Review of “Toxic Discourse” (1998)


Lawrence Buell (writer).

Although the threat of toxification has long been felt, not only since the industrial revolution but since late antiquity, in recent years the felt urgency has become far more widespread. Love Canal, Three Mile Island, Bhopal, Chernobyl, the Exxon Valdez: this modern mantra lists both actual incidents and their subsequent history in the postindustrial imagination that have ensured that the environmental apocalypticism triggered by Hiroshima and Nagasaki would outlast the cold war. Even the world's privileged enclaves manifest symptoms of what social theorist Ulrich Beck has called “the risk society”: a condition of “immiseration” characterized by a “solidarity from anxiety” deriving from the inability—even with science’s assistance—to calculate the lethal consequences of everyday life.

I first read this essay and some other Buell researching my master’s thesis on Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1982) and related work in the mid-2000s. I have come back to it over the years, connecting it in my mind with a crucial development of the 20th century, of utopia and dystopia in nauseating oscillation:

Disenchantment from the illusion of the green oasis is accompanied or precipitated by totalizing images of a world without refuge from toxic penetration.

That is the world of The Jungle (1905), Silent Spring (1962), Nausicaä, etc. etc.

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