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Reviewed by:
  • Plastik und politische Kultur in Westdeutschland
  • Anne Sudrow (bio)
Plastik und politische Kultur in Westdeutschland. By Andrea Westermann. Zurich: Chronos, 2007. Pp. 387. i 38.

The German chemical industry is an intensely studied field, particularly in the context of National Socialism and postwar reorientation. But the history of its end products, at the interface between production and consumption, has been neglected. Hence Andrea Westermann's Plastik und politische Kultur in Westdeutschland is in some respects a pioneering study. Westermann [End Page 482] considers one particular synthetic material, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and follows it through West German history. Although she cites Jeffrey Meikle's 1995 book on plastics as a model, Meikle investigates plastic objects as concrete artifacts in a changing economic and technological framework, whereas Westermann is more interested in PVC as the elusive and highly variable object of cultural meaning, social perception, and political debate. In four chapters, she looks at the "medial qualities" of PVC as a changing means of political communication, and she attempts to establish its political effect and sociopolitical impact (Vergesellschaftungsleistung) on West German society.

The first chapter focuses on the development of PVC in the context of the National Socialist policy of self-sufficiency and the economy of World War II. The actors in the chemical industry as well as the material itself emerged from the war as politically incriminated. For consumers, the material bore the negative meaning of an Ersatz. Westermann shows that the main project of chemists and entrepreneurs during the 1950s was to take the meaning of plastics and purge all the connotations of war profiteering and to cut all semantic ties to the Nazi past. Instead, they constructed an image of pure functionality by linking synthetic materials to a positive, modern future—and here Westermann takes her argument one step further in claiming that this had a depoliticizing impact on public discourse in general.

After the decartelization of IG Farben by the Allies, the various chemical companies found new means of cooperative trade. This is the subject of the second chapter. Associations were founded, public exhibitions were staged, and standardization committees resumed their activities. Within the plastics industry,Westermann looks not so much at large corporations commanding capital-intensive technologies as at the manufacturers processing PVC as a material for consumer durables. These manufacturers were mostly smaller family-owned firms. From her research in the business archives of two producers of synthetic leather substitutes, she finds that they established closer relationships with consumers by developing new ways of examining and communicating the actual and desired properties of synthetics.

The third chapter covers the same period from a sociopolitical point of view. During the 1950s, Westermann contends, West Germany became a "consumer democracy," arguing (along the same lines as Paul Betts) on behalf of a new form of socialization through consumption. Although she attributes "medial qualities" to PVC, she leaves it to the imagination of the reader how this mediation actually worked. Plastics consumption grew tenfold in one decade. As such, plastics were the target of conservative as well as left-wing agitation against mere passive consumerism in the late 1960s.

In the fourth chapter,Westermann turns to the first cases of disease reported in 1974 among workers in the PVC production plant of Dynamite Nobel, which stirred a conflict about the carcinogenic effects of vinyl monomer. The conflict spread rapidly, and PVC was soon being perceived [End Page 483] as a threat to processors and users alike. At the same time, it was becoming recognized as a long-term waste problem, nondegradable in garbage dumps and releasing toxic gases when incinerated. This most powerful chapter shows how PVC became the epitome of occupational disease and environmental risk.

All through her study Westermann looks at the emergence of new forms of knowledge and scientific inquiry in the process of constructing PVC. In the 1950s, for example, the physical subdiscipline of rheology sought to quantify haptic qualities of PVC sheeting in order to grasp consumers' perceptions of the material. In the 1970s the plastics discourse was closely linked to the rise of medical epidemiology that until then had hardly been established in West Germany. Regrettably, however, Westermann does not take...


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