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Configurations 8.1 (2000) 87-120



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The "Elsewhere within Here" and Environmental Illness; or, How to Build Yourself a Body in a Safe Space

Michelle Murphy


You are inside most of the time. Inside at work, at home, at the mall, even when you are on the move inside a car, bus, or plane. The inside, brought about by built environments of late capitalism, provides your habitat, the milieu for your embodiment. Then one otherwise ordinary day your throat begins to constrict when you enter your newly renovated office building. Or, your chest tightens at the photocopier. Or, you notice you've been overwhelmingly fatigued and foggy since they fumigated your apartment. A nebulous constellation of symptoms grips your body and will not let go. Your doctor cannot find anything wrong, yet your body seems to have run amok. The built environment, so familiar, that pervades your daily life becomes the site of your suffering. Bewilderingly, painfully, against all logic, your body seems to be rebelling against the inside.

Bodies' "reactions" to the built environment--the afflictions of Environmental Illness or Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS)--render the ordinary spaces of late-capitalist life uninhabitable. 1 These reactions [End Page 87] take numerous forms, differently expressed in each person through a multitude of subjectively reported symptoms. Because such reactions are difficult, if not impossible, to objectify with conventional biomedical techniques and, further, because they are elicited by extremely low, subtoxic, supposedly "safe" levels of common chemicals, the very existence of MCS is highly controversial. MCS does not conform to the biomedical grids already available for categorizing bodies, nor does it conform to biomedical expectations about what a body is supposed to be able to do.

Conventional biomedicine has greeted this newly emergent illness with more than skepticism: the official mouthpieces of biomedicine have proclaimed MCS an illegitimate diagnosis. 2 Facilitated by the predominance of women among MCS claimants, biomedicine has commonly replaced MCS with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual's Psychosomatic Disorder. 3 Through this diagnostic substitution, MCS is categorized--usually against the patient's will--as a postmodern version of women's age-old ability to psychosomaticize their distress; in the 1990s, symptoms take the form of chemical phobias instead of hysterical paralysis. Through this substitution MCS is removed from the realm of legitimate corporeal illnesses and becomes instead a gendered expression of psychological distress. The act of diagnosing Psychosomatic Disorder instead of [End Page 88] MCS is not just a simple matter of naming, it reverberates through workers' compensation systems, courtrooms, health insurance schedules, and other social institutions. MCS sufferers have difficulty obtaining health insurance coverage, are ineligible for workers' benefits, cannot gain workplace accommodation, find it virtually impossible to hold companies legally liable for their chemical exposure, and, perhaps most painfully, have to face the suspicion of malingering from acquaintances and even family. 4 The stigma around MCS is so great that sufferers can come to doubt their own claims of corporeal illness. The biomedical affirmation of the irreality of MCS has multiplied into myriad juridical, state, and cultural domains, rendering MCS abject.

By "abjection" I mean the social, not psychological, process by which what is possible, intelligible, or material is designated by producing a domain of impossibility, nonsense, and immateriality. Abjection

designates "unlivable" and "uninhabitable" zones of social life which are nonetheless densely populated by those who are not enjoying the status of subject, but whose living under the sign of the "unlivable" is required to circumscribe the domain of the subject. 5

Abjection is not simply a form of social exclusion, it is the making and marking of a domain of impossibility. MCS has been abjected from biomedicine as a condition outside of "disease"--that is, as an impossible bodily state. Bodies with MCS are abjected not just from normality into abnormality, but from the realm of possible corporeal abnormalities. For that reason, MCS is referred to by one of its most vociferous debunkers as a "nondisease," a term referring not to the presence of health, but to a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6520
Print ISSN
1063-1801
Pages
pp. 87-120
Launched on MUSE
2000-01-01
Open Access
No
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