‘One Word: Plastics’ – A Parable of Discord in The Graduate

We should perhaps read the famous scene in The Graduate where Mr McGuire takes Ben aside and gives him the ‘one word’ of advice – ‘plastics’ – in which ‘there’s a great future’, as a parable of discord; generational, and also, by extension, class-economic. The good news of plastics is met with by Ben in tones that seemingly hover somewhere between a nonplussed despondency and an unfazed apathy – all of which is realised by the young Dustin Hoffman’s brilliantly-(under)stated blanket blankness – but there might be more to it than just these epithets. The trope of discord – present from the off and throughout the film as a whole – is emphasised slightly earlier, however, when Ben is asked by the lady guests what’s he going to do now. ‘Go upstairs for a minute’ is his reply, and then they insist that they were rather enquiring after his future, his life in general. ‘Well, that’s a little hard to say…’ Plastics is what Mr McGuire is able to say to this vague future, and he makes it there and then a done ‘deal’.

Roland Barthes, in his analysis, says of plastic that, ‘as its everyday name indicates, it is ubiquity made visible’ (Mythologies, Vintage, p.117). But in this abstract sense, how visible has it become to Ben? Not at all. The problem is, of course, that plastics cannot be visible to him (at this point, and from this pithy prophesy) as a future; it couldn’t become so to anyone without at least Mr McGuire’s business foresight; a foresight presumably informed by the hindsight that goes with years of related market knowledge. Less so is it in any way ubiquitous as a future, as the exclusivity of market forces and business morality (as opposed to the overused and often oxymoronic term ‘business ethics’) tends to insist. Mr McGuire’s ostensibly good-natured but ultimately disinvested act may therefore be comparable to the suggestion made to a student of the Arts and Humanities, in financial straits, that they should ‘just become an entrepreneur’; of course, ‘real life’ isn’t another episode of Dragon’s Den

Ben, however, is of course well set-up and a great future, socio-economically, is almost guaranteed; nonetheless, he’s willing to gamble it all (of course, as it’s a movie, in the name of love) and that’s why his blanket blankness to all else becomes so charming. It’s not, then, the apathy of youth that we’re seeing – or whatever else the more conservative of the older generation might like to tout it as – but, ultimately, rather the appropriate response to the pervasive situation of disconnect, of discord, that he (as well as Mrs Robinson) is aware of throughout the banality of the day-to-day.

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So, what is ours in our day-to-day? One aspect of our discord arises in austerity; when we are told that by doing up our belts we can somehow loosen up the tightness of the times we can only really meet this coercion with the bewilderment that Ben meets Mr McGuire’s with; when we realise that our inheritance is debt, and that we are somehow made to feel responsible, and to be held accountable, for this we should as radically try to shake off all these other people’s designs for us, just as Ben manages to do for himself and for his and Elaine’s – albeit undecided – future.

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