Slime isn’t just a toy: it’s the embodiment of the times we’re in
Phenomenology and Existentialism
It came free with a kid’s magazine, a small plastic pot containing a handful of blue mucus, into which one was advised to pour an accompanying sachet of small beads, to create “crunchy slime”. I chew the words over in my head during breakfast time as I eat a yoghurt.
The day before, I had read a piece in the London Review of Books about the recent translation of a German book by Susanne Wedlich. It was called Slime: A Natural History. Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness,” wrote Liam Shaw, “concludes with the idea of the visqueux. Sliminess is horrible to Sartre because it has neither the reassuring inertia of a solid nor the yielding shapelessness of a liquid, but a clinging contamination that envelops and consumes the investigator.” The visqueux, he continued, “is the ultimate ‘revenge’ of unconscious matter (‘being-in-itself’) against conscious matter (‘being-for-itself’).” And on the kitchen table beside my mug was something worse because this, this was “crunchy”.
When I was a child, slime was something shocking on gameshows, shooting green out of robotic gunge tanks all over a loser’s nice clean tracksuit. Of course, nature had got there first, in that arrogant way it has, with slugs and phlegm and hagfish, which turns seawater into a suffocating slime “that will even gag a shark”. In folklore, slimy mould was depicted as the work of witches, sent to ruin dinner, and spiritualists swore ectoplasm was ghostly energy “exteriorised” by mediums.
But by the turn of the 21st century, slime had evolved from something bad and disgusting to something deliciously fun and perfect for going-home bags. It’s possible to spend entire weeks watching manicured hands prod slime on YouTube, the videos often titled with words that suggest it as a kind of therapy. Toy shops devote whole aisles to the stuff: rainbowed, bloody, glittered, green. The crunchy one here on my table I have a problem with, and I’m trying to work out why. Is it because it threatens to break its borders, its hidden solids hinting at something evolving rather than rotting? Is it because I can too easily imagine it in my mouth? I do not like it. I do not like it being so close while I’m eating.
Yet slime, as a state for now, a state for the state of us, seems important and suitably unsettling. In his review of Wedlich’s book, Shaw returns to Sartre, who thought “sliminess” denoted “a type of contaminated morality”. Doesn’t that make you sort of shiver? It feels like a slippery formless cruelty is rife right now. Sliminess continues to contaminate British politics, the sliminess of privilege – our prime minister is a man who broke the law and lied about it; a politician watched porn in parliament, and on and on, sticky and grim and oozing.
It was slime I thought of, too, when I looked back at what Trump’s supreme court nominees said about abortion during confirmation hearings in order to get people to vote in their favour, where Brett Kavanaugh and the others said they accepted Roe v Wade as “precedent”, and “the law of the land”. The sliminess of rightwing America imposing its politics on international healthcare. The insidious gobbling creep of culture wars into bodies and relationships.
Reading long into the night the correct fury of women spelling out the horrors that come with criminalising abortion, trapping people in poverty, it occurred to me that it would be useful for men to start noting the abortions that had allowed them to continue and thrive in their rich and exciting lives. To start acknowledging the ways abortion has helped shape our workplaces and schools and families for the better. It would be something distinct to hold on to, anyway.
At various points in this house, my daughter has gathered various bicarbonates of sodas and attempted to make slime herself from things around the kitchen, ignoring my advice that she simply sneeze. She will make it, and prod it gingerly, and we’ll let it fall in its uncanny way between our fingers for a while. Some hours later I will find a sad pat of mucal material, perhaps studded with glitter, quivering loosely on the counter, and it will be my job to quietly dispose of it before it starts collecting cat hair. Throughout this childhood, a number of slimish shop-bought toys have sat alongside the squishy ones, defined by their fabric skins or external juicelessness. They include a sticky man, designed to be hurled violently at a wall, only to eerily descend, its gluey hands, its gummy feet crawling piece by piece behind the radiator where over the years it inevitably turns to a jellyish dust.
Breakfast unfinished, as, having opened a thought door on viscosity my yoghurt was suddenly a step too far, I take the lid off the crunchy slime, an act of domestic warfare. I know that within 24 hours it will die, its power to shock, repel or delight dried out beside yesterdays mug. It isn’t much, I know, but it’s something.