It looks like we are gold digging. Almost. We’re looking for plastic particles under the microscope, trying to find ways to make plastics legible to the human eye. The samples were taken in Meech Lake and Canal Rideau. We bleached the material with peroxide, let it set for several days, filtered with nylon filters, then ready to be put under the light of the microscope. We look for the material qualities, its color, shape and resistance to the tweezers pressure, which may betray its presence among the rocks.
Nosing the Plastic Touch
“Listening to cacophony and noise tell us that there is a wild beyond to the structures we inhabit and that inhabit us.”
- Moten et Harney, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, 2013
Sonic meshwork, remnants from a visit in a plastic bottle facility
In a multi-site fieldwork that took place this summer between Montreal and Ottawa, I have attended, through sounds, to the circulation and transformations of matter and meaning of oil’s concretion into plastic and plastic’s deconstruction. I have been listening and recording the noises emerging from the frictions of oil and plastic’s circulation, and have myself entered into a becoming-noise by interfering with a viscous milieu.
I started this research in oil with a preliminary fieldwork in a gas station in Ottawa. This is where recording sounds triggered a methodological and epistemological interest in how to make sense of the micro events, the noises betraying oil’s manifestation, that kept interrupting conversations, and kept displacing me as I was, in this confined place, always in the way of people, and ultimately, oil. This is a recording of the indices of the moving, and disturbing presence of oil.
(see below for the recording)
To record the ephemeral, that which goes unrecorded, that which escapes memory, has meant recording the phonosonic tracks of oil (at first under its gasoline ethos and later under its plastic ethos). My practice has thus consisted in creating meta recordings: recordings of the material’s own registration through mechanic and electronic devices that make up a control apparatus designed for the material circulation. Through the recording and composition of noises, I bring to the foreground background noises. I thus bring attention to another field of sounds and expose what has been rendered inaudible, sounds to which we have become insensible (Thompson 2017, 93-94). By reassembling pieces of plastic or oil sounds, I try to make the background, the milieu, sentient again.
Plastic’s presence is overwhelming and has become a productive force impressing its mark upon us, on the earth. What I have been recording is thus the plastic touch, which in the original sense of the word (lat: fingere) refers to both friction and fiction. Each gesture, repetition, manipulation of plastic, works to place one’s trust in what plastic can do for us, and to us, and thus come to bring into effect plastic’s presence. As such, those repetitions reinforce a petromodern culture (After Oil 2015), and mark a geological signature some now call the Plasticene (in reference to the Anthropocene) (Zalawiecz 2016).
This practice of “noising”, as I call it, in this double dimension of recording noise and becomingnoise, has thus been for me a synesthetic mode of engagement with the milieu where hearing meets other senses, and whereby I try to render sensible noises but also produce noise by being present. Rendering sensible has meant conveying how the slippery oil and plastic fields have been noising, messing up with me, at times incorporating me into their flow and at others throwing me away. Ultimately, the recording is not so much about me playing (with) noise, but rather about how noise, that is the milieu, here oil concretions, has been at best sounding me and at worst literally and figuratively playing me. In this sense, my recording assemblage, and thus my role as ethnographer has been one of mediator of a plastic touch.
The field has been playing me in different degrees. It oscillated from being slippery, for my presence was from the start precarious and out of place, to sometimes a complete sliding of the field, or landslide, when the field closed in on me. In this mode of engagement, the roles of researcher and participant, observant and observed, were not static but very much dynamic. I was not so much in the position of a potential oppressor but rather of a potential prey, susceptible to being captured or thrown away. For at every step of this multi-site fieldwork, my noisy, disturbing presence, was as much watched and recorded as I was recording myself through my senses and extra-sensors.
In a programmatic, more than analytical approach, here are notes of my ongoing work, so as to give a sense of my enmeshment with the milieu. I started my fieldwork from the middle, at the blue bin, the recycling bin. Roaming in the streets of Ottawa until I found a truck to catch on the fly and stick to it as long as I could. I would run after them and introduce myself in between two throws of bins. After a few days, rumors of my presence had spread already. When meeting a new team of garbage men, I was often already known to them. They had heard of me, or seen me running from afar. Like a ghost, I was absently present, causing surprise when appearing in flesh and bones. At first following from afar — because the smell, the movements of the truck and throws of bins kept me away — I eventually stepped in, swallowed the smelly emanations, picked up the bins and integrated what seemed to me to be a kind of choreography. I threw not only garbage but also my body at the back of the truck so as not to miss my target. I felt the ‘plastic juice’ sitting at the bottom of the bin splashing on my face, dripping on my hands, soaking the velvety polyethylene terephthalate gloves I had put on, and running on my skin along my arms, underneath my sleeves. I tried to keep up with the pace and hoped to be integrated in helping them speed up their beat. But I had to come to realize I was in fact slowing down the pulse of their flow. I stepped on their toes, bumped into them in our loops, failed to tilt the bin properly over the net that keeps plastic from flowing away, ultimately letting it spread on the road, the truck waiting for me as I picked the pieces by hand. I gradually gained some kind of praise and became part of their teams. They offered water when running under the sun, and eventually invited me on board, at the front and on the side of the truck. They taught me how to take the beat, how to move with the metallic body of the truck and plasticky mess of the bins. That is how I incorporated into the flow even though my clumsiness slowed the pace. I sticked to recycling trucks until the word about my interfering presence, passing through the walkie-talkies, became too loud, exhausting the supervisors’ tolerance and eventually cutting me off the beat. In this becoming-noise, becoming-plastic, I incorporated the truck assemblage, as much as it incorporated me, until I had to make my way out, only to reappear somewhere else on the plastic beat.
Ed Ruscha, 1963, from the book “Twentysix Gasoline Stations”.
Oil and its plastic derivatives have imbedded our world system so massively that we now live in what some call the Plasticene. Plastic come into shape mainly for functional purposes. It is waste by design, consuming fossilized organic bodies that took millions of years to accumulate under the ground, only to become a single-use object, but is nonetheless part of human intimacy. Plastic is said to betray its own meaninglessness by what it sounds like: emptiness. However supposedly meaningless, plastic’s presence is overwhelming and touches us. To get a sense of how plastic intimately touches us, in the original sense of the latin word “fingere” which refers to both friction and fiction, I have started mapping the contemporary routes of plastic by listening to the chemico-physical life cycle of this material, as well as its affective one. Like oil or even plastic’s sticky texture, one that permeates and render some bodies abject, I took viscosity as my own methodology. I stick to places where, like waste, my presence is “out of place”, not meant to be. This allows me to capture the phonic tracks plastic leaves when passing through its human coupling. In doing so, I hope to give a new sense of what plastic means and does to us, and render somewhat intelligible what is often discarded as noise.
I thus started off this ethnographic voyage in oil by sticking to a gas station in downtown Ottawa. What came out of this is a meta recording of oil: a recording of its own registration through surveillance screens, cashiers and all kind of electronic devices that make up a control apparatus designed for and through oil consumption.This recording thus aims at capturing the signature of oil in the phonic tracks it leaves in its passing. What you hear is how oil inscribes itself through the daily gestures one makes, which, like any act of faith, work to place one’s trust in what oil can do for us, and does do to us.
Si le pétrole s’inscrit en une signature géologique sur la surface de la Terre, il a été question ici d’écouter et de capturer la manière dont le pétrole s’inscrit au travers de nos gestes quotidiens dans une station essence. Periplum Petroleum est une signature phonique du pétrole composée à partir des traces laissées au passage du pétrole dans son couplage avec l’humain: de la pompe au pot d’échappement en passant par les instruments de surveillance, de visualisation, des appareils d’enregistrement de paiements… Tous entrent dans la composition de cet agencement matériel qu’est le pétrole.
To read the full article (in French), click ici.
Aux côtés de la notion d’anthropocène, le terme plasticene apparaît de plus en plus fréquemment dans le vocabulaire anthropologique. Une époque plastique donc, ou de la plasticité, qui tient son nom du fait des fibres microplastiques incrustées dans les sédiments. Cette présence stratigraphique est fortement corrélée à la distribution des sites d’enfouissement. Dans les années 1950, on produisait déjà 2 millions de tonnes de plastique. Environ 300 millions de tonnes sont maintenant produites chaque année. En 2015, le total de tous ces déchets plastiques s’amassait à 5 milliards de tonnes. Une masse suffisante de plastique pour envelopper la Terre entière de cellophane (Zalasiewicz, 2016).
Mis à part la présence de plastique visible à l’oeil nu, on trouve dans les mers des microplastiques. On ne parle donc plus dès lors “d’île” plastique, ni de “soupe” de plastique, mais de “smog” ou brouillard plastique. Cette nouvelle notion a des implications politiques importantes. Les actions à mener vont être différentes en fonction de l’idée que l’on se fait de la substance et de l’envergure de cette présence plastique. Le concept de brouillard remet en question le type d’initiative de dépollution par récupération des déchets à l’aide de dispositifs de filets. En revanche, en prenant en compte que le plastique est pervasif et invisible à l’oeil nu, et qu’il a investit l’ensemble de la chaîne alimentaire, puisque le zooplankton absorbe les microplastiques, cela suggère qu’une intervention ne doit pas se faire en aval, mais bien plutôt en amont du problème de pollution plastique. Cela consisterait notamment à rentrer en dialogue avec certaines industries cosmétiques qui injectent dans leurs produits des microbilles plastiques que l’on trouve dans la masse invisible de ce brouillard plastique (Liboiron, 2016).
Le plasticene et la catastrophe
L’anthropocène, tout comme le plasticene, ou la plasticisation du monde, s’accompagne souvent de l’idée de catastrophe, de l’urgence et de la fin du monde. Par catastrophe on comprend intuititivement l’arrivée subite d’un événement. Quelque chose qui ne prévient pas, qui surprend et submerge au point de faire entrer brutalement le “sujet” dans l’altérité. La catastrophe est en ce sens le “surgissement du dehors” (Laplantine 2016), une expérience avant tout “hors sujet”, de rupture de l’intelligibilité (Moreau, 2016).
Cela dit, il s’agit ici de comprendre la catastrophe comme un processus qui est à l’oeuvre depuis déjà un certain temps. La catastrophe, loin d’être soudaine, a quelque chose de lent et de latent, que l’on ne voit pas venir. La catastrophe au sens classique d’un événement brutal et soudain, qui fait tout chavirer, où tout passe par dessus bord, ne se réfère qu’à la manifestation d’un processus spatio-temporel plus vaste.
Le problème donc, avec la notion de catastrophe comme on l’entend habituellement, est qu’elle ne rend pas compte des menaces caractérisées par leur durabilité et leur pénétrabilité, de ces processus imperceptibles de normalisation (Moreau, 2016).
Il s’agit alors de comprendre la catastrophe à la fois comme excès, comme le trop plein qui déborde mais aussi comme le processus d’accumulation. L’excès, le hors-norme, n’est toujours que la manifestation d’un processus déjà latent, de répétition, de normalisation aliénante.
Le travail de l’anthropologue, du scientifique comme de l’artiste consiste justement à s’intéresser non pas au massif, au spectaculaire et à l’extraordinaire, mais plutôt au tout petit pour rendre différemment intelligible l’a priori incompréhensible.
Laplantine, F., 2015. Entretien avec Moreau Yoann, “La dimension subie”, Communications, 1 (n° 96), p. 19-38.
Moreau, Y. (2015). “Des catastrophes “hors sujet ””, Communications, 1/2015 (n° 96), p. 5-18