Beginning last summer we started featuring a series of posts on the theme of perceiving the Anthropocene—so far, we have looked at objects or phenomena through which this colossal abstraction could be manifested to our senses. In one of my contributions I argued that a particularly good avatar of the Anthropocene is plastic. Plastic, I suggested, has an exemplary status in the Anthropocene as one of the most pervasive (and perhaps one of the more insidious) examples of the human transformation of nature.
This idea was introduced to our blog in a post by Lynn Soreghan over four years ago, and has never been far below the surface of many of our discussions. Given that it seems to serve as a kind of emblem for the Anthropocene, we decided to take it up as a theme. So during the next few months on this blog, we want to get to know plastic and its metaphors better, to explore, somewhat reflexively, the plasticity of plastic: its capacity to take on any form, its transformability, its rigidity, its toxicity, its delightfulness, its color, its history, its ubiquity, its utility, its excess, and so forth.
Drawing on our research group’s varied and overlapping interests, we will take scientific, technical, humanistic, philosophical, artistic, and other approaches to plastic’s permutations into its more familiar Anthropocene guises — plastic bags, plastic straws, plastic in the ocean — while also broaching some less frequently examined considerations — the plasticity of genes, the plastic arts, plastic surgery, and more.
As humans continue to mold the planet, in effect treating it as if it were plastic, the urgent task of better understanding this omnipresent material comes more and more to the fore, and we aim to contribute meaningfully to ongoing discussions about it by exploring plasticity as an emblem of the Anthropocene both at the most surface levels and at the greatest of depths. Indeed, it is this odd feature of plastic — its ordinariness and its fundamentality — that most interests us.
Daily news stories circulate about dead animals found full of plastic, new laws banning plastic, and companies replacing plastic with other materials. We seem to have reached consensus that plastic is bad, and no one stands up today for the interests of Big Plastic in our public discourse. What is the meaning of this intense scrutiny of plastic? Is it a feel-good greenish fad distracting from other, potentially larger problems concerning our impact on nature, or is it the precipitant of real change in our relationship to the planet?
Approaching these sorts of questions, which hover in our everyday lives, involves asking a host of other questions that touch on some complex issues: Of what is plastic the symptom? When does it uniquely provide a solution? Who, including ourselves, “plasticizes,” and who does not. Who benefits from plastic, and who bears its costs? How can we contend with a material that seems to have no stable identity or essence? Why does the permanent get so entangled with the disposable?
Plastic leads us to these questions, some of which will likely bear themselves out soon enough, while others that have been with us seemingly forever will likely persist. They are questions that touch on our understanding of time, our conceptions of matter and form, our overlooked habits, how not to forget our reusable bags when going to the grocery store, and whether or not to make the extra effort to ensure that a bottle finds its way into a recycling bin, knowing full well the problems that beset plastic recycling programs.
Through our series on plastic, we will dive into these and other, related considerations as we work out some of the complexities and inanities of this most perplexing yet entirely familiar of materials. The posts are collected here.