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Heather Davis

2014-17 IAH Postdoctoral Scholar

Heather Davis 

"Plastic: An Ethology of Oil"

Heather Davis

Dr. Davis received her Ph.D. from Concordia University in 2011. In 2013-2014, she was a Visiting Scholar in Aesthetics and Politics at the California Institute of the Arts and a Visiting Scholar in the Program in Experimental Critical Theory at UCLA; in 2012-13, she was a Postdoctoral Scholar in Women’s Studies at Duke University. Dr. Davis’s dissertation was titled “Art That Loves People: Relational Subjectivity in Community-Based Art.” Her current project represents a radically new direction for her work, and seeks to contribute to debates over the role of human activity in the so-called Anthropocene epoch, in which humans have arguably become capable of changing the biosphere as a whole.

Dr. Davis describes the project as follows:

Plastic is the ultimate sealant, providing a barrier for everything from food to computers to table tops. The first plastic, Bakelite, was created in 1907 and patented in 1909 by Leo Baekeland, who called it the “material of a thousand uses” and used the mathematical symbol of infinity as a trademark. Indeed, because plastic has been engineered to take the form of– and, supposedly, replace– any other object (miming the properties of everything from silk to ivory), it has often been understood as a substance without essence. But the commonplace idea that plastic is infinitely malleable is deceptive. In its first iterations, synthetic polymers were hard, brittle substances, and even now plasticizers are needed to make plastics pliable. Once the polymer bonds of plastic are produced, they remain recalcitrant in the face of change. A plastic product might break down into smaller and smaller pieces, but the molecules themselves remain the same. Plastic is a substance that stubbornly refuses to decompose, profoundly affecting and accumulating in its environment but never yielding to that environment’s influence.

New research on the relationship of plastic to the environment shows that microplastics have become the anthropogenic substrate for a diverse ecology of bacteria floating in the ocean, termed the ‘plastisphere’ (Zettler, Mincer and Amaral-Zettler, 2013). What these findings suggest is that try as we might through philosophy and chemical engineering to escape the bonds of the earth, we are inextricably part of its endless processes of mutation and evolution.

Plastic has been a subject of discussion in a wide range of fields; however, the connection with the history of philosophy, specifically as the structure of synthetic polymers relate to the idea of autonomous identity, remains vastly underexplored. This interdisciplinary study will address the philosophic, aesthetic, and material fallout of plastic, with particular attention to the transformation of ideas into matter. It draws upon the disciplines of environmental humanities, philosophy, cultural studies, and science and technology studies.