Mel Y. Chen

Intoxicated: Race, Disability, and Chemical Intimacy Across Empire

Duke University Press, 2023

190 pages


Reviewed by Minh Huynh Vu

Finite in form and function, the book review is too self-contained a genre to adequately capture a text as diffuse and dispersed as Intoxicated: Race, Disability, and Chemical Intimacy Across Empire. In it, Mel Chen not only theorizes toxicity as a racializing and disabling regime of empire but more vitally posits intoxication itself as a reflexive method of knowledge production. An “intoxicated method,” Chen augurs, is a “mode of (dis)engagement; it is a mode” of “(un)learning,” which unveils the spectacularized shrouds of racial capitalism “that make sensations or assertions of present-day colonialities feel forbidden.” In plainer terms, as Chen recalls when responding to a doubtful audience inquiry during an academic talk, they are “not trying to convince you of anything!” 

Before reviewing the inner “arguments” of Intoxicated, it is necessary to continue reorienting to Chen’s slantwise stakes as a transdisciplinary reader, writer, and teacher who is “letting go” of the “neatly tight grasp on a form of scholarship” that privileges “thorough aboutness” in its particular objects of study. A critical linguist by training who treads across queer theory, animal studies, crip studies, and (new) materialisms among other trans-ing realms of thought, Chen only makes clear that everything is unclear—that language is an “elusive mystery,” hence why they opt to write “obliquely” as “someone who couldn’t easily feel their way to the center of a word.” 

Thinking centrifugally from the “thorough aboutness” of an object and the “the center” of a word, Chen opts for a more atmospheric approach of analysis. There are two historical precedents for the text, which could be considered as the archival touchpoints to Chen’s theory of toxicity, though they are by no means comprehensive nor central as case studies. The first is the diagnosis of mongoloid idiocy (later eponymously renamed to the more commonly known Down Syndrome) in 1866 by London doctor John Langdon Down (Chapter One-ish). The second is the legal codification of the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act from 1897 in Queensland, Australia (Chapter Three-ish). Together, these nineteenth-century case studies are archivally and analytically generative in the ways that Chen traces how race and disability were not simply biologically or phenotypically observable in the respectively named populations of threat. Instead, race and disability exhibited potent fusions: notions transforming unto themselves while being differentially deployed across the various agents and activities of these empires. In London, proto-racializing discourse described Down’s intellectually disabled patients as “mongoloids,” who were majority white yet compared to, via proto-disability discourse, the “slow” Chinese smoking opium in nearby Chinatowns. In Queensland, similar concatenations of race and disability were likewise used to rationalize the state’s protection of Indigenous workers, deemed more biologically predisposed to addiction, from the ills of opium.

This transnational arrangement of Intoxicated, however, is a bit more amorphous than the delineated contours of a typical comparative historical analysis. Although opium appears as a drug that is economically and chemically vital to both scenes of toxicity (Chapter Two-ish)—transported by Chinese merchants, then ingested by both Native workers and Down’s white patients—Chen is less interested in empirically tracing a continuity of the commodity across these hemispheres. The toxicity of Intoxicated isn’t in the opium itself; it is not just a material per se but also a method of thinking that “rearranges matter,” creating more entangled epistemic configurations of race, disability, and sexuality. Rather than a diagnostic reading of toxicity, Chen follows “an affective approach to select scenes of chemicality” by registering forms of reading and writing that generate “active proximities and resonant alignments” rather than historical continuities and analogies.

Messing with the isotopic mutations of toxicity rather than mining its carbon copies, the analytical lifeworld of Intoxicated is therefore uncontrollably expansive, saturated with chemical intimacies both potent and unexpected—similar to Chen’s first book, Animacies. No chapters are fully contained case studies (hence the adverbial “ish” when mapping out Intoxicated’s chapters). Constellating around the two historical precedents are suggestive speculative connections to ostensibly disparate archives including: an American Idol audition, the US financial crisis of 2007, zombies, video games, and poop (Chapter Two); French philosophy on comicality, Chen’s grades in high school history, “What Could Go Wrong?” videos on Reddit, the January 6thstorming of the US capitol, and ash (Chapter Three); or Fiona Foley’s site-specific art installation Black Opium, the undergrowths of the university, smoking weed, getting migraines, and trans studies (Chapter Four). Rather than a more scaffolded trans-scalar approach of historical analysis, Intoxicated diffuses over time, marked by what Chen names as an ‘(in)toxic(ated) historical presentism’ that creates a permeative quality to Intoxicated. The unruliness of these seemingly absurd scenes of chemical intimacy allude to the “inherently experimental, anticipatory, and unknowing” potential of intoxication as a protean structure of feeling amidst “an otherwise confounding, violent, nonsensical world.”

In the end, contrary to the accumulative logics of academic capital defined to and through the university, Intoxicated does not rehearse any academic arguments (the classic academic rhetoric of “I argue” never appears). Instead, the text is merely an attempt at evoking the “so much going on” amidst the contemporary chemical intimacies of intoxication, race, and disability. It is an index of incomplete attempts at teasing out “how things take shape, and how they don’t,” and it is through toxicity that Chen tries to tentatively give language to these “inchoate sensibilities” of living. In this way, as rendered in Intoxicated, toxicity is not an empirical reality measurable through the expected archival and analytical domains of “medicine or science.” Rather, it is a metaphor and metonym of empire: a method of approximation, not adjudication, that attunes us to the vital possibilities of inhabitation, not interpretation, as an everyday practice of knowledge production. Chen therefore designs Intoxicated with “indeterminacy” rather than “linearity:” an assemblage of unordered lab notes where you can “read what you like” and “take in the proximities that you seek.” In this way, in Intoxicated there are no “definitions,” tools that “territorialize” and draw semiotic borders. What’s here are just “notions,” which have a “minor existence” as less formal and more incomplete thoughts—like noxious clouds that “come and go,” bubbling across the text’s ether before colliding and combining and combusting altogether into particles of intoxicating intimacies. 

And it is in this atmosphere of epistemological humility and pedagogical insurgency—amidst the ambiguities, ambivalences, and ambidexterities of (dis)engagement and (un)learning—where toxicity permeates and percolates as a “‘redistributive’ method” of trying to make the elsewhere that’s already-always here “feel livable, and to make it more livable still.” This book review of Intoxicated, then, has followed Chen’s lead by forfeiting comprehensive and conclusive analysis. It is instead one enclosed space, of hopefully many to come, that temporarily re/views just one partial arrangement of toxicity amongst its many mutations. Each reader is both an intoxicated and intoxicating companion, whose impressions of the text are unto it, contributing to the “untranslatable, inexpropriable” properties—the ishness—of chemical intimacy and its multiply trans-ing lifeworlds.