Reativando elementos

Reativando elementos

Este é o fichamento (na verdade uma coletânea de citações com títulos) do livro Reactivating elements: chemistry, ecology, practice, uma coletânea de artigos editada por Dimitris Papadopoulos, María Puig de la Bellacasa e Natasha Myers. Nem todos os textos foram contemplados neste fichamento, que se concentrou nas referências mais próximas ao sentido químico de “elementos”. Os textos foram apresentados na ordem em que aparecem no livro.

Introduction: from cosmology to episteme and back (Dimitris Papadopoulos, María Puig de la Bellacasa e Natasha Myers)


Yes, the catastrophe is now. And yet we need to get beyond descriptions of our dire present to dare to dream of alternative practices within these worlds. We cannot forget that for many working intensively to resist the toxic legacies of industrialism — including Black and Indigenous communities, and communities of color, ecofeminists, neopagans, and ecological activists — the elements retain sacred, relational, naturecultural potentials. Thinking with the elements may be one way to wake up the alchemical, creative agencies of the cosmos and resist efforts to enclose them as resource and commodity. (Papadopoulos, Bellacasa e Myers 2021:11-2)

PAPADOPOULOS, Dimitris; PUIG DE LA BELLACASA, Maria; MYERS, Natasha. 2021. Introduction: from cosmology to episteme and back. In: Dimitris Papadopoulos; María Puig de la Bellacasa; Natasha Myers (eds.). Reactivating elements: chemistry, ecology, practice. Durham: Duke University Press, pp.1-17.

Receiving the gift: earthly events, chemical invariants, and elemental powers (Isabelle Stengers)


[Chemical reality] It burns, explodes, poisons. It can be controlled but only with care (Stengers 2021:20)


This is why it is so very important that Reactivating Elements carefully avoids extracting a definition of elements “purified” from technè and resolutely stands with Haraway’s natureculture proposition. (Stengers 2021:21)


“What is an element?” […] the now stabilized answer being obtained by a typical natureculture achievement: elements lend themselves to classification. (Stengers 2021:21)


Mendeleev elements are “abstract,” but they are not the product of a cognitive operation of abstraction. They have a real existence, not a theoretical one. They have individuality, which they retain regardless of chemical transformation, and, strangely enough, the appetitive character associated with the term affinity was not so very misplaced. (Stengers 2021:23)


“Elements are chemical invariants”: […] Mendeleev’s “abstract and real” elements, which keep their individuality throughout chemical transformations, whatever the diversity of the roles they play in the many compositions they enter into. (Stengers 2021:23)


Of course, all the agential verbs that constellate around this explanation — aiming at, obtaining, getting, taking, giving, exchanging, sharing — will be said to be only metaphors. (Stengers 2021:24)


Quantum chemistry is still chemistry, something you have to learn, not understand — that is, derive from a general theory. It may certainly be claimed that the hydrogen atom, with one electron only, can be theoretically understood, as well as its stable association H-H. But for the rest, quantum chemists deal with constructions informed both by theory and the exploration of the versatile character of chemical agents. Theory has to follow and interpret what chemists learn about the metamorphic behavior of the inhabitants of the Mendeleev table. (Stengers 2021:24)


The order disclosed by Mendeleev’s arrangement is a very particular naturecultural, technoscientific achievement. It cannot be separated from the transformation of the laboratory from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century. (Stengers 2021:24)


To reactivate the elements is to address their metamorphic character, both shaping and being shaped by the particular ecology in which they participate. (Stengers 2021:27)


Is another sense of obligation possible, which would shape chemistry differently — still a technoscience, of course, but belonging to another ecology than the academic-industrial network? […] What would be a (techno)science aiming at the “decolonization of matter”? What would it mean to “stay with the trouble” and not trust our capacity to harness powers of remediation? And finally, why then keep the word science at all? (Stengers 2021:29)

OUTRA CIÊNCIA É POSSÍVEL (resistir ao “good enough”)

At the risk of being dubbed essentialist or idealist, I have dared to propose that “another science” is possible (Stengers 2018) and to dramatize that what is being destroyed are the “obligations” of scientific practices, the way scientific practices (or, more precisely, those scientific practices which would be destroyed) demand that scientists be willingly obliged by what they address, idiotically resisting “good enough” interpretations. (Stengers 2021:30)


To attend and to assist are recurring words in Reactivating Elements. Those are the kinds of words we use for midwives, and they may be relevant for scientists participating in the cultivation of reworlding processes. Midwives recognize that the birthing one is the one “laboring” and that she does it her way, even if she can be helped to cope. Scientists who would learn to attend and assist reworlding processes, and who would feel existentially obliged to the ecology they themselves are embedded in (Papadopoulos, this volume), would be grateful if they are able to facilitate those processes. Knowing that they cannot dream to harness and put them to work, they would inherit something of the idiot — an idiot who insists on what is more important than possible remediation success stories: to be part of a cultural, social, political ecology which thwarts any temptation to reduce the powers of what they address to definitions making them agents serving human purposes. (Stengers 2021:31-2)

STENGERS, Isabelle. 2021. Receiving the gift: earthly events, chemical invariants, and elemental powers. In: Dimitris Papadopoulos; María Puig de la Bellacasa; Natasha Myers (eds.). Reactivating elements: chemistry, ecology, practice. Durham: Duke University Press, pp.18-33.

Chemicals, ecology, and reparative justice (Dimitris Papadopoulos)


The toxic regime is a historical moment where anthropogenic chemicals are so entangled with ecology and society and, therefore, chemical contamination is so pervasive that envisioning cleanup is no longer an option. What are our options then? (Papadopoulos 2021:34)

Imagining worlds without anthropogenic chemicals is impossible. (Papadopoulos 2021:47)


Since anthropogenic chemicals are deeply embedded in matter and operate on temporal registers that are beyond the human, it seems impossible for societies to revert to the ontological configuration of a nontoxic and conflict-ridden Earth. Anthropogenic chemicals inhabit the world, rather than human life; they inhabit Earth, rather than specific social spaces. They pull the many worlds of the planet violently together through their forceful and often deleterious effects. (Papadopoulos 2021:35)


The existence of nitrogen as an element is inextricably woven into the situation when humans became able to fix more nitrogen than all nonhuman Earth processes combined. (Papadopoulos 2021:43)


Even the most abstract representation of chemicals in the standard nomenclature of chemical science are ecologically contingent, from the periodic table to the classification deployed for naming organic and inorganic compounds (see Hepler-Smith 2015; Klein 2013; Llored 2013). Chemistry is probably the most ecologically contingent science of all: it is a quintessentially empirical science that relies on the materialities of the labs and the extended spaces in which these labs live and on the relations of substances to other substances, apparatuses, social spaces, and human beings (see Bensaude-Vincent and Simon 2008; Hoffmann 1995; Lefèvre and Klein 2007). Anthropogenic chemicals are all deeply embedded and ecologically contingent forms of matter that exist simultaneously through multiple ecological registers. (Papadopoulos 2021:44)


The signaling relationships between plants and animals is not just communication; these are biochemical events within the life of organisms in an ecology that is itself made through these interactions. (Papadopoulos 2021:45)


Humans producing chemicals have an obligation for ecological accountability, which starts with the investigation of the afterlives of manufactured chemicals. And then there is an ethical requirement for a response. (Papadopoulos 2021:49)

ESCALA QUÍMICA (relacional-intensiva)

The scale of a chemical is the ecology of the chemical practice that engages with it (Papadopoulos 2021:55)

Intensive scales imply that molecules do different things in different ecologies. (Papadopoulos 2021:56)

Scale here is not about increase of mass, volume, or monetary value but about the multiplication of ecologically contingent ways to engage with a problematic — that is, the toxic overabundance of plastics in everyday life. What if we approach scale not as a question of extension but as an intensive experimental field in which chemical practice is distributed across different ontologies, practices, and knowledge systems? What if we see scale as the multiplication of experimenting with chemical substances in different locales that create singular transformative involvements with these chemicals? Could chemical practice thereby become ecological? (Papadopoulos 2021:56-7)


Rather than thinking about how life could once again become free of toxic chemicals, the question is how to live in chemically contaminated worlds (see Liboiron, Tironi, and Calvillo 2018) — how to develop a chemical practice that sustains life in toxic worlds and creates paths of regeneration (Papadopoulos 2021:57)


Paracelsus (1996), who is much better known for his pharmacology and his contribution to toxicology, believed in the existence of sentient beings, elemental spirits that are made of and live within the elements of earth, water, air, and fire. These liminal, sensible beings — gnomes, undines, sylphs, and salamanders — carry the material knowledge and sensibilities of each element. These liminal supporters of Gaia inhabit worlds that are not possible for humans to relate to directly, says Paracelsus. But there are paths of sensing and acting that allow humans to experience their presence and their commitment to Earth. Within these protoecological European imaginaries, the becoming elemental of chemical practice would involve people learning to move through the soils as gnomes, chthonic beings, the beings of the Earth that work with physical matter to create lasting environments. Gnomes are the heart of earthly households. Some humans will become united with water as undines, the ludic elementals who engage with movements and experience the force of waves and water currents and flows. Some humans will embody air as sylphs, beings united with the skies and the wind, who move lightly and invisibly through air, connecting flowers and trees together and making community. Sylphs are air; sylphs are our breath, and humans can become their own breath too. “Conspire!” as Tim Choy says in his contribution to this volume. Salamanders, the beings of fire, show power, intensity, ardor; they purge with fire. Certain humans can embody these energies which, although very stirring and difficult to control, are indispensable for cleansing, healing, and regeneration. (Papadopoulos 2021:61 nota 14)

PAPADOPOULOS, Dimitris. 2021. Chemicals, ecology, and reparative justice. In: Dimitris Papadopoulos; María Puig de la Bellacasa; Natasha Myers (eds.). Reactivating elements: chemistry, ecology, practice. Durham: Duke University Press, pp.34-69.

Elementary forms of elementary forms: old, new, and wavy (Stefan Helmreich)


Contemporary writers in environmental history, ecocriticism, and anthropology have recently experimented with (re)activating pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles’s fifth-century BCE four-element cosmogony (which had the world made of fire, air, water, and earth) or sometimes the classical Chinese wuxing system of five agents/phases/elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water) to offer new angles on ecological process and politics. Other scholars, hewing to a more Mendeleevian line, have started to follow the social life of such elements as carbon, helium, plutonium, lead, and nitrogen as well as such compounds as formaldehyde and methamphetamine. In so doing, these authors have sought to be technoscientifically precise in their response to recent calls in social theory to attend to the materiality and agency of the nonhuman and more-than-human world. One difference between this latter elements thinking and Mendeleev’s, of course, is that in today’s work, chemical and social bonds are no longer figured simply as loosely analogous to one another but as constantly imbricated in and transformative of one another. (Helmreich 2021:71)


Think, too, of Dmitri Mendeleev’s 1869 publication of the periodic table of the elements alongside sociologist Émile Durkheim’s 1912 Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. During the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, writers across natural and social fields of inquiry were outlining such things as the first principles of thermodynamics (Rankine 1859), the origin of species (Darwin 1859), the emergence of primitive culture (Tylor 1871), and the organization of ancient law and society (Maine 1861; Morgan 1877). The aspiration across all these arenas of investigation was to scale up—one might say, to compound up — from elementary to more complex processes and forms. (Helmreich 2021:72)


But what might most distinguish early twenty-first-century elements thinking from that of the late nineteenth century is a refusal of divisions between science and culture, inorganic and organic, and an attention to hybrids, chimeras, and material-symbolic mixtures — as well as their inextricable multispecies politics. (Helmreich 2021:74)

HELMREICH, Stefan. 2021. Elementary forms of elementary forms: old, new, and wavy. In: Dimitris Papadopoulos; María Puig de la Bellacasa; Natasha Myers (eds.). Reactivating elements: chemistry, ecology, practice. Durham: Duke University Press, pp.70-83.

Substance as method: bromine, for example (Joseph Dumit)


A highly volatile and unstable compound, it is extremely reactive in order to obtain the extra electron it needs to be happy. (Dumit 2021:85)

Textbooks have been forced to comment on what Karen Barad (2011) would call the queerness of it all. Halogens love too much, and too strangely (Dumit 2021:94)


Substances create their own language and metaphors, though not ones that help save the world. Corporations can easily use the wiliness of substances, their queerness and nontranslatability, as a form of refusal to know, of denial and suppression. (Dumit 2021:101)


The toxic worlds we live in persist in part because the main forms of analysis we have are not only wrong but misleadingly so (and easily exploited by those who would prefer we know less about toxins). Bromine continues to be used in part because it is so cheap: it is hard to get rid of because it is baked into our economy, which sees expense as fungible with health. It produces unhealthy byproducts: many inequalities of health and death along the way. We too can consider how limited our analyses of life cycles of products and breakdown are and how many assumptions we make about what our substances produce and what they become. Alongside the researchers described above, we too might look to the areas where we feel overwhelmed by multiplicity and examine whether social justice demands that we face the tedious and difficult work of tracing them out. (Dumit 2021:101)


If each substance challenges the words and worlds we can use to talk about what it modifies and relates to, then each messes with parts of our theoretical vocabulary, our assumptions of reality and malleability and relationality. Therefore, we can play with turning this around and ask of our theories: what substances make them up? How are we taking them as elemental, and how lively might those elements turn out to be? The conceptual tools that we use to approach a substance may themselves depend on specific substances and notions of substances. In other words, part of the challenge of thinking with substances is that each substance puts into question the very words/concepts/things/practices/methods we depend upon. (Dumit 2021:102)


Pick a substance related to (but not central to) what you are studying, and do some research. Find people for whom it might be a fetish. Locate some specialists who care about that substance, and read some of their work (scientific papers, treatises about working with that substance, etc.). This is where you locate the words and verbs that others have had to invent or to give new meaning to, in order to deal with the specificity of the substance. These are the verbs and properties that may help you think and write better. These put the binaries into variation: each substance probably generates a different notion of matter and a different notion of form in a different kind of relation to other substances. (Dumit 2021:102-3)


Above all, each substance resists being lumped into matter in general. Each demands its own materiality. (Dumit 2021:103)

DUMIT, Joseph. 2021. Substance as method: bromine, for example. In: Dimitris Papadopoulos; María Puig de la Bellacasa; Natasha Myers (eds.). Reactivating elements: chemistry, ecology, practice. Durham: Duke University Press, pp.84-107.

Elemental ghosts, haunted carbon imaginaries, and living matter at the edge of life (Astrid Schrader)


Ancient elemental theory offers a mode of understanding materiality that does not center the cosmos around the human (Cohen and Duckert 2015); rather than revealing the vitality of inert substances, an elemental thinking begins from within the entanglements of life and nonlife and challenges the opposition between substances and processes. […] Elemental relations are characterized by a paradoxical entanglement between separation and combination (see Mentz 2015), which Karen Barad (2014) calls a “cutting together-apart.” They are both discrete and conjoined. […] Elemental thinking offers more than the reanimation of matter; it can hold a multiplicity of kinds of agencies together. Elemental relations provide potential for the impossible, the imaginary, and the abandoned, like viruses that critically transform the elemental associations of carbon, the stuff of life. Also like viruses, elements hold metaphors and materiality in complementary tension. Cohen describes them as “metaphor magnets”: they yearn to be metaphors; they are matterphors (Cohen and Duckert 2015, 11). […] Rather than simply offering a new way to reanimate matter, elemental thinking offers a possibility to think together substance and process, sensuous objects and material relations, the elemental as a physiochemical entity and as “a state of matter from which every other material is derived” (McCormack 2017, 421). […] I am intrigued by the multiplicity and indeterminacy of elemental ontologies and ask how an elemental thinking, with the help of viruses as matterphors (substance and word combined), can develop an alternative and less anthropocentric carbon imaginary. (Schrader 2021:117-8)

VÍRUS MARINHOS (zumbis-fantasmas) e CARBONO

Viruses are not only metaphors for the “in-between” — between life and nonlife — or for the irrelevance of that distinction; marine viruses are also major players in the carbon production and recycling, in the transforming of living matter and temporalities. (Schrader 2021:121)

While marine viruses are clearly zombies (living dead), more importantly, perhaps, they are also ghosts, specters of inheritance and transformations. They are not only impartial to the distinction between life and nonlife; they also transform the temporalities of earthly matter and memories. Transforming the flux of short-lived carbon into long-lived unproductive carbon waste, they engender refractory dissolved carbon as ghosts of former organic production. Future potential (of life) and pure actualities (of nonlife) are becoming blurred when “inedible” unproductive carbon appears to be buying humanity some “time,” apparently postponing our imminent extinction. (Schrader 2021:125)


The paradox is resolved if viruses are considered to be distributed ecological agents rather than biological agents. While viruses usually kill their hosts, they can be beneficial to the population. (Schrader 2021:121)

Maureen O’Malley’s (2016) notion of distributed agency in a virocentric ecology modifies the stubborn link between liveliness and agency. Acting as agents of mortality on one scale, viruses contribute to an increase of diversity on another scale. (Schrader 2021:125)


I find hope in the alterity and ghostly undecidability of what viruses are, their ontologically indeterminacy, and the simultaneous demand to account for their existence and actions in order to get a better picture of global warming and ocean acidification. (Schrader 2021:126)

With Yusoff (2016), I would like to affirm that thinking with viruses as elemental ghosts, as agents of elemental carbon transformation, does not terminate in the Anthropocene; it sets off toward different, and perhaps more hopeful, indeterminate futures. (Schrader 2021:126)

SCHRADER, Astrid. 2021. Elemental ghosts, haunted carbon imaginaries, and living matter at the edge of life. In: Dimitris Papadopoulos; María Puig de la Bellacasa; Natasha Myers (eds.). Reactivating elements: chemistry, ecology, practice. Durham: Duke University Press, pp.108-30.

The artificial world (Joseph Masco)


Perhaps the most confident portrait of worldly elements today is offered by chemists, who, in the universal language of science, continue to chart the molecular building blocks of matter, offering on an ever-growing periodic table a technical description of all that is and that can be made […]. The configuration of the periodic table is open-ended, focusing on atomic structure and chemical properties, moving from those with fewest protons (hydrogen with one) to those with the most (currently oganesson with 118). The chart organizes the ninety-four known organic elements alongside the twenty-four elements that have been manufactured, for a current total count of 118 elements. Matter — both found and made — can be organized via these 118 categories, rendering an endless complexity of form out of a surprisingly limited number of basic elements. The periodic table is a remarkable portrait of both earthly matter and scientific achievement. In its open-ended form, the periodic table also promises that for every new element that is discovered or fabricated, a numbered box is always waiting, drawing anticipated novelty into an ever-expanding but perfectly ordered sequence of materiality. But who can live in such a perfectly ordered universe, acting as if the universe were so beautifully measured, calm, and color coded? What is the atomic weight of indifference or racism, pollution or madness? (Masco 2021:132)


As geologists scoured the earth searching for physical evidence of the Anthropocene, looking for a planetary-scale artificial material signal in the rock or ice that one could literally “hit with a hammer” (Zalasiewicz et al. 2019a, 3), scholars in the humanistic social sciences debated the implications of choosing one golden spike versus another for our understanding of contemporary conditions, with each option articulating a different diagnostic for when people began to materially and negatively change the natural order. The beginning of agriculture, the first steam engine, Columbus’s trip to the New World, the plantation system, the invention of capitalism, and many more have received serious debate in a quite vibrant and often strange multidisciplinary conversation about violent origin points for the contemporary condition (see Moore 2016). (Masco 2021:134)


Consider for a moment the built infrastructure of your current location: without concrete or aluminum or plastic, what would be left? (Masco 2021:136)


Of the universe of material possibilities, the Working Group has identified two anthropogenic signatures that stand out within the earth system: plutonium and plastic. I would like to consider each in turn and then contemplate the implications of these ubiquitous elements for worlding today. For what is at stake, in the judgment of the Working Group, is not only the technical progression of geology as a sciencE — offering a more robust and careful measurement of stratigraphic history — but also the shifting status of people (really, capitalist consumers from the Global North) as terraformers. The driving force of radical environmental disruption is not all human beings but those embedded within a specific economic order organized by nuclear nationalism and petrochemical capitalism, involving those who not only inhabit Earth but increasingly intervene in its composition without much worry. As ubiquitous elements, plutonium and plastic are monumental, outrageous acts of coconstitution, offering lively and extremely perverse anthropogenic metrics of literal world making/world breaking on a planetary scale. (Masco 2021:136-8)

Plutonium may stand out to geologists in the stratigraphic record because it is a singular signal of pure artificiality, a human-generated presence that can be found widely but also dated precisely. (Masco 2021:144)


In considering the global distribution of different long-lived fallout radionuclides, the Working Group notes that cesium-14 [na verdade é carbono 14, “14C”] has some natural sources, making it less viable for the Anthropocene designation than plutonium, which stands out today as the clearest purely artificial signal in the stratigraphy of the planet (Masco 2021:138)


Plutonium occurs only in trace amounts via natural process but is now ubiquitous as an artificial substance on Earth — a key achievement of twentieth-century nuclear nationalism. […] In fact, one can think about the plutonium economy as linking people, ecologies, cultures, and economies in highly novel, and still emerging, configurations (Masco 2021:140)

Plutonium continues to produce elemental emotions today — from fear and anger to awe and, for a few, something like love. In its glowing form, warm to the touch, it is an emblematic example of the coconstitution of society and nature — of the ways that technoscientific revolution is world making and world breaking all at once. (Masco 2021:140)

Plutonium has been central to world making in terms of geopolitics, international institutions, and configurations of national power but also world breaking in terms of the contamination of specific bodies, populations, and ecosystems, and, as the Anthropocene debate reiterates, it continues to generate new planetary-scale dynamics. (Masco 2021:142)

The centrality of plutonium to the Anthropocene debates should not be surprising, as many aspects of earth system science were first enabled by following the distribution of radionuclides from nuclear detonations as they moved across air, ocean, land, and ice in the mid-twentieth century (Masco 2021:142)

For members of the Working Group, plutonium works as the primary anthropogenic signal because it is so highly visible in the stratigraphic record—artificial, widely distributed, and long-lived. Plutonium also makes sense to many because it is the elemental form of a new species of mass violence — nuclear war — and because global nuclear arsenals maintain the capacity to eliminate life on Earth. The plutonium fallout from the mid-twentieth century will likely outlive any current understanding of the Cold War, or of a nuclear age, and quite possibly ideas about the Anthropocene as well. But what these material observations miss is the continuing power of plutonium as a psychosocial force. After 1945, plutonium is at the center of a world system, the central material in an arms race, a motivating rationale in the building out of international law and nonproliferation regimes, a source of terror for officials and citizens alike, and a molecular force that can be tracked across technoscientific regimes, industrial economies, national security states, and the nightmares that organize specific social orders and individual psyches. The worlding work of plutonium, in other words, matters well beyond questions of periodization. As an extremely rare material, made at great expense, which is highly protected, surveilled, and sought after, plutonium continues to produce intense emotions (Masco 2021:142-3)


Worldly elements can be infused with affect, desire, misrecognition, and psychosis. In the post–Cold War 1990s, I collected stories from weapons scientists about plutonium. It was often referred to as bizarre, fascinating, perplexing, counterintuitive in terms of how it interacted with the world, hot to the touch, unpredictable over time, and scary to work with as both an unstable element and a poison. (Masco 2021:140-1)

Two top plutonium scientists at Los Alamos wrote about the element, and its post–Cold War condition, this way: “Like other reactive materials, plutonium ages with time. In moist air, it “rusts” much more profusely than iron, and when exposed to other atmospheric environments, it will react to form several surface-corrosion products. In other words, plutonium ages from the outside in. What makes plutonium really special, however, is that is also ages from the inside out. As a result of its radioactive nature, it relentlessly undergoes self-irradiation damage through its volume. Consequently, nature’s most unusual element becomes even more complex as it ages. In the past, we were resigned to keeping plutonium from self-destructing — at least for two or three decades. Today, we are intensely interested in extending its storage life for many more decades, preferably as much as a century (Hecker and Martz 2000, 238).” (Masco 2021:141)

Nature’s most unusual element. Here, we might pause to consider what kind of nature is being evoked here, as the only naturally occurring plutonium was produced in what is now Gabon over two billion years ago, when a natural reactor was formed underground converting some uranium deposits to plutonium. This form of plutonium has long since dissipated, leaving only a chemical trace of an extraordinary, and extraordinarily ancient, geological event. The earthly presence of plutonium-239, however, has been produced with great effort by a few nation-states since 1945 and is a singular index of nuclear militarism, used primarily in making weapons and occasionally as a power source for satellites and spacecraft. (Masco 2021:141)

PLUTÔNIO (instabilidade como valor)

To be precise: the value and danger of plutonium are precisely its instability. (Masco 2021:141)


The turn to elemental matter is a vital project today precisely because it can reveal contradictions which are so embedded in existing institutions as to be rendered natural, ideologically positioned as unavoidable, or essential to assumptions about technoscientific or economic “progress.” (Masco 2021:146)

MASCO, Joseph. 2021. The artificial world. In: Dimitris Papadopoulos; María Puig de la Bellacasa; Natasha Myers (eds.). Reactivating elements: chemistry, ecology, practice. Durham: Duke University Press, pp.131-50.

Tilting at windmills (Patrick Bresnihan)


Wind is being reduced to certain inhuman properties — namely, potential energy — that can then be activated through the technical mastery of smart energy grids. This process is not sudden or spectacular but involves new fields of technoscientific expertise, the expansion of physical infrastructures, the geological extraction of minerals, and the repurposing of entire landscapes. Wind may not have body, but its capture, circulation, and use within energy-intensive capitalism does. (Bresnihan 2021:155)


Ongoing efforts to harness wind as renewable energy […]. Rather than an innocent move toward a cleaner, more sustainable future, however, this process can be understood as a continuation of the extractive logics of the past that have not served the majority well. (Bresnihan 2021:156)


As Howe writes in her essay “On Kinetic Commons,” there is a need to release the concept of the commons from terra, a stable ground: “Rather than dominion and rights-to, this would be to think in terms of a commons as contact and interaction with” (Howe 2016, 1). Commoning in this sense is not so much about sharing a resource as sharing a concern, of constructing mutualistic collaborations with particular human and nonhuman others. (Bresnihan 2021:172 nota 20)

BRESNIHAN, Patrick. 2021. Tilting at windmills. In: Dimitris Papadopoulos; María Puig de la Bellacasa; Natasha Myers (eds.). Reactivating elements: chemistry, ecology, practice. Durham: Duke University Press, pp.151-75.

Embracing breakdown: soil ecopoethics and the ambivalences of remediation (Maria Puig de la Bellacasa)


From stardust to elements, from elements to compounds, to substances and life of all kinds, crowned by life with a capital L, animated by superior intelligence — all emerge from primal stardust recompositions. This is a charismatic tale, telling how the multifarious forms of life that we know arose from what scientists now call biogeochemical processes. […] I felt unease at the absence of an indispensable dimension of the biogeochemical tale: that life on Earth as we know it is as much the creation, the buildup, of stuff as it is its elemental breakdown and recirculation. (Puig de la Bellacasa 2021:197)


Of course, as a parent, I feel one would have to find a way for new retellings that do not damp down cosmic wonder with paralyzing fear and humanist guilt but nurture a sense of involvement that transforms hope and joy into an everyday practice — a way that inspires curiosity about how, on Earth, we will continue to live together as a more-than-human community. (Puig de la Bellacasa 2021:198)

At stake in retelling this story, then, is how a story line that defines human belonging through elemental affinities can express the more-than-human agencies involved in the epic of life’s cosmological emergence in ways that foster the actions needed to respond to Earth’s current distressing conditions. (Puig de la Bellacasa 2021:199)


Ecopoiesis is about the many doings that cocreate, about creation as a relation of material and affective interdependency. (Puig de la Bellacasa 2021:198)


In attempting to expand ecological meanings and doings, I am no outsider observer but rather an answerable participant. (Puig de la Bellacasa 2021:200)


Learning from elemental breakdown in soils also compels us to delinearize the cosmological tale, to turn origins into cycles, lines into spirals, but also to complicate neat cyclic models, expos- ing connections, overlaps, and the multiple temporalities at play and that may alter each other. An ecopoethics embracing breakdown comes with some urgency. (Puig de la Bellacasa 2021:200)

More than a linear, future-driven accomplishment, life is an ongoing, recurrent process. (Puig de la Bellacasa 2021:201)


Ecopoethically — as a material and ethical obligation that has political but also affective/aesthetic implications — interconnectedness is key to elemental affinities. The contemporary reactivating of elemental affinity is naturecultural. It speaks of a relation that is not necessarily “chosen” or at least not in the conscious sense, as in the neoliberal sense of choice. It is driven by a “natural liking,” says the dictionary. But affinity relations are not based on the usual “naturalness” associated, for instance, with ties of blood, family, or an imagined community such as a nation. Affinity is not identity either. For biochemistry, it is a biochemical “tendency” of substances to combine. And a tendency is not a given. It is changeable. […] Neither merely “chosen” nor merely given, affinities certainly need to be cultivated to flourish (e.g., by rallying around a common desire, aim, or taste). Once composed, affinities both support and oblige us. They are noninnocent, because they stir the tensions between self-interest and selflessness. Who is in relations of affinity with whom and who does not, and who will be excluded as a result, remain critical questions to be asked. Elemental affinities are not, by essence, compassionate or loving; think for instance of appeals that feed nationalist exclusions by identifying people’s bodies and identities to a particular soil or land (see Münster 2017; Puig de la Bellacasa forthcoming; Van Sant 2018). Specifically, elemental alliances are also the tools of lethal technocapitalist colonization. Without the mastery of chemical affinities, some wars and colonial enterprises would have been very different. Consider, for example, the relationship of nitrogen-compound soil fertilizer with war technologies (Gorman 2013), as well as what Malcolm Ferdinand (2019, 181–92) calls “the master’s chemistry”: the unhinged use of pesticides in the colonies, which were intrinsic to the transformation of the world into a plantation. A romanticized longing for elemental affinities would ignore that the intimate knowledge of fire has been crucial to industrialization, for the use of fossil fuels, the fractionation of oil and gas, and the formation in general of petrochemicals. Industrialization has never been dissociated from the elements. So not all elemental affinities are desirable, in their specific and situated complexities. But the reactivation of the elements into a diversity of ecocultural meanings may be an opportunity to remember the importance of cultivating care and attention in relations with the powers of elements and elementals. (Puig de la Bellacasa 2021:205-6)

Elemental affinities speak of naturecultural, ethicopolitical, more-than-human agency and communication (the process of making common: commoning, communing). (Bellacasa 2021:207)


That pile of “compost” saturated with minuscule bits of shredded plastic got to me. As I stood there, gauging the challenge of medium-scale, industrial breakdown practice, it became clear that most things we are building up cannot be broken down to become soil again by a return to ecological cycles. Even the semi-industrial and relatively low-tech assisted form of breakdown found in biodigestates is defeated by the endurance of compounds. (Puig de la Bellacasa 2021:218)


The justification for putting nitrogen-based fertilizers into the soil is that they are needed to feed a growing population. Agricultural productionism has placed soils on steroids. And yet more than 60 percent of the fertilizer that goes into the soil is not taken up by crops and instead runs off too fast for the organisms that recirculate these compounds (the denitrifiers) to do their work. Thus it seeps into waters, together with sewage that has been improperly disposed of, and creates the well-known phenomenon of eutrophication, or dead zones in waters. Nitrogen compounds are now seen as a necessary “good” thing that has become “too much” as the cycles are overwhelmed. Science-based policy recommendations mostly tackle the source, in particular reducing meat consumption. I hope to be proven wrong and see it in my lifetime, but it seems an impossible task to cut use of nitrogen-based fertilizers while the World Bank (2013) is encouraging market expansion into “underfertilized” zones. Astronomical amounts of capital have been mobilized and ride on the untouchable moral argument that we need to feed ten billion people. We are stuck with nitrogen compounds; their widespread use seems unstoppable. (Puig de la Bellacasa 2021:226 nota 14)

PUIG DE LA BELLACASA, Maria. 2021. Embracing breakdown: soil ecopoethics and the ambivalences of remediation. In: Dimitris Papadopoulos; María Puig de la Bellacasa; Natasha Myers (eds.). Reactivating elements: chemistry, ecology, practice. Durham: Duke University Press, pp.196-230.

Reimagining chemicals, with and against technoscience (Michelle Murphy)


Our inherited models of the chemical, I believe, need undoing and rebirth, if we are to stay in the tension of refusing violence and becoming something else. (Murphy 2021:260)


I begin with the refusal of three epistemic habits that run through almost all of the technoscientific work materializing chemical violence: portraying chemicals as merely molecular elements, obscuring the violence of chemicals, and damage-based research. (Murphy 2021:260-1)

How does one refuse these three habits: the chemical as an isolated entity, the gaslighting of permission-to-pollute data, and damage-based research? How can one be with and against technoscience and not only refuse and dismantle but offer alternative objects for each other and toward decolonial futures? Decolonial STS cannot just critique technoscience; it must offer other concepts and practices that remake it. (Murphy 2021:268)


Industrial chemicals are largely made known to us through the knowledge practices of the very entities — engineering, corporations, the military, and the state — whose violence we seek to dismantle. To begin to say no to this version of the chemical, involves refusing the portrayal of chemicals as discrete entities, often modeled through abstract structural diagrams that itemize singular molecules as an arrangement of atoms. In such representations, chemicals float in white space, largely without relation. All such diagrams are only models of chemicals, not the things in themselves. The structural chemical model in particular was created with engineering and industrial needs in mind and as a tool to create a taxonomy of substances that could be heralded as proprietary inventions (Hepler-Smith 2015). This dominant model of the chemical as molecule blocks our attention from origins, histories, profits, and violence. It scales the chemical as small and invisible to the eye, rather than large, extensive, and permeating. This structural representation of discrete molecules is built into the ways toxicology has historically studied chemicals: one by one, as isolated entities of purely technical qualities without context. The extensive cloud of synthetic chemical relations, whether emitting from factories, extraction, agriculture, infrastructures, or commodities, is erased by this model. Externalizing the complexity of chemicals works well for capitalist ledger books that structurally will not count side effects, fallouts, and discards. Today, this way of modeling chemicals as molecules seems ordinary and self-evident (Myers 2015). It is difficult to talk about chemicals in any other way, regardless of your politics. As a result, the expansive scope of chemical relations that surround and make us largely resides in the realm of the imperceptible. We might feel some of our chemical relations, and we might even intensely experience the pain they cause, but the fullness of our chemical relations ends up being largely conjectural. (Murphy 2021:261)

ALIENAÇÃO (gaslighting)

Many, perhaps most, people live daily in conditions that deny the materiality of their experience. (Murphy 2021:266)


The legal concept of terra nullius (land as empty) that undergirds the settler colonialism doctrine of discovery, which in turn makes possible Canada’s claim to sovereignty, is based on the denial of existing Indigenous presence. This is exemplified in the very building of Chemical Valley on stolen land. As Patrick Wolfe and many other scholars have argued, settler colonialism fundamentally operates through a logic of Indigenous elimination and erasure (Culthard 2014; Kauanui and Wolfe 2012; Wolfe 2006). (Murphy 2021:266)


In Chemical Valley — where there is a cluster of over fifty petrochemical plants — gaslighting is a constant part of life, reflected in the regular sirens and steady public announcements of spills and accidents while little information is provided and communities are told there is nothing to worry about (MacDonald and Rang 2007). Compared to the detailed and intrusive surveillance of life that corporations and the state are able to conduct in the age of social media and big data, the overwhelming lack of monitoring of chemical violence is striking. For at least a century, there has been a struggle with corporate gaslighting techniques about the reality of injurious, human-made chemical exposures in bodies, workplaces, communities, and environments. (Murphy 2021:266)

The data themselves are a kind of deflection, a performance that hides a longer chain of corporate efforts to avoid having their activities measured. The data offer the pretense of state monitoring, erasing the fact of nonmonitoring. State environmental data concerning chemical exposures are thus designed to perform this twisted psychic abuse, purposely built to deflect attention and wrap falsehoods in the veneer of state care. Chemical pollution is thus reflected back to you in state-collected data disguised as efficiencies and stewardship. Disasters are not happening, and you are not being killed, even as you can feel it happening. Are we to feel lucky for these abusive accountings, because the alternative is to have no data at all? We are caught in worlds made to deny the terms of our very existence. (Murphy 2021:267)


Refusing this economy of research, Indigenous feminist Unangax scholar Eve Tuck has called for “suspending damage” as a refusal to participate in “damage-based research” (Tuck 2009; Tuck and Yang 2013). This refusal is a challenge to environmental justice habits. It is an invitation to find other ways to shine critical light on the infernal entangle-ents of colonial capitalism as expressed through chemical relations, and at the same time it is a call to direct creative energy toward decolonial possibilities. (Murphy 2021:268)


What would an alternate sense of the chemical look like if it were made to affirm Indigenous sovereignty, hold perpetrators responsible, and love life and land even in their violated forms? (Murphy 2021:268)


Polychlorinated biphenyls are not only persistent; they are also endocrine disrupting. Their shape is similar to that of the human thyroid hormone, which makes it easier for PCBs to participate in human metabolism, including the regulation of gene expression, which in turn rearranges how metabolism works. Moreover, there is strong evidence to suggest that PCBs can be part of a kind of epigenetic inheritance, in which their metabolic effects carry over across generations. Thus, PCBs have become part of our chemical relations, not just because they are persistent in lands and waters but because they are part of our metabolic intergenerational inheritance. (Murphy 2021:270)


So, with and against technoscience, I want to ask how to build a speculative, decolonial model of chemical violence and how to insert invention into existence (Fanon 1963) while also dismantling the colonial logic of erasure built into so much government environmental monitoring. (Murphy 2021:271)


The land is inside us. Both Indigenous people and settlers have responsibilities to figure out. (Murphy 2021:271)


Why must our sense of chemicals stay small? How might an altermodel of the chemical manifest its expansive relations, out into land-body relations, settler colonialism, white supremacy, infrastructures, capitalist relations, heteronormativities, nation-states, kinships? I believe we need a version of the chemical that rejects the separation of knowledges that kept molecules as a concern only of the technosciences, that confined chemical relations to the atomic. I want to refuse the model of the molecule hovering in white space. An altermodel of chemicals […] would manifest extensive relations, honoring land-body relations, drawing on a multitude of knowledges, toward a sense of tracing and activating the density of responsibilities and ways we make and interrupt each other. (Murphy 2021:271-2)


How are chemicals part of a violence-infused symbiogenesis? […] The very understanding of what makes up our molecular inheritance (usually confined to DNA birthright) is called into new questions by acknowledging the industrial chemicals that connect us and participate in our biological development. These chemical relations are, moreover, mostly nonconsensual. We are caught in them, even if we participate in their generation as the condition of our living. They are forcibly inserted into the world. They are disruptions into community orders and lifeways; they interrupt bodily and Indigenous sovereignties. If this is so, then, let us pull our attention to these chemical relations back outward to the infrastructural register, back to the corporation and the state, and point out responsibilities for inheritance and disruption back at Monsanto. Instead of burdening injured bodies and lands with the work of representing this violence (as is the norm in damage-based research), can we make our chemical models point the violence back at perpetrators, not inside bodies? Figure 11.4 attempts to visualize this sense of nested infrastructural responsibility. (Murphy 2021:273)


Once more, breathe in. Feel yourself reconnecting to the greater fulsomeness of our relations, to the possibility of becoming otherwise, to land and all our relations, to another world of consent and care. Breathe out. Breathe in with and against the science and toward something else, not waiting for a better moment to arrive. (Murphy 2021:277)

MURPHY, Michelle. 2021. Reimagining chemicals, with and against technoscience. In: Dimitris Papadopoulos; María Puig de la Bellacasa; Natasha Myers (eds.). Reactivating elements: chemistry, ecology, practice. Durham: Duke University Press, pp.257-79.