The plastic bag is a thing of this world. A derivative of petroleum or natural gas, the plastic bag is a close relative of other esteemed domestic household objects: the salad bowl, the cheap kitchen clock, the asthma inhaler-device, the computer chassis, the CD we listen to. It figures as a part of our Teflon coated pans, the acrylic paint on our walls; as alloy to wind-resistant windows, even corn starch.
Every day millions of plastic bags are carried out of our malls and supermarkets. They wind up everywhere, peppering park's greenery, polluting the streets. A dense layer of flotsam (choking marine life) and jetsam (drifting to shore) dirtying our beaches.
Innocuous container or recalcitrant matter?
In his essay "Plastic Materialities," Gary Hawkins explores how things have the power to capture us in new relations. His idea is to show a less obvious perspective of the thing. In American Beauty, Ricky, the aspiring film maker and pot-head, is obsessed with beauty. He videotapes a plastic bag as it floats, to-and-fro, at the mercy of the wind. Ricky's video shows the thing-power, a "depth from which objects rise up towards our superficial knowledge."* Here's Ricky's narration:
It's one of those days when it's a minute away from snowing. And there is electricity in the air, you can almost hear it right? And this bag was just... dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. That's the day I realized there was this entire life behind things, and this incredible benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid. Ever... Video's a poor excuse. I know. But it helps me remember. (PM, p. 135)One can think of other examples, such as this, where the plastic bag becomes a "chair-bag."
|Ryan Frank, Plastic Bag Chair, 2008.|
Frank re-presents the material, but the plastic bag's form becomes aestheticized, subsumed, concealed.
|Shipwrecked: My Life for a Bag, 2010.|
British artist Claudia Borgna, above, presents the plastic bag as an organized society of ready-mades. The bags stick together as a kind of ghostly soul-buddies. Is this a real accumulation of thing-power?
What is thing-power?
Thing power is a kind of agency, it is the property of an assemblage. Thing-power materialism is a (necessarily speculative) onto-theory that presumes matter has an inclination to make connections and form networks with varying degrees of stability. Here, then, is an affinity between thing-power materialism and ecological thinking: both advocate and the cultivation of an enhanced sense of the extent to which all things are spun together in a dense web, and both warn of the self-destructive character of human actions that are reckless with regard to other nodes of the web.(PM, p. 135)I'd like to read Bennet's thing-power with Shvetashvatara's holistic glasses. The old Hindu sage would agree that all things "are spun together in a dense web". But "the self-destructive character of human actions" is as much part of the web as the rest. If the living and the non-living are connected, then creation and destruction become connective possibilities.
Shvetashvatara is not afraid to talk thing-power from the bottom up:
You are a woman, you are a man, you are a boy; also a girl. As an old man you totter along with a walking stick. As you are born you turn your face in every direction. You are the dark blue bird, the green one with red eyes, the rain-cloud, the seasons, and the oceans. (...) You live as one without a beginning because of your pervasiveness, you, whom all beings have been born. (Shvetashvatara Upanishads, 4.2-4.4)In a perverse geological sense, we are walking plastic bags!
If ecology is going to address living and non-living, then clouds, air, trees, earth, sand, proteins, viruses, humans, plastic bags are all part of the whole. What's the point of differentiating when everything is (a part of) Brahman?**
We cannot think outside the whole. There is a democracy of creation and destruction everywhere. If we destroy ourselves that's inside the whole. Only by facing this predicament we can understand how to deal with our mounting ecological problems.
On the other hand, this sea turtle is out of the loop.*** Though part of a network that includes sun, sand, sea, predators, plastic bags, etc, it cannot fathom the subtleties and contradictions of thing-power. We have to find new ways to deal with our living/non living dichotomy.
Is it really about them or about us?
* Jane Bennet, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, (Duke University, 2010) p. 2. ** Brahman doesn't have to be God. Just the totality of all things put together. *** Plastic bags are among the 12 items of debris found most often in coastal cleanups, according to the nonprofit Center for Marine Conservation. Marine mammals, seabirds, and sea turtles can become entangled in the bags, and sea turtles can mistake them for food such as jellyfish, then die from starvation resulting from intestinal blockage.