It is by now an everyday scene. Gazing down from a boat, or dock, into the water and seeing a gently moving translucent object that initially appears to be just another floating jellyfish, bobbing around, expanding and contracting, but on second glance is a plastic bag. A similar experience happens on land, where a flutter catches the corner of your eye, and as you look up, you see a bag drifting in the wind, arching and tumbling. Or, as you bend down to pick up a particularly bright coloured rock from the ground, you realize it is actually a well-worn piece of plastic, some broken and weathered toy or lighter. Plastic has now become one of the vectors to understanding the flows of water and wind, the pressures and speeds and variegations of the world around us. The transformation of our landscapes through the omnipresence of plastic is now a platitude. The saturation of the world with oil is so commonplace as to be a banal observation. Plastic and oil reinforce each other. Fracking drives a booming plastic industry and plastic textiles protect oil workers from the hazards of their jobs. What does this mean, to live in times where our long-dead ancestors, compressed with geologic force, have been revived, and to take this revelation so blandly? That sleek, slick substance that marks all of our relations in the twenty-first century is as pervasive and all-encompassing as our atmosphere. And for many of us, now, this reality appears unremarkable.
The slow suffocation, the temperate starvations, the seeping of chemicals, all these conditions form a entral part of the banality of environmental horror, the ways in which ecocide is rather mundane. The damaged planet has become part of our everyday lives, and in this sense this extreme state of exception appears quite ordinary. This state of affairs is characterized by the split consciousness of contemporary existence, where many of us are quite aware of the dangers that we are surrounding ourselves with and the violence we are perpetrating against others, and yet we carry on working and loving and living as if everything were just fine, caught up in the pleasures and infrastructures and duties of everyday life. Plastic can be understood as a materialization of these realities. For it can be seen as a condensation of the forces of petro-capitalism, with all of the attendant violences on humans and the more-than-human worlds we inhabit. And yet it is also just the bag that we carry home, it is also just the paint that is in our homes, it is also just the keys on which these words were typed and the glasses through which I see and the pavement of the roads and the tires on those roads. This creeping and pervasive transformation is too encompassing to find horrifying, at least not on an ongoing basis. It is too convenient and omnipresent and, frankly, beautiful. It is too seductive, too pleasurable, too easy, too normal.
Plastic is a question posed to us from a different time, from an ancient time, from a distant future. It asks, How do we deal with banality? What does pervasiveness feel like? For plastic is now everywhere, in everyone, and there is no outside or escape or safe room to retreat to, even if these conditions of exposure and toxicity are differentially distributed according to race and class. So, what does this material have to teach us about contemporary environmental thought? What might we learn from these intractable and, in many ways, irreversible conditions? How are we to deal with the mundane horrors of environmental decline, and the slow violence enacted on the bodies of many organisms because of the suffocating, toxic, starving qualities of plastic? What does it mean to unearth the dead? And for all of this to exacerbate and intensify pre-existing patterns of disparity and privilege? These are the questions that plastic asks of us, demands us to consider, as it swirls, lazily, through the waterways, as it drifts on the winds, as it clogs our gutters and fills the stomachs of camels and whales and coral. These relatively new materials are calling us to reimagine our relations to water, oil, air, and soil, and to each other.
This essay was originally published in Connectedness: An Incomplete Encyclopedia of the Anthropocene, Marianne Krogh (ed.), Copenhagen 2020.
Heather Davis (she/her) is an assistant professor of Culture and Media at The New School. She is the co-editor of Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies and Desire Change: Contemporary Feminist Art in Canada. Her current book project, Plastic Matter, reexamines materiality in relation to plastic. She is also a member of the Synthetic Collective, an interdisciplinary team of scientists, humanities scholars, and artists who investigate and make visible plastic pollution in the Great Lakes. Her writing can be found at http://heathermdavis.com.