3rd October 2013

Plastic economies

Accumulation: the material politics of plastic is a new interdisciplinary collection of essays edited by Jennifer Gabrysmyself and Mike Michael. It examines a range of plastics-related issues that cut across art and design practices, humanities, natural sciences, politics and the social sciences. The book does not offer a general narrative about the evolution of plastics. Nor does it frame plastic as emblematic of social and environmental change. Rather, the aim is to capture the multiplicity and complexity of plastic by engaging with its processual materialities, or plasticity.

Accumulation engages with the particularity of plastics in order to draw out the complexities and implications of plasticity. The collection presents a series of chapters that address plastic in its concrete manifestations, including PET water bottles, credit cards, degrading and biodegradable plastics, everyday litter, marine debris, rapid prototyping, mobile phones, and oil and oil transportation. These and other examples provide richly detailed accounts of the ways in which plastic is woven into and enacted through social, cultural, political, technoscientific, ecological and economic practices. In all of these accounts, plastics are part of transformative material engagements. What emerges through these empirical object studies is how plasticity provides particular ways of thinking about and advancing understandings of materiality as process.

Accumulation cover Part II of this collection, Plastic Economies, investigates what plastic does in terms of generating economic value. What is the efficacy of plastic in processes of economic accumulation and market formation? How can we think about plastic as an economic agent? Here, the focus is on plastic as diverse industries and as distinct market devices. The aim is to trace the evolution of the plastics and petrochemical industries in the twentieth century, and to examine their interrelationships with governments, markets, consumers and the environment. It is also to investigate how particular plastic artefacts become central to the organization of exchange, practices of value and markets. How would the accumulation of surplus value happen without the ubiquitous credit card, or the retail packaging that makes commodities both mobile and accessible to the consumer trained to self serve?

In Chapter 3 I explore the rise of polyethylene terephthalate, or PET as it is commonly known. My goal is to understand how this distinct plastic, which most often takes the form of disposable single-use bottles, became ‘economically informed’ – that is, how it acquired the capacity to articulate new economic actions in the beverages industry. Central to my analysis is a concern with the nature of disposability. How did this plastic come to acquire the character of a throw-away or single-use material? What economy of qualities was developed to enact a temporality of transience for this most durable plastic, and how did this generate troubling shadow realities such as massive increases in plastics waste?  I use a topological approach to pursue these questions. My interest is in how the PET bottle can be considered a conduit of topological relations that connects plastics waste with plastics production and consumption. In my analysis the bottle is a medium by which the multiple spatial and temporal enactments of disposability become co-present and related. This foregrounds how the ever-growing accumulation of plastic moves in chaotic and multiple directions. PET bottles are made to be wasted and their anticipated future is inscribed in their multiple presents.

While I emphasize the role of PET in enacting disposability, Andrea Westermann focuses on the capacities of vinyl in advancing consumer democracy in West Germany from the 1930s onwards. Vinyl was a key ersatz material that enabled a proliferation of consumer goods (and wartime materials) that at once advanced German industry and contributed to individual prosperity. Westermann emphasizes the extent to which vinyl facilitated a version of consumer democracy based on consumer-citizens. Vinyl effectively became a material-political medium that generated and reinforced the possibilities for individual choice and mass consumption. But vinyl has not been without its problems, and Westermann charts how consumer-citizens became citizen activists when confronted with increasing evidence of the toxicity of vinyl.

The final chapter in Plastic Economies focuses on that quintessential plastic object of economic exchange: the credit card. As he introduces elsewhere on Charisma, Joe Deville charts the rise of the credit card, and maps the practices and campaigns whereby credit cards became more prevalent as a medium of exchange, and indeed enabled more plastic or fluid modes of credit and consumption. Deville considers the extent to which the plasticity of the credit card is a key part of its circulation, and extends this analysis to contemporary examples of debt and default. In these cases, the material presence of the credit card may become a site where the promise of credit is revoked through the demand that credit cards be cut up or returned, or it may become a site of protest, where credit card users refuse to comply with the material demands of credit card companies. The plasticity of credit cards, Deville suggests, is not incidental to the functioning of credit, but becomes a feature that unfolds in multiple and at times contradictory ways.

Each of these chapters offer compelling insights into the critical role of plastic materials in market and consumer practices, not as passive instruments of economic action but as central participants or devices that have their say in a multiplicity of ways.