Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Plastic vs. plastic

There are a few sites that I make a point of checking regularly: Resource Shelf, Wired News, Slashdot, and—my favourite—Plastic. Plastic’s tagline is “Recycling the Web in Real Time” and their combination of erudite critique and discussions make for an interesting reading experience. The best description of this new reading experience was provided by Roland Barthes in an essay about… er, plastic:

“So, more than a substance, plastic is the very idea of its infinite transformation; as its everyday name indicates, it is ubiquity made visible. And it is this, in fact, which makes it a miraculous substance: a miracle is always a sudden transformation of nature. Plastic remains impregnated throughout this wonder: it is less a thing than the trace of movement.” (Barthes, [1957] 2002 pg. 306)

The transformation of the medium inherent in blogging makes for a truly unique reading experience. Through reprocessing and commenting, Plastic makes the news interesting and inherently relevant.

Of course, the malleability of the medium also presents limitations. With a nod to Baudrillard, blogs are incredibly ephemeral due to the semiotic morass of the Internet. Barthes again provides relevant commentary in his discussion on plastic:

"But the price to be paid for this success is that plastic, sublimated as movement, hardly exists as a substance. Its reality is a negative one: neither hard nor deep, it must be content with a 'substantial' attribute which is neutral in spite of its utilitarian advantages: resistance, a state which merely means an absence of yielding. In the hierarchy of the major poetic substances, it figures as a disgraced material, lost between the effusiveness of rubber and the flat hardness of metal; it embodies none of the genuine produce of the material world: foam, fibers, strata. It is a 'shaped' substance: whatever its final state, plastic keeps a flocculent appearance, something opaque, creamy and curdled, something powerless ever to achieve the triumphant smoothness of Nature." (Barthes, [1957] 2002 Pg. 306)

One aspect missing from Barthes’s discussion is the historiography of plastic. He treats plastic as if it has always existed and is a fundamental part of human existence. The history of plastic, however, yields some interesting insights into the formation of any technological structure, even Plastic.

Wiebe Bijker has written extensively about the earliest plastic: Bakelite. In his discussion he stresses the importance of factors that Barthes would consider incidental to the actual material of plastic, namely the social structure and technological paradigm required to stabilize the artifact of Bakelite:

"Synchronously with the stabilization of the artefact Bakelite and the formation of a social group of producers, a technological frame came into being. Thus the system of artefact, social group, and technological frame gains technological momentum." (Bijker, 1987 pg. 176)

So while plastic—and Plastic—may be a disgraced material with little semantic relevance in our modern simulacra, the social structures and technological frames in which it’s embedded may be considerably more relevant… or not.

References

Barthes, R. ([1957] 2002). Plastic. In B. Highmore (Ed.), The everyday life reader (pp. 305-307). London ; New York: Routledge.
Bijker, W. E. (1987). The Social Construction of Bakelite: Toward a Theory of Invention. In W. E. Bijker, T. P. Hughes & T. J. Pinch (Eds.), The Social construction of technological systems : new directions in the sociology and history of technology (pp. 159-187). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

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