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«Air’s Substantiations For Berkeley Environmental Politics Colloquium Tim Choy Anthropology and Science & Technology Studies, UC Davis Preface Thank ...»

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Air’s Substantiations

For Berkeley Environmental Politics Colloquium

Tim Choy

Anthropology and Science & Technology Studies, UC Davis


Thank you for reading my work. I am looking forward to getting your feedback. This piece is

a kind of bridge. It is the final chapter of a book I am finishing on knowledge practices in

environmental politics in Hong Kong.⁠ At the same time, its object of analysis, the methods I

employ to understand it, and the experience of groping for language to render and assert air’s materiality without resorting to tropes and analytics of solidity are the central motivations for my next book project. So it is both an ending and a beginning.

Let me say a few words about this next project, provisionally titled, “The Making of Political Atmospheres,” and some working concepts that I am trying out. Empirically, my goal is to write an account of modern air politics. The loose category of “air politics” is meant to coordinate the analysis of a number of distinct developments, such as practices of atmospheric and chemical monitoring by individuals, organizations, and government bodies; controversies concerning trans-border pollution and trans-specific contagion; the politicization of asthma; the emergence of carbon economies; and the roles of air and notions of nuisance in environmental law. In other words, I am concerned with political atmospheres of several types, with particular interest in how bodily and technical capacities for sensing and negotiating the the atmosphere are coming to be cultivated across a number of situations by a diverse array of actors.

At the same time, my goal is to think harder about what constitutes a political “atmosphere.” “Atmosphere” is a term used commonly for denoting a generally shared sentiment or feeling, yet it enjoys little analytic traction, largely because it is often impossible to specify what exactly constitutes the atmosphere (or, sometimes, “climate”) of a moment or location. By attending to the material practices through which people come to know and politicize the literal atmospheres around us, I hope to develop some conceptual tools for understanding the mechanics and 1   processes through which figurative atmospheres --sudden senses of common-hood, resonating political sentiments, mobilized affects-- come to shape and take hold of political collectivities. In other words, rather than dismiss an analytic of political atmosphere for vagueness, I am interested --precisely as it were-- in the ways vaguenesses gain or lose traction in the constitution of atmospheric politics and subjectivities, and the ways these vaguenesses are generated and shared through the use and propagation of particular technologies and techniques for sensing and making sense of shifts in one's milieu. "Affective atmospheres," to borrow geographer Ben Anderson's felicitous term, are fundamental to political mobilization, both in and beyond environmentalist spheres.⁠1 Peter Sloterdijk lurks here. For Sloterdijk, the contemporary notions of air and atmosphere as “objects of explicit provision and aerotechnical, medical, juridical, political, aesthetic, and theoretical-cultural care” are reactions to, aftershocks of, atmoterror,⁠ a technique and logic of power inaugurated by German troops’ first use of chlorine gas in 1915, shifting war from an assault on bodies, to an assault on a body’s total total environment.2 I take this point, but find myself more compelled by atmosphere’s current life than its origins. Doctor’s efforts to substantiate the daily mortality risks of poor air quality, the work of asthma activists in mapping ecologies of injustice⁠,3 efforts to politicize sick building syndrome and multiple chemical sensitivities in the face of scientific uncertainty⁠,4 the galvanizing of a lackluster democracy 1 Anderson, Ben. Affective atmospheres. Emotion, Space and Society (2009) vol. 2 (2) pp. 77-81 2 "Only in reaction to terrorist depravations could air and the atmosphere —primary means of survival in physical as well as metaphorical senses— become objects of explicit provision and aerotechnical, medical, juridical, political, aesthetic, and theoretical---cultural care. In this sense, the theory of air and the technology of climate are neither mere sediments of war and postwar knowledge... instead, they are above all primary postterrorist forms of knowledge." Sloterdijk, Peter. Airquakes. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space (2009) vol. 27 (1) pp. 41-57, Airquakes, 48 3 Mitman, Gregg. Breathing Space : How Allergies Shape Our Lives and Landscapes. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.

4 Murphy, Michelle. Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty : Environmental Politics, Technoscience, and Women Workers. Durham N.C.: Duke University Press, 2006.

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movement in Hong Kong by face-masked mobilizations criticizing governmental action concerning SARS — these and others point to futures for atmospheric politics not fully determined.

I have a few working concepts that I’d like to share. They are rough and sketchy, but I’d rather let their edges show. I’m using them to grope for something, and I’d appreciate your help thinking things through.

Atmospheric ontology is one. (Hence, the original title of this talk, “On Atmospheric Things.”) I am trying to explicate what Jane Bennett might call the “thing power”⁠ of atmosphere (though I think “thing power” is itself an atmospheric concept.)5 I mean ontological in much the same way my colleague Jim Griesemer does when writes of the "ontological commitments" that make scientific research possible (Griesemer, m.s.). Griesemer has been thinking for much longer than I about the multiplicities of social worlds —often with disparate interests, conceptualizations of problems, and methods of analysis— that convene around particular boundary objects. Now he is thinking more about how to characterize the commitments catalyzed by conceptualizations of problems in evolutionary biology through particular kinds objects, such as genes, groups, species. Griesemer call these practical commitments —to particular pieces of equipment, research designs, questions— “ontological” as an argument against philosophical dismissals of such practical commitments as "mere" pragmatics.

Pragmatics are ontologies; enacting is thinging — and things like the species concept enact and elicit ontological commitment.

In this spirit, I am hypothesizing that atmospheric politics have a particular affective force because of some specificities about the ontological commitments attending their apprehension as atmospheric. This has led me to flag a few issues that I think are ethnographically “native” to atmospheres and atmospheric politics, which I’ll call Simultaneity/Singularity, Suspension, and Substance.

Simultaneity/Singularity is an unwieldy formulation, but the issue I am trying to flag for myself here is straightforward, namely that the atmosphere is not simply “the atmosphere 5 Bennett, Jane. The Force of Things: Steps toward an Ecology of Matter. Political Theory (2004) vol. 32 (3) pp. 347-372

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multiple,” pace Annemarie Mol, though it certainly has multiple ontologies.6⁠ The point is not to argue its multiplicity. This is unnecessary, it’s the starting point for atmospheric scientists and people suffering from poor air quality. Air is an aggregate; a mixture of gases, a suspension of solid (particulates) and liquid (aerosols) in a gaseous medium. Claiming the singularity of atmospheric ontology is to assert, perhaps paradoxically, that this very commonsense-ness of multiplicity —the sensation of confronting simultaneous, parallel, sometimes incompatible units of analysis, methods of sensing, etc.— is a singular feature of what I am terming the atmospheric. Kim Fortun’s work on environmental informatics shapes my thinking a great deal here.7 One point I take from Fortun is that navigating layers upon layers of differently scaled data, yields a sensation of incomplete knowledge, a vertiginous sense that there is always something in excess of the explanation. Even if one can pinpoint or materialize a particular particulate, toxin, or a classed spatial disparity, the solidity of evidence yields to an atmospheric tension, a sensation that there is also always something more.

Suspension is serving me as a useful, if simple, figure for thinking this simultaneity.

Suspensions imply more than one substance. To care about and for one’s atmosphere means attending to the intra-actions between living things and substances in suspension, as well as to the fluid dynamics and movements of their medium.

Finally, substance. While substance primarily does the work in this paper of asserting a materialism and process of materialization, I wonder whether the unspoken privileging of a notion of substance merits more interrogation as I move forward. Philosophers of chemistry disagree, for instance, whether chemistry is a science of substances or reactions, or even what 6 Mol, Annemarie. The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice, Science and Cultural Theory.

Durham: Duke University Press, 2002. Stacey Langwick takes pushes questions of ontological politics into postcolonial terrain in Bodies, Politics, and African Healing : The Matter of Maladies in Tanzania. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011.

Fortun, Kim. Environmental information systems as appropriate technology. Design Issues 7 (2004) vol. 20 (3) pp. 54-65

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counts as a substance.⁠8 This instability of the very notion of substance in chemistry seems important to retain for an ontological account of atmospheric politics. At the same time, I am provoked by anthropological theories of kinship that address “the constitution of groups or political community through exchange and transaction,”⁠9 and that maintain as an open question the relationship between kinship and shared substance. Thinking through them helps me keep open the question of what kinds of relations, affinities, persons, political subjects, and political collectivities, might form through the transmissions and circulations of atmospheric substances.

Noticing Air Hong Kong writer Xi Xi opens her experimental short story “Marvels of a Floating City,” a mixed-media piece that weaves together brief narratives and reproductions of paintings by René Magritte, with a fantastic image of a metropolis—a thinly veiled Hong Kong—emerging from the sky.

Many, many years ago, on a fine, clear day, the floating city appeared in the air in full public gaze, hanging like a hydrogen balloon. Above it were the fluctuating layers of clouds, below it the turbulent sea. The floating city hung there, neither sinking nor rising.

When a breeze came by, it moved ever so slightly, and then it became absolutely still again.

How did it happen? The only witnesses were the grandparents of our For instance, see Joeph Earley Sr. Chemical “Substances” That Are Not “Chemical 8 Substances”. Philosophy of Science (2006) vol. 73 pp. 841-852. I’m indebted here to Jake Kosek and Cori Hayden for lively discussions about chemopolitics.

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in Culture and Society (2007), p343.

On questions of substance in anthropological theories of kinship, see Janet Carsten.

Substantivism, Antisubstantivism, and Anti-antisubstantivism. in Franklin, Sarah, and Susan McKinnon. Relative Values : Reconfiguring Kinship Studies. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001.


grandparents. It was an incredible and terrifying experience, and they recalled the event with dread; layers of clouds collided overhead, and the sky was filled with lightning and the roar of thunder. On the sea, myriad pirate ships hoisted their skull and crossbones; the sound of cannon fire went on unremittingly. Suddenly, the floating city dropped down from the clouds above and hung in mid air.10 I love this image. It transforms a city that can feel dense and overwhelming into a thing of quiet and delicacy. Xi Xi shows Hong Kong as a place moved by the slightest touch of a breeze, as a place that can become absolutely still. It reminds me of the Hong Kong I sometimes encountered on late-night walks past the government buildings, while taking the slow ferry between Hong Kong and Lantau Island, and at times while sitting on MTR subway trains when, following the example of many others around me, I would put on my headphones and take a nap.

Xi Xi’s conceit also turns Hong Kong into something like a natural object, something nearly elemental. The city’s mercantile and military origins become almost atmospheric, a storm depicted by layers of clouds and a sky filled with flashes and roars. The pirates themselves—the British Lord Palmerston and the others—are absent in this picture (their presence is marked only by the crossed flag that is raised into the sky), but the meteorological impact they had in birthing the floating city is made clear.

Xi Xi’s pairing of city and sky is fanciful and metaphoric—the images of dangling and floating recall the questions about an uncertain future that preoccupied Hong Kongers in the late 1990s—but for me, Xi Xi’s image is particularly compelling because it also invokes something profoundly literal. Air is central to the understanding and experiencing of Hong Kong.

To explain what I mean by this, I need to tell another story of city and sky, this one just slightly less fantastic. In April 1999 Tung Chee-hwa visited the headquarters of the Walt Disney Corporation in Los Angeles. The visit was perhaps intended as a triumphant exercise of social capital, meant to perform and to buttress a relationship forged through a controversial agreement Tung had signed earlier that year between the Walt Disney Company and the Hong Kong government. The agreement amounted to a joint business venture. Disney would build a theme park in the Special Administrative Region, a park that would not only serve as a draw for international tourists but also (Tung hoped) provide service sector jobs to the increasing—and 10 Xi Xi, Marvels of a Floating City and Other Stories, 106.

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