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March 17, 2005

Why does Norman Mailer HATE plastics so?

"At last! For anyone who hates plastics and likes good writing, this is the book to satisfy your anger, your passion, and your instinctive judgment, and all at once"
                                                                   - NORMAN MAILER

Plasticmakingof_1This is a quote from the front cover of the most interesting book I've read in years, entitled The Making of a Synthetic Century

I bought this book, with skepticism, to read and see for myself what horrible things the author was saying about the plastics industry...

Based on the MAILER quote I expected to find it full of hateful things and environmentalist propaganda.  The funny thing is that the book is nothing of the kind!

The book is extremely well written and  great fun to read.  I kept waiting for the negative shoe to drop, again based on that quote, but the author obviously  respected  the plastics industry and wrote a truthful and fascinating history of our plastics industry, it's past, it's inventions and discoveries (more accidental than purposeful) and the effect plastics has had on our culture.

It treats the early plastics and their pioneers like the historical events and figures they are, with fascinating in depth stories of our synthetic start; Parkesine, Celluloid, Bakelite, Cellophane, then into more modern polymers like Nylon, Vinyl, Polyester.

And as plastics becomes commonplace, and in fact all encompassing, he begins to focus on the cultural effect that synthetics have had on our world.

Lastly, he treats the subjects of health issues and criticisms, but to me he treats them fairly and objectively.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Anyone in our industry should find it fun and fascinating.

I'm at a loss to explain Norman Mailer. I've heard before that he "hates" plastics, but I can only imagine the above quote is due to the fact that he enjoys seeing himself mentioned in the book. His quote is entirely misleading, ignore it, ignore him too I'd suggest, but do buy this book:

The Making of a Synthetic Century

Some of the reveiw from Amazon.com:

Prophylactics to polystyrene, viscose to Velcro, saran to cellophane: For better or worse, we're married to plastic. In your refrigerator, your closet, your car it's everywhere, and it's not going away. You eat with it, work with it, play with it. Often, you even breathe it. Cheap, pliable, easily made, eminently democratic, it symbolizes everything that's both wrong and right with our culture.

In Plastic: The Making of a Synthetic Century, Stephen Fenichell takes a fresh, irreverent look at the substance we all love to hate. The book moves from the early astonishment at such inventions as celluloid film and waterproof clothing, to the nylon-stocking riots after World War II, to the revolutionary yet practical proliferation of Tupperware in the '50s. Fenichell's sweeping assessment of the social and economic revolutions brought on by plastic extends from the sublime to the absurd, the beautiful to the mundane, demonstrating how scientists, artists, politicians and the buying public have all molded, and also been molded, by plastic.

By turns a hero and a villain, a useless fad, an essential commodity, plastic is the ideal indicator of how people think and live. With clarity, wit and deadpan accuracy, Fenichell narrates a rollicking story about the thrills, chills and accidental spills that led to the development of plastic, about the scientists and corporations who got rich (or went bankrupt) creating and selling synthetics, and about the surprising invention that has shaped our world.

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I loved this book- read it year ago as I was beginning the plastics program at Umass Lowell. Thanks for the reminder.

Your headline's rhetorical question is a worthy one, but your blog posting does not even attempt to provide an answer.

Norman Mailer has it in for plastics because the stuff epitomizes the artificial, the synthetic, the corporate-ruled and corporate-defined world we now live in, that we have allowed to happen around us. Plastics are an entirely un-natural stuff, as opposite to wood and metal and stone and paper as it is possible to get. We are, despite the Web and virtual reality, still forced to live in a material world, and when so much of the material in that world is so un-natural, so synthetic and soul-less and lacking in history, then we are all less for it. We are deadened by being surrounded by such dead, un-natural material - a material that is so unknown to the creation that humans have cherished for so many centuries.
Plastic is quite scary in its inability to be reabsorbed into the earth, its tendency to linger for decades, untouched by natural forces.

Plastics are made from oil, and oil, for Mailer, is the essence of corporate greed and power.

He says:

"America had been putting up with the ongoing expansion of the corporation into American life since the end of World War II. It had been the money-cow to the United States. But it had also been a filthy cow who gave off foul gases of mendacity and manipulation by an extreme emphasis on advertising. Put less into the product but kowtow to its marketing. Marketing was a beast and a force that succeeded in taking America away from most of us. It succeeded in making the world an uglier place to live in since the Second World War. One has only to cite 50-story high-rise architecture as inspired in form as a Kleenex box with balconies, shopping malls encircled by low-level condominiums, superhighways with their vistas into the void, and beneath it all, the pall of plastic, ubiquitous plastic, there to numb an infant's tactile senses, plastic, front runner in the competition to see which new substance could make the world more disagreeable. To the degree we have distributed this crud all over the globe, we were already wielding a species of world hegemony. We were exporting the all-pervasive aesthetic emptiness of the most powerful American corporations. There were no new cathedrals being built for the poor - only 16-story urban renewal housing projects that sat on the soul like jail."

Plastic is more than a polymer. It is symbolic of something quite unhuman, inhuman, that is going on in the world right now. Plastic is the anti-thesis of nature. It is alien. It is ungodly. It is freakish. It is a mutant stuff.

In one essay, Mailer offers a wonderful description of a party for Margaret Thatcher's re-election, where he sees Champagne poured for the guests in plastic "glasses" and he notes how this fact shows so well the emptiness and shallowness of Ms. Thatcher and the kind of world she represents - artless and deadened by the corporate monopoly and spiritually dead.

"I sometimes think there is a malign force loose in the universe that is the social equivalent of cancer," Norman Mailer once remarked, "and it's plastic."


Yes, plastics have quite miraculous and highly useful properties, but that fact does not fully explain or describe them and meaning in the world today. Much like radioactive materials, another very recent discovery and technology, plastics have a metaphysical presence that is generally overlooked.

Still, I look forward to exploring your site.

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