The Pleasures of Teaching Plastic

Kate Durbin, artist, takes a selfie while standing in thigh-height waves and wearing a yellow plastic dress with Hello Kitty icons and a long, green wavy wig. In the background, other women wearing white underwear and rainbow-hued long wigs also take selfies while standing in the waves.

Featured image: Kate Durbin, Hello Selfie Miami, 2015. Photo by Kate Durbin.

From commodities and explosives to surgery and synapses, plastics saturate the scene of 20th-21st century American culture. If plastic is the defining material of the last century, it is also perhaps the ultimate agent of environmental destruction. Plastic is cheap. Plastic is wasteful. Plastic is fake. This is our gut impulse toward plastic, yet it has so thoroughly embedded itself in our surroundings that we don’t even see it. It’s one thing to ban plastic straws, but almost everything we interact with in daily life incorporates plastic ingredients. What do we do with this information? How do we come to terms with our complicity in environmental destruction, with the unavoidable ubiquity of plastic even within our bodies?

As the 2017-2018 Mendota Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow in the English Department at University of Wisconsin-Madison, I developed a seminar in the major called “PLASTIC! Surface, Substance, Selfie.” Drawing upon performance studies, eco-criticism, and queer theory, the seminar explored the material and metaphorical significance of plastic in contemporary American culture. My students and I dealt with plastic’s devastating environmental impact, its relationship to colonial violence, and the ethics of aestheticizing this violence in literature, visual art, and pop culture. We analyzed the capitalist proliferation of machine-molded plastic commodities as an American society of the spectacle. We pondered the relationship between self, society, and environment as we surveyed a plastic landscape that produces the Barbie doll as well as the cyborg.

In designing this seminar, my intention was to create the conditions for a generative encounter between environmentalism and identity politics. As a material that compels us to rethink the relationship between nature and artifice, subject and object, and surface and depth, plastic is a natural ally to queer and feminist politics. What happens when we connect environmental critiques of synthetic plastic material with cultural analyses of plastic aesthetics and philosophical studies of biological neuroplasticity? How do plastic subjects and objects negotiate the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, class, ability, and species? What do eco-critics and identity theorists have to say to each other about queer subversions of naturalized nature? And how can we work together to save the planet?

Teaching Plastic and Plasticity

The course juxtaposed two potentially contradictory notions of plastic: a polluting and destructive aberration of nature, and a creative capacity for transformation. A contemporary understanding of plastic—mass-produced objects composed of synthetic polymers—stems from the scientific invention of artificial plastics in the 19th and 20th centuries. Yet a broader history of plastic stretches back to the Greek understanding of plassein as a capacity for molding associated with the “plastic arts,” particularly sculpture. This quality of moldability applies to contemporary synthetic plastics as well as natural materials like clay and even the human body. Catherine Malabou‘s philosophy of biological plasticity, developed from her analysis of Hegel’s writing on plasticity and contemporary research in neuroscience, situates human subjectivity within the brain’s continuously changing synaptic networks (I have discussed this elsewhere.) Plasticity promises infinite adaptability and transformation, yet mass manufacturing molds synthetic plastic material into rigid predetermined shapes. Rather than attempting to resolve plastic’s conflicting associations or only focusing on plastic’s toxicity, I designed the course to instigate critical reflection on the complex implications of plasticized cultural, environmental, and aesthetic forms.

A photograph of white Styrofoam packing peanuts with a quotation from philosopher G.W.F Hegel in typewriter font bannered across the peanuts that reads "infinite plasticity is the essence of the spirit"

Evelyn Reilly, Styrofoam (2009). Photo by Evelyn Reilly.

As Jeffrey Meikle’s American Plastic: A Cultural History shows, a cultural history of plastic is also a cultural history of the United States, manifest in places like Hollywood and Disney World and fantasies like self-reinvention and endless opportunity. With 3D printing, now any object can be printed from plastic, literalizing the almost mystical quality that Roland Barthes attributes to plastic’s infinite possibilities. The ultimate product of human ingenuity, synthetic plastic transcends the decay of the natural material realm, allowing us to vicariously live out our fantasies of immortality. The irony, of course, is that plastic’s inability to decompose will ultimately destroy us.

The Playful Pleasures of Plastic

In the course, we attended to the technologically-mediated, plastic aura of image-saturated American culture. We read Kate Durbin’s detailed transcriptions of the lives of reality television stars like Kim Kardashian, Anna Nicole Smith, and the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills in her postmodern novel E! Entertainment. We considered Andy Warhol‘s meditations on beauty and fame and David LaChapelle‘s photographs of celebrities and their wax doll likenesses. We encountered plastic’s impact on the literary imagination, from the unnaturally beautiful “postmodern sunsets” and the plastic Dylar pill to cure fear of death in Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise to the splendor and horror of the deathless plasticized world in Evelyn Reilly’s experimental poetry book Styrofoam. Through these readings, we tracked the transmutation of the Romantic sublime into the postmodern sublime. As Lynn Keller suggests in her new book Recomposing Ecopoetics, Reilly balances her critique of styrofoam’s environmental toxicity with a celebration of plasticity’s conceptual and aesthetic possibilities. Does our American investment in self-making, reinvention, and fluid identity mirror plastic’s moldable and molding capacities? Do we make plastic, or does plastic make us?

Unpacking plastic’s gendered associations with superficiality, we tracked one of the most culturally significant American plastic objects: the Barbie doll. We followed Barbie from her Mattel origins to Aqua’s satirical “Barbie Girl” video to Valeria Lukyanova‘s plastic surgery embodiment to Nicki Minaj’s elongated legs on Pink Friday and Mattel’s production of an official Nicki Minaj Barbie Doll. In a more sinister vein, we analyzed the male gaze and how women are viewed as (plastic) objects in The Stepford Wives and the contemporary phenomenon of RealDolls, life-like silicone sex dolls soon to be upgraded with RealBotix artificial intelligence. As an antidote to this nightmare-turned-reality, we tracked materializations of Donna Haraway’s cyborg manifesto in the feminist consciousness of Grace Jones, FKA twigs, and Martine Gutierrez.

A photograph of a group of people standing in what appears to be an art gallery, with large colorful paintings on the walls. One person in a yellow, plastic top and skirt printed with images of Hello Kitty cartoons and wearing a long, wavy green wig kneels in the foreground taking a selfie with a cell phone while, in the background, other people wearing rainbow-hued wigs and white underwear take seflies with phones and selfie sticks.

Kate Durbin, Hello Selfie Miami, 2015. Photo by Kate Durbin.

We worked to define a queer feminist aesthetics of plastic, tracking visual patterns across contemporary fashion (Plastik Magazine), music (Janelle Monae), and digital art (Yes Femmes). Queer aesthetics, from camp cinema to non-binary fashion, rely upon plastic materials (glitter, silicone, spandex) as well as plastic-inflected visuals. Juliana Huxtable and Rashaad Newsome script a black feminist aesthetics of the surface; John Waters crafts a cinematic poetics of polyester, pink flamingos, and simulated tears; Sky Heyn Cubacub of Rebirth Garments makes neon clothing by hand out of synthetic materials for bodies of all genders and abilities; Kate Durbin choreographs live performances of women and femmes covered in plastic Hello Kitty stickers taking selfies in public space. We considered these camp aesthetics’ ironic/sincere appreciation of plastic’s alluring sheen, saturated color, and affective excess as a queer orientation toward the world that denies the naturalness of gender and sexuality as well as nature itself.

For trans and disability artists and activists, engaging with the materiality and metaphor of plastic is a powerful statement on the biological body’s cultural construction and entwinement with synthetic forms. We thought with Catherine Malabou‘s theory of the brain’s neuroplasticity, and Paul Preciado‘s theory of the trans plasticity of hormones. We encountered the work of contemporary performance artists like Cassils, who sculpts muscle and clay as inherently plastic materials, and Curious (Helen Paris and Leslie Hill), who craft sensory experiences to activate participant-spectators’ awareness of their own biological interiority. Interrogating the relationship between surface and interiority, Erica Lord investigates racial and gendered identity read on the skin. Orlan performs plastic surgery as embodied art, while Viktoria Modesta embraces the possibilities of artificial limbs.

A group of people wearing colorful, unusual clothes - many of them plastic or plastic hybrid materials - dance and mingle on top of a colorful rug. In the foreground, two people using wheelchairs and wearing hot pink dresses and skirts are behind a third, wearing a corset made of clear plastic.

Sky Heyn Cubacub, Rebirth Garments. Photo by Kiam Marcelo Junio, 2015.

Studies of the utopian politics of queer aesthetics must consider the environmental cost of materials like glitter and silicone, and studies of plastic’s toxic impact on the environment should acknowledge the positive role it has played in destabilizing naturalized gender roles and facilitating new forms of pleasure. If I were to teach the class again, I would devote more time at the end of the semester to brainstorming creative tactics to work through this tension. Donna Haraway’s work on transspecies kinship, Mel Chen on queer animacies, Alexander G. Weheliye on racializing assemblages, Heather Davis on queering plastic’s toxicity, Nicole Seymour on queer ecologies, and Catherine Malabou on the political implications of neuroplasticity would be helpful in thinking collective, intersectional strategies of dealing with environmental crises.

Our Plastics, Our Selves

Toothbrush, water bottle, grocery bag, guitar pick, dildo, Barbie doll, Chapstick, milk carton, mannequin, Solo cup, trophy, makeup brush, ID card: students researched everyday plastic objects and gave presentations throughout the semester about their history, materiality, and cultural significance. As we passed around the objects in class we considered their aesthetic and tactile qualities like color, shape, and texture as well as their molecular structure, decomposition process, and environmental impact. We learned to distinguish between polypropylene and polyethylene. After all, plastic products like Tupperware and Sculpey reveal the history of the Anthropocene.

Moving beyond binaries of human and nonhuman, natural and artificial, we considered Jane Bennett‘s argument about the ethics of viewing the world as vibrant matter, networks of organic and inorganic material. We thought with Kirsty Robertson‘s engagement with plastiglomerates, naturally created plastic-rock formations, and Allison Cobb‘s autobiographical revelation that we all carry micro-plastics within us from re-ingesting what we have put into the water supply. On the final day of class we gathered all the objects students had researched, moved outdoors, and created a sculptural assemblage on a patch of grass, materializing our collective accumulation of plastics.

When I write “we,” I don’t mean to ignore the power differential between instructor and students, but rather to capture a genuine sense of a shared project. As advanced English majors, my students were excited to apply their close reading skills to material objects and pop culture, and, in a complementary way, the material was fresh and exciting for me, too. I had only recently turned my attention to plastic as an extension of my research in plasticity, and I designed the class with an experimental concept-based (rather than period-based or field-based) approach. Students’ different perspectives and life experiences enriched the fabric of our collective inquiry: some identified primarily as environmentalists, others as intersectional feminists, many as both; some were drawn to postmodern theory, others wary of it; one student had worked at a plastic factory. Because of their intellectual curiosity and creative ingenuity, we had fascinating student-led discussions about the plasticity of computational linguistics, the impact of corporate branding on our sense of reality, the way photography produces identity, and the biological and chemical entanglement of nature and artifice. This brief gallery of student projects (with additional projects available here) highlights their original, inventive, and sophisticated approaches to plastic and plasticity in contemporary American culture.

A photograph of a square of artificial skin, purple or dark pink in hue, with a visible, mottled texture and a pink ribbon tied to it

Savana Stauss, “Sex Doll Sanguine” (2018). Photo by Katie Schaag.
Savana made a zine critiquing the visual, sonic, and tactile dimensions of silicone sex dolls. To disrupt the seamless sheen of feminized robot aesthetics, she transformed her digital magazine into a physical object with a collage of tactile textures and sewed a chunk of RealDoll “flesh” into its pages.

Three photographs collaged together, one of a jar of blue and white bits of plastic, one of that same plastic melted into a single slab on a piece of parchment paper, the third an albatross with a body molded from that blue and white plastic and attached to two clear plastic wings, pictured on a wood floor.

Alex Mischler, “Albatross Made” (2018). Photo by Alex Mischler.
Inspired by Allison Cobb’s essay Plastic: An Autobiography, Alex sculpted an albatross out of plastic to evoke the melancholy of the albatross’ death and plastic’s immortality. Throughout the process of working with plastic by hand, Alex reflected upon the meaning of plastic’s resistance to human craftsmanship.

An image from a student project of a photograph of assembled seashells and plastic detritus, arranged so that the plastic looks like pearls in the seashells or plastic and seashell look connected and one piece. A title printed on the margins of the photograph reads "Plastic Plearls" in black font on a sea green background.

Catherine Drayna, “Naturally Plastic”  (2018).
Captivated by the beach and inspired by Lisa Robertson’s XEclogue, Evelyn Reilly’s Styrofoam, and Martabel Wasserman’s “Seashell Aesthetics,” Catherine combined seashells she’d found with beach detritus to create “plastic pearls.” She photographed these formations and integrated them into a poetic and philosophical investigation of the shared chemistry, biology, and physics of plastic and non-plastic materials.

Throughout the semester, it became increasingly clear that plastic is materially and symbolically inextricable from contemporary American artistic and cultural production. The more my students and I looked for plastic—in grocery stores, clothing, music videos, national parks, poetic language, and social media—the more we found it. We acknowledged our difficult position as critics of plastic in an unavoidably plastic world, our clothes made of polyester, our laptops made with acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, our classroom tables made with polyurethane. And we suspended judgement while gently embracing our affective attachments to the plastic objects that populate our personal landscapes.

Katie Schaag recently earned her Ph.D. in English Literature at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, specializing in performance studies and visual cultures with an interdisciplinary minor in fine art and creative writing. Her essay “Biological Plasticity and Performative Possibility in the work of Catherine Malabou and Curious” is published in Inter Views in Performance Philosophy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). Her book project, “Conceptual Theatre: Race, Gender, and Dematerialization,” explores the political potential of thought experiments in African American avant-garde closet drama and feminist performance art. Her next project, “American Plasticity,” will explore plastic’s queer affects and aesthetics. Website. Twitter. Contact.