Michelle Murphy

Work in Progress

Alterlife in the Ongoing Aftermaths of Chemical Exposure

Global biomonitoring studies have found industrially produced chemicals in the blood and breast milk of every single living subject, suggesting that all humans, and perhaps most life forms, have been materially altered by the absorption of such human-invented chemicals released over the last the last century.  Emerging research in environmental epigenetics and related scientific fields have traced how the effects of such chemical exposures can produce inhereted metabolic effects in bodies that persist across generations in the health of future children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and beyond.  We are living in a historic moment when life on earth shares the condition of already having been altered by human-made chemicals, a condition that might be called alterlife.  Alterlife names a historically new form of life that is altered by the activities of industrialization at metabolic and epigenetic levels.  Alterlife includes PCBs eating fungi, the micro-organisms that have learned to digest microplastics in the ocean’s garbage patches, as well as biotechnologically created organisms, or life that subsists on industrially created foodstuffs.  What are the forms of alterlife that now inhabit our planet?

The Alterlife in the Ongoing Aftermaths project  focuses on life as conditioned by the chemical itiernaries of the lower Great Lakes region, and is organized around three conceptual and political stakes.   First, the condition of alterlife extends the investigation of life forms beyond the bodies of organisms (and the life sciences) outwards to the large infrastructures of settler colonialism, racism, and capitalism that concentrate and distribute chemical destructions and benefits.  Studying alterlife requires attention to looping temporalities between many pasts and possible futures as a way to rethink the politics of intergenerational inheritances.  It requires a reworking of how we trace and map the entanglements that make up life across scale and site.  Second, how we understand alterity is rearranging through the study of alterlife. Environmental epigenetic research, for example, is recategorizing and remapping bodily difference in terms of the epigenetically inherited metabolic effects of past exposures to chemicals, racism, violence, and stress.  This line of research on epigenetic inheritance threatens to resurrect pernicious ideas of inherited biological racial differences, as well as heteronormative sex panics.  Thus, this project brings social science and humanities scholarship to the critical task of challenging this resuscitation of race and instead fosters ways to reframe biological difference and entanglement within larger histories and geographies.  How might an investigation of alterlife as a shared, entangling, and yet unevenly distributed condition reframe and mobilize politics?   Third, the condition of alterlife provokes us to attend to the possibility of alternative life forms, of life otherwise, and of future survival.  Contemporary environmental politics is replete with apocalyptic anxieties, and descriptions of doomed and damaged communities.  The Great Lakes region is rich with counter-histories and alter-futures within theories, art, and practices. This project develops the notion of alterlife in engagement with Indigenous futurities and  athwart doomsday temporalities and colonial timescapes. It strives to foster approaches that amplify decolonial, reparative, and feminist potentials about a future of resurgence.

This research is SSHRC funded.

Listen to “Alterlife in the Aftermath” in Panel 1 at the Engineered Worlds conference at the University of Chicago (October 2015) organized by Joseph Masco. 

“Distributed Reproduction” talk at the Life (Un)Ltd. event in 2012 at UCLA’s Center for the Study of Women, organized by Rachel Lee.