Thursday, September 22, 2011

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Earth, air, sea, life and plastic bags


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.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

We can vote out our liars (c'mon Tom!)

In a recent article for the NYTimes Thomas Friedman belabors this phrase: "Dictators are falling. Democracies are failing." He gets the dictator part right, but -not surprisingly- fails to see what happens in his own backyard: 
Of course, there is a big difference between America and Libya. We can vote out our liars, unlike certain Arab — and Asian — countries.
Can we Tom? Are you so sure? What if our voted-out liars get replaced by other liars? What does that say about our system?

Monday, September 5, 2011

Barbies get bruises (yeah, right)


This photo by Tyler Shields, of Glee actress Heather Morris, caused a stir. An article in Shine makes this point:
Moral compass rule: You just shouldn't use deeply painful subjects like violence, abuse, or slavery (ahem, Vogue Italia) to sell your surface, expensive product. If that doesn't work, make-up artists, designers, photographers, and ad execs should consider this: bruises, burns, and scrapes don't make people want to buy things.
I agree, but are we not becoming too moralistic? In any case, I don't think moralists should worry. Here is why:

Tyler Shields is playing with heavy visual codes. I propose to define something as being x-"code" if it works in the context it is exported to. Clearly the code here is (domestic) abuse. Shields' photo above is not really code. Why not? He flirts with violence but he's out of context. He presents a mug-shot version of an attractive, white, young woman with a black eye. Heather Morris, the model, looks straight into the camera with an almost defiant expression. Though beaten, she remains coldly composed, as if to put beyond any doubt that she is in control. Which is why her face doesn't export.*

Either Shields is oblivious to abuse-code or he wasted Morris' time -you are not dumb to try code without some subversive idea. Had he used a black or a Latino female subject, his photo would've been fuzzier (momentarily, I defer to analyze whether fuzzier is better or worse). Shields should've couched Morris how to feel a bit under her skin the drag of existential humiliation that comes with brutality, falling to the unyielding pull of poverty & addiction, until there is little left of her self-esteem to even look straight at the camera.

Just to complicate things a bit. How about this one?

A gleeful Rhianna looks at the camera. She exhibits her -still visible- shiner under a bit of mascara. Whereas the received mark of violence is confined to police mug-shots, Rhianna turns it upside down: Bruise now becomes makeup, a redefinition -rather, incorporation- of code. Violence is met with a resoluteness of a different kind. Absorbed by beauty -not glamor- brutality is deprived of its ominous stigma. A long shot from Tyler Shields' bruised Barbie.
* Morris' self-conscious shot brings to mind actors' uncanny ability to feign emotions. How matter-of-factly an expression of credible hair-rising fear suddenly turns into a happy face.