An Affective Podcast: Queerness, Toxicity, and Futurity in S-Town
S-Town, short for shit-town, is a seven-part podcast hosted by Brian Reed and produced by the makers of This American Life and Serial. The podcast follows Reed’s interviews with a middle-aged man named John B. McLemore and other residents of Woodstock, Alabama. S-Town’s plot is a complex web of subplots featuring everything from a murder mystery to a treasure hunt. However, the ultimate subject of S-Town is the life and death of McLemore. S-Town was published without the consent of McLemore due to his suicide during the recording process. This has produced an ethical dilemma for many listeners (Romano). The podcast discloses personal details about McLemore’s life, one of which is McLemore’s identification as a queer man. The ethical dilemma posed by S-Town is important, but it is also worth exploring the podcast’s productivity. Rather than simply discussing whether S-Town is “good” or “bad,” one should consider what the podcast does. S-Town prompts listeners to consider its deployment and interweaving of concepts such as queerness, toxicity, and futurity. This is especially true for S-Town’s last episode, “You’re beginning to figure it out now, aren’t you?” which prompts listeners to consider concepts such as the materiality of bodies and temporality. S-Town demonstrates a new paradigm of queer futurity through its toxic disruption of humanist subjectivity and reproductive futurism.
The opening of chapter seven finds Reed surrounded by clocks and sundials restored by McLemore, who was a skilled horologist and clock restorer. Reed interviewers a timepiece collector who worked closely with McLemore, and the collector describes an intimate connection with temporality that he expresses through collecting clocks as sundials. The collector reveals this intimacy as he states, “The measure of time had something to do with me.” McLemore shared the collector’s love of timepieces, and spent much of his life restoring artistic clocks and sundials. One method McLemore used in his restorations was “fire-gilding,” which is the process of mixing mercury with gold, painting it onto a surface, and torching off the mercury. This is a dangerous process because of the mercury vapors that are released through torching. Historically, such fire-gilding has lead to premature death and illness due to mercury poisoning. Reed interviewed several experts on mercury poisoning, and most expressed confidence that McLemore likely suffered from mercury poisoning, and that this could have influenced his suicide. Of course, there is no way to establish direct causality between McLemore’s fire-gilding and his suicide. However, as materialist theorists such as Jane Bennett argue, conceptualizations of causality should shift from “efficient causality” to “emergent causality,” which is distributive rather than direct (Bennett 33). Bennett’s emergent causality accounts for the heterogeneity of actants affecting any given event or process. In the case of McLemore’s suicide, mercury was one actant among many. McLemore was an assemblage constituted of vibrant matter. One such material was mercury, which was an actant that likely contributed to McLemore’s death.
In addition to foregrounding Bennett’s notions of vibrant matter and emergent causality, McLemore’s mercurial poisoning also prompts listeners to consider the concept of toxicity. Mel Chen explores the affinities between toxicity and queerness in her book Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect. Mercurial poisoning is a privileged example of toxicity, and Chen interrogates its centrality to the concept of toxicity in the sixth chapter of her book titled, “Following Mercurial Affect.” A Spinozist definition of affect is any given body’s capacity for activity and responsiveness (Bennett xii). Chen posits that toxicity disrupts the notion of a unitary subject. Regarding toxicity’s effect on bodies she writes, “Indeed, [toxicity] is one way for us to challenge the conceptual integrity of our notions of ‘the body’” (194). Such a disruption opens up the possibility for understanding the body as an heterogenous assemblage of materials, rather than a homogenous and unitary whole. Toxicity troubles the Kantian distinction between subject and object through showing the agency of objects such as mercury. Chen explains the privileging of mercury as she writes, “The word mercurial means what it means—unstable and wildly unpredictable—because the mercury toxin has altered a self, has directly transformed an affective matrix: affect goes faster, affect goes hostile, goes toxic” (201). The toxicity of mercury destabilizes bodies. Subjectness and objectness become contingent categories, rather than neat demarcating lines (Chen 190). Therefore, toxicity undermines the category of “human,” which is predicated on a clear differentiation between subject and object. Toxicity thus shares an affinity with queerness, since queerness deviates from hegemonic notions of the ideal human subject, and because queerness is seen a toxic threat to the body politic (Chen 207). Mercury poisoning and queerness are therefore concomitant features of McLemore’s body. It is impossible to know how mercury affected McLemore, even though Reed argues that it likely made McLemore more depressed, irritable, and ill. Mercurial affect in S-Town fits neatly within a Spinozist conceptualization of affect, because just as Spinoza says we do not yet know what a body can do, there is no way to know how mercury affected McLemore’s capacity for activity and responsiveness.
Just as there is no way to know how mercury poisoning affected McLemore’s body, there is also no way to know the full extent to which it affected McLemore’s relationships with other people. Reed’s interviews in the last chapter of S-Town suggest that McLemore’s exposure to mercury made him more negative and irritable, which reconstituted his interpersonal relationships. However, given that a forceful actant in this reconstitution was mercury, one could more accurately say that mercury reconstituted McLemore’s interobjective relationships. The threat of toxicity and intoxication challenges the unity of a body, and therefore undermines the divide between subject and object that is at the center of humanism by replacing intersubjectivity with interobjectivity. Chen argues for the importance of interobjectivity:
We might indeed let go of an attachment to the idea that social states or capacities are possessed by one animate entity and think rather in terms of transobjectivity. Transobjectivity releases objectivity from at least some of its epistemological strictures and allows us to think in terms of multiple objects interspersed and in exchange. Stacy Alaimo’s term transcorporeality suggests we think beyond the terms of the bodily unit and affirm the agencies of the matter that we live among. (204)
While affect refers to the capacity of body, such capacity is not limited to the domain of human subjects. The relationships between McLemore, mercury, and external objects is better understood through an interobjective framework, rather than an intersubjective framework. Chen’s engagement with Stacy Alaimo provides yet another materialist insight for S-Town listeners. Alaimo’s notion of trans-corporeality foregrounds a materialist notion of exposure, as she explains:
Many of the chapters that follow critique transcendence and the splitting of the subject and the object, countering this stance with alternative formulations of new materialist exposure. My conception of trans-corporeality was no doubt influenced by Haraway’s feminist epistemology, as trans-corporeality originates with a recognition of the self as solidly located and dies the splitting of subject and object: the subject, the knower, is never separate from the world that she seeks to know. (7)
New materialists such as Alaimo argue for replacing the transcendental categories of human and nonhuman with networks of objects that are situated within a Spinozist ontology of immanence. Alaimo’s trans-corporeality is therefore compatible with Chen’s vision of interobjectivity, but it also provides its own insights through Alaimo’s conceptualization of exposure. Alaimo outlines how exposure undermines the human subject as she argues, “Exposures may be differential, uneven, or incommensurate; yet to practice exposure entails the intuitive sense or the philosophical conviction that the impermeable Western human subject is no longer tenable” (5). Exposure undermines the “impermeable” human subject because an exposed body is necessarily permeated with nonhuman objects. Alaimo expands on this argument as she writes, “The exposed subject is always already penetrated by substances and forces that can never be properly accounted for—ethics and politics must proceed from there” (5). McLemore is not only permeated by mercury, but also a host of other substances such as bacteria, soil, and the ink that is stitched into his skin through the hundreds of tattoos he received in the last years of his life. If exposure is a performance, McLemore was a professional performer. McLemore’s positionality in S-Town demonstrates a paradigm shift that moves ethics and politics beyond the idea of a transcendental subject, and toward the idea of a body immanently situated among other material objects.
Just as McLemore undermines human subjectivity through toxicity, this toxicity also prompts listeners to develop new notions of futurity that are not based in anti-queerness. Chen argues that toxicity’s disruption of the divide between subject and object necessarily troubles the divide between life and nonlife (218). Toxicity therefore has the potential to disrupt all power relations that stem from life’s power over nonlife, which is what the theorist Elizabeth Povinelli calls “geontopower” (8-9). Toxicity’s affinity with queerness also foregrounds the problem of futurity, which is a hotly debated concept among scholars invested in queer theory. Chen highlights toxicity’s implication for futurity as she writes, “[Toxic affect] is a (re-)solution to the question of what to do with the ambivalence of queerness only to the extent that it does not represent a choice: it is already here, it is not a matter of queer political agency so much as a queered political state of the present” (220). Mercury began to affect McLemore from the moment he embedded himself in a toxic environment. Symptomatology is the methodology used by affect theorists to derive affects from symptoms. Through examining effects, or symptoms, one begins to understand the affects that produced such symptoms. In McLemore’s case, the toxic affect of mercurial poisoning is revealed through the symptoms he exhibited, even if efficient causality cannot be demonstrated. Mercurial poisoning queers temporality because it is embedded in the present and affects the future. There is no small amount of irony in the fact that McLemore queers futurity through the toxicity of restoring timepieces such as clocks and sundials. Although McLemore’s instantiation of queering futurity might be grim, the paradigm of queer futurity might offer hope for an un-cruelly optimistic future for queer bodies.
McLemore’s situation and attitude about the future was based in negativity, even if his attitude toward the present was optimistic. Regarding McLemore’s relationship to the future, Reed says, “John was actually quite good at appreciating the time he had. That wasn’t his problem. His problem was a proleptic one. He saw nothing but darkness in the future.” At first glance, McLemore aligns with Lee Edelman’s “fuck the future” sentiment of queer negativity. Edelman argues that the figure of the Child centers political debate in reproductive futurity, which is the mandate that the body politic must survive through the endless reproduction of humanity (2). In the framework of reproductive futurism, the future never arrives; it is endlessly deferred. Edelman argues that the figure of the Child is an abstract figure that should not be confused with any historical children (11). However, Chen sides with the theorist Alison Kafer and argues that queer futures can be optimistic insofar as they are not endlessly deferred, but are based in a future that will arrive (Chen 219). Queer bodies such as McLemore are not Edelman’s universalized figure of the Child, but are rather particular bodies embedded in the present, and will therefore certainly experience a future. While Kafer agrees with Edelman that an endlessly deferred future is an anti-queer temporality, she demands that queer theory reckon with the fact that the future cannot be recklessly abandoned in every instance. Kafer elucidates this argument, “abandoning futurity altogether is not a viable option for crips or crip theory […] it seems entirely possible that imagining different futures and temporalities might help us see, and do, the present differently” (28). Futurity can be queered by queering the present, but only if that future is not deferred. It must be intertwined with the reality of the present. While Edelman rails against the reproductive futurism of the Child, Kafer points out that queered children are cast out of the politics of reproductive futurism due to their pathology, contagiousness, illness, or perhaps their toxicity (Kafer 32). Queer futurity must therefore be an alternative temporality that is extrapolated from the present, which means refusing the notion of an always deferred future. It is tempting for listeners of S-Town to interpret McLemore’s relationship to queerness and toxicity as an affirmation of Edelman’s queer negativity. However, Chen and Kafer compellingly argue that queering temporality through toxicity may be the basis for an optimistic paradigm of queer futurity.
McLemore tattooed a sundial on his body along with a Latin phrase that translates as, “Each wounds, the last kills.” Reed explains McLemore’s supposed intention behind this tattoo by rephrasing the translation as, “Each minute wounds, the last kills.” Reed exclaims that time is both a gift and a punishment. S-Town is a complicated and controversial podcast, but it is worth analyzing because it raises crucial questions about subjectivity and temporality. The scholarship of theorists such as Bennett, Chen, and Kafer offers the tools necessary to frame S-Town as an example queer futurity. Perhaps Reed and the producers of S-Town unethically released details about McLemore’s life without his consent. One would have to provide justifications for a moral framework that condemns such an action to prove Reed’s moral culpability. However, listeners can still gleam insights from S-Town through analyzing how the podcast functions. Such analysis is fruitful for those interested in imagining queer futures.
Alaimo, Stacy. Exposed: Environmental Politics & Pleasures in Posthuman Times. Minnesota UP, 2016.
Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Duke UP, 2010.
Chen, Mel Y. Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect. Duke UP, 2012.
Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Duke UP, 2004.
Kafer, Alison. Feminist, Queer, Crip. Indiana UP, 2013.
Povinelli, Elizabeth A. Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism. Duke UP, 2016.
Romano, Aja. S-Town Is a Stunning Podcast. It Probably Shouldn't Have Been Made. Vox, 1 Apr. 2017, www.vox.com/culture/2017/3/30/15084224/s-town-review-controversial-podcast-privacy.
“S-Town Podcast.” S-Town Podcast, stownpodcast.org/.