home     authors     titles     dates     links     about

file under: slime

31 december 2023

In the late 1960s, I was exactly the right age for an ephemeral Wham-O novelty item called Super Stuff. Pink powder that, when mixed with water, turned into a substance I remember Johnny Carson describing as "pink snot," Super Stuff was an early entry in the slime-toy fad cycle, which gathers energy every decade or so. We already had Play-Doh and Silly Putty, of course, and Plastigoop (which had to be baked into Creepy Crawlers before it was playable) – but those were relatively docile substances. Super Stuff was both vile and uncontrollable. It got everywhere, stuck to everything, and permeated one's environment.

Christopher Michlig dates slime toys from the 1980s (167). Mattel's more successful Slime (actually a '70s debut), and its knock-offs, certainly have had more staying power than Super Stuff (in the marketing sense, as well as the "never comes out of the carpet" sense). Whenever they began, slime toys were a physical manifestation of a primal fear that had earlier made its way into movie scripts and pop art. You can mold Play-Doh, and you can shape Silly Putty into a bar and snap it in half. Slime, by contrast, is unshapeable and inconfineable.

As Michlig's File under: Slime proves, you also can't write a conventional academic argument about slime. His book is well-grounded in critical theory, but it's the squishy sort of theory that continually squirts away from a reader and even an author. Musing on fears and hopes expressed by Paul Virilio, Georges Bataille, and Giorgio Agamben, Michlig reflects: "Semiotically unresolved, an ambiguous signifier pointing to ambling signifieds, slime retains its floating status, its openness and amorphousness … slime is a restless thought" (244). When something means everything and nothing, the only sure thing you can say about it is that on every page of a book about it, your subject will indeed turn out to mean everything and nothing.

Hence, Michlig chooses as his organization the principle of the chronological file. His first sightings of slime in popular culture date from the 1930s; they continue down to the present day. He begins with ectoplasmic traces in "spirit photography" of the early 20th century, and ends with a "Slime City" fashion collection from designer Jeremy Scott, in the early 21st.

Slime proves as hard to contain definitionally as it does materially. I guess at the center of all slime is a hybrid mass, partly mineral, partly biological. But the stuff quickly overflows its central identity. Among the things that count as slime, in Michlig's catalogue, are tar, glue, snow, blood, semen, oobleck, hot-dog fixings, nuclear waste, wet cement, lamp lava, and frozen yoghurt.

Slime is an essential component of horror movies. In many films, slime seems to stand in for nuclear fears. It is hard to imagine the Blob predating the Bomb. Since it's the 2020s, Michlig also tries to connect slime to climate-change concerns, but I think with less success. Climate change makes us afraid of wind, water, and fire, none of which are really slimy.

Slime is more about being afraid of our biological selves, and the way other elements of the living world interpenetrate us. Michlig notes the theorist Julia Kristeva's concerns with this kind of organic slime. But his initial invocation of theory comes from an unexpected place: Jean-Paul Sartre's skiing memoirs. Sartre points out that a skier goes downhill on a slick interface of micro-melting snow which is actually created by his (or her, if the skier is Simone de Beauvoir) contact with the snowy slope.

File under: Slime is full of instances from design: typography, fashion, art installations, production design. I first became aware of the book because of its cover design, which won notice in a website devoted to the best-looking books of 2022. Los Angeles' Hat & Beard Press has many a good-looking title on its list, and if the writing in the others is anywhere near as good as Christopher Michlig's, it's an impressive collection.

Michlig, Christopher. File under: Slime. Los Angeles: Hat & Beard, 2022.