In spite of its having Greek shepherds’ names (Polystyrene, Phenoplast, Polyvinyl, Polyethylene), plastic, of which the products have just been concentrated in an exhibition, is an essentially alchemical substance. At the entrance to the stall, the public waits in a long line to see accomplished the magical operation par excellence: the conversion of substance. An ideally shaped machine, tubulated and oblong (the right shape to manifest the secret of an itinerary), effortlessly draws from a heap of greenish crystals a series of gleaming fluted pin trays. At one end the raw telluric substance, and at the other the perfect human object; and between these two extremes, nothing; nothing but a trajectory, scarcely watched over by a helmeted employee, half god, half robot.
Thus, 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.
And since this movement is here virtually infinite, transforming the original crystals into a multitude of increasingly surprising objects, plastic is, ultimately, a spectacle to be deciphered: the very spectacle of its end products. In front of each final shape (valise, brush, automobile body, toy, fabric, tube, basin, or paper), the mind unceasingly takes the primitive substance for an enigma. This is because plastic’s quick-change talent is total: it can form pails as we as jewels. Whence a perpetual astonishment, the reverie of man at the sight of the proliferations of substance, detecting the connections between the singular of its origin and the plural of its effects. Moreover, this astonishment is a source of pleasure, since it is by the scope of transformations that man measures his power, and since it is precisely plastic’s itinerary which gives him the euphoria of a prestigious slide through Nature.
But the price to be paid for this success is that plastic, sublimated as movement, almost fails to exist as a substance. Its constitution is negative: neither hard nor deep, it must content itself with a neutral substantial quality despite its utilitarian advantages: resistance, a state which signifies no more than the simple suspension of yielding. 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. But what most betrays it is the sound it makes, at once hollow and flat; its noise is its undoing, as are its colors, for it seems able to preserve only the most chemical versions: of yellow, red, and green it keeps nothing but the most aggressive state, using them as mere names, capable of displaying only the concepts of colors.
The fashion for plastic highlights an evolution in the myth of the simili. It is commonly acknowledged that the simili is a historically bourgeois usage (the earliest vestimentary “imitation” materials date from the dawn of capitalism); but till now the simili has always meant pretension, being part of a world of appearance, not usage; it was intended to reproduce cheaply the rarest substances, diamonds, silks, feathers, silver, all the luxurious brilliance of the world. Plastic is in decline, it is a household material. It is the first magical material that consents to be prosaic; but it is precisely because of its prosaic nature that it triumphs. For the first time, artifice aims for the common, not for the rare. And thereby nature’s ancestral function has been modified: it is no longer the Idea, the pure Substance which is to be regained or imitated; an artificial substance, more fecund than all the world’s deposits, will replace it, will command the very invention of shapes. A luxury object always derives from the earth, always recalls in a precious way its mineral or animal origin, the natural theme of which is it merely an actuality. Plastic is entirely engulfed in its usage: one of these days objects will be invented merely for the pleasure of using them. The hierarchy of substances is forthwith abolished, a single one will replace them all: the whole world, even life itself, can be plasticized since, we are told, plastic aortas are beginning to be manufactured.