De Wolff on Davis, 'Plastic Matter'

Heather Davis
Kim De Wolff

Heather Davis. Plastic Matter. Elements Series. Durham: Duke University Press, 2022. Illustrations. 176 pp. $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4780-1775-2; $94.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4780-1513-0.

Reviewed by Kim De Wolff (University of North Texas) Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (March, 2023) Commissioned by Penelope K. Hardy (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse)

Printable Version:

In Plastic Matter, Heather Davis draws together queer theory, feminist new materialism, and petrocultures research to trace lineages of plasticity where modern dreams of endless chemical manipulation propagate enduring harms. Davis compellingly contends that the conditions through which plastic has become seemingly everything everywhere embody a dominant Western relationship to all matter: plasticity as “synthetic universality,” where proliferation depends on the active and ongoing decoupling of materials from relationships of responsibility (p. 5). Throughout, theoretical interventions are supported by carefully selected visual culture analysis, all with a justice-oriented bent, as Davis mobilizes queer theory to call for the reconfiguration of responsibility for our plastic “progeny” (p. 82). Productively (or rather, non-reproductively) rethinking legacies of modern material relationships, Plastic Matter is a stellar addition to the Duke Elements series and a must-read for anyone engaging with contemporary conversations about material responsibilities in a world where contamination cannot be escaped.

Each of the four main chapters is meticulously conceptualized to intersect with a vibrant contemporary theoretical conversation. Chapter 1, “Plasticity,” maps the contradictions of plastic’s materiality, where the promise of malleability is founded on the violent imposition of modern visions of control on matter, bodies, and land. Chapter 2, “Synthetic Universality,” grounds the plasticity of nature-culture crossing plastiglomerate “rock” in humanities Anthropocene critiques as capitalist, racial, and colonial logics are sedimented in geologic time. Chapter 3, “Plastic Media,” uses the lens of elemental media and media infrastructures to consider how plastic transmits race- and class-based environmental injustices, connecting Louisiana’s Cancer Alley with New York’s abandoned Kodak plant. Chapter 4, “Queer Kin,” imagines alternatives to synthetic universality where taking responsibility for synthetic offspring becomes a refusal to reproduce the status quo of toxicity and violence. The result is a book that is thoroughly saturated in plastic while simultaneously refracting many concepts in a way that is applicable well beyond conversations about plastics and petrocapitalism.

Where the book truly shines for discussions of materiality is in mobilizing queer theory to center questions of responsibility. Notably, Davis builds from new materialist approaches without getting bogged down by questions of whether plastic has agency. Instead, she pushes focus toward how plastic animates the ongoing violences of petrocapitalism and colonialism without losing track of lineages of power. This involves both calling out industry for knowingly perpetuating chemical harm, while calling in readers to work from a place of contamination. As is common to many feminist science and technology studies approaches, there is no outside position of purity from which to observe and evaluate actions or environments, only the entangled work of grappling with complicity.[1] As Davis writes, “This is not an escape from toxicity but rather a reckoning with its permeation” (p. 6). It is the strangeness of this permeation that captivates Davis, its synthetic universality where plastic’s very ubiquity depends on the deliberate severing of the material from its relationships to people, place, and power. How, then, are we to grapple with questions of responsibility for materials that “actively deny the relations in which they are embedded” (p. 47)? How can we stay accountable for plastic that is untraceable by design?

Davis’s response to the problem of synthetic universality is, for me, also Plastic Matter’s most enduring contribution beyond plastic-specific conversations: conceptualizing responsibility in terms of inheritance. Here materiality becomes inseparable from temporality, as Davis shifts emphasis from what we are given toward the kinds of relations we choose to perpetuate into the future. In the self-positioning preface, Davis begins to question inheritance as a matter of intergenerational wealth alone, connecting her grandparents’ plastics industry involvement as a family legacy of privilege to its relationships with ongoing forms of oppression. But by chapter 4, Davis’s argument is deeply informed by queer kinship, exploding questions of who and what we are responsible for. Energized by the microbial species evolving to flourish with plastic, Davis calls for the embrace of responsibilities for non-biological, plasticized offspring: “we who are deeply enmeshed and implicated in these systems need to take account of our queer children, these strange new bacterial communities, and our monstrous murders, the massive species deaths and the deaths of poor and racialized people from increasing levels of toxicity” (p. 101). Here queer theory provides a powerful grounding for non-reproduction of the status quo of capitalism and colonialism, but how exactly is left to be worked out in all our differing relational specificities.

Throughout the book, Davis admirably holds on to a sense of purpose, clearly prioritizing her conceptual interventions in each chapter to guard against what could have been a dizzying array of trendy concepts (we might be living in an intimately haunted synthetic colonial petro-techno-plasti-logi-cene, but I am grateful Davis resists naming it that). For contemporary theory, the writing is equal parts beautiful and accessible, with Davis generously explaining adopted concepts in her own words rather than alienating with jargon. This clarity means her exemplary theoretical contributions are at the same time very readable. As a result, the text is well suited for graduate-level courses, and with adequate preparation, individual chapters could work for upper-level undergraduates as well (for example, chapter 2 would fit nicely into an ongoing discussion of the Anthropocene or chapter 4 into a longer exploration of queer kinship). The one exception, for me, is chapter 3, which arguably tugs on too many additional conceptual threads and exceeds the constraints of a single chapter. While I very much hope to see Davis’s line of elemental media inquiry developed further elsewhere, here I would have preferred a more thorough unpacking of the nuances of haunting (as Avery Gordon distinguishes her conceptualization of "huanting" from Jacques Derrida's) or between decolonial and environmental justice projects (following Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang).[2]

Appropriate for a book about a paradoxical substance, Plastic Matter’s strength is arguably its weakness. As Davis acknowledges in the introduction, there are risks to taking an “elemental” approach to thinking with plastic in general (p. 14). While Davis adeptly tracks plastic’s becoming universal without losing track of “differential harm,” the book’s success in performing synthetic universality overpowers the counterpoint of intimacy (p. 9). Beyond the personal framing of the preface and conclusion, the writing feels void of plastic in its specificity, at odds with the lived experience of plastics encountered in and as bodies and objects of everyday life (a notable exception is the fish-swallowed-dildo, p. 82 for the curious). As a result, Max Liboiron’s Pollution Is Colonialism (2021) provides an excellent complement, as it exemplifies situated particularities of anticolonial plastic practices. Ultimately, it is matter’s relational plasticity—including that of synthetic universality itself—that both impedes and allows for change. As Davis concludes, “To be responsible for an unimaginable futurity means to understand the deeply relational fact of being, of being in a place and a time, of being alive. And this fundamental relationality that is at the core of being means the future may not look good, but it is not foreclosed” (p. 100).


[1]. See, for example, Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010); Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007); and Alexis Shotwell, Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2016).

[2]. Avery Gordon, “Some Thoughts on Haunting and Futurity,” Borderlands 10, no. 2 (2011), Gale Academic OneFile; and Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor,” Decolonization 1, no. 1 (2012): 1-40.

Citation: Kim De Wolff. Review of Davis, Heather, Plastic Matter. H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews. March, 2023. URL:

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