Courtney O’Dell-Chaib considers how toxic materials complicate conceptions of “sacred natures” through their ability to ooze beyond categories such as nature/culture, human/nonhuman, sacred/profane. In conversation with voices in material feminisms and affect theory, O’Dell-Chaib suggests possible avenues for navigating our toxic immersions.
“Toxic Bodies, Sacred Ecologies”
Web blog post.Material Religions. 6 April 2016. Web. [date of access]
In late April 2010, another “storm” was brewing in the Gulf of Mexico. Still in recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, gulf residents painfully returned to the national spotlight as reports slowly revealed that a British Petroleum (BP) drilling rig, Deepwater Horizon, exploded killing eleven workers and leaving a sea-floor oil gusher. BP’s public relations quickly jumped on the offensive claiming they had the plans and resources to stop the spill. But, as days passed, it became frustratingly evident that no such plans and protections were in place. Live feed cameras placed near the destroyed wellhead depicted in real time what looked like a volcanic eruption spewing clouds of ash. This “eruption” was an estimated 53,000 barrels of crude oil per day gushing from the well. Despite numerous attempts to cap the wellhead, and mounting anger and frustration at the seeming inability of anyone to stop the spill, it was not until July 15th, 2010 that the wellhead was capped. Media reports depicted tar ball littered beaches, rainbow-slick seas, gasping wildlife, struggling residents, devastated shrimpers, and transnational corporations juggling the blame in an endless loop. The nearly five million barrels of crude oil spilling into the waters, plus the approximately 1.07 million gallons of toxic Corexit dispersants used to sink the oil, continues to result in extensive damage to marine habitats, marine industries, and the health of gulf-residents, human and non-human. Two years later, Al Jazeera’s anniversary report on the disaster detailed the beginning signs of the malignant long-term impact on regional ecosystems. Report findings include fish with oozing sores, crabs lacking claws, and shrimp with tumors, without eyes, and with their dead young still attached to their bodies.I work within Religion and Ecology [i]; a multidisciplinary field that incorporates methods from anthropology, theology, philosophy, ethics, and the sciences to examine how religion and culture shape conceptions of/interactions with “nature.” Projects within this large umbrella could include: religious dimensions of environmental thought/practice, development of ecological goals within particular communities, religious practices centered on reverence for the Earth’s living systems, and theoretical work on environmental problems “so complex, terrifying, and significant that they require a religious register for understanding and responding to them.” [ii] But at the heart of this diversity, I find, is a commitment to seriously (re)considering human relationships with/in our material world and particularly how rethinking these relationships might be the impetus for “humans to become a healing presence on the planet.”
Part of what religions can be [iv], religion scholar Mary Evelyn Tucker suggests, is “vessels for nurturing the sense of the sacred” and as religions enter what she calls their “ecological phase” their challenge is to reinvigorate a “sense of awe and reverence for the Earth” in all its dynamic intricacy “as a numinous matrix of mystery.” [v] Tucker argues that this process of religious ecological thinking is an “awakening to renewed appreciation of matter as a vessel for the sacred.” [vi] Nurturing this sense of sacrality in all matter could change how humans perceive and act in the world. “Reverence,” biologist Ursula Goodenough writes in The Sacred Depths of Nature, “is the religious emotion elicited when we perceive the sacred” and when we begin to see the whole universe as vessel for sacred material, we “are called to revere the whole enterprise of planetary existence, the whole and all of its myriad parts as they catalyze and secrete and replicate and mutate and evolve.” [vii]
Awe, wonder, reverence, these are the experiences that come to mind when I think of my first visit to a monarch butterfly sanctuary. Certainly they are the emotions I would use when trying to describe the strange pressing enormity of a particularly clear Texas country night. If awe, wonder, and reverence mark the presence of sacrality, then these spaces and creatures certainly feel like what we might call “sacred.” But what about the material in places like our opening scene? In the aftermath of ecological devastation, do these landscapes and creatures evoke feelings of awe, wonder, and reverence? Furthermore, what do we mean by sacred and do toxic materials fall within its purview? Can pathological and deleterious matter be sacred? Here, I want to think about how toxic materials complicate our conversations on sacred matter. First, I will begin by tracing what ecotheorists might mean by “sacred” when they argue that our material world should be regarded as such and treated accordingly. Then I will demonstrate how toxic materials present challenges to conceptions of “sacred natures.” And finally, I will gesture towards some conceptual avenues that might guide working through our encounters with toxic materials.
Mary Evelyn Tucker and Ursula Goodenough, among other ecotheorists like cultural historian Thomas Berry and cosmologist Brian Swimme, are part of a science-based ecospirituality movement within religion and ecology that Bron Taylor terms “dark green religion.” Dark green religion, he argues, is “deeply ecological, biocentric, or ecocentric, considering all species to be intrinsically valuable, that is, valuable apart from their usefulness to human beings.” [viii] This approach to religion and ecology, Taylor argues, is based on an affective “felt kinship with the rest of life, often derived from a Darwinian understanding that all forms of life have evolved from a common ancestor and are therefore related.” [ix] These approaches, which Lisa Sideris terms “New Genesis,” encourage awe, wonder, and reverence for biodiversity through investment in sacralized sciences. [x] Wary of Jewish and Christian cosmologies they regard as significantly devaluing the material world, these theorists advocate for countering these myths through teaching evolutionary sciences as sacred cosmologies. [xi] From this perspective, investment in the sciences could be the enchantment that leads humans to love nonhuman others as we begin to understand the very matter of the universe, what some might call “nature,” is sacred. Strangely, though, in much of the work on “sacred natures” what the author means by sacred is often not discussed. It may be the case that this language is so ubiquitous within religious studies that many feel it does not need the pause for explanation. For my purposes here it might be most helpful to leave the term open, I will dwell briefly with three articulations, by thinking about different ways it is used and how those expressions receive and respond to the challenges of toxic materials.
For sociologist and philosopher Émile Durkheim, the sacred is something set apart from our quotidian realities and attributed with “some kind of divine or transcendent characteristic, power or significance” that is essential for religious experience. [xii] Sacred things, Durkheim argues, “should not be taken to mean simply those personal beings we call gods or spirits. A rock, a tree, a spring, a stone, a piece of wood, a house, in other words anything at all, can be sacred,” but, he emphasizes, our “notion of the sacred is always and everywhere separated from [our] notion of the profane” its opposite, “by a sort of logical gulf between the two, the mind radically rejects any mingling or even contact between the things that correspond to these realms.” [xiii] For Durkheim, any material could be sacred but he maintains a dichotomy between sacred materials and profane materials. The sacrality of material, he contends, is not inherent. Rather, “sacredness sets in by contagion . . . A special emotion gives it reality; it is attached to an object because this emotion has encountered that object on its path. Therefore it is natural that it should spread from that object to all those it finds in proximity.” [xiv] Durkheim’s affirmation that any material could be sacred and that this sacredness is affectively contagious, attraction to certain material could lead to proximally related material being caught-up in this specialness, is potentially galvanizing for sacred natures but his insistence on a sacred/profane dichotomy is more dubious for movements that use sacrality to argue all material is intrinsically valuable.
Historian of religion Mircea Eliade, weaving Durkheim’s conception of the sacred with Rudolph Otto’s experience of the Holy, similarly envisioned distinctions between sacred and profane. Our profane world, for Eliade, is suffused with the sacred, that which is wholly other awe-inspiring mystery, via revelatory phenomena Eliade calls “hierophanies” or acts of manifestation where the sacred “shows itself” to humans. [xv] At times, Eliade’s conception of the sacred sounds much like the trajectory of dark green religion when he writes, “the cosmos as a whole is an organism at once real, living, and sacred.” [xvi] But he seems more ambiguous about whether the natural world, nonhuman material, can itself be sacred. “Nature,” he argues, “always expresses something that transcends it… a sacred stone is venerated because it is sacred, not because it is a stone; it is the sacrality manifested through the mode of being of the stone that reveals its true essence.” [xvii] Any material could potentially be the occasion of a hierophany yet, he writes, the hierophany “transforms the place where it occurs: hitherto profane, it is thenceforward a sacred area.” [xviii] Like Durkheim’s sacred potential in all material, Eliade’s conception of the sacred could prove ecologically fruitful. Though, his insistence that the sacred value of material “is always due to that something or that somewhere” of the hierophany towards which the sacred space or material directs, but “never to its own actual existence,” would be a stumbling block for theorists trying to articulate that every fiber of the unfolding mysterious universe is, in itself, sacred. [xix]
Social anthropologist Kay Milton’s articulation of “sacred,” I suspect, is the most friendly to sacred natures when she suggests the term sacred can be “applied to anything whose value is not based on reason, but is experienced directly, through the senses, and, when necessary, asserted dogmatically. Sacredness is thus linked to aesthetics, to affective experience.” [xx] For Milton, sacredness describes, “what matters most to people… What is sacred to someone is simply what they value most highly, be it their mother’s memory, their religious traditions, the mountain scenery near their home … What this understanding of sacredness depends on very heavily is emotion and feeling.” [xxi] But Milton cautions this conception of sacred, as affective attachment, is susceptible to bifurcations like the sacred/profane dichotomy. She makes the compelling argument that many people in the global north already view the material world as “sacred” in this way, certainly conservationists who argue nature is sacred, but this material is sacred only in so far that it is set apart from humans- a pristine nature. [xxii] For many people, she claims, “nature untouched by human hand is worth conserving, whereas nature that has been influenced by human activity is less valuable,” highlighting that “‘nature’ is an ambiguous term, used sometimes to include and sometimes exclude humanity.” [xxiii] For some environmental perspectives, Milton writes, this nature/culture dichotomy is too important and cannot be abandoned as the sacredness of certain material (places, creatures, landscapes) relies on the maintenance of clear boundaries between humanity and the natural world. [xxiv]
Thinking with these three common conceptions of “sacred” we have articulations of sacred as special material, set apart from other material, that moves us as we experience it through feelings we might call awe, wonder, or reverence. But when the material landscapes we live in are not pristine (as much of the planet is not) and these spaces, creatures, and material are decidedly not separate from humans (in fact at times terrifyingly close) what do we think about our relationships with material impacted by pollution and disaster? Can these spaces be sacred? Can contaminates be enfolded within Durkheim’s contagious sacred? Can toxic bodies be our ultimate concern? In what follows, I will articulate how toxic materials prove to be tricky for religion and ecology as they slip beyond dichotomies like sacred/profane, subject/object, nature/culture, human/nonhuman. Furthermore, the physiological changes wrought by toxic exposure certainly provoke emotional responses but, I suggest, responses that may disrupt the awe/wonder/reverence sacred natures are expected to evoke.
Toxins leach. They seep, ooze, and leak frustratingly beyond their expected boundaries. The Corexit dispersants used in the Deepwater Horizon disaster were intended to emulsify the spill perhaps saving BP the larger political relations nightmare of large waves of thick oil washing into beaches and wetlands. Marine environmental scientists suggest they actually worsened the effects of the spill through its unspecified chemical cocktail. [xxv] As a dreadfully synergistic product, Corexit mixed with crude impacted the entirety of ecological systems as it absented the surface oil into tiny scattered droplets that spread through the waters from surface to ocean floor. [xxvi] The dispersant properties, while effective in sending problematic oil “away,” rather than cleaning the spill facilitated chemicals (through inhalation, contact, and ingestion) to more easily move through skin barriers, membranes, and cell walls impacting vital organ systems of gulf creatures from small fish to apex predators. While BP continues to challenge the long-term impact of dispersants and crude, marine environmental scientists predict persistently hazardous conditions for coastal life.
Gulf coastal residents, human and nonhuman, are communities implicated together in toxic economies. While all humans live in enmeshed environments, in devastated landscapes like this one it is perhaps more difficult to deny our entanglements. Touching the land and creatures in these environments, engaging in restoration projects, consuming their bodies as food, taking in the air and waters of the gulf all present humans with unsettling experiences of vulnerability as these interactions take a toll on not just our physical health but also our emotional wellbeing and, perhaps, our confidence that we could control our relationships with nonhuman others.
Material feminist [xxvii] Nancy Tuana, in her essay on embodiment in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, calls this troubling relationality, “viscous porosity.” [xxviii] “The boundaries between our flesh and the flesh of the world we are of and in,” Tuana writes, “is porous. While that porosity is what allows us to flourish-as we breathe in the oxygen we need to survive and metabolize the nutrients out of which our flesh emerges- this porosity often does not discriminate against that which can kill us. We cannot survive without water and food, but their viscous porosity often binds itself to strange and toxic bedfellows.” [xxix] Sifting through the silt, shards of homes, muddy beloved objects, and the waste from five compromised superfund sites (polluted areas requiring significant long-term hazardous cleanup efforts), thinking about embodiment in the “aftermath” of disaster requires, Tuana argues, a more permeable ontology. Post-Katrina, with bodies already made vulnerable by poverty and institutionalized racism, New Orleans residents (human and nonhuman) are implicated together in a “toxic soup” of waste, “prejudgments and symbolic imaginaries” that render the very city itself a contaminant. [xxx] Toxins, she argues, belie “any effort to identify a ‘natural’ divide between nature/culture” as they slip beyond the boundaries we’ve constructed for them and into our communities, homes, and flesh. [xxxi] In these encounters, human and nonhuman others form disconcerting zones of proximity in which scenes of devastation begin to tug at the cohesion of categories like nature and culture, human and nonhuman.
The U.S. Gulf Coast after the BP spill, barely recovering from Katrina, mirrors Tuana’s assessment. For many, the gulf landscape is unclean, disturbingly damaged- possibly beyond repair and troubling for conceptions of sacrality that yearn for a nostalgic untouched conception of “nature.” Theorizing the assemblages of humans/land/nonhuman creatures/corporations/chemicals that make up the landscapes of Gulf residents, the “complexity of being bound to life” on the Gulf Coast is more ominously intricate than nature/culture, human/nonhuman bifurcations. [xxxii] The mode of analysis needed to wade through this matrix, Stacy Alaimo proposes, is trans-corporeality “in which the human is always intermeshed with the more-than-human world, underlines the extent to which the corporeal substance of the human is ultimately inseparable from ‘the environment.’” [xxxiii] Transcorporeality she argues, as a theoretical site acknowledges, “human corporeality, in all its material fleshiness, is inseparable from ‘nature’ or ‘environment’” and recognizes the “often unpredictable and unwanted actions of human bodies, nonhuman creatures, ecological systems, chemical agents, and other actors” like the toxic economies of the gulf. [xxxiv]
As I mentioned earlier, in her 2002 book Loving Nature: Towards an Ecology of Emotion Kay Milton thinks of the sacred as affective attachment and for her, affects are feelings beyond conscious reason that lead us to invest in certain environments and creatures. These emotions are motion, she argues, “the prime motivators of human activity” and the driving force behind what “turns people into nature protectionists.” [xxxvii] What Milton tries to articulate with nature and emotion sounds similar to what cultural studies scholar Lawrence Grossberg earlier described as the social movement of affect. For Grossberg, affect “is a structure of investments particular to each cultural context” and the organization of affect is a “ ‘mattering map’ that makes possible certain objects of investment (what we can care about) and certain modes of investment (how we can care about such things.)” [xxxviii] “Mattering maps,” he writes, “also involve the lines that connect the different sites of investment; they define the possibilities for moving from one investment to another, of linking the various fragments of identity together. They define not only what sites (practices, effects, structures) matter but how they matter.” [xxxix] For sacred natures discourse, awe, wonder, and reverence are the emotions elicited when we encounter our sacred universe but they are also intended as motivators- calls to action. If we could come to understand the natural world as sacred through these emotions then we would form different commitments, engage in different practices.
But encounters within areas like our opening scene might not solely elicit affects like awe, wonder, or reverence. When we encounter toxic materials and its effects we are affected differently. For some, this precarity galvanizes a response in an attempt to care for these lives. Sometimes when these responses are overwhelmed by continual crisis their efforts dissolve in swirling despair. For others, this ecological pain may elicit overwhelming shame or apathy. Some may see these creatures and their habitats as contagions themselves, monsters of our own creation that should be avoided, visibly witnessing to all that we’ve poured into the waters. Encounters with toxicity in Gulf Coast communities are continually unfolding but some of these affects might coalesce into what we would call disgust, revulsion, dread, panic, horror. We do not gravitate towards these places. Life in devastated landscapes does not draw us near. How do we address the repulsive pulse of the gulf- the queasy unease that sticks to devastated environments?
Mel Chen agrees with Tuana and Alaimo that toxins leak beyond intended barriers like nature/culture, human/nonhuman, subject/object, animate/inanimate and it is precisely this ability to slip beyond, she argues, that makes them so affectively disruptive. The “peculiar intimacies and alienations” of toxic material rouse awareness of our vulnerability, that our bodies are not incorruptible. [xl] Sitting with “toxic figures” in social and political discourse, highlighting examples like “toxic political atmosphere” and “Keep a healthy distance from toxic acquaintances,” Chen argues the affective stance of toxic retains its “ties to vulnerability and repulsion” as “untouchable,” “unengageable,” a bad investment. [xli] The Gulf of Mexico after BP joins a “series of spectacular toxic catastrophes with single-name recognition: Bhopal, Minamata, Love Canal, Chernobyl,” New Orleans, Flint, where specificities of racial and social inequality, gross injustices, and complex sedimented histories of neglect are glossed over in an amalgamation of revulsion. [xlii] In these affective economies, Sara Ahmed argues, “emotions do things, and they align individuals with communities-or bodily space with social space- through the very intensity of their attachments” working to “bind subjects together.” [xliii] Implicating gulf residents, human and nonhuman, toxins slip beyond intended containers/purposes into communities and bodies, into troubling histories of conceptual difference.
If the affective economies of sacred natures trade only in awe, wonder, and reverence, then they bind themselves to places and creatures that engender those experiences. What Grossberg might call sacred nature’s “mattering map” ethically illuminates some landscapes over others, some bodies but not others, some material but not all material. So is this material no longer sacred? Are these creatures acceptable losses, or are they the ethical quandary at the core of the kinship intimacies with nonhumans dark green religions desire to explore? How do we conceptualize kinship intimacies with nonhuman others that we possibly also find terrifying? What kind of investments illuminate material “left behind”- those unloved others still living lives? My questions add to the growing conversation in religious studies about how wastescapes, toxic materials, and pollution change both our material landscapes and theoretical trajectories. What happens when the sacred gets sick? Or, as David Haberman asks, “how are we to live in an age of pollution?” [xliv]
As a graduate student I live somewhat on-the-move, splitting my time between south east Texas and Syracuse, New York- two places with a lot of beauty and complex toxic histories. This past fall I took my sons for a walk along Onondaga Lake, sacred space for the Onondaga Nation and until very recently the most polluted lake in America. Distracted by the beauty of the day and my need to take photos, I didn’t notice my youngest slip away from the footpath and toddle down to the shallow shore to put all the rocks and sticks in his mouth. The feeling of panic in that visually lovely space sits with me. It is both sacred and toxic. It is both beautiful and unsettling.
The questions ecological disasters and their toxic dimensions pose to religion and ecology are a rupture, a break in our conceptions of ontology and ethics in such a way that we’ve met their limit and toxic materials call from beyond that border. The problem of toxic material may be that they push us and we are unsure how to proceed. Tuana, Alaimo, and Chen model a way to navigate our toxic immersions by starting with the complexities of toxic material. Instead of beginning with a conception of sacred or nature that is entrenched in some sense of purity or wholeness, the way forward may be to begin with the material- thinking about toxic economies and who they impact, those bodies (human and nonhuman) living in the aftermath of disaster, how we are connected with and to one another, and what kind of hopeful projects come from these intimacies. [xlv] [iii]
Endnotes and References
- i. What to call this umbrella of divergent (though in conversation) research interests is contentious and I use Religion and Ecology, however imperfect, for accessibility in this context. For deeper conversation, see Lisa Sideris’s “On Letting a Thousand Flowers Bloom: Religious Scholarship in a Time of Crisis,” JAAR June 2015.
- ii. Willis Jenkins, Ecologies of Grace: Environmental Ethics and Christian Theology (New York: Oxford, 2008), 8.
- iii. Mary Evelyn Tucker, Worldly Wonder: Religions Enter Their Ecological Phase (Peru, Illinois: Carus Publishing, 2003), 9.
- iv. Certainly this approach to the category “religion” and centering religious studies on a sense of the sacred is not without debate, but beyond the small slice I am examining here. For more, see Russell McCutcheon’s Manufacturing Religion (1997) and Donald Wiebe’s The Politics of Religious Studies (1999).
- v. Tucker, 51.
- vi. Emphasis mine, Tucker 10.
- vii. Ursula Goodenough, The Sacred Depths of Nature (New York: Oxford, 1998), 170.
- viii. Bron Taylor, Dark Green Religions: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 13.
- ix. Ibid.
- x. Lisa Sideris (2013) terms this religiopoeisis project “New Genesis” but is also recognized in religion and ecology as “The Epic of Evolution,” “Big History,” “The New Story,” or “The Great Story.”
- xi. Lisa H. Sideris, “Science as Sacred Myth? Ecospirituality in the Anthropocene Age,” in Linking Ecology and Ethics for a Changing World: Values, Philosophy, and Action ed. Ricardo Rozzi, et al. (New York: Springer, 2013), 147-153.
- xii. Bronislaw Szerszynski, Nature, Technology and the Sacred (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), 10.
- xiii. Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, trans. Carol Cosman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 36-39.
- xiv. Ibid., 241.
- xv. Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (New York: Harcourt, 1957), 11.
- xvi. Ibid., 116-117.
- xvii. Ibid., 118.
- xviii. Mircea Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1958), 216.
- xix. Ibid.
- xx. Kay Milton, “Nature is Already Sacred,” Environmental Values 8 (1999): 440.
- xxi. Kay Milton, Loving Nature: Towards an Ecology of Emotion (New York: Routledge, 2002), 104.
- xxii. Milton, “Nature is Already Sacred,” 439-446.
- xxiii. Ibid., 439-443.
- xxiv. Ibid., 443.
- xxv. As a proprietary product, oil-industry insiders are not required to publically release its actual chemical makeup.
- xxvi. “Scientists oppose the use of dispersant chemicals in the Gulf of Mexico,” Prepared by Dr. Susan D. Shaw, Marine Environmental Research Institute, www.meriresearch.org
- xxvii. Material feminists like Tuana, Stacy Alaimo, and Mel Chen consider how our ontological and ethical perspectives change when we bring the materiality of the human body and the materiality of the more-than-human world, particularly when considering the agentic capacity of nonhuman nature, to the center of feminist theory.
- xxviii. Nancy Tuana, “Viscous Porosity: Witnessing Katrina,” in Material Feminisms, ed. Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008), 190.
- xxix. Ibid., 198.
- xxx. Ibid., 199-200.
- xxxi. Ibid., 202.
- xxxii. Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 4.
- xxxiii. Stacy Alaimo, “Trans-Corporeal Feminisms and the Ethical Space of Nature,” in Material Feminisms, ed. Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008), 238.
- xxxiv. Ibid.
- xxxv. Ibid., 260.
- xxxvi. Ibid., 238.
- xxxvii. Milton, Loving Nature, 3-5.
- xxxviii. Jenn Supp-Montgomerie, “Affect and the Study of Religion,”Religion Compass 9 (2015): 339.
- xxxix. Lawrence Grossberg, We Gotta Get Out of this Place: Popular Conservatism and Postmodern Culture (New York: Routledge, 1992), 84.
- xl. Mel Chen, “Toxic Animacies, Inanimate Affections,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 17 (2011): 265.
- xli. Ibid., 266.
- xlii. Ibid.
- xliii. Sara Ahmed, “Affective Economies,” Social Text, 79 (2004): 119.
- xliv. David Haberman, River of Love in an Age of Pollution: The Yamuna River of Northern India (Berkeley: University of California, 2006), 3.
- xlv. My thanks to Seren Gates Amador, Terry Reeder, Varshana Gurusamy, Rebecca Moody, Gail Hamner, and William Robert for their helpful conversations during the construction of this post.