Madison Hames is a writer, researcher and poet based in Portland, Oregon.
I. Making A Plastic World
In the mid-1950s, enthusiasm for an event that became known as the “Tupperware party” started sweeping across America. The parties were sensational happenings where white middle-class women would convene to gossip, outfit their homes in products of scientific innovation and cultivate financial independence from their husbands. Some partygoers referred to the plastic products being flaunted and compared as mere novelties for gifts or gags; others viewed the transparent, smooth substance as a product of perfected alchemy that was thrusting America into an anticipated future.
The mastermind of the Tupperware party project was Brownie Wise, a single mother who, for a time, went door to door in Detroit selling Tupperware to make ends meet. Impressed by her ability to sell, Earl Tupper, the founder of the plastics company that still bears his name, enlisted Wise as his main marketing strategist. Wise would come to draft, implement and oversee the fabulations that would become the Tupperware party empire.
Wise was known to have some eccentric qualities — including, so the story goes, a prank where she served rattlesnakes to dinner guests — and her shameless penchant for the absurd was seen as the key to her marketing success. But of all her unconventional behaviors, Wise’s affection for a solid lump of oil-refining byproduct was the most esoteric. It was the substance Tupper employed to synthesize his unique formulation of polyethylene — what he called Poly-T, material of the future. Wise named the slag “Poly” and took it on trips to dealers, distributors and sales teams around the country, where she would tell people to “shut their eyes, rub their hands on Poly, wish and work like the devil, then they’re bound to succeed.” Poly was insured for $50,000 — $540,000 today.
The cultural fascination with Poly prompted Alison J. Clarke, the author of “Tupperware: The Promise of Plastic in 1950s America,” to interpret Poly as a potent talisman: an object harboring a remarkable capacity to affect the future. A more apt term might be omen. Omens are not dependent on human inscription to flex their ability to influence our world; they are capable of manifesting themselves — on their own right and intellect — from a phenomenal concoction. Omens like Poly can influence and take on new roles in the world around them, and not necessarily with a human hand to propel them.
Take plastic and its role in ordering (non)life. While it kills widely and coldly — fish, marine mammals, birds — it also facilitates life in the form of oil-eating bacteria colonies. Scientists don’t fully understand these colonies, nor many other aspects of what happens to plastic after it has been used and discarded by humans, which signals a need to think of plastic as a material that has escaped our understanding of it as a purely anthropogenic substance. Some theorists argue we should view the petrol-based colonies as a glimpse of our future, one that looks more like the primordial landscape of Precambrian time yet consists of creatures that were able to survive the toxicity that humans unleashed on the world.
With her unconventional talents for recognizing plastic’s potential to influence the planet, Brownie Wise not only acknowledged the soft, turbulent vibrancy of Poly as an omen — she also peeled open the cultural imaginary to the possibility of a “plastic cosmology,” where an oil-based object was not a passive, raw substance awaiting activation. It was, instead, an omen that could reach out towards the future, and sculpt it.
This view of omens runs counter to Western ways of perceiving the “natural” world. In this sense, the plasticity of a plastic cosmology was two-fold: It made it possible to understand that oil-based objects have a capacity to unfurl through space-time and alter its course, while offering a way to participate in that process by collaborating with the right omenic entities, such as Poly. The stuff of plastic cosmology was thus both contemporary and ancient — it erected a bridge between the synthetic and thoroughly Western scientific origins of plastic and the belief that substances can and do maneuver through space-time with a strange agency.
A plastic cosmology also helps us become aware of plastic as a future-making collaborator, a potent force in shaping the world. Plastic is not passive — it causes harm to the natural world and inside our own bodies after it has been consumed or discarded. It isn’t something that can be snuffed out with enough beach cleanups, recycling campaigns or detoxes. The discomforting fact is that it will never go away — it is already and will continue to transform the world.
II. The Decline Of Omens
The hesitation to accept the notion that inanimate physical objects can influence and navigate the world in weird ways is understandable. Our modern life is full of objects that seemingly have no say in what’s going on. The desk under me as I type these words doesn’t move; my tea stays in its cup. But that belief, like all beliefs, came into being through a scaffold of historical happenings. And when we look at the history and breadth of human understanding, thinking of matter as a collaborator doesn’t seem so odd.
The first written evidence for omens dates back to the 22nd century B.C.E. in the cuneiform texts of ancient Mesopotamia. Omens were said to convey divine decisions, but they were non-deterministic — humans could appeal to the heavens to successfully reverse a devastating fate. Omens were recorded in meticulous lists, making up encyclopedic collections that would eventually form the basis of early scientific inquiry. The texts leaned heavily on speculation, suggesting that the future was accessible through the present, and that the observable elements of the world were not the only thing you could rely on when researching the causal sinews of the universe. The effects of this hybrid form of sense-making — practical and speculative curiosity — resulted in the most concrete and reliable way of predicting the future in Mesopotamia (and many other places in the ancient world) because it not only homed in on the myopic connections of daily living, but opened up to the unexplainable and erratic ways of the world.
Omens declined as genuine targets for accepted scientific inquiry partly due to the growing dominance of Western scientific practices made possible through colonization. Colonizing belief systems pinned resources, people, animals and things as passive matter awaiting to be transfigured by the hands of Europeans. This sentiment is a cornerstone of extractivism — an economic paradigm that still shapes how we perceive the world of things in terms of economic utility. It is deeply entangled with racism, sexism, homophobia and ableism.
Western science gained institutional recognition through ideas like germ theory, which pinpointed microorganisms like viruses as the cause of diseases and relied on the notion of linear causality, where matter is viewed as merely a sum of its parts that affect each other through direct interactions. This linear thinking has been useful for many facets of science, but in no way reflects the full breadth of an assemblage-like universe, where matter like plastic operates more like an object from science fiction or a folktale than an isolated phenomenon.
In trying to make sense of the world as an interconnected whole, Western frameworks of understanding seem to splinter; the shortcomings of linear causality and the hesitance of Western culture to give credence to alternative ways of seeing the world become starkly obvious. Consider the inability of lawmakers to pass effective regulations to combat plastic pollution both in the world and in us. Piecemeal legislation can have positive impacts of course, but plastic remains enigmatic. It circulates through our bodies and the flora, fauna and ecosystems around us. It touches us through tap water and foods; its long-lasting effects will remain even if we combat plastic with a type of militancy usually reserved for war.
This is where omens may supplement current research methodologies. Unlike Western forms of research, working with omens is an engaged form of investigation. There is no “observer” and “observed,” but rather a conversation between two entities that operates beyond the comfortable legibility of words. The diviner is necessarily wrapped up in the interpretation of the omen itself, and there’s no getting around the natural noise of communication: There will always be misinterpretations and poor connections. Tupper and Wise, for example, failed to heed Poly’s warnings: Early forms of polyethylene melted in the heat and cracked easily, initiating a temporary cultural backlash where plastic was perceived as a fool’s material. Little did they know that the splintering and melting of plastic foreshadowed its afterlife, where it would merge with rocky coastlines, coral, sand and dirt in the form of a plastic-rock hybrid called plastiglomerate.
Omens also haven’t always been used to improve life and communities. They were often used to justify the status quo, and diviners bent interpretations of omens to their own agendas. “Monstrous births” were a historic omen that relied on the othering and occasional deification of non-normative body types. Their place in the cultural imaginary would later contribute to the oppression of those with different bodies and abilities. For omens to be used toward ends that don’t merely reproduce the sameness of our world, the diviner must hold just intentions and exercise them accordingly.
Poly’s successor, Poly-T: Material of the Future, was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Today it bottles milk, motor oil, shampoos, detergents and bleaches, and composes plastic bags, box containers, single-use gloves and food wrap. It is present for our intimate moments in the form of poufs and sex toys, it lingers in landfills and turns up in the stomachs of marine animals.
Similarly, plastic is merging with us. We become plastic repositories simply by going about our daily lives. As plastic accumulates, it alters our relationship with ourselves: It can sterilize by blocking fallopian tubes, it can shift hormonal balances by mimicking estrogen and binding to receptors, it can shorten life spans with cancer-causing composition. To echo the sentiment of Allison Cobb: Plastic is now the self, and experiencing it is an autobiography.
Plastic’s ubiquity has made it quotidian, and it has emerged as a profound actor in the ordering and reordering of life and death on our rocky planet. Some researchers have begun using the term “Plasticene” to describe our current geologic epoch, a label that only bolsters its designation as an omen.
Scholars have also suggested that plastic harbors a chaotic body clock, where time is compressed inside its dense body. The act of time compression is known as tempophagy — literally, to eat time. Remember plastic’s incredible life: It is the settled remains of plants, animals, dinosaurs and microbiota, a geologic nugget of distilled lifetimes. It is, as James Marriott and Mika Minio-Paluello write in “The Oil Road,” the geology of elsewhere disappearing into air.
And to the Earth plastic returns, infiltrating the Earth’s geology, breaking from its position as a purely anthropogenic material and returning to the nonhuman realm as if searching for the memory of its origin. In 2014, the geologist Patricia Corcoran and her team combed the fringes of Hawaii’s Big Island, turning up amalgamations of plastic fragments, rock, sand grains, wood, coral and ocean detritus held together in a matrix of once-molten plastic. Originally, it was believed that plastiglomerate, as it became known, formed through volcanic activity, but since then has been credited to human-lit fires. The fires cause synthetic shrapnel to melt and mingle with what surrounds them, becoming incorporated into a bound anatomy.
Plastiglomerate has since been spotted on shorelines around different bodies of water. It builds up most often near communities without the capital and resources to clean trash from their coastlines. Its implication in systems of race, wealth, and power trace back to the extractivist logics of colonization that made the oil industry possible and illuminates how this thinking has been threaded through powerful world systems to eventually arrive on the shores of Hawaii. It varies in its composition — sometimes it holds disposable lighters, other times fishing lines, water bottles, CD cases or novelty toys. Sometimes the plastic in plastiglomerate retains its familiar form; other times it becomes entirely unrecognizable, a colorful, cold, shiny substance cradling stone. Plastiglomerate — a junkyard Frankenstein hybrid of the natural and the synthetic — is confusing to witness, provoking senses of wonder, shock and horror.
In its hybrid nature, plastiglomerate is an omen dense with meaning. It has been dubbed the Anthropocene’s “new stone,” solidifying its position in the cultural imaginary as a signifier of the times. It is powerful and compelling — it has been shown at galleries and documented in the Smithsonian — in the way it displays the integration of industry and the Earth, and mirrors the plasticization of our very own bodies.
Plastiglomerate is a useful omen within a plastic cosmology, one that can be investigated through Western scientific principles and also by lending credence to other embodied ways of knowing and connecting with matter around us. A plastic cosmology — in which we move toward a more intimate collaboration with the material that has overhauled and reordered our planet at an unparalleled speed — forces us to interrogate our forms of sense-making and fight for diverse pathways to an unfamiliar, but human-inclusive, future.