One of the pleasures of my current writing project on the history of toxic fear in the American 1980s has been the opportunity to engage with emotions history and to track the history of psychology as it pertains to fear and anxiety. Though I suspect I will cut my discussion of fear writ large from the manuscript, it was fun drafting some of this material. Here, in very rough draft form, is a brief anatomy of fear, in which I braid together three disparate identities of fear: the personal, the political, and the primitive, which I divide into three sections. I will share the subsequent iterations in future posts.
Fear is an atavistic trait, mired in primitive survival instincts. As the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgård so eloquently put it: “Fear is archaic, it is embedded in the body, in its purest form untouchable to thought, and it is there to keep us alive.” True. Upon the discovery of a potential threat, the body instantly generates a fight or flight mentality. Pulse quickens, hairs bristle, muscles tense. This is hardwired into our biology. It is little surprise, then, that Charles Darwin studied fear quite extensively in his less well-known (but popular at the time) work on emotions from 1872. Fear, Darwin wrote in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, “may be accounted for through the principles of habit, association, and inheritance,—such as the wide opening of the mouth and eyes, with upraised eyebrows, so as to see as quickly as possible all around us, and to hear distinctly whatever sound may reach our ears.” Just as in Duchenne de Boulogne’s famous pictures a decade earlier of facial expressions that sought to capture a universal essence of specific emotions, Darwin wanted to describe the biological nature of emotion. The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals followed quickly on the heels of The Descent of Man (1871), and his intent was consistent with his broader work on evolution. Emotion, he contended, must be a universal and evolutionary constant. “Men, during numberless generations, have endeavoured to escape from their enemies or danger by headlong flight, or by violently struggling with them,” Darwin surmised. “Such great exertions will have caused the heart to beat rapidly, the breathing to be hurried, the chest to heave, and the nostrils to be dilated. As these exertions have often been prolonged to the last extremity, the final result will have been utter prostration, pallor, perspiration, trembling of all the muscles, or their complete relaxation. And now, whenever the emotion of fear is strongly felt, though it may not lead to any exertion, the same results tend to reappear, through the force of inheritance and association.”
So far, so good. The easy assumption is to suggest that Darwin saw fear as an evolutionary characteristic, universal in its conception. Humans were simply exhibiting animalistic survival instincts, even if those instincts didn’t necessarily apply in the same manner as they might have done in the wild. But his conclusions weren’t so tidy. Darwin followed the description above with the claim that “the above symptoms of terror … are in large part directly due to the disturbed or interrupted transmission of nerve-force from the cerebrospinal system to various parts of the body, owing to the mind being so powerfully affected. We may confidently look to this cause, independently of habit and association.” Indeed, throughout his work, Darwin qualified his analysis and shied from infallible emotional absolutes. The science of emotion required interpretation, and Darwin was unapologetic about this uncertainty: “When Shakespeare speaks of envy as lean-faced, or black, or pale, and jealousy as ‘the green-eyed monster’; and when [Edmund] Spenser describes suspicion as ‘foul ill-favoured, and grim,’ they must have felt this difficulty.” In essence, Darwin resisted a universal codex for emotion, which could be situated in time and place—and misinterpreted. “We are often guided in a much greater degree than we suppose,” he warned, “by our previous knowledge of the persons or circumstances.”
If there is a universal component to fear, it is in its physiology. Emotion is simply complex chemistry. In the early twentieth century, psychologists located irritation in the medulla oblongata as the source of these instinctive responses. A century later, neuroscience could more accurately describe fear’s chemistry, as an oxytocin activation in the hypothalamus and release from the pituitary. (amygdala here?—appropriately buried deep within the brain’s inner sanctum). Fight or flight hormone: epinephrine.
…and so it goes. The next instalment considers fear’s political dimensions, also in incomplete form.
 Charles Darwin, The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals (London: John Murray, 1872).
 Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, 166.
 Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, 166-167.
 Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, 142. Darwin’s intent has been the subject of much intellectual controversy since its publication. The anthropologist Margaret Mead and the evolutionary psychologist Paul Ekman have been the primary combatants, the former advocating a social constructivist reading of Darwin’s work and the latter championing a universalist approach For a good summary of the debate, see Jan Plamper, The History of Emotions: An Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 164-172.
 Sigmund Freud, A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis (XXX, 1920), Part 3 General Theory of the Neuroses XXV. Fear and Anxiety.
The tragic mercury poisoning epidemic at Minamata, Japan, serves as one of the critical first chapters in the history of the Toxic Century. The mercury spill in Minamata Bay in the 1950s constitutes one of the first expressions of the new landscapes that typify the Toxic Century. From 1932 to 1967, the Chisso Chemical Plant dumped mercury into the bay, from which local villagers subsisted on a fish-heavy diet. By the early 1950s, a growing number of animals and then residents were afflicted with a mysterious disease that flummoxed medical experts. Most typically, the symptoms involved debilitating damage to their nervous system. While researchers at Kumamoto University were able to identify heavy metal poisoning, it took some time before they could point to methyl mercury with confidence. (Minamata disease symptoms were first observed in humans in 1953; in 1959, studies definitively concluded that methyl mercury was the source).
Uncertainty ruled the early response. Hospitals quarantined sick patients, concerned that their ailment was contagious. “Whenever a new patient was identified,” Akio Mishima reported in Bitter Sea, “white-coated public health inspectors hurried to his or her house to disinfect every nook and cranny.” And still the fishing community ate the fish from the bay. Kibyo—strange illness—the locals said, when another neighbour showed symptoms. In historical circles, we resist talking about passive victims, but the hapless not-knowingness of the early stages of the Minamata outbreak can be framed in a manner that would impress Alfred Hitchcock.
Fear: the delay in discovering acute mercury poisoning was the source of Kibyo provoked fear around not knowing the source of the ailment. Subsequent victims also expressed fears about dying. Another form of fear manifests itself in the cultural response to victimhood. As science pointed toward the bay and the fish therein as the source of Minamata disease, divisions within the community arose between the afflicted and the fishermen who depended upon the bay for their livelihood. Patients’ families seeking compensation suffered discrimination from their neighbours. This ostracism also stimulated new forms of fear.
I thought I’d written this post already. For more than a year I have been organizing my research agenda around the Toxic Century—a period, post-World War II, in which a host of toxic chemicals proliferated the physical environment and created a series of health concerns. My introductory summary in a grant proposal, submitted last year:
We live in a toxic century. Each of us is a walking, breathing artifact of humanity’s toxic trespasses into nature. Unwittingly or not, we are all carrying a chemical cocktail in our blood, our bones, and our tissue, which constitutes the problematic legacy of persistent organic pollutants. This project is a history of that century from within, where “within” refers to the fact that we are still living in the toxic century—it begins after World War II—but also that this is an embodied history, which explores the history of the toxins we carry around inside us.
Persistent organic pollutants, such as synthetic pesticides, plastics, and PCBs, defy environmental degradation. As a result they pose considerable risks to human and environmental health insofar as they are able to move great distances from their points of origin and because they tend to magnify up the food chain and accumulate in human and animal tissue. They are a by-product of the chemical revolution that began at the end of the 19th century and proliferated in the marketplace in the years immediately following World War II. As carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, persistent organic pollutants have become the ominous centrepiece of the global toxic story that continues to haunt us.
The toxic century refers to the contamination of the entire planet. The synthetic chemicals defining this century have become a ubiquitous feature of the human footprint on the global landscape. More than 350 of them have been identified in the Great Lakes, where they would persist, even if their emission were halted tomorrow. They also have demonstrated a distinct capacity to travel over great distances in waterways, in the atmosphere, in our mobile bodies. Multiple chlorinated chemical by-products have been located in measurable quantities in the Canadian Arctic and over the Atlantic Ocean, for example, thousands of kilometers from their point of manufacture.
As a history of persistent organic pollutants and their science in a global context, this project first explores the manufacture and proliferation of toxic chemicals before concentrating on the post-World War II environmental science that raised alarms about their threats to human health and ecological integrity. In this manner, the project merges environmental politics with public health and toxicology to uncover the scale and scope of our toxic crisis, putting special emphasis on the emergence of environmental toxicology as a hybrid discipline designed to confront the uncertainty that has driven so much of the recent history of chemical harm. And it helps readers understand that, since World War II, a variety of military and industrial practices have introduced new chemicals into the environment and into our bodies, many of which pose serious health risks and have wrought damage to the physical environment, the extent of which we do not even know. This project aims to ensure that even if the damage remains uncertain, our understanding of the history that produced these problems—and the history of efforts to repair them—should not.
Over the past year, I moved away from the idea of drafting a project on the Toxic Century writ large. Instead, my interest in toxic fear is an avenue of inquiry within this framework. Further, the idea of telling “history from within,” provides a context for linking the Toxic Century to my other interests in the history of the future. Another angle I mean to pursue involves investigating the history of disaster science, which explicitly links toxics and the future around ideas of planning and anticipating environmental contamination.
This post draws on two lines of work. This fall, I have been introducing students to some (very) basic digital visualization techniques as a means of training them to ask historical questions. I have also been thinking further about the history of toxic fear—and whether a fear of toxic chemicals produced a distinct kind of fear during the Toxic Century. In A New Species of Trouble, Kai Erikson argues that the new, silent toxins of the post-World War II period “scare human beings in new and special ways, … [and] … elicit an uncanny fear in us” (144). I use Erikson as a departure point, and propose that it is time to examine toxic fear through an historical lens.
These two lines of work came together this week in my first year course on the Toxic Century (HIST 1EE3: The Historical Roots of Contemporary Issues). Working in groups of four or five, students have been tasked with identifying an appropriate keyword search, collecting ~500 newspaper articles in digital form, compiling them into a single, text-searchable file, and running them through some web-based reading and analysis tools. Groups were assigned a specific newspaper (for ease, we limited searches to 1950-1980 in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The Globe and Mail, all readily available through McMaster University’s subscription to “Proquest Historical Newspapers”). ~500 articles constitutes a fairly small data set, but I am more interested in teaching the method and process than expecting very specific or accurate results.
Their assignment involves developing a series of word clouds in order to chart change and continuity in the Toxic Century’s vocabulary over time to see if their analysis can identify trends in that vocabulary. Each group would create a chronological suite of word clouds (1950s, 1960s, 1970s, for example) in order to “see” the articles they had collected. I recommended that students play with wordle for simple word cloud generation: I find it easy to use and it seems to generate some of the more aesthetically pleasing clusters. To better contextualize and quantify their results, I urged that they run the same material through Voyant-Tools, which offers some more sophisticated options. Building on this collaborative investigation and analysis, students will co-write a short paper on their findings. I should stress that these papers do not mean to offer anything but a bird’s-eye view of a singular primary source. The exercise is less about acquiring any conclusive historical understanding about a particular time or event. Instead, I introduce this process as a method of starting inquiry into a new topic (my third-year “Social History of Truth” class is doing something similar, but with scientific journals).
Which brings me back to toxic fear. To provide a mock example and case study for the class to take them through the assignment, I conducted a search for New York Times articles between 1950-1990 that adhered to the following criteria:
[toxic AND (fear OR anxiety) AND (chemical OR pollution)]
The search parameters were far from perfect, and I had to “weed” out some articles that debated marijuana use. But a cursory scan of article titles suggested there was not too much noise—non-relevant results that would interfere with the data visualization. I added the 1980s, since we had covered Bhopal and Chernobyl already in lecture, and I thought it would be interesting to see if we could “see” American coverage of international crises. But it’s probably just as well that I did. Of the 729 articles that came back, 504 (69%) were from the 1980s. Another 39 were from 1990. Remove “fear OR anxiety” from the search:
[toxic AND (chemical OR pollution)]
and The New York Times yields 5657 articles (of which a still surprisingly high 3535—62%—are from the 1980s. I haven’t done anything yet, but already I was surprised. While some literature engages the Reagan administration’s deregulation as a catalyst for swelling registration in environmental organizations in the 1980s, I had typically associated fear of toxic chemicals with the Age of Ecology writ large. Yes: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring featured in the 1960s findings—and maybe my search parameters were skewed to leave out issues surrounding radioactive fallout. However, if The New York Times is at all representative of American print media, it would seem as though the 1980s was the decade of environmental fear (and toxic issues in general). Casting a wider net would be worthwhile. But even the more conservative Wall Street Journal, which returned only 168 hits for the first search including fear, had 122 of them (73%) come from the 1980s. Remove “fear OR anxiety” and you get 858 from 1240 articles (69%) from the 1980s.
Maybe this is simply media hype and marks a lexical transition in print journalism, but I’m not so sure. I have written about the rise and fall of the environmental jeremiad during the 1960s and 1970s, and argued that the effectiveness of alarmist rhetoric subsided during the 1970s. So it would seem out of place for media hyperbole on environmental fear to crescendo so dramatically in the 1980s. Something to investigate, though. On the one hand, perhaps this is just a sign of mainstream media catching up with a slow burning fire in American political thought. But it’s also possible that these results are not wholly surprising, even if the historical literature’s interest in the Age of Ecology tapers off somewhat after the energy crisis. We talk about the environment crisis as a post-World War II phenomenon, best articulated in Barry Commoner’s social activism, in Rachel Carson’s influence, and in the emergence of a number of public health concerns that emerged in the 1960s. And we typically associate the 1970s as a period of expansive environmental regulation in the United States—and, globally, as a key moment in the rise of contemporary global environmental governance. That’s the environmental crisis and its socio-political response. But we also know that the 1980s was punctuated by a series of intense environmental crises: Love Canal, Three Mile Island, Times Beach, Bhopal, Chernobyl. And perhaps these events prompted a more palpable recognition of interest and fear and anxiety surrounding toxins in the environment. Maybe I shouldn’t have been quite so surprised by the abundance of 1980s hits in my search.
Nevertheless, I spent yesterday afternoon focusing my efforts on the 1980s. This was quick and lazy work, and I only gave the files the most cursory of scrubs (and not satisfactorily: eliminating “New York Times” from the word clouds, for example, had the unhappy effect of problematizing: “
Times Beach.” And I made the mistake of clearing “the” out of the text before I put it into Voyant. This produced “ there” and “ their,” which are prominent in some of the clouds (wordle automatically leaves out smaller words). As it happened, I had roughly 100 articles for every two years. I’ll spare you the detailed, more quantified analysis rendered in Voyant Tools. Here’s what each wordle-generated word cloud looked like.
entirely likely certain that I’m working with too small a data set and too narrow a timeframe. But even here, I think there are opportunities for students to interpret and inquire. Dioxin features in 1982-1983 as a result of the Times Beach crisis; Bhopal and Union Carbide are (tragically) prominent in the 1984-1985 cloud. More useful for the undergraduate classroom is the opportunity to compare general topics, such as waste, water, air, etc. One can do a little of that with a preliminary eye- or smell-test with the clouds above. But this is where Voyant becomes a much more effective tool. It is possible to quantify and contextualize reference terms and compare their chronologies through the text. For instance, my New York Times articles for 1982-1983 contained almost 120,000 words (16,439 unique words). “Toxic” was present 270 times, “waste” 250 times, “health” 196 times, and “chemical” 180 times. All well and good.
But we can use Voyant to dig deeper and examine trends in the usage. For example, “dioxin” occurred 174 times. According to Google Books’ ngram generator, interest in dioxin increased through the 1980s and 1990s:
Back to Voyant, the chronology of dioxin references in my text from 1982-1983 looks like this:
The two spikes correlate with the discovery of dioxin and then the town’s evacuation. Which is to say that dioxin’s featuring in the 1982-1983 word cloud has a lot to do with Times Beach emerging as a national story. I’m learning with my students to become more proficient with Voyant, but it’s neat to play with. Voyant makes it possible to fiddle with the number of segments and analyze relative (rather than raw) frequencies. It is also possible to compare trends in terms:
That example is probably not instructive: since “chemical” was one of my search terms—and seems to experience mild spikes along with “dioxin”—I’m not sure what I’m learning here. And neither method shown here organizes the newspaper articles into an accurate chronology. The chronology is dictated by the raw number of articles and not divided into month-by-month sections, which might yield a different perspective. To wit:
Breaking the trend analysis into 25 segments (roughly one point for each month), it’s apparent that dioxin features too early (the story broke in December 1982). So the dumping large amounts of data into a reader does not necessarily return complete information for the historian. I could conduct a raw count of articles by month, of course, to determine the extent to which Times Beach dominated other issues during this two-year sample (it did). The wordle cloud also hints at some of those issues—Bhopal, above in 1984-1985, for example—but it does not indicate whether “dioxin” or “Bhopal” was used repeatedly within a small subset of articles or whether their prevalence is the result of a larger number of articles (or both).
But, still: too small and narrow a data set (though, arguably, this is a pragmatic start for in-class use at the undergraduate level). The work above could be bolstered with a range of newspapers that cover the United States. Having eliminated “New” and “York,” there are no references to city and state, though “Jersey” is present, and suggests regional coverage/emphasis of toxic issues. Perhaps midwestern newspapers such as The St. Louis Post-Dispatch or Chicago Tribune would return a greater number of relative hits (and emphasis) on Times Beach, Missouri, for example. And while adding to the raw data would be interesting, separating it geographically might also turn up some interesting variations in emphasis. Could we compare west coast reporting against east coast reporting, and what differences might be present? Of course, none of this precludes actually reading stuff! But it’s an interesting departure point that generates new and different questions. My less period-specific reading indicates that toxic fear exists and that it is galvanized by uncertainty and/or a lack of information. If that holds true under further and deeper scrutiny, what does that tell us about the 1980s if fear and anxiety increased? One knee-jerk reaction is to suggest that mass deregulation in the Reagan 1980s prompted less understanding and control over environmental problems. But Love Canal and Three Mile Island definitely fit into this story and they predate the Reagan administration. Perhaps this is a Superfund story—and the very idea of Superfund was enough to generate more toxic fear? Or, simply, the proliferation of crises prompted a distinct wave of environmental angst and fear.
Takeaway conclusions: we need to do more work that investigates environmental history in the 1980s. As I note evermore grey on my chin in the mornings, I’m reminded that the 1980s are receding in the rearview mirror, and it’s time we put that decade under the microscope. In American and global contexts, we know the basic story, but that narrative needs to be picked apart and complicated. Some good literature exists in environmental justice scholarship—and we should continue to expand on that—but we have little more to work with. The 1980s constitute a fascinating decade for environmental regulation agencies the world over. After the growth and (relative) successes of the 1970s, what happened in the 1980s? There’s also a distinct dearth of historical work on dioxin (Agent Orange and Vietnam notwithstanding).
I should emphasize that the above discussion of data visualization is (1) a teaching experiment, and (2) not a quantum shift in historical research. So far, I like the assignment and am drawn to the possibilities associated with coaxing first-year students into collaborative research and discovery (which can be tricky in a big survey course). But I don’t yet know what the results will be. Moreover, I do not mean to suggest that digital scholarship will transplant traditional archival research. But I do think visualization has helped me to shift my focus from a broader timeframe to a more concentrated examination of the 1980s—and to ask questions about how and why fear and anxiety proliferated during that decade.
Edit: On further analysis, I suspect the problem above is that “toxic” is the limiting term. A non-discriminatory search for “fear” in The New York Times finds only a modest increase in the word’s frequency:
Compare with “toxic”:
Could “toxic” be the problem? According to the ngram (which doesn’t relate to the NYT searches in any tangible way), “toxic” increased steadily through the 1970s:
Removing “toxic” from the search parameters raises some interesting perspectives, though. Searching for “pollution” AND “fear” changes the frequency of newspaper articles quite markedly.
But try again with “fear” AND “chemical,” and the trend indicates growth into the 1980s:
Does this make us less scared of pollution and more frightened by toxic chemicals? Or is this simply a shift in language? Or do our responses to environmental problems concentrate more specifically around toxic chemicals by the 1980s? And does this constitute some kind of evolution worth exploring in greater depth?
Because I’m not currently going in nearly enough directions, I thought I would share this kernel of an idea that I hope to develop in the coming months. On a whim, I submitted a proposal for the “Framing Nature: Signs, Stories, and Ecologies of Meaning” semiotics conference in Tartu, Estonia. On some impish level, I rather liked the idea of attending a semiotics conference in Estonia, but it was a terrific event full of interesting paper. And I met some wonderful people. The call for papers came out while I was working on a broader grant proposal surrounding the toxic century (more on which soon), which I see as being a useful organizing theme for much of my mercury work and other research interests on the history of chemical hazards since World War II. Coming out of that grant proposal, I had found my curiosity piqued by the assertion in some sociological circles that toxic chemicals provoked new kinds of fear. It’s an interesting proposition, and I flirted with it in the grant proposal, but was reluctant to take the idea too far. Along came the call for papers, and maybe this was my chance to play with some of the ideas that had captured my imagination. Here’s the proposal I submitted to the conference (the paper’s title serves as the title of this post):
We live in a toxic century. While we cannot see it, each of us is a walking, breathing artifact of humanity’s toxic trespasses into nature. Sociological findings suggest that persistent organic pollutants scare human beings in new and special ways. This has more to do with what we do not know about their danger than what we do know, and those unknowns strike at the epicentre of how fear is individually and culturally manifested. The method through which persistent organic pollutants assault human and environmental health, the manner in which they proliferated after World War II, and the unanticipated consequences of their spread are key characteristics of this new landscape of fear. Persistent organic pollutants contaminate rather than merely damage; their pollution penetrates human tissue indirectly rather than attacking the surface in a more straightforward manner; and the threat from exposure is not acute, but rather slow, chronic, and enduring. That we lack a full understanding of the hazards they pose and have little control over environmental mobility distinguishes chemical toxins in the litany of environmental hazards. As a result, a rising culture of fear associated with new toxins is an explicit and unmistakable feature of the post-World War II world.
I mean to investigate fear’s environmental narrative and how it has unfolded during the toxic century. A growing fear of chemicals over the past seventy years is a distinct cultural phenomenon, and it warrants some careful historical analysis. My paper proposes to develop an environmental history of fear, using the global proliferation of persistent organic pollutants as its vehicle. I am especially interested in charting change and continuity in chemical fear as an abstract notion—over time and across geographic space—drawing on cultural responses to chemical threats in Canada, Japan, Sweden, and the United States. I argue that chemical hazards combine with scientific uncertainty, industrial obfuscation, regulatory inaction, and ineffective public communication to formulate an algorithm for social malaise centred on environmental fear.
The good news/bad news upshot was that my paper was accepted. Good news, because it afforded me the opportunity to explore the history of toxic fear a little further. Bad news, because I was embarking on another project before wrapping up an earlier one. It turns out the session was filmed, and you can see my paper in truncated form (I managed to eke out ~5000 words in preparation for the conference):
I’d love to say the paper was well-received. Maybe it was. The Twittersphere got this far:
I did get some very good feedback after the session and a number of good ideas I ought to pursue. But the presentation and the conference served its purpose in providing me a chance to test-drive a rough draft.
So: toxic fear. In a future post, I’ll expand on its historiography. Or, rather, how drawing from other aspects of the history of psychology and emotions and fear, we might start to draw up a framework for thinking about the history of toxic fear. Just before leaving for Estonia, I was taking the train between Hamilton and Toronto. In the hour it took to get to Toronto, I had mapped out a series of questions and what form a book project on toxic fear might take (note to self: try to find the essay on the back of which I did that scribbling). But the moral of the story is you never know how or when a new project idea—however good, poor, or foolish—might jump out at you. Or how quickly its scope will come together into a viable outline…