Blue and Lead

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[1] 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.



[1] 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.

Excerpts from “A Lover’s Discourse” by Roland Barthes


déclaration / declaration

The amorous subject’s propensity to talk copiously, with repressed feeling, to the loved being, about his love for that being, for himself, for them: the declaration does not bear upon the avowal of love, but upon the endlessly glossed form of the amorous relation.

1.      Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire. The emotion derives from a double contact: on the one hand, a whole activity of discourse discreetly, indirectly focuses upon a single signified, which is “I desire you,” and releases, nourishes, ramifies it to the point of explosion (language experiences orgasm upon touching itself); on the other hand, I enwrap the other in my words, I caress, brush against, talk up this contact, I extend myself to make the commentary to which I submit the relation endure.



adorable / adorable

Not managing to name the specialty of his desire for the loved being, the amorous subject falls back on this rather stupid word: adorable!


3.     I encounter millions of bodies in my life; of these millions, I may desire some hundreds; but of these hundreds, I love only one. The other with whom I am in love designates for me the specialty of my desire. This choice, so rigorous that it retains only the Unique, (Lacan) constitutes, it is said, the difference between the analytical transference and the amorous transference; one is universal, the other specific. It has taken many accidents, (Proust) many surprising coincidences (and perhaps many efforts), for me to find the Image which, out of a thousand, suits my desire. Herein a great enigma, to which I shall never possess the key: Why is it that I desire So-and-so? Why is it that I desire So-and-so lastingly, longingly? Is it the whole of So-and-so I desire (a silhouette, a shape, a mood)? And, in that case, what is it in this loved body which has the vocation of a fetish for me? What perhaps incredibly tenuous portion—what accident? The way a nail is cut, a tooth broken slightly aslant, a lock of hair, a way of spreading the fingers while talking, while smoking? About all these folds of the body, I want to say that they are adorableAdorable means: this is my desire, insofar as it is unique: “That’s it! That’s it exactly (which I love!” Yet the more I experience the specialty of my desire, the less I can give it a name; to the precision of the target corresponds a wavering of the name; what is characteristic of desire, proper to desire, can produce only an impropriety of the utterance. Of this failure of language, there remains only one trace: the word “adorable” (the right translation of “adorable” would be the Latin ipse: it is the self, himself, herself, in person.)

LACAN: “It is not everyday that you encounter what is so constituted as to give you precisely the image of your desire.”
PROUST: Scene of the specialty of desire: Jupien and Charlus meet in the courtyard of the Hôtel de Guermantes (at the beginning of Cities of the Plain.)

4.     Adorable is the futile vestige of a fatigue—the fatigue of language itself. From word to word, I struggle to put “into other words” the ipseity of my Image, to express improperly the propriety of my desire: a journey at whose end my final philosophy can only be to recognize—and to practice—tautology. The adorable is what is adorable. Or again: I adore you because you are adorable, I love you because I love you. What thereby closes off the lover’s language is the very thing which has instituted it: fascination. For to describe fascination can never, in the last analysis, exceed this utterance: “I am fascinated.” Having attained the end of language, where it can merely repeat its last word like a scratched record, I intoxicate myself upon its affirmation: is not tautology that preposterous state in which are to be found, all values being confounded, the glorious end of the logical operation (Nietzsche), the obscenity of stupidity, and the explosion of the Nietzschean yes?