Asbestos: Inside and outside, toxic and haptic
Peer-reviewed article in special issue of Environmental Humanities journal on ‘Toxic Embodiment’,
ed. Celilia Asberg and Olga Cielemecka, out early 2019
Asbestos is a fibrous mineral. Airborne asbestos – similar to nuclear radiation and chemical atmospheric pollutants – is invisible to the naked eye, and living and breathing alongside it has deferred toxic effects upon human bodies. The toxicity of asbestos operates by breaching the boundary that appears to separate the insides of our bodies from our outward environments. Asbestos attests to the fact that the human does not just touch the nonhuman, culture does not just touch nature, but the boundaries between them operate within a framework of trans-corporeality (Alaimo 2010), viscous porosity (Tuana 2008), and reciprocal interpenetration. In this article I examine the history and materiality of asbestos to theorize toxic embodiment through the mutuality of the haptic sense and the breaching of boundaries of inside and outside. I develop this through an analysis of my own film project Asbestos (2016), shot at the mining town of Asbestos, Quebec, mobilizing a discussion of haptic visuality to theorize toxic embodiment in its relationship to reciprocity, vulnerability, and responsibility. In the case of asbestos, the boundary of inside and outside traverses a series of unfolding scales: from the boundedness of a single cell, to a single organism encased in skin, to a body enclosed in a hazmat suit, to architecture and surrounding space, city and hazardous-waste landfill site, contaminated and safe, local and global. Asbestos shows that there is no spatial or temporal “outside” in which to deposit toxic materials, and that being an embedded part of the environment means there is no “outside” to either vulnerability or responsibility.
Previous iterations of this text were presented as:
Asbestos and the moving image: (in)visibility, (im)materiality, (un)certainty
conference paper at the Digital Ecologies in the Anthropocene symposium, Bath Spa University, UK, 2017
Invited lecture at rongwrong, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 2017