NOTES ON PLASTIC / Katie Schaag, in collaboration with students

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


Text by Adi Dina, Catherine Drayna, Logan Gerbitz, Will Hansen, Olivia Kreyer,

Rose Lamensdorf, Sam L., Alex Mischler, Jenny Recktenwald, Ari Saghafi,

Tucker Sanborn, Madison Schultz, Haley Sirota, Brooklyn Smith, Savana Stauss,

Madeline Sternman, Negassi Tesfamichael, and Catherine Torner

Edited/structured by Katie Schaag



1. The American plastic landscape goes on forever and outlives its makers.

2. With plastics, we’ve turned the decayed matter of one trillion creatures into hard, perfect objects able to be molded to any form we need. Plastic has fused with our natural world. Why are we worried about human overpopulation and unfettered by plastic’s demand of the environment? The plastic eyesore on the beach eventually killed the albatross.

3. There is more than one layer of toxicity to plastic than the environmental impact. Plastic is everywhere and affects us in ways we don’t always realize. Plastic’s ability to shape its surroundings and be reshaped to fit most needs creates a dependence on it. How can one proliferate matter when matter usually isn’t living itself, but instead is ascribed life by humans? The idea that plastic has agency is comforting because humans value nature and dislike plastic, so if plastic has agency, we can see it as an enemy separate from our human work. Plastic is nature bent in ways it shouldn’t be; has plastic bent us in ways we shouldn’t be?

4. Maybe we’re molded to become molders of things that will propagate societal interests. The visual culture we live in mirrors the American plastic landscape: they both bombard and thus desensitize us through non-hierarchy. In America, plastic objects embody the controversy that exists throughout the nation. Knock-offs emphasize capitalism in that even though everyone can now look a certain way to meet appearance standards, it has also widened the socioeconomic gap because now the focus is on the name brand instead of the product itself. Plastic’s material versatility is what allows it to grow out of its materiality – we accept a whole realm of possibility and being above reality and the physical precisely because of plastic’s materiality.

5. When it comes to American culture, we would be unable to live without plastic. Our lives would be different without it – worse? – yet we hate it. Different-colored, versatile, transformative, and filled with some elements of toxicity, maybe people and plastic aren’t so different after all.



1. The perverse, pervasive slickness.

2. Plastic aesthetics fetishize superficiality. Plastic is perfectly uniform, but its curated perfection leaves people unsettled. Engaging with plastic aesthetics renders an investigation of the physical embodiment of its materiality, one that reveals how its performativity has fetishistic, pigeonholing, reductive, and serializing effects. It’s pretty remarkable, in a very sad way, that there currently is an ability to make a profit off nearly any object that society decides to fetishize. Plastic is perfect because it isn’t real.

3. We have become plastic, using it on and in ourselves to create a more ideal person who is actually just like a mannequin. Each person has their own brand/aesthetic, essentially a mold that we consciously or unconsciously follow and base our choices off of, a common phrase being “I am or am not that type of person.” By following that brand, we begin to limit ourselves to a “type” instead of a fluid being that has every opportunity available to them. Ostensibly that means the answer is being sexy on your own terms. Plastic aesthetics are experiments that take many forms to determine how to be in the world, but until a person decides to make a particular aesthetic their identity, it remains a coating of the inner self defined by its impermanence even as material plastic lasts forever.

4. Plastic is PINK! Plastic aesthetics have a colorful, dramatic and exaggerated way of analyzing and speaking to a materialistic society. There are two categories of plastic aesthetics: the flat, cookie-cutter type like that of St. Vincent’s “Los Ageless” video, and the vibrant, campy type akin to David LaChapelle’s photos of Daphne Guinness. Being “extra” and “fake” may be a nuisance, but it has captivated our culture and determined how we choose to see the world. The superficial pastel plastic world is dazzling and dangerous.

5. Plastic aesthetics are political, and they have meanings beyond a superficial exterior. A plastic aesthetic can be an exaggerated kitsch-pop performance of 21st century artifice: working with and against capitalist obsessions, reclaiming plasticity with confidence and vivacity, and reimagining plastic as an exciting hyperreality. A plastic aesthetic is that which abstracts the “natural” or the “norm.” Ironically, the more one interacts with plastic aesthetics, the less kitsch and shocking they seem. A plastic aesthetic creates a world of its own, where metaphor becomes manifest through actual material.



1. Neuroplasticity: our bodies are not a machine; they are moldable, bendable, able to recover like plastic.

2. Humans are plastic, both molded by themselves and their surroundings. When our bodies are our surface, do we have control over those surfaces? How do we determine what surfaces are acceptable and what surfaces are not? What if we are cyborgs with interchangeable parts? Does the surface include just the outside, or the neuroplasticity within our brains? Is this all a moot point because of genetics? I really don’t know what constitutes a plastic body given that brains are plastic and also the Kardashians are plastic when I thought everything was fractions.

3. Plastic bodies and plastic identities are an attempt to equalize power imbalances, and they function with different purposes (conformity, confrontation, etc.). A plastic body can be a tool that can either exploit or empower. A plastic body embodies its materiality to hover in the liminal states of mortification/vivification, resisting/reinstating, molding/stillness, subject/object. Plastic bodies problematize exposure and concealment with empowered refusal.

4. Plastic is mostly seen as unnatural, so when someone embraces it as a part of their identity, they are often seen as eccentric or fake. The bright and flexible nature of plastic identities draws people in the same way plastic as a material does. Art is a multilevel marketing scheme. Lady Gaga presents an artificial (plastic) representation of herself in “Paparazzi” in two ways: the media’s representation of her identity, and her own control over the recreation of her image. People go through a transformational process in order to perform a certain way on social media. Performative: we are constantly constructing who we are. Is anything really authentic when we are constantly trying to back up the image we have created for ourselves?

5. But isn’t everyday life a performance? The concept of being bound to an identity falls short when confronted with evidence of plasticity and change, both biological and manufactured through medicine and other means. Plastic identities are an everyday performance stemming from the malleability of the self. The performance becomes life; it stops being a performance, and becomes reality.



POSTSCRIPT (Notes on Notes on Plastic)

by Katie Schaag

In Spring 2018 I taught an advanced seminar on plastic and plasticity at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for eighteen English majors with concentrations in literary studies, linguistics, and creative writing. Incorporating performance studies, visual studies, and material culture methodologies, the course surveyed the bizarre and fascinating world of plastic(ity) in American literature, art, performance, history, and culture. (More information about the course can be found here and here.)

Throughout the semester, we collaboratively composed the “notes on plastic” above. This three-part statement is a collage of student writing corresponding to the course’s three units (plastic objects and environments, plastic aesthetics, and plastic bodies and identities). At the end of the first unit we had a group brainstorming session, writing key concepts gleaned from our texts and discussions on the classroom whiteboard. Then each student chose a keyword from the board to prompt an individual free-write (quickly writing anything that came to mind). Afterwards, each student selected their favorite sentence from their free-write and emailed it to me. We repeated this process for the second and third units. At the end of the course, I arranged the three sets of eighteen separate statements into cohesive paragraphs, with an eye for syntactic rhythm and conceptual coherence. I made a few line edits for clarity and continuity, and sent the draft to the students with an invitation to make any revisions. I then structured the paragraphs in a numbered notes/theses format inspired by two of our critical theory texts, Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp” and Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. Moments of tension emerge, highlighted by contradictory statements like “Plastic is perfect because it isn’t real” and “A plastic aesthetic creates a world of its own, where metaphor becomes manifest through actual material.” As a snapshot of our class, a collaborative writing experiment, and an (anti-)plastic manifesto, this performative-poetic-philosophical text compellingly theorizes plastic’s affects, materialities, histories, and futures. Like micro-beads, polymer chains, or play-doh, students’ ideas meld to form a new structure.

I framed the course as a temporary collaborative experiment, with my role as curator of an assemblage of texts, and students as the active participant-leaders who determined the path of inquiry. Our wide-ranging, often hilarious, always thought-provoking discussions about art and life were shaped by students’ sophisticated intellectual and creative interventions. Ongoing debates included the ethics of aestheticizing plastic’s environmental impacts in phenomena such as plastiglomerates, apocalyptic vs. hopeful visions of a plastic or plastic-free future, the distinction between literal and figurative modes, whether satire is actually subversive, whether “fake” can be reclaimed as a feminist gesture, whether authenticity is possible, and whether to completely reject plastic, use less plastic, or try newly engineered sustainable plastics. The common thread in our nuanced, lively discussions was a sense of wonder and a willingness to encounter paradoxical ideas without rejecting ambiguity or simplifying complexity.

Reading Jeffrey Meikle’s American Plastic: A Cultural History, we considered plastic’s revolutionary move from handcrafted wood, stone, and metal objects to mass-produced, machine-molded commodities. Mid-20th century plastic objects were made of the same basic material (synthetic polymer chains) but designed to mimic the natural materials they referenced (a “wooden” bookshelf made of fiberboard; a “wool” carpet made of nylon). Americans’ ambivalent reactions to this new plasticized landscape manifested with the “plastic bag menace,” the water bottle as symbol of environmental destruction, and the public’s distaste for plastic’s synthetic smell, embodied most poignantly in artificial flowers. Reading Walter Benjamin’s classic essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” we considered the aesthetic and affective shift in our orientation toward these mechanically-reproduced variations on natural forms. Does a cold, shiny, artificially-scented plastic object lose its “aura,” we wondered? And what do American icons’ celluloid afterlives suggest about the plasticity of self-made identity, and the immortality of plastic?

Plastic(ity)’s oscillation between destruction and transformation is poignantly embodied in Evelyn Reilly’s paraphrasing of Hegel, “infinite plasticity is the essence of the spirit,” superimposed on an image of styrofoam. The discovery of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch crystallized the problem of plastic pollution in the popular imagination, and films like A Plastic Ocean reveal not an isolated garbage patch but rather the widespread saturation of marine environments with toxic microplastics. Scientists have developed sustainable, eco-friendly bioplastics made out of materials such as algae, but Exxon Mobil’s investment in petroplastics ensures that plastic production will actually increase over the next few decades, even as global recycling facilities have reached capacity. Plastic is immortal. Does plastic, in its pure materiality, paradoxically become a spiritual form?

Guided by Bill Cronon‘s deconstruction of wilderness and Judith Butler‘s deconstruction of gender (and building on Nicole Seymour’s theorization of queer ecologies), we followed Lisa Robertson‘s imagination of a queer plastic pastoral that displaces the distancing from and objectification of nature that historically characterized the pastoral genre. What if nature is already plastic, we asked?

Because our topic was so contemporary, the resonances with everyday life were endless. Students reflected upon choosing paper instead of plastic at the grocery store and more mindfully engaging with everyday plastic objects like pens and makeup brushes. We used the class email list as an optional place for students to share material outside the scope of the course texts, from an article about a new ban on plastic straws to a photograph of a manicure on Instagram. Grappling with plastic’s near-total imbrication in our daily lives, one student phrased his shift in perspective across the arc of the semester as “from plastic: bad, to plastic: huh…” – moving from categorically denouncing it and then ignoring its omniscience, to staying with it, thinking with it, learning more about it, becoming mindful of our attachments to it, and then deciding what to do with this new awareness.

Activating this new attention, several students opted to take tactile approaches to their final project, the intellectual and creative capstone to their inquiry throughout the semester. Catherine D. created plastic seashell assemblages and tracked the Fibonacci spiral in synthetic and organic materials. Captivated by the beach and inspired by Lisa Robertson’s XEclogue, Evelyn Reilly’s Styrofoam, and Martabel Wasserman’s “Seashell Aesthetics,” she combined seashells she’d found with beach detritus such as toothbrushes to create “plastic pearls.” Catherine 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. 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. A carpenter, Alex applied his woodworking process to an experimental technique by which he melted plastic milk jugs into a bar and carved it into an albatross. He smoothed the sculpture as much as possible, but it retained an uneven texture uncharacteristic of plastic. Throughout the process of working with plastic by hand, he reflected upon the meaning of this challenge to plastic’s resistance to human craftsmanship. Savana crafted a mixed media zine critiquing the tactile aesthetics and political implications of feminized robots. She wrote to the RealDoll factory to request a skin sample, pretending she was interested in purchasing a doll; they sent her a 4×4 chunk of purple silicone. (Most RealDolls have skin tones in natural shades, but apparently a customer had special-ordered an alien doll.) After looking at the dolls on a computer screen, it was a strange sensation to actually touch a piece of one. It did not feel like skin. It felt like squishy, sticky rubber. Savana sewed it into her zine with pink thread – the literalization of the plastic female body, there on the page in the flesh. Adi tracked the parallel inventions of photography and plastic to explore their twinned immersion in surfaces and artifice; the physicality of her hand-stitched matte paper zine disrupts the seamless digital sheen of plastic and photography. Catherine T. created a magazine called “Silicone” that curates a pop cultural continuum from compliant AI sex dolls to Janelle Monae‘s feminist android imaginary; the glossy cover of the printed booklet conceals her feminist critique.

Other student projects investigated digital plasticity. Logan analyzed the phenomenon of Lil Miquela, an immortal Instagram born-digital celebrity cyborg, and critiqued the ethics of simulated identity. Tucker analyzed corporate Twitter accounts’ removal from physical reality and proposed a return to visceral matter as the antidote to this capitalist hyperreality. Negassi theorized the dematerialization of blackness in Jay-Z‘s movement from an embodied icon to a disembodied brand. Madison and Brooklyn made experimental Tumblr pages: Madison’s explored Barbie‘s material aesthetics, and Brooklyn’s explored mass-produced cultural conformity in Heathers. Olivia, Haley, and Jenny made visual essays inspired by Kate Durbin‘s inquiry into reality television, selfie culture, and Hello Kitty stickers. Rose made a magazine about the politics and aesthetics of sex toys; Sam made a visual essay analyzing Kanye West’s celebrity wax dolls in “Famous”; Madeline made a visual essay analyzing Aqua and Valeria Lukyanova‘s contemporary interpretations of Barbie. Ari wrote an essay critiquing the Kardashian/Jenner beauty brand, and Will wrote an essay historicizing the romanticization of nature and its contemporary contradictions. (Student projects can be viewed here.)

The end of our collective time together was inevitable, as with any durational live performance. On the final day of class we moved outdoors and created a sculptural assemblage of plastic objects as vibrant matter. We finished class with a discussion based on final questions students had submitted in advance – we didn’t, of course, have time to answer all the questions, and I will include them here by way of closing this note with an opening:

Olivia: Can we live a life without plastic? Is it physically possible?

Tucker: Can we escape plastic (not just material plastic but a plastic society) or are we too deeply entrenched?

Madeline: Can modern society survive without plastic? What would we have to change/give up to work around this change?

Sam: What role do you think physical plastic will play in the future? How might our reliance on it, or approach toward it change?

Haley: Does the good of plastic and its necessity outweigh the bad of plastic?

Brooklyn: Where do we draw the line between helpful plastic (like reusable water bottles) and polluting plastic? Is the determining factor the plastic itself (as Tucker brought up in his Solo Cup presentation), or how we interact with it (requesting plastic over paper bags, recycling some plastic but not others)?

Madison: How and why does material plastic correlate with plastic aesthetics?

Catherine T.: What does it mean to have a plastic aesthetic? Does it have a negative connotation? When can it be positive?

Rose: Do you think the obsession with plastic in pop culture today will change in the future? How so?

Jenny: How can we really differentiate between what is real and plastic if everyone interprets things differently?

Catherine D.: If people are plastic does that mean they don’t have an interior? Or more generally, if something has a plastic exterior can it tell us anything about its interior?

Negassi: How do we determine what surfaces are acceptable and what surfaces are not? When our bodies are our surface, do we have control over those surfaces? What if we are cyborgs with interchangeable parts? Does the surface include just the outside, or the neuroplasticity within our brains? Is this all a moot point because of genetics?

Alex: How can plastic be understood as a natural part of human identity?

Savana: What is the difference between flexibility and plasticity? Does flexibility hold its original shape, while plastic holds a new shape?

Logan: How does plastic help you express yourself/your identity?

Ari: What ways has studying plastic influenced your way of thinking?

Top row, L-R: Will Hansen, Negassi Tesfamichael, Catherine Drayna, Catherine Torner, Brooklyn Smith, Madison Schultz, Madeline Sternman, Logan Gerbitz, Tucker Sanborn, Rose Lamensdorf, Ari Saghafi. Bottom row, L-R: Sam L., Jenny Recktenwald, Alex Mischler, Savana Stauss, Katie Schaag, Adi Dina, Olivia Kreyer, Haley Sirota. Photo by Lauren Hawley.