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  • Corporate Chemistry:A Biopolitics of Environment in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Richard Powers’s Gain
  • Derek Woods (bio)

The 1963 episode of CBS Reports entitled “The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson” contains all the elements of the biopolitics of environment at stake in this essay. Throughout the episode, the host moves back and forth between Carson’s perspective on the overuse of pesticides and the response of Robert White-Stevens, a chemical engineer who speaks as a representative of the chemical corporation American Cyanamid. Carson speaks to the impact of the new synthetic molecules on humans and nonhumans alike; White-Stevens attacks this perspective as regressive to the extreme. For him, “the real enemy to the survival of man is not chemical but biological, in the shape of hordes of insects that sweep over our croplands.” To this science-fiction image of an invading insect army, White-Stevens adds still more vituperation: “if man were to faithfully follow the teachings of Miss Carson,” he argues, “we would return to the dark ages, and insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth.” According to this warning, we need synthetic molecules to protect human beings and their crops from inimical life. By implication, the chemical industry takes on all the characteristics of a prosthetic immune system, extending the biological immune system at a larger scale. In the words of the CBS host, however, White-Stevens may speak a “corporate rhetoric” against which public agencies have yet to be “immunized.” Thus does the documentary offer a [End Page 72] compressed version of Carson’s distinct biopolitics, which I read as a contribution to biopolitical theory avant la lettre.

Scholars have read Silent Spring (1962) primarily as an activist text, emphasizing the controversy surrounding the book’s reception and the literary techniques that Carson uses to persuade readers.1 That this text’s theoretical contribution has not been clarified is one reason it receives only a footnote in sociologist Ulrich Beck’s influential Risk Society (1986), which discusses toxicity in detail but treats Silent Spring simply as an apocalyptic popularization of scientific findings (162). Yet recent work on multispecies biopolitics, which extends the models of power developed by Foucault and other thinkers to relations among human beings and nonhuman species, retroactively clarifies the role of Silent Spring in the genealogy of biopolitical thought.2 More than symptomatic of the public health discourses that were central examples for Foucault, this role seems increasingly pivotal as environmental politics becomes a powerful planetary frame. Silent Spring responds to the explosive growth of the US chemical industry following World War II with a new distinction between chemical and biological speeds, a distinction guided by the logic of immunity and played out in relations among the human body, the corporate “body,” the insect swarm, and the synthetic molecule. The contribution of Carson’s biopolitics of environment is its analysis of industrial organic chemistry in relation to this four-body biopolitical system, which leads to new ways of conceptualizing the distinction between chemistry and biology.

From this perspective, Richard Powers’s Gain (1998) does in a sustained way what “The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson” does in miniature. The documentary pits Carson, suffering from cancer and representing herself, against an engineer who speaks for the chemical corporation as a part that stands for the whole.3 The central objects at issue in their debate are swarming insects and the new synthetic molecules meant to eradicate them. Gain dramatizes this four-body system in a diptych composed of two narratives that never intersect diegetically: the bildungsroman of a chemical corporation, and the declension narrative or negative bildungsroman of a character suffering from cancer. Throughout the novel, the macroform of both narratives interacts with its rhetorical microform through tropes that substitute one body for another, for example by using the swarm as a figure of the corporation or the synthetic molecule or the person as a figure of the corporation. This system can certainly become more complex and involve other life forms. For humans and insects, respectively, we could substitute any form of “proper” or “improper” life, pet or pest, which is not necessarily a difference grounded...


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