by Daniel Rourke
Upon visiting an exhibition of plastic in Paris in the mid 1950s, Roland Barthes wrote a short essay on the metaphoric qualities of the 20th century wonder material:
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.
Barthes’ Mythologies collection, from which his Plastic essay is taken, was an elegy on the everyday. In banal capitalist commodities and pop cultural clichés Barthes sought out the magical, revealing the everyday as the fountain of secular mythology. Plastic is seemingly infinite in its capacity to be formed and used, and it is this feature which renders plastic meaningless in itself, able to take on completely any gesture or idea that is breathed into it. The substance’s descent to prosaic, crass, cheap, and expendable is – for Barthes – precisely what marks it as miraculous. The transformations plastic is capable of going through give us, according to Barthes, a measure of our power, ‘since the very itinerary of plastic gives [us] the euphoria of a prestigious free-wheeling through nature.’ With remarkable prescience, and in retrospect, breath-taking ecological ignorance, Barthes foresaw a time where ‘ultimately objects will be invented for the sole pleasure of using them.’