- Toxic Progeny:The Plastisphere and Other Queer Futures
… the whole world can be plasticized, and even life itself.—Roland Barthes, Mythologies
On April 11, 2014, the Norwegian newspaper The Local reported that Bjørn Frilund caught a large cod that, as he discovered as he was gutting it, had swallowed a dildo. Frilund speculated that the fish mistook the dildo for one of the multicolored octopi that are its usual food source and are common to the area. This is certainly not the first case of a marine animal mistaking a piece of plastic for food. Everything from whales to birds to turtles to bacteria have been documented consuming plastic (Tremlett 2013; Stephanis, Giménez, Carpinelli et al. 2013; Zettler, Mincer, and Amaral-Zettler 2013), presumably in a moment of misrecognition, or due to an inability to filter out the plastic that is now, in some parts of the ocean, six times more abundant than plankton (Andrady 2011; Law and Moret-Ferguson 2010). But what is interesting to me about this example is the explicit enmeshment and strange congruence of oceanic plastic as it ties into nonreproductive sex and queer futurity. Although silicone (the most likely material that the dildo was made from) is not what is normally grouped under the (very broad) term “plastic” because it is not derived from petrochemicals, it shares the same problem that plastic poses; that is, its non-decomposability. We are not certain how long plastic may stick around for, but as is now commonly known, plastic can be considered practically immortal. That is, the timescale for which plastic may biodegrade, meaning that it turns into something else (delineated from simply breaking [End Page 231] down, tearing, or becoming smaller), is on the order of thousands of years. Given this incredible longevity, plastic can then be understood as a non-filial human progeny, a bastard child that will most certainly outlive us. And it is heralding in a future in which—regardless of one’s gender, sexual orientation, or religious beliefs—reproduction is increasingly decoupled from sex. Plastic is contributing to this non-reproductivity while birthing a future of strange new life forms adapted to deal with these chemicals. What kind of offspring is plastic? How might it intersect with questions of queer life and (non)reproduction? And, in light of our increasingly nonreproductive futures, might there be something to be learned from queer theory, and the embodiment of queer subjects that have never assumed biological reproduction to be the ultimate signifier of hope?
This essay will look to bring the worlds of plastic and queer theory together under the conditions of non-reproduction and extinction, a world where our progeny may not even be human much less our biological offspring. Here, I am following Nicole Seymour’s assertion that “queer values—caring not (just) about the individual, the family, or one’s descendants, but about the Other species and persons to whom one has no immediate relations—may be the most effective ecological values” (2013, 27). This fissuring of reproductive logic from biology could be one of the most important lessons in a world that is increasingly toxic. For, as Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands and Bruce Erickson write in Queer Ecologies, “queer attachments work both to celebrate the excess of life and to politicize the sites at which this excess is eradicated” (2010, 37). To develop these ideas, I build upon and am indebted to feminist science studies scholars such as Nancy Tuana, Donna Haraway, and Mel Chen, among many others, who assert the inherently intertwined viscous porosity of our bodies, our multiple compositions, and the necessarily imbricated and implicated nature of that position.
Plastic is a curious substance. The first fully synthetic polymer was made in 1907 by Leo Bakeland and patented in 1909. Made to replace other materials that were becoming increasingly scarce, it fueled an era of mass consumerism and the cheap replication and distribution of goods. Plastic is a generic category that describes about twenty different types of polymers. The five families of commodity plastics that make up about seventy-five percent “of the roughly one hundred billion pounds of plastic produced and sold annually in...