I spy…”Power flows through everything.” Trevor Paglen

Beautiful nature resort or haunted amusement park  à la Something Wicked this Way Comes?

Neither. It’s creepy nonetheless.

It’s a listening station, located in the beautiful West Virginia forests.

I’ve recently come across the works of Trevor Paglen, who is not only extremely talented, but does so brilliantly what sociolings and ecolings desperately need: creating a link between a study that can be abstract and exist in its own bubble (of academics, in the case of sociolinguistics) and every day social reality.

Paglen gave a very compelling interview in Art Review (Nov 2016) (if you can’t get Art Review where you are, here’s a link to his website). Paglen’s work of Symbology, a totemic visual language, interlinks perfectly with the field of language and semiotics and illustrates my vision for sociolings and ecolings that I mentioned in my first post. (Although Paglen doesn’t use his work directly for activism, it seems).

According to Oliver Basciano who interviewed Paglen, his work tries to expose the hidden physical apparatus and architecture that governments and private companies use to monitor and control the public (2016, p.93). A very impressive example of Paglen’s research for this work include learning to dive to find the points where the transatlantic cables that form the internet enter the US. He thinks about how art is engaging with the world, calls attention to things, just like sociolinguists think about how people engage with others (and by others I also mean non-human animals) through language in complex societies, cultures and political systems. But calling attention to things, such as inequalities, oppression, suffering, is, “inherently political”, as Paglen says. ” [It] is political in the sense that you’re proposing to society that we pay attention to one thing over another, which is a mode of political determination”.


Mass Hysteria in Le Roy, New York

Kira Hall and Donna Goldstein from University of Colorado Boulder wrote a fascinating paper on the power the media has in focusing people’s attention and subverting the truth.

In 2011, 12 teenage schoolgirls in the small town of Le Roy, in upstate New York, captured the attention of the U.S. public when they developed acute motor and vocal tics. After public calls for help, the girls were diagnosed by DENT neurological institute in Buffalo and Rochester as having mass psychogenic illness (Today Show, 2012a; WIVB-TV 2012 in Goldstein and Hall, 2015). Many parents of the affected students rejected this diagnosis and decided to explore other causes, specifically environmental ones: the area has accumulated potentially interacting industrial toxins, a phenomena called toxic layering. This drew the attention of the famous environmentalist Erin Brockovich but it was DENT’s neurologists whose scientific discourse about the brain and teenage girl’s sociality that secured public opinion and acceptance of the diagnosis of mass hysteria.

How did expert knowledge from brain science come to win over environmental concerns?

Goldstein and Hall explore “how one authoritative profession managed to elevate its own knowledge system at the expense of another.” They argue that the diagnosis of mass psychogenic illness was accepted because it served “to revalidate psychiatry as a clinical neurology and a media investment in the popularization of “brain science”. Science is definitely the new religion. The success of public adoption of the diagnosis also relied and reinforced gender, age and class stereotypes: the parents who resisted the diagnosis were labeled with small-town ignorance, and it was easy to pin down ‘hysteria’ on teenage girls.

Mass hysteria diagnosis is also accepted, because it offers a cure, or at least a hope for a cure. Toxic layering, on the other hand, is a weaker discourse: Goldstein and Hall point out how difficult it is to prove toxic layering; laboratory-based science cannot replicate the interaction of nuclear, industrial or agricultural waste. Even if the cause could have been proven as environmental, it would offer no cure presently, nor future prevention.

The Le Roy Central School District partnered with the New York State Department of Health, the New York State Office of Mental Health , Genesee County Health department and medical professionals to investigate the cause of the illnesses to conclusively rule out infectious or environmental causes. Their investigation was thorough: “epidemiological methods were employed to check out family medical history, life stressors, medications, illness, drug use, possible exposures to toxic materials.” The sampled water from the school building to look for associations between chemical exposures and neurological tics. They analysed in-door air quality, mold, as well as considered the possibility of a vaccine the girls received that might affect their neurological symptoms. Not having found anything, on the basis of consultations with the pediatric neurologist at the DENT Institute, “the cluster of cases was a result of conversion disorder/mass psychogenic illness” (Le Roy Central School District et al 2012:7 ).

But Le Roy has an extensive history of exposure to industrial toxins:

  1. Lehigh Valley Railroad Derailment site from 1970 (3.5 miles from the school) – “30,000 gallons of trichloroethylene (TCE) and 2,000 pounds of cyanide crystals” were spilled into the ground and still remain as remediation had not begun till 1990s and large drums of toxic waste was still on site.
  2. The Lapp Insulator, a state superfunded site, had contributed to contaminated groundwater near the school.
  3. Le Roy is only 90 miles away from the West Valley nuclear fuel reprocessing plant (that periodically leaks radioactive materials into the air and water) that experienced leaks right before the first Le Roy cases appeared.
  4. Arsenic industrial pollutant Rough on Rats was manufactured in the town in the beginning of the 20th century.
  5. Toxic dye byproducts from the Jell-O gelatin manufactured locally leaked into Oatka Creek daily.
  6. School grounds themselves: constructed in 2003, the grounds were previously used as farmland or hazardous waste dump sites.
  7. Erin Brockovich’s concerns focused on the natural gas wells on the athletic fields and the fact that the Le Roy school was built from rocks from a quarry that were contaminated by the TCE plume of the railroad derailment of 1970.

The two neurologists who provided therapy prohibited “texting and friending” (Eaking, 2012 in Hall and Goldstein, 2015) because it aggravated the students’ symptoms and can cause others on social media to being displaying similar symptoms through mimicry.

Hall and Goldstein note that:

Michel Foucault’s work on knowledge and power brought new consciousness to social science understandings of the relationship between specialized knowledge and claims to authority, particularly in the medical world.

Keeping up with ever-growing expertise is difficult but necessary for maintaining a status quo of power in which the experts themselves are those who create exclusions. Additionally, Hall and Goldstein say that expertise is based on using structural power: experts who work for corporations have a better standing and viewed as more credible than citizen-scientists.

Hall and Goldstein conclude that the neurological and psychiatric science discourse won in this case because it echoed existing ideologies about girls, gender roles, and the U.S working class. These discourses are backed by powerful networks of professionals and industries. Psychiatry, for example, managed to resuscitate Freudian hysteria diagnosis, locating the cause of the illness in the victims themselves, similarly to early diagnosis of cancer causes being linked to the patient’s personality type.

An Ecolinguistic perspective:

While the above reasoning may be true, re-examining the paper through ecocriticism may provide further explanation as to why the neurological and psychiatric science discourse won. Environmental issues in society are not taken seriously. Even the president elect of the U.S doesn’t believe in climate change. The environment, at least in the western world, is treated as nothing more than a resource for humans to pillage. Anthropocentrism is at the crux of every human operation, the belief that humans are superior to all other beings and living forms. Nowhere in Hall and Goldstein’s article is there any mention of the damaged caused to nature due to the pollution in Le Roy and the surrounding area, nor was this a concern, it seems, to environmentalists who voiced their expertise at the time the illness cases began. It’s as though humans live apart from the air, water, soil and other living beings.

In the article it is written that:

“If society is indeed entering an age of toxic layering in which multiple mechanisms underlie environmental harm, parsing causality becomes a daunting project…. But what if a combination of factors was the culprit? How do we get to that knowledge?”

This emphasizes how (human) society is at the center of concerns. What does this euphemistic multiple mechanisms mean? These so-called mechanisms are toxic materials made by humans. They don’t underlie but cause environmental destruction. If humans didn’t destroy the planet, there wouldn’t be a need to ‘parse causality’. I apologize for putting it so simplistically but I fear the fancy language simply obscures reality. The only combination of factors, are not the chemical materials that cause the problem, it is irresponsible, destructive human activity that does so. That’s the only knowledge we need.



GOLDSTEIN, D.M. and HALL, K. (2015) ‘Mass hysteria in Le Roy, New York: How brain experts materialized truth and outscienced environmental inquiry’, American Ethnologist, 42(4), pp. 640–657. doi: 10.1111/amet.12161.
The author is willing to remove any content that may infringe on copyrights

3 thoughts on “I spy…”Power flows through everything.” Trevor Paglen

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