Pseudoflesh

The world is a cold, hard, lonesome place. Despite ads telling you to pull yourself together and develop buns of steel, what the hardness and the coldness make you want to do is touch things that are warm and softly upholstered, like pets, or other people. Since creatures with a pulse are not always available, we turn to science, where the wish for things as squishy as our selves has been inspiring industrial designers to work with new materials that simulate the tactile qualities of flesh. The resilient gel-filled seats on bicycles, for example, mimic the give of your own rump. The gummy-bear-like pushbuttons on phones, TV remotes, and cameras are made of substitutes for flesh—little rubbery pills, jujubes, and boogers of plastic that feel like the spongy pad of a fingertip, a nipple, an earlobe, the lips.

Children, before their desire to touch everything is squelched, love to poke their Jell-O and watch the way it shudders in a bowl. For as long as they can get away with it, they remain polymorphously perverse, playing with quivering plastic worms and millipedes, trembling rubber spiders, and those trompe l’oeil fried eggs or splats of puke that give slightly when they’re touched. Eventually, though, letting your hands wander wherever they please becomes illegal—then there are places that stay open late selling latex or pneumatic companionship to those having no luck finding the real thing.

The real thing is elusive. Everyone is looking for a hug. Life, meanwhile, just offers one concussion after another. This is sometimes called “learning,” but we keep looking for ways to soften the blow. Noting the poverty of our defenses, materials scientists have rolled up their sleeves to create sympathetic substances that, when you touch them, seem to touch you back in an almost human way. Today, for instance, when you’re sitting at your desk, struggling to find the right word, the soft sleeve of rubber around your pen is there to give your fingers a therapeutic little squeeze of encouragement, like the hand of a friend during a moment of distress. And now, thanks to those rubbery inserts in its handle, that slippery toothbrush will never go flying out of your hand again. Same for that new can opener, and your pancake flipper and your toilet brush, because ergonomics is on the march, bringing with it peace of mind. Now that we have neoprene beer cozies, memory-foam mattresses that lovingly conform to our bodies, pacifiers that plug into baby’s mouths to keep them quiet, and udderlike beverage sacs for us to suck on, we are equipped to deal with hardships that would at one time have worn us down to a nub. We have what we need to get a grip.

Once you start with this stuff, though, it’s a slippery slope from ersatz flesh to materials that curiously resemble little blobs of matter secreted by our bodies. I don’t know what to do about those adhesive dabs of synthesized snot used to paste advertising inserts into magazines and to stick new credit cards to letters in the mail. I can see someone accumulating a wad of this disturbing but weirdly engaging substance the way that Francis A. Johnson of Darwin, Minnesota, patiently wound, over the course of thirty-nine years, his record-breaking, twelve-foot ball of saved-up twine. On reaching retirement, some new contender is going to set up a roadside attraction featuring the world’s biggest medicine ball made out of magazine boogers. For five dollars he will let you into the Quonset hut where it is kept under a trouble light and allow you to knead it.

All this stuff that replicates the feel of our own bodies, not to mention what comes dribbling out of them—carnal materials, let’s call them—has come into being because we want the things we touch to touch us back: in essence, we want them to be us, but without all the mess of being human. Has the mystery gone out of things or is it going into them? The materials used to make chew toys and earbuds and gearshift knobs get stranger and stranger. The chemicals might as well be shipped in from Pluto. People fondle the fake leopard skin covering their steering wheels more than they do each other. We are a lonely species, infinitely sad, with bodies the consistency of pudding, but engineers and surgeons are doing what they can. Let’s look on the bright side. The rubberization of women, for example, is making it possible for them to bounce higher than ever before. Silicone and collagen shape their breasts into bathtub toys of spectacular buoyancy, their lips into king-sized pillows, their buns into peaches that a man wants to bite into (but be careful—the Food and Drug Administration isn’t sure yet if they’re good for you). Now that the soft buttons on the keypads of telephones light up, the day of the bioluminescent nipple, implanted to glow at a lover’s approach, can’t be too far off.

Our fate is to wear out and fall apart. To stave off entropy, we have tools and implements to battle carpal tunnel, tennis elbow, lumbar pain, whiplash, love handles, and flat feet. The shaped grips of scissors, snow shovels, and roll-on luggage reach out to us like friends. The modern ergonomic desk chair cups us in a closely engineered simulacrum of ourselves. It swivels, flexes and adapts to every movement and dimension of your body with the dogged loyalty of your own shadow. When I set out to be a writer, one of the first tools I bought to get myself some traction was a device—in German it would be a “sitzmachine”—called the Equa Chair, a terrific piece of functional sculpture by the Minneapolis industrial designer William Stumpf. For fifteen years I’ve been sitting in this thing pounding out the words, and the chair has never once buckled under the sturm und drang of trying to get things to make sense. It’s holding up better than its owner.

Every decade or so, Stumpf and his associates come out with a new desk (or “task”) chair incorporating the latest materials, some of which are the result of their own experiments. Stumpf’s Aeron chair, introduced in the late nineties, has become modish. You can’t walk into an ad agency or the offices of hip architects without bumping into one of them. The Aeron (the name sounds like a mythological creature that got streamlined in the thirties) has been pronounced the most comfortable office chair on Earth. What most intrigues me about it is the material used for the seat and back. Instead of conventional upholstery, a resilient mesh that Stumpf calls a “pellicle” is stretched taut within the chair’s curved frames. The American Heritage Dictionary defines pellicle as a “… a thin skin or film, such as an organic membrane … .” The stuff of the Aeron’s pellicle is very tough and durable, with an elasticity that does not deform or weaken appreciably with use. Unlike our skin, it isn’t tragic; it doesn’t sag. This is progress. This is more than we can say about what droops before us in the mirror. Evidently we are creating materials that are better at being us than we are.

The chemicals in those tank cars rolling past could be the ingredients for a seraglio of new squeezable best friends, or for a million translucent, jiggling, jelly-colored bugs. They could be the stuff cheeseheads are made of, or Gumbys, or the nose pads of our eyeglasses, or the material for the lenses of those glasses, so we can see straight. We’re swaddled in chairs so ergonomically perfect that they duplicate the comfort of the womb, but our bodies keep breaking down anyway. More and more replacement parts are available, though engineers are having a lot of trouble with the heart. They haven’t quite doped it out. It still has a few kinks in it, but they’re working on it.