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'Insidious Pollen': Literature and Industrial Toxicity, 1935-Present



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Newton, Robert 


This dissertation tracks the entwined cultural and environmental histories of ‘legacy contaminants – enduring poisons from the past’. It focuses chiefly on literary texts about industrial toxicity written in Britain, or in response to British imperial projects, from 1935-present. Critically, it situates itself within the field of what I call ‘environmental justice scholarship’, and in Anthropocene studies. In 2011, Rob Nixon influentially coined the term ‘slow violence’ to describe ‘a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all’. Nixon’s term has since helped to shape an interdisciplinary discourse that enquires into toxic legacies, and the political systems that regulate their distribution. Often working in the social sciences, environmental justice scholars measure toxic pollution through an array of quantitative and qualitative methods. Literature too, I argue, can operate as a sensing technology for toxicity – but while environmental justice documents tend to serve defined political aims, many of the literary texts I discuss here are less direct in their intentions. They are preoccupied with how adequately to describe unsettling sensory experiences: tactile encounters with new synthetic materials, for example, or exposure to invisible toxicants. They also respond to difficult questions of systemic complicity and frustrated agency. While some of these texts overtly call their readers to political action, others voice how toxic legacies can leave people bewildered, frightened or jaded. As toxic materials have proliferated, writers have represented new kinds of political, affective and imaginative experience.

The first half of the dissertation concerns 1930s and 1960s British literary texts about synthetic technology and its associated industrial systems. In chapters One and Two, I discuss how 1930s writers associated synthetic materials with distinctive moods, such as vertigo and paranoia. In chapters Three and Four, I trace how 1960s fears about agrichemical toxicity manifested in British science fiction and nonfiction. The second half of the dissertation turns to literature about British nuclear colonialism. Chapters Five and Six draw together hitherto-unconnected literary texts that give careful representation to the aftermaths of the United Kingdom’s nuclear weapons programme in South Australia and East Anglia, respectively. I conclude with a chapter on the legacy of Rachel Carson’s influential 1962 book Silent Spring, and contemporary American literary work on slow violence and cancer.





Macfarlane, Robert


Environmental Humanities, Toxicity, Nonfiction, Science Fiction, Activist Writing, Anthropocene, Slow Violence, Environmental Justice, British Empire, Synthetics, Agrichemicals, Nuclear Colonialism


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Emmanuel College; Derek Brewer Research Studentship; Emmanuel College Late 80s Fund