Ole Frahm / Friedrich Tietjen


A Little Theory of the Bag


“NOTHING in life happens without packaging. Premature babies are put in incubators, the dead in coffins or body bags. Children are reminded: ‘Wrap yourselves up warmly! It is cold outside’. The car is a tin can that carries us from one enclosure to the next. Whereas such packaging still protects the packed contents from the rigors of the environment, this FUNCTION is largely lost for the commodities at the supermarket. The packaging is a CALL to USE that which is packed. It calls for its own DESTRUCTION!”1


Even those who do not care to share the anonymous authors of these statements’ drastic tone will still have to admit that what they say is valid: nothing in life happens without packaging, or at least nothing in societies molded by their spheres of consumption, and scarcely anything in the rest of the world. Packaging is ubiquitous and omnipresent, its protean forms wrap flowers, toys, beer, cement, marmalade, machines, in short: practically every conceivable tangible commodity. If we consider the advent of trade to be its origins, then even in its initial stages it provided more than just practical protection from damage and ease of transport. Since antiquity, bailiff’s seals and lead seals have provided evidence of the origins of commodities, while the packaging itself identified – at times through stamps – its producer and, not least, its own commodity form. That packaging still holds these particular qualities until today is immediately evident with every visit to the supermarket and also in the growing interest in its final gestalt. Used and destroyed, as garbage it once again becomes a commodity traded between various recycling enterprises, then re-enters the circulation of commodities as a secondary raw material producing heat and more or less poisonous gases in incinerators, or it is exported all over the world, to rot in dumps.

              Nothing in life happens without packaging – and we could add, very little in life happens without plastic bags. Although just as current as the cardboard box, cellophane bag, tin can and PET bottles as packaging for consumer needs, the plastic bag’s peculiar double function hinders it from being placed in the same neat category. As both packaging without commodities and packaging for all commodities, it makes its entrance into the consumption sphere as a carrying bag, and quite often departs as a rubbish bag. Moreover: when consumers make their way home, the plastic bag not only has a use value for them, but also for the merchant: imprints advertise for shopping, and businesses, from record stores to department store chains. Furthermore: as objects of mass culture, plastic bags undergo manifold reuses. Customers, the homeless, collectors, and criminals have invented a series of uses for them that go beyond their original purpose in the narrow sense, and that the producer could hardly have intended. This essay will delve into these three aspects of uses and re-uses of bags in more detail.

As an ephemeral use object, short-lived and durable, conspicuous and incidental, purposeful and alienable, useful and dangerous, the plastic bag is like fashion, whose qualities of prognosis were pointed out by Walter Benjamin: “For philosophers, the burning interest in fashion lies in its extraordinary anticipations. ... Every new season, its newest creations harbor some sort of secret flag signals about upcoming events. Those who are able to read these signals not only know in advance of new currents in art, but also new laws, wars, and revolutions.”2 A bit of reading into bags, their theoretical identification as aesthetic commodities and beyond the aesthetics of commodities, might not contain premonitions of future social arrangements, but it might lead our gaze to the superficial mediation of everyday life, through which these inherent possibilities for transforming social relations become visible.



Forms of Product Aesthetics – Uses of Bags



Those who have grown up with plastic bags use them self-evidently as part of social nature. There are not many tricks or facts to learn about them. The rustling transparent bags from the fruit and vegetable section are hardly strong enough to carry heavy bottles and glass jars. Two plastic bags together, one inside of the other, can handle more weight. They are almost never sold out at the cashier of any supermarket, and it is therefore possible to go shopping spontaneously at any time during business hours without making prior plans for the subsequent transport. Only its grim, antagonistic counterpart, the money pouch (money is also a commodity which requires packaging) limits what and how much can be bought and carried off, stashed away in the shopping bags. The market’s range of products allows a sheer endless amount of variations: only seldom are the purchases of one customer identical with those of another. The checkout counter in front of the cash register is the catwalk on which consumers present their newest collections to each other and the cashier. When the buyers, after the free program of selection and the compulsory exercise of payment, leave the shop, fully packed plastic bags that can hardly be differentiated from one another hang from their wrists; the protrusions, folds, and sizes divulge little about the contents of the bags, whose outer appearance resembles each other, in shape, material, and imprint, like one egg does another.

Although an integral element, packaging is superficial and removable from the commodity: on the one hand it prevents consumption, and on the other, makes it possible. It is first by opening it, and thus the packaging’s destruction, that the packed material becomes accessible.3 Packaging can mediate its contents and its use value in various ways – not only by providing the product’s image: “packaging deceives and disappoints. it contains something different than promised. a gelatinous cylinder with sardines and hearts falls out of the tin, and not the cuddly cat that stretches across the banderole; although no one really expected that. packaging plays with its consumers in the anti-everyday life produced by advertising and symbols. it supplies every commodity, stylized as essential for personal happiness. everyone knows the senselessness of this promise of happiness. it is not satisfaction that is bought, but the taste of happiness.”4 In other words: the use value of the commodities that the packaging promises does not necessarily have anything to do with their essential use value, which likewise has consequences for their production. “In all commodity production, a double is produced: first, the use value, and second, the appearance of use value.”5 This phenomenon can be examined in greater detail in the framework of the commodity’s aesthetics.



The split of commodities and packaging also makes clear why bags appear, on the one hand, as packaging without any specific commodity and, on the other hand, why their outer surface seldom advertises for their own use value, or specifically for the value of other commodities, but advertises all the more for, and with, brand names. Because they package in general, and not anything in particular, they form a utopian space in two respects. First, their contingent and constantly changing contents anticipate their reuse, their productive misuse; second, every full shopping bag has the potential of carrying all possible commodities and their use values.

This utopia can be found as a promise made on a plastic bag from the late 1960s, or early 1970s. It shows a friendly, smiling figure that metaphorically stands for the retail chain thus advertised as “your big friend.” In one hand, the figure holds out to the viewer, a globe with the respective regionally produced products, and with the other hand presents this abundance. Instead of the idiomatic nutshell, the world fits in a plastic bag. The bag’s image promises the whole world to the whole world: “an allegory for the everyday life of utopia?”6

The material is also important in this context. The common term “plastic bag,” which has been around for decades, shows that the carry bag’s actual material, polyethylene, is not recognized, but rather, a whole group of materials known as plastics, processed in a number of different varieties since the nineteenth century and used for all conceivable purposes since the 1950s at the latest.7 This universality, especially in Germany, did not meet solely with progressive enthusiasm, but also with skepticism. Hans Schwippert, well known in his day as the head of the worker’s association and as designer of Konrad Adenauer’s desk, assuming that the character of materials can be read in their resistance to the design, commented in 1952: “Now we are being given materials that no longer have these character forms. The new materials that we have here before us, are, in a sense, compliant to such a degree that we have never known before. ... The materials give us no specific, strict character. Instead, they say: as you please, you are the master, I am the servant, I will do exactly what you want.”8 If this sounds like an implicit accusation of plastic’s lack of essence and character, it is because it echoes the preference for hard and supposedly natural materials such as Krupp steel and leather, cultivated by National Socialist ideology.

Together with its modernity and everyday presence, it was precisely these qualities that made not only plastic in general, but also foils and bags appear interesting for various artistic trends that employed consumer objects’ serial and mass-production techniques for their production of art. When Joseph Beuys designed plastic bags for the Organization for Direct Democracy in 1969 with imprints that showed diagrams of his ideas of a better division of power, their insides remained a space that awaited development. Andy Warhol used different methods to emphasize the utopian contents of the plastic bag: as silver coated and helium filled clouds they floated through the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1966 – the artist’s idea to let them fly away through the open window was not carried out.9 In both cases virtually everything and practically nothing is packed and so one characteristic of the bag emerges: its medial character.


Urban Medium

The bag is an urban medium. The need for bags in rural communities was quite minimal. An individual’s needs could be acquired in the fields, gardens, and stalls, through traveling salesmen, or in the small shops in town. Needs which went beyond that could be satisfied with the occasional trip into the nearest city. In the urban economy, the possibilities for self-sufficiency are greatly reduced. Daily necessities must be bought with the money that is earned by working for wages. So that the masses of gainfully employed persons can be taken care of, production must occur en-masse. In addition, the mass of products must be directed towards individual consumption. This is accomplished mainly with the help of packaging, or, more precisely: individual packaging, which, over the course of time, was brought into contact with commodities at ever-earlier stages. Whereas in nineteenth-century shops the cone-shaped paper bags were simply rolled ad hoc to carry the weighed or counted commodities, the shops soon offered a variety of prefabricated packaging, and later prepackaged commodities themselves, until finally the packaging was taken care of by the producers directly and the commodities, almost exclusively in the form of boxes, cans, packs, and sacks with precise machine-weighed quantities, were delivered to and sold in the supermarkets, to be brought home individually in carry bags.10 This also describes the decisive moments of the capital flow into cities in the last two centuries, whose fundamental features were described by Karl Marx: “The capitalist means of production lessens the transport costs for individual commodities through the development of means of transportation and communication and also through the concentration of transport. It increases the amount of labor societies put into transport, of active and hypostatic labor put into the transportation of commodities, first through the transformation of the great majority of all products into commodities and then through the replacement of local markets through distant ones. The circulation, e.g., actual rotation of the commodities in space, is dissolved in the transport of the commodities. On the one hand, the transport industry forms an independent branch of production, and therefore a particular sphere for investment of productive capital. On the other hand, it is also something quite different in that it appears as a continuation of a production process for the circulation process and within accumulation processes.”11

Without packaging in general, and without bags in particular, circulation as the transport of products that have become commodities is unimaginable. If the packing in paper cones and other containers created the prerequisites for the industrialization of food production,12 the plastic bag is the vehicle to carry it on its last stretch in the direction of its consumption. The packaging industry, developed as of the mid-nineteenth century, made possible the development and definition of new classes of consumers and increased the prices of the products which were offered to them – a price increase which can certainly appear as a price reduction for the consumers, since local small producers with their much smaller markets, are befallen with higher absolute production costs, and also relatively higher transportation costs: mass production and mass import make apples from South Africa cheaper than those from the farmers at the gates of the city.

This is one of the greatest achievements of the capitalist means of production: lowering the price of transport and at the same time inventing new means of transport and communication. This became possible because the transport sphere was of interest to productive capital, which led to enormous investments being made, investments, which, by the way, did not pay off in all cases (the disaster of the new markets in the late 1990s had its precursor in the railway speculations of the mid-nineteenth century). On the other hand it is well known that the bag industry was only able to establish itself by very particular exploitation of human workers in its early stages; namely, orphaned children, inmates in workhouses, and finally, prisoners, who were forced to glue bags to earn even minimal financial means. The profit margins for the industrialists were correspondingly high. Yet, as long as the cone-shaped bags were still manually produced in the packaging industry, many individual merchants fell back on even less expensive labor power: they had their apprentices glue bags during their training time.13 It was first with the development of machines for the automatic production of bags in 1875 that they could be made cheaper than by hand.14 The apprenticeship could be shortened, other educational and occupational methods were developed for the children, and workhouses were abolished. Only the prisoners remained bound to the drudgery: even today, carrying bags are produced by hand in some correctional facilities.15



By the end of the nineteenth century, gluing bags had already become synonymous in colloquial language with imprisonment. Not only their production and as a result, employment in the producing industry, became suspect but also the bags themselves. Attempts to alleviate this situation aimed at changing the terminology, not the production conditions. In 1942, a professional committee assembled from various authorities and institutions, negotiated over a new semi-skilled job: the term “mechanical bag-gluer” was unanimously rejected. It was argued, for one, that bags, as opposed to sacks, represented only a minor portion of the total production, and for another, there were fears that the term was too loaded from the production in prisons and penitentiaries. Therefore, they decided on the new job title “mechanical sack-gluer.” The bags therefore became sacks to assure new blood for the paper processing industry.16

This anecdote about the wording to be used would not have had any further significance, if it were not historically located in the Third Reich. Already working under regimented conditions in 1942, the producers of paper shopping and handbags were expressly forbidden to produce anything other than “paper and cardboard products important and decisive for the war.”17 Bags did not contribute to the endsieg. Generally, the reduction and ban on bag production was attributed to the scarcity of raw materials. But why was the production of “carrying bags, carrying sacks and phonograph-covers” already stopped “after 1936 (with the start of the first four-year plan)”?18 A discussion paraphrased by Heinz Schmidt-Bachem, a historian and bag collector, leads to suspicions that also the ban on paper bags was based in national socialist ideology: “In the opinion of the department of press and propaganda in the central department 1 of the commercial group, in the past, packaging means [have] developed into a true luxury item, not only in terms of quantity but also quality... for which there is absolutely no justification. Where there is no change or improvement of an essential product possible, in those cases it is the packaging, the furnishings, which are meant to be decisive in the competition. Even for competitive reasons, it would seem unhealthy if the user had to ask whether he or she has just paid for the often inferior commodities or for the frequently superior packaging.”19

In the differentiation of the “essential commodities” from the nonessential packaging, the use value of the commodities is set as a manifest absolute. All other values are no longer essential – including that of the packaging, which lacking an essential use value is denied “every justification.” It is not understood as a product within and for the sphere of production as in Marx’s writing, but, rather, as a pointless luxury. To put it more precisely: in national socialist ideology, the commodities are identical with their use value; the packaging, the bag, is added as foreign matter from outside. The means of transport encompasses the use value and the exchange value. The double character of the commodities, in this division, is portioned out so that the naturalization of its fetish character, which is common in capitalism, is re-interpreted by the national socialist ideology in a biological personification. The “making work,” the production of the use value of the commodities, is “Aryan,” whereas all forms of finance capital, the entire sphere of exchange value, appear as “money-raking capital,” as “Jewish.” The sphere of use value is assigned to the “Aryan,” and the exchange sphere to “the Jews.” 20 Whereas the “’making’ work” creates use value, in this logic, the “high-quality packaging” presents mere deception of values that are “inferior” and “unhealthy.”

Hidden in these biological connotations is the denunciation of the Jews as dangerous vermin, and conversely, also the implicit connotation of the packaging and with it, the bag, as parasitical, and therefore Jewish. In that the transport sphere is pushed closer to the exchange sphere, categorized as the sphere of “money-raking capital,” it can be “unhealthy” for the essential commodities. And thus when anti-capitalist anti-Semitism already mixes with a biologically based racial-anti-Semitism, a third anti-Semitic element appears when high quality packaging is accused of possibly hiding the inferiority of the commodities. Such deceptive masking motives, of “Jewish cunning,” surface consistently in national socialist ideology. In 1930, Joseph Goebbels, who later became propaganda minister, diagnoses: “He [the Jew] dresses himself in the masks of those he wants to deceive.”21 The yellow star, the J stamped in the passport, the mandatory, prescribed first names, Sara and Israel, from the NŸrnberg Racial Laws, should ensure that the inferiority of those beings recognized as Jews remain visible, despite all other outer features.22 Marked in this way, they were first driven out of public, and then business life; those who were not able to emigrate were later herded together in ghettos, deported to concentration and extermination camps and killed. The “extermination through work” reduced the victims to their labor power, which is retrospectively often seen as more or less unproductively squandered. The fact that these jobs, uniformly, can all be considered as punishment stands without question. Therefore, it is not very surprising that gluing bags was also among these extorted forms of labor which Victor Klemperer was also coerced to do as of 1943: the forced laborer, seen as inferior, produced the packaging, also seen as inferior.23



Every description, every theoretical determination of the bag, must resist its devaluation. The bag is a fleeting surface, which also advertises. This does not render it “unhealthy” but rather, can also be practical. Delicate commodities such as records first become adequately transportable for consumers with carry bags. The temporal proximity of the first spread of the phonogram and the “hand-free carry bag” at the beginning of the twentieth century is hardly surprising.24 This is not a historical coincidence, but rather, a concomitant effect of the creation of a new culture, the employee culture. At the end of the 1920s, Siegfried Kracauer writes: “Hundreds of thousands of employees fill the streets of Berlin every day, and yet we know less about their lives than those of the primitive tribes whose customs the employees admire in films.”25 They present themselves as a new class of workers, “forerunners of mass society, the era of mass consumption,” marked by a “distinctly individual social identity.”26 With them, “leisure” first came into being – and being able to rush into the city and shop once again after work without being previously burdened by a package, went along with it. The employees, for whom differentiation from the workers was a central problem, developed several little methods for distinction. After they had already distanced themselves from laborers through their “collar lines”27 they had to prove their superior taste through the places where they chose to make their daily purchases, which were clearly readable on the bags. Nowadays, those who can afford to purchase expensive groceries in a noble department store can look down with composure on the customers of cheap supermarkets. The fact that the upper classes visit these stores for their basic food supplies is just as much a part of this logic as their natural reuse of once acquired prestigious bags.

From this perspective, plastic bags did not produce any novelties, but rather, the duplication of such distinctions. The carry bags’ diverse colors made them Ð and therefore also the distinction which they displayed – more visible. This distinction seemed to contradict the serial nature of the bags, their mass production, which nevertheless is what originally made them a medium. Yet the opposite is the case: mass production belongs to distinction; it enables the identification of like-minded people through a brand name, a trademark that is easily recognizable. Therefore, the serial nature of production finds its echo in the serial nature of the motif on the bags. For retail chain stores, it shows their numbers: there is not only one, they offer their fine service everywhere; the intention of instant recognition is emphasized. The advertisement on the plastic bags must be recognizable in passing, and to the scattered gaze, even from the corner of the eye, to identify the carrier.

Of course this is advertisement, publicity for the purpose of influencing the masses, for guiding sales, and like every banality, this too is surrounded by supposedly anti-capitalist myths: consumers succumb to the advertising only because they are subliminally manipulated – not because needs are produced and satisfied. The communication material, plastic bag, together with many other products Ð from billboards to stickers to the T-shirt – makes consumption a part of identity, a positive condition of existence in post-Fordian capitalism. Plastic bags do not hide anything. They are acquired with the purchase; the imprint shows what they contain. An Aldi-bag carries products from the Aldi market, in the Penny-bag are products from a Penny market, and a bag with a Marlboro tobacco image on it contains Marlboro tobacco. The fact that, even when it has a bottle of Laphroaig or a carton of Senior Service cigarettes in it, the Marlboro tobacco bag also advertises for Marlboro, does not change this principle: the image shows a product that has been bought duty-free. Naturally, this redundancy advertises for Marlboro tobacco, but precisely that is what makes the advertisement everything but mysterious or subliminal. It jumps immediately into view. The bag advertises for the shop that gives it out, for itself, and its contents. It advertises for the act of purchasing in this shop in that it simply testifies to it.

This convincing principle of simple testimony is what first generated modern shopping. After the proclamation of the “era of the carrier-bag” in Germany at the beginning of the 1960s,28 the number of self-service shops quadrupled between 1960 and 1969. “Over time, a steady bag culture developed.”29 Through this, a new practice of shopping arose which in professional jargon is called “impulse shopping.” Here, the bags are not simply there because commodities are purchased, but the commodities are purchased because there are bags for them.



For the consumer, the bag appears as a product, as a means to make possible the speedier and more comfortable consumption of other products, not as a commodity. The imprint confirms this impression, common in everyday life. The delivery and use of the bag seems to be a tacit agreement made between free persons; the price that the consumers pay is not settled with money, but rather, through the advertisement which they make carrying their commodities home. The Federal Republic of Germany was one of the first countries in the world to introduce a small bag fee in opposition to this arrangement. Why? There were campaigns “against this packaging.”30 In contrast to the U.S.A., the resentment of the bags as something alien to the “essential commodities” was sufficiently present to justify this expense. This resentment can undoubtedly be called unconscious. It can only be discerned in the matter of course way in which the bag’s superfluousness is common in Germany.

The price for the plastic bags makes them a commodity just like any other for the consumers. The few cents which are currently paid for the bags at the cash register, not only create a small extra-profit for the supermarket – they are the symbolic and real price for the luxury of thoughtlessness, for alleviating a guilty conscience with respect to the environment, the guilty conscience for the self-empowerment to “deal with things superficially,” 31 that is all the rage in Germany for the reasons stated. It therefore comes as no surprise that it is Germany, with “DER GR†NE PUNKT (THE GREEN POINT),” the “Duale System Deutschland” (DSD), that subsidizes a recycling industry which makes it possible for the bag’s material to be recycled as many as eighteen times.32 Since 1992, DER GR†NE PUNKT, found on many plastic bags, has become a sign that the producer has paid a packaging fee: a sign that is meant to guarantee its recycling.

Although the bag has also indisputably become a commodity for the consumer, for which they must pay a price just like for any other commodity, it is nonetheless not equal to other commodities because it does not appear as a commodity. Its use, from the very beginning, means not only the possibility of a certain circulation of commodities, but also its increase. The commodity character of the bag is not realized in use value for the customers, but primarily in use value for the supermarkets. The customers buy more commodities than they would without bags because they can pack this excess of commodities in the bags. When the Doppel-Kraft-TŸte or DKT-bag (double power bag) with a proven carrying capacity of five kilograms, nowadays distributed everywhere, was introduced in 1975 by the department store chain Karstadt in cooperation with the Firm LEMO from Mondorf, the department stores were able to calculate that based on the new type of bag, customers bought 21 percent more commodities, especially those types of commodities which were previously more difficult to transport, such as bottles or tins. The Reiterband bags that were used until that time were not only less stable than the DKT bags, but they also had a smaller, less flexible opening.33 For the customers, these facts were seen as a subjective advantage, and not as the use value for the merchant that they continually realized through their larger purchases. In this way, the use value of the PE-bags for the merchants – which was directly realized on the way from the supermarket or department store to the consumer’s home – doubled.

Without this doubling of use value, there would be no plastic bags. The plastic bags must have a use value for the merchant for them to buy this commodity in greater quantities from the packaging industry. To establish the commodity character of plastic bags here, in the relationship between producers and the initial consumers, the merchants, would be reductive, yet likewise, such a determination is lacking in daily life. The commodity character of the plastic bags first reveals itself in the double character as commodity and garbage. Its use value was fulfilled for the customer at the moment in which he or she unpacks the other commodities from it. Now the bag can be thrown away like other packaging. The re-use as a rubbish bag, or the recycling of the bag for the next shopping trip, extend the use of the bag, but do not change anything about the fundamental fact that the bag, after its multiple use-values have been realized, is worthless and this worthlessness is first realized when the bag transports garbage and itself becomes garbage.

The commodity character of the plastic bag thereby divides itself into two spheres: in that of the plastic bag market, in which various producers with various models of plastic bags compete for economical and usable solutions, like in other areas of the capitalist economy. Here, the plastic bag is a commodity among others, with a promised use value for the merchant and with an exchange value for the producer. The bag behaves as a commodity like yogurt, bouillon cubes, or mops. In the sphere of supermarkets and retail merchants, the bag is suddenly, as if by magic, no longer a commodity like all others. It is placed under the cash register, as though it must be hidden, and is personally handed over by the cashier upon request. Its price is not aimed at gaining a profit, but, rather, functions to make the service of offering a bag, economical.


Forms beyond commodity aesthetics Ð re-uses of bags

It is not without irony, that in its early stages commercial bag production presented a re-use process. When the first bags were glued by hand in the paper commodities factory Allendorfer Papierwaren Fabrik Bodenheim & Co in 1853, emptied files served as raw material.34 The bag thereby possessed an inner potential that could lead to uses that had little or nothing to do with its planned purposes, but could simultaneously reflect them. These re-uses thereby expand the use value of the bags into an area in which no exchange value is suitable; even the aesthetic aspects of the bags, for the time being, have no significance. And yet, it is precisely this area that provides information about the status currently given to the aestheticizing of plastic bags. Here, those signals are recognizable whose meanings can only, initially, be depicted in schemes.


The shopping bag

The material of most of the bags given out at store cash registers is tough enough to withstand not only the transport of the purchase; until holes, protrusions, and tears endanger its carrying capacity, it can be reused several times and always for the same purpose. The bag thereby realizes its double use value each time anew. Yet whereas it always represents transport ease for the shopper, it can represent a discrepancy for the salesperson: what the shopping bag contains does not necessarily have to have been bought in the shop whose logo decorates it. From small towns in particular, the opposite case has been reported, that consumers do not dare to enter a shop because they are already underway with the competitor’s plastic bag.

The reuse through further use and the subsequently continued advertisement was, by the way, one of the arguments with which the carrying bag producers had already tried to win customers in 1925.35 Nowadays, many bags appeal to their carriers and place short sentences on the bottom of the bag to try to animate them to such uses. It sounds as though they are competing with each other for the most beautiful request:

“Your contribution to environmental protection Ð please, use bag repeatedly”

“This carry bag is made from polyethylene and is therefore much better than its reputation: it can be used repeatedly”

“For 1 x use, a shame – a real multi-use container”

“Carry bags that can be used repeatedly are found to be ecologically less expensive than paper carry bags”


The rubbish bag

Whereas the bag, in its new implementation for further purchases is still more or less used in keeping with its original purpose, its use as a rubbish bag presents an obvious and therefore massively occurring reuse. In his study on the history of the bag, Heinz Schmidt-Bachem reports that, already in 1965, four years after the cautious introduction of the plastic bag, which was relatively expensive to produce in comparison with the paper bag, “the PE-bags were so popular among customers (mainly as rubbish bags) ... that they were snatched up by the bundle when not watched over for a moment.”36 The fact that PE-bags were seen as rubbish bags is illuminating: water resistant, stable, and flexible, they hold back the smell of the decaying, decomposing, rotting portions of the garbage and therefore have an unsurpassable advantage over paper bags, whose quality, by the way, was so seriously compromised during massive competition among the producers during the mid-1960s, that the plastic bag was easily able to establish itself as the wise alternative.37

It is also clear why the packaging industry did not stop the “unguarded moment” of bag snatching: as rubbish bags, the PE-bags held the packaging from other commodities, which they had previously transported together with the contents. The packaging of the commodities was a decisive prerequisite for their circulation in the supermarket. It is the plastic bag that first made it possible to carry these individually packaged commodities home from the supermarket. At home the bags were then reused as rubbish bags, the packaging of the commodities was thus packed for a second and last time. In this calculation the packaging industry gains twice and is thus able to first expand, and since the early 1990s to extend the circulation by one more revolution – DER GR†NE PUNKT and the DSD Ð to gain a third time when the plastic garbage, the plastic packaging and the plastic bags, are recycled, which means: turned into cash.

The consumers, in the belief that they purloined something from the markets and were doing something subversive by reusing the bags for garbage, a use that was only useful for themselves, actually spurred on the plastic bag industry through the increased need for PE-bags. Reuse for garbage is what established the bag, and that is also the reason why they have been considered the number one pollutant since 1971: they were garbage to begin with.38 This myth, which was not substantiated in any way, also arose from the guilty conscience of the Germans which dictated that they must be punished every time they enjoy appropriating something for their own needs – in this case taking plastic bags as rubbish bags. When the punishment failed to materialize, then all of nature had to suffer for the unjust deed. If, from the beginning of their history onward, the plastic bag through its reuse, turns out to be garbage, then there is no irony of history, but rather, an allegory for the progressive and also pacified capitalism of Germany, which no longer has to conceal its disposable character.


The bag people

The plastic bag can be understood as the legitimate heir of the nineteenth-century servant’s chest. Whereas the vassals traveled with their chests from one master to another, for the homeless as urban, and usually non-voluntary nomads, the plastic bag replaces roof and closet. The chests held the entire possessions of the exploited, and this is also true for the bags of the outcasts. The servants’ chests were painted with ornamentation and roughly rhymed aphorisms – “In MŸh und Arbeit bring ich mein Leben zu, hier kanns nicht anders sein im Himmel ist die Ruh 1817”39 (My life, with trouble and work it goes, it must be so here, in heaven is repose 1817) – and the plastic bags advertise with promises of commodities that are only available to the homeless in their utopian dreams.

The plastic bags of the bag ladies (and men) can be understood as the discarded bourgeois suitcase. Whereas the suitcase, over the course of its history, became the sign of mobility of a developed capitalist society, the plastic bag marks the forced mobility of those who no longer move within the spheres of circulation. Cynical culture pessimists could speak in this sense of the stable chest’s deterioration to the thin polyethylene-skin of the bag. But the containers are not the only things that have changed; needs have as well. A servant did not have to transport his possessions all that often from one sleeping place to another. The bourgeois family, traveling every summer, with their frequently voluminous luggage packed into wardrobe trunks, only had to transport them once from their urban residence to the far-flung summer residence. For the homeless, who are seldom able to spend more than one night in the same place, it is very different. Like the shopping cart as the contemporary vehicle, the plastic bag – free or easily acquired, resilient, waterproof, spacious, and flexible – is the contemporary suitcase for the never-ending journey of those excluded from the capitalist exploitation process.

By producing the plastic bags, no one thought of meeting the needs of this non-economical realm. The homeless cull a use value from the bags that they never even promised and yet Ð based on their material character – are able to fulfill without a problem. The constant ability to make some sense beyond its own inherent rationality clearly counts among the greatest miracles of capitalist productivity. Unwittingly, it produces perfectly suitable solutions for areas whose problems it created in the first place.

The image of the homeless, wheeling a shopping cart full of plastic bags holding his or her possessions, day in and day out, from one sleeping site to another, parodies the figure of the consumer. They don’t buy anything, their possessions are not commodities, and their bags do not promise anything more than protection for the little that remains to them. Whereas the shopping cart provides the promise of autonomous access to all commodities, the shopping carts of the homeless recall how useless this promise is when it does not apply to everyone. The attractiveness of the plastic bags that repeat this promise endlessly with their colorful imprints, is stripped away in the shopping carts of the homeless. The advertisement, which their constant bag transport continues to allow, ridicules the idea of advertising with something that is as useful as a plastic bag.


The coffin

The fact that the plastic bag can have a lethal function has had an amazingly minimal effect on its reputation. Whether they serve to suffocate one’s self or another, are useful for the short-term transport of body parts or to hide them under bushes, plastic bags have enabled new practices in this area. Their density and capability to shield odors, their inconspicuous presence in everyday life, their durability and their slow decomposition have proven excellent qualities for such purposes. It would be rash to see the realization of a murderous capitalist socialization in such practices. Like the knife that rests on the artery ready to slice it, like the suitcase with the corpse temporarily deposited in a train station locker, 40 the plastic bag and its advertising is completely innocent in these activities. It is a malicious person who would read a corpse packed in a supermarket bag as an allegory for commodities.


The mask

To use the bag as a mask is one of its most obvious reuses. It is not a coincidence that holes have been and are punched into some bags. They are then of only limited use as rubbish bags, yet on the other hand, the danger of suffocation for small children is largely eliminated. If the excitement of the game is soon past, the bag as a mask enjoys non-stop popularity in another context: In some confessional videos and photographs, the protagonists make themselves unrecognizable with bags. In this context, it is difficult to imagine a more logical reuse than occurred on 25 February 2002 in the Styrian town of Knittelfeld:


Roughly twenty minutes before closing time there was hardly any more business in the Billa-supermarket on the [...] Herrengasse. So the cashier, Waltraud Labner, 42 years old, left her cash register and filled a shelf around ten meters away, with bottles. She was holding a plastic crate in her hand when suddenly a masked man entered the store. He had a Billa-sack with eye holes cut into it pulled over his head and held a roughly 30-centimeter kitchen knife in his hand. According to police, he wanted to use it to stab the cashier. Yet she was able to defend herself thanks to the crate. The robber ordered the 42-year-old upper Styrian woman, “Hand over the register. Now!” Before the situation escalated any further, however, a customer intervened. The customer had only just entered the store when he noticed the armed man near the cash register. At the same moment he heard the cries of the cashier, whereby he immediately came to her aid. “Shit,” was the only word that the perpetrator uttered, and before the customer could intervene, he stormed out of the supermarket without the loot, running in the direction of Hauptplatz. All tracks end there.41


In that the robber pulled the empty sack over his head with the opening facing downward, he also turned the normal practice of the purchase on its head. What he wanted to carry home were not groceries, but, rather, money – money, that he would have possibly spent later in the same supermarket.


The collectors

There are only a few objects that can be suitably archived in plastic bags – although at times they are used to collect and sort comics. Yet to store paper, the PE-bags are too non-breathable, for other objects too non-transparent, and they also reveal the poverty of the collectors, and the meagerness of their collection. Those who collect in plastic bags cannot afford anything better.

But those who collect the plastic bags themselves, free them of every use value that is sought and found in the most far-flung reuse. Transformed into objects, they are brought together and piece for piece formulate a history of fleetingness, in which the actual fate of the collector can be experienced. The city is arranged differently for plastic bag collectors than it is for its inhabitants. They are not interested in street names, connections, places of residence. For them, the streets are foyers of a gallery in which the people heedlessly or with an enchanting effortlessness display the worthless and therein meaningful collector’s items.

As with all collections, a peculiar fetishism comes into effect here by which not only the motif, but also all of the factual data, the entire past of the plastic bags, becomes interesting. Only a collector can identify the various plastic bags: the Sinus, Lemo-Reiterband, or Polymatador bags. Like the onologist knows a wine by its color, aroma, and taste, they like to categorize the bags according to material and design. This knowledge, which is as diverse and superfluous as the collected objects themselves, allows the collectors to competently discuss the meaning of the first machine-glued cone shaped bags, the awkwardness of the early plastic sack, and the graphical finesse of a department store’s special edition. Yet, at the same time, an emancipatory element is hidden in the senselessness of the debates and the collecting. The knowledge that is accumulated also shows that the plastic bags, as plastic, are not absorbed “entirely in their use,” as Roland Barthes claimed.42 The collecting of plastic bags allows the enjoyment of the senseless: beyond the dialectic of use and exchange value, the collector enjoys the artificiality of the flexible surfaces, purely for pleasure, and recalls other not yet realized economies beyond capitalist socialization.

As long as these other economies still await realization, the lesson of the produced and collected bags remains. Yet how can such a lesson from bags still be ensured in light of the exuberant abundance of available materials? Heinz Schmidt-Bachem, with a collection of more than 150,000 bags, certainly the doyen of the bag collectors, has offered a far-sighted answer to this question. More familiar with the subject than anyone else, some time ago he was forced to sell off a part of his stock, since he still received unsolicited, mass deliveries of plastic bags even after he had announced the completion of his collection; he only considered a small amount worthy for a future hermeneutics. Declared as garbage, two trucks full of plastic bags set out on a path that had been paved for them from the outset;43 and like a sinking ship, vanishing, they waved one of those secret-code flag signals that Walter Benjamin knew of all along.

1          Anonymous flyer; Hamburg, December 1992. Capitalized as in the original German.

2          Walter Benjamin, Das Passagen-Werk, Frankfurt am Main 1983, p. 112. The analogy between packaging and fashion can also be found elsewhere “Packaging is the dress of the commodities,” can be found in the catalogue of the traveling show, Besser Verpacken (Better Packing), see: Fritz Weidinger, Erich Ketzler, Wanderschau Besser verpacken, exhib. cat., [Vienna], [1956] no place or date stated and not paginated.

3          As long as it is packaged, a product remains in the form of a commodity – which is why it is only in the case of serious complaints about the quality that it is possible to exchange unpacked and therefore potentially used commodities.

4          Ole Frahm, Friedrich Tietjen, “DER GR†NE PUNKT,” in: glas'z, Nr. 2, Hamburg 1993, pp. 23Ð26, here: p. 26. As in the German original.

5          Wolfgang Fritz Haug, Kritik der WarenŠsthetik, Frankfurt 1976, p. 16f.; see also, in the same: WarenŠsthetik und kapitalistische Massenkultur I, Berlin 1980, p. 47.

6          Benjamin, see note 2, p. 236. The bag is depicted in Heinz Schmidt-Bachem, TŸten, Beutel, Tragetaschen. Zur Geschichte der Papier, Pappe und Folien verarbeitenden Industrie in Deutschland, MŸnster/New York/Munich/Berlin 2001, p. 237, ill. 26.

7          In contrast, the competing material, paper, has a considerably more narrow horizon of uses in bag production. The transition from non-synthetic to entirely synthetic plastics is marked by materials such as hardened rubber (ebonite) and celluloid, which have been processed since roughly the mid-nineteenth century. The first completely synthetic plastic was Bakelite, developed at the beginning of the twentieth century. For more on the multiple uses of plastic, see, for example, Sabine Wei§ler (ed.), Plastik Welten, Berlin 1985; Penny Sparke (ed.), The Plastics Age. From Bakelite to Beanbags and Beyond, Woodstock/New York 1993; Jeffrey L Meikle, American Plastic. A Cultural History, New Brunswick/New Jersey 1995.

8          Hans Schwippert, DarmstŠdter GesprŠch: Mensch und Technik, Darmstadt 1952, p. 84f.

9          Two years previously, Warhol, together with other artists in pop art provided for the re-creation of links between the worlds of art and consumption. “The Bianchini Gallery in New York [was] rebuilt, and, with a turnstile at the entrance and a cash register at the exit, mutated into an American supermarket. Art and commodities were thus melded in the most confusing way: Robert Watts chromed eggs, Claes Oldenburg offered new bonbons and Andy Warhol built an impressive display of hand- signed Campbell’s soup cans.” (Friedrich Tietjen, “The Making of: Multiple,” in: Peter Weibel (ed.), Kunst ohne Unikat, Cologne 1999, see p. 55). Warhol was also responsible for the printed shopping bags – but in this case, they were made from paper.

10        The rationalizing effect of individual packaging touches upon further fields of consumption. Reduction of product spoilage: “Replacing the normal parchment packaging with aluminum foil prevents the formation of a rancid and spoiled crust on the stocked butter. With the use of parchment packaging after five months in storage, a 2 to 3.5 cm thick crust builds. For each keg of butter, that means a loss of 0.5 bis 0.9 kg butter and for 100,000 barrels per year, that is 70 tons of butter on average. .... In West Germany, last year 110 tons of butter were protected from spoilage through the use of aluminum foil which works out to a value of 600,000 DM.”

Acceleration of the sales process: “To weigh and package loosely held foodstuffs, a salesperson requires 27.2 seconds on average, to take the prepackaged commodities from the shelf, 3.3 seconds. For non-packaged commodities the entire sales process lasts 60 seconds whereas for prepackaged commodities it is 37 seconds, thus about half the time. ... Through the measuring, weighing, packing, informing and ringing up of the commodities, the salesperson is only left with 15 percent of the working time for his or her actual task; selling.”

Facilitating consumption: “A tin with a meal for two people undoubtedly presents packaging that is suitable for its use. ... Perfect examples of use-fitted packaging are, however, the teabag and the match box, which have been produced in the same form for decades and can hardly be replaced by anything better.”

From: Weidinger/Ketzler, same as note 2.

11        Karl Marx, Das Kapital. Kritik der politischen …konomie. Vol. 2: Der Zirkulationsproze§ des Kapitals. Edited by Friedrich Engels, Berlin 1989, p. 153; see also, in the same: Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen …konomie (first draft), Berlin 1974, p. 423: “In accordance with its nature, capital drives beyond all spatial barriers.”

12        It is not by chance that the first half-synthetic, technically produced foodstuffs such as Liebig’s meat-extract did not arrive in the stores in a loose form, but rather, in weighed-out, trademarked packages.

13        Schmidt-Bachem, same as note 6, p. 40f. The apprentices were cheaper, because they not only had to “pay” for their education metaphorically, but actually had to concretely pay fees for their apprenticeship.

14        Ibid., chapter 8.

15        Ibid., p. 140ff.

16        Ibid., p. 144.

17        Ibid., p. 173f.

18        Ibid., p. 195.

19        Ibid., p. 168. We thank Torsten Michaelsen for his invaluable support in the evaluation.

20        See, on this analysis, Moishe Postone, “Anti-Semitism and National Socialism. Notes on the German Reaction to ‘Holocaust’,” in: New German Critique, Nr. 19, Winter 1980, pp. 97Ð115, here p. 110 f.; on the differentiation between “’making’work” und “money-raking capital,” especially Holger Schatz, Andrea Woelicke, Freiheit und Wahn deutscher Arbeit. Zur historischen AktualitŠt einer folgenreichen antisemitischen Projektion, Hamburg/MŸnster 2001, p. 87f.

21        The quote is from the brochure of Joseph Goebbels/Mjoelnir (Hans Schweitzer), “Die verfluchten Hakenkreuzler. Etwas zum Nachdenken,” Munich 1930, taken from p. 16, where it was illustrated with a revealing caricature. On the caricature and anti-Semitic ideas of the masked Jew, see Hanno Loewy, “’ ... ohne Masken’ Ð Juden im Visier der ‘Deutschen Fotografie’ 1933-1945,” in: Klaus Honnef, Rolf Sachsse, Karin Thomas (eds), Deutsche Fotografie. Macht eines Mediums, Cologne 1997, pp. 135Ð149, here p. 136f., and Ole Frahm, Das wei§e M – Zur Genealogie von MAUS(CHWITZ). In: Fritz Bauer Institut (ed.), †berlebt und unterwegs. JŸdische Displaced Persons im Nachkriegsdeutschland (Jahrbuch 1997 zur Geschichte und Wirkung des Holocaust). Frankfurt am Main/New York 1997, pp. 303Ð340, esp. p. 329f.

22        See Saul FriedlŠnder, “Der Erlšsungsantisemitismus,” in: the same; Das Dritte Reich und die Juden. Die Jahre der Verfolgung 1933-1939, Munich 2000, p. 276.

23        See Victor Klemperer, LTI – Notizbuch eines Philologen, Leipzig 1980, p. 101.

24        See Schmidt-Bachem, same as note 6, p. 191.

25        Siegfried Kracauer, Die Angestellten, Frankfurt am Main 1971, p. 11.

26        Reinhard Spree, “Angestellte als Modernisierungsagenten,” in: JŸrgen Kocka (ed.), Angestellte im europŠischen Vergleich, Gšttingen 1981, pp. 279Ð309, here p. 290.

27        Mario Kšnig, Hannes Siegrist, Rudolf Vetterli, Warten und AufrŸcken. Die Angestellten in der Schweiz 1870-1950, Zurich 1985, p. 14ff.

28        See Schmidt-Bachem, same as note 6, p. 198.

29        Wei§ler, same as note 7, p. 53.          

30        Schmidt Bachem, same as note 6, p. 241; see also, pages 242 and 247. With the introduction of the bag-penny, the “competition of the thousand bags” was offered. (Ibid., p. 246).

31        Wei§ler, same as note 7, p. 53.

32        “Why are our bags made of plastic: Because they are made from 100 percent recycled plastic. We have learned that carrying bags made of 100 percent recycled material are recyclable at least 18 times; paper only 6 times at most. ... In light of the huge mountain of plastic waste ... the reuse of the raw material for carrying bags seems to be a sensible alternative until someone once again informs us of a better way,” writes Zweitausendeins, a mail order book company, on the bottom of their bags (“TŸte Co­pyright © 2001 by Zweitausend­eins”). In 1991, there was still not much sign of this capitalization of garbage; see Volker Grassmuck, Christian Unverzagt, Das MŸll-System, Frankfurt am Main 1991, p. 108ff. und p. 145f., which indeed, analyzed the “garbage system,” but still had no premonition of DSD which, through DER GR†NE PUNKT completely changed this system; see also, Frahm/Tietjen, same as notes 4 and 23, and also in the same: “Der GrŸne Punkt (Teil 2),” in: glas'z, Nr. 3, Hamburg 1994, pp. 28Ð31, and in the same: “Der GrŸne Punkt (Teil 3),” in: glas'z, Nr. 4, Hamburg 1995, pp. 24Ð26. The symbol with the three arrows in a triangle and the number four indicates that the type of plastic is polyethylene.

33        Schmidt-Bachem, same as note 6, p. 240.

34        Vgl. Schmidt-Bachem, same as note 6, p. 55f.

35        Schmidt-Bachem, same as note 6, p. 193.

36        Schmidt-Bachem, same as note 6, p. 208; PE is the common acronym for the plastic, polyethylene.

37        In the course of its continuing propagation as an environmentally protective material, household garbage bags made of paper are still offered today (in Austria from the firm Alufix).

38        Heinz Schmidt-Bachem, Von DŸten und PlastiktŸten. Studien zur Geschichte der Papier, Pappe und Kunststoffe verarbeitenden Industrie in Deutschland im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert unter besonderer BerŸcksichtigung der Papier und Folien verarbeitenden Industrie zur Herstellung von TŸten, Beuteln, Tragetaschen, Dissertation, Hamburg 2000, p. 250. See also, Schmidt-Bachem, same as note 6, p. 236f.

39        On the servant’s chest and the bourgeois suitcase, see: Anndra Mihm, Packend É eine Kulturgeschichte des Reisekoffers, Marburg 2001, esp. pp. 12Ð20 and p. 36ff. Mihm does not mention the bag in her cultural history of the suitcase: this derives solely from the chest.

40        On murders involving suitcases, see: Peter Hiess, Christian Lunzer, Mord Express. Die gršssten Verbrechen in der Geschichte der Eisenbahn, Vienna/Munich 2000, esp. p. 114ff.

41        Daniele Marcher, “Kassiererin wehrte Messerstich ab,” in: Kleine Zeitung, p. 15, Graz, 27 February 2002.

42        Roland Barthes, Mythen des Alltags, Frankfurt am Main 1988, p. 81.

43        Without author or year, under the title: “Die Welt der TŸten” at the Web address: http://www.ueber30.de/texte_news/news/n_150120013.html in the Internet (3/2002).