Science and Society: Toxic Progeny

Join us for a special episode of Science and Society with guest host Prof. Jack Halberstam and his curated speakers Heather Davis, author of Plastic Matter, and evolutionary biologist Malin Ah-King to engage in a contemporary conversation about material responsibility in a world where contamination cannot be escaped. Many deeply believed that the invention of plastics and other materials was going to lead to a better, more prosperous world. The world in which we currently live is the utopia of this belief system. Plastic is ubiquitous. It is in the Arctic, in the depths of the Mariana Trench, and in the high mountain tops of the Pyrenees. It is in the air we breathe and the water we drink. Plastic has embedded itself into the foundational history of our planet in the form of Plastiglomerate Stones. It has given birth to new forms of bacteria and microorganisms. Plastic has revealed the illusion of our independence from our environment as nanoplastics pierce our cell walls and push evolutionary change in a real way.

Today’s culture continues to be motivated by the ideas of techno-utopianism and plastic fits perfectly within its blind drive toward the future, where the present is constantly being discarded and the past ceases to exist. But instead of reactivating these logics when imagining a future and its clean break from the harms of plastic pollution, Jack and his guests deny the use of the future as an escape hatch, and instead acknowledge that plastic pollution is here to stay. Through the mobilization of queer theory, Jack, Heather, and Malin embrace the world we have inherited through the invention and proliferation of plastic and reconfigure our relationships to its toxic progeny. By doing so, they argue that plastic, paradoxically, carries many earthly lessons that might prove useful in navigating through the current ecological crisis.

Before and after the conversation, The Institute of Queer Ecology invites visitors to explore the IQECO Field Station, a selected archive of projects, artworks, ephemera, and collaborations from their past six years of social practice, sharing visions for multispecies utopia. Join the Institute for a deep dive into “Queer Ecology”, an adaptive framework concerned with interconnectivity, deviance, intimacy, and multispecies relationality.Before and after the talk, join us for stargazing with the Amateur Astronomers Association of NY, and food by Makina Cafe will be available all night long.

About the Panelists

Jack Halberstam is a Professor of Gender Studies and English at Columbia University. Halberstam is the author of seven books including: Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (Duke UP, 1995), Female Masculinity (Duke UP, 1998), In A Queer Time and Place (NYU Press, 2005), The Queer Art of Failure (Duke UP, 2011), Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal (Beacon Press, 2012), and a short book titled Trans*: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variance (University of California Press). Halberstam’s latest book from Duke UP is titled Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire. Places Journal awarded Halberstam its Arcus/Places Prize in 2018 for innovative public scholarship on the relationship between gender, sexuality, and the built environment. Halberstam is now finishing a second volume on wildness titled: Unworlding: Trans and Queer Anarchitectures and a Theory of Nothing.

Heather Davis is an assistant professor of Culture and Media at The New School in New York whose work draws on feminist and queer theory to examine ecology, materiality, and contemporary art in the context of settler colonialism. Her most recent book, Plastic Matter (Duke University Press, 2022), explores the transformation of geology, media, and bodies in light of plastic’s saturation. Davis is a member of the Synthetic Collective, an interdisciplinary team of scientists, humanities scholars, and artists, who investigate and make visible plastic pollution in the Great Lakes. Her writing has appeared in e-flux, Third Text, Afterall, Canadian Art, PhiloSOPHIA, and Camera Obscura, numerous edited books and catalogs, and has been translated into Croatian, Slovak, Korean, French, and Chinese. She is the co-editor of Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies (Open Humanities Press, 2015), and editor of the award-winning Desire Change: Contemporary Feminist Art in Canada (MAWA and McGill Queen’s UP, 2017). In 2022-23, she was a member of the School of Social Science at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton.

Malin Ah-King is an Associate Professor in Gender Studies at Stockholm University, she has a PhD in evolutionary biology and specializes in gender/queer perspectives on biology and feminist science studies of evolutionary research about sex. She has published in a wide range of scholarly journals, such as Nature Communications, Evolutionary Biology, Lambda Nordica, PLOS Biology, Ecology and Evolution and European Journal of Women’s Studies. Her paper with Eva Hayward “Toxic sexes—Perverting pollution and queering hormone disruption” has become influential in the field of Queer Ecology. Ah-King’s book The Female Turn: How Evolutionary Science Shifted Perceptions About Females (published in January of 2023) draws on feminist science studies to explore how evolutionary biology transformed from an understanding of females as coy and passive to having active sexual strategies. Her current project explores a controversy over sex differences in evolutionary biology.

This program is supported by the Simons Foundation.