think is best for themselves and others. It thus prompts further consideration not only of the toxicity of our desires, but of a more insidious and unconscious desire for toxicity.
The style of photography ranges from documentary, landscape, and photojournalism to the promotional and the memetic, with the content ranging from utter ruination to luxury living. Data visualizations were intentionally mined from more or less questionable sources and extracted and layered in such a way as to inhibit, rather than produce a clear argument. By flooding the viewer with juxtapositions of the utopic with the dystopic, while also blurring any clear distinction between genres of fact, fiction, and fantasy, this image forces us to consider the near Sisyphean challenge of making a new, clear, and compelling visual statement within such an already saturated discourse. Hence the image’s title, Search for “California", is both descriptive and imperative, simultaneously indexing the method of production and also compelling the viewer to grapple with the paradoxical tropes of the strange-yet-familiar places in which we live and die together.


Design Statement:

This image simulates the disorientation engendered by the veritable saturation of the contemporary with ambiguous and contradictory visual discourses. Rather than privilege data visualizations as an endpoint or a stable conclusion, the image layers them in with other variations of visuals. The effect is relativization: scientific visualizations of data aggregates are not above, but lateral to advertisements, memes, and other modes of visual rhetoric and representation. They are all in the mix, the visual milieu of the quotidian Anthropocene. The act of juxtaposing these results aligns with James Clifford's conception of ethnographic surrealism, a common tactic of which was to create an “odd museum [that] merely documents, juxtaposes, relativizes—a perverse collection" (1981, 552). It thus utilizes paradox and antithesis, not to achieve further synthesis, to establish a new, even “truer” truth about the world, but to create an open space for thought and action that is "subversive of surface realities” (Clifford 1981, 548).

James Adams: Cite As

Cite As:

James Adams. 2019. Static: The Toxic Knowledge Politics of a Post-trust Era. In Visualizing Toxic Subjects Digital Exhibit, curated by James Adams and Kim Fortun. The Center for Ethnography. June.

Toxic Memory: The Weight of 12,650 Tons of Nazi Concrete

Heavy Load-Bearing Cylinder
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Bauwerk T

Design Statement:

  • Decay
  • Fragment
  • Fungus ("Pilz")
  • Guilt
  • Heaviness
  • Naziism
  • Megalomania
  • Pit
  • Trauma
  • Waste

The public discussion around the “heavy load-bearing cylinder” framed the object as a toxic subject for Germany’s cultural memory due to its origin in the Nazi era—and many voices demand its erasure rather than its preservation. I want to challenge this one-dimensional reading by framing the structure as object that transcends the binary of Germaness/Naziism that drives the public condemnation by reframing it as an ‘inconvenient’ memorial that opens a space of deep insights into what it means to be (in-)human. At the core of my argument is the assumption that culture and barbarity are closely intertwined and cannot be separated. Consider this: the Nazis built “heavy load-bearing cylinder” was built an engineering measure to test how weight Berlin’s soil can take. Based on the data collected at the site, the regime planned to erect a gigantic triumphal arch nearby, an architectural statement that articulated their goal of world domination in an ancient Roman imperial aesthetic. Despite this anti-modern cause, the data collected at the site was highly influential in shaping the norms we still use for building high-rises and other heavy buildings until today. As inconvenient as it is, I have to argue that the structure is as much a monument for Nazi barbarity as it is a monument for German technological expertise. In fact, I do not think we can separate Germaness/Naziism, as inconvenient as it sounds—we need to get to terms with that. This photograph of the gaping hole was taken during the construction of the drum and symbolically stands for the abyss, or “Bodenlosigkeit” (groundlessness) of memory that we have to dive into to grapple with it.

Substantive Caption:

As an urban humanist interested in the intellectual history of the Nazi period, I am grappling with a unique remnant of this time: Albert Speer’s so called heavy load-bearing cylinder; a massive concrete structure outweighing the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, and the statue of Jesus Christ in Rio de Janeiro combined. Originally planned as an engineering measure to prepare Berlin’s unpredictable soil for the erection of a gigantic triumphal arch, this fragment of an unfinished project still haunts the collective consciousness. Ill-reputed as “fungus” in the public narrative, voices that demand its erasure summon, while others call for its preservation. During my field- and archival research in Berlin, I collected thousands of visuals spanning from historical photographs and construction plans to post-war art projects. I am interested in exploring ways to structure my visual archive and critically analyze the “toxicity” or “intoxication” of this mute object in the urban memory. The questions is: shall it be erased, as it attracts neo-Nazis who are on the rise in Germany, or, does it have to be preserved for public memory? Can an object be toxic for our memory? How can we express that visually?

Toxic Homelessness

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Created Image - Anti-Homeless Bench

Benches, designed similar to this one, are found all over Southern California to try to prevent homeless people from sleeping on them. Several people who are homeless still manage to find a way to sleep on the benches whether that means sleeping sitting up or piling old dirty blankets or clothing up till it works; others opt for folded up cardboard on the ground. There is only one shelter bed available per four of the estimated 55,000 homeless people in LA; the rest of the homeless population takes to sleeping in cars, campers, tents, doorways, or benches on a nightly basis. Would you want to compete for a bed to sleep in every night? This bench proudly boasts, "City of Hermosa Beach." Labeling this divided bench seems to relay, “as a city, we do not want homeless people to feel comfortable sleeping here.”

I chose this photo because this bench design seems to beg ethical questions. Who should have access to these benches and for what purposes? What message is being sent by the city/cities which incorporate these? I think it is important to start a conversation on whether these practices by cities are appropriate. The middle divider on the benches to prevent sleeping further portrays the NIMBY (not in my backyard) movement. We know homeless people need somewhere to sleep, but we do not want that to happen where we eat, shop, or visit regularly. This simple addition to a bench shows the lack of care and support for our homeless population and relays the toxic reality that LA's homeless people deal with on a daily basis.

Created Image American Dream

Does hard work actually result in the fruition of the American Dream? Or might your hard work equally result in homelessness? Los Angeles has a growing homeless population that is easily accepted by onlookers with excuses such as, “this is what happens if you become addicted to drugs or alcohol.” The truth is that the top reasons for homelessness are not the fault of the individuals, but instead caused by outside factors such as lack of affordable housing, lack of jobs, and lack of resources. The inaccurate stigmas surrounding homelessness further justify the NIMBY movement, allowing people to justify and make excuses for not helping out their fellow humans.

I used the juxtaposition of the Wikipedia definition for the American Dream next to the top three reasons for homelessness to relay that homelessness can just as equally result from hard work because the reasons for homelessness are not addiction or laziness, instead they are outside factors. Many Californians are living paycheck to paycheck and are at risk of ending up homeless despite their best efforts. This image was created to inspire us to look at and reevaluate the structural and political issues that are putting Americans, even those who are considered hard workers, in this inhumane situation.

Trapped in the Toxic lens of Hurricane María

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Trapped in the Toxic lens of Hurricane María

On September 20, 2017 Hurricane Maria struck the island of Puerto Rico. The consequences were disastrous; no water, no electricity and no communication within the island or with the outside world. Although, more than a year has passed, people continue to live under precarious conditions.

The hurricane triggered a massive relief response, from governments, NGOs and individuals. However, not all of these responses were conducted equitably. Elements such as power, the political scene, Wallstreet interest and a top-bottom approach to disaster management cascaded the disaster into a real mess.

This photo combination explores how these toxic elements created before or after the event shaped the island response to Hurricane Maria. While my first photo essay (The Toxicity of the U.S Aid Relief) highlights the intended or unintended consequences of the relief process carried out by the U.S government on the island, this new set of images reflect on how strategies used by Puerto Ricans to resist toxic relief and aid can reproduce toxicity in itself.

In Jesus we Trust

Substantive Caption:

(Keywords) religion, relief, white savior complex

While some faith based institutions (both local and foreign) were instrumental in the relief process post Maria, others reinforced the white savior complex through their actions. Many faith based institutions that came to the island after Hurricane Maria were foreign, and their actions responded to their own organization’s objectives and not necessarily to what people needed. Furthermore, these actions can lead to reinstate the system that has maintained communities in a precarious state rather than questioning the structure that keep them oppressed. In a way, this structure this structure imposes people’s forced acceptance of their situation, producing a veil between the perception and reality. For example, the structure of some faith based institutions promotes the idea that event such as hurricanes are simply “natural” disasters and that people must accept their consequences as a natural process rather than question their consequence as a product of human impact.

Design Statement:

In this image, there is status of Jesus next to a newly sprouted plant. I am trying to convey how faith based organizations are embedded in the everyday life of residents. Also, faith based institutions have a lot of political power on the island, which sometimes translates into forcing unjust policies onto citizens. For example, Puerto Rico’s  senate wanted to approve the "Religious Freedom Law", which would allow government employees to oppose taking actions that go against their religious beliefs (e.g. it would allow a Demographic Record employee to refuse to make a sex change on a birth certificate if a transsexual requests it).

Connectingmess

Substantive Caption;

(Keywords) electrical grid, connection, physical visualization of toxicity

Hurricane Maria left the island of Puerto Rico in total blackout. Almost two year has passed after the hurricane and there are still places that have no electricity. No electricity means no food in the fridge, mosquito bites, no school and for some it can mean the difference between life and death. Because state’s response has been so slow in connecting power to citizens, some people decided to connect the power lines back to their houses without the electric authority authorization. Furthermore, these same actions that residents are employing are the same ones that can expose them to toxic outcomes, such as death or physical damages if the person connecting the electricity fails to do so properly.

Design Statement

This picture serves as visual representation of the chaotic political structure and political toxicity on the island. Before Hurricane Maria,  the power grid was in bad shape (physically and financially). The financial hole the power authority found themselves in was caused in part to the emission of bonds to pay off Puerto Rico’s debt to hedge funds, mostly from Wall Street. Wallstreet interest unlawfully incentivize Puerto Rico government to issue these bonds even though both parties were aware there was no liquidity behind the bunds, and therefore there was “no” way they could pay them back. Two years later Puerto Rico was forced into bankruptcy. Furthermore, for years the local government wanted to privatize the power grid under the excuse that in needed to be modernize. After the hurricane the government had the perfect excuse to start their privatization plan for the power grid. Without any proper selection mechanism, the local government signed a $300 million contract to hire a company with little to no experience repairing power grids. Furthermore, after the cancelation of the contract the local government continue paying this company for 30 days, because of a clause the government neglected to see.

Resisting Ricky

Substantive Caption:

(Keywords) deaths, disaster, government, art

In a sense I am trying to capture how political actions leads to disaster, and how disaster breeds disaster under our current political climate conditions. One of the figures heavily criticized in Puerto Rico is former governor Ricardo Roselló. His government denied  that the island went through a health crisis during Hurricane Maria. Although the government stated that only 64 people initially died in consequence of Hurricane Maria, several researchers and journalists have reported the mortality rate beyond  4,000. Furthermore, the local government praised the Federal and Executive branch of the U.S government for their response to the event, overlooking the fact that they were responsible for stopping food and relief supplies at the ports of Puerto Rico the weeks following the hurricane. Puerto Rico's governor has been very lenient on critiquing the U.S government under the wrong impression, that will pave the way and draw political support for Puerto Rico’s statehood.

Design Statement;

Historically in Puerto Rico, art has been used as a way to bring political issues to mainstem society. The original picture is from a street artist called el Anti-llano (circa. 2018-2019), and it shows a Puerto Rican trap artist, Bad Bunny. Through art, it appears as if the artist is juxtaposing and playing with words, writing "Bad Gobby" instead of Bad Bunny.  This image conveys how, through art, government figures and actions have been heavily criticized. Furthermore, this piece of art was "hung" into one of the main transit roads in San Juan (Puerto Rico's capital).

Semiotic Bridges and Toxic Transductions

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Semiotic Bridges and Toxic Transductions

I am an anthropologist and historian of (some of) the sciences, which for me includes the science of signs, semiotics.  My essay here makes occasional reference, including in its title, to the productive overlaps and cross-talk that have taken place in both the life sciences and in the study of language, sometimes condensed as biosemiotics. If there is one effect I hope my writing produces it would be to increase interest in and care for the sciences. Considering how much criticism (some of) the sciences also merit, this can be a challenge sometimes, but I consider it an essential part of an ethnographic responsibility.

Design statement: This set of images traces some developments in scientific visualizations centered on PM2.5, at different scales of analysis from the molecular to the global.

 

TLR

Molecular imaging of a toll-like receptor (TLR). Every lung cell is studded with tens of thousands of receptors that form what biosemioticians call "semiotic bridges" -- molecular assemblages that transduce signals from an exterior environment (top) across the cell membrane (the thick and mostly colorless middle) to a semi-fluid cytoplasmic interior (bottom) crowded with diverse complex molecules that get mobilized into "signalling pathways." (These are not pictured here but some show up in the next image in the photo essay.) One common end result of such complex signal transduction is inflammation, or the constriction of lung passageways that are a symptom of respiratory conditions such as asthma. 

At this scale of analysis toxicity acts via molecular mechanism such as these.  Painting with a broad brush: an inhaled molecule binds, beacause of its particular pattern or shape, to the upper portion of the receptor with a complementary patterned shape.  The shape of the receptor thus changes, and this changed shape is sensed at the other end, inside the cell membrane, and triggers a complex cascade of cellular reactions that result in some kind of harm. 

The Toll-like Receptor or TLR is one of my favorite "matters of concern." These particular "pattern recognition molecules" (PRMs) are a relatively recent biomedical discovery, becoming visualizable and knowable only since the 1980s, a basic part of what we now call the innate immune system. On an evolutionary time scale, this is a very old set of molecular structures that we humans share with numerous organisms: fruitflies and fugu, mice and many other mammals.  TLRs have differentiated and multiplied over this evolutionary history; scientists are also interested in how they also differ slightly within species. Enormous investments of time, money, resources, energy, and affect are mobilized -- largely in the Euro-American and East Asian societies that can afford such investments -- to understand these receptors and their complex signalling pathways in the more detailed way they demand.

Some scholars find such "molecularization" of life, health, and toxicity to be reductive, inappropriately mechanistic, or otherwise deserving only critique or dismissal; I am looking to activate a different set of semiotic pathways in my viewers and readers.  I would like this image to transduce the intricate beauty of molecular structures and how that can capture the attention and interests of scientists; the commitments (vocations, for you Weberians) that those scientists embody in working out how variations in the molecule here may be associated with variations in different people's responses to inhaled pollutants; the importance of public investment in such "basic science" that will take years or maybe decades to "pay off," if it ever does; the collective effort to understand toxicity in its most minute enactments, and to stockpile and share data in public repositories like the Protein Database from which this image is taken; and the drives of curiousity, wonder, and for old-fashioned enlightenment that infrastructures a microscopic entity like this Toll-like receptor.

Design statementHyperrealistic visualizations of nanomolecular structures like cell surface receptors are a sign of both collective technical accomplishment, and invitation to sublime wonders. Mobilizing data from multiple expert communities accrued over years in expansive public databases, scientists work (perhaps to obsessive and excessive degrees) to understand the implications of difference at the molecular scale. Viewers are also interpellated into a scientific imaging tradition dating back to Robert Hooke’s Micrographia of 1665: asked to wonder, in amazement and curiosity, at the world contained within the world, the vital beautiful fragile structures of flesh.

TLRs and cars

Air pollution, TLRs, diabetes

This image from a recent article in the journal Diabetes represents what the authors call a "hypothetical framework" by which TLRs (my favorite semiotic bridge and pattern-recognizer) transduce air pollution into chronic disease conditions like diabetes and heart disease. 

The scientific persona of the "modest witness" that requires the authors to designate such an image as "hypothesized" is somehwat at odds with the genre of the scientific illustration and the air of definitiveness and literalness in its iconic mechanicity.  The figure in Figure 2 is clearly male, illustrating an ongoing problem in both journal illustrations and biomedical research itself, both of which normalize and naturalize maleness. Our dude here is seen eating a hot dog, sub, or cheese steak sandwich--these may not be differences that make a difference-- and the accompanying text highlights the synergistic role that "overnutrition" plays (hypothetically, I remind you) in exacerbating the connections between the air-pollution-pattern of an "environment" and the inflamed-diseased-organ-pattern inside our bodies.

I can't say for sure (I'm a modest witness, too) but I'll go out on a limb and say you would not have found an image like this, bringing cars and factories together with cytokines and livers within a single frame, in a major biomedical journal even just five years ago.  The isolated TLR in the previous slide is now almost lost in a complex translational shuffle. I chose this image -- not a useful visualization in the laboratory, but more a mechanism of visual communication -- because it depicts these new patterns of complexity, on multiple scales.  They are the collective result of new inter- and trans-disciplinary research efforts among immunologists, cardiologists, diabetes researchers, geneticists, biochemists, toxicologists, epidemiologists, and others.

A relevant part of the text reads:

Fig. 2 provides a hypothetical framework for these interactions and illustrates how inhalational stimuli may interact with overnutrition to entrain a state of chronic oxidative stress and inflammation...Teleologically, it is thought that pattern recognition receptors were meant to represent a crude but critical early-warning system to rapidly sense changes in lung microenvironment but also, equally importantly, to dissipate early to prevent unfettered inflammation. Thus, the notion that continual activation of these receptors may occur in a feed-forward manner and in concert with other stimuli without dissipation may be somewhat simplistic. However, it is also true that as humans, we did not evolve to be continually exposed to dietary and inhalational stimuli over the years, and such chronic exposure in vivo may have very different effects that we insufficiently understand. 

Design statement: This image conveys how the community of practice I study (environmental health scientists) themselves understand and visualize (“illustrate” might be better) their “object of concern” -- here, how “cardiometabloic diseases” is a multi-scale, emergent product of complex ecologies and systems.  It also directs attention to changing patterns in how objects like toxicity and their associated disease states are understood: toxic causes (factories, cars, eating habits) multiply into new patterns, imbricated with new patterns of in-body objects (organs, tissues, receptors, molecules).  Those interconnected patterns point in turn to another: scientists representing an increasing number of disciplines (pulmonologists, immunologists, geneticists, epidemiologists), each with their own technologies, styles, interests, and research traditions, coming into new patterns of collaboration, shaped by changing patterns of (largely) public research support.

 

Graphing PM2.5

This is an early diagram of "smog," produced from the air over Los Angeles in September 1969, the start of the contemporary era of air quality research, a time of increased data collection and new data visualizations. I want to emphasize the collective work and scientific attention required to turn imprecise, hazy "smog" -- a recognizable and rapidly worsening civic problem in places like Los Angeles in 1969 -- into something with measurable properties  that can be known in fine-grained detail (literally), and thus acted on -- as in, say, the 1970 Clean Air Act.

This graph comes from one of many scientific articles produced by a collaborative group of white men in white shirts and skinny black ties, some of whom worked mostly in Minnesota where they had developed the Minnesota Aerosol Analyzing System, developed for use in occupational health contexts such as granaries and bakeries.   At the center of this group is Kenneth Whitby, a guy you probably never heard of unless you've been awarded, or know someone who's been awarded, the Kenneth T. Whitby Award from the American Association for Aerosol Research. Whitby for me is an icon of all the undistinguished scientists and engineers who, in the last 50 years, have worked in the largely unrecognized labor of improving and inventing new scientific instrumentation for collecting air quality data, analyzing air's components in the specificities of time and place, and visualizing the data in new ways to more precisely characterize the slew of particles and toxins smogged there.

Design statement: This exemplifies what Hans-Joerg Rheinberger calls (in terms taken up from Derrida) the “graphematic space” that scientists work in, making (writing) “epistemic objects” such as PM2.5. An indistinct toxic “smog” is graphed/written as an epistemic object --something that is knowable and “graspable” as it comes to have fairly precisely specifiable characteristics (size, surface area, etc.), that get defined in response to the technical parameters and capacities of an experimental systems (instrumentation). definable properties.

Death rates from PM2.5 v exposure

This visualization of air pollution data is more recent, and shifts us to a different scale and kind of analysis.  Where the previous image focused on a particular air sample gathered at a particular place (Los Angeles) and a particular time (September 3, 1969), analyzing its components according to particle size and surface area, here the underlying data sets are more global, charting national death rates from PM2.5 (the y-axis) against mean annual PM2.5 exposure (the x-axis). The nations are also color coded by continent, and coded again according to GDP (the size of the circle).  The interactive visualization allows you to foreground different patterns in the data.

This particular data visualization signifies the potentials held by large public health data sets -- so dependent on data limitations, modeling parameters and assumptions, and other factors that simultaneously power and limit analysis -- less for finding answers, and more for their ability to generate new questions and prompt imagination and insight.  Clicking around on different parts of the graph and key shows some of these potentials: why are all the South American countries (in green) so tightly grouped? Why are Asian countries so splayed all over the graph? Is there a better explanation than "Money for cleanup!" for all those nations clustered down toward the graph's zero points?

And we can also see - or at least, see that there is a question to be posed - that high PM2.5 exposures do not necessarily correlate directly to increased death rates.  The many Gulf states that appear as large (wealthy) reddish circles out toward the right end of graph, representing the highest PM2.5 exposures, also have comparatively low death rates -- no worse than Iran, really, with its infamous air pollution, and much, much better than Iraq. (And Afghanistan is, literally, almost off the chart.)  Is it because PM2.5 in Saudi Arbaia, Kuwait, or Qatar is mostly cleaner fine sand particles rather than hydrocarbon-laden particles from cars and industrial facilities?  Or because they are wealthy enough to be managing the situation somehow, through better health care or otherwise?

Design statement: Data visualizations like this are used to produce and explore patterns in “Big Data.” They can (and should) be critiqued as limited, reductive, and otherwise subject to the vicissitudes of measurement, but this can also prevent anthropologists from reading for their productive potentials--not least as generators of new questions. Working with Gregory Bateson’s understanding that information is about “difference that makes a difference,” we can see how operationalizing the carefully characterized and organized differences that constitute large data sets--here, annual exposures to PM2.5 in different nations, their differential death rates, and their differential wealth -- can be used to produce new comparisons, hypotheses, and questions.

Death rates from PM2.5 2016 v 1990

Another interactive graph from the "Our World In Data" site. This one uses data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) in a fairly simple plot: PM2.5-attributed death rates per 100,000 individuals in 2009 (the x-axis) versus those same death in 2016 (the y-axis), with nation-states again color coded by continent and sized according to GDP.  The bisecting line going up through the middle represents no change -- indeed, no progress: the same number of people dying from air pollution in 2016 as seven years previously.  It's thus easy to see, by virtue of being below that line, that the vast majority of nations have indeed made at least some progress. The further down from that mid-line a nation is, the more deaths have decreased there, and the more progress that has been made -- relative to this one metric, anyway.

In significant swaths of (medical) anthropology, the hegemonic attitude towards "data" and especially "Big Data" largely coheres around indifference, skepticism, or flat-out oppositional critique.  The very idea of "metrics," like those produced and analyzed by organizations like the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (more or less equivalent, for some, to saying "the Gates Foundation"), seems to elicit strong reactive statements about the superior qualities of qualitative data and interpretive analysis.  Constructions of death rates like the ones depicted here, or of "DALYs" (Disability Adjusted Life-Years) are troped as (I will now exaggerate and italicize) wonky instruments of colonial control that eclipse or erase the subtleties and nuances so crucial to the quotidian lives that anthropologists alone can access and authorize.

This kind of critique -- and it's not unjustified -- turns on a cluster of notions, however, having to do with data, analysis, and science as tied almost exclusively (I will exaggerate again) to truthful representation -- a logocentrism, if you will, that is hegemonic in the sciences but shared as well, even if unacknowledged or cut somewhat by the apparent alterity of a "humanism," in anthropology.

But data and quantitative, computational analysis have other uses and modes, and the visualization here points to some of them -- indeed, pointing itself is one such valuable function.  Data visualizations like this one don't offer solid universal truths so much as re-direct the attention of scientists (including us), offer patterns to explore and ponder, and spark creative questioning.  Here, for example, this simple graph asks us to ask: how can we understand the differences between China and India? Two nations with similar (enough) GDPs, similar (enough) states of industrialization, similar (enough) headline-making "airpocalypses" in recent years, and similar (enough) death rates in 2009, as easily evidenced by their positions near the "150" marker on the x-axis -- yet something happened in China that made its data-blob move much further down the y-axis, below that midline?  China pushed -- somehow, on something -- and over the course of seven years lowered pretty dramatically -- more dramatically than India, at any rate -- the number of its citizens dying from lung-choking, heart-stopping, brain-eating air pollution.  The data and its visualizations may not tell us a truth, but they do tell us that something real is happening that makes a difference and one way to name that real difference falls under the rubric of governance...

Design statement: Data visualizations like this are used to produce and explore patterns in “Big Data.” They can (and should) be critiqued as limited, reductive, and otherwise subject to the vicissitudes of measurement, but this can also prevent anthropologists from reading for their productive potentials--not least as generators of new questions. Working with Gregory Bateson’s understanding that information is about “difference that makes a difference,” we can see how operationalizing the carefully characterized and organized differences that constitute large data sets--here, changes in death rates due to PM2.5 exposure in different nations, with their differential wealth, at two different points in time -- can be used to produce new comparisons, hypotheses, and questions. It also conveys the difference that programmatic social action -- in this case, air quality regulation and remediation, informed by data and irs knowledges -- has made (or not) in different national governance systems.