Kath Weston is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Virginia. A Guggenheim Fellow and two-time winner of the Ruth Benedict Prize, Weston is the author of several books, including
Knowing What We Know, Why are We Stuck?
In recent years both scholars and activists have used the concept of precarity to describe the destabilization of labor conditions and growing economic insecurity associated with the global spread of neoliberal policies. At the same time, a seemingly unrelated discourse has emerged that focuses on precarity of another sort: the increasingly precarious hold on existence of life itself, due to deteriorating ecological conditions. Why are diverse societies with such varied histories and relationships to capitalist markets stuck in a downward spiral of resource exploitation, even as evidence mounts that if things carry on like this, the future of life on earth for complex organisms may be in doubt? Any answer has to take politics and economics into account, as well as the many critiques of modernity. But there is also a rather specific materiality involved: a viscerally fueled romance with synthetic chemistry embedded in current modes of production and consumption. In this chapter a series of ethnographic “stopgaps” set in Chicago, New Delhi, and Venice examines the part that one key technology, the automobile, has played in cultivating this affective stance by bringing people into an intimate, visceral engagement with newly created chemicals. What is it about such an affective stance that allows people to live with apparent contradictions, reassuring them that they can poison the world without limit even as they recognize that a limit must be out there somewhere, and suturing them to ecological damage even as they work against it?