Atmoterrorism and Atmodesign in the 21st Century: Mediating Flint's Water Crisis

By Dettloff, Dean; Bernico, Matt | Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, January 2017 | Go to article overview

Atmoterrorism and Atmodesign in the 21st Century: Mediating Flint's Water Crisis


Dettloff, Dean, Bernico, Matt, Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy


The 20th century will be remembered as the period whose decisive idea consisted in targeting not the body of the enemy, but his environment.

Peter Sloterdijk (1)

According to Peter Sloterdijk, the 20th century begins on April 22nd, 1915, in Ypres, France. It was at Ypres where the soldiers of the German western front unleashed a number of canisters containing chlorine gas on their French Canadian enemies and ushered in a new type of warfare that was aimed not for the enemy soldiers but the atmosphere proximal to their bodies. Far from remaining a localized event in the history of military technologies, the use of gas warfare at Ypres provoked a whole series of changes in human self-understanding and cultural development, identified by Sloterdijk under three general headings. "Whoever wants to understand the originality of this age" writes Sloterdijk, "will have to take into account: the praxis of terrorism, the conception of product design, and concepts of the environment." (2) By contrast, the 21st century begins, not in Ypres, but in Flint, Michigan, where over the course of a year citizens were subjected to public water with unsafe lead levels, even after bringing its toxicity to the attention of civic officials. The drinking water crisis is still ongoing at the time of this writing.

Flint is not the beginning of a great war, but a revelation of the complete failure of post-industrial design politics. In 2015-2016, exactly a century after Ypres, we continue to inherit the "originality" of the 20th century. While Sloterdijk and his various interlocutors focus their analyses on air, atmosphere and their interiorization, this project would like to make a brief intervention and include water as a particularly important and timely site of, what Sloterdijk calls, "atmoterrorism," which has consequences for how humans understand ourselves.

To that end, this project brings the theoretical frameworks of atmospheric and design thinking to bear on the current crisis of lead poisoning in US cities, specifically that of Flint. (3) The poisoned water in Flint, like the air in Ypres, is an explication of an implicit condition of human existence. In other words, there are events, in Ypres, Flint, and elsewhere, that make the often unquestioned givens of human life visible for inquiry. Explication is the process through which something becomes less discreet and available for human reflection. In following this line of inquiry concerning explication, this project looks to build a clearer hermeneutic of accidents and catastrophe, along with a political response to the explication radiating from Flint in particular.

Historically, chlorine gas has a far richer and deeper history than the First World War, just as environmental pollution affecting marginalized people goes well beyond the limits of Flint. However, the connection between these narratives serves a rather important purpose. Deriving and connecting the narratives of atmoterrorism from Ypres to Flint are important critical and strategic moves; while global war characterized the previous century, the expansion of public infrastructure in conflict with private interests characterizes the horizon of the present century.

Ypres isn't the only starting place for the 20th century, and neither is Flint the only starting place for the 21st, yet there are good reasons to start there anyway. The environmental violence, what this paper will later deem "infrastructural racism," of Flint is obviously not the only, first, or most important instance of such violence. For example, India has the greatest number of people living without access to clean, safe drinking water, (4) First Nations communities in Canada continue to suffer from issues with water quality, including the presence of lead, (5) etc. Nevertheless, even in light these other events and lasting conditions, the events in Flint are pivotal for an understanding of atmoterrorism and environmental politics. …

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