Where is chemistry in public life? The metaphorical imagining of economic processes as social physics has been widely noted (by Philip Mirowski especially), and you can scarcely open a newspaper nowadays without coming across some new biological research seeking to cast light on everything from crime to financial speculation to religious conflict. One reason why biology has such a stranglehold on us at the moment is that it operates as both metaphor and as ontological substance. Physics only provides metaphors to help us understand society; it would be strange to bring neutrons and electrons into a debate about alcoholism, for instance. Biology, on the other hand, can both frame the 'social contagion' of alcoholism, borrowing metaphorically from eco-systemic theory, and report on the genes that make us liable to become alcoholics.
Where is chemistry though? Reading these disturbing pieces in the NYRB on the 'mental illness epidemic', and the pharmaceutical companies' part in propagating it, I wondered how it is that there is so much public and political fascination with neuroscience, energy, complexity, astronomy, genomics and evolution, and so little with chemicals.
This is partly explicable in terms of the thirst for novelty and mystery. The frontiers of biology and physics appear, to the layperson at least, to push into virgin territories, where the deepest secrets of our existence and purpose might lie. The Weberian mantra that modernity brings about the 'disenchantment of the world' seems questionable where the public understanding of science is concerned - what draws the layperson to biology and physics is precisely their mystery and exotica. A gene is all the more compelling as an explanation, precisely because few of us really has a clue what it is, less so how it works. It provides meaning where more familiar forms of knowledge fail to.
Chemistry suffers from a lack of exoticism in this regard. It seems (to the layperson) to sit sandwiched between physics and biology, lacking any borders with the dark and frightening substrates of existence. Of these three domains of science, chemistry was the first to be industrialised and militarised, during the late 19th century. We are bored of it.
Could it not at least provide the metaphors for our understanding of selves and society? I suspect that chemistry fails as a metaphor precisely because it leaves too much responsibility in human hands. The appeal of biology is that it shifts agency away from politics and culture, and places it in the hands of mysterious vital forces, that are alive but not self-conscious or articulate. Complex, emergent, swarming beings serve as a metaphor and explanation (the distinction between the two becomes blurred) for our powerlessness and the dwindling of Enlightenment. Something must be driving events, but please do not let it be human reason. Adorno recognised this same yearning for over-arching explanation in his famous essay on astrology. Biology tells us that we are possessed, which is a comfort of sorts.
The problem with chemistry is that, far from hiding human responsibility and freedom, it highlights its devastating potential. Where chemistry is involved, this signals that humans are at work. The worst crimes against humanity during World War Two were enacted using a chemical, Zyklon B. Physics, on the other hand, is remembered for bringing the war to an end at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was nature that designed atoms that way, not humans.
The gravest threat today stems from a chemical - carbon dioxide - and not from a gene, a molecule or a systemic pattern. Perhaps this is why we prefer to examine our evolutionary or genetic similarity to animals, in the hope of forgetting how little carbon any animal ever set fire to.
Meanwhile, we load our brains up with chemicals, either on a Saturday night as a way of forgetting the drudgery of work, or on a more regular basis in order to maintain the enthusiasm that the service economy demands of us. And again, this is human, all too human. If only biology or phsyics would intervene in capitalism, to remove the burdens of decision-making and action! If only some solution would just emerge, or our brains were wired slightly better. If, for instance, cocaine use and its effects can be represented in neuro-biological terms as it has been this week, then the economics, politics and chemistry of drug production and usage slip from view.
The reason chemistry provides neither metaphor nor comforting explanation is that it is, in truth, a far more powerful and influential field of enquiry than any of the hot-off-the-press discoveries about behaviour, thinking or evolution. Chemistry is what modern societies do; it is where they turn in search of control of the self, of nature, of others. It is active-aggressive, in contrast to the passive-aggression of the nudgers, the neuro-economists and the systems analysts. Because chemistry offers control and profit, it is via chemistry that modern, capitalist humans are forced, occasionally, to acknowledge their guilt. Without a non-human concept of 'energy' or 'life' to wish away disappointment and responsibility, it forces us to look in the mirror. Maybe that's why we speak so little about it directly.