At a busy intersection, a car’s hydrocarbon drool radiates irridescent on rainy asphalt. Several plastic bags orbit in a lazy sidewalk cyclone, rustling like white-noise-dry-leaves. A young child sits in a Maldivian speedboat for the first time, chassis bumping up and down to the undulating rhythm of the waves, the sweet acrid diesel fumes implant a permalink to a wind-darted, sea-sprayed exhilaration.
Oil and plastic—lifeblood and vital commodity of global capitalism—have a rather estranged chemical-industrial relationship. Due to plastic’s functional ubiquity and its intense entanglements with virtually all aspects of modern living across the planet, we have become alienated from and desensitized to the alchemy that turns viscous black liquid into solid substances of multicolored. The sheer weight of our petrochemical dependency tends to elicit a knee-jerk eco-advocacy that vigorously shuns plastic waste, expressing itself in calls for a responsible green-citizenship through reduced consumption of disposable plastics and integration of systems of recycling into daily life. While this insistence on plastic’s anthropogenic intensity is not misplaced, it glosses over the ways in which non-disposable plastics enjoy a particular invisibility due to their infrastructural intimacies,1 how contemporary recycling, according to Samantha Birdie, produces illusions of progress and agential business that allow corporate industries to shift culpability to consumer and local governmental inaction, and most vitally, the complex onto-epistemological positions that plastic occupies within the Anthropocene, as well as its seductive and toxic materialities. These very complexities that lie beyond the quotidian distaste for plastics are what this project aims to dig deeper into, by way of fragments that probe into the plastic’s utopian seductiveness, how plastics express zombified temporalities, and the interplay between plastics, toxicity, and queer futurity.
“I was going to school (after a rainy hour) when I saw some patches of shiny colors lying on road. Some small children surrounded that area and thought that it’s a rainbow falling on the Earth. (For some five -6-year-old children it is a serious thing.) It is definitely not a rainbow falling on the Earth but what is it?” asks Phil Frost on the Physics section of the Q&A website Stack Exchange.
PLASTIC JOYS, INSIDIOUS ENCHANTMENTS
In his short 1957 essay on plastic, Roland Barthes muses on “the reverie of man at the sight of the proliferating forms of matter,” stating that “this amazement is a pleasurable one, since the scope of the transformations gives man the measure of his power, and since the very itinerary of plastics gives him the euphoria of prestigious free-wheeling through Nature.2” As compared to plastic’s widespread contemporary anthropogenic awareness and the way that it descended into a shorthand for all that is inauthentic and objectionable about postwar everyday life, during the mid-twentieth century, plastic elicited a strong hedonistic enchantment as it provided a new material technology that overfed the narrative of Western Judeo-Christian modernity, a story that configures human destiny as dominion over nature. Looking back further still to an 1870s pamphlet advertising celluloid, the first synthetic polymer, we see how plastics presented a utopian allure that promised the severing of the reliance on the natural world: “As petroleum came to the relief of the whale, has celluloid given the elephant, the tortoise, the coral insect a respite in their native haunts; and it will no longer be necessary to ransack the earth in pursuit of substances which are constantly growing scarcer”.3 While current post-industrial consumption habits are certainly ransacking the planets ‘resources,’ this valorisation of plastic exposes an obvious irony given the extractive violences of the petrochemical industry, where synthetic creation is invested with a techno-utopian, masculine thrust that aims to replace the poly-agential, interspecies nexus of material and energetic exchange with synthetic forms. Heather Davis articulates the ways in which plastics shun this nexus in Plastic: Accumulation without Metabolism:
When we point out the synthetic or “artificial” nature of something, what we are pointing to is the way in which it develops, emerges or is created irrespective of its surrounding environment. Plastic is not of this earth in the sense that the earth itself, particular sites, carry memories of the creatures and activities that have taken place on them. There is an infolding of geology, atmosphere and organism, one that mutually co-evolves and that carries with it certain memories and patterns of behavior, holding not only the memories of the human creatures that occupy or pass through a particular place, but also the memories of the other animals, plants, and geologies that also mutually (in)form that place. There is an infolding of knowledge through the circulation of matter and energy that passes through a place. A world develops with a particular organism, and the organism with the world. They mutually compose and become co-constitutive of each other .4
Therein lies plastics’ ever-persistent enchantment, in the dangerous anthropocentric freedom that comes with not having to dialogue with non-human finitudes, specificities, and memories. As such, the plastic imagination flies directly in the face of interspecies reciprocity or what Dwayne Donald calls an “ethical relationality”. Thus, the pleasures of plastics develop at the expense of an ethics of land, by attempting to shed the space-time trappings of the non-human world through polymer chains and their promises of functional infinity.
Molten sediment from abraded coral reefs, sea-floor debris, and cliff-erosion.
Polyethylene Terephthalate bottles.
Pulpy dicotolydeon flesh.
Nylon stockings and commando parachutes.
UNDEAD TIME; ACCUMULATION WITHOUT METABOLISM
For all the environmental optimism of celluloid’s invention, modern, petrochemically derived plastics do indeed require an abundance of both death and energy. While this may not take the form of the slaughter of the tortoise or harvesting of dicotyledon hardwood, it involves the violent extraction of petroleum from deep beneath the earth’s surface. In Visions of Eternity: Plastic and the Ontology of Oil, Amanda Boetzkes and Andrew Pendakis note that “oil is very literally time materialized as sediment […] it is the energy made possible by eons of fossilized death.” Such conceptualisations that require an awareness of deep, pre-human geologic time are usually ignored, overshadowed with contemporary econo-political discourses that paint petroleum either as “a “prized resource, ‘black gold’; or as an industry with a specific location that operates within a predictable set of political variables that tend to revolve around issues of environmental negligence and corporate corruption.5” As if the problem will be fixed by merely avoiding oil spills and “ethical” management of capital flows. The very term ‘fossil fuel’ frames petroleum as a human-oriented resource to be used for social consumption. As such, Alfred Crosby opts for the term “fossilized sunshine”6 instead which provides a poetic and powerful way of shifting the visuality of oil from capitalist commodity and toxic apparatus to a more bio-ecologically diachronic one, providing a robust way of envisioning crude oil as the accumulated form of solar-based biological life (plant and animal matter) that has congealed underneath the earth’s crust for millions of years.
The manufacture of plastics rips petroleum up from the realm of deep time, transports it transnationally for a minute duration serving the convenience of one species, before existing in a non-biodegradable form in landfills or the worlds’ oceans. It is not just that material polymers that are being synthesized artificially—in Davis’ sense of matter out of place—but human structures of time that are being artificially imposed on other species and ecologies. Ester Leslie writes that petrochemical technologies and the accelerating power of chemical reactions are forms of “modern magic” that short-circuit natural processes, arguing that “technology remakes times itself, removing it from natural rhythms to an abstract universal.7” Abstract and universalizing temporalities pose a direct threat to the “mosaic of open-ended assemblages of entangled ways of life,” according to Anna Tsing, “with each further opening into a mosaic of temporal rhythms and spatial arcs.8”
The abstraction of time that technology elicits is inextricably linked with capitalism’s alienation of labor-time. Through a Marxist lens, we see that technologies that allow the systemic implementation of the assembly line work to abstract the process of commodity production from natural rhythms, by the transformation of the worker’s labor power into a time-based wage, and the appropriation of surplus value by the bourgeois. The very logic of capital lies in its uneven upward accumulation, whereby those that own the means of production are able to make humans and nonhumans into resources for investments. Micheal Hardt draws explicit parallels between the mechanisms of accumulation in capital generation as well as plastic production; “accumulation is always against metabolism and against use. I mean the dream of the permanence of money, of an infinite ability to accumulate without degrading […] The endpoint of accumulation, and specifically the accumulation of plastic, is the death of metabolism.9” As petrochemical production is enmeshed in the network of transnational capital accumulation, we see how fossilized sunshine and the proletarians that labor within this petrocapitalist nexus “become mobile assets; they can be removed from their life worlds in distance-defying transport to be exchanged with other assets from other life worlds, elsewhere.” In Ana Tsing’s words, “alienation obviates living-space entanglement.”
I spend 3.4 million years in the rocky pores under the Caspian Sea, before being abducted by offshore drilling. 22 days from my violent awakening I am zipped to the Munchmuster plastics factory where some dark magic morphs me into strange chains of alien polymers. I am molded into an ice cream tub and filled. I sit in deep freeze for a blink of an eye before being purchased, the contents that I hold eaten, and finally dumped into the trash. I rest now in hundreds of fragments on the dark bed of the Atlantic, a mere 62 days after my forced removal. You have used me for a mere 0.0017% of the total time spent in my suboceanic home.
THE ZOMBIFICATION OF FOSSILIZED SUNSHINE
Given that petroleum is a liquid mix of fossilized remains from various ancient organisms, could plastic production not then be productively conceptualized as a kind of tempo-chemical necromancy that imbues the hydrocarbon multi-species corpse-soup with an undead life? Thinking along with the spectral turn in academia that conceptualizes haunting as ways in which “abusive systems of power make themselves known and their impacts felt in everyday life especially when […] their oppressive nature is continuously denied,10” are our quotidian plastic zombies not the embodied haunting of our petrochemical mania? The figure of the zombie—specifically that of the Western media imaginary rather of Haitian folklore—offers greater metaphorical purchase than that of the ghost as the physiological immortality of zombies bear resemblance to the non-biodegradability of plastics and its aforementioned accumulation without metabolism, which ensure their undead material presence for anywhere between ten thousand to one hundred thousand years, or until organisms evolve with plastic-metabolizing capacities.
Techno-zombie incantations; the necromancy of Bisphenol A (BPA).
The Orang Rimba, a semi-nomadic community indigenous to Indonesia, depended on native flowers to communicate with the divine. As palm oil plantations defiled the land, the flowers’ spiritual efficacy waned. Former governor of Jambi, Mr. Tarip, places plastic flowers in his state-planned concrete house.
TOXICITY AND QUEER ANIMACY
Playing further with Avery Gordon and Some (of his) Thoughts on Haunting and Futurity, we see that “what’s distinct about haunting is that it is an animated state in which a repressed or unresolved social violence is making itself known.11” Zombies are perceived as dangerous because they are toxic bodies poised to infect the living, with their undead animacy attributed to the eco-social petrochemical violences that are both repressed and unresolved, as evident from the lack of effective political redressive action. In Toxic Animacies, Inanimate Affections, Mel Chen reconsiders the pathologization of toxicity, suggesting that “queerness is immanent to animate transgressions, violating proper intimacies (including between humans and nonhuman things).12” Queerness is often configured as a kind of toxicity, with the homophobic anxiety of queers ‘tainting’ the sanctity of heterosexual kinship structures of marriage and family. Queer toxicity poses a threat to rigid interpersonal ontologies of gender and sexuality and the sexo-Symbolic order of society.
However, the real radicality of Chen’s thesis lies in her configuration of toxins as an animating force of queerness, a non-living agent that affects bodies outside the purview of their own volition. Pushing Jane Bennett’s collapsing of subject-object distinction and her notions of distributive agency, which “does not posit a subject as the root cause of an effect13” further into the realm of plastics, Max Liboiron argues for close attention to the material specificity of the plastic-matter in question, moving beyond merely imbuing objects with liveness; “Size, destiny, weight, color, proliferation, and molecular composition are not only characteristics of matter, but profoundly matter for my definition of material agency.14” Thus, in the subsequent discussion, I place particular focus on the agencies of zombie-phthalates such as BPA, which have been known to function as an endocrine disruptor—chemical mimics of the hormone oestrogen,—that can block reproductive processes as well as potentially queering the gender of the body it inhabits.
However, while plastic-zombie-agents may aid in disrupting the symbolic order of heteronormativity through a non-reproductive futurity, as espoused most severely in Lee Edelman’s polemic strain of queer antirelationality, where he attacks the figure of the child as a phantasmic vessel for hetero-hegemonic politics, a celebration of petrochemical violences as a form of bio-chemical queer insurgency is morally untenable in an interspecies context. Rather, it helps to think of endocrine-disrupting zombie-plastics, as Heather Davis does in Toxic Progeny: The Plastisphere and Other Queer Futures, as a kind of queer toxic inheritance, in that one has to learn to live with a non-filial yet agentially alive progeny that one did not appear out of one’s bio-hereditary volition. I find this form of negotiation to be far more productive than merely excepting Edelman’s apocalyptic vision of an empty queer futurity, standing firmly with José Esteban Muñoz in his assertion that “antirelational approaches to queer theory are romances of the negative, wishful thinking, and investments in deferring various dreams of difference.15”
A way in which we can stay with the trouble that queer-toxic inheritance that zombie-plastics elicit is exemplified by Naomi Klein’s self-professed “kinship with the infertile,16” wherein the face of her inability to conceive, she mediates on ways of making kin and caring for creatures, both human and non-human, beyond the bio-family. With the looming threat of global overpopulations, the call to radically queer our kin-formations outside of heteronormative kinship structures—rather than the state-imposed neo-Malthusian practices of population control that discriminate along the axis of class and race—is ever more urgent. Indigenous scholar Kim Tallbear aims to inculcate an awareness of settler sexuality in Canada and the United States, particularly with regard to the amorphous forms of polygamy within Dakota First Nation communities. In a conversation with Skawennati Fragnito and Jason Lewis17, Tallbear notes that “settler relations, be that marriage and sex between humans or forms of hierarchical intimacy between humans and nature is not economically, emotionally, and materially sustainable. […] Rather thinking about going back or forward into indigenous forms of relationality and other practices of critical relationality, this can offer us more sustainable intimacies for the planet.18”
The sway of heterosexual monogamy that underpins the settler-bourgeois nuclear family unit, as well as the seductive thrust of techno-utopian hubris often appear comfortably familiar and ideologically impregnable to the majoritarian body politic. However, in letting go of the ontological certitude that comes with investment in oppressive epistemologies, one gains access to the radiant plasticity and infinite potentialities of queer modes of desiring, as well as the shimmering joys of being tuned in to the entanglements of land, bodies, and past spirits. Antirelational nihilism—such as that polemically championed by Edelman—has no place as a political motor in this precarious time of the anthropocene. A critical relationality embedded in queer decoloniality moves beyond mere hegemonic recalcitrance, providing a vital modality of embodied world-making that engages with both the axis of the material and the axis of desire.
- Heather Davis, In her article Life and Death in the Anthropocene: A Short History of Plastic argues that plastic’s role in our life, “unlike the more abstract relationship that we have with other oil products, such as gasoline or electricity, is intimate. We use plastics to eat, clothe ourselves, as sex toys, as soothers for babies. Our computers and phones, those objects we seemingly can not do without, could not exist without plastics as the lightweight portable devices that they are. Nor could the Internet, with thousands of underwater and underground cables sealed from the elements with plastic coating” (349)
- Roland Barthes. “Plastic.” In Mythologies, (Hill and Wang, 1972), 97.
- Susan Freinkel, A Brief History of Plastic’s Conquest of the World, (Scientific American, 2011), 21.
- Heather Davis, Plastic: Accumulation without Metabolism in catalogue for Placing the Golden Spike Milwaukee: INOVA (2015), 3
- Amanda Boetzkes and Andrew Pendakis, Visions of Eternity: Plastic and the Ontology of Oil. (e-flux Journal #47, 2013)
- Alfred W. Crosby, Children of the Sun: A History of Humanity’s Unappeasable Appetite for Energy, (New York, W.W. Norton, 2006), 59.
- Ester Leslie, Synthetic Worlds: Nature, Art and the Chemical Industry, (London, Reaktion Books, 2005), 14.
- Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. (Princeton University Press, 2017), 34.
- Michael Hardt and Pinar Yoldas, “Plastic / Money” in An Ecosystem of Excess, (Berlin, Argo Books, 2014), 89.
- Avery F. Gordon, Some Thoughts on Haunting and Futurity. (Borderlands Vol. 10 No. 2, 2011), 2.
- Ibid., 2.
- Mel Chen, Toxic Animacies, Inanimate Affections. (GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies Vol. 17, No. 2, 2011), 269.
- Jane Bennet, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, (Duke University Press, 2010), 31.
- Max Liboiron, Redefining Pollutions and Action: The Matter of Plastics, (Journal of Material Culture Vol 21 No.1, 2016), 94.
- José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, (NYU Press, 2009), 11.
- Heather Davis, Toxic Progeny: The Plastisphere and Other Queer Futures, (Philosophia, A Journal of Continental Feminism, Vol. 5.2, 2015), 238.
- “Disrupting Settlement, Sex, and Nature” in the Future Imaginary Lecture Series podcast by research network Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace, 2005
- Ibid,. 0:14:52