Daniel Renfrew’s Life Without Lead: Contamination, Crisis, and Hope in Uruguay (2018) is a masterful undertaking on the anthropology of disaster and its everydayness. An ethnographic portrayal that is prismatic in its attention, the book combines numerous elements––place, civic performance, history, political economy––to bear on the lead poisoning epidemic in Montevideo, Uruguay at the turn of the 21st century. The epidemic disproportionally affected certain populations in Montevideo; namely, its socioeconomically poor neighborhoods, such as La Teja. By illustrating how place-based grassroots organization turn a hidden epidemic into the undeniably disastrous Life Without Lead captures the “interplay between the ordinary and the catastrophic, the normal and the critical (Das 2015: 26). For me the book raises a number of questions: How might we gain purchase on such interplays in context? How exactly do ordinary happenings turn into an event? At what point does an instant, an incident, morph into the crystallization of ensuing crisis? Focusing on community organization in el barrio of La Teja in Montevideo, Renfrew demonstrates the kind of assemblage-work that brings structurally produced myopias into full view.
Early on, we learn about Joaquín, an afflicted six-year-old who is now “the shadow of the formerly vibrant and playful kid from La Teja.” (1). After numerous hospital visits and screenings, Joaquín becomes the singular case, the “incident” that opens up inquiries into the conditions of the community, and, in turn, into lead poisoning as an event. Lead poisoning is mysterious—a slow violence that, like other chronic illnesses becomes an affliction of time. To make matters worse, the causes and pathways of lead poisoning are “multiple and cumulative” (3); an epistemological murk hovers over the scaffolding of stable facts while time goes to work. Meanwhile, the state and public health officials downplayed the critical nature of the lead poisoning crisis, by manipulating standards of toxicity as well as apportioning blame through culturalist tropes of lack of hygiene among the ‘urban poor.’ At the hands of the state, science then became mastery-through-trickery and as a result, community-based experts challenged public health official’s denials of the crisis through their own assertions of counter-expertise.
The body’s own opacity and its deferred symptoms often complicate how stakes on the disaster can be claimed (Fortun 2009; Petryna 2013), as “we may be sick without knowing why, or in what way or how seriously. We may be sick, even, without a sense of sickness.” (Kuriyama 2002: 17). Then, suddenly, symptoms are made legible—cognitive and learning disabilities in the barrio’s children are foregrounded as symptomatic of latent epidemics slowly turning in the soil, air, and water. Environmental violence, or crisis more broadly, works at the interplay between “the thick intensity of emergency and the deceptively natural flow of the everyday” (Meyers 2016: 357). It is then precisely this deceptive nature of time, of pathological life, that turns the disaster into “slow death” for La Teja’s inhabitants (Berlant 2011: 95).
Yet, even as the disaster shakes up the temporal and social order, it can also paradoxically grant possibilities for world-making, for crafting features of the self, the social, and the political/personal nexus anew (Lovell 2013). Life Without Lead contributes enormously to our understanding of the generative features of the disaster, what Renfrew speaks to as the “enabling” domains of la crisis (11). Environmental justice in Montevideo became the platform that sparked an array of demands on the conditions of life more broadly, and the impossibilities to sustain it for many. The disaster re-awakened and mobilized cultivated skills lying dormant from the dictatorship era (1973-1985), and provided the momentum and the vitality for charting out new horizons of political possibility.
This book forum welcomes four scholars that focus on environmental violence, lead poisoning, or Uruguay to think with Life Without Lead and its many offerings.
Bringing Social Science to Life
University of Houston
We All Have a Little Bit of Lead
Elizabeth F.S. Roberts
University of Michigan
Contamination, Crisis, and Hope in Uruguay
University of Texas-Austin
Sleeping Environmental Problems and Academic Work: The Space Between Knowledge Production and Activism
Universidad de la República, Uruguay
Response to comments on Life without Lead
West Virginia University
Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Das, Veena. 2015. Affliction: Health, Disease, Poverty. Fordham, NY: Fordham University Press.
Fortun, Kim. 2009. Advocacy after Bhopal: Environmentalism, Disaster, New Global Orders. Chicago, IL,: University of Chicago Press.
Kuriyama, Shigehisa. 2002. The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine. New York: Zone Books.
Lovell, Anne. 2013. “Tending to the Unseen in Extraordinary Circumstances: On Arendt’s
Natality and Severe Mental Illness after Hurricane Katrina.” Iride 26: 70. 563–78.
Meyers, Todd. 2016. “The Poisonous Ingenuity of Time.” South Atlantic Quarterly 115:2. 351-365.
Petryna, Adriana. 2013. Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after Chernobyl. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Andrés Romero is a PhD candidate at Wayne State University and a pre-doctoral fellow at the Center for Society, Health, and Medicine at NYU Shanghai. His dissertation “La Olla y Los Patios: An Ethnography of Place, Selfhood, Violence, and Rehabilitation in Bogotá” explores the city’s open-air drug markets and the state’s rehabilitation projects for people living on the streets. He is the section editor for the Society for Cultural Anthropology’s Visual and New Media Review.