Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Jennifer A. Wagner-Lawlor reviews The Plastic Turn

Ranjan Ghosh. The Plastic Turn. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2022. 240 pages.

Review by Jennifer A. Wagner-Lawlor

2 May 2024

Ranjan Ghosh’s The Plastic Turn joins a clutch of books and essay collections that consider plastic well beyond its material forms to become a conceptual matter—even a dimension—that has changed the way we live, think, relate to others, and imagine otherness itself. Ghosh signals at the outset that this book “takes inspiration from the materiality of plastic itself” to recast notions of and the vocabulary for “‘material-philosophical-aesthetic’”—what I have called elsewhere plaesthetics—as an “operative theory machine” (pp. 9, 11). What sounds like meta-level abstraction is grounded by Ghosh’s performative adventure into plastic’s chemical versatility, materially and figuratively. The Plastic Turn is at once narrowly literary in its focus, recasting literature and the literary in terms of plastic “mattering”—but also broadly mindful of the ecological disasters of plastic production (p. 4). Ghosh’s hopeful (if fragile) conclusion is that the existential controversy plastic presents may also engender material-aesthetic and epistemological resources that morph our sense of relationality toward human others and toward more-than-human nature.

Ghosh’s text is itself performatively plastic, both through its entangling lines of argumentation and through its stylistics, the concatenations of words and sentences joining thought-lines to the shape of a "'plastic critical consciousness'" throughout the twentieth century (p. 16). Five chapters define the ambitious reach of Ghosh’s project. The elliptical introduction, “Turn to . . .,” and conclusion, “Turn on . . .,” bookend the text—which itself highlights plastic “as an event through the book: visible, haptic, diagrammatic or geometric, referential, structural, curvilinear, differential, and hence, figural” (p. 5).

The opening chapter defines several modes of “the material-aesthetic” of plastic as “nonidentity in play”: plastic’s unique capacity to at once take and yield to form (pp. 5, 19). The tension adhering to plastic’s essence as change, Ghosh argues, inspires a “creativity that countertextualizes” via a negative dialectics, “complicat[ing] the value structure of the culture industry and the culture of consumption” plastic made possible (pp. 20, 30). As a figuration, plastic becomes a matter(ing) of both the hermeneutic and the apophantic, Ghosh argues, effectively “unfix[ing] our thought, structure of expectation, and predictabilities of identity” (p. 125).

Chapter 2 (“The Plastic Literary”) furthers the argument that polymeric structuration is “the core of twentieth-century critical consciousness,” “translating” polymeric structuring to literary and artistic texts (p. 38). Textual “polymerization” fashions a “contested zone that cross-links cultural-aesthetic influences from areas and sources other than one’s own” (p. 41). If analyzing the “heterochain polymerization[s]” of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land as PVC strains one’s sense of critical decorum, that would be the point (p. 40).

Chapter 3 (“Plastic Touch”) turns to “plastic arts,” particularly the sculptural found-waste plastic artworks that appear today in museum exhibitions and art-activist happenings. Color reproductions of several well-known works flesh out Ghosh’s figuration of the plastic literary as he theorizes the trans-ing of literature to art and back: a “‘trans-plastic-habit’ within the material-aesthetic continuum of trans-literary understanding” (p. 126). Thus the shift from the investigation of plastic/plasticity in terms of linguistic structures and reading practices, to the introduction of litter-ature (see p. 129). Plastic “lit(t)erization” flows via wind- and current-driven trade routes associated (in nonliterary circles) with opportunism, colonization, migrancy, and (ecologically speaking) “‘prospects for invasions by alien and possibly aggressive invasive species’” (pp. 150, 122). What if world literature were regarded as such? As a text travels it becomes “trans(in)fusionist,” and travel is itself a “vexed metaphor in transcultural interventions” that affect both the “aesthetics and politics of contemporary world-literature formations” (p. 122). Here (in chapter 4) Ghosh engages the work of Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), whose understanding of literary formation as process anticipates Ghosh’s “plasticity of literary growth” (p. 123). Litter-ature promotes a worldly relationality, a translation from “estrangements” to unconcealments or “worldings” sponsoring “the ambiguity of its reception and reading, the politics of its global and transcultural flow and the power politics of language and dissemination” (pp. 135, 136).

The final chapter (“Plastic Affect”) updates Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s claim in “On Granite” (1784) that this material “‘contain[s] within it the promise of all other mineral structures’” (p. 153). The discovery in the 1990s of plastiglomerate, a composite material of rock and molten plastic, creates its own “distinct geological aesthetic. . . . signal[ing] a fresh understanding in geopoetical thought and lithosphere imaginary” (p. 155). Color plates illustrate the “geo-queering” that reshapes speculative thought, as we “read Earth through a [post-plastic] historical and cultural narrative” that dislocates presumed human priority and agency (pp. 157, 156). Ghosh avoids doomscrolling into impacts of plastic toxicities and toxic futurities, preferring the surprise of “new petro-aesthetic event[s]” as forms of a “plastic sublime” while acknowledging the darker surprises that persistently haunt us (pp. 159, 168). The buoyancy of Ghosh’s text, nonetheless, is carried forward by the commitment to art’s capacity to re-form the shape and scope of all our entangled relations.