Friday I attended a critical connections mini seminar at special collections in SU’s Bird Library (which is incredible, I’m discovering) – “Is it Real? Imitation and Style in the First Plastics” with Dr. Robert Friedel on a section of his book Pioneer Plastic.
It was a last minute decision after beginning to explore the richness that is material resources at Syrcause University. Registering last minute, I just made it on the guest list. Aside from Dr. Friedel, there were representatives of the plastic industry, collectors of celluloid pieces, students and faculty of studio arts, engineering students and faculty, history students and faculty, chemists, and me: a composition student. Though people were welcoming, I had the feeling people wondered what my connection/interest to plastic was. Luckily we had the opportunity to introduce ourselves, and I spoke of my interest in materiality and its implications for making, craftsmanship, the arts and crafts movement, the rhetorics of craft, and rhetoric of science and technology. This litany of interests, which is how I always feel my research interests come out, captured the attention of my seminar peers. I left the seminar with connections to SU’s studio arts department, the history department, and a history of science and technology faculty all interested in further interdisciplinary conversations on materials, craftsmanship, the arts and crafts movement, invention and imitation, the rhetoric of science and technology in the sociology of knowledge (network studies to me), and the production and circulation of products. It was really exciting to be able to connect with people on a shared interest from different disciplines and it permitted space to talk about our field as being more than writing about writing texts (singular); it also lent me another opportunity to try to articulate thinking through composition as craft – moving beyond craft as a romantic metaphor for composing.
“While appeals were consistently made to considerations of economy and practicality, imitation remained celluloid’s primary virtue in most of its applications. While the imitative role was natural for the materials when it was new, the persistence of that role throughout its history suggested the uneasy and ambiguous status of the first synthetic plastic. The first important function of this plastic was to look and behave like something it was not. The identification of plastics as cheap imitation is still with us” (Freidel 89).
Scraps of the Seminar:
- history of new materials – new materials are a product of opportunity, not necessity
- Friedel said “whenever you do something and faily, you’ve done something else. So what have you done?”
- originality vs. imitation
- sincerity vs. imitation – honesty (Ruskin connection): the finest compliment a craftsman can make is imitation
- celluloid was not a cheaper (cost) material at the time to produce, but low in cost in terms of investment – economically (would not need replacement like other natural materials might wear)
- wasn’t trying to “fool” anyone by masquerading as another material – it was brought into market as something new and novel; not imitation (not pretending to be horn in eyeglass frames), nor plastic as plastic – plastic as celluloid
- emphasis was on creating inexpensive, durable products (plastic) – attempted practicality with fashion
- celluloid could take on color, but often was left uncolored so that it looked as it was – celluloid (a sort of opaque off-white, well, like ivory)
- celluloid products pushed by the patents of John Wesley Hyatt
- companies and factories had to be built to manufacture products (machines, process, skilled workers)
- celluloid upset the craft of combmaking – tension between hand crafting and machine crafting
- celluloid appealed to nativism/pride in the craft of US manufacturing
- question/reference to Ruskin: the finest compliment a craftsman can make is imitation
- question: does industry (machinery as tools of craft) bring in a new craft? does it eliminate craft?
- question: did materials like celluloid make available the middle class lifestyle that arts and crafts promised but could not deliver?
- celluloid was not molded by machine, but had to be hand shaped and heated. Machines and tools had to be created to work with material properties.
- Friedel explains that “it began as imitation, and as a material for everyday objects, it remained imitation” (88)
- celluloid was designed “to look and behave like something it was not” and never lost that image; today the only celluloid products made are ping pong balls and guitar picks