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Attuning to the Chemosphere: Domestic Formaldehyde, Bodily Reasoning, and the Chemical Sublime

By Nicholas Shapiro

Cite As:
Shapiro, Nicholas. 2015. “Attuning to the Chemosphere: Domestic Formaldehyde, Bodily Reasoning, and the Chemical Sublime.” Cultural Anthropology 30, no. 3: 368–393.


Chronic domestic chemical exposures unfold over protracted timelines and with low velocity. In this article I argue that such microscopic encounters between bodies and toxicants are most readily sensed by less nameable and more diffuse sensory practices. The apprehension of conventionally insensible toxic exposures is informed by sustained attention to barely perceptible alterations of somatic function and atmosphere. Slight biochemical impressions, which at first appear simply meaningless or puzzling, accumulate in the bodies of the exposed and reorient them to the molecular constituents of the air and the domestic infrastructure from which such chemicals emanate. Through the articulation of these small corrosive happenings, residents of contaminated homes can accumulate minute changes to body and atmosphere across time and space in a process I call the “chemical sublime,” which elevates minor enfeebling encounters into events that stir ethical consideration and potential intervention. The chemical sublime is a late industrial experience that inverts an Enlightenment-era, yet still dominant, conception of the sublime. Across authoritative and questioned bodies, companion species and humans, this essay asks: in what ways do diffuse sensory practices generate knowledge of, attention to, and engagements with the chemical world?


phenomenology; anthropology of science; affect; chemical exposure; bodily reasoning