On Mel Y. Chen’s Toxic Inanimacies in conversation with Maggie Nelson’s Bluets
Lead, as a material representative of toxicity, teeters on both the sides of life and nonlife. It straddles “the literal bounds of bodies, in ways that introduce a certain complexity to the presumption of integrity of either lifely or deathly subjects” (Chen 279). I think about Mel’s consideration of toxicity the same way the poet Maggie Nelson considers the colour blue. In Bluets, Nelson animates blue in a similar way in which Mel animates lead. Nelson refracts life through blue, as Mel refracts life through toxicity. My associations between the two also come from their shared philosophical undertone, the use of poetic language, the autobiographical elements, and their decision to write about two subjects which share a diffuse and permeable characteristic – they are in things, they exist within things, but are barely considered in the meticulous, molecular way that Mel and Nelson do. I especially think about the future implications of considering life on the level of its foundations – what changes when we think of life through the atom.
Through this method of thought, sharing pain becomes an act of generosity.
In Fragment 104, Nelson writes, “I do not feel my friend’s pain, but when I intentionally cause her pain I wince as if I hurt somewhere, and I do. […] She says, ‘if anyone knows this pain besides me, it is you.’ This is generous, for to be close to her pain has always felt like a privilege to me, even though pain could be defined as that which we typically aim to avoid. Perhaps this is because she remains so generous within hers.”
Does this operate within the same logic and affect as when Mel proposes “toxicity propels, not repels, queer loves” (Chen 281)? I understand the same surface level associations that people make with “toxicity as pain”, not “toxicity as gratitude.” But both writers invite new understandings of previously damned concepts. Toxicity propels, produces, gives birth to spaces in which queer loves are able to exist and thrive beyond normative understandings of love. These new understandings are harder to grasp, but are infinitely rewarding when done so.
Mel talks about having love for a couch. This couch, an inanimate body whose arms and back were responsible for the soothing and comforting that any other animate body could not have given in a particular toxic moment. In the throes of dizzying poisoning, Mel finds the needed stillness that the couch offered.
Pain operates in an analogous way. Nelson acknowledges the way in which her friend’s pain translates into a generosity previously articulated through different ways. Ever since her friend’s accident, her friend now embodies a new existence which is now inextricably bound with dependence – quadriparalysis requires a wheelchair and a caretaker. Though this dependence has given her a different aura — one of an oracle, a figure upon which people come to willingly. Now, pain becomes a language upon which their ever-evolving friendship rests. In another book, The Argonauts, Nelson refers to Barthes’ description of how “the subject who utters the phrase ‘I love you’ is like the ‘Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name. Just as the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase, ‘I love you,’ its meaning must be renewed by each use, as the ‘very task of love and language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new.” In this sense, life has changed some aspects of sociality between Nelson and her friend. It now necessitates different forms of love that need to make sense within life as it is now.
This too extends to how Mel engages with toxicity as something that propels. Through an illustrative account of hypersensitivity and the shutting down of the body, Mel describes the ways in which the condition has forced Mel to find creative ways to survive, finding aid through objects that most people do not consider as solace. When one’s subjectivity is (dis)regarded through codes of normativity and intersecting forces of oppression, one begins to look for new ways to navigate life in a way that moves beyond undesired conditions – finding ways to replace the ship’s parts.
Nelson writes: “159. A good many have figured God as light, but a good many have also figured him as darkness. She recalls the idea of a “Divine Darkness,” which must be separated from other forms of darkness, such as the darkness of sin or the darkness of the soul. I relate this idea of Divine Darkness to previous articulations of both toxin and blue as having two contradictory forces within them – life and death. Both toxin and blue can be sources of profound hope, but also of uncertainty. I am thinking about the widespread use of “toxic” as a surrogate for “abusive.” Pop psychology is often guilty of this place-holding. It does speak to larger questions of love, which Mel aptly reminds us is worthy of theoretical consideration.
How can someone love perfume aisles and find them pleasurable, therapeutic? How is it that so much of desire and attraction are inextricably bound to smell and consumption (luxury perfumes, aromatherapy, unique mixes of essential oils for “ultrasonic diffusers”) when it can have a mortal effect on many people? What changes when something that gives life can also subject others to death?
In Fragment 181, Nelson writes, “Pharmakon means drug, but as Jacques Derrida and others have pointed out, the word in Greek famously refuses to designate whether poison or cure. It holds both in the bowl. In the dialogues, Plato uses the word to refer to everything from an illness, its cause, its cure, a recipe, a charm, a substance, a spell, artificial colour, and paint.” The same logic applies to the designation of toxicity as a doubly-voiced phenomenon, equally capable of propagating and inhabiting life in a way that’s purposefully vague. The implications of this are potentially threatening, especially beyond the realm of the personal. Structurally, we must understand that policies and rights are often blanketed under the same benevolent guise – “The law is there to protect us” or “Trans rights are human rights.” But suffice it to say that the polysemous nature of things can sharply change how one person experiences life, especially in relation to, or against, our own experiences of life which we may be reluctant to question. One possible way is to feel settled in ambiguity. To accept that certain phenomena – whether lead, or blue – are ultimately shaped through dominant discourses that give life to some and withhold it from others. If only on a personal level, to understand that things are not as they are according to what we know, and to feel comfortable in this and not betrayed.
 Or something that elevates life. After all, fragrance can be a treat for the senses, much like how eating good food directly speaks to pleasure, and by extension, hedonism.