The Daily Heller: The Existence of Ooze and Slime

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Slime is an onomatopoeia. It sounds like what it represents: a moist, viscous, gooey, gummy, oozing mucus from which humankind emerged. Slime or ooze alternately has negative/positive bodily implications. A slimeball, for instance, is an odious and contemptible person. Yet slime in rap slang is a contronym (an opposite) meaning “close friend.” Kinda like bad means good, or dope means smart, or cool means hot, and so on.

Mucus is a contronym too: repulsive when dangling from a nose or oozing as puss from a wound, yet it is as natural as any bodily fluid secreted by mucous membrane as protective lubrication. Medicinally speaking, slimy body goop keeps humans as happy as clams. Indeed some folks take great pleasure in slurping down live oysters because they look and feel slimy. How many of us used LePages’s classic mucilage adhesive, also called vegetable glue because it’s made from the excretions of plants, as a staple of elementary school art classes? Slime in the service of arts and crafts.

As a precocious preteen, slime was an essential vanity asset because I mimicked the hairstyles worn by PS 40’s juvenile delinquents. These wastrels applied globs of slimy hair goop to achieve slicked-backed pompadour tops with ducks-ass backs. Rejecting Brylcreem and Vitalis for being too mainstream greasy, I used a special slimy green pomade we called “elephant snot” (and for all I knew, since there were no ingredients listed on the bottle, it really was made from that ingredient). Applied by hand in excessive glops, the thick oily substance hardened and lacquered my hair in the morning (however, by afternoon it melted and the slime flowed like lava from Mt. St. Helens).

Slime is not something I think about every day, it just is there—everywhere. But over the past week it’s been stuck in my mind because of a new book, File Under: Slime by Christopher Michlig (Hat and Beard Press), a cultural meditation based on a lecture that Michlig gave in 2017 titled “Semiotics of Slime.”

Although I find the study of semiotics to be a gelatinous blob of theoretical protoplasm, Michlig’s examples of slime in the history of popular culture, art, literature, design and civilization—as viewed from high and low in all its sloppy chaos—is as-all consuming as the existential notions underscoring the plot of the movie The Blob.

The reader of File Under: Slime is introduced to various interpretations of slime. Jean Paul Sartre is one of the leading proponents of slime thought. In his book Being and Nothingness, Sartre “launches into a discussion of slime aimed at articulating [a] peculiar mode of being and it is here that [he] lays the groundwork for ontological discussion of slime” as an “ensnaring substance.” Slime is something that envelopes but it is also a “restless idea.” The substance slime and the notion slime suggest discoveries that are shapeless and slowly moving forward.

Throughout Michlig’s book slime slithers and thrusts into many corners of life. He refers to its supernatural properties, discussing spiritualist photography: “The viscerality of … ectoplasm has not so much to do with ectoplasm itself … rather the origin of the extrusion of ectoplasm establishes a particular corporeal territory for the conceptualization of slime as a potent kinesthetic sympathy in the viewer because of the transgressive idea of one’s body as a conduit for something unseen.”

Slime plays a starring role in science fiction, often as a metaphor for the intangible or unthinkable. Slime conjures monstrous creatures, such as in H.P. Lovecraft’s story “At the Mountains of Madness,” a shapeless mass of goo, ghostly translucent, that viscerally interact with tentacled creatures that rule over the slimy masses. But Slime is not a science fiction book. Rather it is a cultural history that explores how pop culture—and human nature in its entirety—is molded by notions of slime.

Slime represents many primal forces, especically the environment. In Dr. Suess’ Bartholomew and the Ooblock, a king who seeks to control and transform the four seasons ends up with raining goop falling from the sky, replacing snow, rain, wind and heat. Slime is also nature in the raw. Snails, for instance, leave trails of “molecular messages” for mating partners (and predators) to follow.

For me, the most memorable vision of modern slime is shown in the aforementioned film The Blob. Starring a young Steve McQueen, this vintage horror movie is a metaphor for the encroachments of the uncertain nuclear age—modern life fearing what catastrophes lie ahead. Michlig writes that to touch the slimy is to risk being dissolved into sliminess—both literal and metaphysical. The mysterious blob represents transgression and obliteration. Akin to the iconic film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but without the philosophical acuity, The Blob is the perfect Cold War warning against living in and surviving our treacherous world.

As an escape from slime’s looming dangers, the LSD-era ’60s adopted ooze and goo as part of its cultural apparatus, exemplified by lava lamps and rock concert light shows. “Counter culture,” Michlig writes, “related to graphic design and typography evolved during the 1960s toward fluidity of line and organic interlocking of formal elements to mesmerizing effect … markedly breaking with the gridded structures underlying crisp and spaciously composted modern typography.” Of course, he is referencing the psychedelic poster and type designs that formed a slime-based lexicon of imagery. Was Modernism the anti-slime or proto-slimy?

Michlig’s book is a collection of brief insightful essays on the slime-o-verse, from industrial food like the common hot dog—made from “pink slime,” a mixture of fats and intestinal byproducts—to the world of Garbage Pail Kids trading cards to superhero comic villains. He states in the introduction that File Under: Slime can be entered at any point, as each section is self-contained, but suggests that the reader begin at the beginning. I found that either way, the book opens up a wealth of slime lore I had not considered—and explores how it oozes out into our popular consciousness.