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Panics over Plastics: Queer Objects, Moral Pollution, and the Materialities of Belonging

George Paul Meiu, Harvard University

In recent years, in Kenya, popular claims that homosexuality is a “foreign import”—and therefore, “un-African”—have coincided with similar statements about plastic as a substance. On social media, a Kenyan man claimed that “gayism [looks] like a fatal plastic import from the West;” and state efforts to ban plastics have borrowed from the sentiments and language of an anti-homosexuality rhetoric. In order to better understand the role of sexuality to belonging and citizenship, this paper proposes a detour through the meanings and textures of plastic.

In the town of Maralal, Samburu county, northern Kenya, plastic boys are unemployed men who sell antiques to tourists and travelers and who are despised by other locals for being unattached, “useless paupers,” who, not unlike plastic itself, have allegedly no capacity to grow roots and thrive. Understanding this subject position against a wider background of objects, ethnic relations, and afflictions associated with plastic in the region, this paper shows how substances and surfaces can redraw existing lines of inclusion and exclusion; how things and textures can intensify or deplete one’s possibilities to belong; and how polluting matter complicates, subverts, and sometimes reinforces attachments that are otherwise associated with identity—ethic, sexual, or otherwise. George Paul Meiu will speak of the materialities of belonging to show how plastic anchors belonging and citizenship in the idioms of substance. Thus, he will offer to bridge theories of materiality, objectification, and pollution with the anthropological scholarship on emerging politics of autochthonous belonging and with studies of sexual citizenship.

George Paul Meiu is John and Ruth Hazel Associate Professor of Social Sciences in the Department of Anthropology and the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. He is author of Ethno-erotic Economies: Sexuality, Money, and Belonging in Kenya (University of Chicago Press, 2017). He also published in the American Ethnologist, Ethnos, Anthropology Today, the Canadian Journal of African Studies and in edited volumes on tourism, sexuality, and the history of anthropology.


June 5, 2019


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