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This panel invites anthropological and ethnographic contributions that help to better situate and understand the material politics of “plastic”: iconic substance of the anthropocene and “wonder-material” turned serial polluter. Who is (made) responsible for intractable plastic and how?
Plastic has steadily, if unevenly, risen up the global political and public agenda, through campaigns and discourses that often rely on specific (often visual) registers of environmental contamination and anthropogenic catastrophe. The days of optimism at plastic’s endless possibilities are seemingly long gone. Yet we are entangled with the heterogeneous materials covered by the catch-all term "plastic" as never before. This has given rise to seemingly utopian desires/interventions to make naturecultures "plastic-free", even as the separation of the human (or the "living") from the synthetic has become ever-more problematic (deWolff 2017), highlighted by controversies over micro-plastics and broader assertions that “we are all contaminated” (Renfrew 2018). Pathak and Nichter (2019: 309) note a “remarkable lack of anthropological research on plastics”. For Dey and Michael (forthcoming), plastics’ heterogeneity, multiplicity, and ubiquity render them hugely problematic – perhaps even intractable – as objects of study. Yet these very aspects also render plastics urgent “matters of concern”. This panel invites critical reflections on both a wider ethico-political economy of responsibility for plastics and a more nuanced idea of response-ability (in the dual sense of taking responsibility and being attuned to/skilled in responding to human/ non-human others). Paper themes may include but are not limited to: everyday engagements, alterations, and interventions with plastics and cognate materials; (citizen)science debates and controversies around efficacy, health and harm; disputes over the temporality, durability, and transience of plastics; anti-plastic campaigns; and the circular/linear imaginaries that link plastic design, marketing, consumption, use, disposal and ongoing agencies.