Issue 11.3 | Summer 2013 / Guest edited by Rachel C. Lee

Distributed Reproduction, Chemical Violence, and Latency


Figure 1: EPA map of the St. Clair River showing “areas of concern.” Larger size map available here (PDF).

Remains fall to the shallow sea floor. Silt and sand accumulate above.[1] Centuries tick by, the sea dries, and a thick layer of sediment presses. Once live matter transforms and waits in the geological archive. Then, in 1860, long dormant oil is pulled into activity by North America’s first commercial oil well in Oil Springs, Ontario, Canada. Liquid petroleum gushed higher than the trees, slicking workers and land, turning the Black Creek black, flowing down to the Sydenham River, which then joins the nearby St. Clair River.

The St. Clair River forms a natural, watery passage between enormous Lake Huron, one of the Great Lakes, and small, shallow Lake St. Clair, from which the water continues to flow south as the short Detroit River that empties into Lake Erie, another of the Great Lakes. Together the St. Clair and Detroit rivers carve a border between the United States on the west bank and Canada on the east. Water flows from the mostly white Sarnia, a city of industrial prosperity at the top of the St. Clair River, down toward the industrial ruins of contemporary, majority-black Detroit, abandoned by capitalism and shrinking in population. The water passes through land that for thousands of years was the home of Ojibway people, who now live on land divided into three small reserves. By the late twentieth century, this waterway had become a deep water channel, connected to inland shipping lanes that wander out to the Atlantic Ocean. Railroads and highways sprawl from the river across continental North America. What began with one oil well and a short pipeline to the nearby town of Petrolia, is now Canada’s Chemical Valley, where 40 percent of the country’s petro-chemical processing is accomplished.[2]

Chemical Valley, located just below Sarnia, expanded beyond oil with a polymer rubber processing plant opened by Dow Chemical in 1942 as part of the Canadian war effort. Gracing the back of the 1971 Canadian ten-dollar bill, the plant is a symbolic origin point of a national industrial history. Today this polymer plant is joined by over 60 other refining plants.[3] Oil now pulses through Enbridge’s transcontinental 2,306 kilometer pipeline from the Alberta Tar Sands to be processed in Chemical Valley and distributed through pipelines, ships, and roads across North America and beyond. Natural gas fracked from Pennsylvania and New York moves up to Chemical Valley as well. A sprawl of pipelines cross the river to the United States, and interconnect local plants. Chemicals made in one refinery are pumped into another in a matrix of industrial frenzy. Down the St. Clair and on to the Detroit River, the waterway that runs past Chemical Valley has become a dense corridor of industrial activity, the birthplace of both commercial oil and the Ford Motor Company. Petroleum was re-produced as gasoline to feed cars, cars themselves were made, steel was forged, and rubber was refined, as was styrene, chlorine, and perchloroethylene (for dry cleaning), as well as the plastics that became the consumer props of everyday, twentieth-century habits. Petrochemicals, through Chemical Valley, have brought new things to life.

Starting with the petrochemical history of the St. Clair River, this paper thinks about reproduction, chemicals, and time.

Reproduction and Infrastructures

What counts as reproduction? Where does biological reproduction reside? “In bodies,” is a probable response, perhaps framed by a birth story populated with genitals, sperm, eggs, kinship, family, contraceptives, and heteronormative futures that promise alignment with a “good life” of a house, job, and affective bonds: 1 plus 1 equals 2.4 children and a dog. Or the answer “in bodies” might be accompanied by claims to human rights coupled with critiques of coercive racist states and grief-filled accounts of infant and maternal lives lost due to negligence, violence, or scarcity. Tectonic forces conspire to offer the scale of “bodies” as an obvious answer. Reproduction happens in bodies, and lives flourish or become precarious in birth, pregnancy, and infancy. Does reproduction stop there?

Twenty-five years ago Donna Haraway asked, “Why should our bodies end at our skin?” offering the “material-semiotic figure” of the cyborg as an ontological politics for attending to the ways living-being was already constituted via technoscience.[4] At that moment, some feminists were resisting a politics that posited bodies as natural entities, and instead insisted that any version of “nature” and “biology” (as well as “sex” and “race”) at the end of the twentieth century was already conditioned by technoscience. To this we might add that any reference to nature or biology in the twenty-first century is already conditioned by the chemical distributions of industrialism. Thus, in a similar spirit, one might pose the question: why should reproduction end at our bodies? How to participate in and challenge the ontological politics of “reproduction”? What is the place of industrial chemicals in reproduction? What is the place of industrial chemicals in reproduction if we now live in an era which some scientists have named the anthropocene—a historical period when all life, all ecosystems, and the entire planet has been rearranged by human activity.[5]

Feminist technoscience studies scholars, such as Adele Clarke, Marilyn Strathern, Sarah Franklin, Charis Thompson, Catherine Waldby, and many others, have done important work tracking reproduction as an “assisted” process. With the help of their work, it is possible to think of assisted reproduction as the technical and social achievement of fertility through matrixes of uneven scientific labor enrolling a multitude of actors and practices, as in the example of in-vitro fertilization. Feminist technoscience studies work on this kind of assisted reproduction has shown how the animating, recombinatory, manipulable, and responsive capacities of micrological life (cells, eggs, nuclei, viruses, and so on) have been harnessed as a form of biolabor or biocapital in contemporary political economies. The generativity of life becomes value added for capital. Reproduction, in this way, is studied as a generative and promissory domain of both life and economic value in the twenty-first century.

This sense of “assisted reproduction” can also be extended more broadly to include the scale of extensive infrastructures—state, military, chemical, ecological, agricultural, economic, architectural—that “assist,” alter, rearrange, foreclose, harm, and participate in the process of creating, maintaining, averting, and transforming life in inter-generational time. By infrastructure I mean more than the physical structures of waterway and pipelines. I use infrastructure to name the spatially and temporally extensive ways that practices are sedimented into and structure the world. Thus, a capacious sense of infrastructures includes social sedimentations such as colonial legacies, the repetition of gendered norms in material culture, or the persistence of racialization. When “assistance” becomes infrastructural in this way, what cartography of assisted reproduction does environmental politics demand?

I suggest the term distributed reproduction as a way of reframing what counts as reproduction. I would like to pose distributed reproduction as a question of reproduction occurring beyond bodies within uneven spatial and temporal infrastructures. Within such infrastructures, some aspects of life are supported while others are abandoned. Infrastructures promote some forms of life, and avert others. Through infrastructures, some forms of life purposefully persist, while other forms are unintentionally altered. Some life survives despite infrastructures. In thinking about distributed reproduction I draw on: the concept of “reproductive justice,” as crafted by women-of-color feminists in the United States; the Comilla Declaration of 1989, written in Bangladesh, which theorizes the engineering of life in both agriculture and in human bodies as connected forms of the “relations of reproduction;” Marxist feminist work that theorizes the structuration of reproduction as pivotal to capitalism; indigenous feminisms that attend to the intergenerational reverberations of violence and the continuance of colonialism; and queer studies work that questions heteronormativity within ways of envisioning futures.[6] Inspired by these critical efforts, this paper seeks to resist thinking about reproduction primarily as an embodied, forward-moving, anticipatory, generative process, but additionally, instead, and in particular, this paper thinks through the temporal question of latency, intergenerational time, and thwarted life in chemical infrastructures of reproduction.

By chemical infrastructures, I mean the spatial and temporal distributions of industrially produced chemicals as they are produced and consumed, and as they become mobile in the atmosphere, settle into landscapes, travel in water ways, leach from commodities, are regulated (or not) by states, monitored by experts, engineered by industries, absorbed by bodies, metabolized physiologically, and as they bioaccumulate in food changes, break down over time, or persist. With the term chemical infrastructures, I am naming and imagining the many varied pathways of industrial chemicals as they permeate and structure life, both human and nonhuman. Chemical infrastructures are both regulated and unregulated, studied and yet uncertain. Many different disciplines and communities of experts make knowledge about chemical infrastructures, but in piecemeal ways—some experts study chemicals in fish, other experts engineer smoke stacks, while others diagnose illnesses. Yet others feel chemical infrastructures by working and living in sites saturated by industrial chemicals. Quotidian acts of breathing, drinking, and smelling can become knowledge-making moments in chemical infrastructures. Chemical infrastructures, importantly, are spatially and temporally extensive. They are distributed and translocal, connecting moments of production and consumption, moving across national borders, traversing scales of life. They are temporally uneven, as some chemicals break down quickly and others refuse to decompose, and thus are present for long durations. Some chemicals cause immediate responses in organisms, others provoke effects that take generations to see, as they slowly injure organisms, ecologies, or even planetary atmospheres.[7]

It is this temporal aspect of chemical infrastructures—their slowness, their persistence, their latency—that I want to think more about. Latency is a synonym of lag. It is the period of time between a stimulus and a response, the gap between one event and another. In technical terms, latency time in medicine is similar to an incubation period. Latency time is the lag between infection and infectiousness. Or, it is the wait between chemical exposure and symptom. To be latent is to be “not yet:” a potential not yet manifest, a past not yet felt.

In temporal terms, latency names the wait for the effects of the past to arrive in the present. As such, latency is a movement from past to present or even future. It is the inverse temporal orientation of anticipation—in which the not-yet-future reorients the present. In comparison, latency in ecological time names how the submerged chemicals of the past finally arrive in the present to disrupt the reproduction of the same. Latency names how the past becomes reactivated. Through latency, the future is already altered.

Pages: 1 2 All Pages

Next page

  1. This paper builds on two previously published works: Michelle Murphy, “Chemical Infrastructures,” Toxic World, eds. Nathalie Jas and Soraya Boudia (London, Pickering and Chato, 2012): 103-116 and “Distributed Reproduction,” Corpus: An Interdisciplinary Reader on Bodies and Knowledge, eds. Monica Casper and Paisley Currah (New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2011): 21-38. [Return to text]
  2. EcoJustice, Exposing Canada’s Chemical Valley: An Investigation of Cumulative Air Pollution Emission in the Sarnia, Ontario Area, (Toronto: EcoJustice, 2007). [Return to text]
  3. EcoJustice 2007. [Return to text]
  4. Donna Haraway, ” Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s,” Socialist Review 80 (1985): 65. [Return to text]
  5. J. Zalasiewicz, et al., “Are we now living in the Anthropocene,” GSA Today 18.2 (2008): 4–8. [Return to text]
  6. See, for example, Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice, “Looking Both Ways: Women’s Lives at the Crossroads of Reproductive Justice and Climate Justice” (2009); Farida Akhter, Wilma Van Berkel, and Natasha Ahmad, “The Declaration of Comilla: FINRRAGE-UBINIG International Conference 1989,” (Dhaka: UBINIG, 1989); Cindi Katz, “Vagabond Capitalism and the Necessity of Social Reproduction,” Antipode 33.4 (2001): 708-727; Winona La Duke, All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life (Boston: South End Press, 1999); and Andrea Smith, “Queer Theory and Native Studies: The Heteronormativity of Settler Colonialism,” GLQ 16 (2010): 41-68. [Return to text]
  7. Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2011). [Return to text]