Plastic materials and the plasticity of aspiration in contemporary America

2014-2015 E²SHI Seed Grant
 
 
Anand Pandian, Principal Investigator
Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, School of Arts & Sciences
 
 
 
 

Synthetic polymers are a ubiquitous material in the modern world, as are ideas about the plasticity and malleability of human nature – these things often go together, in fact. There is, however, a historical arc worth charting with regard to the aspirations invested in both plastic substance and human plasticity over the course of the 20th century and beyond, insofar as the utopian associations of these materials and their transformative promise have largely given way to darker assessments both of the stubbornness of human nature and the intractability of plastic residues. It is this arc of expectation and despair that Dr. Pandian aimed to tackle with this project.

During the course of this project, Dr. Pandian conducted fieldwork and interviews at museums, factories, advocacy organizations and design labs across the United States concerned with plastic materials. Dr. Pandian also interviewed researchers in engineering, chemistry, humanities, political science and history. The fieldwork and interviews offered insights in conceptualizing and exploring the crucial pivot in the project: relationships between the plasticity of synthetic materials and the plasticity (neural or otherwise) of human nature. Dr. Pandian continues his work through funding from the JHU Exploration of Practical Ethics program for his project tilted "Environmental Ethics in American Life: An Anthropological Inquiry."

Publications

“Plastic” in the “Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen,” Cultural Anthropology, January 2015. 
     Republished in Hearings: The Online Journal of the Contour Biennale, September 2016.
 

Other Outcomes

Course titled, “Plastic,” was offered in Fall 2015 at Johns Hopkins University. Drawing on anthropology, history of science, environmental studies, art, design, films and other media, the course examined the interconnections between plastic things and the plasticity or malleability of human nature. See the course syllabus 

 

Photo credit: Aaron Tang

All things appear and disappear because of the concurrence of causes and conditions. Nothing ever exists entirely alone; everything is in relation to everything else.
— Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha)