5-10 min read
What if I told you that a virus has the power to change history? In June of 2020, you’d rather believe that, I suspect. Would you have believed it (or even thought about it) in June of 2019? Now that you are thinking about a nonhuman actant having power over the trajectory of history, what if I told you things like the placement of a river or the existence of a mineral also change the course of history and make spaces and conditions that are intentionally, but also often unintentionally, unequal and unhealthy and ripe for change?
The power of matter to be vibrant and active on human history and politics is the subject of a new book called Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things by Jane Bennett. It contains particularly powerful ideas to use in this historic moment because it asks us to take seriously the power of matter to entangle humans in webs of assemblages and meanings that have very real material outcomes on human (and non human) societies. Bennett makes a lot of rather high falutin conclusions and offers highly insightful readings and critiques of political theorists and philosophers. I’m going to ignore all of that and focus on the part I understood (sorry, Dr. Bennett).
In short, Bennett wants us to consider how something non human (and maybe not even “alive” as western cultures think of life) might just propel human societies into their structures and their politics. (1) She wants to know if the combining of human and nonhuman elements might just alter established notions of social accountability and fault finding. What if a workglove had the power to ignite social movements for change and revisions to laws even as it brought into question who was actually responsible for unfair social relationships?
We could find a tangible example of matter igniting humanity right now and might be tempted to apply Bennett’s idea to this virus amongst us that has created uneven emotional reactions and solicited a diversity of opinions and ideas (mandatory masks anyone?). We could even wonder if COVID has opened the space necessary for the protests over police brutality and the larger demonstrations to end racism. But I am sick of COVID, so instead I want to think about fertilizer.
By the early 1920s in Arkwright, South Carolina, two industrial centers were open and doing business. One was a textile mill and the other a fertilizer plant. The fertilizer plant (founded by International Agricultural Company) promised to bring much needed fertilizer to the area’s cotton farms. The other industrial center was the local textile mill. The fertilizer, cotton, and textiles, so the dream went, could seamlessly feed each other - the robustly fertilized raw cotton allowing the gleaming “safe” textile factory to do its modern industrial work.
To do the work, the textile factory hired mostly Whites (it was 1920 after all and state law forbid the hiring of Blacks for certain - well paying - positions). The working class Whites who worked in what was supposedly an enlightened factory also lived in an idyllic village not far, but far enough, from the fertilizer plant. Male Black Americans of Arkwright mostly worked in the highly toxic fertilizer plant whereas most female Blacks could only find work as domestic servants. Heritage and law required Arkwright’s Black Americans to live right next to the fertilizer plant. The plant spewed forth an abundance of fertilizer and an abundance of filth. One former resident remembered that “when you got up in the morning, it was hard to breathe.” (2)
Sounds vaguely familiar, doesn’t it?
The mill, the plant, and the racial spatial organization of the town is a story not unlike others from the segregated South after the Civil War. The environmental injustice done to workers and poor communities by industrial plants is not really a new tale either. But a professor at the University of South Carolina, Andrew Gutkowski, has written a brilliant article on this story that begs the application of Jane Bennett’s idea of vibrant matter to “The Evolution of Environmental (In)Justice in Spartanburg, South Carolina.”
There are many kinds of matter we could focus on in Gutkowski’s story, but the one that I think is most demonstrative of Bennett’s very cool idea is dust. Those in the “right” place in Arkwright (mostly members of the Black community) breathed dust laced with hydrofluoric acid and silicon tetrafluoride. They remember that the air in the town would make their mothers’ eyes “swell with tears and make it so that they could hardly breathe.” That same dust made metal brittle, settled as yellow residue on clothing and cars and turned the water in Fairforest creek an off-putting orange. The orange water killed the fish and even the county’s game warden threatened to arrest company officials in 1921. (933) Despite the pretty obvious evidence to the contrary, the company claimed they and their wares were not a threat to public health and officials in government at all levels chose to turn a blind eye. Folks needed jobs, the thought process went (and still goes), and this was the New South -- rebuilding from the ashes of the old. The dust that blanketed the communities of and around Spartanburg would literally and figuratively settle from the early 1900s through midcentury. Not many would protest or really even think much about the dust. But by the 1970s? That would be a different matter altogether.
By 1979, the mill had closed down (due to intense global competition from Asian textile manufacturing), but the fertilizer plant was still going strong and a new source of matter had arrived in the area - trash.
We often think of trash as capable of fomenting a nasty smell but never think of it as equally capable of fomenting political revolution, do we? But in this case, it did just that. At least twice. The economic progress brought to the Piedmont region thanks to the textile industry produced a lot of waste. Until the 1940s, the town had incinerated its waste. But by the mid 20th century, residents began to protest the burning because it created smoke that….you guessed it, made it hard to breathe. The protest worked and the all white city council made the decision to dump the trash rather than burn it. City Manager T. Edward Temple conceived of what is known as a “sanitary landfill” - the name is indeed oxymoronic. A landfill was supposed to be the cat’s meow for waste in the mid 20th century. Cover that trash with some dirt and it will be fine. Better that than polluting the air with it, they reasoned. City Manager Temple hoped to place the landfill near the airport or in a suburb peopled with White residents, but once again, the filthy matter inspired anger and the plan was revised after the White folks protested the placement of the dump.
So once again, trash, that oddly vibrant matter, would inspire political protest as the town debated where to do the dumping. You probably saw this coming...but the final decision was to place the dump nearest to the Black neighborhoods of Arkwright and the dumping began.
For two generations, ALL kinds of matter was dumped into the landfill. The debris clouded the air with poisonous methane and other toxins and those same toxins leaked into the ground and joined currents from the heavy rains that carried them towards rivers and streams where kids swam and families fished. Decision makers claim (and likely are telling the truth) that they didn’t know how terribly toxic the trash was.
The dump closed in the early 1970s but the damage was done. Arkwright property values had dropped precipitously. Investments in the region brought more chemically troubling industry and “clean” development pivoted away from dirty Arkwright and toward less polluted areas. The mill villages fell into disrepair and the area became the site of illicit drug use and crime. The Blacks who had, a generation or 2 previously been forced to live near the dump and the fertilizer plant, couldn’t afford to move and staying put eventually cost many of them their lives.
The acrid fertilizer, the factory smoke, the toxic trash all seem at first glance, to the undiscerning eye, to the eyes of the Arkwright residents (Black and White) to be disjointed, inert matter in a sad and tragic tale of historical economic development. And in some ways they were only that. But, I think Bennett would argue, that when that inert matter assembled in just the right way, to cause human di-ease, it forced eyes to open, it necessitated new conversations, and it ultimately inspired political movements.
Put another way, by the 1980s, the small area of Arkwright, South Carolina contained just the matter required to foment rebellion. The dump had filled up and been closed, the textile mill had been shuttered and, as of 1986, the fertilizer plant supposedly had also closed up shop….but no one thought about the matter. The literal matter. The vibrant matter sitting in the dump, percolating at the plant, eroding at the mill.
By the decade of disco and the Jackson 5, Black residents “suspected” there was something wrong with the air and water in their neighborhoods but experts (usually from the companies themselves) assured everyone that it was all harmless in the long run. These same residents now worked in the new chemical plants and according to Gutkowski didn’t put up much of a fuss “believing that deference was safer than challenging the environmental status quo.” (939) Then came Harold Mitchell.
Mitchell had grown up in the Arkwright neighborhood - a stone’s throw from the dump and the fertilizer plant. By the 1990s, his father had died of cancer and his sister had passed away because, well, she couldn’t breathe. Autopsy results showed chemical poisoning as the likely cause of his sister’s death. The poison? Just the sort of thing you’d use to produce fertilizer. But the fertilizer plant had shuttered and was no longer belching poison into Arkwright, right? It turns out that the plant had for all intents and purposes been abandoned. Never reclaimed or cleaned up likely because to do so would have cost IRC millions. When Mitchell called the Environmental Protection Agency with concerns about the di-ease of so many in his childhood neighborhood, one of those pesky bureaucrats that we love to malign in our daily political conversations in 2020, a woman named Cynthia Peurifoy, listened. Approximately 48 tons of super-phosphate fertilizer, vibrant matter that had wreaked great harm in the bodies of Arkwright residents but also likely contributed to extraordinary growth to cotton fields not far away, had been left behind. After many investigations, the fertilizer plant site and the dump were both listed on the United States list of Superfund sites (that’s a fancy way for saying they were really really hazardous and in need of radical cleaning).
But the EPA wasn’t perfect. It was far away and couldn’t really control much of what was happening on and to the ground in Arkwright. It could label the dilapidated spaces. It could try to clean them up and erase the past affronts, but it became very obvious that the people of Arkwright, united as they were through the carcinogenic and other respiratory illness-generating matter of the fertilizer plant and other dumped residues, were going to have to demand full participation at the local level if they hoped to craft the future of their lives and their communities.
They gathered together to create a community-based organization that was committed to not just cleaning up the past but to re-envisioning the future. That organization, Re-Genesis, was formed in the space created by toxic matter. It grew from the fields of fertilizer and trash to earn the EPA’s respect (they won an $850,000 revitalization grant), to reform the City Council and nudge it into admitting its oversight and willful negligence of Arkwright and its surroundings. Getting IRC to pay for its destruction and to get Spartanburg to integrate racially wasn’t enough for Mitchell and the other citizens. They wanted environmental justice and to “reform and democratize the environmental decision-making structures that had created the inequality” and the vibrant matter to begin with. (947) Their hard work has paid off, and it continues.
This story is a beautiful concrete example of Jane Bennett’s contention that the sources of harm are rarely singular in location or time. They are rarely perpetuated intentionally by 1-2 bad actors but rather by a confederation of actors that pay little attention to what is the matter. In this story, neighborhoods in and around Arkwright existed in particular spaces and times that included dreams for the future, racialized bias, economic imperatives, hope, contentment, concern, and finally fear. The plants, humans, animals, rivers, organic and inorganic matter all interacted over time to produce a place, Arkwright, South Carolina, where humans’ intention mattered but maybe not as much as their inattention. No one really listened to the percolating drips in the factory. No one seemed to see opportunity in the vacant mill windows. Few worried about the particulates in the air. At least not at first. But the presence of all of that mattered - and with enough time and deep courage, local peoples nonviolently agitating for their vision, brought the matter that once harmed to finally heal. Fertilizer, trash, and clothing: coming together over the course of a century to inspire opportunity, inequality, consciousness, and renewal.
When the winds in Spartanburg blew the toxic dust from fertilizer and landfill, it also blew political change - all because people wanted to breathe.
Next Up: a less heady read about smoke and statues
1. Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).
2. All of this Spartanburg/Arkwright story is from an excellent article in the March edition of the Journal of American History. All subsequent parenthetical citations in the blog are page numbers from the article. Andrew Gutkowski, "The Evolution of Environmental (In)Justice in Spartanburg, South Carolina, 1900-2000, The Journal of American History, Vol. 106, No. 4 (March 2020): 923-948.