An object can be many things: a tool, a weapon, a political instrument, the symbol of a culture, etc. Objects certainly have many faces, and these faces are easily interchangeable, as John Cline shows in his intriguing essay “What Is a Machete, Anyway?” For instance, a machete can quickly transform “from a boy’s plaything to an instrument of violence.” The act is so spontaneous that there is no conscious realization of this undergoing process, and the person who is responsible for it involuntarily gives character to an inanimate artifact. That is, things that look harmless have the ability to become deadly, and vice versa.
Instead of focusing my attention on objects that look dangerous but have a playful side, like the machete, I want to concentrate on those objects that seem innocuous but hide potentially lethal consequences for those who use them. What about watches, for instance? A watch seems inoffensive at first glance, but the so-called “radium girls” in the ‘20s think differently. During World War I, men went to fight on the front, and women went to work. At U.S. Radium Corp, a company in New Jersey, women painted watch dials with a material that was new at the time, radium, and in particular a radium paint powder that made watch numbers glow in the dark. Then, the women working at the factory began to get seriously ill, and U.S. Radium Corp denied that the dial painter was harmful, claiming that radium was indeed beneficial to human health. This episode reminds me of Cline’s assertion about politics. He states that weapons like firearms, or even a machete, might lead to a possible insurrection, and for this reason state’s agents think to be the only ones entitled to use violence. This is clearly an abuse of power based on a faulty reasoning, as I believe that citizens have the right to defend themselves when necessary (only when necessary). In both cases, politicians and businessmen used objects to carry own their agenda. In the case of the “radium girls,” a substance considered innocuous to the body caused these girls to slowly deteriorate, loose their teeth, and even their strength to the point that they couldn’t even raise their hands. However, the corporation made the outrageous statement that radium “was helpful rather than injurious to the human system.” From innocent substance to silent poison.
In the same way, more recently, the famous multinational company Samsung, based in Korea, caused 243 chip factory workers to get cancer due to the proximity of highly toxic chemicals. Samsung’s apologies did not sound sincere, however, as the corporation still refuses to connect the death of a 23-year-old and the sickening of other numerous workers to the chemicals used in the factories. “Former Samsung workers, their families and civil groups struggled for years to raise awareness about the cancer cases.” These people tried, and are still trying, to highlight the transformation of seemingly harmless chemicals into agents of death, a process taking place before our very eyes, sometimes fostered by the same authority that is supposed to protect us from dangerous objects.