Friday, September 21, 2012

earth, air, sea and plastic bags


The plastic bag is a thing of this world. A derivative of petroleum or natural gas, the plastic bag is a close relative of other esteemed domestic household objects: the salad bowl, the cheap kitchen clock, the asthma inhaler-device, the computer chassis, the CD we listen to. It figures as a part of our Teflon coated pans, the acrylic paint on our walls; as alloy to wind-resistant windows, even corn starch.

Every day millions of plastic bags are carried out of our malls and supermarkets. They wind up everywhere, peppering park's greenery, polluting the streets. A dense layer of flotsam (choking marine life) and jetsam (drifting to shore) dirtying our beaches.

Innocuous container or recalcitrant matter?

In his essay "Plastic Materialities," Gary Hawkins explores how things have the power to capture us in new relations. His idea is to show a less obvious perspective of the thing. In American Beauty, Ricky, the aspiring film maker and pot-head, is obsessed with beauty. He videotapes a plastic bag as it floats, to-and-fro, at the mercy of the wind. Ricky's video shows the thing-power, a "depth from which objects rise up towards our superficial knowledge."* Here's Ricky's narration:
It's one of those days when it's a minute away from snowing. And there is electricity in the air, you can almost hear it right? And this bag was just... dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. That's the day I realized there was this entire life behind things, and this incredible benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid. Ever... video's a poor excuse. I know. But it helps me remember. (PM,  p. 135)
One can think of other examples, such as this, where plastic bag becomes a "plastic-bag chair."

Ryan Frank, Plastic Bag Chair, 2008.

Frank re-presents the material, but the plastic bag's form becomes aestheticized, subsumed, concealed.    

Shipwrecked: My Life for a Bag, 2010.
British artist Claudia Borgna, above, presents the plastic bag as an organized society of ready-mades. The bags stick together as a kind of ghostly soul-buddies. Is this a real accumulation of thing-power?

What is thing-power
Thing power is a kind of agency, it is the property of an assemblage. Thing-power materialism is a (necessarily speculative) onto-theory that presumes matter has an inclination to make connections and form networks with varying degrees of stability. Here, then, is an affinity between thing-power materialism and ecological thinking: both advocate and the cultivation of an enhanced sense of the extent to which all things are spun together in a dense web, and both warn of the self-destructive character of human actions that are reckless with regard to other nodes of the web.(PM, p. 135)
I'd like to read Bennet's thing-power with Shvetashvatara's holistic glasses. The old Hindu sage would agree that all things "are spun together in a dense web". But "the self-destructive character of human actions" is as much part of the web as the rest. If the living and the non-living are connected, then creation and destruction become connective possibilities.

Shvetashvatara is not afraid to talk thing-power from the bottom up:
You are a woman, you are a man, you are a boy; also a girl. As an old man you totter along with a walking stick. As you are born you turn your face in every direction. You are the dark blue bird, the green one with red eyes, the rain-cloud, the seasons, and the oceans. (...) You live as one without a beginning because of your pervasiveness, you, whom all beings have been born. (Shvetashvatara Upanishads, 4.2-4.4)
In a perverse geological sense, we are walking plastic bags!

If ecology is going to address living and non-living, then clouds, air, trees, earth, sand, proteins, viruses, humans, plastic bags are all part of the whole. What's the point of differentiating when everything is (a part of) Brahman?**

We cannot think outside the whole. There is a democracy of creation and destruction everywhere. If we destroy ourselves that's inside the whole. Nothing and everything is it. Only by facing this predicament can we understand how to deal with our mounting ecological problems.

On the other hand, this sea turtle is out of the loop.*** Though part of a network that includes sun, sand, sea, predators, plastic bags, etc, it cannot fathom the subtleties and contradictions of thing-power. Think about it, the turtle is jiva amidst the all-absorbing power and extent of ajiva. We have to find new ways to deal with our living/non living dichotomy.

Is it really about them or about us? Or is it both?

* Jane Bennet, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, (Duke University, 2010) p. 2. **Brahman doesn't have to be our anthropomorphic God. Just the totality of all things put together. *** Plastic bags are among the 12 items of debris found most often in coastal cleanups, according to the nonprofit Center for Marine Conservation. Marine mammals, seabirds, and sea turtles can become entangled in the bags, and sea turtles can mistake them for food such as jellyfish, then die from starvation resulting from intestinal blockage.


alevalde said...

I think the issue with plastic bags is becoming such a problem that in a way we do not know what to do with it. It continues to grow and grow, but who will be the ones to put an end to it? In Canada and even some cities in the United States, the government has established laws to charge 5-20 cents per bag to cut down the use of plastic bags. This could be one step to help Mother Earth and ALL her inhabitants. If more people become recycle conscious, it would be a great start as well.

The image of the turtle eating plastic is so profound. It says so much. The turtle is probably unaware that it is chewing on something that is very detrimental to its life.

I believe the lesson of plastic bags is about us. We should learn to value everything on Earth, for it gives us life and we are all growing together. If the plastic problem continues to occur, when it gets to the point that many, many individuals are noticing the effect and harm it has against us and the planet, basically when we are face-to-face with the problem, we will take immediate change. however, until then, we can all try to do our part. As Maha Atma Ghandi says: 'Be the change you want to see in the world.'

Angel Martelo said...

Again, I must say that I will attempt to comment on what I *think* this post is about. I may very well be off in my assumption.

Before that however, I believe we can all acknowledge that it's possible to attain rather profound epiphanies from witnessing seemingly, at least initially, meaningless phenomena, as in a plastic bag being tossed about in the wind. Such an everyday scene can suddenly bring about the realization that there's "this entire life behind things." This is a rather important revelation for a human being to experience.

In continuing to consider the aforementioned example, the plastic bag represents that raw matter which makes up our physical being, while the wind represents the "breath of God," that essence which animates the matter that we and other life-forms are composed off. The breath I speak of, which I do believe is God-given, brought us to life, just like how the plastic bag seemed to be brought to life by the wind. God is the "entire life" behind [all] things, and because of this, I like how the quote that's currently being discussed continues in saying, "and this incredible benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid;" because it points to the awareness that the "entire life" behind things is loving in nature, or Love itself.

What a beauty at which my mind fails to fathom, yet my heart basks in the glory of, at least in those short-lived moments of sincere contemplation. Something to note is that God not only gives life to raw matter, but He even gives rise to the matter which life is composed of. So what's the difference between the "breath of God" which animates life-forms, and the force which gives rise to matter? Aren't they both a type of, yet distinct, breath from God? Which brings us back to what I believe this post to be about; thing-power!

Thing-power being "a kind of agency, it is the property of an assemblage. Thing-power materialism is a onto-theory that presumes matter has an inclination to make connections and form networks with varying degrees of stability." This apparent inclination is really a guidance, which points to an "architect" of sorts. What message does a "dense web" offer if not the acknowledgement that the dense web in its entirety was spun by something or someone. This however is a faulty metaphor since the web can only represent inanimate matter which strictly follow the laws of nature, regardless whether we accurately understand those laws or not. The web can't represent the animated spider which spun it.

While both inanimate objects and animated life-forms are part of the whole, that doesn't mean that anything is justifiable, including if I choose to destroy a person, a people, a home, a hope. If we choose to view destruction or our tendency to destroy as part of our nature, rather than a diseased state of spirit, then we will only perpetuate the disease, and reap the symptoms of such a state. Pollution is obviously not a product of nature, but a consequence of our abuse of the power given to us. To question whether pollution might after all be an natural phase of a greater seasonal cycle of the cosmos shows a lost of identity within the human psyche.

I'll end this comment with a quote from Thomas Hora in his book Beyond the Dream, "Similarly, man too is an inventor, with a tendency to invent many thoughts. The thoughts which man invents also seem to have creative power; alas, man is a miscreator. what we invent is often a miscreation. But we can be instruments of healthy creativity. The right kind of creativity is not an invention; it is a discovery. A discovery is the uncovering of something that God has already invented."

P.S. Awesome video about the plastic bag seeking its maker, I very much enjoyed for more than one reason.

King Felix said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
King Felix said...

I'll mention before my response to what I think is the matter of this article, that I particularly loved the American Beauty Quote. What a wonderful scene and quote! It definitely shows that the lover sees depths tragically closed to the eyes of many of intellectuals. I recommend this fantastic article by the "bad Catholic" on beauty and it's real implications:

Now to the muddy stuff. What do Thomas Hora's metapsychiatry, the Buddha's path to enlightenment and the Catholic theology of deification through the ingestion of God's essence in the Eucharist all have in common? Their proposal to a better life is to see things as they really are. In the words of Hora, "Reality cannot be experienced but REALIZED." According to the Buddha, he does not invent Dharma he discovers it. And in the case of Catholicism (and Eastern and Oriental Orothodoxy as well as the Assyrian Church of the East for that matter) one could hardly imagine coming to believe such an absurd claim through an act of the will. If it is so that God's very essence is contained therein, there necessitates a substantial amount of logical and subjective experiential evidence to follow it. But I digress. For the latter case of Catholicism, it carries within it the slightly more active approach in the sense of directing the sovereignty of the will from the recognition of Truth -that is through a reasoned deduction that Christ as presented to us through the Catholic Church is the Truth- to actively choosing to ingest His essence (i.e. Christ's body; see John 6) in the Eucharist, yet the more passive view of salvation and "realization" in that it is the very essence and grace of God which ultimately saves us and "opens our eyes", and not merely our reasoning deductions about the Truth, though that is a prerequisite to the latter.

All of this seems to me to tie in with the importance of seeing things as they really are, as well as seeing things as they really are not. Woe to the one caught swooning to the sound of sirens (or sophists), eyes glazed at the simulacra of colorful and romantic philosophies (they are not incorrect, if they are, merely because they are romantic and colorful, but such colorfulness and romanticism can be used as a deceptive tool). Such a sound is heard, when the acknowledgment of hierarchical ontological order in regards to value is denied for the sake of a homogenized egalitarian view of the cosmos; "Everything is everything".

No doubt there are pearls of wisdom in all of the traditions of the world and their maxims, but affirmation should come after a critical assessment of what a given saying could mean through the light of logic, scientific possibility and more importantly obvious objective morality. If everything is everything, in the strictest all encompassing sense of the phrase (which is the oft adopted approach of many new agers, environmentalists, Hindus etc.; and no doubt with good intention for the most part) then there is absolutely no foundation whatsoever to being more scandalized at the murder of a baby than that of a carrot or a hedgehog.


King Felix said...

Moving on, the interdependence of living beings and their inherent dignity are not at all tacit acknowledgments but for the sane person rather overt. If we don't care for our environment and other living creatures we will consequently imperil our lives and theirs, all the while dehumanizing ourselves. Both of these things are on their face beyond undesirable and unto the realm of evil. This is an obvious fact of life that no more necessitates our conscious attempt to become a turtle for us to empathize and sympathize with it, than that we should need to insult a third' of the worlds population by desecrating their most sacred symbol for the sake of the sacred itself! Surely we can get along in both cases without having to become a turtle and insult each other. There must be a better way! I propose seeing things as they really are. For shouldn't things be valuable and worthy of our love and care, IN AND OF THEMSELVES? Is it not precisely that which ascribes them REAL value?

Furthermore, should we take a more empathetic and caring response to nature and its constituents, especially in light of current ecological and interspecies injustices? There can be little doubt. But does this more tempered and benevolent response necessitate the prior mentioned homogenization of all things lying within the universe? not to mention at the expense of our empathetic reasoning? I will fight this notion vigorously as long as there is someone to represent the opposition.

In light of all that, I present an alternative thesis to the current ecological problem. C.S. Lewis' Principle of First Things finds a welcome place here in the discussion. "The woman who makes a dog the centre of her life loses, in the end, not only her human usefulness and dignity but even the proper pleasure of dog-keeping... Put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first and we lose both first and second things." Truer words have scant been spoken! And thus I declare, "How can we love ANYTHING if we do not love God?" The atheist or agnostic can replace God for the moral order, or Dharma (in the spirit of the class), which even allows us at all to get along? As a side-note, God, at least in the Catholic and Orthodox tradition, IS being itself. All that is good, beautiful and true emanates and is ultimately HIM. So I'd have to ask if we really care about the environment at all if we do not make every strenuous effort to love absolutely all beings; ESPECIALLY those that are difficult to love. For if we don't love them, then is not our "love" of our friends and loved ones really self-interest? Only by loving everything can we love particulars.


King Felix said...

And thus, without fail to controversy I'll state: how can we love animals if we objectify each other sexually or in any other way? How can we concern ourselves about the environment when we are nasty to each other? When we mock, caricature and calumniate those who disagree with us or disturb us? How can we love turtles or whales if we make arbitrary proclamation upon when a human has the dignity to its own life? How can we say we care about anything, if we aren't making a conscious effort to eviscerate that within us which is precisely responsible for every personal and collective woe? In light of this I can't help but regrettably see that a bag in a turtles mouth has about as much thing-power to help us see what we are doing to ourselves and creation as much as a bag over our heads. It must be said, philosophies and worldviews which deny the dignity of all beings, and that do not give with good reason precedence to humans, are at the very very least problematic, and at worst significantly menacing.

Man's problem is that he is obsessed with appearances. The utilitarian means and ends of the secular world will never be enough to satiate the profound demands, the real, eternal yearning of the soul. Jesus Christ's words are most wise here, "But if thy eye be evil thy whole body shall be darksome. If then the light that is in thee, be darkness: the darkness itself how great shall it be!" (Matt 6:23) There is a metaphysical reality which merely manifests itself in the apparent evils of the world, though they are no less real. The darkness itself is however much more evil, in that it is the root of all evil, just as God is the root of all that is beautiful, good and true.

No other thing serves as a clearer whistle blower to the false promises of secularism, materialism and naturalism than the wide dissatisfaction with the consumerism of the egoistic laissez-faire capitalism which plagues our world. It should also be added that this realization too debunks the promises of any and all "worldly", materialist solutions be they social, political or otherwise. Man is infinitely more complex and dignified than materialist and naturalist philosophies make him out to be. I've grown the liking to this quote, "If man is miserable when he has all the comfort of kings in a capitalist world, what makes him think he will be free when he has all the comfort of kings in a communist world?" This materialist view has and will continue to plague individuals and societies until we finally decide to heed the unanimous counsel, in all seriousness and not fanciful theory, of nearly all the world religions and spiritual masters with an eye to the most accurate and pertinent to reality. That unanimous counsel is mainly, "It is the spirit that quickeneth, the flesh profiteth nothing." And if the claim is true, and His "flesh is real food" and His "blood is real drink" then I can not possibly think of a better way to save us all!

More, Noah said...

The plastic bag paradigm is sublime. It epitomizes the concept that "we are within the universe and the universe is within us" using a conventional and peculiar approach. The "plastic bag" turns into a "chair-bag" or an artist's vision. They are all connected. Made of the same "ingredient"... "We are all connected; to eachother, biologically. To the earth, chemically. To the rest of the universe, atomically." (Neil deGrasse Tyson)

Whether it's innate or inflicted by society, as humans we tend to condescendingly separate or even superior ourselves from "other beings". This demeanor, I find to be negligent. As Marc Twain said, "it is just like man's vanity and impertinence to call an animal dumb because he is dumb to his dull perceptions... of the entire brood, he is the only one... that possesses malice."

The photograph of the turtle is intriguing... I suppose the more apparent observation would be on how pollution can be fatal to our fellow organisms. However, reflecting on our discussion in class (on becoming the turtle), I've made another distinction... We can empathize with the turtle, because like it, we too can be unconsciously self-detrimental. In all likelihood, the turtle is oblivious to the fact that the "plastic bag" shouldn't be consumed.

Herlan Quintana said...

i saw a movie in social enviroment which is entitled "plastic planet" it explains how many top plastic companies have kept secert the true components that plastic is made of. but whats even worse is that plastic is poison to our bodies. the guy documenting the film Werner Boote had his blood analyze for traces of chemicals transferred from plastic bottles etc and the surprising factor was his doctor found a range of unpronounceable chemicals present in Boote's bloodstream,30% of it! in which that amount already can leave an animal completely sterile and he has high risk have having an offspring with disabilities. its very dangerous overall and its all around us. it comes to show how evil people with power can be towards the world and we can try and implement all the minor changes and the cutting down of it as much as we want but the reality of the matter is that it wont change the damage it has already done to our planet. the picture of the poor turtle illustrates the devastating course we have already embarked in. these creatures are the first to suffer mans injustice.

Anonymous said...

The plastic bag issue will only become a priority when it needs to be. As a society we're all plagued with a debilitating disease of mind known as egocentrism. Change will happen only when we are directly effected by this lack of reverence for the planet and other life forms. It's a depressing and unfortunate truth. Every single one of our choices come full circle.

When it comes down to how we are dealing with our current ecological crises, I think as a whole planet the majority of people are more interested in cutting back on things like plastic bags for their own sakes. We are living in a very spiritually deprived time where people don't acknowledge the inherent interconnection between all creatures. Even when we see other countries going to war or PEOPLE starving we rarely ever intervene when it doesn't directly effect us. My point is that if we can't even help out fellow humans that clearly need it, there is no way that we would help animals if there wasn't the other main objective of saving our own asses.

- Jacob Sims

Jonathan Kohn said...

Ive read this post several times now and I still dont understand the point that is being made. However the picture of the turtle did leave a strong impression on me. Ive thought about it for a while, regarding what we should do about the species we are hurting. I will argue that we dont need to establish laws to protect the animals, but rather educate the people. I would say a consumer that "knows" how to consume is better than more regulations and laws. Anyways, that will never happen, nor do I think art will make an impact.

Brian Daniel Farin said...

I noticed something pretty interesting in this post. You wrote about how We are Everything and Everything is We. You mentioned that sometimes people tend to see the affected as nonhuman but fail to see that humans too are part of the everything, Brahman, and too are a part of Jiva. We affect ourselves, and everything is affected by us. This is so Newton--Quantum Revolution style. (As opposed to seeing the world as an "out there", the mere presence of us alters nature. But all this idea doesn't get practical in your post until the picture of the turtle. We only realize that we're all one when there's a disruption. Kind of like how a sleeping person doesn't know that he's sleeping until he awakes. This could very well be the purpose of humans in this world---to realize the oneness. And each person can in their own way fix up the misperception that we're detached from the picture.

Christian Garcia said...

I don't quite know where it is I should try and tackle this post with a comment, but I do remember it being stated in class that we need to become turtle, in other words see life through its eyes. The question was posed, why? And for who's benefit, mine or the turtle's? If I were to see through the turtle's perspective for the sake of my own knowledge, would I really be empathizing? On a moral standpoint, that picture of the turtle eating a plastic bag is disheartening. It very much coincides with the views and teachings we're discussing in class, and it showcases, blatantly, how destructive human nature is to the rest of the world, though we are all brahman. The human race in some way plays the role of God.

Migdalia said...

This is based on one of my rants

I do agree that we human beings are like walking plastic bags, we wander every single day, we experience new things, we have different perceptions, we develop new thoughts sometimes our thougths lead to questions, questions may lead to answers and we go back to asking questions and ultimately its a cycle, only that in this case plastic bags end up in the Pacific Ocean. We do differ from plastic bags in one way, although they serve a purpose in our lives we tend to litter them in the streets and in that moment we eliminate the purpose that it once served. Although the bag is wandering the streets it embraces the burden of being tangled up in car tires, getting stuck in trees etc. This goes back to the legend of sisyphus in which his ultimate punishment was to roll a boulder on the top of the hill and watch it fall back down although that wasnt his choice he embraced rolling that boulder up ( one can only imagine sisyphus being happy) sisyphus is the absurd hero because he doesnt lament his fate. Albert Camus did say that suicide tempts us with a way out of this meaningless life, instead we should resort to the only 3 options he gives us: 1. realize that we are just living an illusion, 2. change something 3. embrace the absurdity in our lives. We as human beings have the option to make changes, but a plastic bag doesnt have the option(intellect) to change its fate. Then why is it that a plastic bag embraces life more than us human-beings? simply because we live in constant fear to even realize that we may be living an absurd life, we all have a repetitive cycle, we all have goals which only add up to that cycle, we dont know how to distinguish ourselves from other individuals, we seek security/assurance that we follow the same guidelines as every one else, and dont even consider taking our own path/risks( being this dependent is a problem). Sometimes by following the same path of others just leads us to suicide, many people are not even aware that they are commiting suicide, they sense remorse/unhappiness with their lives yet they dont take action in changing things.) We are too focus in the future, and sometimes overthinking too much about the future just creates more fears because we begin to speculate what will happen ten years from now, but in reality we should be focusing on living the most that we can live right in this present moment.

To end this rant, I admire the homeless, the plastic bags,children suffering from famine because they are the heroes of the absurd, they embrace their fate they dont give up that easily, they have this strong optimism to live the most that they can live. Most of us take our lives for granted we have so many opportunities to live the most, but instead we dont! we dont even embrace our fate, we nag over the most idiotic things, we are only mere imitations of others, if thats all we are doing then whats the point in life?