Content type: Essay
Credits: Heather Davis (The New School, New York and Postdoctoral Fellow, Institute of the Arts and Humanities, Pennsylvania State University)
Year: 2015

Heather Davis is a researcher, writer and editor from Montreal. Her work explores the intersection of art, politics, queer perspectives and ecological disaster, with specific reference to plastic and plastiglomerates.

The following text is an excerpt from her essay ''Toxic Progeny: The Plastisphere and Other Queer Futures'
*Originally published in Philosophia Journal, 5.2, 2015.

Davis begins the essay with the story of the fisherman Bjørn Frilund who, when gutting a cod he had caught, discovered a plastic dildo in its stomach. She continues by bringing plastic and queer theory together through the framework of non-reproduction and extinction, exploring the deep future of the plastisphere that may, in fact, take us back to the past.

‘There is a strange way in which the future that we are inadvertently heralding in may turn out to be much like the deep past.’
Heather Davis

Essay excerpt:

Plastic is a curious substance. The first fully synthetic polymer was made in 1907 by Leo Bakeland and patented in 1909. Made to replace other materials that were becoming increasingly scarce, it fueled an era of mass consumerism and the cheap replication and distribution of goods. Plastic is a generic category that describes about twenty different types of polymers. The five families of commodity plastics that make up about seventy-five percent ‘of the roughly one hundred billion pounds of plastic produced and sold annually in the United States…date from the golden age of polymer innovation, the years bookending World War II’ (Freinkel 2011, 62). These families are: polyethylene (PET, HDPE, LDPE), which is primarily used for plastic bags, films and bottles; polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which comes in a rigid form that is used for pipes, doors, windows, and bottles, and in its flexible form it appears as inflatable objects, toys, and imitation leather; polypropylene, which is used in a range of materials, often in textiles; polystyrene, most commonly associated with Styrofoam, but which is also found in CD cases and ‘clamshell’ containers; and polycarbonate, which is used in electronics, phones, as building materials, and in automotive and aeroplane construction. In the process of manufacturing these various polymers, other chemicals, called plasticisers, are added to make plastic heat resistant, or pliable, or, in the case of the dildo, orange. These chemicals, because they are not a part of the incredibly stable polymer bond that define plastics, often leach or off-gas into the wider environment. I will return to this problem later on.

Through its seductive surface, its alchemical qualities, its mutability, we treat plastics as if they are ephemeral, somehow vanishing into the ether after they have been discarded

Plastic can be understood as a magical substance, seemingly without essence. It can morph and shift into nearly any shape, become or replace almost any object. Its form and substance are one. It is all surface, all the way through. As Roland Barthes says in his short essay on plastic: ‘Its reality is a negative one: neither hard nor deep, it must be content with a “substantial” attribute which is neutral in spite of its utilitarian advantages: resistance, a state which merely means an absence of yielding’ (1972, 98). And this, I argue, is the trick of plastic. Through its seductive surface, its alchemical qualities, its mutability, we treat plastics as if they are ephemeral, somehow vanishing into the ether after they have been discarded. This notion of plastic is reflected in its etymology, which refers to the ability to be moulded, shaped or formed. Further, the common metaphorical associations of plastic with plasticity seem to reinforce its alchemical quality of endless transformation. We speak of the plasticity of culture, and use plastic as a metaphor to describe the adaptability of an organism to its environment, or the neural connections in our brains. But this notion of plasticity, and the appearance of plastic in virtually any form, serves to obfuscate the fact that plastic is actually incredibly durable, incredibly resistant. Plastic engages in brief, and sometimes quite spectacular, transformations at the beginning of its lifecycle, but then is discarded, left with a molecular structure that holds onto its stability at all costs. It may influence its environment greatly, but remains immune to that environment’s influence. Where other materials are subject to decomposition, plastic exists outside of the proper logics of decay and transformation, in its own category of creation, where microbes and bacteria have not yet widely evolved to use its incredible energy sources.

Plastics, their smooth surfaces begging to be touched, caressed, squeezed, and bent, operate within what Tom Cohen has called the ‘Ponzi scheme logics of twenty-first century earthscapes [which] portray an array of time-bubbles, catastrophic deferrals, telecratic capture, and a voracious present that seems to practice a sort of tempophagy on itself corresponding with its structural premise of hyper-consumption and perpetual "growth"’ (2012, 14). Plastic is the ultimate material of tempophagy, or time-eating, one that consumes the compressed bodies of ancient plants and animals, a process that took thousands of years, only to be transformed into a single-use take-out container. But as we know, the debts that we accumulate always demand to be repaid, with interest, and in this case the payment will be of the flesh. Rob Nixon (2011) has called this same paradigm one of slow violence, where violence is displaced and extended over time. Slow violence is difficult to represent as violence because the relationship between cause and effect often appears much later, or, as is the case with the bioaccumulation of persistent organic pollutants, in completely different organisms. Slow violence permeates national borders, exporting the deleterious effects, such as sorting of plastic waste, across the globe, while manufacturing plastic in the poorest areas of the U.S.. The difficulty of naming plastic pollution as a form of violence is the dispersed relationship of cause and effect: a particular illness or sensitivity induced by chemical exposure is hard, if not impossible, to trace back to a specific product, company or even a specific chemical, given the fact that we are never exposed to just one chemical at a time. But this slow, attritional violence is precisely that which plastic, and plastic pollution, enacts: one that is not concentrated in a spectacular mediatized image, but rather distends over the surface of the planet, slowly accumulating.

But this slow, attritional violence is precisely that which plastic, and plastic pollution, enacts

Although plastics appear as mere surface, designed to be discarded, and are associated metaphorically with change and malleability, plastics are actually extremely obdurate materials, persisting, in the best estimates, for up to one hundred thousand years. In fact, the presence of plastic is one of the proposed markers of what is (unofficially) being called the Anthropocene. If the Anthropocene designates an era where human activity, under specific economic and political conditions (an era that scholars such as Jason Moore, Andreas Malm and Donna Haraway have suggested would more properly be called the Capitalocene), has become the predominant factor in the chemical and geological make-up of the earth, then plastic is certainly a part of this. Amongst the possible markers for the beginning of the Anthropocene are the radionuclides that appeared with the first explosion of a nuclear bomb, the polyaromatic hydrocarbons from burning fossil fuels, lead contamination from petroleum, and plastic, all of which have left marks on the earth (Sample 2014). And, if part of what the Anthropocene asks of us, in its structural logic, is an imaginative enterprise to project into the future a geologist, archaeologist, or other interested person who will then examine the geologic record, plastic will definitely be a part of the embedded constitution of the earth, recording its arrival at the beginning of the twentieth century and its incredible ascension and proliferation from that point on.

In fact, a new form of rock has already been designated under the term ‘plastiglomerate’. Plastiglomerate refers to an ‘indurated, multi-composite material made hard by agglutination of rock and molten plastic. This material is subdivided into an in situ type, in which plastic is adhered to rock outcrops, and a clastic type, in which combinations of basalt, coral, shells, and local woody debris are cemented with grains of sand in a plastic matrix’ (Corocan, Moore and Jazvac 2013, 6). In addition to the ways in which plastic participates in the chemical transformation and composition of the soil, air and water, through its manufacture and waste cycles, plastic here is literally etched into the rock, becoming-rock. This type of matter is emblematic of an era where it is impossible to disentangle the "natural" from socio-political and economic formations. But despite the dramatic visibility of plastic literally becoming part of geology, it is in water that plastic really becomes a problem.

despite the dramatic visibility of plastic literally becoming part of geology, it is in water that plastic really becomes a problem

And here we come back to the fish. An object of pleasure becomes an object of slow starvation, lodged in the fish’s stomach. Most plastic waste, as the dildo illustrates, ends up in the oceans. This happens through a variety of mechanisms: plastic gets inadvertently blown from garbage trucks into lakes and rivers, where it then follows streams and sewage pipes out to the ocean, eventually ending up in one of the five gyres that are now known colloquially as the ‘garbage patches’; it can also enter the water supply directly by way of microbeads found in cosmetics and by washing synthetic clothes, where up to two thousand plastic fibres come off per wash and go down the drain (Youngsteadt 2011). Most of the plastics that end up in the ocean, unlike the perfectly intact dildo, are incredibly small. For although plastic doesn’t biodegrade, it does photodegrade (exposure to the sun causes it to break down) and it cracks, breaks, and tears with use. These fragments get smaller and smaller but they do not go away. ‘Microplastics’—plastics that are less than five millimetres—are becoming rafts of biodiverse ecologies for bacteria and viruses. Called the ‘plastisphere’, over a thousand different species were found to be living on a single piece of microplastic (Zettler, Mincer, and Amaral-Zettler 2013). It is unknown whether these bacteria and viruses were eating the plastic, or merely found it a perfect milieu. But in time, it is quite likely that these vibrant attached communities may develop complex bacterial societies, flourishing on their synthetic surfaces, eating each other and the vast sources of unlocked carbon energy, mutating and evolving. While it might not immediately appear to be startling to create new forms of microbial communities, microbiologist Ed DeLong, asserts that ‘Microbes are responsible for the health of the oceans. They shape the chemistry of the sea and the atmosphere. These organisms that we can’t even see are extremely important. These little guys control the biogeochemistry of our world. They are the stewards of our planet’ (quoted in Helmreich 2009, 1-2). Given this, the fact that plastic is radically reshaping the ecological communities of the oceans, will have significant impact on the rest of the oceanic ecosystem, and the earth as a whole. ‘Microbial oceanographers argue that marine microbes are central to life on Earth, that the lowly microbe constitutes a force of leviathan significance’ (Helmreich 2009, 5). It is impossible to say what impact microplastics will have, but it is certain that that impact, given the amount of plastic in the oceans currently and its projected increase, will be quite drastic.

In the proliferation of the plastisphere, the worlds of the mega-fauna, our world, may disappear. There is a strange way in which the future that we are inadvertently heralding in may turn out to be much like the deep past. The incredible amount of plastic in the oceans may act not so dissimilarly from the run-off from agricultural production, as their chemical composition is closely related: causing massive algae blooms and consequent dead-zones. As paleontologist Jeremy Jackson notes: ‘dead zones reverse the achievements of more than half a billion years of evolution to take us back to the Precambrian Era before the rise of animals’ (quoted in Helmreich 2009, 13). The proliferation of complex bacterial societies may bring about all kinds of changes, but it seems unlikely that the continued accumulation of plastics in the oceans will be beneficial for humans or many other species. Plastic, as it becomes a part of the ocean, with its own ecologies, make it impossible to clearly distinguish between the "natural" and "cultural". As Stefan Helmreich notes: ‘Human biocultural practices flow into the putatively natural zone of the ocean, scrambling nature and culture, life forms and forms of life’ (2009, 13). For this reason, Nancy Tuana (2007) insists on an epistemological resistance to the cleavage of the natural from the cultural, instead offering a feminist ‘interactionism’ of viscous porosity, one where the rearranged molecules that are created in factories drastically reshape human and other-than-human worlds alike.


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