On Plastic

Plastic is perhaps more a state-change than a substance. It is the sum of millions of years of degraded organisms’ bodies, chemically altered to a state of no return. It is the end of transformation, after death.

However, an object may be described as plastic if it’s susceptible to change, hence the term “brain plasticity” referring to the ability of networks in the brain to physically change and reorganize themselves.

This is somewhat true for some plastics, like thermoplastics. These polymers contain within them weaker carbon-carbon bonds that allow some malleability once reheated.

Once petroleum undergoes the process of becoming plastic, however, what was once a biomaterial becomes an amalgamated, non-biodegradable, synthetic one. On the atomic level, several chains of monomers become a polymer. Aside from the potential malleability in form, plastic, once transformed, is no longer plastic. What has been done cannot be undone.

In her Bioplastics Cookbook, Tiare Ribeux engages with this plastic-body integration that recalls Roland Barthes’s essay “Plastic”, in which he describes it as “half-god, half-robot”. I found this conceptually similar to Haraway’s cyborg, a “hybrid of machine and organism”. Already characterized by transformation, plastic, is made up of mutated, non-objects; is a being both alive and the end of life after death.

Despite the warnings of ecological collapse, plastic has cemented itself in manufacturing as a prosaic substitute, often existing for utility rather than aesthetic. With its inherent flexibility of use, it dismantles hierarchy of natural substances such as wood and metal, flattening through imitation, materials into a single plane.

I think plastics as the "end of life after death" is very apt. Synthetics, though I would say, aren’t the only manifestation of the end of life after death. What’s notable too, is this process of ending life after death starts long before the chemical transformations of monomers to polymers. When substances are extracted from their natural crevices and unleashed where they do not belong, that deep process of regeneration through decomposition comes to a stark end.

The irreparable damage is seeping and unbound. Life is scraped away, and water is left toxic. Bitumen contaminates the earth; substance is taken from where it was meant to be kept, and layers of the earth once perfectly organized are now ravaged and disheveled irriversably.

Then what we see, what we have, what we hold, is the plastics. Relics of violence, of fossils of life now erased, stripped, and homogenized, and re-fossilized synthetically. There are so many voices behind those relics and I want to know their volume.