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  • Racialized Toxins and Sovereign Fantasies
  • Mel Y. Chen (bio)

How might one properly represent a toxin or infectious agent, and what directives inform that propriety? How might toxins take on characteristics well beyond their physical properties? This essay meditates on extended meanings of toxicity, using the 2007 U.S. case of "lead panic" about toxic toys associated with China. I label the lead case a panic to indicate its disproportionate status among cases of domestic intoxication, threats to children's health, and the relative paucity of evidence that the contaminated toys themselves had caused severe health consequences.1 I further measure this panic against intriguingly parallel spectacles in early-twentieth-century fiction and film in the United States to investigate lead's role in the complex play of durative sovereign fantasy; sovereign fantasy is defined here as the national or imperial project of absolute rule and authority. I focus on the notion that an inanimate but invasive entity such as lead can become racialized, even as it can only lie in notionally peripheral relation to biological life units. Rather than focus on the concrete dangers to living bodies of environmental lead, which are ever more present and material and are well documented, in this essay I wish to think about lead as a cultural phenomenon over and above its material and physiomedical character. Along the way, I wish to ask these questions: If lead is now imagined to come from places strictly outside the geographic West—in spite of the longtime complexity of transnational relations—and hereby threaten definitive United States/"Western" [End Page 367] citizenry, then how might we assess its status against a history of race rendered as biological threat and within a present that considers the possibilities of biological terrorism? How might we contextualize the panic around lead in terms of a hyperstimulated war machine in which the U.S. government perceives and surveils increasing numbers of imagined terrorists? And how does a context of increasingly fragile U.S. global economic power condition this panic?

In the summer of 2007 in the United States, a spate of warnings and recalls of preschool toys, pet food, seafood, lunchboxes, and other items began to appear in national and local newspapers and television and radio news. Descriptions of the items recalled tended to have three common characteristics. First, they pointed to the dangers of lead intoxication as opposed to other toxins. Second, they emphasized the vulnerability of American children to this toxin. Third, they had a common point of origination: China, for decades a major supplier of consumer products to the United States and responsible for various stages in the production stream. These alerts arose from direct testing of the toys, rather than from medical reports of children's intoxication by lead content in the indicated toys. One of the more prominent visual symbols of this recall debacle appearing in newspapers and websites was the series of images of Mattel brand Thomas & Friends series of toy trains, all smiling, in different colors and identities, sometimes graphically headed off the tracks. Mattel is a U.S.-based corporation with heavy use of transnational labor, but it was the Chinese source of lead that received the most attention. Other images specific to lead-tainted toys abounded: soft plush toys, plastic charms, necklaces and bracelets, teething aids, Chinese workers either solitary or in tens of seated factory rows painting trains and other objects, toy medical accessories like toy blood pressure cuffs. Pictures of the toys alternated with images of overwhelmingly white children playing with the suspect toys. Painted and plastic toys' lead toxicity became the newest addition to the mainstream U.S. parental (in)security map. Despite earlier, serious intimations of toxic exposure, lead has only now so sturdily enjoyed the status of quick reference.

While notions of lead circulated prolifically, in fact no industrial forms of lead were shown in raw form, no molecular structure of lead was illustrated. Rather, images of the suspect toys, and the children playing with them predominated in visual representations of the toxic threat. Even the feared image of a sick American child that underlay the lead panic was not visually shown, only discussed in text as...


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pp. 367-383
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