Past Event

BOAS Seminar: Lydia Gibson, 'Plastic Value: a calculus of use, value, power, and order through single-use plastics'

September 13, 2023
2:10 PM - 4:00 PM
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963 Schermerhorn Extension


Single-use plastics are scourges upon the environment and humanity; glossy, neoliberal insurgencies that choke the life out of marine animals, livestock, waterways, and impoverished communities. They are also, though, a discursive-material apparatus for determining value. Single-use plastics is not a material type, it is a racialised classificatory system that obscures and collapses notions of use and value by rendering plastic engagements hyper- or invisible. The very term single-use plastics is an eponym of erasure, occluding its multiple uses by many who rely upon these adaptable – if mismanaged – technologies and discursively legitimising or condemning the material forms that these polymer agents take. The moniker serves, too, as an inadvertent description of racial capitalism: the plastic, mouldable nature of economic relations and the single, undistinguished use of one or another disposable body. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork of forest-based traditions in a remote Maroon community in the Caribbean, where multiple and repeated use of single-use plastics rather than portend cultural destruction enables traditional practices and maintains social networks, this talk explores analytical constructions of value and the semiotic squares, rectilinear logics, and turgid dispositifs that have imprisoned concepts such as value, use, and power. 

Lydia Gibson is a Postdoctoral Research Scholar at the Center for Science and Society, Columbia University, whose research involves forest use, Caribbean ecologies, postcolonial theory, and materialities of environmental actions. Her research also explores how environmental discourse and data practices – in particular GIS, remote sensing data, and ecological methods – shape and differentiate access and power in environmental spaces. Gibson works closely with local Maroon communities in Jamaica to monitor ecosystems and think about exploitation, misuse, and colonisation of traditional and indigenous knowledge.