A People’s History of Slime: On Two New Books About Ooze

By Mariella RudiDecember 17, 2023

A People’s History of Slime: On Two New Books About Ooze

Slime: A Natural History by Susanne Wedlich
File Under: Slime by Christopher Michlig

GOO. GUNK. Gloop. Gak. By its own definition, slime is hard to grasp. As an object of disgust, it represents our fears and stigmas, the unknown Other. As a toy or sight gag, it’s a silly plaything. It’s easy to forget that slime permeates every living being on Earth, that, like the cosmos or fungi, slime’s existence is vital to our own, a biological imperative as much as oxygen or sunlight. Nebulous and omnipresent, deathless and primordial, slime is an essential link between nonliving matter and the first life that developed in the ocean 3.6 billion years ago. Slime molds are at least millions of years old and can thrive in outer space. The granddaddy of all mankind, slime is everywhere. It’s also easy to miss, which helps explain why we’re often so afraid of it.

Capturing the world’s most misunderstood, slippery substance is thus no easy task. Two books published in the last year have tried: Susanne Wedlich’s Slime: A Natural History, and File Under: Slime by Christopher Michlig. These books ooze praise thickened by arguments as far-flung and mutable as their shared subject. Both trace a sleek line through art, fashion, literature, film, science, commerce, and beyond, offering mature takes on a childhood fixation.

Wedlich and Michlig’s books discuss slime’s life in popular culture: the cartoonish horror in Ghostbusters (1984) and Garbage Pail Kids, the sensory spectacle of Nickelodeon and the DIY slime craze, the introduction of slime as a horror trope via H. P. Lovecraft, the arrival of the first gelatinous character to the movie screen in 1958’s The Blob. Patricia Highsmith kept hundreds of pet snails; Jean-Paul Sartre maintained a lifelong aversion to “le visqueux” and all things slimy (women and seafood included).

For Wedlich, the defining line might be drawn like this: if it looks like slime, acts like slime, is generally regarded as slime, or gives off a general slimy vibe, it’s in the book. Translated from the German by Ayça Türkoglu, Natural History erupts with examples of the goo’s three-billion-year-old relationship with the world, gushing out in all directions from the natural and necessary to the artificial and toxic. Despite its meticulous research and impressive breadth—the book’s discussion spans from physics to evolution—Wedlich’s writing remains bubbly and intoxicating.

Wedlich, a biologist, views slime as essential to our health and environment, but she also knows that slime exists on a spectrum, and as much as we can harness it for our own use, we can also become swamped by the stuff. Toxic algal and jellyfish blooms threaten ecosystems while climate change warms and acidifies waters. Hydrogels can be used as lubricants, glues, or barriers, providing everything from new surgical adhesives to a possible solution to collecting the ocean’s microplastics, but they are also the stuff of everyday life. “There is probably no single living creature that does not depend on slime in some way,” Wedlich writes. Ashes to ashes, slime to slime.

While Wedlich considers “a definitive book on slime an improbable feat,” she tries to produce one anyway. Michlig doesn’t bother. An artist and professor at the University of Oregon, Michlig gathers slime’s “greatest hits” from the century in File Under: Slime, from Hat & Beard Press. Culled mainly from contemporary art and pop culture, and arranged chronologically with vivid and dramatic color artwork, Michlig starts in 1932 with ectoplasm photography and ends in the last half of the 2010s with Young Thug’s Slime Season mixtapes, Jeremy Scott’s fashion designs, and the TV show Stranger Things (2016– ), with a number of flashes farther back. Michlig’s account of the substance is more personal and humorous than Wedlich’s, and boasts no overarching theme or thesis statement. Wedlich is concerned with why slime is gross, and Michlig approaches the substance as pure fun; the two are ideal companion pieces.

File Under: Slime sometimes reads like an art gallery’s show notes for the high-meets-low discerning Angeleno. It is sourced to the brim with Los Angeles’s historical film and art characters (perhaps, in part, because the writer earned his MFA at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena in 2007 and studied with the late L.A. artist Mike Kelley). Michlig cleverly grounds any conceptual leaps with a guiding text—Sartre’s seminal 1943 work Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. In it, Sartre’s slime is tethered to some unshakable “restless idea,” takes the form of “a liquid seen in a nightmare,” and ultimately represents “a sickly-sweet, feminine revenge.” It is more black than green—impenetrable but vaguely threatening. Sartre writes: “I want to let go of the slimy, and it sticks to me, it draws me, it sucks at me.” Slime as the source of an ambiguous existential terror thereby offers the book’s guiding principle, the lens through which Michlig views all other slime, from the asphaltic slime in John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) to the necrotic in Poltergeist (1982).

Wedlich also grapples with the wide-ranging aversion to slime. In doing so, she offers another explanation for Sartre’s phobia. The queasy French philosopher, like Lovecraft, just didn’t like fish. About “the second sex,” both men “exhibited an at best ambivalent relationship to the female body and nursed deep-seated aversions to sea creatures,” Wedlich writes. Snails, too, have long been a symbol of transgressive feminine sexuality, as well as a shrinking, grotesque trope, as seen in Highsmith’s fiction. Escargot, caviar, oysters, hot dogs popularly known as “pink slime”—the sensual pairing of food and sex has deep psychological, if not evolutionary, roots. Although bodily juices secrete from any gender, the female body always seems to bear the brunt of our worst fears and hostilities, emblems of Lovecraftian horror.

That slime has seeped so deeply and for so long into our collective consciousness can be partly explained by its nature. “Disease is weakness, sex an embarrassment, and death our greatest fear,” Wedlich writes, sticking sliminess to all that is life-giving and life-taking. “Perhaps there is an unconscious belief that if we push slime to the margins of our consciousness, we might be able to ignore our biological finitude too.” This gut reaction becomes a defense mechanism. Like the phlegm that comes with a cold, or pus oozing out of a wound, we are trained to take any discharge—tracking its frequency, color, and smell—as a sign that something is wrong.

But, as both Wedlich and Michlig are quick to point out, culture plays just as much of a role as psychology when it comes to shaping our tastes and responses. And the greatest pleasures are only narrowly separated from disgust. “Our threshold for disgust also rises in step with sexual arousal, so that saliva, sperm and other fluids no longer seem so unpleasant,” Wedlich writes.

In other words, where science trails off, art and entertainment inevitably pick up—and slime’s “ick factor” makes it a star. Michlig points to the introduction of the “cum shot” in movies like 1972’s Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door as evidence of our revulsion-desire matrix. In the art world, drippy-trippy visuals in 1960s psychedelia (think lava lamps and underground comix) leached into the 1970s sexual revolution and subsequent Golden Age of Porn. Works like Lynda Benglis’s “suggestive and evocative” globs of urethane goop and Kelley’s ectoplasm photography series, in which a milky substance flows out of every orifice, further bind sex and the sticky together.

Another explanation for slime’s steady chokehold on the public imagination is more slapstick than sensual. The substance is readily available whenever we need a bogeyman to embody mess—first as a natural threat, then as man-made. Slime seems to absorb and reflect cultural flash points by design. Silly Putty was accidentally invented during World War II as an inexpensive rubber substitute and later sold in the 1950s as a toy. Around the same time, Army Captain Theodor Geisel returned from the war and published the first slime-like substance in children’s literature, known as “the Oobleck,” under his pseudonym, Dr. Seuss.

In many ways, it is as if we invented slime to explain the horrors of the world to our children. By the Cold War, nuclear fallout and radioactive waste had transformed our concept of slime into something more sinister. In 1976, Mattel started selling their branded slime in a tiny plastic “trash can.” The substance stood in for nukes and puke alike, used in countercultural and protest art to evoke danger and mutation. And then everything slime turned green.

For this, you can blame the Canadian teen sketch show You Can’t Do That on Television, which began airing in 1979 with a trademark gag: a torrent of green slime dumped on a guest anytime they uttered the phrase “I don’t know.” “More than any other visual representation of slime,” Michlig points out, this show “indelibly introduced slime as a green viscous material.” In this way, slime became a verb. Yes, it was gross and juvenile. Still, like a water balloon or Silly String, you secretly wished it would hit you too. Michlig relates how You Can’t Do That was eventually picked up by Nickelodeon (to such an extent that “green slime became synonymous with the network”), and the substance transmuted to serve the purposes of new programs such as Double Dare and the Kids’ Choice Awards in the late ’80s.

Since then, slime has not leaked out of the cultural imagination—anything but. Take the homemade slime craze of the 2010s, in which Gen Z and younger millennials brokered a multimillion-dollar cottage industry. Kids of every generation have played with gak, but “slimers,” as they’re called today, can watch it, make it, film it, and—in true late-capitalist fashion—sell it. With the rise of #OddlySatisfying, ASMR media has been like a stress ball for the internet-ravaged mind. It also reifies the deeply human desire to run our hands through the stuff, vicariously, on-screen. After all, as artist Oliver Payne observes in his 2022 short film, A Brief History of Slime, slime “has no rules on how it’s used. It has no modes or functions. It cannot be turned off or on. Whatever it does, it’s doing it all the time.”

Slime now serves as a marketing shorthand trading on nostalgia or retrofuturism to appeal to youth culture. By the late 1990s, architecture, logos, and “blogjects” helped shape a curvilinear, flowing 3D world reflected in the emerging technology. Early 2000s products like the iMac or Volkswagen New Beetle were brightly colored, exuding a fresh energy for the new millennium. Today, slime is a meta mess of co-opted visual imagery and internet aesthetics; anything slime-coded is washed in irony and self-reference. Take the clothing and marketing brand Pizzaslime: their collaboration with luxury luggage maker Rimowa produced a suitcase with a tongue-in-cheek price tag of $69,420.

In an additional wash of irony, slime is also currently experiencing a reboot in the beauty industry. Skin-care influencers film themselves mixing lotions and potions like alchemists; the “10-step Korean skin care routine” touts a staggered glopping of ampules, essence, and snail mucin (the filtered sludge is said to improve skin imperfections like scars, wrinkles, and acne). The “Goopification” of dewy, gooey serums like Hailey Bieber’s “glazed donut skin” and product lines like Glossier blend slimy playtime with healing and beautification. And it’s all marketed and sold in small, pricey pots as the secret to a clean, youthful glow.

Neither Wedlich nor Michlig touch on slime’s contemporary role in beauty, fashion, art, food, or DIY culture in 2023. But that’s okay; between them, they covered roughly 150 years. This focus on the past largely issues from an overarching agreement that, as Michlig writes, “slime is more primordial than technological—slow not fast, an antidote to modernity rather than a sign of capitulation.” Yet slime’s future is just as exciting if we want it to be. After all, there’s no evolutionary problem that doesn’t draw back to mucus. Surveying a thick outpouring of slimy products and viscous slathers as self-care, one can only wonder: might we use this same restorative approach elsewhere?

The defining crises threatening us today—epidemics, climate disasters, extraterrestrial threats, and artificial intelligence, among others—could hinge on this kind of evolution. When scientists discovered in 2010 that a single-celled slime mold could construct a food-finding network nearly identical to the Tokyo subway system, it all but challenged the assumption that intelligence requires a brain. Now, they’re integrating that adaptive behavior and learning into new AI algorithms. Another example is in slime’s antecedent, algae, which can cool the planet, replace plastics, fuel vehicles, and feed the world. Slime can also turn deadly: toxic slime contributed to Earth’s worst mass extinction around 252 million years ago—and it’s happening again today.

Far from primeval or irrelevant goo, slime is as salient and suggestive as ever before. Wedlich observes in her book’s final chapters that “slime has always made a comeback.” In fact, it has “never even gone away. Instead of forcing our will on the rest of nature,” she concludes, “perhaps we could try slime’s soft and slow approach for a change. Yielding instead of pushing through, a will to adapt, and even more flexibility might just enable us to survive these crises of our own making.”

LARB Contributor

Mariella Rudi is a journalist from Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, W Magazine, Bon Appétit, i-D, Vox, and more. She has a fun website at mariellarudi.xyz.


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