Infrastructures of Exposure: Toxicity, Temporality and Political Economies in Africa

13 March 2014, 09:00 - 17:30

Darwin College and CRASSH

The registration for the Mornings session has been closed.
We still have few places for the Afternoon session, which will be closed on Monday 10 March.

Free workshop, open to all but Registration is required.
To reserve a place  for the AFTERNNOON Session, please email to

Darwin College (morning session 9.00 am - 12.00)
CRASSH, seminar room SG1 (afternoon session 13.30 - 17.00)


Dr Noémi Tousignant  (Anthropologies of Africa Biosciences, University of Cambridge)
Dr Branwyn Poleykett (Research Fellow, Division of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge)


Toxic exposure, whether acute or chronic, challenges the temporalities of public health monitoring and response. Dissonance between the effects of poisons, whether sudden or cumulative, and the rhythms of toxicological knowledge-making can be accentuated by situations of social inequality. Emerging problems of toxic exposure in Africa highlight relations between socioeconomic vulnerability, representations of marginality and obstacles to durable medical, scientific and regulatory capacity. This workshop brings together scholars who use the concept of ‘infrastructure’ for analyzing inequalities in embodied and techno-scientific perceptions of toxic exposure, with innovative thinkers on the relations between infrastructure, temporality and political economy. By examining what happens to scientific, industrial and transport infrastructures over time, workshop participants reflect on how configurations of political economy generate specific relations between anticipation and memory (including that of bodies and environments), between accumulation and dispossession, between exposure and knowledge, and between continuity and fragmentation.

Part of the Civic Matter: Infrastructure as Politic (main page)


MORNING SESSION  9.00am -12.00pm
at Darwin College, Old Library

Welcome and presentation of wokshop theme
Noémi Tousignant (University of Cambridge)


Cumulative and Cutting-Edge Chemicals on the Margins of infrastructure

  • Michelle Murphy (University of  Toronto)
    Chemical Infrastructures and Alter Life on the St. Clair River
  • Anne Pollock (Georgia Tech)
    Flow Chemistry and the Temporalities of South African Pharmaceutical Production

Chair: Matei Candea (University of Cambridge)


Coffee/Tea Break


Roundtable: Exposure Times in African Infrastructures

  • John Manton (University of Cambridge)
  • Ruth Prince (Univerity of Oslo/University of Cambridge)
  • Tatiana Thieme (University of Cambridge)

Chair: Henrietta Moore (University of Cambridge)


Lunch at Darwin College


AFTERNOON SESSION  (13.30 - 17.30)
at CRASSH, Seminar room SG1


  • Penny Harvey (University of Manchester)
    Infrastructures, Social Change and the Emergent Shape of the Political

Chair: Henrietta Moore (University of Cambridge)

Discussant: Wenzel Geissler (University of Oslo/University of Cambridge)


Coffee/Tea Break


Toxic Spaces: Precarious Knowledge and the Distribution of Exposure

  • Nick Shapiro (Goldsmiths)
    When Shelter Becomes Exposure: Domestic Formaldehyde, Distributed Infrastructure, and Precarity in the United States
  • Anna Lora-Wainwright (University of Oxford)
    China's Cancer Villages: Contested Evidence and the Politics of Pollution
  • Noémi Tousignant (University of Cambridge)
    A Lingering Smell: Interrupted Infrastructures of Pesticide Science in Senegal

Chair: Christos Lynteris (University of Cambridge)


Closing Comments

  • Michelle Murphy (University of Toronto)

1. Infrastructures, Social Change and the Emergent Shape of the Political

Penny Harvey (CRESC and Social Anthropology, University of Manchester)

Drawing on ethnographic work on road construction in Peru this paper sets out to combine a focus on infrastructure as a productive site of empirical research with the exploration of the analytic purchase of an infrastructural perspective on dynamics of social change. This double approach is used to explore why infrastructures seem to be appearing on the social science agenda now and to critically assess the responses to this moment of infrastructural awareness and concern.

On the one hand there are numerous examples of how contemporary infrastructural investments offer possibiities for thinking through the uncertainties of the contemporary, in the ways that they channel both hope and anxiety, and the sense in which the high levels of investment in such systems also signals confidence in economic returns, and an on-going political commitment (from radically different perspectives) to the infrastructural possibilities for radical social transformation. As sites of ethnographic research, projects of infrastructural development allow us to connect the institutional, financial, material and conceptual arrangements through which such systems are constructed and maintained, to the emergent social formations they bring into being. The focus on infrastructures thus allows us to extend our research interests in social change and the emergent shape of the political by exploring how infrastructures act as material registers of both the workings and the effects of otherwise distributed global forces. Infrastructures are also of the moment in their theoretical promise that allows us to focus attention on open-ended, transformational systems, and the unexpected consequences of non-coherent assemblages, in ways that allow us to develop our understandings of material and affective forces as integral to processes of social change. Most important here is the sensibilitiy to the productive instability of all compound social forms (as explored for example in contemporary interests in intrinsic relationality, heterogeneity, and multiplicity).

The paper will present these ideas by looking at health and safety regimes on road construction sites.


2. Flow Chemistry and the Temporalities of South African Pharmaceutical Production

Anne Pollock (Georgia Tech)

This paper draws on ethnographic research that I began in 2010 at a small South African startup pharmaceutical company with an elite international board.  In the project as a whole, I situate the local contexts of these Johannesburg-based scientists and trace their global networks in order to interrogate how it matters who makes knowledge and where.  The company started in 2009 with a mission of novel drug discovery for HIV, TB, and malaria. In this paper, I will explore a new direction that the company is moving into: novel process chemistry, specifically implementing the expertise of a scientist at Cambridge University who is a leader in 'flow chemistry,' a hot trend in fine chemical production which promises to radically lower the quantity of solvents, and thus the environmental impact, of pharmaceutical production.  The goal of this Cambridge-Johannesburg knowledge-transfer project is to build 'green' pharmaceutical production infrastructure and capacity in South Africa.  In this paper, I meditate upon the hope in flow, especially attentive to temporality and infrastructure.  Flow chemistry itself provides an opportunity to reconceptualize time in pharmaceutical production, since its material constraints and affordances requires changing the order of chemical reactions.  Situating it in South Africa adds macro elements of time as well.  Among the scientists involved, there is a sense that South Africa is "too late" to the pharmaceutical production game to compete with India and China in standard "batch" pharmaceutical production techniques, but is not "too late" to lead in flow.  South Africa’s lack of robust infrastructure for the pharmaceutical industry’s current highly toxic manufacturing practices becomes, in this aspiration, a condition of possibility for leading in the green manufacturing practices of the future.


3. When Shelter Becomes Exposure: Domestic Formaldehyde, Distributed Infrastructure, and Precarity in the United States

Nick Shapiro (Citizen Sense Lab, Goldsmiths)

In January of 2010, the US federal government began auctioning off over 120,000 former emergency housing units. These trailers were originally commissioned to house those displaced by Hurricane Katrina and are commonly referred to as FEMA trailers, as they were distributed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Years before their resale, extensive testing revealed that the FEMA trailers harbored elevated ambient formaldehyde levels.  In this talk I track the quasi-legal resale of these housing units to every corner of the US. In the course of a year of ethnographic research I found these trailers to accumulate at the poles of an unstable economy. The potentially toxic homes of study gravitated to spaces with overabundant, erupting capital—oil fields or oil spills, for instance—and spaces with capital droughts such as post-industrial small towns and Native American reservations. Both those directly extracting capital and those excluded by capital are exposed to the domestic dangers of these housing units.  In this talk I show how these trailers link capital and housing crises to the health, meaning, and materiality crises.

In trying to understand what is revealed by the geography of FEMA trailer distribution, the volatility of capitalism must be understood in terms of both emergent crises that appear to be a sign of the times—such as the foreclosure crisis—and longer-term crises that manifest below mainstream perceptual radar—such as the rural lumpenproletariat.  Regardless of whether one is caught up in epidemic or endemic predicaments, a sense precarity is common to those who came occupy the trailers.  In addition to detailing the form of the FEMA trailers’ resale, I also document their primary mechanism of conveyance: the all-too-often-overlooked domestic dimensions of what David Harvey refers to as “accumulation by dispossession.” The trailers are both indicators and agents of dispossession and precarity.


4. A Lingering Smell: Interrupted Infrastructures of Pesticide Science in Senegal

Noémi Tousignant (Anthropologies of African Biosciences, University of Cambridge)

Pesticide residues nestle in the fat of frozen breast-milk from Senegalese women, awaiting analysis if a scholarship is awarded to a junior member of the toxicology lab. On the other side of the university campus, a plant biology lab reeks of the store-bought pesticides Dr. Traoré purifies to make cheap homemade reference substances. Lined-up on the floor are old soft-drink bottles full of solvents he has stockpiled from leftovers of student projects. In a new poison control center on the neighbouring hospital campus, staff members discuss how to prolong their investigation of mysterious deaths in a village in Casamance. They had already joined a mission that failed to confirm the cause of death, but in one of the victims’ houses had smelled pesticides.

Frozen samples and lingering smells are forms pesticides take when capacity for (bio)chemical analysis is absent, delayed, distant or lost. They signal chromatographs in disrepair, intermittent reagent supply and awaited access to well-equipped labs. This talk is about how scientists in Senegal face and fight interruptions in their infrastructures of pesticide research and analysis. In their accounts, the problems pesticides pose in Senegal are entangled with aspirations to more regular, continuous and durable scientific and regulatory activity. Africa accounts for a small fraction of global pesticide consumption. Yet poverty, weak regulation, high illiteracy and lack of monitoring make African borders and bodies particularly porous to their toxicity. Toxicologists, chemists and biologists told me how they penetrate and persist; as contraband and obsolete, as residues in recycled containers and on vegetables hurried to market. My talk links these fragments of what Senegalese scientists know about pesticides to their strategies for and dreams of bridging the gaps. I reach for the forms of toxic detection and protection they suggest lie beyond interruption.


5. Chemical Infrastructures and Alter Life on the St. Clair River

Michelle Murphy (University of Toronto)

Investigating the production, flows, regulation, transformations, and metabolism of industrially produced chemicals in the St. Clair River that runs between Ontario, Canada and Michigan, USA, this paper developes the notion of "chemical infrastures" as a way to interrupt conventional understandings of infrastructure in petrochemical economies by following chemicals temporally and as they traverse and alter-- as well as are altered by- their engagements with the regulations, hardware, waters, airs, soils, and life forms that make up the St. Clair river.   In so doing, the paper is invested in exploring the threshold between the reproduction of non-organic and organic life in the constitution of infrastructures of petrochemical capitalism.  Moreover, by extending the question of chemical infrastructure from the petrochemical refinery into the metabolic reactions inside organisms, the paper amplies the stakes for forms of alter life -- life both altered and othered.


6. China's Cancer Villages: Contested Evidence and the Politics of Pollution

Anna Lora-Wainwright (University of Oxford)

In February 2013, the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection publicly acknowledged, for the first time, the existence of ‘cancer villages’ (clusters of high cancer incidence typically correlated with pollution), feeding a controversy that started in 2001 with the first appearance of the term. It stated: “Toxic chemicals have caused many environmental emergencies linked to water and air pollution. […] There are even some serious cases of health and social problems like the emergence of cancer villages in individual regions” (MEP 2013. emphasis added). This official mention of the term triggered a spate of media reports both in China and abroad (see BBC 2013, Washington Post, 2013). A search for media reports containing ‘cancer village’ in the keywords on CNKI, (China National Knowledge Infrastructure, the main database of Chinese newspapers and academic publications) in July 2013 identified only 13 reports in 2012 and already 106 in the first half of 2013, with an additional 19 by 10 November 2013.  In the ministry document however, as in most of the media reports, the term ‘cancer village’ remains undefined.

Like environmental health more broadly, cancer villages are a contested field. If cancer refers to an individual bodily illness, ‘cancer village’ delineates a shared social life, a space which is at once natural and social. Social science studies of environmental health frequently point out that establishing causal links between exposure and health effects is complex for several reasons. Science on chemicals is unreliable by contemporary standards of scientific truth and there are no scientific studies for large number of chemicals (Brown, 2007; Murphy, 2007; Steingraber, 2010). Exposure may take place over a long-term period, risk may be posed by a multiplicity of factors rather than single substances, incidence of chemical exposure is difficult to pinpoint, and symptoms may not fit a typical pattern. Scientific complexities are compounded by political ones. Evidence required to prove environmental health harm and gain compensation from liable companies or state agencies is typically defined very narrowly. This protects polluters and the governments who support them, and makes it hard for residents to prove that high rates of cancer are caused by pollution. For these reasons, since the initial appearance of the term, cancer villages have been at the centre of a controversy involving the national and international media, a range of government officials and state institutions, non-governmental organisations, natural and social scientists and the general public, particularly populations directly affected. Through a set of examples drawn from multi-sited fieldwork, this paper briefly examines discourses and actions on the part of local residents, campaigners, polluting firms, local and higher government, the legal system and the media. These elements form a complex web which shapes the evolving social, political and scientific life of this concept, its implications, and the various effects its adoption has had on those living in the shadow of high cancer rates.