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The Inquisition by Ronan McDonnell - Contents Page
The Inquisition by Ronan McDonnell - Semper Quarens - Always Looking

Plastic 55 Years Ago

Roland Barthes’ Mythologies was first published in 1957, and was first translated to English in 1970. In it he recounts, and theorises on, a visit he paid to an exhibition of plastic.

Roland Barthes in suitably thoughtful pose and jungle suit, as required by mid-century francophone intellectuals

Roland Barthes in suitably thoughtful pose and jungle suit, as required by mid-century francophone intellectuals

…its previous position as an adjective describing flexibility, to its current position of a noun described by its own everydayness…

Barthes was writing at a time when plastics were still being hailed as a true collection of wonderstuffs. Now, of course we see it for what it is at worst a biological and environmental hazard and at best a description of ubiquity and cheapness (see the original Ford Ka for a seminal instruction in “plasticky”).

As he wrote, plastic was still moving from its previous position as an adjective describing flexibility, to its current position of a noun described by its own everydayness. 50 years ago dashboards in cars were still wooden, milk still came in glass bottles and not oddly laminated pulp board, money was still almost always paper and metal.

But designers were pushing the boundaries. Organic forms were entering our lives in ways they never had before. Chairs were available that were like swivelling eggs you disappeared into(Particularly the Alpha Stereo chiar). Housewives had wipeable table cloths! Phones hung from the wall, ready to be picked up, light in your hands and smooth to the touch. Music spread globally on etched discs of black vinyl. Plastic was offering new possibilities, as it always has done.

Roland Barthes recovering from complications of tuberculosis

Roland Barthes recovering from complications of tuberculosis

Of course, Barthes was only concerned with the connotations of plastics, their democratisation of complex constructions and their possibilities of further. He is not concerned at all, in this context at least, with their reality. He is unaware of what their ecological legacy would be.

Barthes was enthralled by the substance, calling it “the stuff of alchemy”.

He was also oddly prophetic, although not in the manner intended – “a miraculous substance; a miracle is always a sudden transformation of nature”. Plastic, as we now know has gravely affected nature.

More than this, plastic in the eyes of this leading intellectual of the time, lifts us above nature. No longer do we have to rely on the materials nature provides us with, and their inherent limitations. These transformations give “man the measure of his power, and since the very itinerary of plastic gives him the euphoria of a prestigious free-wheeling through Nature.”

Interestingly though, old materials still hold true in much engineering. In transportation it is hard to find a plastic wheel. They are all metal. But our kids’ toys have plastic wheels. How will this look when we are excavated, 5000 years into the future?

For the Masses

Barthes refected on how plastic had lost its lustre even then. Its name, Barthes noted, had already gone from meaning flexible to meaning uncompromisingly cheap, its qualities seen somewhere between the effusiveness of rubber and the sheer strength of metal. Plastic, he said, was disgraced.

It is a bourgeois representation of finer, more graceful materials. It is the most recent in a long line of materials replicating their finer, rarer, more expensive cousins – diamonds and cubic zirconia, gold and brass or cotton and virtually any other textile. We want to appear fine and opulent, but at a price. So we see mp3 players in high gloss black like antique Japanese lacquered boxes, or laminated furniture like rare woods. We see synthetic upper faux-leather shoes and fake fur coats. The list goes on.

But he concludes that it is exactly this commonplaceness that makes it so special. It is so versatile it is practically unseen.

Mythologies, Roland Barthes, Vintage, Ed. 2000

This article was posted by on Friday, June 29th, 2012 at 16:03.
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