A Whole Lot of Nothing or A Little Bit of Everything?

Have you ever turned on a lamp or some small light source in a dimly lit room before? If you haven’t, I suggest you try it and observe what happens. In most settings, or at least just about every time I have experienced this, the same results occur. The light reveals countless little particles floating around; particles that you had not known were there before, and probably would not have noticed had you not turned on that source of light. If you’re unsure about what I am talking about, check out the video below for an example of this phenomena with a ray of sunlight through a window.

I had always noticed this occurring when I turn on a lamp and when the sun shines into a room just right, and I was always fascinated with it. It was not until just the other day, however, that I really stopped and thought about it, and the impact of these floating bits that most people don’t even notice are surrounding them.

Now more than ever, it seems, people are becoming more and more conscious and cautious of what they are putting in their bodies. There is a proliferating amount of diet and weight loss programs becoming available, like Weight Watchers and Nutrisystem, for instance, and vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, and low-fat or low-carb lifestyles are becoming increasingly popular. People in general are really watching what they eat and what food is going into their bodies, trying to control that as much as they possibly can, so that only items that they consider healthy or acceptable are consumed. Even aside from just food, smoking and tobacco usage has decreased notably over the years. According to the graph shown below, the percentage of high school students and adults who smoke has seen an overall decrease from 1965 to 2014 (Trends in Current Cigarette Smoking Among High School Students and Adults, United States, 1965–2014). Better yet, a recent CNN article from November of 2015 revealed that smoking rates are continuing to decrease among adults (Goldschmidt). More knowledge about the health risks of smoking and the dangers it prevents to individuals is being spread. Also prominent in the decline of smoking, is the impact it has on those around the smoker through what is known as secondhand smoke. According to the American Cancer Society, secondhand smoke exists in two forms: mainstream smoke and sidestream smoke (Health Risks of Secondhand Smoke). Mainstream smoke is the smoke that is exhaled, and sidestream smoke is the more dangerous form that comes off of the lighted tobacco source (Health Risks of Secondhand Smoke). Both of these forms are harmful, causing dangerous chemicals and toxins to enter a person’s body, even if he or she has made the healthy decisions to not smoke him or herself. The inhalation of secondhand smoke can become just as harmful as actually smoking, which is why more light is being shed on the concept.

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If people are so concerned with secondhand smoke, though, then why are they not concerned or even thinking about other secondhand exposures they are facing? The idea of secondhand smoke and the sight of these floating unidentified particles in my lamp got me thinking about Stacy Alaimo’s concept of the ecological body and Nancy Tuana’s idea of viscous porosity.

Tuana and Alaimo’s ideas seem to go hand-in-hand with each other, and align perfectly with the topics of concern here. Tuana’s viscous porosity and interactionism rejects “separating the natural from the humanly constructed, the biological from the cultural, genes from their environments, the material from the semiotic” (Tuana, 189). She says in “Viscous Porosity: Witnessing Katrina,” that “bodies…are neither fixed nor inert, but fluid and emergent” (Tuana, 189). Her theory blurs the binaries and distinctions between “me” and “not me,” between body and environment. It emphasizes the fluxes of materials and ideas that flow both into and out of our bodies. Similarly, Alaimo depicts “the self as a material, trans-corporeal, and always emergent entity often demands the specialized knowledges of science” in her “Bodily Natures” (Alaimo, 87). She also defines the term “ecological body,” which she says is how the “body is characterized by its “permeability,” “a constant exchange between inside and outside, by fluxes and flows, and by its close dependence on the surrounding environment” (Alaimo, 90).

Based on these definitions and explanations on the composition, or lack thereof, of the human body, most everyone is part tobacco, as most people have been exposed to it in some way or another, whether it be one of the kinds of secondhand smoke, or from smoking firsthand. It also means, however, that people are also part of a multitude of other different things, including the dust, dirt, lint, hair, and other particles that float around the room and can only really be seen when the light catches them.

I think a lot of people have the idea that “Oh, it’s nothing, it’s just a little bit of dust. It won’t hurt anyone. It doesn’t really matter or make a difference.” In reality, however, these particles, no matter how small they are, or in however small portions they may be found in, can really add up. Just like secondhand smoke, what seems insignificant at first, the more you are exposed to it, the more impact it has on you. Now that’s not to say that any exposure to environmental particles and substances is negative exposure, but if we’re so keen on watching what we eat, and how much smoke we inhale, maybe we should pay more attention to what other inhabitants of our body our creeping in, flying under the radar. This way we can embrace our interconnectedness not only to other people who may expose us to these materials, but also to the materials themselves as they are a part of who we are. Turning on a lamp always makes me wonder what invisible substances are surrounding and entering into me without my knowledge every day, and everywhere I go. Whether you like it or not, you are likely becoming more material day-by-day and there is little you can do to stop it; but then again, why would you want to? It’s pretty fun to think that every day you are someone a little bit different than the day before…

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“Trends in Current Cigarette Smoking Among High School Students and Adults, United States, 1965–2014.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 30 Mar. 2016.

Goldschmidt, Debra. “Smoking rate continue to decline among U.S. adults.” CNN. Cable News Network, 19 Nov. 2015.

“Health Risks of Secondhand Smoke.” American Cancer Society. N.p., n.d.

Tuana, Nancy. “Viscous Porosity: Witnessing Katrina.” Academia.edu. N.p., n.d.

Alaimo, Stacy. Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self. Bloomington: Indiana U Press, 2010.


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