On a misty day in May Dr. Katie Schaag, the 2017-18 Mendota Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow, and the students of English 245 hike up Bascom Hill to reflect on a semester that challenged them to read and think deeply about plastic in many of its material and conceptual forms. And also, to build a collaborative American Plastic installation with seemingly ordinary plastic objects. Although the grass is already soggy and more rain looms, the heady conversation about performance, artifice, and reality itself makes these concerns immaterial.
How, some may wonder, can plastic—not to mention pop stars Nicki Minaj and Lady Gaga—constitute viable topics for a seminar for English majors? As it turns out, plastic is not only ubiquitous in our everyday lives, landfills, and oceans; it has, like bisphenol-A, seeped into bodies of work by contemporary artists, writers, and theorists who make use of plastic as a medium and a metaphor. Evelyn Reilly’s Styrofoam and Lisa Robertson’s XEclogue, on the English 245 syllabus along with Minaj and Gaga, represent new variations on an age-old impulse to manipulate materials into objects, tools, and art. Students also engaged with writings by Walter Benjamin, Michel Foucault, and Judith Butler—to name a few—to help them think more deeply about plastic as a material substance, and its relationships to identity, performance, and visual culture.
Throughout the semester, the challenges of handling theory and experimental poetry at times seemed overshadowed by the task of understanding the harrowing threat plastic represents for life on Earth, coupled with the reality that we cannot live without plastic. But the conceptual value of plastic also helped students think flexibly about environmental concerns. For one student, plasticity means that “everything is made up! We’re made up, gender’s made up, nature’s made up. And that’s a good thing because we can adapt and survive and continue living as a society.” While plastic isn’t going anywhere, we can create ways to “manage the threat,” as another student phrases it. Someone brings up the serendipitous discovery of plastic-consuming enzymes by scientists at Portsmouth University as a possible beacon of hope. Others express ambivalence: “I learned a lot about the ingenuity of humans that will one day kill us, and also that we can make anything we want and bend the earth to our will,” one student reflects. There is some ominousness in the air. What can creative problem-solving, or even plastic-eating enzymes do when it’s 2018 and roommates are still tossing plastic bottles into the trash bin?
Students navigated the Scylla of challenging texts and the Charybdis of environmental crisis by opening up to each other. Dr. Schaag, who has a background in collaborative performance, created an environment in which students felt comfortable working out ideas in the open. Students were also encouraged to investigate and share the topics that interested them most, and worked together to understand these topics in light of core concepts. While pondering a question about how to distinguish what is real from what is not real, one student refers to the phenomenon of Lil Miquela, the Instagram Cyborg. “She was on [Instagram] since 2016 and I did not know she was not real for a long time!” Everyone laughs, and then falls into contemplative silence. “I never considered before what was real as what we make real,” the student suggests. “Lil Miquela is ‘realized’ by her followers—by people questioning whether or not she’s real. People who say she’s not real are actually making her into a real concept.” Such exchanges exemplify “the freedom and connectivity of discussion that allowed for some really fascinating conversations,” and highlight the intellectual community that everyone will miss after today. “I’m not the same person as when we started the class,” one student reflects. “Everything I read is part of me now, and everything I see and hear connects back to the ideas I learned here. I have to keep thinking about it all!”
The spirit of collaboration and a sense of interest—and even wonderment—in the minds and ideas of others is exemplified in the building of the American Plastic installation. Students place their plastic objects into the middle of the circle. Chosen throughout the semester for research presentations on their historical, material, and cultural significance, these objects all serve as points of inquiry into the relationships between material and conceptual plastic: a Barbie doll; a zip-loc bag; a fake ID, and a Styrofoam mannequin’s head; a milk jug; a fake gold medal; a hand-made albatross; a dildo. Working together, students arrange and re-arrange the objects, creating a fluid chain of surprising visual metaphors that moves much faster than you can think. Referring to Kirsty Robertson’s “plastiglomerate” and Jane Bennett’s concept of “vibrant matter”—ideas that students explored throughout the semester—the assemblage compels connections among art and theory, literature, performance, and pop-culture touchstones. Perhaps ultimately, the sculpture and all the work behind it stimulates neuroplastic activity for all brains involved.
by Lauren Hawley