T S Redmond’s Summary of Mel Y. Chen’s “Toxic Animacies”

Mel Y. Chen’s “Toxic Animacies, Inanimate Affections” is an essay that takes the metaphor of toxicity to troubled and troubling places.  When this metaphor is situated within the Queer Theory discourse, AIDS and the corrupted/corruptible body comes to mind, but Chen does much more than this in her treatise on “a kind of subject — whose “natural defenses” will be put to the test, in detection, in “fighting off,” and finally in submission and absorption” (265).  Chen situates her thesis as trifold, discussing first the sexuality/sexualness of “othered” bodies’ products and capital.  The Chen moves on to interrogating the ways heavy metal poisoning is much like queer abject subjectivity and how this poisoning serves to “queer” subject position(s).  Finally, the essay ends by suggesting that the “queering” that results from the interplay of toxicity produces a “kind of animacy” 265).


Chen does a wonderful job of pulling in the ways “toxic” has entered the national discourse, citing “toxic acquaintances”, “toxic political atmosphere” and the very useful, “toxic assets.”  I was very interested in the ways Chen shows the reader that the discourse she is parsing is already at play.  I also wondered how, for working people, any asset could be toxic? Then I remembered how the collapse of the housing market placed working class home owners in peril, while banks were bailed out.  This recognition, prompted by Chen’s essay, prepared me for the next section of her argument concerning heteropatriachy and its part in the demonization of Chinese lead toxic toys.  


In the section titled, “Lead as Toxic Asset”, Chen begins by reminding the reader of the U. S. media landscape and how it has been populated with narratives of “environmental toxins [that] were supposed to be “there,” but were found “here” (267).  I recalled Japan’s nuclear accident and how traces of the waste were reported to be found on the coast of California.  What Chen does with this information, however, is situate it within the current war ready climate and reveal how this intoxicating of the other supports the heteropatriarchal project of global systems and domination.  Nowhere is this clearer than when Chen points out the “title of a New York Times article by Leslie Wayne about corrosive drywall for new homebuilding sourced from China” (268).  The Title, “The Enemy at Home” is used by Chen to insightfully point how the current U. S. state of war has infiltrated media dialogue.  Placing documented or perceived “corrosive” drywall into a binary environment with ALLIES and ENEMIES.


The next section, “Tracking Lead” parses the interplay between the very gendered heteronormative toy, Thomas the Tank Engine as a “fetishized object,” and the raced, classed discourse of Chinese lead toxicity.  Chen queries the collapse of meaning between “toxic” and “low class”, “poor” or “cheap.”  Chen also proves that like “toxic assets”, the national project of heteropatriarchy relies on a collapse of meaning between “non-toxic”, “financially stable”, “high class” and “expensive.”  Chen also queries the ways racialized bodies of Chinese workers and THEIR exposure to lead, as well as the African American children in impoverished communities is a discourse that becomes unvoiced or erased in favor of the narrative of a spoiled or poisoned middle class, white, male child.


A particularly bawdy but necessary section “Lead Licking” uses what might seem like a rather sophomoric leap — the Thomas the Tank Engine train is a cock, and a Chinese one at that, that heteropatriarchal and racist power systems are desperate to keep white male children from licking — to great effect.  The interjection (pun intended) of the fellated train that leads to retardation, takes Chen’s essay to the area of disability studies and is adroitly captured when she writes:


Such late-exhibited orality bears the sheen of that “retarded” stage of development known as homosexuality.15 Thus “retarded,” the scene slides further into queer- ness, as queer and disabled bodies alike trouble the capitalist marriage of domes- ticity, heterosexuality, and ability: the queer disability theorist Robert McRuer writes that the “ideological reconsolidation of the home as a site of intimacy and heterosexuality was also the reconsolidation of the home as a site for the devel- opment of able-bodied identities, practices, and relations.”  This section segues nicely into Chen’s discussion of her own hypersensitivity to metals, environmental chemicals and smoke.  When Chen asks, “Queers are in many ways treated as toxic assets, but what happens when queers become intoxicated?” (273) she further destabilizes the subjectivity of intoxicator and intoxicant.  Chen also does well to trouble the telos of the closet, when she writes about her choice of revealing her illness or not.  She wonders about her decisions to come out and how the “insinuation or revelation of disability dovetails complexly with issues of coming out: discourses of sexuality and passing” (274).  


In our last class meeting, I expressed surprise at the missing discussion of “love” throughout most of the Queer theory we were reading.  Chen is the first theorists we have read who mention the L-word, and her brief notice of it, proves how this area remains one fraught with uncertainty in the field.  With love as a launching point, however, Chen does explore some of the silences associated with illness and the times she “came out” and was met with respect and love.   The essay ends with several important areas of query.  The first three questions I will conclude with serve to summarize the end of Chen’s argument.  The final three attempt to speak to the beginning of Chen’s essay.


1. Chen writes, “And how is it that we are doing this, doing all this, to ourselves? Yet even as the toxins them- selves spread far and wide, such a “we” is a false unity. There are those who find themselves on the underside of industrial “development” (276).  How might impoverished communities, here and abroad be “queer?”  How might these communities fit into the framework of intersectionality?  Of assemblages?



2. Chen writes, “The kinds of bonds that link these groups, bonds that are recognized in the potent affinities of transnational labor and immigrant activism, have been laid there from without, to suture and reinforce multiple transnational systems of racialization, labor hierarchy, and capital — and ultimately of affection or nonaffection. These groups are industrial- ization’s canaries” (276).  The canary metaphor has also been used to describe the ways homonormative communities in the U. S. serve as the vanguard for gentrification.  What do you make of this?


3. Chen gets into a particularly complex area at the very end, writing, “For would not my nonproductivity, my nonhuman sociality, render me some other human’s “dead” — as certainly it has, in case after case of the denial of disabled existence, emotional life, sexuality, or subjectivity? Or must couches be cathected differently from humans? Or do only certain couches deserve the attribution of a (sexual) fetish? These are only questions to which I have no ready answers, except to declare that those forms of exceptionalism no longer seem reasonable.”  Is Chen advocating for a new subjectivity of the object?  Are the fetish communities to become one of the assemblage communities?


4. Chen writes, “I . . . consider how vulnerability, safety, immunity, threat, and toxicity itself are sexu- ally and racially instantiated in the recent panic about lead content in Chinese- manufactured toys exported to the United States” (266).  How might gendered ideas about Chinese bodies also be instantiated in this this discourse?


5. Chen writes that she plans to: “interweave biopolitical considerations of immunity into an account of the peculiar intimacies and alienations of heavy metal poisoning, rendered in the first person” (265).  How does this move toward “authenticity” support Chen’s assertion that the toxic body becomes “queered?”


6. Chen writes that part of her project is to “investigate the potential to resignify toxicity as a theoretical figure, in the interest of inviting contradictory play and crediting queer bonds already here: the living dead, the dead living, antisocial love, and inanimate affection” (266).  How does each of Chen’s four designations play within Queer theory discourse?

One thought on “T S Redmond’s Summary of Mel Y. Chen’s “Toxic Animacies”

  1. alexislothian

    Thanks for providing such a comprehensive summary and set of questions!

    I was thinking about your remark on love when I was reading this piece, as well. It’s fascinating that love emerges for Chen not only in the interaction with other people but through the nonhuman, in her misrecognition between her partner and the couch… Is this love through the framework of the assemblage, I wonder, and what kinds of relationship might this have to the kinds of regulatory representation of queer love that we have seen in class discussions on marriage, etc?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *