Speculative Ecologies of Microplastics: Emergent and Slimy Life Forms in the Oceans

A new phenomenon has emerged in the ocean: plastic-nature-cultures. Anthropogenic debris has led to the emergence of new entities, habitats and ecosystems in the water. These new life forms challenge binary categories like between nature and culture. Anthropogenic marine plastic litter is a hybrid object, emblematic or even iconic for indissoluble nature-culture amalgamations as well as for vast yet unknown networks of effects.

My argument is that the definition of microplastics in the marine context has fundamentally changed our perception of plastic, both in the ocean and on land. Macroplastic is perceived in the sense of Mary Douglas concept as “matter ouf of place”, as waste, but often in form of recognizable symbols of consumption. In contrast, the notion of microplastics points to rather unknown effects, to the uncanniness of the diffusion of plastic in the environment.

Furthermore, on plastic surfaces, new life forms like the plastisphere (bacterial biofilms) emerge that challenge our understanding of nature and culture and the division between subject, object and the environment.

Sven Bergmann is a cultural anthropologist working at the Department for Anthropology and Cultural Research at Bremen University. Two post-doc
research projects about the problematization of ocean plastics, founded by VolkswagenStiftung and Uni Bremen. His research interest comprise economies and politics of waste, nature/culture, STS, kinship, bodies, mobility and space.