Jeff Meikle’s American Plastic delves into the history, technology, and business of plastic (in the US) to show that plastic is both material and metaphor for American culture. On the one hand, plastic’s seemingly infinite malleability can lead to creative freedom and human domination over nature; on the other, its synthetic, chemical artificiality detaches us from the natural world and thus leads, somehow, to death. Lest this dichotomy seem too simple, he situates his history of plastic within Thomas Hughes’ “technological momentum” framework, which holds that when technologies are young, they are easily manipulated by society; as they (and their attendant industries and systems of distribution) age, they shift from the manipulated to the manipulators. Thus, if plastic was all “whatever” in the late 1800s, by the late 20th century, plastic had become a necessary, if silently lurking, element in our everyday lives.
The majority of the book focuses on technological manufacturing processes, the development of the plastics industry, and changing cultural perceptions of plastic (which were often, especially in DuPont’s case, carefully crafted by ad execs). The part that I found most interesting was Meikle’s discussion of the relationship between plastics and streamlining in the 1930s, as it captures an industry, a technology, a culture and an aesthetic all in transition at once.
Although Bakelite, the first synthetic plastic, had been around since the turn of the century, it didn’t take off until the 1920s, when its promoters were able to recast it as a material of innovation rather than one of simulation. This reframing of plastic as something wholly man-made – and the reframing of “man-made” as a positive quality – was reflected in Bakelite’s new emphasis on modern design, which took advantage of plastic’s plasticity to create shapes and textures that could not be held by natural materials. Inspired by Bakelite, other plastics manufacturers followed suit and developed radios, furniture, bowls, and other household goods with sleek, smooth surfaces and simple, sweeping curves. Meikle is careful to point out that this streamlining trend was NOT a direct result of the plastic manufacturing process, which involved pouring softened plastic into molds. Instead, he argues that the 1930s were a moment of flux, when culture and technology were on relatively equal footing: 1930s design resulted partly from consumer demand for ‘machine-age forms’ and partly from the high cost of machining plastic molds, which pushed manufacturers to develop simpler, more streamlined forms. In other words, plastic and streamlining came together as a “happy coincidence.” Plastic sure did look good in curvilinear forms, though. More importantly, the visual disconnect between the new streamlined plastics and natural materials and forms, which now looked irregular and staid by comparison, appealed to Americans’ utopian aspirations while also giving plastic its identity.
After WWII and into the 1960s, plastic stopped being the utopian super material and started to seem emblematic of everything that was wrong with American society: cookie cutter homes filled with identical vinyl floors, naugahyde furniture, and Tupperware, social isolation, inequality and environmental destruction. Meikle doesn’t suggest that plastics directly caused the countercultural revolution – his analysis is far too nuanced to do that – but he does tie the proliferation of plastic to an ongoing tension between human creativity and the sense that American culture is increasingly detached from “the resistant stuff of nature.” Considering that a little under a century ago we were celebrating the domination of nature via plastic, this tension reveals a now-mature technological system’s imbalance of power between humans and nature. Meikle calls the tension “insoluble;” I’ve never considered myself much of an environmentalist, but I do hope he’s wrong.