February 19, 2013

Max Liboiron

Defining Pollution in the Early Twentieth Century: Allowable Limits and Natural Thresholds

Chemical Heritage Foundation, Brown Bag Lecture | Visit site »

Time: 12:00pm
Location: Chemical Heritage Foundation

How did a mid-19th-century concern with stench become a Progressive Era fight against smoke? Why did smoke transform from a symbol of civic pride and progress to the harbinger of a polluted atmosphere? This talk provides one answer to these questions by closely examining the connections between anti-stench and anti-smoke agitation. Rather than viewing the anti-smoke crusades as a departure from earlier complacency about industrial pollution, this talk situates the fight against smoke as a direct outgrowth of earlier worries about bad odors. The talk focuses on the significant role the graphic press played in the transition from smell to smoke. The demands of a visual medium mandated sensory translation; as artists tried to illustrate the New York City health concerns about Hunter’s Point, they sought an iconography for smell and found their answer in billows of smoke. By focusing on the interplay between the senses of smell and sight, this talk—and its many illustrations—explain the historically contingent reasons that visions of smoke, rather than stenches of industry, launched a widespread campaign for improved air quality.

Max Liboiron is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University with the Intel Science and Technology Center for Social Computing. She is currently researching theories of scale in relation to environmental action. Her dissertation, “Redefining Pollution: Plastics in the Wild,” investigates scientific and advocate definitions of plastic pollution given that plastics are challenging centuries-old concepts of pollution as well as norms of pollution control, environmental advocacy, and concepts of contamination. Her work has been published in the Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, Social Movement Studies: Journal of Social, Cultural and Political Protest, and the Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage. She writes for the Discard Studies Blog and is a trash artist and activist. Visit

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