Roland Barthes on the Alchemy of Plastic

Jessica Backus
Dec 8, 2012 10:57PM

In spite of its having Greek shepherds' names (Polystyrene, Phenoplast, Polyvinyl, Polyethylene), plastic... is an essentially alchemical substance... More than a substance, plastic is the very idea of its infinite transformation. As its vulgar name indicates, it is ubiquity made visible; moreover, this is the reason why it is a miraculous substance: a miracle is always a sudden conversion of nature. Plastic remains completely impregnated by this astonishment: it is less an object than the trace of a movement... In the poetic order of major substances, plastic is a disgraced material, lost between the effusion of rubber and the flat hardness of metal: it achieves none of the true productions of the mineral order: foam, fibers, strata. It is a shaped substance: whatever its final state, plastic retains a flocculant appearance, something opaque, creamy, and coagulated, an impotence ever to attain the triumphant sleekness of Nature... Plastic is the first magical material that consents to be prosaic; but it is precisely because of its prosaic nature that it triumphs... an artificial substance, more fecund than all the world's deposits... will command the very invention of shapes.

-Excerpts from Roland Barthes, "Plastic," Myths, 1957

Jessica Backus
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