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Cultures of Toxicity

Cultures of Toxicity: A One-Day Symposium

Friday 8th November 2019
University of Warwick
Keynote Speaker: Professor Frank Furedi, 10am-11am
Speakers: Dr Katie Beswick, Dr Anastasia Chamberlen, Dr Tom Cornford, Dr Stephanie Lambert, Dr Louise Morgan, Dr Kirsty Sedgman, Dr Regina Schober, Dr Leah Sidi, Dr Alex Watson, Dr Anne Whitehead, Dr Thomas Widger, Dr Ruby De Vos.


In Todd Haynes’ 1995 film Safe, Carol (Julianne Moore) is plagued by ‘multiple chemical sensitivities’. The character experiences her environment as a series of toxic threats that cause accumulating and varied physical and psychical consequences. The film concludes with Carol holed up, alone, in an antiseptic pod in a therapeutic community in the desert. She will be safe here, as long as she remains insulated against the ever-increasing threats of the contemporary world. Thus, it is only through a radically diminished life of social and cultural isolation that Carol can survive and be ‘well’. Safe, then, raises a series of questions about the nature and value of toxicity, vulnerability, safety, and resilience that have become culturally central in the twenty-first century.

This conference aims to explore the concept of toxicity in relation to a number of contemporary political concerns including culture, health, economics, gender, and ecology. We are concerned to examine how cultural practices (from theatre to graphic fiction) and critical methodologies, for example in performance studies, are contributing to, and intervening in, contemporary anxieties about safety, risk and toxicity.

This conference brings together a number of distinct but interlocking ideas. There is a striking contemporary habit to identify phenomena as toxic – from masculinity to assets, from cultures to environments. In this way, ‘toxic’ no longer simply refers to specific physical substances but rather to practices, attitudes, structures and more. Such practices serve to constitute people as multiply helpless, liable to plural risks and dangers. Discourses in health and wellbeing movements, for example, frequently reinforce images of people as vulnerable and promote forms of individualised self-governance and vigilance that obscure real social and political processes. Related, in the global north, we are living through a period of renewed debates about freedom of speech, trigger warnings, and safe spaces on campuses and beyond, all of which tacitly frame art and ideas as potential threats. In this regard, contemporary individuality involves becoming a watchful and resilient guard of one’s sovereign bodily security against infinite and immaterial dangers. Toxicity is, then, both concrete and atmospheric.

What is at stake in such images, narratives, and metaphors of toxicity? How far does describing something like masculinity as ‘toxic’ efface questions of ethics, power, patriarchy and reinscribe womanhood (and other marginalised categories of identity) as inevitably vulnerable? To what degree does toxicity reproduce attitudes to identity and history that are both individualising and fatalistic? In what ways does the notion of ‘safety’ operate as a means to neutralise political complaint or resistance? Or might the language of toxicity be politically generative, insisting on the real-world effects of patterns of behaviour, structures of economic speculation and disparate practices of environmental depletion? Does toxicity expose faultlines in cultural norms, understandings, and values? Put simply, what does toxicity mean and what does it do? How is toxicity produced, sustained, and distributed? The conference thus seeks to examine what lies beneath labels of toxicity and interrogate the complex politics of threat, vulnerability, safety, and resistance.

  CfP Cultures of Toxicity


Where: Studio G55, Milburn House, University of Warwick

When: Friday 8th November 2019, 9.30am to 6pm (followed by wine reception)


  • 9:30 Tea/Registration
  • 10-11 Professor Frank Furedi - Keynote
  • 11:15 Panel 1: Toxic Structures: Dr T Cornford, Dr A Chamberlen, Dr R Schober
  • 12:30 Lunch
  • 13:30 Panel 2: Toxic Wellness: Dr S Lambert, Dr L Sidi, Dr L Morgan
  • 14:50 Break
  • 15:00 Panel 3: Toxic Images: Dr A Watson, Dr K Sedgman, Dr K Beswick
  • 16:20 Tea
  • 16:40 Panel 4: Toxic Environments: Dr T Widger, Dr R DeVos, Dr A Whitehead
  • 18:00 Wine
  • 18:45 Close