Schoolchildren hunch over workbooks inside plexiglass table-tents. Receptionists greet patients from behind acrylic panels, pointing to the hand sanitizer and extra paperwork that must now precede a visit with the doctor. Plastic dividers separate us from cashiers scanning our groceries, couples eating next to us at the outdoor café, and weekend warriors huffing along on the elliptical trainers next to us at the gym. (That is, if our gyms are open at all.) Even the dealer at the baccarat table sits behind a see-through partition. When trials resumed in early September in Greenbelt, Maryland, the courtroom had been transformed into what the the Washington Post called a “plexiglass maze,” where walls-within-walls separated prosecution from defense, lawyers from clients, witnesses from jurors, and the judge from everyone else. Speakers wore plastic face shields so that the assembled could observe expressions and read lips. 1
Architectures of protection hastily installed across our built environments aim to keep us safe — pure, secure — through barely visible intrusions.
A similar form of security architecture appeared at the October vice-presidential debate, where plexiglass sheets shaped like Palladian windows isolated Kamala Harris and Mike Pence. Despite the fact that Pence had been exposed to several officials who, just days before, had tested positive for COVID-19, his team made light of Harris’s request for safety precautions. 2 Several epidemiologists found the setup laughable, too — because it didn’t go far enough to curtail airborne transmission (ventilation is of greater importance than physical barriers). 3 During the debate, when cameras focused on either candidate, his or her opponent’s smirking or grimacing face was reflected in the plexi; the onstage screens relayed reactions to the electronic screens where we sat watching, afloat in a world of rhetorical projection and distortion. As a Post opinion piece observed, “you can call the plexiglass barriers a symbol of how the recklessness and incompetence of this administration have divided us from one another. They may not keep anyone safe, but they won’t let us forget what Trump has done to the country.” 4
Since mid-March, when the World Health Organization recommended using such barriers to deter aerosol spread of the novel coronavirus — and to compensate for the scarcity of personal protective equipment — demand for plexiglass has skyrocketed. 5 The market had been steadily increasing over several years, thanks largely to the use of plexiglass in construction, as well as in retail for signage and display cases. But Craig Saunders, president of the International Association of Plastics Distribution, told National Public Radio in July that, “overnight, [global] demand increased by roughly four times what it was the prior year.” 6 Manufacturers had a hard time keeping up, and customers faced months-long waits. At the same time, suppliers realized that the boost was temporary; unlike face masks and rubber gloves, plexiglass barriers are a durable good. 7 Besides, even if the crisis passes and the barriers are retired, plexiglass, unlike many other plastics, can be recycled into other plexi products. 8
Yet the plexi shields and hoods are a temporary accommodation, like an umbrella, to be put away when the sun comes out again.
The new architectures of protection hastily installed across our built environments aim to keep us safe — pure, secure. They do this not by addressing the virus’s mode of transmission via vaccine or socially distanced quarantine (much less by reassessing relations between humans, animals, habitat loss, and environmental health), but rather by making the COVID-19 world inhabitable through minimally invasive, barely visible intrusions into our familiar terrains. Pandemic plexiglass is deployed as part of a preventative, conservative practice, a means of maintaining social and biological order that, in turn, promises epidemiological and economic resilience. Yet the plexi shields and hoods are little more than the architectural equivalents of hydroxychloroquine, snake oil neatly packaged in capsules and vials — jury-rigged shells mocked up so that we can keep working and consuming and pretending that social space hasn’t split open at its long-deepening fault lines; that the worker on the far side of the screen isn’t standing there all day, at risk. These anti-glare barriers allow us to look right through to a seemingly familiar quotidian, denying the need for long-haul adaptation. They’re a temporary accommodation, like an umbrella, to be put away when the sun comes out again.
Material Histories and Meanings
Plexiglass — or, rather, Plexiglas® — is one of several trade names for acrylic, shorthand for polymethyl methacrylate, a thermoplastic that can be molded at high temperatures but hardens upon cooling. 9 Transparent, lightweight, and shatter-resistant, the material derives from natural gas, and was developed in the late 1920s and ’30s as a safety glass for automobiles, an alternative to silica-based glass. German chemists Otto Röhm and Walter Bauer trademarked a version as Plexiglas® acrylic; British chemists Rowland Hill and John Crawford of Imperial Chemical registered their product under the name Perspex; and E.I. du Pont Nemours & Company, based in the U.S., introduced Pontalite, later renamed Lucite. 10 Acrylic proved useful for many wartime applications, including submarine periscopes, aircraft windshields and canopies, and gun turrets. 11 Moreover, acrylic, like all plastic, affords formal variety, and after the war it was put to myriad commercial uses: bulletproof “glass,” picture “glass,” ice-hockey-rink walls, aquarium walls, salad-bar sneeze guards, surgical instruments, storm doors, paint, jewelry, dentures, and housewares in exciting curved and folded shapes. Acrylic rods became “crystal” chandeliers and towel holders and stands for scale models. Acrylic tubes were bent into point-of-sale displays, decorative furniture, bulk-food dispensers.
In its clarity and morphological adaptability, plexiglass is like glass, only better — less reflective and (slightly) more conducive to light transmission. Glass facilitates vision while impeding sound, smell, and touch; it creates continuities between insides and outsides. Its applications in architecture rearranged the modern material and sensory universe. As architect Annette Fierro explains, glass has inspired new building types — from the Parisian arcades to International Style towers — and continues to carry divergent meanings: weight and weightlessness, presence and absence, fluidity and fragility. Its permeability to light, and thus its aptness as container for or vector of enlightenment, suggests a system of order and control, while its reflectiveness “absorbs psychoanalytical as well as philosophical questions instigated by the mirror.” 12
Plexi, too, can partake of the mirror’s symbolic potencies (as in its capture of Harris’s and Pence’s expressions). In fact, depending on how it’s manufactured, it can be more resistant to scratches than glass is, which means that in ideal conditions it is even less likely to call visual attention to itself as a barrier or medium. 13 Its lighter weight and greater durability mean that plexi can be installed — at the checkout counter or on a school desk — without a bulky frame. Indeed, many of the pristine polymeric prophylactics of the pandemic aim to disappear themselves, announcing their presence primarily through the buffering of sound transmission and reduction of aerosol circulation. At the same time, these transparent walls must announce themselves as emblems of reassurance, of adherence to safety mandates and commitment to a social contract. Glass is a cultural mirror, and plexiglass is too.
Plexiglass can partake of the mirror’s symbolic potencies. But it’s also significant that plexiglass is plastic.
It’s also symbolically significant that plexi is plastic. Plastic, after all, is defined to an even greater degree than glass is by its malleability. Moreover, it is characterized by what we have come to think of as an air of artificiality. DuPont’s company magazine argued in 1938 that plastics should be received as more than mere substitutes for natural materials; they were being designed “by man to his own specifications” in novel forms and textures and vibrant colors. 14 At midcentury, it seemed, as Roland Barthes proposes in Mythologies (1957), that “the whole world can be plasticized.” Barthes describes plastic as “much more than a substance”; plastic signifies, he writes, “the very idea of its infinite transformation” and “quick-change artistry.” 15 As historian Jeffrey Meikle notes, during the interwar period, the new polymeric universe gave form as well to shapeshifting ideologies. Plastic was widely regarded as a “vehicle of controlled social stability. Inexpensive plastics … would foster true democratization of society by ending the strife generated by scarcity and replacing it with universal material abundance.” Then, after the war, plastic was reconceived as a “vehicle of proliferating transformations, of continuous transcendence.” 16 We see these orientations converging in pandemic plexiglass, which serves to maintain social and economic order while promising epidemiological transcendence.
Designers in the postwar era were indeed prototyping new plastic worlds. Consider Buckminster Fuller’s Necklace Domes (1949), made of canvas, vinyl, or acrylic panels; Alison and Peter Smithson’s fiberglass House of the Future (1956), Marvin Goody and Richard Hamilton’s fiberglass Monsanto house at Disneyland (1957), and the inflatable architectural experiments and hygienic “bubbles” of the 1960s and 70s. 17 Lydia Kallipoliti describes such projects as “closed worlds,” artificial environments that materialize a range of motives and fantasies, both utopian and dystopian: “from military ideas to assure humankind’s sovereignty in new, uncharted territories to countercultural practices for autonomous living in the city, nostalgia for the homesteading movement, and ecological tourism and environmental capitalism.” 18 The Smithsons’ project, as Beatriz Colomina explains, engaged in a “stubborn defense against the dangerous outside,” with airlocks and air-conditioning keeping toxins at bay. 19 Ant Farm’s pneumatic Clean Air Pod (1970), meanwhile, sought to call attention to air pollution by inviting visitors into a plastic bubble where they could breathe at ease. We see such collapsible and pneumatic forms replicated in the PVC tents now plopped on city sidewalks, where they condition enclosed micro-environments to allow for outdoor dining in the winter months (while simultaneously claiming public space for private enterprise). 20
As cultural theorist Heather Davis argues, “what plastic does best [is act] as a sealant … while also materializing the desire for impenetrability, for objects, bodies, and selves to be discrete, for categories” — healthy and sick, friend and foe, inside and outside — “not to mix.” 21 Plastic, in other words, has always “embodied considerable hubris.” 22 Plexiglass in particular promised early on to stop bullets and save lives; it is being used now, as it has been for decades, to create zones of immunity. But in the social architectures of acrylic, protection is promised through pervious protective seals. Unlike, say, clingwrap or a Tupperware lid (or the bubble-like canopy on a fighter jet), plexiglass in the day-to-day urban environment is positioned to cultivate purity and security through permeable connections.
Plexiglass in the urban environment is positioned to cultivate purity and security through permeable connections.
Historically, plexiglass screens have often incorporated openings: windows, slots, or carousels through which patrons can deposit checks, hand over credit cards, or pass packages. These controlled apertures have necessitated particular protocols of operation and bodily comportment: how far in should we stick our hands? Can our fingers touch? Such appraisals take on extra weight during the pandemic. “In experiencing containment,” Kallipoliti explains, “we have never been more viciously aware of our bodies in space: bodies relative to other bodies, to objects touched by foreign hands. … The fear of breach” — a violation of the aperture’s codes of operation — “vividly renders the porosity of our bodies” and gives new resonance to anthropologist Edward T. Hall’s theory of proxemics. 23 Hall’s study of humans’ use of space, and particularly how those uses are impacted by population density, takes on a new “transactional modality of understanding space via distancing,” Kallipoliti explains. 24 That distancing is mandated and mediated by the screen.
Plexi pairs visual access with physical distance in order to sanction exchange: the handover of money or goods, the serving of food, the verification of identity and confirmation of action, the transmission of messages (albeit through somewhat muffled voices and blurred facial expressions). The presence of plexi prompts us to suspend our fear of contamination while we engage in necessary transactions. Its assurances, even if partly a matter of “security theater,” can serve vital cultural and economic functions: they keep us shopping, going out to eat, attending class, congregating at political rallies. But it is also through plexiglass that Americans have, for decades, been negotiating social tensions and civil unrest.
Defensive Spaces and Sensory Entombment
Last spring, as molded shields and domes appeared in shops and schools to protect us from airborne pathogens, other acrylic forms confronted us in parks and on street corners, ostensibly to protect communities from militant invaders. Uprisings calling for racial justice drew reaction from militarized police forces, who frequently met peacefully protesting crowds with rubber bullets, tear gas, and plexiglass riot shields — weapons both offensive and defensive that interpellate protestors as criminal. Law-enforcing bodies stand on one side of those barriers; law-defying bodies on the other. Here, rather than facilitating bidirectional exchange, the plexi shield proves permeable in one direction only, by permitting one agent to impose authority on the other.
We see a similar dynamic in prisons, where incarcerated individuals greet their visitors from behind plexiglass walls; the state determines who sits on which side of the divider, and that divider mediates how the parties see and speak to each other. In many urban communities, too, plexiglass has long played a role in instantiating social boundaries and reinscribing carceral geographies. Check-cashing tellers, pawn-shop proprietors, bail bondsmen, and employees in fast-food restaurants in impoverished neighborhoods often serve their clientele from within bulletproof-glass garrisons. Granted, most business delineate front from backstage; few banks or dry cleaners or public-administration offices allow patrons behind the counter. At the Department of Motor Vehicles, the unemployment office, and the passport-control checkpoint, plexiglass barriers connote bureaucratic tedium and frustration; they prime the public to approach the counter with some degree of trepidation, preparing for imperiousness and interrogation. But in particular “fringe” businesses in contested neighborhoods, plexi refracts different politics and subjectivities; it marks patrons as suspect. Here, plexi isn’t backed by the power of the state, yet those who install it still do so primarily as a defense against real or perceived threat. Outside the prison, a plexiglass cell grants enclosed proprietors and their staff perceptual control, transforming a place of business into a “defensible space.” 25
In contested neighborhoods, plexi refracts different politics and subjectivities; it marks patrons as suspect.
As urban planning scholar Fallon Samuels Aidoo notes, “these plexiglass ‘protections’ were normalized as a cost of doing [business] with poorer people.” 26 Urban unrest of the late 1960s drove many retailers and restaurateurs to “shutter themselves behind bunker-like armaments, taking on riot-ready fascia.” 27 That unrest was largely rooted in racial conflict and prejudice. “Both crime and fear came to be explicitly linked to black bodies,” geographer Brandi Thompson Summers explains, “and the process of criminalizing these bodies … produced a fear of blackness. The result was the implementation of ‘riot architecture’ in primarily lower income black communities.” 28 Such historical dynamics are reinforced not only through built spaces that emblematize these legacies of racial politics, but also in the contemporary imagination. As literary scholar Caroline H. Yang describes, popular media like The Wire often portray corner stores’ plexiglass architectures as militarized borders between Asian shop owners and their Black clientele, between an oasis inside and a warzone outside. Psychologist Naa Oyo A. Kwate, in her study of the corner liquor store in the Black metropolis, agrees: “Customers who must cross a threshold outfitted as if for warfare and conduct their transactions through bulletproof partitions are told that the store exists to extract money from a dangerous if not deadly lot.” 29
The plexiglass barrier puts those customers on panoptic display; in this respect, it’s not unlike the “thick sheet of invisible but horribly tangible plate glass” that, according to W.E.B DuBois, sets Black people apart as “entombed souls … hindered in their natural movement, expression, and development.” 30 As Thompson Summers explains, the state has historically used multiple techniques to limit Black mobility: “convict leasing, Black Codes, loitering laws, redlining, restrictive covenants, racial zoning, redistricting (legal and illegal), increased incarceration and proliferation of prisons, and increased surveillance.” 31 Of course, corner-shop customers technically stand outside the plexiglass cage. Yet it entombs them, too. They may be free to move into or out of the shop, and to walk around once indoors; but the plexiglass reinforces both immediate and historical, systemic obstacles to choice and opportunity. This is particularly true in “behind-the-glass-shops,” common in poor neighborhoods of color, which feature a plexiglass wall enclosing not only the cashier but all the merchandise. Here the refrigeration and high humidity required by fresh produce would chill the shopkeeper — which is just one of many reasons why, in such shops, available wares consist primarily of nonperishable items: “ramen noodles, high-sodium canned goods, snack foods, sodas, and candy.” In cities like Baltimore, such shops have been shown to stock the smallest quantity of healthy foods in the entire urban area, as measured by the Healthy Food Availability Index. 32 These restrictions mean nutritional impoverishment and sensory deprivation. Unable to touch, smell, or inspect their purchases, customers are denied the capacity to make empirical observations and informed choices about their own consumption. 33
In December 2017 the Philadelphia City Council Public Health and Human Services Committee passed a bill regulating the use of bulletproof glass in delis. “We want to make sure that there isn’t this sort of indignity … to serving food through [plexiglass barriers] only in certain neighborhoods,” councilwoman Cindy Bass announced. 34 The rule won’t be enforced until 2021, but many business owners have already refused to comply. As Rich Kim told The Temple News, “It’s not fair to say, ‘Hey, break down the wall that’s keeping you safe.’” 35 What’s more, Kim said, the law disproportionately targets Asian-American business owners. Summers has observed similar phenomena in Washington, D.C., where African and Asian immigrant shopkeepers resisted pressure to remove their security gates and bulletproof glass as part of broader “revitalization” — read: gentrification — efforts. Rattling open or clanging closed, deflecting touch, these apparatae serve as familiar sonic and visual symbols of security. 36
Purity and security are commonly indexed through embodied means: the sight of a clear MRI scan or a gleaming “clean room”; the sound of a triggered burglar alarm; the smell of disease versus that of disinfectant; the taste of rancid food as compared to the bracing astringency of medicine; the violating or healing touch. Newly installed and still-pristine pandemic plexi allows for the visual connection and physical separation that are necessary, now, for sanctioned exchange. Its clarity connotes immunity, even if its unobtrusiveness and perviousness create vulnerabilities. Meanwhile, the reinforced plexi bulwarks in corner delis, Chinese takeout spots, and payday lenders, often scarred and yellowed from decades of use and abuse, permit only a hazed, impersonal, alienating translucency, while also expressing their resolute impermeability to sound, smell, and touch — particularly their imperviousness to (imagined) thieving hands and piercing bullets, liquored breaths and smokers’ coughs. In all these cases, however, the plastic walls legitimate our inclinations to seal off bodies and commodities into defensible zones, extending geographies and logics of quarantine and incarceration into quotidian spaces.
There is, after all, no perfect seal. Responding to the plexiglass barriers at the vice presidential debate, New York Times reporter Astead Herndon joked on Twitter: “So the virus is supposed to hit that little plexiglass and give up lmao?” 37 Recent research by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and Army Research Laboratory has demonstrated the potential for aerosols to leak from plexiglass intubation boxes placed over the heads and shoulders of COVID-19 patients. 38 While public plexiglass installations can block large spray-borne droplets, they can’t impede smaller airborne particles, which is why many public health officials advocate for a layered approach: face masks plus social distancing plus plastic shields and ventilation. 39
As we deploy more plexi barriers to support our own purity and security, we also extend plastic’s longevity.
Plastic fails to prevent invasion, and it is itself invasive. The very ubiquity of plastic exacerbates its penetration of our bodies. Microplastics have been discovered in human organs; plastic bags have been found in the deepest trenches of the ocean; polymers have melded with rock to create new geo-engineered forms. The manufacture of acrylic fiber, like that of most plastics, requires the depletion of fossil fuels and the use of carcinogenic chemicals. 40 As we deploy more and more plexi barriers to support our own purity and security, we also extend plastic’s longevity. The residues of our plastic age will linger in the environment for hundreds of years — by which time our own bodies may have succumbed to a new pandemic, or to the climatic crises effected by the plasticization and carbonization of our world. And as long as we address such existential threats by hiding behind (literal and metaphorical) plexiglass shields rather than making systemic changes, it’s all but certain that the microbes and environmental milieux from which we attempt to cordon ourselves off will instead become ever more entwined with human life. At least we’ll get a clear view of the destruction, through the screen.
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