Friday, February 18, 2011

Plastic Bag is not Duchamp's Urinal

Before continuing please 1) refer to the first longish sentence of Ander’s February 9th post (on Ruefle) OR 2) just read it here, quoted: “The better question is whether a thing essays and whether the way that thing essays—which is perhaps to say wiggles slightly, in a provocative or interrogative manner, as if by its act of unsurety, or doubling-back, renouncing its previous movement of mind or body—whether it reveals or illuminates some edge of meaning.” This will be our epigraph. For the sake of this blog post please accept this epigraph as a steady turtle. (Yes, one could probably posit other “better questions” or that this is not the “best question” to begin with here, but, regardless, this is what we are starting with. This is our ground point, our base, and from here on we will not concern ourselves with what this initial turtle is, or is not, standing on—i.e. if you are still wondering if Plastic Bag, this propaganda-esque short film, is, or is not, an essay, please stop wondering and let’s just get on with things.)

Considering our epigraph, an essay deserving the Essay Prize ought to display such wiggling (to wiggle = to essay = movement of mind) as we’ve not seen (or rarely seen) before, and, as our epigraph suggests, such an essay ought also to illuminate for us something greater, not just a fact or an opinion or a report, but a certain meaning scraped together from facts and opinions and reports and pasted together in such a way that when held up to the light an X is (clearly) visible to the astute reader/viewer. And so our questions then, regarding Plastic Bag, might begin: 1) Does this film display movement of mind, and if so, how lovely and nuanced is the wiggling being done? and 2) If there is wiggling, is all this wiggling around approaching some meaning, and if so, where does this meaning fall on the grand scale of great meanings?

The question of “inquiry” (read: movement of mind, wiggling) came up in our discussion of Plastic Bag last week, as in, is there inquiry present here? It was brought up that inquiry, in this instance, certainly arises via the viewer (the film inspires viewers’ minds to wiggle and squirm and writhe)—but I believe this inspiring of inquiry is inconsequential to the actual essaying being done, and it establishes a false criteria by which to judge Plastic Bag’s success as an essay.

Take Duchamp’s Fountain. It inspired a lot of wiggling in its viewers, and in doing so it was a successful art piece; it did (still does?) what Duchamp wanted it to do, though it, itself, has actually done very little—it simply exists, and its existence inspires brain-wiggling in those who see it. Fountain is art as object, not as essay, because it does not essay, not exactly, no. It itself does not move; it inspires movement. And while it might be true that Plastic Bag inspires a similar sort of thought-movement, it also does much more than that: Plastic Bag has voice, and demonstrates thought/thinking in itself. While Fountain represents Duchamp’s consciousness, his ideas, Plastic Bag actively reveals a (collaborative) consciousness at work, wiggling, that is to say actively extrapolating an idea, that is to say actively at work in the essay, essaying. And in this way, Plastic Bag is so much more than Duchamp’s urinal. It is an essaying essay.

The wiggling, the essaying within Plastic Bag (independent of any wiggling of the viewer), can be seen as playing out like this: A sustained, unique (collaborative) consciousness tracks the metaphorical and real blowing of a plastic bag through the world, and through the philosophical and moral digressions that have been (and are) often experienced by humanity, as it (we) also pass (whimsically) from one stage of life to the next. And from this tracking of this bag through these digressions and stages, we the viewers witness a (collaborative) consciousness, the consciousness of the film’s creators, wiggle, in a provocative and interrogative manner, flitting along from one place and idea to another, embodying its own unsurety, its occasional doubling-back, and if not its renouncing of its previous movement of mind, then at least it’s acceptance of that movement, and a particular gumption to charge forward. And this consciousness’ wiggling is particularly visible in the (underappreciated) nuances of the Herzog-delivered monologue.

The Plastic Bag starts out in The Cave, and even after Plastic Bag is pulled away and presented with a greater view of the world, it is still weighted by a mythology used to make sense of a world that has never been seen until now. This mythology is crucial; it is how PB deals with the trauma of being plucked suddenly into the light. “I met my maker; I had a purpose”—PB is born, not literally at the moment of fabrication, but rather as a spiritual being (of sorts) upon being given (or realizing) its purpose via a Maker, a being who gives meaning and thus life—a god. This god gradually becomes a personal God, and PB achieves (or imagines) a certain closeness to this God: “My skin against her skin. My cold, her warmth. I made her happy and she made me happy. I thought we would be together forever.” Alas, eventually PB is cast out, to the dump, exiled (from Eden?) out into the world. But PB continues with this Religious worldview, finding spiritual strength in its belief that its Maker must have made a mistake, that it is still worthy, and ultimately “Nothing could destroy me”—nothing could tarnish its spirit.

Of course, as PB escapes the dump and experiences more of the world, “Destruction. Desolation,” it comes to understand that it is essentially different (from those things that readily decompose), and it begins to question its place in the world, and its disillusionment really ramps up as it begins to question the beneficence of its Maker, “She never came,” and eventually, as PB rests on the shoulder of a statue, an idol-representation of the real thing, the disillusionment is complete: “There was nobody left” (left alone, oh loneliness), “She had forgotten me and I would forget her, too.” And PB travels on, disillusioned, drifting through life without purpose, looking for purpose, for some kind of meaning, until there is a brief love affair, which again provides PB with a sense of purpose. (I like to think of this as PB’s late high school period.) This love ends however, as so many first-romantic-loves do, and post-love, as the winds drift each their own way, PB once again despairs (i.e. he reads Nietzsche for the first time as a freshman in college), and a brief, but distinct, period of Nihilism ensues.

Then suddenly, PB is something of a Naturalist, “I looked just like the Earth. I saw the sun, and I looked like that, too.” This could be seen as PB’s hippie period, and while PB perhaps found some gladness in the notion that we’re all just stardust really, despair nagged: “I was still lost.” But, “That’s when I first learned about the vortex”—from hippiedom PB moves on to the joys of Humanism (or more correctly, Plasticism).

Suddenly, in this phase of Secular Plasticism there is talk of self-agency and solidarity, “They said there was no maker. They said we were the maker. Join the others…” And PB treks after this great vortex, this place of collective harmony. Of course, upon arriving, further disillusionment sets in: “No one here thought about anything.” And suddenly we see PB, still desperate for purpose and meaning, trying to escape from the collective, and yet PB just gets mired, weighed down, not only lost, but stuck, its flimsy handle looped around some coral. Where does PB go from here, truly in despair, wishing it could die? What state of consciousness got it into this mess? What will get it out?

Now remember, the film Plastic Bag doesn’t really care about this bag blowing along in the wind. The bag is a stand-in, a proxy, for us. By showing PB blowing through these different stages of awareness and consciousness the essay is modeling the path(s) that much of humanity has taken (or is perceived to have taken), and as PB is stuck on the coral reef wishing not to be made of non-biodegradable polymers—polymers that will eventually break down into nurdles that will eventually cause the death of all kinds of marine creatures, from those as large as birds and tuna, to those as small as krill—we the viewers, are meant to recognize that this film is in fact about us, and this stage of consciousness is no longer representative of PB’s state of mind, but of our own, of our own 21st century Scientific worldview, which has left us mired, in trouble. Plastic Bag seems to say that as a result of our scientific worldview (and our scientific success, of sorts), we, our world, everything, are all doomed in so many different ways. This plastic bag cannot die, but organic life can, we can, and as we recognize that first truth, we must reckon with the second.

(Science break: A nurdle, also called a pre-production plastic pellet or plastic resin pellet, is a pellet typically under 5mm in diameter that is produced in the first stages of plastic manufacturing, or later as larger pieces of plastic (cups, bottles, straws, bags, whatever) are broken down into ever-smaller bits. By the estimate of one California legislation-action group, almost 60 billion pounds (27 million tonnes) of nurdles are manufactured in the United States each year, and these nurdles have become a significant source of ocean and beach pollution, and (as said above) frequently find their way into the digestive tracts of various thus-doomed sea creatures, like krill.

Krill, which are near the bottom of the food chain, feed on phytoplankton and zooplankton, converting these into a form of protein and nutrients suitable for many larger animals for whom krill makes up the largest part of their diet. One species, Antarctic krill, reportedly makes up an estimated biomass of over 500,000,000 tonnes, about twice that of humans. Of this, over half is eaten by whales, seals, penguins, squid and fish each year, and then that krill biomass that is eaten is replaced by growth and reproduction. Now imagine a world where massive amounts of krill are choking to death on nurdles, which they mistake for plankton. Some studies estimate that there is six times more plastic (nurdles) than plankton in the Pacific Ocean. Think how this will affect the food chain. Think how this will affect us, eventually. Think of the Futurama episode where Fry—the dumb 20th century human—gets his neck caught in a plastic ring from a six pack and nearly asphyxiates.)

And so here we have it, the last stage Plastic Bag takes us to, the last stage of wiggledom for the essay: Environmentalism. And some say this theme as seen in Plastic Bag is played out, that environmentalism is so everywhere it’s already passé, and it annoys us because we like disposable plastic packaging and we don’t want to feel bad about our lifestyles because we don’t want to feel compelled to challenge ourselves to change, and so we knee-jerk against this essay because it’s all “environmental” and that’s nothing new, blaaahhhh, as in blaaasé. And okay, I’m fine with this viewing of Plastic Bag, but please, as essayists, appreciate the skill and nuance this film displays as it takes us along a true and elusive path, models our many philosophical trajectories, and ends (albeit predictably) by smacking us on the head with a (accurate) depiction of the current state of things. Simple Plastic Bag is, and yet simple it is not. It is intelligent. It displays a (collaborative) intelligence, and whether we love it, hate it, or don’t give a shit, we at least get to see that intelligent (collective) mind wiggling its ass off.

And you might ask: Isn't this blogger just imposing his own wiggling movement on this essay film? Am I—the viewer here—still the one instigating the inquiry? (I don’t think so, and I want to say no, I’m just articulating it, but…) Maybe. That said, in any case, there is certainly some wiggling going on here, and (I believe) this wiggling is indeed illuminating some edge of meaning—elucidating not only the current state of things, but also suggesting the myriad philosophical and moral paths that have led us here. Where exactly this might fall on the grand scale of great meaning, and should this particular act of essaying really be in contention for the venerable Essay Prize—I don’t know. I leave that to you.

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