HISTORY OF MATERIALS


AN INTRODUCTION OF MINDSET, AND A HISTORY OF MATERIALS

(SEGMENT FROM THE NOVEL DISPOSABLE THOUGHT)

BY STEVEN T. BRAMBLE

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000032_00047]

“Racialized persons and racist practices were systematized and canonized principally owing to the financial interests and psychic needs that sustained the slave trade and New World slavery. The fundamental meaning of this white-supremacist ideology is this: New World Africans enter European modernity cast as disposable pieces of property, as commodifiable bits of chattel slavery subject to arbitrary acts of violent punishment and vicious put-down.”

—Cornel West, The Ignoble Paradox of Modernity

“Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers or yesterday’s homeopape. When nobody’s around, kipple reproduces itself. For instance, if you go to bed leaving any kipple around your apartment, when you wake up the next morning there’s twice as much of it. It always gets more and more. … No one can win against kipple,” he said, “except temporarily and maybe in one spot, like in my apartment I’ve sort of created a stasis between the pressure of kipple and nonkipple, for the time being. But eventually I’ll die or go away, and then the kipple will again take over. It’s a universal principle operating throughout the universe; the entire universe is moving toward a final state of total, absolute kippleization.”

—Philip K. Dick
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

It’s all good news now
Because we left the taps running
For a hundred years
So drink into the drink

A plastic cup of drink
Drink with a couple
Of people
The plastic creating people

—Gorillaz

1
An Introduction of Mindset,
and a History of Materials

He would be tearing open the thin plastic of a fresh sleeve of large 24-oz polystyrene cups, tossing the handful of wrapping into the bulging garbage where it would lay atop the pedestal of refuse like a slug on a throne, crackling, undoing itself from its crumpled state, and that would invariably be the moment when demented thoughts would flood him. He’d be doing that shit all the time, releasing fresh rigid squeaky plastic stacks from their wrappings, tossing things in garbages, catching from out the corner of his eye the perfectly synchronized printed BURGER KING labels on the smooth cylindrical carapaces of swaying towers of paper and plastic cups. He’d begun muttering to himself without being aware of it, if that gives you any idea. The adjustable cap where he touted his own personal BK logo on a field of tarnished black made his head itch and ache, accruing sweat and smells and attacking his hairline, and it was underneath there where the demented thoughts took place. “Demented thoughts” is vague terminology, so I must tell you, in the interest of being more scientifically accurate, that what was actually occurring up there was more like a consistent developing neurosis. Something psychological, leastways; like the nagging neurological equivalent of a bad toothache in one of them important molars. Still, what I’m telling you is that for him it was in the most fluid, least scientific sense like an onrushing flood of alien and uncontrollable impulses—impulses that were occasionally violent, but always laden with a heavy element of what he had to classify as disgust. He didn’t really know at what, and that, too, was maddening.

A tiny man paces nervously inside a glass cube which has been sunk under green water, the same green children crayon the hideous sea serpents in their coloring books, flushing all around the glass in dense foamy gushes full of horrifying sea-bits and sea-shrapnel. The glass is groaning with pressure, that tiny man in there just shaking and shaking. There’s a moment of silence, and then FLOOOOOOOM!!! All six walls burst inward, steel foamy green jaws clicking violently shut. The tiny man is devoured.

Although it’s plenty easy to demonize a job like working at Burger King, we must understand early on that he actually chose this occupation, even when so many do not have the luxury of choosing. Which isn’t to say we must look upon Burger King in a positive light, or even that he himself does, but it is to say we will not be engaging in the standard reading normally applied to this type of situation. We’re not coming at this from the angle of either sociological tragedy or unfulfilled American ambition, opportunity radiantly beckoning out there while here we see our anonymous subject, bravely toiling away in the fluorescent-lighted pit of tedium; or minimum wage; or humiliation; or an unfeeling corporation; or his sub-par social standing. Relevant though these complaints may be, they are not our concern here, and why? Because there is such a thing in the world as self-sabotage, and it was his habit, even sometimes his pleasure, unbelievable as we may find it, to intentionally sabotage his own life. There are of course many reasons why he might be doing so. It’s possible he has a very low or very skewed sense of self-worth. He could be experimenting in a socioeconomic sense, gravitating toward the strata of class, income and existence—whether permanently or temporarily—that intrigues him, like a starry-eyed moth rushing to hug a bug-zapper in the teeming night. He could be “lazy”, as some would undoubtedly say, shirking so-called “true” responsibilities in exchange for his own beloved hedonisms. Or, and this is how we shall understand it, what he despised and feared most were the smiles and one-dimensional attitudes of his countrymen, their casual demands, their expectations and egos, their self-reflexivity and their religion, their servility and their parody, those who stared at him through digitized vision as they ordered meals designed by gliding figures in lab coats for quickness’s sake, or more often who didn’t look at him at all and instead conversed with the pictures that appeared on their palms, who interrupted their own orders by speaking into their earpiece as if to themselves, “—no, hold on, I’m ordering some food, the number four meal please, sure, uh-huh, no, fries are fine, whatever kind of soda, whatever, it doesn’t matter, no, I’m back, so what I’m saying is—” or who didn’t stare at him or away from him, but through him, toggling through the augmented reality menus that hung invisibly in the air before him, reaching out brightly-sleeved arms to press invisible buttons, orders appearing on the tablet register automatically so his only actual function was to ask for here or to go and perform a money transaction. This was part of the reason for the self-sabotage, was because he saw these examples of what became of those who did nothing to undermine themselves in any way. Blindness. But it wasn’t a single type of person he feared: he feared the blindness of everyone, their delighted dispositions, their careless and feckless opinions and decisions and blather. The way they burned through cups & plates & bags & straws & napkins, laughing, and here he was observing it all, unwrapping another five sleeves of cups while tossing a twelve-inch strip of thermal paper into the garbage, coated in Bisphenol A compound ((CH3)2C(C6H4OH)2) which not only contaminates recycled paper but is also an endocrine disruptor (hormonal damage at low-dose exposures), of which Sandra Biedermann, Patrik Tschudin, and Koni Grob said this in 2010 in their study titled “Transfer of bisphenol A from thermal printer paper to the skin” that appeared in volume 398 of the journal Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry,

When taking hold of a receipt consisting of thermal printing paper for 5 s, roughly 1 µg BPA (0.2-6 µg) was transferred to the forefinger and the middle finger if the skin was rather dry and about ten times more if these fingers were wet or very greasy. …Extractability experiments did not enable us to conclude whether BPA passes through the skin, but indicated that it can enter the skin to such a depth that it can no longer be washed off. If this BPA ends up in the human metabolism, exposure of a person repeatedly touching thermal printer paper for 10h/day, such as at a cash register, could reach 71 µg/day, which is 42 times less than the present tolerable daily intake (TDI). However, if more than just the finger pads contact the BPA-containing paper or a hand cream enhances permeability of the skin, this margin might be smaller.

The numbers and figures and tallymarks stacked up and up and up and up and up and up in his head set to the ambient soundtrack of crude laughter and mass-market music and the crackling of another polystyrene slug uncrumpling in the trash, and this was where they all were, and demented thoughts of extermination and searing flesh made him mutter to himself while filling a 24-oz polystyrene to-go cup with Tropicana Fanta Orange, “Stop it, godfuckingdammit…”

The HE we’re talking about is Cole Scott-Knox-Under. I have no idea what’s all that significant about his appearance. Delete all the tenacity and anger and neurosis from the previous section, and you will be permitted to see Cole—27 years old, roughly six feet tall, around 170 lbs—from an outsider’s perspective. From this vantage he doesn’t look all that special, and you probably wouldn’t be able to find it within yourself to give a fuck. He’s actually a reasonably efficient, hard-working employee who pulls down about thirty-two hours of pay a week, which isn’t so bad considering he lives with his mom. People try as much as possible (well, certain types of people) to say things to Cole’s face floating behind the tiny tablet register (because in the age of disposability and electroneuroticism and objectism, our rote workers and general-type servants aren’t even allowed to hide a piece of their humanity behind a sizeable register, but are forced, rather, to be totally exposed so that, in order to survive, they themselves must become a mechanized limb of the store, eradicating all impulses of subversion), things like, “How’s your day going so far?”—and because he’s a nice guy he’ll usually answer, “Not too bad; yourself?”—and they say these things because they want to assure him they don’t view him as some sub-human drone, but rather as a full-fledged person who is being forced, even if it happens to be his own fault, to do the work of a drone.

From this angle we’re seeing him, he’s stripped of any dangerous potential. But perform the simple trick of switching to his perspective, and you’ll find it’s us who he regards as the weak meandering drones, the human chaff, the sick gobblers of styrofoam to-go boxes smeared with food, shopping bags with brands on them, disposable cameras bloated with vacation photos from your most recent Carnival cruise, servants skittering beyond the reach of the flash reduced to dark objects.

You’ll probably want to know he’s mixed—half-black, half-white. His skin’s on the much lighter side. There are freckles. His hair has a caramel tinge thanks to his mother’s being blonde, and grows into a fairly loose type of afro, though he keeps it cut short. Is he attractive or no? I can’t tell. More attractive than some. More like especially attractive to some. His eyes embody the observant fearful gaze of the autodidact: deep skepticism fused to emotional vulnerability.

My intent with this section is to impart that, despite all the bad things you’re going to discover about Cole, and I suspect there will be many, and I also suspect there will be times when he fades into the background to such an extent you’ll hope he stays there, because I’ll have to throw him into the trash and no one hopes for the resurrection of what ends up there, but despite all the bad things, he is actually loveable. Partly because he’ll do the things you don’t dare, and partly because your average reader demands it of their protagonists despite the fact that most people worth writing about are morally ambiguous at best, making it necessary to affirm his redeeming qualities here at the outset. But the biggest reason why you’ll find him loveable is that he is seemingly empty, someone who prefers to stay silent and let himself be filled with the actions and words of others, which makes him useful to me as a lens, an object of profound human fascination, and also one incapable of its own commentary.

We try not to get caught up in materials, but it’s impossible not to. There are many instances in the disposable age where fascination has evolved into obsession, and from there obsession has yielded to sickness. Materials of great simplicity, and therefore great genius, are the ones which cast spells over us—we get lost in their beauty and endless potential while their original purposes become more muddled and convoluted, more cryptic and unfathomable. We become their slaves, and, in turn, they become more like us. The texture of disposable life is such that most of us, born into a megaworld of solid materials where everything is manipulable & artificial & infused with the sweet flavors of postindustrial secret intelligence, can’t even begin to comprehend the genesis of the strange ecosystem in which we live. Every product, every material, every evolution, is a maddening coil of information without end, and the brave amongst us go about the work of studying this information not for the sake of their occupation or entrepreneurial impulse, but for spiritual purposes, for truth-seeking. We are surrounded by objects that bewitch and rule us, and there are always attempts being made to counteract the magic of these objects by being deeply informed about them. We wish to glimpse (or perhaps glare) into the superstructure, and by so doing unchain ourselves. We’ve arrived at such a state of mass mental obfuscation, sealed off as we are from the psychological past of our species, that we require magical or ritualistic techniques to awaken ourselves. In the novel My Idea of Fun by Will Self there’s a scene where The Fat Controller, a sociopathic magician who has taken a sensitive young boy with an eidetic memory as his protégé, reveals to us the technique of “retroscendence.” He urges Ian, the protégé, to recall the label of his underpants.

I did as he said. The label was sewn onto the crinkled, elasticated hem of the pants, which were boxer shorts, blue-and-white-striped like mattress ticking. The legend on the label read ‘Barries’ Menswear, 212 King’s Road, London, 100% Egyptian Cotton.’ It was easy for me to summon up this everyday vision, because whenever I sat on the toilet the hem was stretched between my calves, and if I leant forward it was always the salient object in my view.

‘Good. Now, what I am about to teach you is an extension of your eidetic capability which you will find of great use in your intended career. There is no word, at least in current usage, that does justice to this advanced technique, so I have had to coin a term of my own. I call it “retroscendence”.’ He paused and looked at me, as if trying to gauge what kind of impression this hokum was making. ‘Before we retroscend allow me a few prefatory remarks on your pants. Firstly, let us refer to them simply as “shorts”. You are too callow to be aware of this but the term “boxer shorts” is merely a marketing neologism, coined in order to revamp a demand for what in England was perceived as an outmoded type of underwear. In America where the loose, cotton, mid-thigh-length male undergarment has consistently maintained its market share, there has never been any need to call these things anything but shorts.

‘A second point, you are not conspicuously dandyish, indeed, I would say that you have grown to adult size with but little appreciation of the value of effective turn-out. Be that as it may, I perceive in your decision to purchase these shorts—you did purchase these shorts, didn’t you?’

‘Yes.’

‘An attempt, albeit muted, to get to grips with a world beyond Saltdean [Ian’s home]. I picture you on a trip up to London, perhaps for a day’s work experience at the offices of some conglomerate. Am I right?’

‘You’re right.’

‘In your lunch hour you head down the King’s Road from Sloane Square. You walk and walk, staring at the chic emporia. Here’s one that sells just belt buckles, here’s another exclusively devoted to pointed boots, or country and westernalia, or whatever. It hardly matters. You do not intend to enter. You would feel yourself embarrassed, shy, in front of the shop assistant, who would be so much more metropolitan, more sophisticated, than you. Instead you peer inside and try to calculate the merchandising policy: what value of stock is required, per metre of shelf space, to meet overheads and instil profit? Am I right?’

‘Yes.’ His voice was hypnotic, dreamy.

‘Of course I am. Nonetheless, you do still have some vanity, don’t you? You still have the shame of the short-trousered recent past. You still—God knows why—wish to imagine that someone will inadvertently examine your underwear after the car crash of sexual congress. So after toddling about for a while you go into Barries’ and point out the shorts where they lie in the window, interleaved with their fellows. But I’m getting ahead of myself, when all I really want to teach you is the full history of such a product. That’s the title of this lecture: “The History of the Product”, and like all good modern lectures—intended simply to garnish knowledge rather than impart it—this one uses visual aides.’

The big hand was on my neck again, twisting it like the focus grip of some humanoid camera. The autumnal trees, spindly, moulting, were cast into darkness as if the wan sun had been eclipsed. I felt myself being pulled backwards, upwards, so that my visual field did indeed resemble that of a camera, a camera in some computer-graphics title sequence. The Sussex campus was shrinking below me into a collection of children’s play houses, then models, then crumbs, then fly droppings. Until the cars moving along the university’s peripheral roads were silverfish and the whole scene was dappled with low-lying cloud. Then we were higher still and the earth curved away from us, showing a nimbus of atmosphere at its edge.

The Fat Controller spoke inside of me again. ‘Look up above you, look at the bare-faced cheek of the infinite.’ I did as he bade me. Up there, set among the unblinking stars like some branding of the cosmos, was that selfsame label, the label in my boxer shorts. ‘You see,’ he said, ‘retroscendence enables us to take any element in our visual field and, as it were, unpack its history. We have chosen your shorts, I now propose to instruct you in their origin and past life. Please do not be confused by the apparent dissolution of the integrity of your visual field. Remember that the purest of solipsism is indeed realism. For, if I am the world’—we were heading down again, his nails digging into my flesh, I could make out the Eastern Mediterranean—‘then the world must be real. Isn’t that so?’

The Fat Controller and Ian move seamlessly through the lifespan of the cotton used to manufacture Ian’s boxers, questing from the Egyptian Delta where the cotton was grown, through its industrial processes, and finally into the later stages of haggling, selection and use by designers and vendors a continent away in Europe. This process expresses a profound desire. The desire to free ourselves from illusion and delusion. We must possess the full knowledge of all materials—then and only then in a disposable age is one his or her own person, rid of all deception, self- and otherwise.

Of course it’s impossible, that goal. A false temptation leading to nothing. We are far more likely, within the span of our lives, to obtain a glut of information about a very few specific materials.

Polystyrene. Polystyrene is a synthetic polymer (chemical compound defined by repeating structural molecular units known as monomers) made from the monomer styrene, a chemical product derived from petroleum, or a petrochemical (liquid form). Styrene, a derivative of benzene, is also known as vinyl benzene or phenyl ethene. So to produce polystyrene, you polymerize styrene, a synthetic process that forces monomers to form chains, chemically shackling them together in a mass act of homogeneity. Polystyrene can be rigid or foamed (for instance, plastic or styrofoam cups), and is classified as a thermoplastic, or a polymer which becomes moldable after reaching a specific temperature, and then, incredibly, returns to its solid state in exactly the form it’s been molded into once cooled. Therein lies the genius of this material. The polymers themselves are then bound into chains by molecular forces. In styrene, the existence of its vinylic antenna is what allows it to polymerize. Vinyl has a significant relationship to ethyl alcohol—the word vinyl is derived from the Latin word for wine, vinum. Polystyrene isn’t exactly too biodegradable, and styrofoam isn’t biodegradable period. (You are too callow, The Fat Controller would say, to be aware of this, but the term styrofoam is merely a neologism of product ubiquity, much like band-aid or kleenex, the Dow Chemical Company having popularized and sold polystyrenic foams under the trademark Styrofoam.) When heated, the polymer chains break down, then, once cooled, spontaneously reform—spontaneous being a word used often in literatures regarding thermoplastics. Not all plastics do this, but polystyrene does. The polymers can perform this transformation again and again, endlessly, being reheated and recooled, then spontaneously rechaining themselves together, bound by van der Waals attractions that provide the plastic a high intermolecular weakness versus the strong intramolecular properties of the heavy polystyrene chains (C8H8), so what you’re left with is a tough material also endowed with flexibility and elasticity. Look on the underside of that fat little plastic cup you’re sipping out of. You’ll see the number 6 wreathed in a triangle of arrows, and beneath that the letters PS, the abbreviation for polystyrene.
This material, among many others, has become something much more than a useful tool developed for selective situations—it has become a demented compulsion, a psychological sickness in and of itself.

According to Ullmann’s Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry for 2007, there are 3,000,000,000+ kilograms of polystyrene produced per annum. Nurdles, the name given to preproduction plastic pellets, number at over a quadrillion/annum in the U.S. alone. Fascination evolving into obsession, obsession quickly evolving into sickness of the mind.
Following a similar vein of thought, paper cups, often manufactured from virgin wood, are usually coated with a thin layer of polyethylene (PE) or polyactide (PLA). Of the two, only PLA is biodegradable, and in any case neither plastic is biodegradable in the purest sense. Paper cups, regardless of their linings, require specialized facilities if they’re to be recycled at all. In the U.S. in 2006, 6.5 million trees were cut down and 4 billion gallons of water used to produce 16 billion paper cups. Post-disposal the cups accrued into 253 million pounds of waste.

Let us recognize early on there’s an intrinsic environmental aspect here that ought to be addressed, but I’m in the position of having to demand you consider it a merely peripheral part of our concerns in this text. Relevant—yes. Primary—no. We are concerned with user-end symbolism, the realms of mindset and indoctrination, motors that drive the problem in the first place. And anyway, statistics like these are hopelessly basic, stupefying even, for the truly savvy environmentalist. I’ve even suppressed the urge to delve into such tired eco-laments as the oceanic trash vortices (not visible patches of distinct garbage but far more sinister and intractable swirls of plastic mush). But my overall point, which is diffuse and, I can guarantee you based on the number of pages in your hands, will come on gradually, is moreso a commentary on ourselves and our basic psychology than it is planetary and environmental. What I’m saying is, feel free to envision your mind as a trash vortex. Look around you, no matter where you are. All the objects surrounding you are trash, whether eventual or immediate. Your television, your laptop, your phone and tablet and augmented reality device (glasses or contacts or whatever the fuck): these are, in addition to being eventual physical trash, trash dispensers, spewing at all hours the products wrapped in trash you will purchase, then those products, too, will become trash. Envision simply a trash vortex, floating stand-alone and vertical in a void of your choosing, and it is spinning, massively, many times larger than any mountain, this gyre of trash, you would be no more than a spot of plankton inside it. The things of all types you’ve discarded just today—they are all in there. The vortex cones its way down toward the narrow point upon which it spins. That foundation, that point, is the vertex of a giant human skull, sun-bleached, finely cracked all over, darkened about the eye sockets. It is the human neurosis of disposability.

DISPOSABLE THOUGHT

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