PROFESSOR GAY HAWKINS
WESTERN SYDNEY UNIVERSITY
Dear Prof. Gay Hawkins,
thanks for such a brilliant presentation! I share similar research interests and navigate through similar literature and would like to make a rather theoretical question.
I am currently in the process of writing up my PhD tracing the recycling chain of PET bottles in Brazil, having the biggest dumpsite of Latin America as starting point. One of the analytical dimensions that guide my exploration of the recycling chain is precisely the materiality of bottles (I have attempted to summarise my main arguments in a presentation that should soon be available through the conference website). I am interested in understanding how the materiality of bottles and contaminants shape the recycling chain, influencing what gets recycled, where, when and how. Therefore, I do agree that objects have an agency and, as such, are as much a product as they are producers of the social world, as Latour and other STS theorists would argue. However, I always get myself reflecting as to the existence of a flat ontology between humans and non-humans. I tend to think the symmetry between humans and non-humans should be confined to a methodological level, given that our capacity of motivation and intent make ourselves rather different and, hence, ontologically asymmetric (but in no way superior) from non-humans. Nonetheless, I feel that this line “ontologically symmetric/asymmetric” is hard to draw and may compromise my claims as to the agential capacity of objects. By stating objects are ontologically asymmetric from humans, I fear I might be invalidating or weakening my claim regarding their agency.
If you could share your thoughts about that, it would be much appreciated.
thanks for your question – really interesting. I don’t think that to recognise the agency of objects is ever to render them equal or symmetrical to humans. That is not a Latourian or STS position. Non-human agency is enacted and emergent not fixed and inherent so the empirical challenge is to figure out how things become potent/active in certain settings ie able to shape actions in certain ways. I am also not sure that deeper theoretical exploration is the best way to pursue this? If you are doing fieldwork on recycling then why not look very closely at how that happens, how things and humans make each other to a certain extent in this economic process and how material qualities assist or resist this process and direct human actions and practices in very particular ways? I have written about plastics recycling in Vietnam in Chpt 6 of Plastic Water and explore these dynamics very closely there.
Thank you so much for the generous reply!
I have actually concluded fieldwork in February so currently in the process of writing up making sense of my observations in light of theory (and the other way around as well). Hence my theoretical anxiety at this point. Your articles, especially “The politics of bottled water”, and books have been quite helpful in this behalf. I have just finished reading “Accumulation: The politics of plastics” and bought “Plastic Water” to start next. Will definitely take a closer look at Chapter 6.
Thank you so much for your talk. You say that with current Anthropocene discourses there is a new grammar of time, in distinction from the kind of grammar of time that Miekle outlines in relation to the beginnings of the plastic industry. It seems to me that they are both a form of deep or geologic time, but rather that the difference is that one was framed as a utopia, and the other as a dystopia. Could you expand?
thanks – fascinating question. I am not sure I agree with you that the sorts of temporalities that emerged to frame the early plastics were informed by a notion of deep or geologic time? Utopian discourses were very much informed by exisiting rhetorics of modernity and tended to imply that the new world plastic was creating was just around the corner ie within reach, rapidly being materialised – this is not deep time as I understand it. The dystopian discourses we are witnessing now are informed by the wider debate about the anthropoence and the recognition that plastic is an anthropoceninc marker. This recognition is often based on assessments of plastics waste as ‘lasting forever’, as ‘never breaking down’ and as having a geologic presence in the emergence of the plastigolomerate. I reckon that the time of dystopian accounts is deep (geologic, anthropocenic) and the time of utopian accounts is ‘shallow’: imaginable and emergent. The other key issue is that utopian accounts tend to imply that plastic is IN time ie caught up in dynamics of historicity/social change and realising chronological shifts, whilst dystopian accounts foreground how plastic is OF time – evidence of pure duration and virtual and continuous multiplicity ( to get a bit Deleuzian about it)
Some of these issues are being explored in a special issue of Journal of Contemporary Archaeology that I am editing called ‘The Time of Materials’ – it should be out later this year.
plenty more to talk about but that’s my immediate thinking
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