The Human Periodic Table: Dow Chemical "Becomes-Mineral"

Erin Fitz-Henry

University of Melbourne

In 2007, just as I was returning from 14 months of fieldwork on and around a U.S. military base in Ecuador, a controversy rocked the American Anthropological Association meetings in Washington, D.C. – a controversy whose after-effects continue to animate impassioned discussion about the deployment of anthropological expertise in times of war.  In broadest outline, it revolved around a central dilemma: Should anthropologists share their “cultural” expertise with the U.S. military’s Human Terrain System teams which were then operating in Iraq and Afghanistan? What were the particular ethical challenges presented by working in the field alongside U.S. military personnel, and were they fundamentally unresolvable?  How, after all, was one to fulfil one’s professional mandate of “doing no harm” if one’s charge was also to provide cultural translations for the occupying forces? (Clarke 2011).  Feelings ran high on all sides as groups like the Network for Concerned Anthropologists vehemently argued that such collaboration was inherently unethical, while others, like Kamari Clarke and Brian Selmeski, pushed for a consideration of the conditions under which the sharing of anthropological expertise outside the framework of the Human Terrain System program might actually serve to reduce casualties on both sides.

In this brief essay, it is not my intention to re-open these debates.  Acknowledging that fine-grained attention to the ethical dangers inherent in such collaboration is vitally important, I want instead to suggest that this focus on collaboration with military forces that has garnered such attention over the past four years (Price 2011; Gonzalez 2010) has occluded other less visible appropriations of social science expertise to which we need also, and increasingly, to direct our attention.  In what follows, building primarily on the work of Eyal Weizman, Sian Sullivan, and Jane Bennett, I explore the recent efforts on the part of the world’s second largest chemical company -- Dow Chemical -- to inadvertently appropriate the growing interdisciplinary movement concerned with dismantling the centrality of the human subject.  While I do not intend to argue, and indeed do not have the empirical evidence to demonstrate direct causal links between, say, Dow Chemical corporate social responsibility personnel and the political-ecological philosopher Jane Bennett or the anthropologist Sian Sullivan, I want to suggest a series of uneasy ideological resonances across the academic-corporate divide that have principally to do with what we have come to call “post-humanism.”  While ‘appropriation’ usually implies an active agency and discrete actors or objects that either appropriate or get appropriated, in what follows I will principally be concerned simply with what seem to me worrisome thematic reverberations across social fields – in this case, the academy and the corporation -- whose “habits of thinking,” as Marilyn Strathern has recently put it, may not be as disparate as they first appear (Strathern 2011).

At the outset, however, let me be clear. I am not equating the work of ecologically-minded anthropologists and their philosophical colleagues with the practices and tactics of anthropologists employed by the Human Terrain System teams in Iraq and Afghanistan, nor am I suggesting parallels between the kinds of moral dilemmas faced by each.  In fact, I am not here engaged – at least not in any immediate sense -- in a discussion of ethics at all. If there is an overriding ethical preoccupation here it is simply that we need to remain alert not only to the more obviously troubling usurpations of our expertise in times of war (to which no one, to my mind, has more powerfully called attention than Edward Said), but also to the far more subtle re-deployments of our critical edges by multinational corporations in times of everyday “neoliberal disorder” (Said 1993).  In a recent article entitled “Neoliberal Agency,” Ilana Gershon has similarly argued that neo-liberalism has crippled, if not entirely disabled, one of anthropology’s most foundational insights – as she glosses it, the relativist’s observation that the “world could always be otherwise” (Gershon 2011: 537).  “Seeing the social as constructed was liberating,” she explains, “when faced with people who naturalized power into order to exercise power. No more. Neoliberal constructions of agency have wilted the efficacy of this formerly reliable insight. Neoliberal perspectives have incorporated as a central belief the knowledge that all that is social could be otherwise” (Gershon 2011: 537).  While I am not concerned with our “foundational insights” in such sweeping terms and do not concur with her “solutions” – i.e., increased attention to “people’s epistemological differences and social organization” – I share her anxiety about the blunting of our critical instruments in these times of neoliberal ascendancy and, in particular, I want to register my hesitation about some of the Deleuzian-inspired trajectories that have recently become so fashionable across the disciplinary spectrum.         

The Deleuzian motif of horizontal or rhizomatic “becoming” has, it seems to me, become ubiqitous over the last decade or so, and particularly in the last few years – spreading so virally across the human sciences that it was even granted its own sub-section as one of the four “major themes of 2010” by Jennifer Hamilton and Aimee Placas in their 2010 Sociocultural Anthropology Year in Review (Hamilton and Placas 2011).  The reasons for this embrace of Deleuze, it hardly needs to be pointed out, are numerous and inspired by significantly different tonalities of his project.  While some theorists are more concerned with what it seems to offer methodologically, others are more taken with what it promises conceptually (to the degree, of course, that method and substance can ever be divorced).  Leaning in the more methodological direction, anthropologists like Joao Biehl and Peter Locke have pointed to the capacity of “becoming” to liberate ethnographic analysis from the deterministic vestiges of what they take to be a Foucauldian overemphasis on the ‘microphysics of power’ at the expense of more desiring, Deleuzian ‘lines of flight’ (Biehl and Locke 2010).  Somewhat more substantively, ethnographers like Sian Sullivan, Stefan Helmreich, and a host of others working in the tradition of multi-species ethnography -- have found in Deleuzian “becoming-vegetable, animal, and molecule” a more sensitive conceptual vocabulary by which to challenge the insidiously hierarchical divisions between human and non-human that have become so entrenched in the “West.”  It is with this latter group of theorists that I both identify and am most concerned. 

As Sullivan explains of the shamanic rain dances among the KhoeSan people with whom she lived and worked in the 1990s, “In their rhizomatic, semiotic reorganization of modern Western categories (subject/object, body/mind, nature/culture) into a differently understood logic of complex system flows and intensities, Deleuze and Guattari’s entwined and mutually enforcing concepts of ‘becoming animal,’ ‘becoming molecular,’ and ‘becoming-intense’ offer a conceptual entrance into appreciating these ‘counter-existential’…experiences and configurations” (Sullivan 2010: 124-5).  The counter-existential experiences that she has in mind are things like the sense of communion between people and praying mantises around which the KhoeSan people base much of their theology, the processes by which plants are used to cure agitations, and the acts of shape-shifting in which shamans regularly engage.  Hopeful that such “rhizomatic” ways of conceptualizing human/non-human relations might prove an antidote to the dominant constructions of nature currently so in vogue at the UN and elsewhere -- constructions that continue to envision the natural world as either an exchangeable commodity on the carbon or species markets or as a provider of “ecosystem services” -- Sullivan holds onto the promise of what she takes to be Deleuze and Guattari’s insistence on the “power-full ‘anti-power’ of animist epistemologies and ontologies.”  “[We need],” she summarizes, “to reinsert and reactivate such different and resistant realities [like the shamanic rain dances]. But this requires the discipline of not feeling alien to the world, which is perhaps the hardest step to take, when all around us the world somehow is made alien to us. Nevertheless, ‘from the howling of the animals to the wailing of elements and particles,’ we need now the courage to express a different sort of planetary sorcery” (Sullivan 2010: 128). 

This sensitivity to the radical political possibilities inherent in thinking less hierarchically about human-non-human relations via Deleuze and Guattari is one that, it seems to me, is increasingly shared among environmental anthropologists and philosophers who, along with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, continue to “dream of animist liberation theologies” (Spivak 1999: 382).  From religious scholars like Graham Harvey to political theorists like Jane Bennett, there is a wide and intensifying interest in the post-Enlightenment task of displacing the humanistic emphasis on the centrality of the human by returning, via various routes, to Spinoza’s observation – so foundational for Deleuze – that “all things are animate, albeit in different degrees” (Bennett 2010: 5).  Jane Bennett has perhaps taken this project the furthest in her recent book, Vibrant Matter, in which she builds directly on Deleuze and Guattari’s imagining of nature as “an infinity of particles entering into an infinity of more or less interconnected relations,” to argue for an urgent diminution in the distance between ‘the human’ and the ‘non-human’ (Bennett 2010: 215).  To see ourselves composed of ‘lively matter,’ she thinks, is to see ourselves no longer as the pinnacle of creation, but simply as part and parcel of an “infinity of particles.”  As she summarizes, “Materiality is a rubric that tends to horizontalize the relations between humans, biota, and abiota. It draws human attention sideways, away from an ontologically ranked Great Chain of Being and toward a greater appreciation of the complex entanglements of humans and nonhumans. Here, the implicit moral imperative of Western thought – “Thou shall identify and defend what is special about Man’ – loses some of its salience (2010: 12-13).

            While I share with Bennett, Spivak, and Sullivan a commitment to this political-ecological project, and am inspired by Deleuze and Guattari’s dynamic, non-Oedipal imaginings of “becoming-molecule,” this sort of insistence on the horizontality of being does not just create radical political openings but, and this is my central claim in this short essay, it has already been embraced and deployed to great effect by corporations, among whom there is arguably no one more eloquent than the Dow Chemical company.  Beginning in 2006, Dow Chemical – the second largest and one of the wealthiest chemical companies in the world – hired the advertising team at Draftfcb Chicago to create and launch an ad campaign entitled, “The Human Element.”  Initially intended for internal circulation only, the resulting advertisements are strikingly beautiful, and despite the scepticism born of years of watching Dow fail to compensate the victims of the 1984 Union Carbide industrial accident (Fortun 2001), I always find myself caught off-guard by them – moved against my will. To the accompaniment of a melancholic solo violin, images of the natural world begin to appear – a volcanic mountain, the patterns left by the ocean seen from space, an amber-coloured owl, a waterfall, a lone tree in the middle of a darkening desert, a small glass vial filled with seedlings just beginning to sprout. The voiceover begins – as if reciting a poem:

For each of us,
There is a moment of discovery.
We turn a page, we raise a hand,
And just then…in the flash of a synapse…
We learn that life is elemental.
And this knowledge changes everything.
We look around and see the grandness of the scheme.
Sodium bonding with chlorine…
Carbon bonding with oxygen…
Hydrogen bonding with oxygen…
We see all things connected.
We see life unfold.
And in the dazzling brilliance of this knowledge
We may overlook the element not listed on the chart…
Its importance so obvious, its presence is simply understood.
The missing element is the Human Element…

As images of people begin to appear traversing the landscapes that we have just been viewing – a young African girl standing outside a white-washed building, a white boy walking along the ocean’s shore, a man and woman swimming gracefully underwater, their movements animated by the same currents that sway the algae beneath them, the narrator continues:

And when we add [the human element] to the equation, the chemistry changes.
Every reaction is different.
Potassium looks to bond with potential.
Metals behave with hardened resolve.
And hydrogen and oxygen form desire…
The human element…
Nothing is more fundamental, nothing more elemental.

If not a ‘vital materialism’ in Jane Bennett’s terms or a “planetary sorcery…[that connects] ‘the howling of the animals to the wailing of elements and particles,’ in Sian Sullivan’s, how might we better describe this advertising campaign? While it exalts the ‘human’ in a certain way – everything is different when we add the ‘human element’ to the equation! -- most viewers (myself included) respond to the ways in which it seems, on the contrary, to dislocate the centrality of the human in terms not unfamiliar to post-humanism more generally. As one on-line respondent put it, succinctly summarizing the outpouring of emotion that so many experienced when first watching the commercial, “I love the idea that humans are as much an element of the earth as oxygen.”  There is arguably nothing more ‘horizontal,’ in Deleuzian terms, than locating people as just one more element on the periodic table; nothing more de-centering than making direct alliterative equivalences between potassium and potential; nothing more vitally materialistic than suggesting that the human and the mineral form an inescapable equation.  If metals can have something like “resolve,” and deeply human emotions like desire are seen to be constructed out of little more than hydrogen and oxygen, then the sharp dividing line against which post-human theorists have been working for some time has already been breached by Dow Chemical.

            And Dow is far from alone in this deployment of a particularly post-humanist sort of green-washing.  Indeed, the chemical industry has no monopoly on the effort to dissolve the human into its material substrate.  Suzana Sawyer, for example, describes “The Human Energy” campaign launched by Chevron at around the same time in the following terms:  “Against a white backdrop, the word ‘oil’ quickly morphs into ‘geo-thermal’ then ‘solar,’ ‘natural gas,’ ‘hydrogen,’ ‘conservation,’ and finally, ‘CHEVRON.’ The narrator’s voice returns: ‘This is the power of human energy.’” (Sawyer 2009).  Again, the creators of this campaign have artfully sought to diminish the distance between ‘human energy’ and ‘solar energy,’ thereby erasing the qualitative differences between the “untapped energy” of natural gas fields and that of corporate boardrooms and household living rooms.  As they summarize: “There are 6.5 billion people on this planet, and by year’s end, there will be another 73 million. And every one of us will need energy to live. For today and tomorrow and the foreseeable future, our lives demand oil… Tell us it can’t be done. Then watch as we tap the greatest source of energy in the world – ourselves” (Sawyer 2009).  This de-centering slippage between human energy and solar, natural gas, and hydrogen energy is, to put it somewhat too coarsely, being used by Chevron to justify continued oil drilling. 

            In the first decades of the 21st century, both Dow and Chevron continue to face enormous public relations scandals and ongoing lawsuits, struggling to protect themselves from litigation surrounding their involvement in sub-standard practices overseas, annual oil spills that dwarf that of the Macondo rig in the Gulf, and “routine” industrial accidents.  As investigative journalist Jack Doyle has detailed at some length, Dow Chemical has been involved in scandal after scandal – from its role in developing Agent Orange during the Vietnam War and its dumping of high quantities of mercury into rivers throughout the northeastern United States to its active undermining of EPA regulations and its rampant pollution of the river basin around its own hometown of Midland, Michigan (Doyle 2004).  As recently as 2010, four years after the launch of the “Human Element” campaign, the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Toxics Release Inventory National Analysis Overview” revealed that Dow was ranked second in the nation for the “amount of toxics release inventory waste generated through production.”  Perhaps even more alarmingly, the release of toxic chemicals by the chemical sector as a whole increased by 19% between 2009 and 2010. While Dow has certainly been an innovator in the plastics sector and has contributed to the discovery of numerous life-saving devices (as it never tires of repeating), the magnitude of the health and environmental damages with which people are living as a result of their operations is incalculable.   

             But pointing out such realities rarely sways public sentiment.  Instead, what moves people, as growing numbers of theorists seem to be recognizing, is brand advertising (Monbiot 2011).  As Rosemary Coombe, for example, has pointed out of the scandal that broke in the early 1980s around the Proctor and Gamble label when rumours began to swirl that there was a link between the company and Satanism, “In a decade when the federal Centers for Disease Control linked the company’s tampon with fatal toxic shock syndrome, feminists protested the use of sex in its advertisements, and unions urged boycotts to back their struggles for recognition, it was the battle over the meaning of a tiny moon-and-stars symbol that brought the diffident corporation most prominently to public attention” (Coombe 1993: 422).  Increasingly, as more and more scandals erupt around the reckless endangerment of human life and fragile ecosystems in which chemical companies too routinely engage in their search to lower costs and raise profits, there is a growing need, as Kim Fortun recognizes, for cultural analysts to “track the emergence and circulation of new corporate language games – what Benson and Kirsch call ‘corporate oxymorons’ – seeking to understand how they shift the parameters and dynamics of dialogue, and how problems are recognized or not” (Fortun 2010: 84).  In what ways is Dow Chemical (and other multinational corporations) redeploying tropes that are long familiar to ecological anthropologists and post-human philosophers, but in the service of ends to which most of us are opposed?  How are they using tools fashioned by those committed to “liberation ecology” to “manufacture consent” for one of the most poisonous and unsustainable industries in the world?  How are they shifting the “parameter and dynamics of dialogue” and in what ways is it incumbent upon us all to remain productively in conversation – even if only implicitly?  In their call for the development of an anthropology of corporations that is as robust as the anthropology of the state has become over the past decade, Peter Benson and Stuart Kirsch lay the questions before us clearly: “How do corporations contribute to the shaping of widespread structures of feeling? [And] what are the specific strategies that corporations use to engage their critics?” (Benson and Kirsch 2010: 461).

            In this essay, have tried to call attention to the uneasy resonances between the “structures of feeling” described by Deleuze and Guattari and their ecologically-minded followers and those deployed by Dow Chemical as part of its “Human Element” campaign.  But it is only resonances toward which I can point.  A number of theorists have similarly registered hesitation about recent uses of Deleuze and Guattari, but have done so by drawing direct links.  As architect Eyal Weizman has noted, for example, the Israel military regularly reads Deleuze and Guattari (not to mention a host of Situationists) in their efforts to think through alternative, more “striated” forms of urban warfare.  As one brigadier-general explained to Weizman, “We are like the Jesuit order. We attempt to teach and train soldiers to think. We read Christopher Alexander, can you imagine?...We are reading Gregory Bateson; we are reading Clifford Geertz…” (Weizman 2011).  The officers-in-training under this brigadier-general not only read Bateson and Geertz, but receive a course fundamentally shaped by a Deleuzian ethos – being exposed, as they are, to Powerpoint slides with titles like, ‘Difference and Repetition – The Dialectics of Structuring and Structure’, ‘Formless Rival Entities’, ‘Fractal Manoeuvre’, ‘Velocity vs. Rhythms’, ‘The Wahabi War Machine’, ‘Postmodern Anarchists’ and ‘Nomadic Terrorists.’ “Theory obviously has the power to stimulate new sensibilities,” Weizman rightly concludes, “but it may also help to explain, develop, or even justify ideas that emerged independently within disparate fields of knowledge and with quite different ethical bases.” (Weizman 2011). While I cannot demonstrate such a link between Deleuzian theory and, for example, the CEO of Dow Chemical or the head of the advertising company Draftfcb Chicago, I have used the case of “The Human Element” simply to suggest the importance of remaining attentive to the fact that some of our most powerful critical interventions find an uneasy kinship with trends already existent in the world of corporate advertisement.  And that kinship may not only seriously blunt the power of those interventions, but may actively work against them in the public sphere, reaching far more people than our esoteric books on “vital materialism.” 

While anthropologists and other social theorists committed to displacing the centrality of the human continue to work toward an emancipatory post-humanism, envisioning a less hierarchical chain of being in which the “last exploited proletariat” of the natural world is no longer neglected and enslaved, a version of that post-human drama is already being performed on millions of television screens around the world – encouraging precisely the continued commitment to chemical innovation that has resulted in hundreds of deaths from PCBs, napalm gas, and mercury poisoning.   

Of course I recognise that anything can be put to purposes for which it was not intended – indeed, this is one of my major critiques of Said’s 1989 call for the dissolution of anthropology.  While Said justified this call on the grounds that even our most sensitive efforts to decolonize the field can too easily be put to work by the Department of Defense, he had a tendency, it still seems to me, to treat the readership of such studies as overly monolithic. While the DoD may indeed “read what we write,” so, too, do progressive NGOs, politically committed colleagues, and social movement leaders, and as a result, we are always inevitably being put to purposes – both progressive and regressive – over which we exert little control.  Nevertheless, I continue to share with Said, Gershon, and Weizman an ongoing anxiety about the speed with which our critical instruments are being deformed by the neoliberal project.  Some might argue that I have blown out of proportion the resonances between critical environmental theory and Dow advertising.  After all, if we widen the lens of the social fields under consideration too far the plethora of relations within which we are all embedded makes any clear-cut assertion about the directionality of appropriative processes untenable.  Everything, that is, can apparently resonate with everything else. That said, it seems to me far more productive to remain alert to the possibility of such resonances than to simply ignore them, gleefully going about the ivory tower task of producing “critical theory” that may have already lost its critical edge. ‘From the howling of the animals to the wailing of elements and particles,’” wrote Sian Sullivan, “we need now the courage to express a different sort of planetary sorcery.” I wholeheartedly agree.  But this sorcery cannot be left in the hands of the chemical industry.  Social theory travels.  And all of us committed to a less anthropocentric future free of “human racism” need to watch these migrations with considerable care (Eckersley 1993).    


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