Friday, March 21, 2014

Tiny Corporealities: Perfumed Tears (Animacies)

"What are the 'affections' 
or socialities attributed to toxicity, 
and what is the 'affect' attaining between a toxin and its host?"

Following Mercurial Affect
Mel Y Chen

The Tiny Corporealities project is aimed at intense analysis of the body as matter entangled with meaning. Frequent observations will be journaled, tracing how "body," "thought," and "narrative" function as apparatuses by which corporealities emerge. Critical attention will be paid to how particular embodiments are formed and inform their social environment. 

This project arises from an engagement with a seminar 
“Alternative Materialisms led by Prof. David Mitchell at G.W.U.


I am in a old Congregationalist Church in New England, and I am crying in the pew. This place is very old: the church was organized in the 17th century, the building erected in the 18th. Yet despite its ancient frame and comfortable New England spirit, there is a new youthful voice preaching to the choir (which is, after all, how you get them to sing). My partner is being installed as Associate Pastor. This means that even after an extensive job search, interview, and hiring process, her position was not 'official' until the council of her denomination interrogated her on her faith, the current pastor charged her with a mission of service, and the community affirmed her as their own. All this bureaucracy and ritual might seem like a protracted labor, but it was quite a beautiful day when it all came together. As the Reverend stood before her congregation and called them hers, I was a mess of quiet, stinging tears.

Now, granted all the personal affect evidently surging through me, I have to admit: my eyes were watering as soon as I came into the building. This often happens to me in churches and not just because of any sensitivity to ritual or architectural beauty. Rather, I tear up because of a chemical sensitivity. Sitting in a pew, I am knocked out by the clouds of perfume wafting off of ladies (and probably a few men) as they take their seats in the poorly ventilated building. From my mother I inherited a certain chemical intolerance and sensitivity to alcohol. While her throat closes off as soon as a sip or sniff of alcohol drifts into her mouth and throat, my face, eyes and sinuses merely become red, puffy and irritated. So, as I breathed in the solemn air and choked up at the moving displays of affection being directed towards my girlfriend, my body was already raw and poised for tears. What is the relationship between the toxicity of perfume and my affect in the moment? How does one feel with all parts of one's material self?


In Mel Y Chen's Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect, the author examines the "synthesis and symbiosis" of toxins looking for the affective productions of life as an intoxicated subject (197). While chemicals can pass through tiny corporealities and do serious damage, especially to those sensitive to them, Chen remains critical of relational models which depend on a logic of social and ecological exclusion. The theory that a body's immune system as a fragile yet unimpeachable project of biological impermeability, Chen argues, reflects a cultural model that privileges the comfort of a homogenous community against the intrusion of racial, queered, crip others:

"This internalization, even privatization, of immunity helps to explain the particular indignation that toxicity evokes, since it is understood as an unnaturally external force that violates (rather than informs) an integral and bounded self" (Chen 194).

The inextricability of one's "body" and one's "identity" is evident in the very possessive grammar we tend to use to describe them. Reasons for insisting the self as a categorically "integral and bounded" property presumes a market where it might be sold, shared and denied to society. Without denying the dangerous affects and effects produced when boundaries are crossed by unkind agents, Chen discounts "the possibility of individual immunity" (195).

What might come from an open and shared conception of self? "Intoxication" (195). It means a life which is not wholly dictated by one's own self - everything is collaborative. This does not mean that desires and decisions are impossible, but all acts are contingent. That is, all actions occur as the result of many overlapping contacts that open up certain movements while inhibiting others. Living with chemical sensitivity demands that life take on the shape of one's inter-actions with the world:

"I am surviving moment to moment. Efficiency is far from my aim... I will never walk in a straight line. There are also lessons here, reminders of interdependency, of softness, of fluidity, of receptivity, of immunity's fictivity and attachment's impermanence, life sustains even - or especially - in this kind of silence, this kind of pause, this dis-ability" (202).

Whether or not you possess a diagnosis of Multiple Chemical Sensitive (MCS), or if the possession of such a definite state of being is possible as a totalizing property, Chen contends that a sensitivity to toxins opens one up to a greater number of possible ways of being. One may traverse the world differently and even feel a wider range of affects through a keener awareness of the precariousness of the body as potential avenue for a plethora of chemicals that every day flow and float through the environment. 

The conclusion thus arises that it is the intoxicated body, breathing in the perfumes of chemical animacy, that testify that the affects of the body cannot be defined as "integral and bounded" to the self, but are the collective social expression of an entire ecology.


Were my tears at my partner's installation sincere? Yes, but they were not my own. What Chen's examination of chemical sensitivity elucidates is that the experience of crying was not an affect that I alone possessed or produced. Rather, these perfumed tears were a communal response to the integration of a new Associate Pastor into an old Congregational church. These New Englanders had opened themselves up to accept this foreign body into their sense of self, one defined in the language of the Christian fellowship, as the Body of Christ. Likewise, as the Reverend's ritual (but sincere) acceptance of her new home articulated, the dangerous and potentially toxic "synthesis and symbiosis" flows both ways.

Whatever the apprehension and excitation of every body present, the perfume that adorned the church members in the pews were chemical signs of welcome. In the language of smells, alcohol-based scents signal welcome and sociability. One does not wish to offend but offer pleasant memories of wildflowers, fruit, and warm animal musks. In a metaphorical and material sense, perfume is designed to promote intimacy and exchange between bodies. One of the effects of this close interaction is that sensitive bodies such as my eyes, nose and sinus passages may tear up as they fill the with affects of this collective experience of community building.

As with alcohol that is drunk in chalices of wine or by moving choir music, the experience of intoxication lubricates and opens up affects yet does not produce them without our participation. The loss of complete control over our bodies and emotions may be disturbing, but as the perfumed tears ran down my face on this night I was more than willing to give myself over to the collective response. By surrendering ownership over my tears and tiny corporealities, I was able to be an instrument of greater love, wilder affects, and a radical openness that this night demanded and offered back in exchange.

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