Sunday, January 20, 2013

Mercury: Queer Objects & Illicit Attachments (P2)


“Everything passes through [Mercury’s] hands, because, more or less, everything is transformed in his hands… It arrives neither pure nor unvarying nor stable”

the Parasite
Michel Serres


II. Illicit Attachments

"If my velocity makes you sweat, then just don't let go" barks Gerard Way, his vocals matching the urgency of the lyrics and the swift beat of electronic sound-machines. "Please understand, I can't slow down, I won't be waiting for you... then we just, then we just, then we just, then we just get up and GO!" Way, a self-proclaimed student of Freddy Mercury has brought together a elementally diverse set of pop-rock artists (brothers), with a punk-rock rhythm guitarist & a heavy metal lead guitarist under the banner of the name My Chemical Romance. Famous for dynamic sound & theatrical personas, which change with every album, their name seems to signify differently with each iteration. 

At first, it matched the drug & drink fueled ecstasy that defined their early years and albums (I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love & Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge), then it came to embody a morbid resignation to the toxicity of death and dying (The Black Parade), and in their most recent work it has come to signify an amp-ed up energy of bodies in motion (Danger Days: the True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys) --- a look and feel, Way has shared in interviews, inspired by classic science-fiction films and comic books with a touch of chaos theory. The band and their music the collective volatility of dangerous, even reckless amalgams of form, style, and matter. 

Despite these often violent, incendiary, macabre elements, MCR's fan-base commonly hosting a flag of their own: "my chemical romance saved my life." The motto takes on a peculiar multi-valency among the diverse demographic, made up heavily of teenagers, young-adults, and professionals that often share either a history of substance use --- illicit and prescribed --- to battle experiences of trauma, alienation, inconstancy, and depression. As between Mercury and mercury, the distinction between Chemical and chemical is best left free-floating and multiple in its associations.

As with Mercury, Way evidences that queer objects can sustain life as well as poison them. A toxin, it is said by biochemists, is defined by concentration of the actor and the sensitivity of the patient. That is what makes them so hard to regulate. At times making certain forms of touching illicit my be stifling, even suffocating, but at other times it is a protective measure which preserves the life of antagonistic elements. As the crosser of boundaries and the mediator that seems to have a hand in everything, mercury perpetually ignores prohibitions, making high-risk connections and dangerous amalgams everywhere it runs.


The molecular structure of quick-silver bonds excitedly with a host of other elements. The result of this feverish veering towards forming bonds is that mercury has been sought after and distributed across the world in a host of different industrial tasks. 

Because of its particular attraction to gold and silver atoms, mercury has been used in mining. According to Nicholas A Robin's account of Mercury, Mining and Empire: the Human and Ecological Cost of Silver Mining in the Andes mercury is poured through the soil, where it soaks through, collecting the stray particles of the precious metals as it slowly sifts through the earth and is recollected in a basin in a mine-shaft underneath. The mercury is then heated and turns into a gas, leaving behind the less easily transformed materials.

While this mining process had been recorded since the Roman Empire, it was not until the turn of the 17th century, among the Spanish mining colonies in the Americas where it was first fully industrialized. Since this time, especially with advent of coal-burning technology, mercury release via human mining manufacturing has remained consistently high.

Fueling this mercury-madness, a quick-silver rush ran so high that throughout the Spanish colonies 68,200 metric tons of mercury was unearthed by local labor populations that were nearly annihilated by the fatal toxicity of the mining process (R 110). Reports of the current release of mercury into the eco-system runs judge that around 5,500 tons of mercury dumped into the environment per year, 95% of which settles into local soil deposits, mostly in the form of gaseous emissions from coal-burning power-plants (R 102). 

As a result of these practices of liquid quick-silver being poured into the soil, mercury amalgams being handled (often without protection) by masses of indentured or under-paid workers throughout these mining towns (especially in the Americas), and then the release of the element into the air through cooking, the toxin permeated the ecologies and bodies of American colonies from the 17th century until today with deadly consequences. In some areas, 95% of the native population showed symptoms of severe Mercury poisoning, the effects of which are still evident in the health of later generations (R 11).

Despite more apparent contact with the material occurring during the mining process itself, it is actually the inhalation of the fumes when the mercury is being cooked away that caused the greatest number of mercury-related illnesses and death. While around 2% of persons that touch mercury in a liquid or solid state will suffer from harmful effects, over 80% of those that breath in its fumes will begin showing signs of poisoning (R 110). 

Thus the greater the intensity and excitation the mercury atoms exhibit, the more they are able to penetrate and travel through the body, altering it as it goes. It is this particular quality of the element that makes The Mad Hatter such a staple image for mercury-poisoning, as hat-making particularly required the heating of cinnabar (red mercury, a.k.a. mercury sulfide) to release its potential (R 7).


Mercury with obscene effectiveness has attached itself to the human, traveling through us and with us through history, and drawing us to it with all our most insatiable desires.

As the above image illustrates, what mercury is "holding" and what it is "made of" often amounts to the same thing. It becomes swollen with meaning as well as affect. Kris Lane explores this in "Dangerous Attractions: Mercury in Human History," mapping the medicinal uses of mercury as an amalgam and supplement has an engorged archive.

Oozing from the pages and bodies of theorists of matter from the Greco-Roman empire to the Persian Empire, to Southeast Asian emperors, to medieval alchemists, early modern chemistry, to current day medical practices, mercury has flowed through "the human" and made its home there.

Said to materially contain energies and astrological virtues from the moon and the planet that shares its name. According to alchemists such as Bernard, Earl of Trevisan (late 14th century), Mercury was said to help balance the humors of the body (black bile, yellow bile, blood & phlegm) by adjusting the dryness/wetness ratio as well as the heat/coldness of the humors. It was regarded as a potential cure-all, because it materialized both "living water" and "burning fire," resulting in a perfect mixing of the "Masculine, hot dry, and secretly informing" and "the Female... volatile, crude, cold and moyst" (B 139).

These balances were said to be fundamental in determining the longevity of the person, as well as affect, behavior, racial as well as gender attributes as well. Thus when patients began acting "different" as a result of ingesting different amalgams of mercury, these changes were read as having come from an adjustment in these fluid levels.

Evidently the toxic affects of mercury were also observed, with many individuals dying, but also a certain sudden "expulsion" of fluids from the body. Thus by the late medieval and early modern period in Europe, drugs of mercury could be taken to give a simultaneous "boost" to erections/ejaculations as well as to purge the digestive system of its unwelcome contents.

A perfect mixture of mercury has long been written to release hidden potentials. Most notable among these was the theory that while imbibing the wrong amount may kill you, just the right amount would  bring immortality. "In some Ayurvedic texts" notes Lane, "mercury is associated with the highest ranks of godhead and serves as  kind of elixir" (L 17). Records of these attempts have been unearthed in India, Southeast Asia, and in Europe. The accounts run with various treatises, instructions, and testimonies of emperors so infatuated with the element's promise that they had their tomb covered over with oceans of quick-silver.

Today the use of amalgamated mercury in dental fillings, vaccinations and industrial complicity with pouring high levels of quick-silver into local fields, air and water-ways has marked countless bodies with high chemical sensitivity. In the case of Mel Y Chen, and those like her, the amalgamation of mercury and human has gone awry, making it bonding of her body with stray toxins compulsory. 

"Metal-borne damage to the liver's detoxification pathways means that I cannot sustain everyday toxins: once they enter, they recirculate rather than leave" (C 201).

In "Following Mercurial Affect" Chen's accounts the lived, socialized experience of this bio-chemical activity:

"I can sometimes become 'autism spectrum' in the sense that I cannot take too much stimulation, including touch, sound, or direct human engagement, including being unable to meet someone's gaze, needing repetitive, spastic movement to feel that my body is just barely in a tolerable state; and I can radically lose compassionate intuition, saying things that I feel are innocuous but are incredibly hurtful" (C 201).

Chen's crip-chemical experiences points us towards the problematic inconstancy of mercury and its object partners. "The word mercurial means what it means" writes Chen, "unstable and widly unpredictable -- because the mercury toxin has altered a self, has directly transformed an affective matrix: affect goes faster, affect goes hostile, goes toxic" (C 201). Queerness has a violent potential, which is not less evident nor attractive when put into concert with object oriented ontology.

Music, mining, medicine --- mercury caustically brings things together that don't usually get to touch. The resultant mixture opens up opportunities, but also fresh dangers for bodies that are not prepared for the potentially toxic results. For those that can survive the convers(at)ion however, the exploration of uncharted alliances with mercury can lead us passed our blind-spots and into new ways of being & knowing in the world.


...On the Horizon...

Queer Objects
Convers(at)ions with Mercury [Part 3]
Objecting Forms

No comments:

Post a Comment