Plastic

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One of the puzzles of the whole "Plastic Bertrand" drama for Americans is that we don't like plastic. In a famous scene from The Graduate (1967), "plastics" is a one-word symbol for the emptiness of mainstream success:


In Mean Girls (2004), "the Plastics" are "an exclusive group of girls led by queen bee Regina George", who are depicted as shallow, arrogant, and thoughtless.

Allen Ginsberg's Friday the Thirteenth (1984) sums it up:

Slaves of Plastic! Leather-shoe chino-pants prisoners! Haircut junkies! Dacron-sniffers!
Striped tie addicts! short hair monkeys on their backs! Whiskey freaks
bombed out on 530 billion cigarettes a year—
twenty Billion dollar advertising Dealers! lipstick skin-poppers & syndicate
Garbage telex-Heads!
Star-striped scoundrelesque flag-dopers! Car-smog hookers Fiendish on superhighways!
Growth rate trippers hallucinating Everglade real estate!

But in Europe, the connotations of plastic seem to be more positive.

The Plastic People of the Universe were at the center of Prague's intellectual underground from 1968 onwards. When Roger Jouret left the Royal Conservatory of Music in Brussels to launch a pop-music career in 1977, he took the name Plastic Bertrand.

Maybe Europeans are just more ironic. Maybe plastic was associated with America and thereby acquired pop-culture coolness. Maybe European intellectuals are more likely than Americans to think of 20th-century technology as a positive and progressive force.

Anyhow, it's odd.

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46 Comments »

  1. Jonny Rain said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 7:50 am

    And don't forget:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plastics_(band)

  2. .mau. said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 7:56 am

    Maybe at the beginning of the '60s "plastic" carried a positive meaning in Italy, but nowadays this is no more the case. Maybe we were too exposed to U.S. culture :-)

  3. Jonathan Badger said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 8:03 am

    How about the dissident Czechoslovak band The Plastic People of the Universe? They were originally active from the late 1960s to the downfall of Communism.

    [(myl) Um, did you read the post?]

  4. George said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 8:03 am

    And credit cards are referred to as 'plastic.' Of course, they are made out of the substance, but this also suggests virtual, not authentic, money.

  5. Ginger Yellow said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 8:04 am

    I've never really understood that bit from the Graduate. Thanks.

  6. Mark P said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 8:16 am

    I think we don't like the concept of plastic because it tends to be thought of as ersatz. A car may have plastic seats that look like leather. It may have plastic "wood" trim, or real wood trim so perfect that it looks like plastic. But surely the concept of plastic as fake has become separated from attitudes about actual plastic, since virtually everything we use has at least some plastic and probably couldn't exist in its current form without it. Real plastic is hardly even noticed any more.

  7. Ben Zimmer said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 8:17 am

    The Prague group of course took their name from the Frank Zappa song "Plastic People" ("Plastic people! Oh, baby, now you're such a drag"), so perhaps there was some amelioration of plastic as it crossed the Atlantic.

    [(myl) Indeed. Zappa's lyrics include

    Take a day and walk around
    Watch the nazis run your town
    Then go home and check yourself
    You think we're singing 'bout someone else . . . but you're
    Plastic people!

    and also

    I'm sure that love
    Will never be
    A product of
    Plasticity

    so some revaluation of values has certainly taken place, whether ironic or otherwise.]

    Similarly, there's "plastic soul," which Wikipedia tells us was an African American musician's put-down of Mick Jagger's attempt at singing soul music in the '60s. The term was embraced by Paul McCartney (helping to inspire the title of the Beatles album Rubber Soul) and later David Bowie.

  8. Matt Heath said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 8:19 am

    Plastic Betrand was a punk (of sorts), right? There doesn't seem any reason that adopting the name is pro-plastic. Adopting deliberately unpleasant names ("Johnny Rotten", "Tory Crimes", "Rat Scabies") was fairly common amongst punks. I assumed he was consciously identifying himself with fakery and disposability associated with plastic.

    [(myl) I guess "of sorts" is the key phrase here. The two videos linked in the earlier post certainly evoke fakery and disposability, but it wasn't so clear to me that they were celebrating it.]

    Also, Radiohead's "Fake Plastic Trees" is a fairly clear example of Europeans using "plastic" as a one-word symbol for the emptiness of mainstream success.

  9. Laura said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 8:22 am

    And of course the Plastic Ono Band, named for the idea that the other band members could be disposable, dummy band members.

  10. Licia said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 8:48 am

    In Italian, the adjective plastico is not perceived as directly related to the noun plastica (the synthetic material) and it mainly has positive connotations – when used figuratively, it means “elegant, aesthetically pleasing”.

    We say di plastica (“made of plastic”) to convey the negative connotations plastic might have in English, e.g. la faccia di plastica di Berlusconi.

    Cf. the entry plastic [adjective] in the Zingarelli 2011 Italian dictionary:

    A agg. (pl. m. -ci)
    1 Che si presta a essere facilmente plasmato, che ha consistenza morbida: materiale plastico; la plastica creta | Materia plastica, V. plastica nel sign. 3 | Esplosivo plastico, insieme di materiali esplosivi tali da costituire una massa plastica.

    2 Che plasma, che modella | Arti plastiche, la scultura, le ceramiche e le arti figurative in genere | Chirurgia plastica, che utilizza tessuti viventi per sostituirne altri mancanti o per ricostruire parti malformate o deformate del corpo.

    3 Che è plasmato o modellato in rilievo: idrografia di una regione in rappresentazione plastica.

    4 (est.) Che è formato o plasmato in modo elegante e armonioso: corpo plastico | Posa plastica, quasi scultorea.

    5 (est.) Che crea, ottiene o suggerisce con i propri mezzi l'idea del rilievo, della pienezza delle forme, del movimento armonico e sim.: effetto plastico; atteggiamento plastico del corpo; distribuzione plastica del colore | (fig.) Ben articolato, espressivo: un verso plastico; valore plastico delle parole; descrizione plastica.

  11. Quintesse said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 8:55 am

    I'm with Matt here, it was the first thing I thought: Platic Bertrand made punk music (although not hardcore) and the idea that punk tries to convey something positive only makes me smile. So I guess the association with plastic is just how he liked it: fake, cheap.

    @George, in europe the word "plastic" isn't associated with credit cards (although it might in Brittain, I'm not sure). Maybe because we depend far less on credit cards for our daily expenditures.

  12. Dave Rattigan said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 9:17 am

    I think more important to the line "Plastics!" in The Graduate is its total lack of context. It comes out of nowhere, and Benjamin is baffled (and once again alienated). It's one of many semantic and linguistic jokes in the movie.

    One of my favourites is when Mr Braddock accuses Benjamin's idea to marry Elaine of being half-baked, and Benjamin replies, "No, really, it's completely baked."

  13. Heck said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 9:42 am

    I read somewhere (I don't remember where) that the Plastic People of the Universe used the word "plastic" because it meant "changeable," "malleable," and "capable of taking many forms," and they did not see it as having negative connotations. Of course, if they really did take it from the Mothers of Invention song, then either they did not understand the song or what I read was incorrect.

  14. hanmeng said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 9:51 am

    PLASTIQUE, adj. et subst. (a long entry from Le Trésor de la Langue Française informatisée),

  15. Larry Lard said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 9:52 am

    > But in Europe, the connotations of plastic seem to be more positive.

    Well, the world needs a counter-example to 'cowboy', which is the other way round.

  16. Adrian Bailey said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 10:00 am

    To the artist, "Plastic Bertrand" may have seemed like a good name because of the various meanings of "plastic", some good, some bad, some neutral. And an additional meaning on the continent is that of "sculpture". Plastic is also closely associated with the punk and new-wave era. The Buggles' album (they of "VIdeo Kileld the Radio Star" fame) was called "The Age of Plastic".

  17. Peter said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 10:01 am

    More recently, plastics have become somewhat controversial due to their generally non-biodegradeable nature.

  18. John Lawler said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 10:01 am

    … but who (in America, of a certain age) can forget Plastic Man? Not a commercially successful superhero, true, but one of the best, quirkiest, and funniest, for sure.

  19. S.Norman said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 10:07 am

    'Plastic' was a very common theme in 60s psych music:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QEqOQ1TZVwo

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ikoFs6fuac

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zHC9NANKluU

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2wzWN6UPLdw

    a good way to dismiss something as phoney.

    Then there's Andy Warhol's Evploding Plastic Inevitable:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exploding_Plastic_Inevitable

    It probably filtered up from beat culture.

  20. Rodger C said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 10:16 am

    I'm reminded of the John Wyndham story in which a man is brought from ca. 1900 to ca. 1950. "What's this ashtray made of?" "Oh, that's plastic." *tap, tap* "No it's not, it's perfectly rigid."

    And nowadays, a world where ashtrays are everywhere is itself a historical period.

  21. stormboy said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 10:47 am

    @Quintesse: '…in europe the word "plastic" isn't associated with credit cards (although it might in Brittain, I'm not sure).'

    Yes, there is an association between credit cards and plastic in Britain.

    I'm British and think fake or stiff (for people) and cheap (for objects) when someone/something is described as plastic.

    Of course, there's always Yazz and the Plastic Population.

  22. S.Norman said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 10:52 am

    I thought maybe the psych-kiddies got it from Huxley's Doors of Perception:
    http://books.google.com/books?id=1crSGEgEd4wC&lpg=PA46&ots=dLZsAUTgkP&dq=%E2%80%9Cin%20literary%20or%20plastic%20symbols%2C%20what%20he%20has%20seen&pg=PA46#v=onepage&q=%E2%80%9Cin%20literary%20or%20plastic%20symbols,%20what%20he%20has%20seen&f=false

    There's also this from :
    They were as a race, and certainly she was as a women, spiritual, intuitive, jovial, plastic. (1898)

    http://books.google.com/books?id=qUnQAAAAMAAJ&lpg=PA399&ots=opqFsgYR6D&dq=%E2%80%9Cin%20literary%20or%20plastic%20symbols%2C%20what%20he%20has%20seen&pg=PA64#v=onepage&q=plastic&f=false

  23. Nicholas Waller said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 11:25 am

    I think the connotations of "plastic" can be positive in Europe because various respectable art forms, especially those involving three-dimensional modelling, are known as "plastic arts"; according to Wikipedia, quite a list from ceramics to film.

    Though this posi-meaning shouldn't be confined to this, European, side of the Atlantic; for instance there's a School of Plastic Arts in Puerto Rico, covering "Graphic Arts, Photography and Design (with specialties in Digital Graphic Design and Photography and Motion), Art Education, Sculpture, Painting and Industrial Design (with specialties in Fashion Design, and Design furniture)".

    I rather assumed that the Plastic Ono Band got its name from Yoko Ono being a visual artist and the personnel composition being changeable and malleable (instead of a regular and constant gang of boys like The Beatles). But apparently it came from the plastic-as-material meaning, as Ono originally had the idea of a fake "band" made up of tape-recorders standing on plastic stands.

  24. Debbie said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 11:53 am

    Maybe it's not as deep as this discussion – perhaps it was a title to reflect his change from Royal Conservatory to pop culture? Isn't this akin to a pen name when an author changes genre or, book jacket/dust cover art reflecting a new direction. It's not just marketing though, it's a separate distinction from former works.

  25. KevinM said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 11:57 am

    The progression in meaning parallels the '80s rejection of the hippie aesthetic. Thus, in the '60s "plastic" was used to mean phony, fabricated, artificial, as opposed to organic, natural. (Some well-known examples are given above; for an obscure one, consider "Plastic Raincoats/Hungup Minds" by the Ultimate Spinach. I'm ashamed to admit that I actually own this record, which was a gift.)
    In the '80s, the industrial and artificial was embraced. Bands assumed identities as clones or robots, or else ironically referred to antiquated notions of what the future would be like. We are Devo.

  26. Acilius said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 12:02 pm

    @John Lawler: As I recall, Plastic Man was an ex-criminal who became a good guy after he acquired his superpowers. So that his name was a bit of a pun, applying both to the elasticity of his body and the changeability of his moral character. Also, again based on a decades-old memory, wasn't he a bit dodgy by the standards of most comic book heroes? Interested in moneymaking, eager to impress women, etc? So that the negative associations the post suggests Americans have with the word "plastic" may have influenced his development as well.

  27. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 12:17 pm

    If we Americans didn't like plastic, why would we buy so much? For instance, the keyboard I'm typing this on.

    I remember being puzzled as a child by this sentence in The Joy of Cooking: "Grapes, with their inimitable plastic charm, put the finishing touch to decorative fruit arrangements." It didn't help that Grandma and Grandpa Friedman had a bowl of plastic fruit, including a cluster of imitation grapes, decorating their living room.

  28. Justin said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 12:44 pm

    We certainly don't have the same negative connotation when describing a brain as "plastic." In this case, we tend to be highlighting the malleability and adaptability of neural tissue (and often the ingenuity, creativity and potential of humans with said brains).

    From a science/engineering perspective, it is this ability to change that we are talking about when we describe something as "plastic." Is the same true in Europe? Has the extensive use of plastics in the US overwhelmed this use of the word?

  29. Justin said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 12:45 pm

    For a bit more background on the use of the term "plasticity" in describing brains, see: http://www.mindhacks.com/blog/2010/06/neuroplasticity_is_a.html

  30. octopod said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 1:39 pm

    "I love plastic! I want to be plastic!"
    –Andy Warhol

  31. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 1:49 pm

    The connotations of plastikowy '(made of) plastic' in Polish are very definitely negative (emptiness, cheapness, fakeness etc.). And I doubt if this could have anything to do with Poland's reputation as America's poodle (of the less important kind) or any type of cultural influence/imperialism/parrotry/etc.

    I have a vague feeling that plastic may have had a slightly more positive (but tongue-in-cheek and self-mocking) connotation within certain subgenres of techno. But it's really vague ;)

    The "plastic" of "plastic arts" is a separate word, plastyczny, and that doesn't have those connotations.

    Also, the concept of 'paying by/(?with) plastic' (=credit card) is very definitely there.

  32. George said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 1:49 pm

    I think when plastics were first becoming widespread in consumer products, they were replacing 'authentic' materials like wood, metal, leather, natural fabrics and the like. And, generally the products were cheaper and lower quality. This may have contributed to the negative perception.

    Today, it is hard to visualize some products, like computer keyboards, made from anything else. An authentic keyboard is plastic.

  33. nonpoptheorist said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 2:08 pm

    Plastic as a material is integral to everyday society. It appears harmless and doesn't press on peoples minds. However, as a product it is generally not non-biodegradable. Anyone who has worked in the industry has a healthy respect for it and knows it should be recycled wherever possible, that it should never be buried in the ground as it slowly decomposes, gets in the water table and will end up reducing mens sperm count over time. There is already evidence of harm to fish in rivers and lakes, including unfortunate sex changes. There are also types you unfortunately have to use sometimes that if accidentally heated too high to go through the machines, and subsequently sets on fire, leads you to scream at everyone on the factory floor, stop breathing immediately after expelling all the air from your lungs, hit the fire alarm and exit the building or die. Calculating how far you can run with no air in your lungs was a sometime pastime whilst training up new workers.

  34. Sili said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 2:51 pm

    Aqua used "plastic" somewhat ironically in Barbie Girl. ("Made of plastic, it's fantastic.)

    In Danish "pla'stikkirugi" is often confused with "'plastickirugi" af if plastic surgery is to do with replacing bodyparts with plastic.

  35. blahedo said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 3:15 pm

    @George "An authentic keyboard is plastic.":

    Unless it's new-ish Mac keyboard. I'm hard-pressed to think of anything other than packaging material where there isn't some higher-grade higher-quality version that isn't plastic. I mean, sure, there are lots of things that *are* plastic in our lives these days, but someone with a hefty pocketbook could upgrade just about all of it to wood, glass, or metal, and it would indeed be considered an upgrade. It may have lost its "fake" connotation, but I think the "cheap" connotation is still there.

  36. George said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 3:33 pm

    @Blahedo: I am not familiar with the "new-ish Mac keyboard." What is it made from?

    Maybe Steve Jobs has discovered (or rediscovered) something. The iPhone 4 is glass and metal – none of that artificial plastic. Unfortunately (on several levels), the solution to antenna-gate was . . . . plastic bumpers!

  37. Xmun said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 3:37 pm

    The Graduate was a novel before it became a film. There's no mention of plastics in the novel (or, at any rate, the exchange we are referring to isn't to be found in the novel).

  38. Geoff Nunberg said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 10:06 pm

    Well, it cuts both ways. By the 70's, there were two parties, the plastiphobes and plastiphiles, as I explained in a "Fresh Air" piece several years ago that's collected in Going Nucular. An excerpt:

    …Frank Zappa sounded that note in his 1967 "Plastic People": "I'm sure that love will never be / A product of plasticity." That was the progenitor of a tradition of musical plastiphobia that was carried on in songs like Radiohead's "Fake Plastic Trees" and Alanis Morissette's "Plastic." ("You got a plastic girl in a plastic bed. . . . Got a plastic smile on a plastic face / But it's underneath that you can't erase.")

    But the '60s also saw the birth of a new kind of cultural plastiphilia, which had less to do with the corporate triumphalism of DuPont's "Better living through chemistry" than with the postmodern detachment of pop art and the mods of Swinging London. That sensibility was what led performers to take names like Plastic Bertrand and the Plastic Ono Band. And it had its own anthems, from the Jefferson Airplane's "Plastic Fantastic Lover" to Bjork's "Dear Plastic," a paean to artifice: "Dear Plastic / Be proud / Don't imitate anything / You're pure, pure, pure."

    Down deep, though, was a purely stylistic question: What posture should you adopt toward the synthetic superficiality of middle-class American life — the contempt of the plastiphobes or the irony of the plastiphiles?

    In the end, both parties prevailed. The plastiphiles left us with a new distinction between hip plastic and unhip plastic. Unhip plastic was AstroTurf, Lucite chandeliers, disposable diapers and the double-knit polyester leisure suits that were leaving fuzz on the upholstery of discotheques across America. Hip plastic was girls in vinyl Mary Quant miniskirts dancing the "Watusi," (a song by the Orlons, of course). It was the plastic chain-mail dresses of Paco Rabanne and the spandex outfits of David Bowie and the glam-rockers he spawned.

    Unhip plastic was foam cups and cigarette wrappers that people dropped on the beach; hip plastic was the million square feet of polypropylene sheeting that Christo used to wrap a mile-long section of the Australian coast near Sydney. Needless to say, those distinctions have nothing to do with chemistry or environmental apprehensions — the same molecules can be unhip in car upholstery and hip in a Gucci bag.

  39. Christopher Sundita said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 10:38 pm

    In the Philippines, plastic refers to someone who is fake.

  40. Rick S said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 1:02 am

    Perhaps the choice of "Plastic" is better understood in the context of its yoking with "Bertrand". I took the latter to refer to Bertrand Russell, and assumed "Plastic Bertrand" was a humorous self-mocking description, something like "cheap/inferior philosopher/social commenter".

    The British were using "plastic" in the (American-inspired?) negative sense at least by the 80s, as evidenced in the 1982 4-Skins song Plastic Gangsters (dissing wannabe hard lads). However, that's too late for Plastic Bertrand, who debuted in 1977.

  41. mollymooly said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 11:15 am

    @Adrian Bailey:

    The Buggles' album was called "The Age of Plastic".

    The lyrics of "Living In The Plastic Age" certainly emphasise the negatives:

    They send the heart police to put you under cardiac arrest
    And as they drag you the door
    They tell you that you’ve failed the test

    The 80s also gave us the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation's definition of "robot" as "your plastic pal who's fun to be with".

  42. bloix said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 11:17 pm

    "And this springs from the nature itself of language, which is a more direct representation of the actions and passions of our internal being, and is susceptible of more various and delicate combinations, than color, form, or motion, and is more plastic and obedient to the control of that faculty of which it is the creation."

    from A Defence of Poetry, by Percy Bysshe Shelley

  43. mgh said,

    August 1, 2010 @ 2:14 am

    in biology, plastic just means able to change; especially in neuroscience where it means able to learn — as discussed at MIT's weekly "plastic lunch"

  44. bloix said,

    August 1, 2010 @ 5:09 pm

    mgh – that's what it used to mean in English generally. The original meaning of plastic is moldable, model-able, and it was for a long applied mainly to the arts – the "plastic arts" meaning sculpture, ceramics, and by extension painting and other visual arts. It came to mean the synthetic materials called plastics because, from the technical or industrial point of view, these materials share the characteristic that they begin as liquids that can be molded into useful shapes and then solidifid. Their moldable nature is what makes them so useful.

  45. LatePlasticity said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 9:48 am

    I hadn't thought the Kinks' "Plastic Man" was all that obscure, nor that his plasticity was regarded positively. And he's from 1969, and English enough to have a plastic bum atop his plastic legs.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f95UCJs2rUA

    [(myl) There's also Seether's (very different) song by the same name.]

  46. Dan T. said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 3:51 pm

    There's the grocery store checkout question, "Paper or plastic?"

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