Living With Plastic and Toxicity, Queerly
As Heather Davis points out in her 2022 book Plastic Matter, “Plastic encourages a fleeting present that eats time”; it is matter that is simply “everywhere,” lurking in the shades, drifting in the wind, accumulating in landfills, nature reserves, private homes, and people’s bodies. It is mundane, yet eerie and haunting. In short, Davis writes, “[The] world is now plastic.”
Plastic, the first material truly bioengineered by humans for their convenience, not only is at the forefront of Davis’s book, but also has been the subject of artworks and mainstream media for a while. British-American Comedian John Oliver, for example, dedicated an episode of his Last Week Tonight show to the material, criticizing the irresponsible use of plastic in North America and Western Europe. Artists such as Maria Cristina Finucci (who created Garbage Patch State) and Von Wong and Joshua Goh (who made the immersive installation Plastikophobia) address and challenge the perception of disposable plastic waste, while Veronika Richterová’s plastic waste artworks raise awareness of the fact that soon there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean. On World Ocean Day 2023, The Guardian dedicated an article to artworks made out of discarded plastic found in or near oceans in its recent “Seascape – the state of our oceans” series.
Plastic is central to these artworks, shows, and news stories. No matter its shape or form—invisibly small as microplastic, conveniently shaped as everyday items, or tossed aside as superfluous garbage, it is destined to end up not only in designated landfills but also in oceans, in soils, in the atmosphere, and in our bodies. Plastic is intertwined with every aspect of life on earth.
These media and artworks frame plastic as a problem. However, Davis’s compelling observations in Plastic Matter encourage readers and observers to rethink its complex nature and to grapple with the strange legacies of indestructible leftovers in times of “destructive modernism.” Due to plastic’s permanent, resilient refusal to disappear, we simply cannot continue to imagine a “pristine world before plastic.” Instead, Davis proposes to use plastic’s “lesson of intractability to imagine worlds differently, queerly, through toxicity.” To imagine worlds “queerly” means to find ways of connection and kinship both with humans and non-humans that are outside of established patterns of thinking that puts cisgendered, able-bodied, heterosexual, mostly white humans in the center. Instead, as Davis argues in Plastic Matter, material processes and nonhuman actors shape environments continuously alongside human activities.
While plastic is originally a manmade material derived from fossil fuels, it acts beyond human intentions. It shapes and recomposes relations in the world, those within ecosystems and between humans. These unintended consequences—plastic everywhere, toxically affecting humans and nonhumans alike in ecosystems—requires that we revisit and challenge established modes of thinking that, for example, differentiate between what is human and what is non-human. Davis also compels her readers to think beyond the notions of ubiquitous, convenient and easy, to question our detachment of plastic—our assumption that plastic is to be discarded or that it forms material that separates the inside from the outside.
It is not certain how plastic affects the environment long-term, despite ongoing research, for example, on the atmosphere, ecosystems, and human health. Davis encourages readers to confront this uncertainty by acting on the imperative to think with the material that reconfigures the globe and its spheres. After all, the environments we are in, she points out, are already determined by plastic’s presence.
Throughout Plastic Matter, Davis thinks with the material. Plastic serves as a tool for her to think about the more-than-human world and the discourse of the nature-culture divide. Wilderness and national parks are the very opposite of the dumps and landfills where plastic is supposed to end up. Plastic, however, “disrupts these constructed boundaries.” As it refuses to stay in these landfills, it shows up in the supposedly wild, garbage-free, protected nature, found blowing in the wind, caught in trees, eaten by turtles, or even in entirely novel geologic formations such as plastiglomerate (a mixture of plastic, sand, and other debris).
This, however, does not call for celebration of plastic as it is. The colonial logics of plastic inform the case studies in Plastic Matter. While plastic is creating a sense of “globalized unlocality” because it is often packaged and sold without any reference to a specific location, Davis constantly reminds her readers that plastic “is imprinted with the colonial logics of dissociation, dislocation, denial, and universality, reproducing itself without regard for local cultures or ecologies.” It takes some mental gymnastics to acknowledge the dichotomy of thinking about plastic as queer matter while simultaneously remembering that plastic is imprinted with colonial logics (a logic that, infamously, aims to eradicate everything that is queer). Davis is giving her readers aids in following her observations on toxic kinships and the queer entanglements of plastic matter by asking we get closer to difficult or problematic objects.
Despite the fact that it “embodies the Western desire to rid ourselves of our obligations, relations, and connections to the land,” plastic defies both the Western capitalist logics and imaginations. Plastic is used to protect us from plastic: landfills are lined with plastic to prevent leakages; oil workers need to wear protective gear made out of oils. Plastic is so ubiquitous that it risks becoming invisible. Plastic Matter, however, resists this invisibility as Davis proposes an “altogether different form of material relations.” Plastic, in its ubiquity, opens up queer possibilities for relations between species and materials that are not conventionally associated with one another. For example, birds nest with plastic waste instead of eggs. Plastic also challenges normative reproductivity when its toxic effects cause mutations and cancers which inhibit sexual reproductions for animals, plants, and humans.
The Personal is the Theoretical
Plastic Matter is convincing in putting forth its arguments because first and foremost, it is an engaged and involved scholarly work. Davis frames her book by personal narratives, deep, complex, and thorough reflections on her own entanglement in plastic matter. In the preface, Davis informs her readers about her family’s complicated plastic legacies: her grandfather, invented, among other things, the plastic bags for containing milk, and was a lifelong advocate for the convenience of fossil fuels to wrap and pack things neatly. Davis admits to struggling with these legacies, but in coming full circle at the end of the book, accepts she cannot escape them.
Out on a hiking trip, she realizes the materials enabling her outdoors adventure are all plastic, from the canoe to the paddle to the sleeping bag, she is surrounded by, covered in and dependent on plastic. The canoe, she further acknowledges, is an Indigenous technology she borrows to access nature parks that have so often been used as tools of Indigenous dispossession; meanwhile the plastics shed from her clothes, tools, and other personal items perpetuate the legacies of colonialism in leaving “traces of industrial engineering creating markers of my path and movements.” Davis models what she calls for in her book—that is, settlers like her must learn to deal with the past and the role they and their ancestors play in creating a world which is full of dispossession and other forms of structural injustice as well as the pollution and destruction of environments. Plastic, as she tries out herself, is a material that in its omnipresence tells these stories if one is willing to look and listen.
Taking the queer toxicity produced by plastics to heart, as Davis demonstrates in her book, also means dismantling the layers of systemic racism that are perpetuated by the material permeating every single facet of life. Davis provides two case studies that show how the toxicity of the matter reaffirms racial prejudices in the Western imagination not only by being turned into waste shipped to other countries, but also in the Western world directly.
Plastic’s toxicity unfolds as a form of Slow Violence. Louisiana’s cancer alley, an example of environmental racism with PVC infecting peoples bodies, and the Kodak film plant in Rochester, New York, with its chemical leaks are two of the examples Davis explores in length to show how plastic matter disrupts ecologies and creates toxicity while “consolidating anti-blackness and settler colonialism.” These examples are used to illustrate how Black and low-income communities are burdened with a sense of grief with no clear solution to the problem they face.
What makes it more worrying is that the toxicity of plastic and its outcomes are not always predictable. For instance, cancer might skip a generation. The Kodak film plant and the industrial sites in the cancer alley, where the toxic side effects of plastic are willingly ignored or justified in order to foster economic growth, exemplify this. These toxic side effects manifest not only in the bodies of marginalized people in the region, but also in the land itself, which, in countries with a history of dispossession and dislocation of BIPOC populations, continues the mechanics of settler colonialism.
That said, Plastic Matter does not focus solely on logics of violence. While media reports such as the BBC’s Plasticphobia refer to a “war on plastic” and thereby highlight some of the global problems caused by plastic, Davis offers a more nuanced perspective. Acknowledging the harm and violence caused by plastic while simultaneously proposing a type of kinship both with plastic and plastic-eating bacteria and fungi is a difficult split that Davis nonetheless manages gracefully.
Plastic Stays, as a Metaphor and Material Reality
As I am writing this review, the world is celebrating plastic in a specific form, namely that of a doll. Greta Gerwig’s 2023 film Barbie was released in theaters worldwide. And while some reviewers have criticized its whiteness, many have applauded not only its feminist agenda but also its self-reflexive take on the (fossil fuel) industry and (extractive) capitalism. However, it can still be viewed as a problematic homage to the plastic matter that makes our lives convenient, easier, and more fun—after all, the doll, the movie, and its marketing campaigns suggest that life (albeit reformed) in plastic is fantastic. In forming a relationship to the matter, when it’s shaped as aesthetically pleasing or convenient for us, we cling to plastic as much as it clings to us.
Davis ends her book with this statement: “They said plastic was disposable. Turns out, plastic will not let go.” In our current renewed obsession with the world of a plastic doll (and, with that, the plastic world of its merchandise, from polyester in T-shirts to plastic cups in Barbie colors and balloons and glitter for decorations in the cinemas, and the resulting waste), it turns out that we aren’t willing to let go either. Plastic creates multiple futures and “the question of what it is doing in the world is still very much open-ended.” This means that there is also a potential to act and to shape these plastic futures and to care for worlds not bound by biological genetics.
Featured image: “Bottle Buyology” at the Minnesota State Fair “Eco Experience” Building. Photograph by Tony Webster, 2012.
Svenja Engelmann-Kewitz is a Ph.D. candidate at Technische Universität Dresden, where she is investigating modes of thinking, writing, and imagining the contemporary Circumpolar North through environmental humanities lenses. Her research focuses on ideas and the narratology of environmental change, renewed and lost sublimity, crisis narratology, materialism and future studies. She holds a BA and MA in English and American Studies/Comparative Literature from Ruhr-Universität Bochum. Contact. Twitter.