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View PointChemistry between and among us

Chemistry between and among us

Published: 5th May 2021 12:03 am | Updated: 4th May 2021 10:28 pm

If there is anything the pandemic has taught us (assuming that we are willing to learn) is the salutary lesson that our bodies do not end at our skins (a point made as far back as 1985 by the critic Donna Haraway in the form of a question in her ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs’), nor does the world end at our skin.

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We are in an unending set of chemical relations with our surroundings: whether this is the pesticide/insecticide we apply around the house, the gases we inhale when we step out, the chemicals from carpeting in malls/cinema houses, the linoleum and room freshers in offices or the perfume/deos that are integral to our public corporeal presence.

Research on the ‘sick building syndrome’, notably by Michelle Murphy the historian, has shown how the workplace and places of residence poison bodies because of the chemicals literally ingrained into the fabric of the building, from PVC pipes to anti-rust paints to assorted coating on windowpanes and such. And we are not accounting here for all the chemicals we all consume, from the most diet/nutrition/calorie conscious vegan to the fast-food junkie.

Let us rethink our bodies as chemical units, linked to other such units, all in a gigantic chemical vat.

Chemical Embodiments

It is a truism to say that various microlevel chemical processes help us function as a human body, from breathing (‘inhalation’, as the current trending term puts it) to digestion, and producing effects as diverse as whiteness of skin to melanoma.

This means, all embodiment is chemical embodiment, and our bodies are structured around the chemicals entering our system without our knowledge, but whose effects are profound and life-long, in most cases. Chemical embodiment has, of course, two sides, supportive and injurious: like all kinships, ‘chemical kinship’ (as anthropologist Vanessa Agard-Jones calls it) has multiple effects.

The pandemic has brought home to us that changes, however small these are, in the chemistry of the air, now populated densely with the virus, alters violently our chemical kinship with the world and our chemical embodiment. We breathe so we may live, and it is breathing that is likely to kill us because to breathe today is to be open to severe chemical ‘interventions’.

The fact that these interventions are invisible – like that other killer, radiation – makes this chemical kinship even more distressing. The body works as a meeting point, a battleground, a plot of land on which chemicals wage war, encounter each other, negotiate and win/lose the deal and the chance to influence the body. We inherit in our biomaterials some of these encounters and bodies and their chemicals, we remember them, in the form of immunity or susceptibility to certain diseases, learned behaviour, etc.

But this is not all. The interest in chemical embodiment, down to the genetic structures that partially make us what we are, has deeper resonances and, therefore, a larger politics.

‘Our’ Chemical Ancestry

With gene mapping and the heightened interest in genomic belonging, we have begun to acknowledge that ‘our’ individual chemical embodiments are not strictly speaking our own. The chemical and genetic history of an individual or a community shows linkages and continuities, sharing and caring across bodies and chemical units, such as the DNA and gene pools. Indeed Kaja Finkler, the anthropologist, states:

“Knowledge of one’s genetic inheritance traced through the DNA can stand as a proxy for memory by connecting people to their ancestors and reinforcing continuity with them that may be absent in postmodern life, as the narratives reveal.”

This is chemical embodiment as a collective inheritance: you do not own your DNA since it belongs to your community, ethnic group, race.

Native Studies scholar Kim Tallbear in a series of essays has argued that an overreliance on biochemical evidence for ancestry and/or kinship ignores cultural forms of belonging that are, in most cases, stronger than bloodlines. Tallbear has interrogated the biochemical determinism that appears in contemporary genetic technologies and ancestry research. Tallbear writes:

“indigenous peoples’ ‘ancestry’ is not simply genetic ancestry evidenced in ‘populations’ but biological, cultural, and political groupings constituted in dynamic, long-standing relationships with each other and with living landscapes that define their people-specific identities and, more broadly, their indigeneity.”

Dangerous Link

Tallbear is one of several scholars who see a dangerous link between science, the emphasis on chemical-biomaterial roots, race theory and the marketplace (see her essay ‘The Emergence, Politics, and Marketplace of Native American DNA’).

When chemicals apparently not owned by any company (Union Carbide/Dow would be a prime example) enter the biomaterials of an entire population, altering their present and future histories indelibly, then the Tallbear arguments about the linkage becomes far clearer. The science captures, archives and analyses the chemical foundations of ethnicity, race and community. The supply of necessary DNA and chemicals for this ancestry project comes from the new colonised: the Natives, aboriginals and others.

In a scathing 2012 essay, ‘“Your DNA Is Our History”: Genomics, Anthropology, and the Construction of Whiteness as Property’ in Current Anthropology on the exploitative sciences that treat the Native bodies as a chemical source pool, Jenny Reardon and Kim Tallbear note how it is Western science that continues to write the history of the world and its inhabitants, this time through the analysis of (Native) chemical embodiments. As they put it, the Natives become ‘mere repositories of DNA’. They worry that in the guise of developing an antiracist ethos through genomics,

“biological anthropologists and geneticists commonly state desires to build an antiracist future, often they do so on conceptual and material terrains that leave intact old links between whiteness and property.”

For entire bodies and populations, the recognition of our chemical embodiments and chemical kinships has shifted the site of battle, whether it is the viral materials we breathe in or the DNA someone wants to collect from us.

What is the chemistry between and among us?

(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)


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