Cultural Anthropology has published a new open access article by Nicholas Shapiro called, “Attuning to the Chemosphere: Domestic Formaldehyde, Bodily Reasoning, and the Chemical Sublime.” I have been looking forward to a publication documenting Shapiro’s work on formaldehyde for some time. He has been conducting an ethnography of indoor air quality in prefabricated homes and trailers for several years, many of which have higher than average levels of formaldehyde, a known carcinogen found in everyday objects: “At room temperature, the formaldehyde-based adhesives that hold together the plywood walls, particleboard subfloors, hardboard cabinetry, and carpet backings of the average American home slowly exhale chemical vapors into interior breathing space. Without a cracked window, an opened door, or other forms of air exchange, these silent and invisible microemissions accrue within the envelope of the home.”
He describes the effects of what is likely acute formaldehyde exposures as he conducting interviews with people who lived in factory-built housing:
“During the first hour spent in houses with suspected indoor air-quality issues, I would slowly develop an ache in the back of my eyes, which would with time spread throughout my skull. I repeatedly found myself struggling to resist a physical desire to expedite interviews as my mind felt increasingly woolly, my focus slipped, and my lines of inquiry lost their direction. Time and the flow of my thoughts became viscous.2 My energy would bottom out, but my eventual sleep was wracked with restlessness…. I never felt these sensations when I sat chatting with informants outside in folding chairs, on walks, in cars, in office buildings, or in fast food restaurants. Photographers and journalists that I brought to meet my informants also developed similar symptoms. In collaboration with Brandon Costelloe-Kuehn, Kim Fortun, and analytical chemists at Prism Analytical Technologies, I tested the atmospheric formaldehyde of twenty-four of these homes and found elevated formaldehyde levels in the vast majority. I cannot rule out the possibility of other agents in the indoor air of these trailers, such as other volatile organic chemicals or mold toxins.“
Based on these experiences, and the documented experiences of people living in these homes, “Attuning to the Chemosphere” is an article about “attending to the minute aberrations of the body and atmosphere are the primary means of discerning protracted and low-level encounters with domestic chemicals.” Shapiro write about the body as a sensitive sensor for chemicals within an every day existence saturated with chemical exposures, especially for the “elderly, poor, disabled, tenuously employed, or Native” peoples who usually resided in prefab houses.
Like Michelle Murphy’s chemical regime of living (2008) characterized by constant “harmful synthetic molecular relations,” Shapiro uses the “chemical sublime” to theorize the constant but uneven presence of petroleum-fueled, industrial-based toxic molecules in bodies, communities, and landscapes. He argues that paying attention to the way bodies come to register otherwise imperceptible chemical exposures is a way to know indoor environments:
“The somatic work of the chemically concerned is enmeshed with an apprehension of their own bodies that is simultaneously sensuous and epistemological, referred to herein as “bodily knowledge” and situated within a process of “bodily reasoning” that tempers not just what one knows but what one becomes with or is estranged from. Sustained bodily reasoning gives rise to the chemical sublime, and together they offer a response to Kim Fortun’s (2012) call for ways to differently know and reimage our ongoing late industrial present, which is marked by deteriorating sociotechnical systems and economic, climatic, and infrastructural instability.”
Shapiro’s work is not optimistic. It’s doesn’t end on a high note about how chronically exposed people who come to understand their environments in nuanced ways through irritation, pain, and disease are able to use that knowledge to resist their chemical burden. It is more of a treatise on “bodies of evidence,” on ways of knowing and being in hot spots within a larger permanently polluted world. Shapiro is one of these few scholars whose theory touches the ground; through not represented in the article, he is developing DIY citizen science sensors with community partners to try to find a way to have these already fine-tuned bodily indicators register to technological instruments, and thus constitute a type of evidence that policy and regulation recognizes. But success is neither automatic nor immanent on the horizon. Yet, if Shapiro sees his work answering “Kim Fortun’s (2012) call for ways to differently know and reimage our ongoing late industrial present,” then Shaprio is also answering my call, shared by many others, for ways of doing politics and action through research differently.