voyage to synthetica - eldorado of all the old boys

In 1940, Fortune Magazine (which was part of the Luce empire, and featured such writers as James Agee and Archibald Macleish – as well as Whittaker Chambers) produced an issue devoted to the relatively new industry of plastic. In Jeffrey Meikle’s American Plastic: A cultural history, he writes: “The editors seem uncertain how to present these new materials, whether to portray plastic as an extension of natural materials or as an intoxicating disruption of the natural order. These contrary interpretation emerged not in the article’s text, which offered clear explanations of processes and applications, but in two illustrations, each a two page full color spread, each so bizarre in its own way, so rationally unwarranted, as to suggest an intrusion into consciousness from a site of unresolved psychological conflicts.”(64) I note in passing, here, Meikle’s coupling of intoxication and plastic. More importantly, this is his introduction to “Synthetica: the new continent of plastics.”

Meikle quotes the Fortune caption: “[Synthetica] extended right out of the natural world – that wild area of firs and rubber plantations, upper left –into the illimitable world of the molecule.” Although it floated on the “Sea of Glass, one of the oldest plastics known,” the continent was only recently discovered. “New countries, like Melamine constantly bulge from its coastline”, and its boundaries were “as unstable as the map of Europe.” Already possessed of its own Ruhr district, known as Phenolic, “a heavy industrial region of coal-tar chemicals fed by Formaldahyde River,” Synthetica also boasted the “more frivolous and color-loving state” state of Urea and the “glittering night life” of the resorts of Rayon Island…”

De Quincey, I’d like to think, had dimly foreseen it all. Setting sail for the Artificial Paradise, we are bound to hit the continent of Synthetica.

In the comments to the Dialectics of Diddling post, I commented, in relation to one of Amie’s comments about exploring Derrida’s Pharmacy of Plato, that I was thinking, rather, of orbiting it – but this made me curious about the geographic roots of the now very common idea that one “explores” a text. Etymologically, exploration is a very odd word – such as could have bloomed on the banks of the Formaldehyde river. In Rev. Walter Skeat’s Etymological dictionary, we read:
“Explore, to examine thoroughly. (F-L) M.E. In Cotgrave; and in Milton, P.L. ii 632, 971 – O.F. explorer, “to explore; Cot. Lat. Explorare, to search out, lit. ‘to make flow out’ – Lat. ex and plorare, to make to flow, weep. – PLU to flow; see flow.” (200)
With the lexicographer’s usual superb elisions, we are left to ask how “to make flow out’ or to ‘weep’, plus an out – ‘out of weeping’ - could give us, in the end, ‘examine thoroughly’. Perhaps in this world we do see as in a glass, darkly – and counteract our vision through our self created prism – like unto the sea of Glass, the world’s oldest plastic – our tears.
Juxtapositions and jump cuts. And geography. In De Quincey's Confessins, and indeed, in all of his writing, Wordsworth's line about being haunted by a landscape is transformed into a dreadful, hallucinatory truth about the way landscapes he has left, chance encounters in the street, a Malay sailor who came to his door one day in the country all extended themselves, repeated themselves endlessly, in his hallucinations - which is a truth seized upon, in turn, by Baudelaire's idea that the secret of the appeal of hashish and opium is a craving for infinity.

The landscape of infinity for De Quincey is London. Speaking of his honeymoon period on opium, De Quincey writes the he often used to ramble, stoned, through London neighborhoods, especially poor ones. He would see a myriad of faces (looking, perhaps, for the face of Ann, the prostitute who saved him when he was down and out) and scenes:

"Some of these rambles led me to great distances, for an opium-eater is too happy to observe the motion of time; and sometimes in my attempts to steer homewards, upon nautical principles, by fixing my eye on the pole-star, and seeking ambitiously for a north-west passage, instead of circumnavigating all the capes and head-lands I had doubled in my outward voyage, I came suddenly upon such knotty problems of alleys, such enigmatical entries, and such sphynx's riddles of streets without thoroughfares, as must, I conceive, baffle the audacity of porters and confound the intellects of hackney-coachmen. I could almost have believed at times that I must be the first discoverer of some of these terrae incognitae, and doubted whether they had yet been laid down in the modern charts of London. For all this, however, I paid a heavy price in distant years, when the human face tyrannised over my dreams, and the perplexities of my steps in London came back and haunted my sleep, with the feeling of perplexities, moral and intellectual, that brought confusion to the reason, or anguish and remorse to the conscience."

It is worth underlining that last sentence - it was the very layout of the city that came to haunt his nightmares - or rather, nightmare united here to memory.


In Martin Booth’s Opium, Booth naturally turns to De Quincey’s Confessions, which is one of those rare ‘literary’ books that extended right out of the natural world of literature and into the world of opium sales – for De Quincey’s account of his addiction [years before the ‘morbid craving’ for morphine was studied by the doctors] gave the drug a lurid reputation. Booth writes: … it is surprising De Quincey does not mention the manner in which opium contorts or alters colours. In ordinary dreams, colourss (if they appear at all) are unenhnaced and realistic. In an opium dream, reds darken to maroons and blood crimsons, blues blacken to the colour of an early night sky, whilst yellows become solid and more luminescent. What is more, colours take on an almost tangible texture so the hue becomes only a part of their impact: one does not just see them, one feels them.” [38]

In Mielke’s account of the plastic industry in the thirties, color retention was one of the great factors driving research forward. Bakelite, the premier twenties plastic, fell behind its rivals because the process of synthesis disallowed a range of colors. It was phenolic resin ‘impervious to ultraviolet light’ which provided the first step towards creating materials “in all the colors of the rainbow’. ‘Catalin and other cast phenols arrived in time not only to take advantage of the rage for colors but also to stimulate it. The uncompromising artificiality of Catalin synthetic colors – bright, clear, uniform, reflecting a depth beyond that of a painted surface – contributed to an emerging commercial aesthetic of modernity.” [76]


N Pepperell said…
roger - I couldn't help but feel that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch belongs somewhere in this story of the utopia of plastics... :-)
roger said…
That's exactly right! I reviewed a book ... two years ago? That turned me on to the plastic sargasso sea.

Hey, you should click on the map, it enlarges. It is quite amazing.