Chemicals as Foreign Objects. Are Chemicals Unnatural?

Chemicals have a negative reputation in the environmental discourse, sometimes they are even considered unnatural. But what does that mean, and how does it influence the way we perceive chemicals in our everyday lives?

Several studies show that the general public perceives chemicals (e.g., pesticides, preservatives, etc.) as unnatural. Whereas this attribution is unsubstantial from a scientific point of view, the concept of unnatural chemicals plays a major role in environmental discourses. This can lead to communication problems in societal discussions about the risk assessment of specific chemicals in the environment, in agriculture, or in food.

The Ph.D. project looks at the origins, legitimations, and implications of the concept of chemicals being unnatural. Prevalent narratives in which this unnaturalness is expressed are investigated, especially the themes of chemicals as toxic (German: Chemie als Gift) and as foreign objects (Chemie als Fremdkörper). As to the first point, the project deals with the cultural representation of toxicity in literature and film and asks about the political implications of these depictions. As to the latter, the project revolves around literary texts which describe chemicals on a semantic level as intruders into otherwise harmonious systems (like, e.g., our body, our food, or nature). Narratives of chemicals as foreign objects are compared to intrusion concepts in psychoanalytic literary theory.

The overall aim of the Ph.D. project is to develop an interdisciplinary theory on the unnaturalness of chemicals that is neither patronising nor uncritical but instead productive for scientific and activist discourses, leading to more successful societal discussions about the role of chemicals in the environment. It is hoped that the project also bears relevance for related discourses about unnaturalness, for example, regarding genetic engineering.

Christian Schnurr is a Ph.D. student at the Wissenschaftszentrum Umwelt, Augsburg University. Contact: