Racial Capitalism, Chemical Kin
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Chlordécone/kepone (C10Cl10O) was an organocholorine pesticide produced in the United States from 1951-1975. Called an “insecticide of the poor,” the synthetic chemical was used primarily in tropical agriculture in Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. In the French Antilles, the compound saw widespread use on banana plantations only after its interdiction in France, the United States, and in other countries of the global North. The United Nations Environment Programme considers kepone to be a persistent organic pollutant (POP), and it has been posited that it would take between 150 and 600 years for the chemical to break down naturally in the environment. Thus it is in the land—and in people’s bodies—to stay. Further, kepone is both a carcinogen and an endocrine disruptor—a compound that produces estrogen-mimicking and anti-androgenic effects in both human and non-human animal bodies. Claims about the sexual and reproductive consequences of exposure are thus at the heart of concerns about its afterlives in human bodies, bodies of land and bodies of water, and these in turn rely upon ideas about a “natural” body, its optimum health, and its “natural” genders, sexes, and sexualities. Kepone moves many to ask: what does toxicity (have to) do with reproductive futurity? What might detox have to do with a radical politics of care?
In this talk, I join archival research in Hopewell, Virginia (the site of the compound’s production) with ethnographic research in Martinique (one of the primary sites of its distribution), in order to plumb one dimension of the plantation’s long after/continued life, and its relationship to what Michelle Murphy has called “chemical infrastructures of reproduction.” Inspired by M. Jacqui Alexander’s insistence that transnational feminist scholarship plumb how ideologies traffic across multiple sites, I track racialized and gendered discourses about kepone exposure across a trans-imperial Atlantic terrain, offering this commodity story as one way to understand the enduring entanglements of toxicity and care, reproduction and generation-making in the worlds wrought by racial capitalism.