Carren Irr’s Life in Plastic: Artistic Responses to Petromodernity / Nuria Sánchez

Photo by Sri Lanka on Unsplash. 

Caren Irr. Life in Plastic: Artistic Responses to Petromodernity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2021.

It could be argued that nature, as we have typically understood it, no longer surrounds us. Since 2020, human-made mass has exceeded the weight of living biomass, and plastic alone doubles the weight of the animal kingdom.1 We can guess that correspondingly, other longstanding beliefs about our earthly existence have shifted due to anthropogenic produce, but which ones and to what extent?

The essays collected in the edited volume, Life in Plastic, engage plastics not only through the frame of environmental crisis, but also culturally because they are “deeply integrated into the cultural imaginary of petromodernity” (1). There is an ambivalence that permeates both petroleum byproducts that pollute shores and facemasks used in a pandemic: both are simultaneously menacing and vital.

Petromodernity is defined as the “dependence on global oil markets and the heaviness of large machinery” (5), which surfaces through plastic forms, constituting a timescale, often visual, literary and even auratic, that has ranged from a utopian joy to postapocalyptic disenchantment. The book traces this trajectory to think together aesthetics with preservation since, after all, “the cultural norms that support the use of plastic are deeply embedded in the consumerist societies” as Irr and Nayoung Kim argue, advocating for “a collective refusal to contain our imaginations within environmentally destructive visions of synthetic technologies” (3). Explored in this way, plastic exceeds its usual connotations as passive detritus, becoming seeds of new sensations and radical transformations.

Four sections constitute Life in Plastic through a sustained reassessment of work by Roland Barthes, Catherine Malabou, Susan Freinkel, Amanda Boetzkes, Allison Cobb and others, who lead away from schematic accounts of petromodernity to draw out crucial differences which have been ignored. Implicit in the volume is a multiperspectivism that merges materialism, affect theory, Marxism, ethics, queer studies, speculative fiction, and a renewed ecocriticism.

The first section, “The Plastic Sensorium,” grapples with the centrality of this material to bodily existence. Is plastic experienced by consumers and audiences immediately, or is it ideologically mediated, i.e., regarding sexuality and class? Can the materiality of plastic be understood in an embodied interaction or as the reflection triggered by long-standing presumptions about time, life and death? Answering these questions presupposes an aesthetics beyond contingency and a transversalized, experience of being-a-body incorporating the constant renegotiation of the social contract.

Regarding the first issue, W. Dana Philips and Paul Morrison demonstrate that “the ideological is never more efficacious than when it situates itself in as a ‘raw experience’” (52), and since in a Cartesian society we unquestioningly accept objective evidence, plastic’s system of values takes root. Human material output is not unbiased since it preserves heteronormative domesticity and bourgeois morality, respectively, going beyond its physical limits as either commodity or detritus. Philips examines Plastic, a 2017 comix/graphic novel in which the protagonist gets aroused by plastic surfaces. This appeal does not arise from the sensuous properties of the material but from the fascination of the wide range of commodities made with it. An inflatable sex doll, countless sporks, wrapping film, among other things situate him in a safe ambiance of heteronormative domesticity. Morrison’s essay about Polyester (1981) emphasizes the bourgeois lifestyle and morality behind the smell of plastics. John Waters’s film portrays a suburban woman who sniffs compulsively, whose nose both censures the filthy and desires pleasure in the scent of things like a new car and Lysol. This demonstrates that civilization’s demands for deodorization and hygiene function as a class mechanism to strengthen capitalism.

Loren Glass and Jane Kuenz look at these questions through two different artistic milieus: musical reproduction and the museum. Here, they demonstrate how the rigidity of plastic determines both the duration and the scope of its reach in the audiences. An unsatisfied user of digital music streaming services, Glass theorizes about the Album Era, a period in time marked by the long-playing records and the way vinyl shapes auratic experience. LPs created the conceptual albums which fostered revolution in the 60’s thanks to plastic, which binds the sensory and conceptual though the materiality and aesthetic of the cover, label, jacket, and sleeve, solidifying vinyl as a repository of ideas. LPs embed charisma and nostalgia physically, whereas streaming leaves us lost in algorithms. However, there is a flip side to the rigidity of plastic which Kuenz explores in the plastination of bodies carried out in BODY WORLDS, an exhibition of preserved bodies. After the preservation process, 70% of the body becomes polymer, displayed as an object of entertainment and education, and its image gets reproduced and sold. It changes the very definition of a body, from an entity with rights under the law to a commodity: since the donors sign an agreement to become a hardened object, ethical concerns are dismissed. This consolidates the neoliberal creed, now everything is virtually permitted in name of the freedom to choose each one’s afterlife. Plastinates lose their identity and create a false universal but the institutional discourse about education, entertainment and democratizing anatomy goes further as to erase racist historical and ideological forces around death to justify the “pedagogical” project –here Kuenz comments about the cruel origin of the first plastinates: Asian tortured convicts.

The next section, “The Plasticity of Genre” draws on structures, forms, and genres to argue plastic as the basis of creation. Daniel Worden examines plastic bodies in comics which reflect the “speed and power of petroculture” (99) through the link between plastic flexibility, the aesthetics of comic, and the malleability of the superhero body. Plastic Man both appeals to a limitless freedom and to the need to preserve daily life, as commented above in Polyester, paradoxically in danger because of material limits to fossil growth. Margaret Ronda analyzes poetry’s malleability: just like plastic, poetry morphs dynamically all spheres of human activity. At times an enabler and at times a pollutant, plastic contains futurity like a pharmakon and hence literature must adapt its forms just the same to convey hope for an after-Anthropocene. Poiesis addresses plastic’s materiality as process, following Barthes when he described plastic not as a material but as “a medium characterized by its transformative capacities” (120). But since it opposes the petroculture regime, how can these revolutionary forms circulate and make a change? Filling this void in Ronda’s perspective, Maurizia Boscagli explores how climate and migration art composed by the objet trouvé appropriate the aesthetic of plastic and trigger political action. Plastiglomerate, life vests and inflatable boats enter the museum as ready-mades, which she proposes as a site of denunciation by tweaking Benjamin’s concept of the aura. While he linked contemplative distance and absorption to fascism, Boscagli argues that these artifacts resonate with memories and makes us engage affectively. It only happens with objet trouvé since all other plastic ready-mades are perceived as commodities.

The third section, “Plastic’s Capitalism” is certainly in keeping with the volume’s general embrace of creative hope and careful appreciation, but it more directly takes up capitalism as the enemy to disarm. To counter the enthusiast outline offered in part two, the writers connect plastics with the dismantlement of property over optimistic animism, the downsides of corporate realism, and warnings against ecologists’ fatigue, all critically engaging with capitalist roots.

Crystal Bartolovich’s essay provides an insightful critique of the deployment of “refuges of ignorance” by Bruno Latour, which eschew more radical efforts. From her Marxist scholarship, she conceives capitalism not only as a neutral mode of production of plastics but as a conflict. This contrasts with Latour’s term network, which expresses that capitalism is merely the way things are made. By assessing the systemic forces behind production, Bartolovich redirects us to the colonial and extractivist mode of capital funding, thus arresting enthusiasm towards alleged plastic agency, which more often than not prevents us from realizing that the ultimate goal is to undo property, in every dimension, for ecological restoration. In parallel, Christopher Breu reveals to what extent we inhabit what he calls a petrochemical unconscious. Following Malabou’s work on destructive plasticity, Breu characterizes petrochemical capitalism as plastic made systemic. Climate crisis goes unnoticed due to the deliberate repression that consumer devices inflict. He evidences this by analyzing Richard Powers’s Gain, the story of a dying body and the company that sickened her. Realism does not portray petromodernity’s scales properly, provoking a causation disjuncture which conceals corporate responsibility. The final essay in this section by Sean Grattan reflects on the troubles of representing ocean plastic. Spectacular pictures trigger affective reaction but also conceal the size, circulation and reach of waste. Building monstrous and mysterious plastic narratives causes “an affective exhaustion” (203), as Timothy Morton warned, even though oceanic pollution is a “slow violence” and has “a drama deficit” (202) when compared with other urgencies. Grattan proposes an affect theory which examines the Pacific garbage patch as a vitality that incites transformation or generates a more controlled “ecosickness,” in a way that is impossible to ignore but also that would not cause a convenient capitalistic burnout.

But what if the future is already loaded with pessimistic imaginaries? What if the derangement is systemic, beyond repairment? The book analyzes this scenario in the final section, “Postplastic Futures?”, by exhuming long-held assumptions about plastic to trace how synthetic sensibilities and imaginaries evolve in sci-fi and pinpoint a way out, if possible. For this, the authors comment on the relationship between liberation through plastic expression, plasticity as possibility for self-improvement, and an adamant becoming-plastic.

To begin with, Lisa Swanstrom notes that protoplastics signified prosperity in early sci-fi, although later on they facilitated destruction. Yet despair wanes in Steven Barnes’s “Woman in the Wall,” where a plastiglomerate fence is not seen as a device of control and imprisonment but as “an outlet of expression” (233): imprisoned habitants weave themselves (identity, memories, pain, hopes) in the community through aesthetic marks over the plastic. This supports Heather Davis’s description of a queer futurity in which plastic is repurposed for communities to thrive within postapocalyptic states—prosperity queerly revamped. Phillip Wegner reads Tobias S. Buckell’s dystopian Arctic Risingand Emmi Itäranta’s post-world Memory of Water to distill transformative agendas from postapocalyptic omens. While Buckell envisions the future geopolitical landscape of the New North in which neoliberalism perdures, Itäranta’s characters illustrate plasticity as defined by Malabou; that is, the ability to abandon determination and pursuing self-improvement while maintaining self-awareness, which ought not to be confused with flexibility, the obligatory malleability under capitalist exploitation. Finally, Jennifer Wagner-Lawlor makes a powerful case regarding the ongoing mutually reliant and reflexive relationship between capitalism and plastic through myths: insofar as every rhetorical production we consume advocates for the need of plastics, the more capitalism will be “naturalized”. Reading Barthes’s “Myth Today” instead of “Plastic,” she unveils the discursivity of the allegedly disinterest of capitalism regarding politics and economy. Karen Tei Yamashita’s Through the Arc of the Rain Forest sketches a Brazilian Matacão, formed by molten 21st century polyurethane now hardened and exploited for profit. Spiritual, geological, alchemical and speculative discourses function as alibis for extraction, and to convince us petromodernity is the a priori “way of the world” we cannot escape. But just as the entire biomass seems to become-plastic, humanity too can learn how to be equally and relentlessly resistant.

The futurity of life within plastic is not conceptually envisioned but judged in-between, that is, looking for a path between the petromodern present and a plastiglomerate future in which change can occur. Nevertheless, our narratives thus far paint the future as an impasse, and the suggested alternatives in the final section are not robust enough. They mostly dwell on the remains, on what can be saved after the debacle. And by proposing to take inspiration from plastic’s virtues, our minds are encouraged to linger in petromodern imaginaries. It could be argued that this makes the final section somewhat feeble, but the question mark in its title also suggests that it is precisely reflecting on these uneasy endings.

All in all, Life in Plastic serves as a corrective of the trend in reading contemporary literature and arts only to make an ecological commentary. The authors interrupt this understanding by providing field specific insights and incisively demonstrating the danger of facile moves toward toxicity and catastrophe solely. They also examine plastic as poiesis, that is, “itself a dynamic and life-altering form” (118) though aesthesis. Further, they invite us to resist the temptation to either reduce artwork to the description of the chronic condition of petromodernity or to eschew the relevance of engaged and pragmatic critiques of capitalism. Each author balances reflection and sensibility, and articulates their position aware of the fact that, for better or worse, some plastic potentialities have yet to be discovered. In the face of our current moment of danger, the book emerges as a long-neglected intellectual, aesthetic and affective history of the potentialities and futurities of plastic and plasticity.

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  1. Bruno Venditti and Zack Aboulazm, “Visualizing the Accumulation of Human-Made Mass on Earth”, Visual Capitalist, November 28, 2021.