Why Slime Is Everywhere: A Cultural Compendium
A deep dive into the enthralling goop’s sticky place in culture, from Adam Selman to Jenna Sutela, a slime mold visiting scholar to professional slimers on social media.
Justin Bieber gets slimed at the 2012 Kids’ Choice Awards. Photo by Michael Buckner/WireImage.
“There are periods when ears and eyes are full of slime,” wrote Nietzsche in 1879, “so that they can no longer hear the voice of reason and philosophy or see the wisdom that walks in bodily shape.” One can appreciate his general sentiment here—that sense organs filled with slime impede rational thought—but when it comes to slime’s merits, we’ll have to agree to disagree. These days, slime is everywhere: a catalyst, vessel, and operative, appearing in contemporary art, fashion, and academia. It has taken on meanings that are as slippery as they are sticky. Rather than a goop that obstructs the senses, slime allows us to see things we couldn’t without it.
Jenna Sutela, a Finnish artist based in Berlin, has collaborated with the brainless, “intelligent” Physarum polycephalum slime mold organism since 2015 to explore its capacities for decentralized organizing, extended cognition, and biocomputing. It can solve spatial problems with remarkable skill: researchers have found that the organism can produce efficient highway designs comparable to those of civil engineers. “Recently I have been eating the slime mold,” she said in a phone interview, “playing with the idea that I’m using it as a form of AI and letting it control me, or feed my line of thought.”
During roughly the same period that Sutela began working with this bright yellow amoeboid, a strange genre of “Oddly Satisfying” slime videos began gaining traction online. These star homemade batches of glossy, candy-colored goop, pushed and pulled to highlight its gluey texture. The genre has inspired a ritualistic web viewership similar to that of ASMR, kinetic sand, and pimple-popping videos. Slime videos have now mutated from a subculture produced and consumed predominantly by young women into a pop culture mainstay, reported on everywhere from NPR to Jimmy Kimmel, who joked about the very real nationwide shortage of Elmer’s glue that slime videos left in their wake in 2016. The glop is ugly and cute in equal measure, and has a unique capacity for alighting the brain—or turning it off, for once.
From 2015 to 2016, Young Thug released a trio of hugely popular Slime Season mixtapes, and slime has also popped up in recent Rae Sremmurd, 21 Savage, and Playboy Carti lyrics. This May, Hampshire College made the Physarum polycephalum slime mold a visiting scholar in residence, while at Newcastle University, researchers have synthesized a strand of slime that is an incredibly efficient microbial fuel cell. Future-facing food company Nonfood sells an algae bar that turns to green slime in your mouth, and promises that algae-based foods will produce “healthier, cleaner, and more interesting planet.”
The entrancing goop also makes an appearance in Adam Selman’s Fall 2018 collection, and Prada’s ready-to-wear collection from the same season featured sludge-like hues. Madeline Poole, a nail artist and global color ambassador for Sally Hansen, recently released a nail polish collection featuring a popular slime green shade.
But slime has its malignant connotations, too: The grey goo hypothesis, which sees out-of-control nanotech turning Gaia to an endless sea of slime, gained traction in the neoreactionary movement, while mummies in current-day Chile and Peru are turning into black slime, and viral videos of boneless lean beef trimmings used in fast food—popularly known as “pink slime”—attract disgust.
Its status as an alien substance allows it to become an image of another way to move through the world.
“Slime is so effective as a villain because it’s this faceless or multi-faced thing,” said Roc Jiménez de Cisneros, of the self-described “computer music for hooligans” duo EVOL, who released the brain-bending Rave Slime 12” in 2010. “It’s scary because it has no real face and no real body, in the traditional sense.” Slime poses existential challenges: How do its parts relate to the whole? Where does it begin or end? “In our work as EVOL, slime is a good placeholder for in-betweenness,” Jiménez de Cisneros said. “It's about playing with the often unclear limits of certain iconic sounds until that iconic essence stops being recognizable. Sometimes it does feel a bit like playing with slime, or Play-Doh, or some equally pliable substance.”
Madeline Poole released the popular Sally Hansen polish shade “Slime Scene” in March. “I think the childhood obsession with slime is really deep,” she said in an email. “There’s a curiosity about bodily substances, especially things that are deemed taboo and gross. I feel like that's why Gak and Silly Putty were invented: so kids could have something that mimicked the off-limits.” She added that slime is also “like a pet (or a friend).”
While slime has long been shunned as eerie or gross, today, it’s squirming around in the symbolic order, sporing itself toward a meaning that’s a little more ambivalent. Slime often emerges with positive connotations: “Slime is kind of the same concept as playing with a stress ball,” said slimer Prim Pattanaporn, who runs the popular account @sparklygoo, in a phone interview. “I started slime while I was in university. It's one of the most therapeutic things I could ever do while studying, while watching something. You don’t really have to use your brain. It’s kind of like fidget spinners, you know?”
Much like ASMR, Pattanaporn points out that Instagram slime serves a remedial function. Its popularity is connected to the stress of contemporary life, the systemic precarity and endless flexibility mandated by neoliberal capitalism, which reach their apex in something like the Amazon Mechanical Turk, a platform for on-demand, anonymized intellectual labor. (Fascinatingly, in the original German version of Das Kapital, Marx compared abstract human labor to a kind of slime: gallerte, a gelatin-like substance made of boiled-down animal parts.)
Perhaps slime is appealing because it reconfigures flexibility as something pleasurable, even delightful, whereas for most people in the labor market, the day-to-day experience of bending to fit capitalism’s needs is nothing short of excruciating. Squishing around fluffy pastel sludge induces a sort of release in the viewer; its status as an alien substance allows it to become an image of another way to move through the world. You can’t hurt slime, and you can handle it with motions that might injure a sensitive being in any other circumstance.
Philosopher Karen Barad has argued that “Social amoebas [such as slime molds] queer the nature of identity, calling into question the individual/group binary.” Considering the behavior of the slime mold makes us reconsider the basic terms used to establish order in the world, and it’s possible that thinking about slime on mortal time scales has its limits. Slime molds are at least millions of years old, and can thrive in outer space; evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis said that they would inherit the earth. “Maybe we are intermediaries of slime,” said Sutela. “Slimy extremophiles might live after us, but might also carry something of us. In my current work, they are this sort of thread or connecting agent—making things sticky for each other, bridging the gap between deep time and future, and binding us into that timeline somehow.”
According to Pattanaporn, the Instagram slime phenomenon is fading away; in August of last year, she said in a post that she was running out of ideas. One researcher cited in a 2015 slime mold documentary, The Creeping Garden, found that a sample germinated in the lab after lying dormant for 60 years; eventually, slime will re-enter the cultural sphere with something new to show us.