My friend Dr. Muñoz makes his own bleach. He uses salt, water, and electrodes to render sodium hypochlorite. To do this, he has colonized a small space in a garage-cum-storage unit nestled on the grounds of the Managua health center where he works. His bleach-making is ad-hoc and off the books. Dr. Muñoz doesn’t get extra money or time from his employers at the Nicaraguan Ministry of Health to perform this chemical labor. Still, several weekends a year, he and his assistants load a bucket of homemade disinfectant into the health center’s ambulance and ply the surrounding barrios, handing it out by the plastic bagful. Skillful gift-givers, they carefully calibrate the dilution and hence the intensity of their relationships to people and place. As a medical, aesthetic, and domestic tool, bleach demands care: too much can be dangerous, too little can be ineffective. It always risks overpowering or underperforming.
Bleach is alive, in places. | Barrio residents don’t need a doctor to tell them that cloro mata a microbios (“bleach kills germs”). But bleach goes two ways. By killing them for us, bleach also acts as a reminder that they live. This lethal/lively technology draws Muñoz and the neighbors of the barrio into a particular kind of social relation. The distribution and deployment of bleach instantiates what Heather Paxson calls a “microbiopolitics,” yet where does the chemical sit in relation to bios?[i] One answer is that the chemical underscores the non-representational and material aspects of life, both embodied and emplaced.
Bleach is certainly “vibrant matter,” as Jane Bennett might put it, but talk of “life” or its politics oversimplifies the situation.[ii] In its vitality, bleach undermines simple life/death, purity/danger binaries. (Though I like to imagine Mary Douglas delighting in the sight and smell of a sparkling commode.) Bleach doesn’t simply put things in and out of place. It makes place. It is fundamentally “basic” in the chemical and sociological sense, but bleach’s tactility and its symbolic name, NaClO, are the story of a relationship.
Chemistry’s position in human affairs is quite apart from that of plants, animals, and dirt. The periodic table is our way of ordering radical elements. In chemistry, purity (too much oxygen, too much chlorine) very often is danger. The elements we work with, fill our cavities with, or clean our houses and bodies with are always already related, compounded, multiplied. In chemistry, we don’t think with elements so much as we free them to act with one another and with us. So chemistry is key to bios as a catalyzing force, as a substrate, and as a medium. If bios is relational, then chemistry calls attention to how the body’s “materiality plays an active role in the workings of power.”[iii]
Bleach is a verb. | There is craft in Muñoz’s closet-chemistry, to be sure. But the craft doesn’t stop there. In Managua’s Mercado Oriental, the stalls that sell household disinfectants stun you with a wash of color and aroma. At the market, the sights and smells of life—the greens of grass and leaves, the purples of ocean water (and, yes, many molds), the reds of blood, the yellows of flowers, and a crystal clear clearer than water itself, blend with the “natural” scents of lemon, pine, and fruit. Bleaches, ammonias, peroxides—those veils of protection against microbial enemies—are themselves veiled in an artifactual, aesthetic lifeish-ness. Bleaching is aromas amalgamating. Most good parents in Nicaragua wash the skins of their children’s fruits and vegetables in a light bleach solution.
Bleach is economy. | Down the road from Dr. Muñoz’s lab, Gertrudis cleans houses for a living. She thinks through the presence and absence of dirt with her nose, her eyes, and her hands. She calibrates the mix of water and cloro appropriate for scrubbing a tile floor to that which is appropriate for whitening socks and tee shirts. Bleaching is about working the budget, and about being patient. Shades of white matter. Not all cloros are created equal. If you’ve got the money, Clorox is better than the kind they ladle into plastic bags. Bleach is artifice all the way down, from the electrolysis of salt and water, to application on floors and dishes to kill microbios, to dyeing school uniforms (stained whites are grounds for punishment).
Bleach is connection. | Doña Feliciana is in charge of confirming the presence of cloro in her local water supply. She sets out four times a year with litmus strips and a color scale to ensure that chlorine, released at pumping stations through old metal cylinders, has penetrated the far-reaches of the infrastructure and made the groundwater into agua potable. Feliciana dribbles water from faucets and hoses onto her strips and, squinting in the sunlight, holds them up to the color scale.
“Is this pink, or red?” she asks the ambulance driver who is chauffeuring us from test-site to test-site.
“For me, that’s red,” he says. Cloro is present, but not in the right way. We know there’s some in those pipes. In accounting for it, aesthetics come before numbers. What matters is the relationship between the strips and the water, rendered in pH, or “potential hydrogen.” Yet that relationship can only be enumerated after it is rendered on a sensory scale. Potential hydrogen thus comes to Doña Feliciana through diffraction: not a direct representation of difference, but a representation of the effects of difference.[iv]
The binary, digital truth of experiments and assays is everywhere underwritten by the analog craftwork of bleaching. As a form of connection, bleaching is worlding. This means that in our quest for sterility, we’re constantly looking for signals from microbes. Care, as Frédéric Keck notes, is the result of interactions across biosecurity’s boundaries.[v] The border between pink and red is the terrain of care. But wait a minute! Bleach creates boundaries, borders! Bleach is a biosecurity intervention! But what else—aside from blood and microbios themselves—connects the U.S. CDC to Nicaragua’s national disease diagnostic laboratory to the houses where Gertrudis calibrates smells and sights to the sink where she and her daughters soak school shirts and stockings?
Bleach is a gift. | Dr. Muñoz hands out little bags of his homemade cloro in exchange for cooperation: a blood sample for routine malaria testing, a dengue mosquito larval assay, or cooperation with a vaccination campaign. Bleach is effective as a gift because it has volition. Is its vibrancy, then, a material, chemical, contemporary “spirit”? Bleach helps us sleep at night—it is white noise. It stabilizes, equalizes, sterilizes. It calms and reassures even as it marks, stains, and kills. Yet above all, bleach is relation. It provides the sense (and scent) that we care: about germs, about each other, about ourselves. Some people think that there can be too much of this kind of care. Does over-sterilization weaken the body’s natural allergic defenses, for example? Probably. All the more reason to craft a good method for bleaching.
Alex Nading is an anthropologist of health, science, and environment. He is a 2013-2014 Fernand Braudel Fellow at the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme in Paris, France and an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. His publications and ongoing projects examine participatory mosquito control programs for dengue fever prevention in low-income urban Nicaragua; the production and field-testing of genetically sterilized dengue mosquitoes and genetically engineered dengue vaccines; and the social production of the “human microbiome.” His book, Mosquito Trails: Ecology, Health, and the Politics of Entanglement, is forthcoming from the University of California Press.
[i] Heather Paxson. The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.
[ii] Jane Bennett. Vibrant Matter: Towards a Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.
[iii] Karen Barad. “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter.” Signs 28.3(2003): 801-831.
[v]Frédéric Keck. “Feeding sentinels. Logics of care and biosecurity in farms and labs.” Unpublished manuscript.
Image: “Bleaching Jakarta.” Flickr.