Chemical entanglements: exploring ontologies at the atomic level

Emma Cardwell (Glasgow University)
Claire Waterton (Lancaster University)
Encounters between people, things and environments
Bowland North Seminar Room 6
Start time:
25 July, 2018 at 13:00
Session slots:

Short abstract:

How can we meaningfully engage with the chemical in a material world? This session aims to account for the political, ethical, experiential and performative in chemical entanglements. Papers explore: chemical ontologies; global metabolisms of chemical elements; chemical lives; chemical disruptions.

Long abstract:

Chemicals are widely considered to be the 'building blocks' of material reality; the irreducible elements that make up the world. Chemists and philosophers of science, however, have long struggled with the ontological problems presented by the lively, indefinable and intrinsically mutable nature of substance, and the question as to how/if an element (a micro-entity with constant composition) can be individuated, its material structure understood, and its existence explained at all. Despite the slipperiness of such chemical ontologies, elemental signifiers proliferate in contemporary life: we all know that climate change is an issue caused by carbon; acid rain a problem of sulphur dioxide, nutrient pollution is a nitrogen and phosphorous issue, and ozone depletion is down to compounds of carbon, fluorine and chlorine (CFCs). In some ways, life has never been more chemical, and to be good cosmopolitical citizens in the Anthropocene, we need to pay heed to the particular scientific artefact of the chemical element and its processes. This may mean we need to think differently: chemicals encompass all processes and matter, from the smallest objects of life, to the scale of the universe. Chemicals react, bond, and form new substances in constant relation with others. Chemicals form human and non-human lifeworlds in spatially uneven and inequitable ways. In this session, we ask what thinking chemically might mean for our understanding of the world. What role do chemical ontologies play in the future of societies, and in the future of the earth?