What is a poison? Disambiguation and ethics in the agrochemical industry
Tom Widger (Durham University)
Paper short abstract:
What is a poison? I argue that for anthropologists, poison emerges from, and captures, ambiguity. I trace this idea, first, to the poisons contained in gifts and, second, to the poisons produced by industrial capitalism.
Paper long abstract:
What is a poison? I argue that for anthropologists, poison emerges from, and captures, ambiguity - much as pollution emerges from, and captures, disorder. I trace this idea, first, to the poisons contained in gifts and, second, to the poisons produced by industrial capitalism. I locate the ambiguities of both in the Greek concept of the pharmakon, the remedy/poison, which I suggest offers a limited model for understanding what makes a poison for people working at the source of many contemporary poisons - the agrochemical industry. Drawing from my participation in a meeting of agrochemical scientists in Berlin in 2014, I show how for my informants, who subscribed to a sixteenth-century revision of the pharmakon concept, poisons existed unambiguously in the world. I use the agrochemists' theory as a starting point for thinking about poison as a problem of magnitude - a poison is that which demands difficult choices by its sheer force of presence, not whether it is present or absent. This does not constitute a theory of poison but does offer grounds for thinking through the contingencies of how people deal with poison in local contexts.
Toxicity in the 21st century