The central problem taken up by the body of scholarship reviewed in this Kevin Drum post is not lead poisoning. It is order. Nevin’s 2000 paper defines a preoccupation with public order (whose absence is registered as violent crime) and private or domestic order (whose absence is detected in the form of unwed
marriage conception). The effects of lead as a neurotoxin – which are undeniably real – are not considered except insofar as they have a bearing on this problem of order, or are part of a causal chain leading to these forms of disorder.
Disorder as a problem in the management of populations is the only way we can understand rape or murder and unwed pregnancy as being relevantly similar qua foci of a study, or a discipline. Nevin conceptually gathers them as “undesirable behaviours”. Unwed conception is present because of established conventions in criminology (i.e. it has been produced as a social pathology – a sign of poor impulse control – in the literature Nevin refers to.) But we shouldn’t forget to ask the basic question: “undesirable for whom?” Whose interests are most apparent in defining departures from normative-but-contingent family structures by adult women (Nevin includes women 20-24) as deviant? Who are we controlling our impulses for? In defining the heterosexual marriage as the default state for children to be concieved in? In defining conceptions outside this state as equivalent in certain respects to a crime?
The case of unwed conception should remind us that criminal law, police forces, the justice system are not naturally-occurring phenomena. Nor are they constants, or part of what Colin Hay calls the “realm of necessity”. They are outcomes of operations of power. They involve the past and present administration of violence in their enforcement and maintenance. They involve granting and denying access to the benefits of citizenship, including free movement. Their nature shifts over time, sometimes quite quickly. They are resisted in a range of ways, by a range of people. They have histories. Here they are treated as part of nature which can be correlated with lead levels in the blood or the air – as unchanging and unarguable. Think about changes in policing between the 1960s and now, and the focus of policing over that time. Think about not only changes in incarceration (which some of the researchers account for), but, say, the growth in urban surveillance. Think about the complexity of changes in sexual mores, and of reproductive technologies and rights. Then look at the proxies that studies use in order to control for these factors.
The neatest trick here is that a social definition of undesirable behaviour is made to seem natural by reference to lead poisoning. By abstracting a couple of elements of a complex and extensive history, it’s possible to reduce much of that history to the effect of a molecule. Again in Hay’s terms, it depoliticises crime and families by removing them from the “realm of contingency and deliberation” to the “realm of necessity”. An organic pathology is linked to what some would like to see defined as a social pathology. Departures from a particular morality are associated with cognitive impairment and a certain toxicity.
The study of violent crime and unwed conception have a history in the social sciences, and that history is inflected by race. So does IQ as a measure of intelligence and the scene of this historical drama of lead poisoning – the inner city. You don’t have to be a crazy poststructuralist to think IQ is basically a category of racial profiling, or to resist biological determinism – you could be Stephen Jay Gould. Some social scientists struggle to acknowledge this squarely. The solution is to carry out forms of research that are essentially ahistorical.
To believe that lead and crime is anything more than a correlation, you have to believe in the causal chain posited by Nevin. And that chain passes through lowered IQs.
In the body of literature Drum surveys, race is often raised only shyly, in the margins. Here’s Reyes:
lead may be a factor in explaining crime rates by race or income. If disadvantaged groups live in denser and more polluted neighborhoods, they will experience higher lead exposure as children and therefore exhibit more criminal behavior as adults.
Which rather bells the cat. Lead exposure overlaps strongly enough with a history of living in areas of concentrated, complex disadvantage, and thus with the geography of race in the US, for Reyes to offer it as an alternative to explanations of crime in terms of race or poverty. The people with the highest lead exposure also have the highest exposure to complex, localised social disadvantage, which is admittedly not accounted for in Reyes’s state level controls. The story of lead and crime is offered as a substitute for the story of poverty and crime, or race (therefore racism) and crime. But the substitution won’t change much except to depoliticise those discussions. (Think about how the most important policy measures around happened in the 1970s – the hardest work for managers to do in addressing all this is in the past. This is a story of a victory won.)
This body of work as assembled by Drum offers to replace history with a detective story. It’s been said that the literature is more modest in its claims than Drum – I can’t see how. Mielke and Zahran are claiming that lead in the air can explain 90% of the variation in aggravated assault and therefore, to the same degree, variations in “social violence”. Nevin himself claims to explain almost all the variation in violence in the period he considers. Put simply, the research defines the scene of the crime. Whodunnit? Lead. We lose something in the process.
What we lose is history. We lose a form of social recording capable of reserving a place for the voices of human participants. We lose the opportunity to put violence and sex in the context of a complex sociability, and not to simply make them a question of disorder. We are incapable here of recognising violence, and living outside sanctioned family structures, as necessary, or differently inflected at different times, or now and again desirable. We cannot see from the perspective of the participants. We cannot recognise making the choice which leads to political agency in dangerous times. The detective story of lead poisoning is a story that threatens to depoliticise all the disorder carried out by that generation, who at one point rocked the foundation of a racist state in what mainstream historians have called a “second civil war” in America. The detective story encourages us to forget this.
Casting the social as natural defines this kind of research. What this means is that it’s a form of thinking that leaves every fundamental social structure in place, and whose real preoccupation is technocratic efficiency. It’s useful in certain, limited ways. But it can’t escape the highly politicised nature of its own basic orientation. Talk of “science” won’t change that, because its framework is not scientifically determined. Rather, in many cases, it avoids considering its political nature in order to line itself up with the needs of managerially-defined government, and denies the need to hear the voices of the managed. This kind of work offers to refine the art of government. It offers to interpose itself between the state and the part of population under discussion. It’s unimaginable in its current form outside the imperatives of the managerial state. It occupies the perspective of those who manage. It surveils the managed. That’s not as a result of a scientific outcome – it’s a result of a political choice.
And you can say all of this without saying that the statistical relationships nominated in the research are incorrect, or denying that lead is poisonous. It’s not to argue that within the bounds of this research, people are acting ethically or honorably. This is about the basic self-incorporation of a tradition of research in the arts of government, and putting itself at the disposal of a managerial state, with its basic orientation to order.