Tom Fischer's presentation- The Death of Plastic: Everyday Judgements about plastic detritus

On June 21st around one hundred scholars and activists working in the humanities and social sciences (plus one scientist) converged at Goldsmiths College in London to talk plastic. Usually symposia on plastic are part of science, industry, the trades or environmental studies. Accumulation is the first of its kind.

“The purpose of this interdisciplinary workshop is to explore the vitality, complexity and irony of plastic and to examine a range of issues that cut across arts, humanities, natural sciences, politics and social sciences. Among the questions to be addressed will be: How does plastic act simultaneously as raw material, object and process? What is the future of plastic as an assemblage of carbon in the context of peak oil and the shift toward new carbon economies? And how might recognition of the material force of plastic prompt new forms of politics, environmental responsibility and citizenship?”

There was a consensus over the well established and growing evidence of plastic’s negative ecological and political effects. But that is where consensus stopped. Participants may have expected a more complete view of plastic after activists, scientists and scholars from philosophy, design, cultural studies, and sociology discussed plastics through their various disciplines. As the adage goes, the blind man holding a tail finally talks to the blind man holding a trunk, the one holding a leg, and the other holding a tusk to discover they have an elephant between them.

Yet nothing as coherent as an elephant emerged from the day’s presentations and discussions. Instead, any notion of plastic being one neat and tidy object was challenged. One presenter discussed how no one knows how long it truly takes for plastic to degrade, followed by another, equally accurate presentation about how plastic ages, scratches, discolours, and degrades, leading to the depossession of durable plastic goods. At the end of the day, plastic was a shimmering, manifold “object:” a different sort of thing with different possibilities in different contexts. This is, after all, one of the things critical social theory does best: they work against perspectives that make the world solid and unchangeable. They question premises, what seems solid and natural, and find that things are contextual, political, and part of a larger network of relationships. By zooming out to look at this network, the humanities and social sciences give materials and practices a new chance to move forward in another direction. On June 21st, plastic gained potentials and directions. This unsettling of what seem like closed paths is the overarching method that the humanities can offer activists and those working for social and material change.

The following are publications from some of the presenters at Accumulation:

Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent (Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the Université Paris-X Nanterre): A History of Chemistry (1997), Communicating chemistry : textbooks and their audiences, 1789-1939 (2000). Presentation: “Plastics and materials thinking.”

Joe Deville (Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Centre for the Study of Invention and Social Process, Goldsmiths, University of London): “Debt Collection Devices: Tracing Technologies of Affect” (2009). Presentation: “Paying with Plastic: Consumer credit’s indeterminate attachments.”

Tom Fischer (Professor, School of Art and Design, Nottingham Trent University): Designing for Re-Use: The Life of Consumer Packaging (2009). Presentation: “Everyday judgements about plastic detritus.”

Jennifer Gabrys (Senior Lecturer and Covener, Design and Environment, Goldsmiths, University of London): Digital Rubbish: A Natural History of Electronics (2011), Sink: The Dirt of Systems,’ (2009). Presentation: “Material politics: plastic, carbon and the work of the bio-degradable.”

Gay Hawkins (Professor, Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies, University of Queensland): The Ethics of Waste: how we relate to rubbish (2006), “Plastic Bags: Living with Rubbish,” (2001). Presentation: “Polyethylene Terephthalate: making an economically informed material.”

James Marriot (Co-Director of PLATFORM): The Next Gulf – London, Washington & the Oil Conflict in Nigeria (2005), Unraveling the Carbon Web (in progress). Presentation: “Where does this stuff come from? A tale of the origin of plastic.”

Mike Michael (Professor, Sociology of Science and Technology, Goldsmiths, University of London): The Sacrifice: How Scientific Experiments Transform Animals and People (2007). Presentation: “Plastic and process: Velcro and the virtual.”

Richard Thompson (Professor, Marine Biology, University of Plymouth): “Spatial Patterns of Plastic Debris along Estuarine Shorelines” (2010), “Our plastic age” (2009), Plastics, the environment and human health: current consensus and future trends” (2009). Presentation: “Plastics, the environment and human health.”

From left to right: Mike Michaels (sociology), Tom Fisher (art and design), and Richard Thompson (marine biology) talking plastic.