Researchers’ Blog

Dark Ecology: Plastic Geologies

Dark Ecology: Plastic Geologies

On stage speaking now and kicking off the third Dark Ecology journey is Heather Davis, a Canadian postdoctoral researcher at Penn State University at the moment and has been working on petroleum production, philosophy and art critique. I only met Heather this morning at breakfast as we joked about bread and cheese (the best part of the Dark Ecology project is that it’s an excellent opportunity to meet meeting some fascinating people), but I know her work from the intriguing volume she published last year, Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies. The book has one of my favourite covers from an academic title:

It also happens to be entirely open access, published with Open Humanities Press, which means you can download for free here (you can also purchase a copy here). At breakfast this morning, Heather admitted that her own open access volume doesn’t ‘count’ for her (e.g. as an academic metric) but at this point in her career she sees it as more important for her work to read by as many people as possible. In any event, I am grateful to her for the opportunity to have access to some really wonderful scholarship.

Heather’s book brings together philosophers, historians and artists to confront, critique and engage with anthropocenic ideas in various ways, taking the current environmental catastrophe as its starting point. The book has nearly three dozen, essays, translations, interviews, poems and articles including work by well known authors:Bruno Latour is there, as is Donna Haraway and Peter Sloterdijk. The most interesting thing about her book for me is that it makes one so immediately aware of the fundamental importance of the visual in our understandings of ecologies. As a consummate writer, my text is the text, in the traditional sense of the word; I work with the written word all the time – on screen, on paper, in my head. This isn’t to say that I’m blind to anything that isn’t comprised of words, but rather that words are what come naturally to me – I don’t consider myself a particularly visual person. I’ve taken one life drawing class in my life as an adult, and most of what I produced went straight into the trash.

Heather’s book looks at the aesthetics of the Anthropocene through art, holding that the anthropogenic moment we are in is largely a sensorial phenomenon, and that our understandings of our world – and especially the environment – has often been disseminated through visual modes: data visualization, satellite imagery and climate models. As an anthropologist, thinking about and through art becomes interesting because it lets us get away from positivistic thinking, from (the façade of) scientific objectivity and from political moralism. Art, of course, also has the possibility to emotionally move us in ways that academic discourse only very rarely achieves. Heather brings in the work of philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy to support this; Nancy’s exhortation is for us to ensure we are always sensing our environment – even in the face of real disaster, and that we keep ourselves “exposed”. As Nancy puts it, “Let’s not hurry to hide this exposure under pink, blue, red, or black silks. Let us remain exposed, and let us think about what is happening to us: Let us think that it is we who are arriving, or are leaving.” As Heather writes of Nancy, “If we move too quickly, even catastrophes, like everything else under capitalism, become little more than general equivalents of exchange”.

Heather’s most recent work, and her lecture this morning, is about plastic – specifically, the geology, aesthetics and biological futurity of plastics. It’s hardly news that plastic is everywhere: clothing, toothbrushes, take-out containers, intraveneous bags, airplanes. For Heather, plastic “has become the material substrate of advanced capitalism, the medium through which our dependency on oil permeates our entire existence, surrounding and enveloping us with its smooth touch”. Heather might be called a Plasticarian, someone who archives plastic(s).

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Plastic was developed in 1907 by Leo Baekeland, a Belgian-American chemist who patented it with ~, the mathematical symbol for infinity, as a trademark. The substance was engineered to be able to take the form of – and, ostensibly, replace – any other object. Yet plastic’s malleability is a fallacy. How are plastics made pliant? With “plasticizers”. The synthetic polymers that comprise plastic are hard and brittle, and while a piece of plastic might be able to break down into a physically smaller form, the molecules themselves remain the same. After the polymer bonds that form plastic have hardened, they become extremely stubborn, resistant to change, especially, to decomposition. Most plastic will not biodegrade. Plastics, then, affect the environment but are rarely affected by that same environment. As Heather puts it, the components of plastic are “the code that breaks out of the cyclic, transformative, processes of becoming to which all living beings are subject to.” In defying death and decay, plastic, becomes “the materialization of the quest for a discrete identity” or, “the ultimate non-relational monad”.

Heather’s talk this morning is discussing the transformation of ideas into matter, and speaks to the philosophic, aesthetic and material fallout of plastic. It’s a compelling thought: all plastic ever created since it came about is still located somewhere, in one form or another, on the planet. Writing about plastics, Amanda Boetzkes and Andrew Pendakis have written that:

“Plastic weaves itself into every facet of our contemporary reality. It does not simply surround us, it is an epistemology and the reflection of a galling political impasse. It appears elemental; we rely on it for our built environments and for all the objects we fill them with—our toys and tools, all our gifts and trash. It orients our thoughts, mediates our senses, and shapes social and economic exchange. Indeed, plastic is less a substance than its antithesis, a paradigm in which substance is transformed into a way of being unmoored from the coordinates that stabilize presence and meaning.”

Plastics, Heather argues, can be seen to be forming new geologic layers on the surface of the earth, ultimately leading towards a geologic indigestion. Much of the plastic produced in the world ends up in one form or another in the ocean, and as it kills off everything from plankton to whales, it becomes the foundation of an entire new ecology of bacteria and viruses – the plastisphere. Heather goes on to speak about some wonderful contemporary art pieces that help question whether and how plastics might be domestically recycled by artists through 3D printing and hacking systems, that enable us to rethink that value and intimacy of oil, and the temporalities embedded in petroeconomic thought. Speaking about the temporalities of plastic, Heather asks how we reinsert timescales into an incredibly compressed temporal reality, invoking this great quote from Bernadette Vincent, the French historian and philosopher:

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